A Close Look at Hindu Temples – Part 5

Is it mandatory for a Hindu to visit Temples?

Dr Uma Shankari*

We may now come back to temples, the focus of this series.

As mentioned in the earlier essays, India has had many different traditions of beliefs and worship – regional, local, community. Different schools of philosophy have existed, the proponents of which debated with one another- the Advaita, Vishishtaadvaita, Dvaita, Saiva Siddhaanta, etc. Different ways of living and worshipping have co-existed: the sanyasi, the shaakta, the tantrik, the yogic ways of life and worship. Indian soil has grown many saints, who have led their followers to a worshipful and a righteous way of life. Some of them have even questioned and negated temple worship. The yogic tradition for instance, advocates the body as a temple, as a seat of spiritual experiences.

Siva Vakkiyar, a Siddha saint says:

 “What temple, what sacred pond?

Ye folks who go after temples and ponds!

The temple is in your heart/mind, so is the sacred pond,

Nothing is created, nor destroyed, no, no, nothing.”

Another ‘Siddha song’ goes as follows:

You plant a stone and call it God.

You place flowers, mumble mantras and circle around it.

Why? Would the stone speak when the Lord is within?

Do the pot and the ladle know the taste of the curry?

Yet another Vachana poem by Basavanna, the revered saint of the Lingayat tradition goes as follows:

The rich will make temples for Siva.

What shall I, a poor man, do? My legs are pillars, the body the shrine, the head a cupola of gold.Listen, O lord of the meeting rivers, Things standing shall fall, but the moving ever shall stay.

If going to temple is not obligatory, what are temples for?

To understand this question, a detour into the whole structure of Hindu beliefs is necessary; as well as its journey through history. I hope to lay down the larger picture or map in the following paragraphs and then to point to the place and role of temples.

Temples are believed to be fields of concentrated spiritual energy/power. It is a place where one goes to receive that energy. It is a place where gods or spiritual forces/powers are brought to reside. One is required to sit in a temple for a few minutes before leaving, and not leave in a hurry, so that one can imbibe the power or the energy. The spiritual power is concentrated in both the deities as well as the devotees, enough to transmit power and blessings to other devotees who go to the temple, provided of course they are in a receptive mode. But those who are already spiritually charged through their own private forms of worship don’t need the temple. They have other means, may be a private practice, or a family practice; it could be a practice under the guidance of a guru, or a text, or a path decided by themselves, to charge themselves with spiritual power/force. They may still go to temples as a form of respect as well as to receive the blessings of the particular deity residing in the temple.

This power is localized into the deity and the image(s) installed in a functioning temple on a permanent basis. How the power came to reside in the image(s) in the temple, is described in a set of myths called sthalapuranam. Most temples in South India are associated with a sthalapuranam, ‘location myth’ and a few signature objects- a tree, an animal or bird, or an artifact. This localization of spiritual power is perhaps an ancient tradition in South India, where local trees, stones, etc. were worshipped as housing divine spirits with spiritual power. The sthalapuranam talks about the temple and the village as a unique local manifestation of the Supreme Energy.

x x x x x

How God came to reside in the Thiruvarur Tyagarajaswamy Temple

Vishnu, desperate for a son, meditated on a Shiva Linga.  Shiva appeared with Uma and blessed him with a son.  However, Uma, enraged that Vishnu had ignored her, cursed the child with instant death.  Vishnu repented and had Vishvakarma, the craftsman of the gods, sculpt an idol of the divine family of Somaskanda (Siva with Uma and Skanda) and prayed acknowledging that without Uma, there was no Shiva, and without him, she was incomplete.  The rise and fall of Vishnu’s chest as he meditated upon the Somaskanda enshrined on his breast is evoked in the ajapanatanam, the special dance of the deity during the annual temple festival. While all this unfolded, Kaliyan, an asura, invaded the devas.  Indra approached Vishnu for the Somaskanda idol with whose protection he successfully defended the heavens.  Soon Valan, another asura, attacked the heavens.  This time Indra turned to Muchukunda, a Chola King.  Muchukunda assisted him to win the battle. Indra, in gratitude, asked Muchukunda to choose a favor. The king did not want any riches; he asked instead for the Somaskanda idol which was with Indra. Not wanting to part with it, Indra got six replicas made of the idol and asked Muchukunda to choose the original one. Muchukunda was such a great devotee that Siva himself helped him to choose the right one. Indra, ashamed of himself, presented all the seven idols, which the king brought back to his kingdom. He installed the original one in Thiruvarur  and others in six other places.

x x x x x

A temple where no worship is carried out is a dead temple; it loses its spiritual power. Through history thousands of temples have become ruins. But they can be revived, as spiritual force/power is always alive, and all around us, pulsating; it just needs to be brought back into the deity through appropriate rituals and devotion.

Why did temples get abandoned? What happens when temples or the idols get destroyed? And what happens when idols get stolen? Abandoning of temples happened when people migrated to a different location, due to droughts, floods, epidemics, haunting of ghosts, wars or other problems. Idols in temples also got stolen often for their jewels or their value as metals and gems. Hundreds of idols and jewels have got stolen from temples in the course of their long history, melted and sold for money.  Often the jewels on the stolen idol is taken and the idol itself is left somewhere by the thieves themselves, for fear of supernatural punishments by the deity. For instance, when I was in Thiruvarur in 1977 the lingam made of emerald gemstone got stolen. Sure enough, it was left behind on the wall of the courtyard in the temple and it was re-installed after a purification ceremony.  The story of the captured idol of Srirangam temple by Malik Kafur, a general of Alauddin Khilji, is a fascinating one, in which history and myth fuse in a colorful manner. 

Basically theft, damage, wear and tear of stone and metal idols was common; if the idol is damaged either it is repaired or a new image is made and installed. Similarly, temple buildings are repaired and reinstated.

What is this energy? Spiritual power?

The deity in the temple is an aspect, a special feature of the Supreme Energy/Power. For the worshipper, the Supreme Energy, (call it God or by whatever name) is a primal energy, never created nor destroyed, but just exists, pervades the universe from timeless eons; it is ingrained in all the life forms and non-living things; it is at the same time transcendent, formless, unknowable, inscrutable. And even the deities- the gods and goddesses (and everything else in the universe), let alone idols of gods, are only a specific aspect of the Supreme. Note that in the above phrase “Ekat sat, vipra bahuda vadanti”, it says “sat”, i.e., ‘truth’; not God. There are specific words to denote the deities- gods-deva, and goddesses-devi, numerous proper names- Siva, Vishnu, Parvati, Lakshmi, Saraswati, etc.etc. including the unique name of the deity in the temple, such as Tyagarajaswamy or Venkateswaraswamy, but all of them are only representations of ‘truth’ which is one, absolute, immanent as well as transcendent. It is this specific, special and unique aspect as represented by the deity in the temple that the worshipper seeks to bow and imbibe. Therefore, every temple, every deity is unique, a special aspect of the Supreme, known as Brahman, Purusha, Paramatma, Kadavul, and so on.

The myth of Narasimha avatara best reflects this notion that God is both transcendent and immanent. The famous saying of Prahlada, the hero of the Narasimha story, that God resides everywhere, “in the pillar as well as dust” is oft quoted as a reminder of God’s immanence. But God is also transcendent, inscrutable, unpredictable, who plays with the lives of men like a sport (Lila). He rains miseries and joys on men, notwithstanding their status or worth. The immanence principle leads to many prophets and ‘avatars’, as and when a set of followers of a guru recognise their guru as ‘godman’ or even ‘God’. There is no dispute as to who was the last prophet. The avatars will keep coming.

By the time the Puranas got composed, the Vedic Purusha and Prakruthi got transformed into gods and goddesses – Purusha as Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, with consorts – Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga. Some sects put the Prakruthi or the Goddess in the place of Purusha, the Supreme God and the saakta/taantrik traditions of a single and independent goddess with male consorts/attendants also emerged. 

It is to be noted that there is no single creation myth in Hinduism; there are several myths. But all of them posit the view that universe was neither created nor destroyed; it just exists, no one knows from when and how, it goes through recurrent cycles of transformation, through long eons of thousands of years, called “yuga”. After four such yugas, there is a huge flood, ‘pralaya, in which everything gets destroyed, except the ‘truth’ or divinity, the spiritual energy, which too lies lifeless and dormant for many eons; till it stirs to assume life and form again. It stirs to create Purusha, a conscious being, who in turn creates Prakruthi, the material reality which is the Universe.  The cycles go on and on endlessly; and following which different life forms also move in shorter or longer cycles; in short, everything moves in cycles.

This conception is expressed in mythology as follows: Purusha feels lonely and creates Prakruthi, the material reality of forms, qualities and actions. All things, both life and non-life, including gods and human beings, are individualized forms of Purusha and Prakruthi, and Purusha resides as an ‘aatma’ or soul/spirit deep within them, activates them into an individual being, quickening them with thought, will and action. The purpose of man is to search for this soul within himself and to merge with it. Purusha is alternatively called ‘Brahman’, ‘Paramatma’, the supreme – as against ‘aatma’ or ‘jiva’, the individual soul. It may be noted that ‘Brahman’ ending with a short vowel denoting the Supreme Principle is different from ‘Brahmaa’ ending with the long vowel, the latter being the creator in the trinity of Brahma, the creator, Vishnu the protector, and Siva, the destroyer. Brahma also emerged from the Brahman, as also Siva and Vishnu and all other gods and goddesses.

The Naasadeeya Suktham expresses the origin of the Universe as follows:

There was neither non-existence nor existence then.

There was neither the realm of space, 

Nor the sky, which is beyond.

What stirred? Where? In whose protection?

Was there water, bottomlessly deep?

There was neither death nor immortality then.

There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day.

That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse.

Other than that there was nothing beyond.

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning,

With no distinguishing sign,

All this was water.

The life force that was covered with emptiness,

That One arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that One in the beginning,

That was the first seed of mind.

Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom

 Found the bond of existence and non-existence.

Their cord was extended across.

Was there below? Was there above?

There were seed-placers, there were powers.

There was impulse beneath, there was giving forth above.

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it?

Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?

The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.

Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen-

Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not 

-the One who looks down on it, in the highest heaven,

 Only He knows or perhaps even He does not know.

Translation by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. From the Book “The Rig Veda – Anthology”

God, man and the world in the Hindu faith:

The Upanishads which were composed both concurrently and after the Vedas, speak of how the Brahman the Supreme is connected with the individual (human) beings and the world. And various schools of philosophy were born, three of which are more prominent –Advaita- non-dualism, Vishishtaadvaita-qualified non-dualism, and Dvaita-dualism. In very brief terms, Advaita or the non-dualistic school (developed by Adi Sankara) preaches that Brahman is the only reality, without a second.  The separation between individual beings and the Brahman is illusory, and once an individual realizes this in his consciousness, he is one with the Brahman.

Visishtadvaita school (associated with Ramanuja) preaches that Brahman is a being (Vishnu) with sweetness and goodness as his quality, is connected to the individual and the world as life to the body; surrender with devotion will help an individual to realize the sweetness of the Brahman. Dvaita (developed by Madhvacharya) preaches that there is an unbridgeable chasm between Brahman and individual beings who are inherently different from each other; that devotion will take the individual closer to the Supreme but not merge with it.

The Agamas which form the theological basis as well as ritual manuals of temples usually follow the qualified non-dualism philosophy. The Vaishnava temples are based on the philosophy developed by Ramanuja, the Siva temples with the Saiva Siddhanta philosophy.  There are shades of difference among various schools of philosophy which developed in the course of history, but they need not detain us here. 

The point is that a Hindu may or may not choose to go to temple(s) and that would not make him less spiritual or less Hindu.


The previous four parts of the article can be seen on the given links –

Part 1 – Who are Hindus

Part 2 – History and Myths in Hinduism

Part 3 – Hinduism : Is it Sanathan?

Part 4 – Vedas to Puranas; Yajna to Puja

*Dr Uma Shankari who has a doctorate in Sociology from the University of Delhi, has been associated with various social movements since early eighties. She has published a book in Tamil which is about the relation between temples and the Hindu religion and society.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of raagdelhi.com, which does not assume any responsibility for the same.


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