You Visit a Hindu Temple
was in the early 1950s, long before the advent of TV in India.
I had heard the story of an Indian villager who came to a
nearby small town. His ancestors had barely travelled outside
his village for hundreds of years. He had little ability to
read even his local language, but somehow managed to learn
to recognize the English alphabets. His friend in the town
pointed to a small church nearby and told him, ‘Go and see
the temple in which the Christians worship.’ He went in and
came out in forty seconds and said, ‘No, that is not a temple.
I see no divine images, no flowers, no bells to ring, no light,
nothing. I see a few rows of benches like in a school. That
must be a classroom.’ His friend took him back to the church,
walked over to the altar, pointed to the wooden cross and
said, ‘There, that is the God’s image they worship. These
are benches for the devotees to sit.’
horrified villager exclaimed, ‘They worship wood? Why, it
looks like the English letter “T”! Do they worship that -
such reaction is to be expected from a Westerner who visits
a Hindu temple in America for the first time! In addition,
most of the temples built in the US have a large number of
images on the altar to satisfy the needs of Hindus who migrate
from different parts of India. Out of the 1.1 billion people
in India, over 800 million are Hindus, and Hinduism is a fascinating,
early Westerners who came to India were traders and travellers.
They were astonished to see the large number and types of
temples. The multitude of images, the many shapes and sizes
of gods and goddesses with many hands and expressions and
with their own Mercedes and Cadillacs (read vehicles of transport),
and some images even partly like animals - the Westerners
were fascinated by all this. To some they were even repugnant!
With the cultural arrogance of the times, they even dubbed
the Hindus ‘idolators’, ‘primitive worshippers of crude,
times have changed. At least the educated and the open-minded
have understood that each culture and religion is different,
having its own symbology and philosophy. One has to study
and ponder other cultures to comprehend and appreciate a little,
if not understand them fully.
On 9 June 2004 we saw the picture of President Regan’s coffin
in Washington DC in a gun carriage drawn by horses. One of
the horses did not have a rider, but had a pair of cowboy
boots hung in the reverse direction from the empty saddle!
What is that picture to convey to one who is unaware of the
military traditions of the USA?
wonder what that villager would think if he now comes to my
house and sees my computers, scanners, printers, speakers
and mouse, with lots of wires hanging around in a mess. If
I told him that all these are communication tools, he would
have said, ‘What? These wires and plastic boxes and a few
cute, coloured lights - how can you communicate with these?’
Posed by Hebraic Antagonism to Imaging the Divine
to the problem of understanding Hindu temples we have the
following, says Diana Eck:
bafflement of many who first behold the array of Hindu images
springs from the deep-rooted western antagonism to imaging
the divine at all. The Hebraic hostility to ‘graven images’
expressed in the Commandments is echoed repeatedly in the
Hebraic Bible. ‘You shall not make for yourself a “graven
image”, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above,
or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water
under the earth.’ (1)
Christianity and Islam, the three major religions that originated
in the Arabian Peninsula, trusted the ‘word‘ more than the
‘image’: ‘Meanwhile, back on Mount Sinai, Moshe, who now has
the Ten Words in written form - the two tablets of Testimony
- is told by God.’ (2) ‘The double corpus of sacred writings
formed by the Old and New Testaments has always been regarded
as regulating church life, and as the ultimate source of Christian
doctrine.’ (3) ‘He gave me a commandment, what I should say,
and what I should speak.’ All but one of the Koran’s 114 Suras
begin with the phrase, ‘In the name of God, the Compassionate
and Merciful’. (4) Words were more trusted than the eyes!
is an imaginative, image-making religious tradition in which
the sacred is seen as present in the world around us. Alain
Danielou says, ‘The complexity of Hindu polytheism is mainly
due to the number of attempts at explaining in different ways
the universal laws and the nature of the all-pervading principles.’
Christianity and Islam Completely Free from Images?
The verbal icon of God as ‘Father’ or ‘King’ had considerable
power in shaping the Judeo-Christian religious imagination,
says Eck: ‘The Orthodox Christian traditions, after much debate
in the eighth and ninth centuries, granted an important place
to the honouring of icons as those “windows” through which
one might look toward God. In the Catholic tradition as well,
the art and iconography, especially of Mary and the saints,
has had a long and rich history.’ (6) When you travel in Europe,
among the very important places to visit are the large number
of museums. The Vatican museums in Rome, Louvre and Sacre-Couer
in Paris, St Mark’s in Venice, Uffizi Gallery in Florence,
the rich and huge Hermitage in Russia - all these, just to
name a few, are loaded with marvellous statues and paintings
depicting Christian personalities. When I wandered through
the endless galleries and corridors, one question kept popping
up in my mind: ‘Are these graven images? Is this idolatry?
Why then did the early travellers and visitors and even the
current crop of ignoramuses call the Hindus idolaters?’
Muslim families decorate their homes with wall hangings of
cloth or paper panels showing beautifully written texts of
the Koran. Pictures of Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem or of other
important mosques or shrines are quite common. Shi’ite households
frequently have pictures of Ali, his two sons Hasan and Husayn,
and sometimes of famous imams and their burial places. Muslim
households will not display a picture of Mohammed. Some families
put the Koran centre stage during Ramadan.
the three traditions of the ‘Book’ have developed the art
of embellishing the word into a virtual icon in the elaboration
of calligraphic and decorative arts, points out Eck.
definition of idolatry is ‘the worship of a physical
object as a God’. The fifteenth-century singer-saint Tukaram
wrote: ‘I made an earthen image of Shiva/ For the earth is
not Shiva./ My worship reaches Shiva/ The earth remains the
earth it was!’ I have yet to see a Hindu (or, for that matter,
the follower of any religion) pray, ‘O God Marble or Granite,
grant my prayers!’ or ‘O Saint Stained Glass, save me!’ Idolatry
is the name wickedly hurled at the symbols and visual images
of cultures other than ours! The great American sociologist
Theodore Rozsak locates the ‘sin of idolatry in the eye of
the beholder’. (7)
‘The image is a window, not an object. The eighteen-foot image
of Vishnu is no more an idol than the cross, the “Our Father”
or the bread at Holy Communion. And no less.’ (8) There is
no idolatry even among the so called nature worshippers as
in Shintoism. John Reynard says:
one were to produce a brief Shinto creedal affirmation it
might go something like this: I believe that sacredness
surrounds me, that it pervades all things including my very
self, and that the all-suffusing divine presence is ultimately
benevolent and meant to assure well-being and happiness
for all who acknowledge it and strive to live in harmony
with it. The word idolatry seems to be a hang-up prevalent
in some parts of the world. (9)
it is a fact that even intelligent and thoughtful viewers
may fail to grasp or understand images as ‘alien’ as the images
we find in the religious landscape of the Hindus. To see meaning
in them we have to read, think and look with tolerance and
imagination. Otherwise they become inaccessible to us. Also,
if we do not see them as in any sense divine, we miss the
essential meaning. Looking without insight, without informed
perspective, is mere ‘passive viewing’. That is useless. It
has to be replaced by ‘creative seeing’. ‘If we do the kind
of seeing which could change our minds, we might eventually
gain a glimpse of the divine in one of the myriad images of
India’s multitude of gods.’ (10)
temples are totally unlike other places of worship. The visual
articulation is intricate, extensive, and not self-evident.
The shapes and forms of art, iconography and rituals are not
easily discerned and are a closed book for the casual onlooker.
do not believe in God at all. Yet, no religion has existed
in such disparate cultures as a major influence for so long.
Over fifty per cent of the world population lives in areas
where Buddhism has at some time been the dominant religious
force. What do you see if you visit a Buddhist temple? A lot
depends on where you are and the size of the temple. A large
image of the Buddha or a major bodhisattva stands or sits
atop an altar, sometimes in the company of several smaller
images. Side altars dedicated to bodhisattvas or holy persons
such as founders of the various lineages are not uncommon.
Buddhist sculpture and painting have evolved in many different
styles. Each denomination has a number of symbols and signs
to which it assigns special meanings. ‘Nepal, officially the
only Hindu kingdom in the world, is a collage of cultures,
with some aspects differing as much from each other as they
do with us.’ (11) There is a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism
with their rich treasure of images of gods and goddesses and
ritual objects, many of them unique to Nepal.
Point of Learning
to the thinking mind, the visible world of Hindu and Buddhist
temples, and the large number of images, raises a multitude
of questions. ‘These very questions should be the starting
point for our learning. Without such self-conscious questioning,
we cannot begin to “think” with what we see, and we simply
dismiss it as strange. Or, worse, we are bound to misinterpret
what we see by placing it solely within the context of what
we already know from our own world of experience’ (12)
Hindus Believe in So Many Gods?
question was asked about three thousand years ago! The Brihadaranyaka
Upanishad discusses this very question. A person asks Sage
Yajnavalkya, ‘How many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?’
‘303 and 3003.’
person questioning knew that there was something deeper. So
right, how many are there?’
right, so how many are really there?’
and a half!’
what are all the other numbers?’
are all but manifestations.’ (13)
the Hindu it is like going to the ocean with a variety of
vessels to collect the water. The shapes and sizes of the
vessels make the water inside look different, but the content
and again we come across this metaphor of the ocean. Sri Ramakrishna
[the ultimate Reality] is like an infinite ocean. Intense
cold freezes the water into ice, which floats on the ocean
in blocks of various forms. Likewise, through the cooling
influence of bhakti [devotion], one sees forms of God in
the Ocean of the Absolute. These forms are meant for the
bhaktas (devotees), the lovers of God. But when the Sun
of Knowledge rises, the ice melts; it becomes the same water
it was before. Water above and water below, everywhere nothing
but water. (14)
many different shapes and forms of ice blocks are possible
in the oceans of the world!
One and the Many Are Not Incompatible
interesting point about the Hindu psyche is that the ‘manyness’
of the Divine is not superseded by the oneness. Rather, the
two are held simultaneously and are inextricably related.
A Hindu will say, it is like seeing an album of 100 pictures
- all of you only, but in different dresses and costumes,
maybe some like Mickey Mouse, some in your tuxedos, some in
your Halloween costume and some with a graduation headgear
- but it is all you!
the Hindu knows the limitations imposed by the human condition.
That was primarily responsible even for his having the images
and the rituals. As one of the great prayers says, ‘O Lord,
in my meditation I have attributed forms to Thee who art formless.
O Thou Teacher of the world, by my hymns I have, as it were,
contradicted that Thou art indescribable. By going on pilgrimage
I have, as it were, denied Thy omnipresence. O Lord of the
universe, pray, forgive me these threefold faults committed
by me.’ (15)
the Knowledge of the Gods Necessary to Achieve the Hindu ideal?
Wilson Organ discusses this issue in his book The Hindu
Quest for the Perfection of Man:
the gods necessary at all? They are not needed for creation,
for salvation, for moral ideals, nor for moral sanctions,
but they do enrich man’s understanding of the world. They
dramatize the environment in which the human lot is cast.
They inspire man to aspire for ideality. If they are not
metaphysical necessities, at least they are axiological
assets. Hinduism would be possible without its gods, but
it would be much impoverished. The Hindu gods demythologized
are symbols of the full realization of man’s potentialities.
A god may be a symbol of self-realized man. The word ‘god’
is adjectival, not nounal. … God-realization is but a poetic
metaphor for Self-realization. (16)
Does a Hindu Visit Temples?
do not generally say, ‘I am going to worship.’ They are more
likely to say, ’I am going for darshan.’ What is darshan?
The word has many meanings, but here we mean ‘beholding’ or
central aspect of Hindu worship for the lay people is to stand
in the presence of the deity and behold the image with their
own eyes. It also means to be seen by the deity. It is a two-way
interaction: to see and to be seen. In the Hindu context ‘seeing‘
is a kind of touching. The famous art historian Stella Kramrisch
writes, ‘Seeing according to Indian notions is a going forth
of sight towards the object. Sight touches and acquires its
form. Touch is the ultimate connection by which the visible
yields to being “grasped”. While the eye touches the object,
the vitality that pulsates in it is communicated.’ (17)
visual perception is integrally related to thought. So it
becomes a form of knowing! Thus darshan, seeing, is not a
passive collection of visual data, but it is active ‘focusing’,
‘touching’ and ‘knowing’.
Hindu’s Mental Attitude When He Goes for Darshan
attitude is generally one of the two: (1) The Sanskrit word
for image (not an exact translation) is vigraha. The word
itself means ‘to grasp‘. In practical Hindu spirituality there
is a lot of stress on developing a power of concentration.
The image is primarily looked upon as a focus for concentration.
(2) The second is looking upon the image as one of the embodiments
of the Divine.
beings generally need something more tangible, something that
engages the feelings and imagination as well as the logic-bound
mind. Hindu tradition acknowledges that one can approach the
truth by considering God as Brahman with attributes or qualities
(Saguna Brahman). In this approach (which is really a concession
to the human need) the Lord becomes accessible to men and
women, evoking their affections. How is this expressed? Hindus
not only show the gestures of humility, but also utilize the
entire range of intimate and ordinary domestic acts as part
of rituals. These rituals are common affectionate activities
directed to the deity. They are simple yet powerful: washing
and bathing the deity, cooking for Him, serving Him, offering
food to Him, arranging for His rest and sleep, waking Him
up, offering Him food, flowers and drink, and so on. The Hindu
worship you notice in temples is not only one of honour but
also of affection, which brings an attitude of someone close
are many other aspects related to Hindu temples, and the deities
like iconic and aniconic images, representational and symbolic
images. In addition is the vast field of temple architecture,
its many schools, evolution and so on. I am not covering them
here. These temples and images constitute a considerable heritage
of human imagination over centuries. ‘One must learn to read
these “visual“ texts with the same insight and interpretive
skill that is brought to the reading and interpretation of
scriptures, commentaries and theologies,’ says Eck. (18)
question may come to one who feels overwhelmed by the task
of studying and understanding this different language, the
language of the rituals and symbols in Hindu temples with
all the trappings of Hindu cultural and traditional values.
It Possible to Know the Core of Hindu Philosophy without the
Trappings of Popular Religion?
it possible to attempt the attainment of Self-realization
without having to know these trappings? The answer is a definite
yes. None has answered this question more succinctly than
soul is potentially divine.
goal is to manifest this divinity within by controlling
nature, external and internal.
this either by work, or worship, or psychic control, or
philosophy - by one or more or all these - and be free.
is the whole of religion. Doctrines, or dogmas, or rituals,
or books, or temples, or forms, are but secondary details.
(19) (Emphasis added)
Going to a Temple Mandatory for a Hindu?
any of the common rituals like marriage or naming a baby necessarily
done in a temple? No, it is not mandatory to go to a temple
for rituals connected with the rites of passage. In fact,
one can consider oneself a Hindu even if one never sets foot
in any temple in one’s entire life!
has to have an open mind to understand the institutions, symbols
and practices of other cultures, as human minds are conditioned
by cultural and other prejudices and preconceived notions.
A thoughtful and understanding attitude is needed, recognizing
that there is a fascinating diversity hiding the underlying
unity of all existence.
like churches and mosques, are really a recognition by man
that that there is a higher Reality, and the concrete and
the visible is a feeble attempt to grasp and communicate with
that Reality. Human beings use different approaches to the
Divine, and all do not have to follow only one path. Beliefs
and practices may vary, but the ultimate goal transcends all
Diana L Eck, Darsan (Pennsylvania: Anima Books, 1985),
Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews (New York: Nan
A Talese, 1998), 150.
A New Handbook of Living Religions, ed. John R Hinnells
(New York: Penguin, 1997), 113.
John Renard, Responses to 101 Questions on Islam (New
Jersey: Paulist Press, 1998), 36.
Alain Danielou, The Myths and Gods of India (Rochester:
Inner Traditions, 1991), ix.
Theodore Rozsak, Where the Wasteland Ends (Berkeley:
Ten Speed Press, 1990).
Diana L Eck, Encountering God (Boston: Beacon Press,
John Reynard, The Handy Religion Answer Book (Detroit:
Visible Ink Press, 2002), 487.
Robert A McDermott and Harry M Buck in their Foreword to Darsan.
John Burbank, Culture Shock (Portland: Graphic Arts
Center, 1992), 5.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 3.9.1-2.
M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Chennai: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2002), 191.
Swami Yatiswarananda, Universal Prayers (Madras: Sri
Ramakrishna Math, 1977), 239.
Troy Wilson Organ, The Hindu Quest for the Perfection of
Man (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1994), 183.
Stella Kramrisch, The Hindu Temple, 2 vols. (New Delhi:
Motilal Banarsidass, 1976), 1.136.
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 1.124.