Pravachan by His Holiness Satguru Bodinatha Veylanswami
Insights into the Hindu Temple
Maha Ganapati Temple of Arizona
April 21st, 2018
My talk will present two types of information about the Hindu temple. The first is stating four questions regarding the temple that Hindu youth commonly ask and providing an answer to each. The second is giving some important general information on the functioning and influence of the temple.
First Question: Since God is everywhere, why do we need temples?
“Over the last twenty years I have had the privilege of attending kumbhabhishekams for many temples in the USA—including this temple’s kumbhabhishekam in 2008—as well as in Canada, Europe, India and Australia. The special ceremonies conducted on these occasions by an especially large number of well-trained priests are always exceptionally uplifting times. That extra upliftment is I am sure why all of you are here today and an even larger group of devotees will be here tomorrow morning for the main ceremony.
On many of these occasions, there is some interaction with the youth of the temple as a formal seminar, a lecture or simply an informal question and answer session. During one of the breaks, at one of the kumbhabhishekams in Australia, I was chatting with some of the older youth who were sons and daughters of the trustees and other key members. They were challenging me with the question: “Since God is omnipresent, what is the need to build large temples to worship Him. The cost of construction is quite large plus then you have the ongoing cost of monthly maintenance that has to be met. Couldn’t all that money be spent in a better way?” This, of course, is a question that is regularly asked by many of our youth.
My answer went something like this. Since God is omnipresent, shouldn’t we be able to experience Him equally everywhere? For example, God permeates this room. By looking intently at the room, shouldn’t you be able to experience God? In theory you should. I then asked those present to look around. How many can see God permeating this room? All the youth present had to admit that they couldn’t see God permeating the room. I then continued: “Practically speaking God’s omnipresence is a very subtle form of consciousness, too subtle for most of us to experience unless we are quite skilled in meditation.”
I then gave an analogy with other objects that are difficult to see. If we want to see a distant galaxy, we can go to an observatory and use a powerful telescope. To see into the nucleus of a cell, we can go to a laboratory and use an electron microscope. Similarly, to see God, there is a powerful tool we can use to enable us to be successful. In a similar way, we can go to the temple and through the sanctified murti experience God. Temples—and especially the murtis within them—have this ability because they are an especially sacred place for three reasons: construction, consecration and continuous daily worship.
Hereditary temple architects, known as sthapatis, are commissioned to design and construct the temple. By tradition, every stone is set in place according to the sacred architecture found in the Agamic scriptures. Consecration occurs through the powerful ceremony of kumbhabhishekam which involves a large number of priests performing elaborate ceremonies for days on end. Then begins the schedule of daily pujas that are held thereafter conducted by professional priests. The daily pujas sustain and gradually increase the sanctity set in motion at the kumbhabhishekam. In these three ways—construction, consecration and continuous daily worship—the temple and the murtis within them are sanctified.
Next is some general information on the Agamas including a story.
One of the reasons temple worship is not better understood is that the scriptures that describe temple worship, which are called the Agamas, are not well known by the general Hindu public. They are mainly studied by priests and scholars.
My guru was initiated into the Saivite tradition in 1949 in Jaffna, Sri Lanka by the renowned satguru Yogaswami. Unlike many modern teachers of Hinduism, he placed great emphasis on establishing temples, having his mathavasis themselves perform the parartha puja and initiating his advanced grihastha sishya in performing atmartha puja. Gurudeva knew the centrality of the Saiva Agamas to temple worship and gave this description of the scriptural authority for his teachings: “All my devotees recognize that the primary scriptural authority of our Nandinatha lineage derives from the Saiva Agamas and the four noble Vedas, which include the Upanishads. Ours is a Vedic-Agamic tradition.”
In the 1980‘s we worked with Dr. B. Natarajan to produce an English translation of Tirumantiram as we knew much of the Agamic teachings were contained with this one scripture.
In researching the Saiva Agama texts, we determined that the largest collection was at the French Institute of Pondicherry, a hundred miles south of Chennai. This institute was founded and directed by the late Dr. Jean Filliozat. Dr. Filliozat’s goal was to collect all material relating to the Saiva Agamas. During the late 50s and throughout the 60s, the late Pandit N. R. Bhatt spearheaded the collection effort. Bhatt, a scholar of the French School and former head of Indology at the Institute, gathered manuscripts from the private collections of priests and monasteries across Tamilnadu and parts of the southern districts of Karnataka. This is the largest collection of Saiva Siddhanta manuscripts in the world and it has duly been recognised by UNESCO by including it in its "Memory of the World" Register.
However, a new insight developed after our visit there in 2005 as the manuscripts unfortunately showed significant deterioration. Many were perforated with holes left by insect larvae. Others had become so fragile that each handling caused damage; pieces would break off, often carrying fragments of writing. Furthermore, the French Institute itself had no plans for preserving them in microfilm or digital files. Therefore, over the coming decades, unless something changed, more and more of the manuscripts would simply fall apart and be lost forever. The realization that no one was going to do this crucial preservation work lead us to decide that we, ourselves, needed to take on the project of digitization.
In December, 2008 we arranged for four young men to do the work and process the photos. They averaged 2,000 photos daily and completed the collection (save 200 heavily damaged bundles) on January 1, 2011. Altogether, they took 775,261 photographs. These have been assembled into PDF files, one for each bundle, which are available for download on the Institute's website--possibly the first of India's ancient manuscript collections to be entirely digitized. A second digitization project, completed a few months later, has preserved 1,600 manuscripts at the sister institution the French School of the Far East. This is a specialized collection, mostly Vaishnava in content.
At a gathering of fifteen senior Sivacharyas in Chennai in July 2011, a hard drive with the digitized material was presented to each, giving back to them their sacred scriptural heritage in easily accessible form.
A second Agama project is almost completed which is an English translation of the Kamika Agama. We chose to have this Agama translated as it is a primary source for details of personal worship, temple construction, dedication and worship and many aspects of home and village design. It, as well as selected translations from other agamas, can be downloaded from our website.
The Agamas are an enormous collection of Sanskrit scriptures which, along with the Vedas, are revered as shruti (revealed scripture) by Saivas and Vaishnavas. Dating is uncertain. They were part of an oral tradition of unknown antiquity which some experts consider as ancient as the earliest Vedas, 5000 to 6000 BCE. The Agamas are the primary source and authority for ritual, yoga and temple construction. How to love the Divine, when and where, with what mantras and visualizations and at what auspicious times, all this is preserved in the Agamas.
In fact, the specific doctrines and practices of day-to-day Hinduism are nowhere more fully expounded than in these revelation hymns, delineating everything from daily work routines to astrology and cosmology.
During the 2008 kumbhabhishekam ceremonies for this temple, at the point where the priests were installing the three groups of tattvas in the murtis, atma, vidya and siva, Sri Thanga Bhattar. a senior Sivacharya, called me over and quoted a verse in Tamil from the Tirumantiram and had my host translate it into English. The verse was:
“Two are the scriptures that Lord Siva revealed—the primal Vedas and the perfect Agamas.” ( Verse 2404):
In other words, Sri Thanga Bhattar wanted to make sure that I understood that what they were doing was based on the Saiva Agamas.
In modern times, the renown Saivite scholar of Sri Lanka, Arumuga Navalar, has a similar verse in his Saiva Vina Vidai.
“What are the original scriptures vouchsafed by Siva Peruman for the sake of the souls?
Vedas and Saiva Agamas are the two.”
The Maha Ganapati Temple of Arizona is the only temple in the state of Arizona built as per traditional Agama Sastras under the guidance of Padma Sri Muthiah Sthapathi. Not only is the temple’s construction according to the Agamas, so are the ceremonies that the priests conduct. As we mentioned, the Agamas governing Saiva worship are called the Saiva Agamas. The Agamas governing Vaishnava worship are of two kinds: Pancharatra and Vaikhanasa. Of course, not all temples follow the Agamas in their construction and ceremonies. It is generally the ones that could be described as South Indian that do so.
Second Question: Do Hindus worship idols?
As I mentioned earlier, the entire Agamic temple is a sacred place. But within it the murti is the most sacred object.
A few years ago I attended a kumbhabhishekam in Fort Worth, Texas. One of the priests there, who is also a scholar, gave an excellent explanation of the sacredness of the murti. He began by explaining that Hindus do not worship idols.
This, of course, is a common misunderstanding that many people have—including some Hindus.
The priest went on to explain that the stone form of the Deity can be called an idol or a statue before the sacred water is poured over it in the prana prathistha ceremony. But after that takes place, it is transformed into a sacred murti.
And in that murti, the Deity actually resides.
This concept is explained in the Pancharatra Text, Sâtvata Samhitâ, chapter six, verse twenty-two: "When the perfectly designed image is systematically installed, He occupies the concerned image. By His gracious presence in that image, He gives concrete and visible expressions to all of His transcendental and imperceptible qualities."
A verse from the Saivite Agama Ajita states the Saivite equivalent: “Siva lingam puja is for the purpose of invoking the presence of Sadasiva in the lingam.”
My guru, Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, also taught this principle: “We worship God Siva and the Gods who by their infinite powers spiritually hover over and indwell the image, or murti... which we revere as their temporary body. We commune with them through the ritual act of puja.”
My guru continues: “We may liken this mystery to our ability to communicate with others through the telephone. We do not talk to the telephone; rather we use a telephone as a means of communication with another person who is perhaps thousands of miles away. Without the telephone, we could not converse across such distances; and without the sanctified murti in the temple or shrine we cannot easily commune with the Deity. Both are instruments of communication. The stone or metal Deity images enshrined in the temple are not mere symbols of God and the Gods. They are not mere inert idols but the forms through which divine love, power and blessings flood forth from the inner world of the Gods into this physical world. As we progress in our worship, we begin to adore the image as the Deity's physical body, for we know that He is actually present and conscious in it during puja, aware of our thoughts and feelings and even sensing the pujari's gentle touch on the metal or stone.” (end of quote)
Next is some general information on Maha Kumbhabhishekam and the Raja Gopuram.
Did you know that there are four different kinds of Maha Kumbhabhishekams and that two of them are part of these ceremonies?
Punaravardhana Jeernodharanam refers to the major repairs, renovation and restorations in a functioning temple that are normally undertaken approximately once in every twelve years. After this work is completed, a Kumbhabhishekam is required. For the Maha Ganapati Temple the original kumbhabhishekam was in 2008, so the Punaravardhana Jeernodharana Maha Kumbhabhishekam is being done ten years later.
The Maha Raja Gopura is a newly added structure and is a magnificent 54 foot tall Agamic monument rooted in the 12th century. To activate it, a Kumbhabhishekam is also required. This is called a Noothana Maha Kumbhabhishekam, meaning it is a new structure.
The two other types of Kumbhabhishekams are aavardhana, for renovating and restoring an abandoned temple and andaritham, for rectifying and rejuvenating the disturbed spiritual ambience of the temple sanctity by events such as a flood or the entry of burglars.
Saiva Agama scholar Dr. S. P. Sabharathnam, Sivacharyar gives an insightful explanation of the inner significance of the Raja Gopura. “The term Gopura means a raised or elevated super structure (pura) which serves as an auspicious location for the presence of cosmic Lords, Gods, various groups of Deities, liberated Sages and such other supreme Souls. The Sanskrit term ‘go’ denotes the assemblage of such hosts of Deities and Gods. The term ‘raja’ here means ‘that which is exceedingly effulgent’ , ‘that which shines forth’. The exact meaning for ‘Raja Gopura’ is ‘the resplendent super structure housing the hosts of Deities’.”
Traditionally, as soon as you arrive at the temple, it is customary to stand humbly before the temple entrance and raise your hands above your head in the prayerful gesture reflecting on the Rajagopuram as the gross or sthula form of the Deity.
A dominant ceremony in kumbhabhsihekams is the Vedic fire ceremony called in Sanskrit a yagna or a homa.
The use of fire in religion is not unique to Hinduism—it is common to many religions in the form of candles, lamps, and fire pits for ceremonies. My guru, explained that fire can be seen by the beings in the inner worlds. He also stated that fire and prayer simultaneously bring forth the inner world.
I like to call yagna the original temple. In fact it is a portable temple as well as it can be performed anywhere. Certainly one of the important uses today is in establishing a new temple through the ceremony of kumbhabhishekam. Divine energy is first invoked through the fire. This energy is then stored in the water in the kumbhas adjacent to the homa pit. And after days of this process there is enough divine energy in the water to infuse divinity into the stone form of the Deity which as I mentioned is called prana pratishta.
Third Question: Why are there so many Gods in the temple? I have trouble relating to so many.
One challenge for the younger generation of Hindus in relating meaningfully to the temple is that they find the large number of Deities the temple contains to be hard to relate to. It is common in the USA for a temple to have a shrine for each Deity that a significant number of members of the local Hindu community worship. Often this takes the form of one side of the temple being the Saivite side and the other side the Vaishnavite side. Some temples include shrines for Shirdi Sai Baba and Swami Narayan. On occasion, there is even a Jain shrine for Mahavir. Two temples in the USA I visited recently had 25 and 27 shrines respectively.
As I mentioned, Hindu youth and older children find this multiplicity of Deities confusing and hard to relate to. They often ask me the question “Why does Hinduism have so many Deities? Why can’t it have just one?”
The answer I give talks about language. “How many official languages does the United States have? The answer, of course, is one—English. How many official languages does Canada have? The answer is two—English and French. This difference in language relates to differences in their respective histories.
I then ask “How many official languages does India have?” The answer is 22! The reason for so many, of course, is again related to the countries history. India has a history that is thousand of years old versus the US and Canada whose history is only a few hundred years old. In ancient times there was less travel and communication and regional differences naturally developed. It is natural that a country with that many languages would have a multiplicity of names and concepts for God as well.
A question about worship a few years ago came from a teenage boy. Leaning forward in earnest, he asked, “Do I have to worship all the Deities in the temple, or can I simply focus on just Lord Ganesha? I am finding that keeping a singular focus I am getting much closer to Him. I’m beginning to form a connection in a way that I never have had with any of the other Deities.”
I replied, in the affirmative, that it is fine to focus on just one Deity. This is actually the pattern followed by most Hindus. However, it is only fitting to honor and acknowledge all the Divinities. For example, when attending puja to another Deity, worship sincerely and show deep respect; but you need not strive to feel as close to that Deity as you do to Lord Ganesha.
The idea of focusing on just one Deity is prevalent in many Hindu traditions. And in a temple with a large number of Deities, this can be the solution to the challenge of not being able to relate to them all. Just choose one!
In Sanskrit, the Deity of one’s special pious attention is called Ishta Devata, literally “cherished or chosen Deity.” Vaishnavas may choose among many Divine forms: Vishnu, Balaji, Krishna, Radha, Rama, Lakshmi, Hanuman and Narasimha, as well as the shalagrama (a small river rock). Smartas traditionally choose their Ishta from among six Deities: Siva, Shakti, Vishnu, Surya, Ganesha and Kumara (or any of their traditional forms). Shaktas, who worship the Divine as the Goddess, Shakti, may focus on one among Her many forms, from the dynamic Durga, the benign and graceful Parvati and the regal Rajarajeshvari. Saivites direct their worship primarily to Siva, as represented by the Sivalinga, Nataraja and Ardhanarishvara. Many Saivites choose Lord Murugan, also known as Skanda, as their Ishta Devata. My Gurudeva, a staunch Saivite, taught us to worship Siva as the Supreme God while starting with the worship of Lord Ganesha, who is “the closest God to the material plane of consciousness, most easily contacted and most able to assist us in our day-to-day life and concerns.”
In deepening our devotion to God, an analogy to friends is helpful. Teenagers have many friends, but it is common to have one best friend to share the personal details of life. Having an Ishta Devata is like that, and the feeling we should have toward that Divinity is the same as the feeling we have for our best friend. Holding a singular focus helps us to draw closer and closer to that Deity.
Another approach to understanding the Deity’s compassionate nature, and in the process ridding yourself of any lingering fear, is to think of the God or Goddess as the parent and yourself as the child. In fact, the Deity is the perfect parent, because no matter what we do, He/She always sends us blessings and love. When we make mistakes, He never becomes angry or punishes us. The Deity’s love is perfect love, existing at all times, in all circumstances for all souls. In developing a closeness with the Deity, we eventually discover and relish that perfect love. The Tirumantiram conveys this idea in reference to Lord Siva: “The ignorant foolishly say that love and Siva are two, but none of them knows that love alone is Siva. When men know that love and Siva are the same, love as Siva they ever remain.”
Fourth Question: Why do we make offerings of so much milk and food to the murti? Wouldn’t it be better to give it to the poor?
The devotees’ offerings of cut fruit, cooked food, water, fragrant flowers and milk play an important part in the inner workings of the puja. The Deity does not utilize the gross physical substance being offered but rather utilizes the life energy or prana within it as the priest presents the offering. In fact, except for the times arati is performed, puja is a process of giving prana to the Deity. During the arati, the Deity and his helpers, or devas, reflect back this prana into the aura of each devotee, purifying it of subconscious congestions. The devotee so blessed leaves the temple feeling uplifted and relieved of mental conditions he had been burdened by.
Yagna is the same process. Jayendrapuri Mahaswamiji, head Kailash Ashram in Bengaluru, visited our monastery in Hawaii a few years ago. His three priests performed an elaborate yagna in our Kadavul temple with extra offerings of grains and woods they had brought from India. Afterwards swamiji explained that Agni takes the offerings to the Deity in a purified form for the Deity to use in blessing those present.
Hindu temples in every corner of the world offer Hindus an achievable way to experience God's sacred presence. Divinity's presence uplifts those attending the temple, inspiring them to life more peaceful lives, have greater harmony in the home and greater tolerance in the community. Some devotees will be inspired to
bring forth and perpetuate traditional Hindu culture in the form of sacred music, art and dance. In this way a temple benefits the Hindu community and the broader non=Hindu community as well.
Next is some background information on the Temple as the Source of Culture
For some twenty-five years, from about 1975 to 2001, Hinduism Today’s founder, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami was instrumental in helping temples get established. Gurudeva guided 37 temples in the United States, Canada, Guadeloupe, Denmark, England, Fiji, Germany, Mauritius, New Zealand, Reunion, Russia, Sweden, and Sri Lanka—giving each community or temple an icon of God, usually Lord Ganesha, and guidance when needed. He also helped dozens more temples with direct advice or by publicizing their project in Hinduism Today.
Why did Gurudeva devote so much energy to helping establish the temples of organizations with no formal ties to his? He did it because of a strong conviction that it is the temple that perpetuates the culture. In other words, if Hindus move to a country and do not build a temple, after a few generations Hindu culture will have been lost.
At a satsang held in July 2000, a devotee asked Gurudeva a question about Hindu culture. “What’s happening to Hindu culture? It seems in Bollywood, actors and actresses are turning Western and encouraging everyone else to do so. Will Hindu culture, or Indian culture, last very long after this?”
Gurudeva gave the following answer: “Well, we can see in the world today that combative culture—where people do not get along but sometimes pretend to get along when they do not get along—comes from the offices and the factories and the nonreligious activities. Indian culture may be going down in India but it is definitely coming up in the West because of the worship within the temples.
“It’s our relationship with God, the Gods and the Goddesses that establishes our relationship with men, women and children. Culture comes from being sensitive to other people’s feelings as we are sensitive within the temple to the feelings of the Gods and the vibration emanating from the inner sanctum. Without religion in one’s life and the practice of that religion in the home shrine, in the temple, and pilgrimage once a year to a far off place, culture quickly fails and the competitive culture comes into play.
He continued, “While there are many that are trying to bring the best of the West to the Far East, there are still in the West many who are trying to bring the best of the Far East into the West. As long as religion and worship and the practice of pilgrimage and all the refinements of our great religion are present, culture will be there.”
The Hindu temple can act as a powerful spiritual hub that radiates out Hindu culture and devotional practices into the homes of those families who attend regularly. Regularly means at least once a week. The process of strengthening culture can happen on a number of levels.
The most basic is simply learning and following the many traditions and protocols associated with visiting a temple. No devout Hindu will approach the sacred home of God without proper preparation. The simple necessities include a bath, donning clean clothes and preparing an offering tray, whether simple on a normal day or elaborate for a festival. These acts are all important parts of temple-going.
On arrival we need to wash our feet and handle shoes in the specified way. Then the customary prostrations to the Deities, followed by circumambulation and presenting our offerings with a loving heart. When attending puja, men and women may be required to sit on separate sides of the mandapam. At key points throughout the rites we pray and respond in specific ways. As children follow the parents’ traditional protocols, they develop an appreciation for worship and sacred objects, respect for elders, an understanding of the importance of physical cleanliness and mental purity, and a fondness for familial and communal devotion.
After years of such practice, essential character qualities, such as humility and devotion, can deepen. Devotion here means love of God. These qualities, which are present in every cultured Hindu, may not develop in an individual growing up in the West unless he or she participates in regular worship.
The second level of the temple’s influence on the home begins when a shrine is established in the home and worshiped at daily. Wherever possible, it should be a separate room, not in a cabinet or on a shelf. Such a dedicated space makes everyone living in the home think more about God, reflect more on their behavior and be less inclined to become angry or argue, as they are living in God’s presence.
Going to the temple every week can actually bring some of the temple’s sanctity into the shrine room. My guru taught that lighting an oil lamp in the shine room after coming home from the temple brings the temple’s shakti into your home. That devotional act brings devas who were at the temple into the home shrine, where, from the inner world, they can bless the family and protect the home.
The temple’s third level of cultural influence begins when a family member, generally the father, performs regular puja in the home. In a sense, he becomes the family priest, emulating the temple priests while following a simpler, non-public liturgy known as atmartha puja. Such a full puja done daily steadily strengthens the home’s religious vibration.
Quite fittingly, the structure of the puja ceremony arises from the magnanimous spirit of hospitality for which Hindu culture is famous. All guests are received and treated as God, and God is no exception. During this daily morning puja rite, family members gather in their well-appointed shrine room to honor God as their royal guest. They receive Him warmly, offer a seat, serve water to quench His thirst, bathe and dress Him in beautiful clothes, burn the finest incense for His enjoyment, honor Him with light, flowers, chanting and offerings of food. It is an intimate, personal interaction. Throughout the puja, the officiant chants sweetly to the Deity in Sanskrit, describing these kindly acts and beseeching His blessings. Finally, the pujari thanks the Deity for His presence, bids Him farewell and humbly apologizes for any errors he may have unknowingly committed.
The fourth level of temple influence on the home begins when the shrine is strong enough that we feel that the main Deity of the shrine, for example Lord Siva or Lord Venkateshwara, is the head of the house. When that happens, we would never think of having a meal without first offering a portion to God. We would naturally want to always worship God, even if briefly, before leaving the home and upon returning.
For Hindu culture to strengthen the home to this extent, the entire family needs to be involved. To illustrate, let me share a story. One of our devotees was responsible for the Sunday morning Hinduism classes for a group in Singapore. He found that parents would commonly drop the children off, go shopping for two hours, return and pick them up, all the while expecting the teachers to make their children better Hindus. Though this approach works for learning the fine arts, such as dancing or playing an instrument, it does not work for Hinduism
The difference is this. For children to learn dance or music, the parents need not know how to dance or play the instrument. However, for Hinduism to be learned, it is necessary for the whole family to practice it together. This is because Hinduism is an all-encompassing spiritual way of life, informing every aspect of the family’s daily and weekly routine, and not just in the shrine room. Having the children study Hinduism at the temple is important. But if the parents are also involved in the study, there is much greater potential for actually augmenting Hindu culture and religious conversations in the home. In fact, some Hindu groups will not accept children into classes unless the parents also enroll in a parallel study for adults.
I like to compare Hindu temples to an electrical distribution system. On the remote Hawaiian island of Kauai, where we live, there is one main electrical generating plant with power lines to five distribution substations to which customers in each region are connected. This can be likened to a ray of spiritual energy coming from the celestial worlds (electrical plant) to five temples (substations), each with a connection which powers the homes of devotees who worship there regularly (customers). The electricity lights up the house and empowers all sorts of appliances. The energy from the temple illumines the family’s path and enlivens the culture.