Temples and their importance to
Hinduism

  

Are temples essential to Hindus ?
Is visiting temples, regularly or on holy days an essential perquisite for being a “good” Hindu ?

 

Surprisingly, to be a practicing Hindu, you don’t have to have an affiliation to any one sect or temple !!  Visiting temple(s) is a meritorious activity, but not essential to being religious or spiritual.  Some sects may emphasise congregational activities, such as payer or meditation meetings, but, these are not essential to be a Hindu.

 

 

Initially, Hindus envisioned meditation as an ideal way to commune with their God(s).  All the heroes, sages, seers and rishies in the Vedas meditated to commune with Paramatma – the Soul of the Universe !

 

Later, prayers to the divine were communicated through sacred fire, in the form of havans and yagnas.  The sacred fire acted as a conduit of prayers from the devotees to the divine and for the Divine to send their blessings to the devotees. 

 

During the Vedic time, places of great natural beauty were considered “sacred”.  Lakes, rivers, confluences of two or more streams / rivers / oceans were considered to be particularly “holy”.  Certain ancient trees, groves, mountains, caves, unusual rock formations etc were also considered to be sacred.  People came to mediate at such places and to make sure no one damaged or altered them, declared them to be “holy”.  It was rather an individual activity.  Devotees congregated at these places for special festivals. 

 

Sacred rocks, often marking boundaries between villages, were given spiritual significance and also marked the boundaries between the spiritual and mundane world.  These rocks were covered with bright coloured minerals – such as vermillion or sindur or garlanded with flowers to set them apart from other rocks.  Like the prayer flags and rocks of the Himalayan mountains, these rocks were used as touch stones for “safety” by village folk and travellers alike.  In the early stages, these were not places for large congregations.  People came and went at their convenience. 

 

These sacred rocks were often in the shape of a pillar or a phallus, or, were triangular in the shape of a yoni, female vulva.  Sometimes the rocks had no specific shape and were dedicated to various folk gods.  Popularly, they are dedicated to Hanuman, Ganesh and several other “guardian” gods and goddesses. 

 

In later years, simple shelters were erected around these rock(s) and later, some became temples.  The main temple to Kali at Kolkata, sacred stones of the Shkti-pithas, and Joytirlings across India, are just some of the examples of local sacred stones which came to be encapsulated in major temple complexes.  Large congregations continue to gather around these ancient rocks on numerous festive days. 

 

About 2200 years ago, building temples became a popular act of expressing religious affiliation in Hindu society.  Later still, temples building was equated with the sort of merit previously attached to major yagnas of the Vedic period.  Chiefs, craft-guilds, kings and emperors began to build temples as reminders to posterity of their devotion.  Vast sums were expended on building and endowing the temples to make sure they were financially secure for a long time to come.  Army of temple servants, guards and priests were employed to make sure the larger temples were run like fully fledged palaces.  Regular “services” were organised throughout the day to occupy the vast number of temple employees and to provide the pomp and circumstance that would reflect the glory of its builder.  Large number of visitors could be accommodated in their various halls and courtyards and so people were encouraged to visit such temples on daily basis.  Congregational services were held on daily basis. 

 

Some of these large temples became fully fledged pilgrimage centres, catering for the pilgrims every need – from accommodation, food, offerings for the temple, shops to sell trinkets and religious memorabilia to take back home.

 

 

After 1000 AD, large scale Islamic invasion of India put paid to the temple building era.  Vast sums of money, men, women and jewels were looted from temples across India.  Temples within Islamic ruled areas suffered further humiliations and were often summarily destroyed, their beautifully carved stone work used as rubble to make mosques. 

 

Congregational services in temples across North and Western India suffered terribly and centuries of art, culture, literature and skills were lost at the rate of knots.  Temples across North India were destroyed in vast numbers.  Temple lands were taken over by the Islamic governments and redistributed to mosques and madrases. 

 

South and Eastern India, where rule of Islam reached later, managed to keep some of their bigger temples and retain the temple culture that went with it till the arrival of the British.  Some have even managed to retain remnants of past glory till now.  However, loss of temple lands, new laws, change in farming and economical activities etc has meant even the ancient temples are now suffering badly and are in need of serious help. 

 

During the 18th Century, Mughal power declined in North India and stranglehold of Islam slackened after nearly eight hundred years.  Under the Marathas and Rajput kings, temple building was once again revived as an act of great merit and new temples sprung up to commemorate the devotion of their patrons.  However, these were much reduced in size and complexity from the original temples.  Often made as smaller, simpler imitations of surviving relics of older temples, they were the centre of life for the local community and were the hub of local commerce.  You can often tell who patronised the temple by looking at the architectural style of the temple.  Where kings and queens donated land and money for a temple, they were often made in the style of royal palaces of that era. 

 

 

The British did not stop temple building, but they did not encourage it either.  Christian Church was given special privileges in the new institutional hierarchy of the British and church run schools were seen as the best way to educate the natives.  Temples and temple rituals were seen as “superstitious” and “pagan”.  Several temple institutions, like the Devdasis were portrayed as sinful relics of primitive imagination.  Laws were passed to obliterate such “abominations”, further eroding temple traditions, arts, crafts and culture. 

 

 

In 1947, India became independent as a “socialist secular republic”, with distinct bias against Hinduism, implanted in the hearts and minds of the new legislators, educated in the West.  With demise of Indian kingdoms and their royal patrons, temple building became the preserve of the super rich.  Local temples, built by funds raised from the local community, are highly congregational in nature and are largely supported by the locals. 

 

The socialist, secular ideals of independent India are not totally socialist or truly secular.  Being socialist, Indian government was hard pressed to make ends meet and to augment government funds, it decided to be selectively secular and passed numerous laws to milk Hindu temples for their funds.  Any financially successful temple or Hindu religious institution falls under the preview of the Indian government and its sticky fingers.  Till date, temple funds are under government thumbs and government decides how this money may be spent.  This is a new and cruel religious tax on Hindus as these laws do not apply to any other religion in India. 

 

As a result, in Independent India, by law and to protect themselves from the law, many Hindu temples and religious institutions in India have become “Trusts” to avoid liabilities, scrutiny and unfair taxes from the Indian Government. 

 

 

Hindus abroad have erected many temples in an eternal effort to preserve their cultural identity in foreign lands.  Often the first temples of any new community in foreign lands is that of “unity”.  All the Gods and Goddesses, worshiped by the people in the diaspora are represented in the pioneers’ “Sanatan” temple.  Usually it’s a simple hall that doubles up as a community centre where everything from language, dance, music and religion can be taught.  Marriages, deaths and other family functions are also usually celebrated here, as its probably the largest “hall” accessible to the community members. 

 

Later, as individual communities grow and become prosperous, they usually build / commission their own temples, often in “traditional” Indian style(s).  Temples in foreign lands are usually congregational in nature, though most devotees only come at the weekends.  Hence, these off-shore temples usually celebrate all major festivals at the weekend !!

 

 

However, we come back to the main question –

Are temples essential to Hindus ? 

Is visiting temples, regularly or on holy days an essential perquisite for being a “good” Hindu ?

 

Answer is – “it depends !”

Visiting temples is not essential to proclaim your Hinduness, but, it often helps foster a community spirit.

Hindus are not forced to go to a temple by any religious obligation.  But socially, they may be obliged to go to temples to renew their social bonds there.

 

 

 

Please visit the Religious and culture index to read other articles on how and why Hindus need to unite and reform for their own future survival.

Click here to read articles on the history, art, rituals and how Pushti Marg "Haveli" (temple) are run.

 

© Bhagwat
Bhagwat_s@Yahoo.com

 

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