Sunday, August 14, 2011

Why do we worship?

Why do we worship?
Original article By Swami Aswathi TirunaL in Malayalam
(Swami Aswathy Thirunal is the head of Ekalavya Ashram in Thiruvananthapuram)
- Unofficial translation by Dr. A. P. Sukumar, Canada.

The word meaning of ‘kshEtram’ is body, as explained by Lord Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita. Our temples are constructed based on the structure of our body. This methodology in the construction of temples has been adopted to emphasize and realize the basic profound statement (‘mahavakya’) of Hindu philosophy – Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman)– that is ‘I’ and the ‘Lord’ are one and the same.

For a Hindu, the concept of God is as an omniscient presence of energy (‘chaithanya’) that is all encompassing. ‘That’ is present everywhere. In every life form ‘it’ fills and prevails as the living entity. In each individual who is in the human form, ‘it’ is present as the life force. For each life form, the ultimate goal of life is to find ‘it’ and realize the truth that ‘me’ and God are one. When a living entity realizes this goal, the profound statements such as ‘thathvamasi’ (that thou art); raamOham (I am Rama); SivOham (I am Siva); Aham Brahmasmi (I am Brahman) etc. will also become Real. The easiest way of realizing this ‘truth’ is to seek and find the presence of God in our ‘self’. For this, a living being must meditate and worship the notion of God within and temples are schools that help him in this pursuit. That is why temples are constructed in the structure of a body.

Temples are built in the style of a man lying on his back. The temple entrance (‘gopuram’) is the feet of the man. For every temple, there will be an entrance door and the shoes are to be kept outside this door. When one enters a temple, it is as if he is entering into his own body. The mind that has been wandering all over the world is being controlled by own will and brought within. When you get inside the body, there is no need for shoes and that is why in temples we do not wear shoes. Also, in temples there are rules that we should not walk in pairs or groups. If a family of father, mother and kids, once entered a temple, should walk on their own, not as a group. Each one is entering the temple with an aim to find and enliven the godliness inside his body. That is why we shouldn’t take very small children to a temple. They will not be able to behave inside the temple with the proper attitude knowing the philosophical concepts of temple structure and have ‘darsan’ (seeing the deity). Once you enter a temple, friends must walk separately, however close they are. When each one is searching the God within, where is the need for relationship or a company? What is the need for chitchat? By being alone, one would be able to enjoy the temple visit without distractions and concentrate on godly thoughts.

When we go further inside the temple, at the navel area we see a stone called ‘nabhi’. The flag post (‘dwaja’) is placed close to this stone. The flag post represents the back bone of a human body. The vertical alignment of the flag post is merely for convenience during daily rituals. In front of the sanctum sanctorum (sree kovil) , we see a podium to do prostrations (‘namaskara mandapam’), that is in place of human chest. Then there are steps to ascend to the sanctum sanctorum representing neck (‘gaLasthan’). The priest uses these steps to reach the sanctorum which is the human head. On the fore head, the deity is installed at the centre of the two eye brows (“brhU-madhya”). Above and around the deity, there are mirrors producing effulgent halo representing the lotus with thousand petals (“sahasrapadma”). On either side of the sanctorum there are fake doors representing ears and above it there is a steeple tower representing tied hair (“sikhi”).

The devotee who is standing in front of the sanctum sanctorum with folded hands is actually worshipping himself. When we fold our hands (“namasthe”), the thumbs are pointed towards our own body and in front of sanctorum, a devotee closes his eyes. When trying to see the self within one should close his eyes. Ayyappa devotees reach the 18 steps in front of the Sabarimala sanctum sanctorum after passing through difficult mountainous paths such as karimala and neelimala and experiencing all kinds of discomforts, standing in the queue for hours. Once he reaches in front of the deity, upon seeing the Lord, the devotee calls out “Swamiye Saranamayyappa” and folds his hands in reverence. Immediately he ends up closing his eyes automatically. He is trying to see his own inner god energy in the form of Ayyappa’s image. Even the sages who are engaged in severe austerities sitting in forest caves in the icy Himalayan Mountains are also doing the same thing. They try to realize God through intense penance and meditation without any worries of worldly responsibilities. But for ordinary people with responsibilities to look after their families it is not practical to go to the caves for meditation. That is why temple visits and idol worship have been prescribed for their benefit. A house holder standing in front of the deity with folded hands and closed eyes with a heart filled with devotion will be able to experience the same spiritual ecstasy as a sage who is involved in sever austerities in a forest cave would experience.

According to the science of Yoga, there are three realms of intelligence in all living beings. A person experiences these realms of the world through three different ‘bodies’. In the waking state, it is by the gross body; in the dream state, it is through the subtle body and in the sleep state, it is though the causal body. All living beings have three such bodies. When we are awake, we understand and experience the physical world. When we sleep, the physical body is asleep, but we can see, hear and touch. What is the body that enables us to do so? That is the subtle body. In dream, we travel through the subtle body. Deep sleep state is where the gross body and the subtle body are absent. When a person is sleeping well, he experiences that in the causal body. Only when one gets rid of all the three bodies can he become one with the universal reality. The coconut we break in front of the temple is symbolic of these three bodies. The hard shell of the coconut represents gross body, the coconut meat represents subtle body and the coconut water, the causal body. When a devotee breaks a coconut, he assumes that the three bodies are destroyed and his self (“atman”) gets absorbed in the universal self (“paramathma”).

When one dies, the subtle body comes out of the physical body, i.e., the ‘sat’ goes out of the body. (All rituals after the death of a person are aimed at facilitating in the journey of his subtle body to its next world of experience without major difficulties and anxieties.) Just before lighting the funeral pyre, we break the mud pot to indicate the journey taken by the atman after breaking the gross-subtle-causal bodies. The clay of the pot represents physical body and the water inside the pot, the subtle body and the space inside the pot, the causal body.

As explained earlier, a temple is an image of the human body. The sculpture of the deity inside the sanctorum (the head) represents subtle body. The deity is installed at the centre of the eye brows (brUmadhya). This centre is considered by sages as the centre of mind. The plate that holds camphor lamp represents the causal body which is knowable only through experience and is beyond both the waking and dream states of awareness.

In order to understand the relevance and secret of the installation of a deity, one must learn about the six centre points known as six chakras (“shad chakra”). In our subtle body, there is a divine nerve that starts from the bottom of the spine terminating at the top of the head, called sushumna (spinal cord). By examining physical body, you will not see it, as it is in the subtle body that is beyond observation by physical equipment. This nerve passes through chakras. The spiritual power of a living being is hidden at the bottom of the spine, (“moolaadhaara”). It is akin to a she-snake lying coiled around an egg. This power is known as “kundalini” and thorough regular practice of yoga this power can be raised in stages, step by step. SasdhisTaanam (genitals), maNipoorakam (navel), anaahatham (heart), visuddhi (throat), Ajnaachakram (forehead, in the middle of eye brow) are the stages before the kundalini reaches Siva, the head, the abode of the lotus with thousand petals. There the Devi, the embodiment of power (kundalini sakthi) and the Siva become one. There the self realizes the Brahman (truth). All living beings take life in a physical body to reach this state of Siva-Sakthi unification. It is the longing to taste the eternal happiness of this unification that forces living beings to engage in sexual intercourse. They engage in sex thinking that it is the epitome of happiness. But the happiness that comes out of sex lasts only for a limited time. Knowing this fact, people with discretion abstain from indulging in sex. It is like some one who never gets distracted by a meager water pond when his goal is to enjoy the mighty sea itself. But the power of illusion (maya) forces our body and mind to run after sex and other physical pleasures of life. This is called vasana (innate tendency). It is to go beyond this vasana that a seeker is ordered to observe celibacy. Not because there is anything sinful about sex. That is why in older temples, you will see pictures of explicit sexual acts. An aspirant should go beyond these distractions and get inside the temple to get the happiness-eternal that is real. When Siva and Sakthi unites in one's self, the yogi experiences the total happiness known as brahmanandam. A seeker should go beyond the physical urges understanding the fact that the sexual pleasures will not come close to even one-thousands of this happiness that is eternal and real.

Temple Visits, a blind folded game ?
We should dissuade any attempt to make Hinduism indulge in blind faith

In the science of Yoga (yoga Sasthra), the power of  kunDalini (kuNDalini Sakthi) has the foremost place. The energy that is lying in the “moolaadhara” must reach the top of one’s head through regular practice (sadhana). For animals, kuNDalini power seldom goes beyond the navel area. So they have only two main activities in their life- eat food and procreate by engaging in sex. But for a human being, this energy will raise beyond the navel area. That is why man thinks about birth & death as well as truth behind life. Through the process of evolution caused by the activity of the kuNDalini power, the four-legged animals developed into the two-legged orangutans (man-monkey). When this power rose beyond the navel area and started spreading the vital energy, orangutans underwent further changes. They developed the ability to think and grow themselves intellectually and spiritually. In the intellectual journey, he found the truth that is science and in the spiritual journey he found the truth that is god. Those who have found truth in science, we call them scientists. Those who have found truth in god, we call them sages or seers (rishis). Scientists find truth using telescopes and microscopes, while sages find the truth by intense practice of meditation and austerity in their own self. KuNDalini power of those men who are purely materialistic and live based on the belief that the essential meaning of life is to have sex and eat food will decline progressively. This will cause him to be reborn as an animal or a bird. But those who undertake the practice and path of spirituality to realize god will be born as sages and yogis, finally merging with god. In short, kuNDalini power is the basic inspiring force of evolution.

The word meaning of kuNDalini is she-snake. It is interesting to note that the Malayalees who misunderstood the word meaning became worshipers of snakes (sarppa pooja). We install a banyan tree and a statue of a snake at a corner of the temple to represent kuNDalini power. There is no connection between this and the snake, the animal. Banyan tree represents the nerves of the subtle body. The banyan tree has been chosen aptly to represent this as it is known to spread ozone to clean the air outside world. KunDalini of a seeker reaches the thousand petal lotus by cleansing his nerves through regular practice of austerities and yoga. For the people who follow the path of knowledge (jnana yoga) and those who follow the path of devotion (bhakthi yoga) ascend of kuNDalini happens automatically. For a hatha yogi, it is achieved through the intense practice of physical yogic exercise.

Subtle body

If we know this much, we should be able to get the gist of idol worship. An idol represents the subtle body and we perform our worships in front of it. The priest who performs the worship is only a conductor. The disciples are present in front of the sanctum to seek god who is within themselves. The priest is just a demonstrator who shows the people how to achieve this and to show how to practice paths of spirituality by employing suitable imagery. He is not an agent of the god or some one who is close to Him or a wholesale dealer. If someone shows you the map of America in an atlas, he need not have visited America to show you the same. Even if he has been to America, he may not have the ability to explain the experience to you. Even if he is an excellent narrator, he will not be able to impart you the unique experience of a traveler who is actually visiting that country. Why temple priests are, in general, not realized souls? Why are they not able to renounce their greed towards money and physical comforts? The answer is evident here. You cannot insist that all midwives who help with deliveries must have the demonstrated experience of having had a smooth delivery in their own cases.

Human body is made of five elements: air, fire, water, earth and space. The body has been created as a composition of these elements in their gross and subtle molecular components. When one dies, the air leaves the body first. Then the body heat (fire) vanishes and then the water. When the body is burnt in a pyre, the earthly component also disintegrates. At last, the space that occupied the body also will lose its identity.

In a ritualistic worship (pooja), mainly five materials are utilized. Representing earth, there is eatable (naivEdyam or prasadam), air is represented by incense (dhoop), fire by lit lamp, water, and the space by flower. If we return the five elements that constitute our body to the nature, we can realize our self. But by one’s death this will not happen. When a body is burnt completely, only gross body gets destroyed.

This is because of the fact that only the gross components of the five elements will be lost by cremation. A priest who conducts the ritualistic worship assuming that the three bodies (gross, subtle and causal bodies; subtle and causal bodies are made up of subtle components of the five elements) are being returned to the nature. That is why the priest keeps the five items in front of the idol. Once he submits water, fire, air and food, what is left to be submitted is only space. Submission of space is the done by the worship (archana) with flowers.

Devotees who go to the temple carry the five items such as incense sticks, rose water, fruits, oil and flowers with the same assumption. The worship known as “sahasra archana” is to do worship by flower thousand times. Obviously it is not practical for all devotees to get inside a sanctorum to do worship and that is why a person is employed by the society to do it. This salaried employee is the priest. A spatula that is fully immersed in a sweet pudding need not know its taste. The priest need not know all the nuances and in-depth meanings behind all rituals he conducts. A temple priest is just a laboratory assistant who is in the lab that devotees use to experiment in pursuing spiritual realization. It is true that some laboratory assistants are much better than professors in demonstrating experiments to the right aspirant.

Once the flower worship, showing of lamp, submission of water and food are over, the priest takes the camphor plate in his hand. The camphor plate represents the causal body that is the seat of innate tendencies (vasana) that force the gross and subtle bodies to go after worldly affairs. The plate has the shape of a sage sitting in lotus posture (padmaasana) with the locks of his hair tied around and above his head. The lamp that is lit in front of the idol represents the sacred Om mantra. It's base is the navel of Lord Vishnu and the mid portion is the lotus that is the abode of Lord Brahma, and the top portion is the phallus of Lord Siva (Siva lingam). Brahman is the one that is the sum total of these three boundaries. Om mantra (Omkara) represents Brahman in an audible form. The lamp is lit in front of an idol to represent Om. That means the essence of Brahman appears to be split into three aspects. In the lamp, three wicks are lit to represent the consort of Siva- Parvathy – the goddess who sustains the world by protecting it; Brahma’s consort -Saraswathy – the goddess of knowledge; and the consort of Vishnu- Lakshmidevi- the goddess of prosperity. This completes the imagery and if these gods and goddesses are pleased with a devotee, his life is fulfilled.

The nature of the Self

Only when the innate tendencies (vasanas) of the causal body also get annihilated, a living being would be able to realize its own self. That is being represented in burning camphor. Camphor is selected purposely for this because upon burning the camphor it does not leave any residue in the plate. When the vasanas of the causal body -that is the abode of non apprehension of reality- is burnt, the idol becomes effulgent. This effulgence is representative of the omniscient Self which is beyond the limitations of time. A devotee who sees this with folded hands understands that the final goal of his life is to realize his own Self.

At the end of worshiping with lit camphor, the devotee sees the multiple reflections of the flame as the priest raises the camphor plate near the mirrors that are installed above the idol. The assumption is that the kuNDalini has reached the lotus of thousand petals and the unification of Siva and Sakthi has occurred. Thus the Self gets absorbed and the living entity gets freedom (nirvana) from the birth and death cycle. These lessons make deep impressions in the minds of devotees. They come to realize the truth that their bodies are only like clothing and a covering for the eternal Self. After the worship, the priest brings the camphor plate to the midst of people. This is to give the devotee an opportunity to worship the flame and promise that 'I too am an aspirant who wants to follow the path of spirituality'. Most people touch the flame and put their hands on their eyelids without knowing why they are doing it. It is the fate of modern Hindus that they end up taking part in a drama without knowing the actual story. In fact ninety percent of Hindu rituals are blindly being followed by people - that too not just in the case of temple worship.

After the worship one should drink the sacred water (theertham). One should drink only a little of it as it is meant as a cleanser to the visuddhi chakra (throat). The scared water gets below the vocal chord with the assumption that all words coming out of the throat will be clean as the water cleanses the throat area. Now one should eat some food offered to the lord (prasadam). Next in the ritual is to accept the sandal paste, ash or saffron given by the priest. Sandal paste is to remind one that there is no need to be proud of the physical body that is going to be cremated one day in a sandal wood pyre. Saffron powder is applied on the forehead in the shape of a flame to remind us the truth that one day the body is to be submitted to the flame. Finally we apply ash (bhasmam) on our body in the assumption that it is the ash from a funeral pyre, reminding us that the body is nothing but a handful of ash. Sages have given these ritualistic steps to inculcate in a devotee the attitude of humility and aversion towards worldly possessions in his individuality.

After the worship, one should sit down at a corner of the temple and meditate and realize the god energy within. The worship is basically to initiate this contemplation. When the idol is worshiped with lamp (deeparadhana) all the five senses of the devotees will be concentrated on the lord. Eyes will first concentrate on the idol and then the inner eyes will focus on the form of god within. The chanting of Omkara and the ringing of bells will reverberate in the ears. The smell of camphor and sandal wood would occupy noses. Limbs are folded in reverence to the Lord. Mind is focused in single pointed attention towards Him. With this pleasant state of happiness, a house-holder devotee should go to a corner of the temple and chant the Lord’s name and meditate just as a sage would do. Thus one should complete the process of worship before leaving the temple. It is indeed a great loss for our culture when we see that people spent some time in front of the temple after the worship looking here and there chit-chatting instead of following the noble procedure as taught by the sages. For the temple worship to be fruitful, one should give donation and other possible helps to deserving people before leaving the temple. This is prescribed to ensure that one inculcates the habit of helping the poor and the needy as a principle in life. Idol worship and temple visits are simple, but beautiful rituals prescribed by the sages for the house-holders carrying many responsibilities in their head to achieve the same spiritual development as that of a monk who do not have worldly duties to perform. Those who follow this with full understanding will get spiritual growth and along with that they will develop noble qualities such as simplicity in life, self confidence, devotion, cleanliness, diligence and compassion. Live life well, live happily and at the time of death, realize the truth that is god and leave the body with full spiritual energy. What more can a religion provide to its followers? Daily visit and temple worship will definitely help one to take up this way of noble life. It is of great importance to know the value and meaning of all rituals we follow. If we continue the present way of temple worship without knowing the inner meanings of the rituals as practiced by the priests, temple authorities and the poor devotees, soon we will bring back the practice of caste discrimination and autocracy of priests which were matters of shame to Hindu culture in the past. This will lead the younger generations who are capable of assimilating modern ideas, to treat Hindu religion as one with blind beliefs and meaningless rituals. In order to get out of such a tragedy, India will need hundreds of Swami Vivekanandas and Sree Narayana Gurus..

1 comment:

  1. I am Swamy Aswathy Thirunal from Tvm. First let me thank you Sri.Sukumar for your wonderful translation. I am indeed very glad that you published this article in your blog. But let me point out a small error also here. The sanskrit word Linga should not be translated as phalus. Actually the word Linga in sanskrit means something that seperates. As phalus is considered as something seperates a male from a female, the word linga came to be used in indian languages as the word which denotes phalus. When Siva(soul) walks out of a being it becomes a Sava(dead body. So Siva Linga means a symbol which shows life. It is unfortunate that Sivalinga is described as that phalus of Siva. Apart than this error your translation is really great.
    With Prayers & Pranams
    Swamy Aswathy Thirunal