-a closer look at secularism &deity worship.
A. P. Sukumar, Vancouver, Canada
People visit Hindu temples for different reasons-spiritual, religious and even political. In the case of most of the ancient Hindu temples, their operations have long been established based on various spiritual concepts, rituals and traditions. Rituals and observances vary according to the spiritual concepts behind the consecration of the Deity and the Vigraha(s)(Vigraha 1-Idol of a Deity, specifically conceived and consecrated) installed in temples. It is the wide variety in rituals, styles of building architecture and the age-old traditions that make Hindu temples so attractive to ardent believers, pilgrims and the general public alike. Let us look at the relationship between Hinduism as a religion and the temple worship rooted in Vigraha-pooja (deity worship).
Philosophy and practice in the context of the pursuit of the higher Reality is the ‘Sanatana Dharma’ of India which is known widely as Hinduism. The defining characteristic of this Dharmam (essential nature) that differentiates it from other religions is its framework which is so vast and varied that it has practically no boundaries – philosophical or practical. One cannot define the beginning of this religion nor can one attribute a person as the founder of Hinduism. There are believers and non-believers among Hindus. There are Hindus who give the utmost importance to Vigraha worship, rituals and observances. There are also Hindus who see God as One, indivisible, unique Chaitanyam (i.e., Pure Consciousness and Power) with no form attributable to it. A Hindu may be a worshipper of deities such as Maadan, Marutha, and Chaathan, etc., full of Thamogunam (negative tendencies or fierce forces). A Hindu may be a worshipper of deities with noble qualities or just be a meditator of noble thoughts with no external signs of rituals. A Hindu can even be an atheist. Within Hinduism, there are followers of Dvaitham (duality-the concept of man being different and subservient to God); Advaitham (non-duality-man and God are essentially one and the same; but at present we do not realize it due to a veil called Maya); ViSishta-dvaitham (qualified duality-man attains higher realms by the reflected glory of God) and the Chaarvaaka's philosophy of materialism (atheist). They all fall within the periphery of the Indian system of the six religious and philosophical (Shad-DarSana) pursuits. This is akin to having several ‘religions’ (or mathas) within Hinduism. Therefore, when we talk about secularism, we need to examine two kinds of secularism -the secularism within the Hindu Dharmam, and the secularism among Hindus and people of other religious faiths. We need to determine how secularism becomes practicable at which levels in our civilized society.
Secularism within the context of Hindu Dharmam
Relatively speaking, there are no pragmatic difficulties facing secularism within the ambit of Hinduism. There are many possibilities for cooperation on many levels among
1 * I prefer to use the word Vigraham instead of Deity or Idol as the latter words have pejorative connotations from our colonial past--APS 1 those Hindus who believe in a formless, attribute-less Para Brahman and those Hindus who believe that the presence of God is alive and potent in the vigraha-s in a temple, as personal god for the devoted. If they have mutual respect and an attitude of 'live and let live', there need not be any ideological conflict amongst them either. As I write this, I am not forgetting the historical conflicts between the Shaiva and Vaishnava doctrines in our land. I am just suggesting that such divergent groups do find some common territory where they can co-exist without conflict because both Shaiva-s and Vaishnava-s are believers in the efficacy and legitimacy of Vigraha worship. If a Hindu has no interest or adoration for the Vigraha of a particular deity in a particular temple he or she can refrain from worshipping at that specific shrine. He or she is free to offer worship at his or her favorite deity only. According to the Hindu custom, a Shaivaite may occasionally enter a Vishnu temple just out of curiosity or for making an offering or conducting a ritual for attaining a special wish that she or he might have and a Vaishnavaite can do that at a Shiva temple as well. The only constraint is that the worshipper should abide by the customs of the particular temple. In short, there are no obstacles to do DarSanam at any temples in a peaceful manner as long as one obeys particular customs. In essence, a Shaivaite or Vaishnavaite is not bound inextricably to the worship of their Ishta-Moorthi (favorite deity) exclusively. Similarly, there are no restraints whatsoever for the follower of Advaita philosophy (Vedanthin) who profoundly believes in the Brahman (the God principle) as the formless, attribute-less absolute if she or he would like to have DarSanam in a temple. The Vedantin splits the word "Vigraham" etymologically as "ViSeshena Graahyam = realizable in a special way" and attain the ecstatic feeling of seeing the One in Many. According to the Hindu deity concept, there are 330 million deities (quoted usually, to indicate infinite number) and each can have its own unique worship customs ritual celebrations. There exist temples for a few thousands of these deities or divine beings. For this reason, no single code of conduct can cover all the temples in our land.
Further, in the context of the philosophies on temples, an Advaita Vedanthi considers everything that he or she can perceive (or can conceive a form or function) to be equivalent to a temple. Everything and anything is, for him or her, a manifestation of the Supreme Brahman, the ultimate God principle. A Vedanthi reveres what is circumscribed by the Vigraham and what is beyond all limitations of any kind. If conceived and constructed by a Vedanthin, there is no need for any customs or regulations, and all kinds of people are allowed to enter that Temple. There are such temples with no sanctum or even walls to demark their boundaries (Ochira Parabrahma temple, in Kerala, for example). Not only are the followers of the six systems in the Hindu path welcome there but also believers of other faiths and even non-believers may enter those temples. Such sites are comparable to any public sites where the common etiquette is to be followed. Even followers of other religions who shun Vigraha worship may enter there. The famous Sabarimala Lord Ayyappa temple follows this kind of concept.
Temple Entry for All
Not all Hindus who visit a Temple are required or expected to be believers. If a non-believing Hindu (atheist) follows the Temple etiquette, he or she faces no sanctions either because such a person will automatically be in the ambit of the six systems of Hinduism. If a person says that he or she does not want anything to do with being a Hindu even in that minimal sense is a non-Hindu although he or she may be an Indian. They have no reason to have any interest or opinion with regard to Hindu temples, let alone on Vigraha worship. Their status is similar to that of the relationship between the public at large and the members of various professional bodies. It would be childish for an engineer to insist on membership in a medical doctors’ society. If an engineer wants membership in the medical association, he or she better get the appropriate qualifications and follow through the rules and regulations of the society’s governing board. It is his or her duty to present the proof of qualification to seek such a membership. In a democracy, all citizens can enter as visitors in the parliament or the legislative assembly, but if one wants to become an MP or an MLA, he or she has to believe in democracy, contest elections, and win a majority of votes. If a person does not believe in democracy or elections, there is no legitimate way in which she or he can become an MP/MLA.
Temple Concept in concord with the sacred precepts of the Vigraham
The rules and regulations of a Temple are determined at the time of its establishment in accordance with the original builders’ (not just the craftsmen but the central group of worshippers which may include the artisans) concepts about the Deity. We know that business concerns obtain registrations such as ISO 9000 and ISO 14000, etc., depending on their line of business. This registration essentially means that the concern enters into an agreement with the public saying that “our firm has decided that we will conduct such and such businesses in such manner to ensure such and such quality Standards and the public can count on us for maintaining the said Standards”. Once registered, it is the duty of the management to conduct the affairs of the firm according to the agreement. If it swerves from the Standards agreed upon, it might lose its registration. Many Hindu temples also are establishments built upon the basis of such “registration” based on the original founder’s conceptual framework and philosophical intentions. The liturgy, qualifications of the priests, worshippers, rituals, festivals, proper attire, etc., may be altered only to accommodate the requirements of changing times, that too with the approval of those who are in charge of keeping those customs. If the bye-laws of a temple thus established on the basis of the original builders’ vision are changed improperly, that will destroy the authenticity and relevance of the particular Temple. There cannot be a single law governing all temples as the temples are conceived and built with widely varying needs and philosophies behind them. Again, it is like the variety in business organizations in society – a single law cannot cover the entire spectrum of businesses
Who are non-Hindus?
There is a controversy in Kerala around the fact that non-Hindus are denied admission in certain temples that are built on specific philosophical concepts. At least a few do not agree with this proposition and the politicians are quick to take it upon as a matter to pursue. Many of the temples with restricted entry define the term non-Hindus as “those who do not believe in the Hindu path or the Sanathana Dharma”. But Most of these temples are ready to admit those who provide a written statement that says “I am a believer in Hinduism and deity worship”. Why is this important with regard to some temples and not others? Let us examine the relevance of questions such as “Does the Omnipresent God have a religion?”.
Some Temples have been set up on the basis of Tantric concepts and the Vigrahas in such temples are conceived to have life and have a father and a mother as in common human relations. In many cases, the worship ritual is set up on the basis of the routines of human life: the deity, as the ‘king of kings’ engages on many activities on time, including bathing, sacred rituals, eating, and other daily routines. In some temples of Goddesses, the deity is observed even to have menstruation periods and rituals to suit that. All this is based on sacred concepts and in such temples how can we justify entry of those who have no faith in worship of the vigraham at all? There are no right and wrong sides in this issue; what matters is respecting what is appropriate and to have a secular reverence for each other’s religion. As mentioned earlier, the reason why an engineer is not allowed membership in a doctors’ society is that the two groups of professionals do not share a common territory, albeit professionally. There are no impediments to their working together in a realm where they have a common goal. Likewise, Hindus and non-Hindus can work together in public service, artistic activities, etc. Why insist that such cooperative activities have to be within all temples?
It is praiseworthy when a neo-rich benefactor builds a huge temple and allows everyone to enter it. But to do the same in temples such as the Guruvayoor temple (where there is a well-established, ancient, time-honored set of customs) to make them public sites has to be seen as a violation of our secular culture. If, through political intervention, everyone including those opposed to Vigraha worship is allowed entry into a temple such as Guruvayoor that has strict rules and customs, what will happen? Of course, nothing will happen to Krishna and His consort Radha! But the sacred concept behind the Guruvayoor temple will be totally ruined! It is customary for believers to attend Christian church services wearing pants, suits, and shoes. If that dress code is allowed in the Guruvayoor temple, what will be the feelings of the worshippers who follow the time-honored customs, including a dress code? If Guruvayoor becomes a tourist center where anyone can enter without observing any customs or standards of cleanliness, what relevance will Guruvayoor have? Traditions have their own relevance, socially and I am not suggesting that Lord Krishna will be affected at all by us changing them!. Any religious custom that does not negatively impact any other religions will add to the quality of secular culture in a society. But, we know from history, cases where one group of people banded together to destroy another group’s religious culture. The Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed the mighty Buddha vigrahas there although it did not affect the status of the Buddha or Buddhists all around the world. But it is a wound in that country’s history that will never heal.
Let us examine now whether the following arguments have any relevance here: shouldn’t temples be opened up for those who adore the beauty of them, students of temple architecture, and connoisseurs of art? And, the temples in northern India are, in general, open to all. Shouldn’t that be the norm for the South Indian temples also?
As mentioned earlier, there are many functioning temples and all of them do not forbid entry to non-Hindus. Students of architecture, art appreciators, etc. can easily go to the free-access temples. Is it not better to leave alone the religious observances of those who follow them emotionally and culturally without harming anyone else? To use an analogy: If a host says or implies that the guest has no entry beyond the sitting room of a house, isn’t it the right thing to do for the guest to respect that rule? If a housewife says that the visitor has to take off shoes when entering her house, we do respect her wish, don’t we? Another view that ought to be respected is this: priests in some temples are required to be those who have grown up with—even from the in utero times -the strict adherence to the Vedic Hindu rites. A civilized secular society should respect the custom of having priests as individuals who have been brought up through the 16 Vedic rites (Shodasha Upacharas) that govern a person’s journey from the moment of conception through the time after death. All Hindu temples do not adhere to this level of ‘quality standard’ and rightfully so, because our unity is expressed in the co-existence of our diversity.
Temple Entry by Non-Hindus
I suspect that we might be violating the regulations and injunctions of other religions intentionally or accidentally if we encourage those from at least some of the world religions entry into the Hindu temples. If a person who belongs to a religious group that considers Vigraha worship to be despicable (sinful) enters and worships at a temple that has very strict rules of Vigraha worship, won’t he or she be disrespecting his or her own religion? Also, in ordinary circumstances, that person might not view the temple Idol with devotion and respect the temple rituals if he or she is deeply rooted in his or her own religious faith. However, if such a person visits the temple with sincere devotion and respect, then he or she would not feel any sense of guilt for disobeying the rules (i.e., injunctions against idol worship) of their own religion. And such a person will not have any difficulty declaring that they believe in Hinduism and the deity in those temples that he or she is entering. If this happens in a large numbers, perhaps, members of other religions will thus get the right and privilege to enjoy several religious faiths at the same time as they do in Hinduism.
I am a Hindu and I feel no compunction in saying that I believe in Christ (or making a written statement to that effect) and in going to a Church although I cannot make a statement that I believe only in Christ as I see unity in diversity. And as a student of Advaitha philosophy, I have no objection to members of other religions entering Hindu temples. But as a supporter of secularism, my opinion is that, in the name of secularism, we should not merely ‘tolerate’ each other’s religion and allow it to preserve its own set of beliefs. We should actively study multiple faiths and encourage the preservation of their customs wholeheartedly.
Temple Entry of Celebrities
The issue of temple entry attempts of the famous singer Sri. Yesudas at the Guruvayoor Temple has been a topic of controversy for some time in Kerala. None of us can comment or judge on his Bhakti or faith as it is a personal matter of an individual and that should not even be discussed. His renderings of soul-stirring devotional songs on Hindu, Christian and Islamic traditions have moved millions of people – believers and nonbelievers. I am waiting for that glorious day when he enters the Guruvayoor temple after declaring that he is a believer and devotee of Krishna, the deity of the temple.
It is also to be noted that Sri. Yesudas’s situation was considered as a special case by the Guruvayoor temple authorities in the past, according to the famous writer Sri. Puthoor Unnikrishnan. He represented the employees of the temple in the meeting held to consider Yesudas’s temple entry. The famous poet/lyricist Sri Vayalar Ramavarmma (Guruvayoor ambalanaTayil oru divasam njaan pOkum…) was also present in that meeting. It was almost decided to give Yesudas temple entry as a special consideration when someone in the meeting asked for the same treatment for Sri. Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, the veteran Malayalam writer. Then the meeting didn’t proceed well and was adjourned without making any decisions regarding special entry to celebrities and the status-quo remained. I remember reading a statement lately by Sri Yesudas that he is not looking for any special consideration for himself in this matter.
Sri. Yesudas’s entry at the temple without compromising the Guruvayoor temple’s fundamental sacred concepts will be a true revelation of his whole life’s secular message. He doesn’t have to declare anything against his faith to proclaim this either. If someone says that he is not duty-bound to convince others about his own devotion and faith on the deity of a temple, then the authorities have a right to deny entry to such a person. Yesudas certainly knows that the spiritual and consecration concept of the deity as Guruvayoor Krishna is not the same as that of Lord Ayyappa in Sabarimala or Goddess Saraswathi in Mookaambi in the Tantric sense. People from other religions including some of my friends have entered the Guruvayoor temple without making any written statements. As they did not know much about their own religions, they probably did not feel any sense of guilt about their action. But in the case of Yesudas, he cannot enter the temple anonymously given his celebrity status. Anyone who believes in unity in diversity will not feel like reducing diversity just into “my own chosen way.”
In my opinion, there is only a way out of this dilemma: Everyone has a chance for an intimate DarSanam in a future birth—the concept of reincarnation being one of the basic tenets of the Hindu belief. Anyone who believes in Hindu theology and Vedanta with respect will have belief in re-birth as well. In secularism, all religions must be enabled to preserve their own rituals and tenets of faith well. When Sree Rama returned to his kingdom after the14 year exile in the forest the question he asked of Bharata was: “Is anyone obstructing the Chaarvaaka-s (atheists with no belief in God or religion) in our kingdom from practicing their faith?” To sum up, what one does for one’s own soulful happiness should create joy for others or at least create no unhappiness in the lives of others. I hope those who believe in Vigraha worship will get a continued opportunity to observe their own religious rites in cooperation with others who believe in such a mode of worship.
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