Friday, February 24, 2012



Hindu temple is conceived as a cosmos in miniature. The orientation of the temple follows the cosmic directions. Temples invariably face the East as it is auspicious direction of the rising Sun whose first rays illuminate the interior of the shrine at dawn.

Hindus strongly believe in the influence of the planets on human life. The Navagrahas or nine planets are believed to influence the life of the individual as also the course of history. They do recognize the fact that creation of the planets preceded that of living beings and therefore forced to believe that some sort of cause and effect relation must subsist between human life and planets. The nine planets are invariably found in every Siva temple in South India. In many North Indian temples they are depicted on the lintels of doors to protect the temple and all those who enter it. It is stated that images of the planets are set up in the temples in the order in which they are in the zodiac circle at the time of construction of the temple.

Hindu temple may be regarded as a direct descendant of the Buddhist Stupa on its popularity, which in turn might have been evolved from the primitive funeral mound and which is pre-Vedic in origin. Installing a Linga or stone block in the spot of burial is still practiced in India by tribal folks. The tombs of saints (Samadhi or brindavana) are considered as shrines, as that of Raghavendra, Saibaba etc. Stupa itself is a successor to vedic practice. Agnidriya, stupa of Vedic period is the fore-runner of harmika of Buddhist stupa. The temple is but a later version of Vedic times Yajnasaala. Nanda deepa in temples of modern times, represents Vedic fire (agnihotra) kept in every house in the Vedic culture by Agnihotris.

According to Hindu Mythology, God resided on mountains, on riverside and groves in forests. Sacred trees and plants are associated with the temple. Leaves of sacred Vilva or Bael and Tulasi plants are used in worship. The river settlements have their temples on the banks near cemented banks (ghats). The significant and symbolic association of temple is more predominant with the mountains. Hindu temple is a synthesis of many symbolisms. Its ecology is therefore closely linked to this symbolism.

Hindu temples in India which have the greatest appeal have folk origin—Lord Venkateswara in Tirupati, Lord Jagnnatha in Puri, Kali in Kolkata, Vaishnodevi in Kashmir, Vindhyaavaasini in Kaamaakhya etc.

Tree worship is popular in India. But not all the specimens of even the sacred trees of Asvattha, Vata and Bilva are worshipped. It is only the tree that is associated with a shrine like Vatavriksha in Gaya, Bodhi in Bodhgaya and Sthala Vrikshas that are enclosed trees in many temples that are worshipped as shrines.

Famous temples in India dedicated to several gods and goddesses house in their sanctum only rocks or small or large stones: Viwanath in Varanasi; Tribhuvanesvar in Lingaraj Temple in Bhuvanesvar; Narasimha in Ahobilam; Mahakala in Ujjain; Kedaresvara in Kedanath; Mukambika in Kolluru; Ganapati in Khumbhasi and others. Not all the stones are worshiped by Hindus. It is only the stone which is associated with a sacred enclosure in a holy place that is worshipped as cited above.

Puranas celebrate certain places as favorite of Gods. These places have become great pilgrim centers. These are: Badrivana; Kedarnath; Jagannth Puri; Varanasi; Prayaag; Somnath; Simhadri; Tirupati; Setu (Ramesvaram); Melukote; Kanchipuram and others. Here the icons are not man made and reputed to be self-manifests (svayam –vyakta). Temples were built over them by devotees. These places became holy and visits to them are considered to be meritorious. This forms the basis for the present day pilgrimage, the places having been glorified in Puranas. The essence of the holy place is concretized in a shrine often containing the icon that is reputed to be self manifest. Whole Township has grown out of shrines, besides the huge temple complexes to accommodate pilgrims, tanks to provide water, free refectories to cater to their needs and other acts of charity.

Celebrated text, Vishnudharmottara gives an interesting account of the origin of temples: In Kritayuga or Satyayuga, there was no need for temple because gods lived and moved amongst humans. In Tretayuga, the presence of gods became scarce and they descended on earth only when man invoked them in sacrifices, like Dasaratha of Ayodhya. In Dwaparayuga, men had only to make images of these gods and worship them; and the gods came down in disguised forms, showering their grace. The worship at that time was only domestic; the shrines were within the precincts of homes. In Kaliyuga temples as public shrines began to be built and icons were installed or vice –versa. But the gods ceased coming down in their own or disguised forms. However, their presence was felt when the icons were properly installed and temples correctly built.

The drawing of the Vasthumandala square is a ritual pre-requisite at the commencement of the temple construction. Vastumandala is the metaphysical and cosmological plan of the temple. The imaging of the planets, the stars, the 32 guardians of the directions (dikpaalakas) takes place on the border of the perimeter of the Vastumandala. The 32 divinities are known as padadevatas. They represent Gods of the Vedic pantheon and are assigned a subsidiary position in the mandalas (circles) as regents of stars stationed on its border and led by the loka-paalakas of the four directional space (Mahendra on the East, Yama on the South, Varuna on the West and Soma in the North). The eight dik-paalakas are Indra, Agni, Yama, Niriti, Varuna, Marut, Kubera, and Eaasaana. The central square is called Brhamsthaana. The eight dik-paalakas and regents of the stars/planets are located either in the niches on the outer wall of the temple or in peripheral shrines in the enclosure wall, thus leaving an open space for circumambulation.

Brahmasthaana is the place assigned to Brahma, the Lord of creation in the Vedic tradition. In Puranic tradition this position is assigned to the major Hindu Gods, Vishnu and Siva, making Brahma subordinate and placing his deity on the northern wall of the sanctum. But the concept of Trinity worship continues in Hindu Tradition. Siva manifests as Linga (Vyakta-avyakta form) while Vishnu manifests himself in his divine forms and incarnations (avatars). Both these are the Universal Brahman in their sectarian systems of beliefs and worships while the other Vedic deities remain as subordinates in their positions as pada-devatas.  Later Puranas also brought in two sons of Siva as main deities for worship.  Jayadeva hailed Krishna as Jagadeesa or Brahman. Sankarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha, family members of Krishna were introduced as Vyuha deities for worship by Pancharatra (Chaturvyuha) Theology of Vaishnavas.  In all these in reality worship is directed to Trinity or Saguna Brahman only, be it a Siva temple or Vishnu temple.

In the Saraswati and Indus Valley Civilizations, we find evidence of domestic shrines, but there is no trace of a public temple. It is after the popularity of Buddhist Stupas temple construction became popular for common worship, though it had its link to Vedic period.

The Hindu temple as an art form has a human as well as divine character. The temple has also a psychological effect and spiritual significance. It is in the nature of sacred art bringing human being into contact with the divine. It enables man to feel the spiritual presence and to find it in the cavity of his own heart. It is not so much to pray that a devotee visits temple as to feel the divine presence. We could pray anywhere. The popular temples of the present days are the last places in the world where one can really get into a prayerful mood.

If the devotee is not seeking this divine presence in the temple, he does not go beyond what is a physical visit. It is not the belief in God, or belief in the efficacy of prayer but an intuitive apprehension of the divine presence that makes the temple a sacred enclosure and a shrine.

Many texts describe "the human body to be the temple and soul, the icon". The architectural terms used in temple building are the names of parts of the human body: feet (paada); knee (jaanu); thighs (janghaa); belly (kukshi); neck (greeva); shoulders (kandhara); nose (naasika); face (mukha); Head (seersha); and so on. Some Orissan architects also liken the temple structure to the human body. The names given to the vertical sections of the temple tower correspond to the human body: the platform (pishta); the lower storey (bada); the upper storey (gandi or human trunk); the head (mastaka). The Vimana of South Indian temples are designated as deul which forms the curvilinear tower over garbhagriha in Orissan architecture. They also include a kalasa, water-pot as in South Indian temples. The crown called Amla surmounted by semicircular skull (khapuri), named after the popular fruit myrabolan whose branches are also worshipped along with Tulasi plant in the South, in brindavans worshipped at home regularly. Lord Jagannatha's car is also shaped like a vimana or sanctuary, deul, as also rathas in South Indian temples.

As a temple is laid out, it is said to picture a man lying down: his feet connote the entrance tower; Gopura, his genital organ, Flag-staff; his belly,the Assembly Hall (Ranga Mandapa); his heart, the Porch (antaraala or sukavaasi); his head, the Sanctum; and, the brows meet , the Seat of the Icon. It is also sometimes considered neck as the Sanctum and head as the Tower, and the heart as the Porch where the devotee stands to look at the icon. The icon is located at the "aajnaa" center, the space between the eyebrows. The finial of tower is unseen above head in the region called "sahasraara", and the womb of the sanctum (garbha-griha) at the tip of the nose. Thus the human body is glorified as the housing (temple) for the "Jeevaatma" (Consciousness or Aatman) in every individual.

In accordance with this scheme of human body representation of temple structure, the architectural and sculptural details vary from phase to phase in the devotee's onward movement towards the sanctum.

Some texts point out that the base of the temple represents the Earth, the intermediate Space, and the tower the Heavens. The Tower (vimana) comprises three worlds: the Seat—Janaloka; the Pot portion—Tapoloka and the Spike (stupi)—Satyaloka, out of the seven Worlds' scheme.

Vimana in samskrit means: "that which has no comparison" or "that which brings about fruits"—this refers to Agni, fire god. Vimaana the tower over the sanctum is a physical representation of fire. Foundation of temple represents Earth (Prithvi), the walls of the Sanctum, Water (Aapa) and the tower over it Fire (Tejas); the finial of the tower stands for Air (Vaayu) and above it is the formless Space (Aaakaasa). Thus the Sanctum is a constellation of five elements.

The Balipeetha (dispensing seat) represents the meeting place of the active consciousness of the devotee with the passive consciousness of the divinity. The Balipeetha is located in the "navel" (nabhi) in the projection of the temple image on the human body. Before the devotee enters the path in front of the sanctum, the devotee ceremonially goes round the Balipeetha and offers obeisance of ashtaanga or panchaanga pranaamam (eight or five parts of the body touching the earth in prostration) to receive the emanations from the icon.

The flag-staff is often close to the dispensing seat, Balipeetha. Its position is to indicate the position of the sanctum. The stylized flag-staff came during the Chola and Pandyan periods in South India. The flagstaff was uniquely royal insignia, and the icon was considered Lord of the Universe. It also indicates the characteristic animal and insignia of the icon on the banner. It gives a direction to the devotee's desire and will. When the devotee sights the banner and bows to it he resolves (makes the Sankalpa) to rise high.

The interior scheme of the sanctum is plain. It is dark, but for the oil lamps that lit up the icon. It is the inner square of Brahman, and is in direct communion with the chief source of power (nucleus) in the temple-mandala. The sanctum represents the concrete and worshipful (archaa) manifestation of the divine power. The icon inside in it is the "inner controller" (antaryamin), corresponding to the divine presence in the "cavity of the heart" of each individual being. The Vimana over the sanctum represents the "glory" (vaibhava) aspect of the divine. The crown vessel on top of the Vimana is the "patterned expression" (Vyuha) of the divine power; and pinnacle which vanishes in a point is the "transcendent" (para) aspect. The Mandala, pattern of powers (spiritual magnetic field) is the very essence of a temple.

As soon as the devotee sights the threshold of the gateway he bends down and touches the Mandala on it before crossing it. This marks the "the way of the World" to the "Way of God". He continues in the common state of "wakefulness" until he reaches the flag- post (dvajastambha) or dispensation seat (balipeetha). He then has the first vision of the sanctum in the vestibule and sinks into the state of "deep sleep". Higher state of "semi-tranquility" (shaantoedita), descends on him, when he looks at the icon. And when he has suffused himself with the vision of the icon, he gets into the state of tranquility (Saanta). This is the silent and serene atmosphere in the Garbha-griha (Sanctum--womb house). The prevailing darkness of these areas is suggestive of sleeplike condition. The devotee can forget all the states and phases he has passed through and get absorbed in the beauty and serenity of the icon in the presence of the nandaadeepa or perennial oil-wick on reaching the sanctum-sanctorum.

The devotee goes to the temple with faith in his heart and hopes to find the grace in the shrine. Faith leads to grace. It does not need gnosis or understanding of symbolism involved in the temple. What it needs is the appropriate mood. In order to create an atmosphere which would enable a devotee's faith to become more receptive to this spiritual presence, certain traditional prescriptions like physical cleanliness, dress code, postural reverence and ritual offerings have been introduced.

In order to enable our understanding the aesthetic as well as spiritual aspect of the temple symbolism Hindu tradition has developed a doctrinal approach in "Aaagamas" which means "that which has come from the hoary past". The true devotee intuitionally apprehends the symbolism. The temple as the symbol is the medium of rituals. Rituals are active thought. Rituals are actions that lead to contemplation, and contemplation strives to achieve the serenity of the Consciousness that lifts one from the stress of common life. The Aagamas focus attention on the temple, as a pattern of rituals. We find in these texts descriptions of icons as visible symbols of divinity and details of worship with regard to them (archaa). Sometimes they expatiate on alternative accessory approaches such as Homa (fire rituals), Dhyaana (meditation exercises), Japa (Recitation) and Jnaana (intellectual appreciation of spiritual involvement).

The hold of the Aagamas though appear stronger in South Indian temples than in their North Indian counterparts, they play a very significant role in the worship procedures among the more celebrated temples in the North—Varanasi, Dwaraka, Kalighat, Puri Jagnnath, Kaamaakhya, Badri etc.

An enlightened devotee would have intuitionally apprehended the symbolism. He would therefore not mistake the human looking or physical looking icon for a mere human being or a solid block of stone, nor the temple for a mere building. Art in the temple will not distract him, and technical skill will not hold his attention. He floats over these pretensions and directly reaches the sanctum to receive grace. The pretensions and prejudices of modern mind can easily lead one astray without the thought of divine presence on entering the temple. Unless sincerity and humility are allowed to inspire the urge to understand, the understanding is bound to be defective and superficial.

Modern temples have introduced lot of things outside the divine purview of Aagamas in temple design. Despite its immensity and artistic profusion, the Gopuram on the gateway is not considered as an essential feature of the temple. It is unique to the South Indian temples. Neither the enclosing wall (praakaara) nor the gateway tower (dvaara gopura) figures prominently in the North Indian temples. Many temples are even devoid of the enclosing walls.

The Hindu temple has been an art gallery, economic institution, political power, social organization, crafts guild, fortress and refectory. All these have contributed to the decay of the temple as a spiritual institution. With the march of civilization, human perspective has changed and the temple has become a mere building and worse an office or bureaucratic institution. Despite all these distractions, a true devotee visits the temple regularly to have the vision of the Lord even if he is not allowed to spend few seconds at the sanctum or amidst the chaotic conditions prevailing around the sanctum in some celebrated temples. His thoughts focus around the only fact of the divine presence.

The priests who are professional performers of worship, backed by aagama saastra studies are the ones who are competent to compel the divine presence; others are only participants and beneficiaries. In the early periods, the sages like Sankaracharya, Ramanuja, Madhva, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa etc. installed the icons, and the divine presence was with them ever after. But in the present periods, this divine presence could be secured only by continuous worship and periodic festivals. The priest performs the worship ritual, not for his own sake but for the sake of devotees, unlike the worship at home. For the devotee worship at home is obligatory as nitya karma (daily ritual) while the visit to temple is obligatory. That is the reason why Hindu religion does not compel anyone to go to temple on a particular day of the week or time as in many other founded religions, and leaves it to his conveniences.

"Agnirdevoe dvijaateenaam muneenaam hridi daivataam; pratimaa svalpabudhdheenam sarvatra viditaatmanaaam"—God is in the fire for one who performs rituals; the learned find Him in the cavity of their own heart; a dull-witted one seeks God in an icon but those with higher understanding see God in everything".



This lecture has been prepared by N.R. Srinivasan for the Vedanta Class of Sri Ganesha Temple, Nashville based on the elaborate research work done by Prof. S.K. Ramachandra Rao, Kalpatharu Research Academy of Sringeri Sharada Peetham, Bangalore, and drawing additional help from the following publications:

  1. Robert & Roma Bradnock, India Handbook 2001, Footprint Handbooks, U.K.
  2. Swami Harshananda, Hindu Pilgrim Centers & Hindu Gods and Goddesses, Ramakrishna Math, Bangalore-560019.
  3. Chmpaka Lakshmi & Usha Kris, The Hindu Temples, Roli Books, New Delhi, India