Abhishekham Out-flows are Sacred; Treat them with Respect
(Compilation for a discourse by N. R. Srinivasan, Nashville<, TN, February 2014)
“Abhishekam is an elaborate Hindu bathing ceremony of the chosen deity in water, milk, honey, ghee, fruit juice, Panchamritam (Five-in-one nectar), sugar and other liquids and solids. This resulting mixture after the ceremony is intended to be served as prasaadam (blessed food) to the devotees who offer their prayers. The pouring of these liquids on the deity is watched with reverence by all devotees gathered and this symbolizes the pouring of a devotee’s purest love for God. Performing this ceremony, with a pure mind, faith and conviction is believed to result in washing away of sins and purification of the devotee’s own heart and mind” says a topic on the subject in the Internet. Orthodoxy insists on Aachaara (cleaning with water all the utensils) in the worship. If you closely observe an ideal Abhisheka the first runs on the deity smeared with oil are with warm water as initial body cleaning. Over a period Aagama worship codes have introduced a number of items like oil, honey, sugar, yogurt, tender cocoanut water as well as panchamritam (a five in one pudding) for Abhishekam. It is customary to collect only the final runs through the body for distribution as Prasaadam. In olden days the effluent generated used to be let into to temple agricultural lands or fed to temple cows.
It is necessary to take proper care for the disposal of the religious effluent generated like what we do for clay Ganesha visarjan or paalika visarjan (a sacred ceremony honoring plant kingdom and fertility) etc. after rituals. The prescribed procedure was to make these idols from river bed clay and return back the clay after worship with the disinfectants used on it like turmeric, vermilion, holy ashes etc. As you know the clay Ganesha we buy from the market is considered as an art piece. It imbibes sanctity by simple consecration ceremony for ten days at home and temples, and then sent out with another ceremony called visarjan. I am not sure whether there are any Mantras in the Aagasmas for this. I know the households simply dump the clay model in waters saying Ganapati Bappa moriya or Ganeaha nee Poriya! This is an important ceremony for Maharashtrians and Tamils. Before starting our Abhishekam we do sthala suddhi (cleaning the space with holy water) and also invoke seven holy rivers into the Abhishekam waters. We take all the care for the materials that goes into Abhisheka ceremony. It is equally important to take proper care of the sacred effluents that come out of the body of the Lord! At present no attention is given to these effluents. I am not sure whether there are any prescribed mantras or Aagama codes for collecting the Abhisheka Visarjans (Religious Effluents) to deconsecrate and send it to sewers or other means of disposal! Vedas say annam na nindyaat, don’t abuse food and discharged Abhisheka constituents are all sacred food. Hindus go to the other extreme in their devotion during worship. Often people out of ignorance enjoy as Prasaadam, the cocoanut pieces coming from smashing of the cocoanut on the ground (not hygienic food) for warding off all evils before the start of Lord’s procession. This is against Hindu Aachaara (code of cleanliness) as cocoanuts for worship are washed and broken in front of the deity on clean stone and then offered to the deity in the sanctum and not broken on the walking pathway. Devotees also enjoy the eatables like Vada, fruits and butter on Hanuman and Modakam and butter on Lord Ganesha used as garland and smeared during worship as vara-prasaadam (boon of the blessed food) however contaminated it may be. I have seen rats running around Garbagriha in India enjoying food on Ganesha! Devotees just ignore and receive the blessed food. Now-a-days these Abhisheka waters and food materials used on Lord for bathing are not distributed as Prasaadam for fear of health regulations and are invariably discharged into municipal sewers and thus unknowingly abused combining them with human refuses. No thought has been focused on this aspect and tons of materials are discharged into sewers almost every week in all Hindu temples of America. It is much worse and deplorable in India. But nobody can appeal to the senses of religiously blind Hindus in India. Therefore some thought has been given to find out ways and means of overcoming the problem, as Hindu Americans are drawn from enlightened society unlike the mass illiterates going to temple in India with blind faith who refuse to recognize all abuses in and around the temple.
I have seen the famous icons of Kerala Aiyappan and Krishna in Guruvayur are comparably small or miniature in size and so consume less of Abhishekam materials. On the other hand in Tamil Nadu icons are huge like the icon of Parthasarathy, 32 feet Hanuman in Nanganallur and Ranganatha in Srirangam. Also in Karnataka I have seen huge icons of Ranganatha in Srirangapatna, Basava and Hanuman in Bangalore. It will be a good idea to keep the icons small to conserve food. But one of the English writers wrote about small Ganesha idol: “What a magnificent temple is there for such a ludicrous figure!”
Vishnu Dharma purana says: Abhishiktantu yacchoornam Vishnu-bimbetu yo narah | Haaridram Dhaara- yennityam so-asvamedhaphalam labhet ||
If one performs Abhisheka to the icon of Vishnu and applies Sricharanam (tilak) he will derive the same benefits as of having performed Aswamedha Sacrifice.
Devotees go overboard in performing this colorful ritual at least once a week in all Hindu temples. American Hindu temples do not lag behind being rich and affluent.
This mode of worship draws its inspiration from Bhagavadgeeta—“Patram, pushpam, phalam, toyam yo may bhktya prayachchati” . One fruit, one flower, one leaf and little water with lots of devotion, was Lord Krishna’s recommendation. These are the materials used in 16-steps pooja (worship). It is unfortunate many devotees on the other hand concentrate more on all these materials and little on Bhakti. Temples have to satisfy the religious hunger of these devotees; so the materials overflow the drains and find their way to effluent sewers. In the process we are disrespecting and abusing the Prasaadam (blessed materials), not being properly channeled. These materials achieve the status of prasaadam after they run through the body of the deity. Abhishekam is done with rich nutrient and healthy products like oil, honey, yogurt,sugar, milk, panchaamritam etc.
Over a period this ritual has become more elaborate with more material application and time consuming, chanting whole Purushasooktam or Srisooktam in Vaishnavite Temples or Srirudram, Chamakam and Durgasooktam in Saivite temples during the entire ritual. In between, these sooktas are kept on hold temporarily and other Veda mantras are chanted at each application of the materials like sandal paste, honey, ghee, yogurt, tender coconut water, panchaamrita etc. These mantras for application of materials on the deity have no reference in the Vedas but mantras containing the words Gandha (Sandal Paste), Madhu (Honey), Dadhi (yogurt), Ghritam (Ghee) etc. have been picked though these mantras have deeper meaning and are just picked randomly and not related to the specific offering. Please go through my discourses on Shoedas Upachaara Poojaa Vidhanam as well as Some Veda Mantras used in Hindu Worship and Rituals describing these stage-wise applications of materials on the deity and corresponding mantras. This in turn has necessitated employing large quantities of these materials on the more often than not huge icons needing large amount of materials and problems connected with their disposal. Devotees also like to see the icon fully bedecked with the materials to appear in the color of the material applied to the accompaniment of waving of lamps to see the visible form of the black icon in the color of the material applied. Every icon is made to look like crystal Linga by over-coating the icon with large amount of the material.
In olden days, these products after Abhisheka were collected and absorbed in the temple soil that helped bio-degradation and served as soil nutrients to feed the earthworms, ants and plants. They were often drained to collecting cement tubs with naked soil bottom for draining out. This was considered as one of the Yagnas (sacrifice) called Bootha yagna, in serving God’s creations. Often they were manually collected and fed to cows with rice husk. In America they invariably drain the waste into sewer system and also in India now-a-days. It was also customary to distribute Abhishekam liquids handled clean after worship which devotees used to consume with reverence as Abhisheka teertha prasaadam. This practice is given up in America to comply with health regulations but still many temples do in India.
Abhishekam is one of the favored and colorful paid services of the temple which has been made very elaborate to attract crowds. It is often performed on behalf individuals to fulfill their vows as a scheduled worship with a premium. Besides, temples on their own also conduct it once a week as scheduled worship attracting large gatherings. This is a good source of income to the temple coffers.
Please recall my remarks about the outburst of a young Hindu American boy questioning his father watching Abhisheka on Lord Ganesha: “Dad, why do we have to waste so much milk on Lord and send it to sewers? Why not feed the poor? Dad silenced but I do not whether he explained convincingly the inquiring mind! It is worth going through here the Internet message of www.livinghindu.com drawing the attention of American Hindus. This write up has gone into the details of pros and cons of such a large wasteful material generating ritual overloading the sewers and wasting valuable nutrient food which could very well be diverted to feed the hungry which I would not like to repeat. It also says how cruel it is to use milk got from cows to be used in Abhishekam in countries like USA where cows are reared for meat for short term. It also suggests he use of alternate milks like Almond milk for Abhishekam. At the same time the message respects the sentiments of Hindu religious devotees and has given some suggestions which would not go against the Saastric injunctions and gives scope to keep all the steps of the ritual along with mantras to be chanted in totality from religious point of view. I would however like to add that in my days it was a common seen to watch a milkman milking the cows with a skin stuffed dummy calf placed before cow cheating it as if its real calf to squeeze maximum milk from the cow whose calf had died early. One could also witness the cruelty with which the calf was dragged and tied when the udder got filled with milk. It was also common to find the male calves were starved to death while female calf was somewhat reared. So Hindus were not saints, as they enjoyed that milk and offered the same to Gods also. There had been a revolution in the dairy industry in present days and so you do not openly come across such cruelty to mother cow and calf.
As a religious devotee with spiritual inclinations on such topics I would like to bring the following facts studying present conditions in India.
1. It has been found not practical and feasible for carrying out elaborate Abhisheka for 56 feet Gomateswara in Karnataka even once a year and so they do it as Mahaamastakaabhisheka once in 12 years. Other days Abhisheka is done to his feet which attracts huge gatherings. This statue suffered cracks but was repaired and worship continues. Normally such cracked icons are discarded in Hinduism as not fit for worship. Salagramas can be worshiped even if cracked. Vishnupada Abhisheka in Vishnu temples is quite common and the sacred feet washed water is served as Vishnu paadodakam (sacred feet water of Vishnu) and Prasaadam. Srirama Temple in Greater Kailash in Delhi has a sanctum for Vishnupadas where worship is conducted every evening. It will be a good idea if routine Abhishekam is done on Vishnupadas only, while Abhiashekam on huge deities are restricted to the Annual event of Brahmotsava. It is also a sacred gesture to install Vishnupadas in all sanctums of Vishnu for worship to conserve Abhisheka materials flowing to the drain while distributing the excess material brought in to food trust. Small quantities of outflow materials are easier to manage and divert to plants.
2. It is not practical to do Abhisheka to Lord Jagannath being a wooden icon and therefore Abhisheka is carried out on the mirror image of Lord Jagannath regularly and also when special Abhisheka is requested by individual performers. That sacred water is distributed as Prasaadam.
3. In Melukote in Karnataka where Ramanuja spent lot of time doing Pooja, the stone icon is so worn out due to excessive Abhisheka, they have stopped all routine and scheduled Abhishekam on the Moolavigraha (Stone deity) and do it only once during Brahmostava annually. They fear this naturally found sacred icon may crumple at any time if proper care is not taken. Abhisheka for desired devotees are done on the processional deity only.
4. There are also some Moola Vigrahas (presiding main deity) sculpted out of wood in Tamil Nadu on which no Abhishekam is not done.
Abhisheka on Salagrama is considered more sacred than Abhisheka on the consecrated idol. Salagramas need not undergo consecration because of the embedded sacredness. Therefore it would be a great religious idea to conduct Abhishekam on Salagrama and or the processional icons symbolically to limit the waste and divert the excess collected material to feed the needy after worship creating a food Bank to adjust to the present day conditions without lessening the ritualistic aspects or effectiveness of Mantras. We could follow the foot-steps of the celebrated pilgrimage center Melkote (Tirunarayana puram) in the South and Puri Jagannath in the East. This is easy in Vishnu and Siva temples. I understand that there are also Salagramas of Ganesha and Devis. In Mangalore Devi is worshiped in Linga (Vykta-avyakta form) form as also as natural stone in Assam, Koormavaraha in Simhachalam and other places where customary large icons are not seen.
We cannot change the Hindu ritualistic practices in India with the overwhelming orthodoxy and conservative and authoritative thinking. Certainly as Hindu Americans we can bring out a change understanding the wisdom contained in Veda Mantras. This requires heart searching, deep thinking and calm discussions with temple authorities to gradually bring a change and divert the excessive materials collected to food bank without over-discharging on the icon keeping to their minimum use in rituals. We cannot totally avoid waste but we can keep it to the minimum. Ati sarvatra varjayet says a Sanskrit proverb—avoid excessive stps at all times.
Abhishekam over a period has moved away from simple Saalagrama Abhishekam to elaborate ritual packed with Veda mantras. Purushasooktam, Rudram, Chamakam, and Srisooktam are all chanted with intonations during Abhishekam to raise the spirit of devotees to divine heights. This needs long hours chanting. To keep the audience thrilled witnessing Abhishekam focused on deity the whole ritual is made more colorful and dramatic by sequential pouring of food materials of choice and applying sandal paste and vermilion in between and waving the lamps often in between following Aagama guides. This is very elaborate and overdone in South Indian temples. These are intended to take the devotee to devotional heights and climax. In this act of over-enthusiasm and outward expression of devotion devotees concentrate only what is served on the deity for the sacred bath and never think of what and how it drains out of the icon and find its way to the sewers. Then it is no exaggeration that tons and tons of materials are drained to the sewers without feeling the sinful act committed abusing the essential food and discarding the food disregarding the Veda mantras “annam na parichakshaeeta”—do not disregard food and “Annam na nindayaat”—don’t abuse food.
It is true that we cannot curb the devotional spirit of the crowds and refuse large quantities of materials they bring in, but at the same time we cannot also drain the sacred effluents to sewers. If we can’t think of the alternatives to partly distribute as prasadam and manually discharge the sacred effluent generated on to the temple greenery or landfill, we should think of suitable religious effluent waste treatment. It is as important as industrial waste water treatment being a necessary social obligation. As I have once mentioned before, our best saviors are eucalyptus trees. They are the water thirsty and soil pollutant drainers. They can even extract gold from soil and carry it to leaves as I had explained in my discourse on Christmas Lighting. It will be a good idea to develop small patch of land with eucalyptus trees on temple grounds as well as Esparto grass, collect the religious effluents in a tank and pump them on to the plantation diluting with more water. In my own experience I have planned such treatment plants for industrial effluents. There it needed some chemical treatment, pH balancing and dilution before discharge on to the crops. The grass so generated was found edible as normal fodder grass after elaborate testing and approval by the government regulatory agencies. This will also comply with the mandate of the Vedas Vanas-pathayah Santih contributing to greenery preservation. Of course there are other well-known waste water treatment on exclusive basis by drying and incinerating the sludge without letting into common sewers.
Taittareeya Upanishad says: Annam na nindyaat --Don’t abuse food; annam na parichaksheeta— One should not discard food; annam bahu kurveeta—one should make (conserve) food in plenty; na kanchana vastau pratyaachaksheeta—one should not refuse shelter to anyone who has come for it; etad vratam—this is a vow enjoined on that individual -- These are the mandatory mantras to be contemplated on food as if on Supreme Principal says, Taittareeya Upanishad. We will be complying with these if we treat the effluents properly and divert them to the soil as nutrients. We will be discharging our religious obligations much better by our thoughtful approach on this popular ritual without offending our scriptures listening to these Vedic mantras and understanding their implied meanings while keeping up to our present day religious practices.
1. Anantha Rangacharya, Principal Upanishads, Vol. 1, Bengluru, India.
2. Abhishekam, www.livinghindu.com, Internet
3. Ramananda Prasad, The Bhagavad Geeta, American Gita Society, Fremont, CA, USA
4. Varadaraja Tirumale, Veda Maarga, Sri LakshmiHayagreeva Seva Trust, Bengaluru, India
[This is a prepared lecture compiled from above references and others for a discourse at Sri Ganesha Temple, Nashville and to benefit those who are not able to attend the same in person. You are free to download and use it for your reading and reference as well as circulate to others to spread the wisdom of Vedas and Hindu values which good act will be appreciated.]