What are your thoughts when you see a place of worship?
- Devotion and an involuntary prayer.
- Admiration for the aesthetics of the structure (if it is a grand one).
- Annoyance at the inconvenience it causes during important festivities and prayer times.
- The commercialization and corruption associated with it.
- Fear that it is a hub of fundamentalism.
- No reaction because it holds no significance in your scheme of things.
You are a devout person if your thoughts are restricted to the first and a lover of the arts if it is the second. (After all, some of the best architecture in the west and in India can be found in places of worship, like churches and temples.) If they are any, or all of the rest, you are part of a small section of the populace. Surprised that this forms just a small section? Just look at the increasing number of people who visit these places and who proudly proclaim their faith. Unlike other religious faiths, Hinduism has no hard and fast rules about going to a temple, and yet we see so many people at any temple, large, small or even a tiny wayside shrine. Not to mention the popularity of spiritual tourism that is being taken up in a big way.
Every morning I see a cross-section of people visit the small temple opposite my building. Just today I was pleasantly surprised to see a young man switch off his mobile as he entered the temple. For, present day youth might go without food but not without their phones, even for a moment! There are others: the young couple on their morning walk, who stop outside the gate to pray; the schoolchildren who run in for a quick darshan; the old man laboriously going round the deity with his walking stick; the mother-daughter duo who sit and pray quietly in one corner of the hall; the young professionals with their laptops slung across their shoulders; the college kids…
A temple serves many purposes: Groups of women assemble to hold bhajan and shloka classes during the day. Some come there for the colony gossip, some, to catch up with friends and for the atmosphere of cultural bonhomie it provides. Some take part in the religious duties with great devotion, cleaning the premises, getting the Prasad ready, and doing sundry other duties.
And then there is yours truly. In fact, I fell in love with this place because of this temple – so close and accessible. If someone had tried to make this the salient feature of a residence while renting a house to me in the past, I would have shrugged and perhaps given a cynical smile. You see, temples and I have never been on comfortable terms. From being a naïve school kid to the cynical teen to the all-knowing adult, who had no use for them, I have traversed the entire gamut of feelings about them.
While we hurried to school, we used to pass a small shrine dedicated to Hanuman. Depending on how late or early we were, we used to go round it, fold our hands and pray for a while or simply close our eyes for a nanosecond and rush on. On other occasions when I accompanied mother to temples, I was more interested in racing my friends who were similarly accompanying their parents.
And one particularly hot summer, during our school vacation, we had made the pilgrimage to Tirupati. As we climbed the Seven Hills and walked the jungle paths, we heard stories of the Deity, sang songs and heard the multitude of voices singing the praises of the Lord. After hours of standing in the serpentine queue, we were ushered into the sanctum sanctorum for the briefest of glimpses of the deity Balaji. I still remember the feeling, on coming face to face with the Lord – it was nothing short of electrifying. And if I can remember the feeling so many decades later, you can imagine the impact it had left on me at that tender age.
Growing up, I went through a phase of bitter cynicism, when I completely stopped visiting temples for the reasons I have listed at the outset. When I did, I picked and chose the ones I would go to, and these were often the smaller shrines and not the big ones which had turned commercial even back then. I liked the ones where I felt a sense of calm and peace – a part of the larger scheme of things and so felt grounded. I didn’t feel the urge to probe the reasons for this feeling. It included churches too, that is, when it was empty and quiet with just a few faithful ones communing with their Maker.
Why, I feel this sense of peace while sitting by the banks of Ganga. I like the times when the pilgrims are few – in the heat of the afternoon, when I have her all to myself as I like being alone with the Divine Presence. Nature at her pristine best offers peace and serenity no doubt, but somehow, I need a spiritual connection to find the solace I do. For instance, I loved the Thames, but couldn’t connect to it the way I do to Ganga or Godavari or any other river in our country, which we revere.
There are those who might argue that one need not seek God in temples, and that if He is omnipresent, we should be able to find Him everywhere, but it can’t be denied that places of worship have an invisible but palpable positive force, something I myself had refused to acknowledge for the most part of my adult life.
Consider the distinct shape and structure of these, be they of any religious faith – a Buddhist pagoda, a Hindu temple, a church, a mosque. Have you noticed the tapered structure at the top? This no doubt has something to do with the preservative powers of the pyramidal shape and the fields of energy it generates. If the ancient Egyptians used it to preserve their mummies, would it be any wonder that it can generate a positive energy in a place of worship where the hope and faith of the masses work?
It is interesting to note what Architect Norman L. Koonce says about sacred architecture: the goal of sacred architecture is to make “transparent the boundary between matter and mind, flesh and the spirit.”
Little wonder then that in the ongoing tussle between science and faith, the former has time and again had to accept defeat in the face of inexplicable and incontrovertible evidence. I have heard it said that the prayers get multiplied manifold if offered in a temple. Ample evidences of the miraculous power of prayers and faith – inexplicable medical recoveries and other such events have been chronicled over the years. And once I experienced this power, I have become a convert too.
Mass congregations of the faithful, as the Maha Kumbh, exude this energy, which has been explained beautifully here by my friend Srini. Likewise, I am sure that if someone were to measure the positive energy coursing through the dargah at Mecca during prayer times every day — when so many millions are sending their faith in that direction — it would come as a revelation.
And so, I rush to the temple every morning with the same eagerness of a child running to the playground or the enthusiasm of a new convert. I feel strangely listless when I am unable to go on some days. I am not sure I would have felt the same way had it not been so close to my house or if it had been a famous and/or commercialised one. But as of now, I have found my daily fix, which provides me with the strength to get through another day…
Lotus Temple: spirittourism.com