I was part of an interesting discussion recently during my spiritual class: why is it that the Hindu temples are usually marked by crowds rushing, pushing and crushing each other, especially when the same crowd cam behave in a thoroughly civilised manner at a gurudwara, at a metro station and overseas. This discussion went on for quite a while, with most of us in the group accusing the Hindu devotees of being undisciplined.
Later in the evening, as the conversation continued to run through my mind, I remembered an interesting fact about historical and specifically religious architecture that I had read during the course of my newsletter writing work.
A look at ancient religions and architecture
In a paper published on religion and comparative architecture, I remember reading the distinction the researchers had made between the architecture of ancient cultures like Aztec and Mayan civilisations of Mexico, and the later Christian and Islamic architecture.
The paper stated that Aztec temples were built as tall towering mounds of stone, that were imposing from the ground level, and these temples had a special place at the top that was reserved for the priest and / or the royalty. Many of these ancient civilisations tend to trace the genealogy of the ruling family / priest directly from their gods and powerful spirits. These were civilisations that ruled with an iron hand, where the masses were usually poor farmers and were dependent on the king to protect their land and cattle. Here the places of worship made a clear distinction between the ‘chosen ones of god’ and the ordinary man. No ordinary man dared to cross these lines and climb up to the pedestal reserved for the king and the queen, the blessed ones.
Temple architecture creates space for the elite
The architecture of these civilisations clearly depicts the select elite and the masses. This distinction can also be seen in the structure of Hindu temples, where the sanctum is separated from ordinary devotees. At the heart of the temple, where the holy consecrated idol of the presiding deity is placed, only the appointed priests, the local nobility or trustees are allowed.
For the rest of us, the darshan has to be taken from a distance, with the area for the gods clearly cordoned off. In many ancient temples, the idols are placed in tiny, dimly lit spaces and the idol can only been seen in sections during the aarti (showing of the lamp to the god).
Church and mosque architecture: more democratic
In contrast to these places of worship, the Churches and mosques are more democratic in architecture. They typically comprise of tall entrances that open onto vast halls where large number of worshippers can pray at one go. In case of the Church, a large cross is usually placed at a height and can be viewed by church goers easily from all corners of the church. There is no need for them to rush to the front and queue up to see their Lord.
Here’s is what the Encyclopaedia Britannica says about the architecture of different places of worship.Temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues serve as places of worship and as shelters for the images, relics, and holy areas of the cult. In the older religions, the temple was not always designed for communal use. In ancient Egypt and India it was considered the residence of the deity, and entrance into the sanctum was prohibited or reserved for priests; in ancient Greece it contained an accessible cult image, but services were held outside the main facade; and in the ancient Near East and in the Mayan and Aztec architecture of ancient Mexico, where the temple was erected at the summit of pyramidal mounds, only privileged members of the community were allowed to approach.Few existing religions are so exclusive. Beliefs as dissimilar as Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, and Islam are based on communal participation in rites held inside each religion’s place of worship. The buildings have even evolved into similar plans, because of a common requirement that the maximum number of worshippers be able to face the focal point of the service (the mosque’s “point” is the wall facing the direction of Mecca, the city of Muhammad’s birth and therefore the most sacred of all Islamic religious sites).
The traditions continue into today
The architectural differences are telling remarks in stone how these different lines of worship have been conceptualised and not surprisingly, continue to be followed to this day. Today, the modern Hindu temple goer approaches these ancient temples and their ways of worship with his ideas of modern equality and a more liberal approach to gods and religion. Not surprisingly, here the process of waiting in the queues for the darshan, and the near chaos that follows in many popular temples, are unappealing to him. The fact is, these temples and their priests follow the traditional Hindu concept of religion and temples – where the god was for the elite and the chosen ones.
The rush, the pushing and pulling, the brief glimpses of the idol, the sense that we have had a beautiful darshan despite the crowds – all of these notions and ideas arise from the very initial idea of what the Hindu religion became during the brahmanical era – the religion of the learned few.
An insight, not a defense
This article does not aim or seek to argue whether this stance of the Hindu temples is correct, or otherwise. The purpose is to take a more analytical look at the customs and traditions that have been handed down through the generations, and better understand why certain things are done in a certain way.
Our traditions, mythologies and methods of worship emerge from our stories of origin and how we relate to our Gods. There can be no right or wrong way in doing that. It is merely a matter of understanding the relationship and being at peace with it. Comparing it to some other religion or some other way of worship is like your child coming home one day and saying, ‘Mom, you are too strict with me. I like the way K’s mom behaves with him. I wish you could be the same.’
It’s the child’s opinion based on what he has observed, he definitely has not stayed in that home or seen how that parent behaves under pressure. Each parent is usually right in their perspective of how they are bringing up their children: they seek to provide security, love, food, care and a better tomorrow for their family. Some parents are strict, others are liberal. And both of them can bring up equally beautiful and well-adjusted children.
In my opinion, religion, with its leaders and prophets are pretty much the same. They all want the best for their followers, they just have different rules and methods of discipline.
So the next time you are amidst chaos at a popular temple for a darshan, please don’t blame the other worshippers for being undisciplined. It is how we have been taught to relate to our gods – that we are being blessed to receive the darshan, that it is a gift to be cherished, and it’s not freely available. No wonder, there is a rush to receive the darshan.
~ Bharti Athray