Temple as the Source of Culture
By consciously connecting the home shrine to the temple, the family sustains tradition and strengthens relationships
BY SATGURU BODHINATHA VEYLANSWAMI
FOR SOME TWENTY-FIVE YEARS, FROM ABOUT 1975 to 2001, HINDUISM TODAY’S founder, Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami, was instrumental in helping temples get established. Gurudeva guided 37 temples in the United States, Canada, Guadeloupe, Denmark, England, Fiji, Germany, Mauritius, New Zealand, Reunion, Russia, Sweden and Sri Lanka—giving each community or temple an icon of God, usually Lord Ganesha, and guidance when needed. He also helped dozens more temples by sharing his global experience and understanding of community building or by publicizing their project in HINDUISM TODAY.
Why did Gurudeva devote so much energy to helping establish the temples of organizations with no formal ties to his own? He did it because of a strong conviction that it is the temple that perpetuates Hindu culture. As he explained, if Hindus move to a country and do not build a temple, after a few generations their precious culture will have been lost.
At a satsang held in July 2000, a devotee asked Gurudeva: “What’s happening to Hindu culture? It seems in Bollywood, actors and actresses are turning Western and encouraging everyone else to do so. Will Hindu culture, or Indian culture, last very long after this?”
Gurudeva responded: “We can see in the world today that combative culture—where people do not get along but sometimes pretend to get along when they do not get along—comes from the offices and the factories and the nonreligious activities. Indian culture may be going down in India, but it is definitely coming up in the West because of the worship within the temples. It’s our relationship with God, the Gods and the Goddesses that establishes our relationship with men, women and children. Culture comes from being sensitive to other people’s feelings as we are sensitive within the temple to the feelings of the Gods and the vibration emanating from the inner sanctum. Without religion in one’s life and the practice of that religion in the home shrine, in the temple, and pilgrimage once a year to a far-off place, culture quickly fails and the competitive culture comes into play.”
He continued, “While there are many that are trying to bring the best of the West to the Far East, there are still in the West many who are trying to bring the best of the Far East into the West. As long as religion and worship and the practice of pilgrimage and all the refinements of our great religion are present, culture will be there.”
The Hindu temple can act as a powerful spiritual hub that radiates out Hindu culture and devotional practices into the homes of families who attend regularly, at least once a week. The process of strengthening culture can happen on a number of levels.
The most basic is simply learning and following the many traditions and protocols associated with visiting a temple. No devout Hindu will approach the sacred home of God without proper preparation. The simple necessities include a bath, donning clean clothes and preparing an offering tray, whether simple on a normal day or elaborate for a festival. These acts are all important parts of temple-going.
On arrival we need to wash our feet and handle shoes in the specified way. Then the customary prostrations to the Deities, followed by circumambulation and presenting our offerings with a loving heart. When attending puja, men and women may be required to sit on separate sides of the mandapam. At key points throughout the rites we pray and respond in specific ways. As children follow the parents’ traditional protocols, they develop an appreciation for worship and sacred objects, respect for elders, an understanding of the importance of physical cleanliness and mental purity, and a fondness for familial and communal devotion.
After years of such practice, essential character qualities, such as humility and devotion, can deepen. Devotion here means love of God. These qualities, which are present in every cultured Hindu, may not develop in an individual growing up in the West unless he or she participates in regular worship.
The second level of the temple’s influence on the home begins when a shrine is established in the home and worshiped at daily. Wherever possible, it should be a separate room, not in a cabinet or on a shelf. Such a dedicated space makes everyone living in the home think more about God, reflect more on their behavior and be less inclined to become angry or argue, as they are living in God’s presence.
Going to the temple every week can actually bring some of the temple’s sanctity into the shrine room. My guru taught that lighting an oil lamp in the shine room after coming home from the temple brings the temple’s shakti into your home. That devotional act brings devas who were at the temple into the home shrine, where, from the inner world, they can bless the family and protect the home.
The temple’s third level of cultural influence begins when a family member, generally the father, performs regular puja in the home. In a sense, he becomes the family priest, emulating the temple priests while following a simpler, non-public liturgy known as atmartha puja. Such a full puja done daily steadily strengthens the home’s religious vibration.
Quite fittingly, the structure of the puja ceremony arises from the magnanimous spirit of hospitality for which Hindu culture is famous. All guests are received and treated as God, and God is no exception. During this daily morning puja rite, family members gather in their well-appointed shrine room to honor God as their royal guest. They receive Him warmly, offer a seat, serve water to quench His thirst, bathe and dress Him in beautiful clothes, burn the finest incense for His enjoyment, honor Him with light, flowers, chanting and offerings of food. It is an intimate, personal interaction. Throughout the puja, the officiant chants sweetly to the Deity in Sanskrit, describing these kindly acts and beseeching His blessings. Finally, the pujari thanks the Deity for His presence, bids Him farewell and humbly apologizes for any errors he may have unknowingly committed.
The fourth level of temple influence on the home begins when the shrine is strong enough that we feel that the main Deity of the shrine, for example Lord Siva or Lord Venkateshwara, is the head of the house. When that happens, we would never think of having a meal without first offering a portion to God. We would naturally want to always worship God, even if briefly, before leaving the home and upon returning.
For Hindu culture to strengthen the home to this extent, the entire family needs to be involved. To illustrate, let me share a story. One of our devotees was responsible for the Sunday morning Hinduism classes for a group in Singapore. He found that parents would commonly drop the children off, go shopping for two hours, return and pick them up, all the while expecting the teachers to make their children better Hindus. Though this approach works for learning the fine arts, such as dancing or playing an instrument, it does not work for Hinduism.
The difference is this. For children to learn dance or music, the parents need not know how to dance or play the instrument. However, for Hinduism to be learned, it is necessary for the whole family to practice it together. This is because Hinduism is an all-encompassing spiritual way of life, informing every aspect of the family’s daily and weekly routine, and not just in the shrine room. Having the children study Hinduism at the temple is important. But if the parents are also involved in the study, there is much greater potential for actually augmenting Hindu culture and religious conversations in the home. In fact, some Hindu groups will not accept children into classes unless the parents also enroll in a parallel study for adults.
I like to compare Hindu temples to an electrical distribution system. On the remote Hawaiian island of Kauai, where we live, there is one main electrical generating plant with power lines to five distribution substations to which customers in each region are connected. This can be likened to a ray of spiritual energy coming from the celestial worlds (electrical plant) to five temples (substations), each with a connection which powers the homes of devotees who worship there regularly (customers). The electricity lights up the house and empowers all sorts of appliances. The energy from the temple illumines the family’s path and enlivens the culture.
God in the home: Each day in this Saivite shrine room, God Siva is worshiped as Nataraja, Lord of the Divine Dance. By lighting a simple oil lamp after coming home from the temple, the family forges subtle connections which sustain and uplift all in the home.
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