A guide to the complexities of Deity images in Hindu temples and the nature of our temple consecration rites
Recently I gave a talk at the Maha Kumbhabhishekam for the Enfield Nagapooshani Ambaal Temple in London. Since many present at the event were new to Hinduism, I began with a basic introduction to the temple itself. Here is my message.
One’s first visit to a Hindu temple can easily give the impression that Hinduism has a multiplicity of Supreme Gods. That can be a natural assumption, given the many shrines and holy images one encounters. However, it is not correct. While Hindus do believe in many Divinities, all believe in a One Supreme Being. A verse from Hinduism’s oldest scripture, the Rig Veda, is often quoted to express this idea. In Sanskrit it states: “Ekam Sat, viprah bahudha vadanti,”and in English it reads “Truth is One; sages describe it variously.”
In a Hindu temple it is not uncommon for the Supreme Being to have more than one shrine. In each of these shrines God is depicted in a different way, such as male, female, both male and female, dancing or blessing. At the Enfield temple, in the main shrine we encounter the Supreme Being in the form of the Goddess Nagapooshani Ambaal, following a tradition from Nainativu, an island near Sri Lanka’s northern peninsula. In this London temple, the Supreme Being is represented in four other forms as well: Sivalingam, Lord Nataraja, Dakshinamurti and Bhairava. We might find a parallel in a Christian church where Jesus is worshiped on the cross, in a manger and with the apostles. Jesus is a one Lord, but with different forms and meanings. Seeing his multiple images, we do not conclude there are multiple Christian Lords.
Like the Abrahamic religions, Hinduism believes God has created great divine beings to perform various functions. The Abrahamic traditions call these archangels; Hindus call them Lords, Divinities or Gods—while not mistaking them for God! Most Hindu temples have side shrines dedicated to some of these great beings. The Enfield temple, for example, contains shrines to Lords Ganesha, Muruga and Anjaneyar. These divine beings are secondary to the main Deity, just as archangels, such as St. Michael, are secondary to the Supreme Being in Abrahamic faiths.
Over fifty churches in the greater London area are named St. Michael’s Church. Who is St. Michael? He is not, in fact, a saint but the chief among angels, patron of warriors, mariners and the suffering. Three other archangels—Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel—are often glorified; London has churches dedicated to both Raphael and Gabriel. Some Jewish traditions recognize as many as ten archangels. These beings, like the Hindu Divinities, function as helpers of God, fulfilling specific responsibilities. A Christian or Jew worshiping St. Michael or Mother Mary is not worshiping a second Supreme God, but rather an elevated being who enjoys God’s grace. Similarly, in a Hindu temple we have a one God, but many blessed and heavenly Divinities, helpers of the Creator of all.
In understanding the nature of God and Divinities in the Hindu temple, there is a third factor to consider. The Hindu religion is not a single, homogenous faith; it is a complex family of faiths that, while similar, are also different one from the other.
Most obviously, the three main denominations worship the Supreme Being by a different name. To Saivites, God is Siva. To Vaishnavites, God is Vishnu; and Shaktas venerate the Supreme as Shakti. In many temples, especially in the diaspora, these traditions overlap. Thus, in the Enfield temple, which is of the Saiva denomination, there is a major shrine to Lord Vishnu, the form of the Supreme Being worshiped by Hindus of the Vaishnava denomination. While this presence of seemingly distinct Supreme Gods can confound outsiders, Hindus know what is being represented, and rather enjoy the inclusivity of it all. There are few sharp lines in this elastic, all-embracing family of faiths. At the same time, the strictest of Vaishnavites would not have an image of Siva in their temple, and the most traditional of Saivites would never allow a Krishna in theirs.
This blending has been fostered by Hinduism’s fourth major denomination, the prominent Smarta Sampradaya. This liberal Hindu stream of philosophy, culture and tradition brings together, on personal altars and in public temples, all three major forms of the Supreme Being—Vishnu, Siva and Shakti—as well as secondary Divinities, especially Ganesha, Surya and Muruga. All are seen as equal reflections of the one Saguna Brahman, and any one of them may be worshiped as the Supreme Being. In some temples following this ultra-inclusive pattern, one may even find altars to Jesus, Mother Mary, Mohammed or Buddha.
Another subtlety Hindus enjoy that could confound non-Hindus regards gender. While philosophically God is beyond gender, He/She is commonly represented as male or as female, or both. Hence the Goddess is revered not only in Shaktism, but in Vaishnavism and in Saivism as well, though by different names and personalities. This is the subtle explanation behind the Supreme Being in the Enfield Temple being worshiped in the personage of Nagapooshani Ambaal (Shakti), surrounded by various forms of Siva, including Nataraja and Sivalingam. Despite the separate shrines, Shakti/Siva are philosophically understood as one and inseparable.
The Consecration Rites
Our second topic is the nature of the ceremony that is performed to give life and spiritual power to a temple. In Sanskrit it is called kumbhabhishekam, a term sometime preceded by maha, meaning “great.” Kumbhabhishekam is the combination of the two words kumbha, a water vessel, and abhishekam, the rite of pouring kumbhas filled with sanctified water over the copper spires (which resemble inverted kumbhas) on the crown of the temple. Kumbhabhishekam names the formal inauguration of a new temple and its periodic reconsecration, usually at twelve-year intervals, following renovation, extensive cleaning and renewal.
The English term for such a ceremony is consecration, meaning “to make sacred.” For such a blessing to be holy, God’s presence must be invoked. At a mahakumbhabhishekam, this is done through priestly disciplines and sacred fire ceremonies called homa or yajna, conducted in a temporary structure called a yagasala built just for that purpose. Fire is used in many religions in one form or another. In Hinduism it is believed that fire can be seen in the heavenly inner worlds. By lighting a fire, intoning sacred chants and ringing a bell, we invite benevolent inner-world beings to come and bless all present. These blessings build in intensity and accumulate over a number of days in the water pots near each sacred fire. On the final day, the water in the pots is poured over the temple spire and bathes the various Deities and objects being made sacred. This holy ablution occurs at the high point of the ceremony. It is preceded by days of ceremonies and followed by a month of special daily rituals.
Significance of Deity Images
Our third topic is the use of statues in Hindu worship. As part of the kumbhabhishekam ceremonies, all the statues that are being installed in the shrines are purified and infused with divine energy. Thereafter, the statue is considered a murti, an image that has been made worthy of worship and in which the Deity is present. In other words, the great inner-world being uses the image as a temporary physical body through which He/She blesses the devotees present. Thus we can see that Hindus are not worshiping the icon itself. They are worshiping the holy Deity within it. Though many regard the image simply as a symbol for God, the most devout and mystical regard it as God Himself or Herself.
The priestly rituals are based squarely on the principle of invocation: beseeching conscious, intelligent, compassionate higher powers in the inner worlds. Hinduism recognizes multiple planes of existence, unseen worlds filled with souls of all stages of evolution. We experience these subtle, nonphysical dimensions of being in our thoughts and emotions all the time. During sleep, we leave the physical world and become fully active in unseen realms. At death we shed our physical body and reside in the inner planes until we are again born in a physical body.