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The Hindu Temple - Where Man Becomes God
Article of the Month - May 2003 by Nitin Kumar Email the author

Ancient Indian thought divides time into four different periods. These durations are referred to as the Krta; Treta; Dvapara; and Kali.

The first of these divisions (Krta), is also known as satya-yuga, or the Age of Truth. This was a golden age without envy, malice or deceit, characterized by righteousness. All people belonged to one caste, and there was only one god who lived amongst the humans as one of them.

In the next span (Treta-yuga), the righteousness of the previous age decreased by one fourth. The chief virtue of this age was knowledge. The presence of gods was scarce and they descended to earth only when men invoked them in rituals and sacrifices. These deities were recognizable by all.

In the third great division of time, righteousness existed only in half measure of that in the first division. Disease, misery and the castes came into existence in this age. The gods multiplied. Men made their own images, worshipped them, and the divinities would come down in disguised forms. But these disguised deities were recognizable only by that specific worshipper.

Kali-yuga is the present age of mankind in which we live, the first three ages having already elapsed. It is believed that this age began at midnight between February 17 and 18, 3102 B.C. Righteousness is now one-tenth of that in the first age. True worship and sacrifice are now lost. It is a time of anger, lust, passion, pride, and discord. There is an excessive preoccupation with things material and sexual.

Hindu Priests in Temple

 

 

Temples appeared on the horizon only in the Kali-yuga. During this existing last phase, temples (as public shrines), began to be built and icons installed. But the gods ceased to come down and appear in their own or disguised forms. However, their presence could be felt when the icons were properly enshrined, and the temples correctly built. In contrast to the previous periods when the gods were available to all equally, now it is only the priests, belonging to a traditional hierarchy of professional worshippers, who are the competent individuals to compel this presence.

 

 

 

From the contemporary point of view, temples act as safe haven where ordinary mortals like us can feel themselves free from the constant vagaries of everyday existence, and communicate personally with god. But our age is individualistic if nothing else. Each of us requires our own conception of the deity based on our individual cultural rooting. In this context it is interesting to observe that the word ‘temple,’ and ‘contemplate’ both share the same origin from the Roman word ‘templum,’ which means a sacred enclosure. Indeed, strictly speaking, where there is no contemplation, there is no temple. It is an irony of our age that this individualistic contemplative factor, associated with a temple, is taken to be its highest positive virtue, while according to the fact of legend it is but a limitation which arose due to our continuous spiritual impoverishment over the ages. We have lost the divine who resided amongst us (Krta Yuga), which is the same as saying that once man was divine himself.

But this is not to belittle the importance of the temple as a center for spiritual nourishment in our present context, rather an affirmation of their invaluable significance in providing succour to the modern man in an environment and manner that suits the typical requirements of the age in which we exist.

Making of the Temple

The first step towards the construction of a temple is the selection of land. Even though any land may be considered suitable provided the necessary rituals are performed for its sanctification, the ancient texts nevertheless have the following to say in this matter: “The gods always play where groves, rivers, mountains and springs are near, and in towns with pleasure gardens.” Not surprisingly thus, many of India’s ancient surviving temples can be seen to have been built in lush valleys or groves, where the environment is thought to be particularly suitable for building a residence for the gods.

No matter where it is situated, one essential factor for the existence of a temple is water. Water is considered a purifying element in all major traditions of the world, and if not available in reality, it must be present in at least a symbolic representation in the Hindu temple. Water, the purifying, fertilizing element being present, its current, which is the river of life, can be forded into inner realization and the pilgrim can cross over to the other shore (metaphysical).

The practical preparations for building a temple are invested with great ritual significance and magical fertility symbolism. The prospective site is first inspected for the ‘type,’ of the soil it contains. This includes determining its color and smell. Each of these defining characteristics is divided into four categories, which are then further associated with one of the four castes:

- White Soil: Brahmin
- Red Soil: Kshatriya (warrior caste)
- Yellow Soil: Vaishya
- Black Soil: Shudra

Similarly for the smell and taste:

- Sweet: Brahmin
- Sour: Kshatriya
- Bitter: Vaishya
- Astringent: Shudra (a reminder perhaps of the raw-deal which they have often been given in life)

The color and taste of the soil determines the “caste” of the temple, i.e., the social group to which it will be particularly favourable. Thus the patron of the temple can choose an auspicious site specifically favourable to himself and his social environment.

After these preliminary investigations, the selected ground needs to be tilled and levelled:

Tilling: When the ground is tilled and ploughed, the past ceases to count; new life is entrusted to the soil and another cycle of production begins, an assurance that the rhythm of nature has not been interfered with. Before laying of the actual foundation, the Earth Goddess herself is impregnated in a symbolic process known as ankura-arpana, ankura meaning seed and arpana signifying offering. In this process, a seed is planted at the selected site on an auspicious day and its germination is observed after a few days. If the growth is satisfactory, the land is deemed suitable for the temple. The germination of the seed is a metaphor for the fulfilment of the inherent potentialities which lie hidden in Mother Earth, and which by extension are now transferred to the sacred structure destined to come over it.

Levelling: It is extremely important that the ground from which the temple is to rise is regarded as being throughout an equal intellectual plane, which is the significance behind the levelling of the land. It is also an indication that order has been established in a wild, unruly, and errant world.

Now that the earth has been ploughed, tilled and levelled, it is ready for the drawing of the vastu-purusha mandala, the metaphysical plan of the temple.

The Metaphysical Architecture of the Temple

The Sure Way to NirvanaThe basic plan of a Hindu temple is an expression of sacred geometry where the temple is visualized as a grand mandala. By sacred geometry we mean a science which has as its purpose the accurate laying out of the temple ground plan in relation to the cardinal directions and the heavens. Characteristically, a mandala is a sacred shape consisting of the intersection of a circle and a square.

The square shape is symbolic of earth, signifying the four directions which bind and define it. Indeed, in Hindu thought whatever concerns terrestrial life is governed by the number four (four castes; the four Vedas etc.). Similarly, the circle is logically the perfect metaphor for heaven since it is a perfect shape, without beginning or end, signifying timelessness and eternity, a characteristically divine attribute. Thus a mandala (and by extension the temple) is the meeting ground of heaven and earth.

These considerations make the actual preparation of the site and laying of the foundation doubly important. Understandably, the whole process is heavily immersed in rituals right from the selection of the site to the actual beginning of construction. Indeed, it continues to be a custom in India that whenever a building is sought to be constructed, the area on which it first comes up is ceremonially propitiated. The idea being that the extent of the earth necessary for such construction must be reclaimed from the gods and goblins that own and inhabit that area. This ritual is known as the ‘pacification of the site.’ There is an interesting legend behind it:

Vastu PurushaOnce when Shiva was engaged in a fierce battle with the demon Andhaka, a drop of sweat fell from Shiva’s forehead to the ground, accompanied by a loud thunder. This drop transformed into a ravenously hungry monster, who attempted to destroy the three worlds. The gods and divine spirits, however, rushed at once on to him and held him down. When the demon fell on the ground face downwards, the deities lodged themselves on to the different parts of his body and pressed him down. It is because of this reason that the recumbent individual came to be known as ‘Vastu,’ which means the lodgement of the gods. He is pictured as lying down inside the mandala with his arms and legs so folded as to cover the whole area, and his head pushed into the north-eastern corner of the square. As many as forty-five gods are lodged on his body directly on the limbs and joints.

This vastu-purusha is the spirit in mother-earth which needs to be pacified and is regarded as a demon whose permission is necessary before any construction can come up on the site. At the same time, care is taken to propitiate the deities that hold him down, for it is important that he should not get up. To facilitate the task of the temple-architect, the vastu-mandala is divided into square grids with the lodging of the respective deities clearly marked. It also has represented on it the thirty-two nakshatras, the constellations that the moon passes through on its monthly course. In an ideal temple, these deities should be situated exactly as delineated in the mandala.

Sanctum of a Hindu Temple
Sanctum of a Hindu Temple

In the central grid of the vastu-mandala sits Brahma, the archetypal creator, endowed with four faces looking simultaneously in all directions. He is thus conceived as the ever-present superintending genius of the site. At this exact central point is established the most important structure of the sacred complex, where the patron deity of the temple is installed. Paradoxically this area is the most unadorned and least decorated part of the temple, almost as if it is created in an inverse proportion to its spiritual importance. Referred to as the sanctum sanctorum, it is the most auspicious region in the whole complex. It has no pillars, windows or ventilators. In addition to a metaphysical aspect, this shutting off of air and light has a practical side to it too. It was meant to preserve the icon, which, in olden days, was often made of wood. Also, besides preventing the ill effects of weathering, the dark interior adds to the mystery of the divine presence.

Throughout all subsequent developments in temple architecture, however spectacular and grandiose, this main shrine room remains the small, dark cave that it has been from the beginning. Indeed it has been postulated (both by archaeology and legend), that the temple developed from the cave-shrine of the extremely remote past. This is another instance in Hinduism where the primitive and the modern, along with all the developments in-between, can be seen to co-exist remarkably and peacefully.

 

Dilwara Temple, Mount Abu, Rajasthan
Dilwara Temple, Mount Abu, Rajasthan

When the devotee enters a temple, he is actually entering into a mandala and therefore participating in a power-field. The field enclosures and pavilions through which he must pass to reach the sanctum are symbolic. They represent the phases of progress in a man’s journey towards divine beatitude. In accordance with this scheme of transition, architectural and sculptural details vary from phase to phase in the devotee’s onward movement, gradually preparing him for the ultimate, awesome experience, which awaits him in the shrine.

This process mirrors the four-phased spiritual evolution envisaged in yoga, namely the waking state (jagrat); dream state (swapna); the state of deep sleep (sushupti); and finally the Highest state of awareness known in Sanskrit as turiya. This evolution takes place as follows:

On reaching the main gateway, the worshipper first bends down and touches the threshold before crossing it. This marks for him the fact that the transition from the way of the world to the way of god has been initiated. Entering the gateway, he or she is greeted by a host of secular figures on the outer walls. These secular images are the mortal, outward and diverse manifestations of the divinity enshrined inside. In this lies a partial explanation behind the often explicit erotic imagery carved on the outer walls of temples like those at Khajuraho, where the deity inside remains untouched by these sensuous occurrences. Such images awaken the devotee to his mortal state of existence (wakefulness). The process of contemplation has already begun.

Erotic Sculptures from Khajuraho

 

 

 

As he proceeds, carvings of mythological themes, legendary subjects, mythical animals and unusual motifs abound. They are designed to take one away from the dull and commonplace reality, and uplift the worshipper to the dreamy state.

 

 

 

 

 


Chhapri Temple, Central India

The immediate pavilion and vestibule before the icon are restrained in sculptural decorations, and the prevailing darkness of these areas are suggestive of sleep-like conditions.

Finally the shrine, devoid of any ornamentation, and with its plainly adorned entrance, leads the devotee further to the highest achievable state of consciousness, that of semi-tranquillity (turiya), where all boundaries vanish and the universe stands forth in its primordial glory. It signifies the coming to rest of all differentiated, relative existence. This utterly quiet, peaceful and blissful state is the ultimate aim of all spiritual activity. The devotee is now fully-absorbed in the beauty and serenity of the icon. He or she is now in the inner square of Brahma in the vastu- mandala, and in direct communion with the chief source of power in the temple.

The thought behind the design of a temple is a continuation of Upanishadic analogy, in which the atman (soul or the divine aspect in each of us) is likened to an embryo within a womb or to something hidden in a cave. Also says the Mundaka Upanishad: ‘The atman lives where our arteries meet (in the heart), as the spokes of the wheel meet at the hub.’ Hence, it is at the heart center that the main deity is enshrined. Befittingly thus, this sanctum sanctorum is technically known as the garba-griha (womb-house).

The garbhagriha is almost always surrounded by a circumambulatory path, around which the devotee walks in a clockwise direction. In Hindu and Buddhist thought, this represents an encircling of the universe itself.

 

Kandariya Temple Khajuraho
Kandariya Temple Khajuraho

 

 

No description of the Hindu temple can be complete without a mention of the tall, often pyramid-like structure shooting up the landscape and dominating the skyline.

 

 

 

 

 

Minakshi Temple at Madurai
Temple of Minakshi, Madurai

 

 

 

This element of temple architecture is known as ‘shikhara,’ meaning peak (mountain). It marks the location of the shrine room and rises directly above it. This is an expression of the ancient ideal believing the gods to reside in the mountains. Indeed, in South India the temple spire is frequently carved with images of gods, the shikhara being conceived as mount Meru, the mythical mountain-axis of the universe, on the slopes of which the gods reside.

 

 


Temple of Mahabodhi, Bodhgaya

 

 

 

In North India too, it is worthwhile here to note, most goddess shrines are located on mountain tops. Since it rises just above the central shrine, the shikhara is both the physical and spiritual axis of the temple, symbolizing the upward aspiration of the devotee, a potent metaphor for his ascent to enlightenment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Conclusion

Man lost the divinity within himself. His intuition, which is nothing but a state of primordial alertness, continues to strive towards the archetypal perfect state where there is no distinction between man and god (or woman and goddess). The Hindu Temple sets out to resolve this deficiency in our lives by dissolving the boundaries between man and divinity. This is achieved by putting into practice the belief that the temple, the human body, and the sacred mountain and cave, represent aspects of the same divine symmetry.

Truly, the most modern man can survive only because the most ancient traditions are alive in him. The solution to man’s problems is always archaic. The architecture of the Hindu temple recreates the archetypal environment of an era when there was no need for such an architecture.


References and Further Reading

  • Danielou, Alain. The Hindu Temple (Deification of Eroticism): Rochester, 2001.
  • Elgood, Heather. Hinduism and the Religious Arts: London, 1999.
  • Kramrisch, Stella. The Hindu Temple (2 Vols.): Delhi, 2002.
  • Lundquist, John M. The Temple (Meeting Place of Heaven and Earth): London, 1993.
  • Marathe, Kaumudi. Temples of India (Circles of Stone): Mumbai, 1998.
  • Maxwell, T.S. The Gods of Asia (Image, Text, and Meaning): New Delhi, 1997.
  • Rao, S.K. Ramachandra. Indian Temple Traditions: Bangalore, 1997.

We hope you have enjoyed reading the article. Any comments or feedback that you may have will be greatly appreciated. Please send your feedback to feedback@exoticindia.com.


This article by Nitin Kumar
Editor
http://www.exoticindia.com


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Article Reviews

  • I love to be a full member of dis temple
    - harrison
    27th Jul 2014
  • I find this very interesting And i want to join the hindu temple. what should i do?
    - Bernard
    21st Sep 2013
  • I recently found a brass lota that is covered with intricate Hindu Deities, images and symbols. I have been unable to find out anything about this beautiful vessel. It is quite old and a bit heavier that those made today. The ingravings are all done with tiny chisel marks and must have taken a long time. I have shown it to several folks from India, and they tell me it is very old, but they do not know how old. Can someone direct me as to where I could find out something about it? I have photos for anyone who can help me. I want to put it on display, but I will need to know something about it.
    - David
    - David
    10th Feb 2011
  • ...And the Word was God

    In the beginning, God...

    Jeus Christ created all things, visible, and invisible. Thou shalt have no other Gods before Him!

    \"Ye shall be as God[s] (Satan)
    - Ralph
    30th Oct 2010
  • I recently found a brass lota that is covered with intricate Hindu Deities, images and symbols. I have been unable to find out anything about this beautiful vessel. It is quite old and a bit heavier that those made today. The ingravings are all done with tiny chisel marks and must have taken a long time. I have shown it to several folks from India, and they tell me it is very old, but they do not know how old. Can someone direct me as to where I could find out something about it? I have photos for anyone who can help me. I want to put it on display, but I will need to know something about it.
    - David
    6th Oct 2010
  • I just do not know why these Jesus freaks but unti civilised conversations and electronic communications with their rubbish. For the low down on crappy Christians read The General Epistle of James the Apostle. James flays these loony Christians and their dead faith in Jesus.
    - Dev
    27th Nov 2008
  • joy, jesus wants you to be more open minded and welcoming...this and pretty much all types of ancient architecture were so much more divine in every sense of the term than todays building...does that mean they were closer to god than we are today?
    - Joyless
    7th Sep 2008
  • Pls, you are indeed making a lot of mistake. Jesus is the only way to heaven. God is agianst Idolatry. Man can never be God. Pls Give your life to Jesus today or you go to hell
    - Joy
    4th Sep 2008
  • im melody from nigeria i want to be a member of hindu and i dont no how to be a member pls kindly guide me so i will be part of them thanks bye.
    - melody
    8th Jan 2008
  • For all that have been printed and said.It hardly cost any penny to discover the temple within us.Self realisation via meditation is the true way to GOD realisation.GOD is not external being.HE is in us ,so why bother looking outward.?
    - Aru
    18th Jun 2007
  • Thank you Sir, for your article, which I found most enlightening, a compelling read, and helpful.
    In connection with this can I request you to elaborate on "Samdhyas"- the period between the birth and dissolution of yugas. For instance when Samdhya is factored into the calculation of Kali Yuga 1200 divine years is reduced to 200 divine years. Thank you once again and May God continue to shower His Blessings on You.
    - kannan menon
    10th Jun 2007
  • I found this article very intresting and informative. I am doing some resurch for an art class and I found out a lot about how the formal elements of the temples play into the contextual.
    Thankyou
    - Brooke
    2nd Nov 2006
  • i needed info on dese shrines n u didnt giv me any!!!!tanks
    - niki
    21st Sep 2006
  • im doin an re project and need basic info on hindus, an ur thing dint teach me nowt...aynone got any webbies that have got simple snippets to tell me the basics??? thankoo alex x x x x
    - alex
    3rd Jul 2006
  • very nice title but disappointed. You guys never told us how we can be a God. I am sick of this human life. If I can be God that will be nice
    - jayan
    14th Apr 2006
  • im kazeem from nigeria i want to be a member of hindu and i dont no how to be a member pls kindly guide me so i will be part of them thanks bye.
    - kazeem oladeji
    28th Feb 2006
  • Excellent article
    - Ram
    11th Mar 2005
  • I found your article most lucid and informative. I would, however, suggest you clarify the title under the picture of the Minakshi Temple in Madurai. It shows, in fact, one of the gopura, not a shikara. The gopura in South Indian temples are often massive, decreasing in size as one progresses towards the garba-griha, thus leaving the material world behind.
    - I Behrendt
    3rd Aug 2004
  • These are extremely beautiful, beautiful pictures.I do admire the intricate desins of the mandirs.Ido hope to go to India one day to view these architechtural designs.
    - meera Bhai
    16th Dec 2003
  • Thanks for the excellent and beautiful article on Hindu Temples!

    A few extra comments:

    Regarding proximity to Water: Water is the most primordial element - the continents rose up out of the oceans; temples are built 'on' water as being founded near the oldest and deepest part of our globe.

    Regarding the founding of a temple: A level plane placed upon the surface of a sphere contacts it (in theory) in exactly one point - this union of finite square and infinite sphere is the hidden mandala under every temple.

    The absence of outside light and air from the innermost sanctum also allows the 'inner eye' to see the radiant presence of the God in the icon, statue or lingam situated therein. This subtle light - and light of the subtle world - is usually overwhelmed by the light of the physical world.

    The power field around any living temple is real. One indication of it is the stimumaltion of instincts - hunger, desire to buy things, to socialize, to fantasize. If we can bring the instincts inside the temple, then they cannot attack our inner sanctum when we leave. This is neither hedonism nor indulgence, but a healthy balance between this world and the next.

    The Shikara: all temples around the world are based upon the truncated pyramid shape. One interesting thing to note is that each culture has chosen this 'covering' of the sacred - and each culture's choice of angle (how steep the ascent is) is unique to that culture.
    - Timothy Smith
    18th Jul 2003
  • The article was indeed very interesting. But i am confused! I am awed by the depth and philosophy surrounding temple construction. At the same time I believe in pragmatism; as the world cannot exist only with ascetics. This is why I found the Gita so complex, yet so simple and it really reached out to me at many levels.....it teaches us about the different paths to enlightement and the importance of duty. Its teachings shows us the importance of practicality within religion; something well conveyed in say sikhism. Surely doing your duty, being a good person and living your life according to set a principles arrived at through our own conciousness, religious teachings and experience will allow us to see through veil of maya, bringing man closer to divinity. This article potentially suggests that man must follow a complex set of processes and rituals to construct a temple in the pursuit of salvation....does this mean I will never find enlightment if I do not worship in such a precisely constructed temple?
    - Sunil (sunil.ahuja@dsl.pipex.com)
    10th Jun 2003
  • Thankyou so much for this. I am building a little meditation shrine and you have provided a way to make it more auspicious.

    e green
    - e green
    2nd Jun 2003
  • What an interesting article!! I never appreciated that vastu was so spititual and such an integral part of errecting temples. Even as an Indian I learn so much from your regular articles keep it up!!
    - sunita
    29th May 2003
  • Thank you for the very enlightening article about temple architecture. Temples have fascinated me and this article invokes further need to learn more about ancient India and its civilization.

    Thank you once again.
    - Chetan Vyas
    21st May 2003
  • Your article states "Temples appeared on the horizon only in the Kali-yuga...In contrast to the previous periods when the gods were available to all equally, now it is only the priests, belonging to a traditional hierarchy of professional worshippers, who are the competent individuals to compel this presence."

    This is not only utter nonsense, it is dangerous and disempowering. This is exactly the kind of arrogance that leads people into factional violence and war. Cowards often are the most violent people in the long run. Shame on you for not believing in your own divinity.

    - Walter Devine (WaltDevine@aol.com)
    20th May 2003
  • Hello, I thought it was a nice article. It is important to not only notice the 'traditional' vedic way as well as the more modern advancements. Even quoting a verse from the Brhad Naradaya Purana... the ever famous

    harer nama harer nama harer namaiva kaivalam
    kalu nasty eva nasty eva nasty eva gatir anyata

    "The only means of deliverance in this age of kali is the chanting of the holy names of the Lord. There is no other way. There is no other way. There is no other way."

    Aside from this I would like to turn you on to a soon to be world famous temple in Mayapur, India. Built using Vastu Shastra. It will be called TVP or temple of the vedic planetarium. Any sincere historians should certainly look into this.

    Sincerely
    - B H Paul
    19th May 2003
  • Hello,

    This was all very interesting indeed.

    We live at the mouth of the longest river in California, in the temperate rainforest of Redwood trees in the mountains here, and where the beaches have no footprints, in Smith River CA, at the top of the state.

    We didn't build a physical temple, but have after doing the daily rituals and communications with God/Goddess?All That Is, have sort of erected an etheric temple. : )

    Also whatever is the era or epoch, there are always a few real living Gods/Goddesses, and they appear when the seeker is ready.
    - Caden
    19th May 2003
  • I would be interested to hear of the reasons for the abandonment of temples other than after their destruction in acts of war. Also the requisite processes for rededication and reconstruction.

    Of course, the controversial Ayodhya Rama Temple reconstruction and the associated scandal over missing funds deserves mention here as part of the contemporary face of resurgent Hinduism, mud and all.
    - Ian Ison
    17th May 2003
  • I must congratulate you for the excellent report - it gave me tremendous insight into the whole concept of a temple, both its physical and spiritual attributes.

    In summary it added value to my life

    Thank You
    - Raymond Pillay
    16th May 2003
  • Thank you so much for this information. It is fascinating and I enjoyed reading it. I have printed it out for future reference.
    - Marcy Younger
    16th May 2003
  • One of the best articles I have ever seen or read about the meaning and significance of our Hindu clture. Please contiue with more of the same about other aspects of the so called "mystisism" of the Hindu religion.
    - Mohan Chand
    16th May 2003
  • I gained more knowledge on this 'Vaastu' concept after perusing through this article.

    Thanks a lot for your efforts in letting people know more about the various Indian traditions and please keep continuing your good work.
    - Saravanan Laxmanan (ls5972@indiatimes.com)
    16th May 2003
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