Hindu Temples and worship of one Supreme Being

Bodhinatha presents a talk to be given at the Hindu Temple of Central Florida in Casselberry. He begins by discussing the sacred nature of a Hindu temple then proceeds to discuss the four sects of Hinduism and the fact that Hindus all worship a one Supreme Being. Bodhinatha explains how temples may dispel the false concept that Hindus are polytheistic and gives suggestions for temple web sites and information dissemination.

Unedited Transcript:

Good morning everyone. As most of you know we're getting ready to fly off to Orlando, Florida home of Disney World but we're not going to Disney World. We're going to the Hindu Temple of Central Florida which is in Casselberry, which is slightly north of Orlando, for a kumbhabhishekam. And this seems to be the season for kumbhabhishekams, we were just in Peoria, Illinois and the Rowes came and visited us there, we appreciate that, they drove over, they don't live too far away. So we have a kumbhabhishekam in Florida so we have activities on Saturday and Sunday which includes two talks and one workshop so I'm going to give one of the talks, so you have to imagine you're sitting there in Casselberry, cause the talk is totally Casselberry oriented and it's a theme which you've heard before on Agamas verses Puranas so it's, it's a standard idea. It's slightly more polished and has a few more stories so it won't sound too repetitious. So here goes.

Sadhaka Haranandinatha and I are pleased to be present at the kumbhabhishekam ceremonies for the new temple of the Hindu Society of Central Florida and express our gratitude to the trustees of the temple for extending us this invitation. We also wish to express our respectful pranams to fellow guest speakers Swami Chidananda, Swami Jyotirmayananda and Sadhvi Didi Ritambara.

In reading about this event on your temple's web site, we came across the following insightful description of the sacredness of the Hindu temple:

Their description by the way is quite good.

andquot;According to our Vedas, building a Temple of worship for the benefit of the community (Aalaya prathishta), contributing our resources for this purpose and participating in these rituals and performing sevas during these ceremonies are highly commendable acts of Hindu Dharma. The glory of the Lord is seen and the vibration of the Super Power is felt everywhere in the temple. Combined prayers in temple are believed to be very powerful and benefit the entire community. The holy presence of divinity (saannidhyam) in the temples will be felt when the temple is built according to the sastras and the deities are properly installed by the priests and sthapathis. The divinity of temples are further secured and enhanced by continuous worship and periodic festivals in the temple.andquot;

So that's a nice summary and it points out three reasons the Hindu temple is especially sacred. One is the way it's constructed. It's constructed according to very strict rules, very strict measurements are used so that helps the sanctity be present, so construction. Second one is consecration: the kumbhabhishekam ceremony itself is brings life to it all. And then continuous worship. The daily pujas that follow thereafter draw forth the blessings in a continuous way so that after a period of time because of the construction, the consecration and the continuous worship it has a very sacred feeling to it, all combined.

Certainly one of the amazing aspects of Hinduism is its ability to make a place truly sacred through following certain rules of construction, consecration through kumbhabhishekam and the subsequent continuous worship through daily pujas. Such is the special knowledge within Hinduism's architectural and priestly traditions to make a place holy. Therefore, let's take a moment to honor Padmashri Muthiah Sthapathi, possibly his son is there too, I met his son in Atlanta, for overseeing the design and construction of this beautiful temple. Let us also honor all of the priests here today for so knowledgeably and excellently performing all of the intricate ceremonies involved in this kumbhabhishekam.

Well that's something I like to do I get everyone to applaud the priests, priests don't get enough recognition and they appreciate my efforts in helping them get recognized. We have good relations with Hindu temple priests.

One of the major activities at our monastery is the publication of an international quarterly magazine called Hinduism Today. See I always put in a plug for our magazine [laughs.] Free advertisement. We are currently working on an article on the Balaji temple in Tirupati. So one of the reasons I mention the Balaji temple is this temple the central Deity is Venkateswara or the Deity that's at Tirupati, also known as Balaji. One of the interesting facts we discovered early on is that the current darshan time in front of the Venkateswara Deity for a devotee is just five seconds. Imagine that. At Tirupati you have stood in line for hours and because there are so many devotees, you are only allowed to view the Deity for five seconds before you have to move on. This may give you a new appreciation for having a Balaji temple here in Casselberry that has no such time constraints on worship!

We like to say that our magazine Hinduism Today has a leadership rather than a readership, meaning that many of those receiving the publication are the heads of Hindu groups or teachers in those groups. The increased urbanization in India and diaspora outside of India has isolated many Hindus from their families' traditional source of knowledge on Hinduism, such as grandparents or a nearby mutt. Hinduism Today helps fill this gap with articles that explain the reasons behind the Hindu traditions.

Many years ago a bookseller in Chennai commented to me that distributing in India a magazine on Hinduism that was produced in Hawaii was comparable to carrying coal to Newcastle. Though there is of course some truth to this, the comparison overlooks the very important point that though there are many excellent Hindu magazines printed in India, most represent a specific organization and the articles in them only reflect that organization's philosophy.

Hinduism Today was created, on the other hand, to present information on all of Hinduism's major sects and lineages, not just one. This broad editorial policy enables it to produce articles that give more of an overview of Hinduism than is common. For example, we occasionally include an article which includes a long or short explanation of the four denominations of Hinduism. This is because we feel that understanding the existence of these four widely diverse viewpoints within Hinduism is central to holding a clear understanding of the religion. Yet often web sites, textbooks and displays on Hinduism leave out this central concept.

The most recent reference in Hinduism Today to the four denominations was in an Educational Insight called andquot;Ten Questions People Ask About Hinduismandquot; which appeared in our April 2004 issue. It has been reprinted as a separate pamphlet and is proving to be quite popular. The article begins:

andquot;Contrary to prevailing misconceptions, Hindus all worship a one Supreme Being, though by different names. This is because the peoples of India with different languages and cultures have understood the one God in their own distinct way. Through history there arose four principal Hindu denominations--Saivism, Shaktism, Vaishnavism and Smartism. For Saivites, God is Siva. For Shaktas, Goddess Shakti is supreme. For Vaishnavites, Lord Vishnu is God. and for Smartas--who see all Deities as reflections of the One God--the choice of Deity is left to the devotee.andquot;

By the way, there is an excellent description of the Smarta, also called the Vedanta perspective, on the web site of the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago which our distinguished guest Swami Chidananda, at which our distinguished guest Swami Chidananda is the senior swami.

Their web site asks the question: andquot;Why do you have so many gods and goddesses?andquot; and answers it by saying:

andquot;Yes, there are many, thousands in fact. Each god or goddess represents a different aspect of the one God. And since God is infinite, it's no wonder there are so many different expressions!andquot;

Where exactly does the concept come from that Hindus are polytheistic and believe in a multiplicity of Gods and do not have a Supreme Being? One of the sources, of course, is the Hindu temple itself. We walk in the door and encounter a multiplicity of shrines each with a different God. The high-minded view of the Upanishads is of Brahman, Absolute Reality, the Supreme Reality which is both transcendent and immanent, that is one and indivisible, infinite and eternal, all-pervading Existence-Knowledge-Bliss. Thus it is crucial that an explanation is given that reconciles these two aspects of Hinduism.

Here's a story to illustrate the problem. A few years ago I gave a talk at the Vishnu Mandir in Toronto. It is a temple with a North Indian style altar that has a large number of murthis spread across a platform. After the talk, I was in the basement giving an interview to a Canadian television reporter. Her background was Christian Protestant, and it was her first time in a Hindu temple. Looking at the temple through her eyes, the images she saw represented a multiplicity of separate Gods, maybe fifteen Gods all together. She was clearly a bit overwhelmed by the experience. So I began chatting with her before the interview by saying, andquot;Sometimes Hindus are criticized as being idol worshippers. However, this is definitely not true. As you saw today for yourself, Hindus are definitely very energetic in their worship and not at all idol.andquot; Many of you have heard that joke about five times so it's all right, don't have to laugh. This attempt at humor broke the tension and she laughed. I went on to clarify later in the interview that she was seeing a multiplicity of traditions, not a multiplicity of Gods.

A second potential source of the misconcept that Hindus do not worship a one Supreme Being is the category of scriptures called Puranas. There are 18 major Puranas which are designated as either Saivite, Vaishnavite or Sakta. They are of course the folk narratives containing ethical and cosmological teachings relative to God, man and world. When taken literally, the Puranas definitely do present a concept of Hinduism as a religion with a trinity of Gods: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver and Siva the Destroyer. The Puranas, however, are classified as secondary scripture, secondary to our primary scriptures which are the Vedas and Agamas which are needed in order to avoid interpreting the Puranas as polytheism.

Here's a story to describe this problem. A few years ago we hosted a professor from a Texas University who teaches a class in world religion. He is a non-Hindu who was on a one-year sabbatical. His visit to our monastery was for the purpose of learning more about Hinduism. He was familiar with our magazine Hinduism Today and felt he could communicate with our editorial staff.

We soon discovered that the professor had actually been teaching his college students that Hindus believe in a trinity of separate Gods: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. He had never been to a Hindu temple and therefore his concept was based on the Puranas. The professor was truly amazed to find out that Hindus worship a Supreme Being and are not polytheists and promised to change his course syllabus for the coming year accordingly. Fortunately, he will now convey the correct understanding of Hinduism to his students. Unfortunately many other teachers of classes in world religions are still continuing to teach that Hinduism is polytheistic and thus a primitive and pagan religion inferior to the monistic religions of the West, the monotheistic religions of the West.

As we mentioned, the concept of Hinduism's four denominations-- its four sectarian traditions--is quite helpful in dispelling the false concept that Hindus are polytheistic. One of the resource texts we frequently use is the Tamil Lexicon published by the University of Madras. It happens to have excellent definitions of these four Hindu denominations:

Saivam: The religion which regards Siva as the Supreme Being and is exclusively devoted to His worship, of sixteen sects.

Shaktam: The religion which enjoins the exclusive worship of Shakti as the Supreme Being.

Vaishnavam: The religion which holds Vishnu to be the Supreme Being.

The definition for the Smarta Sampradaya is found under Shanmatam: The six Vedic religious systems: Saivam, Vaishnavam, Saktam, Ganapatiya, Kaumaram, Sauram

In other words, Smartas or Vedantins have a choice to worship any one of the six major Deities-- Siva, Vishnu, Shakti, Ganesha, Subramanya and Surya--as the Supreme Lord, as their Ishta Devata or preferred Deity.

Not all Hindus are familiar with the category of scripture called the Agamas. The Agamas are an enormous collection of Sanskrit scriptures which, along with the Vedas, are revealed as shruti, revealed scripture, are revered as shruti, revealed scripture. The Agamas were part of an oral tradition of unknown antiquity which some experts consider as ancient as the earliest Vedas, 5,000 to 6,000 bce. The Agamas are the primary source and authority for temple construction and temple ceremonies. Each of the major denominations--Saivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism--has its unique Agama texts.

Here in Casselberry, if we took the Puranic approach, we would say that for example at the Venkatesavara shrine, we are worshipping Vishnu, the God of Preservation and at the Sri Shiva Lingam shrine, we are worshipping Siva, the God of Destruction. In the Vedic/Agamic approach we would say the Venkatesvara shrine is of the Vaishnava denomination of Hinduism which worships the Supreme Being as Vishnu. The liturgy, temple ritual, is conducted according to the Pancharatra Agama. The Sri Shiva Lingam shrine is of the Saiva denomination of Hinduism which worships the Supreme Being as Siva. The liturgy is conducted according to the Kamika and Karana Agamas.

The Vedic/Agamic approach to describing temple worship stresses that Hindus all worship a one Supreme Being, though by different names and through different traditions.

The Puranic approach presents the idea that Hindus worship a trinity of separate Gods and do not worship a Supreme Being. Clearly for temples in the US, the Vedic/Agamic approach is the approach that is needed to create clarity about Hindu temple worship in the minds of Hindu youth as well as in the non-Hindu community.

Thus we are actively encouraging all temples in the West to help create this clarity as to Hindu belief by stressing on their web sites and in their publications that first and foremost Hindus all worship a one Supreme Being, though by different names and by different traditions.

Also It would be quite informative for temples to share more information on the specific temple traditions they are following such as:

* Samaya: state whether the temple liturgy is of the Vaishnava, Saiva, Sakta or Vaidika traditions

* Agama: give the name of the Agama which governs the temple ceremonies

* Murthi: describe the particular form of the main deity and the history of its worship in India

* Archaka: give background on the priesthood that serves the temple

* Darshana: name the specific philosophy or philosophies that are being taught at the temple

So we're going to do that for Kadavul, we thought: andquot;We're asking others to do it, probably we should do it first,andquot; [laughs.] So we're in the process of writing up our description for Kadavul Temple according to Samaya, Agama, Murthi, Archaka and Darshana, going to put it on our web site soon as well.

The American author Mark Twain in his book 'Following the Equator' made an insightful statement about India. andquot;In religion all other countries are paupers; India is the only millionaire.andquot; Certainly one way in which India is the only, certainly one way in which India qualifies as a millionaire in religion is the rich diversity of its Hindu traditions. We can all be proud of this diversity and share more knowledge of it with our Hindu youth and the non-Hindu community through our temple web sites, publications and displays.

So there we are. We all get to go to Florida without spending any airfare that was pretty good. So you can see the idea, it's an important idea. It may not be self evident if you haven't thought about it, but there's a lot of information out there on temple web sites and when people explain the Hindu temple it creates the idea that in peoples minds that don't understand Hinduism deeply that it's polytheistic. You know that cause, on the talking about the trinity of Gods and this and that and talking about the various Puranic stories as if they're real events. So that kind of presentation without any deeper philosophy leaves the impression that Hinduism doesn't have a Supreme Being, it just believes in a number of separate Gods and of course that's misleading. But it's damaging in the West because that approach to religion is considered primitive. If a religion doesn't have a Supreme Being it's looked at as primitive and not as good as the western religions which have a Supreme Being. So we definitely want to avoid that and of course it's not true. So you know we need to get better information out there on temple web sites, publications and elsewhere as well.

OK, have a wonderful week.

Photo of  Gurudeva
It is by means of worship of and meditation on God that our self-created sufferings are softened and assuaged. God is the God of all--of the believers within all religions, and of the nonbelievers, too.