It was a happy day for me. I had heard a lot about the ISKON temple and was looking forward to the visit. I had been to famous temples and loved how in those swarms of crowds and those unruly queues, there was still this calming serenity once you entered the temple garbhgriha or the sanctum sanctorum. I had been to Konark, Khajuraho, Tirupathi, Kashi Vishwanath, Ujjain’s Bhairavnath, Pushkar Temple and had always marveled at how these temples stood for an assurance that antiquity had made plans for the safeguarding of posterity.
The idea that something is as grand and as imposing as those temples of ancient times and yet is a product of the era in which I have taken birth was fascinating. I wanted to jump traffic lights and reach there as early as I could. I did reach early, a little too early. The temple wore a sleepy look. It was not one of those temples which woke up like your grandmother and took bath at 6 am. It was your sibling who woke up after you and was grumpy after the rude awakening. The cleaning lady was throwing water on the verandah and the splashes made me run for cover. It reminded me of the Comesum restaurant inside the Nizamuddin Railway Station premises. The sleepy staff, the grumpy janitor and the red stone-tiled floor. Difference is- that restaurant still wakes up in the wee hours of the morning.
Nonetheless, I went inside the temple. The absence of any queue was a delight actually. Chants of Hare Rama, Hare Krishna came to rescue me and I started to yet again, feel a part of the temple. I knew Rama and Krishna. I loved them. They had been their in my subconscious since I was first introduced to religion. As I started basking in the familiarity, a bunch of dancing priests came parading in front of the idol to which I was about to pay my respects and prayers.
This was a choreographed routine. Everyone had their hands in the air, they all knew the steps. It seemed like a big shooing away. I sheepishly made way for the devotees and stood in the corner- cornered by something I didn’t understand. Also, the main idol wasn’t of any of the known gods but of the founder of the ISKON cult.
I left the temple, leaving behind the food court, the gift store, the book store, everything that went into branding and commercializing God and His name.
One Year Later
It is my birthday and I am on my way to Akshardham temple. I have a vague idea that it is also called Swami Narayan temple. Narayan is Vishnu so, I assume that it is a Vishnu temple. It wasn’t. Swami Narayan is a devotee who was escalated to the status of a deity.
The security is high, I am with my cousin. Both of us are asked to submit our camera and mobiles before entering the premises. Only one of us can go to the cloak room for submission. Of course, once I come back from the cloak room, I have lost my cousin in the crowd. Of course, there is no way of contacting him as our phones have already been submitted. Finally I find him and we head toward the temple. I wonder what is worth so much protection.
The stone carvings are mesmerizing but, there is an ATM inside the temple premises. I go ‘uh-oh’ in my mind and we keep walking. Yes, it is difficult to run a temple without donations and commercial ventures but, there are less lewd ways of doing it.
Again as I enter the main temple, I see the pattern repeat. Cornered Gods, exalted saint Swami Narayan and people walking around as if they are inside a mall. I guess this is what a 21st century temple is, I guess I am out of date. Because in my little mind, I imagine a temple where a priest is performing aarti to an idol which is decorated with flowers. There is ‘bhakti’ in the eyes of people and everyone who returns from the temple has the mandatory tilak and prasad. People return with merchandise like t-shirts and takeaway foodstuffs from the modern day temples. There is no pujari. However, there is a counter where if you pay Rs 50, they will give you a glass of water which you can pour on your idol. Then there are upgrades on that ‘abhishek’. Money-matters should be subtly addressed in places like hospitals and temples. In the Abhishek Mandir there, a guard stands looking at your hands. If you have bought the coupon, you’re let inside the main worship area. But if you’re just there for ‘darshan’, you’re showed the way in a caustic unfriendly manner by the guard. I am not hurt. I just think it eats away at the soul of the temple which shouldn’t happen.
The prasad is also available for purchase. So, if you enter there penniless, there is nothing you can take away from the temple. No charanamrit, no tilak, no abhishek, no prasad. It a temple for those who can spend. The most crowded area is not the sanctum but the food court which says something about the management authorities.
Now, I might be just liking the idea of rebellion and thus might fall in the trap of cynicism. So, I told all my thoughts to a friend of mine. She happened to like the Akshardham idea and told me that there was a certain freedom associated with such temples. You can pray, you can just look around and observe the grandeur. I complained about the lack of spirituality and she replied that what might be spiritual or holy to me, can be tedious for someone else.
If there are temples where you can just visit like you visit a church and not worry about cracking coconuts, burning incense and offering prasad, it might just be freedom Hinduism needs. We have been tied up in rituals so much that we often forget the real purpose of a prayer.
To that I bring up the case of ISKON. That is where one sees over-ritualization in the form of choreographed routine and distinctive patterns of prayer. She again defends that by saying that no one asks you to join in their routine. The temple creates an aura of its own by having certain in-house monks who help in keeping the sanctity intact.
Then to the argument of worshiping the founders of cults instead of mainstream deities, her argument is that those who are gods in my mind are mere mythological figures in the eyes of the west. So, how does it make the temple any superior or inferior based on the God it chooses to worship. The escalation of devotee to a godlike status is not a new phenomenon but a recorded trajectory in Hinduism. It is acceptable to the religion then, why can’t I make amends with it.
She does agree though that the commercialization of prayer offerings ie abhishek is a bit taking it too far though. The whole registration and coupons for prayers thing makes it look very obscene.
For now, I do not know right from wrong but I do know that there is something either in me or in these temples that needs fixing.
Asto ma sadgamaya