(Part 1 Of Series On Hindu Temples: Introduction, Symbolism and Iconography)
A Hindu Temple is merely not only a place of worship but symbolizes entire cosmic world known as Bhrahmanda that is composed of earthly world, heavenly world, astral world and world below waters. Hence one can notice depiction of animals, birds, reptiles, trees, rivers, mountains, flowers, humans, houses and everything our eyes can see. The primary role of a Hindu Temple was to house a deity and secure the fulfillment of the formulated rituals to preserve the divine energy of the center while allowing the devotees to connect with the divine and to uplift themselves moving towards enlightenment. Human minds perceive what appeals to the senses. It needs a physical form, features, functions that are simple to comprehend for a human brain which led to the origin of the science of creating deities to connect that is discussed later.
It’s interesting to learn that a temple site is chosen after a series of tests, analysis of soil, water, sunlight, water absorption of soil to name a few. Once all the parameters are achieved to fullest merit will make the land eligible for building a Temple.
Vastu Shastra & other related texts will guide in constructing the temple after finalizing the material type for Temple & Deity. Sthapati, Shilpi, and all the artisans from different faculties who are qualified in their relevant areas plan & execute towards this grand structure. Knowledge, science of sculpting and carving with the help of the study of Natya Shastra, Sangeet Shastra, and Art of Poetry helps the Shilpi in transforming the material of his choice into reality. The stone from which a Deity is created is tested for quality and gender. A Purusha (male) Shila is used for male Deity, a Stri (female) Shila for female Deity, and Napunsak for platforms. (In some cases both male and female deities are created from male Shila and their base from female Shila as per the requirement of the nature of temple and Agamas.
A Hindu Temple is based on Vastu Purusha (Cosmic Being) lying down face down is depicted with Chakras and Nadis, thus a temple replicates a human body.
The entrance represents the feet, Dwaja Stumbh as reproductive region, the central part represents the belly, and the place where the deity is seated is the Ajna chakra.
The process of Pran Pratishtha instills Prana not only in Deity but all the stones in Temple.
Nature of Temple
The Hindu Temple is a living and thriving entity (as understood earlier through Pran-Pratishtha) that directly impacts the human body. Hence there are set rules about the rituals which are scientifically arrived for purpose of entering the temple to the performance of Pooja, the place for Sadhana, right up to how to exit. Following these rules is beneficial for the devotee as the purpose of the temple visit is Sadhana.
All activities in Hindu life is aimed at final destination of Moksha from birth rituals, eating, bathing, exercise, marriage, death rituals, timings for these activities, everything is in sync with ‘Subtle’ body, its energies and co-relation with Nature and its energy fields.
‘Man is microcosm of Universe’.
Based on the nature of the Temple, it can be classified as Bhakti or Mukti Temples. The iconography, symbols, and many other physical attributes determine the type of Temple which is a study in itself. Readers can refer to works of Sinu Joseph for further insights into the nature of Temple.
The body of Bhagwan is called Vigraha. It is not composed of 5 elements- Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Space. Nor is it the result of 3 Gunas- Satva, Rajas or Tamas. It is not a karmic product of the actions of the past which are influenced by joy and sorrow. Not a causal effect, not composed of 5 elements, beyond joy and sorrow, possessing a pure, whole, true and unshakable energy with the ultimate quality of Sudhhasattva, this divine form is called Apakrita Divyamangla Vigraha. (The non-material divine sacred form). (Chakras and Nadis is a very detail subject. Works by Harish Johri can be referred for further readings.)
Temples were created for benefit of people as a society and as Individuals and not for Deities and Bhagwan. (Kindly refer to Sanskrit Non-Translatables by Rajiv Malhotra and Satyanarayana Dasa Babaji for deeper understanding on terminologies that can’t be expressed in English language and hence the use Indigenous terms).
Towns and villages were planned around temples and as discussed earlier the Temples were the nucleus of the society, the heart that nurtures the body, Temples mothered the society. Temples were funded by Kings, rich merchants and the people donated for upkeep of the Temple activities and Temples in return bonded the society, ran the economy of the town, kept social balance in check, help trade, provided education to all and helped the people when in need while directing and guiding the people towards their ultimate goal of Moksha.
Temples as the nucleus of Society
Temples were an ecosystem of the ancient society, a place for collective Bhakti; a center for learning; a community place for the exchange of ideas and transfer of knowledge. Lands surrounding the temples were the property of these Temples and utilized for Sewa (service) like Resting place for travelers (Yatra stal) who bought information and trade. They served as an Economic center, provided job & business opportunities, as Hospitals on-premises for people & animals that generated employment and gave service to the needy in society. Temples played a big role as Learning Centres and not only taught in the field of spirituality and scriptures but also trained students in other streams of education like Science, Maths, astronomy, metallurgy, Ithihas, Arts ( Vastu, Architecture, Natya, Gandharva, Dhanurvidya & many more). Equipped & rich temples attracted teachers & students that helped in creating branches of these knowledge houses. Art exchange, development & teaching was an important part and therefore temples had huge galleries where art was displayed and created. Various dance traditions were taught & performances were displayed on special occasions along with the art of singing and playing instruments. Debate, discussions, questioning on every subject was an integral part of Sanatan life. Many intellectual discourses were held at temples in public presence for intellectual stimulation and training that facilitated the evolution of many ideas & developments. Court (panchayat) proceedings commenced in Temple premises to resolve social issues. Rituals of birth, naming a child, the start of education, economic start-up, marriage ceremonies & last rites were also performed at Temples.
Temples played the most important role in providing education to people of society across all sections.
Everything Means Something.
This is a Picture of Bhagwan Shiva as per Shilpa-Shastra (Dashatala style) in standing posture. The right hind arm holds a Parasu held in Kartari mukha mudra signifies quality of Shiva i.e Satya or Truth. The handle is made of wood on which a spherical or egg shaped head is fitted on which the blade of axe rests. It stands for the state of Parashakti and for the state of laya (union). The right front arm is in Abhaya Mudra which conveys protection, reassurance to the devotee and also says to be fearless. The left back arm holds a Deer which represents Shanti (peace), the font left arm symbolizes Varada Hasta which expresses Tenderness and act of giving. Temple Symbolism and Iconography is a detailed subject, follow the below credits for more insights for further learning.
(During invasion, colonization & till date Temples are under constant attack. It is not only the temple treasures that the enemy was interested in but the foundation of the culture, the support system of society. When a civilization has to be annihilated, attack it’s root and eventually it will crumble without big blows. It is not only the faith/religion that is under attack but it is the bonding/community that is the target which sustains the village or town. British annexed all the temple land from temples to destroy the livelihood of the society, dismantling the ecosystem, making it convenient for slavery and ease of rampant conversions. Prior to Britishers the Islamic attackers prime target were temples for not only it’s riches but for it was the heart that pumped life into the ecosystem that surrounded it. Hindu Temples till dates has not been freed from the constant slavery and attack. Hindu Temples, the living entity that it is, is the only place of worship that is under Government control and constant religious attack in India and world over. Read Sitaram Goel on Hindu Temples, what happened to them 2 volumes and Meenakshi Jain for her exhaustive research on Temples.)
This is part one of the series on Hindu Temples, Introduction, Symbolism and Iconography, for further articles on the subject read here and follow the links.
Credits: I would like to thank a long list of people whose work has helped, inspired, and I learned a lot to write this piece. V. Ganapathy Sthapati, Stella Kramrisch, Jitendra Nath Banerjea, T.A. Gopinath, Talks by Shashikala at its.iitgn.ac.in, Harish Johari, Sahana Singh, Talk by Sinu Joseph, Rare books by multiple authors on Indian Temple and architecture, Iconography and Symbolism from the site https://indianculture.gov.in/. Special Thanks to Vibhu Academy, team, and Guruji G. L Bhat and Arthi.
DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.