The temple is the heart of Hinduism. In Hindu society, the temple has occupied a pivotal position, not only the spiritual aspect of it, but also because it has been the focal point of social and cultural activities. It has been closely associated with developments of fine arts, such as music, dancing, painting, architecture, sculpturing, and many other crafts. The Hindu temple has had a strong base of many philanthropic and charitable projects.
In recent times, the example of the Tirupati Temple in Andhra Pradesh is perhaps the most impressive beginning of such activities. With a huge income from the donations of the devotees, it supports a number of educational institutes, hospitals, and other worthy causes. The other major religious organizations include Sri Rama Krishna Mission, Swaminarayan Sanstha, Sathya Sai Baba Temple, Hare Krishna Temple (ISKCON), Chinmaya Mission, Sadhu Vaswani Mission, Mata Amritanadamayi “Amma” and Swadhya Parivar and many others.
In the traditional Hindu temple, the worship ceremonies are conducted with an organized set of rituals. Temple rituals are usually performed by one or more its own temple priests, who are, by convention, hereditary in lineage of a particular sect and are trained from early childhood in the intricate liturgy of the temple rites by reciting many mantras and slokas in special manner.
In the early morning, singing and chanting hymns perform the waking ritual of the deities. In Hindu temples, Murti Puja is conducted in very elaborate manner. Usually, the deity is given a sacred bath twice a day, followed by decoration with beautiful clothes and ornaments. Incense or Agarbati is burned, and the priest chants to the Deity in Sanskrit, describing all these acts, and beseeching blessings.
There may be five or six main worship ceremonies (pujas) through the whole day. In present times, the main ceremonies have been reduced to twice daily in many temples. Lighting a lamp (diya) signifies the light within our inner self. Aarti is regarded as one of the sixteen steps of worship ceremony. Hindus often perform pujas on important and auspicious occasions in the family. After the puja or the aarti, there is usually a divinely blessed food (prasad), which is first offered to the Lord and then distributed to the rest of the devotees. The ritual of the symbolic offering of the prasad to the Lord recognizes his supremacy in all respects. The devotees partake of it with humility and without complaint, whatever is offered. Almost every Hindu visits a temple, but there is no code or compulsion about these visits. A Hindu temple is usually open for long hours of the day, so the devotees may come and go at their convenience. A bell is often present, which the devotees ring as they enter. Individual cash donations are offered in specially placed boxes (hundi). New temples, and especially those in foreign countries, are usually clean and hygienic, but some of the old temples are not properly maintained. Most big temples are involved with social and charitable activities, apart from the religious ceremonies and pujas. Some of the very large temples have ongoing projects, such as running hospitals, educational institutes, or even universities, and many other social projects. Devotees enter the temple after removing their shoes outside. Many perform circumambulation (parikrama) around the murtis before starting the worship, thus making God the central focal point around which all activities are done. Some even perform the parikrama around themselves, recognizing the Divine within. The temple priest or pujari performs the worship ceremony in accordance with the codes in the Agamas, although variations and modifications abound. A special worship rite (archana) is performed by the priest, in which the name of the devotee, his ancestor lineage, names of other family members, and home address is intoned to the Divine before starting the main ritual. One hundred eight names are often recited to highlight the divine attributes of the presiding deity.
The Hindu temple is mainly a product of the Puranic tradition. The Puranic tradition evolved from a synthesis of the Sanskritic (mainstream) tradition and the regional or vernacular (little) traditions. For example, the cult of Vithoba in Maharashtra, a survival of an early pastoral deity absorbed as a form of Krishna in mainstream Hinduism, still retains its tribal and folk origins and traditions; there are numerous such examples. Hindus usually have a personal god, the isht devta, whom they invoke as a preferential god. This isht devta is often the family or community god, but an individual may choose his or her isht devta on the basis of personal choice.
Temple services have undergone periodic changes over the years. Today, more emphasis is on the real teachings of religion, rather than the formalities and customs. Animal sacrifices are omitted in most places. Many temples offer classes for children and youth to give orientation in the Hindu religion and philosophy. Temples are often the main locations for organizing various social and service activities, thus making these places the community cultural centers. The problem of language in the temple ceremonies has remained unresolved to a great extent, especially in foreign countries. Lectures are usually given in English or one of the Indian languages commonly understood by the devotees in the particular area, but the ceremonies and rituals are often conducted in Sanskrit, as a tradition. It may be interesting to note that in America, various European communities did start their church activities in their respective languages, such as German or French, but later were changed to English. The sentimental and emotional attachment to the languages can be understood, but it may not be allowed to become an impediment in the practical conduct of affairs.
Hindu temples play a major role in the lives of all Hindus, regardless of their religious, social, or financial status. They simply do not overgrow the “temple”; even the spiritual masters of the highest authority are found prostrating in the temple. Apart from the religious ceremonies, temples have played an important role in facilitating art, social service, and philanthropic activities etc. Many large “Temple Organizations” associated with various temples have undertaken mega projects that involve running big multi-discipline hospitals, charitable clinics, educational institutes, free food distribution, natural disaster service, homes for the underprivileged, orphanages, medical and surgical camps and many other activities. These have proved to be invaluable for the poor and needy and very often supersede similar services provided by the government. In recent times, these “Temple Organizations” have sometimes rendered these services in India of such magnitude and quality at low costs, sometimes even free of charge that even the most advanced Western nations simply cannot match. This is indeed a great achievement in modern times. Many of these high-tech medical services have skyrocketed in costs, and have become unaffordable for the poor and middle class people.
NOTE: This chapter is adapted from Kolapen Mahalingum, Hindu Temples in North America, Winter Park, Fla., Titan Graphics and Publications, 2002