Frequency of Temples

Earlier today, I realized that each temple has its own “frequency”. Frequency of doing the pooja and giving the mangalaarathi and tirtha and collecting offerings from the visitors. If I can generalize, I can say that the more popular temples featuring “standardized deities” are more likely to have better turnaround time in conducting poojas and archanas.

So I have based this study on two data points. On one hand, there is the Ganesha temple in Jayanagar 4th block (intersection of 30th cross and the diagonal road and 7th main; opposite Maiya’s). This is an extremely popular temple and draws thousands of visitors every day. And you must note that Ganesha is a “standardized deity” –  he is perhaps the most common deity across Hindu temples (if you count each avatara of Vishnu as distinct).

And this temple is quick. Despite getting hundreds of visitors every hour, the priests there work hard to serve everyone in quick time. The Mangalaarathi is held at a frequency greater than once every five minutes. Thus, you can just walk in, watch one round of mangalaarathi-and-bells, take the mangalaarathi, put in your offferings, drink the tirtha, go round and round, sit down for a minute and get on with your business, all within ten minutes. Maybe this efficiency (apart from the awesome location) is what gets this temple so many visitors.

Towards the other end of the spectrum is the Subramanyeshwara Temple in VV Puram that I visited it this morning. I had to get some pooja done there in order to kick off my wedding preparations (Subramanyeshwara is our “family deity”; one of the several reasons as to why I’m named my name) and went in at around 10 am. There was already a decent crowd there and I duly purchased my archane slip (oh how much I loved getting archane done when I was a kid – if not for anything else but to get the sugarcandy prasada) and tried getting the attention of one of the priests (there are several there) only to find that they wouldn’t accept the chit for another hour or so (the idol was being bathed at that time, and being scrubbed using one of those brushes used to clean brass instruments).

Considering it’s not too far from home, I duly disappeared and appeared an hour later, and by now the crowd was larger. I had to get my large frame between a considerable mass of people in order to reach a priest and hand in my archane slips (one for the self and one for the fiancee; I had purchased both during the first visit to the temple earlier today). And some further minutes later, there was a grand round of pooje after which they brought the mangalaarathi plate. A cycle time of a full two hours!

I don’t know how popular this temple is (I’m told it’s pretty popular), but I suppose one reason it doesn’t attract as many visitors as it might is because of the time commitment it demands. Due to the large pooja cycle time, only the most committed and devoted visitors visit the place. Maybe the temple loses out on contributions because of this, but maybe gains in terms of having only the more devoted devotees, which gives it an increased “average puNya per devotee”. And it is a choice that the temple and its priests have made, and I’m sure they have good reasons for the same.

Oh, and keep in mind that Subramanya is an uncommon deity when it comes to temples (definitely not when it comes to naming one’s kids).

PS: The tirtha they gave at the temple today was milk-based, which I think is quite messy since temples don’t really have places to wash one’s hands. Water-based tirthas are more appropriate since they can just be wiped on to one’s head after drinking.

PS2: I like it when the archane is done in front of me, when the purohit asks me for the details (name, gotra, nakshatra) rather than like today when it was all written on the chit and they performed the pooja inside. I like the personalized service of the former case.

PS3: To bring up a now-taboo topic, have I mentioned that Ganesha is a stud and Subramanya is a fighter? Just sayin’

On Religion

Last Thursday there  was a function at home, of the religious type. An aunt and an uncle had come home and sang a large number of hymns. I was told that the hymns were part of a series, called the narayaneeyam, and all in praise of Lord Krishna. There were a few activities also planned along with the chanting of hymns, and occasionally people in the audience (a few other relatives) were asked to do a “namaskaara” to the deity. I mostly put ‘well left’ to these additional stuff, and watched the proceedings dispassionately, sunk into my bean bag with my laptop on my lap.

One of the guests at that function was a two-year old cousin, and he seemed to be full of enthu. He is of the religious sorts – his mom is hyper-religious, I’m told. And he did all the namaskaaras and other activities with full enthu. Later on, my mother was to admonish me saying how even the two year old would respect religion, while I just looked on. She complained about how I’ve been spoilt, and fallen under the wrong influences. I muttered something about the cousin being too innocent to know what was going on around him because of which he sincerely obeyed.

When I read Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion about six months back, I didn’t feel anything special. I’m told that the book has a lasting impact on its readers – one way or another – and that a lot of people consider it to be life-changing. I felt nothing of the sort. I just read it from start to finish, agreeing with most of its contents, and using some of its sub-plots to enhance the Studs and Fighters Theory. The only ‘impact’ it had on me was about not being a quiet atheist, and to get into arguments about existence of god, etc.

I have an interesting background in these matters. My mother and her immediate family are all ultra-religious, and I happened to grow up mostly in my maternal grandfather’s place (since both parents worked). My late father, on the other hand, was a rationalist, though he stopped short of calling himself an atheist and would passively approve of my mom’s various religious indulgences. He would quietly drive my mother and my family to the Sai Baba ashram in Whitefield, and then wait patiently outside while the rest of the people went in for their “darshan”. I would usually go in and make noises about exposing the Baba.

I don’t know how, but till recently (when I read Dawkins’s book), I would never realize when people were talking about religious stuff. For example, whenever my mom said “it’s due to god’s grace that you escaped the accident unhurt”, I’d just think that she was being rhetorical. At least, that (and swearing) are the only cases in which I take god’s name. It’s only recently, and after reading Dawkins’s book, that I realize that my mother wasn’t being rhetorical after all, and that she actually believes that it was the strength of her daily prayers that ensured I escaped those accidents unhurt.

It is also intersting to note the selection bias. My mother, and her ultra-religious sisters, and their ultra-religious relatives, selectively pick on favourable events and attribute them to god’s grace. Earlier, before reading Dawkins’s book, I would shut up, but now I’m a bit more vocal about these things, and ask them why their prayers didn’t prevent the unfavourable events from occurring. Then, they start looking for the silver lining in the cloud and attribute that to their prayers. Never mind the cloud.

So what about my religion? Some people find it contradictory that my political views are right-leaning (socially) even though I don’t believe in God. I say that I’m ‘culturally hindu’, and that Hinduism/Hindutva is not a religion but a way of life. And if you scrap away all the rituals and other beliefs, what remains in hinduism is the religion that I follow. I like to describe myself as “athiest but culturally hindu”.

I believe that poojas are just an excuse to throw feasts. I believe in rituals such as marriage ceremonies as no-questions-asked-processes which “have to be done” but I don’t believe that they are a necessary condition for any benefit, or against something bad.

Two years back, when my father died, I found the post-death ceremonies quite depressing and decided I’m not going to do them. So an uncle came up to me and asked me why I didn’t want to do the rituals. I told him I didn’t believe in them. He replied saying there was no question of belief but it was my duty to do the rituals. I told him that I didn’t believe that it was my duty to do them.

Problem with defeating elders in logical arguments is that they tend to take it personally, and then decide to attack you rather than attacking your argument. I finally ended up doing all those rituals. But I happened to fight with the shastris during each and every ceremony.

In hindsight, I realized that my fighting with the shastris, though ugly, had managed to send a “don’t mess with me” message to my relatives.

The Mata Temple in Amritsar

It seems to be a slightly obscure temple. I don’t think it is on the map of most tourists who visit Amritsar. Or maybe with the increasing breed of auto drivers turned tour guides, it is now. The Lonely Planet Guide to India calls it the “Mata temple”. Locals call it the “vaishno devi temple”. The Lonely Planet guide says it is a must-visit for women who want to get pregnant. Anyway, we went. On the way back from our trip to the Wagah border.

It is an interesting temple, to say the least. The ground floor seems to be a normal temple, but the presiding deity is an old bespectacled woman in a sari which made me think that it is dedicated to some cult. Apparently not, and this is the way that Vaishno Devi is represented in most places (that is what my mother tells me). The ground floor is again noisy as most north indian temples are. As I enter, I notice this staircase that says “vaishno devi cave” or some such thing. And I go upstairs.

The first floor of the temple has been designed with The Crystal Maze (remember that awesome TV show on Star Plus?) in mind. I don’t know if it was designed that way to attract children, or if they actually decided to model the place after some famous temples, or if they just made it that way to make the place more interesting.

So in order to reach the shrine of the main deity (again a Devi), you need to go through a large number of “tasks”. You need to climb up and down a total of three flights of stairs each way (I think I counted it right). And then there is a stretch where the ceiling is so low that you need to crawl on all fours to get past. And you need to get past a blabbering madman (an employee of the temple) in order to stand in a queue – which leads into a second cave.

This second cave has ankle-deep water, and you need to wade through that. i was wearing cargo pants whose legs could be detached at the knees, but then I was afraid of misplacing them so just rolled them up. And while you were wading through the water, you had people who started shouting slogans in favour of the Mata. Death only it was. But at the end of the passage where you waded through the water, there was a wonderful sight. A one of a kind.

There was a statue of udders of a cow, and placed directly below that was a statue of a snake, and a lingam. Interpret this ensemble in whatever way you like. I first told my mother that this was a good way of ensuring middleman-less ksheeraabhishekam. Anyways we noticed people in front of us touching the udders and the lingam and the snake (yes, unlike most temple deities, these things were available for touching for general public).

When my turn came, not knowing how to handle it, I ended up groping the udders. And then stroked the lingam below. It’s been a week since we visited that temple, but my mother is yet to stop ragging me about what I did there.

That turned out to be the last of the “adventures” as we soon came to the main deity. The pujaris there gave us kadlepuri (puffed rice) as prasad, and put some saffron marks on our foreheads (eccentrically). And we were soon back downstairs enduring the noise of the main temple.