Vishnu and Shiva temples

This post may add to Aadisht’s contention of Shaivism being superior to Vaishnavism. Earlier this month I’d gone with family to this place called Avani, some 100 km east of Bangalore. The main centre of attraction there was this 10th century Shiva temple that had been built by the Gangas.

As we got off the car, I was pleased to see the signage of the Archaeological Society of India. I’m in general not a big fan of temples. I find them to be overwhelmed with “devotees”, and way too noisy, and more importantly for some reason I’m not allowed to use my camera inside temples. So I was pleased that this being an ASI temple there won’t be any worship in there and so I can take pictures peacefully.

As we entered, though, I saw a number of priestly figures standing around the entrance, and one of them shouted “no photo in temple, no photo in temple” (i was in bermudas and a t-shirt, and wearing a backpack and camera bag so looked foreign types). I just nodded and went on. And then another priest accompanied us, and performed the pooja to the idol.

The temple at Avani is that of Ramalingeshwara, a version of Shiva. Now, the studness with Shiva temples is that the idol is extremely simple. It’s just a penis. And it’s not hard to make, and more importantly it’s hard to break, since it’s monolithic, and usually without any portions that can easily break off. Contrast this with Vishnu temples, where the idols are of actual human figures, with arms and legs and ears and noses and fingers – all made of relatively thin pieces of stone, which makes it easier to break.

So think of yourself as an invader who for some reason wants to defile a temple by destroying its idols. The very nature of idols in a Vishnu temple makes your job simple. All you need is to give one strong hit which will break off a nose or a toe or a finger – not much damage, but enough to defile the temple and render it useless for the purpose of worship. But get to a Shiva temple, and you see one large penis-shaped stone in there, and you realize it’s not worth your patience to try break it down. So you just loot the vaults and go your way.

And hence, due to the nature of the idols in these temples, Shiva temples are more resilient to invasion and natural disaster compared to Vishnu temples. Aadisht, you can be happy.

Separation of Church and Estate

I’m talking about Sathya Sai Baba here (incidentally, in Kannada his name translates to “did you die? Die! Come, come!”), who recently “attained his own lotus feet”, to paraphrase what someone said on Twitter. Even Sachin Tendulkar’s prayers for his health didn’t help him, it seems.

So there are two sides to saibaba, and going forward it is important that the two be kept disjoint. On the one hand is the “NGO work” that his organization has undertaken – the super-specialty hospitals in Puttaparthi and Bangalore, the drinking water project they’ve implemented in Rayalseema, and the like. On the other is the spiritual side, where you have thousands of “devotees” (I once called my aunt “Sai baba’s follower” and she got offended saying “I’m a devotee, not a follower”) singing bhajan and going delirious when Sai Baba produced Caramilk toffees out of thin air and threw them into the crowd (a long time ago, I was one of them, jumping up and down to catch these toffees).

I guess efforts are on to find his “spiritual successor” (and I hope China doesn’t step in to prevent his reincarnation), and there is already reportedly a huge fight among his “close devotees” regarding control of his estate. The estate is huge, and is supposed to get lots of donations, a large part of which at least (it appears) has been deployed in developmental projects. It is important that these developmental projects continue, and to ensure that they’re not hijacked by “devotees” who want to pursue a different agenda, it’s important to spin off this side of the organization into a registered NGO – recognized and regulated by the government, providing tax exemption to donations, publishing accounts regularly, and the like. You know how common it is that “spiritual NGOs” are hijacked for purposes of money laundering.

I don’t care what happens to the rest of the organization – with the delirious “devotees” who sing bhajans and give “global” speeches” and start TV and radio stations. Perhaps it is important for it to also continue – for its presence will mean people continue to be attached to the baba, which could help in fundraising efforts for the NGO. I’m sure they’re going to find a spiritual successor, but it needs to be seen how many of the baba’s “devotees” remain devoted to this successor.

On an unrelated note, I see in the papers that the baba is going to be buried. I don’t know what the rules of the caste he was born into (Raju) is, but I suppose this is a tactic so that there is no mad fight for his ashes, the “holiest of the holy vibhutis”, in case he is cremated. Even then, I wouldn’t be surprised if his body gets exhumed by some overzealous “devotee” sooner or later. They need to dig deeper.

Cults and organized religion

On the way back from Mysore last week, my mom asked to go to an orphanage in Srirangapatnam which is run by one Mr Halagappa, a follower of the Sathya Sai Baba of Puttaparthi (ok I must mention that followers of the Sai Baba get pissed off if you call them followers – they claim to be “devotees”. In other words, they consider the Baba to be God. I had a long argument with my aunt once about this). It’s a nice place, located on north bank of the south stream of the Cauvery river.

We were led to the prayer hall where a little girl from the orphanage gave us prasad – something that seemed like sweetened honey and vibhuti. The atmosphere in the hall reminded me of the meditation hall in my school (Sri Aurobindo Memorial, Bangalore). There was an “om” record playing perennially. At one end, there were several photos of the Baba. The interesting thing was that surrounding the “altar”, there were symbols of various religions – om, crescent and star, fire, the cross, the star of david, etc. Maybe it indicated that the Sai Baba was all those gods combined in one.

Now, the thing with people belonging to the Sai Baba cult believe that he is God. They believe that he is God and his previous incarnation was the Sai Baba of Shirdi. Interestingly, most of his followers are also deeply religious with respect to another organized religion. For example, my mother is an extremely devout Hindu – to the extent that she believes that miracles can be caused by doing certain rituals, etc. And she is also completely into the Sai Baba cult.

Then, no organized religion has room for godmen. They do have room for religious leaders – who are supposed to interpret the teachings of the religion and explain them to the mango person, but they certainly don’t approve of religious leaders who claim to be God themselves. In fact, when a religious/spiritual leader proclaims himself to be God, he is implicitly stating that he is alone the true God and all other religions need to be rejected. Yet, he seems to get zillions of followers who are more often than not major followers of some other organized religion. Isn’t there a contradiction?

Spiritual leaders come in two forms – godmen and gurus. The former make their followers believe that they are God. The latter don’t make any such claims – they just claim to be carrying the word of some god of one or more organized religions and passing them on to the mango person. I wonder what it is that makes deeply religous people (wrt organized religion) go after godmen and become “devotees”. Don’t they see it as being contradictory to their belief in their own organized religion? Again – some of them might just be accepting these godmen as gurus and not as godmen, and that makes some sense. But what about the rest?

I know I can confront my mother directly about this, but I also know that she won’t like the idea that I’m asking her uncomfortable questions and she’ll just end up getting angry with me.