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.


So on Sunday we went to this temple on the outskirts of Bangalore where the in-laws performed Satyanarayana Pooja. There was a small number relatives there, and a large gang on unknown people (it was essentially a public function). It’s a nice temple, dedicated to Shiva, and built in the Kerala style. I think it’s still work-in-progress, and there’s stuff to be done in terms of carvings and stuff. And it’s in a nice secluded spot which adds to the peace of the place.

So the temple has this policy of “annadaana” (rice donation), where they serve lunch to everyone who visits them around lunch time. I’ve written about temple meals before, and you know I’m not a big fan of them. That aside, there was this little act of forced idealism in this temple around meal time, which I wasn’t too happy about.

So the temple doesn’t invest in professional cleaners to clean the plates (I don’t understand why temples insist on serving meals in steel plates – the same is the case in Sringeri and Horanadu also). Instead, you are supposed to wash your plate and tumbler after you’re done eating. In theory this is a fine idea – if we are giving you free food, you might as well do this small help in terms of cleaning up after you. But the problem is this creates huge incentive problems.

There is a reason that public loos are seldom clean – there is no incentive for a user to keep the loo clean for the person who uses it after them. The only way a public loo can be kept clean is by employing paid labour to clean it, where it isn’t hard to align incentives of the cleaners with cleanliness of the loo. Similarly, why would you want to make a special effort into cleaning your plate when some unknown person who you’ll probably never meet in life is going to eat out of it next?

I appreciate the idealism  but the economics simply don’t work. To put it simply – cleaner plates implies greater satisfaction among people who are there at the temple to eat, which encourages repeated visits, which results in greater donations. I’m sure the little investment in people to clean the plates can be recovered many times over in terms of increase in donation. Still, they insist on imposing ideals on people..

I’m not really going to talk about the food. However, I want to briefly mention about the pooja itself, which went on for about double the time as a normal Satyanarayana Pooja (my wife and I performed one such the day after our wedding, so I know the “standard”). The pujari (who is responsible for building the temple) put in a lot of extra fittings, and a lot of the crowd (mostly people unknown to me – it was a public event) seemed to rather enjoy it. I think there is this misplaced notion somewhere that more rituals implies more good karma.

And on a related note, I fail to understand what people mean when they say “pooje is going on well” (I’ve heard this phrase too many times to not comment on it). Does it simply mean “there have been no disasters so far during the pooje” (I can’t think of any other meaning for it)?

Religion and culture

Normally I don’t consider myself to be too religious. Apart from wearing the sacred thread (janavaara / pooNal) there is nothing religious that I do on a day-to-day basis. I visit temples only to look at the architecture (and look at my offering to the temple as my support to maintenance of the temple), don’t do sandhyavandanam, hate rituals and all that. But then I figured today that irrespective of all the irreligious things that I do, a part of religion has been ingrained in my personal “culture”.

So my car had a freak accident today. I had parked it in the basement parking lot of my office and this electric powered golf cart that my office has recently bought smashed into it. Rear bumper is actually broken. A couple of dents around the sides. The corporate services people have promised to get it repaired for me and stuff, but I’m still mighty depressed about the damage (and I don’t normally take my car to work).

So initially when I saw it smashed, and was told that it would be repaired by next Tuesday, I didn’t think much. I mentally made plans to roam town by auto this weekend and reasoned that I could easily manage the weekdays in office cab. All way peace with the world.

Until I realized that Saturday is Ayudha Pooja, when you worship your tools, especially vehicles. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not the religious types but celebrating Ayudha Pooja is a done thing. I’ve been doing it every year and want to continue doing it. Probably because I think it’s fun, but also because it’s a “done thing”. Washing and cleaning the vehicle, applying turmeric and vermillion, putting flowers and (most fun of all) smashing lemons under the wheels of the vehicle!

I’ll still celebrate Ayudha Pooja this year. Worship my dabba bike, my computer, my violin, my guitar and other sundry implements. But it greatly saddens me that I won’t be able to worship the car. And again it’s nothing religious about it. But just wanted to mention how something that starts out as a religious thing becomes a “done thing” and becomes part of you.

Just like how I’m vegetarian!

Abou Ben Adhem

I’m a big fan of Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase). I don’t particularly consider myself religious but I like his philosophy (as described in the poem) about being a lover of fellow-men (no pun intended) being superior to a lover of god. I get extremely irritated by people who cause inconvenience to others by way of their religious acts.

Recently I happed to read this excellent (in my opinion) article in Open by Manu Joseph (Udupa, who referred the article to me, thinks it was written in my style. I would take that as a major compliment (to me, of course). It’s been ages since I’ve made arguments like those). The article is about Islam and cricket betting but Joseph makes some important points about religion itself. To quote my favourite part of the essay,

A religious person, having done his pilgrimage, having done his prayers and fasts, has no further motivation to be good in a way that is more useful to the rest of humanity.

I think on similar lines every time I’m invited for some pooja-cum-lunch where the lunch gets delayed beyond reasonable time because the hosts (who are also doing the pooja) are taking too long with the pooja; giving too much attention to God at the cost of the felllow-men and women who they have invited. There are several such examples you come across in daily life.

Thinking more about it, I wonder if this statement (from Joseph’s article) actually applies to a religion such as Hinduism (Sanatana Dharma, to be technically correct), given it’s Karma concept. The beauty of the Karma concept is that you accumulate points in God’s books (all well tabulated by the excellent Chitragupta) by being nice to your fellow men.

Now, with the Karma concept being around, and the efficient Chitragupta watching you, I’m not sure you need to “relax” and stop bothering to be nice just because you’ve said your prayers and generally been nice to God.

In this context, it surprises me further that supposedly deeply religious Hindus are nice to god at the cost of being nice to fellow men and women. Probably they just do some “religious things” blindly without really understanding what they are doing; mug up their prayers without understanding them properly. I think there’s a black swan risk in what they are doing!

In other news, during the Ganesha pooje today I tried my best to put my limited knowledge of Sanskrit to good use and actually understand the mantras that were being chanted while I was going through the motions. I’ll probably write in detail about that in another post.

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’


Today is Shivarathri. It is a holiday for the National Stock Exchange, which has made it an optional holiday for us (there are 10 such days of which we can choose 3). And I’ve chosen to exercise this option today. Sitting at home and battling internal demons. And saying goodbye to winter.

My mother says that the fact that it has become considerably hotter today points to the greatness of God. “It is ordained that on the day of Shivarathri, winter will cry ‘shiva shiva’ and run away, and that it has suddenly become hot today is an indication that God still makes nature obey ‘the laws’ “.

I agree with her argument but not with her conclusion. I say that the fact that winter seems to be on its way out today, on the day of Shivarathri, points to the greatness of the people who made our calendar. That they managed to study the stars accurately, and came up with a sustainable forecast regarding the closing date for winter that is valid even thousands of years hence is a good indication of how brilliant they were.

Like that coffee bite argument used to say, the argument continues.

Today being Shivarathri also means that it should be a night dedicated to the lingam – the most commonly worshipped form of Shiva. I wonder how many people are currently looking at their hands and thinking of a form of Vishnu that is worshipped in Puri.

This morning, my neighbour went to a nearby Shiva temple, to take part in something like “linga abhishekam”. She took along a mixture of milk, ganga jal (water from the Ganga; not H2SO4 of Bhagalpur) and sugar to do the pooja. Later on, my mother was on the phone with her sister, and after a long philosophical discussion they concluded that women doing the “linga abhishekam” is not part of South Indian Brahmin culture.