INDIA is a land of temples. The Hindu temple is a house of worship like any other but it has certain unique features which elevate it to great spiritual merit and recognition. The orthodox Hindu temple is symbolically designed. Its location, construction and rituals are of special significance. They are all designed to indicate the path that man has to take to evolve himself spiritually and reach the goal of Self realization.
The main temples in India are situated on top of the hills. The paths to these temples are narrow and rugged. The pilgrims had to walk up the hill in single file. They had to brave the many exigencies and difficulties of the jungle path before they could reach the shrine. They carried with them fruits and flowers to offer to the Lord in the temple. All these are significant.
The location of the temple at a high altitude signifies that spiritual evolution is above all mundane achievements in this world and to gain spiritual perfection one needs to put in a great deal of self-effort. The seeker has to be single pointed and consistent in his efforts and overcome the many temptations and challenges that confront him in his spiritual path. The single file footpath to the temples indicates that the seeker of truth is all alone in his spiritual pursuit. He cannot share it with anyone. He may seek the help of a guru and other associates but ultimately he has to proceed all by himself in his journey to truth.
Today there are broad asphalted roads and fast transport systems to reach the same temples. People visit them in groups making a picnic out of a pilgrimage. The purpose of the age-old spiritual practice has been lost.
Fruit is taken by a spiritual seeker and offered to the temple or to his guru. The priest in the temple or guru receives it from the seeker. In such long journeys the ideal fruit that would stay fresh without decaying is the coconut.
A fruit is the product of a tree. It is the result, the effect produced. Similarly, the result of a product of all past karmas activities of man is his present vasanas, desires. When vasanas, desires are removed from a person he gains Godhood.
Man minus vasanas/desires=God.
Both fruit and vasanas are similar in the sense that they are end products. A fruit is chosen to represent the vasanas, desires of man. When a devotee offers a fruit to the Lord it signifies the offering of his vasanas, desires and thereby unfolding his inner Self. His visit to the temple therefore symbolizes exhaustion of his vasanas, desires and realization of his Self.
Why do we offer coconut?
The coconut is the most popular offering in the temples of India. Besides the fact that the coconut stays fresh for many days its choice for the offering has a deeper significance. The coconut has a smooth skin on the outside while its inside is all coarse, knotted up with coir. The coir grows out of the hard shell. Within the hard shell is the kernel. The seeker removes the coir from the shell leaving a small tuft on one side and offers the full coconut to the priest. The priest breaks the shell and tears the tuft of coir away exposing three black spots on the shell. The pure white kernel is then exposed. The prayers are chanted and the coconut is offered to the deity.
The smooth outer skin of the coconut represents man’s physical body. Within the gross body is the subtle body consisting of desires and attachments. The coir matted together represents man’s entanglements with desires and attachments in this world. These desires and attachments arise from his causal body which again is represented by the hard shell.
When a seeker goes to a temple or guru he leaves all his worldly desires and attachments except those that are necessary for his spiritual evolution. These few desires left in him solely for his spiritual pursuit are symbolized by the small tuft of coir. The removal of the tuft means the exhaustion of the last traces of desires in the seeker. The breaking of the shell is the transcendence of the causal body and the exposure of the kernel is realization of the supremeSelf.
Why do we offer flower?
The flowers offered in a temple also represents vasanas. Each flower is avasana. The ritual of flower offerings is to be done in a particular way. The devotee uses the five fingers of the right hand to pick up a flower gently, then turns the fingers with the flower upwards and softly offers the flower at the Lord’s feet. This ritual is performed repeatedly until all the flowers are offered. The Lord’s feet represent the supreme Reality.
Feet are the substratum upon which the personality rests. They represent the foundation of one’s personality. That foundation is the Reality. So offering the flowers signifies giving up yourvasanas or desires and merging with the Reality. This is indicated by the ritual. The five fingers are directed towards the ground to pick up a flower. The fingers represents the five senses. When a man’s five senses are drawn towards the mundane world they pick up a vasana. But when the senses are directed towards the higher Self, represented by the fingers turning upwards the vasanas get eliminated. When this practice is maintained consistently all the vasanas get exhausted and man becomes one with God.
Why do we prostrate in a temple?
The devotee prostrates himself before his guru or in the temple. He lies flat on his stomach with arms stretched over his head and his palms together. His head, intellect and his heart, mind are in line with the Lord’s feet, Reality. This signifies that his entire personality has merged with God.
What are the significances of the Temple Architecture?
Again, the very construction of the temple indicates the path to Self-realisation. The idol is in the sanctum sanctorum, a dark room where there is a small oil lamp burning personality. Around the sanctum sanctorum is a closed passage on all four sides. Outside this is a wider passage with the roof covered. Beyond the walls of this is a still broader passage without a roof over it.
The entrance to the temple leads to this wide open passage. Thus there are three passages enveloping the shrine. The three passages leading to the sanctorum refer to the gross, subtle and causal bodies of man. Within his three bodies lies the supreme Self which is unknown, dark to him. If a man wants to reach his inner Self he must cross the limitations of his gross, subtle and causal bodies and seek within. The outer most passage of the temple which is open to the sky indicates the gross body which deals with the outer world. Man identifies himself with his gross body and gets involved in the external world.
To regain his spiritual Self he must first rise above worldly entanglements and delve deeper into his personality. When he does that he enters the realm of his subtle body consisting of his desires and thoughts. That is indicated by the devotee moving to the next passage in the temple with the closed Roof. Remaining there again is spiritual stagnation. He must rise above desires and thoughts and move on to the next passage, the causal body and transcend them. The causal body is his vasanas which is the seat of ignorance. He must get rid of his vasanas through spiritual knowledge before he can come in contact with his real Self, the Atman represented by the shrine.
Why do we light an oil lamp?
The devotee reaches the sanctum sanctorum. It is all dark. The idol is not seen. The oil lamp burning indicates that the Atman is the everlasting light of wisdom. Man can use it at any time to destroy his ignorance and regain the knowledge of his Self. The priest lights a piece of camphor from this oil lamp and shows it to the idol. As the camphor burns the smoke escapes and the image brightens. The devotee has his darsana – vision of the Lord.
Why do we burn camphor in a temple?
The burning of the camphor is again significance. Camphor is in a solid form. But when a pure sample if camphor is left exposed for a period of time it sublimates into mere fragrance leaving no solid substance behind. It is most aptly suited to represent the human personality. For man is nothing but hisvasanas in a substantial form. Vasanas themselves are the insubstantial, inconceivable, inexpressible essence of the human personality. They determine the individual nature. They give out his personal fragrance as it were. When vasanas are eliminated what remains is his pure Self, the Atman.
Atman plus vasanas = human being
Human being minus vasanas=Atman.
This is achieved by taking the light of wisdom from the altar of the Self. Whenvasanas ignorance are destroyed by knowledge, the ego vanishes and man realizes his supreme Self.
Why do we distribute Prasada?
Prasada gift of food is distributed after the darsana vision of the Lord. Prasadain Sanskrit literally means calmness, equanimity. The distribution of Prasadatherefore signifies the attainment of the supreme bliss of Realisation, the bliss of the Self that man gains when he transcends the limitations of his gross, subtle and causal bodies.
Source: Excerpts from the Book “The Symbolism of Hindu Gods and Rituals” by A. Parthasarathy.
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