Preface: I am greatly indebted to Swami Sivananda and Sreenivas Raoji for most of the information in this article. Thanks to WWW, we are able to uncover the vast literature of Sanatana Dharma, put forth by many of these imminent scholars. These enlightened souls are the real intellectuals.
Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple in Singapore
The reason why I am writing this article is to clear some basic doubts that people seem to have about temples and idol worship. The objective is to look at the underlying philosophy and symbolic meaning. From my childhood, I have been quite fascinated about temples as my family knew only one kind of trip – pilgrimage 😀 I have visited all kind of temples across the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Delhi, Punjab and Uttarakand. In my childhood, I used to think that my destiny would turn out the way I wanted, just by praying and prostrating at temples! In fact, that is the common belief among most adults even to this date. Worshipping is seen like a deal between man and the god where the man makes an offering to the god who in turn grants the man’s wishes. Well folks, that’s pure baloney. Nobody is going to get things done for you. You have to do it all by yourself or you have to find someone who could do it for you and that someone is definitely not god.Book me for sacrilege if you want to 😀
This post is split into three sections. First, we will look into the concept of god in Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). Secondly, the underlying philosophy and symbolism and in the final section, we very briefly explore the origins of temples and idol worship.
Section One – Concept of God
There are quite a few religions in the world with a lot of similarities between them. However, the concept of god is a differentiating aspect. In one side, we have the Abrahamic religions with Christianity, Islam and Judaism being the prominent ones while on the other side; we have the Dharmic religions with Hinduism and Buddhism as the prominent ones. Abrahamic religions are history-centric  with their main individual gods being the all-powerful, untouchable and separate beings. Man cannot become one with god and salvation is possible only on god’s wish. Dharmic religions, on the contrary, have both gods and godlessness i.e. if you want to pray to a god, you can have one but the ultimate reality is godlessness. The central theme in Dharmic religions is allegiance to Dharma. Dharma is a very difficult concept to explain briefly. In simple words, it is about following laws of nature for a happy and fulfilling life where man and all the other entities of nature are equals. These laws or rules operate at the society (ethics) and individual (morality) levels. Dharmic religions believe man can become god if he lets go of everything and becomes one with the ‘self’. In Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism), the concept of god operates at two levels. The first level concept is called as Saguna Brahman and the second level concept is called as Nirguna Brahman . Saguna Brahman is the tangible ‘god with attributes’, similar to Jesus Christ. The god has many names, many forms and many avatars (births). Each god has a purpose of his/her own and different qualities associated. For example, Ganesha is considered auspicious whenever one starts a new work  while Hanuman is a champion for youngsters because of his strength and courage. The second level, Nirguna Brahman is consciousness itself i.e. ‘god without any attributes’. In Mahayana Buddhism, Nirguna Brahman is referred to as Sunya or the Void . Nirguna Brahman is considered everything in this world. We can merge with it when we become aware of it through intense and deep meditation. However, attaining it in one day is just not possible. Different schools of thoughts have put forth different paths for the seekers to attain this state. In my personal opinion, these paths are pretty similar with differences mainly in vocabulary. Check this presentation  for knowing more about Nirguna Brahman as per the Vedantic tradition.
Saguna and Nirguna Brahman
You might ask ‘What is the need for two levels?’ The answer is pretty simple. One needs to move from the basic level to the advanced level. It’s common knowledge that we humans function through our five senses, mind and intellect. Along with the mind and intellect, we have the individual egos. Nirguna Brahman (Supreme Consciousness) is a state beyond the senses, mind and intellect. For a normal person to reach that state is not an easy task. Only through concentration and deep meditation, one can go beyond the mind and intellect. Therefore, a beginner level is required to get us started in the right path. This is where the concept of Saguna Brahman comes in. The principle theme here is to inculcate the practise of concentration by focusing on a tangible object. The object can be a 3-dimensional idol or a 2-dimensional symbol  (below figure). Examples for idols are the different idols of Shiva, Vishnu and other gods while the symbols are Om, Swastika and Sri Chakra. We the seekers are supposed to put all our concentration on these ‘sacred’ objects. This is similar to Jyoti Meditation (meditating on candle flame) or meditating by concentrating on a single object. The purpose is to train your mind so that it controls the senses instead of the other way around. Realistically, you could do this practise anywhere by having an idol or symbol in front of you. But, in our homes, offices and other public places, we have distractions all around us which creates the need for a specific place just for this purpose. This is where, temples come in!
Symbol and Idol
Section Two – Philosophy and Symbolism
As mentioned earlier, temples provide a canvas for humans to concentrate and contemplate on a single glorified object with associated divine qualities. Temples are considered to be the bridge between objective reality (material plane that we exist in) and transcendental reality (supreme consciousness). This theory is related to a geometrical figure called as the Sri Yantra. You might have seen the Sri Yantra symbol (below figure) in Indian households. This symbol is the pictorial representation of the aforementioned reality levels. The centre spot in this yantra is considered the final destination for any aspirant who wants to merge with consciousness itself. The triangles in this symbol have different meanings attached to them. Figuratively, the aspirant starts from the outside and passes each level until he reaches the centre point. I don’t intend to describe the inner components in this symbol as it is quite detailed in itself. You might wish to check out these sites [7, 8] if you wish to know more about Sri Yantra. In my experience, many Indians have this Sri Yantra metallic plate in their houses but many don’t know why they have it 😀
Sri Yantra Metal Plate
Sri Yantra and Three Realities
Another symbol or geometrical figure associated with temples is the Vasthu Purusha Mandala (VPM)  which is basically a fractal square (below figure). Here is an excerpt from the book The Hindu Temple, Vol. I about VPM – “The vastu-purusha-mandala represents the manifest form of the Cosmic Being; upon which the temple is built and in whom the temple rests. The temple is situated in Him, comes from Him, and is a manifestation of Him. The vastu-purusha-mandala is both the body of the Cosmic Being and a bodily device by which those who have the requisite knowledge attain the best results in temple building”. VPM is the key constituent in an ancient Indian system called as Vastu Shastra which is India’s version of Feng Shui. Vastu Shastra provides guidelines for building houses in harmony with nature. The system is basically based on the five elements (air, water, earth, fire, ether) and astronomical objects. VPM is the key entity in Vashtu Shastra where each side of the square represents the four directions with east being most auspicious since that’s where the sun rises. Each corner and each internal square has its own significance while the centre most inner square allotted to god. This mandala is used both in house and temple construction. In yesteryears, this concept has even used to plan towns around a temple. Madurai and Tirupathi are excellent examples for towns planned and designed using this mandala concept .
Vasthu Purusha Mandala
Madurai town in TN, India
Temple construction procedures are not the same across Hindu sects. There are different set of scriptures maintained for each group. These scriptures are called as Agamas which are theological treatises and practical manuals of divine worship . Shiva temples are based on Saiva Agamas. Vishnu temples are based on Vaishnava Agamas and Sakti temples are based on Sakta Agamas. If you are interested to know about the meaning behind the different sections inside a temple, please read these articles [10, 9, 12, 13 ]. These scriptures are the reason behind the different looks of temples. Temple design is not a superficial thing that can be done with general house designers. It’s an art and science in itself and it is taught in many ashrams across India.
For the next set of information, I think it would be better to follow the Q&A style.
Why do people apply tilak (mark) on their forehead during this visit to the temples?
Tilak is mark that devotees make in their foreheads (below Figure). It signifies many things. Firstly, the space between the two eyebrows where many people apply the tilak, is considered to the center of the Ajna chakra which is one of the six major chakras in our body (To know more about chakras, refer this article ). This space is considered to the place where the spiritual eye opens . It is a symbolic representation of the devotee’s intent to control his mind. Therefore, it is considered auspicious. Some people claim that hypnosis cannot be performed when you have the tilak mark on this forehead space. Tilak is also referred to Vibhuti. There are different types of tilak. They are made of sandal, kumkum flower and sacred ash (from burnt dried wood). Worshippers of Shiva apply sacred ash on their forehead; worshippers of Vishnu apply sandal paste while worshippers of Devi or Shakti apply kumkum on their foreheads. Married Indian women are traditionally expected to have kumkum tilak on their forehead to signify their marital status. I have a nice time applying sandal paste in my forehead because it has a cooling effect 🙂 So next time, when you come across a person who has this colourful mark on his forehead, don’t freak out 😛
Why are offerings made to the temple deities?
Now, this is the part where people have gone overboard due to misunderstanding of the actual meaning behind offering things to gods. The underlying philosophy is the intent of the worshipper in giving away material things whilst surrendering at the feet of the god. In Hinduism, the major theme is letting go of things to reach higher levels in life. There’s an excellent saying – “Don’t get and forget, instead give and forgive”. So, worshippers make offerings which are figuratively blessed by the gods and then, they are distributed to all the worshippers. If the worshipper offers money, they are supposed to be used for the maintenance of the temples and for offering support to poor and needy people.
Why is the bell rung often inside temples?
You might have noticed some big bells inside temples. These bells are rung for the simple reason of shutting down the external sounds from outside. It helps in directing the mind towards concentration. The bell-ringing is done while lights are waved before the temple deity.
Ringing of Temple Bell
Why are camphors burned by temples priests?
The other common sight in a temple is the periodical waving of lights by the temple priests who stand right before the temple deity. Camphors are often burnt in order to produce light. The significance in this practise is to illumine the minds of the worshippers by getting rid of the darkness within their minds. Also, it is a symbolic gesture to wake the worshippers so that they could see the reality behind all things.
Why do temple priests and worshippers recite mantra during worship?
Mantras are sacred words recited in praise of gods. There are different mantras for different gods. Traditionally, all the mantras were written in Sanskrit language as part of the Vedas. Now, there are mantras in most Indian languages. Reciting mantras is also considered as a type of meditation as the person tends to concentrates on the particular god while reciting. Mantras are another misunderstood aspect of Hinduism. Many current generation Indians denigrate mantra reciting as a usual chore of the yore. But, in reality, mantras are highly beneficial not only to the worshipper but also to the surroundings. Swami Sivananda gives the following explanation for the exact science behind mantras “A Mantra, in the Hindu religion, has the following six parts. It has got a Rishi (a man of Self-realization) to whom it was revealed for the first time and who gave this Mantra to the world… Secondly, the Mantra has a metre (Chhandas), which governs the inflection of the voice. Thirdly, the Mantra has a particular deity or supernatural being, higher or lower, as its informing power. Fourthly, the Mantra has got a Bija or seed. The seed is a significant word, or series of words, which gives a special power to the Mantra. The Bija is the essence of the Mantra. Fifthly, every Mantra has got a Sakti. The Sakti is the energy of the form of the Mantra, i.e., of the vibration-forms set up by its sound. These carry the man to the Devata that is worshipped. Lastly, the Mantra has a Kilaka – pillar or pin. This plugs the Mantra-Power that is hidden in the Mantra. As soon as the plug is removed by constant and prolonged repetition of the Name, the Power that is hidden is revealed” . The key thing with reciting mantras is to understand the meaning of the mantra words. Without proper understanding, mantra chanting becomes a kind of chore. You might feel a powerful kind of positive vibration inside temples. These vibrations are due to the constant chanting of mantras by the temple priests. Personally, if I don’t feel the vibration inside a temple, I don’t regard it as a proper place of worship.
Section Three – Origins of temples and idol worship
[Note: I will not write much in this section as it is mainly meant for readers with interests in history]
Many might think temple worship in Hinduism is an age-old practice going on for centuries. On the contrary, temples are recent and they have come up in the last 1500 years. In fact, the Vedic period when the four Vedas were written, had no concept of idol worship. It’s amazing to learn that prehistoric Indian civilizations had advanced societies but no temples . There are opinions that temples were first constructed by Buddha’s followers  while among the Hindu gods, Shiva was the main god for whom there were temples , followed by the temples for the other gods.Temples were mainly constructed under the leadership of various kings across India. India’s most eminent philosopher-saint Adi Shankara established the five maths (temples) all across India in the 8th century. Pandiya and Chola dynasties are known for constructing big temples in south India at later periods. Between the 10th and 18th century, hindu temples were constructed all across Asia, most notably in Indonesia and Cambodia .
The major impetus for the rise of temples in India can be attributed to the Bhakti (Devotion) movement . This movement brought about idols and rituals based on the theme of Saguna Brahman. The movement was required because of the inherent difficulty faced by the masses in understanding the esoteric knowledge system of Vedas and Upanishads which are based on Nirguna Brahman. Historians believe that bhakti movement was a response to the onset of Islam in India when many Indians were slaughtered and proselytized by the invaders. Worship of relatively new deities such as Rama and Krishna started in this period.
Angkor Wat Temple
I hope you had a nice time reading this article. Please do provide your valuable suggestions and comments. If you have a specific doubt temples or idol worship, please do comment 🙂
References (for further reading)
 Malhotra, Rajiv. Being different: an Indian challenge to Western universalism. HarperCollins Publishers India a joint venture with The India Today Group, 2011.
 Sivananda, Swami, ed. The Bhagavad Gita: Text, Word-to-word Meaning, Translation, and Commentary. Divine Life Society, 2010.
 Easwaran, E. “The Dhammapada: Introduced & translated by Eknath Easwaran . Tomales.” (2007).