Temples had been there since olden times but not in many numbers as happened in Kaliyuga. There is a mention about temples in Valmiki Ramayana. After Dasaratha expressed his desire to crown Rama, sage Vasishta took charge of the preparations. One of the orders that Vasishta gave out was to arrange worship in temples and road junctions (Valmiki Ramayana 2- 3-18) His order gives some more information on how worship was to be done in those places. He says that deserving persons (yogyaah) must gather at temples and road junctions with rice, eatables, presents and garlands – an obvious reference to offering food to the deities (neivedhya). This shows that temples had existed and some worship also had happened at road junctions.
Analyzing what importance could be there for road junctions, we have reference to the deities of the junctions, the ‘Chadhukka Bhootham’ mentioned in Silappadhikaram. There were deities of the road junctions and deities of the Directions. These deities had existed in form and appeared before humans in those days. In Silappadhikaram, these deities were said to have left the city when Kannagi took her revenge on the people of the City. There is a corroboratory verse in Chanakya Neeti that the deities of the village will depart 2,500 years after the start of Kali yuga. (Chanakya neeti -11-4) This period roughly corresponds to Kannagi’s period.
In my opinion, the burning of Madurai by Kannagi is not a dharmic act. She directed her anger against all and sundry instead of targeting those who caused her the harm. A convoluted dharma came into place at that time and it still continues. The deities of the village (of the road junctions and directions) could not discharge their duties in such a scenario. They left the earthy plane once for all. Chanakya also says in that verse that 5000 years after Kaliyuga started, the Ganga would disappear. 10,000 years after the Kali started, God will desert the world!
We are lucky that God still resides on earth - is present somewhere around us so that we have some chances of communion with Him. Seeing Him as a dweller within ourselves is a different paradigm. That is a proposition available to us at all times. But getting into communion with Him in physical surrounding is possible for 5000 more years. (We are currently in the 5111th year of Kaliyuga) The local deities who have once guarded the cities and villages have already left. But God who is the In-dweller of all is still present on earth to enable the countless jeevas make a communion with Him for Ultimate Liberation from the cycle of life and death.
One of the ways in which the communion is made is through “vigrahas”. It is Vi- graha, where Vi means 'weave' and Graha means bind. So something bound and woven into it is a Vigraha. Vigraha is expanded as 'Vivita Graham' - meaning enclosed house - of whom? Of God. The physical form of Vigraha binds some special features of God Himself (by consecration) so that people can draw what they want and develop a communion with the God enshrined in it.
Vigraha is a visesha gruham - a special place. It is not right to translate this word as ‘idol’. Some people prefer to use the term 'Murti'. Murti comes from the root verb 'mur' or 'murch' which means 'thicken'. This refers to solid material.
So basically Murti refers to a form, a solid material of some shape and which is an equivalent of the English word 'idol' and not of what is conveyed for the deity under worship.
When we look for the corresponding term in "Mayamatam" - a Vaastu text that covers iconography in chapter 36, the word used is "Pratimaa". This word comes from 'Prati" meaning a copy or another or resemblance and so on. So Pratimaa is a copy of the deity, or one that resembles the deity.
This chapter on iconography is named as "Pratimaa lakshanam" where the description is entirely about the forms and shapes of the images to be worshiped, and not the God enshrined within.
When it comes to referring to the God enshrined within the Pratimaa, the most apt word is "Vigraha".
We have heard the term 'raamO vigrahavaan dharma'. Here the word vigraha means embodiment – of dharma. The embodiment of something cannot be done to anything! For instance iron can be magnetized, but not wood.
There are specific things which ‘bind’ specific characteristics. This is the basis for choice of the material for making vigraha. What I have noted here is just one issue. There are many issues and stipulations right from choice of the material for making the vigraha, to the location where it is expected to be housed (temple) so that maximum benefit is obtained by the people. Science has no idea of these things. But every now and then when we come to know of some scientific revelations, we are able to connect them with temples and wonder how many more of such secrets lie behind temples and vigrahas.
Our seers have had the knowledge of these secrets and have handed them down. Varahamihira quotes Vasishtha as having given the knowledge of vigrahas and how they must be made. In the Ramayana reference given above, it was Vasishtha who gave instructions on worship at temples. Only offerings were mentioned, but no mention of other rituals. Perhaps that was an understood issue. He wanted to make sure of the specific offerings on that occasion.
Varahamihira tells about the material used for making the vigrahas in chapter 60 of Brihat samhita. He gives the benefits accrued to the one who arranged for the consecration of the Vigraha.
· Wood or earth :- the king or the one who consecrates this will have long life, strength, wealth and success.
· Stone :- Gives more landed property or acquisition of lands or expansion of kingdom.
· Gems or precious stones :- (Rahu’s image in Thirunageswaram is likely to be blue sapphire or Neela mani - read Milk turning blue at Rahu Sthalam) Good for the world at large.
· Gold:- Gives good health to the one who consecrated.
· Silver:- Gives happiness of family ( childbirth) to the one who consecrated.
With these inputs, we can understand the purpose of construction of temples by kings like Cheran Senguttuvan and Raja Raja Chozhan in those days. The Sooriyanaar Koil in Kumbakonam also bears testimony to some purpose like this.
The purpose does not end with the kings who built them. The benefits flow down to the community at large. There is a saying in Tamil “கோயில் இல்லா ஊரில் குடி இருக்க வேண்டாம் ” It means ‘don’t reside in a place where there is no temple’. The temple has an expanded boundary enveloping the community around. All those who come within its area of influence are bound by the special characteristics that have been embodied in the vigraha.
The temple thus caters to the wellbeing of a community in addition to enabling the individual get into personal communion with the Lord residing in the vigraha. The many utsavs, the periodical procession of God going around the town are all well intended methods to reach out to the community around. Such being the larger utility of the temple it is necessary and mandatory that we stick to temple rules at all times and in all areas. (Sample rule: The only tallest structure in a community must be the temple Gopuram).
The Kalash acts as the attracting magnet. In those days the temple was constructed in the middle of the city. All the houses were built oriented towards the temple so that everyone could have the darshan of the gopuram at any time. But modernity has dwarfed the temple gopurams. The loss is to the community.
(To be continued)