Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

8.3 Worship in temples and street shrines

Apart from being intensely visible, participation in devotional practice at temples and festivals is extremely widespread within popular Hinduism. If we make allowance for regional and sectarian variations, we can gain some truly representative insights into a central preoccupation of living Hinduism. As in Section 6, I would like you to look for examples of Smart's seven dimensions and again I will prompt you in the text from time to time.

If we are prepared to accept that expressions of reverence and respect for higher beings and powers are characteristics of ‘religion’, then signs of religion are not difficult to find in India. If you walked the streets of Calcutta as alertly as you walked the streets of Britain in our earlier exercise, you would see garlanded pictures and images of these higher beings and powers even on the dashboards of taxis and buses. The routine greeting of namaskar, when hands are raised with palms pressed together, is a gesture that has its place in Hindu worship. In the centre of cities as in the smallest villages, temples and shrines draw individuals into moments of intense contact with the chosen focus of their worship (experiential and emotional dimension). Conches, horns and cymbals are sounded in the larger temples. The evening air is alive with the scents and sounds of worship. It may seem as if religion is everywhere and that no one is apart from it.

A Hindu temple is a three-dimensional sacred space into which the devotee enters to receive the sight or vision (darshan) of the deity, for the purpose of the temple is to house the image (murti) of the deity (material dimension). The temple is the house of the deity and not the centre for congregational worship as found in some other religious traditions. Hindus generally go to a temple in India to fit in with the daily ‘routine’ of the deity and not on a special day in the week, unlike Hindus in Britain who now tend to concentrate their communal worship on Sundays simply for convenience. The main activity that takes place in a Hindu temple whether in India or Britain is worship (puja). It may take the form of an act of private devotion, a family ritual or a communal performance, and it has been described as ‘the core ritual of popular theistic Hinduism’ (Fuller, 1992, p. 57). Thus puja can refer to an offering or prayer made by a solitary devotee or a complex ritual conducted on behalf of devotees by a temple attendant. It can even refer to the protracted worship that takes place during a festival over several days and thus means much the same as the English word ‘festival’.

The symbolism of the divine encountered during the ‘pilgrimage’ of worship may include the aniconic (not shaped in human and animal form) in which the divine is represented, for example, by trees or stones shaped by nature alone. The divine is also portrayed in immensely varied human and animal figures. Ganesh, one of the most popular Hindu deities, is depicted as pot-bellied with the head of an elephant (Figure 11). According to Hindu mythology, Ganesh is the son of Shiva and dramatic stories are told about how he came to have the head of an elephant at the hands of his divine father. By way of compensation, Shiva made Ganesh the remover of obstacles and the maker of auspicious occasions. For this reason, Ganesh is frequently worshipped at the start of puja or when undertaking any important or momentous activity. Shrines to Ganesh are often found just within the entrance to a temple compound.

Figure 11
Photo: Sharma Picture Publications
Figure 11 Popular image of Ganesh

Wayside shrines and household shrines serve much the same purpose as the temple (Figure 12). All of them are inclusive in their acceptance of these varied symbols of the divine. In dealing with forms of belief and practice that are so varied and yet all have their place within Hinduism, you are probably beginning to apply instinctively the broad principles of Religious Studies: namely, trying to understand what lies before you on its own terms and in context.

Figure 12
Photo: Gwilym Beckerlegge
Figure 12 Street shrine of Shiva, Gol Park, Calcutta

Now that you have some understanding of the characteristic patterns of Hindu worship, we shall take a closer look at examples of living Hinduism in eastern India and more particularly in the city of Calcutta in the state of West Bengal.

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