In the Land of Myriad Gods, Whose Temples Will We Choose to Build?

Deifying and adoring one God over the others is oxymoronic.

As I watched the grand foundation-laying ceremony of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya on August 5, my mind wandered back in time to my village Gorur, where I grew up. Images of temples, gods on palanquins, priests and temple music flickered past my mind’s eye.

As you entered the picturesque village, you first saw a magnificent old peepul tree (also called Bodhi tree), around which many idols of snakes were placed. The women of the village perambulated around the sacred tree and lit oil lamps and incense sticks, and applied vermillion to the totems of snakes and other figurines that are symbols of fertility.

There were a couple of neem trees adjacent to the peepul tees on the same platform, a common sight in all villages in the old Mysore province. Parents of unmarried women planted and nurtured the twin trees and carried out a marriage ceremony between them, a hoary ritual, that gave hope that the woman in the family would soon be betrothed. And as you walked past the peepul tree, at the entrance to the village you came upon a tiny temple with twin deities – a Hanuman facing West and a Maramma looking South (the predominant female goddess in rural southern parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, believed to protest against disease and pestilence and be the harbinger of rains).

The village had three other main temples. There was Yoga Narasimha at the edge of the village to the South on the bank of the Hemavathi river, a Shiva temple on the Northern periphery and another Paravasudeva temple to the West abutting the Agrahara, the Brahmin quarters. And there was one more very powerful deity that resided about two kilometres downstream of the river, called Banadamma – a forest goddess, a wood spirit, as the name suggests – residing in a grove.

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Along with Shiva and Vishnu avatar temples, every village had many female deities and a ‘puradamma‘ – a female goddess. All these temples and small abodes of worship were from antiquity. In Gorur we did not have a Rama temple. No elders could explain why some villages had Rama temple and the others had Narasimha, Narayana, Krishna or Keshava deities; they brushed it aside, saying they were all the manifestations of one god, Vishnu.

While all villages had Shiva temples and Vishnu temples that were administered by upper castes, and the devotees of one did not frequent the other, the lives of tribals, Dalits and OBCs largely revolved around their family goddesses of Maramma, Banadamma and Puradamma. Rama, Krishna or Vishnu did not dominate their lives.

While people of the village and surrounding hamlets freely and frequently visited the Gorur Narasimha Swamy temple, the deity which was also the presiding deity for the annual wooden car festival which attracted tens of thousands of devotees of all castes and communities; during ordinary days, through out the year, the Dalits and backward castes, who constituted a larger number of the populace, worshipped the lesser-known female deities, made vows and offered animal sacrifices and feasted after the puja rituals. Rama, Krishna and Vishnu, the main Gods of the Hindu pantheon, were not their deities in times of distress or calamity, or while taking vows for fulfilling their secret prayers.

The choice of a temple, a particular ‘God’ who is believed to be more powerful and propitiating than the other Gods with legends and lores, is oxymoronic. Thirupathi Balaji temple, a Vishnu temple managed by a government trust, the Dharmasthala Temple of Manjunatha, a private Shiva temple under the trusteeship of Jains, the hallowed temples of Kollur Mookambika temple, and Shirdi Saibaba temple worshipped by mainly Hindus but also Muslims, the Aiyappa temple in Shabarmalai, Siddhivinayaka temple in Mumbai, the Kashi Vishwanath temple and many more – are largely a recent phenomenon of the middle class, the Hindu bourgeois and nouveau rich, film stars and politicians seeking security and rewards. Superstitions that are given currency between competing deities are commercialising, belittling and trivialising the gods, but are grist to the mill of the trusts which manage the temples. But the marginalised and the poor have a benign indifference to these celebrity temple deities in distant towns. They go about their lives stoically, and seek refuge, solace and strength in their local goddesses.

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I recall when I contested an election for the state legislature in Hassan district, my co-workers insisted that I must begin my campaign by first visiting a famous female deity in my constituency, deep in the rural wilderness, and offer prayers along with them. They took me in a procession and asked me to make a wish as I prayed to the goddess sitting in the sanctum to bless me and give me a sign by the first flower dropping to her side, the side that I had chosen. I was asked to offer a lamb in sacrifice and host a feast.

Though sceptical, I readily acquiesced, eager to clutch at any straw that took me to the shores of victory. After the goddess gave the signal of my assured victory through the drop of a flower on the side I had opted, and after I had a good repast made out of the sacrificial lamb, we hit the campaign trail. And when results showed that I had suffered a resounding defeat trounced by my rival who had also visited the same shrine, I wondered why my party workers did not take me to a famous Rama, Krishna or a Shiva temple, but led me to an obscure goddess in the woods. My faith was shaken but not theirs.

While poor Dalits, backward castes and tribals rarely visited the temples of Rama or Krishna, they nevertheless zestfully performed mythological dramas from Mahabharata and Ramayana in open-air theatres after the harvesting season, that went on all night. They trained under an itinerant drama master, well-versed in the epics and mythological Puranas who taught them by rote. There was no script. It was an oral and aural tradition passed down from generations. And therefore the practice went on for three to four months.

The actors, the poorest of the poor, who took part (and often vied with one another for heroic parts) had to pay to cover the cost of the drama teacher, and for the costumes and stage, lighting and sound system. The practice sessions started after the day’s labours, in the central court yard of the village, and lasted late into the night. The folk songs from the epics accompanied by the hum of a harmonium would waft across the fields to my cottage not far away and brought tears to my eyes and swelled my heart. It was not a religious act. It was a sublime act of love and worship to perpetuate a folk art the community instinctively clung on to.

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As these images and thoughts from bygone times crowded my mind, I reflected – what will the new Ram temple, when completed three years from now, signify to those millions who toil daily on the farms and fields, and on shop floors, factories and construction sites? The middle class and the rich will add Ayodhya to the pilgrim circuit and travel by cars, planes and trains – as they do now to Kashi, Haridwar, Badrinath, Kedarnath – and offer prayers to seek prosperity and success in their undertakings, gorge themselves on savouries and sweets, and pollute the earth, water and sky like the other pilgrim towns which are choking the rivers and streams with filth and garbage.

Many of these temple circuits of the modern Indian are more revelry than pilgrimage of piety. The rest of the two-thirds of the population, the amorphous Hindu with no allegiance to any particular god – the farmers, weavers, potters, fishermen, cow herds, shepherds, potters, stone cutters and earth diggers in their villages and the countless nameless labourers who were the invisible hands from across this vast land of myriad gods who provided for us and kept us warm, who have trudged back to their homes and may never return, will continue to sing and dance around their lesser local gods and goddesses, and likely find deliverance through their work and worship.

As the high priests chanted Vedic hymns in praise of Lord Rama, and bricks of stones and silver were laid and pictures of hundreds of stone columns and pediments were flashed on television, a line from Rabindranath Tagore rang in my mind:

“When God waits for His temple to be built of love, men bring stones.”

Captain G.R. Gopinath is an author, politician and entrepreneur who founded Air Deccan.