A place of worship is normally the visible sign of the presence of people affiliated to the respective religion. India is marked with millions and millions of places of worship that announce the presence of all religious traditions. They witness to the fact that people of all religious persuasions heavily inhabit in our country. Without doubt, they are a major treasure and strength for our country, for any country for that matter. But, there is dire need of making these places of worship evolve beyond them and reach out to places of worship of other religions, in view of building a culture of give and take among them. They require being facilitated to emerge as living symbols of cross-community relations and service of the humans. The larger scope of the places of worship is sure to secure a more elevated and promising culture for the humans, in India and beyond, positively so.
The place of worship, in the particular sense , is the abode of a certain deity or gods and goddesses, of course, in line with the historical tradition or mythological concept of a particular religion. People frequent the place individually or collectively for consulting the deity as regards their lives. But, the rituals performed there for that deity are often exclusive and not open to all. Several restrictions are found as to the entry and participation of people, based on gender, caste, sect, community, and the like. As a result, discriminative and divisive elements take roots at these places. As seats of political and financial power, though in disguise, they generate ill will towards, hostility against and competition with other places of worship, though ironically so. It could also be observed that people of sinful and criminal backgrounds, of weak, lazy and greedy mindsets as well as scoundrels are highly obsessed by the places of worship and they frequent them much more than others, especially in terms of economic contributions.
The place of worship, in the general sense, is an abode of the divine or the sacred. As it is centred on the larger God shared by one and all, the place of worship is inclusive in its character and the scope for harmony among faiths is the optimum. It is like a mirror where people come to meet God but, in the process, they are facilitated to see the humans as they are. The humans are the dwelling place of the divine, in the real sense of the word. The symbolic house of God has to remind people of the millions and millions of homeless human beings, too. ‘A rich God with poor believers’ is very much an anomaly. Therefore, question arises that in a country where nearly twenty crores of people are condemned to live under the flyovers, roadsides, streets and slums, can the unhealthy competition of building expensive and imposing structures be ever justified! In such a scandalous state of affairs, should there be one more place of worship of any religion in India! Without a shred of doubt, a sane answer can be only in the negative.
As regards evolving a sound logic for the places of worship, the temple philosophy of Sri Narayana Guru of Kerala makes perfect sense. A practical philosopher, poet, saint and social reformer, all in one, he lived in a milieu where terribly diabolic elements were highly active at places of worship. Relying on his revolutionary fibre, he got five temples constructed. In the first temple, he got the idol of ‘Shiv’ consecrated, an Ezhava or low caste Shiv, as a symbol of fraternity and equality. In the second temple, he installed the emblem of ‘Aum’ (of values), with the caption ‘truth, righteousness, love and compassion’. The third temple had a ‘mirror’ installed, with the caption ‘know thyself’. In the fourth temple, he placed a light’, with the caption ‘let there be light’. The fifth temple was not a temple in the traditional sense, but was a ‘multi-purpose hall’, where anyone, irrespective of religious affiliation, could come and pray, study, discuss, celebrate, and the like. The innovative concept evolved by Sri Narayana Guru was indeed a revolutionary measure amid the prevailing culture of corruption and controversies in and in the name of places of worship.
Places of worship have to evolve towards being living symbols of good will, interaction, harmony and human wellbeing. As a matter of fact, places of worship symbolize the ‘collective consciousness’ of a given people and they form, they have to form, too, the ‘conscience of the humans’ in general. They have to be what they are supposed to be. What Pope John Paul II stated at New Delhi, when he visited India in 1999 that ‘religion has to be what God intended it to be, a source of goodness, harmony and peace’ applies to places of worship perfectly well. Places of worship have to be centres that promote good will, fellowship and cooperation as well as inclusive spirit. Religious leadership, instead of ruling over and enslaving the believers in the sectarian way, has to lead people to the larger horizons of life. It has to inspire believers to visit all places of worship and maintain good will towards believers of all religions and ideologies. Harmonious living among people of all affiliations residing around the respective place of worship justifies its existence and significance.
Places of worship have to evolve towards becoming channels of the collective betterment of the people around. A place of worship loses its dignity and value when people who visit those places and those living in their surroundings are short of houses, clothes, clean premises, education, health care, sustainable jobs, and the like. In such situations, heads of places of worship have to undertake developmental measures to ensure the all-round progress and welfare of the people in the vicinity. Criminal and hooligan elements around also bring shame to the places of worship and the deity or God believed to be seated inside. As a matter of fact, human beings are living temples of the divine and their wellbeing only is the source of credit to places of worship. The idle times and spaces of the places of worship are to be opened to people of the area, to be used for educational and cultural purposes, so that the multi-purpose and the best utility of the structures could be guaranteed. The larger is the scope of the places of worship, the larger their importance, dignity and glory as well as credit to the divine, undoubtedly so. When are the custodians of the places of worship going to be enlightened and empowered to make this vision a reality? An effective answer to this question will certainly contribute immensely to the making of our country brighter and greater!
(The writer is scholar of religion, religions and harmony among religions. He can be contacted at ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’.)
(Published on 04th November 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 45)