Rituals are undoubtedly a precious part of religious practice for most Hindus. Some are conducted by priests in arcane Sanskrit while the devotee, having paid his fee, stands with hands folded and listens in incomprehension. (There is a distinction in many scriptural texts between the priest who performs the ritual and the yajamana or the person for whom it is performed, whose only role consists of offering a dakshina or gratuity to the priest.) Some—particularly the rituals associated with birth and naming, the first feeding of grain to a baby, the first instruction in the alphabet, and of course marriage, death and cremation—are full of inescapable meaning for every participant and bind the worshipper to his faith, family and community. Most often the rituals require a visit to a temple; sometimes they are performed at home. My sisters, who live abroad, do not go as often to temples as our mother, who lives in India, though they strive to keep up certain religious traditions and practices even in foreign lands. But they tell me that they are deeply comforted by the knowledge that on every special occasion in their family, our mother is going to an ancient temple to pray for them, to seek the Lord’s blessings for their families, and to distribute alms to the poor in their name. In turn, whether in damp London or sunny California, they remember to light a lamp at dusk in their prayer-rooms, as Hindus have done for centuries.
Hindu rituals almost always require a priest, in most parts of India; however my own community, the Nairs of Kerala, dispenses with the services of a priest on the occasion of marriage, seeing it as a social contract to be performed under the guidance of family elders in the presence of large numbers of usually wellfed witnesses, which would be enough to seal a marriage in the eyes of the world. The eyes of a representative of God they consider much less important; whereas in the north, it would be unthinkable not to have a priest officiating—indeed the wedding might well be considered null and void if a priest didn’t turn up to conduct it.
Given this dislike of priestly intermediaries in my gene pool, it is no wonder that as a young boy I asked my father why it was necessary to go to temples. If God is everywhere, I reasoned, isn’t He (or She) at home, at school, at work? Why do we need to go to a temple to find Her? My father patiently explained that while God is everywhere, He was especially powerful in certain places, especially those where He had manifested himself through the spontaneous appearance of an idol (as in the Krishna idol in Guruvayur) or other miracles. Such places then became sanctified by the devotions of millions of worshippers over hundreds of years, and thus acquired even more religious significance. It was a selfperpetuating phenomenon: a temple became famous because of something associated with it, usually a legend involving the deity in question, then worshippers came and testified to its powers, saying their prayers at that place had been answered by the Goddess, for instance, and then more worshippers came and the more devotion the temple attracted, the more were the stories of miracles and blessings accruing from worship there, and the more people kept coming….
On that south Indian pilgrimage when I was fourteen, I also found myself asking my father about the behaviour of some of the priests at the more famous temples, who openly stuck out their hands for more money after performing the rituals my father had already paid for. He looked somewhat embarrassed at first, then replied softly but firmly that priests had to live too. They were performing a service to us devotees, but they had families they were responsible for, children they had to educate, and it was only fair they asked for help from the people on whose behalf they had interceded with God. After all, they had what today we would call ‘domain knowledge’; they knew the scriptures, had mastered the mantras and could recite the appropriate ones with the required fluency. Why shouldn’t they be rewarded for their expertise?
This left my teenage mind only partly mollified, and I have not been as enthusiastic a temple-goer as my parents, especially since I rationalized that praying in the privacy of my own home would be just as effective, as long as my heart was pure and my thoughts clear. I maintain an eclectic prayer-alcove in my home, where dozens of pictures, idols and relics of Hindu deities—including a print that reproduces one of my parents’ religious pictures, that I saw my father pray before every day as I grew up—all compete for my reverential attention daily.
Still, the passion of other worshippers keeps drawing me back to temples, especially in my constituency, Thiruvananthapuram, which is blessed with more places of worship per square kilometre than any other metropolis in India, and where friends, colleagues and party workers insist on accompanying me, praying for me and promising assorted divinities that I will perform certain rituals in fulfilment of their undertakings. (I have, as a result, been weighed against bananas, coconuts and salt because they had sworn that I would be: this is a powerful incentive against weight-loss, since the heavier I was, the more the temples in question benefited from donations of those items). But I am not complaining. I find peace in the temples, and a strengthening of my ties to those who have accompanied me there, as if we have shared something indefinable in that common space where hope and need combine in supplication to the Divine.
(Extracted from Why I Am A Hindu by Shashi Tharoor, with permission from Aleph Book Company)