Monday, September 17, 2012

Temple Run

Just finished with a temple marathon in and around South India - a grand total of 17 temples in 3 days - 2 in Kerala (Guruvayur and Kunnisery) and and 15 in Tamil Nadu (among them the 9 Navagraha temples).

As far as temple experiences go, it was pretty textbook with long sweaty jostling queues of fervent believers, gangs of lecherous vaadyaars lurking around fleecing pious chaps for imaginary divine favours, dingy, damp, vandalized and otherwise poorly maintained premises, the works.

Any sense of grandeur or appreciation that I would have otherwise felt in the presence of these remarkable feats of human achievement - colossal stone structures, huge pillars with intricate carvings relating stories from the past - seemed misplaced in the mundane fervent atmosphere. These temples are swarming with statues and carvings - hordes of women with lamps on the outer peripheries, fearsome chimera-like beasts posturing on the pillars, pairs of gigantic sentinels in various forms at each inner entrance, and finally the innermost idol. They all seemed like silent sentries, with glazed iris-less eyes, immobile since their creation, mute witnesses from a time long gone, yet each with some story to tell. It's actually pretty poetic.

While it's romantic to marvel at the relics of history, and try to imagine the world, the people of the past and what they believed, it's sorely spoilt when you come face-to-face with the fact that the past isn't quite the past yet. Like visiting an ancient Aztec temple and finding out that they still do human sacrifice. It's kind of a downer.

Traveling across rural South India, it's depressing to see how prevalent and interwoven religion and supserstition are with the society, culture and the very identity of people. It brings you to the reality of what a big challenge it is, for people to be able to lead better lives, and escape from the mental enslavement that manifests in their societies.

Just an aside: Here's a snap from the Kethu temple that I found hilarious (emphasis below mine):

"Among the Navagrahas, Kethu occupies the Nineth position Wisdom[gnanam], attaining divinity[motcham] are his maternal grandma and grandpa respectively. Kethu is also possesser and giver of fortunes and misfortunes like having holy bath in the pushkarani, possessing buildings, making fortunes abroad, hard work becoming a doctor, bad friendship, making bricks, getting wounded, observing silence [mouna Viratham], Snake charming, possessing deer, goat, dog, camel, donkey, hen, night bird of evil omen[kettan], Eagle [garuda], vulture, serpent, reptiles, mosquitoes, suffering from giddinous leprosy, TB, pain, fever, skin diseases, poisonous bite, magical art, worship of the furious femaly deity Chunty Devi kali the powerful incarnation of Shakthi, Vinayakar, Lord Shiva and also Chitraputhra.
In addition to these, kethu is also the cause and possessor of the power of getting arrest warrant, cancelation of the arrest warrant, being rusticated from caste, fig tree and creeper of [vertilai] the Chewing leaf chitraguptha is the divine spirit of kethu and lord Bramah is his god of wisdom Rahu and kethu have no permanent abode for them. As such they both are shadow grahas [Sayagrahas]. They confer fortune according to their position wit rasi and their settlement with grahas [planets].
Kethu's jurisdiction runs for seven years. His stars are Aswini, Maham and moolam. Those who are born in any one of the stars will have kethu's ? circle. The other names of Kethu are Kathirapahai Siki and red serpent. To seek Kethu's grace we must worship lord Vinayaga."
Making bricks - does that count as a fortune or misfortune? As my dad said, I suppose that depends on whether you're making a profit or not. I found this too funny - whoever wrote this had to be a complete nutjob, whether he was religious or just high.

While it's relatively easy to attempt objectivity and dispassionate analysis of theological/scientific arguments in the isolation of own's home, it's quite a different story out in the "real world". The stakes are just so much higher. It's hard for any reasonable rational argument to make a dent to the fact that our forefathers spent such a colossal amount of their time, money and resources into religion that it literally beggars belief. The Navagraha temples are a case in point - 9 temples, all elaborately constructed, each located according to astrological what-not and quite far from each other, each taking countless hours of back-breaking work (and likely several lives, too), each shrouded with legend. Could they have been wrong? It seems so much easier to assume that their sincerity validated their objectives and beliefs.

It's a different feeling than what I'd expect seeing the pyramids of Egypt. While undoubtedly I can expect similar feelings of grandeur et al, there's something distinctly different - there's no personal baggage linking anything, I assume it's possible to objectively marvel at their faith and sincerity without believing they map on to reality for a second. Indian temples are much more difficult, they are so much more closer to home - feelings of inherited responsibility, pride and security in tradition cloud objectivity considerably.

Anyway to wrap up the episode we visited a place called Your Family Friend which is basically a veda-paatshaala or a religious school for upper-caste brahmins. A place where they brainwash young kids - there aren't many things that are sadder than misguided sincerity. Seeing the process of young kids - all with the anachronistic get-up of kudumis and poonals - getting the caste-system and mindless rituals etched into their minds, and natural curiosity wiped out - it felt like a funeral.

This visit inevitably turned into a sticky situation since my mom revealed to the chief guru that I didn't believe in god et al, and what followed was his prolonged yet sincere attempt to de-convert me, calling prayers as waves and devas as energy and other pseudo-scientific drivel. I felt sorry more than anything. It was like talking to a mad person - there were almost no common values that I could latch on to make a point, and that's probably how I seemed to him as well, not that it stopped him from trying.

Anyway that's pretty much how it went. It was a worthwhile trip, but only to get some perspective.


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