1) Temple etiquette
For thousands of years Hindu temples have been constructed, allowing people to immerse themselves in an atmosphere where they can worship a particular form of God, gather with other devotees, and become more connected to the Absolute.
Though most Hindu temples are usually open to the public, it is important to enter each one with the understanding that it is a sacred space. Being conscious of certain etiquettes can help one navigate the hallowed grounds of a temple respectfully.
Before entering a temple, it is generally recommended to be clean and modestly dressed. For both men and women, this generally means not wearing shorts and keeping the shoulders covered. Traditions can vary, however, from temple to temple. Some place a greater emphasis on dressing simply, requiring men to be shirtless and to wear only unsewn cloth.
Temples are like homes of the Gods. When you enter, you are a guest in that home. Before entering a temple everyone is required to remove shoes. Sometimes this is entirely outside the temple complex and other times at a designated space inside the complex, but before entering the temple proper. If it’s not obvious where to do so (racks for shoes, informational signs) just ask where to leave your shoes. Removing dirty shoes makes you cleaner, and is a sign of respect for the proprietor whose house you are about to spend time in.
Many temples have a brass bell hanging near the entrance, which devotees ring before entering. Like knocking on the door of a person’s home to notify them of your arrival, ringing the bell informs the deities you’ve come to seek their association.
Paying obeisances comes next. The act of bowing down and touching the head to the ground demonstrates and instills humility and helps to cultivate the consciousness of respect a person should have while in a temple room.
As when visiting a friend’s home you might bring a token gift, it is common practice for Hindus to bring a flower, fruit, or some other item as an offering to the God of the temple they’re visiting. Though it is not required, presenting an offering is an act of service that can deepen one’s sincere devotion.
2) Deity worship
Upon entering a temple room, one of the first things you’ll probably notice is the presence of one or multiple statues of deities, known as murti. These deities are central to all temple activities. Hindus believe that truly worshiping a certain God is more than just visiting the temple once a week to atone for misdeeds and ask forgiveness. Real worship is immersive, it’s about daily engagement of all the senses in the service of the Supreme. Though true Divinity is in everything, and can therefore be meditated on at any time in any place, having a physical form to worship is vital in helping employ the five senses in worship.
Murtis are made following specific scriptural guidelines, handed down through generations by trained lineages of skilled artisans. These forms can then be installed in a temple where they are worshipped through puja, in which a priest generally offers flowers, water, incense, some food, and a lamp. Puja rituals are varied depending on the place. At the Jagannatha temple in Puri, for example, skilled dancers perform for the deity as part of the offering; and at the Meenakshi temple, where forms of Parvati and Shiva are worshipped, a fire sacrifice, in which oblations of various grains are offered, is usually performed. The puja items are then passed around the congregation as mercy or a blessed gift, also called prasadam.
In a temple, the deity’s form can be seen; the offered flowers and incense can be smelled; the water and light can be felt; the food can be tasted; and the sound of the bell that is rung as puja is being performed can be heard. In this way, all of a person’s senses can become spiritually enlivened.
3) Mantra meditation and congregational chanting
Much of Hindu temple worship, the pujas and various rituals, are not usually congregational in nature. There are no sermons or talks by a priest to those people attending the service, as you find in other religious traditions.
However, in some temples and communities, there is one important aspect of worship that is congregational in nature.
According to Vedic teachings, sound is the first and most subtle layer of Creation. Because of this, mantra meditation is considered an extremely powerful way in which a person can positively transform his or her consciousness.
The Sanskrit word “mantra,” from the roots “man” (mind) and “tra” (to deliver), can be defined as deliverance of the mind from material suffering. As a result, mantra meditation is commonly practiced in Hindu temples throughout the entire world. Usually counted on beads made of a natural substance, devotees chant the names of the God they worship as a way of purifying their thoughts, words, and actions, as well as ultimately, connecting to the Supreme.
Mantra meditation can also be applied in music. This type of chanting is called kirtan and is practiced in a call and response fashion, having one person lead, while the rest of the congregation follow. Through song, not only can a person call out to the Divine with even more feeling, that person also gets the opportunity to sing in harmony with others. Sincerely crying out to the Divine as a group creates a potent kinship that connects and uplifts people of all backgrounds. If music is the universal language, then kirtan is the medium by which that language can be powerfully utilized.
4) Temples in the home
Temples, while usually thought of as a place one has to travel to, can actually be constructed in the home. Though community and relationships are important uplifters in one’s spiritual development, spirituality in Hinduism is, ultimately, an individual experience. Temples can accommodate communities, but they are meant for the individual, providing a space for a person to take darshana or viewing of the deity in an intimate setting. This setting can be created anywhere a person lives. All one has to do is designate a spare room, or even just a spare space, as a place for prayer and meditation. This space can be further spiritualized by setting up an altar — however big you like, and then placing a murti or divine image on that altar.
The advantage of having a temple room in the house is that it provides an easily accessible place to worship and meditate, helping one to live a more spiritually conscious life. Remembering that God is situated in the home might also inspire a person to keep the house clean, as well as maintain an atmosphere of peace and tranquility.
5) Spiritual guidance
Daily spiritual practice, known in Hinduism as sadhana, is essential in making real progress on the path of transcendence. Having a temple in the home might help keep one engaged, but sometimes it can be hard to be self-disciplined. As experiencing the atmosphere of a gym where others are working out can help inspire a person to work out, going to a temple where others are focusing on their spiritual lives can help to inspire a person to focus more on his or her own spiritual life.
Public temples are about more than just seeing the deity; it’s about getting the association of people who are serious about their sadhana. Being around them motivates you to become more serious about your sadhana as well. This association is referred to as satsang or to be in the company of such like-minded people.
It is key to seek out someone you know is more advanced than you who is willing to impart spiritual guidance. Instructions from advanced transcendentalists are considered invaluable on the path of divinity. In fact, it is common practice for gurus or teachers to regularly give lectures in temples. If you happen to step into a temple when a guru is giving a public talk, consider sitting for a few minutes to listen. Something you hear could have a profound effect on you.