Today we experienced darshan at Sri Venkateswara Temple in Tirumala, Andhra Pradesh. Said to be the religious site that draws the largest number of pilgrims in the world (more than Rome, Mecca or Jerusalem), the temple houses a Vishnu idol for the sight of which tens of thousands of people arrive daily. The waits were so long that the temple, a huge administrative organization given the volume of visitors, has established an offsite nationwide reservations network, complete with capture of biometric data to confirm identity of the pilgrims. Not knowing how to make such advance reservations, which in any event still require lengthy waits at the temple, we opted for an expedited “VIP Cellar” darshan available to foreigners for Rs. 100 ($2.50) (and we think available to Indians as well, although not sure at what price).
The line started in a purpose-built queuing facility, which did not seem anywhere near capacity, but we had no concept of where exactly the temple was in relation to the queuing facility, or what our relatively priority was with respect to the other, non-“VIP” lines for the same shrine. As time went on, it became clear that the line was not going to move quickly, occasionally stopping altogether. Sometime within the first hour, our line left the queuing facility to merge with the other lines in a cage that seemed to snake around the temple compound, including up and down stairs.
Waiting in a line, when you do not fully understand what you are waiting in line for or how long it will take, and there is no-one around to explain things to you, is an experience in itself. Trapped in a narrow space with disorderly Indians shoving forward (in the Indians’ defense most were orderly, but a small minority was extremely pushy and took every opportunity to try to cut ahead), thirst and hunger building and partially quenched only by mango juice and crackers pushed through the bars of the cage by vendors, we were close to giving up more than once, although each time we realized that there was no way to exit but to continue inching forward. We knew, as our line would occasionally stop to let those in other lines go forward, that our “VIP” access even if not truly speedy was cutting our wait into a fraction of what others were experiencing, added to the experience of many that they had hiked for hours uphill to Tirumala, rather than taking a bus up from the town of Tirupathi as we had. [The town of Tirupathi, which really exists only to service pilgrims to Tirumala, itself a pretty fairly large development with lodging and board of its own, has more theaters and liquors stores than any other Indian town I’ve been in, quite a contrast between the sacred and the profane.]
As the line reached the outside wall of the temple, we knew that we were close, and after entering the doorway, we didn’t mind even when our line stopped, since it gave us time to absorb our surroundings. The gateway to the temple was lined with silver, and to the immediate left of the entry lay a giant scale. Many Hindu temples have such balances, so that donors can give commodities in his or her weight (or the weight of a child) to the temple, but this was the first we’d seen. [Royal tradition at some temples was that the local king present his weight in gold on each of his birthdays–we were told that a skinny raja of Travancore was much disliked.] Behind the scale was a list of prices, so that a rupee equivalent could be given instead of kilograms of actual rice, jaggery or five rupee coins.
Once inside, we also had a view of the worshippers leaving the temple. Up to this point, we had been somewhat cynical, thinking that our wait of hours couldn’t possibly have been worthwhile, but the cynicism wore off as we saw the intensity of devotion of some of the worshippers. Before they exited the gateway of the temple, many would turn back in the direction of the shrine one last time, some making a brief prayer, a few prostrate. Of course the idol itself was not visible from the gateway, but they had burned an image of it in their mind, or were trying to recall it as they faced toward the central shrine.
As we passed through the gateway to the central shrine and reached around its side, I could see that the entire interior was lined with gold, far more ornate than at any other temple we had seen. The queue became a crush as excitement grew in the crowd. As we entered the front door and reached sight of the idol itself, I could feel the intensity climax, and it became contagious, everyone stretching their neck for a view of the god. Approaching the idol itself, pushers employed by the temple kept the line moving through a horseshoe shaped path, first pushing us toward the idol (though not very close), and then away, to let others through. What of the actual idol? As you may have noticed, we do not have any pictures of the interior of the temple or idol, because cameras are not allowed, but you should be able to find depictions by googling “venkateswara” or “balaji”–the image is also on signs and window decals all over South India.
On my way out, I couldn’t help but repeatedly turn back to get another look, like everyone else, not only because I had waited hours for this moment but because I was trying to see what they were seeing–why this small idol, draped in flowers, caused such an ecstasy among the hundreds of people in that room, the millions of people who come each year. Facing the entrance of the shrine on the way out I saw the most dramatic sight–far more impressive than that of the idol–the worshippers heading in, eyes afire and enchanted by the image of the god.
Back out of the central shrine, and out of the pressure of the line, we returned to reality. After eating some (untasty to me) prasad and taking a look at the outside of the central shrine and the vimana, we headed out of the temple. Before we exited the temple, however, really in the space right behind the central shrine, we saw a huge room full of people counting temple revenues, mostly small rupee bills but including some dollars and pounds. Having a somewhat (Christian?) distaste for money in places of worship, I found it unappealing, but the location and visibility were clearly intentional (perhaps to show worshippers the wealth and prestige of the temple). Admittedly, Tirumala is a huge operation, the holy city having all the material necessities–hotels, restaurants, banking, medical care, etc.–sufficient for the millions of pilgrims each year, much of it provided by the temple authorities for free or at subsidized rates to pilgrims.
Darkness, not from sunset but from a passing storm, set in, and from a distance I could see the lights of the temple start to glow, the compound shining from inside as if from a holy fire, the gold of the vimana, visible above the walls of the temple, reflecting an orange luster. And I thought about what I had experienced.
Though familiar with similar excesses of the Catholic Church, with its bleeding statues and worship of relics, I had not personally seen this level of pure idol worship, either in its quantity or its ferocity. How can people believe that an all powerful god could be embodied in an object that gets “woken” and dressed up by priests and resides in a physical place, vulnerable to physical destruction or desecration? How is it that people see the eternal and infinite, the answers to those metaphysical questions that we cannot solve, in such an earthly, material form? Why the worship of objects such as the idol at Tirumala, or the true cross or Buddha’s tooth? What is the role of such objects?
Swami Vivekananda answered a question on idols posed by a Muslim prince (Islam prohibiting representations of God (and humans, for that matter)) by asking a servant of the prince to spit on a portrait of the prince, in the prince’s presence. Even though the servant knew the image not to be the prince himself, Vivekananda explained, the servant cannot do it because the image represents the prince. But of course it’s not just representation–a facsimile copy of the Venkateswara shrine would not be the same. People believe that these specific objects themselves have power.
In the premodern era, having tangible objects must have made a religion easier to grasp, easier to understand and hold onto, for the average person. Claims of miracles performed by sacred objects buttressed a religion’s force. Today, however, with the realm of science taking over nearly the entire material world, tangibility does not aid a religion but detracts from it. The identification of material manifestations of a religion, in the form of miracles, merely tempt scientific debunking, and religions that make such claims in the current age (as opposed to claims of miracles in the mythical past) seem harder to believe. [For example, to me, one of the oddest thoughts of the Mormon church (well, at least I read somewhere that this is what they believe) is that heaven and the creator reside at an identified location in our three-dimensional world. What about space travel? And no doubt that some of the resistance that the Mormon church faces is that it recounts miracles that are said to have happened relatively recently in time, even if the miracles are no less ambitious than those of other faiths.]
Modern Western Christianity, to a large extent, has learned to cede the material world to withdraw to a spiritual realm. [I am reminded of one prayer in the Anglican prayer book that has explicit astronomical references, giving place of honor to a science that has so often run into conflict with religion.] In this retreat, religion becomes more and more abstract and the spiritual world a realm totally separate from the physical one. To a modern audience accustomed to dealing in abstractions, this is not so hard to conceive. The premodern physical claims of the religions become allegorical and God becomes something of a concept, a theoretical solution to theoretical questions.
But many of the Hindus at Tirumala clearly still believe in a physical god who operates in the physical world. Most of this has to do I think with basic things like the level of education, with scientific education wiping out superstition as it has for centuries, but it also occurred to me, in comparing with the worship of Christian saints, that it also reveals something about the nature of Hindu deities. First, Hindu gods have specific shapes that define them. The forms also define their attributes, such that when they take on different forms they take on different identities (consider the various incarnations of Vishnu). The representation/presentation of the god is of the essence, and a physical model of the god essential to its worship. It seems to me that forms become necessary in any polytheistic religion (or worship of multiple sacred personae, such as the Christian saints). [The Shiva lingam, the history of which I do not know, is obviously something of an exception to this.] Second, gods with forms are implicitly limited. Hindu gods (and perhaps by logical necessity all polytheistic gods) are not all powerful, not the universal, infinite being that is the Judeo-Christian-Muslim God. Taking on a shape imposes a limit to a god’s power, as it suggests that a change in forms may be necessary for exercise of a particular power, or that specific forms have certain weaknesses. Anthropomorphic forms, regardless of number of limbs, also imply human weaknesses and limitations. Third, it is easier for deities/demi-deities with shapes, such as the Hindu gods and Jesus, Mary and the Christian saints, to maintain roles in the physical world. Although the god of the Old Testament was of course responsible for many physical acts, most Christian miracles today (I believe) are ascribed to Jesus, Mary or a saint, and not God the Father. Quite often, a miracle is ascribed to a particular artist’s rendition of Mary, in the form of a particular painting or statue. Being physical already, it becomes easier to imagine that such objects performed a physical act (a miracle).