ISKCON is famous for its magnificent temples. Visitors to ISKCON temples, while appreciating their beauty, still sometimes raise the question: is it necessary to spend so much on building temples? How do temples practically benefit society?
In the article below, the answers to these and several similar questions are provided through the device of a conversation between Ratan Gupta (RG), a visitor to a temple, and a learned ISKCON sannyasi, Sanatana Swami (SS).
RG: Pranam, Swamiji.
SS: Hare Krishna, Guptaji. Please accept the blessings of Lord Krishna. We are happy that you have taken time out of your busy schedule to visit our temple. Did you have darsana?
RG: Yes, the Lord is so beautifully dressed and decorated. I heard you are coming up with a new temple.
SS: Yes. Krishna willing, the temple will be ready in two years if the funds come regularly.
RG: That brings me to a question that has been in my mind for a long time. Can I ask you?
RG: Do we need such costly temples? So many people are suffering without food, clothing, and shelter. Isn’t that a much more urgent necessity for society than an expensive temple?
SS: Certainly it saddens our heart to see people suffering without the basic necessities of life. Many humanitarian organizations are working to help them and much more can be done. At the same time, a temple plays a vital role in the integration and the development of the entire community, a role that is not being played at all in our modern society.
RG (surprised): Really? What is that role?
SS: I will briefly explain the social services provided by a temple through an acronym T-E-M-P-L-E:
T – Tranquility, E Education,M Medication, P Purification, L Love, E Engagement.
RG: Sounds interesting.
SS: Just as food, clothing, and shelter are the basic needs of the body, peace is a basic need of the mind. Today, there is practically no system to provide for this basic mental need. Worse still, our fast paced, stress filled lifestyle agitates our mind a lot. No wonder the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that the greatest medical challenge of the current century will not be AIDS or cancer, but mental health problems. The temple is one of the few places where you can immediately experience a deep peace just by going into the premises.
RG (looking thoughtful): When I entered the temple I was wondering how it is such a haven of serenity despite geographically being amidst the hustle bustle of the city. Where does this tranquility come from?
SS: The tranquility is a natural result of the divine vibrations that constantly pervade a temple. Those vibrations result from both the presence of the Lord in His Deity form, as well the constant chanting of His holy names. Many, many people come to the temple in the evening to de-stress themselves before returning home. They take darshana of the Deities, attend the arati, or sit in the temple hall taking in the divine atmosphere. Thus they become mentally recharged to cope with the challenges of life. Srila Prabhupada, the founder-acarya of ISKCON wanted to have temples right in the hearts of the cities so that the maximum number of people would have easy, quick access to the tranquility that the temple offers.
RG: Sometimes I wonder whether peace of mind is a luxury that we can ill afford when we have so many duties to perform for our family, office, and society.
SS: Peace of mind is not a luxury, but is a necessity that enables us to perform our duties sustainably. To lift a 5-kg weight for a few minutes is not difficult. But if we were to lift it continuously for the rest of our lives, it would soon become a burden, an unbearable burden. We would need to relieve ourselves of the weight by short breaks that would allow the muscles of our arm to rest and regain strength. Similarly, our duties and the anxieties that inevitably come with them are like burdens on our minds. If we let these burdens weigh on our minds constantly, they exhaust us mentally. We need short breaks that allow our minds to rest and regain strength.
People try to get these breaks through entertainment by watching television and movies. Entertainment may sometimes refresh us, but often it leaves us with more agitating thoughts, desires, and memories.
On the other hand, when we come to the temple, we take those mental burdens off and sooth our minds with the healing serenity that pervades the temple. Then when we are mentally rested and refreshed, we restart our duties with greater effectiveness.
In fact, because people don’t take such nourishing breaks, they become ineffective in their personal functioning and irritable in their interpersonal dealings, leading to so many avoidable problems.
RG: I had never thought of the temple contributing to society by providing mental rest.
SS: You are not alone in that. I too had hardly any idea of the value of our culture until I came in contact with ISKCON, and I would surmise the same holds true for most Indians, including even those who are proud of their culture. That’s what makes the next contribution of the temple to society education so vitally important. Many temples offer a tranquil atmosphere, but ISKCON temples in particular offer spiritual education too.
RG(somewhat skeptically): Spiritual education? Do we really need that, especially in this age of science?
SS: Science tells us how to do things, but spirituality alone teaches us why to do things. For example, the medical colleges teach how to cure a patient, but they don’t teach why to cure him. Consequently, many doctors see their patients as money-minting machines and often subject them to needless tests and treatments to earn more out of them. Similarly, in every profession, when the motive of earning takes primacy, professionals end up exploiting their clients.
RG (protesting): But that is a human defect. Why blame education for that?
SS: The purpose of real education is not just to train students in technical skills, but also to rectify the lower human tendencies. Sadly, modern education fails to do that. Learning is not just for earning, but also for service.
RG (thoughtfully): Service?
SS: Yes, the doctor’s real duty should be to serve the patients to free them from their pains and to heal them. Think of how much better our world would be if everyone were working to serve each other, not to exploit each other. Spiritual education can create that culture of service.
RG: Why do we need spiritual education for that? We just need to help people understand the need to be good and to do good to others.
SS: Without spiritual education, most people will not be able to stay good or do good for a long time; they would soon succumb to an immoral, exploitative mentality.
SS: Being good and doing good or living by moral principles is like following traffic laws for smooth and safe travel. The purpose of travel, however, is not merely to follow the laws, but to reach the destination. If a traveler feels that the traffic laws delay or obstruct his reaching the destination or that there’s no policeman to catch him, he will soon become tempted to break the laws.
Like traffic laws, moral principles promote order, specifically orderly social interactions. But modern education doesn’t teach us about the goal of social transactions or the goal of life itself. So, most people choose by default the incessantly glamorized goals of modern consumerist society wealth, enjoyment, prestige, power, possession, position. The Bhagavad-gita, which has been acknowledged as a philosophical masterpiece by Emerson, Einstein, Gandhi and many other thinkers worldwide, explains graphically how such a materialistic worldview leads to corruption and degradation. When the social culture aggressively propagates materialistic goals and education does nothing to counter this propaganda, then morality appears unnecessary and even undesirable, resulting in the mentality: “If the goal of life is to earn money and enjoy life, then why be honest, when honesty will severely limit my earning and enjoyment? By hook or crook, earn and enjoy. There’s no God in front of whom I have to account for my deeds; there’s only this one life for me to enjoy. I just have to make sure that whatever I do, I do it cleverly enough to not get caught.”
RG (thoughtfully): Yes, the resolve for morality doesn’t last. In my 30 years of business experience, I have seen many moralists glide down to immorality.
SS: The Vedic texts explain that as souls, we all have an eternal loving relationship with the all attractive Supreme Lord. In loving and serving God, we can relish supreme and everlasting happiness; the more we love God, the happier we become. The scriptures of other great religions like Christianity and Islam also describe love of God as the ultimate goal of life. Hence, love of God is the non-sectarian, universal, spiritual goal of life.
RG: Love for God as the ultimate goal of life? Isn’t that too other-worldly and impractical? And how does that lead to morality?
SS: Love for God certainly directs our vision to the other world, the eternal spiritual world beyond the temporary material world. But this other-worldly goal does not make us impractical; rather, it builds the most solid foundation for living practically in this world. Just as when we switch on the master switch in a house, all the lights in the house automatically turn on, love for God similarly results in love for all living beings. We realize that all of us are brothers and sisters in the one universal family of God. When we love all living beings, we no longer desire to exploit or manipulate others for our selfish interests. Instead, our love for God inspires us to love and serve each other. This creates a culture of warmth, trust, and service, which encourages moral behavior. This contrasts sharply with the modern culture of alienation, suspicion, and exploitation, which fosters immorality.
When we follow a genuine spiritual path, even in its early stages, it triggers our inborn value system. We intuitively realize that God is our greatest well-wisher and that the rules He has made for us are in our ultimate interest. So we voluntarily and lovingly choose to lead a life of moral and spiritual integrity, as ordained by God. As we find inner happiness by loving God, we become freed from selfish, lusty, greedy, and egoistic drives. No longer do we feel we are missing something because of our morality. Morality ceases to be the “right but difficult” choice. Rather we choose morality as the natural path to our spiritual growth.
This is how spiritual education leads to the culture of service, by which people can constructively use all other education for doing good to others. Without spiritual education, they often abuse their material education to exploit others.
RG (after a thoughtful pause): My grandparents used to tell me that in their times, they would leave the doors of their houses open and still no one would steal anything. Now I get some idea of how that was possible.
To be continued . . . (Extracted from the author’s book “Why do we need a temple?”)
Caitanya Carana Dasa holds a degree in electronics and telecommunications engineering and serves full-time at ISKCON Pune. To subscribe to his free cyber magazine, visit thespiritualscientist.com