Book Review: Read This One If You're Looking For An Introduction To The Unique Cultures And Traditions Around Hindu Temples

Book Review: Read This One If You're Looking For An Introduction To The Unique Cultures And Traditions Around Hindu Temples The cover of the book.
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  • Temple Management in the Agama-s, by Dr. Deepa Duraiswamy, gives a wonderful overview of the traditions of Saiva Agamic temple worship predominant in Tamil Nadu, and explains why serious changes in perspective and approach need to be effected in India's temple administration.

Temple Management In The Agama-s With Special Reference To Kāmikāgama. Deepa Duraiswamy. Notion Press. Pages. 286. Rs. 299 (Paperback).

This book Temple Management in the Āgama-s (2021), by Dr. Deepa Duraiswamy, gives a wonderful overview of the grand and majestic tradition of Saiva Agamic temple worship predominant in Tamil Nadu.

The author is a management graduate from IIM Kolkata and hails from a traditional Adisaiva family, Adisaiva-s being the hereditary temple-priests (Archaka) and masters (Acharya) of Saiva Agamas.

Such a background gives her a unique advantage to present the subject with the authenticity, intimacy and the rigour it requires.

Since this book is the Ph.D thesis of the author at the department of Sanskrit, University of Madras, it is a highly focussed study "with reference to Kamikagama".

After a brief introduction to the Saiva tradition, the book jumps to the core subjects. It proposes the temple to be viewed as a service organisation and a non-profit, non-business entity in the modern management parlance, outlining that the temple, just like any other organisation, has its own unique requirements of the four types of resources — human resources (Archaka-s, maintenance staff, admininstrative staff, temple musicians), physical resources (temple structure, Puja materials), financial resources (endowments, patronage) and knowledge resources (religious education, rituals).

With this framework, the book details how Kamikagama, a medieval Agama text, addresses all these details in a meticulous way.

The main centre or axis for the temple is the Deity who has been consecrated through Pratistha and is offered the uninterrupted daily worship (Nitya Puja).

The Parartha Puja performed by the initiated and trained Acharya every day in the Agamic Saiva temples, two or three or up to six times a day (depending on the temple's schedule) is intended for universal welfare as well as for the welfare and prosperity of the king and the people of that specific locale where the temple is situated.

This point has been brought out beautifully. The elaborate process of Nitya Puja with all the steps is explained in great detail. The authors' observation of Nitya Puja being a "complex, technical process that is elaborate, time-consuming, physically exhausting, while also being a time-sensitive, cooperative work and also a creative, internal process" is insightful.

The temple workforce, traditional administration setup and temple festivals are also described. The book being an academic work, for every reference, along with the translation, the original Sanskrit slokas from the text are also given in Roman IAST transliteration in the same page.

This is very useful for the Sanskrit-aware and research-oriented readers who want to grasp the full meanings of the verses. The references from inscriptions and epigraphs are also given at relevant places.

The author has attempted to blend non-compromising traditional beliefs and a modern management-oriented approach without getting into any unnecessary conflict.

For example, she first records the traditional belief — "The adisaiva-s are considered to have been created from the five faces of Siva rather than Brahma and are hence called siva srsti... Only the adisaiva or sivacarya is eligible for parartha-puja or worship to siva-linga in temples, installed according to saivagamas”.

The historical view is given immediately — “Historically, the sivacaryas were heads of four large saiva mutts — Amardaka, Ranabhadra, Kolagiri and Pushpagiri. Over time, the disciples of the four mutts spread all over the subcontinent, establishing 18 other saiva mutts” (pp. 48, Temple Management in the Āgamas).

Now, whatever of these views one subscribes to, the 1,500 years of tradition of Adisaiva hereditary priesthood in the Agamic temple gets well established and is not a debatable point, if the authority of Agamas are accepted.

The author takes many such Agamic injunctions at face value and then attempts to fit them with the overall framework of modern temple management that she conceives.

With this approach, both the objectives of respect for the tradition as well leveraging the modern management practices and technology (wherever useful) are met.

It is important to remember that the portions of the Agamas related to temple worship are not abstract philosophies or concepts like one comes across in the Upanishads or Gita.

These were meant to be practical manuals in a realistic temple environment at a particular time and space. Among other things, they contain such details like how much Daksina is to be paid for the officiating priest at various temple rituals or what kind of divine retributions will fall upon the king and people of a region, if there are deficiencies or violations in the Puja, like sufficient Chandana (sandal paste) not being available for the Puja or some Prayascitta (expiatory) ceremony not conducted at the appropriate time.

These are not be taken in a very literal manner, but to be understood in context and to be appreciated as to how much of dedication and devotion the Agamic literature demands from an ideal temple worshipping community.

While much of the book is devoted to present the Agamic perspective, the concluding chapter briefly touches upon the contemporary concerns. This becomes important, given the fact that the temple administration is either in the hands of the government or some religious trusts in the present times, unlike the earlier times when the king was made directly responsible by the Agamas.

The mindset of the devotees of the present times is also very different compared to earlier days.

The book points out the totally erroneous method of the Tamil Nadu HR&CE department in classifying temples solely in terms of revenue, instead of their antiquity, size and Puja requirements.

This results in a few high-revenue urban temples doing well, while hundreds of historical rural temples are in total neglect, not even having ‘one kāla’ (once a day) daily Puja.

The important issue of remuneration to the temple workforce, especially the Archakas is highlighted:

“The nature of temple worship is such that it consumes one’s entire life. There are no holidays for worship. The kings ensured that the people had a house, some land, enough to feed their families so that they were not worried about their livelihood and completely dedicated their lives to the Lord. In modern times, when the cost of living is so high even in the villages, those who serve the Lord earn even less than the government-appointed watchmen and sweepers.. Many of them bring cooked rice from their own homes to offer as naivedya for the Lord. Some of them have salary dues of several years..”
- Temple Management in the Āgama-s, pp. 274

The anguish of the author is fully understandable. The point here is to not demean the work done by the watchmen or sweepers, but to throw light on the sheer apathy and attitude of the government administration.

The temple workforce consists of two types of people — Knowledge workers like Archakas who need to undergo years of study and levels of initiation (Diksa), maintaining spiritual discipline and regimen, Nadaswaram musicians who master their art with years of hard work and training or Oduvars, who sing Thevaram Tamil hymns in classical music ragas.

And then, there are regular administration and maintenance staff, like executive officers, watchmen, stores managers etc. In any organisation, the expectation is that its knowledge workers are valued and respected more or at least treated equally with the other staff.

But, the travesty of the Tamil Nadu HR&CE temple administration is such that the former workforce of the temple is remunerated much less compared to the latter one, thus demoralising them completely.

Such issues need to be addressed immediately.

It is important that the government agencies, courts, media and the general public are educated about the importance and relevance of Agama guidelines in temple worship and administration.

The general discourse around Hindu temples now has so many misconceptions, negativities and distortions, which is not good. What we must have is a discourse with empathy, devotion and appreciation for the unique features of temple culture and its traditions, a priceless heritage for all of us.

This book is in the right direction in this regard, and more such books are required.

This book is an Indic Academy endeavour. They are currently offering a pioneering course to understand temple management through the lens of the ancient canon of the Agamas which codify temple building and worship.

Dr Deepa Duraiswamy is the faculty. Those interested in this topic can enroll here.

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