Vedic Temples: Making Them More Effective
By Stephen Knapp
The best way to promote and defend Vedic Dharma is through cultural presentations. Imparting the universal spiritual truths as found in Sanatana-dharma, Hinduism, is like spreading a cultural revolution. And the center of that cultural revolution is the Vedic temples. The temples are the main facility to preserve this spiritual heritage and also to disseminate it through what temples provide for people to participate. This is also important for handing it down to the following generations. This is how people learn about it and understand its importance and develop the determination and sincerity to follow it and uphold its standards. This is how people remain resilient to keep it in their hearts no matter what else may happen. The temples are the centers from which the spiritual truths can expand throughout the community and beyond. They are also like launching pads from which sincere devotees can prepare for entering the spiritual dimension. This is why the temples should be as effective as possible.
Vedic or Hindu temples are sprouting up all over North America and in the Western world in general. Many new and large temples have also been opened in India. Though such an increase is happening in the West, the temples are still divided into two basic categories: Those that cater mostly to the Indian immigrants and their cultural needs, and those that truly open their doors in a way wherein people of all kinds can benefit, learn, and participate in the Vedic culture and its traditions. This is an issue that can be addressed towards India as well.
In a time when such things as globalization, interfaith, and cross-cultural relations are increasingly important, and when other religions are trying to convert as many as possible, it is also a time when we should try all the harder to allow others to understand the dynamic and profound nature of the Vedic tradition and philosophy. We have seen in years past when many Western philosophers and historians, such as Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Will Durant, Aldous Huxley, Schopenhauer, Augustus Schlegel, and others, have appreciated and benefited from the study of the Vedic texts, such as Bhagavad-gita. The 1960s saw a great rise in the interest of the philosophy and practice of the Vedic and Eastern ways. Similarly, today many people are increasing their interest in Yoga, Ayurveda, Jyotish, Vastu, as well as Indian dance and music. In fact, many people are using principles found in Yoga or even Kautilya’s Artha Shastra for perfecting various business practices. But how many places, except in special yoga studios or small schools that provide classes in Eastern thought, offer facilities where everyone can apply and practice the traditions of Vedic culture? There are more interested people out there than most people realize. All it takes is the means to invite them, both to enter the temples and then to make them feel welcomed.
First, it may be better to view temples in the right perspective, which is that, naturally, the temple should be the center of the Vedic or Dharmic community, and main preserver of our traditions.
Temples are considered part of the spiritual atmosphere, maintained by sadhana, ritual, service, mantras, and presence of the devotees and deities. It is here where Ishwara, Bhagavan, is more easily accessible for the spiritually focused devotee, like a launching pad for a space-bound rocket. It is the temple and through the deity where we especially have darshan, the act of not only seeing the Lord but being seen by the Lord. But temples should also be the embassies of the spiritual world, the domain of the Supreme Lord, open for fulfilling the spiritual needs of everyone. They should help bring the spiritual world and its vibration, energy, and atmosphere into this material creation, and help bring all others back into the spiritual domain by awakening them to their spiritual identity.
In this way, most of the Vedic/Hindu temples in America, and many in India, are not as effective as they could be to gather a wider audience for both support of the local Vedic community, and the participation in the ways of Vedic knowledge and tradition. So what can we do about this? How can we utilize the temples to more effectively help increase the ways we can preserve, protect, and share the Vedic culture for the benefit of all?
IT IS ALL IN THE PRESENTATION
The basic purpose of temples is to provide the means by which the Vedic culture and philosophy can be understood by everyone and anyone, in whatever way is best for communicating it in this day and age. The principle I use for writing my books should be applied in this case, which is: if they do not understand it, they will not remember it; if they do not remember it, they will never apply it in their lives; if they do not or cannot apply it in their lives, then it will not be of benefit for them and you will have failed to convey it properly and have missed your mark. Therefore, we all must be knowledgeable enough to help others understand the essence of the Vedic tradition and philosophy. Of course, if we cannot do it, then let those teachers who are qualified do it.
Nowadays in America at least, most people will accept what may be new ideas to them if it is presented in a logical way. How many times have we seen Hindus, or anyone for that matter, who is challenged with a critical question or condescending comment about their culture and then react with an emotional or defensive response? This is often an immediate turn-off for those who hear this kind of reply. However, if someone witnesses or hears a logical, common sense or even scientific explanation of our traditions, they will often accept it. They may or may not at first follow it, but we don’t expect that if we are only sharing our culture. But there are many people looking for a philosophy that helps them make sense of this life, of this existence in which we find ourselves, and if they understand the dynamics of the Vedic explanations, they may indeed begin to utilize it in their life.
How else can we explain the number of magazines on the newsstand that cover the topics of yoga and Eastern philosophy and Indic traditions unless Western people are interested in them and want to learn more? That is where our Vedic temples come in to not only assist the Indian population, but to help our local communities of non-Indians as well. So how can we utilize this in the temples?
USING THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
One of the strongest methods of sharing anything is through a universal language. Is there a universal language that we can all share? Is there a means of expression that can inspire us all?
What comes closest to a universal form of communication is music. It is the one form of expression that has always touched the hearts and minds of innumerable people, whether they are young or old, from different races or ethnic groups, or whether the meaning of the words are understood or not. The feeling and emotion can still penetrate and inspire a person’s heart with its mood and message.
One thing that has always been utilized in the Vedic tradition is the use of music. This may be the meter in which the mantras or sutras of the Vedic samhitas are chanted, or it can be the devotional songs and prayers which are sung in soft meditative bhajans, or in rousing kirtans that involve the whole congregation. These may be detailed verses sung in the temple to the deity, or it may be a simple mantra like the Hare Krishna mantra sung with an uncomplicated melody which becomes all the more powerful as the number of people who sing along increases. Such music may be simple, accompanied by only a drum and hand cymbals, or it may be accompanied with additional instruments like harmonium, organ, guitar, sitar, flute, etc.
The singing and dancing in the temple with such transcendental or spiritual vibrations and songs can do much to bring people together with one objective: to be happy in the unity we share in the spiritual atmosphere that helps bring out our realization of our spiritual identity, and which also brings us into contact with the Supreme Lord. This experience goes beyond verbal communication, but uses the universal language of music to invoke that mood of devotion and service. In fact, shastra explains that in this age of Kali-yuga, this process is the most important of all others.
It has been seen time and time again wherein if a temple program uses this type of method, such as kirtanas to allow everyone to participate and become inspired, that we all can lose our differences and become increasingly united in the unique experience. This needs to be a constant part of any and every program or celebration that the temples present.
This is why temples must have a hall for collective participation in chanting and singing prayers and observing puja, worship. It brings a sense of community and strength when the Dharmic or devotee community can do this together in large groups, both men and women, young and old, adults and children. This creates deep samskaras or impressions in the mind that help purify and strengthen us.
One of the most important functions of any temple is having regular classes for both Indian Dharmists and Western students. The problem is that Hindus generally go to the temple for puja, worship or rituals, and darshan at different times. And many temples do not have regularly scheduled classes in which groups of people can attend for continuous study of the sacred texts. Most Indians always say, “Oh, yes, I know Bhagavad-gita.” And maybe they do, until they realize how much they do not know when asked to explain it. But this is also something I’ve encountered while traveling in India, that many Hindus are not really educated in their own tradition, and, thus, lack the ability to explain or defend their own unique culture. Or they even become more susceptible to the conversion tactics used by other religions because of their lack of understanding the depths of their own Vedic traditions. Or here in America, because of this lack of comprehension, when they are criticized in the workplace for being Hindu or from India, they do not know how to respond. Thus, in these situations, they sometimes would simply prefer that no one know that they are from India or follow Vedic Dharma. And sometimes they want to fit in to Western society to such a degree that they even give up basic Dharmic standards and take up the Western ways, such as going to bars with fellow workers, eating meat, flirting with women, etc.
So how we correct this is to have regular group classes for the whole congregation at the temple so everyone can get a better understanding of the Vedic tradition and its philosophy. This can be classes in Bhagavad–gita, Bhagavata Purana, or other books. Days like Sunday when most people are free from work would be appropriate, or on particular week nights when others may participate. This can also include interactive sessions wherein people can practice responding to various questions or even criticisms to test themselves in what can be a fun and creative way. At some Buddhist monasteries, the monks do this as a regular part of their training. We have to understand that any Hindu who comes into a situation where they have to display their character or knowledge of the Dharmic tradition becomes a representative of the whole culture and of all other Dharmists. We should all be prepared for this. In this way, all temples must provide education of the Vedic tradition, and hold classes for children, and for parents so they know what to teach their children. All questions should be explained to educate children and make the adults stronger.
I’ve also attended group classes conducted weekly at people’s homes. They may have a knowledgeable friend or temple representative lead the class with elaborations on the Bhagavad-gita verses. This is nice because there can be time for informal questions and discussions.
To help in this area, priests should also be well trained in the Vedic traditions, but should also have modern education. They should be able to explain all aspects and meanings of the rituals and philosophy in a comprehensive manner and offer guidance to the people in such matters. They must have great love for the Vedic tradition and what they do, and serve the people nicely who follow it. They should preferably be able to discuss aspects of the Western religions to properly explain the comparative differences or similarities to inquisitive students, whether they are Indian or Westerners.
The temple must also provide the ways of teaching how the Vedic avenues of self-realization and reaching one’s full potential can be applied to everyday life. It must be shown how the Vedic tradition is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. If the local priests are not expert in providing this knowledge, the temple can easily bring in others who have experience in making such presentations or speaking about such topics for both adults and youngsters to gain strength and knowledge.
For example, I have made presentations to many Indian groups and organizations who have been impressed with the way I have expounded the advantages of the Vedic path, and I know others in various parts of the country who can do the same. So we can be utilized for this purpose.
For Westerners, classes at the temple may be a little different. You can advertise “Free Yoga and Meditation Class and Workshop” as an introduction. Then later offer more intensive courses for a cost. The introduction can be a short talk, then have a hatha-yoga session, usually presented by the temple priest or a congregational member who is qualified as a teacher. Then have a kirtan session with an easy mantra, like the Hare Krishna mantra, explaining that this is the yoga of sound. Then maybe include a session of one round of japa, wherein all the students get a set of japa beads and together they chant one mantra on each bead to complete one round of 108 beads. Thus, they also learn “japa meditation,” and can continue this practice at home. This arrangement works well for anyone, as I’ve seen this program done in many temples in India as well.
So offer a class in yoga, which is very popular these days, and then a class in the philosophical foundation of it. Westerners are more interested in the yoga than the philosophy, but this is how you can draw them and spark their interest. Make sure the teachers you use, who may be members of your local congregation, are well versed and can handle questions with patience and understanding.
Use the modern phrases for topics of interest. These are especially things like Yoga, Ayurveda, Jyotish, Vastu, etc. You may have to provide a little explanation of these, but many people are interested in them.
Focus on the interest in Yoga and cultural presentations. An increasing number of people are becoming less interested in sharing religion, sometimes because they do not want to deal with attempts at being converted by them, but will feel no hesitancy to be invited or to investigate another culture. Some of the more progressive and open-minded groups of people want more spirituality than dogmatic religion for personal growth and realizations. And the Vedic tradition has much colorful and exciting culture to offer anyone. So focus on these types of presentations to arouse people’s curiosity, while at the same time giving opportunity for those who already follow the Vedic traditions to be proud of their culture.
Temples with facility, and with a teacher who is qualified, can also offer Indian dance lessons and workshops, along with demonstrations of them for cultural exhibits. You simply have to find the means to advertise or let people know about them. I know of several Western ladies who became more interested in Vedic tradition because of their interest in Indian dance. Others may already be interested in the Vedic culture and simply want to continue with it by learning Indian dance.
Classes for learning Sanskrit is another avenue that can help preserve the tradition. There are also an increasing number of groups or organizations that offer quick classes, or more full length courses in Sanskrit. The temple can network with such groups.
Another aspect of temple activities and education is political awareness. The appropriate temple members, excluding the priests and temple managers for legal reasons, can also advise the others on the issues that affect the general Dharmic community so they can be aware of which politicians are the most likely to uphold the Dharmic principles and, thus, be worth our votes during the elections, both in America and in India. To say we should not be interested in politics is shear irresponsibility, especially when other religions become huge voting blocks to support those who promise to fulfill their needs. Dharmists/Hindus should display the same awareness and power of influence.
EDUCATING THE YOUTH
The growth and continuation of Vedic Dharma in America, and India as well, especially depends on how well our children are educated and remain fixed in the timeless traditions of our culture. The temples naturally have to provide the means to educate and also involve the children, youngsters, and teenagers in the temple in learning and upholding the tradition. Therefore, temples should support programs like gurukulas, or Bal Gokulam and Bal Vihars for training the youth in Vedic philosophy and values, Vedic scripture, yoga, rituals, and the Indian Vedic heritage.
The temple and its congregation—the parents—should be able to fund youth activities wherein the youngsters feel important and cared for. The temple support should listen to the youth to see what is valuable and meaningful to them and then work to fulfill those needs. For example, boys and girls have particular interests, which should be developed at the temple. They may enjoy hearing about history through the activities of the heroes and heroines who acted in adventurous ways for the preservation of Vedic Dharma. Or they may like the arts and sciences, and want to learn such things. But what else do they need to learn, know, and participate in at the temple? This should be discerned and arranged in order to utilize the ideas the youth and teenagers present. Find out what they like.
Summer youth camps of a few days or a week or so wherein youngsters can come together for various activities that are fun or educational always make great impressions and memories. Some of the activities at such youth camps can include learning Vedic culture and its values, study of the Vedic scriptures and epics, morning yoga, introduction to Sanskrit, talent shows, games and sports, a bonfire, boating, swimming, hena art for the girls, poster making, various arts and crafts, water balloon fight, clay doll and image making, various competitions, and panel discussions on various issues, depending on their age.
Also, the temple can set up support groups or structures for the decisions the youth or young adults need to make, such as for those who want or recently have gotten married so right and proper decisions about things they are facing can be made. Or set up a group so they can learn the differences in other religions if they are considering marrying someone of a different faith. Especially for girls, conversions forced through marriage can be considered a human rights violation that often cause rifts in the marriage and family, and difficulties and confusion for any children that are conceived. Love is often blind and the perceptiveness to future difficulties may also be shallow in seeing the challenges of interfaith marriages without proper education and support, which could be supplied by the temple. It is typical that one, two, or at the most three generations after an interfaith marriage, the children are no longer followers of Vedic Dharma.
For more information on this topic, you may want to read my article: “Giving Vedic Culture to the Next Generation.”
Temples can also establish mentoring programs. This would be for the older youth to become friends with and help teach what they know of Vedic traditions to the younger ones. This gives a sense of responsibility to the older youth, and a level of admiration and acceptance to the younger one’s who often look up to those who are not so much different in age than they are, but are still viewed as older and wiser. In this way, everybody learns and helps each other progress.
Classes in Indian cooking are also often of interest to the youth, some of whom may be really enthusiastic to learn, and may find they have a real talent in this area.
TRAINING TEMPLE MEMBERS IN SERVICE
All those who attend the temple should be trained in service, or seva. God or Ishwara is present everywhere but especially in the temple, which magnifies our concentration and focus on serving the Supreme, especially in the form of the deity on the altar. Thus, the temple belongs to the Lord and all service at the temple is directly linked to the deity of the Lord. Therefore, all aspects of temple activities provide a way for everyone’s spiritual progress and uplifting and spiritualizing ourselves in God consciousness. In this way, any service we do, whether sweeping floors, cleaning pots in the kitchen, fundraising, managing, welcoming guests, giving donations for temple or deity facilities, maintaining the building, etc., is all service for the Supreme. And such service is an example of bhakti-yoga, developing devotion for the Lord. It is also good for making the right samskaras and impressions in our consciousness, as well as being a good example for our children who may follow what we do. Therefore, we could also say that the temple is “our temple” in being the place where we can make it into whatever expression we want as a manifestation of our devotion to God.
For this reason, complete understanding of the significance, meaning, and the installation process of the deity in the temple should also be provided so no one approaches with too little respect, or has a misconception of the spiritual power of the deity. Flyers or brochures with such information can be excellent handouts to give to the members and guests of the temples to increase awareness of such things. They can also be used to help explain basic points of the philosophy, especially to new guests.
Furthermore, there are frequent attempts to pester the faith of Hindus and devotees with misguided views and interpretations of the philosophy to try and cause doubts and skepticism, both in America and India. Dogmatics from other religions often try to propagate distorted views of the great Vedic Dharma and its tradition. The way to counter such measures is twofold: By proper education of the real meaning and purpose of Vedic Dharma, and to train people in the attitude and act of servitude and devotion to God, which paves the way for them to attain the higher and most convincing taste of the reciprocal exchange with the Supreme. Once this is reached, or even a glimpse of it, no one can knock them from their established position of solid experience of higher realizations. This is attainable by all sincere souls and is the purpose of the temple and goal of all devotees.
Another consideration is to have ashramas for training as opposed to joining. Often we see that people think that they enter an ashrama once they join an organization or faith. But many times people easily pay money to enter a retreat for a time in order to gain peace of mind, or engage in a course of study, meditation, yoga practice, or means of learning about the Self by realization and practice, etc. This may be for a weekend, a month, three months, or longer. Sometimes people like to spend the weekend at the temple, and an ashrama or guestrooms can be quite essential for such a purpose. So ashramas can also be established in which people can enter for a certain length of time for a specific purpose, be trained and help with service around the temple, and then leave after a period of time with a deeper understanding of what the Vedic knowledge is and how to apply it in their lives. Afterwards, they may become a permanent participant in the temple activities.
For this purpose, if a temple does not have facility to have its own designated ashrama area, it is good if it can connect with another temple or country retreat that does have such facility so if anyone is interested, it can be recommended so temple members can go for retreats.
TEMPLES MUST BE WELL KEPT
There are many large and beautiful temples being built, but temples of all sizes must be clean, well kept, organized, and nicely maintained. We should be proud of our temples, and nothing makes for a poorer impression than one that is dirty or ill-maintained. Guests especially notice the beauty of a temple, and also of anything that is out of order. Large and ornate temples are always impressive and can be used in great public relations work as well, especially when a temple provides facility for the local non-Vedic community to tour and see the place. I’ve seen this so many times. So a temple that does not offer its facility for others to see and appreciate is a temple that is only 50% effective in the work it should be doing. And this primarily depends on the temple management. So if the management cannot see how to do this, or is not interested, then they are not fulfilling their own true potential or the higher purpose for which a temple should be established.
FESTIVALS & PROGRAMS FOR THE LOCAL COMMUNITY
There are so many holidays that are celebrated in the Vedic tradition, and these should be done as part of the joy and celebration of the heritage for all Hindus and Dharmists. However, there can easily be some that can be open to the general public. Special holy days like Krishna Janmasthami, RamaNauvami, Holi, and others, can be arranged in a way wherein the local non-Vedic community, especially in the Western countries, can come to watch, participate, and enjoy. First they need to be invited, or know they are welcome. Once they arrive, there needs to be a welcome committee that can help show them around and explain things. Flyers or handouts can also be arranged that will help explain the meaning of various parts of the temple and the holiday being observed, and what activities they may like to do. If it is Holi, guests may also like to participate in the throwing of colors. If not, they can just watch.
I have seen, such as at the Krishna temple in Spanish Fork, Utah, wherein as many as 10,000 people, mostly Westerners, attend their Holi celebration. They sell packs of colored powders, which adds to the revenue of the festival, and along with plays or skits, they later gather around a circle, all singing and dancing to the tune of Hare Krishna, and then the first colors are thrown and then everyone joins in. And they like it as it signifies throwing their cares away to unite in the spiritual atmosphere of the festival. Now who wouldn’t be attracted to that? In this way, many people are intrigued and fascinated to come to the temple and participate in various festivals. Other temples can take lessons from this.
WELCOMING NON-HINDUS INTO THE VEDIC FOLD
There are some organizations, such as Iskcon, which welcome non-Indians and non-devotees to become members of the Vedic family through an initiation process. There is no spiritual or shastric injunction that says this is not to be done. There may be a few brahminical traditions that discourage the idea of anyone participating in Vedic practices. However, everyone is a spiritual being, and everyone has the right to learn about their spiritual identity through the Vedic process. Therefore, everyone can follow this path and become part of the Vedic family. There is no problem, and this also helps encourage everyone to participate in and support Vedic culture.
Furthermore, as Indian Hindus increasingly get married to non-Hindus, especially in the West, if there is no way for the non-Hindu to come to the Vedic temples and participate, feel welcome, or even join the path of Sanatana-dharma, then it also increases the likelihood that the Hindu partner will participate and even convert to the religion of his or her spouse. There is no reason for this. But we should be ready and willing to welcome everyone to participate in temple activities and feel a part of the Vedic family.
Temples must have books to offer or sell. This is extremely important for the philosophical and cultural education of the members, and also for other guests who are looking for books that they may not be able to find anywhere else. We only have to let people know what we have to offer, and what books are available so they can come to check them out. So many times I have heard where people have been looking for spiritual knowledge but did not know where to find the knowledge that we have to offer. One quote was, “I’ve been living on this planet for 35 years and had no idea that this kind of spiritual philosophy was available.” So if we are going to be as effective as we should be, then at least we need to let people know what they can find within the Vedic heritage and how they can have access to it through our temples. And one of the best ways to do that is to have books available that they can take with them and study.
The temple can also offer whole sets of books, like an instant library at a special price for any family. Or offer to install a set of books, like the Bhagavad-gita, Bhagavata Purana and others, as a deity in the home. There can be an installation ceremony to sanctify the place and the occasion, and then the books can be installed into a nice cabinet. Books such as the Bhagavata Purana is considered the literary and sound avatara of the Lord. So, naturally, the temple benefits by making these available.
There are many other ways to distribute books besides offering them at temples, but that is a separate topic, and numerous ideas are available. Nonetheless, this can be a great service to the people and also be another way of financial support for the temple.
Besides festivals, special cultural presentations are also ways of attracting people to the temple, and ways for the temple to be more effective and useful. I go to the local Bharatiya Temple regularly for its cultural programs, whether they are fundraisers for the temple, or the local VHP chapter, or a presentation by a traveling spiritual teacher. In these cultural programs, they often have a talk, slideshow, a musical presentation, or a dance exhibition by a noted dance troupe. There is often an area in the hall where various items, such as devotional books, prints and photos, etc., can be purchased. Of course, there is also a vegetarian prasada dinner for everyone. Again, if the occasion has a special meaning, flyers or brochures can be made that help explain its significance.
So everyone can be invited to such a presentation, and invitations can also be sent to the local community in order to share the culture, which also creates good public relations for the neighbors. And everyone feels satisfied after seeing such culture and talent.
Every temple can also have outreach programs where they cater to different types of people in the community. One is to have college or school programs to let students understand more about India and the ancient Vedic tradition. Schools especially are interested in culture. And cultural programs are always more acceptable for getting into the schools than a religious presentation. And the Vedic tradition has much culture to offer. Through such programs you can also interest people to further their education and development by inviting them to the temple. Through these programs you can offer things like skits or plays, or dance demonstrations. After the dance, you can invite the students to try out the dances, which they often find quite fun. Some may want to go on to take lessons, which has happened.
Cooking classes are also quite effective and popular wherein the students not only learn how to cook some Indian preparations, but enough food is brought or prepared so that the students can also have a meal and try some of the preps after the lesson. Many students will attend just for that.
If you do not have a team to do this, or if the temple priests are too busy with temple activities, another simple cultural program you can offer is slideshows of holy places in India, or of festivals, and things like this, which many students will not have seen before. It takes only one person to put on a slideshow and speak about it. So it can be most interesting to them, and help educate them about the real aspects of Indian and Vedic culture.
The thing is that various teachers are often looking for this kind of presentation to further the education and cultural understanding of their students. Or Indian children themselves will appreciate someone being able to help increase the understanding of their culture to their friends or fellow students, especially if a Westerner is making the presentation. It adds to the credibility for the Indian student who may be amongst many other Westerners who do not understand India.
An example of what I mean is that once I was staying with an Indian Hindu family in which the children were going to a typical public school here in America. So the children would sometimes be subjected to some jokes about the food they would bring to eat at school. So they did not like the other students to see what they ate. But when I was there and I would eat with the family, the children saw me eating lots of chapattis and having seconds and thirds on the vegetable subji. Then they also felt better about what they ate and had more courage against whatever anyone might say to them. So this sort of exchange helps.
So if the Indian youth know they can call their local temple for such a presentation or slideshow, it will be greatly appreciated. But you have to let people know it is available. Such simple cultural presentations can also be done at people’s homes as well.
Similar programs can also be done at local Unitarian churches who like to investigate other spiritual paths. This creates great public relations, good cross-cultural dialogue, and I’ve seen where some church members like to visit the temple regularly after learning about it. The point is that you never know what positive things might happen from such programs.
TEMPLE TOURS AND CULTURAL EXHIBITS FOR LOCAL STUDENTS
As we are speaking about cultural programs at schools, school classes can also come to the temple. At my local Hare Krishna temple there are a few comparative religious classes who have field trips, and every year they come to participate in a free Sunday program and feast. This gives the students a great taste of what the temple is like. Some students like it very much. And some of them come back regularly after that first visit. So when teachers know they can come to the temple, they can make arrangements to do so.
Another aspect of this is that on occasion teachers will bring the students to the temple during the week. However, this usually means making a special arrangement. Depending on what you have to offer, the students may come for an arati ceremony, maybe a traditional bhajan with Indian instruments, a talk, and then some prasada. If the temple has other things to see, then you can take them on a tour. Then they can also visit the temple gift shop for items that may interest them, such as books, incense, posters, photos, beads, etc.
For a school class in America, for example, to have a tour at the temple, with a talk, and a lunch, you may charge them at a rate of $5 per student, depending on what they want. For a class of say 50 students, this can bring in $250 before expenses, or a class of 90 students can bring in $450, not counting any gift shop purchases. Thus, the students get spiritual and educational benefit and have a nice outing from the school, and the temple benefits as well. In India, the program can be done for a lesser charge.
When considering these kinds of tours or cultural programs at the temple, it is also nice when the temple has exhibits, such as dioramas, that help explain and show the philosophy in action. When I was invited to speak at a Swadhyaya group convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City several years ago, there was one floor dedicated to various exhibits of diorama dolls and placards, computer based presentations and others that helped show the philosophy of Bhagavad-gita and the work of the organization in action. It was practically self-explanatory. Temples can have a few rooms of this sort as well, or even a full museum if they have the facility in order to attract people and show the philosophy in action.
Another example of this is in Kurukshetra, the holy town about three hours north of Delhi by train. There you can find a Krishna Museum managed by the government, which is a building with three floors of all kinds of displays, dioramas, deities, etc., all related to Krishna. This included life size dioramas of Krishna with the Pandavas, Krishna on a horse, scenes from the battle of Kurukshetra, musical instruments, paintings from various parts of India, and much more. It is truly beautiful and impressive. You can’t help but be affected by it, and if a temple came up with anything like that, even in a smaller degree, it would be great for both Indian Hindus as well as Western students.
TEMPLE GIFT SHOPS
Temples must also have gift shops where people can purchase items that will help their spiritual practice and development. The most effective temples have gift shops for books, japa beads, maybe some musical instruments like karatala hand cymbals and mridanga drums, photos and prints of the Vedic divinities and the temple deities, recordings of bhajans and kirtans or lectures by noteworthy personalities, marble or brass deities, packaged prasada or sanctified food, and other paraphernalia. This will also facilitate Westerners and help draw them to the temple, especially if the gift shops have particular hours in which they are open, and where they can get items that may not be available anywhere else. This way, both Indians and Westerners know where they can go to get the books or paraphernalia they need to enhance their spiritual development. Thus, the gift shop becomes another draw to the temple.
The temples that are the most successful at this are some of the Iskcon temples, like in Los Angeles or New York, and also the Swami Narayana temples, such as at Akshardham in New Delhi or Gandhinagar, where the gift shops are quite large and contain lots of items from which people can choose. If a temple does not have a gift shop, then that temple is much less effective than it could be in offering the means for everyone to practice the Vedic traditions, and, thus, there is less reason to go to the temple.
The rarest and deepest spiritual knowledge can be found in the Vedic texts. In this age, there is no reason why everyone should not have access to all levels of this knowledge and information, from the youngest to the oldest. So temples can also have spiritual libraries.
For example, there can be children’s books for the youngsters to better engage them in understanding the Vedic moral principles, the Puranic histories, inspiring biographies, and numerous stories with which they can relate and get excited. These can include coloring or activity books, both in the library and sold in the temple gift shops.
Another aspect of this would be to include audio visual facilities so the children can immediately become involved in watching the stories come alive. Many times this completely captivates the children who are thus trained in the Vedic culture, especially if these are in the common language of the children, as opposed to being only in Sanskrit or Hindi. In the West, many Indian children understand English better than the Indian languages. So that is how such media can be conveyed for the ease of learning by the children. For example, if children in India understand the local language better, then that is the language that needs to be used. Such facilities can also be used for a “children’s story hour” or something developed just for youngsters. Then children will acquire a natural attraction to come to the temple and participate. This may also inspire students to travel to or throughout India to see the temples and holy places to provide for first-hand experience in learning about Vedic culture.
Naturally, since temples are the foundations of dispersing spiritual knowledge, such libraries should have numerous volumes for answering various questions of adults. Thus, such libraries can have the essential Vedic texts, as well as books by the spiritual masters, or on yoga, Indian travel guides about the temples and holy places, etc. The most popular books can be sold in the temple gift shop.
Another enterprise an effective temple can use is a nice vegetarian restaurant. If families want to go out for a meal, then let them come to the temple for sanctified food, prasadam. This can help add to the financial income of the temple if it is done well. It may require the right personnel and management if it offers a wide menu, but if the temple does not have such facility it can also be done in a simple manner with just a small buffet where people can stop in for some prasada while they are at the temple for a small donation. This can be refreshing and also facilitate the spiritual interests of guests who may appreciate something to eat, or at least some deity prasada before they leave the temple. Sometimes a vegetarian restaurant is not so easy to find in some towns, so this would also facilitate people, Indian Hindus or Westerners alike who have that interest. A restaurant next to the gift shop is a nice way for guests to finish their visit to the temple.
The importance of support groups that are established or assisted by the temple, or by temple members, cannot be stressed enough. It is a way of assisting and providing the means for the Dharmic or devotee community to come together, and help one another in both spiritual and other aspects of life.
The fact is that the Indian and Dharmic community in America has become developed enough that, besides going to the usual government agencies for assistance, there is no reason why we should go outside our own group for support. We have a broad latitude of professionals and educated people to provide a wide variety of advice and cooperative enterprises and assistance.
This is especially important in India where it is seen that when the Hindu community does not provide the means to take care of its own people, there are many other organizations, often connected with various religious affiliations such as Christianity, who are waiting to come in and help with the notion that this is a way to make new converts. There is no reason for this, but the Dharmic/Hindu community must be willing and cooperative to provide the support to those who need it. In other words, if we do not take care of our own, someone else will. And such support can easily be centered around the temples as service to the deity in service to humanity.
So let us look at some of the support groups that can be established. Now anyone who knows how I write should also know that these ideas are not new, but are examples of what some temples are already successfully doing. So if they can be done in one temple, they can be done in others. Let us also remember that the more support a temple can provide for its members, the more reasons there are for members to stay with that temple and why new members should join, and why they should have more pride in the ability, compassion, and cooperation of their own community.
These are some of the groups or regularly scheduled interactive workshops that could be developed, aside from the classes and needs that have already been mentioned:
A. Grief counseling—when there is a death in the family.
B. Health assistance—doctors or nurses who can assist those in need, such as in having health fairs for anyone who attends.
C. Mental health—like depression.
D. Seniors care & support network—especially for those with no family.
E. Domestic violence & assistance in family disputes.
F. Chaplain service—such as visiting hospitals, nursing homes and family homes for prayers and counseling.
G. Additional Community service for both inside and outside the Indian or devotee community.
H. Blood drives are an example.
I. Driving Service—giving seniors or those who need rides to the temple.
J. Communication skills workshops.
K. Youth support & conferences—like dealing with their issues of leading a Dharmic life in a changing world.
L. Educational assistance.
M. Lessons in English.
N. Confidence building.
O. Problem solving teams—dealings on all levels of challenges.
P. Youth executive development—to encourage and provide association centered on the temple for future executive trainees.
Q. Social issues—like dealing with violence on television and its affects on our children.
R. Vanaprastha support—workshops and seminars to help those who are retiring to plan the years ahead.
S. Support a Child—especially for children in India, to support the lodging, healthcare, books, clothing, and to eradicate illiteracy.
T. Support a Mataji—for supporting the elder ladies who may be without family but want to live in a simple way for spiritual success, possibly in an ashrama setting.
U. Ekavidyalaya—support for the one teacher schools in rural India.
V. Serving in homeless shelters.
W. Providing facility for food distribution to the hungry, like Iskcon’s “Food for Life”.
X. Overcoming addictions—emphasizing Dharmic values to gain strength over addictions, like alcohol or drugs.
Y. Agrarianism—supporting temple gardens or farms to grow our own food, and promoting the Vedic lifestyle in the mode of goodness, and for self-sufficiency.
There can also be what could be called the “Temple Newcomer’s Club” that could welcome new members to the temple, familiarize them with the area if they are from out of town, introduce them to new friends, temple activities, show them how they can be engaged in temples services, and invite them to any temple meetings for further participation.
These are some of the support groups for activities, workshops or fundraising that can help temple members and others through life while keeping their focus on the Dharmic values that every temple should promote.
PILGRIMAGES TO THE HOLY PLACES OF INDIA
Organizing trips to India may also be worthwhile for the youth so they can learn more about the country and culture of India. Even Indian adults may not have seen as much of their country as they would have liked and could do so through such journeys. Furthermore, many western seekers long for traveling to the exotic places of India to see the numerous temples, holy sites, or attend major festivals. What better way to promote awareness of India and its Vedic traditions than through such pilgrimages?
Preparations for the trip can be arranged through the study of various holy places, and which places may be of most interest to visit. Classes or even slide shows of the holy sites, temples, festivals, and traditions of Vedic India can also generate interest. This part of it would not be expensive. Anyone who has a collection of slides of their various travels can help educate or create interest in this aspect of India. Then trips to various holy sites can be arranged so all interested parties can go. Smaller temples can connect with bigger temples that may have more facility to make such arrangements.
In spite of whatever you have to offer, you must let people know that you exist and what are your facilities. Otherwise, you will be overlooked. So what are some of the ways we can do this?
A website is mandatory for a temple. You can put so much information on it, from photos of the temple and the deities, a map and directions to reach the temple, times of the pujas and aratis, when it opens and closes, an introduction to the philosophy or the identity of the deities, the purpose of the temple, and even who are the head priests or managers. This is your first introduction to whoever may be interested.
Then you can have a link to the temple website on the website of other temples or members who have websites.
Newsletters are next. A quarterly paper newsletter is nice, but nowadays many temples are sending news out through emails. You can collect numerous email addresses of your temple members or visitors who want to hear what is happening at the temple, and then send them quarterly newsletters or announcements whenever something special is happening, such as when a special program or festival will take place, or when a noteworthy person will be giving a talk, interesting classes that will be given, or the special preparations that the temple restaurant will be having, or so many other things that can help draw people to the temple. Also, be sure that whatever good things that have happened, new developments, or accomplishments are announced so people can know of these things and support them.
Advertising for events may also be considered. In any advertisement, when you want to get the word out about something, always include your website for more information. Some of the places you can advertise are in temple directories, phone books, local papers, or Indian newspapers. You can also use posters or flyers in Indian stores, or go door-to-door to reach people, or store-to-store, and so many places. However, be careful to reach your audience as effectively as possible because sometimes no matter how nice the advertisement is, if it is in the wrong place, it still will have little effect.
Calendars with beautiful photos of the temple deities are also a most attractive way to remind people of the temple, of the deities, of upcoming festivals, so they stay in touch. If it is really high quality, the photos may be worth framing and many will want to have a calendar. So it may become like a collectible.
Furthermore, just as we see billboards throughout India about how Jesus loves you and all that, why not spend some money about the benefits of coming to the temple, or how Krishna loves you, or how a Swami is coming to give lectures for your benefit. I see this in some places like Vrindavana, so many pundits, devotees, or swamis that are coming to Vrindavana have their photos plastered on billboards so everyone knows about them. So, why not do similar things to spread the word in other parts of the nation?
Television and radio is next. So many Swamis and preachers of all kinds have hour-long shows on Indian and even Western television and radio wherein they can talk about the Lord or the processes of yoga and self-realization. A temple can support a weekly radio or television show on cable TV, which by law must make its facilities available. This should be a focused endeavor in order to bring more people into the fold and educate people properly about the Vedic culture.
These are just some of the ways to promote the temple and its facilities. Many more can be developed.
TEMPLES MUST SHARE METHODS THAT WORK
If temples develop new and effective ways to teach and uphold Vedic spiritual knowledge, then they should network with other temples and share their techniques and ideas. This is presently being done through annual conferences in the United States, by which an increasing number of temples help share ideas, managerial processes, suggestions about legal and educational issues, and also how to further assist India in preserving its culture. There must be whole-hearted cooperation, knowing that we all need to work together to do something great and have a positive influence in this world. The more we work together in this way, the easier it becomes.
TEMPLES MUST HELP UNIFY PEOPLE
Temples must not only network together, but they must become more supportive of each other and cooperate together. For example, the temples in a community can all come together for at least one huge festival a year, such as a large Rathayatra festival. This can be the perfect example of how Hindus and devotees from all temples can gather, participate, and support each other in a huge show of unity. The press can be invited to show the cultural aspect of the festival, but to also show how such Dharmists and devotees have such strength in numbers. Thereafter, it also becomes much easier for the members of all temples to work together, especially if there is an issue that affects the whole Vedic community.
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If every temple could apply these principles for the preservation, protection, and promotion of Vedic culture here in North America, and use similar techniques in India, we would see a tremendous growth of this spiritual knowledge and its values for the betterment of all people, not only on this continent but all over the world.
Additional Articles to Read Elaborating This Theme:
Giving Vedic Culture to the Next Generation
Spiritual Enlightenment: A Cure for Social Ills
Vedic Culture: As Relevant Today as Ever
Hindus Must Stand Strong for Dharma