Making Religion Fun

Having spent the day before Sankranti (pongal) cribbing about how festivals mean so much work and how they are designed especially to create marital discord I was pleasantly surprised to see this amazing religious event on Saturday evening.

I was at the inlaws’ place in Rajajinagar, having spent the day doing two pradakshinas of Bangalore, and visiting some twenty relatives and distributing sugar figures¬† and sesame. And I was taken to the nearby main road (Dr Rajkumar road) to watch the ISKCON chariot festival.

And what an awesome event that was. While the chariot was some distance away volunteers came around distributing prasada in leaf bowls (donnes). And then there were some ISKCON Akshaya Patra vans that came around doling out yummy juice to all passerby. And then there was a mountain of people. And there were thousands of people lining the roads on either side.

There was a generator van, followed by people who were dancing as they marched along. The atmosphere was electric (pardon the Ravi Shastri-ism) and it was impossible to be not taken by it. I wanted to go join the dancers but there was more work to be done that night (visiting another half a dozen houses distributing sugar figures and sesame) so I stood by.

Then the chariot arrived, being pulled by two long ropes with some fifty people each. It was gender-segregated and the rope towards my side was being pulled by women so I didn’t have the opportunity to touch it (apparently if you touch the rope you get some good karma as it’s as if you’ve pulled the chariot). And volunteers continued to dole out prasada (sweet pongal) and juice.

I must confess I didn’t see the idol. When the chariot neared me, my focus was on catching the sweet packets which a monk seated at the side of the chariot was throwing. I must admit I missed quite a few good chances and let packets of coconut mithai fall into the gutter behind me. But i did manage to catch one, my days patrolling short midwicket in inter-section matches having come to good use.

It was awesome. It was so awesome that even a normally-non-believing me was completely taken by the whole festival. All the gloom of the previous day and tiredness of having driven around the city vanished in that moment.

And it made me wonder why we don’t make our festivals more fun. About why we don’t make religion more fun for people to follow, and instead waste our time and energy in mindless rituals. Thankfully Pinky also shares my thoughts and we’ve decided to celebrate only the fun festivals – where we have fun doing the required work.

But seriously, it would help making our lot more religious if we could let go of some rituals and adopt more of the fun components of festivals. But then people think they get good karma by enduring pain and all that..

Frequency of Temples

Earlier today, I realized that each temple has its own “frequency”. Frequency of doing the pooja and giving the mangalaarathi and tirtha and collecting offerings from the visitors. If I can generalize, I can say that the more popular temples featuring “standardized deities” are more likely to have better turnaround time in conducting poojas and archanas.

So I have based this study on two data points. On one hand, there is the Ganesha temple in Jayanagar 4th block (intersection of 30th cross and the diagonal road and 7th main; opposite Maiya’s). This is an extremely popular temple and draws thousands of visitors every day. And you must note that Ganesha is a “standardized deity” – ¬†he is perhaps the most common deity across Hindu temples (if you count each avatara of Vishnu as distinct).

And this temple is quick. Despite getting hundreds of visitors every hour, the priests there work hard to serve everyone in quick time. The Mangalaarathi is held at a frequency greater than once every five minutes. Thus, you can just walk in, watch one round of mangalaarathi-and-bells, take the mangalaarathi, put in your offferings, drink the tirtha, go round and round, sit down for a minute and get on with your business, all within ten minutes. Maybe this efficiency (apart from the awesome location) is what gets this temple so many visitors.

Towards the other end of the spectrum is the Subramanyeshwara Temple in VV Puram that I visited it this morning. I had to get some pooja done there in order to kick off my wedding preparations (Subramanyeshwara is our “family deity”; one of the several reasons as to why I’m named my name) and went in at around 10 am. There was already a decent crowd there and I duly purchased my archane slip (oh how much I loved getting archane done when I was a kid – if not for anything else but to get the sugarcandy prasada) and tried getting the attention of one of the priests (there are several there) only to find that they wouldn’t accept the chit for another hour or so (the idol was being bathed at that time, and being scrubbed using one of those brushes used to clean brass instruments).

Considering it’s not too far from home, I duly disappeared and appeared an hour later, and by now the crowd was larger. I had to get my large frame between a considerable mass of people in order to reach a priest and hand in my archane slips (one for the self and one for the fiancee; I had purchased both during the first visit to the temple earlier today). And some further minutes later, there was a grand round of pooje after which they brought the mangalaarathi plate. A cycle time of a full two hours!

I don’t know how popular this temple is (I’m told it’s pretty popular), but I suppose one reason it doesn’t attract as many visitors as it might is because of the time commitment it demands. Due to the large pooja cycle time, only the most committed and devoted visitors visit the place. Maybe the temple loses out on contributions because of this, but maybe gains in terms of having only the more devoted devotees, which gives it an increased “average puNya per devotee”. And it is a choice that the temple and its priests have made, and I’m sure they have good reasons for the same.

Oh, and keep in mind that Subramanya is an uncommon deity when it comes to temples (definitely not when it comes to naming one’s kids).

PS: The tirtha they gave at the temple today was milk-based, which I think is quite messy since temples don’t really have places to wash one’s hands. Water-based tirthas are more appropriate since they can just be wiped on to one’s head after drinking.

PS2: I like it when the archane is done in front of me, when the purohit asks me for the details (name, gotra, nakshatra) rather than like today when it was all written on the chit and they performed the pooja inside. I like the personalized service of the former case.

PS3: To bring up a now-taboo topic, have I mentioned that Ganesha is a stud and Subramanya is a fighter? Just sayin’