Note: this article was written in the context of Hindus living in the UK, although it has wide relevance to Hindus in all communities.
As time goes by, we are seeing more mandirs being built in Britain. These tend to be larger, fancier and costlier than the earlier ones – reflecting increased affluence and resolve on the part of temple builders. But is this really where our community should be placing our money and resources?
At first glance, it would seem that the building of more temples is something that should be welcomed by all Hindus. But there is a significant undercurrent of Hindu opinion, especially amongst the younger generation of Hindus, which questions the actual usefulness of all these temples.
The first mandirs set up in this country played an important role in the community life. As Hindu immigrants poured into Britain, these temples were set up as simple places of worship, and in some cases to provide social support networks. The temples reflected imagery and ceremonies with which the first-generation Hindus were familiar, and therefore enabled many people to feel a sense of continuity with the way of life that they were accustomed to in their previous homeland. Religious explanation was not necessary because the temple goers were (on the most part) not trying to educate themselves on philosophy and religious meanings, they were simply trying to continue the way of life with which they were familiar.
With the second and third generations of Hindus in Britain, the situation is somewhat different. The ceremonies, rituals etc are less familiar to us. While, most of us enjoy making the occasional trip to the temple, particularly on big festival days such as Diwali, the local temple is pretty irrelevant for most of the year. The needs of this generation of Hindus are different in many respects, but the temple co-ordinators have (with a few honourable exceptions) not taken heed. Instead, many temple committees seem to use their positions to feed their egos, quite oblivious of the needs or issues facing the wider Hindu community.
A temple is ideally a mini-universe. It should contain a range of activities. Obviously there is the prayer area, which is just for darshan, meditation or puja. But other sections should have different activities, which could range from certain sports, to classes and youth clubs. The reason for this is to better equip people with skills, knowledge and experiences that will stand them in good stead in the outside world. Some people would say that these activities are not strictly religious, and therefore should not be catered for in temple premises. However this is a narrow-minded view, that does not reflect the all-encompassing nature of Hinduism. Indeed, the Hindu concept of dharma encompasses all of life’s activities. The precise details of the activities should be planned in conjunction with a range of people, to ensure that the activities offered are representative of the needs and interests of the community.
As opposed to the earlier generation, younger Hindus usually wish to actually understand the philosophy and meanings that underlie practices they see. Furthermore, the social environment in ‘Asian’ areas is often quite religiously hostile, where young people will be asked questions, sometimes in a confrontational way, about their religion. In these cases, unless a robust understanding of Hinduism is transmitted to Hindus, the young often end up feeling frustrated and estranged from their culture, because psychologically it is something they associate with being insulted. Obviously, temples should be at the forefront of religious learning in the community. However, for the most part, our temples do absolutely nothing in this regard.
There certainly shouldn’t be an attempt to indoctrinate people – that is simply not the Hindu way. What is needed are greater resources for exploring Hindu spirituality and culture. These should be available at temples for people to either use on the premises, or to borrow or buy (in the case of books, tapes or DVDs). Discussion groups should also be set up in all temples. It should be borne in mind that in the ancient past, Hindu temples were almost always centres of learning in addition to places of worship. Modern temples should take heed of this.
Temples should also be more aware of and help tackle important issues in the community. The community support function of Hindu temples, where it existed in the first place, has often dwindled, often only serving immediate friends and relatives of the temple community. There are many important issues in our community, which temples are well placed to tackle. To name just one example, Hindu widows or divorcees with young children often end up in an extremely tough situation, both financially and emotionally. This is even more so when the woman herself is a recent immigrant from India, who knows very few people in Britain. Temples, should without exception seek to provide support networks for vulnerable members of the community. This is easier said than done – but is nonetheless absolutely essential. There are indeed some temples in Britain which provide important community support. However, the number is painfully few.
Back to the original question – should there be more Hindu temples in Britain? Yes, there should be. But what’s needed are temples that support and serve the diverse needs of the community. Some of the money and resources spent on building splendid new temples (or extending existing ones) should be diverted for investment in people. It is only then that temples will actually be relevant to the lives of the wider Hindu community.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: In writing this piece, I was inspired by an article titled ‘Some Problems Facing Hinduism’, which was authored by Ram Swarup. The article can be be accessed here.