How to conduct yourself inside a Hindu temple
Any Hindu temple is a holy place designated for public worship of God, where the form of God has been consecrated as per “Agama shastra” (procedures and rites based on specific scripture dealing with temple construction and worship). Traditionally, some temples (having a long historic background) may draw quite large number of devotees by virtue of certain reasons associated with the sacredness of the place, specific benevolences attributed to the presiding deity, the sanctification done by a great sage who stayed at the premises and practiced severe austerities and so on.
Many ancient temples are also rich treasure houses of traditional Indian art, sculpture and architecture; they serve as museums, too, for the tourists to come, view and appreciate the magnificent sculptural and architectural capabilities of the artisans of yore. There are also temples of recent origin available for easy accessibility to devotees near most of the residential localities.
Whether you are visiting a temple as a devotee or as a tourist, you should know how to conduct yourself at the holy premises. You may be surprised to notice that in reality even many Hindu devotees and the staff of the temple may not be following some of the guidelines here, but that need not be an excuse for you to ignore them.
Switch off your cell phone, or leave your cell phone in your vehicle
A visit to the temple is essentially to get some peace and tranquility in you from your hectic and distracting daily schedules and chores. Being always available to others’ call may give you a sense of self-importance and pride (and cell phones precisely give you that). Cell phones have proved to be one of the greatest “peace-disturbers” and you will be better off without them, at least during the few minutes of your stay inside the holy temple premises. Moreover, an unexpected ring of your cell phone has every potential to disturb the peace and tranquility of fellow worshipers inside the temple; respecting others’ sentiments and privacy can at least be practiced inside a temple, if not outside, too.
Leave your footwear outside the temple
Of course, all Hindus know of this fundamental requirement. Outside prominent temples, footwear stands will normally be available (either run free or for a nominal charge run by the temple authorities/ contractors). Where there is no such facility available, you can always find a shop nearby selling “puja articles” (coconut, flowers, garlands, camphor, etc.) and you can leave your footwear there and pay a nominal fee on your return. If you happen to purchase puja articles from them, they will take care of your footwear for free.
A visit to the temple is not same as a visit to the market or a theater. Women should dress modestly when going to the temple. Wearing of traditional dresses like Saree or Salwar-Khamiz (or Churidar), which cover the entire body of the woman is desirable. Wearing of tight-fitting jeans and T-shirts, half-pants or any other dress form that provocatively reveals the feminine form and distract men’s eyes should be strictly avoided. Where the temple premises are located inside an Ashram where Sanyasins (monks) and Brahmacharis (young bachelors in religious apprenticeship) live, the dress code for women becomes all the more important.
As for men, the general dress code is to avoid wearing colourful lungis; grown-ups are advised not to wear ‘bermudas.’ Wearing a traditional ‘Dhoti‘ is desirable. In India (particularly in South India, where the climate is mostly hot and humid), men remaining bare bodied above the waist in not considered indecent. Rather, going to temple bare-bodied above the waist is considered a sign of humility shown before God. This practice is particularly predominant in KeralaState. Many popular temples in Kerala (like Guruvayur temple) insist that men-folk should remove their upper garments before entering the temple.
Accept the dress code
As said above, if the temple customs demand that men-folk should remain bare bodied above the waist or if wearing a dhoti is insisted upon, or if women are thwarted from entering the temple in modern outfits, please accept the customs and do not enter into argument or a fight with the watchmen or with the authorities. You can always exercise your option of not going into the temple. Likewise, some temples may have entry restricted to foreigners belonging to other religions. It is always better to accept such restrictions rather than making an issue out of it and creating a scene.
Observe personal cleanliness
In India, it is the general practice that people go to temple after taking bath. Where the temple has a temple tank or where a river flows adjacent to the temple, bathing can be done there (if you are used to taking bath in public). Otherwise, the water of the temple tank (or the river water adjacent to the temple) is considered very holy and washing your legs and hands and sprinkling of the water on your head can be treated as a cleansing process equivalent to bathing.
Another commonly practiced discipline in India is that women do not visit temples during their menstrual periods. Visiting temples in a period immediately following the occurrence of a birth or death in the family is also avoided generally.
Do not gossip, talk aloud or indulge in fun and frolic inside temple
The temple atmosphere must help you and others to elevate the minds from the mundane to the spiritual, at least during the brief period of stay there. Using the temple as a place for get-together to make fun or to gossip about mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws or to discuss about politics must be avoided.
Chant God’s holy name, your mantra or hymns
It is said that the holy atmosphere in the temple has the power to augment your spiritual efforts. Chanting God’s holy name, repeating your mantra or recitingslokas (hymns) is highly recommended. But make sure that you do not do them loudly to show off or to impress or distract others. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahmsa says that our spiritual efforts must be secretive and never meant to show off to others.
Keep the temple premises clean
Never throw out plastic bags, paper waste, leaves, edibles, flowers, garlands, coconut shells or fibres indiscriminately around the temple premises. If the temple has the practice of giving sanctified food (prasad) for eating, do not throw it away if it is unpalatable to you. After eating, if you do not find water nearby to wash your hands, do not wipe your hands on the temple pillars! Where prasads like Kumkumor sacred ash is given to you, do not throw the excess stuff into the nearby recesses at the pillars and walls of the temple. Always take a piece of paper with you and fold them and keep with you.
Maintain silence, decorum and reverence at the Sanctum sanctorum
- Where there is a queue to reach the sanctum sanctorum, follow it; do not try to jump the queue and gain an out-of-turn entry. Do not try to utilize your “influence,” even if you are a VIP. Practice humility at least in the holy atmosphere.
- Maintain absolute silence in the presence of the deity; make your prayers silently. In your enthusiasm to devour the beauty of the divine form in full, do not obstruct the view of those standing behind you. Do not yell out God’s holy name too emotionally, as this could disturb other devotees who are silently praying to God.
- Strictly abide by the rules relating to local customs and procedures in the worship of the deity. For example, in North India, touching of the deity by the devotees may be permissible in some temples. But in South India, such is never the practice. Devotees can not even enter the sanctum sanctorum.
- In case of performing “archana” (special prayers) to the God, if the temple has the system of buying tickets for it, follow the procedure; do not short-cut the procedure by paying money discreetly to the priests.
- If the crowd is large, do not try to ‘steal’ more than your share of time in standing before the deity at the cost of irritating the other devotees. Do not get into argument with the temple staff members who are engaged in crowd control, who normally display a tendency to behave rudely with the crowd.
- Respect the regulations. Be it standing in a queue, or paying money to the priest, breaking coconut or lighting camphor, if the temple has certain regulations, observe them and do not try to break the rules.
- Do not make the priests greedy. Unfortunately, many temple priests in small temples make a hand to mouth existence and they do not get any sizable pay from the temple authorities. They are normally allowed to collect the little tips that the devotees pay willingly. Do not resort to paying sums to the priests so as to get special entry or special treatment for you. Such practices tend to make the priests greedy and they tend to resort to giving differential treatment to devotees based on the amount of tips they get.
- Do not engage yourself in prolonged and worldly chit-chats with the priests, which can prevent them from attending to the needs of other waiting devotees.
- Maintain decency of behaviour.
- Do not ogle the opposite sex;
- do not smoke, drink or chew tobacco and betel leaves inside temple.
- Do not come into the temple in an inebriated condition.
- Do not spit or urinate in secluded corners.
- Do not utilize the exterior of the compound walls of the temple or the steps around the temple tank as a public toilet.
- Do not apply soap and washcloth in the temple tank. If you happen to be a local villager, do not take your cattle to the temple tank to bathe them there.
- If you are visiting the temple as a couple, you should never indulge in any nefarious behaviour treating the temple gardens, secluded corners and tanks as though they are romantic places of indulgence.
- Do not desecrate the ancient sculptures and paintings. Nothing should be done knowingly or unknowingly to cause any damage to the rich art forms available to us through generations in the temples. Do not inscribe your name and your lover’s name in temple walls, pillars or tree trunks.
The above guidelines are meant for people who visit temples. Such disciplines (and perhaps even more stringent ones) are equally applicable to the priests and employees inside the temple, too.