Chapter 2:
Background Information for Teachers


Worship in Hindu temples

Priest dressing a linga

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A Hindu temple is believed to be the earthly seat of a deity and the place where the deity waits for its devotees. As such, temple structures are sacred spaces where gods partake of human offerings and in which the people can be with the gods. Many temples resemble palace architecture; this is not surprising, as deities are often considered kings.

Temples are normally dedicated to one primary god. Often they are elaborately decorated on the outside with stone or plaster carvings depicting religious stories, and their decoration is specific to the deity being worshiped. Mythological scenes are juxtaposed with scenes of everyday life and important political events, such as royal coronations, conquests, and celebrations, or with portraits of royal and secular patrons. These divine images and mythological scenes on the outer walls of the temple help worshipers recall the sacred stories they have heard or read.

One should remove one's shoes before entering a Hindu temple in order to pay appropriate respect to the deity within the temple.

The innermost sanctuary of the temple contains the principal image of the deity. The character of each shrine is determined by the deity being worshiped.

Case Study: A Temple Dedicated to Shiva

In a temple dedicated to the god Shiva, the sacred, inner sanctum is always simple. It holds the most precious image of Shiva: a linga. The linga is a symbolic image of the god. Some people believe it derives its shape from sexual symbolism, but most Hindus view this imagery as simply a representation of the god's potency in every area of existence. 

Often an image of Nandi, the sacred bull on which Shiva rides, faces the linga. Nandi signifies single-minded devotion and the peaceful strength of faith. Sets of bronze bells may hang at the front of the shrine. At the beginning of puja and during prayers, they are rung by worshipers to request the god's attention. Above the linga may be a vessel filled with holy water that is allowed to drip onto the top of the linga during puja, symbolically anointing it in order to honor the deity. At the front of the shrine there are usually oil lamps that are lit during worship. Other objects that may be used during puja are a small pot to hold holy water; a spoon for ladling the water onto the linga; an incense burner; and a handbell that is rung by the priest during the puja.

In all Hindu shrines one moves clockwise around the central image before approaching the god.

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