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Are Lavish Temples Necessary?

March 2008
Are Lavish Temples Necessary?


There is a building of worship in Gwinnett County that is architecturally astounding, lavishly appointed, and spares no expense in the worship of God. Nineteen million dollars reportedly went into its construction. Italian marble was shipped to India, where thousands of artisans toiled to create beautiful sculptures and shipped them to the U.S. for the admiration of the worshipping masses.

Family and friends marvel about this building, insisting it is a place of great peace and reverence, that volunteers did a lot to build the place and continue to do a lot to maintain the grounds and foster a sense of community. I am aware that many loving people put a great deal of heart and soul and sacrifice into this place. I admire their great diligence and community spirit. I do feel there is better work to do, if you are really interested in doing “God’s Work.”

As you worship, God is not going to ask how much it costs for you to pray. Jesus is not going to ask if his statue is made of gold. Allah will not care if text from the Qur’an is inlaid in precious stones on marble. Generally speaking, “God’s Work” does not involve the construction of expensive buildings.

I look around, at the shoddy excuse for government we have elected worldwide, at the morally decrepit show of leadership among the corporate sector, at rising oil prices and diminishing water supplies, at school systems which slowly remove our children’s tools for self-expression and learning? I look at these things and I think, how can you spend nineteen million dollars on a building of worship? How can my countrymen support such wanton excess?

To be fair, this is not the only building that angers me. Where I live, there is at least one house of worship on every street, and new ones crop up seemingly at whim. The last thing we need is another house of worship, much less an expensive one. Religious excess does not improve the world. Those millions of dollars can buy vaccines and food, and provide infrastructure directly related to improving the quality of life for everyone.

God is not going to ask where you prayed, or if you wore silk when you prayed. God is not going to ask what the paintings were like, or if the stained glass was nice. God is likely to ask something like, “How did you make the world a better place?” Your answer to that question is the thing that amounts to doing “God’s Work” during your tenure here on Earth.

This is what I think it means to do God’s work: To serve my fellow man. To help a family own a home and get off the streets. To help a student play music in a school band instead of turning to drugs. To protect our water supply and ensure everyone has enough to drink. To serve my fellow man by doing something for them and with them.

The Bhagavad Gita illustrates that service to man is the principle by which God creates and sustains the universe. Whenever one acts selflessly in the service of others, that act is God’s Work. “Helping others” is a central Buddhist tenet: “A man who gives of his wealth to the needy sees with both eyes, whereas the one who accumulates wealth without helping others is like a one-eyed man.” (Anguttara Nikaya) Indeed, this is paralleled across all religions:

? Judaism: “All men are responsible for one another.” –Talmud, Sanhedrin 27b

? Islam: “The best of men are those who are useful to others.” – Hadith of Bukhari

? Christianity: “Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” – The Bible, Galatians 6:2

Respecting God means respecting all of God’s creation. A reflecting pond is nice, but there are tributaries across the state which are terribly polluted (if they are not dry). A heated floor is wonderful, but I am not sure my prayers are worth more points with God if I deliver them from marble instead of carpet. I seriously doubt spending nineteen million dollars on an ostentatious place of worship is as interesting to God as participating in the effort to eradicate malaria. Or joining the fight against homelessness. Or even the effort to advance human rights in some part of the world.

What are you doing to make the world a better place? Is it “God’s Work?”

[Mickey Desai is Director of Development for Southern Crescent Habitat for Humanity, and has a diverse history within the Atlanta nonprofit sector]

Worship and service are two sides of the same coin

Imagine that you are looking at the world through a telescope from outer space. You narrow your focus to a teenager who has reverted to violence to solve his problems. In another area, you see a young woman who has lost her home and family to a natural disaster. A short distance away are a mother and father, despairing because they have not been able to pass on their traditions to their children. Hunger, homelessness, loss of cultural identity, and lack of education are very real problems facing the world today. Only one institution can address all of these problems simultaneously: a place of worship. The well-being of a society is dependant upon mandirs (temples) which help individuals physically, mentally, and spiritually.

Many question the need for elaborate places of worship such as the one in Gwinnett County, which is built according to ancient Hindu scriptures. They say that religion should be personal and money should not be spent in erecting such monuments in God’s name. Others believe that as long as a prayer comes from the heart, it does not matter where the person is standing. However temples have been an integral part of society since the beginning of time. Where else would we find structure and purpose in an otherwise chaotic world?

Places of worship serve some of the most important functions in society. First, they are a spiritual haven. In times of turmoil, their the hallowed halls exude a kind of serenity that brings peace to even the most troubled individuals. Second, mandirs are necessary to preserve our cultural identity. A common concern among the Indian Diaspora is that children are losing touch with their heritage. A study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania, which traced the preservation of culture among immigrant families, shows that after the first generation, traditional clothing is lost. After the second generation, traditional food is lost. After the third generation, traditional language is lost. Most anthropologists consider a culture dead when language is lost. A mandir allows us to retain our identity and pass it down to our children. It is this legacy that volunteers who worked on the mandir had in mind when they helped polish marble pillars in the scorching Georgia heat.

A place of worship also helps mold character, instilling values such as nonviolence, respect, and service to others. It stresses the importance of education and civic engagement. Many people argue that a school can accomplish this task, so why spend the money on a mandir? A school can teach ideas, but a mandir teaches ideals. A school educates the mind, but a mandir educates the soul. A hospital mends a broken arm, but a mandir mends a broken heart. Therefore the question should not be why build mandirs, but rather how can we afford not to?

Perhaps a place of worship’s most important contribution is that it inspires its followers to serve society. Like the one in Gwinnett County, religious organizations around the world mobilize thousands of volunteers every year to reach out to people in their time of need. Whether they are building homes and schools in post-earthquake Gujarat, providing food and water in a tsunami-stricken village, or furnishing supplies to isolated towns devastated by Hurricane Katrina, these volunteers truly impact people’s lives. To those who think money should be channeled into service for society instead of places of worship, the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, studies show that religious organizations dedicate the most money and manpower to charitable causes every year. Thus, with their financial and physical resources, mandirs are able to make a larger impact in a smaller amount of time.

One purpose of religion is to encourage individuals to make the world a better place. However, more importantly, religion should encourage an individual to make themselves a better person first. This is precisely what such a mandir does: it solves the world’s biggest problems, one individual at a time.

Lavishness for its own sake or for misplaced reasons can be vulgar and ungodly. But for the right reasons and when done by able entities, where is the problem in creating a place of beauty, joy, and pride? Why do we insist on beauty and aesthetics in just about everything, but deny it to our most sacrosanct spaces? Why not have a mighty place of abundant resources so that it can, in turn, make a corresponding contribution to individuals and society?

[BAPS is an international socio-spiritual Hindu organization that was recently recognized for consecrating 713 temples on five continents between 1971 and 2007. This article was submitted by the BAPS Writers Team. Comments are welcome to both views of this forum topic. Please submit to: letters@khabar.com]

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