Vedic Temples: Making Them More Effective
By Stephen Knapp
The best way to protect, preserve, promote, and perpetuate Vedic Dharma is through the temples. Imparting the universal spiritual truths as found in Sanatana-dharma, the Vedic traditions, is like spreading a cultural and spiritual revolution. And the center of that cultural revolution is the Vedic temples. The temples are the main facility to preserve this spiritual heritage and also to disseminate it through what temples provide for people to participate. This is also important for handing it down to the following generations. This is how most people learn about it and understand its importance, and develop the determination and sincerity to follow it and uphold its standards. This is how people remain resilient to keep it in their hearts no matter what else may happen. The temples are the centers from which the spiritual truths can expand throughout the community and beyond. Temples are also like launching pads from which sincere devotees can prepare for entering the spiritual dimension. This is why the temples should be as effective as possible.
Vedic or Hindu temples are sprouting up all over North America and in the Western world in general. Many new and large temples are also being opened in India. Though such an increase is happening in the West, the temples are still divided into two basic categories: Those that cater mostly to the Indian immigrants and their cultural needs, and those that truly open their doors in a way wherein people of all kinds and all backgrounds can benefit, learn, and participate in the Vedic culture and its traditions. This is an issue that can be addressed towards India as well.
In a time when such things as globalization, interfaith, and cross-cultural relations are increasingly important, and when other religions are trying to convert as many as possible, it is also a time when we should try all the harder to allow others to understand the dynamic and profound nature of the Vedic tradition and philosophy. We have seen in years past when many Western philosophers and historians, such as Emerson, Henry Thoreau, Will Durant, Aldous Huxley, Schopenhauer, Augustus Schlegel, and others, have appreciated and benefitted from the study of the Vedic texts, such as Bhagavad-gita. The 1960s saw a great rise in the interest of the philosophy and practice of the Vedic and Eastern ways. Similarly, today many people are increasing their interest in Yoga, Ayurveda, Jyotish, Vastu, as well as Indian dance and music. In fact, many people are using principles found in Yoga or even Kautilya’s Artha Shastra for perfecting various business practices. But how many places, except in special yoga studios or small schools that provide classes in Eastern thought, offer facilities where everyone can apply and practice the traditions of Vedic culture? There are more interested people out there than most people realize. All it takes is the means to invite them, both to enter the temples and then to make them feel welcomed.
First, it may be better to view temples in the right perspective, which is that, naturally, the temple should be the center of the Vedic or Dharmic community, and main preserver of our traditions.
Temples are considered part of the spiritual atmosphere or the transcendental dimension, maintained by sadhana, ritual, service, mantras, and the presence of the devotees and deities. It is here where Ishwara, Bhagavan, is more easily accessible for the spiritually focused devotee, like a launching pad for a space-bound rocket. It is the temple and through the deity where we especially have darshan, the act of not only seeing the Lord but being seen by the Lord. But temples should also be the embassies of the spiritual world, the domain of the Supreme Lord, open for fulfilling the spiritual needs of everyone. They should help bring the spiritual world and its vibration, energy, and atmosphere into this material creation, and help bring all others back into the spiritual domain by awakening them to their spiritual identity.
In this way, most of the Vedic/Hindu temples in America, and many in India, are not as effective as they could be to gather a wider audience for both support of the local Vedic community, and the participation in the ways of Vedic knowledge and tradition. So what can we do about this? How can we utilize the temples to more effectively help increase the ways we can preserve, protect, and share the Vedic culture for the benefit of all?
IT IS ALL IN THE PRESENTATION
The basic purpose of temples is to provide the means by which the Vedic culture and philosophy can be understood by everyone and anyone, in whatever way is best for communicating it in this day and age. The principle I use for writing my books should be applied in this case, which is: if they do not understand it, they will not remember it; if they do not remember it, they will never apply it in their lives; if they do not or cannot apply it in their lives, then it will not be of benefit for them and you will have failed to convey it properly and have missed your mark. Therefore, we all must be knowledgeable enough to help others understand the essence of the Vedic tradition and philosophy. Of course, if we cannot do it, then let those teachers who are qualified do it.
Nowadays in America at least, most people will accept what may be new ideas to them if it is presented in a logical way. How many times have we seen Hindus, or anyone for that matter, who is challenged with a critical question or condescending comment about their culture and then react with an emotional or defensive response? This is often an immediate turn-off for those who hear this kind of reply. However, if someone witnesses or hears a logical, common sense or even scientific explanation of our traditions, they will often accept it. They may or may not at first follow it, but we do not expect that if we are only sharing our culture. But there are many people looking for a philosophy that helps them make sense of this life, of this existence in which we find ourselves, and if they understand and appreciate the dynamics of the Vedic explanations, they may indeed begin to utilize it in their life.
How else can we explain the number of magazines on the newsstand that cover the topics of yoga and Eastern philosophy and Indic traditions unless Western people are interested in them and want to learn more? That is where our Vedic temples come in to not only assist the Indian population, but to help our local communities of non-Indians as well. So how can we utilize this in the temples?
USING THE UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
One of the strongest methods of sharing anything is through a universal language. Is there a universal language that we can all share? Is there a means of expression that can inspire us all?
What comes closest to a universal form of communication is music. It is the one form of expression that has always touched the hearts and minds of innumerable people, whether they are young or old, from different races or ethnic groups, or whether the meaning of the words are understood or not. The feeling and emotion of the song can still penetrate and inspire a person’s heart with its mood and message.
One thing that has always been utilized in the Vedic tradition is the use of music. This may be the meter in which the mantras or sutras of the Vedic samhitas and stotrams are chanted, or it can be the devotional songs and prayers which are sung in soft meditative bhajans, or in rousing kirtans that involve the whole congregation. These may be detailed verses sung in the temple to the deity, or it may be a simple mantra like the Hare Krishna mantra sung with an uncomplicated melody which becomes all the more powerful as the number of people who sing along increases. Such music may be simple, accompanied by only a drum and hand cymbals, or it may be accompanied with additional instruments like harmonium, organ, guitar, sitar, flute, etc.
The singing and dancing in the temple with such transcendental or spiritual vibrations and songs can do much to bring people together with one objective: to be happy in the unity we share in the spiritual atmosphere that helps bring out our realization of our spiritual identity, and which also brings us into contact with the Supreme Lord. This experience goes beyond verbal communication, but uses the universal language of music to invoke that mood of devotion and service. In fact, shastra explains that in this age of Kali-yuga, this process is the most important of all others. The chanting of the holy names of God is the yuga-dharma or most recommended spiritual process for this age.
It has been seen time and time again wherein if a temple program uses this type of method, such as kirtanas to allow everyone to participate and become inspired, that we all can lose our differences and become increasingly united in the unique experience. This needs to be a constant part of any and every program or celebration that the temples present.
This is why temples must have a hall for collective participation in chanting and singing prayers, and observing puja, worship. It brings a sense of community and strength when the Dharmic or devotee community can do this together in large groups, both men and women, young and old, adults and children. This creates deep samskaras or impressions in the mind that help purify and strengthen us.
One of the most important functions of any temple is having regular classes for both Indian Dharmists and Western students. The problem is that Hindus generally go to the temple for puja, worship or rituals, and darshan at different times. And many temples do not have regularly scheduled classes in which groups of people can attend for continuous study of the sacred texts. Most Indians always say, "Oh, yes, I know Bhagavad-gita." And maybe they do, until they realize how much they do not know when asked to explain it. But this is also something I have encountered while traveling in India, that many Hindus are not really educated in their own tradition, and, thus, lack the ability to explain or defend their own unique culture. Or they even become more susceptible to the conversion tactics used by other religions because of their lack of understanding the depths of their own Vedic traditions. Or here in America, because of this lack of comprehension, when they are criticized in the workplace for being Hindu or from India, they do not know how to respond. Thus, in these situations, they sometimes would simply prefer that no one know that they are from India or follow Vedic Dharma. And sometimes they want to fit in to Western society to such a degree that they even give up basic Dharmic standards and take up the Western ways, such as going to bars with fellow workers, eating meat, flirting with women, etc.
So how we correct this is to have regular group classes for the whole congregation at the temple so everyone can get a better understanding of the Vedic tradition and its philosophy, and the reasons for following its moral and spiritual standards. This can be classes on Bhagavad-gita, Bhagavata Purana, or other books. Days like Sunday when most people are free from work would be appropriate, or on particular week nights when others may participate. This can also include interactive sessions wherein people can practice responding to various questions or even criticisms to test themselves in what can be a fun and creative way. At some Buddhist monasteries, the monks do this as a regular part of their training. They split up in pairs and one will ask the questions and the other will provide the defending argument, all of which can become quite animated, but it works very well.
We have to understand that any Hindu or devotee who comes into a situation where they have to display their character or knowledge of the Dharmic tradition becomes a representative of the whole culture and of all other Dharmists. We should all be prepared for this. In this way, all temples must provide education of the Vedic tradition, and hold classes for children and for parents so they know what to teach their children. All questions should be explained to educate children and make the adults stronger.
I have also attended group classes conducted weekly at people’s homes. They may have a knowledgeable friend or temple representative lead the class with elaborations on the Bhagavad-gita verses. This is nice because there can be time for informal questions and discussions. I will explain more about this later.
The temple must also provide the ways of teaching how the Vedic avenues of self-realization and reaching one’s full potential can be applied to everyday life. It must be shown how the Vedic tradition is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. If the local priests are not expert in providing this knowledge, the temple can easily bring in others who have experience in making such presentations or in speaking about such topics for both adults and youngsters to gain strength and knowledge.
For example, I have made presentations to many Indian groups and organizations who have been impressed with the way I have expounded the advantages of the Vedic path, and I know others in various parts of the country who can do the same. So we can be utilized for this purpose.
For Westerners, classes at the temple may be a little different. You can advertise "Free Yoga and Meditation Class and Workshop" as an introduction. Then later, as people begin to attend the free sessions, offer more intensive courses for a cost. The introduction to the class can be a short talk, then have a hatha-yoga session, usually presented by the temple priest or a congregational member who is qualified as a hatha-yoga teacher. Then have a kirtan session with an easy mantra that everyone can follow, like the Hare Krishna mantra, explaining that this is the yoga of sound. Then maybe include a session of one round of japa meditation wherein all the students get a set of japa beads and together they chant one mantra on each bead to complete one round of 108 beads. Thus, they also learn "japa meditation" and can continue this practice at home. This arrangement works well for anyone, as I have seen this program done in many temples in India as well. After the class, a light meal of prasada always goes over very nicely.
So offer a class in yoga, which is very popular these days, and then a class in the philosophical foundation of it. Westerners are more interested in the yoga than the philosophy, but this is how you can draw them and spark their interest. Make sure the teachers you use, who may be members of your local congregation, are well versed and can handle questions with patience and understanding.
Use the modern phrases for topics of interest. These are especially things like Yoga, Ayurveda, Jyotish, Vastu, etc. You may have to provide a little explanation of these, but many people are interested in them.
Focus on the interest in Yoga and cultural presentations. An increasing number of people are becoming less interested in sharing religion, sometimes because they do not want to deal with attempts at being converted by them, but will feel no hesitancy to be invited or to investigate another culture. Some of the more progressive and open-minded groups of people want more spirituality than dogmatic religion for personal growth and realizations. And the Vedic tradition has much colorful and exciting culture to offer anyone. So focus on these types of presentations to arouse people’s curiosity, while at the same time giving opportunity for those who already follow the Vedic traditions to be proud of their culture.
Temples with facility, and with a teacher who is qualified, can also offer Indian dance lessons and workshops, along with demonstrations of them for cultural exhibits. You simply have to find the means to advertise or let people know about them. I know of several Western ladies who became more interested in Vedic tradition because of their interest in Indian dance. Others may already be interested in the Vedic culture and simply want to continue with it by learning Indian dance.
Classes for learning Sanskrit is another avenue that can help preserve the tradition. There are also an increasing number of groups or organizations that offer quick classes, or more full length courses in Sanskrit. The temple can network with such groups, especially for the younger students who may want to learn it. This can be a part of their weekly class on Sundays, if the interest is there.
Another aspect of temple activities and education is political awareness. The appropriate temple members, excluding the priests and temple managers for legal reasons, can also advise the others on the issues that affect the general Dharmic community so they can be aware of which politicians are the most likely to uphold the Dharmic principles and, thus, be worth our votes during the elections, both in America and in India. To say we should not be interested in politics is shear irresponsibility, especially when other religions become huge voting blocks to support those who promise to fulfill their needs. Dharmists/Hindus should display the same awareness and power of influence.
To help in this area of presenting the Vedic culture, priests should also be well trained in the Vedic traditions, but should also have a modern education. They should be able to perform but also explain all aspects and meanings of the rituals and philosophy in a comprehensive manner and offer guidance and explanations to the people in such matters. They must have great love for the Vedic tradition and what they do, and serve the people nicely who follow it. They should preferably be able to discuss aspects of the Western religions to properly explain the comparative differences or similarities to inquisitive students, whether they are Indian or Westerners. Again, if the priests cannot do this, then it is good if one of the temple managers is capable of providing this kind of information, explained in a way that everyone can understand.
Priests today are more important than ever, not only for knowing how to do the pujas, but to also educate people in what they mean and the importance of them. The worship is the main reason why there is a Mandir. Everything that goes on in the temple is centered around the deity, which gives the joy and the service attitude that pervades the temple. The priest must know the suitable rituals to accompany the appropriate deities and observances or samskaras. The priest is also the facilitator for the ritualistic needs of the community, and in the observances on special holidays.
Professional priests need and are expected to have special training to accommodate whatever the temple needs. They may perform the aratis, fire rituals, engage in spiritual counseling (if they are familiar with the proper languages, which English is a must in many circumstances), do weddings, sometimes engage in public relations, or even offer astrological advice. Sometimes different priests perform different functions, but that often depends on the size of the temple and their budget. Otherwise, a few priests may have to share particular responsibilities. Sometimes additional priests may come in from other temples to temporarily help with certain events. Priests may also live a most simple life in the temple, or in housing supplied by the temple. In this way, they are also living examples of the Vedic or Dharmic lifestyle.
However, let us also point out that there is a need to keep an eye on the general behavior of the priests in the temple. We want and expect them to be examples of the Dharmic life, but they too are human beings and can be vulnerable to make mistakes. Recent sex scandals of the Catholic churches may make us more vigilant regarding such problems, which have taken place in Vedic temples or in certain communities as well. Even Indian Swamis have been caught in substandard situations, making everyone lower their opinion of Swamis in general. This jeopardizes the view that everyone will have of us and the Vedic culture, which is the last thing we need. Remaining in denial is not a correct solution. The penalties are high, both for the person who commits the sexual offences and for the institutes and temples where these offenses take place, especially when minors are involved. Millions of dollars may be lost in lawsuits and legal proceedings which could have been used in much more productive means.
There is also a chronic shortage of Vedic priests in the USA and other foreign countries. It is only likely to become more severe in years to come. Many Brahmin youths now opt for careers other than conducting religious ceremonies. As such the need for the non-Brahmins and lay persons to offer a helping hand is obvious. In our Iskcon Krishna temples, we sort out those who are most capable and when they are trained up properly and given Brahmana initiation, they can begin to be trained in various duties of being a priest or direct servant of the deities.
However, a short manual may be prepared that can help explain these kinds of proceedings or rituals, not only for priests but for the lay person who may also have deities at their home. We have some books or manuals like this, and I strongly recommend that other temples should do the same thing, and make them available to everyone. This certainly helps spread the knowledge of the different ceremonies of the Vedic tradition for everyone. We also offer courses in certain temples, or traveling pujaris and priests may come to various temples to train and increase the knowledge of the standards that we should observe. That way even the householders can learn how best to conduct the ceremonies as well. In this way, there is no barrier from anyone learning how to do this, and the flow of priests or people who can perform the priestly duties increases for the temple services. They may continue with their regular occupation, but can still act as devotee priests at home or at the temple as time allows. Without this, if the shortage of priests at the other Hindu temples increases, how they will continue operations will become a larger issue.
EDUCATING THE YOUTH
There should be every attempt to make sure the younger generation, especially in the USA, though this is also extremely important in India as well, gets the appropriate training and information about their Vedic and Indic traditions. There needs to be constant plans, projects and endeavors to give the youth the means for them to understand the benefits and significance of the Vedic culture. This also includes the means to counteract all the misinformation that still circulates about Hinduism in high school and college textbooks. Temples should also be a pleasant environment where the youth can understand, appreciate and then participate in their culture, and know why they should. The temple, therefore, also needs to be a place for guidance and counseling in Dharmic moral standards and human development.
The growth and continuation of Vedic Dharma in America and India especially depends on how well our children are educated and remain fixed in the timeless traditions of our culture. The temples naturally have to provide the means to educate and also involve the children, youngsters, and teenagers in the temple in learning and upholding the tradition. Therefore, temples should support programs like gurukulas, or Bal Gokulam and Bal Vihars for training the youth in Vedic philosophy and values, Vedic scripture, yoga, rituals, and the Indian Vedic heritage.
The temple and its congregation—the parents—should be able to fund youth activities wherein the youngsters feel important and cared for. The temple support should listen to the youth to see what is valuable and meaningful to them and then work to fulfill those needs. For example, boys and girls have particular interests, which should be developed at the temple. They may enjoy hearing about history through the activities of the heroes and heroines who acted in adventurous ways for the preservation of Vedic Dharma. Or they may like the arts and sciences, and want to learn more about such things. But what else do they need to learn, know, and participate in at the temple? This should be discerned and arranged in order to utilize the ideas the youth and teenagers present. Find out what they like.
THE SUNDAY SCHOOL
One of the most important ways of training the children on a regular basis is that they can go to their Sunday school. As part of the Sunday program, when most people can go to the temple, while the adults are engaged in listening to the main lecture or something, the children can attend their own classes.
Each temple should provide school classes for the children. Many probably do not realize how important this is. It is a major means for training the children in the Vedic culture and their own heritage. It can be fun for them to make and see their friends every week, and to have friends with which they can deal that have similar values. I have also seen where the children’s attachment and longing to go to the Sunday school will help bring the parents to the temple as well. If the children start learning about the Vedic tradition at the temples while they are young, it is all the more likely that they will continue to participate in the temple into their adult years, and also make sure their own children become trained in such a way and participate in the temple programs later on.
A friend of mine visited the Swami Narayana Temple near London where there was a children’s play area that was as big as the temple room. They temple managers explained that while the adults pray, the children can play. The children can pray too, but then can play when restless.
I have also seen that the children need some space of their own at the temple where they can play, either in a play area outside when the weather is warm, or a place inside where they can be active or play games with similarly aged friends when the weather is cold. This area, of course, needs to have adult supervision to watch over the children and make sure they do not engage in harmful activities, do not get too carried away with things, but treat each other with proper behavior. The play area also needs toys, games, or things they can do, with storage area where such things can be kept in place. The games can include puzzles, chalk boards, chess, table tennis, pocket pool, or other table games, or when possible areas for playing cricket, volleyball, and other ball games. Girls can also have dolls or drawing boards, or other toys they like.
Some people may say that this has little to do with spirituality, which is the main purpose of the temple. However, the children are going to want to run around and play anyway, so they need a space where they are not becoming a nuisance in other more sensitive areas of the temple, and so they can play and still enjoy attending the temple. In this way, they can learn teamwork, social flexibility, camaraderie, and respect for elders when parents are involved. After all, it is not their fault that they are kids, but they just need a proper place where they can channel their energy.
Playing like this can be part of the Sunday program for children, such as after the Sunday school classes, bhajans, or arati, so they can let out some of their energy.
BASIC SUNDAY SCHOOL ITINERARY
First, the classes in the Sunday school can be divided into age groups, depending on how many ages of children attend the temple. Age divisions can be something like this, although this is only a suggestion and can be changed according to the need of the temple:
Group A: ages 4-6; group B: ages 6-8; group C: ages 9-11; group D: ages 11-13; group E: ages 14-18. Some may prefer to end with group D as being ages 11-18. By the time they reach the age 18 and have gone through the levels of this curriculum, then they can also help administer the classes as well.
The classes for the different age groups can be something like this, with variations according to the need:
Group A is too young for much academic study, but can use techniques to prepare for it. These can include fun and imaginative ways in:
1. Story telling from the Vedic or Puranic epics to familiarize the children to the people in the stories;
2. Moral behavior;
3. Dharmic values for being a better human being;
4. Drama participation, putting on plays;
6. Singing bhajans or Sanskrit slokas; etc.
Group B can begin moving up to include fun classes to learn:
1. Stories from the epics for learning moral behavior and Dharmic values and principles;
2. Story telling to others;
3. Proper behavior;
4. Beginning Bhagavad-gita, knowledge of the soul and our real identity, and reincarnation;
5. Knowledge and pastimes of Lord Krishna, Lord Rama, and other
6. Ahimsa–nonviolence and cow protection and reasons to be vegetarian;
7. Drama–participation in plays;
8. Singing bhajans and chanting Sanskrit slokas;
9. Festivals of the Vedic tradition; and so on.
Group C can begin to include, along with prior subjects, more advanced things and techniques to learn, such as:
1. Proper devotee and Dharmic behavior;
2. Bhagavad-gita topics of science of the soul, reincarnation, karma, the gunas or modes of material nature, etc;
3. Applying spiritual principles in daily life;
4. Drama–participation in plays;
5. Singing bhajans and chanting Sanskrit slokas;
6. More festivals of the Vedic tradition;
7. More stories of Lord Krishna, Lord Rama, Sri Chaitanya, and additional Dharmic and devotional saints;
8. Yoga processes and ways of seva or devotional service;
9. Basics of Sanskrit;
10. Learning of instruments, such as mridanga drum, kartals, harmonium, etc;
11. Beginning dance for girls;
Now on topics we have already introduced, with Group D we can include such things as:
1. Explanations of the Dharmic tradition, such as rituals, pujas, Vedic principles, etc, why we do them;
2. Practice sessions to explain them or the Vedic philosophy to others;
3. Continuing lessons of philosophy from Bhagavad-gita, Bhagavata Purana, etc;
4. Essay writing;
5. Principles of debate;
6. Basics of Sanskrit;
7. Instrument lessons, singing, etc;
8. Drama participation, and so on.
Group E can build on the previous classes and continue to move forward to include such topics as:
1. Vedic view, applying Vedic principles to our lives;
2. Learning the philosophy in practice sessions to explain it to others;
3. Debate practice;
4. Dharmic and devotional behavior;
5. Seeing beyond the media–intelligent use of the internet and other forms of the media;
6. More stories from the epics;
7. Chanting slokas, prayers, mantras;
8. Study of the life and character of the Vedic saints;
9. Other topics.
For more details on what can be included in the Sunday School curriculum, or how to get books that can help you follow the curriculum or develop this area of temple activities, please see http://harekrishnasundayschool.com.
FOR OLDER YOUTH AND ADULTS
Extra curricular activities or developments of the individual or for the older youth or even adults can continue to be pursued in special classes that can include:
2. Temple library maintenance;
3. Vyamshaala maintenance (gym or sports);
4. Cultural activities, such as learning folk dances and arts;
5. Collection of books, food & cloths distribution for orphans;
6. Learning and
7. Learning plays and dramas based on the epics;
8. Organizing blood donation drives, or free health & eye check-up camps;
9. Working with senior citizens, or orphans.
PROGRAMS SPECIFICALLY FOR WOMEN:
1. Practicing traditional rituals and ways of teaching to children;
2. Devotional songs, poems & story telling to children;
3. Learning or teaching and doing rangoli, chalk art, flower decoration in temple and in home, or garland making for the deities in the temple;
5. Employment for women and widows.
Also, for older children, the temple can set up support groups or structures for the decisions the youth or young adults need to make, such as for those who want or recently have gotten married so right and proper decisions about things they are facing can be made. Or set up a group so they can learn the differences in other religions if they are considering marrying someone of a different faith. Especially for girls, conversions forced through marriage can be considered a human rights violation that often cause rifts in the marriage and family later on, and difficulties and confusion for any children that are conceived. Love is often blind and the perceptiveness to future difficulties may also be shallow in seeing the challenges of interfaith marriages without proper education and support, which could be supplied by the temple. It is typical that one, two, or at the most three generations after an interfaith marriage, the children are no longer followers of Vedic Dharma. They will have lost the interest, unless one parent sees to it that they are still trained and brought to the temple. But that has not been how things often work in an interfaith marriage. The children are often soon left to their own devices to make their own decisions about what they want, which means they know little about any spiritual path and lose interest or think all religions are the same. Statistics have also shown that the majority of interfaith marriages end with divorce, especially at the time when the children reach the age when the parents need to decide in which religion the children will be brought up.
As it is, a priest friend of mine who performs many weddings here in the U.S. told me that as many as 70% of the weddings he does are now interfaith. This may increase even further in the future. It is therefore important to gear our temples to receive and welcome the non-Hindu spouses so they can feel at ease and learn more about the Vedic tradition. Ignoring or despising them just because they are not Hindus may become damaging. We may in fact close the doors to the entire family and the generations to follow with such an attitude. Instead we must be more positive, accommodating, and practical in our approach.
In continuing with the ways we can educate our youth, summer youth camps for a few days or a week or so wherein youngsters can come together for various activities that are fun or educational always make great impressions and memories. Some of the activities at such youth camps can include learning Vedic culture and its values, study of the Vedic scriptures and epics, morning yoga, introduction to Sanskrit, talent shows, games and sports, a bonfire, story telling, boating, swimming, volleyball, frisbee, hena art for the girls, poster making, various arts and crafts, water balloon fight, clay doll and image making, various competitions, dance competitions, talent shows or contests, cooking classes, and panel discussions on various issues, and so on depending on their age. Camps for children can accomplish many things. Youth camps can also provide opportunities for developing leadership skills, especially in the roles of the older youth who now act as counselors. They also build camaraderie and team building amongst the campers, and also unity centered around the shared Vedic culture and spiritual traditions.
Youth camps are especially good for those temples that do not have regular Sundays School classes. But even if they do, camps can bring children together to have fun, make new friends, make memories of their time playing and learning more about the Vedic culture. I have been a part of several camps for children in different locations, and they all make for good impressions on the children.
Camps can usually be over the weekend, like Friday through Sunday. Some start on Thursdays. Other camps last for the week and others last for two weeks. Most camps can be for 40 to 80 children, while others, when they are for a certain region, like east or west areas of the country, might accommodate up to 800 children of various ages. Of course, the more children that are involved, the more instructors and camp advisors or counselors that will be needed. These are all things that can be arranged beforehand.
The most important part is that the campsite is a good facility, clean, maybe near a lake, and can accommodate various kinds of activities. However, it is also most important that when the camp is finished that the site is left as clean or cleaner than when the children’s camp started. That way you can be more assured that the campsite management will rent it to you again the next time.
The next most important thing is the schedule of events for the children, but also for the different age groups. But do not forget events for the adults who may have brought their children from long distances. They also need some special participation besides just looking out for the children or working in the kitchen. For the adults, there can be presentations or discussions in the evenings, or mixed in the schedule for the children. These can be by special guest speakers that give talks or presentations for them and their own interests. Such talks can be on topics like "Why I am a Dharmist/Devotee," or "How to be a Better Hindu," or "How to Give Vedic Culture to the Next Generation," or "How to Continue Vedic Culture in America," and so many others, all of which I have presented at camps in the past, and which have gone very well.
The topics for the presentations or boudhiks can vary widely, and based according to age group. Age groups can usually be divided into pre-school (if they are included), elementary school, and high school ages. Suggestions for talks or Power Point slide shows for boudhik presentations, or topics for class activities may include:
FOR YOUNGER CHILDREN
1. India Map building;
2. Jeopardy Quiz on Vedic elements and stories;
3. Healthy eating habits;
4. Stories of the Vedic epics for adventure and moral principles;
5. Practicing telling stories;
6. Slide shows on holy places, or videos on stories from the Vedic epics;
7. How to do coloring and drawing;
8. Music, playing instruments;
9. Singing songs;
10. Drama and participation;
11. Crossword and other puzzles, and connect the dots drawings;
12. Vedic festivals and their meaning;
FOR OLDER CHILDREN
1. Vedic principles and its keys to success and leadership;
2. Vedic mathematics and India’s great mathematicians;
3. Basics of Sanskrit, beginner level;
4. Basics of yoga, asanas and breathing exercises;
5. Mantras and slokas to chant;
6. How to be a great devotee/Hindu, stories of other great devotees;
7. History of Vedic civilization;
8. Stories of the Vedic epics for adventure and moral principles;
9. Slide shows on holy places of India, Vedic festivals like Kumbha Mela, etc;
10. Teachings of the gurus and acharyas;
11. Applying Vedic principles in everyday life;
12. Socializing in high school;
13. Advancements of Ancient India’s Vedic culture;
14. Differences in religions;
15. The universal spiritual truths in Sanatana-dharma;
16. Why be a Vedic ambassador;
17. Rediscovering the glory of Vedic culture;
18. How to benefit from our heritage;
19. How a family can be Vedic in America;
20. Giving back to the community;
21. Secrets on stress management;
22. The divine in Vedic art or Vedic dance;
23. Giving Vedic culture to the next generation;
24. What Hinduism or Vedic Culture has done for me as a talk and general discussion;
25. Practical use of Vedic scriptures in today’s world;
26. Many more can be suggested.
This should give you ideas for what can be used, and I am sure you can think of more. Some of these suggestions can also be used in the Sunday School curriculum as well. Also, remember, not all presentations have to be given inside. If the weather is good, then some can be done outside as well. Furthermore, some of these topics can also be the kind that the adults would enjoy hearing in their own sessions.
1. Deepawali Diya;
3. Paper art;
5. Kite making, for the industrious;
OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES & GAMES
1. Games like kabbadi, baseball, basketball, volleyball, etc;
5. Treasure hunts;
Classes in Indian cooking are also often of interest to the youth, some of whom may be really enthusiastic to learn, and may find they have a real talent in this area.
Temple picnics can also use an assortment of these ideas or portions of the schedule timings when the temple arranges for one-day outings for the whole temple community.
Sometimes for the last day of the camp, such as on Sunday, the children will perform a play of some of the things they have learned, as guided by their teachers, for the pleasure of the audience and parents. Another thing that is arranged sometimes is that the children all receive a certificate of accomplishment for attending the camp, which is then handed out by some of the senior advisors or attendees to the children on the last day before everyone departs.
I have personally seen where the children really learn a lot from these camps, which can make very strong positive impressions on them, and where they very much look forward to the next year’s events. So I cannot say enough about how good the effects of such camps can be when they are organized effectively and the parents participate to make them positive experiences for one and all.
THE SUNDAY TEMPLE PROGRAM
The weekend is the most important time for the temple because that is when the most guests, devotees and community members visit it. So it is imperative that the temple management know how to prepare for it in ways of cleanliness, organization, presentation, and in accommodating the needs of both familiar devotees and new guests that may attend.
Another reason why this is so important is that we have more interfaith marriages than ever before, wherein the Hindu bride or groom is marrying someone who was raised in another faith. So how best can the non-Hindu bride or groom understand Vedic culture than to regularly visit the temple? How best can their future children learn, understand and participate in the Vedic traditions than to visit and participate in the programs at the Mandirs? This means the temple becomes increasingly important, and it must be set up in a way wherein all kinds of people can feel welcomed, and easily understand what is going on, and how to appreciate it and participate in what is happening. So let us describe some of the basics in how the temple needs to be aware and prepare for those who attend, and so they will want to attend again.
I understand that every temple is different and has different needs and different facilities with which to use and offer to guests and its congregation. But here is the list of points which any temple can practically use to adjust their situation to be the best it can be. Another thing I realize is that many of these points are going to depend on volunteers to do seva or service to the temple, or to the temple deity, in order to do these things. The small temple management team and priests can hardly do everything themselves. So for the best temple possible, there is a need for community members to step forward and help out, even if for only one day a week. I do not think that is too much to ask. The fact is that the temple is "their temple." The priests and management only try to arrange things so everyone can take advantage of it in the best way possible.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: These are very important. The first impressions come from the way the temple looks, how the grounds are kept, if there is good parking, and if there are signs for where guests should go and where is the entrance, and what happens when they enter the temple. If the temple is not kept in good shape, then the overall impression begins to take a downward turn right away. If the guests are greeted nicely, if the atmosphere is pleasant and welcoming, that can make a difference above everything else. A welcoming committee is also nice if that is possible to arrange. Just saying "Hello" or "Namaste" or "Jai Sri Krishna" with folded hands in the pranam gesture, talking with them for a few minutes, and then guiding them to where they may want to go can lend to great impressions.
All people who are a part of management, or are welcoming the guests, should also be dressed cleanly and nicely, with proper devotional clothes, like dhoti and kurta, or something along those lines. They should also be enthusiastic. If they look bummed out, people will wonder why. And most people who follow a regular sadhana will also be enthusiastic toward others, especially the opportunity to meet new guests.
If they have questions, someone knowledgeable should be on hand to answer all questions effectively and in a way that can be easily understood. It is also nice that guests can be given handouts, like brochures that answer or briefly explain the topics that they are likely to deal with on a visit, or subjects about which they may have questions. These should be placed in a rack by the entrance so the guests can look them over both when arriving or when leaving, if someone does not offer them. If they like the brochures, then they may also like to have the books that explain the philosophy more elaborately.
New guests will especially feel a little cautious about where to go and what to do, so special attention should be given to them. Even giving them one of the used deity prasada flower garlands will certainly give a good impression of welcome. But do not just give it to them, take it and place it around their neck and let them wear it. Otherwise, I have seen that they may not know what to do with it. And then make sure they know that they should not wear shoes any further into the temple and where to put them. Signs will also help to inform people to take off their shoes and leave them on the racks before proceeding any further.
Sometimes a special welcome area can be arranged where a video is playing that can also provide an introduction to the temple and some basics of the philosophy. A person sitting at a desk will also look professional.
Also, someone can watch these new guests so that after the arati and lecture, they can be guided to where they can take prasada that is served. Then also maybe sit with them, or have someone do so in order that they feel comfortable, and if they have any questions you can sit and casually answer anything they may be wondering about regarding their experience at the temple. However, generally it is best if a man sits with a man, and a woman sits with a woman, unless the guests are a couple, in which case it does not matter that much.
When people come to the temple when there may be few others around, such as during the weekdays, signs near the doors may also be helpful to let people know to take off their shoes, where the bathrooms are, when the main temple programs are, and what else to expect. The information brochures should also be nearby in case they have questions, but when few people are around to answer any, they can still get basic information about essential points of the philosophy and so on.
SHOES AND COATS: When guests come to the temple, there must be a proper place for shoes, with shelving that can be used to stack the shoes nicely. Too many times shoes are left scattered around the shoe room, with sometimes so many that people are forced to walk over the shoes to get through. Sometimes Indian guests get used to this, but many do not. So this is not good for first impressions for anyone who comes to the temple and sees a shoe room scattered with many pairs of shoes all over the place.
In the colder months, there also needs to be coat racks so that people can hang their coats, usually above the shelves for shoes, and in a orderly and secure manner. Coat checks may be good for this, but if there are racks, at least people can leave their coats there and take any valuables with them.
CLEANLINESS: This is important not only for the shoe area where guests first arrive, but for the temple and prasada or dinner hall, where most of the activity goes on, but also in all areas of the temple. Nothing can turn impressions and opinions in a negative way faster than areas where it is unclean, dirty, or unorganized. Years ago I brought a friend of mine to a temple. When we sat on the floor to take prasada lunch, she noticed that the floor was so clean that you could eat off of it. Years later, regardless of what else she remembered about the temple, she always remembered that point of how clean it was. Like the saying goes, cleanliness is next to Godliness, and so the temple should always be clean, trash cans emptied, and the bathrooms also clean and presentable.
Restrooms should also have soap for hand washing, and the means to dry the hands. I have seen where the bathroom often requires the most maintenance, either from leaking faucets, stuck toilets, or from people who just don’t care how they use them. But you still have to provide decent bathrooms for the public. And there should be signs around the temple to let people know where the restrooms are located.
THE KIRTAN OR BHAJANS: People often enter the temple on Sundays when the kirtan or bhajan (congregational chanting and singing) is going on in the main temple room. So this should be performed in a nice way, using simple melodies with which anyone can join. The more people who can follow and sing along, the more powerful it becomes. Then people get caught up in the vibration and are also emotionally moved by it. The kirtan leader should also be expert enough to know how best to direct the kirtan. He should also be dressed appropriately in devotional clothes to lend for the right impression. If the melody is too complicated or not known by many, then few people will be able to participate or sing along, but will mostly remain as bystanders, only watching what is happening rather than getting involved. Thus, they may not understand what is happening, or will certainly miss the opportunity to invoke the devotional or meditative feeling that can be had through the kirtan.
The kirtan should also not be through a sound system that is too loud, which can damage the ears. Nor should it be through a system which is garbled or muffled in which the voice cannot be understood. If the kirtan is ripping along and everyone is enthused and getting into it, this does not mean that the kirtan has to be loud. A ripping kirtan is an enthusiastic kirtan, not necessarily one that splits your ears.
Participants to the kirtan who are going to play an instrument should also know how to keep a beat at least, and be familiar with whatever instruments they are going to play, whether it be karatala hand cymbals, mridanga drum, or harmonium, etc. If they cannot follow along very well, they can make the kirtan confusing and then difficult for others to understand what is happening or follow along. This becomes counter-productive.
ANNOUNCEMENTS: These are usually given after the first kirtan or just before it, or just after the lecture. Again, these should be said in a way that can easily be heard clearly and understood. The sound system will play a part in this, but so will the person making the announcement, who should speak firmly and into the microphone, and not be shy about it. Announcements that cannot be heard or understood are useless.
The person should thank everyone for attending, offer praise to the guru and deities, announce any new projects that people can participate in, any upcoming festivals or holidays to mark on their calendar for attending the temple on that day, and so on. They should also thank any sponsors for any projects, or for sponsoring that day’s prasada feast, and give the persons prasada deity flower garlands in thanks. The speaker should also let people know how they can also sponsor projects for the temple and deities. He should also recognize any birthdays, marriages, anniversaries, or deaths amongst members of the community. Announcements should be kept simple and no longer than ten minutes, and without pleas for help or funds, but only as suggestions that this is a way to help and to make spiritual advancement for oneself and family.
THE LECTURE: This is very important for any temple that is engaged in distributing and sharing the spiritual knowledge of the Vedic culture, which is highly profound. The lecture has to be delivered in particular ways, first of all, so everyone can understand it. That first brings us to the sound system. This has to be professional so that people can hear it clearly, so that they do not have to strain their ears, or try to interpret a garbled sound, or deal with feedback, and so on.
The lecture should be given by those who have the deepest understanding of Vedic philosophy, who are senior devotees, and who can explain it easily. The temple can also invite those respected teachers to come to the temple if they are from out of town, and announce it to the congregation so they can attend to listen to those who are more advanced.
The talk should also be easy to understand, meaning the person doing the lecture should not have a heavy accent that can only be understood by other Indians speaking the same language. He should be able to speak clear English, not only for the guests, but also for the Indian youth of today who do not always know the Indian languages, and will get bored or walk out if they cannot understand what is being said.
The lecture should also not be too long. It should remain about 45 minutes in length, and then open for questions and answers. This length is about as much as most people can handle before they start getting restless, unless it is a really good lecture. Then questions and answers can go on for another 15 minutes or so. However, it should not become a conflict with the rest of the schedule, making other parts of the program wait for the lecture to end. Everything should flow smoothly. If guests have more questions, they can ask later or during the prasada feast.
The lecture should also be on a topic, or a level of knowledge so others can easily comprehend what is being discussed. If the lecture is too lofty, especially for new guests, they may not be able to understand the topic at all and either sit without imbibing the philosophy, or leave without understanding what this is all about. This is not good. We have so much to offer, and we need to make sure that regardless of whether the topic is on the Gita, a festival day, or some other aspect of the philosophy, everyone can see the benefits of what we have to offer, and be inspired to return.
Chairs for the elderly should also be provided since they cannot always sit on the floor like many do. They may have to leave early if there is no place to sit, or if it is too uncomfortable. So someone should be ready with folding chairs that should be available in the back of the temple room or lecture hall.
ENTERTAINMENT: If there is any entertainment that follows, such as a play, traditional dance, music, etc., an introduction to what is going to happen will be beneficial for the observers. Plays put on by the adults can be especially amusing and entertaining, but the children also lend a special charm to see what they have been learning, and is also nice for the parents to see their children participate in such plays. And Vedic pastimes, as from Krishna lila, can be charming for anyone.
PRASADAM FEAST: This is also a special and important part of the Sunday program. Any temple can and should have a prasadam feast. Sponsors for the feast are generally not too difficult to find, and there are few other religions which provide such facility wherein everyone can come together after the program and have a spiritual dinner together. Sponsors should be thanked during the announcements.
However, the cooks and the preparations must be tried and true, based on their expertise and dependable recipes so, after the preparations are offered to the deities, everyone can relish the taste. People become enthused by such a feast, and it actually inspires more participants to attend the temple and be active in it.
It is always best if there is a loyal and devoted head-cook, under which others can assist and volunteer. There should be a schedule of those who are willing to take up the task of assisting. There also needs to be proper deity standards for the cook and for assisting in the kitchen, depending on the situation. Thus, the quality of the food and the conditions remain high.
When the prasada is served, which should be done at the right time every week, there should be trained servers, with plates, napkins and spoons, and in a place with room for people to file through the buffet and then sit down to eat. Not too much should be served, in case they do not care for everything, but if people like it, they can come back for seconds. This helps decrease the waste, especially when kids may not want as much as they thought, or if first-time guests find that it may not be to their liking. It is good to have a dependable team of servers for this who are there every Sunday to help. It does not take long before they know what to do and how to do it. Untrained volunteers should be avoided, unless they are willing to take instruction from others in this service.
The prasada should be served in a particular order, such as rice first, then any bitter preparations, then things like spinach and astringent preps, then fried preps and dahl, followed by spicy vegetable preparations, then sour items, finished with the sweet preps, like sweet rice or halava. These should all be served from special serving containers after it has been transferred from the cooking containers in the kitchen.
As guests eat, there should be a soothing environment. In other words, background noise should be low, and there should not be children running around creating havoc, nor should there be a kirtan so loud that you have to shout at the person sitting next to you in order to be heard when you are trying to have a conversation with them or answer their questions.
Children should also be trained to understand that there is a standard of behavior that should be followed at the temple. It is not that they should think they can do anything and everything, but that also means the parents should be the ones to oversee the actions of their children so that others do not have to do so.
As people finish eating, there should be a place for the disposal of the paper plates and cups. As these waste bins get full, there should be those who serve in a way by emptying such bins.
Once the feast is over and people have finished, then ideally there should be a team who will start cleaning up the hall where the feast was served. In this way, it will not be dirty any longer than necessary, and everything will be done very timely.
The people who linger either after the prasada feast or for the last arati are usually your most interested people. It may be a good time to converse with them and encourage them to come to the temple again, purchase some books to better understand the philosophy, take up the practice at home, like japa meditation or something along those lines, or join one of the adult study groups that may be in his or her area.
This prasada distribution is extremely important. Even if they are not interested in the philosophy, they will come again for good prasada. This is a proven history.
WHEN GUESTS LEAVE: Even when guests leave, especially first-timers, invite them to return, say you are glad they came, and maybe get their email address so that they can be informed of what events happen at the temple so they can attend. It is always best to have the temple president standing by the door wishing everyone a good week and to return to the temple whenever they can especially next weekend, or whenever there is another big program.
FOLLOW UP: Regular guests can be encouraged to begin performing seva for the temple and temple deity. And for attending holidays, or for joining an adult study group, and begin performing steps of yoga and devotional service. They can also be encouraged to look over the book table to see if there may be any books they would like to purchase to continue their study at home. In this way, for those who are particularly interested, they can start getting a better and deeper understanding of the philosophy, and decide what areas in which they would like to participate.
From youth camps or Sunday programs, temples can also establish mentoring programs. This would be for the older youth to become friends with and help teach what they know of Vedic traditions to the younger ones. This gives a sense of responsibility to the older youth, and a level of admiration and acceptance to the younger one’s who often look up to those who are not so much different in age than they are, but are still viewed as older and wiser. This may be more influential due to the fact that many times children look up to their older peers more so than to their parents. So if they see the older children doing something, the younger ones may have more inclination to follow that. In this way, with a proper mentoring program, everybody learns and helps each other progress.
ADULT STUDY GROUPS
This is one of the best and most important ways of introducing new people to Vedic culture, or keeping other people of Indian descent connected with the Vedic tradition, or even helping people of all backgrounds who are interested to learn more about and develop greater levels of understanding and appreciation of the Dharmic path of spiritual development.
The point is that these study groups can be done at the temples, but when they are done at people’s homes, then people can feel more relaxed, will open up more, ask questions, and get to know others who are also on the path, and, thus, not feel all alone, as people sometimes do when they become more spiritual. They can feel like there are others with the same interests, and who are also inquiring and want to make more progress spiritually while living in a society that is often overly materialistic. This reminds me of how the Swadhyaya Group conducts their meetings, by joining together in either rented halls, or meeting together in the homes of other members. In ISKCON, such groups are called Bhakta Vrikshas, and the meetings are conducted in the homes of those who are nicely advancing on the devotional path of Bhakti Yoga. In this way, such group meetings can expand the reach of the temple, especially in the matter of educating people in the Vedic culture and its philosophy and traditions. And this is growing like anything. So how does this work?
First of all, announcements can be made or flyers can be passed out at the temple for all those who are interested in personal group study sessions to learn more about the Vedic traditions, or study the teachings of Bhagavad-gita, or about devotional yoga, etc. Those that are interested are then directed to the person who lives closest to them, at whose house such sessions are conducted. That way they do not have far to drive, and it is nice to spend a Friday or Saturday evening with friends talking about spiritual topics.
Without supplying all the details, the general itinerary of the sessions or meetings can go like this:
1. First there is the ice breaker, or the casual discussions that go on when people arrive. This is the means for people to get to know each other, the way to become friends with the group. This can include discussions on the situations they have encountered over the past week, or talks on each others’ realizations that they have had as connected with the philosophy they are learning and are applying to one’s life. Sometimes people sit in a circle and take turns in such discussions, and while people arrive, they just join in. Other arrangements can also be done.
2. As more people show up, or when this is finished, this can be followed by a short kirtan, the chanting of some easy bhajans or mantras, or Hare Krishna, etc., that anyone can sing. Sometimes, if people are already familiar with each other, this is the beginning of the program. This helps frame the atmosphere and the consciousness of the participants.
3. Sometimes the next part of the session continues with a short period of japa, wherein everyone gets their beads and chants for 15 minutes in meditation, such as on the Hare Krishna mantra.
4. Then there is a philosophical discussion or class. This can go a few different ways. One way is that one of the more advanced members can give a short talk on the Bhagavad-gita or some other text, and then take time for questions and answers. Then the discussion can be, for example, on how best to apply the philosophy to our lives, which can be a key point. Or it can be more informal with each member contributing something to the discussion. For a change, sometimes one of the people can give a slide show on their travels to the holy places of India while explaining their experiences on what it was like to see the places. This is always interesting.
5. Then the meeting, which should not last more than a few hours, unless people are especially interested, can end with prasada, or the distribution of sacred, vegetarian food that has been offered to the deity. Sometimes householders who hold the adult study groups have their own deities, or an altar with large photos of the deities to whom they offer the food. This is always nice because then people can eat together, maybe continue their discussions, relax and open up toward one another. The prasada can be cooked by the host, or the wife, or by a team of volunteers who bring different preparations like a pot-luck. In any case, many hands make for light work, so the more people that help, the easier it is for everyone, and it can make for a very happy and pleasant weekly gathering. The children can also get involved and help out, and younger children can get to know one another and look forward to getting together, especially when there may be a play area outside when it is warm or in the house if the weather is cold.
Some groups actually start with the prasada at the beginning of the session, which means everyone will want to arrive on time so as not to miss the food. Then while eating, everyone can relax, engage in discussions, break the ice so to speak, etc., until it is time to clean up and then begin the kirtan or little class.
How this spreads and grows is by invitation. So you become a member of a group and then make another member. If everyone does this, it begins to expand very quickly. As you meet people who may be interested, then simply invite them to come and join in. It is not as if they have to join something or make a commitment, but the joy and happiness of participating in such a session carries one along to want to continue. Then, the group can also become more affiliated with the temple and regularly attend which becomes another aspect of one’s spiritual development, and is where the service, association, and worship is stronger. So everything begins to grow like this.
In this way, we go back to the idea of developing devotees from being observers, to appreciators, to participants, up to taking on various types of responsibilities to help in the temple in their service to the deities and service for the spiritual upliftment of the other temple members, and even the general community. This certainly helps pave the way for protecting, preserving, promoting and perpetuating the Vedic culture through at least the next few generations.
As the adult study group grows, they become more enthusiastic. But if the group reaches around 20 people, then some of them can break off and form another study group so that each group does not become too big or overly crowded. These groups stay smaller for the study sessions, while they can come to the temple for much larger gatherings. Thus, they are still centered around the temple itself, but everyone has a chance to grow individually and at their own pace in the smaller study groups.
The point is, anyone can do this, or a small team of people can start such a group. Of course, what I have described is merely a summary of its potential. If you want more information on how to conduct this program, you can go to www.iskconcongregation.com to find out more or order material that will explain things more fully, or even describe the techniques to make it work more effective.
TRAINING TEMPLE MEMBERS IN SERVICE
All those who attend the temple can start being trained in service, or seva. If they are inspired by the temple in the right way, this should be a natural part of their development. God or Ishwara is present everywhere but especially in the temple, which magnifies our concentration and focus on serving the Supreme, especially in the form of the deity on the altar. Thus, the temple belongs to the Lord and all service at the temple is directly linked to the deity of the Lord. Therefore, all aspects of temple activities provide a way for everyone’s spiritual progress and uplifting and spiritualizing ourselves in God consciousness. In this way, any service we do, whether sweeping floors, cleaning pots in the kitchen, fund raising, managing, welcoming guests, giving donations for temple or deity facilities, maintaining the building, etc., is all service for the Supreme. And such service is an example of bhakti-yoga, developing devotion for the Lord. It is also good for making the right samskaras and impressions in our consciousness, as well as being a good example for our children who may follow what we do. Therefore, we could also say that the temple is "our temple" in being the place where we can make it into whatever expression we want as a manifestation of our devotion to God.
For this reason, complete understanding of the significance, meaning, and the installation process of the deity in the temple should also be provided so no one approaches with too little respect, or has a misconception of the spiritual power of the deity. Flyers or brochures with such information can be excellent handouts to give to the members and guests of the temples to increase awareness of such things. They can also be used to help explain basic points of the philosophy, especially to new guests.
Furthermore, there are frequent attempts to pester the faith of Hindus and devotees with misguided views and interpretations of the philosophy to try and cause doubts and skepticism, both in America and India. Dogmatics from other religions often try to propagate distorted views of the great Vedic Dharma and its tradition. The way to counter such measures is twofold: By proper education of the real meaning and purpose of Vedic Dharma, and to train people in the attitude and act of servitude and devotion to God, which paves the way for them to attain the higher and most convincing taste of the reciprocal exchange with the Supreme. Once this is reached, or even a glimpse of it, no one can knock them from their established position of solid experience of higher realizations. This is attainable by all sincere souls and is the purpose of the temple and goal of all devotees, and is most easily accomplished by adding seva to their activities.
Another consideration is to have temple ashramas for training as opposed to joining. Often we see that people think that they enter an ashrama once they join an organization. But many times people easily pay money to enter a retreat for a period of time in order to gain peace of mind, or engage in a course of study, meditation, yoga practice, or means of learning about the self by realization and practice, etc. This may be for a weekend, a month, three months, or longer. Sometimes people like to spend the weekend at the temple to serve and engage in spiritual practice, and an ashrama or guestrooms can be quite essential for such a purpose. So, if the temple has the facility, ashramas can also be established wherein people can enter for a certain length of time for a specific purpose, be trained, study, and help with service around the temple, and then leave after a while with a deeper understanding of what the Vedic knowledge is and how to apply it in their lives. Afterwards, they may become a permanent participant in the temple activities.
For this purpose, if a temple does not have facility to have its own designated ashrama area, it is good if it can connect with another temple or country retreat that does have such facility so if anyone is interested, it can be recommended so temple members can go there for retreats.
OUTSIDE TEMPLE ASHRAMAS
Another aspect of ashramas is that they do not necessarily have to be connected to the temple. I have seen in larger cities in India where they have large apartments for an ashrama for college students. To explain a little about this, these are for male students who can live together in a large apartment that is near the college, but who want to live in an environment that is also conducive to spiritual life. Thus, there may be several students or even a couple dozen living in an apartment who then all contribute to the rent of the place, thus saving money on living quarters that otherwise would be much more expensive, especially near a college, who all have their own living space, but then attend a morning program together that may include mangala or early morning arati, kirtana, guru puja, and Bhagavatam class, with time for japa meditation. Then they go off to their classes.
Sometimes I have seen where they may even hire a couple cooks whose duty it is to make preparations for the boys when they return from their classes to make sure they all have something nice to eat. The apartments may also have rooms for study, or computers, and also a temple room with deities of Gaura-Nitai, or Jagannatha, Balarama and Lady Subhadra, or even small deities of Sri Sri Radha-Krishna. This would be the center of most of their spiritual activities. This ashrama may then also be facilitated by a local temple, or have some other priests who either live there with the students or visit often to help oversee and maintain the programs and the spiritual advancement of those who live in the apartment ashrama. Then the students also observe the special events or holidays that go on at the temple.
This is especially nice for those who do not want to live near the college campus with others who are overly materially inclined for parties, intoxication, chasing women, or otherwise wasting time or getting into trouble. In the ashrama everyone becomes disciplined, accomplished, and spiritual advanced at the same time. When they graduate from college, they remain connected with the Vedic tradition and with whatever temple they may live near. This becomes a fruitful and joyous way to live and still be connected with and learning about the Vedic philosophy and its culture.
TEMPLES MUST BE WELL KEPT
There are many large and beautiful temples being built, but temples of all sizes must be clean, well kept, organized, and nicely maintained. We should be proud of our temples, and nothing makes for a poorer impression than one that is dirty or ill-maintained. Guests especially notice the beauty of a temple, and also of anything that is out of order. Large and ornate temples are always impressive and can be used in great public relations work as well, especially when a temple provides facility for the local non-Vedic community to tour and see the place. I have seen this so many times. So a temple that does not offer its facility for others to see and appreciate is a temple that is only 50% effective in the work it should be doing. And this primarily depends on the temple management. So if the management cannot see how to do this, or is not interested, then they are not fulfilling their own true potential or the higher purpose for which a temple should be established.
Everyone should be welcome at the temple which should look good and provide for nice impressions. However, this also takes money and manpower, which also needs to be arranged for the temple maintenance, at least as much as possible.
FESTIVALS & PROGRAMS FOR THE LOCAL COMMUNITY
There are so many holidays that are celebrated in the Vedic tradition, and these should be done as part of the joy and celebration of the heritage for all Hindus and Dharmists. However, there can easily be some that can be open for the general public. Special holy days like Krishna Janmasthami, RamaNauvami, Holi, and others, can be arranged in a way wherein the local non-Vedic community, especially in the Western countries, can come to watch, participate, and enjoy. First they need to be invited, or know they are welcome. Once they arrive, there needs to be a welcome committee that can help show them around and explain things. Flyers or handouts can also be arranged that will help explain the meaning of various parts of the temple and the holiday being observed, and what activities they may like to do. If it is Holi, guests may also like to participate in the throwing of colors. If not, they can just watch.
I have seen, such as at the Krishna temple in Spanish Fork, Utah, wherein as many as 10,000 people, mostly Westerners, attend their Holi celebration. The temple sells packs of colored powders, which adds to the revenue of the festival, and along with plays or skits, they later gather around a circle, all singing and dancing to the tune of Hare Krishna, and then the first colors are thrown and then everyone joins in. And they like it as it signifies throwing their cares away to unite in the spiritual atmosphere of the festival. Now who would not be attracted to that? In this way, many people are intrigued and fascinated to come to the temple and participate in various festivals. Other temples can take lessons from this. After that, an assortment of plays, traditional dances and other things are arranged for people’s entertainment or engagement.
During certain times of the year there may not be that much in the way of festivals to celebrate at the temples. Sometimes things slow down during the fall and winter months. But whenever there is a lack of attractions to bring people to the temple, you can always have 12-hour or 24-hour kirtan festivals. These are when people can gather in the temple and simply sing along to the kirtans or bhajans, using the universal language of music, as I had explained before, to engage everyone. They can start from 9 AM to 9 PM, or 24 hours, and people can stay all day and take turns leading the kirtans, or at least following along.
These are very simple to do and all the temple has to do is supply the facility and some extra prasada, sacred food, for the attendees. Then the local people who are good at leading the kirtans can inspire everyone to sing along, which greatly purifies the atmosphere of the temple vicinity and the consciousness of everyone who attends. Remember, this chanting and singing the holy names of God is the yuga-dharma, the most recommended process for this age.
However, the main thing is to plan it far enough ahead, say at least three to four weeks, so you can promote and advertise it so that as many people as possible can attend. You may get people from out of town, or even out of state, or other kirtan leaders from far away who may want to attend and be a part of it. It is a simple festival that can be done anytime, but can still draw many people.
Speaking of kirtans, which everyone can enjoy and participate in, there is also the harinam sankirtana, the group participation of chanting the holy names of Hari (Vishnu or Krishna, especially in the form of the Hare Krishna mantra) wherein the group goes outside the temple, like at a park, or even into the local city streets. This is a way of broadcasting the transcendental holy names and attracting people to join the kirtan party and visit the temple. Again, this is the yuga-dharma, so it also purifies the atmosphere and the consciousness of the people who hear this, whether they understand it or not. Like fire, it has its affects on anyone who touches it. Temple devotees can do this, but this can also be organized on weekends for temple congregational members so everyone can gather and more people can participate. The more the merrier, and the more powerful it becomes as the number in the group increases. As everyone focuses and meditates on the chanting of the holy names, it becomes very effective and potent, and begins to take on a life of its own.
At a park, the group can sit and chant or sing together, using a kirtan leader to chant or sing the names, which are then repeated by the rest of the group, while using karatala hand cymbals, mridunga drums, and maybe harmonium, or even guitar, flute, or something like that for the accompanying instruments. Small books, handouts, flyers or brochures, or invitation cards are also very useful to have on hand to give people who may be interested. The kirtan group, however, should be organized nicely so it is also attractive in the way it looks. The group should also be dressed appropriately, all looking nice and colorful. Everyone can participate, and many times people will come along and sit with the group to join in.
When they are going to go to the streets, while moving they can march in two lines side by side, in an orderly manner, with the kirtan leaders in the front, while everyone else chants repeating after the leader. This can be very attractive. Then another person can be handing out the flyers, distributing books, or using whatever else he may have. If they stop, then they can gather together as a group to sing and dance, but should not stop in front of stores that do not appreciate them being there. People who become attracted to this will often begin to follow along or join in the dancing. If someone is especially interested, he or she can be invited to return with the group to the temple to learn more.
Many Hindu temples do not do this, but we should remember that when Srila A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami first came to America, he had primarily three methods that were the mainstay for attracting people. He would hold classes in a small storefront temple, have harinam sankirtana through the streets and at a local park, and distribute prasadam. It was through this process by which he started what became the international group called Iskcon, or the Hare Krishna Movement. So we should not take this process lightly but recognize its potential.
Temples must also have books to offer or sell. This is extremely important for the philosophical and cultural education of the members, and also for other guests who are looking for books that they may not be able to find anywhere else. We only have to let people know what we have to offer, and what books are available so they can come to check them out. So many times I have heard where people have been looking for spiritual knowledge but did not know where to find the knowledge that we have to offer. One quote was, "I’ve been living on this planet for 35 years and had no idea that this kind of spiritual philosophy was available." So if we are going to be as effective as we should be, then at least we need to let people know what they can find within the Vedic heritage and how they can have access to it through our temples. And one of the best ways to do that is to have books available that they can take with them and study.
The temple can also offer whole sets of books, like an instant library at a special price for any family. Or offer to install a set of books, like the Bhagavad-gita, Bhagavata Purana and others, as a deity in the home. There can be an installation ceremony to sanctify the place and the occasion, and then the books can be installed into a nice cabinet or shelves. Books such as the Bhagavata Purana is considered the literary and sound avatara of the Lord. So, naturally, the temple benefits by making these available.
The books can also be offered in the hotels, like in the night stands of the rooms. There are many other ways to distribute books besides offering them at temples, such as going door to door or out onto the streets, but that is a separate topic, and numerous ideas are available. Nonetheless, this can be a great service to the people and also be another way of financial support for the temple.
BROCHURES AND HANDOUTS
Besides books, temples can easily have brochures that explain various aspects of the temple or the philosophy. It has been seen that when these are well written, they help others get a better understanding of the concepts utilized in the temple. These need to be especially designed to be concise and give succinct explanations of complex topics, and to fit in the space of a brochure. Also, if guests come to the temple and there are few people or devotees there at the time who can talk to them or answer questions, such brochures become extremely helpful so the people can take the brochures with them to read and get answers later.
You can add special graphics to them if you wish, or merely keep them simple and print them on different colored paper and let them fly to as many people as possible. The more inexpensive they are for you to print, the more you can pass them out and not worry about cost. However, be sure to have the contact information on the back page to list your own temple address, phone number, website, etc., so people can be sure to get in touch with you later.
I have made a set of brochures that anyone can use, just contact me and I can email them to you. So far the brochures that are included consist of:
1. Karma: What Is It? 2. Reincarnation: A Simple Explanation, 3. Vedic Description of the Soul, 4. Why Be Vegetarian, 5. Vedic Culture: As Relevant Today As Ever, 6. Who Is Krishna? 7. The Significance of Deities and Deity Worship, 8. Prasada: The Power of Sacred Food, 9. What is the Hare Krishna Movement, 10. Who is Srila Prabhupada, 11. Welcome to Our Krishna Temple, 12. On Chanting Hare Krishna (by Srila Prabhupada), and 13. The Peace Formula (by Srila Prabhupada).
Here in Detroit we use them very effectively in several ways. We have them on a brochure rack so guests can take them freely, according to their interest. We also use them in "Welcome Packs" that we put together for the Sunday program for anyone who is visiting for the first time. They are also passed out to people when devotees go out on book distribution or on sankirtana. They are also taken to pass out when doing classes with students at colleges or universities. They can also be used on book tables because if someone does not have money for a book, they can always take a few brochures. There have been times when someone will take a brochure, read it and come back for books. So these have been quite useful and certainly help introduce people to the basics of our philosophy.
Besides festivals, special cultural presentations are also ways of attracting people to the temple, and ways for the temple to be more effective and useful. I go to the local Bharatiya Temple regularly for its cultural programs, whether they are fund raisers for the temple, or the local VHP chapter, or a presentation by a traveling spiritual teacher. In these cultural programs, they often have a talk, slide show, a musical presentation, or a dance exhibition by a noted dance troupe. There is often an area in the hall where various items, such as devotional books, prints and photos, etc., can be purchased. Of course, there is also a vegetarian prasada dinner for everyone. Again, if the occasion has a special meaning, then flyers or brochures can be made that help explain its significance.
So everyone can be invited to such a presentation, and invitations can also be sent to the local community in order to share the culture, which also creates good public relations for the neighbors. And everyone feels satisfied after seeing such culture and talent.
Every temple can also have outreach programs where they cater to different types of people in the community. One is to have college or school programs to let students understand more about India and the ancient Vedic tradition. Schools especially are interested in culture. And cultural programs are always more acceptable for getting into the schools and colleges than a religious presentation. And the Vedic tradition has much culture to offer. Through these programs you can offer things like skits or plays, dance demonstrations, and so on. After the dance, you can invite the students to try out the dances, which they often find quite fun. Some may want to go on to take dance lessons, which has happened. Through such programs you can also interest people to further their education and development by inviting them to the temple.
Cooking classes are also quite effective and popular in colleges wherein the students not only learn how to cook some Indian preparations, but enough food is brought or prepared so that the students can also have a meal and try some of the preps after the lesson. Many students will attend just for that. This is especially great for colleges where students are often open and seeking higher levels of spirituality, but also looking for a way to make meals less expensively, or even have a cheap or free dinner. So add a little philosophy and some great tasting prasada with the right publicity, you will definitely have a good and popular program.
If you do not have a team to do this, or if the temple priests are too busy with temple activities, another simple cultural program you can offer is slide shows of holy places in India, or of festivals and things like this, which many students will not have seen before and will find interesting, like going on an adventure but through someone’s slides or videos . It takes only one person to put on a slide show and speak about it. So it can be most interesting to them, and help educate them about the real aspects of Indian and Vedic culture.
The thing is that various teachers are often looking for this kind of presentation to further the education and cultural understanding of their students. Or Indian children themselves will appreciate someone being able to help increase the understanding of their culture to their friends or fellow students, especially if a Westerner is making the presentation. It adds to the credibility for the Indian student who may be amongst many other Westerners who do not understand India.
An example of what I mean is that once I was staying with an Indian Hindu family in which the children were going to a typical public school here in America. So the children would sometimes be subjected to some jokes about the food they would bring to eat at school. So they did not like the other students to see what they ate. But when I was there and I would eat with the family, the children saw me eating lots of chapattis and having seconds and thirds on the vegetable subji. Then the children also felt better about what they ate and had more courage against whatever anyone might say to them. So this sort of exchange helps.
So if the Indian youth know they can call their local temple for such a presentation or slide show, it will be greatly appreciated. But you have to let people know it is available. Such simple cultural presentations can also be done at people’s homes as well.
Similar programs can also be done at local Unitarian churches who like to investigate other spiritual paths. This creates great public relations, good cross-cultural dialogue, and I have seen where some church members like to visit the temple regularly after learning about it. The point is that you never know what positive things might happen from such programs.
TEMPLE TOURS AND CULTURAL EXHIBITS FOR LOCAL STUDENTS
As we are speaking about cultural programs at schools, school classes can also come to the temple. At my local Hare Krishna temple there are a few comparative religious classes who have field trips, and every year they come to participate in a free Sunday program and feast. This gives the students a great taste of what the temple is like. Some students like it very much. And some of them come back regularly after that first visit. So when teachers know they can come to the temple, they can make arrangements to do so.
Another aspect of this is that on occasion teachers will bring the students to the temple during the week. However, this usually means making a special arrangement. Depending on what you have to offer, the students may come for an arati ceremony, maybe a traditional bhajan with Indian instruments, a talk, and then some prasada. If the temple has other things to see, then you can take them on a tour to show them around. Then they can also visit the temple gift shop for items that may interest them, such as books, incense, posters, photos, beads, etc.
For a school class in America, for example, to have a tour at the temple, with a talk, and a lunch, you may charge them at a rate of $5 per student, depending on what they want. For a class of say 50 students, this can bring in $250 before expenses, or a class of 90 students can bring in $450, not counting any gift shop purchases. Thus, the students get spiritual and educational benefit and have a nice outing from the school, and the temple benefits as well. In India, the program can be done for a lesser charge. Of course, if nothing much is expected but a brief visit with a short talk, then it may be offered for free. I have seen temples that often have students visit, both here in the U.S. and in India, such as in Delhi, or even students from Agra visiting a temple in Vrindavana, and everybody likes it. Sometimes the temple representative will ask students to take turns in leading the class in chanting Hare Krishna, once they know the mantra, and it gets really fun. Sometimes they do not want to stop. But these are things that can happen on such tours if you use a little imagination.
When considering these kinds of tours or cultural programs at the temple, it is also nice when the temple has exhibits, such as dioramas, or informational posters and pictures, or even short films that help explain and show the philosophy in action. When I was invited to speak at a Swadhyaya group convention at Madison Square Garden in New York City several years ago, there was one floor dedicated to various exhibits of diorama dolls and placards, computer based presentations and others that helped show the philosophy of Bhagavad-gita and the work of the organization in action. It was practically self-explanatory and very impressive. Temples can have a few rooms of this sort as well, or even a full museum if they have the facility in order to attract people and show the philosophy in action.
Another example of this is in Kurukshetra, the holy town about three hours north of Delhi by train. This is where the battle had taken place in the Mahabharata and where Lord Krishna spoke the Bhagavad-gita. There you can find a Krishna Museum managed by the government, which is a building with three floors of all kinds of displays, dioramas, deities, etc., all related to Krishna. This included life size dioramas of Krishna with the Pandavas, Krishna on a horse, scenes from the battle of Kurukshetra, musical instruments, paintings from various parts of India about Krishna, and much more. It is truly beautiful and impressive. You cannot help but be affected by it, and if a temple came up with anything like that, even in a smaller degree, it would be great for both Indian Hindus as well as Western students.
WELCOMING NON-INDIANS INTO THE VEDIC FOLD
There are some organizations, such as Iskcon, which welcome non-Indians or Westerners and non-devotees to become members of the Vedic family through an initiation process. There is no spiritual or shastric injunction that says this is not to be done. There may be a few brahminical traditions that discourage the idea of anyone participating in Vedic practices. However, everyone is a spiritual being, and everyone has the right to learn about their spiritual identity through the Vedic process. Therefore, everyone can follow this path and become part of the Vedic family. There is no problem, and this also helps encourage everyone to participate in and support Vedic culture.
Furthermore, as Indian Hindus increasingly get married to non-Hindus, especially in the West, if there is no way for the non-Hindu to come to the Vedic temples and participate, feel welcome, or even join the path of Sanatana-dharma, then it also increases the likelihood that the Hindu partner will participate in or even convert to the religion of his or her spouse. There is no reason for this. But we should be ready and willing to welcome everyone to participate in temple activities and feel a part of the Vedic family.
TEMPLE GIFT SHOPS
Temples should also have gift shops where people can purchase items that will help their spiritual practice and development. The most effective temples have gift shops for books, japa beads, maybe some musical instruments like karatala hand cymbals and mridanga drums, photos and prints of the Vedic divinities and the temple deities, recordings of bhajans and kirtans or lectures by noteworthy personalities, marble or brass deities, packaged prasada or sanctified food, and other paraphernalia. This will also facilitate Westerners and help draw them to the temple, especially if the gift shops have particular hours in which they are open, and where people can get items that may not be available anywhere else. They do not have to be open every day, but maybe just on Sundays or weekends, depending on the traffic in the temple. This way, both Indians and Westerners know where they can go to get the books or paraphernalia they need to enhance their spiritual development. Thus, the gift shop becomes another draw to the temple.
The temples that are the most successful at this are some of the Iskcon temples, like in Los Angeles or New York, and also the Swami Narayana temples, such as at Akshardham in New Delhi or Gandhinagar, where the gift shops are quite large and contain lots of items from which people can choose. If a temple does not have a gift shop, then that temple is much less effective than it could be in protecting, promoting and offering the means for everyone to practice the Vedic traditions, and, thus, there is less reason to go to the temple.
The rarest and deepest spiritual knowledge can be found in the Vedic texts. In this age, there is no reason why everyone should not have access to all levels of this knowledge and information, from the youngest to the oldest. So temples can also have spiritual libraries.
For example, there can be children’s books for the youngsters to better engage them in understanding the Vedic moral principles, or the Puranic histories, inspiring biographies, and numerous stories with which they can relate and get excited. These can include coloring or activity books, both in the library and sold in the temple gift shops.
Another aspect of this would be to include audio visual facilities so the children can immediately become involved in watching the stories come alive, such as on computers. Many times this completely captivates the children who are thus trained in the Vedic culture, especially if these are in the common language of the children, as opposed to being only in Sanskrit or Hindi. In the West, many Indian children understand English better than the Indian languages. So that is how such media can be conveyed for the ease of learning by the children. For example, if children in India understand the local language better, then that is the language that needs to be used. Such facilities can also be used for a "children’s story hour" or something developed just for youngsters. Then children will acquire a natural attraction to come to the temple and participate. This may also inspire students to travel to or throughout India to see the temples and holy places to provide for first-hand experience in learning about Vedic culture.
Naturally, since temples are the foundations of dispersing spiritual knowledge, such libraries should have numerous volumes for answering various questions for adults. Thus, such libraries can have the essential Vedic texts, as well as books by the spiritual masters, or on yoga, Indian travel guides about the temples and holy places, etc. The most popular books can be sold in the temple gift shop as well.
Another enterprise an effective temple can use is a nice vegetarian restaurant. If families want to go out for a meal, then let them come to the temple for sanctified food, prasadam. This can help add to the financial income of the temple if it is done well. It may require the right personnel and management if it offers a wide menu, but if the temple does not have such facility it can also be done in a simple manner with just a small buffet where people can stop in for some prasada while they are at the temple for a small donation. This can be refreshing and also facilitate the spiritual interests of guests who may appreciate something to eat, or at least have some deity prasada before they leave the temple. Sometimes a vegetarian restaurant is not so easy to find in some towns, so this would also facilitate people, Indian Hindus or Westerners alike who have that interest. A restaurant next to the gift shop is a nice way for guests to finish their visit to the temple.
I have also seen a temple with a commercial kitchen on the lower level that would offer several different rice preparations, along with dahi vada, or puri bhaji, simple preparations for the people who attend the temple on Saturday and Sunday mornings. They would charge a small fee, with a drink, with a dining area next to it where people could easily sit and eat. It would make for a small but pleasant breakfast or lunch. Of course, this arrangement could become quite busy, and the menu more elaborate, on festival days, too.
The importance of support groups that are established or assisted by the temple, or by temple members, cannot be stressed enough. It is a way of assisting and providing the means for the Dharmic or devotee community to come together, and help one another in both spiritual and other aspects of life.
The fact is that the Indian and Dharmic community in America have become developed enough that, besides going to the usual government agencies for assistance, there is no reason why we should go outside our own group for support. We have a broad latitude of professionals and educated people who can provide a wide variety of advice and cooperative enterprises and assistance.
This is especially important in India where it is seen that when the Hindu community does not provide the means to take care of its own people, there are many other organizations, often connected with various religious affiliations such as Christianity, who are waiting to come in and help with the notion that this is a way to make new converts. There is no reason for this, but the Dharmic/Hindu community must be willing and cooperative to provide the support to those who need it. In other words, if we do not take care of our own, someone else will. And such support can easily be centered around the temples as service to humanity in our service to the deity.
So let us look at some of the support groups that can be established, and centered around the temple. Now anyone who knows how I write should also know that these ideas are not new, but are examples of what some temples are already successfully doing. So if they can be done in one temple, they can be done in others. Let us also remember that the more support a temple can provide for its members, the more reasons there are for members to stay with that temple and why new members should join, and why they should have more pride in the ability, compassion, and cooperation of their own community.
These are some of the groups or regularly scheduled interactive workshops that could be developed, aside from the classes and programs that have already been mentioned:
A. Grief counseling—when there is a death in the family.
B. Health assistance—doctors or nurses who can assist those in need, such as in having health fairs for anyone who attends.
C. Mental health—like depression.
D. Seniors care & support network—especially for those with no family.
E. Domestic violence & assistance in family disputes.
F. Chaplain service—such as visiting hospitals, nursing homes and family homes for prayers and counseling.
G. Additional community service for both inside and outside the Indian or devotee community.
H. Blood drives are an example.
I. Driving Service—giving seniors or those who need rides to the temple.
J. Communication skills workshops.
K. Youth support & conferences—like dealing with their issues of leading a Dharmic life in a changing world.
L. Educational assistance.
M. Lessons in English.
N. Confidence building.
O. Problem solving teams—dealings on all levels of challenges.
P. Youth executive development—to encourage and provide association centered on the temple for future executive trainees.
Q. Social issues—like dealing with violence on television and its affects on our children.
R. Vanaprastha support—workshops and seminars to help those who are retiring to plan the years ahead.
S. Support a Child—especially for children in India, to support the lodging, healthcare, books, clothing, and to eradicate illiteracy.
T. Support a Mataji—for supporting the elder ladies who may be without family but want to live in a simple way for spiritual success, possibly in a temple ashrama setting.
U. Ekavidyalaya—support for the one teacher schools in rural India.
V. Serving in homeless shelters.
W. Providing facility for food distribution to the hungry, like Iskcon’s "Food for Life".
X. Overcoming addictions—emphasizing Dharmic values to gain strength over addictions, like alcohol or drugs.
Y. Agrarianism—supporting temple gardens or farms to grow our own safe and nutritious food, and promoting the Vedic lifestyle in the mode of goodness, and for self-sufficiency.
There can also be what could be called the "Temple Newcomer’s Club" that could welcome new members to the temple and local city, familiarize them with the area if they are from out of town, introduce them to new friends, temple activities, show them how they can be engaged in temples services, and invite them to any temple meetings for further participation.
These are some of the support groups for activities, workshops or fund raising that can help temple members and others through life while keeping their focus on the Dharmic values that every temple should promote.
PILGRIMAGES TO THE HOLY PLACES OF INDIA
Organizing trips to India may also be worthwhile for the youth so they can learn more about the country and culture of India, if they have not spent much time there. Even adults may not have seen as much of their country as they would have liked. They could do so through such journeys. Furthermore, many western seekers long for traveling to the exotic places of India to see the numerous temples, holy sites, or attend major festivals. What better way to promote awareness of India and its Vedic traditions than through such pilgrimages?
Preparations for the trip can be arranged through the study of various holy places, and which places may be of most interest to visit. Classes or even slide shows of the holy sites, temples, festivals, and traditions of Vedic India can also generate interest. This part of it would not be expensive. Anyone who has a collection of slides of their various travels can help educate or create interest in this aspect of India. Then trips to various holy sites can be arranged so all interested parties can go by paying for their share of the expenses. Smaller temples can connect with bigger temples that may have more facility to make such arrangements, or through travel agencies with the experience to do this.
In spite of whatever you have to offer, you must let people know that you exist and what are your facilities. Otherwise, you will be overlooked. No one will know about you. So what are some of the ways we can do this?
A website is mandatory for a temple. You can put so much information on it, from photos of the temple and the deities, a map and directions to reach the temple, times of the pujas and aratis, when it opens and closes, an introduction to the philosophy or the identity of the deities, the purpose of the temple, and even who are the head priests or managers, and so on. This is your first introduction to whoever may be interested. Then you can have a link to the temple website on the website of other temples or members who have websites.
Newsletters are next. A quarterly paper newsletter is nice, but nowadays many temples are sending news out through emails. You can collect numerous email addresses of your temple members or visitors who want to hear what is happening at the temple, and then send them quarterly newsletters or announcements whenever something special is happening, such as when a special program or festival will take place, or when a noteworthy person will be giving a talk, interesting classes that will be given, or the special preparations that the temple restaurant will be having, or so many other things that can help draw people to the temple. Also, be sure that whatever good things that have happened, such as new developments or accomplishments, are announced so people can know of these things and support them.
Advertising for events may also be considered. In any advertisement, when you want to get the word out about something, always include your temple website for more information. Some of the places you can advertise are in temple directories, phone books, local papers, or Indian newspapers. You can also use posters or flyers in Indian stores, or go door-to-door to reach people, or store-to-store, and so many places. However, be careful to reach your audience as effectively as possible because sometimes no matter how nice the advertisement is, if it is in the wrong place, it still will have little effect.
Calendars with beautiful photos of the temple deities are also a most attractive way to remind people of the temple, of the deities, of upcoming festival days, so they can stay in touch. If it is really high quality, the photos may be worth framing and many will want to have a calendar. So it may become like a collectible.
Furthermore, just as we see billboards throughout India about how Jesus loves you, why not spend some money about the benefits of coming to the temple, or how Krishna loves you, or how a Swami is coming to give lectures for your benefit. I see this in some places like Vrindavana, so many pundits, devotees, or swamis that are coming to Vrindavana have their photos plastered on billboards so everyone knows about them and when and where they will be there. So, why not do similar things to spread the word in other parts of the nation?
WORKING WITH THE LOCAL NEWSPAPER
One thing that is often overlooked is how to work with your local newspaper. The newspaper is a business which needs stories to tell. They need newsworthy items to relate to people and that people will find of interest to buy the paper. In some of the bigger newspapers, like those in most cities, they will have a religious editor. He is usually always looking for news items from within the religious community. It is good to call the paper, find out who he or she is, or who covers this area of news, and get acquainted with him. Find out what they are looking for. They are usually glad to hear from you. Then whenever you have something of interest happening at the temple, let him know.
It will not matter if it is important or not, but if it might be of interest, he may want to cover it. If it is a festival, a holy day, a youth camp, a temple expansion, or anything like that, the editor may come out to report on it and take photos. I have seen great photo spreads in the paper because we let the religion editor know about something that was happening. Sometimes they simply want to come out for a photo report because they need a story. Or they are doing reports or stories on all the diverse religions in the area, and want to include your temple and community as well.
This can be worth more than thousands of dollars of advertising and can help provide strong interest in the temple. Especially if there is an upcoming festival that you want people to know about, you can call the editor of the paper, or papers if you live in a large city with suburban papers, and they will report it before it happens. And then they generally will be there for the festival to photograph it and report on it, which can be great public relations when people read it.
So get out there, give the editor a call, become friends with him or her, and start a relationship that can be greatly rewarding to both of you.
STARTING A RADIO SHOW
Television and radio is next, and often is a very effective way for promotion. Television and radio work in a similar way. Let them know when something interesting is happening, and they may come out to report on it. I have again seen nice coverage from this simple tactic. Even if a clip of something like a Rathayatra festival gets only 60 seconds of coverage on television, that can create lots of positive interest in the temple and what the Vedic community is doing.
Also, you can take up a more assertive endeavor and possibly start your own radio show. Many Swamis and preachers of all kinds have hour-long shows on Indian and even Western television and radio wherein they can talk about God or the processes of yoga and self-realization. A temple can support a weekly radio or television show on cable TV, which by law must make its facilities available. This should be a focused endeavor in order to bring more people into the fold and educate people properly about the Vedic culture.
A simple way of helping preserve and promote Vedic culture is through utilizing the media, and one of the easiest and least expensive ways to do that is through establishing a radio show. A radio program can function as an effective platform where Dharmists or Hindus can gather to learn, discuss and share issues and concerns regarding the Vedic tradition and spirituality, and promote things that are going on in their community, as well as elsewhere around the Dharmic world.
To put it bluntly, many of those in the Vedic community have ignored involvement in the media for far too long, especially in India where they need it the most, which is why many newspapers and television networks there are owned and operated by those of Christian or even Muslim persuasion. Thus, to the disadvantage of the Hindus, such media often gives contrary views regarding Vedic culture and those who follow it, and provide more favorable coverage of things going on in their own religion or from their perspective. Even in the West, there are often perpetuations of wrong ideas and perceptions of the Vedic customs in the media and even in schoolbooks, much of which goes unchallenged. It is time for followers of the Vedic tradition to make a change in this and become more involved in the media, and starting a radio program can certainly make a difference.
Dharmists and devotees need to become more savvy with the effects of the media, and become involved in a sophisticated and dignified manner. They should be able to quickly counter negative perceptions with proper commentary, and be able to present more correct views in a timely manner. This could certainly help provide the ways for Hindus to make their mark in the consciousness and awareness of the world view on Vedic culture, which is long overdue in light of the fact that they have become one of the wealthiest ethnic groups in the West today. Why should they not become more united in some way to help defend themselves and their culture from wrong and prejudiced views when they could so easily do something about it? Utilizing the media in different ways can help, such as by starting a radio program.
One way to start this is by identifying radio stations where you could start a show of one or two hours a week. Those who are college students should check to see if the university has a radio station, where they could operate a show for free. Such stations are usually looking for programs and material to use for programs, and this could be something that could help.
Otherwise, a program could be started on a regular radio station, but the air time may need to purchased, or sponsored through those who want to help contribute or through advertising. If a temple is establishing the program, they should be able to lead the sponsorship of it through members. The time when more people are listening to the radio will cost more, but may also be worth more, such as on Saturday or Sunday mornings, when you will also have more listeners and more influence. But check on the quality of the radio station, its broadcast range, or whether they also broadcast on the internet.
The radio show could incorporate the activities of many of the Hindu temples and groups of the local area, as well as have guest speakers that are in town such as visiting Swamis, or even live or prerecorded phone interviews with authorities on various issues of the global Vedic community. It could also include local children and their activities, news about youth camps, festivals, and other things that are happening. Parents would also become more interested if their children might be appearing on radio.
A sample one or two-hour program may include the following line-up of topics:
1. Welcome to the show with proper stotrams or mantras,
2. News and Events–both local and international,
3. Kids Section–chanting slokas or mantras, or talking about their own involvement in their temple and culture,
4. Local content–news and promotions about the events in the area about temple festivals, youth camps, new business openings, health camps, cultural programs like dancing, music, bhajans, or study groups to join, visiting Swamis or spiritual teachers and authors who may be speaking at certain places, etc. Maybe there can also be call-ins from the listening audience as well.
5. Global issues–such as protecting Rama Sethu, or discussions on the Aryan Invasion Theory, or the Sarasvati civilization, or protecting Vedic temples in India, etc. There can be interviews with authorities on such subjects to provide clarity not only to the local Dharmic community, but to the general audience as well.
6. Tradition–talks on the customs and philosophy of Vedic culture for understanding and providing a strong philosophical foundation not only of the local Hindus, but also for the whole listening audience.
7. Conclusion–farewell prayers, children chanting slokas, or an ending bhajan, etc.
The next point is whether the program can be sustainable over the long term. If it can be, it is more likely that the local Dharmic community will gather around it for support, and use it as a center for communication for its activities. Remember, these kinds of projects take time and determination.
STARTING TELEVISION SHOWS
Most cable television networks are meant to provide facilities to those who are able to make or provide television content. So if someone lives near a cable network, go and see what they require. I have a friend of mine who has been making weekly half-hour shows for years. He records it once a week, and then the cable network plays it 4 or 5 times the following week. He has many kinds of people he interviews, such as writers, poets, artists, alternative medical practitioners, etc., along with visiting Swamis, and other spiritual teachers who have helped provide deeper insight into the Vedic tradition, or events that take place at the temple. He is well known in the community and is likely to continue producing shows well into the future. This can also play as important a role as radio as described above.
SUSTAINABILITY OF PROJECTS
These are just some of the ways to promote the temple and its facilities. Many more can be developed. However, though these ideas are very workable and have been successful in various places, let’s be practical. You should not get too overwhelmed with too many ideas. Only choose those that you can handle, that are right for you and the facilities that you have, and the manpower that can help provide them. But also form a team who can share the load, and do not merely go from one idea to the next. Take one idea seriously and work with it until it is going well and is fully sustainable, either through your endeavors or through the efforts of others who continue the project. Take on an additional project only when the first or previous project is fully sustainable. If you take on too much or spread yourself too thin in trying to do too many things, then they can begin to backfire and all of your projects become haphazard, or done unprofessionally, with poor quality, or are soon no longer sustainable and begin to fall apart. That is unfortunate and also leads to poor impressions of you and the temple, and maybe also of the culture you are trying to present. We do not need that.
So make sure of what you can do and do it well. Do not give up once you take on a project, but continue to engage in making it increasingly sophisticated, improved and successful, and then sustainable over the long term. This will give credibility for the people and the temple involved, and for the culture itself.
Sustainability of projects also means there must be funds to keep things going. Fund raising is an art by itself, but when you begin to have serious temple members who want to help, sometimes they do not have as much time as they do funds that they can contribute. Of course, contributing funds from the work they have done also turns their work or occupation into devotional service as well. That way all their time is not merely spent on karmic activities.
Some good techniques involve fund raising dinners, where everyone buys a ticket for the entertainment and the dinner that is included, but then there may also be an auction of various and attractive things that can be offered that people can bid on. There are also ways of utilizing the holy days for raising funds for the temple or continued deity worship. Finding sponsors for the Sunday feast or holiday celebrations, or the gorgeous deity outfits are also ways of allowing people to help by sponsoring various projects of their choice.
Electronic Fund Transfers are also a way of having your most serious members commit to giving a certain portion of their earnings every month. This way it can be set up so that every month a certain donation is automatically transferred from their bank account to the temple bank account. When you have, for example, 25 or 50 people giving $50 a month, that means a steady $1250 or $2500 that you can depend on each and every month. Naturally, there may be people who will give more, and the more people who sign up to do so, the more it will help keep things going for the temple as well. Most people do not realize how much money it takes to keep the operation of the temple going. But proper accounting can help show how things are spent and give the confidence so more people will offer their financial gifts to the temple and the service to the deity.
Endowments have also grown in popularity, wherein people who leave wills upon their death can endow a certain amount of money for the temple.
STARTING NEW TEMPLES OR EXPANSIONS
If or when things are going so well that it is time to expand, make sure that the temple has a clear cut plan to not only afford the expansion but to continue the expanded operations as well. It is not unlikely that in the Indian community people like to participate in expansions, or in building new temples, but it may be another thing to secure the necessary funds to keep things going after the expansion is complete. This should not be a problem, but it can be, and temple management needs to be sure it will not become a problem.
When building a new temple, it is always best to see where the congregation is located, and then build a temple in the vicinity of the congregation so that everyone has no problem in attending the temple. It can always become a problem when the temple is too far away from most of its members. Then not as many people who may like to attend will be able to do so. If it means that people have to make a major plan just to come to the temple, then there will be few who can just pop in for a quick darshan. This also means less participation and then less donations and less facility to maintain and offer to the deity and the visitors.
When considering building or establishing a new temple in a town, one idea is to first move in the vicinity of the Hindu/Vedic community to scope it out and become friends with the people. Then start a small vegetarian restaurant to bring in the support of the community. If you have a building, you might then establish a small temple or preaching center upstairs for weekly gatherings. You can use the restaurant as a center of communication wherein people can learn about what is happening and then start to participate in the weekly get together. Then as things build up and you have a dependable group, you can begin to collect funds to buy property and a structure, or plan to construct the type of building suitable for the needs of a temple. Then if the temple is already where the congregation is located, it will be easy for people to visit it and attend the programs and celebrate the holy days, and grow from there. As people visit the temple site and become encouraged, they will increase their support. And the way the Indian population continues to expand in America, it will naturally grow.
On the other hand, if there is already a Hindu or devotee community in town that is waiting to support the temple, still make sure you do not build a temple too far away from everyone. This can be counterproductive in the long run. However, you have to plan for expansion. Make sure you get enough property that you can expand later. Do not think too smalltime, or in the future you will not have sufficient facilities or property.
One thing I have seen with too many Vedic temples is the lack of parking spaces for cars. This has been underestimated so many times. There may be a nice and wonderful temple building, but with no or not enough parking. There must be plenty of parking now and room for expansion in the future. Any building that is constructed also must also be planned and designed in a way in which it can be expanded. Even the residential or housing in the area should be of such that it will accommodate more people moving into the area. This happens quite often that people want to live closer to the temple, and if housing is not available, or the means to build or expand the housing is not possible, then it can also be a factor that limits the growth of the temple, or at least what it could be. All of these kinds of things should be considered when thinking of starting a new temple or new branch of the temple.
TEMPLES MUST SHARE METHODS THAT WORK
If temples develop new and effective ways to teach and uphold Vedic spiritual knowledge, then they should network with other temples and share their techniques and ideas. This is presently being done through annual conferences in the United States, such as through the Hindu Mandir Executives Conference, by which an increasing number of temples help share ideas, managerial processes, suggestions about legal and educational issues, about maintaining or expanding temples, and also how to further assist India in preserving its culture. There must be whole-hearted cooperation, knowing that we all need to work together to do something great and have a positive influence in this world. The more we work together in this way, the easier it becomes for everyone.
TEMPLES MUST HELP UNIFY PEOPLE
Temples must not only network together, but they must become more supportive of each other and cooperate together. For example, the temples in a community can all come together for at least one huge festival a year, such as a large Rathayatra festival. This can be the perfect example of how Hindus and devotees from all temples can gather, participate, and support each other in a huge show of unity. The press can be invited to show the cultural aspect of the festival, but to also show how such Dharmists and devotees have such strength in numbers. Thereafter, it also becomes much easier for the members of all temples to work together, especially if there is an issue that affects the whole Vedic community.
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If every temple could apply these principles for the preservation, protection, and promotion of Vedic culture here in North America, and use similar techniques in India and elsewhere, we would see a tremendous growth of this spiritual knowledge and its values for the betterment of all people, not only on this continent but all over the world.
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