Mathas, Ghatikas, Agraharas and Aalayas as Kernels of Sacred Sanatana Education

The singular role played by Mathas, Ghatikas, Agraharas and Temples in teaching and disseminating sacred education throughout Bharatavarsha has been almost forgotten.
Mathas, Ghatikas, Agraharas and Aalayas as Kernels of Sacred Sanatana Education

Chapter Three: The Sprawling World of Itihasa and Puranic Translations

TRANSLATIONS AND EPISODIC RENDITIONS of Itihasas and Puranas were other brilliant vehicles and modes for spreading our sacred education. The centrality of this phenomenon cannot be emphasised enough. The accomplices of the evolution and development of Bharatiya Bhasha are the translations of all the best works of Sanskrit. While the Ramayana and the Mahabharata exist in every Bharatiya Bhasha, their translators and poets have not only made sweeping interpolations and changes, in some cases, their versions have acquired an enduring appeal. The splendid Karnatabharatakathamanjari by Kumaravyasa has a delightful episode where Arjuna disguised as a Sanyasi elopes with Subhadra. Whereas this is absent in Veda Vyasa’s original, its charm and attraction has made generations of people believe that it is indeed in the original Mahabharata. Countless plays and films and songs have been produced based on just this episode. However, Kumaravyasa, Kamban, Tulasidas et al have uniformly venerated Valmiki and Vyasa and retained the original spirit of their culture-building literary creations. This point is the most effective and intrinsic rebuttal to the ideological merchants who purvey spurious theories like ”300 Ramayanas.”

Mathas, Ghatikas, Agraharas and Aalayas

On the structural plane, Mathas and temples became the grand and prolific centres of sacred education. Other institutions resembling large universities of our own time included Ghatikas and Agraharas. In fact, Mathas were the later-day manifestations of Ashramas and Tapovanas of the Rishis mentioned in ancient Sanskrit literature. As Dr. Raghavan and other scholars have correctly revealed, “mathas were originally natural habitations in the form of mountain caves, which were later enlarged into structural buildings.” Consonant with the continuous stream of the tradition of spreading sacred education, Mathas naturally played a central part in the Hindu social and cultural life.

While there were Mathas for every sect which taught their respective philosophies, the syllabus was a wholesome mixture. The student was taught both tough philosophical texts and popular sacred literature such as stotrams, bhajans, poetry, songs, etc. Thus, upon graduation, the student could give discourses to both the scholarly tribe and the unwashed masses with equal elan. The other hoary facet of some of these Mathas was the fact that their heads and acharyas were also travelling teachers, foraying into every corner for spreading sacred education. Thankfully, this tradition is still quite strong.

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THE PHENOMENAL ROLE that Hindu temples have played as hubs of devotion and centres of cultural education needs an independent volume. Temples were the place where Itihasa and Purana were expounded, preserved and propagated. They remain the lifeline and the oxygen that sustains the Sanatana society. In fact, temples are miniatures of the Hindu cultural universe sprawled across the globe. An ugly, unexamined and dangerous notion that has imprisoned a vast territory of the contemporary Hindu psyche is this: “I am not religious but spiritual and so I don’t need to visit temples to prove that I am a Hindu.” The popularity of this notion actually reflects the impressive success of the soulless materialist discourse aimed at delinking Sanatana Dharma from its grandest physical expression, the Hindu Temple. However, stalwarts like say, Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri gave us this brilliant exposition about what a temple exactly stands for:

…temples occupied a prominent place from the perspective of education, fine arts, [reflected the] economic condition [of the kingdom] and social service…people had a firm belief and faith in the pious act of donating to temples. [Donors included] everybody from the monarch to the most ordinary citizen…temples were governed and maintained by a duly elected board. They distributed money, food grain, and seeds to farmers from the Deity’s Treasury…[temples] were also engaged in moneylending…temples conducted various celebrations like Pakshotsava [fortnightly utsavas], Maasotsava [monthly utsavas], Brahmotsava, and oversaw the distribution of the harvest derived from temple lands. Theatre and dance halls organised dramas during Utsava days in both Sanskrit and Desha Bhashas. Music and dance recitals offered as Seva for the Deity immensely enriched art forms like classical music, Bharatanatyam, and Vastushilpa [sculpture art]. Moral and spiritual discourses by learned scholars, Yatis, and such other eminences were drawn from the Vedic and Puranic lore thereby instilling and reinforcing Dharma among the pilgrims and others who visited the temple. There were also lecture halls for imparting higher education in Veda, Vedanga, Medicine and other subjects by teachers and scholars employed by the temple. Students were given free scholarship and boarding and lodging… Massive temples were secure like fortresses and contained an abundance of food grain, water and other supplies and provided shelter to refugees during wartime…Because Hindu kings regarded temples as sacred spaces, they deferred harming or despoiling them even slightly even if this caution meant certain defeat in war….

There is also a rough formula for understanding this from a different perspective. Consider any town or village with an antiquity of six hundred years and investigate its history briefly. The first feature that will become obvious is that it was originally a temple town. Indeed, since time immemorial, the establishment of a new village or town was invariably accompanied by building a temple there. Once the temple was built, it would have its own annual Utsava apart from the familiar Hindu festivals celebrated throughout the year. The village or town would have its own Sthala-purana and the temple, its own Mahatmya (roughly speaking, glory). Both were interlinked because their source would be the same: either the Itihasa or the Purana or both. The cultural history of South India is perhaps the most magnificent and the most detailed evidence of this fact.

The Cholas for example, were among the most prolific temple-builders. Chola Aditya I blanketed almost the entire Cauvery Delta with temples, and kings of various dynasties who followed him also followed his precedent, “till throughout South India, no village or town was left without a temple, the visible symbol of the spread of Bhakti.” This was the resultant, overall landscape of South India, to cite Dr. Raghavan once again:

The temple was also an art gallery, even as it was a hall for concert, lecture, or transaction of local affairs. The masterpieces of sculpture in the temples taught the entire mythology and the deeds of the gods to the masses…All temples had paintings of religious themes…All these show how art was harnessed for religious teaching in ancient India. The car-festival drew together the entire population of the locality. Such festivals in temples served as suitable occasions for religious discourses…

In the next and concluding episode of this series, we will briefly examine the role played by dance, drama, and music in transmitting sacred knowledge throughout the Hindu society.

To be concluded

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