Back in 2004, when I received a call from a known rabbi in Har Nof asking about how the hair in Tirupati, India was offered, I never expected to be actually visiting a decade later the sacred mountain of Tirumala, near Tirupati. The Rabbi was unsuccessfully attempting to avert the expected panic that would ensue when the hair used in the wigs wore by Orthodox women was declared forbidden because of its origin in a Hindu Temple. (For those unfamiliar with this unusual story see here, here, and here) The rabbi’s questions were limited to whether it was similar to rabbinic conceptions of Greco-Roman sacrifice and the Rabbi took the Talmud as a guide to contemporary Indian practice. Visiting the actual mountaintop offers a broader vista on many levels. My observations are in the context of the wig controversy.
Tirumala is fittingly at the top of a mountain as it translates to literally a sacred hill or high place. About three quarters of a mile up, one finds the the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple and the nearest town in the valley is called Tirupati. It is the most visited pilgrimage place on earth, receiving more visitors a year than the Vatican or Mecca. To put it into numbers, the site receives about 156 million visitors a year averaging out to be about 60, 000 on an ordinary day and hundreds of thousands on a festival. Until recently, it was also the wealthiest religious institution, maintaining an annual budget of $167 million USD. The actual wealth is unknown but generally thought to be much greater than the Vatican’s.
During my stay in the city of a thousand temples, Kanchipuram, a town three and a half hours south of Tirumala, I observed a mini-celebration in the town center organized to noisily fete a group of male pilgrims who were beginning their four day walk to Tirumala. While I did not walk with them, I was able to travel by car on well-paved back roads to reach the temple, which was about 138 km (86 mi) from my starting destination.
My local journey at a hotel in Tirupati (16 miles away) that offered check-in based on 24 hour units since the overwhelming majority of the guests people were flying in to visit the Temple for a few hours and then fly out. How does one choose the hour in which one makes the holy pilgrimage for those who can pay the extra fees for immediate entry? The hotel had a full time horoscope prognostigtian and, on the telephone, a direct call button right next to the room service and concierge buttons. The roll of horoscopes in Indian culture is not given much attention in the West but it is ever-present and further makes me think that I am walking into Abraham ibn Ezra’s astrological world.
The ride up Tirumala Hill is straight up, 980 above sea level. The temple itself is located on a big plateau, about 10.33 square miles (27 km2) total in area. It comprises seven peaks and has a permanent population of 18 000. The road up has overlook points and breakdown areas and emergency crews ready on hand.
When you arrive at the top, you enter a several mile area of housing such as dormitories, motels, bungalows, and apartments, all structures reaching three stories. Also on the mountain top are playgrounds, concessions, a deer park, free medical clinics, and programs to help the deaf, blind, or handicapped. There is a shuttle bus taking pilgrims around the area. The mountaintop city is almost like a large state college dormitory complex or fairgrounds or even 1970s detached buildings shopping mall, grey, utilitarian, and urban planned. Below is an aerial view of the whole area
Also on the mountaintop is a ring of semi-decent looking hotels, more clinics, and more activities for kids. This outer-ring area also has a wonderful museum with an amazing collection, nicely curated showing artifacts from the history of the Temple mount, ancient religious objects, and Temple life. Imagine if Jerusalem had never been conquered and never lost anything to war and could therefore display 2500 years of artifacts. The long display case containing a millennium of musical instruments in another museum could have been an entire exhibition room.
On the other side of the circle is an Indian bazaar with wide avenues about five blocks by two blocks selling religious pictures and statues to take home, souvenir devotional objects, and pietistic chapbooks. They also sold children’s toys, especially big stuffed animals; there seems to be a custom to buy one for your children so that they enjoy the trip. There are also food concessions ranging from restaurants to pushcarts. There are also pietistic performances, when I was there men were singing bhakti hymns in Telugu on a small bandstand. The college students making pilgrimage discovered the tackiest item being sold was a winter scarf that when wrapped around one’s head made one look like the halo bands on the Temple statue. Running down the center of the bazaar avenue is a sitting area covered by a high corrugated metal roof for sun and rain protection where people took naps or ate meals.
The next area on the mountain top was the holier Temple region, flanked on either end by the gopuram (the large tower that marks a south Indian Temple area) inside was a large campus sized fenced center that has that includes all the ancillary buildings to the Temple. This area is surrounded by the graded metal holding pens to be used on days of extreme visitation.
Also included in this area is a large bakery of sweets with long lines dominated the first section. Each person who visits the Temple gets a token for two sweet laddu as prasadam which has divine blessing from the deity and they can buy more at the bakery.
Then, there was a large block long holy water tank as found in most South Indian temples, partly a symbolic beauty of the pool, part a place to bath before visiting the Temple, and in this case a roped off area as a kiddie pool. Hindu purity law is similar to Karaite Jewish law and a pool of water is sufficient for purity. It bordered onto a large open square with a stage for artistic performances at one end with a copy of the sacred statue inside the Temple.
To the right was the rather modest, double story golden Temple, the goal of everyone’s pilgrimage the Sri Venkateswara temple, dedicated to the Lord Venkateswara Swamy (also called Sri Balaji). The temple is surrounded by metal lattice grating in several concentric circles creating a labyrinth holding pen for tens of thousands of visitors waiting the requisite 5-10 hours to get into the Temple. For those foreigners who want to enter, one must sign a form that one believes in the deity, they have also now insisted that one can only enter wearing traditional clothes of sari for women- dhoti and bare chest for men. Tamil scriptures say that one can only attain atonement at this Temple. (Tamil religion is more about grace, merit, atonement, and penance than the misplaced stylized Western discussions of Hinduism theology.)
For Hindus, this has become the abode of God, the place where one can directly see the divine, the closest most will ever get to a religious epiphany of the true Supreme Being. Originally, the Temple was a Tamil holy site to Venkateswara, identified by the important 11th century religious theologian Ramanuja as another incarnation of Vishnu, now treated both as a separate deity for adoption as one’s personal representation for personal worship (Ishtava) and as the place to see an epiphany of the Divine behind all specific deities. Ramanuja taught that there is only one Supreme Being and the plurality of manifestations is only images. For Ramanuja, images are not just a human concession or a means or see the divine through a glass darkly but the very thing that allows one to come to the divine. The Bhagavad Gita (XI) describes a scene where Arjuna asks to see God glory (as in Exodus), here at Tirumala it is theoretically everyone’s chance. However, when crowded, the devotee may only get a three to four second vision.
The time in the Temple is exclusively for the vision of the statue. If one wants to offer personal prayers and make personal offerings, there is a place in the center courtyard to offer the traditional camphor flame, incense, flowers, and to make sacrifices of coconuts. See the photo below and notice that the tonsuring building is the white building about two blocks in the background.
The tonsuring building is a white brick building like a 1960s government or school building modified to be open for tonsuring and bathing. One enters it from the bazaar area and it is on the border between the bazaar and the Temple area as a preparation for going further into the temple compound. This building also has the queuing metal grating in which people sat and hawked soap, toothbrushes, shampoo or even little kits- like a mikveh kit. Inside the building, Men are milling about soaping their hair before the tonsure, mothers are hovering over the haircuts of their sons, and people are waiting for friends. On the left hand side of my view was another corridor with men semi-dressed washing, showering, and bathing in preparation for the Temple visit. Those who have had tonsuring have the treat of bathing in hot water, a luxury in India.
Men came into the building wearing their everyday clothes, started to disrobe to soap up their hair, had their hair shorn, and then went next door to wash, groom, and bath. They emerged wearing purified and wearing white dhotis; the virtuous gave their clothes away to the mendicants. Unfortunately, the layout of the building and the transformation of the men into shaved uniform wearing devotees made my Jewish eyes occasionally flash images of head shearing and showering upon entry to a concentration camp. The next step for the men in this case was to walk to the locker building to deposit their shoes and belongings in order to enter the long Temple queue barefoot and pure.
As to the question of the relationship of sacrifice and tonsure: in a simple answer, they are not related. There are none of the signs of Hindu worship:, either camphor, incense, bell, or fruit. There are no statues or images of the divine. No Hindu ever worships wearing shoes, even shower shoes. For all religious homes, one takes off shoes before entering because they have a shrine in the home, this also applies to university rooms or businesses that have shrines. One would not make invocations or chants with shoes on. (See shoes in picture below.)These points are not dependent and language, translation, or regional difference. Pre-schoolers are already trained how to make offerings or worship. No local, regardless of education level, would confuse worship and tonsuring.
What is the meaning of tonsuring? Tonsuring show one’s love for the Gods by washing away one’s past and starting anew. In some cases, someone with a closely shaved head is practicing celibacy. The hair is a symbolic offering of one’s beauty, and in return, one expects blessing. Tonsure can also be used for punishing people for severe crimes as well as a sign of giving up false-ego. According to the rules of the Vedas, the Chudakarana (tonsuring of hair) should be performed either in the first or the third year of the male child as a form of consecration. In Northern India, tonsuring is limited to auspicious occasions. One of the graduate students shaved his head as a morning ritual for his grandmother. It is not uncommon to tonsure the head of a child after the death of a parent. The corpse, too, often receives the tonsure after death. A professor took her daughter to Tirumala for tonsuring as a way of creating an egalitarian equivalent to the boys’ ritual. In the Dharmashastra, Widows are required to tonsure. In Southern India, tonsuring is common as a regular form of votive piety done on a regular basis. Many Southern Indian temples have buildings for regular head shaving. In one city, I found the tonsuring building away from the Temple tucked amidst the concession stands. I bought Diet Coke in the next concession while watching.
Why tonsure at Tirumala? It is custom to make vows that are fulfilled at Tirupati. Vows are done partly because the religious life is filled with votive donations especially to be healed from illness, for children, or as thanks. And partly one makes vows as a spiritual preparation for entering the Temple sanctuary. Among the contemporary votive offerings includes the most popular walking up the 11km footpath to ascend the mountain especially among those in their late teens and twenties (your luggage meets you at the top). Angapradakshinam is when pilgrims lie prostrate, and then roll around the temple, chanting the Lord’s name. Tulabharam is offering one’s weight in coins or other items such as gold, bananas, or sugar candy. Tulabharam is generally performed for children. Tonsuring is in the Kalyana Katta building described above but for the wealthier there are barbers set up in the hilltop hotels and guest cottages at the start of the hilltop so that they can bath and get dressed in their hotel rooms. Niluvudopidi is offering to the Lord the ornaments, etc., that one is wearing when one takes the vow. The biggest source of income for the Temple is from those who directly donate gold, jewels, or money; giving is meritorious. The museum exhibited older forms of vows such as committing to wearing shoes that are a bed of nails while ascending the mountain.
In a pair of scholarly articles by Benjamin Fleming and Annette Yoshiko Reed, the question they pose is: what happens when Hinduism is confronted by someone who never heard about Hindu categories? According to this article, the rabbis paid “great attention to the details of the Hindu practices, but they interpreted them in conjunction with laws about Greco-Roman religion in the Mishnah and Talmud.” They did not understand that tonsuring is not the same as darshan (vision of a deity) or an offering to a god, and that the cutting of hair can be likened to the washing of dirt from the body. They also did not understand that barbering is not a temple ritual since it is done by low caste barbers—not Brahmins. The rabbis did not ask questions about the entire pilgrimage process to the Tirupati Temple complex or what is done as part of the pilgrimage. In fact, one rabbi imagined he saw the hair actually brought as an offering and thought he was the only one acute to notice that the priest was sneaking the hair out to sell. Another rabbi thought that the stainless steel collection drum was a deity that was being feed.
In both articles, there was the prior assumption that this practice is idolatry; the only question is whether there was an offering. “The pilgrims were asked: If your intention is to give a present why do you cut it here and therefore have to wait for hours in a queue? Why don’t you cut it at home and send it to the God?” They received answers that it is more virtuous not to cut it at home therefore “we want to cut it here because here we are in a holy place[ . . .] and the idol loves our hair.” So they concluded it was forbidden. Eventually, this first thought was overruled with more information.” Leniencies to wear the hair were found by a variety of rabbis; some of their reasoning was based on the barber’s lack of intention for worship, on the tonsuring as a non-ritual act as defined in Greco-Roman terms and on the lack of probability that one has the Temple hair in one’s wig.
Fleming and Reed wrote:
Perhaps most striking, in this regard, may be the manner in which the halakhic discourse about avodah zarah has served to efface the structural and ritual similarities between Jewish and Hindu practices surrounding the cutting of hair, precisely by virtue of the selective appeal to the cultic practice of the Jewish past (i.e., sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple) as the model for the interpretation of non-Jewish ritual practice in the present. Tacit—perhaps already in the Mishnah—is the effacement of the very possibility of any parallels between avodah zarah and contemporary Jewish practice. “Hindu Hair and Jewish Halakha,” Studies in Religion (2011)
As noted above, there is no offering or placing near the murti (statue) that was two blocks away and surrounded by fences and security. And, as Fleming and Reed note, it is worth studying why the rabbis worldview assumed that eye-witnesses, academics, and Brahmins were not telling them the truth. And that even if they the experts were telling the truth, they assumed that the average, unsophisticated worshipper confused bathhouse and Temple, as if an unlettered Jew in the shtetl would not be able to tell mikveh from synagogue or yizkor candle from menorah. The rabbis assumed that the average person could not tell the difference between a votive and sacrifice as if these practices were some ad-hoc rituals whose performance was not deeply embedded in the ritual practice of daily life or that the pilgrimage process would be confusing to its practitioners. In addition, they did not realize utilizing a Hindi speaking translator to communicate to Tamil and Telugu speakers and to translate from there into broken English would not be able to translate terms properly.
The Chief Brahmin at the Temple has a doctorate in molecular biology. The approach is more old time Torah uMadda of becoming a Rabbi Dr. than you would have imagined. His sons all have graduate degrees and the finances of the Temple are administered by people who have MBAs. Temple Hinduism is about following the ritual procedure as proscribed in the Agamic books as interpreted by experts. These works have generally not been translated into English and the rituals are not the same as the primordial Veda or dharmashastra texts which, in contrast, have been translated in Western introductory books. For those trying to understand Hinduism the discussion is about observance of the ritual as interpreted by experts, closer to halakhah then hasidut. The Chief Brahmin explains why the elaborate Temple ritual is for the benefit of the laity. Below are some quotes:
Dr. A.V. Ramana Dikshitulu is the head Priest at the Balaji temple in Tirupati . He holds a doctorate in molecular biology and is an inimitable authority on the Agamas”, the crucially important Vedic scriptures.
Can you please describe the “Vaikhanasa Agama” and explain why it is important?
All of the Agamas elucidate the science of ritual but the “Vaikhanasa Agama” is unique in that it gives more detail concerning the performance of ritual, both in the temple and in the home . The “Vaikhanasa Agama,” written by Sage Vikhanasa, is one of four main “Vaishnava Agamas.” The “Vaikhasana Agama” exists in two parts: the first part deals with rituals that are done in the temple and to the Deity whereas the second part deals with purification ceremonies that a priest must undergo in order to qualify to serve in the temple.
The temple rituals are designed to keep the laymen’s physical senses satisfied. This is done by making the process personal.
It describes how the Deity is treated as we would like to be treated ourselves. He is put to sleep at night and awakened in the morning. He is given a bath and dressed in fine silks, jeweled ornaments and fragrant flowers . He is fed a variety of fine foods. Finally, he is carried in grand procession around the temple. As we all know, the dearest thing to man is man. We know God will be happy if we do for Him what we would do for ourselves.
Although the “Vaikhanasa Agama” is available to be read by anyone who knows Sanskrit, it is not easily understood, even by Sanskrit scholars, because of its coded language. The verses have double meanings; the valuable inner meanings can only be perceived by those who meditate deeply upon the verses . Even then, only those at a certain level of spiritual evolution can grasp the deepest meaning. We conduct workshops to stimulate this understanding in our Priests.
Are the principles of the “Vaikhanasa Agama ” to be implemented only by Priests?
This Agama is for people who have no other purpose on Earth but to worship Lord Vishnu. Yes, it is for Priests– Priests who will take up no other vocation. Take me, for example. I am a doctor in molecular biology. Yet, I am a Priest. My elder son is an expert in computers and has a college degree in finance and marketing. My second son is an electrical engineer, and my third son is a bio-chemist. Yet they are also Priests. Like me, they serve here in the Balaji temple in Tirumala.
From your perspective as a priest, how may devotees receive their greatest benefit from a pilgrimage to Tirumala?
If we pray to such a powerful Lord as Balaji for minor things like a promotion, a transfer, a seat in medical college or a marriage proposal, it is possible that these wishes will be granted. But making such requests is like asking for a spoonful of water from an ocean. There is something so much greater to be had here: spiritual evolution. Through the ages, man has evolved both technically and spiritually. However, further spiritual evolution must now take place, for man is still spiritually primitive. It is natural during this Kali Yuga (age of darkness) that we be more attracted to worldly pleasures and ignore spiritual pursuits. To have even a preliminary understanding of the spiritual path during these difficult times depends largely upon one’s personal ” karmas .” These are “karmas” brought over from previous births. Read the rest of the interview here.