Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai

Universal Temple

1. INTRODUCTION

Swami Vivekananda on his triumphal return from the West was requested by the devotees in Madras (now Chennai) to start a Math here.To fulfil their earnest desire Swamiji sent his brother-disciple Swami Ramakrishnananda to Madras in March 1897 and thus Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, came into existence. After reaching Madras, the first thing Swami Ramakrishnananda did was to set up a small shrine for Sri Ramakrishna at a rented house. He lived there and led a life of renunciation, service and austerities. Slowly he built up the institution as the present Sri Ramakrishna Math which is a hub of multipronged service activities. This is the oldest centre of the Ramakrishna Order in the South.

Sri Ramakrishna Math completed hundred years of its service in 1997. The shrine of Sri Ramakrishna set up in 1917 in the present Math was clearly too small to accommodate the growing number of devotees. It was therefore natural that monks and devotees dreamt for long that a grand temple should come up at the Math. The collective wish of and the silent prayers of good-hearted led to the launching of the Universal Temple project. Swami Vivekananda’s vision, Swami Ramakrishnananda’s austerity, and the earnest prayers of devotees combined with the social need have all contributed toward the transformation of a dream into a reality. Srimat Swami Bhuteshanandaji Maharaj, the 12th President of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, laid the foundation-stone for this Universal Temple on 1 December 1994 in a grand solemn function. It took five years for the project to take shape as the present grand Universal Temple. On 7 Feb 2000 the temple was dedicated by Srimat Swami Ranganathanandaji Maharaj, the 13th President of the Ramakrishna Order.

2. WHY THIS TEMPLE?

When we speak of a temple, we often have a very narrow conception of it. We have hundreds of temples. We go there sometimes, talking all the time, pay four annas to the priest to do some puja, and then come away. Our temple-going has become a simple, and often meaningless, act. It doesn’t produce any change in the individual. Today, you need a new type of temple, which will make for a change for the better in your own character. That is what Sri Ramakrishna is going to give. He never started a new religion. He never preached any creed or dogma. He only blessed every human being: ‘Let your spiritual consciousness be awakened!’  Whether you go to a temple, a church or a mosque, what is needed is spiritual awakening, and the character that comes out of that awakening. This we missed all these centuries. But in the modern age, this will be the central theme of religion and temple-worship. Temple-worship has been recognised as an important part of spiritual life. A teacher like Bhagavàn Ràmànujàcàrya spoke of the image in the temple as an incarnation of God — arcàvatàra, — like Krishna or Rama or Ramakrishna. And in your own heart, there is the antaryàmin — the inner Self, the avatàra in the heart of every human being. The archa or image is also an avatàra. That is the concept in our spiritual tradition.With Sri Ramakrishna’s advent, temples will become more dynamic, making for high character-development and, above all, the spirit of service of human beings and even animals.Behind any Sri Ramakrishna temple you will find various types of service — schools, colleges, hostels, tribal work, relief and rehabilitation work during natural calamities, etc. This sevadharma is a part of Ramakrishna-temple worship. Such temple worship has a great role to play in the future India, where service becomes the central theme — service of God in the temple, and service of God in human beings, outside the temple. This teaching is there in our Upanishads, in the Gita, and in the Srimad Bhàgavatam! All these centuries we had this teaching, but we hardly practised it.

In Swami Vivekananda’s teachings, you find this central Vedantic Truth — the divinity in every human being. Look upon a human being, not in terms of his or her caste, creed, colour, race or anything else — but see him or her as a spark of divinity. We have this great teaching in the Gita, (18.61) where Sri Krishna himself says — Isvara Sarva Bhutanam Hrddese Arjuna Tishtathi— ‘O Arjuna, I am in the heart of all beings as their antaryami’. So, respect every human being. That is what we did not do. Our practice was that of untouchability, suppression of the common people, even suppression of women. That is how we conducted our society during the last thousand years.

A peaceful social revolution to correct this situation will come from a temple like this because, behind it, is a profound philosophy — our ancient Vedanta philosophy, which is the philosophy of Sanatana Dharma, and that philosophy insists that you must see God not only in a temple, but also in every human being. So worship him, serve him. That is the language used in the Srimad Bhàgavatam. Though we have had hundreds and thousands of Bhàgavata saptàhas for many years, yet we have never caught the spirit of this beautiful teaching. You get it in the third skandha of the Srimad Bhàgavatam, where God’s incarnation as Kapila is giving spiritual advice to his mother Devahuti, at her request. There Kapila says:
‘I am always present in the heart of all beings, O Mother! People neglect me there, insult me there, and offer me showy worship in the temple! What kind of worship is it?’
‘Mother, I do not accept the worship of that person, though he or she may spend crores of rupees on elaborate rituals, but if, behind it, there is disrespect to me present in all living beings.’

In the same note, Srimad Bhàgavatam says:
Atha mam sarvesu bhuteshu
bhutàtmanam krtàlayam;
Arhayet dànamànàbhyàm
maitryà abhinnena caksusà—

What a profound utterance! After having said all this, now Kapila is saying: ‘Therefore, màm arhayet, ‘worship me’. Where? sarva bhuteshu, ‘in all beings’. Why? bhutàtmànam— I am the Self of all beings’; krtàlayam, ‘I have a big temple already built in that particular body; arhayet, ‘worship me there’. But how to worship God in man? Worshipping an image is easy. You can give plenty of food, and you can take the food back home too. But when you worship God in man, a different method is needed. That is beautifully expressed by two great words in the ëloka: dàna-mànàbhyàm, ‘through dàna, gift, and màna, respect. Remove their wants. If they are uneducated, give them education; if they are suffering, give them consolation; if they are helpless, help them. In this way practise dàna. And while doing so, show màna, respect to them. Don’t throw a coin before a person with disrespect. So, dàna must be combined with màna. Arhayet dànamànàbhyàm. arhayet, worship (me there); not merely serve.
And when you do so what should be your attitude? Maitéyà, with the attitude of ‘I am a friend of yours.’ I have come to worship God through you. But that is not enough; another value is also necessary; that brings the last word, a most profound Vedantic utterance, abhinnena cakóuóà, ‘with an attitude of non-separateness’—the attitude that we are all essentially one. You may be poor and I may be rich, but we are one. You may be a Hindu, a Muslim or a Christian, I may be somebody else, but we are essentially one. This is a wonderful word—abhinna cakóu! Vedanta condemns all bhinna cakóu, that ‘we are separate,’ ‘we are high,’ ‘we are low,’ and all such attitudes. And yet our society is even today full of bhinna cakóu—based on casteism and communalism and feudalism! We have to cultivate this Vedantic abhinna caksu.
So this profound sloka will make our temples dynamic, make our temples centres of both spiritual development and human welfare. The two must go together.I want to mention here one more idea before I close. In the Mahàbhàratha there is a beautiful sloka: How many energies are there in every human being? That sloka gives you three energies, three sources of strength.

First is bàhu balam, muscular strength. We have it, and we are increasing it and spoiling our politics also by bàhu balam.
Second is buddhi balam, strength from intellect—graduates, Ph.Ds., all that is good but it also can be harmful. Most of the evils in our nation now are coming from educated people; so we can see that in our country there is bàhu balam and buddhi balam.
But the third one is what is most valuable and effective. This is called Àtma balam, strength coming from the Atman. If a man brings me a million rupees to corrupt me, what is the strength in me which makes me say ‘No’ to it? Not the bàhu balam, not the buddhi balam. In fact, the buddhi balam is easily purchased. It is very easy to purchase somebody’s buddhi. But when Àtma balam is there, you can say ‘No’ immediately. ‘I don’t care. I’ve got better things to do.’

That Àtma balam is missing in India today. That Àtma balam has to come. Sri Ramakrishna will give that Àtma balam to everyone, so that our nation will have not only economic development, but also character development. That is missing very badly today. We want to develop it fully. That is the importance of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, and the Holy Mother Sarada Devi to the world today. Therefore, we are fortunate that, in Madras, there is this beautiful new project. Madras has done so much for Swami Vivekananda. Swamiji had great love for Madras. ‘I expect great things from Madras,’ he has said in his lectures, and I hope his desire will be fulfilled, and that all our people will get the benefit of the blessing of the real Sanàtana Dharma as expressed through Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vivekananda, and the Holy Mother.

3. SRI RAMAKRISHNA: THE DEITY OF THE UNIVERSAL TEMPLE

This temple is dedicated to Sri Ramakrishna, who is a symbol of Universal Religion. Religion has become a bugbear nowadays, because it is often misunderstood. True religion does not create conflict, it does not disunite people; it gives meaning to our life, it gives us a binding, universal brotherhood, a universal human community.What is meant by Universal Religion? It does not mean a new religion, but it means a religion that will be understood and appreciated by everybody. For every community, sect, or nation, this will be a binding factor. Now, Sri Ramakrishna, if we understand him rightly, is the embodiment of what is meant by ‘Universal Religion’. He did not believe in sectarianism, but at the same time, he never violently discarded anything that others cherished as their ideal. All the different sects are to be united in the Universal Religion. This religion consists of the essence of all religions.

All religions are in essence the same. As Sri Ramakrishna used to say, ‘All jackals howl in the same way.’ All the leaders of religious thoughts speak the same language. Only, they are differently understood because of the different traditions, cultures and denominations of the different sects. That is a difference due to factors which are extraneous to religion. Religion is that which binds together. Religion becomes worthy of being called religion, only if it is universal. Sri Ramakrishna is symbolic of that Universal Religion. Swamiji laid emphasis on this future religion of mankind which will take into account all the different sects. And yet, it will be not an artificial combination, but a bouquet which will contribute its quota to the universality of the religion of mankind. That is what is expected to be the theme of this temple.

4. UNIVERSAL TEMPLE: ITS UNIQUE FEATURES

Sri Ramakrishna Temples

According to Swami Vivekananda, the temples of Sri Ramakrishna should be built for enabling the devotees to advance spiritually for realizing the truth with no hatred towards other faiths. The guidelines for building the temple of Sri Ramakrishna at Belur Math1 were laid down by Swami Vivekananda himself. Keeping this as basic, various other architectural features familiar to the region are added while maintaining its universal outlook. So various architectural elements and motifs found in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain temples and the churches and cathedrals of Europe are synthesized in this Universal Temple.

a) The Entrance Gateway

Abutting the main road in the west, the imposing 60 feet wide entrance gateway is placed in such a manner that its centre line corresponds with the centre line of the temple. From this gateway it is possible to have not only the full view of the temple but also a partial view of the top part the Vimanam (central tower) over the Garbha Mandira (Sanctum Sanctorum). From the centre of this gate one can have a clear view of the marble image of Sri Ramakrishna installed in the shrine. The central part of the gateway is 20 feet wide on either side of which there is a whatchman cabin.The whole structure of the gateway is designed in chaste Vijayanagar style belonging to the Dravidian idiom of temple architecture.

b) The Forecourt

 The treatment of this temple’s forecourt is similar to the ones found in front of the monuments of Mughals at Agra and Delhi ie. Tajmahal, Itimadud-Daula and Akbar’s Tomb in Agra, Red-fort at Delhi. It’s 30 feet wide central lawn is flanked by 15 feet wide pathways paved with coloured ceramic tiles, and is well protected by an elegantly ornamented low parapet wall with eight light pedestals.

 

c) The Ground Floor of the Temple

(i) Swami Ramakrishnananda Auditorium

The floor of the prayer hall of the temple is at a height of 10 feet from the ground level. The space below the floor level of the prayer hall and other parts of the temple floor is used as auditorium and rooms for shrine purpose. The front part of the ground floor, right below the front portico and the entrance lobby of the prayer hall has space for keeping more than 2000 pairs of footwear. In the space below the central grandstaircase, facilities have been provided for the devotees for washing their feet. The major part of the area below the prayer hall, has been developed as an auditorium which is intended for conducting spiritual talks, bhajans and such programmes. This auditorium is named after Swami Ramakrishnananda, a direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna and the founder of Chennai Math. An ornamental wooden picture frame containing a potrait of Swami Ramakrishnananda is placed in the centre of the 40 feet wide stage. It is possible to accommodate 600 persons in this auditorium.The service staircase in the rear of the ground floor provides access to all rooms in the rear of the Garbha Mandira and the central tower above the Garbha Mandira. In this floor an adequate number of rooms are set apart for carrying out the services connected with puja.

(ii) Central Stairway

Whenever temples are constructed in the midst of built up parts of human settlements (villages, towns and cities), the silpa sastras reccommend that the level of the temple floor should be higher than the ground floor level of the houses around it. This adds to the grandeur of the temple. The prayer hall of the Chennai temple is at a height of 10 feet from the level of the paved path around the temple. The prayer hall is to be approached by a 16 feet wide stairway having 24 steps and paved with marble slabs. The railing of the stairway is decorated with balusters resembling the water pot (Kamandalu) usually carried by wandering monks. The side entrances of the prayer hall are also to be reached through 6 feet wide staircases, symmetrically placed on both sides of the temple. Their architectural treatment resembles the central stairway. On the two sides of the main stairway, two elegant pavilions, resembling the Mandapas, attached to the Garbha Mandiras of the small temples of Orissa, have been built according to the Kalinga idiom. These shelters are mainly intended for distributing Prasad to the devotees.

The Prayer Hall Floor

a) The Portico
The central stairway of this temple lands in the wide colonnaded portico through which devotees will have to enter the prayer hall. This portico which assumes the role of a Mukhamandapam of the traditional Hindu temple, is supported by four ornamental columns rising to a height of about 20 feet. This concept is inspired by the facades of the Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. The architectural motifs in these columns closely follow the ones found in Jain temples and the tombs and mosques of Gujarat.  For entering the prayer hall from the portico one will have to pass through a beautifully carved 8′.6″ x 9′.0″ wooden door. The symbols of several religions are prominently displayed on this door and they reveal that any person belonging to any religion, sect or creed is welcome to come to the prayer hall and participate in the prayer and worship. The sun window over the ornamented architraves of the main door is similar to the sun window motif above the main entrance door of the Belur Math temple. The architectural composition of this part of the main entrance and the two side entrances to the prayer hall are based on the designs of the entrances of the Buddhist rock-cut Chaityas at Ajanta.

b) Prayer Hall
The plan of this temple with a long flight of steps in the front terminating at the wide colonnaded entrance portico, its rectangular prayer hall (60′ x 110′), its square shrine and Puja-preparation rooms etc. resembles the plans of the cathedrals and churches of Europe conceived in the shape of the Latin cross. As in the case of Buddhist Chaitya halls this prayer hall is divided into naves and aisles and the naves have a ribbed vaulted roof rising up to a height of 42 feet in the shape of a pointed arch resembling Anjali Mudra. The aisles of the prayer hall resemble the Parikrama path of the Buddhist Chaityas. Both the sides of the naves have a flat roof. The number of columns in the prayer hall is reduced to a minimum so that most of the people sitting there will have a clear view of the marble image of Sri Ramakrishna. The portraits of sixteen disciples of Sri Ramakrishna with carved wooden frames are fixed to the four sides of the four central columns of the prayer hall.Up to a height of 9 feet from the floor level, the dadoes of the interior walls and the architraves of the windows are clad with marble slabs and the floor of the prayer hall is paved with white marble slabs. The ornamentation of the high gable wall surfaces (28′ x 22′) in the eastern and western ends of the vault roof over the nave of the prayer hall is based on the rock-cut Bhima Ratha at Mahabalipuram, the gables in Gothic churches of Europe and Buddhist Chaityas. The prayer hall is well lighted and ventilated by several large windows (3′.0″ x 6′.6″) and 18 small windows (1′.6″ x 3′.0″) in its vaulted roof. All these windows have been ornamented with circular arches and brackets resembling Panjara, Mukha Nasi, and Alpa Nasi motifs which are usually found in the Vimanas and Gopuras of South Indian temples. The prayer hall is also fitted with an adequate number of ceiling fans for air circulation and lights to provide soft illumination which will not distract those seated in meditation. In short, one standing at the threshold of the main entrance, will be met with the inspiring view of an aesthetically enriched interior of the prayer hall focussing its lines towards the centre of the shrine.

c) Garbha Mandira
The central part of any Hindu temple is its Garbha Mandira. In this temple of Sri Ramakrishna, the Garbha Mandira is large and square in shape with each of its sides measuring 39 feet. The white marble image of Sri Ramakrishna is installed in the Garbha Mandira and in all respects it is identical with the one in the Belur Math temple. This is made by M/s. G. Paul & Sons who made the image at Belur Math. Sri Ramakrishna is seated on a fully bloomed lotus which is placed over a beautifully carved marble pedestal. This marble pedestal is placed in the rear half of the Garbha Mandira. The beauty of the image is further enhanced by framing it by four columns which are fashioned after the graceful marble columns adorning the Maha-mandapas of the Jain Temples of Mount Abu, These columns support the richly decorated shallow central dome. All wall surfaces of the shrine, right from floor level, extending right up to the ceiling, are panelled with marble slabs. For Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi and Swami Vivekananda, separate shrines are provided on either side of the Garbha Mandira. This is a special featureof the Sri Ramakrishna temple at Chennai. These shrines open on to the prayer hall.

Architectural Treatment of the Exterior of the Temple
 

a) Stone Slab Clothing the External Walls
The plain surfaces of all external walls are clad with sand stone slabs brought from Dolpur in Rajastan and Agra in Uttar Pradesh. The external plain surfaces of the walls are clad mainly with Dolpur white stone slabs. The treatment of the ornamental cornice (Prastara) at the top of all external walls, with 3 feet wide sloping weather shades supported by decorative brackets and 3′.6″ high parapet walls above, with ornamental panels, are similar to the pattern found in the Belur Math temple. This architectural treatment is also influenced by the highly ornamented Prastharas of Tamil Nadu temples with Sala motifs, and the parapets of the ancient palaces and temples of Rajasthan with beautifully carved stone brackets.

b) Windows and Doors
The large prayer hall is provided with adequate light and air through windows and doors bigger than those which are usually found in traditional temples. The features of the Mukha Nasi, Alpa Nasi and Netra Koshta motifs which are found in the Vimanas of the rock temples of Pallavas at Mahabalipuram and the Chola temples built during the 10th and 11th centuries, have been adopted with necessary modifications and simplications. Certain features like those which have been adopted for decorating the windows of the Belur Math temple have also been introduced in this temple.

c) The Front Facade

The front facade for the temple which is set back by about 180 feet from the main road was shaped by synthesising various features of the European Cathedrals and some suitable motifs from Hindu temples. The treatment of the part of the facade over the ornamental cornice consisting of wide weather shade and decorative parapet, closely follows the Salahara treatment usually found on the top of Mukha Mandapas of South Indian temples. The two end towers and the central rectangular tower forming part of the treatment of the upper part of the facade assume the place of the Karnakootas and Bhadrasalas which are also found in the upper parts of Mukha Mandapas. The small pavilions with pyramidal roofs existing in between the end and middle towers may be assumed to be the Kshudra Nasika motifs (with Netra Koshtas) of the South Indian temple Vimanas. In the niches provided in the walls of the small towers at the top and also in the middle of the Bhadrasala like central tower in the front facade, the images of Durga, Hanuman, Vighneswara, Garuda and Kali are installed. The images of Sri Rama and Sri Krishna are placed in the niches in the western walls of the small towers with the pyramidal roof located in between the end and central towers. The design of the decorative lamp pedestals which are found at the head and the base of the staircase railings and also in many other parts of the temple is based on the design of Karnakoota motifs found in the Vimanas and Gopuras of Tamil Nadu temples.place where seekers of spiritual illumination can come for refuge.

Vimana over the Garbha Mandira

The Vimana over the Garbha Mandira soaring up to a height of 102 feet is the climax of this majestic temple. The Bhavatarini (Kali) temple at Dakshineshwar which was built by Rani Rasmani, during the first half of the 19th century is a good example of Navaratna temples in Bengal. In this temple and its precincts Sri Ramakrishna spent the major part of his life. The features of this temple and the Belur Math temple are fused in the Universal Temple. Tamils have their own cultural heritage and there is every justification in reflecting certain essential features of their culture in the religious edifices in Chennai—the capital of Tamil Nadu. Hence the concepts of “Tritala Vimana” of the temples of Tamil Nadu, belonging to the Dravida idiom of temple architecture, have been introduced in designing the 102 feet high Vimana of this temple. The central tower or the Vimana takes the place of the Sikhara which is the crowning part of the Vimana. The small towers at the corners of the two receding floors of the Vimana below the crowning central dome represent the Karnakoota motifs of the South Indian temple Vimanas. The central rectangular miniature towers between the square miniature towers at the four corners of the second floor of the Vimana, resembling Chandi mandaps of Bengal, can be considered to be “Bhadrasala” of the Vimanas of Tamil Nadu temples. In fact these small towers at the four corners of the two tiers of the Vimana are designed in the shape of temples with Eka Tala (single storeyed) Vimanas with Deva Koshtas (niches) where idols of subsidiary gods and goddesses are installed. These niches contain images of the Ashtadikpalakas ie Indra, Agni, Yama, Nirti, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera, Isana and also Vishnu, Dakshinamurthy, Surya, Rajarajeswari, Subrahmanya, Ganapati representing the Shanmatas as codified by Adisankara. The aim of this dominant feature of the temple is to make it look majestic and graceful like the bejewelled crown of the Lord.
The pinnacle of the central dome of the Vimanam consists of a 5 feet high lantern made of stainless steel, with a 3′.6″ high gold coated copper Kalasa. During nights, this lantern may function as a light house indicating the very place where seekers of spiritual illumination can come for refuge.