The Hindu temple is an institution of immemorial antiquity which has played a notable part not merely in the religious life of the people, but also in their social, cultural and economic history. In the millennia that span India’s past, it has had, like so many other things in our life, a chequered history, now prosperous, now persecuted, now neglected and now revived. The temple, of course, is not unique to India. It was once a world-wide institution until the rise of universal religions like Christianity and Islam when many of its functions were taken over by the church and the mosque. But in India a unique continuity has prevailed, many ancient temples still surviving and serving their primary purpose as places of worship. Western scholars are reluctant to assign an early date to the Hindu temple, which they would fain derive from Greek or Buddhist models. No doubt, a Greco-Indian school of sculpture and architecture flourished at Gandhara at one time.
But that does not necessarily mean that it ante-dates the Hindu temple. The argument is that Vedic religion is polytheistic and oriented towards fire-sacrifices, where temples have to lay stress on monotheism and idol worship. Hinduism has always tolerated many approaches to God. There is no reason why the way of sacrifices and that of idol worship should not have flourished side by side. It can even be shown that while the Vedas could be studied and sacrifices performed by select castes, temples were universal institutions in which all classes and both the sexes worshipped freely. The rise of temples is part of the liberal tradition in Hinduism, stressing the easy accessibility of God to all. That they are earlier than the Christian era is beyond doubt. A Besnagar inscription of the 2nd century B. C. refers to a shrine of Vasudeva. Panini, centuries earlier, refers to worshippers of God as Vaasudeva. Our two great epics of uncertain dates have references to temples. It is not outside the range of possibility that Vedic invocations to gods and offering them seats, homage, and oblations could have inspired with analogous invocations of the divine presence in diagrams like mandalas, yantras and in idols. However that may be, it should not be forgotten that the Vedas are not without descriptions of gods and these must have helped sculptural representations.
The supposed contradictions between the polytheism of the Vedas and the monotheism of the Agamas on which temple worship is based, is largely a creation of Western bias. Indian opinion has never held the Vedas to be polytheistic. The Rigveda proclaims that what exists is one, though sages call it by various names. The Upanishads stress the concept of a Single Power manifesting itself as the universe, and they are an integral part of the Vedas according to Hindu tradition. Exegetical principles show how God is called by various names in various contexts in the Vedas. Moreover, the Aagamas were not antiVedic. They prescribed Vedic mantras procedures in temple and domestic worship. They represent the liberal tradition in orthodoxy which has always sought the spiritual welfare of the masses without degrading higher philosophy or antagonising the elite. But, after all is said and done, the origin and early history of temples in India is a highly speculative subject. We know as a matter of fact that they have served important cultural and spiritual interests almost since the beginnings of history in India. That they still continue to do so in some measure is a tribute to the sense of continuity that has marked Indian history during its march over thousands of years. Patronised by the royalty, the aristocracy and the wealthier classes and popular with the masses, the temples grew in number, size and influence, and the roles they played in society multiplied. The cults of Vishnu, Siva and Sakti developed side by side and almost on parallel lines. Differences in philosophical tenets among them, and between them and Vedanta were there, but they did not affect the acceptability of the temples. In the rituals and festivals conducted by them, there were striking resemblances among the different cults. Worship in the temples became a common spiritual exercise in India long ago, and has remained so ever since. Fashions in celebrating temple festivals may have changed in minor matters, but in essentials they have remained true to their original purpose and continued to be an expression of spiritual fervour. The iconoclastic zeal of Islam and Christianity had only a marginal effect on the Hindu attitude to temples, in spite of the rise of sects like the Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj which abandoned idol worship, in spite of the spread of skepticism, agnosticism and atheism.