NEW DELHI — "Lord Bhairon loves whiskey," the head priest of the Hindu temple said, smiling.
That is why, he explained, every Sunday several thousand whiskey-bearing residents of the Indian capital flock to his small temple set against the wall of a crumbling ancient fort between the Jamuna River and the city zoo.
On round trays, the devotees present the image of the hard-drinking Hindu god Bhairon, a manifestation of the Hindu deity Shiva, with flowers and betel nut paste and bottles of Indian whiskeys with names such as Double Dog, Drum Beater, White Stag, Red Knight, Black Prince, Black Eagle, Black Stallion and Black Bird.
One favorite offering, distilled by Polychem Ltd. of Bombay, is White House whiskey. It features a picture of the famous Washington landmark and the slogan "Fit for a President."
Dribbles From Chin
Temple workers dutifully pour White House into the gaping mouth of one of several images of Bhairon in the temple. It dribbles from his chin and falls into a tray below.
Hinduism, the religion of more than 550 million Indians here as well as scattered millions more in Africa, Malaysia and the West Indies, is the most eclectic and, to a Westerner, confusing of all the great faiths.
It happily embraces those who believe in monotheism (one god), polytheism (several or many gods) and even atheism (no god). Its ranks include those whose strict nonviolence extends to all living things, and others who perform the ritual sacrifice of animals and occasionally even human beings, although this practice has been officially banned since the days of the British Empire.
Its large temples are a steamy chaos of worshiping men and women, some swathed in robes and beads, others in jeans or dresses; a cacophony of clanging bells, chanting priests and wailing children; a swirling cloud of incense and burning oils. Its diversity and free-form worship make it difficult to define in Western terms.
'Any Definition Inadequate'
"Hinduism," wrote Edward Rice, a scholar of Eastern religions, "is noted as being the only one of the major beliefs that cannot be defined, for any definition is inadequate, contradictory and incomplete."
In Rajasthan state, near Bikaner in the Thar Desert in northwestern India, is a temple dedicated to rats, where the rodents are carefully fed and tended by the temple priests. In Tamil Nadu in southern India is another famous temple where devotees are asked to demonstrate their faith by "sacrificing" their hair to the temple, which then sells it for use in wigs and other products. And scattered around India, but particularly here in the north and Rajasthan, are temples to the angry, whiskey-drinking god Bhairon.
"There are at least 330 million gods. Bhairon is one of them," said the head priest of the main Bhairon temple here.
The priest's full name is Sri Mahant 108 Baba Dina Nath Ja Nashin, which literally means "Honored temple custodian who sits on the throne." The 108 number in the name comes from the belief by many Hindus that Shiva, who, along with Brahma and Vishnu, is one of the main trinity of Hindu gods, is manifested in 108 forms. However, in Hinduism's typically confusing and contradictory style, others believe that Shiva appears in 1,008 forms. Many priests in other Bhairon temples are called Sri Mahant 1008.
A Fearsome God
By most accounts, the god Bhairon, also known as Bhairava, is considered to be the fifth incarnation of Shiva. A fearsome god known as "The Frightful One" or "Bhairon the Terrible," he is usually turned to in time of war or great personal crisis. For this reason he has been historically popular among the warrior castes of Rajasthan, the desert state that is home to Rajputs. Traditionally, Bhairon temples are located near a fort or a cremation ground.
Tibetan Buddhists have also adopted him in their pantheon as Yamantaka, the "Slayer of Death." In Hindu temples he is usually represented as a broad, nearly featureless face embedded in a wall. However, modern renditions, like the one in the main Bhairon temple here, show him as a black-skinned god with a sinister mustache, a snake draped around his neck. His four arms and hands hold the severed head of a demon, a bowl, a bottle of whiskey and a club.
"I have been coming here for seven years," said Ram Swaroop Thakar, 71, who said he worked as a magneto-therapist--"I heal people with magnets." Thakar gazed adoringly at the scowling image of Bhairon. He presented a temple attendant with a small bouquet of flowers and a half pint of Black Bird whiskey to give the god.
Peace of Mind, Happiness
Thakar said he does not drink alcohol himself but that "Bhairon gives me all the benefit of my life. From him I get money. I get peace of mind. I get happiness all over."
Bhairon is worshiped according to the Tantric ritual or, more specifically, in "the left-hand way." Tantra, also known as kundalini yoga, stresses the darker, forbidden and erotic side of the human psyche.