April 24, 2001


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Rajeev Srinivasan

And what exactly is wrong with idol-worship?

The destruction of the Buddha images at Bamiyan set me to wondering. What is the origin of all this iconoclasm? Why is idol worship bad? On thinking things through, I can only find two reasons: one, that worshipping an idol implies an unreasoning blind faith. Two, that it is a marketing tactic to differentiate one's religion from another faith that has gone before.

Let us consider the first, and see if Hindus or Buddhists are especially guilty as charged of blind faith.

Here is the definition of the world 'idol' from the American Heritage Dictionary on the web:

1. An image used as an object of worship, a false god
2. One that is adored, often blindly or excessively
3. Something visible but without substance

The word is derived from the Greek eidos, form, and the root weid- in Indo-European, whose derivatives include guide, wise, wisdom, guise, wit, view, visa, vision, advice, clairvoyance, idea, history, story.

I suppose the second definition above is the one that makes logical sense regarding blind faith.

What is an idol? Apparently it depends on the beholder. When Hindus prostrate themselves before images of their gods, these are idols. Very bad. When Christians prostrate themselves before images of the crucified Jesus, Mary or assorted saints, these are icons. Very good. Idols = bad, icons = good. The impartial observer is slightly confused by this fine distinction.

There is a crucial issue that all those who abuse Hindu idol-worship do not quite get. No Hindu is under the impression that the idol or image is in fact God or the demi-god of choice. We are perfectly aware that it is only a representation of an idea; and therefore we do not worship it but the idea behind it. We merely use it as a means of concentrating our energies in prayer. This distinction seems lost on the average iconoclast.

Does the image inherently have meaning? Perhaps not. But does it gain implied meaning? I contend that it does, through a process of transmutation. The image, through the ritual of consecration, gains something of the personality of the divine, which the image always had the potential to carry. This is the theory in Hinduism, because of Advaita Vedanta, Absolute Monism, whereby everything, every living and inanimate object, is suffused with the spirit of the One.

How and why do you transmute an object? Here is what His Holiness the Sankaracharya of Kanchi says, thanks to my friend Amrita H for the information:

"God exists everywhere. So a question may be asked why there should be any temples built for Him. We know that God exists everywhere, but still the idea does not get firmly established in our mind. If God is merely omnipresent, how can He help us? We all long for His grace somehow. So we have to worship Him and get His grace. But how? The Agama Sastras tell us how this should be done. The sun's rays contain a lot of heat energy. If we keep a piece of cloth in the sun, it does not catch fire by itself. But if we place a lens and focus the sun's heat rays on that piece of cloth, after some time we find that the cloth catches fire. Similarly, electrical energy is everywhere, but in order to bring it to our daily use, we need to have generators to canalise that energy and transmission systems to distribute it at the places where we need it. In the same way in order to get the grace of the Omnipresent Lord, we have to build temples where we can focus the power of the Lord in a consecrated idol for our benefit in an easy way.

"So in our country, we find there are many temples which have been built… in our temples, the idols are installed and they have divinity infused into them and as such they have a sanctity about them… [the idol] becomes invested with divinity, and we start performing abhisheka, archana, dipaharati etc. for that deity; it acquires divine power and it obtains chaitanya… "

Here is what an observer says, one who witnessed first-hand the power of the transformation: in Meeting God -- Elements of Hindu Devotion by Stephen Huyler (Yale University Press), again thanks to Amrita.

"I had been to Padmapoda, a village in eastern India, a number of times previously to visit the family of a close friend. Each time, I had been taken to see the sacred tree that embodies the local Goddess, Gelubai, the deity of the community. This new experience was an unprecedented honor: being allowed to witness the ceremony of invocation in which the dynamic power of the supreme Goddess Chandi was requested to subsume and transform that of the local deity. It was a very special ritual, enacted on rare occasions to implore the aid of the Goddess in overcoming a difficult domestic problem.

"… As a middle-aged cultural anthropologist and art historian who had already spent half my life studying India, I prided myself on my objectivity. I might feel empathy toward a particular subject or situation, but as a scholar I tried to distance myself to observe and take note.

"… Despite my resistance, at that moment, as the fire flared brightly and the spirit of the Goddess was invoked to enter the tree and be available to the village, I actually felt her presence. I felt a change in the atmosphere: a palpable sense of power vibrating throughout the area surrounding the sacred tree. It was a type of pulsating energy, the strength of which I had never before sensed in my life. I was completely surprised, overwhelmed beyond any expectation. In that one moment I, who had come as an observer, had become a participant. That insight altered and enriched my perception, allowing me to release decades of self-identity as an objective outsider. By being fully present and receptive to an experience so different from anything that I had been raised to understand, my personal and professional life was changed. I was transformed."

An art historian's rather more prosaic perspective, from Lives of Indian Images by Richard Davis (Motilal Banarsidass):

"… ritual establishment does not focus upon a dramatic, abrupt transfiguration from inert matter to living icon. Rather it involves an elaborate sequence of rites that, through repeated imposition of mantras, powers and substances, progressively constitute the fabricated object as fully imbued with the attribute of divinity… [An] analogy used by the Saiva ritual texts that… captures this gradualist ritual procedure is that of kindling fire. Because Siva is by theological definition ubiquitous, they say, he is already present, in a latent sense, even in the raw materials gathered to create the image, just as fire is believed to be latent in the dry wood or in smoldering embers used to build a fire."

"… the rites of establishment commence with the initial selection of materials… the second phase of establishment involves the physical fabrication of the image… the third phase…, involving the initial "awakening" of the image, centers around the opening of the eyes (netronmilana)…after its circumambulation, the image enjoys a restful interlude, dwelling in water (jaladhivasana) for as many as nine nights… the priest next performs an affusion (abhisheka)… after its anoinment the image is carried into the temple proper, where it is installed in its own shrine, bathed, dressed and adorned again. Finally the priest performs full worship (puja) to the image for the first time…"

Thus the idol is transmuted from its base material to a vehicle for the power of the deity, a point of focus for the energies of the worshipper.

The transmutation of objects happens all the time: consider a box of paper. This has no special divinity associated with it. But consider the same paper after it has been printed with a certain text: lo and behold, it becomes the Holy Bible, notice the capital H. If someone insults this book, believers get quite upset indeed. In that case, is the Bible an idol? Especially as it is believed to be the literal truth, the word of God, and that no word in it may be altered.

Thus, would it be fair to suggest that Christians worship idols, through the veneration of the printed book with the alleged word of God in it? Isn't this blind faith in an object (paper with print marks on it) that has no inherent divinity an instance of idol-worship?

Christians certainly venerate other images too: the crucifix, the image of Jesus bleeding on the cross, is a prime example. Many Christians carry this around their necks and display this in their homes or cars. Some occasionally kiss it as well. Wouldn't the divinity attributed to this object, a 'graven image', with no inherent value, classify it in the realm of idols?

Christians, in particular Catholics, are inconsistent in their attitudes towards images. If they worship them, that is fine. If Hindus do, it is some terrible crime. Muslims have gone one step further in their disdain for images, having summarily banned all of them. They are at least consistent in rejecting all images.

And, of course, Muslims consider the Koran so holy that a rumour that a copy had been burnt resulted in bloody riots in Kanpur and elsewhere recently. And other objects are made sacred too. I remember a few years ago there was a religious riot in Bangalore because the municipal corporation merely knocked down a wall at a mosque: the wall had been built by encroaching on to public land. The very wall of the mosque had somehow acquired divinity!

If you ask a Muslim or a Christian why idol worship is bad, they will be hard-pressed to give you a truly logical answer, other than that it is obviously blasphemous and disgusting. On further probing, it will turn out that they think so simply because their holy books say so. By definition, since God is supposed to have spoken the words in their books, that is a final answer. But consider the following:

Images have three primary functions: "first, for the instruction of the unlettered, who might learn from them as if from books; second, so that the mystery of the Incarnation and the examples of the saints might remain more firmly in our memory by being daily represented to our eyes; and third, they excite the emotions, which are more effectively aroused by things seen than by things heard." (quoted in Richard Davis, Lives of Indian Images)

No, not a Hindu theologian, but Thomas Aquinas, arguably the cleverest Catholic theologian and philosopher of all time, speaking out for images! So much for the Christian antipathy to images -- their most revered philosopher supports images! No wonder churches are full of bleeding Jesuses, angelic Madonnas, brave saints, cherubic infant Jesuses, etc.

It is not the image per se, but that which it represents, that is important. Pretty much what Aquinas is saying, and what Hindus have always said. Somehow, the idol-busting Semites never quite figured out that it was not the idol that mattered, but the idea behind it. At Somanath, at Bamiyan, at Benares, in Goa, Semites tried to destroy Hinduism and Buddhism by destroying the physical manifestations of the ideas. Thus, in a bizarre way, they themselves have become crypto-idolaters, for they are the ones who pay attention to the material objects without heed to the abstract Truths embodied in them: blind hatred instead of blind faith, yes, but in principle the same thing.

So I am hard pressed to accept the argument that somehow Hindus and Buddhists are especially wicked idolaters who blindly worship objects.

Part II: Religion is like soap-powder

Rajeev Srinivasan

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