On Idol Worship


            It is the narrow mind which does not understand that it is a privilege to worship God as a Deity who takes myriad forms. In passing it is worth mentioning that the worship of Jesus, a bare Cross or what is known as offering dulia to Mother Mary are in fact all idolatry. Strictly speaking, worshipping itself is a dual exercise in the theistic mode. Thus even if one worships no graven images, it presupposes an unknown numinous esse who is separate from the worshipper. In this sense, John Milton is as much an idolater as I am. Hinduism is the only known mode of human (there are other sentient beings which we are unwilling to acknowledge) worship which is not limited to this kind of idolatry. Advaita Vedanta, a complex mode of hermeneutics, does not admit of a second entity apart from Brahman which has been conceived as saguna (with attributes) Brahman and nirguna (without attributes) Brahman. To illustrate further a point which I had made in Prabuddha Bharata, the mouthpiece of the Ramakrishna Order, the act of translation within the domain of the humanities presumes the triad of a subject translating from a source language to a target language. This is an illustration of Western theism in praxis. Language within all religious studies, ranging from Patañjali’s Mahābhāṣya to New Testament Greek is seen to be intrinsically numinous. Thus linguistic practises are markers for religious knowledge systems. Translation studies as a domain is a Euro-American enterprise. 

                   If I make the statement that I pray to no graven image, I assume that there is someone who is distinct from I  and there is, of course, something which carries my prayer to the assumed Other. The other might range from an image (imago) of the Cross of Jesus to a Platonic ideal form. It might also be that my thoughts regarding the object of worship may be circumscribed by the economy of my faith community. This latter is a socio-economic, politico-cultural construct. Therefore what I think to be true is often what I want to be the truth. We need closures and any sense of endings rather than firm endings may make us feel insecure. We settle for reductionist religions which go by the name of philosophy; the various talk-therapies, especially psychoanalysis and that narrative par excellence, history. The splendour and the munificence of Brahman/God is so great, the ‘mysterium tremendum’ so powerful, that we have invented such terms as moral relativism, religious relativism to remain within our comfort zones. The moment we encounter the idea of the holy we see how through various theistic linguistic jingoism we can tame the absolute Other, that is, ourselves or Brahman. Brahman is that which is in us: antaryamin. Brahman resides in us. Within this scheme of things, Christianity is a theistic branch of Hinduism. Fr. Francis X. Clooney, SJ points out the theistic nature of Christianity in his celebration of Sri Ramanujacharya’s 1000th anniversary. Christianity is a bhakti marga. Practised dilligently, in all its nuances, like all other forms of religious praxes, it leads to God. This is not religious relativism but Cosmopolitanism.

                       One has to be careful here. Jesus never came to India. Neither had he any relationship with India. Fr. John Meier, SJ’s multi-volume study of the historical Jesus is the best study till date of Jesus’s historiography and the abracadabra about Jesus’s visits to Kashmir is nonsense and not worthy of academic consideration.

                         Jesus’s cult which was persecuted by the Romans later grew into a full-fledged financially strong multi-faceted religion which today has lost its countercultural value as a movement for and by rebels. Be these as they may, we now turn to our initial discussion of idol worship. We may not consider idol worship in a metaphorical sense: money, power, bureaucratic totalitarianism or slavery to multinational corporations are certainly idolatry but here we are specifically addressing Hindu worship of metal, clay and wooden deities made in the representation of Brahman qua God qua YHWH. We are going to discuss that understanding of the Supreme Godhead which is arcakaparādhina. That means we are talking of an aspect of the Supreme Godhead which is dependent on being taken care of; rather than the deity taking care of the worshipper. It is faintly akin to the Baby Jesus we see Saints like Anthony of Padua frolicking with. I must add that it is fair that we Hindus use Christian terminology to explain Hindu worship to non-believers. The empire has to write back for Caliban cannot keep listening to Prospero. So who is arcakaparādhina? And why is God arcakaparādhina? Lest one thinks that the Hindu conception of the Supreme Godhead is naively thought of as one needing care and is incapable of caring for the devotee, we should bring to mind the Psalmist’s praising God in his fervour. This Biblical praise takes the form of repeated blessings of God by the hills and the mountains. Does it mean that God can be blessed by His creation? It is within this context of devotional blessings that we must understand the Hindu concept of God being subjugated by Her creation. Covenantal love or ḥesed forces God at all times to bow down to man struggling in this valley of tears. The Covenant is true for all people of both bad and good wills: agape is not a function of the creature’s moral status. If Brahman is not arcakaparādhina then the human mind cannot grasp this agape. Without a concrete image aka idol, one will not have what Paul Tillich calls the “courage to be”. One will always be left with an emptiness which is only a sense of the holy. This is insufficient to be. One needs to be holy in the here and the now. This is only possible if one forms a personal bond (‘Covenant-agape’) with one’s chosen representation (Iṣṭa-devatā) of the Supreme Godhead. Thus it is absolutely necessary to be in a one to one relationship with one’s Iṣṭa-devatā. Advaita Vedanta‘s greatest advocates, therefore, insist on building/having temples which house various forms (idols) of the Supreme Godhead. Even Buddhism, where dependent origination (pratītyasamutpāda) is the base on which various Buddhist ideologies are foregrounded, insists on meditating and praying to different Buddhas and deities. As has been pointed out at the beginning of this blog-post, even were one to meditate or pray, one has to idolise.

                 It is therefore erroneous to reject Hinduism as a polytheistic mythic religion where demons are confused by simpletons with representations of Brahman for dulia and worship.