Indic Visions 4:   On the Role and Relevance of Icons

                    prathaná pratimá-pūjá

                     japastotráni madhyamá

                     uttamá mánasi pūjá

                     soh’am pūjottanottamá

A major confrontation between the Abrahamic religions and Hinduism arises in the context of what is often called idol worship. It says explicitly in the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.” To one not of the tradition the reason given for this could might seem strange, because if God is said to have described Himself a jealous God. We read: “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me…”

In the Holy Qur’an we read likewise, in Chapter 31, verse 13: “ Luqmaan said to his son as he enlightened him, “O My Son, Do not set up any idol besides God. idol worship is a gross offence”.

While I respect that Jews, Christians, and Muslims in their belief as to what (their) God has told them about idol worship,  as a Hindu  the right thing for them to do would be not to make idols of God and pray to them. I think Muslims do this much better than Christians in that I have seen beautiful statues of Virgin Mary,  Jesus, and the saints in churches, and Christians do pay their respects to these.

However, what I don’t understand – by which I mean, I cannot accept – is the fervor of Muslims and Christians, not just to object to other people, like Hindus, worshiping idols, but going and demolishing these as and when they can manage to do this. Clearly this behavior results from the absence in their own scriptures of the kind of gems of wisdom that I have mentioned above.

Perhaps it is possible to make a serious argument against idol worship. For one thing, it seems to confine God to a man-made form in clay or stone. But then, how many people, whether Christians, Jews or Muslims, can or do conceive God in the abstract? In the Hindu worldview, we have two things to remember. The first is that the system has developed a protocol by which a so-called idol is transformed into an entity into which abstract Divinity has entered. It is then that it becomes a mūrti (or pratimá). The sages of the tradition tell the faithful that mūrti is like a pointer, an arrow which points to a higher Being that cannot be visualized. To remind us that the higher Being belongs to a different realm, the mūrti is a Hindu temple is often endowed with non-human or trans-human features.

Then again, in the Hindu framework, there are different stages in a person’s spiritual development. For many, the worship of the pratimá may be fulfilling.  Others go beyond this, and engage in the repetition of God’s name without any mū  rti. At an even more advanced stage one worships through the mind alone. This is meditation. At the ultimate and highest level one recognizes the identity of the individual self with the supreme. These ideas are expressed in the stanza:

                     First is image worship;

                     Next is the reciting of God’s names.

                     Higher still is meditation;

                     Realizing I AM HE, is the highest of all.

From the Hindu perspective, then, worshiping God through various symbols is an initiation into spiritual life. Reciting in words the splendor of the Divine through  various attributes of  Divinity (japa) enables us to achieve a deeper understanding of the nature of the Divine. Meditation links our individual minds to the Cosmic Whole. Ultimately comes a full recognition that we are but a spark of the effulgent Brahman.

Two things must be noted here: The recognition that there is merit to mūrti-pūjá. Aside from its aesthetic appeal, it has also spiritual value. Then there is the notion of a spiritual evolution in religious practice. One doesn’t become religious full-scale by simply believing in this dogma, following that ritual, making this pilgrimage or observing that fast. One gradually grows into a religious person, from simple to  sophisticated levels. The recognition that we are ultimately sparks of the same divine fire is   the highest level of religious experience.


Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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