My God is not a sculptured stone
Nor a polished block of lime.
Nor an idol that is made of bronze
And washed from time to time.

Commentators on Hinduism (and even some Hindus) don’t always recognize the range and variety in Hindu doctrines, practices, and beliefs. The 19th century Hindu reformer Raja Ram Mohan Roy wrote a little book in Persian against idol-worship. The Brahmo Samaj, which he founded in 1828, also explicitly rejected the practice. Swami Dayananda Sarasvati’s Arya Samaj condemned idolatry.

One might think that these arose because of Christian influences. Not really already in the fourteenth century Tamil saint-poet known as Pattinattu Piḷḷai who probably lived in the 14th century C.E. (?) in Kaverippūm Pattinam wrote a poem,  the first five stanzas of  which I have translated in rhymes. His actual name was Tiru Venkata Cattiyār. He is said to have been a very wealthy merchant who attained spiritual enlightenment. He was a very unorthodox saint. The poem speaks for itself: It is an inspired declaration to the effect that those who feel the omnipresence of God in the core of their being cannot confine Him to mūrtis in temples, because they feel His presence everywhere.

My God is not a sculptured stone
Nor a polished block of lime.
Nor an idol that is made of bronze
And washed from time to time.

To icons such I cannot pray,
But this I’ll say with pride
That in my heart the golden feet
Of the God who is my guide.

With me He is, what else I need?
My God is here and there,
He’s within and beyond us all
My God is everywhere.

In holy books, in the depths of night,
In the sky that’s dark and blue
In the heart of all who know the truth,
And of the faithful too..
My God is there in all of these,
But how can He be led
To mūrtis made of simple stone
Or copper dark and red!

The point is Hindu thinkers have thought and still think variously   about worship, God, and spirituality. And they have not been excommunicated, ostracized or tried in an inquisition. This is the greatest enrichment I have personally derived from by Hindu upbringing. I grew up paying homage to colorful, exotic, and multi-limbed  mūrtis. I learned to venerate Ganesha with his lovable elephant-head, Saraswati with her four arms, and Brahma with his three heads. I see majesty and mystery in them, and to this day they have an aesthetic appeal to me that transcends logical possibilities.

I don’t know how exactly God looks, and I rather doubt that any mortal knows. But if we are to imagine the Divine, then we may do this any way we like and even relish the visions of traditions. The idol-gods of my heritage have always appealed to me. In so far as they soothe the hearts of others, I will not condemn the practice as a sin as do people of other faiths and some of Hindu reformers.

I am inclined to think that idolatry will always be a part of Hinduism for at least two important reasons: First, total rejection of mūrti-worship would call for a transformation of the myriad temples that spiritualize the Hindu  landscape into museums with colorful statues enshrining ancient relics. They would become like acropolis of Greece, places of interest for camera-clicking tourists. And this is hard to imagine.

Then again, all the emotional high that comes from singing the thousand names of Rama and Sita, of Radha and Krishṇa would become beyond our heart’s reach. It is hard to develop a bhakti that overflows with love for the symbol or aum or for nirguṇa Brahman.  We will become that much poorer in our capacity for cultural spirituality.

It is entirely possible that more  Hindus will take to yogic practice and meditation as paths for spiritual fulfillment, relegating mūrti-veneration to special celebrations marked on the traditional almanac.

P.S. If you feel I should continue with this series please share it with others, and let me know what you think. Thanks!

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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