Ideals Vs Idols
One of the most virulent charges against Hinduism is, it that of idolatry !!
Idol worship is not new, nor is it confined to any one culture. Humans throughout time have worsiped the divine in various anthromorphic, human or animal forms. The psychic of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) is so against idol worship, any whiff of graven images immediately conjures up images of Moses destroying the first tablets of the commandments because his people were worshipping a golden calf.
What they do not seem to understand is that idols are the embodiment of ideals. They convey the ideal attributes of divinity as worshiped by the devotee. Everyone knows that the idol is not The God it is but a representation of what we admire / aspire to. The serenity of Vishnu, or the strength of Rama , perfect posture of Nataraja, or the motherly attributes of the Devi these are the things we wish to emulate, aspire to, and integrate in out lives.
Idols incorporate so many symbolism, that only a devotee can sometimes pick out all that the sculptor is trying to convey through his work. For example, the snakes on Shivas body represent his ability to regenerate and live forever snakes ability to cast off its old body (skin) and acquire a new one simultaneously was seen as a proof of reincarnation / immortality. Snakes guard their own with all they have, Shiva, by associating with them, was saying I will guard you with all I have. By taming snakes, the very symbol of death, Shiva is saying I have conquered death ! Come to me and you will not suffer countless rebirths. There are many other explanations of why the symbol of the snake is used with Shiva. A Shiva worshipper would know these and when he / she bows down, they bow down to these ideals, not the idol.
It is for this reason that though the non-believers have destroyed countless Hindu temples and idols, Hindus have not lost their faith. Their faith is bound up in ideals, not idols. Hence, centuries of senseless destruction, though emotionally and artistically tragic, did not spiritually destroy Hinduism. To us, God resides in everything and everyone, and hence an image is but one more residence for the divine spirit. What can be more monotheistic or indeed omnipresent, omnipotent than that !
Greatest irony is, idol worship came to India via the Greeks, Persians and Egyptians - ancestors of the very people who are iconoclastic now !
Hindus used to worship the divine through the medium of the sacred fire. They also used to pray at sacred groves, caves and on the banks of holy rivers. People used to go on pilgrimage to such sites. There were no temples or idols at that time. Sometimes a sacred stone were worshiped as the Lingam of Shiva or the Yoni of the great mother goddess, but there were no temples or regular rituals for worship at these places. We know this because there is no mention of any temple or any idol worhip in the Vedas or Ramayan and Mahabharat. Places of pilgrimage are mentioned as simply being "sacred places " near rivers, mountains or forests.
After Alexander the Great came to India, regular contacts were established between the Greeks and Egyptians. These two cultures used to worship God in human and animal form and had established large temple complexes with retinue of priests to look after it. Greeks saw their Gods as handsome humans, muscular and well built ! Zeus, Apollo, Athena, Posiedon are prime examples of these. Ideal characteristics of intelligence, kingship, strength etc were depicted in human and animal form by the Egyptians.
Indian religious leaders saw these as convenient means to convey the ideals of philosophy and theology of their own scriptures. Detailed descriptions of Gods and their "attributes" given in their sacred literature allowed sculptors to come up with innovative ways to depict their own Gods. Hindus, Buddhists and Jains assimilated this foreign idea of worshiping "ideals through idols" and creates "statues" of their Gods / prophets / divine leaders. The early images are modelled on the images avialble to them from the Greek colonies of Parthnia, Persia and various satrapies extending from there. The Gandhar school of sculptures came into being. We can see the Greek influence in the body shapes, folds of garments etc. Later, under the Khushans - another non-Indian dynasty, the Mathura school of art developed a new style of depicting Hindu Gods, the Buddha and Jain Tirthankars. As this idea became popular, new local schools were developed in other parts of India.
In the early part of the common era, worship of Gods through idols was dying out in the West due to spreads of Christianity. Just at that time, in the East, it took off with a spicy flourish of its own !! Handsome human figures imported from the west were given multiple arms and fantastic expressions to convey the mythologies and legends of Eastern scriptures. "Temples" were built to house the "Gods" and a new class of priests and temple servants came into being.
The power of conveying ideals / ideas through images is as old as time and is exploited to the full by modern corporate and marketing / media. Corporate logos, Brand development / recognition and Trademarks are but the new idols of todays consumer oriented world. Everyone knows the power of Cokes brand is driven through its logo. Certain phrases are the mantras of modern corporations such as Just Do It that immediately conjure up the relevant ideals, ideas and even images of what the brand wants its devotees to think. Corporations guard their idols jealously and any infringement on their image is immediately followed by law suits. Isnt this idol worship by any other name ?
Even the Christian church that abhors idols, has plenty of them in its own precincts. Catholic worship in front of images of Mary, Jesus and an army of saints with total disregard of idolatry! By expecting the various saints etc to step into assist them, they are negating the very omnipotence of God ! Yet, the irony of the situation escapes them when they claim Hindus do the same ! Even Protestants worship their "cross" with great reverence. They will not let anyone denigrate the "cross". Yet, they will happily sneer at Hindu signs and symbols.
Muslims have their images of Kaba,
and indeed calligraphy of verses from Koran. They hold these with highest respect and no one is allowed to pass any negative comment on them. An illiterate woman in Afghanistan was recently stoned to death for serving her children food on paper printed with their sacred verses. The women was too poor to afford plates and could not read or write, yet, she was punished for using sacred writing for mundane purpose. Isnt this worship of idols by other means ? Mecca
Jews have their sacred candle stand, the Wailing Wall and the torah, which they worship with greatest of reverence. Any attack upon these is seen as an attack upon their religion and community at large !
Sikhs venerate their holy book with the same respect and honour as any idol of the Hindus. They afford it all the rituals of idol worship, including "washing it with milk", carrying in procession in a jeweled palaquin from its bed chamber every morning and at night.
Even atheistic "religions" have their "idols". Buddhists cover their messenger in gold, Jains cover their tirthankars with body casing made of gold and jewels.
Sadly, in the West, everyone meekly accepts that idol worship is "wrong". No one questions the premise of this assumption and no one tries to go beyond the sound bites provided by the old testament. (if you are offended by the use of lower case for old testament you have just demonstrated your preference for idol worship according respect to words or images is idolatry according to that lore.)
People need to realise that idol worship is universal and that we, as humans, will always worship ideas, ideals and aspirations in some image form or other. Whether its a pictorial form or words, or indeed objects of cultural significance, we will always adore something we think as pure and wonderful.
Let us realise, and accept, that idol worship is actually ideal worship and live in peace !!
Ardha-Nari-Isvara - Shiva and Shakti in a singular fe/male form!
Both male and female attributes are displayed in this antique Chola bronze from South India
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