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Fallacies in criticism of idol worship

By Nithin Sridhar

An Analysis of Hindu Symbols and Practices: Part 2

Idol worship has been extensively criticized by people from diverse background. The rationalists and modern day liberals more or less dismiss it as superstition. We saw this in the article by N. Anandan. Max Muller where he considered Idol worship as a sign that Hindus are still in the state of noble savagery and had proposed that Hindus should be civilized through European and Christian influence. (1)

Dr. Ambedkar had questioned the rationale behind the practice of Prana Pratishtapana and in the recent times, Kancha Ilaiah, Dalit rights activist and writer, has linked Idol worship with rigid Caste system and has claimed that Caste divisions will become irrelevant only when idol worship becomes irrelevant.

But, the staunchest criticism of Idol worship has come from within the tradition. Swami Dayananda of Arya Samaj who had given the clarion call for returning to Vedas, has also criticized idol worship in the severest of words.

Photo: http://www.dattapeetham.com
Photo: http://www.dattapeetham.com

Some of these criticisms are outright racial or castiest or simply biased, but other criticisms are more out of misconceptions and ignorance than biasness. Let us briefly analyze some of these criticisms against idol worship.

One of the most repeated criticisms is that the priestly class encourages it to fill their own pockets, and that people are fooled into thinking that by worshiping an idol a person will be free from his sins. It is also claimed that idol worship prevents the development of a scientific bent of mind and the values of hard work and dedication.

This oft-repeated claim ignores the glaring fact that a larger majority of priests sustain on very low income bordering on poverty in many cases. Though many temples are indeed very rich, that money rarely goes to the priests. A large number of temples are under state government control, so if anybody’s coffers are filling, it is those of government. Even in the case of temples under private control, many temples are involved in social and culture activities that have only contributed to the welfare of society. Therefore, a donation to the temple is not being ‘wasted’ as it has been alleged.

If it be claimed that money is being misused due to corruption in temple boards, it is easy to point out that corruption is in government bodies as well as other NGO’s as well. Corruption is a national wide phenomenon that is not unique to temples. The fact is, people do not go to the temple with an intention to fill the coffers of the temples. Instead, they go because, in those places, people attain calmness and mental satisfaction.

People always have the option to worship at home and slowly attain a perception of the divine presence at home itself, so that mental calmness and bliss can be attained at home itself. The various practices of worship, including idol worship has been propounded for that very reason. But, not everyone is able to practice it. Temples are built as a place of worship for such people who cannot connect with God at home.

Hence, the criticism that temples have been constructed to loot the people by fooling them is based on ignorance and per-conceived biasness.

As far as the criticism that Idol worship prevents scientific bent of mind or the ability to work hard, one can only laugh at such baseless assertions. These assertions assume that a devotee is by nature superstitious. Well, many people may practice one or the other superstitions including those who are known for rationality, but such practices by itself do not make people become unreasonable and irrational. The foundation of the science of worship is as much built on the strong foundation of rationality as modern scientific thought.

Logic and rational inquiry are inseparable aspects of spiritual pursuit. But they, in no manner, contradict the devotion aspect of spiritual pursuit. Both of them, when pursued together, will lead to the purification of the mind and help a person become spiritually elevated.

Photo: ushaharding.blogspot.com
Photo: ushaharding.blogspot.com

Regarding the question of hard-work, in Gita it is said, one should work hard by giving up all hankerings for the result. In fact, it is the only way a person can truly work hard. As long as a person is attached to the fruits, he is more worried about the results than his current work. A devotee on the other hand, does his duty and surrenders the fruits to God. Hence, he is free from any anxiety or worry. Therefore, devotion that includes Idol worship, allows a person to truly understand the value of wisdom and work, and does not deny those values to the practitioners.

Another important criticism against idol worship is that idol worship is not instructed in Vedas. Further, it is claimed that Vedas prohibited Idol worship. Though it is true that there is no clear instruction that idols as such must be worshipped in the Vedas. We do find references to the usage of the term “Pratima” (symbol or image or likeness) in the Vedas.

In Taittiriya Saamhita of Krishna Yajurveda, one can find verses that say “The image of the year, which men revere in thee, O night” (Verse 5.7.2) and “Thou art the measure of a thousand, thou art the image of a thousand, thou art the size of a thousand” Verse (4.4.11). In the former mantra, the deity of the Night is being called as an image of Samvartsara (a year). Hence, the night is indeed worshiped as a symbol, as an image of the year. Similarly, in the latter verse, the Devata is being referred as an image of a thousand.

These verses do not directly speak about idol worship. Yet, they have spoken about Devatas being symbols or reflection of different phenomenon. This is the very essence of Idol worship. As explained in the previous article, Idol is first and foremost a symbol, a reflection of a specific aspect of Brahman. Hence, one uses the idol to form a mental image of the Devata, so as to perfect the concentration and meditation. The Vedas are hinting at such usage.

Further, in the Aranyakas and Upanishads, we find various forms of meditation, wherein different props are used to practice meditation on Brahman. It is argued that, various names of God are just aspects of Brahman, and hence, worshiping idols representing various Devatas are faulty. This assertion has value in the sense that if a person worship a Devata, with or without the idol, considering the limited name and form itself as the ultimate reality, he indeed does not attain ultimate Moksha. Lord Krishna himself says so in the Bhagavad Gita (9.25) that those who worship ancestors, go to them and those who worship deities as ultimate reality go to them, but they don’t attain Moksha. This is true irrespective of whether one uses Idol or not. If a person beholds only the limited nature of Devatas invoked in the fire of Yajna (sacrifice) as ultimate reality, even that is faulty.

A proper way of worship is to consider the Devatas as the manifestation of Brahman, and as being non-different from Brahman in essence and further consider the names and forms of Devatas as limiting principles assumed by Brahman itself. This equally applies to idol worship or fire worship or any other aspect of worship. It is in this context that the statements of Brahmasutras that speak about Saguna Brahman worship taking one to Brahmaloka and not Moksha is to be understood.

Photo: chipsnchutzpah.wordpress.com
Photo: chipsnchutzpah.wordpress.com

Now coming to the issue of prohibition of Idol worship in the Vedas, a few mantras from the Yajurveda, Isha Upanishad, and Kena Upanishad among others, are often quoted to show that Vedas prohibit idol worship, the chief of them being Sukla Yajurveda mantra that says “There is no image of the Supreme God” (Verse 32.3). But, on a closer analysis, it only refers to the fact that Brahman is one infinite whole without a second entity. It is speaking about the absolute nature of Brahman. In fact, the quoted portion is only a half verse. The full verse reads (translation by Ralph T.H. Griffith’s): “There is no counterpart of him whose glory verily is great. In the beginning rose Hiranyagarbha, etc. Let not him harm me, etc. Than whom there is no other born, etc.” Hence, there is no injunction here against image worship.

The case is more or less same with other often quoted verses. Moreover, we have statements as in the Isha Upanishad (Verse 1), where it is said, God is immanent and inhabits all the objects of the universe or in Kena Upanishad that clearly depicts through an analogy that, the essence of various Devatas be it Agni, Vayu, or Indra is Brahman itself and hence, we must worship that Supreme Brahman through all Devatas. These clearly uphold that, there is no fault in idol worship, as long as one realizes that one is worshiping the Supreme Brahman.

In the Bhagavad Gita (7.19-21), Krishna says that those people who do not have mental discrimination (being afflicted with desires), worship various deities, and God helps them by sustaining their faith in those deities and giving them their desired results for that worship. In other words, even if a person cannot worship a deity (with or with idols) as being the very manifestation of the Supreme Brahman, even then, God/Brahman will sustain him and help him in spiritual progress.

Therefore, there is clearly no prohibition of Idol worship in the Vedas or other scriptures. The scriptures only point out that, it is better if a person worships a Devata by realizing that the Devata is only a manifestation of Brahman, but even otherwise, the worship of Devata will yield corresponding fruits and will help a devotee to slowly evolve spiritually.

Coming to the issue of Idol worship and Caste discrimination. It has been claimed that every caste has their own unique idols and hence this paves way for caste identity and discrimination. Hence, it is claimed that caste identity can be removed only by removing idol worship.

Now, this appears as a totally baseless conclusion. It may be true that certain communities worship certain deities more frequently than other deities. In fact, we have the concept of Grama-devatas (village deities), Kula-Devatas (family deities) and Ishta Devatas (personal deities). The three are rarely the same. But, just because different castes and communities at times worship different deities, it does not mean, there is a caste identity among the deities as well! People in urban areas irrespective of their castes have mostly abandoned the worship of deities of their native villages.

Worship is a religious and spiritual practice. It is a historical fact that, there has been caste discrimination in the past (sometimes even in present) regarding entry of Dalits into certain temples. But, this is not even remotely related to the practice of idol worship as such. The Brahman is one and He manifests in infinite forms. Hence, a devotee, a dalit or not, can attain same spiritual benefit by visiting the temple of a village deity or the so called lower caste deities, as he/she attains by visiting any big or upper caste temples. The only key is that the idols must be properly consecrated, a proper puja must be regularly carried out, and most importantly, the devotee must have sincere devotion and connection with the deity.

Hence, there is no direct connection between caste discrimination and idol worship. If the worship of different deities by different castes is a concern, it can be easily rectified by worshiping deities that are considered as being from different castes. To believe that removing idol worship somehow removes caste identity and discrimination is a fallacy. The caste identity is deep rooted and can be removed only by harmoniously working towards unity and reformation. It cannot be achieved by attacking symbols and practices of Hinduism like idol worship without understanding their real essence.

Therefore, it can be easily seen that most of the criticisms against the Idol-worship are based on a shallow understanding of Hinduism. A proper understanding will clearly establish Idol-worship as a valid spiritual path that would help one eventually attain Moksha. Let me conclude with a quote from Swami Vivekananda:

All of you have been taught to believe in an Omnipresent God. Try to think of it. How few of you can have any idea of what omnipresence means! If you struggle hard, you will get something like the idea of the ocean, or of the sky, or of a vast stretch of green earth, or of a desert. All these are material images, and so long as you cannot conceive of the abstract as abstract, of the ideal as the ideal, you will have to resort to these forms, these material images. It does not make much difference whether these images are inside or outside the mind. We are all born idolaters, and idolatry is good, because it is in the nature of man. Who can get beyond it? Only the perfect man, the God-man. The rest are all idolaters.

“So long as we see this universe before us, with its forms and shapes, we are all idolaters. This is a gigantic symbol we are worshipping. He who says he is the body is a born idolater. We are spirit, spirit that has no form or shape, spirit that is infinite, and not matter. Therefore, anyone who cannot grasp the abstract, who cannot think of himself as he is, except in and through matter, as the body, is an idolater. And yet how people fight among themselves, calling one another idolaters! In other words, each says, his idol is right, and the others’ are wrong.”

More in the Series:

Part 1- The Practice of Idol Worship in Hinduism

Part 3: Hinduism and Cow

Part 4: Yajna, Madhuparka, and the use of beef

Part 5: Origins of beef consumption in India

Part 6: Beef Controversy: Beef parties and the celebration of violence

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