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Hinduism and Image Worship

The most visible aspect of Hinduism is a temple. The temple is a meeting place of man and God both literally and figuratively. How one d...

The most visible aspect of Hinduism is a temple. The temple is a meeting place of man and God both literally and figuratively. How one defines meeting with God depends on the concept of God. Hinduism is invariably associated with image worship and the temples have enshrined in them different images of God. This leads to a general misunderstanding that it is a polytheistic religion. Hinduism is the only major religion where philosophy came first and the religion developed from the philosophy. Therefore everything in it has some aspect of the philosophy, although it is hidden behind the visible aspects.

Hinduism has the most abstract concept of God. He is not a person, He is the absolute Ultimate Reality and as such there is no duality. He is without form and without qualities that can be described. He is the Universal Consciousness. Every religion conceives of God as omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. These attributes can be reconciled only with the above concept that is also consistent with the modern scientific views of the origin of the universe.

Hinduism does have many gods and goddesses but only one God. One of the important points in Vedanta philosophy, on which Hinduism is founded, is that what we see is not the reality. This is also true for the images of gods and image worship in the temples. A religion is for the masses, not merely for philosophers. It is very difficult for a common man to visualize something that has no form. Every thought in the mind is associated with a corresponding image; this is inherent to human (or perhaps any) mind. In order to bring God within the range of comprehension of the common man the sages had to find a way.

As far as the universe is concerned God has three functions of creation, maintenance, and dissolution. So the sages gave different names to these three aspects of God Brahma for the creator, Vishnu for the maintainer, and Shiva for the dissolver. Thus we got the three major gods. It is important to remember, though, that these are not three different Gods with capital G, but only three different aspects of the same one God. Once the creation is done the creator has no further role. So Brahma was relegated back to his formless self; there are hardly any temples or images for Brahma. The other two became the main gods to be worshipped and the common man could choose which aspect of God to worship. The philosophers and intellectuals could still worship God without form.

However, some people were enamored of the omnipotence of God and wanted to worship this power aspect. The Sanskrit word for power is shakti that is feminine. So for this aspect to be worshipped God had to be female. This was not a problem because God had no form to begin with and, hence, no sex either. But power itself has different aspects; every power belongs to one of three categories intellectual, material, and physical. Again the sages gave names to these poser aspects of God. Thus we got three major goddesses Saraswati for intellectual power, Laxmi for material (wealth), and Paarvati for physical. Man being family oriented, wants to see things from his own perspective. With the three major gods already there it was convenient to pair them with the goddesses. Again it should be remembered that each of them represented only a subaspect of that one God.

Hinduism is the only religion that gives man freedom to worship God in whatever form he chooses. This led to a multitude of gods and goddesses depending on which subaspect of God one wanted to worship. Mental images of these gods and goddesses were created consistent with the philosophical ideas of the subaspects. These were then translated into physical forms of painting or carved images. The Sanskrit word for these forms is murti for which the correct translation is 'image'.

The use of the word 'idol' has a historical background. The contact of the West with India mostly occurred via the countries in the Midwest. Prior to that the Islamic invasion of India had already taken its toll on temples. The invaders used the Persian word 'but' for the images carved in stone and that was always used in a prejorative sense. This word got translated as 'idol' in English and sometimes the term idol worship is used even now. But image is a more comprehensive word than idol.

In spite of this large collection of gods and goddesses there is a common thread that runs to the entire pantheon. If we look closely at the descriptions and the prayers, there is an underlying commonality. The prominent ones have several names, some are general and descriptive. For example Vishnu and Shiva have thousand names and reciting these names (sahasranaam) during worship is a part of the ritual. Most of these names are common. The same descriptive names are also used for the main goddesses. Thus subconsciously the devotees are always aware of the fact that each god or goddess is merely a representation of the same God. This multiplicity spills over to the temples as well. The temples dedicated to Vishnu carry different names. In the oldest one in Badrinaath he is Badrinaarayan, while in the famous one at Tirupati he is Venkateshwar. Then there are temples dedicated to his incarnations. The same is true for Shiva; there are twelve famous ones (Jyotirling) and each with different name. This is true also for the goddesses.

In creating the images of gods and goddesses for enshrinement in temples or for other purposes there is also an attempt to show that even though we use them to personify God, they are superhuman in nature which stresses the underlying fact of the Oneness of the divinity. For example, the images often have multiple hands, usually four but the number may go up to ten. This is an attempt to show that God is omnipresent filling the entire space. Normally the four cardinal directions are sufficient to convey this; however, including the four corners will make eight directions. On the other hand one may consider up and down to get the total of six. If we consider all of these then we have ten directions to cover the space (Fig.2). However, the concept of representing the directions as the hands of the Divine is not of Puraanic origin. It occurs in Rig Veda (10121.4). Another important feature in the images is the presence of an animal or bird on which the god or goddess rides (vaahan). This again cannot be taken literally as in some cases it becomes ridiculous. It is simply a symbolic representation and that is where the philosophy comes in; vaahan is the vehicle through which the divinity represented by the particular god can be transferred to the devotee. To give one example we take the depiction of Ganesha. After the three main gods and goddesses he is the most prominent god; in fact in every ceremony he is the first to be worshipped. His vaahan is a little mouse, a very inappropriate ride considering the bulky figure it has to carry. Ganesha is the god of prosperity and success. With human body and elephant’s head he represents a combination of intelligence and power of discrimination, without which no one can be successful and prosperous. But along with those qualities there is something else that is also as necessary and that is controlled desire. Uncontrolled desire can lead to destruction; history is replete with examples. The little mouse can devour things in a hurry and can deplete stockpiles of food. It represents desire. In the pictures it is depicted as standing on its hind legs with trembling trail and looking greedily at a plateful of sweets but dare not touch them without the lord’s permission. As such it symbolizes controlled desire. Another very common image is that of goddess Durgaa (Paarvati) riding a lion. Durgaa (or all goddesses for that matter) are worshiped as Shakti. Lion is known for its strength and complete fearlessness. In order to get real power one must have those qualities and they represent (symbolized by the lion) the vehicle through which the goddess can channel the divine power.

The images are devoid of the superhuman features only in the case of the two prominent incarnations of Vishnu. Since Vishnu represents the aspect of God responsible for the maintenance of the creation, he is the one who incarnates from time to time. There are a total of ten incarnations (dashaavataar) described in the Puraanas for this particular cycle of the universe (in Hindu view time is not linear but cyclic and so is everything else) nine have already happened and the tenth one heralding the end of the cycle is yet to occur. There is a Dashaavataar temple in the cave temple complex at Ellora. The last two human incarnations were Raama and Krishna. They are worshipped the same way and temples for them are separate. Their images are purely human. Rama while in this world never declared himself as God, Krishna did. So the images of Krishna also have philosophy attached to them. The flute in his hands, the standing posture in which one foot is firmly on the ground the other resting on it, and his dancing with thousand gopis (cowmaidens), all are symbolic and have philosophical interpretations; so is his relationship with Raadhaa, his childhood sweetheart.

The symbolism of holding the flute to his lips is that God breaths life into every living creature; one foot firmly planted on the ground and other indicating motion symbolize the fact that God is immovable and unchanging (nirvikaar, inrvikalp) unaffected by time, while the universe is constant motion in time. Krishna’s dancing with thousand of gopis at the same time (raas leelaa) is the interplay between individual souls and the Supersoul (Paramaatmaa). Each individual soul is striving to reach Him. People, especially in the West, who do not understand this symbolism, have often portrayed Krishna as a playboy out of sheer ignorance.

In the context of the ten incarnations it may be worthwhile mentioning here that in concept and description they represent the Hindu theory of evolution, which runs almost parallel to Darwin’s . It traces the evolution of life starting from fish and slowly progressing upward. The first incarnation was in the form of a fish (matsya) living in water. Then it progresses to tortoise (kurma) a creature living in water as well as on the land. Next comes boar (varaaha) living on land only followed by one that is half lion and half human (narsinha). Then we get to fully human dwarf (vaaman) that is still not a fully developed man. The next four are humans in continual progress (Parashuraama, Raama, Balaraama, and Krishna). The tenth one (Kaalki) is still to come signifying the view that man has not yet developed to its full potential of reaching God. When that happens it will be the end of the present cycle of the universe. Somewhere in the past there was an attempt to substitute Balraama by Buddha in the list of nine incarnations. This was perhaps an attempt to bring back Buddhists into the fold of Hinduism. But the ten incarnations have been described in Mahabharata (Shaantiparva) which predates Buddha. In Darwin’s theory also there is an ascending evolution that goes from amoeba to animals and to man. For the time being man is at the last rung of the evolution ladder and may think himself to be the highest stage of evolution. But in the physical sense he is still an animal (albeit a thinking and speaking one) in his material instincts. Nature strives toward perfection through the process of evolution and cannot be satisfied until man reaches a stage where he will remain man in his external forms but his conscience and actions will resonate with the Ultimate Truth.

Hindus are often ridiculed for having 330 million gods and goddesses, a number for which Rigveda is quoted as the source. God is of course infinite and theoretically there can be infinite representations. But this specific number comes from a misinterpretation and a consequent mixup leading to an exaggeration in some puraanas. In every language a word has more than one meaning depending on the context. The diversity of meanings is more pronounced in Sanskrit. There is a mention of 33 koti gods in a number of places in Rigveda. One meaning of koti is type and the reference there is to 33 types of representations of God. But koti also means a crore or ten million. Taking this meaning some puraanas do talk of 330 million gods, an exaggeration that has been exploited for the purposes of disinformation.

As stated earlier a thought is invariably associated with an image and in that sense image is inherent to human nature. There are different ways of expressing a thought but each is a mode of communication. Communicating through words, whether spoken or written, is the quickest and easiest but in this case one runs into the barrier of languages. A language is closely related to the culture and each culture has unique nuances that can be conveyed only in that language. In other words the transfer of an expression from one language to another cannot always be perfect. One encounters another problem in translating thoughts from one language to another. In any language a word has more than one meaning usually depending on the context. If an inappropriate meaning is attached the translation becomes misleading. This is precisely what happened in the case of image worship, which is a common practice in Hinduism. The Sanskrit word murti was translated into English as idol (or the corresponding words in other languages), which led to the term idolatry used often in a derogatory sense. In general murti means embodiment or personification and it was in this sense that the word was used in ancient India. In Vedanta God has no form and no attributes; being infinite and eternal He is not a person. However, the religion is for the masses and for a common man it is impossible to think of one for whom he cannot form a mental image. This brought in the need for personifying God and the word image is the appropriate translation of murti. An image allows one to focus attention, devotion, and reverence in consonance with real life experiences.

There are different kinds of images and they fall into two basic categories – mental and physical, although the two are not independent. A mental image is the prerequisite for a physical one. The mental image of someone or something, which one has never seen, cannot be unique. So everyone can have his own image of God within the general framework of the philosophy; in a way this is what happened in Hinduism. There are multitudes of images of one God. Those not familiar with the underlying philosophy mistakenly consider Hinduism as a polytheistic religion. Different images of God do not make him several entities; God is one, gods are just His images conceived by different people. A man has different images for different members of his family. He is a son to his parents, father to his children, husband to his wife, and so on. Still he is a single individual.

Image worship is not unique to any religion and it is not always related to God directly. Since image is inherent to human nature, image worship is to be found in some form or other in every society at all stages of civilization. Every religion uses symbols and symbols are nothing but images. Temples, churches, synagogues, and mosques are symbols and the very sight of these buildings invokes a feeling of reverence in the followers. In Christianity the images of Christ and Mary as objects of worship and reverence are found in churches and homes. Judaism and Islam prohibit the use of images. But when a Jew thinks of Yahweh or a Muslim thinks of Allah, he conjures up in his mind an image of God in heaven and seeks to communicate with Him. The image worshipper has before him the same mental image in a material form. He is not worshipping the image but the divinity of God that it represents. For him the image is only a symbolic representation. The object of worship is not the object itself.

There is, of course, always a possibility of degeneration of any system and image worship was not immune to it. When people lose sight of the reality behind the representation the very act of worship becomes superficial. The nonessential becomes essential and superstition takes the place of rational thinking. Then the image worship becomes merely ritualistic and superficial. It can even be abused. This happened in Hinduism many centuries ago; people lost sight of the central idea and began to identify the image with the reality. As a reaction to this trend some people revolted and offshoots of Hinduism like Buddhism and sampradaayas like Aarya Samaaj sprang up. It also gave rise to reformation movements that helped to restore the system. Even though things are far from perfect and superstitions abound, image worship will remain an integral part of Hinduism as most people understand and will continue to understand its real significance.