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What is Idolatry? by Roger Hooker

May 6, 2013

MIn the past, missionaries regarded Hindus as idolaters. Some evangelical Christians continue to hold this view and I have encountered parents who would not sign a consent slip to allow me to include their child on a Religious Education trip to a Hindu temple.

The author shows that attitudes to the veneration of images are on a spectrum in both Christianity and Hinduism and that such attitudes often relate to social class and to geographical location :rural or urban.

I once saw Hindus in Leicester praying before an image minutes before the lottery winners were announced. Whilst I saw this as superstitious bribery, at least people were being honest in what they prayed for rather than praying as they thought they `ought to.’ So Hinduism might seem a more honest religion. [A friend of mine occasionally turned up at our daily mass. Always wearing as suit, we realised he had a job interview that day and was obviously trying to increase the likelihood of his success if he propitiated God first.]

Whilst Westerners are often repelled at the sexual imagery of the phallic lingam, it might be said that Hindus have a healthier view of the body and its functions.

Idolatry comes in all shapes and sizes. Those who decry the worship of statues should take stock of themselves. Is their god their job, their bank balance, their bible or their limited view of God? Take the plank out of your own eye.

After 13 years as a Church Mission Society (CMS) missionary in India, the author became widely respected and consulted as a Christian authority on inter-faith relations in Britain.

WIIQuotations:

‘idolatry consists in stopping at the sign; true religion passes through the sign to what is signified by it.’

Bishop Leslie Brown describes an incident which took place when he was Principal of a united theological college in South India. One of the students, a Hindu convert, did not come to the college Eucharist. He explained that he did not come because he could not tolerate the sight of me standing with my hands held together in a praying position, facing the cross which was hanging on the wall. I was surprised and said that the cross was merely two pieces of wood, a symbol to remind us of Christ’s death and resurrection, nothing more. He replied that Hindus would explain their images in the same way, they would say they were merely symbols. Although he accepted that I was not (engaged in idol worship he was so conditioned by his past that he could not bear to see me praying in that particular way. I asked him whether he could accept what I did if I stood behind the Lord’s Table with my back to the cross. At once he asked me to do this.

Brahman, the ultimate divine reality, is nirakara, beyond all forms and so beyond any possibility of definition. This means that Brahman cannot be approached in worship. This is only possible when the gods and goddesses, who arc aspects of Brahman, take embodied form.

But let us listen to some Hindus speaking for themselves. An orthodox pundit, or Sanskrit teacher, once put it to me like this: `Men worship an image in order to get some grace. They can only get this from the form of God which has qualities, not from the God without them, for being, consciousness and bliss are states not qualities. Brahman is all consciousness as the sun is all light. It is beyond our definitions. This is the best language can do, though it is bound to be inadequate’.

A devotee of the god Rama once explained his own use of images to me in this way: `God without form is too remote, you cannot reach him, therefore all men worship him in some form that brings him near. Muslims have the Qur’an, Sikhs the Guru Granth Sahib, and Christians the Cross’.

the distinctions between myth and history, and between the gods and men, which are vital for the western mind, either do not exist, or are of minimal significance for Hindus. This means that the image of a god in a temple and the statue of a national leader in a public square belong to the same order of things.

aradhana — ‘propitiating, rendering favourable to oneself, striving to obtain the favour of or gain a boon from’. This term points to a very important dimension of Hindu worship. The favour of the god has to be won before his benefits can be secured, and the worship is offered with the specific aim of gaining those benefits for oneself. For example the god Ganesha is the remover of obstacles. His favour is entreated before the beginning of an enterprise. (Students can be seen thronging his temples at examination time. There is no trace of embarrassment at this for it is what this kind of worship is for.)

The gods are arranged in a hierarchy, and the more important or difficult your request the higher up the ranks of the gods do you make it. This reflects the hierarchical nature of Hindu society. As a university

teacher once put it to me: `If you want a flower from the garden you ask the gardener and he will give you one right away. For something bigger you have to go to the Vice-Chancellor and he is more difficult to approach’.

In a hierarchical society life tends to be about fulfilling the role that tradition has laid down for one, and not about the development of one’s individual personality. Social relationships can be somewhat formal and transactional as a result. If someone does a favour for me I am in his debt: he now has the right to ask me to do something for him. Foreigners who stay in India ca:-sometimes be heard to complain: ‘Make friends with- someone and sooner or later he will try and make use of you’. But to make this complaint is to misunderstand the nature of social relationships. In Hindu societ­y friendship is about this sort of mutual obligation, and worship is often about it too.

Ishwara or `great power’, it does not matter which, but when manifested this ultimate source takes on the form of two interdependent entities which can appropriately be called litigam and yoni, phallus and vulva. The ‘pillar of fire’ referred to in the Bible and other religious books is one form of the same lingam.

The Aryan invaders of India appear not to have used images, indeed their main interest was in sound and in words rather than in visual imagery. They composed the collection of hymns known as the Vedas, and these are still the most authoritative texts of the Hindu scriptures. They are addressed to a number of different gods and to a few goddesses.

The supremacy of these deities did not last, for during the centuries immediately before and after the beginning of the Christian era many waves of foreign invaders entered the Indian sub-continent through the mountain asses of the north west. These peoples brought their wn cults which were eventually absorbed into the Hindu tradition, as were many elements of the popular religion of whose nature the Indus Valley remains possibly afford some evidence.

One could make the same point about the pictures of the sacred heart of Jesus which figure in Catholic devotion. So, too, many of the hymns beloved by Protestants are by no standards great poetry, but they are not meant to be. Their function is to arouse the devotion of the worshipper. But there is great and beautiful Hindu art, and to this we must attend if our account of images is to be anywhere near complete. This can also serve to introduce another important dimension of the subject, the deep inward relationship between image and devotee.

A leading authority on Indian art writes this: When they were shown in anthropomorphic shape, the Indian gods were portrayed as supermen, fashioned according to canons of proportion intended to raise the beauty of the idol above the accidental beauty of any one human being. In the same way the images of many armed-gods are purely mental creations that have no counterpart in nature. Their multiple arms are necessary for the deities simultaneously to display the various attributes of their powers and activities. The supreme purpose of these images, as of all images in Indian art, is to present the believer with all the truths which he accepts and with all beings with whom he must obtain communication through prayer. There is nothing corresponding to idolatry in the narrow sense, since tile worship is never paid to the image of stone or brass, but to what the image stands for, the prototype. The image, in other words, as a reflection of the godhead, is as the diagram of the geometrician in relation to the great diagram of the beyond. The images in Indian art are first and foremost objects of utilitarian use, made by a process of contemplation, and intended to help the worshipper in communicating with the object of worship.’

by the eighth century image-worship was widely estab­lished in the church. How did this happen?

Before the time of Constantine the church made no clear statement on the subject though the practice was generally condemned. The fathers were not always in agreement with one another on the grounds of prohibition, and could argue their case in curious ways. Tertullian said that the brazen serpent set up by Moses in the wilderness’ was an exception to the second commandment since God intended it to prefigure the cross of Christ. He also condemns the making of pictures and images on the grounds that they are untrue, a lie. This seems a strange argument but it becomes less so when we recall that many centuries later Christians were to condemn the writing or reading of novels for the same reason. Origen said that pagan image-worship dragged the soul down to earth instead of lifting it up to God – a Vedantin Hindu would have agreed with him.

John of Damascus. He has justified the homage offered to images, that is to say the movement by the worshipper through the image, to the saint (or Christ) which it represented. He now has to show that there is a genuine movement in the opposite direction, that is, by God, through the image, to the worshipper. …

John again appeals to scripture, pointing out that there are many examples of objects which have been in physical contact with a holy person conveying that person’s power to others. He refers to Elisha’s staff, and to his bones after his death,” to the shadow of Peter, and to the handkerchiefs and aprons which had been in contact with Paul. If material objects could function in this way (the lesser principle) could not icons do the same (the greater)?

it is only as Christians are continually trying to understand what they mean by idolatry within their own tradition that they are likely to be able to make any sense of it within Hinduism.

if we are prepared to grant that the Incarnation has made a difference to the Old Testament

situation. While it had been wrong for the Hebrews to make an image of God, because ‘On the day when the Lord spoke to you out of the fire on Horeb you saw no figure of any kind'”, in Christ God has now shown himself in human form. In the Iconoclastic controversy the image-makers argued that the images they made were of Christ’s human, not of his divine nature. The Iconoclasts disagreed, for they did not accept this distinction between the two natures, so any image of Christ was at the same time an image of God. One might grant, therefore, that the Incarnation makes permissible the making of images of Christ and so of other people as well – the saints for example. That need take us no further than symbolism, but can we also admit that such an image, or icon could be the vehicle of a ‘grace’ in the sense endorsed by the second Council of Nicea?” Heirs of the Reformation will find it difficult to accept this, for one result of the Reformation was to remove things from the sphere of religion which now became a matter mainly if not only of personal relationships – between God and Christians and between Christians and one another. Yet few issues arc more urgent today than a recovery of the sanctity not only of particular things but of the whole material order. Could not a proper use of images contribute to that end?

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