The Subtlety of Idolatry

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MAN& GOD

The above picture could inspire interesting topics for discussion.

…For some reason… People around me think I am an Atheist. In India generally,  there are only two extremes, you could either be here or there. Agnostic is ignored and considered as non-existent. You are forbidden to ask questions about God/Offerings/Rituals as it is considered to be a sacrilege, unlike the ancient time where sages/Rishis were invited for open forum discussions to prove their principles.

Agnostic

Anyways, since I am labelled, when I try to share some interesting podcast about divinity, some article that caught my attention or talk about faith, I get that suspicious gaze,

“There you go – It is the process of aging and now you want to know about religion & God” ………

But my quest is alive since the day I started thinking on my own and will definitely continue. I feel Spiritualism should be a process of learning/seeking and never be a blind belief and should always be rationalized.

So back to my interesting message today – Universally accepted fact is God created the world and Man …. In any religion or Culture …But, The question doesn’t stop there, who created God??

Before you call this as blasphemy….. Here are some well-known facts.

Now let’s pause and take a minute to answer my next question

What is the first thing that appears in your mind when I mention the word GOD?

THINK

You can enter your comment below or keep it to yourself. But just think where you got that image or a thought about God?

Pictures? Books? Idols @ home? Temple Sculptures? Movies? For those who follow non idolatry it could be Holy Scriptures, Holy Books, or a Ray/Ball of light, or a Ritual?

Whatever…. Varies from person to person but still there is some imprint in every one’s mind and it could be the way we got introduced to God when we were young.

Well, is this the idea behind idolatry? To give an image to God so it is easy to recollect?

If so, who designed and defined that God can be Anthromorphic or non anthromorphic icons. Who set the rules for rituals?

Though it is common for any religion, Let me start my hunt from Hinduism, as it is an easy language for me.

The tension between giving God a particular form and stripping God of any form is an ancient one. Let’s time travel to “Where it all started?”, obviously no one can date back to the “Exact START”.  But can go to the extent where we can find some proofs. So let my try to unveil the evolution of Hinduism in chronological order.

The pre-Vedic, Indus valley civilization & Hinduism have many beliefs and controversies. So let’s say it started in this period but we don’t have clear evidence about What, When and How? Let’s keep this aside for now and focus on era which has concrete proofs.

Vedic Period: This is when first scripts were discovered There is no author identified for Vedas, it is referred to as Sruti, meaning “What was heard“. And Vedas are believed to be heard from superhuman/Supreme.

Orthodox Indian Theologians consider Vedas as revelations seen by ancient sages after intense meditations.

Some more interesting facts about the oldest known Indian script – Rig Veda Samhita.

  • About 2/3rds of Rig Veda is about Gods of Nature – Agni (Fire), Surya (Sun), Varuna – Mithra (God of Oceans/Sea –Rain/water), Maruts/Vayu (Air or wind) & Indra (ruler of Gods) and the most mentioned animal is Ashva (Horse).

  • Indra is considered as the most powerful God who killed Asuras (Demon/Evil) and brought Sun shine and rains.

  • 10th mandala talks about Cosmology & Origin of Universe. My understanding is many facts which now we relate with science has been proposed by sages’ long back which is really astonishing. Our Ancestors did not differentiate learning and religion as a two different paths. But have we interpreted everything right or we are just connecting the Hymns to recent studies? Well, that is a separate topic to discuss.

It is not easy to understand and decode complete information about Vedas in this blog. But the idea is to express RigVeda contains a sense of intimate spiritual union between Nature and the Rishis or visionaries.

So obviously there is no mention about any idols/temples though the nature Gods have been been personified. At the same time it is so thoughtful that our ancestors thanked the elements that helped them survive. (Sun, Water & Air, Earth & Space).

In fact, it makes me feel, it is a very practical approach and universal approach to thank the five elements than addressing it to a specific religion. Worship started as an act of thanks giving but unfortunately now it’s more of a negotiation of transactions.

Likewise other Vedic literature like Sama (Chants, a more poetic version of Rig), Yajur (Rituals especially about sacrifices and offerings), Atharvana (book on Spell) mentions about many gods and goddesses but does not describe any single image/idol.

Please do mind our ancestors were capable of even cave drawings, symbols etc. even before they started writing. So maybe it could have been intentional not to give an image/form to God.

Also the reason for Vedic literature lacking idols/images could be related to Guru Kula style of Knowledge transfer (Oral Tradition). For longest time spirituality was passed from Guru (preacher/Enlightened one), to eligible level-minded Shishya’s (Disciple) to carry it to forward.

In the later stages it was collated to be in the form of scripts by enlightened Rishis and Sages.

VEDA

Now my next question – So if there were no idols in Vedic period, how did they worship? Were there temples? Or any common place for worship?

The answer is they worshiped Gods through Fire (Homa) while chanting Hymns related to each God. There were no temples identified as such in Vedic Period.

All ancient scripts of Hinduism, Buddhism & Jainism describe meditation, recommend the pursuit of simple monastic life and self-knowledge with no use of images or icons representing god.

After Vedic Period arose Vedanta – Upanishads and Puranas period.

Upanishads Period: The philosophical concept which originated in Vedic period were carried further in Upanishads period and multiple enhancements were done. Some early Upanishads launched attacks of increasing intensity on the rituals, however, a philosophical and allegorical meaning was given to every ritual. Also a tendency to reduce the number of Gods to one principle became prominent.

God was defined as Brahman (Atma/Atman), nothing but consciousness which is present in every living. And attaining salvation is to realize one’s self through Knowledge Seeking (Adwaitha- Adi Shankara).

uPANISHADS

Purana Period:  It was completely focused on devotion (Bhakti). All Mythological stories originated in this period, Indra (ruler of God) started losing popularity and was portrayed as weak, fickle minded, proud etc. Mythological stories had Vishnu & Shiva as the savior to raise their popularity. At this period everything was Vishnu and his miraculous stories of avatars. But if we dive back Vishnu/Shiva was not the main God in Vedas (Unlike Indra)

Historians reveal one more major reason for idolatry during this period is to save Hinduism from other religious influences. There was a compulsive need for creation of Idol forms to all Purana Heroes based on the description in the stories. New Purana period preachers opposed the concept of Adwaita and argued Brahman (Aatma/Soul) cannot be formless, attribute less etc. Also devotion/Bhakti/Worshiping all was considered as a path to salvation along with Knowledge.

In my thought, the philosophy from Vedic period lost its admiration (concept of self-consciousness in every living being considered as God). In the Purana period Mythology got mixed with philosophy and Brahman became Vishnu and Rudra became Shiva. And Idolatry became very popular.

pURANASA

So, what’s the interpretation from known facts?

Well my contemplation is just not on idolatry or non-idolatry. Or questioning story behind every idol. Or my concern about the raising number of new Gods.

I completely agree and regard Hinduism as a synthesis of various Indian cultures and traditions, with diverse roots and no single founder. That’s the reason it embraces all modes of belief including Monism, Dualism, Atheism, Polytheism and Agnosticism.

The meaning and the significance of Hinduism is quite vast, it is like a multi-dimensional matrix with all kind of attributes being addressed in different shapes and forms. The sustainability of this oldest religion is only because of its adaptability based on time. The evolution of Hinduism had a huge impact with influences due to Invasions, Foreign Trade, Language, diverse Culture and also so many new preachers in various times and their principles. But the beauty lies in accommodating diverse concepts on spirituality and traditions – Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Advaitism (Smartism), Vishistadwaita, Dvaita, Sakthism, Darma sastras, Yoga Sutras, Brahma Sutras etc. Each of these sects/cults had many different doctrines but carries undulating concepts which hold good even now and will serve many more generations to come.

The Vedic texts were for the elite and does not necessarily represent popular ideas & practices. So to make it easy for anyone to practice and communicate – stories and rituals, symbols came into existence. That is how the mix of philosophy and mythology happened, though emphasis was less on philosophy and meaning which is formless, than an idol or ritual. Bhakti or Devotion in Purana period was so intense, more like an obsession that guided them to path of salvation.

But now, the philosophy & content is completely lost only symbolic representation in the form of Bhakti/Devotion persists. Rituals & Rites are followed no doubt, but rarely underlying significance is understood.

I read this somewhere ” Without Constant renewal, Idolatry decays worship” I think it is true.

So Idol is seen as God, rather than a concrete expression of the idea of God.

Self-consciousness and self-realization to reach salvation is all forgotten and only idol worship and rituals survive now. Many new forms of God and Goddesses are getting consecrated every now and then, but it would be ideal to comprehend the deep meaning without simply following the ritual.

What I still can’t really appreciate is, we are living in a highly sophisticated era where everything is instantaneous. We don’t have to walk for hours into the woods, sit under a tree for years or trek the mountain to understand Vedas and Upanishads. But did we fathom what we are supposed to?

Information is available very easily, so the value is lost.

I am not here to say what is right or wrong. It is an individual’s choice.

To me religion is to be considered as a way of life based on our roots rather than worship. It need not be inherited. Else people can sit in temple doing rituals for hours and blame thy god for everything happening around. Rather if we start cleansing our thoughts & action/ acknowledge self-realization/self-consciousness as a path to attain peace & joy, I bet we can create a more compassionate society where love and kindness prevail. Fight over religion/caste & creed will come to an end.

Now that we understand about Idolatry the next topic is going to be “The secret behind the Geometry of temples”. Should a temple be viewed as an architectural marvel or place of worship? … Add your thoughts.