Saturday, November 18, 2006

Idol vs Icon : Some thoughts on idolatry

Today I was reading the Times of India online and I saw an item that has been a real irritant to me. The item said "Tirupati idols in city on Dec 2-3". The city in question is Mumbai. The Times of India is not my favourite and yet I read it. Rather, I scan it for advertisements to see if I can get good deals on something.

Anyway, back to the peeve in question. Let's look at what has to say about the word idol. It says -
–noun image or other material object representing a deity to which religious worship is addressed.
2.Bible. image of a deity other than God.
b.the deity itself.
3.any person or thing regarded with blind admiration, adoration, or devotion: Madame Curie had been her childhood idol.
4.a mere image or semblance of something, visible but without substance, as a phantom.
5.a figment of the mind; fantasy.
6.a false conception or notion; fallacy.
The first meaning is what is usually alluded to by people such as the reporter of the TOI piece. But it is a recent addition and when Westerners refer to it, it usually refers to one of the meanings 2 - 6 above. Note especially this part from the ten commandments which is very important for all the three Abrahamic religions:
You shall not make for yourself an image, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them;
As we can see quite clearly, this can be interpreted as being against idolatry. Islam, especially prohibits such images and the destruction of innumerable Hindu temples during its invasion proves this quite well. Judaism is similar to Islam in its explicit prohibition of image or idol worship. Certain streams in Christianity interpret this commandment a bit liberally and allow for the veneration of what they call icons. Let us look now at the dictionary meaning of the word icon. The relevant meaning here is :
Eastern Church. a representation of some sacred personage, as Christ or a saint or angel, painted usually on a wood surface and venerated itself as sacred.
As a result, Christians, especially Catholics and the Orthodox church, use the word "icon" to signify any physical object they venerate. Christians have been actively proselytizing in India for at least over 200 years in India. When they did so, they usually downgraded the images of the deities that were being worshipped in India. Their standard line - your god is just a piece of stone. In other words Hindus worshipped idols, whereas the "True Way" worshipped icons. Since English was first used naturally by Western people in India, they liberally used "idol" to describe Hindu objects of worship, and obviously in a derogatory manner. But as far as images of Jesus and symbols such as the cross were concerned, they were all icons. Indians, after taking to the English language, apparently began using the word idol to refer to their own objects of worship, knowingly by a few and unknowingly by the vast majority. Since the word idol has negative connotations, I strongly prefer to not use that word. In fact, I would prefer the word "icon" or better, the samskrit word - mUrti.

I have told several people that once an object becomes worthy of veneration, it becomes at least an icon. I have asked people not to use the word idol while referring to our deities. I wonder if I am being too dogmatic about the whole matter.

Anyway, while the Abrahamic religions revile "idol" worship, what is it that they exactly do? Let's take Muslims first. For them, the most revered place of worship is the Kaaba at Mecca. In its corner is a black stone which devout Muslims are supposed to kiss. While a few Muslims consider that just a stone, other people attribute spiritual qualities to it such as the ability to absorb sin and so on. If somebody kisses an object out of reverence, is that not essentially idolatry?

For the Christians, an altar in which images of Jesus on the cross and several angels can be found in several churches. The church walls are full of images of angels and saints. If they venerate an image, are they not doing something similar to the Hindus? Therefore, when they talk in an accusing tone about Hindus "committing idolatry", they are being just hypocritical.

Even in Judaism, there is a certain location supposed to be in today's Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem considered to the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies is a place that is supposed to have the constant presence of the Divine. My question is : Is God not above such physical boundaries? By specially limiting God to a certain area or even considering *only* a specific physical area as holy is essentially the same as idolatry.

I know that God is considered omnipresent by all theistic religions. Hindu religion, though having multiple deities, has one Supreme Reality that is omnipotent and omnipresent. Even then, several temples and mUrtis are built to worship God. The images are considered holy - but people know that they are worshipping not just the image but the Divine in the image. But it is quite common for people to get attached to physical objects, be they icons or idols. It may be this attachment to just the "physical object" that might have been reviled in the ten commandments.

As far as Hindus are concerned, the essential worship that is basic for the three varNas is sandhyA. sandhyAvandanaM is performed during three parts of the day and is essentially worship of no object. Though the Sun God is offered arghya, the gAyatri mantra essentially refers to illumination and a prayer to guide us in the correct path. This worship is actually free of any physical adoration.

I do not condemn image worship or praise the other one. As everybody is different, Hindus have different paths for people of different mental makeup. That is how we can find the complete spectrum of spiritual practices starting from animal sacrifices and worship of trees all the way to dhyAna of the Supreme in one's own heart and AtmavichAra. This is the reason for the variety and colour in Hinduism and so many deities, each considered the Supreme one.

But there is scriptural sanction in the Hindus for all such practices. The following common shloka is indeed elevating:

AkAshAt patitaM toyaM yathA gacChati sAgaram |
sarvadevanamaskAraH keshavaM prati gacChati ||

It basically means that worship of all gods leads to the worship of one Supreme God. And even Lord KrishNa assures us in the gItA

"ye yathA mAM prapadyante tAnstathaiva bhajAmyaham |"

This line means : just as people approach me, so I approach or accept them. Krishna never does say - "you should worship me and only me with the shankha and the chakra and the gadA" and so on.

Such words that can be found in many places in our scriptures are the reason for not just tolerance but the acceptance of various traditions in India.

Compare that with this:
You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.
Do we now know where the intolerance springs from?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Macaulay's birthday and the English Goddess

I got to this blog via SepiaMutiny. I am, to plainly state it, angry. A person named Chandrabhan Prasad celebrating the birthday of Macaulay? Thomas Babbington Macaulay, we learned at school, came up with his notorious "minute on education" where he proposed to create a class of Indians that were intellectually and mentally English but were physically of course, Indians. In other words, he wanted to create a class of coconuts who could successfully mediate between their white masters and their subordinate internally brown countrymen. Actually, when I studied it, it was made to seem as if it were a good thing. As I became older, I realized how nicely the Indian text books were pulling wool over their children's eyes. Several people I know regard their lack of knowledge of their mother tongue an issue of prestige. A Kannada speaking lady I knew once said thus in a falsely complaining tone about her son, "He scores well in all subjects except Kannada". And this was with a smug smile. As if her son had done a great deed by not knowing Kannada!

Coming back to Macaulay, he had said something as ridiculous as this :
I have conversed, both here and at home, with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues...... I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia
And our government lavishes praise upon this man! The *whole* native literature of the whole of India is not worth a single shelf of a good European library? vyAsa, vAlmIki, kAlidAsa, pANini - no good? Even fairly knowledgeable people know how ignorant that statement of Macaulay is. To be fair, Macaulay admits:
I have no knowledge of either Sanscrit[sic] or Arabic.

Since he admits his lack of knowledge, his entire statement on the net worth of Indian literature becomes fallacious. How could he claim something like this without knowing Samskrit or Arabic? Chandrabhan Prasad, by following Macaulay has become a classic example of a blind man following another blind man. Or is it a man who can see following a blind man for some nefarious purpose?

I am not against the English language at all. In fact, I love English as a language. The fact that I am typing up this article in English shows that. English is the pathway to modern science and literature. It has played an important role in unifying India. I cannot even begin to list the many advantages of knowing English. But to disregard my own language to promote English is something I cannot even dream of doing.

The theme of "globalization as evil" has been played up by left leaning people so many times that I've become quite sick of it. But when I see such episodes, I am forced to pause and think. It is quite obvious that English is important only because of the economic benefits it can bring to somebody. I am sure that the Japanese or the Germans don't have this problem of being forced by their government or by their peers to learn English. They are quite comfortable in their own language and are in fact, proud of it. But that is because they are not impoverished people. The matter is of economics. It is not the case of literary merit or linguistic facilities that English might offer. I would even say that any Indian language has more literary and linguistic potential than English. English accommodates and conquers - much like in the story of the Arab and his camel in his tent. Languages live and die with their speakers and English is more alive than ever because it is probably the language with a presence all over the world. It does not, however, mean that other languages are linguistically worse.

Now to Chandrabhan Prasad's opinions. He writes:

Will the future generations of Dalits/Adivasis fit into a world shaped by their
own Goddess? The answer is a clear NO. The remedy for that NO is to accept the
Goddess in Her entirety – and become English speaking at the earliest.Goddess
English is all about emancipation. Goddess English is a mass movement against
the Caste Order, against linguistic evils such as Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telgu
[sic] and Bangla for instance. Indian languages as more about prejudices,
discrimination and hatred and less about expressions and communications.

Hindi, Marathi, Telgu [sic] are linguistic evils? What makes a language evil? Its speakers? I wonder what Kancha Ilaiah would think of Telgu(sic) replaced by English. Dalits have not spoken with each other in English for the past thousands of years. They have used their own languages. They have created their own words. And they want to throw all of this to serve Goddess English? Dalits can use their own language, be it Kannada, Malayalam, Oriya, Bangla, to express themselves. This can even be a fitting response to casteists! Especially in Kannada, the Dalit baNDAya movement has been quite famous and successful too. Several poets have used the baNDAya movement for self-expression and emancipation. How would the other Dalit even come to know of such expressions of freedom and rebellion if they were not in his own language? One just cannot disregard one's own language. Chandrabhan, can you get rid of your face because you don't like it? Why this self-loathing? If you as a Dalit cannot respect yourself, how can you expect others to treat you well?

I understand that casteism is an evil. But you cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater! English is a good language and one must learn it to understand the world. But at the same time, you cannot deny your mother tongue without denying your identity in the process.

Chandrabhan, if you want to kill your identity, it is your personal choice. Just don't expect other self-respecting Dalits to follow you.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Hunting for a working ATM in Jerusalem

As the title of this post says, I am in Jerusalem, the Holy City for three very big religions - Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This city is awe inspiring because of so many reasons. Jerusalem is the biggest religious destination in the world. It has a history of thousands of years. It has always been on the minds and in the hearts of millions of people for very different reasons - political, religious and spiritual. I will not be going into that aspect of the area right now but will focus on a very interesting inconvenience I have encountered here.

Everybody needs money to do many things and I am no different here. For some purposes, simple currency notes are still preferred to plastic and it was for the same set of purposes that I went in search of some Israeli currency notes (New Israeli Shekel). Where else would a tourist get it other than in those wonderful machines of convenience - the Automated Teller Machines, remembered with gratitude by several people as Any Time Money? ATMs have become so common now across the world that they are expected to have a ubiquitous presence wherever we go and naturally are expected to be in working order too!

However, at least in Jerusalem, that is not the case at all! The period of Shabbat (this is how the word is spelled in Israel), from Friday evening to Saturday evening, a time for prayer and rest religiously followed by Jewish people, completely shuts down Jerusalem. For an outsider like me, this came as a complete shock.

Since only prayer and rest are to be undertaken during Shabbat, almost anything else is prohibited. I had heard before that secular activity is prohibited to the extent that even elevator buttons were not to be pressed. But seeing it in person was something else. The city completely shuts down!! Even the two preceding exclamations are not adequate to convey my surprise. It is not as if I have not seen this in India. But I have only seen that in the middle of the night (sometimes) and during bandhs. It is as if they have a weekly bandh here! On Friday, one sees traffic everywhere until Shabbat starts. Then all of a sudden, cars are off the road. Roads full of vehicles go completely empty with just a stray vehicle here and there.

I tried looking for an ATM just before Shabbat itself and found one with difficulty. Naturally, the text is all in Hebrew and you begin navigating the ATM menu after selecting English. But when I tried to draw money, it complained of some temporary problem. I later figured out that because of Shabbat, local people just draw all the money and none of the ATMs in busy areas have any currency left in him. Of course, on Shabbat, none of the ATMs work anyway.

My attempts at other ATMs too unfortunately have proved unsuccessful so far. People have told me that Tel Aviv is alive during the Shabbat time - but I have not been there during the weekend yet. I have been here just for a couple of weeks, but the locals seem to be just fine with it.

Jerusalem is a very interesting city steeped in history and legend. I wish to make a few posts about it when I get the time with pictures if possible.