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?


Anonymous said...

excellent post. a pet peeve of mine, when i got around to really understanding the word 'mythology', is 'hindu mythology'.

isn't it wierd that the sahibs call anything related to hinduism a myth (aside: did the word "myth" arise from "mithya"? that would be really ironic!)?

i would rather borrow what i recently read in another blog and say 'hindu philosophy' rather than say 'hindu mythology' when we refer to our gods, goddesses and relevant events.

- s.b.

p.s.: i came here from ramki's blog.

Ram said...

This is really thought provoking. Are we becoming pawns in the nads of spineless people.


s this being misunderstood or misinterpreted by our so called budhijeevis.

Suresh said...

quite informative! thank you very much for this blog. from today, i don't use the word idol to refer God.

David said...

Anonymous: the word "myth" derives from the Greek "muthos", which means "word" or "speech" or "story."

I don't know if there's a further etymological relation to "mithya"-- is that Sanskrit? If so, it's possible, because Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin are all (relatively) closely related.

nIlagrIva said...

mithya, though sounding similar, is very likely unrelated to myth. MithyA is a Samskrit word which stands for incorrect, false, unreal etc.,

It is an indeclinable/avyaya. However, I am not very sure of its etymology. I don't think it ever stood for a story.

Interestingly, "myth" got its current negative connotation only in the 1800s - but that is when India came under the sway of the English.