In their ignorance, let them call it ‘idol’ worship – Aravindan Neelakandan

Ganapati Puja

Aravindan NeelakandanIn an age of monotheistic fundamentalism and its resultant animosity, the so-called “idol” worship is indeed a panacea for the disease of fanaticism and hatred. … What is derisively called “idol” worship is a spiritual achievement and inseparable part of the Hindu Dharma. – Aravindan Neelakandan

“Idol” worship is one of the greatest taboos of the monopolistic faiths and destruction of idols is considered a sacred act by them. The trend continues right into “secularised” or “enlightened” Europe and through colonialism, the aversion for idols—particularly other cultures’ idols, have infested other human civilisations as well.

Today, even in secular vocabulary, an “iconoclast” is a hero. Destruction of idols is synonymous with destruction of false heroes and wrong beliefs.

This has a direct impact on Hindus. They have seen their “idols” destroyed by invaders who wanted to eradicate the nation of idol worship. Hindus sacrificed themselves in large numbers to protect their “idols”. They suffered hardships and faced torture.

After the age of invaders came the age of colonisers.

Colonisation wore the cloak of civilising mission. They declared idol worship an abomination and related it to all the ills that exist in Indian society—from caste inequalities to untouchability to every obscene manifestation of social stagnation. Social stagnation itself had been caused by colossal impoverishing effected by colonialism. But the very same colonialism blamed it ultimately on idol worship.

Today we blame the Taliban for the destruction of the idols of Buddha. But read the following:

In Southern India this goddess is represented as the queen of the demons, and is called Pattirakali, as being the wife of Patran or Siva. It is obvious that in this, as in other instances, a portion of the Brahmanical mythology has been mixed up and incorporated with the aboriginal demon-worship. Kali is properly a Brahmanical goddess, but has been adopted in the system of demonism as a principal object of worship. … The engraving on page 198 represents the image of Pattirakali, and that on the opposite page her husband, Veerapatran, formerly worshipped together at a temple near Mandaikadu, the annual festival taking place at the same time as the Ammen-worship at that place.

The temple and most of the images were destroyed, and a Christian congregation formed by Mr. Mead at the same place, in 1836. … In the village of Tiruvaram, in Trevandrum district, there were two demon temples. … Once or twice a year a female officiated as priestess, dancing before the idols. The idols, with the exception of one which I have in my possession, were shortly afterwards destroyed; the temples are now used, one as a shed for manure, the other as a stable for cattle. The people are diligent in their attendance on the means of grace, and are making progress in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. … – Samuel Mateer, Land of Charity, 1870

When thus the converted fanatic mobs burnt down the temples built by their own ancestors, the missionaries also saved an idol or two and sent them as trophies to their headquarters.

The image of Paramasattee (Heavenly Power), represented in the opposite engraving, was worshipped above thirty years ago at a village in Neyoor district. It was committed to the flames by the people on their embracing Christianity, but was rescued by one of the missionaries. It was sent to England, and placed in the museum of the London Missionary Society, where it may now be seen. – Ibid

What one should note from the above passages is the way the missionaries worked in the princely state of Travancore. They did not touch the major temples in prominent towns. Instead, they started destroying the village temples. They also started making the distinction between “Brahminism” and “demonism”. The former would be ascribed to the “Aryan” / “Brahmin” and the latter to the “aborigines” / “Dravidians”.

This intentionally fallacious argument was accepted by many Indians as well. “Idol” worship became a later invention of the priestcraft or it became an abomination from non-Aryan barbarians—depending upon the situation.

A great success of colonialism and evangelism was to turn the people against their own heritage by creating both the narratives of victimhood as well as a sense of guilt and blaming it all on the religion of their ancestors. Even after the British Raj had ceased to be, this framework survived, and that too in “secular” academic institutions.

In the “Sanskritization” thesis of M.N. Srinivas, one can see the continuation of the evangelical theses of “Brahminism”-aboriginal “demonism” categories.

“Idol-worship”, which in evangelical vocabulary is the way of Satan and demons, becomes for the colonised sociologist the way of social oppression and exploitation.

Though two of the major Hindu revival movements of the colonial period, the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj internalised the colonial-Christian critique of “idol” worship, traditional Hindu Dharma soon re-asserted its importance and centrality to the spiritual development of any individual and society.

It was an illiterate pujari of a Kali temple in Bengal who would start it all. He showed to the Hindu society around him the essential significance of worshipping the divine in traditional sacred images.

The term “vigraha”, considered the sanctified living space of the God or Goddess, which gets translated to idol or images, began to reassert its importance. Sri Ramakrishna became a phenomenon unparalleled in the history of human spiritual heritage. The much despised “image worship” was the base and springboard of his elated, expanded, altered states of consciousness and non-dualist ecstasies with the Divine.

Ma Kali and Sri Ramakrishna

Mahendranath Gupta, the chronicler of the sayings and activities of Sri Ramakrishna, records a conversation he had with Sri Ramakrishna.

Should not the people who worship the image of God in clay be told that that it was not God, and that, while worshipping it, they should have God in view and not the clay image? Sri Ramakrishna snapped back.

That’s the one hobby of you Calcutta people—giving lectures and bringing others to the light! Nobody ever stops to consider how to get the light himself. Who are you to teach others? … Suppose there is an error in worshipping the clay image; doesn’t God know that through it He alone is being invoked? He will he pleased with that very worship. Why should you get a headache over it? You better try for knowledge and devotion yourself. – Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

Then came Swami Vivekananda, for whom Sri Ramakrishna was a spiritual source. He countered the anti-idol worship propaganda head on.

When one reads the following words of Vivekananda, one needs to remember that the poverty, suffering and perceived lack of moral values in the “Hindoos” were attributed both by missionaries and mercenary reformers to “idol worship”. Vivekananda said:

It has become a trite saying that idolatry is wrong, and every man swallows it at the present time without questioning. I once thought so, and to pay the penalty of that I had to learn my lesson sitting at the feet of a man who realised everything through idols; I allude to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. If such Ramakrishna Paramahamsas are produced by idol-worship, what will you have—the reformer’s creed or any number of idols? I want an answer. Take a thousand idols more if you can produce Ramakrishna Paramahamsas through idol worship, and may God speed you!

Then came Mahatma Gandhi. To Gandhi, the liberation of India also meant liberation from the slavish mindset and he wanted to liberate India as much as he wanted to civilise the West.

He pointed out the fundamental fallacy of condemning the Hindu way of worship as “idol worship”. He turned the tables and came up with a critique of the anti-idol worship propaganda. This should be considered an integral part of his political philosophy. He wrote:

Because I do not find a particular thing helpful for me, I may not be indifferent about others and not take the trouble of knowing whether it is helpful for them. I know that particular form of idolatry is helpful for millions, not because they are less developed that I am, but because they are differently constituted. What must not be forgotten about me is that not only do I not consider idol worship to be a sin, but I know that in some form or other it is a condition of our being.

The difference between one form of worship and another is a difference in degree and not in kind. Mosque-going or church-going is a form of idol worship. … And I refuse to call the worship of the one who has a stone image a grosser form of worship. Learned judges have been known to have such images in their own homes. A philosopher like Pandit Malaviyaji will not eat his meal without offering worship to the household deity.

It would be both arrogant and ignorant to look down upon such worship as superstition. … All this is a plea not for laxity in thought or worship, but it is a plea for a definite recognition of the face that all forms of honest worship are equally good and equally efficient for the respective worshippers. Time is gone for the exclusive possession of the right by an individual or group. – November 29, 1932

The worship of “idols” is then to Gandhiji a universal principle—a condition for human existence. Viewed from that point of view, what Gandhi suggests is that in Hindu Dharma, this fundamental trait of human nature has been carefully taken and used as a vehicle for the expansion of consciousness through divine experience.

That the so-called “idol” worship, in all its diversity, has blossomed in India, is indeed a panacea for the disease of fundamentalism and hatred. – Swarajya, 11 September 2021

Aravindan Neelakandan is an author, psychology and economics major, and contributing editor at Swarajya.

Francis Xavier Quote