At one of my recent lectures (video at http://indusforum.org/media - see the Q&A, part 2), one of the participants raised the question of whether our moorthies should be called “idols” or whether they should not rather be called “icons”.
The relevant argument was first publicised by Rajiv Malhotra and runs something like this:
- Our moorthies are not “idols” in the Biblical sense, since we do not worship the moorthies themselves, but worship God through the moorthies (with the moorthies representing an “aspect” of God).
- People in the West, who either do not understand our traditions, or want to deliberately malign us, call us “idol worshippers” and do us down by putting us at the same level as those “idol worshippers” against whom God, as understood by the Abrahamic religions, rails (and actually asks for destruction divine or human to be visited upon them).
- Ergo: we Indians should not be called “idol-worshippers” but “icon-venerators”.
In the Q&A session, I had impulsively agreed with the participant– even though I was aware of the argument from Rajiv Malhotra’s work, I had not had the occasion to think through the pros and the cons of the position, nor been able to put any time into researching and thinking about it.
Later, some time after my response to the gentleman who asked the questions, I found that I had a little niggle in my mind about my answer, and I have now done some work on the matter, at least to a certain extent.
So here are the considerations as I now see them:
A. Is it true that we do not worship moorthies but only “venerate” them? Well, as far as I can see, it probably is the case that many of us only “venerate” them, but millions of us do actually worship them – in offering them pooja, we are actually offering pooja to them, and not through them to the Almighty (chat with any Indian in a genuinely neutral way regarding what he or she is doing in pooja to any moorthy, and you will get the two answers I indicate above)
B. So we should accurately say that “many” of us worship idols but many of us “merely” venerate icons.
C. Any moorthy is a “likeness” (that is the meaning, if you compare the use of the word across multiple linguistic and conversational contexts), so the question is: are ALL moorthies a “likeness” of God? Or, to put it differently, are all moorthies a fair or trustworthy representation of at least one aspect of God? Here we can have an interesting debate regarding what exactly the nature of God is, and whether each of these moorthies does in fact represent at least one aspect of God in some more or less reliable or trustworthy manner. It could be argued that the greatest problem with Rajiv Malhotra's kind of position is not for the Abrahamic religions (where arguments could at least potentially be found to justify all kinds of Indian moorthies except those now-rare ones to which human sacrifice is offered – human sacrifice is the specific grounds on which the fiercest condemnation was expressed, at least in the Jewish Bible, though Islamic prohibition is much more sweeping and rather “blanket”, and Christians have been ambivalent about idolatry and iconolatry – or at least “icon veneration” - since the 3rd century AD (cf the practice of the Roman and Eastern Orthodox Churches).
D. When does ANY moorthy become an idol that is “worthy” of veneration or worship? That is an interesting question in our traditions – of course, anyone CAN set up any moorthy or object and start venerating or worshipping it (photos or paintings of elders or ancestors are in fact so treated) but for a moorthy to be PROPERLY worshipped in our traditions, it is usually necessary for certain rituals to be done before it is considered “worthy” or “fit” for worship or veneration. See for example: http://hindupad.com/hinduism-updates/installation-of-hindu-idols-in-west-richland-community-center-by-hindu-society-of-eastern-washington
E. If the icons or idols only “represent” an aspect of God, then it should not be necessary to go through elaborate hour-long rituals (actually, the particular ceremony hyperlinked above, like most such things nowadays, is a highly-reduced or shortened version of the rituals – the full versions can last days and weeks).
F. The fact that we do go through these rituals, and “welcome the gods” signifies that some force or personality is being invoked and summoned through the rituals, which is what is then worshipped, in such cases, and not merely “some aspect” of God (whether any, let alone all, such personalities or forces can be considered “part” of God is an interesting debate within our traditions, as well as in other traditions).
G. This is not to say, that many Hindus do not, in spite of such shortened (or even the full and proper) rituals, persist in regarding the moorthies as mere symbols of an aspect of Godhood - though this may apply more to (Western) educated Hindus than to illiterate Hindus or those Hindus who are educated partially or wholly in ways that are traditional in India.
H. The words "icon" and "idol" have now been secularised (just as the word "wicked" has been secularised), so that any pop star is an "icon" or "idol": worship too has been reduced from such prapatti to a mere "high". But halt! Just because there are secular versions of a "high" (whether induced by alcohol or drugs or a phenomenon of mass hysteria) does not mean that these secular versions entirely contrast worship: these "highs" are merely a diluted form of "worship"
I. The word "worship" means an external act which acts out the "worth" or "value" that I acknowledge the worshipped person or object represents.
In conclusion: to the participant who raised the question in the temple, my response should have been much fuller and more nuanced.
But that is of course the challenge on such occasions: there are many people wanting to ask questions, and if a full answer is to be given to each of them, then the Q&A session will not last a mere 300% as long as originally scheduled (as happened on that occasion – and then the Chairman had to cut it short!) but would last perhaps 3000% times as long!
Probably that is why it is best for questions to be posed and answered individually - which is also the reason why in our traditions, originally, there was little "preaching" (except after this was started by the Jains and Buddhists); till very recently, individual questions were the preferred mode of interaction, and it was indeed considered "not done" to ask or answer questions "in public".
The wonderful luxury that is offered to us by Skype and email nowadays is that we can, at least to a large extent, return to or continue that old tradition of individual interaction..
So let’s make use of these modern media to ocntinue individual interaction with each other.