Suppose you’re sitting on your bed with your laptop open, chatting with your parents. A roommate comes to your doorway and asks what you’re doing. “Talking to Mom and Dad,” you reply.
“You idiot!” your roommate yells. “Don’t you know you’re sitting in a room by yourself? Your mom and dad are in another city! You’re literally sitting alone in a room talking to a piece of metal and plastic on your bed!”
Of course you know perfectly well that your parents are in another city — and that you’re actually talking to them — but now you have a problem on your hands: a roommate who doesn’t believe in Skype. You’ve explained this to your roommate, shown him the images on the screen. Your parents have waved and said hello. Still, your roommate becomes more and more upset that you’ve created this lie for yourself and he wants you to stop talking to your laptop and pretending it’s your parents.
The prophets in the Hebrew scriptures were like this well-meaning roommate. They saw what looked like people talking to carved statues, whom they assumed were unaware of a deity beyond the wooden image. Chapter 13 of the book of Wisdom describes a “skilled woodcarver” who carves an image in the shape of a human or “of some worthless animal.” He paints it,
Then he makes a special place to put it and sets it in a wall, fastening it with iron. He must take care of it so it doesn’t fall because he knows it cannot help itself; it is only an image and needs his help. But then he prays to it about his possessions, his marriage, or his children; he is not ashamed to speak to a lifeless object. For health, he appeals to a thing that has no strength; for life, he prays to a thing that is dead; for help he calls upon a thing that is completely helpless; for a successful journey, he petitions a thing that cannot take a single step; for money, work, and success in business he asks for strength from a thing that is unable to help itself. (Wisdom 13:15-19 New Living Translation)
Imagine if your roommate, in order to break your delusion, chopped your laptop into pieces with a hatchet. You’d be pissed. The roommate thinks you’re pissed because he “killed” what you believed to be your parents. You know full well your parents are fine, but now you’re out several hundred dollars and the paper you were working on that’s due tomorrow.
The ancient prophets condoned destroying statues and thereby “killing false gods.”
Break down their altars and smash their sacred pillars. Burn their Asherah poles and cut down their carved idols. Completely erase the names of their gods! (Deuteronomy 12:3 New Living Translation)
Their legacy has been carried forth for thousands of years, and their campaign against “idolatry” is still going on. Their ideas have been picked up in recent years by the Wahhabi movement, who is so against “idolatry” that, though Muslim, they’ve been destroying sites sacred to Islam in their zeal.Hinduism allows the worship of an image. You don’t have to worship an image and not everyone does, but if you do it’s perfectly acceptable. In fact, you can choose the image that means the most to you and worship that (you aren’t limited to One and Only True Image). According to the Isha Upanishad,
In dark night live those for whom the Lord is transcendent only;
in night darker still, for whom he is immanent only.
But those for whom he is transcendent and immanent
cross the sea of death with the immanent and
enter into immortality with the transcendent.
So we have heard from the wise.
(verses 12-14, translation by Eknath Easwaran)
At its heart, Hinduism has always taught that the God who is transcendent and the God who is immanent are the same. The microcosm is the macrocosm. Focusing deeply on the immanent, on the microcosm, can lead us to the transcendent, the macrocosm. This focus can be on a statue, a painting, a stone or design, a point of light or flame. You can also focus on your own heart or your “third eye” chakra. Whatever helps you focus the best on God is what’s right for you because the important thing is the deep connection between you and God. No one can tell you the “right” way to connect with God; they can only share the ways that have worked for them.
When Hindus use images (murti) in worship, we talk to the transcendent God through the immanent form the same way you can talk to your far-away family on Skype. Breaking the murti will anger people (because no one likes it when you break their stuff) but it doesn’t kill the deity.
This post was inspired by Ambaa’s post yesterday on The White Hindu called I Don’t Live in a Christian World.
I’d also like to point out that no one has to agree with my theology for me to have freedom of religion. It’s a right in the United States, and I value it. Freedom of religion means that I can literally worship my coffee cup if I want to, and I don’t have to try to prove to anyone that there is any transcendent meaning behind it. I might just like coffee. I can’t use government funds to build my coffee shop because the government is not allowed to officially endorse my religion (even if most of them love coffee too). You’re allowed to think I’m an idiot, but you’re not allowed to start breaking my coffee cups.