Many religions including Judaism, Islam, non-Catholic Christianity and reformed Hinduism decry idolatry as an abomination. The Ten Commandments from the Bible start with a clear injunction against idolatry and making images: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth, you shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)
However, making images is essential to man as much as breathing or eating. Words are images. We cannot think or talk without using images and symbols. Every word that we utter is an image that refers to something else. The word God is not God. It is a symbol for God. Brahma, Yahweh, Jehowah and Allah are all words first, and as such, are images or symbols that refer to the ultimate Reality.
Moses and the prophets were using images to prohibit the use of images. Why? They were teaching a fundamental truth, namely, that God is invisible Spirit, and cannot be confined to any material thing. When Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets of Ten Commandments, he found the Israelites worshipping a golden calf, drunk and unruly, caught in the heat of lust. In rage, Moses threw the tablets at them. Idol worship, in this instance, was a mere pretension and not genuine worship.
One who honestly worships an idol is humble. They feel a sense of awe and gratitude to the Divine Presence in the image. The attitude of the Israelites showed that they confined their God to the golden calf and ignored His presence in their bodies and hearts, as they indulged in alcoholism and sexual promiscuity.
When we kiss the photos of loved ones, it is an act of communion with the beloved that does not merely end in the image. God and His saints are omnipresent. They are aware of our desire to worship them, even as we go near the holy images and idols. God is present in every little thing completely, though He transcends all things. Hence anything can reveal His Divine Presence.
Idolatry can be a virtue or a sin, depending on the attitude of the idolater. Limiting God to any particular thing is the sin of idolatry. Condemning idolatry indiscriminately and arrogantly, while limiting God to a particular religious sect, set of doctrines and one holy book is paradoxically an act of sinful idolatry.
On the other hand, those who humbly worship idols with pure devotion and love, begin to feel the presence of God first in the idol, and then everywhere, in everyone and everything. Hence they are not guilty of confining God to any particular thing, and are practicing the virtue of image-worship.
In the Broadway play “Equus,” the main character was a young man who worshipped his horse as God. He was brought to a psychiatrist to be rid of his delusion. The psychiatrist knew that he could help the boy to be freed of his delusion, but was concerned that in the process, the patient would be deprived of his passionate enthusiasm and joy.
Perhaps, instead of ceasing to worship the horse, he could have been helped to see even more the divinity in the horse, and cultivate one-pointed devotion. It would have enabled him to see divinity in himself and everywhere else. To see God in the horse was not delusion; not to see God anywhere is the real delusion. We all suffer from it. Not a psychiatrist, but only a saintly sage can facilitate freeing us from our common delusion.
The sages know God more directly and clearly than this world. Their senses are not dull, but sharper than that of ordinary people; they see the world even more clearly, yet find God to be the sole Reality behind this world.
Naren Datta came from an aristocratic family in Calcutta. A well-educated, brilliant youth, he was keen on finding the real truth behind words and traditions. Searching for God, he had the habit of asking spiritual people whether they had seen God. He did not receive a satisfactory answer, until he met Ramakrishna Paramahansa.
Ramakrishna told him then and there that he sees God more clearly than Naren with whom he was talking. Immediately Naren realized that Ramakrishna knew God intimately, and would help him toward his long sought goal of realizing the divine Presence. Later, Naren, well known around the world as Swami Vivekananda, became a luminous sage, inspiring thousands of people in India and abroad to cultivate genuine devotion to God, and compassion for the poor and the suffering masses.
The primary path to God for Ramakrishna Paramahansa was image-worship, as for millions of Hindus before and after him. From a young age, he worshipped the idol of Mother Kali following the prescribed rites meticulously, washing and wiping the idol, dressing it in beautiful clothes, waving incense and lamps and feeding the idol, while chanting the relevant mantras in Sanskrit.
For Ramakrishna, God in the aspect of Divine Mother Kali was truly present in the idol, though hiding Herself there. Daily he shed tears, intensely imploring Her to reveal Herself. The intensity of yearning for God had reached such a peak. He felt he could not live any longer without seeing his Beloved. At that point, Divine Mother revealed Herself to Ramakrishna in Her glorious beauty and love.
Later Ramakrishna attained final liberation, realizing total oneness with the infinite Absolute. Yet he preferred to remain a devotee, lovingly conducting the daily worship in the temple to the idol of Mother Kali. He knew through experience that God is transcendent and immanent, personal and impersonal, formless, yet assuming forms to please His devotees.
The belief of many Hindus in the real Presence of God in the idols is quite similar to the belief among Catholics of the real Presence of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Deeply devotional idol-worship and intense devotion to the Holy Eucharist have produced a great many saints in both religions.
Omnipresent Spirit can take numerous forms, and enthrall the devotees with the many aspects of the one Godhead. Practice of polytheism by Hindus is much misunderstood. It is not at all a denial of monotheism. Instead, one can go even deeper into monotheism through polytheism. One can perceive the magnificent manifestations of one God in multiple forms and aspects. Hindu practice, prayers, scripture and philosophy emphasize the essential unity of all the Gods and Goddesses.
Unity is absolutely fundamental to Hindu philosophy. Its dominant system is called Monism. Enunciated by an extraordinary genius and a saintly sage, Sankara, who wrote beautiful devotional poetry extolling Gods and Goddesses. Monism insists on the essential oneness of ultimate Reality or God. Anything apart from God is unreal or illusion for Sankara. Yet, as a devotee, he kept a distinction between himself and God. He sang: “O God, I belong to you, whereas you do not belong to me, as the wave belongs to the ocean and not the ocean to the wave.”
St. Catherine of Siena, in her mystical communion with God, heard these words: “Catherine, always remember this most fundamental truth: I am; you are not.” Though we can affirm with Sankara and Catherine that everything apart from God is unreal, it is also true and heart-warming to view all things as real, imbued with the reality of God’s Presence in them. Hence it is a great virtue to feel the Presence of God in trees and stones. Worship them with much devotion.