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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Symbols and Substance: Images and Icons



Dear Asha,Ajay,Ravi and Ariana,

Our ancestors maintained that there is ONLY one Original Source and that people call IT by different names. If so, how come Hindus worship so many Gods? In this essay, I wish to answer this question, as I understand it.

I explained the meaning behind the forms we worship in the previous essays. When you read them I hope you understood that the forms of Gods are symbolic representations of divine qualities. Their hands, head(s), the objects in Their hands and the ornaments adorning Their body represent concepts. They are metaphors for Divine qualities and reminders of our relationship to the Unity behind diversity. Images of “Gods” look like human and therefore approachable. At the same time those heads and hands and the objects they carried set them apart from us and made them half-human and half something else (eg: Ganesha, Shanmuga, Narasimha, Hayagriva etc. Some examples from Greek mythology are Medusa and Centaur.

Metaphysical discussions on the origin and the nature of the Universe and our relationship to the Original Cause have been going on since the dawn of civilization. There are two major basic and opposing points of view. One emphasizes the abstract concepts behind the singularity or the unity behind the multiplicity. This approach is philosophical, demands self-inquiry and needs personal effort and discipline. This is the path of spirituality and is very difficult to follow for most people. The other gives a name to that Primordial Unity, emphasizes a personal relationship to this Original source with a form (God), and gives an organizational structure to worship this God. This method is easier to follow for most people, particularly children. This is the path of religion.

“In the beginning, there was nothing” says a famous hymn from Rg Veda. How did something come from nothing? How did this universe start? This question has occupied the minds of philosophers and mystics for centuries both in the east and the west. There are, of course, several opinions. One group says that the universe came out of one or more primordial substances such as space, air, fire, water and earth and that there is no other original principle. This was the view of the Samkhya system of Indian philosophy and some Greek philosophers .

Another group follows the common human psychology which requires an explanation for everything in the form of a causative agent and an intention. This says that there has to be One original source just as there can be no clay pot without a potter and clay. The various activities of the cosmos (and of the world we live in) are not carried out by the material objects (made out of the five basic substances of speace, air, fire,water and earth) by themselves, but by an active spirit called variously as Purusha, deity, Deva, and angel. This spirit got Its energy from the Original source.

The One original source behind everything in this universe has different names in different cultures. For example , we call it Brahman (Parama purusha, parabrahman) in the Vedic Hindu tradition and this Primordial Source is called Wakanda in Sioux, Orenda in Iroquois, Mulungu in Bantu, Allah in Islamic and Yahveh in the Jewish traditions. In the Christian tradition, I have seen several names. One is God-head. The other is the Holy Spirit. Yet another is the “Father in the Heaven”. All the ancient traditions recognized such a single, primary “divine” central force or spirit from which everything flashed forth and from which they derived their energy for function

The derived spirits (purusha, deity,deva etc) common to all non-christian traditions were mistakenly called the Gods by western missionaries and writers. The more suitable word is angel, akin to the Sanskrit word Angirasa. True translation of the word angirasa is “the essence or the force behind (rasa) the parts (anga)”. Deity (Deva, similar to divine) is another appropriate word as mentioned earlier.

In the vedic Hindu system there are several such deities, so called gods. For example, there is Indra (the king of the devas or gods), Varuna (the king of rain or ocean), Soma (the lord of the moon), Rudra (lord of the beasts), Yama (the lord of death), Mrthyu ( the lord of diseases) and so on. That is at the cosmic level.

At the human level, specific intelligent energies present in the subtle plane are considered to be essential for the functions of the human body. Thus, at a personal level, Indra is the force behind the power of the hands, Vishnu of the feet, Agni or Fire is for speech, the Sun for the eyes, Varuna for the tongue, Ashvini devatas for the nose, dhik for the ears, Mithra of excretory organs, Prajapathi for generative organs. Indeed, the root for the word deva is div, which means to illuminate. The word deva was used originally to refer to the sense organs (eyes,ears etc) since they illuminate their objects and therefore the name deva is appropriate for the ruler of each of the sense organs.

There are corresponding sets of so-called Gods in the Greek and Roman mythologies also. For example, the supreme God in the Greek pantheon is Zeus, probably akin to Indra of Hindu mythology and Jupiter of Roman mythology. The Lord of the ocean is Poseidon in Greek and Neptune in the Roman mythology. Demeter is the presiding deity of agriculture in the Greek mythology and Ceres in the Roman mythology (the root for the word, cereals). Goddess of beauty and love is Aphrodite in the Greek mythology and Venus in the Roman mythology and so on.

Although all cultures believe in ONE superior power, they all personified this power. This is the projection of human features and qualities on the divine. This is what is called anthropomorphism, making “a God in man’s image”. Since all cultures also believed that the Divine Power is the force behind all of nature, they also personified the various aspects of nature – like the Earth, the Rain, the Sun, the Moon etc. These are the so-called “gods and goddesses” according to the western writers.

Christian missionaries applied the word “god” “as a general term for the usually non-personified greater power”. The missionaries used the word god to translate words they encountered such as Jumala (Finnish deity for sky), Mulungu of Bantu and Brahman of India. Of course, all these words referred to ONE supreme power “energizing” every aspect of nature – and not an individual “god” as the missionaries understood. In Sanskrit, the word closest to the English “god” is “deva”. In translation, deva is close to the word angel of the biblical tradition.

The jump from this attribution of the name “God” to the deities of the “other” groups to criticizing all earlier groups as “heathens” who worship multiple gods was easy. The Jewish prohibition of making “images” of God came out of the need “to separate its deity beyond all human descriptions from the anthropomorphic gods of semitic and Egyptian neighbours” . This anti-idolatory tradition of the Jewish roots was taken up by Christianity and Islam that grew out of Judaism.

Hindus and other polytheists realize that the symbols point beyond the intermediate “forms” or idols (or murthis or vigrahas) to the ONE Absolute Primordial Principle. To them these deities are many distinct aspects of the ONE reality. They know that “a deity is a limited being and not the ultimate Reality itself. Gods and Goddesses can, however, become portals to the Reality” (Feuerstein G. Tantra: The Path to Ecstasy. Shambala 1998)

Vedas themselves tried repeatedly to tell us that the Formless Unity is the only ultimate Reality and not the multitudes of Gods with forms. Yoga Vasishta 32.1.8 says: “Saakaaram bhajasthaavath …… Niraakare parey thathve” which means that we worship with forms (until our mind is clear) and we reach a stage of spontaneous abiding in the Formless Truth.

Gita 12.5 states:
“Kleshodhikatharah theshaam avyakthasakthachethasaam
avyaktha hi gathirdhukkam dehavadhbih avaapyathe”
which means that the man who wishes to concentrate his mind on the imperceptible suffers because to the human clothed in the body it is inherently difficult to reach the state of imperceptible.

In Chapter 7, sloka 24 of Gita, Lord Krishna says:
“Avyaktham vyakthimaapannam manyanthe maamabuddhayah
param bhavaavam ajaanantho maamaavyayanuththaman” I
which translates to “ignorant people worship my perceptible form with a human frame. That is not my true form. My imperceptible form is my true form”.

Finally, Vedantha Sutra says Na Prathike na saha which means “He is not in the symbols; He is beyond them”. In addition, Yoga Vasishta 31:55 states: “Nithyam avyapadheshyaapi kathamchit vyapadheshyathi” which translates to “although It cannot be named, somehow It gets named”. Brihadaaranyaka Upanishd 1.4.6 says
Thadhyadidamaahuh amum yajaamum yajethi, ekaikam devam
which means “people pay sacrifice to this God and to that God considering them to be separate. But, they are multiple projections of Him. He Himself is all the Devas”.

If so, how did we end up with multitudes of images and sects following different deities and their images? Bal Gangadhar Tilak quotes Yoga Vasishta in his remarkable book called Gita Rahasya (Volume 1, Page 575) and gives a possible explanation for the creation of images in our culture.
Aksharaavagamalabdha ye yatha
sthulavarthuladhrushath parigrahah shuddha
Buddha parilabdhaaya thatha
dharumrunmayashilaah mamaarchanam
which means “just as we arrange pieces of stones in front of a child to acquaint him with letters, so are idols made of wood (dharu), clay(mrit) or stone(shila) in order to acquire knowledge of the Pure Paramatman (the Supreme Spirit)”.

In spite of all these repeated assertions, the reality is that people cannot focus on an abstract spirit. Children certainly cannot. Therefore, our forefathers created several meta-representations of philosophical concepts and made images out of them. These meta-representations became the so-called Gods. The images are the vigrahas or moorthy’s of the Gods.

In Sanskrit, Pratika is a symbol (for example OM) and Pratima is an image or idol or figure. Indeed, Visishtadvaita (qualified monism) posits five forms of God or Ishvara (ruler), namely para (transcendent, absolute), vyuha (manifestation), vibhava (incarnations, 10 of them), antharyamin (indweller, atman) and archa ( an icon or idol). As you can see, idol or icon is considered a form of God. The Sanskrit word for the form or idol is “Vigraha”. The word “vigraha” is the opposite of “graha”. “Graha” is to hold or to contain. “Vigraha” represents that which cannot be contained.

Images and icons are symbols. We use symbols all the time. National flags are symbols. The Golden Arch of McDonald and the tri-colored ball of Pepsi are symbols. In the spiritual sphere, Jack Kornfeld pointed out that symbols are “images of awakening”. These outer images point to our inner world and the relationship between the inner world and the outer world. Images are used in all spiritual traditions – even those which prohibit image worship. In Buddhism which started as a renegade is full of images, such as the Bodhisattva of compassion and Manjusri of illusion and Avalokiteswara of listening.

In the Indian mythology, each one of the Gods was endowed with special qualities and elaborate stories (puranas) were created around each one of these figures. The idea is that each one of those Gods will appeal to different human personalities, so that each one of us can use our favorite “image” to meditate on. The ultimate goal however is to aim for the formless Brahman through this individual, private, favorite medium.

The problem however is that people get attached to one form, mistake the symbol for the substance, develop elaborate rituals for worship, follow esoteric practices, spin elaborate theology and create meta-representation of the meta-representation of that particular form. They then cling to the symbols,pujas and rituals. They do not proceed any further in their spiritual practice and enter blind alleys. That is the tragedy of blind faith and closed minds.

In summary, vedic Hindu tradition says that the Almighty is ONE, by whatever name we call IT. It concedes that ordinary men and women need an object, a sound, something to focus on. It recognizes that most of us, particularly children, cannot meditate on a Formless, Absolute, abstract Brahman or Atman. In order to help grasp the formless Brahman, the wise sages of India gave many forms to the formless. It is reasonable to start prayers and meditation at the altar of one’s favorite deity or god or angel with form or idol. Once we have reached a certain level, our tradition asks us to go beyond the form to the formless, from Symbol to Substance.

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