Hindu Idolatry and the Question of Sacred Form:

A Reply to Swami Dayananda

By Thea (Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet)


[Swami Dayananda's New Indian Express article is printed below Thea's response]

Swami Dayananda Saraswati’s article in the 9.3.2008 Sunday edition of NIE, under the title ‘Hindu-Jewish declaration removes misconceptions’, caused such disappointment in me that I feel obliged to present a different viewpoint. Indeed there are ‘misconceptions’; but these are to be found in the Swami-ji’s presentation of Hinduism, more than from any Rabbinate or Vatican source. For the fact is the focus on Idols in Hinduism, after the Vedic Age with its emphasis on pure geometric forms, is perhaps the most significant and inspiring aspect of the Sanatan Dharma.
            First, let me quote a portion from the Swami-ji’s article to highlight a point I wish to make: ‘The Jerusalem meet concluded with a landmark declaration that Hindus worship “one supreme being” and are not really idolatrous.’
            To begin, perhaps Swami Dayananda is not aware of the negative baggage the word ‘idolatrous’ carries. For Hindus it could be equated with the ‘n’ word for Blacks. What astonishes me more than anything is how burdened Hindus still are with these loaded labels (pagans is another) foisted on them by invaders and colonisers down the centuries, bearing these extremely derogatory connotations. One would have trusted that with independence these ‘misconceptions’ would have been lifted and Hindus would be allowed to hold their heads high regarding key issues of their belief system. Articles such as this one, written by a leading exponent of the faith, makes us realise that there is ever present the need to be ‘accepted’ – and this by faiths that have never reached the heights and depths of Hinduism.
            We read further: ‘Hinduism has been perceived by them [the middle-eastern faiths that eschew idols] as idolatrous and promoting many gods…The historic declaration made at the summit at Jerusalem on February 18, 2008 sets at rest the wrong notion that Hinduism is idolatrous.’ He continues, ‘… (T)he crux of the problem was…the worship of forms. When they understood that no form is separate from Isvara and the particular form enshrined in a temple is but an altar of worship, they did not see any real issue to contend with…’
            Though it may appear differently in a cursory reading, Swami Dayananda has eliminated in this article, and possibly at the summit, exactly what Hinduism cherishes most: Oneness, no separation, reality as a seamless whole. Furthermore, this statement places ‘worshippers’ in a lesser category by claiming that the idol in a temple ‘is but an altar of worship’. We would have to question what exactly is meant by ‘but an altar of worship’. In effect the Hindu Temple is sublime precisely because it captures what is truest and most laudable in the Sanatan Dharma in that the sanctum sanctorum, where that alleged ‘inconsequential form’ resides, is an exact reproduction of the human soul wherein the Godhead of any particular inclination is nestled. Woe be the day when this sacred Bhoomi ceases to give birth to those devotees who have had, and continue to have, this profound experience.
            In the Bhagavad Gita, Chapter Eleven, Sr Krishna unveils his true FORM at Arjun’s request: it is the Time-Spirit, Mahakala. But true to the age in which he lived, for Arjun it is unbearable. He implores his mentor to return to the form he is used to, that of his beloved friend; and Sri Krishna obliges. But we learn something extremely important from this narration which is perhaps missed by most: The ‘form’ adopted is one of Hinduism’s most cherished concepts. To some extent we find it exquisitely enshrined in Nataraj of the Cosmic Dance. Will Swami Dayanada ‘explain’ to the Jewish Rabbinate that this is a mere figure for the devotee to worship, with no deeper significance?
            Hinduism has become contaminated by lesser beliefs; the deep and profound significance of the Idol in each temple has been sullied by this desire to make the faith acceptable to those who have never had the experience of the DIVINE MAYA of the Vedic Age, she who is the fashioner of, precisely, Form. What is overlooked, by one and all it seems, is that in eschewing idols the guardians of dogma did away with the Divine Mother, creator of all Form. There is an awakening in the West particularly to this aspect of Reality: the Goddess, fashioner of Form, among her many other attributes. The result by this wholesale elimination has been the degradation of women, particularly in those areas where sacred idols are trampled upon. May Hindus awaken to this conspiracy and resist the temptation to be ‘all things to all men’. The world must open to the Hindu way, and not the opposite.

Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet
Director, Aeon Centre of Cosmology
Tamil Nadu, South India


THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS - 09 MARCH 2008

Hindu-Jewish declaration removes misconceptions
by Swami Dayananda Saraswati

An extraordinary inter-faith meet between Hindu and Jewish religious leaders – and event with the potential to pioneer a paradigm shift from conflict to harmony among all religions – took place at Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago. The historic meet emphasized and illustrated the importance of honest dialogue between any two religious traditions to resolve seemingly irresolvable differences.

Last year Hindu and Jewish religious leaders, representing the two oldest traditions in the world, commenced an inter-religious dialogue in New Delhi. Following that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the delegation from the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha held the second round of inter-religious dialogue at Jerusalem in February 2008. The Jerusalem meet concluded with a landmark declaration that Hindus worship ‘one supreme being’ and are not really idolatrous. The implications of this are profound in content and far-reaching in effect. Judaism was born of the complete repudiation of idol worship and rabbinic literature abounds with denunciations of idolatry in an entire tractate of the Talmud devoted to this. The importance of this issue in Jewish and other Abrahamic traditions cannot be overstated. Since its first encounter with these religions, and due to their incomplete understanding of its Sastras, Hinduism has been perceived by them as idolatrous and promoting many gods. The Hindus have for centuries experienced the extremely violent consequence of this wrong perception. The historic declaration made at the Hindu-Jewish summit at Jerusalem on February 18, 2008 sets at rest the wrong notion that Hinduism is idolatrous. The declaration reads:

‘It is recognized that one supreme being in its formless and manifest aspects has been worshipped by Hindus over the millennia. The Hindu relates to only the one supreme being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation. This does not mean that Hindus worship ‘gods’ and ‘idols’.

The Jewish leaders, in so many words, owned their perception of the Hindu tradition as erroneous and came up with the declaration which the Hindu delegation could happily accept. This establishes that honest and bold dialogue can completely reverse wrong views and erroneous perceptions held over millennia. It emphasizes that leaders of every religion need to be informed about the basics, vision and beliefs of other religious traditions.

In India Hindus not only gave sanctuary to the Jews when they were hounded out all over the world but also gave them the freedom to pursue their religion with dignity. Yet their notion, entirely due to a wrong perception, that Hindus worship many gods without one supreme being and that they are idolators remained, with the result their theological conflict with Hinduism was seen as irreconcilable. Now after an honest and open dialogue they have realised that the accommodating heart of a Hindu is born of his/her acceptance of one Supreme Being who is invoked in many ways and in many forms by different faiths including theirs.

In fact, the crux of the problem was no doubt the worship of forms. When they understood that no form is separate from Isvara and the particular form enshrined in a temple is but an altar of worship, they did not see any real issue to contend with. They were visibly relieved and thanked the delegation for removing the wrong perception held for more than two thousand years.

Once the fundamental misconception was removed, the Rabbinate, not surprisingly, also affirmed the following declaration on the sensitive issue of the svastika, the sacred symbol for the Hindus.

‘The svastika is an ancient and auspicious symbol of the Hindu tradition. It is inscribed on Hindu temples, ritual altars, entrances and even account books. A distorted version of this sacred symbol was misappropriated the Third Reich in Germany and abused as an emblem under which heinous crimes were perpetrated against humanity, particularly the Jewish people. The participants recognise that this symbol is, and has been for millennia, sacred to Hindus, long before its misappropriation.’

The importance of this affirmation may be understood from the fact that a Hindu temple in Detroit was vandalised a few years ago by the Jewish community offended by a huge svastika rangoli at the entrance of the temple.

Another critical element in the declaration is the acceptance that all faiths are sacred and inviolable and that religious conversion is in itself violence. If all faiths, particularly the Abrahamic family of faiths, accept this declaration the fundamental cause of religious disharmony will be gone for good. Several other and significant issues were discussed at the summit, leading to mutual understanding. Leaders of both religions came out of the mutually enriching meeting, wiser.

I write about this meeting and its outcome because it sets a new bar for inter-religious dialogue. To ferret out what is common in our traditions and agree that we have some common ground is not enough; it is not enough to skirt around tough issues and “agree to disagree”. No, to be beneficial to all, to foster enrichment rather than impoverishment of our religious traditions, dialogue must be conducted on the points of intersection of our conflicts with ruthless honesty. We should have the courage to probe, question, listen and even agonise if we have to, but never shirk. Above all, the dialogue must be rooted in the deepest and most comprehensive grasp of the scriptures of the respective faiths.

Dialogue is the ancient Hindu model for promoting mutual understanding of religious truth and avoiding or resolving conflicts between faiths. Dialogue between enlightened leaders of the faiths pre vents the differences among them from spilling on to the streets and turning into uncontrollable issues. That was how in this ancient nation religious harmony was conceptualised, promoted and sustained for thousands of years. Now this needs to be globalised for promoting peace among religions. The only means to conflict avoidance and resolution is dialogue among different religions. The Global Foundation for Civilisational Harmony [GFCH] which was inaugurated by His Holiness Dalai Lama in January 2008 in Delhi, and in which some well-known religious and spiritual leaders of different faiths participated, has a very significant role to play to bring about this healthy understanding among religions. The GFCH needs to organise meaningful dialogue between leaders of different religious traditions and help remove wrong perceptions arising from an absence of true understanding of each other’s faiths, paving the way for harmony and mutual respect among religions. All religious faiths and religious leaders must extend their whole-hearted support to this great initiative.

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