Chapter 5. Images of God

What Can We Learn from Hinduism : Recovering the Mystical
by Marcus Braybrooke

Chapter 5. Images of God

I have come to appreciate the beauty of many Hindu temples, but my first visit to a big temple in Madras was bewildering. I vividly recall the heat, especially of the sandy earth on which one had to walk barefoot, the various smells, the dirt, and above all the number and variety of images of God.

Hindu images of the Divine have provoked a strong and negative reaction in many Western visitors. ‘More than anything else’ says Diana Eck, writing of the holy city of Varanasi, (formerly known as Banaras), ‘it was the multitude of divine images that elicited the strongest response of Westerners in their encounter with Banaras and with Hinduism generally. Virtually everyone who visited the city, from Ralph Fitch in the sixteenth century through those who went there in subsequent centuries, expressed astonishment and even repugnance at the panoply of images. Fitch wrote "Their chief idols (sic) bee black and evil-favored, their mouth monstrous, their ears gilded and full of jewels, their teeth and eyes of gold, silver, and glasses, some having one thing in their hands and some another." Three hundred years later, the English assessment of these images had changed little. In the 1800s, Norman Macleod, in the midst of his exuberance for the vistas of Banaras, referred to "that ugly looking monster called God", and Sherring wrote of "the worship of uncouth images, of monsters, of the linga and other indecent figures, and of a multitude of grotesque, ill-shapen, and hideous objects."’ The missionary Henry Martyn spoke of a visit to a Hindu temple as like being in the vicinity of hell.

In some of the Western reaction there is an aesthetic as well as a religious antipathy. The sculpture of Ancient Greece, often of Olympian deities, was admired but the exuberance of much Hindu art was puzzling and Pöhlmann writes that ‘what is annoying about many images of the gods is their kitsch’, although he adds that kitsch is a very relative term. Westerners too, reared on the Bible with its denunciations of ‘idolatry’, felt little sympathy with Hindu devotion and some would refuse the gift of prasad, a sweet which after being offered to the god is given to the devotee. I remember that some Christians at Madras Christian College were shocked that I should want to visit a Hindu temple.

The mistake, however, is to assume that the image is in fact the object of worship rather than a representation of the Divine who is formless. The book of Isaiah misses the point with its mockery:

‘Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah, I am warm; I see the fire." From the rest he makes a god, his image; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god." They know nothing, they understand nothing.’ (44, 16-18).

The Book of Wisdom is rather more sympathetic. ‘Small blame’, it says, ‘attaches to those who go astray in their search for God and eagerness to find him and fall victim to appearances, seeing so much beauty.’(13, 6-7).

Hindu teachers make clear that the ultimate divine reality, Brahman, is beyond all forms and description, but such a Deity is too remote for many people. God, therefore, graciously makes himself available to worshippers in the form of an image. In the Gita (4, 11) Krishna tells Arjuna ‘In whatever way people approach me, in that way do I show them favor.’ The great Hindu teacher Ramanuja (eleventh century), who in his commentary says that the Lord is characterized by his utter supremacy and his gracious accessibility, explains that this verse means ‘in that way do I make myself visible to them.’ The Lord becomes accessible both in images and in incarnations. It is, as another Vaisnavite theologian, Pillai Lokacarya, explained, one more evidence of God’s graciousness. ‘This is the greatest grace of the Lord’, he wrote, ‘that being free he becomes bound, being independent he becomes dependent for all His service on His devotee . . . The Infinite has become finite that the child soul may grasp, understand and love Him.’

The image brings God into focus -- it is not in itself a god. Yet after the ceremony of consecration, as Fr. Fallon points out, ‘the devout worshipper believes that something has happened, the statue or image has been transformed into the very body of god or at least, into his abode.’ As Diana Eck explains, ‘Because the image is a form of the Supreme Lord, it is precisely the image that facilitates and enhances the close relationship of the worshipper and God and makes possible the deepest outpourings of emotions in worship.’ In the temple ritual, whereby, like a royal personage, the image is woken in the morning, honored with song and incense, dressed and fed, the worshipper expresses his or her devotion to God. There are perhaps parallels with the devotion shown by some Christians to the consecrated bread and wine at the Mass. For myself, I think of Christ’s presence in the fellowship of believers who remember him rather than localized in the host, but as Fr. Fallon says, ‘The sacramentalism’ which characterizes true Christianity should help us see what there is of positive value in the ‘symbolism’ of the Hindu religious world.’ A sympathetic attempt to understand the value of images for Hindus has also helped me to appreciate the value of icons for Orthodox Christians and the many statues of Mediterranean or Latin American Catholic churches.

Images that help some people get in the way for others. Several Hindu reformers from Kabir to Tagore, as well as Sikh gurus and Indian Muslims, have condemned images. Others see their value as only for the spiritually uneducated. Lokacarya, as we have seen, spoke of the child soul. The orthodox writer Raghunanda said the same: ‘For the sake of the devotee do we fancy forms and shapes of that Brahman which is pure spirit, the one without a second, the absolutely simple and incorporeal One.’ Some twentieth century Hindu leaders, such as Vivekananda and Dr Radhakrishnan, have taken the same view. It is sometimes said that in all religions people need a material focus for their devotion. One devotee of the god Rama explained, ‘God without form is too remote, you cannot reach him, therefore all men worship him in some form that brings him near. Muslims have the Qur’an, Sikhs the Guru Granth Sahib, and Christians the Cross.’ Dr. C. T. K. Chari, my professor of philosophy at Madras Christian College never went to a temple. He considered it unnecessary for the spiritually educated and he explained that the images in his home were for the benefit of his wife and children!

My own preference is for simplicity, but Hinduism has helped me value color and movement in worship and to be more appreciative of those whose devotion is expressed in arranging flowers or polishing brasses, who thereby convey ‘the beauty of holiness’.

The Hindu devotee approaches the god of the temple or indeed a guru for darshan or a viewing of the divine. Hindu worship, which is individual and not congregational, is not primarily a matter of prayers and offerings. It is eye contact with the divine image that brings blessing, power, comfort and forgiveness, as is true of Benediction, a Catholic eucharistic devotion wherein the consecrated host is exposed to view in a monstrance. The Hindu devotee longs to stand in the presence of the image and to see and be seen by the deity. There is a great sense of excitement in the temple as the curtains are drawn back and the image is revealed to the view of the worshippers. Gifts are taken not to atone for sins or to win favors but to express delight in God, just as when one visits a friend one does not go empty handed. Again, this desire to see and to be in the presence of the divine is a reminder also that worship is not just a matter of belief but of presence -- of sensing a mystery and beauty and peace that passes all understanding.

India, as Diana Eck observes, is a visual and visionary culture. What is seen, because of what it represents, is more important than what is heard. As Swami Kriyananda says, ‘Words are but symbols. They do not present.’ Protestant Christianity, by contrast, with its emphasis on the Bible as the Word has given primary importance to hearing and to reading. With the prevalence of television and computers, Western society has become more visual. Christian worship would perhaps be enriched by more color. At a deeper level, there is the need to recover an awareness of the importance of symbols. The analytic and scientific approach to education has its limitations. The deepest truths can only be expressed in poetry, myth and symbol as some of the most successful authors of children’s stories have realized. We need to be in touch with both the female or imaginative left side of the brain as well as the male analytical right side of the brain. As Bede Griffiths wrote, ‘Man cannot live without myth; reason cannot live without the imagination. . . The myth has to be reborn.’

If some Westerners find the images of gods off-putting, they may also express surprise at finding that the lingam, the male organ, is the focus of worship in many temples dedicated to Siva, the third god of the Hindu trinity. The lingam is usually set in the yoni, a representation of the female vulva. In 1962 a respected scholar Gopinath Kaviraja explained that worship of the lingam was very ancient and purity and impurity are in the eye of the beholder. Creation, he said, always proceeds by the union of two powers which are called by various names. This duality derives from the single ultimate source of all being. The union of the lingam and yoni is the expression of creative energy.

Hindu gods are also usually shown with a consort. Indeed archaeological evidence suggests that reverence for the female as the source of life was of primary importance in the earliest Indian cultures. The Mother figure vividly expresses God’s love for human beings. The worship of Sakti, divine female power, addressed also as Kali, Durga, Radha, Sarasvati, Laksmi, Ganga and Parvati, is still widespread, although often during periods of male domination, the goddess was made subject to a male god.

A female deity was a surprise to me when I first went to India and brought to mind Old Testament denunciations of Baal worship and flagrant sexuality. Stories of temple prostitutes lurked somewhere at the back of my mind. Yet the language we use of God is only analogous. God is not literally a Father and there is no reason not to picture God as a mother or to call on ‘God, our Parent.’ Where possible, I now try to avoid the use of the male pronoun for God and I am disappointed that the churches are so slow to use inclusive language for God. We may now speak of ‘humankind’ but the language of ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’ is unchanged and the Holy Spirit, if given a gender, is like the worshipper, assumed to be male. The accusation that the Church by the masculine nature of the language it has used of God has for centuries reflected and reinforced a patriarchal society, which has shut out female forms of self-representation and seen women in terms of male desire, is hard to refute.

Women in India too have been the victims of male oppression, but whereas in much of Christianity there has been a fear of human sexuality, in some forms of theistic Hinduism sexuality and divine energy are related. This too may lead to abuse, but as Pöhlmann comments ‘In contrast to the devaluation of the body in the history of Christianity, from the beginning Hinduism had a more open relationship to the body, to sexuality and beauty’. He mentions in particular scenes of Krishna playing his flute for the milk maids to dance to which are a common theme of Indian art. He also refers to Günther Grass who called Hinduism a ‘sensual religion.’ Maybe a more positive valuing of human sexuality, which is evident in contemporary Christian thought, may help to combat the trivializing of it in Western society.

Images of Kali can at first sight be off-putting. The challenge of Kali, however, is to recognize the terrifying aspect of divine creative energy. Nature is ‘red in tooth and claw’. If God is the source of all that is, God’s ultimate responsibility for evil has to be recognized unless one moves into a dualism which posits an Evil Power in competition with God. There is in Isaiah the puzzling verse, ‘I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things’.

My involvement in Christian-Jewish relations and therefore with the theological implications of the Holocaust have led me to ponder this question and what I learned of the Hindu Trinity, who is Creator, Sustainer and Destroyer, has helped me to believe that God is both life-giver and destroyer, present in life and death, in joy and sorrow. Certainly I do not think God sends evil as a punishment, although life’s difficulties may be a challenge. God wills what is best for all people, but I do believe that in the midst of evil God is present and by sharing our suffering God can help to transform it. For it is my confidence that no power in life or in death is stronger than the self-giving love of God, revealed for me most clearly in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps these mysteries are best expressed in myth and images and not in words. Although some of the images of the divine in Hinduism may seem alien and disturbing, they may also help us fathom mysteries beyond our comprehension.