The Spiritual Implications of Idolatry

Belief: Its Early Awakenings & Present Manifestations

Prof. Michael York

Bath Spa University College

2 June 2004


Idolatry is one of the more controversial practises within the world’s panorama of religion. In the West, particularly within the Abrahamic religions, it is universally rejected. Even in the East, such as within Hinduism, idolatry is disparaged in sacred Shastra texts, though images are part of normal worship.

Swami Vivekananda, in his Defence of Image Worship (2002), suggests idolatry is condemned because centuries earlier a man of Jewish blood happened to condemn idols, everyone’s except his own. If God is represented by a cow, it is sin; if by a dove, it is holy. Though Vivekananda is principally concerned with the images used in Hindu worship, the dilemma arises through human myopia, the inability to see through another’s eyes, and applies equally to modern day paganism.

The ecologist David Abram has bluntly argued (The Spell of the Sensuous, 1996), that the ancient Hebrews’ adoption of an abstract language represented by alphabetic signs allowed ancestral wisdom to be represented by writing and thus disassociated from earthly sensuality and the physical environment, to which any spiritual connection was then seen as idolatrous. Idols may be seen, even within polytheism, as the tangible and corporeal, venerated both as sacred and as representative; both the god and the symbol of the god. John Bell in his New Pantheon (1790) saw stars, with their beauty, their influence on the earth, their regularity of motion, as the first idols of worship. Whether true or not, certainly the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus described the admiration with which they were viewed, particularly the sun and moon. Certainly idolatry was common before Abraham.

Whether as a symbol or as the residence of a deity, an object of contemplation and reverence, the idol also becomes reflective, like a mirror reflecting the worshipper. Here is the heart of the idolatrous dynamic. Calvert Watkins in Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans (1969), traces ‘idol’ and ‘idea’ to the root weid-, giving Greek eidos ‘form’, ‘shape’ and idea ‘appearance’, ‘form’, ‘idea’. The Abrahamic God was to be invisible at all times, whereas the idol was visible. Etymologically, ‘smile’, ‘mirror’, and ‘miracle’ also share a common root. Just as the earliest humans would have smiled at their reflections in water, so the idol becomes reflective of the worshipper, an occasion for joy, implicitly for smiling. Through idolatry we may be said to be worshipping ourselves, or some feature of ourselves. The Christian God can be seen as the deified collective soul of humanity, humanity at its fullest reach. We have created God in our image rather than God, in Genesis, creating us in His.

The Abrahamic postulation of God not as Self but Other, to separate the human and the divine, explains the biblical condemnation of idolatry. In the pantheistic nature religions, however, there is no radical divide between matter and spirit, human and divine, and they sense in Judeo-Christian culture in the West, in the worship of Yahweh and the prohibition of idols and of a multiple and gender-differentiated godhead, a violation of a natural human impulse. This supposedly idolatrous propensity however is found within the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox branches of Christendom, only here the statues or icons of saints are claimed not to be worshipped, just venerated as a medium or focus of devotion. Hinduism, Buddhism, nature religions and paganism, by contrast, accept the revered object as a medium of approach but also sometimes a manifestation of the deity. Bell distinguished between idols as fictional things (e.g. centaurs) and images as real things (e.g. a star, a tree) though the terms tend to be used indifferently, to mean the same. Indeed, non Abrahamic religions do not even distinguish between worship and veneration.

Idolatry coming from eidelon (‘image’, ‘form’, ‘idea’) and latreia (‘worship’), transcendent monotheism is itself, to the idolater, an idea, an idol, of the same status, even without images, as all theological understanding and conjectured notions. Whereas the first two Commandments effectively reject paganism, most non- Abrahamic religions, though they do not embrace the notion of sin, certainly reject the first two commandments and the principle for which they stand. Yet the West, whose paganism shares with eastern dharmic religions an essentially iconographic approach to the divine, can learn much from these living Eastern practises of its lost indigenous traditions.

Whatever may be its Vedic/non-Vedic origins, Hinduism and Mahayana/Vajrayana Buddhism are amongst the main repositories of iconographic knowledge and practise. Manuals of complex principles set out the ancient rules for constructing images, specifying facial and anatomical details and other attributions for each deity, yet a living faith throughout India is reflected in the variety of icons between localities. Some icons or murti are considered so sacred as to be kept in consecrated inner shrines, rarely exposed, whereas others, such as the images of Krishna, Balirama and Subhadra are paraded through the city, as during the Jaganath of Puri in Orissa State. On such occasions, on seeing the murti, the worshipper experiences darshan (‘seeing’), thus bestowing grace upon him, or her. At the other extreme is the ‘lord of all’ Vishvanath, ‘sacred stone’ lingam of Shiva in the Golden Temple Varanasi, which worshippers and pilgrims alike may see and touch. Other forms of representation include symbols (mandalas), abstract designs (yantras), various gestures (mudras) and formulaic sounds (mantras).

While idolatry is found throughout Hinduism and Buddhism and in pagan practise in Chinese folk and Afro-Latin spiritualities, it is found also in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox hagiography (idolizing of saints) and throughout the Christian Church (e.g. the cross, the lamb, the dove and the fish-symbol). Christ himself is recognised as the physical embodiment of the transcendental God. Images enjoy a popular belief in their miraculous powers, their processional darshan being reminiscent of idolatrous practises with dharmic and pagan faiths.

Among Abrahamic orientations the Jewish and Islamic are the most vehemently aniconic. The Muslim shahadah allows no possibility of idolatry, yet the Kaaba in Mecca, which once held 360 idols destroyed when Mahomet first conquered the city, is now retained for the annual Hajj. The black ovoid meteorite embedded in its south-eastern wall, said in Muslim legend to have been a white stone given by God to Adam, which then turned black due to the sins of mankind, and was given by the archangel Gabriel to Abraham who installed it in the rebuilt Kaaba, itself attracts accusations and denials of idolatry, reminiscent of Roman Catholic denials in connection with its veneration of saints.

Idols of today, according to Jonathan Sacks (The Times, Credo, 10 Jan 2004) include ‘Self esteem without effort, fame without achievement, sex without consequences, wealth without responsibility, pleasure without struggle and experience without commitment’. Indeed, the fashionable rejection of ‘isms’ makes them an ‘idol’ to the disparager, be they consumerism, faddism, hedonism, narcissism, materialism, or Hinduism, Buddhism, Christism or Mohammedanism. But whether revered or reviled, the object is an ‘idol’ in the eye of the beholder. Christians and Muslims illustrate idolatry in its worst form, an ‘idée fixe’ which blinds them to the divine-human aesthetic, precluding them from participatory bonding with humanity as a questing affirmation.

Idolatry treads a fine line between passion and obsession. Fervent, zealous, even frenzied adoration, within the boundaries of decorum and consideration of others, is to be encouraged. But where that fervour sets us against our brothers and sisters, idolatry becomes sacrilege. When religions that employ icons are tolerated and protected in the same way as other major faiths, then current condemnation of idolatry as the worship of false gods is unfounded. Biblical rejection of idolatry must be rejected for two reasons. Firstly, the authenticity of a deity is beyond empirical enquiry, being decided subjectively between the worshipper and the worshipped, its attribution of falsity being therefore only a value judgement. Secondly, the theistic denunciation of a natural or man-made object to represent a transcendent God is refuted by the pantheistic understanding that God is not beyond the visible, but rather all of reality, that there is nothing that is not divinity.

Idolatry was founded originally on the magical, on the ubiquitous extension of enchantment perceived locally in place and object. Pantheism may be ultimately the rationale for idolatry, but is not its cause. Rather does idolatry give rise to pantheism, being a portal to pantheistic perception.

God, though inherently mysterious, may be understood as ever-present, to Abrahamists as transcendental, to nature religionists as dwelling everywhere. God’s omnipresence is – or could be – a unifying feature between many of the world’s religions. If ubiquitous, however, both internal and external to the self, why privilege one or the other, as a subjective preference. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, while the idol did not for him ‘excite any feeling of veneration’, he thought ‘that idol worship is part of human nature… Images are an aid to worship’.

To the pantheist, humanity, life and the natural environment are interconnected. As Abram says, touch a tree and it touches you, see the world and it sees you. A wholly immaterial mind could neither see nor touch, could not experience anything at all. Idolatry today rests upon a non-transcendental experience between sentience and tangibility, an interaction that is at once animistic and sensuous.

Martin Sturge