Most of the religions and spiritual traditions of the world – with the general exception of Protestant Christians, Muslims and Jews – use images, representational forms or statues in their worship.
Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches abound with statues, paintings and pictures of various types. Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Taoist and Shinto groups use them extensively both in temples and home shrines. Sikhs prominently display pictures of their gurus. Native American, African and Asian religions use images and deity forms as part of their communities and traditional ways of life. The ancient religions of the world from Mexico to Greece, Rome, Egypt, Babylonia, India and China used images prominently, as archeology clearly reveals.
The use of images is an integral part of human religious practices and no universal or all-inclusive religion or spirituality can be regarded as complete without them. Even many Protestant Christians have pictures of Jesus in their house or church, or at least a symbolic cross. Muslims often have pictures of their religious or political leaders, with religious depictions of Ali or Hussein used commonly among Shiites.
Idols or Icons
However, there is a strange and hypocritical dichotomy in how religious images are denoted. When they are part of the Christian tradition they are called “icons” and classified as works of “religious art” that are regarded as sacred in nature. When they are part of non-Christian and pagan traditions they are demeaned as “idols,” which is a derogatory term that indicates not the sacred but mere superstition. In the case of Native American and African images, even when done by a culture as advanced as the Mayas of Central America – which built great pyramids and had many great cities – they are lumped along with so-called “primitive art”, fetishes or totems. Sacred images of traditional cultures throughout the world, including India, are often regarded as mere “folk art”.
An image of Christ as the good shepherd is called an icon and viewed with respect. An image of Krishna as the good cow herder – another image of the Divine watching over the souls of men – is called an idol, which encourages one to look down upon it. This is prejudice and negative stereotyping of the worst order.
What Christian would accept calling a depiction of Christ an idol? Would Christian religious leaders approve of it in the press of Christian countries? What Christians in India would accept it?
Denigration of Hinduism as Idolatry
Unfortunately, Hindus routinely accept that depictions of their deities – who represent powers of universal consciousness and Self-realization – are demeaned as idols. The news media of India does this commonly as does academia, which encourages the western media to continue the practice that easily fits in with their negative depiction of Hinduism according to continuing colonial and missionary distortions.
To call such images as idols implies that those who worship them practice idolatry or take the image itself as the deity. This adds yet more prejudice and error to the statement. The use of the term idol inflames the sentiments of anti-idolatry religions like Christianity and Islam, as both the Bible and the Koran, at least in places, instruct their followers to oppose idolaters and smash their temples and images as unholy.
Christians and Muslims have long been taught to try to convert idolaters, as well as to denigrate their practices as primitive, if not devil worship. Anti-idolatry wars have killed millions of people over centuries and destroyed thousands of sacred sites and sacred images of the so-called idolaters. Anti-idolatry campaigns have encouraged every sort of plunder, prejudice and genocide, and still promote discrimination against image using traditions, particularly those outside of Christianity.
The use of an image – whether we call it an icon or an idol – does not imply belief in the reality of the image in itself. That we keep a photograph of our spouse or children at our work desk does not mean that we think that they are the photograph. It is a reminder, not a false reality.
Murti, Not Idol
The correct term for the image in Hindu Dharma is a murti, which implies a symbolic representation of a higher reality. Such murtis require “prana pratishta” or special rituals to bring the spirit or deity temporarily into the form. In celebrations like Ganesh Chaturthi or Navaratri the images are discarded or immersed in the ocean after the celebrations are over once this purpose is achieved. Temple deities, however, are enduring, though they require daily worship to sustain the higher spiritual power flowing through them.
Hindu Dharma employs the largest variety of images, whether sculpture, paintings, or visualizations, along with music, dance and dramas, than any other spiritual tradition in the world. All forms are used including human, animal and plant, supernatural depictions, symbols or designs. These encompass all of nature and all types of artistic expression. This is a wonderful heritage must be honored and shared, not veiled or suppressed as idolatry.
The Hindu use of images is part of a yogic science of bringing down higher cosmic influences through special rituals, mantras and the offering of special substances like incense, flowers, fragrances, liquid food or special ghee lamps. Such ritualistic worship with candles and incense remains in many anti-image traditions as well.
Given the power of the media today, it is very dangerous to allow such wrong terminology to continue, particularly in the age of Islamic terrorism that feeds upon negative depictions of other religions. Using such terms as idols, the media is not fostering communication but promoting discrimination and violence. Such abuse of language should be challenged and replaced wherever it is found.
Campaign to Replace the Term Idol with Murti
Hindus should develop a campaign to replace the term “idol” with that of “murti”, which can slowly correct this distortion. Hindu thought accepts the Divine as both formless and as present in all names and forms. Its highest goal is realization of the Universal Self through Yoga and meditation, not simply promoting an exclusive belief or statement of faith. It employs images as one of its many factors of worship including symbols, mantras, yantras, pranayama, visualization, concentration, and meditation.
The honoring of murtis can be found among many great Hindu sages and gurus from ancient to modern times and is the basis of Hindu temple worship. Paramahansa Ramakrishna is a good example of a great guru for whom murti puja was very important. Even Adi Shankara, the great teacher of non-dualist Vedanta, also composed many wonderful hymns to Hindu deities, which include murtis and temple worship.
Many Hindu murtis are great works of art, and we find them in museums throughout the world. These murtis should be honored as sacred. This will also help in dealing with the stealing and selling of murtis under the guise of their being mere works of Asian art.
So please, dear Hindu friends, stop using the term idol and replace it with murti, explaining the meaning of the term to non-Hindus as required. It will definitely make a difference and aid in a proper understanding of Hindu Dharma, which unfortunately still remains probably the most misunderstood and maligned spiritual tradition in the world – sadly largely because of its many wonderful and beautiful images, symbols and statues.
This article was first published in Hindu Post