Symbolism in Hindu Worship

By Br. Nerode

WHAT is a symbol? A symbol is the form of the formless, and represents that which cannot otherwise be represented. It is the image of the imageless, and the body of the unembodied. Hindu idolatry condenses an idea into concrete manifestation, which has essentially no form. It represents the idea made flesh before the mind of man, and aspires to bring into the sense-world the abstract idea which the sense cannot apprehend. The subjective wonderment of a devotee is transferred into an objective form, so that even the unseeing one can see the true import of the inner exaltation of the exalted. Hindu idolatry stands for the worship of an idea. Idols, as such, do not carry any significance, unless they symbolize ideas.

Once upon a time, before a marble idol of Siva, (the symbol of Eternal Change,) was seated a holy man, with legs crossed, meditating. A half-curious and half-astonished European gentleman asked him why he indulged in such a monstrous form of idol worship, which would deaden his intellect and atrophy his finer sensibilities. Equally astonished, the ascetic replied: "I am a monist, and worship One Being. I am worshiping one of His three aspects, which are the three C’s, namely, Creation, Conservation, and Change. So I am in reality worshipping God, not the image."

"Well, where is your God?" sharply questioned the European.

The recluse curtly answered: "Is not your God omnipresent? If He is, then you can find Him in the Infinite as well as in His various finite forms and manifestations, including the marble." Idol worshippers are idea worshippers. Hindu genius has always endeavored to converge all aspects of life ultimately to God. To a Hindu, the mission of life is its dedication to God, or it has no meaning. To redeem unbelieving and irrational persons from the shipwreck of atheism, the ancient masters devised idol worship, emphasizing certain aspects of the aspectless, so as to impress upon the imagination of the unimaginative one the existence of the Ever-Existent. Cruder minds can hardly conceive of the Inconceivable.

All religions, through the ages, have adopted personality worship. Personality worship has created more destructive fanaticism and irrational conservatism in the world than the sectional demoralizing influences that image worship has brought about in India. Personality worship breeds narrowness, whereas, image worship widens the narrow viewpoint by its sheer effect of impersonal appeal.

As a rule, the idol worshipping Hindus are more philosophical, and more spiritual than other races. Almost any Hindu, though he may lack all pedantic knowledge, has as clear a conception of the Supreme Being as his Western brother has of the stock market and baseball schedule.

Whence came this spiritual heritage? His broad conception of the Almighty, existing in Life and non-Life, Mind and Matter, has given him an understanding that never misinterprets the dumb language of the stone, or the vibrant voice of the human Spirit. This secret has helped him to spiritualize the whole national mind by suggesting different ideas about God to different minds, according to their understanding, reason, and temperament. Therefore, one is not surprised to find in India the incongruous fact, that even the most radical atheist is a non-atheist in the final analysis. Even the most unbelieving person believes in some kind of Spirit. This is indeed a great national asset, which, if properly utilized and directed, will benefit the whole world. Already the messages of Real Peace have come more from unhappy India than from any other country in the world.

This spiritual background has been built up through centuries of effort, sacrifices, and Self-Realization, to which the contribution of the image worship, or idea worship, is certainly considerable. Possibly, the time has come when this image worship should be discouraged, or abolished, on account of its attendant deficiencies, especially the stubbornness of its exploitive priest-craft, but then the manifold devotional expressions of human Spirit that it has given vent to will be lost in the reformation, and it will not be out of place to predict that in some form or other it will come back to India, although abolished, because, to a Hindu, spirituality is life itself, not a mere convention.

No person, however exalted, will ever satisfy a Hindu’s soul hunger, as personality is a limitation of the Impersonal, and the Impersonal is illimitable and diversified. In addition, the Hindu mind has been taught to see the diversity in unity, which no single personality can ever provide. Even the great personality of Krishna has been molded, remolded, and sometimes disfigured, to show in Him the diverse aspects of God and life and other culmination.

The Divine Personality must prove Himself to be not only the ideal child, ideal son, ideal husband, ideal father, ideal citizen, ideal man, and ideal Yogi, but also one who has direct knowledge of the here and there hereafter, and is capable of controlling all phases, natural, unnatural, psychical, or super-psychical.

Who but the Impersonal can fill such a big order? Only from their super-personalities do they make such extravagant demands. Because India has produced so many master Yogis, capable of exhibiting super-powers, they naturally look for those spiritual endowments in the men who claim to be the representative types of the Unrepresentable. The Hindu mind always moves toward the Impersonal. It is at home with the Impersonal aspect of God in the stone, more than in His personal expression in man, which is tainted by human limitations and human foibles. This is a strange psychological paradox, but paradoxical as it may seem, it is a solid fact of national psychology.