(extract taken from THE FOUR O’CLOCK TALKS – Discussions with JOHN MARTIN
SAHAJANANDA compiled by Carrie Lock (pg. 114)
In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there is a strong sense that God is transcendentand that we should never make an image of God. ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol’(Gen 20:4) is one of the Ten Commandments. In Judaism they do not have any image of God. In Islam there is also no image of God; Muslims are completely against any idol worship. In Christianity, we do not have any image of God. God may be presented as having a long white beard, but it is not a real image of God.
Sometimes, others accuse Catholicism of a type of idol worship due to the prevalence of statues of Christ, Mary and the saints. In Christianity, we have to distinguish between worship and veneration. There is a subtle difference between the two. Worship only belongs to God. What we need to do is to ensure that our symbols have universal value so that others can also understand and follow the meaning; otherwise our symbols become a narrow type of mentality which excludes others.
In Hinduism, there are a lot of statues, especially of the gods such as Vishnu, Ganesh and Shiva. Hindus believe that when you concentrate on a statue of one of the gods, the spirit of God comes and dwells in the statue and that the idol is worthy of worship. In my view, we cannot take sides whether this is absolutely right or wrong. There is something positive in having the idols. The danger is when we make these images absolute.
Especially in the Western mind, it is thought that Hindus believe in many gods. This is called polytheism. We have to be very clear about this: Hindus do not believe in many gods, they believe in only one God, and this one God has infinite attributes. The term is sahastra nama. Sahastra means 1000, which means infinite. God allows individuals to have an image according to his or her need. For God, it is not a problem. God is the same even though there are many images; what is different is only the external form or expression of God according to people’s needs. We should not see the differences but instead we should focus on the unity, and then you don’t worry about the image.
Temples, like images, can also represent attributes of God. Whenever we go to a temple, we should ask, ‘What is the meaning of the name of this god?’ and consider whether this name is OK with God. For example, there is a famous temple in the state of Orissa called Jagannatha Temple. God is worshipped as Jagannatha. Jagath means ‘the world’ and Natha means the Lord. God is being presented as Jagannatha, ‘Lord of the world’. Is not God Lord of the world? Another example: there is a temple called Vishvanath in Varanasi. Vishva means universe. God is being presented as ‘Lord of the universe’. Is not God the Lord of the universe? We have a temple here in the nearby city of Trichy called Sri Ranganatha. God is called Sri Ranganatha. What do we mean by ‘ranga’? Ranga means stage. Nadha is the Lord.
So God is the director of the stage. People are acting on stage and God is the director. In the state of Andhara Pradesh there is the famous temple Sri Venkateswara Swami. This means ‘The Lord who removes sins’, We say Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, this is Venkateswara. In Islam, they may not have an image of God, but still they have attributes of God. They have 99 attributes of Allah. Likewise in Catholicism, there is only one Christ, but he is given various attributes such as ‘Christ the Healer’, ‘The Sacred Heart’, ‘Divine Mercy’ and so on. What the Hindus do is they make the attribute into a form.How do they know God is merciful? They put it into visual form. For example at Jagannatha Temple, God as ‘Lord of the world’ is an attribute. It is difficult for some people to understand God as the Lord of the world, so an image is created so that people can relate with God.
In Hinduism, they have different names for different aspects of God; according to that name they build the statue or temple for worship. It is not the stone but the presence of God in the stone that is being worshipped. The most important thing is not to say don’t worship these idols. If you don’t want to worship, don’t worship, but if this stone is able to awaken devotion in millions of people, that is really a great miracle, no? We human beings are not able to awaken devotion in the people but this stone is able to do so. The important thing is whether this stone is helping people find devotion. We should not just find fault. We should not blame people, as long as their form of worship is benefiting them to be more spiritual and move closerto God then there is something good there.
In the Prophetic religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam, God is portrayed as transcendent and that you should never have any image of God, but then people can identify God with the scriptures and say ’This is God’. That is also a type of idol worship. Idol worship isn’t only related to statues; it can also be in the form of a book. That we forget. Any image of God can be an idol, even the ideas we have of God in our mind can be idol worship. We can use the idols and symbols but we have to go beyond the idols and symbols to the reality. The real nature of God is love and compassion.