Tolerant Idolatry and Polytheism

Polytheism, the belief in “multiple” Gods in religion, has been historically viewed as some sort of anachronism that has been eclipsed by more evolved monotheistic religious beliefs. And of course the lowest abomination even in the polytheistic totem pole is idolatry. Idolatry, which is often defined as a belief which ascribes divinity to an idol, is accused as the most primitive and unsophisticated.  History abounds in episodes when heaps of idols are annihilated, defecated on, spit upon, and have every kind of indignity performed on them as if to make up for all the excess adulation and worship that was previously performed on them. In this context, idol need not necessarily stand for a statue or a stone or a tree. It can just as easily stand for a place, building or even an idea. Yet what did these idols do to merit this kind of ceaseless diatribe?  What inspired such a deep and persistent loathing to symbolic icons that  had never craved worship to begin with?

I had read a lot of articles that critiqued Idolatry. Some of them established that it is evil on the basis of the assertion that idols would then take the place of God. The love for God would be usurped by God’s creations which are idols. Hence any belief in such a practice is tantamount to demeaning God who alone is deserving of our devotion or love.  Others have argued that personifying God using idol like attributes imposes the ephemeral characteristics of the idol to God. Example: We don’t want God to age, be localized in space etc. just like the idol is. Upon closer scrutiny, these arguments can easily be revealed as specious. But before that let us quickly see what God stands for most people.

Notion of God

People’s views of God are still amazingly homogenous despite their conformance to apparently conflicting religious beliefs. Most of us think of God as the epitome of love, power and knowledge. We also implicitly believe that God is non localized. (i.e. simultaneously present in multiple places) For instance, most of us would not find it contradictory that God can save two people in two different parts of the world out of some tight spot at the exact same time.  Such a God with all these attributes must perforce be beyond human limitations. Now what would you want to call such a God? Do you want to call him (or her) Shiva, Vishnu, Allah, Durga, Jehovah or Buddha? Or just God?  No matter what you call him, understand that God has already got equated to the name. Hence if I call my God Shiva, the name Shiva has already become an idol!! It is no longer a simple word but symbolizes God with all the associated power that is bequeathed to such an entity. I would be hesitant to utter the word  Shiva when I am discussing or performing any “dirty” activities (such as urinating for instance)

So the association of God to a name has already triggered idolatry. The word “Shiva” would become incredibly auspicious to me and I would start getting protective about the usage of the word itself by anybody around me.  Any allusion to anything negative in conjunction with the word “Shiva” becomes anathema and I would goto huge extremes to preserve this sanctity. Now let us assume that i built a beautiful temple to Shiva somewhere. The association of the word to the temple would now elevate the status of the temple (i.e. the building) and also the place at which it is built. What is the significance of all this sanctity? Why should I bestow this special privilege to a place or a structure that was hitherto bereft of any such special significance? And all this because I had decided to call my God “Shiva” and decided that this is the exact place where I need to build this temple for Him.  If we believe in the innate equality of all human beings, I would have to concede to someone else an equal right to call his God by some other name and do all the associated exaltation that goes with it. Any deprivation of this right to a fellow human being shows me as a self centred, uncultured person lacking in common decency and egalitarianism. And now, having conceded this far, we understand the following:

  • The need to believe in some idol is Universal. This may be a physical or a symbolic or a spatial or even an abstract association. Now will this idol cripple our notion of God and limit God to the idol? Yes and No. Yes, if we decide that the idol is God and there is nothing beyond the idol. No, if we understand the idol as a representation of the almighty which is required because of our inability to visualize an omnipotent, omnipresent, eternal entity which is what we believe God is.
  • Since belief is individual, there may be multiple idols. Hence a recognition of the innate equality of all these idols.

As cultured human beings we must desist spewing venom to at other’s beliefs and stop gloating on the perceived superiority of our beliefs and way of living. That is the true spirit of egalitarianism which we were flattering ourselves that we possess. Isn’t it? If this is true, then we have to grant different people their right to create their own Gods and worship them.

This realization ultimately shows how tolerant Polytheism is. In fact, this idea can also be extended to not only the believers of God but also to embrace Atheists. After all, Atheists believe in God too. Just that their God does not exist in the way we know Him. Atheists must also be given the ability to exercise and evangelize their beliefs. They also have their own “idols”. These can include concepts such as Science, Philosophy etc.

Hence a true humanist would recognize the validity of all symbols both physical and conceptual and would accept them all as manifestations of divinity. He would not have trouble conceding that Jesus Christ has as much right to exist and evangelize Christianity as Bertrand Russell does to evangelize rationalism .

The Power of Association

There exists an innate human tendency to associate things. Similes and metaphors are not constrained to poets alone. We have this incredible ability to associate two entities and view the associated entity as if it is the real entity. This ability is so innate and so elemental a part of us that we don’t eve recognize that we have this ability. For instance, in speech we equate a thing to the word that represents it. We think the word “horse” is the same as the actual horse. Think of the word horse and we instantly visualize a horse! But horse is just a word not the real thing. Still, we make the mental association between the entity and the word almost unconsciously.

The finest example of this ability is manifested in Mathematics where we tend to associate a representation of a number (2 for example) to the actual abstract concept of two. We do all kinds of algebraic trickery with the symbol 2 and expect the real world to behave the same way. And Voila it does seem to behave that way! 2 + 3 = 5 and if we do take two apples and add three more apples to the pile we do have five apples. But we still need to understand that the association of the number 2 to the concept of two apples is symbolic. We are working with symbols and not with reality when we add 2 and 3 to obtain 5. The same thing happens in physics as well. We derive all kinds of esoteric equations from recognized axioms and expect reality to follow suit. For the most part, reality seems to be indeed mirrored in those physical equations but as we advance more and more, we are realizing the inadequacy of the symbol to represent reality. Many physical equations fail in extreme situations. This happened to Newton’s law of gravitation, Euclidean Geometry, Thermodynamics etc.  They had to be refined  by better theories.

This exact argument applies in religion as well. All the symbols associated with God are required for spiritual advancement but need to be shed eventually as we start approaching the utopian state of enlightenment. At that point none of these matter. But let us not ignore the importance of the symbol until then. It is required for the journey.  And all of you out there who seek refuge in your own symbols, your own sacred places, your own name to God, your own embodiment of what you call Goodness, your belief in Science, your innate belief in humanism, ethics and what have you – far be it for you to cast the first stone!

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

raja shankar kolluru

To describe myself as a manifestation of the supreme spirit may sound too bombastic. But that is what we all are. I am reminded of the story of a great sage who was reading the Upanishads. He was asked as to what he was reading. To which he replied that he is reading about his own glories. This blog especially is an offshoot of all my religious ruminations over the years.

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