Early humans attributed cause of natural calamities like rain, floods, lightening, thunder, floods, disease and death to be the acts of unknown super beings. With passage of time, out of their imagination, they perceived super human replicas of powerful natural phenomena to be identified as gods and goddesses. Santana Dharma was foremost to have such pictorial imagery backed by expressive narratives to explain natural phenomena in convincingly interesting manner. Subsequently, those interpretations travelled to other human groups living all over the world by word of mouth. Thus Hindu Mythology paved way for the development of modern Science.
It was natural that with every narration, alterations also cropped in. Thus rest of the faiths also followed Santana Dharma. All the early religions have general similarities with few local variations. The effect of those personifications was so powerful that even today in every country, existence of some god or goddess is associated to be controlling various functions of Nature and The Master Creator. They are almost similar to original Hindu thought, though their names and internal relations differ according to language and local folk-lore. With advancement in scientific reasoning and knowledge, the beliefs and superstitions came to be questioned and were subjected to rejection wherever they failed the test of conviction. It was much later that Christians branded those interpretations as ‘Paganism’ and Muslims castigated same as ‘Kufar’. The irony is that even the new founded faiths also relied upon angels and other kind of supernatural personifications.
Blended Reasoning with Art
A happening remains a myth till it is accepted as proven truth. Any religion to be acceptable, therefore, must appeal to the head as well as the heart of the followers. Hinduism does it. While most of ethnic groups in other part of the world were still passing through savage or nomadic phase of life, Santana Dharma developed a fanciful and imaginative true to life written mythology that is pictorially perceivable. Learned mystics, called Rishies rationalized their concepts with scientific precision during the Vedic age and their assertions can stand the test of modern discoveries being made today.
Relevance of Symbols
Ability to understand abstract principles is proportionate to the perception ability of every person. The mind of child cannot perceive abstract. The child is required to be shown the pictures of mango, dog, tiger, map of the unknown place, or photograph of his parents and relatives, to perceive their image when they are not physically present. The picture or diagram therefore should be designed to portray the attributes of the object as truthfully in detail as possible. Although the picture is not true representation of the object, yet it helps the child to identify the object and understand its attributes.
Wind cannot be photographed. But strong wind blowing can be symbolically represented by drawing leaning trees with leaves flying and falling in the direction of wind speed. Leaning trees and flying leaves are thus symbols to depict the presence of strong blowing wind – and not actual strong wind! Similarly, while Hinduism accepted the formless existence of God in every object, Hinduism has developed and relied upon symbols as effective training aids for learners. For training of the mind, Hinduism asserts that when a rationally designed symbol is pronounced it recalls the thing signified. The word and thought become inseparable. Symbol is an aid to visualize the abstract.
Philosophy of Image Worship
Hindus closely observed the properties of Natural phenomena and transferred them in to human images with superb imagination. They painted images of Gods and goddesses and also carved their sculptors. Interesting narration was also added to provide logical interlinks their effect on other phenomena in the environment. Although the myths were explained in simple way but like six blind men exploring the elephant, the ignorant propagated that in Hindus worshipped several gods and goddesses through idol worship!
There are different grades of worship. Symbol in the form of idol or sign is only the beginning of religion. Certainly it is not its end. Hindu scriptures prescribe idol worship for beginners, but also speak of meditation on the Infinite. Idols of various deities are art works and fancies of sculptors, but viewing the same as Murti in Hinduism is a medium for establishing communion with the deity manifested through sculpture in front.
An art dealer may have several idols of particular deity on display for sale. Customers negotiate price before picking up one. If some defect is noticed, replacement is sought or the piece is rejected. Till this stage the idol is treated as a piece of art being negotiated for price and no feelings are attached. But when the same ‘art-piece’ is installed at place of worship with feelings of reverence, only then it turns into manifestation of the deity.
Though the image is worshiped apparently, the devotee feels the presence of the Deity in it. As it is possible to catch the sound waves of people all over the globe through the radio and TV, same way it is also possible to commune with the all-pervading Lord through the medium of an idol. The divinity of God is vibrant in every atom of creation. A flag bearing symbol of nationality is only a small piece of colored cloth, but a soldier is prepared to give up his life in defending his flag, because feeling motivate the soldier to sacrifice himself for protecting the national honor wrapped in the flag. Just as the flag arouses martial valor in soldier, so also the image of the deity arouses devotion in the devotee.
Rituals in Worship
Rituals are prescribed to standardize procedure for performing an activity in public, and for ensuring that no vital action is missed out. Rituals formalize beginning and ending of an activity. Like blowing of candles and cutting of cake symbolized celebration of one’s birthday, image worship follows the rituals that normally would extend to some persons in authority. The worshiper super-imposes the image of the Deity on the Murti with all His attributes and expresses his inner self aloud or silently.
By convention there are sixteen steps to express reverence to the image of the Deity. The Presence of the Deity is invoked. A seat is offered. Deity’s feet are washed, water and hospitality is offered. The Deity is bathed, dressed in new attire; and is invested with the sacred thread. Sandal paste is applied to Deity’s forehead, flowers are offered and incense is burnt. A lamp is lit and waved before the Deity. Thereafter food is offered, some gift is made and finally the Deity is escorted farewell. All this is symbolic; otherwise, the Supreme Power that can fill oceans and light up the whole universe is not dependent for bath on sprinkled water or some food from the worshiper.
There is no compulsion to go through every step either. Every individual is free to formulate a procedure as per his conviction, convenience and resources. To a worshiper having faith in the symbol, any kind of image is the body of the Lord, be it made of stone, clay, brass, gold, or a picture drawn on paper. All matter is a manifestation of God, and He is present in everything. Image worship is one of the easiest modes of self-realization based on scientific principles, and suits majority of the people today. Idol transforms into deity the moment faith, feelings, and reverence are attached to the object and the worshipper submits himself. All worshipers generate a form in the mind and make the mind dwell on that image.
A word is also a symbol to fix the wandering of mind. Symbols are not peculiar to Hinduism alone and other faiths have also been inspired by symbols. Christians regard the Cross as holy and an object of reverence. They wear cross pendants, decorate their premises with Christmas tree, and deploy humans in the makeup of Santa Clause to bless children. The Muslims also keep the image of the Kaaba stone when they kneel for prayers, display digits 786, Mohammad and Allah calligraphic in Arabic and wear pendants on person to escape evils. Thus in other faiths also, mental image is a form of idol. The difference is not one of kind, but only of degree.
Hindus have several options even in picking up of symbols, such as the following:-
- ‘OM’ – represents the un-struck sound called ‘Anahata Nada’. Depending upon the source, there are two types of sound – ‘Anahata Nada’ and ‘Anahata Nada’. ‘Aahata Nada’ is caused by striking or friction of two or more objects. This acoustic sound is used in music. All ordinary audible sounds are made by two or more elements, such as, bow and string; drum and stick; or wind rushing against the leaves. The other type is un-acoustic sound – ‘Anahata Nada’. It is the divine and eternal sound, not caused by any human effort. ‘OM’ is the sound of primal energy, the sound of the universe itself. Om is composed of four elements: the first three are vocal sounds: A, U, and M. The fourth sound, unheard, is the ‘silence’, which, begins and ends the audible sound, the silence that surrounds it.
- ‘SWASTIKA‘ – stands for stability during rotation in four directions and their harmonious whole. The four arms of Swastika fixed to a center represent speedy rotation of universe, yet appears stationary at the center. Besides Hindus, many other Eastern cultures and some Europeans also hold Swastika symbol to be sacred in spite of its association with Nazism.
- ‘SHIVA LINGA‘– signifies the scientific origin of all kind of life in Universe. Everything therefore bears the signature of the linga and the Yoni. The union is an act of divinity and not any sin. The individual existence of every living being is attributable to the union of parents. But on universal plain Shiva applies universally to all since times immemorial. The episode of Adam and Eve is confined to human creation. It is incomplete because it does not cover other forms of life, whereas symbol of Shivlinga is applicable not only to entire mankind, but all forms of life.
- ‘SHAKTI’- geometric symbols manifest power and are used in Tantarik Yantras. More or less they are geometric extensions of the same thought through the symbol of Shivalinga.
Symbols have been used for establishing identity. Even now all countries have a state symbol. Business corporations also have a logo as their trade mark. If Christ had not been crucified, symbol of cross would have no meaning for Christians. Same way if Holy mosque was in some other city, that city would have attained more religious importance than Mecca. Hindu symbols are ever lasting because they represent universal truth that will not change. They are not confined to any person or place.
It is not compulsory for anyone to adopt any symbol or idol in Hinduism if he is not convinced with the explanation attached to the symbol. Idols and symbols of Hinduism are tools to combine art and abstract for the purpose of understanding and remembering. This is the secular and scientific spirit of Hinduism.
Chand K Sharma
(Next: Splashes – 7/72 – Fascinating Hindu Imagery)