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Apr 21, 2023

Images of the Unimaginable God

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Ankur Barua

Ankur Barua

Ankur Barua is University Senior Lecturer in Hindu Studies at Cambridge University.

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Images of the Unimaginable God

Idols—and What They Signify—in Hindu Traditions

Ambernath Temple 1877 Sketch

Drawing of the Shiv Mandir of Ambarnath, an eleventh-century Hindu temple in Maharashtra, India / Wikimedia Commons

Across the different religious traditions of the world, a recurring question relates to the type and the measure of similarity between humanity and divinity that can be coherently articulated. To begin with, the divine reality is not just my uncle who is a mortal being subject to the limitations of finitude. However, these religious traditions have also claimed that the divine presence can become vividly expressed in, illuminated by, or refracted through certain human beings—guru, avatāra, prophet, rabbi, and (the) incarnation. How do we imagine this “point of contact” without implying that divinity is simply a magnified version of humanity, in which case we may be tempted to imagine God as a Superman who flies through the sky at an astonishing speed?

During the years when I was in junior school in Assam, India, I did not know that I would someday spend much of my time exploring such questions relating to the religious imagination, yet I must have been unselfconsciously imbibing certain notions of divinity from my socioreligious atmosphere. In those days, most people around me were Hindus, and some family friends and relatives (through interreligious marriage) were Muslims and Roman Catholics. Across these Hindu-Catholic and Indo-Islamic borderlines, I was dimly aware of discussions relating to whether God1 has a specific form or is utterly formless and whether God has become known to us through some medium or God has no intermediary, and I could vaguely sense that these “theological” questions were pretty important to the grownups around me.

Around this time, I started receiving formal instruction in singing the devotional songs composed by the poet-thinker Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941). During a Hindu festival of the goddess (devī), my teacher asked me about my plans for the day. I must have given her a puzzled look, and I clearly remember her response. She paused for a moment, peered into my eyes, and declared in Bengali: “ki? thākur dekhte jābe nā tumi?” I will translate her sense of dismay, etched onto my mindscape, literally: “What?! You will not go to see God [thākur]?”

Today, I study Hindu conceptions of the deity, and I reflect on them in conversation with Islamic and Christian conceptions. In these conceptual engagements, I often feel struck—once again—by the visual force of the verbal form dekhte, derived from the infinitive dekhā, “to see.” That I could be so insouciant on a day of the festival that I did not even consider going out to see God was unthinkable to my music teacher. But a critic may claim that precisely this aspiration is shot through with “idolatry”—the human attempt to see God domesticates the boundless divine within a human cognitive compass by elevating a spatiotemporal object constructed with human hands to the status of the eternal. Here, by “critic” I don’t mean just an Abrahamic theologian. For centuries, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian thinkers have indeed grappled with the question of idolatry. What I wish to explore is the theological significance of a somewhat lesser-known fact—that Hindu traditions (also) abound with critics of attempts to re-present the divine through human forms. Over roughly two millennia, both sides of this debate have developed sophisticated arrays of arguments regarding the nature of the divine reality. Abrahamic theologians may find in these arguments some fruitful resources with which to reflect on, and rethink, the concept of idolatry in their distinctive scriptural contexts.

What we refer to as “Hinduism” is a sprawling labyrinth of multiple socioreligious routes, some crisscrossing and some sharply divergent, that have been developing in South Asia over three millennia. So that we do not lose our way in this dense matrix, I will offer as a guiding thread some reflections on a particular theological dilemma that is embodied in a famous narrative in a scriptural text, the Bhāgavata Purāṇa (ca. 900 CE), and in an equally famous vision sketched in another scriptural text, the Bhagavad Gītā (ca. 200 CE). The divine reality at the center of these texts is Kṛṣṇa (Krishna), and the worship of Kṛṣṇa—as the one true source, foundation, and telos of the finite world—has been foundational to many Hindu worldviews in premodern South Asia as well as in contemporary India and diasporic locations.

The dilemma may be sketched out in this way. On the one hand, a meaningful relationship with God—in the form of praise, worship, adoration, or communion—presupposes, at the very least, our ability to speak about God. If God is so radically other that nothing whatsoever can be conceptualized or uttered about God, our only response would be an unmitigated silence. On the other hand, because our speech is interwoven with our human finitude, the cultivation of a relationship with God is already inflected with a form of cognitive objectification. More precisely, the dilemma we have to navigate involves trying to say something about God without reducing God to the status of something. A via media through the horns of this dilemma would be the difficult discipline of an existential equipoise in which our claims of knowing God are informed by our heightened awareness of unknowing God. God is the ever-receding horizon toward which we walk, while it is God’s spiritual gravitation that impels us to embark on this journey in the first place. So, God can be spoken of only through an eloquent silence—to say something about God is to unsay it.

Against this conceptual backdrop, we turn to the first scriptural narrative (10.8.32–45). One day, Yasodā tells her infant Kṛṣṇa that his playmates have complained to her that he has eaten some earth. On peering into his tiny mouth, she is struck with awe, for she sees worlds upon worlds enfolded into its finitude. We learn that Yasodā sees entities such as the sky, the wind, the fire, islands, oceans, the moon and the stars, and so on—along with herself. In this fractal-shaped vision of reality where each part is encompassed by and replicated in the whole, not only does her small infant encapsulate cosmic expanses, but he also contains she who is gazing at him. Bewildered, she decides to surrender herself at his feet, considering him to be her transcendental refuge (gati). Through his cosmic power, Kṛṣṇa makes her forget the awesome vision of his majestic splendor, so that she again takes her infant on her lap with the sweetness of her maternal affection. This narrative ends with the remark that the supreme reality, whose glories are recited in the scriptural texts, was regarded by Yasodā simply as her son.2

This interplay of humanity (the mother with the vision) and divinity (the God-infant) is reflected in the second narrative too. Here, Kṛṣṇa is not an infant but a charioteer to his friend, Arjuna, an archer who is about to enter a cataclysmic battle to restore righteousness (dharma). At a certain stage of their conversation, Arjuna expresses his wish to see Kṛṣṇa’s divine form (rūpa)—if Kṛṣṇa thinks Arjuna is capable of seeing this form, Kṛṣṇa should reveal it to him. Kṛṣṇa bestows on Arjuna a celestial (divya) power of visioning with which Arjuna sees the entire universe in Kṛṣṇa, a vision that strikes him with fear and bewilderment. Arjuna asks for forgiveness for having presumptuously addressed his charioteer as “Kṛṣṇa” and “friend”; unaware of Kṛṣṇa’s cosmic majesty, whether out of negligence or affection, he may have engaged with Kṛṣṇa disrespectfully while playing, resting, sitting, and eating (11:41–42). Arjuna is terrified as he witnesses Kṛṣṇa’s horrific (ghora) form, and Kṛṣṇa resumes his gentle (saumya) human form to which Arjuna is accustomed (11:49–51).3

Two interrelated themes run through these scriptural attempts to imagine the supreme divine reality. First, the images of God—here, an infant and a charioteer—are the seemingly paradoxical points of intersection between God’s inviolable sovereignty and God’s immediate accessibility. Thus, the sweetly smiling and mischievous infant Kṛṣṇa is not just that—a human child of Yasodā—but the majestic Lord of all reality, including his mother.4 Likewise, the human charioteer with whom Arjuna may have engaged in playful banter is, in truth, the divine reality who is the beginning, the middle, and the end of everything—so, the sense that he, as a human being, may have overstepped the bounds of acceptable behavior vis-à-vis God fills Arjuna with trepidation. Second, a loving communion between deity and devotee unfolds through the medium of sight that approaches its object and yet fails to capture it. Mother Yasodā and archer Arjuna can (falteringly) see Kṛṣṇa because Kṛṣṇa grants them a visual vector, but even with this vector they cannot comprehend the transcendental fullness of Kṛṣṇa. In the deity-devotee dialectic, certain bounds do exist, but the deity may temporarily suspend them to impart spiritual insight to the devotee—Kṛṣṇa sees us, and we are enabled (by Kṛṣṇa) to see Kṛṣṇa.

Krishna With Flute

Sri Krsna with flute from the Rajput period, ca. 1790–1800 / Wikimedia Commons

To yearn to see more of the omnipresent God who continually sees us is the organizing motif of the theology of image worship (mūrti-pūjā) that lies at the heart of multiple styles of Hindu religiosity. The term image worship is somewhat misleading as it suggests that it is the spatiotemporal object (mūrti) that is to be worshipped; rather, the true object of worship (pūjā) is God who is—and who is not—one particular image (infant today and charioteer tomorrow). The image of God is suffused with an iconic “excess” that cannot be contained by our cognitive calibrations—even as Kṛṣṇa accommodates the divine reality to our worldly conditions of finitude, Kṛṣṇa confounds our endeavor to see Kṛṣṇa only or merely as a human being.

In a temple setting, pūjā directed to an image of the deity is situated in the full gamut of the human sensorium—pūjā is ritually expressed by chanting hymns, pouring water or milk, ringing bells, singing songs, and burning incense. The food that is placed before the image, possibly fruit or sweets, is “seen” by the image, and the transfigured offerings are partaken of by the devotees who have gone to “see” the image—at the center of pūjā lies this subtle reciprocation of glances. The deity is welcomed by circling an oil lamp or a camphor flame around the image, and the word ārati, for this form of adoration, is often used interchangeably with pūjā. Suffusing this ritual setting is the sentiment of devotional love (bhakti), which is the fine-tuned cultivation of the sense of one’s existential dependence on God, who is said to be affectionate toward devotees. So, image worship is shaped by a theological tension between an “intoxicated” attachment to a visible form of God and a “sober” humility before God, who is not confined to this visible form. In his commentary on a crucial verse in the Bhagavad Gītā (4.11), the highly influential theologian Rāmānuja (ca. 1000 CE) says that Kṛṣṇa manifests himself to those who seek refuge in Kṛṣṇa, so that they are able to see Kṛṣṇa’s divine nature, which is beyond the speech and thought of yogis.5

These explorations into Hindu theology suggest that the image—say, made of bronze and five feet tall—is an earthly habitation to which the deity is invited. Across Hindu religious worldviews, some type of distinction between image and deity is generally made, partly because these worldviews are densely rooted in the Upaniṣads.6 A recurring theme in the Upaniṣads is that the ultimate reality (brahman)—immutable and indivisible—transcends our human categorical conceptions. For instance, the Bṛhadāraṇyaka (Great Forest) Upaniṣad (ca. 800 BCE) notes: “The imperishable [akṣara] is neither coarse nor fine, neither short nor long… without taste, without smell, without sight, without hearing, without speech, without mind, without energy, without breath, without mouth, without measure, having no within and no without” (3.8.8). This Upaniṣad emphatically affirms the “negative way” through its repeated disclaimer neti neti (“not this, not this”): resonating with the motif of apophatic theology in the Abrahamic traditions, brahman is not just this or that object made of bronze that is five feet tall. Finally, this Upaniṣad (3.9.1) emphasizes the foundational unicity of brahman:

Then Śākalya questioned him: “How many gods (deva) are there?”
He replied: “3,306 gods.”
“Yes,” said he, “but really how many gods are there?”
“Yes,” said he, “but really how many gods are there?”
“Yes,” said he, “but really how many gods are there?”
“1 and ½.”
“Yes,” said he, “but really how many gods are there?”
“One [eka].”

This affirmation that the imperishable God (brahman) is one, while the (minor) deities are multiple, receives some distinctive formulations across the vast array of Hindu religious beliefs and practices. For Hindus known as Saiva, brahman is Siva, and the multiple divinities that populate the ritual landscape are so many powers or manifestations of Siva. For Hindus known as Vaiṣṇava, brahman is Viṣṇu or Kṛṣṇa, who is the supreme object of worship when different gods and goddesses are venerated. For Hindus known as Sākta, brahman is the goddess (devī), and here too brahman empowers multiple divinities in their different worldly tasks.

The Hindu notion that the one God has multiple expressions is reflected in the Islamic view that the world contains concrete signs (āyāt) of God’s omnipresence. Such conceptual resonances may have inspired certain Indo-Islamic ventures of seeking symbolic equivalences between the Qur’an and Hindu scriptural visions. The Sufi saint Shaykh ‘Abd al-Quddūs Gangohī (b. 1456 CE) identified the Islamic belief in divine unicity with the philosophy and the practices of Gorakhnāth (ca. 1100 CE), one of the founders of the Nath tradition of yogis. By identifying Alakh Nirañjan (the formless divine reality of the Naths) with Khudā (the Persian word for “God”), he emphasized the similarity of certain Indic concepts with his mystical understanding of Islam.7 Around this time, in his Haqā’iq-i Hindī, Mīr Abdul Wāhid Bilgrāmī (d. 1569) suggested allegorical readings of Kṛṣṇa as the reality of a human being, the cowherd women (gopīs) as angels, the Yamuna and the Ganges as the sea of unity (wahdat) and the ocean of gnosis (ma’rifat), and the flute of Kṛṣṇa as the appearance of being out of nonbeing.8 * A century later, we encounter the Mughal prince Dārā Shukōh (1615–1659), who argues that explanations of the Qur’an are to be found in the Upaniṣads and invokes the reference to a “protected book” (kitāb maknūn) in the Qur’an (56:77–80) as a pointer to the Upaniṣads.9

To return from these Indo-Islamic routes to our theological puzzle of speaking of God by developing a language of unspeaking, there is an iconic surplus of the deity in the image. The indivisible and limitless brahman cannot be “squeezed” into a spatial object that is five feet tall—and yet brahman may be ritually invoked or invited to make this finite object a suitable habitation so that devotees can have a vision (Hindi: darsan) of the divine. Various Sanskrit texts lay down, in meticulous detail, the processes through which an image maker (silpin) would ritually consecrate a block of wood or a piece of metal. The silpin first ritually purifies oneself and then prepares the image with implements such as grass, ghee, or honey. The crucial moment is the establishment of the life breath (prāṇa) in the image through the recitation of a mantra—now the image becomes indwelled by the deity. The eyes are the last to be painted, and the first glance of the “awakened” image must fall on sweets or a mirror before it touches, and transfigures, the devotees who will see the image. In some cases, such as the temple of Jagannātha (Kṛṣṇa) at Puri in eastern India, the images are replaced through a ritual process every nineteen years, whereas the images of the goddess Durgā are ritually immersed in a river after a nine-day festival.

Here is one way to summarize these reflections on pūjā: Hindu theistic traditions contain conceptual caveats to ensure that individuals do not conflate a human-made image with the illimitable brahman but rather become trained to envision brahman as “mystically” veiled in that image. Nonetheless, a steady stream of Hindu critics has resolutely opposed the notion that brahman can be, or should be, imaged in this manner. Possibly the most famous of them is Saṃkara (ca. 800 CE), for whom brahman is without any qualities (nirguṇa), so that names and forms such as Kṛṣṇa and Siva are false superimpositions on what is utterly unqualified. Saṃkara’s reading of the Upaniṣads, which remains influential in many contemporary forms of Hindu life, draws on the “negative way” noted above—every conceptual determination of the ineffable divine as this or that is ultimately a limitation. So, Hindus who accept Saṃkara’s understanding would generally not keep any images at home, and even if they do occasionally visit a temple, they would treat the images housed there as useful tools for generating the meditative stability to apprehend the utterly formless divine reality. This form of “eloquent silence”—where one indicates through the gesture of nonspeech the profound truth that cannot be articulated in speech—shapes different forms of Hindu yoga, in which the ultimate reality is the transcendental self (puruṣa) that is formless and beyond conceptual thought. A somewhat different line of premodern Hindu critique characterizes priests or temple authorities as self-seeking manipulators or swindlers who thrive on the money devotees give them.10

Both of these styles of criticism of image worship are recapitulated in more recent times by Rammohun Roy (1772–1833), who is today characterized in Indian school textbooks as the father of modern India. One of Roy’s enduring legacies is the Brahmo Samaj, the society he established in Calcutta in 1828—under its canopy, several prominent Hindu intellectuals, writers, and social activists would later pursue his vision of the worship of the one God, who is formless.11 Roy was a culture broker who mediated various types of East-West civilizational currents—he was himself steeped in some Hindu and Indo-Islamic religious cultures, even as he exchanged letters with Anglo-American Unitarian Christians about the unity of God.12 He received an education in Arabic and Persian at Patna and became familiar with the Qur’an, Islamic jurisprudence, theology (kalām), and the poetry of Rūmī and Hāfeẓ. In the Tuḥfat al-muwaḥḥidīn (Gift to the monotheists), written in 1803/4 in Persian with an Arabic preface, Roy attributes various forms of belief and practice that he regarded as irrational to the machinations of power-hungry priests who seek to maintain their hold over the common people by invoking supernatural intervention.13 He traced various social evils to the priesthood, whom he charged with encouraging image worship for pecuniary gains. He produced translations in Bengali and English of the Upaniṣads, in which his theological arguments are couched in the characteristic vocabularies of Saṃkara. Roy variously critiques the use of images by claiming that root texts such as the Upaniṣads do not mention it; those chronologically later texts that do mention it allow it only as a concession for spiritually immature folk, and it is the generative site of various forms of immorality.  

In short, the multiple Hindu worlds are shaped by an ongoing conversation over the coherence of the claim that the divine has form (rūpa); while many of these religious strands have highly visual cultures, many others are staunchly aniconic. Thus, Hindu worlds combine vividly sensuous iconographic representations of the deity with cautionary reminders not to conflate the signifier with the signified. Some Hindus may “see” traces of the divine in rivers (such as the Ganges), lakes, mountains, roadside trees, sacred groves, and sites of pilgrimage while being cautioned by others that these traces are penultimate pointers to, and do not exhaustively embody, the cognitively ungraspable reality.

What these explorations indicate is that the term idolatry encompasses a range of meanings across the Hindu traditions.14 The term itself is an outsider’s (etic) attribution—devotees themselves will not claim to be worshippers of a false god. A fine-grained exploration of this term reveals a diverse range of viewpoints both across and within these Abrahamic-Indic religious borderlines. For instance, the Eastern Orthodox tradition does not use three-dimensional images, while Calvinists reject all representations of the divine and may regard the Catholic crucifix as idolatrous. Highlighting this cross-border diversity, Diana Eck writes:

The Mexican [Catholic] villager who comes on his knees to the Virgin of Guadalupe, leaves a bundle of beans, and lights a candle, would no doubt feel more at home in a Hindu temple than in a stark, white New England Protestant church. Similarly, the Moroccan Muslim woman who visits the shrines of Muslim saints, would find India less foreign than did the eleventh century Muslim scholar Alberuni [who had written that Hindus differ from Muslims in every respect].15

Alberuni begins his encyclopedic account of Hindu cosmological concepts, laws, scriptures, pilgrimages, dietary customs, and so on with the clear statement that there are no beliefs that Hindus and Muslims share in common.16 Around two centuries after Alberuni, Sufi poet and musician Amīr Khusrau (1253–1325) offers a somewhat different estimate of the socioreligious life of Hindus. Khusrau describes a Muslim pilgrim who encounters a Hindu who is crawling on the ground on the way to a temple. When the Muslim asks why the Hindu does not walk, he receives the answer that the Hindu has surrendered his heart as well as his legs to God. The narrator declares:

O you who taunt the Hindu for his worship of idols
learn [true] devotion from him!17

I began by recalling my childhood training in the music of Tagore. As a child, Tagore himself grew up in a family animated partly by the “iconoclastic” temperament of the Brahmo Samaj. I conclude with some verses of a song composed by Tagore in 1926, in Stuttgart, which combines deeply devotional idioms with an aniconic emphasis on the divine, who is formless.

O Lord of sweetness, this day has come to an end
But I cannot reach your end,
The whole world remains filled with bliss…
The evening air is redolent with the fragrance of flowers
Your bodiless embrace suffuses my entire body.
* Editor’s Note: It was brought to our attention that the South Asian Islamic Discourse blog criticized this essay for this sentence attributing allegorical readings of Hindu imagery to the sixteenth-century Muslim scholar and saint Sayyid Mīr Abdul Wāhid Bilgrāmī. The blog rightly asks why no citation was provided for Sayyid Bilgrāmī’s views, so we added an endnote (no. 8) that provides the author’s secondary source. This sentence clearly locates the views in Sayyid Bilgrāmī’s Haqā’iq-i Hindī, but the blog argues that the text cannot be reliably attributed to the Sayyid and that such an attribution could lead readers to wrongly presume that he was a perennialist who did not believe Islam abrogated other religions. The author of this essay, Ankur Barua, says, “Nowhere in the essay do I affirm (or deny) the Perennialist point that Hindus and Muslims worship the same ultimate truth through their distinct ways.” As to the blog’s assertion that the essay somehow affirms that Bilgrāmī harbored “syncretist” or unorthodox viewpoints throughout his life, we see no such affirmation in the sentence that presents the views attributed to him.

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