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Idolatry

When the U.S. Senate invited a Hindu leader (Rajan Zed) to open a 2007 session with a prayer, David Barton objected, saying: “In Hindu [sic], you have not one God, but many, many, many, many, many gods. And certainly that was never in the minds of those who did the Constitution, did the Declaration when they talked about Creator.”

Dr. A.L. Basham, author of The Wonder That was India, explains: "...the old-fashioned type of missionary was quite certain that Hinduism was the work of the Devil, and hence that it was very evil. It did all the things which Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity, said you shouldn't do, such as image worship and the worship of many gods.

"Catholics were always much more tolerant of this sort of thing. Though he may be theoretically monotheistic, the simple Catholic will, to all intents and purposes, pray to quite a wide range of divinities, including the Blessed Virgin Mary and various important saints, often in the form of physical images.

"But Protestant Christianity was founded on the basis that there is one God only, divided into three persons, and that worship of images is sinful. To the Protestant of the old-fashioned kind, this was a terrible thing to do, almost as bad as it was to a traditional Jew or Muslim. So the missionaries, I think, are largely responsible for the polytheism stereotype and the 'caste-ridden' society stereotype."

In 1985, my friend Victor, who is Jewish, invited me to a Shabbat (Sabbath) observance with a group of Jewish students on our college campus. They were singing songs in Hebrew, and clapping hands -- almost like a Jewish kirtan (Hindu devotional chanting and dancing)!

I met a student who said she was interested in things like yoga and meditation, but was put off by the idea of worshiping images ("idols"). She was also skeptical of my assertion that according to Vedic cosmology, human civilization goes back millions of years: she told me she had taken a college course in Anthropology.

At one point, she equated the worshipping of images ("idols") with the pagan religions of ancient Greece and Rome, asking: "How can you (Hindus) worship images ("idols")--that's so Grecian!" I tried to shift the conversation towards deeper theological questions: "Does God have form?" "What does God look like?" Even Genesis 1:26-31 says man is made in the image of God!

A convert to Hinduism from a Jewish background, Satyaraja dasa, (Steven Rosen) argues that the Old Testament only condemns the making of mundane graven images and then likening such images to the Supreme Lord. He insists that there is no prohibition against worshipping the form of God Himself. Rabbi Jacob Shimmel admitted to Satyaraja that there have been schools of thought within Judaism which regard God as a Person, with a divine form, attributes, qualities and characteristics.

They based their position on a literal interpretation of the Bible. The Hebrew phrase "zelem Elohim" means "the image of God." Exodus 24:10-12 and Numbers 12:8 also refer to seeing the image of God. God sits upon a throne (Isaiah 6:1); His hair is like wool (Daniel 7:9); and Moses saw His back (Exodus 33:23). In Isaiah 66:1, God says, "Heaven is My throne, and the earth is my footstool." In Ezekiel 1:26, God has a human form and sits upon a throne.

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), Judaism's greatest theologian thus far, took the position that God is immeasurable, inconceivable, and therefore, incorporeal. Since the time of Maimonides, Judaism has been impersonal, seeing God only as an omnipresent Spirit (nirvesesha brahman). Maimonides regarded passages from the Bible like the ones above as anthropomorphical and metaphorical. However, one of his most outspoken critics, Abraham ben David of Posquiere, wrote that scholars once believed in the literal words of the Bible, and were convinced God was a Person, and they ascribed physical-like characteristics to the Deity.

Satyaraja's assertion that there is no prohibition in the Old Testament against worshiping the actual form of God Himself is problematic. The biblical prophets of the Old Testament routinely denounce idol worship, and the idolatry they attack is the worship of any kind of image whatsoever...Some of their denunciations, for example, refer to the idols of the neighboring heathen populations of the Israelites as gods that can neither walk nor speak, etc.

In Bhagavad-gita 12.1, Arjuna inquires of Lord Krishna: "Which are considered to be more perfect, those who are always properly engaged in Your devotional service or those who worship the impersonal Brahman, the unmanifested?"

Lord Krishna replies: "Those who fix their minds on My personal form and are always engaged in worshiping Me with great and transcendental faith are considered by Me to be most perfect." (Gita 12.2) The Lord goes on to say that those who worship the impersonal Brahman also come to Him, but, "For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome." Making progress in that discipline is harder. (Gita 12.3-5)

So the Bhagavad-gita says worship of the Lord in His personal form is higher than worshiping the impersonal Brahman. The Western religious traditions generally stress the impersonal aspect of God over the personal. Impersonalism is not condemned in the first few verses of chapter 12 of the Gita, it is merely regarded as incomplete and inferior to personal theism.

And this is the nature of Vedic civilization: to engage people from all walks of life, regardless of their station in life, and purify them in their souls' progress towards God. Whereas in the Ten Commandments, God says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me," in Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna merely dismisses demigod worship as "less intelligent" (Gita 7.23), even though He also classifies demigod worship as in the mode of goodness (Gita 17.4).

Much of Christianity and Islam's intolerance of other religions stems from Judaism, like the commandment against worshiping other gods, rather than merely dismissing it as an inferior form of worship, as Lord Krishna does in Bhagavad-gita.

Of course, as I've stated elsewhere, when I refer to "Hindu polytheism", I refer not to demigod worship, but to our concept of vishnu-tattva expansions. We worship a plural Godhead, similar to the Trinitarian conception of God, at the top of our pantheon, and even refer to the Deities (note that plural!) in the plural as "Them" or "Their Lordships".

This is foreign to the rigid monotheism of Judaism and Islam, but familiar to Trinitarian Christianity. Rabbi Shimmel even tells Satyaraja dasa that because of belief in a Trinity, Christianity cannot be considered a truly monotheistic religion. (I don't know what Rabbi Shimmel would make of the loving affairs of Radha and Krishna, the pastimes of Krishna and Balaram, etc.)

Father Raymundo Pannikar said: "It is within the heart that I embrace both religions (Hinduism and Christianity) in a personal synthesis, which intellectually may be more or less perfect... Religions meet in the heart rather than in the mind."

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