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I learned about idol worship from a fascinating encounter I once had with a Hindu in Guyana.
We were talking about religion when he objected that Westerners often complain about the images and idols that Hindus use to help practitioners focus on aspects of God. He noted that Westerners rarely consider Christians who use idols all the time, pointing out the images of Jesus found in most all churches.
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I grew up as a Christian, worshipping before a cross, sometimes with the image of Jesus nailed upon it. Was I worshipping idols? Some Jews might think so. The Hebrew Bible says plainly, in Exodus 20:4, that we are not to worship graven images. Muslims too have trouble with worshipping before idols. The Qur’an [4:48] reads: “God does not forgive idolatry, but He forgives lesser offenses for whomever He wills. Anyone who sets up idols beside God, has forged a horrendous offense.”
The Baha’i teachings exalt Krishna, Christ and all of the other founders of the world’s great Faiths, and say that each one of those holy messengers brought a divine message intended to move humanity away from idolatry and toward the realization of higher spiritual illumination. In a talk he gave in New York, Abdu’l-Baha said:
Christ educated and developed mankind universally. He rescued nations and peoples from the bondage of superstition and idolatry. He summoned them all to the knowledge of the oneness of God. They were dark, they became illumined; they were material, they became spiritual; earthly they were, they became heavenly. He enlightened the world of morality.
But are Hindu idols “set up” beside God? Westerners and Muslims can be quite confused about the Hindu worship of Gods. A Western author wrote:
Suppose a woman walks into a room and finds her husband embracing another woman. He sees his wife out of the corner of his eye and says, “Now wait a minute, honey. Don’t get the wrong idea here. Let me tell you what I was doing. This woman is so beautiful, she reminded me of you. I was really just thinking of you when I was embracing her.”
There’s not a woman in America who would buy that, including my wife, Joyce! And God doesn’t buy it either when we worship something else and say, “Now, Lord, wait a minute. Don’t get the wrong idea here. I was only worshiping this thing because it reminds me of You. I’m really worshiping You.”
No, you really aren’t. That’s what the Second Commandment [“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth] is all about. – Adrian Rogers, “Ten Secrets For a Successful Family”, pp.44-45.
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On the surface, that seems like a reasonable refutation of the Hindu argument for the use of idols, but listen to the response this post got from a Hindu named Gopal, [with my comments in brackets]:
Your analogy is incorrect. God is told [I think he means, “known”] to be omnipresent. He is everywhere including [in the] Idol, in your heart, mind, soul and [the] whole universe. Secondly, you[r analogy] mentioned that you are with another woman … [The] Correct analogy [for Hinduism] should be [that] you[‘re] worshiping your wife’s photo or her picture and [that] your wife is omnipresent and sees you that you still love her so much! Thirdly, [a] lot of people have [a] hard time in focusing their mind towards God. Having [an] image or some form of Idol, helps them focus. [This is, it seems to me, exactly how Christians use a cross.] Fourth point is, God does not care whether you worship him or not. It is only beneficial to you if you worship God so that you are able to have right mindset, [a] selfless Godly mindset. It is you taking your mind towards God and become Godly with all the good ethics, etc. [The] Minute you start manipulating how others should be worshiping their God, you are manipulating them which is again unethical. Let there be freedom of worship … Don’t listen to this guy and worship the God the way you like … God bless everyone in the world!
This tolerant spirit and devotional attitude toward God is why I love so many Hindus. They call to remembrance an aspect of God, and they are not used as opposed to the worship of the one, omniscient, invisible God. They merely see and call on the ever-present Creator through the idol. There are, of course, other objections to idols and no one is forced to use them in Hinduism. But it’s not hard to see that many Hindus use idols differently than we suppose, nor is it hard to see that many Christians, especially Orthodox Christians, use their art in similar ways. But whether a physical idol or a mental one, as Abdu’l-Baha cautioned us in the book Some Answered Questions, we all need to guard against worshipping the idols our imaginations create:
Consider then how the peoples of the world are circling round their own vain imaginings and worshipping the idols of their own thoughts and fancies, without the least awareness of doing so. They regard these vain imaginings as that Reality which is sanctified above all understanding and exalted beyond every allusion. They consider themselves to be the proponents of the Divine Unity and all others as worshippers of idols, even though idols at least enjoy a mineral existence, whereas the idols of human thoughts and imaginations are sheer illusion and have not even the existence of stones.