Religion and Images
In approximately two million years of continuous selection, humans have developed a capacity for language. Language is considered to be the most important characteristic that distinguishes man from other animals (Richard Leakey, De oorsprong van de mensheid, Amsterdam 1995, p. 113 et seq.). Not only spoken language, but also visual language was and is used for expression and communication. From the 32.000-year old (rock) drawings in Chauvet (Fr.) and the symbolic work of the genius painter and seer Jeroen Bosch (1450 – 1516) to the emoji’s on our smartphone.
Images can be signposts to God, but worship with spoken, sung or written word-language, such as mantras, hymns and psalms, is usually held in higher esteem than worship with image-language. The Jewish religion even has a complete prohibition on the making and worship of “any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven, on earth or in water” (Exodus 20: 3 ff.). This ban on images was and is not taken literally, but in the Jewish temple images were not present. God was represented there by the “Name” only (I Kings 8:29). See also Proverbs 18:10: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous runneth into it and is safe.” Disrespectful use of God’s name was and is forbidden (Exodus 20:7). The prophet Isaiah mocked the worship of images made of the same wood, as “with which you can warm yourself, bake bread, and roast meat” (Isaiah, 44:14-19).
In his recently published history of ideas, ‘Godenschemering’ [Utrecht, 2023], the Belgian theologian Daniël de Waele shows that in the West a connection with God has been sought for centuries with the aid of images, but that these practices time and again became the object of ridicule and the statues were destroyed. In the Greco-Roman world worship of images in which the deity was present, but not identical with the deity, was in common use. When at the beginning of the 4th century the Roman emperor Constantine offered freedom of religion to Christians, not only the sacrifice of animals, but also the worship of idols was prohibited. His successors were less interested in religion; every man could follow the religion he wanted. Emperor Theodosius, however, again forbade the worship of (domestic) gods.
Seneca and other Roman intellectuals criticized belief in idols. If image worship had any effect, so the reasoning went, it was the work of demons. All the more reason to smash those images. Church-father Augustinus (354 – 430) read Exodus 23: 24 and found the appropriate legitimation: “You shall not bow down to their gods, nor serve them (….) and quite break down their images.” (See also Psalms 135:15-17). Later Pope Gregory I (590-604) issued a further directive regarding pagan temples: “The idols must be destroyed, but the temples themselves must be consecrated with holy water and altars with relics must be erected. Thus the temples are cleansed of devil-worship and are consecrated to the service of the true God.”
A repetition of these scenes took place in the 16th century during the ‘Iconoclasm’ of the Reformation. In some churches all paintings and crucifixes were removed and replaced with ornate gilded inscriptions on whitewashed walls. This to the liking of the Swiss reformer Ulrich Zwingli: “This is how the preached word also became visible !”.
Aldous Huxley, in his collection of essays “The Perennial Philosophy” (London, 1946, Ch. XXI), identifies some modern forms of idolatry: A pantheon of strictly human ideas and ideals, as objects of admiration, faith and worship. Technological idolatry is the most ingenuous and primitive. Its devotees believe that their redemption and liberation depends on material objects, and that, where gadgets are concerned, we can enjoy all the advantages of an elaborate, top heavy and constantly advancing technology without having to pay for them by any compensating disadvantages.
A little less ingenuous are the political idolaters: Impose the right kind of organisation upon human beings, and all their problems from sin and unhappiness to nationalism and war, will automatically disappear. Unfortunately, the human being is a creature endowed with free will; if individuals do not choose to make it work, the organisation will not produce the intended results.
Moral idolators see their own norms and values as the goal. In the pursuit of what is then considered to be truth and righteousness, the qualities that are a prerequisite for entering the spiritual path, such as reverence and humility, might very likely be forgotten. Hardness, narrow-mindedness, and spiritual pride are, according to Huxley, the usual by-products of a course of stoical self-improvement by means of personal effort. The goal is merely a magnified projection of one’s own favourite ideas or moral excellences, and likewise the greatest obstacles for receiving the enlightening and liberating knowledge of Reality.
By chance Aldous Huxley is also the author of the foreword to the English translation of “Sri Ramakrishna Kathamrita” (An account of conversations of Ramakrishna with his followers, recorded by Mahendra Gupta, better known as ‘M’.) According to Huxley, ‘M’ produced a book, unique in the literature of hagiography: “Never have the small events of a contemplative’s daily life been described with such a wealth of intimate detail. Never have the casual and unstudied utterances of a great religious teacher been set down with so minute a fidelity.”
Already at one of the first meetings of “M” with Ramakrishna image-worship was discussed:
“M: ‘Sir, suppose one believes in God with form. Certainly He is not the clay image!’
Sri Ramakrishna: ‘But why clay? It is an image of Spirit.’
- (who could not quite understand the significance of this ‘image of Spirit’):
‘But, sir, one should explain to those who worship the clay image that it is not God, and that while worshipping it, they should have God in view and not the clay image. One should not worship clay.’
Ramakrishna (sharply): ‘That’s the one hobby of you Calcutta people: Giving lectures and bringing others to the light! Nobody ever stops to consider how to get the light himself. Who are you to teach others? He who is the Lord of the Universe will teach everyone. He who has created this universe (….), will He not show people the way to worship Him? If they need teaching, then He will be the Teacher. He is our Inner Guide. Suppose there is an error in worshipping the clay image; doesn’t God know that through it He alone is being invoked? He will be pleased at that very worship. Why should you get a headache over it? You had better try for knowledge and devotion yourself.” (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, p. 80).
A pregnant incident in this connection is recorded by Swami Saradananda in chapter 7 of his biography “Sri Ramakrishna and His Divine Play” (Vedanta Society of St. Louis, 2003):
In the fall of 1869 a Durga Festival was organized by Mathur Babu, a devotee of Sri Ramakrishna and owner of the Kali Temple. For three days and three nights, the image of the mother goddess Durga was worshipped with rituals, prayers, flowers, music and dance. Now it was the morning of vijaya dashami; the last day of the worship. This day the image will be carried to the Ganges, where it will be immersed in the river.
Mathur was in his home unaware of the immersion ceremony that was near at hand. He had participated in all the ceremonies with full devotion and wqas still absorbed in overwhelming joy. When a message came from the priest asking him to come to the worship hall and say his final prayer, he came to his senses and realized it was vijaya dashami day. He was terribly shocked and pondered: “Why should I immerse the Mother in the Ganges today? (…..). I won’t alow anyone to immerse the image of the Mother. Let Her worship be continued. If anyone immerses the image against my will, it will lead to a terrible disaster – even bloodshed!”
The priest and members of his family tried to persuade Mathur to proceed with the immersion, but they failed to change his mind. In desperation, Ramakrishna is warned. Ramakrishna found Mathur pacing back and forth in an abstracted mood, his face grave and his eyes red. Seeing Ramakrishna, Mathur came near and said: “Father, whatever others may say, I will not allow the Mother to be immersed into the Ganges. I have ordered the worship to be continued daily. How can I survive in this world without the Mother?”
Ramakrishna stroked with his hand Mathur’s chest at the level of his heart-chakra and said:
“Oh, is this what makes you afraid? Who has told you that you will have to live without the Mother? And where will She go even if you immerse Her image in the Ganges? Can the Mother stay away from Her son? For the last three days She has accepted your worship in the temple, but from today She will accept your worship constantly, sitting in your heart.” Gradually the words and touch of Ramakrishna restored Mathur to his normal state. It seems that he saw the luminous form of the Divine Mother living in his heart and his intense desire to save the image was greatly reduced.
Swami Saradananda here quotes the Bhagavad Gita, X, 20 (Krishna to Arjuna:) “I am the Self, enthroned in the heart of all creatures. I am the beginning, the middle and also the end of all beings.”