13th November 2010
Raja Rammohun Roy’s appeal to Hindus to abjure all forms of idolatory
In this section extracted from The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy (from sections of p.92-103) he appeals to Hindus to abjure idolatory. Accordingly, in the famous Trust Deed of the Brahmo Samaj he laid down that "no graven image, statue or sculpture, carving, painting, picture, portrait or the likeness of anything shall be admitted within the said building".
He warned against showing disrespect towards such idols, though. In that trust deed he noted, "that no object, animate or inanimate that has been or is or shall hereafter become or be recognised as an object of worship by any man or set of men, shall be reviled or slightingly or contemptuously spoken of or alluded to." This approach is a reflection of a tolerant Hinduism – that permits people to undertake religion in the manner they deem fit.
My constant reflections on the inconvenient, or rather injurious rites, introduced by the peculiar practice of Hindoo idolatry, which more than any other Pagan worship, destroys the texture of society, together with compassion for my countrymen, have compelled me to use every possible effort to awaken them from their dream of error: and by making them acquainted with their Scriptures, enable them to contemplate with true devotion the unity and omnipresence of Nature’s God.
By taking the path which conscience and sincerity direct, I, born a Brahmin, have exposed myself to the comphinings and reproaches, even of some of my relations, whose prejudices are strong, and whose temporal advantage depends upon the present system. But these, however accumulated, I can tranquilly bear; trusting that a day will arrive when my humble endeavours will be viewed with justice, perhaps acknowledged with gratitude. At any rate, whatever men may say, I cannot be deprived of this consolation: my motives are acceptable to that Being who beholds in secret and compensates openly!
Some Europeans, endued with high principles of liberality, but not acquainted with the ritual part of Hindoo idolatry are disposed to palliate it by an interpretation which, though plausible, is by no means well founded. They are willing to imagine that the idols which the Hindoos worship are not viewed by them in the light of Gods or as real personifications of the divine attributes but merely as instruments for raising their minds to the contemplation of those attributes, which are respectively represented by different figures. I have frequently had occasion to remark, that many Hindoos also who are conversant with the English language, finding this interpretation a more plausible apology for idolatry than any with which they are furnished by their own guides, do not fail to avail themselves of it, though in repugnance both to their faith and to their practice. The declarations of this description of Hindoos naturally tend to confirm the original idea of such Europeans, who from the extreme absurdity of pure unqualified idolatry, deduce an argument against its existence. It appears to them impossible for men, even in the very last degree of intellectual darkness, to be so far misled as to consider a mere image of wood or of stone as a human being by much less as divine existence. With a view, therefore, to do away with any misconception of this nature which may have prevailed, I beg leave to submit the following considerations.
Hindoos of the present age, with a very few exceptions, have not the least idea that it is to the attributes of the Supreme Being as figuratively represented by shapes corresponding to the nature of those attributes, they offer adoration and worship under the denomination of gods and goddesses. On the contrary, the slightest investigation will clearly satisfy every inquirer that it makes a material part of their system to hold as articles of faith all those particular circumstances which are essential to the belief in the independent existence of the object of their idolatry as deities clothed with divine power.
Locality of habitation and a mode of existence analogous to their own views of earthly things are uniformly ascribed to each particular god. Thus the devotees of Siva, misconceiving the real spirit of the Scriptures, not only place an implicit credence in the separate existence of Siva, but even regard him as an omnipotent being, the greatest of all the divinities, who, as they say, inhabit the northern mountain of Kailas; and that he is accompanied by two wives and several children, and surrounded with numerous attendants. In like manner the followers of Vishnu, mistaking the allegorical representations of the Sastras for relations of real facts, believe him to be chief over all other gods, and that he resides with his wife and attendants on the summit of heavcn.
Similar opinions are also held by the worshippers of Cali, in respect to that goddess. And in fact, the same observations are equally applicable to every class of Hindoo devotees in regard to their respective gods and goddesses. And so tenacious are those devotees in respect to the honour due to their chosen divinities that when they meet in such holy places as Haridwar, Pryag, Siva-Canchi, or Vishnu-Canchi in the Dekhan, the adjustment of the point of precedence not only occasions the warmest verbal altercations, but sometimes even blows and violence. Neither do they regard the images of these gods merely in the light of instruments for elevating the mind to the conception of those supposed being; they are simply in themselves made objects of worship. For whenever a Hindoo purchases an idol in the market, or constructs one with his own hands, or has one made under his own superintendence, it is his invariable practice to perform certain ceremonies, called Pran Pratishtha, or the endowment of animation, by which he believes that its nature is changed from that of the mere materials of which it is formed, and that it acquires not only life but supernatural powers. Shortly afterwards, if the idol be of the masculine gender, he marries it to a feminine one, with no less pomp and magnificence than he celebrates the nuptials of his own children. The mysterious process is now complete, and the god and goddess are esteemed the arbiters of his destiny, and continually receive his most ardent adoration.
At the same time, the worshipper of images ascribes to them at once the opposite natures of human and of superhuman beings. In attention to their supposed wants as living beings, he is seen feeding, or pretending to feed them every morning and evening; and as in the hot season he is careful to fan them so in cold he is equally regardful of their comfort, covering them by day with warm clothing, and placing them at night in a snug bed. But superstition does not find a limit here: the acts and speeches of the idols, and their assumptions of various shapes and colours, are gravely related by the Brahmins, and with all the marks of veneration are firmly believed by their deluded followers.
My reflections upon these solemn truths have been most painful for many years. I have never ceased to contemplate with the strongest feelings of regret, the obstinate adherence of my countrymen to their fatal system of idolatry, inducing, for the sake of propitiating their supposed Deities, the violation of every humane and social feeling. And this in various instances, but more especially in the dreadful acts of self-destruction and the immolation of the nearest relations, under the delusion of conforming to sacred religious rites. I have never ceased, I repeat,to contemplate these practices with feelings of regret, and to view in them the moral debasement of a race who, I cannot help thinking, are capable of better things, whose susceptibility, patience, and mildness of character, render them worthy of a better destiny. Under these impressions, therefore, I have been impelled to lay before them genuine translations of parts of their Scripture, which inculcates not only the enlightened worship of one God, but the purest principles of morality, accompanied with such notices as I deemed requisite to oppose the arguments employed by the Brahmins in defence of their beloved system. Most earnestly do I pray that the whole may, sooner or later, prove efficient in producing on the minds of Hindoos in general, conviction of the rationality of believing in and adoring the Supreme Being only; together with a complete perception and practice of that grand and comprehensive moral principle – Do unto others as ye would be done by.