In India, most people worship idols.
This is, and should be, a little disconcerting if you come from the West, particularly if you come from the Judeo-Christian tradition that says there is only One God, and He doesn’t go in for that kind of stuff.
His very first rule is this one:
You shall have no other gods before me. 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. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.
You don’t have to be very discerning to see a lot of bowing and serving carved images in India, where the majority of the population is Hindu. Idols are on just about every corner and in just about every shop. They aren’t decorations, either. People offer them food and flowers and put powder on their own faces to signify that they did so. And this is not bloodless and harmless superstition, especially if you are a goat, one of which is sacrificed every week at the Kalighat Temple in Kolkata. And in many other temples as well.
In Kolkata, we visited Kumartuli, where artisans make the idols for the many festivals throughout the year. While we were there, everyone was working on Saraswati, the goddess of learning. A festival for students was coming up soon. These clay images are elaborate and expensive, purchased for homes and communities and then, oddly, dumped back in the river after the festival. “Why don’t you just keep them and use them again?” one of my students asked.
The guide explained that you can’t put a god in a box—you would have to worship it all year and hire a priest to perform the various required rituals. These ritual are important, and faithful Hindus believe they earn the favor of the gods, of which there are thousands.
Some gods are more prominent, and some are regional. Some are more powerful. The three main ones, along with various female consorts, have appeared in many forms over a few thousand years, any of which can be worshiped. Why worship one god when you can have as many as you like—and one of them might give you the edge you need. Just don’t mess up the ritual, because if you do it right you appease the gods and they will give you what you want, if not in this life then in the next. Or at least they won’t be angry with you.
In Nepal, Katie and I watched the ritual bathing of a corpse being prepared for cremation—with great care to put water from the holy river in his mouth. In traditional homes, the wife touches her husband’s feet in the morning and bows—since he is a god to her, and she may have inadvertently kicked him in the night. Like ancient Jerusalem, the hills around Katmandu are dotted with temples where we saw dozens of ceremonies for young men who were coming of age—what age I’m not sure. I met a young pastor who became a Christian as a teen largely to escape the rituals he had to preform each morning before breakfast. And in which he found neither solace nor satisfaction.
The ritualistic nature of idol worship feels empty. And sad. We saw rituals everywhere, from a Buddhist monastery in Darjeeling and the famous monkey temple in Katmandu to shops where merchants and serve workers pause to bow at shrines and offer gifts that were then redistributed to beggars and priests. Did I mention it was a little disconcerting?
Except in America, Christians worship idols too. Like faithful Hindus, we don’t put God in a box for a whole year. We just put Him in a box for a week and call it Sunday morning. We have our own rituals, which we believe confer good luck, like, dare I say it, “quiet time.” I spent 20 minutes reading my Bible this morning and God gave me a parking place close to the mall.
We make our own sacrifices, and worship our own gods, from materialism to social justice. We have our own talismans, always connected to our human conceits. In fact, we can spend as much time trying to obligate God as the Hindus do. And when we imbue our rituals with magical power, they cease to be helpful disciplines and become forms of idolatry.
This is why the Gospel is so important; it reminds us that salvation is through Christ’s work, and not our own. I don’t object to church or quiet time, by the way. Rituals can be powerful tools for focus and instruction. But it is pretty easy to turn them into tokens of devotion and merit.
Even if they aren’t made of clay.