The Power of Symbols and Images in Hinduism

Our discussion of the way of wisdom focused on the idea of Brahman. Brahman is the name for the absolute ultimate reality in Hinduism. It is so far beyond our human capacity to conceive that all efforts to think and speak about it are futile. It simply cannot adequately be conceptualized and described. It can only be realized.

The renouncers that seek to realize Brahman give up everything to which they were attached, including images of the divine and religious rituals. However, anyone who knows much about India knows that Hindus are anything but silent about gods. India is a land of an astounding array of divine images. There are pictures and statues of members of the Hindu pantheon everywhere you go. In public buildings, on buses, in taxis and on the sides of the road. The gods and goddesses of Hinduism cast a watchful eye over everyone. This is without mentioning the images in the temples and homes, where the gods are usually worshiped.

The tension we observe in these two impulses is a familiar one in world religious history. It derives from what may be the central religious endeavour: to conceptualize that which is beyond conception. There are two approaches that can be taken in the face of mystery. One approach is to say nothing at all. To think nothing, to imagine nothing. That is the mystical approach, the approach of the path of wisdom. The ultimate is unutterable. Say anything about it and it becomes distorted.

Once I got to the two final pages of a book and realized that they were completely white, except for these words printed neatly in the center of each page: “This page left intentionally blank”. I couldn’t keep myself from bursting into laughter. Saying the page was blank made it no longer blank. By simply uttering a truth, these words told a lie. This is the anxiety that some religious folks have about discussing or depicting God or ultimate reality.

A Zen saying puts it very succinctly: “Open mouth already a mistake”.

Images are Everywhere

There is another approach that is more characteristic of the mainstream of the world religions. This method is based on the belief that we are not at liberty to discard language, symbols and images of the divine. If we are to relate at all to ultimate reality, we must think about the unthinkable. We must imagine the unimaginable.

Even those traditions that consider themselves iconoclastic, such as the Western monotheism, still use images and theological language. One of the Ten Commandments forbids the making of graven images of the Biblical God. Yet, linguistic metaphors and images are used in abundance throughout the Bible.

As Aristotle wrote: “The soul never thinks without an image”.

Certainly, this is the most common approach among the religions of the world. The mystical traditions of image-less silence may appeal to some, but by far most religious persons need symbols to guide their spirits.

Many may make the great mistake of believing that our concepts are actually adequate to describe God. This is the sin of idolatry: confusing divine reality with what is merely the product of our minds and hands. If we are to speak at all about the divine, it must be done in such a way as to reveal truth without creating a lie.

Hindu Images

Now we will explore how Hindu theology tries to mediate divine reality to devotees by means of symbols and images without slipping into idolatry. This discussion is intended to bridge our explorations of the path of wisdom and the path of devotion. The way of wisdom gives expression to the religious impulse towards silence and unity. The way of devotion manifests the impulse towards symbol and plurality. This discussion seeks to show how and why the Hindu tradition embraces both.

We will also explore several aspects of Hindu theism that seem to be the greatest stumbling blocks for Westerners. Why do Hindus worship so many gods? Why do they make images of their gods?

The practice of creating icons of the devas often seems scandalous to many in the Western world. Many today continue to refer to physical representations of the divine not as images but as idols.

The easy identification of divine images with idolatry actually portrays a very superficial understanding of the nature and function of religious iconography. Images of the devas can be anthropomorphic or non-anthropomorphic. The countless array of non-anthropomorphic symbols include natural phenomena, such as stones, trees, rivers, even celestial bodies.

Other prominent non-anthropomorphic representations are the lingams, that symbolize the presence of Shiva; the footprints of Vishnu; and Yantras, which are geometric designs signifying the goddess.

Brahman pervades all there is, therefore, anything can manifest the divine reality and can yield access to the sacred for those who have the eyes to see it.

The Anthropomorphic Images

The anthropomorphic deities are those that appear human-like. Certainly, depicting divine reality as human-like is an extremely common practice in world religions. Humanity can conceive no form more beautiful and more sublime than the human. To imagine ultimate reality in some measure like us: with intelligence, will, emotions, perhaps even a body; helps us to grasp the mystery and to relate to it in ways not possible with non-anthropomorphic representations.

The danger, though, in personalizing the divine world in this fashion, is to bring it too close to the human. Making it too much like ourselves until it seems finite. Hindu images of the gods endeavour to avert this danger by incorporating elements that remind devotees that gods are also not like us. Many of the Hindu images seem simultaneously human and non-human. Ganesha, who is the remover of obstacles, has a human body but the head of an elephant. Lord Rama, a manifestation of the god Vishnu, appears to be completely human, but his blue skin reminds us of his divinity. Durga looks like a woman, but her eight arms tell us she is not.

Each of these instances helps give shape to the unseen and allow Hindus to glimpse some aspect of the divine. Durga’s many arms, for example, indicate the great power of the god. For many Hindus (many that cannot read), an image of a god is the source of their theology.

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