INDIA, December 16, 2017 (Daily O by Devdutt Pattanaik): Who said how a Hindu or any human is supposed to worship the divine? Who made these rules? This question is rooted in Abrahamic myth that frowns upon God being given any form, and the Biblical condemnation of “idolatry” as indicative of a false religion. In the 19th century, as the British became masters of India, Hindus were pressured to defend the practice of idol worship. And so many Hindu reformers went to the extent of saying that “true” Hinduism, in its pristine form (by which they meant Vedas), had no idols. That idol worship is a later-day corruption. However, many Hindu traditionalists rejected this idea.
The tension between giving God form and stripping God of any form is an ancient one. Before the British, it was the Muslim rulers of India who frowned upon idol worship. Their raid on temples, which was mainly for political reasons and economic loot, was justified by stating it was an exercise against infidel idolatry. This influence of Islam led many Hindus to prefer the formless (nirguni, nirakar) divine, over divinity with form (saguni, sakar). So we find some bhakti followers using the name of God to refer to an abstract entity, while others use the names of Rama and Krishna or Kali to refer to a specific deity.
The outsider will see the ritual as “idolatry,” whether it is bowing to the image of Jesus hanging on a crucifix, or going around the Kaaba in Mecca, or singing before the menorah, or carrying the Granth Sahib in a palanquin, or dancing to the drum beat of tribal rituals in the forest. But the insider, who is immersed in the act, engages with the larger ideas of life and existence through the tangible vehicles created by his ancestors.