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Volume IX - The Unity of Religious Ideals

Part IV


Idolatry seems to have been prevalent throughout all ages as one of the principal forms of religion, though the names of the gods have varied among different people. The idea of gods and goddesses came from the two sides of man's nature, one being idealism and the other veneration. Man, however primitive in his evolution, has always had a desire to look up to some object or some being as higher and better than himself. Sometimes he created an ideal from his own nature, and sometimes he was helped to such an ideal by another. There is no race in the world that can say that they have never known idolatry, although many today would look at it with contempt.

Man has known God more through goodness than through greatness, for no man really admires power. Man surrenders to power but admires goodness; thus the ideal of worship is based on two things: praise of goodness and surrender to a greater power. Support, protection, providence, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness were also counted as goodness. And the creation and destruction of all things and beings were counted as power. Combining these two, goodness and greatness, man completed the idea of God. And since God is one, he could not make Him two, though there are as many gods as there are human beings, since each person's ideal is peculiar to himself.

Man could not complete his ideal without forming an idea of personality. He could only be satisfied by some form, which he naturally preferred to make rather like his own, or to make a combination of likenesses, or to portray the likeness that his mind could grasp. As each man differs from his fellow men in his ideas and thoughts, so each differed in his choice of the ideal idol. Therefore, if one called a particular idol his god, and his friends and followers and relations also accepted that god, then the one who was opposed to him said, 'My god is different from yours,' and he made another god. If any disadvantage arose from idol-worship, it was only this: that instead of bowing to one God, and uniting with their fellow creatures in the worship of one God, men have taken different routes in the name of different idol-gods, and thus many idolaters turned their backs on one another.

Idol-worship has been taught to mankind in order that they might learn to idealize God even if they were not sufficiently developed to understand the ideal of God in its true sense. This was a training, as a little girl receives her first training in domestic life by playing with dolls. Man can only idealize God as man, for every being, in the first place, sees himself in another. A rogue will fear the roguery of another, and a kind person will expect kindness from his fellow man.

Man had always thought of ghosts, spirits, jinns, fairies, and angels as having a human form. Although he has sometimes added wings or horns or a tail to make them different, yet he has kept his conception as close as possible to the human form. And so it is no wonder that he pictured his highest ideal in the form of man. But he called it the reverse; instead of saying, 'I have created God in my own image,' he said that God has created man in His own likeness. Even such ideals as that of liberty are pictured today in the form of woman or man, as may be seen in New York harbor and on the postage stamps of France.

Man in all ages has been dramatic. He is an actor by nature, and it is his greatest pleasure to make a drama of his life and to play a part in it himself. This spirit is also hidden within the Church and the nation, and it is this same spirit which wears a crown or accepts the patched robes of a dervish. When this natural attitude plays its part in religious or spiritual life, its first tendency is to place before itself a Lord, a King, or a Master before whom it can bow. And it has given man a tendency to idealize God in a human form or to idealize a human name and form as God.

Though there exists, always has existed, and always will exist diversity of religions, faiths, and beliefs, yet human nature will always remain the same everywhere and in all ages. And the one who knows this human tendency will understand the religion of all, and he will consider all others as belonging to his religion, the one and only religion of wisdom.

Man is accustomed to believe in the reality of things that he can touch and perceive, and he may believe in an ideal that is beyond his touch and perception although he cannot be certain of its existence. Moreover, the absence of that ideal prevents him from expressing his worship. He doubts, and wonders to whom he is praying, whether there exists such a being as God, and, if there does exist such a being, what He looks like. And as not everyone has a beautiful imagination that satisfies him, so not everyone is capable of picturing in his mind the ideal of his worship. It is musicians who compose music, though everybody can sing or hum a little. It is the painter who paints a picture though everybody can draw a little to amuse himself. And so it was those with imagination above the ordinary who gave a picture of their imagination to the world in the form of myth, which was then reproduced by art and made into an idol. In ancient times this seemed the only way possible to uplift humanity.

The Hindus were the earliest to form the conception of three aspects of the Divinity, which they called Trimurti: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Sustainer, and Shiva the Destroyer. These three powers keep the whole universe in balance and they are active in everything in the world. Brahma was represented with four arms, which signifies that besides the physical arms there are mental arms, which are necessary in the scheme of creation. And Vishnu is pictured seated on a cobra. This indicates the power of destruction that is waiting like a cobra to devour every activity; to take away fame from the famous, wealth from the rich, and power from the powerful. He who can rest upon this power is the sustainer of all activities and interests in life.

The picture of Shiva is that of an ascetic, from whose head spring rivers, round whose neck is a cobra, ashes on his body, a bull his vehicle. In this picture the cobra signifies destruction which has been accepted: all that man fears is wrapped around his neck, while ashes are significant of annihilation: everything that has gone through a perfect destruction turns into ashes. Rivers springing from the head show a constant spring of inspiration as the inspiration of a mystic is limitless. And the bull signifies one with simple faith, who, without reasoning, accepts the truth, which one cannot readily accept intellectually.

There are three goddesses who show the other aspect of these natures. Sarasvati, the consort of Brahma, who rides on a peacock, with four hands of which two are holding a vina, the third a rosary, the fourth a book; which means that music, learning and contemplation are creative. And the peacock represents the beauty, which is in art. The goddess of Vishnu is Lakshmi, who stands on a lotus with a crown of gold. She has four hands, in one of then a Sankha, and ancient weapon, in another a Kamala, a lotus flower, which indicates that the goddess of wealth has all the beauty of life at her feet, and delicacy and tenderness in her hands. The weapon represents the power that is needed to hold wealth. One arm to collect, the other to give; the crown of gold signifies that the honor of the wealthy is wealth. The third goddess is Parvati, the consort of Shiva.

These are the lessons given to humanity in order that they may study the different aspects of life with the thought of sacredness.

To the eyes of the wise in all ages the universe has become one single immanence of the divine Being. And that which cannot be compared, or which has no comparison, has been difficult to explain in the human tongue. Therefore, the idea of the wise has always been to allow man to worship God in whatever way he may be capable of picturing Him. One can trace in histories and traditions that trees, animals and birds were worshipped, also rivers and seas, and planets, the sun, and the moon. Heroes were worshipped, of all kinds. There has been worship of ancestors, of spirits, both good and evil. And the Lord of heaven was worshipped by some as the Creator, by some as the Sustainer, by some as the Destroyer, and by some as the King of all. And the wise have tolerated all aspects of worship, seeing that they all worship the same God in different forms and names, though not yet realizing that another person's god is the same God worshipped by all. Therefore, the religion of the Hindus recognized these many gods in one God, and at the same time recognized that one God in all His myriad forms.

There came a time when God was raised from idol to ideal, and this was no doubt an improvement. Yet even in the ideal He is still an idol, and unless the question of life and its perfection can be solved by the God-ideal, by one's love and worship of Him, one has not arrived at the object which all religions seek.

The need of the God-ideal is like the need of a ship in which to sail through the ocean of eternity. And as there is a danger of sinking in the sea without a ship, so there is a danger of falling prey to mortality for the man without a God-ideal. The difficulty of the believer has always been as great as the difficulty of the unbeliever. For a simple believer, as a rule, knows God from the picture that his priest has given him: God the Good, or Cherisher, or Merciful; and when the believer in the just God sees injustice in life, and the believer in the kind God sees cruelty around him, and when the believer in the Cherisher-God has to face starvation, then comes the time when the cord of his belief breaks. How many in this late war have begun to doubt and question the existence of God, some even becoming total unbelievers.

Idolatry in a way has been to man like a lesson in practicing his faith and belief patiently before heedless gods of stone, prostrating himself and bowing before the idol-god made by his own hands. No answer in man's distress, no stretching out the hand in man's poverty, no caress or embrace of sympathy, come from that heedless god. And yet faith and belief are retained under all circumstances, and it is such belief that is founded on rock, and that stands in rain and storm, unshaken and unbroken. And after all, what is the abode of God? It is man's belief. And upon what is He seated? His throne is man's faith. So idolatry was the initial stage in strengthening faith  and belief in God, the ideal, which alone is the source of the realization of truth.

When the world evolved to the point where a believer in God was able to see even his God in the idol and to communicate with Him by the power of his faith, then came the next lesson for the faithful, which was given by the series of prophets of Ben Israel. From Abraham to Moses, from Moses to Christ, the lesson was taught, which culminated in the message of Muhammad. The idea of this next lesson was to turn the idol into an ideal, and to rise from the worship of form to the abstract. By prayer, praising the Lord, by glorifying His name, by meditating upon His attributes, by admiring His righteousness, an by realizing His goodness, man created God in his own heart. This was also the purpose of idolatry, but it was only the first lesson. The second was to free one's mind from the form; for when God is recognized in one form, then the many other forms are abandoned, because then they are all recognized as His forms also.

Man has a weakness in his nature; and it is that when anything is given to him for his good, and if he likes it, he becomes attached to it until he gets its bad results. And once he is thus attached to it he never wishes to let it go. If a physician gives a drug to his patient and the patient likes it, he indulges in it, and wishes to continue with it until instead of being a medicine for his cure it turns into a vice for his destruction. So idolatry gradually became a vice, until the messengers had to fight it and break it as with a hammer. But in cases where it was considered only as a first lesson it brought great improvement, and prepared people to receive the second lesson of the God-ideal, which many have found difficult to learn.

No doubt it is true that God cannot be worshipped without idolatry in some form or other, although many people would think this absurd. God is what man makes Him, though His true being is beyond the capacity of man's making, or even perceiving, and thus the real belief in God is unintelligible. Only that part of God is intelligible which man makes. Man makes it in the form of man or out of the attributes, which seem to him good in man. And that is the only way of modeling God, if man ever tries to do so. To make a statue of stone in some form and to worship it as God is the primitive stage of worship, and to picture God in a human form, in the form of some hero, prophet, or savior, is a more advanced stage. But it is a higher kind of worship when man worships God. For his goodness, when he is impressed by the sublimity of His nature, when he holds the vision of divine beauty, recognizing this beauty in merit, power, or virtue, and when seeing this in its perfection he calls it God, whom he worships. This stage of God-realization is a step forward from the realization of the Deity in a limited human form.

This influence became apparent in the Hindu religion during the time of Shankaracharya, who did not interfere with those who were in the more primitive stage and worshipped idols, but tried throughout his life, in a very wise and gentle way, to make the truth known in his land. His teaching spread very slowly, yet its influence has been very helpful. In the Semitic races this higher form of worship is known to have been introduced by Abraham.

checked 18-Oct-2005