Idolatry is a tendentious subject at the most given its abstract dimensions and almost universal prevalence in conventional religiosity. While the Indic faiths-with the exception of Sikhi-unabashedly promulgate it, the so-called Abrahamic faiths denounce it in quasi-apocalyptic tones. It must be asked, what after all is the katzenjammer with the practice? If indeed there is one sole Creator pervading each and every microcosm of Creation than why not accept idolatry as a form of tribute to this supreme intelligence? The issue, however, is more deeply protracted than it seems on a Prima facie level.
Why idolatry? How did it enter the human psyche and why did it strike roots so deep? And foremost, what is idolatry? The commonly accepted definition of the practice, broadly speaking, holds that it consists of shaping mundane objects to substitute for the divine presence. In simpler terms, fashioning an object to represent and catalyze religious devotion. The most common, and consistent, form of idolatry consists of worshipping images carved of naturally occurring materials. At a simultaneous level, it also consists of worshipping stones alone as is the case with the meteoritic black stone in the Kaaba and countless Hindu idols.
How and why this practice eventuated among mankind’s forebears can be traced to humanity’s need to comprehend the infinite beyond i.e. the intangible elements not under its control. It was presupposed by a variety of unrelated proto-intellectuals that mankind’s origination went hand-in-hand with its intelligence and there was a more definite meaning to human life rather than the all-consuming biological grind of survive, thrive, decline and die. Whatever this meaning was, it was of divine origination indicating that there was a greater sentient presence guiding Creation. What was this presence and how could it be placated? These queries formed the crux of religious evolution.
On a more simpler level, though, it was assumed that mankind was fashioned in its Maker’s image and shared this Maker’s traits. From this initial misreading originated idolatry. An abstract and formless Creator was given a static form which, ironically, emanated from mankind’s own limited intellect. The practice struck deep roots as it not only provided a focal point for worship, but also offered a degree of solace to idolaters that they were observably placating their patron deity.
Overtime, the more enlightened humans have accepted that idolatry is problematic on the grounds that it attempts to define the supreme intelligence-of which we are a microcosm-from a limited and myopic purview. Can the Creator truly be physically and physiologically similar to humans? If so, than does the Creator also retain vices? Or is the Creator virtuous? But if the Creator is humanistic in form then did these virtues originate with the creation of humanity? How were these virtues made tangible prior to Creation and how did the Creator earn them? But if the Creator is hampered by vice and virtue than is humanity’s imperfectness static and perfectness an illusion? The irony, in all this, is that not only has mankind idolized the concept of God tangibly but also abstractedly leading it into one intellectual quagmire after another.
Prior to the Sikh Gurus, the fifteen radical mavericks whose verses are housed in the Guru Granth openly opposed idolatry on the subcontinent. Kabir would decry the formation of idols in the following terms:
ਪਾਤੀ ਤੋਰੈ ਮਾਲਿਨੀ ਪਾਤੀ ਪਾਤੀ ਜੀਉ ॥
ਜਿਸੁ ਪਾਹਨ ਕਉ ਪਾਤੀ ਤੋਰੈ ਸੋ ਪਾਹਨ ਨਿਰਜੀਉ ॥੧॥
“Snipping leaves from a tree, you denude the entire tree forgetting that the Maker is in each and every microcosm. But that idol for which you break these leaves that idol is truly lifeless.”
-Guru Granth, 479.
What his words underscore is the hypocrisy of idolaters. Dedicated proponents of the practice argue that the universe’s creative force flows in each and every facet of existence and to spiritually objectify those very facets is no transgression. Kabir blisteringly questions them that if each and every microcosm is animated by one creative potency than what reason is there for them to shape one facet and annihilate another? What reason is there to deforest jungles in the name of supplicating a deity with gifts when both the deity and the gift are alleged to be of the same spirit? Another maverick would up the ante utilizing the same confrontational attitude as Kabir. Namdev would caustically remark,
ਏਕੈ ਪਾਥਰ ਕੀਜੈ ਭਾਉ ॥
ਦੂਜੈ ਪਾਥਰ ਧਰੀਐ ਪਾਉ ॥
ਜੇ ਓਹੁ ਦੇਉ ਤ ਓਹੁ ਭੀ ਦੇਵਾ ॥
ਕਹਿ ਨਾਮਦੇਉ ਹਮ ਹਰਿ ਕੀ ਸੇਵਾ ॥੪॥੧॥
“One stone is torn out, carved and then worshipped with utmost devotion. Its fellows are trod upon. If one is said to be imbued with the Divine presence than is the other barren? Namdev serves his Maker and not stones.”
-Guru Granth, 525.
The Sikh Gurus would be more direct in their opposition to the practice. As far as the pre-Sikh era was concerned, there was some grasp of one directive Creative potency. But this potency was disjointed into countless sub-potencies to justify that the Creative potency had no interest in utilizing itself. Rather, there was impersonal non-attachment. This was the Vedic Brahman, more conceptual than sentient. On the other hand, Brahman’s illusions (or delusions) had fashioned various sub-potencies to posit humankind on the path towards liberation: emulating non-sentient Brahman’s detachment. The earlier Vedas were replete with a plethora of incantations to bring the illusory world under control. By the subsequent era, the entire cosmos was relegated to oblivion on the grounds it was false. No more was there need to master the illusion.
But while the Vedas argued that conceptual Brahman was no personalized sentient Creator-the latter being a concept for inferior intellects-the existence of the sub-potencies was justified on the grounds that they were necessary illusions. After all, they influenced devotion. Multiple legends were wrought showcasing these deities advising adherents to conform to the Vedic path of renunciation. This was the beginning of Vaisnavism which was adduced as being the more conspicuous of the Vedic schools. One who undertook the Vaisnav credo was promised upgrades in subsequent rebirths until they graduated to the stage of ascetic renunciation and more pointedly: liberation from illusory Creation.
The most potent form of Vaisnavism proved to be idolatry. The only morality allowed in this credo was sundered into nine alleged devotions:
(1) Developing faith in a deity.
(2) Associating with only that deity’s adherents.
(3) Performing devotional service for that deity in its residence.
(4) Relinquishing worldly responsibilities in the name of the deity.
(5) Augmenting faith in the deity through music and otherwise.
(6) Only ever discussing the deity.
(7) Full attachment to the deity and no-one else.
(8) Solely retaining love for the deity.
(9) Mental dissolution into the deity and ultimately the root Brahman.
The entire charade was epitheted as Prema Bhagti or devotional spirituality. While the nomenclature was novel, it was by no means a new vogue of worship given its prevalence throughout the history of idolatry. While it is repeatedly argued by the Pujari mob that the Gurus did not censor idolatry but idolatry sans true devotion, the truth is more pointed. The Gurus dissented from idolatry because they identified two core problems associated with the practice:
It nullified the requisite for ethicality and morality by separating the divine and human planes. In the Sikh credo, the Creator is not divorced from Creation. The Creator is bound to it as Creation is the container of the Creator’s intelligence. The Creator is formless. Creation is a tangible reflection of its Maker’s innate nature. The Creator is perfect for the Creator’s individuation is not subject to the vagaries of bestial nature.
Mankind, then, is to expand the microcosm of the Creator’s intelligence placed within it to experientially contribute to the betterment of Creation. Creation being the tangible definition of the Creator’s will; ethicality, morality and virtue are that which are impartial and thus associated with the divine will. The divine and human planes are intertwined to the degree that man is partner to his Maker in the running of the cosmos. Idolatry, however, othered the divine. The Creator was posited on an ascending plane and humanity on a descending plane. This nullified mankind’s innate sense of divinity and belief in the principle of human oneness arising out of ethicality and morality.
If indeed the Maker was on the “outside” and not on the “inside” then by rights there was no commonality of humankind as there was no existing innate relationship between one human and the next. This explains the origination of the next problem.
The sundering of mankind’s innate divinity by emphasizing that it could be reduced to an exterior image also led to the rise of another issue, that of polytheism. Idolatry at its most profound stage, as found in Vedic and early European civilizations, disallowed the development of monotheism. If the divine was in the form of man or subject to the same intellectual vagaries as man then by rights its different traits could be deified. This led to the development of polytheism. To define polytheism as being the worship of multiple Gods in lieu of one would be too simplistic, especially given polytheism’s root in some form of proto-monotheism. The reality behind polytheism’s existence is that it diversifies ethicality to the degree that ethics and morals become entirely relative.
The problem, as the Gurus perceived it, was a classic case of dogmatic hypocrisy. Society required some degree of ethics to provide solace with the vision of justice. In the Vedic case, justice was mostly the mainstay of the elite castes. In other idolatrous civilizations, it belonged to the ruling elite. All these head honchos chose which ethic to believe in at whim. If one credo or deity proved too stringent, another could be adopted. With each deity/God came its own relative set of ethics. The corollary of this was that no universal ethic animated the idolaters. Rather, it was their own sense of want which witnessed them hop from one God to another. Ethicality and morality, consequentially, were left with no static base to stand on. Guru Arjan would remark,
ਘਰ ਮਹਿ ਠਾਕੁਰੁ ਨਦਰਿ ਨ ਆਵੈ ॥
ਗਲ ਮਹਿ ਪਾਹਣੁ ਲੈ ਲਟਕਾਵੈ ॥੧॥
ਭਰਮੇ ਭੂਲਾ ਸਾਕਤੁ ਫਿਰਤਾ ॥
ਨੀਰੁ ਬਿਰੋਲੈ ਖਪਿ ਖਪਿ ਮਰਤਾ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
ਜਿਸੁ ਪਾਹਣ ਕਉ ਠਾਕੁਰੁ ਕਹਤਾ ॥
ਓਹੁ ਪਾਹਣੁ ਲੈ ਉਸ ਕਉ ਡੁਬਤਾ ॥੨॥
ਗੁਨਹਗਾਰ ਲੂਣ ਹਰਾਮੀ ॥
ਪਾਹਣ ਨਾਵ ਨ ਪਾਰਗਿਰਾਮੀ ॥੩॥
ਗੁਰ ਮਿਲਿ ਨਾਨਕ ਠਾਕੁਰੁ ਜਾਤਾ ॥
ਜਲਿ ਥਲਿ ਮਹੀਅਲਿ ਪੂਰਨ ਬਿਧਾਤਾ ॥੪॥੩॥੯॥
“The idiot fails to perceive the Maker within. Yet he hangs an image around his neck to remember whatever he associates with who he believes to be his Maker. Like a cynic, he wanders helter-skelter forever plagued by doubt. He churns water rather than milk and wastes his life. The stone he declares his God, that stone ultimately drowns him. Why be untrue to your own innate self? Boats of stone only sink. By accepting the truth, Nanak, we realize our true Maker. That perfect Master permeates anything and everything.”
-Guru Granth, 739.
If indeed one realized the Maker within then one would naturally have to accept a sole, singular Creator whose singular Hukam (will) manifested and animates Creation. This Hukam, by the very nature of its oneness and perfect origination, is intransient and the true yardstick with which to adjudge human conduct with. The absence of such a concept explains why the idolatrous Gods/sub-potencies are lost in human vagaries. Somewhere we have a Krsna stealing the clothes of bathing women, a Ram Chandra suspecting his own wife or a Zeus running amok with multiple mistresses.
Debunking the Dhana Mythos:
Sikhi’s opposition to idolatry could not be brokered by its Pujari detractors. In the mid-late 1600s, Vedic proponent Nabha Das authored the Bhagat Maal which claimed to recount the biographies of prominent Indic spiritualists. Among the several hundred he selected, more prominent were the fifteen mavericks whose compositions had been appended to the Guru Granth by the Gurus. The text lay forgotten until it was rediscovered by Udasi Swami Priya Das and his Nirmala apogees. Within it, Nabha Das strikingly mistranslated the words of the Sikh savant Bhai Gurdass to argue that the maverick Dhana had manifested the Creator from within a stone.
The tale, incredulously, became the mainstay of all prominent Pujari cliques operating against the Sikhs. More ludicrously, it was glorified as the the truth infinitum by Punjabi machismo turned actor Dara Singh in his 1974 classic-Bhagat Dhana Jat. The truth is less spectacular than Das would have us believe. The Pujari duplicity relies on willfully restructuring Gurmukhi grammar and obfuscating context to prove their fallacious mythos. Within their pristine state, Gurdass’s words relate an entire different narrative. They relate a dialogue between Dhana and a Brahmin Pujari.
ਬਾਮ੍ਹਣ ਪੂਜੈ ਦੇਵਤੇ ਧੰਨਾ ਗਉੂ ਚਰਾਵਣ ਆਵੈ।
Dhana earned his livelihood through farming; the Brahmin through coercing people into offering food to his stone Gods.
Commentary: Gurdass opens this dialogue by setting the scene. Dhana earns his daily bread through the sweat of his brow. The Brahmin by fooling people into offering food to his stone Gods.
ਧੰਨੈ ਡਿਠਾ ਚਲਿਤੁ ਏਹੁ ਪੁਛੈ ਬਾਮ੍ਹਣੁ ਆਖਿ ਸੁਣਾਵੈ।
Dhana observed the difference and invited the Brahmin to discuss the matter. The Brahmin gave a rejoinder.
Commentary: Dhana considered the situation and decided to challenge the Brahmin to a debate. The Brahmin replies. What does he reply?
ਠਾਕੁਰ ਦੀ ਸੇਵਾ ਕਰੈ ਜੋ ਇਛੈ ਸੋਈ ਫਲੁ ਪਾਵੈ।
I serve my deity, the people who I direct towards doing the same acquire their hearts’ wishes.
Commentary: The Brahmin is well aware of Dhana’s reputation as an inquisitive thinker. He replies to ward him off that he is only doing religious works by offering people solace.
ਧੰਨਾ ਕਰਦਾ ਜੋਦੜੀ ਮੈ ਭਿ ਦੇਹ ਇਕ ਜੇ ਤੁਧੁ ਭਾਵੈ।
Dhana, I beg of you to leave me be. Here, if you so wish I will give you a God as well.
Commentary: Fearing Dhana’s logical approach to life, the Brahmin begs him to depart and even gifts him an idol.
ਪਥਰੁ ਇਕ ਲਪੇਟਿ ਕਰਿ ਦੇ ਧੰਨੈ ਨੋ ਗੈਲ ਛੁਡਾਵੈ।
Wrapping a stone he handed it to Dhana in order to escape himself.
Commentary: Dhana takes the stone while watching the Brahmin’s shenanigans.
ਠਾਕੁਰ ਨੋ ਨ੍ਹਾਵਾਲਿਕੈ ਛਾਹਿ ਰੋਟੀ ਲੈ ਭੋਗੁ ਚੜ੍ਹਾਵੈ।
Now (my) God requires a bath and sustenance.
Commentary: Unable to convince Dhana to depart and fearing exposure, the Brahmin makes a getaway excuse.
ਹਥਿ ਜੋੜਿ ਮਿਨਤਾਂ ਕਰੈ ਪੈਰੀਂ ਪੈ ਪੈ ਬਹੁਤ ਮਨਾਵੈ।
Joining his hands (the Brahmin) falls at Dhana’s feet to convince him to his humility.
Commentary: Dhana refuses to budge. The Brahmin now tries a desperate gamble and forfeits his caste status by bowing down to him.
ਹਉਂ ਭੀ ਮੁਹੁ ਨ ਜੁਠਾਲਸਾਂ ਤੂ ਰੁਠਾ ਮੈ ਕਿਹੁ ਨ ਸੁਖਾਵੈ।
I will not partake of any sustenance until you are convinced of my sincerity.
Commentary: Truly fearing that his game is up, the Brahmin pledges that he will not even touch any food until he can convince Dhana to the veracity of his views.
ਗੋਸਾਈ ਪਰਤਖਿ ਹੋਇ ਰੋਟੀ ਖਾਇ ਛਾਹਿ ਮੁਹਿ ਲਾਵੈ।
Eat and drink to your fill. The Creator is all pervasive.
Commentary: Dhana replies that the Brahmin’s charades stand exposed. Anyhow, he should eat his food as the onlookers now know that their Maker is all pervasive and not to be found in stones.
ਭੋਲਾ ਭਾਉ ਗੋਬਿੰਦੁ ਮਿਲਾਵੈ ॥੧੩॥
The Creator is only realized through living in the Creator’s way.
Commentary: Worshipping the Creator means living as the Creator wants us to. Not by performing idolatry.
The Pujari duplicity relies on ignoring the key adjectives in the Gurmukhi to argue that Dhana went home and manifested the Maker through the stone. The Maker then consumed food in a human form! One is left wondering as to where Gurbani stands then with its explicit injunctions against physically humanizing the Creator’s formlessness.
A thorough product of colonialism, Dayanand Saraswati (the founder of the puritan Arya Samaj) repeatedly attacked Sikhi throughout his lifetime. Under his aegis, the revamping and Hinduization of Sikh history was undertaken with great relish to extinguish the pristine ethos of Guru Nanak. After unleashing vituperative canards against the Sikh Gurus, he accused the Sikhs of bibliolatry. Whether he comprehended the fundamental definition of the term was another matter.
He was taken to task by Giani Ditt Singh of the Lahore Singh-Sabha. Ditt Singh, at the onset, defined bibliolatry as being the supplantation of an idol with a book. However, the Sikh praxis only emphasizes that the Guru Granth be bowed to on the grounds it instructs the Sikhs on both societal and spiritual conduct. The fly whisk waved over it denotes sovereignty while also preventing any vermin from damaging and polluting its pages. The same can be said of its being wrapped in multiple layers when out of use and its placement on a high platform.
Dayanand stalked off angered at having been outdebated by Ditt Singh. But Ditt Singh was not yet finished. Turning around, he forewarned the Sikhs against adopting Prema Bhagti for the Guru Granth. A caution roundly ignored today.
The Sikh praxis is profoundly rooted in the canonical Guru Granth. Scripturally, it is not to be idolized as is the case today. Sikhs run helter-skelter believing that the Gurus reside in it in sentient form. Rather, it was meant to be read and acted upon. This was the virtue beyond bowing to it. That its injunctions made the Sikh an all around sovereign. Unfortunately, the Sikhs of today have a habit of honoring Giani Ditt Singh while proving his detractors right.
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