Idolizing Gods in Hinduism During the Nineteenth-Century

Tanisha Ramachandran
Tanisha Ramachandran

Given the fact that Hinduism today is so filled with images and icons of gods and goddesses, it is hard to believe that at one point in history, the dominant priestly circle resisted the introduction of images into worship. But various writings from the ancient and medieval periods make it apparent that there was strong resistance and a long process of both negotiation and remonstration prior to the acceptance of the usage of images in everyday worship. Some scholars have argued that the introduction of images into the Hindu religion followed a vertical model where the practices of the lower groups infiltrated into those of the higher ones. This is what Peter Brown refers to as the a “two-tiered model” where change is brought about by “continuous upward pressure” from the masses on the religious elite which leads to adopting popular practices in order to satisfy the people’s needs.

In the Indian context, this process may be framed within the Dravidian-Aryan model where an “indigenous village Dravidian culture” encountered the “dominant Aryan culture” and introduced these practices into the “pure” religion of the Aryans. However, this explanation is limited and simplistic, as well as incorrect, as we will soon see. It restricts the process of religious change to a clash of cultures and therefore provides a one-dimensional view of the transition from the aniconic to the iconic.

The acceptance of image worship was a long and complicated process, that required years of negotiation and was often met with open hostility. Following the work of Heinrich von Stietencron (2005) and Davis (2001), I would argue that the transition into image worship was brought about by members of the same caste, the Brahmins, who initially resisted its usage. And as Phyllis Granoff explains, most of the story will be discovered by “reading between the lines of the texts to discover some of the intricacies and problems that resulted when a group deliberately sought to construct new rituals or impose its own rituals on a sphere originally not its own.” In other words, when examining the texts we should not only look at the overt restriction of image worship, but also to texts and practices which negotiate and defend the introduction of the practice. Further, in order to gauge the time frame of the introduction of iconolatry, it is necessary to examine texts where images are not even spoken of.

Scholars have commented that during Vedic times there was no image worship. Friedrich Max Müller expressed the conception that Peter Brown refers to as the two-tiered system when he stated: “The religion of the Vedas knew no idols. The worship of idols in India is a secondary formation, a later degradation of more primitive worship of ideal gods.” This argument was reiterated by Pandurang Vaman Kane when he concluded that: “One can say without much fear of contradiction that the religious practices among the higher strata of the Vedic Aryans did not include the worship of images in the house or temple.” Stephanie Jamison points out a distinction between Vedic religion and temple Hinduism that does not render the former conducive to image worship. She suggests that because Vedic religion is a “portable religion” there were no permanent structures to house images. People in the time of the Veda were likely nomadic, and their worship practices were sacrificial and involved the recitation of mantras. The deities worshipped, such as Indra, Agni and Varuna, were considered abstract functions of natural phenomena or cosmic processes or as powers that enabled the communication with the divine. They were limited in their functions and often served as messengers, as in the case of Agni who would take the sacrificial food up to heaven. The Vedas did not concentrate on their bodily forms or attributes, which may lead to the conclusion that anthropomorphic representation did not play a significant role in Vedic Hinduism. However, from certain passages in the Veda, it is arguable that descriptions indicate a corporeal construction of the Vedic gods. For example, Indra is described as tuvigriva (with a powerful and thick neck) and vapodara (having a big belly). While there is no concrete evidence of image worship, there also is not any prohibition of it. What is missing from the Vedic corpus is any form of the liturgy where images are involved. Even the Samhitas and the early Brahmanas, which deal in large part with ritual, do not mention anything that can be interpreted as image worship.

One of the first pieces of solid textual evidence of image worship comes from the work of the famous Sanskrit grammarian Panini. Panim’s JTvikarthe Cdpanye is, according to Heinrich von Stietencron: “…intended to regulate the formation of the names of divine images. To some of them the suffix -ha is added, to others, it is not; and with the latter deals this sutra.”

From the commentators, we know Panini’s rule is based on a distinction of images which are meant for sale and others which were worshipped and cared for by custodians called Devalaka. The rule applies to the latter. These images can be fixed in a shrine (acala) or carried from place to place (cold). In both cases, they are meant for worship (piijarthe) and are a source of livelihood (jivika) to their custodians who receive the gifts of the devotees. The Devalakas show the images and act as pujaris, but they do not sell them: their images are not for sale (apanya). Such images according to Panini, would be named as Siva or Skanda (the example is taken from Patanjali) without the suffix -ka. Opposed to these are images which were displayed for sale. They too were a means of livelihood for their owners, but these owners kept them only for trade, not for worship (piijarthe). Such images would be called Sivaka or Skandaka.

The fact that Panini wrote about this linguistic distinction illustrates three things: images were being used in religious practice during this time; certain groups earned a living from both service to and the sale of religious images and this form of worship was connected with new gods such as Siva and Skanda, rather than the gods of the Vedic pantheon. Thus, it would appear that this new mode of worship had not necessarily overtaken the Vedic mode of worship, but was offering different liturgical practices directed at gods and goddesses who were not part of the Vedic pantheon.

The fact that priests made money from these images was cause for great disdain among the more orthodox Vedic Brahmins. The image-worshipping priests are referred to in a derogatory manner in many texts beginning with Panini. These texts admonished the image priests for the fact that they handled money. The terminology referring to the image priests indicates how they were viewed. They were called as by Panini “devalaka” or “fallen priest,” the same word that was used for the Sudra caretakers of images, and were considered as patita – fallen from the rank of Brahmin to a Sudra. This classification of image-worshipping Brahmins as “fallen priests” would continue well into the medieval period, demonstrating that the introduction of images into Hindu ritual was a long and complicated process. The Manu, one of the most significant texts for brahmanical Hinduism, compiled in the beginning of the Common Era, compares the devalaka to people such as merchants who sell services for money and states that therefore they should be excluded from traditional sraddha and samskara rites.

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