Translation or Random Substitution: Worship and Puja

1. Firstly, you want to know whether there is anything intrinsically  wrong with performing idol worship the way it is with robbery.

Let us assume that we agree we know what robbery is and that it is intrinsically wrong. We need to make these assumptions because (a) in all probability, the robbers do not see anything intrinsically wrong in the act of robbing; (b) even then, some of us might not be willing to call a ‘Robin hood’ (who robs only the rich and passes on the spoils to the poor, retaining a modest ‘commission’ for himself and fellow robbers) an immoral person; (c) to most of us, it is unclear whether the windfall profits that oil corporations have made in the last years constitute robbery or not and so on. Under these assumptions, you are drawing an analogy between idol worship and an act that a human being performs with respect to fellow-human beings. This analogy breaks down because idol worship is not a relation between human beings but between a particular act of a human being (called ‘worship’) and the entity worshipped.

However, one can look at morality as obedience to God’s will (that is, look at moral laws as His commandments). If you look at it this way, then, yes, idol worship is intrinsically wrong because, in doing so, one disobeys God’s will. (‘Immorality’ or ‘sin’ is disobeying God’s will and God has explicitly forbidden worshipping Him in this way.) Not only has God forbidden idol worship but He has also revealed how he should be worshipped. (Each Semitic religion tells its own story about the ‘how’ of worship.) You might want to argue that no harmful consequences follow from idol worship. If you do, you would be wrong: through false worship, you condemn yourself to damnation for all eternity. This is the fundamental freedom that God has given to human beings: to choose between Him, the possibility of salvation and eternal life on the one hand and the false gods (the Devil and his legions), false worship and eternal damnation on the other. In this sense, idol worship has very clear meaning and reference. This is a concept in the theologies of the Semitic religions.

2. You can also look at this concept, strip it of all its meaning and reference, and use an empty word in the English language that refers to the Indian act of doing puja, say, in a temple. You might use the English word `worship’ to refer to the act of doing ‘puja‘ or even to ‘upaasana’. Further, ‘murthi’ or ‘vigraha’ can be replaced by the word `idol’. Furthermore, you can use the word ‘paapa’ or ‘mahaapaapa’ in place of ‘sin’ or ‘immorality’. Now the question about idol worship becomes: ‘is murthi pooja a mahapaapa?’ Because of the replacement affected, you can also ask ‘Is idol worship a sin?’

Notice, however, what you have done. You presuppose that your audience is at home with the Indian practices, thus knows what you are talking about, and can understand this account of the Indian practices. Now, the question is this: are you talking in the English language or not? Even though you use English words, you are not talking in the English language. Any string of empty syllables could do the same job these English words are doing in this context. Suppose that I say ‘pooja’ (or ‘Upaasana’) should be replaced by ‘pif‘, ‘paapa’ (or mahaappapa) by ‘paf‘, ‘idol’ by ‘poof’, I get exactly the same result: Is poof-pif also a paf?

The illusion that you are saying and doing something else, and that they are intelligible, arises from our history. We are taught that ‘pooja’ is “translated” as ‘worship’, “murthi” as ‘Idol’, “paapa” as ‘sin’ (or as “immoral”). Note though that, in the act of translation, one is establishing some kind of “equivalence” in the meaning of these words. That is why we speak of translation and not of arbitrary replacement of some words with other words (the way I did in the above paragraph). Those who undertook these translations did believe that the Indians worshipped idols, cows, the penis and so on. They established these ‘conventions’ and none of the Indian intellectuals (whether of yesteryears or contemporaneous) protested: they continued and sustained these conventions. For some reason or the other, all such intellectuals genuinely believe that they ‘understand’ the meaning and reference of these words in the English language. The problem does not lie in their lack of ‘understanding’ of the English language but in their lack of understanding of the western culture. We have no clue about the extent to which theologies (which are theories) have made a home for themselves in linguistic practice.

3. This problem of not understanding the western culture while genuinely believing that one does is compounded by something else. One tries to account for (and thus understand) religions like Christianity using our intellectual frameworks. While it stands to reason that we try to understand another culture within the framework of our own, our abysmal ignorance of the West creates formidable problems of its own. We look at the Semitic religions as human expressions and human creations. In this framework, we cannot even begin to understand what they say about themselves, viz. they are not human creations but the revelations of God. (I have even read people writing that ‘Hinduism’ also has the ‘concept’ of revelation: ‘apaurusheya’ and that the ‘veda’ is the ‘revelation’ of ‘God’.) As much as the Semitic religions did not understand Indian traditions, we do not understand the former: that is the ‘blindness’ of the heathen that I talk about. In fact, we fail to see religions but see human traditions everywhere instead. There is something defensible and indefensible in this attempt. The former when we try to understand religions; the latter when we do so without learning anything about them in the first place.

Therefore, I would warn you to be careful when you use notions like ‘asad upaasana’ and such like to understand the notion of idol worship. They belong to totally different levels and refer to different kinds of phenomena. If you use one to talk of the other, you will end up understanding neither.

4. Finally, I would like to draw your attention to our language-use. I do not know when ‘murthi puja’ was coined. But I do vaguely remember reading that Raja Ram Mohun Roy gave wide currency to this word by saying that it was a ‘mahaapaapa’. While writing this post, it struck me that the way I use this word (and I remember others using it in the same way) is very nuanced. Rarely, if ever, do we say that we did puja to the muthi of Ganesha, when we go to the temples: we say that we did puja to Ganesha. Hardly, if ever, do we use ‘vigraha’ in this context. When we use words like murthi or vigraha, we refer to statues: ‘In Bombay, (we say while referring to the Ganesha procession), the murthi was 50 feet long’; ‘in this or that temple, the vigraha is very pretty’ and so on. That is to say, we use these words only when we refer to human creations and the physical objects. I hardly recollect anyone saying that ‘I did puja to the Ganesha murthi in that temple’. They say, instead that they did puja to Ganesha in that temple. If this recollection of mine is also true of how we normally use these words, then, it appears that we hardly speak of ‘murthi puja’, let alone doing it. The question ‘to whom did you do puja to?’ rarely, if ever, elicits the answer: ‘I did puja to the murthi of Ganesha in that temple’.