Pictures, images, idols of gods and god-men; relics of god-men and saints; temples, churches, mosques, gurdwaras and synagogues; all these represent different beliefs in different ways. These beliefs remain etched in the minds of the people. The images so carried in the minds of the people, of unseen gods and god-men, are just images of what they have read or learnt generation after generation.
In Vedic period there were no temples or idols. Atharva Veda preaches, ‘Tvam stree, tvam puman’ - God is neither male nor female in nature. According to Bible, God created man in his image.
Paganism, perhaps, the oldest belief in gods, was widely spread in many countries. Its history from Greece to Lithunia shows that it had influenced religions to a great extent in many ways. Pagans were worshippers of images. In ancient times, they were proud of their heroes. They sacrificed at the graves of the heroes and celebrated their festivals. Later on, religious martyrs replaced them. Death for them was entry into the true life. Theodoretus could boast before the former pagans: “The Lord has introduced his dead, instead of your gods, into the temple. They are, in truth, the leaders, the champions, and helpers in need.” The ‘samadhis’ of saints and martyrs in our country are not different from the graves of pagans.
Pagans worshipped the sun, moon (goddess), stars, animals, birds, snakes and even frogs, apart from natural forces, like, thunder, fire etc. Pagans held fire in great veneration. The eternal fire of ‘Zniez’, in ancient Lithunia, ‘Agni’ of India and the fire worship of Zoroastrians, all must have some link between the different human cultures. Even veneration of sacred lakes and groves is prevalent these days. From Marduk of Babylon to Perkunas (thunder god) of Lithunia there had been an array of gods and goddesses.
According to ‘Harmsworth History of the World’, earlier, Christians used to conduct divine service at the tombs of the martyrs to gain strength for the war of faith. Pagans were considered rustic, peasants and civilians, because the Christians reckoned themselves soldiers of Christ. Then “chapels and churches were constructed on the graves of their martyred heroes. Their remains were sought out and their relics were taken into the church in solemn procession, to be laid beneath the altar”. This half-paganism made the masses proud and safe because “they belonged to a communion in which such exalted patrons were revered”. The dead martyrs were treated as “heavenly agents” - the protectors of mankind.
The business of relic flourished to such an extent that in 386 AD, the Emperor Theodosius was forced to forbid people by law to dig up bones of the saints and carrying them for sale. In 997 AD, Bishop Adalbert, after his banishment from Prague, went northwards to preach the Gospel to the pagan Pressians and died a martyr’s death. According to history, Boleslav ransomed Adalbert’s bones from the pagans and buried them in Gnesen. Adalbert thus became the patron of the Polish realm.
It was in 440 AD pictures of Christ, which were till then adorned the walls of catacombs in Rome, were introduced into the churches. The majestic halo around the head, as can be seen in pictures today, was customary with pagan emperors. People started worshipping these pictures by prostrating before them, kissing them, offering incense to them and lighting lamps before them.
The history of image and idol worship is full of violent ups and downs. Paganism faced the worst at the hands of the three major religions - Christian, Muslim and Jew. Several of revered temples were demolished. Works of art were annihilated. The monuments of a glorious past were destroyed. All for establishing undisputed supremacy.
Theodosius I (378 to 395) worked for uprooting paganism. Visits to temples were forbidden and every sort of idolatry was treated as treason. Bishops and monks were sent into the provinces to destroy the old shrines. Pagans were ousted from positions in government and army. In Mecca, which was a stronghold of the old pagan cult, the Mohammedanism thrived on destruction of 300-odd idols of tribal gods. The destruction continued even during the time of Leo, the Isaurian (717-741). Monasticism, which encouraged image worship and thrived upon the trade in sacred pictures, faced the wrath of Leo III. Yet, twice the image worship was restored - first, by the Council of Nicaea in 787 and then by Michael III during his regency (842-867).
In India, idol worship was unknown during Vedic period between 1500 to 900 BC. People worshipped natural forces, like, sky, Surya (Sun), Indra (Thunder), Varuna (Rain), Prithvi (Earth) etc. and they conceived human forms of these gods. Every householder himself was a priest and he recited the hymns before sacred fire. The gods slowly lost their natural forms and took shape of extraordinary human forms in the minds of the people. Thus the intellectual conception of God was left with a handful of ascetics and philosophers.
Idol worship in India, according to historians, started during the reign of Kanishka (127 AD - 151 AD) when people started making idols of Lord Buddha. The scholars believe that Hinduism from Buddhism borrowed idol worship. Thus started construction of temples and worshipping idols. There had been destruction of temples during the Mogul reign. The only notable opposition against idol worship within the community was from Brahmo Samaj (founded in 1828 in Calcutta by Rajaram Mohan Roy).
God is everywhere and He is one. And all paths lead to Him. Then is it not a fact that the attack against religion, just for supremacy, has led to anarchy and worthless nihilism? What else we have to learn from the history?
11 Mar 1994 - Published in FREE PRESS JOURNAL, Indore, India