Sunday, January 10, 2010

Murtis and Anthropomorphism

Lately I have been thinking about the issue of anthropomorphizing God. To anthropomorphize something is to ascribe a human form or attributes to something. I have also been thinking about murtis and their use. In many religious traditions--most notable Hinduism--murtis are used to focus the devotee on God. A murti is a physical embodiment of a divinity that one may use on an altar or in a temple. “Murti” means “embodiment”, and whereas the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) frown on this practice, Hindus (and many Buddhists, particularly among the Mahayana) consider it essential. “Murti” is usually translated into English as “idol”, but Hindus often reject that translation as having too many negative connotations and being too embedded in the Abrahamic context to do justice to the concept. They therefore prefer to use “murti” even in English.

I have been influenced by so many traditions and thoughts, and I strive to be systematic in my theology in spite of the wild diversity of my influences. The God of the philosophers is the God that, in my opinion, has the most intellectually respectable description. He (male pronoun for convention’s sake here) is all powerful, all knowing, supremely good, supremely free, and does not possess a physical body. This kind of understanding of God is perfectly compatible with my deism. For most theists (those who believe in the existence of this God), God performs great miracles. The details of these miracles depend on one’s religious tradition. As a deist, I do not have any positive belief in any miracle stories, not because I believe that God could not or would not perform them, but only because I cannot commit to their empirical reality, for reasons having primarily to do with Hume.

The God of the philosophers is, in a very real sense, unknowable. When we say, for instance, that God creates, we don’t necessarily mean exactly what we would mean were we to say that a man creates. God is on a different plane from ours, and talk of God often cannot translate perfectly.

Yet a concept of a God that is too unknowable lacks much ability to encourage devotional sentiments. The God of the deist, in particular, strikes many as being too abstract and too “distant” to encourage profound emotion. Many people do not need emotion in their spiritual/religious practice, yet it would seem that many do.

Judaism and Islam maintain that God never takes human form. This is why they both flatly reject the Christian notion of the Incarnation, which is the idea that God took human form in Jesus. Many people, obviously, feel deeply connected to this God (YHWH or Allah). YHWH and Allah strike me as too abstract for a close connection, not to mention that they often do things in their respective texts that leave me reeling from confusion and fear.

Christianity and Hinduism both have the following strength for people in my position: They both affirm that God takes human form and that we can therefore relate to God in this form. For Christians, God did this in only one instance. For Hindus, God does this all the time. Buddhists do not have a God in their theological system, and this is the reason that I will pass over Buddhism in my ruminations.

I do not personally believe that God has ever taken any physical form among us; however, my devotional sentiments evaporate without some degree of anthropomorphism of God. Humans have anthropomorphized God in countless ways throughout history, and many of these efforts speak to deep-seated human needs. For example, Jesus speaks to our feeling of sinfulness and our need for God to see us righteous. Radha and Krishna illuminate the universe as an expression of the ecstatic play (the lila) of two beautiful lovers. Thor was the hammer of righteousness, always willing to do battle for good over evil. Frigga was the All-Mother, in knowledge of her husband Odin’s secrets and governing like a wise and restrained matron. Man is so multifaceted and complex that it is no wonder that he personified so many of these aspects of his reality.

Hindu theologians often discuss the five moods in which a devotee can approach God. These are the rasa of a sublime peace in the face of God’s greatness (shanta rasa), serving God in a subordinate position (dasya rasa), being God’s personal friend (sakhya rasa), being God’s parent (vatsalya rasa), and being God’s lover (madhurya rasa). The great theologian Bhaktivinoda Thakur argued that each of these moods is served, in some way, by some religious tradition or another. For example, the Vedas of Hinduism serve shanta, the Ramayana, Muhammad, and Moses serve dasya. The warrior Arjuna, from the Mahabharata and Bhagavad Gita, serves sakhya. Jesus serves vatsalya (presumably through emphasis on Mary). The Indian saint Chaitanya, along with the Purana texts known as the Shrimad Bhagavatam, serve madhurya, which is considered the sweetest by Bhaktivinoda.

When philosophers and theologians talk about God, they often use what is called the “method of analogy.” This means that they use words in relation to God in ways analogous to, but not exactly the same as, they way we use such words when talking about humans. This method, as one can imagine, is often criticized, but it is not my intention to defend this method right now so much as to use it as a possible foundation for the use of murtis in devotion. Bhaktivinoda himself discusses three kinds of ways that language can be related to the divine lila: It can serve as a facsimile of spiritual reality (praticchaya). It can serve as an indicator that points to something indescribable (nidarshana). Finally, it can serve as an example of something (udaharana). In spite of all this, however, language can never illuminate the ultimate nature of God’s being.

One might see a murti as an analogy of some kind. Consider the form of Jesus in modest clothing, or that of Mary holding the infant. Consider Krishna in his yellow silk holding his flute, and Radha embracing him in her full regalia. The Hindu makes eye contact (darshan) with the murti, and sees into the eyes of God. Every element of clothing and every physical detail on the murti contains significance. Seeing God in a murti is a kind of anthropomorphism (one which is, by the way, considered an unpardonable sin in some other traditions). Hindus believe that God literally takes and has taken these forms on earth.

I propose a middle position. I knowingly anthropomorphize God in the murti as a form of physical method of analogy in order to develop, maintain, and strengthen devotion to the Divine. I do not believe that God has ever taken such a form on earth, but I believe that meditation on a suitable murti can not only serve devotion, but also serve to keep the Divine always on one’s mind with a concomitant improvement in one’s daily moral behavior and in one‘s attitude toward life and the world. The details of the murti can serve as praticchaya, nidarshana, and udaharana. This emphasis on intimate devotion (which Hindus call “bhakti”) is the reason why I call my approach “deistic intimism.”

So is it a sin to meditate on the Divine in the form of a murti? Are murtis at all necessary? Are they necessary only to a few? Can a deist do it in good conscience? Is it disrespectful for a deist to appropriate powerful symbols from other religions into his practice? Does murti worship encourage superstition? So many questions. I would love your ideas.


  1. Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?

  2. I don't see a moral problem here, at all. I don't think it would be possible for a just god to require or forbid worship at all, much less any particular mode of worship, without at least communicating his will to his subjects. So, if deists are right both in rejecting revelation and in holding onto the idea of the Divine as perfectly just, I cannot see how it could be a sin to use a murti, or not, as one finds expedient.

    There might be a practical problem, though, in that the murti might bear such distant analogy to the Divine, that it would in fact pull the contemplative's attention away from the Divine (even putting aside the risk of superstition, which you rightly worry about). For those who believe that the Divine truly participates in objects in the world (be they people, places, relics, nature, or whatever), this should not pose a problem, since one literally focuses upon the Divine by focusing upon the object. However, for a deist, who rejects such participation, the matter seems different; I have no idea how a deist would be able to tell whether focus upon a murti points one toward the Divine or away.

  3. No, but I have visited the site and will download it into my Reader asap. Thanks for the tip!

  4. Thanks, Mark! You make some insightful points here!

  5. May I expand on something? When I said I didn't know how a deist would be able to tell whether focus on a murti points one toward the Divine or away, I realized on reflection that I have this kind of concern not so much about deism as about the method of analogy generally, where the target is something that is supposed to be beyond human comprehension in the way nearly all theologians seem to talk about God (at least when difficult questions arise). My worry is that when one deals with something that is that far out, it would be impossible to know what bears analogy to it and what does not.

    I can think of three familiar ways to resolve this problem: (i) allow that the divine dwells in the world, and thus can be perceived directly to some extent; (ii) allow for mystical connection or revelation, so that one actually can be informed that one is getting closer or further from the Divine; or (iii) allow that the Divine is not, in fact, that far out, and can be understood quite well through his works.

    My knowledge of the history of the matter is sketchy, but I think deists have traditionally opted for the third, such that anything they do that even approximates worship involves contemplation of the natural world (or the moral world within, if one believes in that), and reflection on the minimal attributes a being must have had to make such things. Frankly, if I were to become a deist, and I were inclined to devote myself to the being which made such a wretched torture chamber of a world, I think my mode of devotion would be to continue to try to know him through science; but that would be because I would not presume the Divine to be infinite anything.