Response to Southern Baptist

Response to Southern Baptist Anti-Hidu Pamphlet
by Edwin F. Bryant, PhD,
Harvard University

The contents of the Baptist tract are not, by any means, without precedent in the recent history of the subcontinent; Hindus have been subjected to disparaging and insensitive invectives from Christians against conspicuous features of their religion since the beginning of the colonial period. In 1882, to pick just one example, William Hastie addressed six letters to “educated Hindus” and, like the author’s of the tract, also offered prayers that amidst the “idolatrous clamour” of Calcutta, such Hindus would heed the Commandments wherein the main objections of the Abrahamic traditions to deity worship lie embedded. The commandments at stake, of course, are:

Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God (Hastie, 93).

Impelled by a confidence in the absolute and universal nature of such injunctions, Hastie considered that:

No pen has yet adequately depicted all the hideousness and grossness of the monstrous system [of Hinduism]. It has been well described as..”Satan’s master piece of ingenuity for the entanglement of souls,” and as “the most stupendous fortress and citadel of ancient error and idolatry now in the world…It is defended by 330 millions of gods and goddesses — the personifications of evil, of types and forms to be paralleled only by the spirits of Pandemonium. Within are congregated…millions of human captives, the willing victims of the most egregious ‘falsities and lies’ that have ever been hatched by the Prince of Darkness, — pantheisms and atheisms, rationalisms and legends, and all-devouring credulities, with fastings and ablutions, senseless mummeries, loathsome impurities, and bloody barbarous sacrifices….Hindu idolatry has ever been, and still is, the one chief cause of all the demoralization and degradation of India. Every Hindu home is still polluted with idols and the muttering of senseless incantations. The children drink in the hideous spirit of demons with their mothers milk” (30-33).

In short, “all the forms of idolatry are not morally entitled to be regarded as religions at all.” As becomes clear from the Baptist pamphlet, then, surprisingly little has changed in the attitudes some evangelical Christians exhibit in their encounter with the religious traditions of the subcontinent.

Diatribes aside, the standard philosophical objections against idolatry (and I will focus on the issue of idolatry for the purpose of this paper) were adequately articulated by Hastie:
What is idolatry but a practical treason against Reason, the royal crown of our manhood, the setting up of the sensuous Imagination in its stead? If, then, any vision of God, as the Being who transcends all sense, be possible in any degree to man, it must be attained through the inner and not through the outer eye…Thought, not sense, must eventually be recognized as the true organ of religion…The Infinite and the Eternal, however they are to be apprehended, cannot possibly be represented in finite form by even the most perfect efforts of human art…If ever man could construct a material image of God, it would only be possible if He showed the pattern of Himself on the highest mount of inspiration, but the Hindoo idolmaker has had no such vision…and can only draw the forms of his imagery out of himself, and his images can only at the best represent his own subjective moods of feeling or aspiration, and not the known, transcendent, divine reality” (15-17). “Idolatry is thus at best an inverted self-worship; and the Divine cannot rationally be held, even on Pantheistic grounds, to be more fully embodied in the idol than in any other cognate material substance.” (91).

Reactions to such critiques have varied from full co-option of European views and values by a tiny minority of Indians, to their selective appropriation by a much larger contingent of educated Hindus, to the full defense of traditionalism by those resistant to modernity. Ram Mohan Roy is perhaps the best known representative of the middle group of selective appropriators and, like other Hindu apologists such as Dayanada Sarasvati of the Arya Samaj, fully and vociferously rejected the practice of deity worship. I quote a few of his comments since they further illustrate obvious and commonly held attitudes against the practice:

Why do you make yourselves the laughing-stock of all sensible men, by considering miserable images which are devoid of sense, motion and the power of speech as the omniscient, omnipresent and almighty God?…Both you and we see clearly, that the properties of stone, earth or wood, which the image had before the pranpratishtha [installation ceremony], it retains also afterwards; for as the flies and moskitoes were playing before on the whole image from the head to the foot, so they do also afterwards; as, previously to the performance of the pranpratishtha, the image would break into pieces if it fell on the ground, thus it would also afterwards as before it had not the power of eating, sleeping and moving, this it is destitute of this power afterwards. How can it thus be proved that the image is animated by God? (1820, 61).

There certainly were and are Hindus, then, both in the 19th century and in the present, who are quite prepared to reject the practice of deity worship or, at least, relegate it to an inferior position of religiosity (a typical response of the Bengali intelligentsia of the 19th century). But, needless to say, the acceptance of the methods of post-enlightenment rationalist criticism could prove to be a two-edged sword. Raja Ram Mohan Roy turned the same scrutiny European evangelicals had directed onto aspects of Hinduism, onto the Christian religion itself:

“Should we follow…the interpretation adopted by Trinitarian Christians, namely that the Godhead, though it is one, yet consists of three persons…in that case Christians ought, in conscience to refrain from accusing Hindus of polytheism; for every Hindu, we observe, confesses the unity of the Godhead. …Notwithstanding this unity of the Godhead, it consists of millions of substances assuming different offices correspondent to the number of the various transactions superintended in the universe by divine providence which [Hindus] consider as infinitely more numerous than those of the Trinitarian scheme (VI, 15).”

Elsewhere, responding to the belief of the validity of the miracles described in the New Testament on the grounds that they were witnessed by numerous people, he comments: “If all [miraculous] assertions were to be indiscriminately admitted as facts, merely because they are testified by numbers, how can we dispute the truth of those miracles which are said to have been performed by persons esteemed holy amongst natives of this country?” (VI, 44). If we are to make public statements about another religion’s beliefs on the basis of a cursory and superficial glance at them, what are we to make of such Christian tenets as Mary’s conception by the holy spirit? As Roy puts it somewhat tongue-in-cheek:

“It appears, indeed, to me impossible to view the Holy Spirit as very God, without coming to ideas respecting the nature of the Deity, little different from some of those most generally and justly condemned as found amongst Polytheists…we should necessarily be drawn to the idea that God came upon Mary, and that the child she bore was in reality begotten of him — Is this idea, I would beg to know, consistent with the perfect nature of the righteous God? Or rather, is not such a notion of the Godhead’s having had intercourse with a human female, as horrible as the sentiments entertained by ancient and modern Heathens respecting the deity? (VI, 47)”

Moreover, if ” we believe that the Spirit, in the form of a dove, or in any other bodily shape, was really the third person of the Godhead, how can we justly charge with absurdity the Hindoo legends of the Divinity having the form of a fish or of any other animal?” (VI, 48). And as for Christ, whom Rajaram considered to be a empowered prophet, or human intermediary between man and God, did he:

“suffer death and pain for the sins of men in his divine nature, or in his human capacity? The former must be highly inconsistent with the nature of God, which, we are persuaded to believe by reason and tradition, is above being rendered liable to death or pain…the latter…seems totally inconsistent with the justice ascribed to God, and even at variance with those principles of equity required of men…especially when [Jesus] declares such great aversion to it [quotes passages]…every just man would shudder at the idea of one’s being put to death for a crime committed by another” (VI, 33-34). Roy was horrified at the idea that “the omnipresent deity should be generated in the womb of a female, and live in the state of subjugation for several years, and lastly offer his blood to another person of the Godhead, whose anger could not be appeased except by the sacrifice of a portion of himself in human form.” (IV, 44).

Whether or not a Christian might feel that Roy has missed some of the essential theological concepts of Christianity, the point, I suggest, is that if we are to permit ourselves to scrutinize and judge a religious tradition different from our own with a critical eye, we must be prepared for adherents of that tradition to extend the same type of attention on our own. Let us consider this for a moment from the perspective of some of the typical invectives directed against idolatry. If we extract the image of, say, a Kali deity from the intricate and vivid metaphysics of, say, Sakta tantrism, or strip the rich and sophisticated theology of Kashmere or Saiva Saivism from the aniconic Siva linga, we will likely find ourselves faced with an inexplicably gruesome image of a half naked goddess with horrible lolling tongue and garland of skulls (an ‘evil goddess of destruction,’ according to our tract), and an obscene phallic object. But what might a comparably ill-informed outsider find if he or she were to encounter Christianity with a similar degree of superficiality? If one were to likewise remove the most conspicuous visual feature of Christianity from its elaborate and meaningful theological moorings, and cast as cursory a glance at it as the writers of the Baptist tract seem to have cast at Hinduism, such a person might find a religion that worships God in the rather macabre form of a near-naked man hanging crucified on a cross, with a crown of thorns on his head, and a dripping gash in his side — a representation that makes Kali look much less unique in her ghastliness.

Before we proceed to consider something of the theology of image worship, it may give us pause to consider a set of apologetic comments made not long after Roy, by one Bhaktivinoda Thakur who, unlike his more famous fellow Bengali, was prepared to offer a rational defense of the practice of puja:

The Supreme Lord does not have a material form, but is endowed with a transcendent spiritual form called sat-cit-›nanda-vigraha. The fullest manifestation of this transcendent form cannot be perceived by the conditioned jivas. For this reason, in whatever fashion man conceives of God in this world, his conception must assume a degree of idolatry…/ri K¸?°a can be perceived in the heart, to some extent, through the help of divine love. When this form is perceived in the mind…it assumes a greater degree of phenomenality, while being served through the body and senses in physical form, Ÿri mÒrti assumes the greatest level of phenomenality (quoted in Das, 192).

To understand the full import of this statement we must bear in mind that throughout almost the entirety of Indic thought, the mind is considered to be a material element extraneous to the real self. In Hindu Samkhya thought, especially, which, with some sect-specific taxonomic variants here and there, became the dominant metaphysical and physical descriptive model of reality, mind and intelligence are material elements that do not differ from the other material elements — earth, water, fire, air and ether — except that they are more subtle in nature, as is each element viz a viz those that proceed it. They are all prakiti, matter.

So, Bhaktivinoda’s argument, then, is that any statement about God, such as that God is ‘love,’ or ‘good,’ or ‘all-powerful,’ or ‘almighty,’ or ‘just’ or ‘beyond human comprehension’ or anything whatsoever, is idolatry. This is because all such attributes are constructions formed by the mind or intellect, and the mind and intellect are prakitic matter. Indeed, conceiving of God in any way whatsoever means, by definition, constructing a conceptual, that is, a mental or intellectual material image of him. Thus whether the image is made of the material elements of stone, etc, or whether it is a conceptual image: “There is no difference between the two because even mind and thought are material” (ibid, 193) Therefore there is no other way to conceive of, or discuss God, except through image worship: “Image worship is therefore the foundation of human religion” (ibid, 193). Hindus construct a variety of images of stone and other denser material substances in addition to constructing the variety of intellectual images of God evidenced in the intellectual theologies of the subcontinent; Protestant Christians have restricted themselves to worshipping intellectual images: both are worshipping images, viz, are idolaters.

Let us now proceed to a consideration of the practice of deity worship in its more physical sense. One must first acknowledge that there are a number of theologies in this regard. In some schools, say from the non-dual perspective of advaita vedanta, a deity might be nothing more than a temporary object upon which to fix one’s contemplation while en route to higher and more sophisticated states of non-dual consciousness (a position common amongst the Bengali intelligentsia of the 19th century). Practitioners of other non-dualist schools such as Kashmere Saivite or certain Sakta schools which do accept a real personal dimension to the absolute that can manifest in icon form, nevertheless consider this personal form to be a secondary, or evoluted aspect of an absolute which is ultimately impersonal in its most introspective state, a state wherein any differentiation between the practitioner and the deity dissolves. In contrast to these understandings, we will consider here the distinct theology of the various qualified non-dualistic, sometimes popularly known as the ‘dualist’ Vaishnava schools, since these are the closest to normative Christianity in terms of their essential metaphysical infrastructure, viz, that there is an absolute and ultimate personality to Godhead, and some kind of an eternal distinction (viz, not just an illusory one pertaining to the realm of saªsara) between the Godhead and the myriad souls in the world.

The Bhgavata Pura which, along with the Ramayana and Mahabharata has been one of the most influential texts in classical Hinduism, makes the following comments (one can find similar statements in /akta, /aivite or Vi?°u-centered texts):

After the performance of the twilight prayer….one should, with a pure, solemn determination perform my worship. An image is said to be of eight kinds: it may be made of stone, wood, metals, earth, precious stone, sandal paste, paint, sand or a mental image….It is of two kinds, movable or immovable….My worship through the medium of images should be performed with excellent articles, but a sincere devotee may worship me with whatever articles are available to him. In the case of worshipping me in the mind, it should be done with articles created by the mind with utmost devotion…Bathing and decorating an image pleases me the most, O Uddhava…but even if mere water is offered with faith and devotion by my votary, it gives me the highest pleasure…What needs be said if sandal-paste, incense, flowers, lamp, food, etc, are presented to me as offerings. On the other hand, even if rich gifts in abundance be offered to me by a non-devotee, it does not give me pleasure and joy….The worshipper should reverentially place on his head some flowers, etc, from my worship as a gracious gift from me….One may worship me at any time and in any form in which one entertains devout faith….After installing my image, he should get a fine durable temple or shrine built for it; beautiful flower gardens laid out for it, and establish foundations for the regular performance of my daily worship as well as for celebrations of festivals and pilgrimage….He who worships me in the manner described above, is blessed with bhakti yoga (skandha 11, chapter 27).

Here, here, then, we find K¸?°a, the incarnation of God for the present world age (and the ultimate Godhead himself in certain theologies) prescribing and recommending the practice of image worship.

Theologically, If we strip away the sect-specific descriptive details pertaining to the nature of Godhead that are particular to the Vaishnava traditions, and focus on the basic premise that Vaishnavism does share with normative Christianity, viz, that there is an eternal personal Godhead who is on some level distinct from the individual souls, the process of image worship does seem to have some kind of an internally-consistent rationale and theologically defensible logic, at least from within the premises of theistic thought. In Vaishnava pancar›trika theology, the Godhead, although distinct from matter on one level, is invited into the deity in order to accept physical service. This is because the practitioner cannot access or perceive the transcendent form of the Godhead while in the embodied state. That the Godhead agrees to descend into the image is an act of grace, because it allows the practitioner to render intimate and personal service to the Godhead despite the intervening medium of matter — the practitioner embedded in the matter of his or her body, and the Godhead in the material substance of the image. By rendering this service, the practitioner becomes purified and focused in consciousness upon the deity, thereby becoming eligible to ultimately return to the abode of the Godhead after this life, or, in rare hagiographical cases, even perceive the transcendent Godhead within the deity during this life. We should also note that in Vaishnava theology, the Godhead can be present in multiple abodes at the same time, while simultaneously never leaving the transcendent abode (like the sun can be reflected in many puddles of water). With regards to Roy’s objections mentioned previously, that the deity retains it’s material characteristics after the pr›naprati??ha, or is visited by flies and mosquitoes, or is liable to break if dropped, has no bearing on the absence or existence of a non-material transcendent presence that, by definition, transcends the material elements within which he (or she in the case of the goddess) agrees to reside — the Godhead, of course, is under no obligation to remain if neglected and, from a bhakti perspective, the whole point is that the deity has entrusted the devotee to ensure that it is not troubled by flies or dropped.

Now, if one takes a position that the Godhead cannot reside in a material image (or any number of such images simultaneously), one is then faced with the theological problem of accounting for an absolute all-potent Godhead that is incapable of doing something, a position that no self-respecting theist could consider. A non-Hindu evangelical opponent of this practice can at this point, of course, bypass the discourse of rationality, and take recourse to the Old Testament prohibition against image worship, to argue that although the Godhead, being omnipotent, could theoretically take up residence in a deity, it would not do so, and in fact expresses through the Bible that it certainly does not do so. At this point we are faced with a situation where one group of people in one religious tradition that manifested in a particular geographical location at a particular point in historical time believe that God has made statements prohibiting deity worship, while other groups of people in other religious traditions that manifested in different geographical locations at a different points in historical time believe that God has made statements strongly recommending deity worship.

As critical scholars, of course, one can adopt a position that accounts for such prohibitions and recommendations as exclusively human constructs produced according to differing historical, social or psychological exigencies. But since the authors and readers of the Baptist tract are believing Christians, and the people on whose part they feel impelled to pray are believing Hindus, such a reductionistic position is unlikely to find much of an audience with those who are the subject of this panel. Accordingly, it seems to me that those operating from within the faith parameters of traditions which believe in the divine origins of their scripture have at least two options: either that the scriptural injunctions of their traditions are right and absolute and divinely inspired, and injunctions in other religious traditions that are contradictory to these are wrong, not absolute or not divinely inspired, or, that Divinity has given different injunctions to different peoples at different époques of human history based on the spiritual needs of individuals and communities according to time and place (a position typical of modern Hindu neo-Vedantic discourse).

In formulating their position on such matters, evangelicals of any tradition need to be aware that practitioners of other traditions are just as committed to their beliefs as they are to theirs. 175 years ago, Ram Mohan Roy noted that, despite an abundance of Christian zeal and enthusiasm, the converts of the Baptist missionaries in Calcutta by their own admission “did not exceed four.” Our Baptist tract claims that today, after almost two centuries, there are 10,000 Christians in Calcutta. Whatever the number, it seems reasonable to assume that Hindus are unlikely to convert to Christianity en masse any time in the foreseeable future.

Accordingly, if one takes the former position, that Christian revelation is absolute and any conflicting claims to revelation of other traditions are wrong, one needs to be prepared for the likely reaction — the closing of the door to religious dialogue with massive portions of humanity. Perhaps of greater concern in the context of modern Hindu nationalism, one needs to also be aware that such a position potentially opens another door to a vicious and frightening backlash against the tiny Christian minority in India from the extreme and unruly elements of this nationalism, frustrated with what they perceive as two centuries of patronizing and insulting religious arrogance by ill-informed Christian evangelicals. Position number two, then, of Divinity’s multiple presence in, and, at times, differing directives through the various religions of the world, would seem to be the less resistant option available to those genuinely interested in harmonious and open-minded communion with fellow human beings who happen to be born into, or belong to, different religious communities than themselves, however exotic or startling these other traditions may initially appear.


Das, Sukavak. Hindu Encounter with Modernity. Calcutta: Sri, 1999

Hastie, W. Hindu Idolatry and English Enlightenment. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co, 1882.

Roy, Raja Rammohun. “A Letter on the Prospects of Christianity.” in The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy. Calcutta: Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, part IV 1947.

… “Second Appeal to the Christian Public.” in The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy. Calcutta: Sadharan Brahmo Samaj,, VI, 1951.