RABBI: Here are two verses from the Holy Torah that
mention idol worship: "Cursed is the man who carves an image or casts
an idol-a thing detestable to the Lord, the work of the craftsman's hands--and
sets it up in secret." [Torah, Duet, Ki Thavo, 27:15] "When I
found Israel, it was like finding grapes in the desert; when I saw our fathers,
it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree. But when they came to
Baal Peor, they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol and became
as vile as the thing they loved." [Hosea IX: 10] Although God so thoroughly
condemned the worship of man-made Gods (idols), I have seen that in Hindu
temples such images are worshiped. Our conversations have revealed many
similarities between Judaism and Hinduism, yet it appears that on this point
we strongly differ.
DEVOTEE: The Vedas also are thoroughly opposed to idol worship, but what you have seen in Hindu temples is not idol worship but rather Deity worship. It is very easy to understand how Deity worship may at first appear as idol worship to a person who is unfamiliar with the principle behind this important devotional process. After all, the form of the Deity is crafted by a man out of some kind of material elements, and that form is later worshipped in the temple with devotion.
In the Vedas, Deity worship is an extremely important devotional process to help us develop love of God. In fact, it is one of the nine general classifications of devotional service mentioned in Sanskrit in the Vedas. It is said,
çravaëaà kértanaà viñëoù
arcanaà vandanaà däsyaà
"Devotional service consists of (1) hearing about the Lord, (2) chanting His glories, (3) remembering Him, (4) serving and meditating upon His lotus feet, (5) worshiping Him, (6) praying to Him, (7) thinking oneself His eternal servant, (8) becoming His friend, and (9) surrendering everything to Him." The fifth process mentioned here, arcanaà, worshipping the Lord, refers to Deity worship.
RABBI: I still do not see the difference. The Torah also says that one should worship the Lord, but the act of worshipping idols as God is condemned. What makes the Hindu's Deity worship any different from the worship of idols so condemned in the Jewish tradition? How can man worship a form that he himself has crafted?
DEVOTEE: The difference is that God authorizes the worship of Deities. For example, if you put mail into an authorized mailbox it will be delivered to the address written on the envelope. But if you drop that mail into some box other than an authorized mailbox, it will not be delivered. Similarly, if you create some form, call it God, and worship it, all according to your own mental concoction, there will be no benefit and your act will be condemned by God. If however, you create a form according to the actual description of God's form given in the revealed scriptures, and if you worship that form according to the rules and regulations given by God in the scriptures, you will achieve excellent results. The result of that worship is love for God.
RABBI: In principle I understand that if God actually authorizes some activity, it must be correct. Still, I have difficulty understanding how a person can learn to love God by worshipping a form that He himself has created. Perhaps my difficulty is that in the Jewish scriptures, I know of no description of God's form that is detailed enough to allow someone to craft a form like it. Also, I am not familiar with any descriptions in the Jewish scriptures about how to worship such a form like a Deity. Such worship is repeatedly condemned as idolatry.
DEVOTEE: The Torah may not give a clear and detailed description of the form of God, but the Vedas do. The Vedas also give a very detailed description of the method of Deity worship. The principle is that if you want to love God, you must be able to develop some personal relationship with Him. As we have discussed several times, the purpose of religion is to develop love of God. Service to God is the symptom and means to that love. In our impure state, we are not qualified to see the original spiritual form of God and to worship Him. By His mercy He has agreed to appear in the form of His Deity. Therefore, the whole process of Deity worship gives us an opportunity to practice serving God. As the devotee renders continuous and regulated service to the Deity according to the methods authorized in the scriptures, the impurities of our heart gradually become cleansed and our natural loving relationship with the Lord is manifest. Without being able to relate to God in some personal way there is no question of learning to love Him, even though He is all pervading and can accept our offering any time or place.
RABBI: Your explanation helps me have a clearer understanding of Hindu Deity worship. As I was listening to your explanation, I remembered one verse I read, along with the commentary of Rabbi Jose. The verse said, "If they be peaceful and likewise many, and they likewise be shorn, then he shall pass away; and though I have affected thee, I will affect thee no more." [Nahum1, 12] [Zohar II, 200b] Rabbi Jose explains this verse thus, "When a people live in peace, and harbor no quarrelsome persons in there midst, God has compassion on them, and rigorous justice is not invoked against them, even though they worship idols. This is in harmony with the verse, "Ephraim is serving idols, let him alone" [Hosea. IV, 17] [Zohar II, 200b] It appears from this verse that the term idol can be used in different ways. Persons who had no faith in God and who were envious of Him preformed the idol worship that was condemned by the Lord. They were people who gave up the authorized worship of God for the worship of an unauthorized, manmade idol. It is said, "They consult a wooden idol and are answered by a stick of wood. A spirit of prostitution leads them astray; they are unfaithful to their God." [Hosea IV, 12][Zohar II, 200b] That kind of worship would never lead to love of God. In fact, it could only lead one away from Him, and thus it was condemned.
DEVOTEE: Yes, Rabbi, I agree with you. The Lord is ultimately interested in the spiritual welfare of everyone. He instructs us to do that which is for our ultimate spiritual benefit and He condemns those activities that are unfavorable for us to develop our love for Him. If we serve the Deity according to the authorized process, then we will be spiritually benefited. Otherwise, we will not.
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