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Cartesian Thoughts On Hindu Stone Gods

WE westerners are brought up on the good old values of Logic and Cartesian Reason - from Descartes, French philosopher, mathematician and physicist, who in his Discourse of the Method elaborates a system whereby doubt is methodically used to analyse any unknown phenomenon. He is also the man who said, ``I think, therefore I am''. We are taught right from childhood to believe, like Saint Thomas, only what we can see and to have faith only in what we experience ourselves. A few of us, whose parents have Marxist leanings, are also injected with a good dose of atheism - that is to disbelieve in the unnatural, the supernatural, the religious, and generally what is invisible to the eye.

This is why many of us when we come to India, have difficulty with the way Hindus adore Gods in the forms of statues. How in heaven can there be any form, any divine presence in a piece of stone, or even more so in a Lingam? You must have noticed how uneasy some of the western tourists look when they are in a living temple, whether in Badrinath, or Meenakshi: they are stirred by memories of old childhood stories of how Christian missionaries had to battle these superstitious beliefs in idols (the word idolatry implies that which is worshipped blindly, in an un-Cartesian manner) to install an altar or a church.

Yet, a few westerners, instead of rejecting outright this ``pagan'' habit that Hindus have had for millenniums of adoring stone Gods, have tried to analyse it, using this very Cartesian reason and logic with which we are endowed, thanks to our rigorous education. One such person was Alexandra David-Neel, famous writer, explorer, spiritualist, and the first woman to have penetrated Tibet. In her book, `India as I saw it' (Plon. Paris, 1951), she remarks: ``The energy which the Hindus project on the idol is not totally immaterial. It could be assimilated to a subtle substance, which is impregnated with the thoughts, desires and images of the seekers''. And she elaborates further: ``The existence, real or not, of the deity represented has no importance, what matters is the accumulation of the psychic forces in the statue''. Thus, she continues: "Images of Gods are fulfilling a function similar to what electricity does to a car battery. In this particular case, it is the adoration of the devotees, which charges the statues. And once fully charged, one can draw energy out of it, because like a battery, the statue will not get empty if one continues to charge it with energy through the cult, and the concentration of the prayers and aspirations of the faithful''. And Mrs Neel concludes: ``It is thus that an idol which has been adored for centuries by believers, is now charged with a considerable sum of energy due to the repetition of incalculable acts of devotion, during which the faith, imagination, aspirations, desires of these untold crowds of believers have been directed towards the image of their divinity''. Her wrapping up of the subject is simple: Gods are thus created by the energy emitted by the faith in their existence.

Will this rather ``scientific'' explanation of idol worshipping be sufficient to convince the disbelievers? We are not so sure. This reminds one of the story of our friend Bruno Philip, ex-correspondent in India of Le Monde. He himself, like any good Frenchman, tended to disbelieve in supernatural stories. When he heard that Ganesh was drinking milk a few years back, he went to the nearest temple with a smirk on his face. But lo, he saw with his own eyes the God actually drinking the milk. However, when he telephoned Le Monde in Paris with his story, he was told that he must have drunk too much the night before and advised to go back to bed!

But then, Bruno could have told his disbelieving boss in Paris that all religions, however Cartesian they are, have their share of beliefs in the supernatural and unscientific. Is it more rational or Cartesian (than worshipping stone idols) to think, for instance, as the Catholics do, that Mary conceived a child while remaining a virgin, or that Christ came back from the dead and ascended physically to heaven (and not in his subtle body, which is more likely), or that Jesus multiplied breads and cured incurable people? Even today, American preachers who come to India carry full page advertisements in newspapers promising whoever comes to their rallies that not only will they encounter God, but they will also witness miracles. Descartes must be shaking his head, up there in heaven.



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