It is visibly apparent to anyone who visits India or who sees something of India through the medium of film that this is a culture in which the mythic imagination has been very generative. The images and myths of the Hindu imagination constitute a basic cultural vocabulary and a common idiom of discourse. Since India has “written” prolifically in its images, learning to read its mythology and iconography is a primary task for the student of Hinduism. In learning about Hinduism, it might be argued that perhaps it makes more sense to begin with Ganesa, the elephant-headed god who sits at the thresholds of space and time and who blesses all beginnings, and then proceed through the deities of the Hindu pantheon, rather than to begin with the Indus Valley civilization and proceed through the ages of Hindu history. Certainly for a student who wishes to visit India, the development of a basic iconographic vocabulary is essential, for deities such as the monkey Hanuman or the fierce Kali confront one at every turn.

When the first European traders and travelers visited India, they were astonished at the multitude of images of the various deities they saw there. They called them “idols” and described them with combined fascination and repugnance. For example, Ralph Fitch, who traveled as a merchant through North India in the 1500s writes of the images of deities in Banaras: “Their chiefe idols bee blacke and evill favoured, their mouths monstrous, their eares gilded and full of jewels, their teeth and eyes of gold, silver and glasse, some having one thing in their hands and some another.”

Fitch had no interpretive categories, save those of a very general Western Christian background, with which to make sense of what he saw. Three hundred years did little to aid interpretation. When M. A. Sherring lived in Banaras in the mid-1800s he could still write, after studying the city for a long time, of “the worship of uncouth idols, of monsters, of the linga and other indecent figures, and of a multitude of grotesque, ill-shapen, and hideous objects.” When Mark Twain traveled through India in the last decade of the nineteenth century, he brought a certain imaginative humor to the array of “idols” in Banaras, but he remained without what Rudolf Arnheim would call “manageable models” for placing the visible data of India in a recognizable context. Of the “idols” he wrote, “And what a swarm of them there is! The town is a vast museum of idols – and all of them crude, misshapen, and ugly. They flock through one’s dreams at night, a wild mob of nightmares.”

Without some interpretation, some visual hermeneutic, icons and images can be alienating rather than enlightening. Instead of being keys to understanding, they can kindle xenophobia and pose barriers to understanding by appearing as a “wild mob of nightmares,” utterly foreign to and unassimilable by our minds. To understand India, we need to raise our eyes from the book to the image, but we also need some means of interpreting and comprehending the images we see.

The bafflement of many who first behold the array of Hindu images springs from the deep-rooted Western antagonism to imaging the divine at all. The Hebraic hostility to “graven images” expressed in the Commandments is echoed repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible: “You shall not make for yourself a 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.”

The Hebraic resistance to imaging the divine has combined with a certain distrust of the senses in the Greek tradition as well. While the Greeks were famous for their anthropomorphic images of the gods, the prevalent suspicion in the philosophies of classical Greece was that “what the eyes reported was not true.” Like those of dim vision in Plato’s cave, it was thought that people generally accept the mere shadows of reality as “true.” Nevertheless, if dim vision described human perception of the ordinary world, the Greeks continued to use the notion of true vision to describe wisdom, that which is seen directly in the full light of day rather than obliquely in the shadowy light of the cave. Arnheim writes, “The Greeks learned to distrust the senses, but they never forgot that direct vision is the first and final source of wisdom. They refined the techniques of reasoning, but they also believed that, in the words of Aristotle, ‘the soul never thinks without an image.’”

On the whole, it would be fair to say that the Western traditions, especially the religious traditions of the “Book” – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – have trusted the Word more than the Image as a mediator of the divine truth. The Qur’an and the Hebrew Bible are filled with injunctions to “proclaim” and to “hear” the word. The ears were somehow more trustworthy than the eyes. In the Christian tradition this suspicion of the eyes and the image has been a particularly Protestant position.

And yet the visible image has not been without some force in the religious thinking of the West. The verbal icon of God as “Father” or “King” has had considerable power in shaping the Judeo-Christian religious imagination. The Orthodox Christian traditions, after much debate in the eighth and ninth centuries, granted an important place to the honoring of icons as those “windows” through which one might look toward God. They were careful, however, to say that the icon should not be “realistic” and should be only two-dimensional. In the Catholic tradition as well, the art and iconography, especially of Mary and the saints, has had a long and rich history. And all three traditions of the “Book” have developed the art of embellishing the word into a virtual icon in the elaboration of calligraphic and decorative arts. Finally, it should be said that there is a great diversity within each of these traditions. The Mexican villager who comes on his knees to the Virgin of Guadalupe, leaves a bundle of beans, and lights a candle would no doubt feel more at home in a Hindu temple than in a stark, white New England Protestant church. Similarly, the Moroccan Muslim woman who visits the shrines of Muslim saints would find India less foreign than did the eleventh-century Muslim scholar Alberuni, who wrote that “the Hindus entirely differ from us in every respect.”

Worshipping as God those “things” that are not God has been despised in the Western traditions as “idolatry,” a mere bowing down to “sticks and stones.” The difficulty with such a view of idolatry, however, is that anyone who bows down to such things clearly does not understand them to be sticks and stones. No people would identify themselves as “idolaters,” by faith. Thus idolatry can be only an outsider’s term for the symbols and visual images of some other culture. Theodore Roszak, writing in Where the Wasteland Ends, locates the “sin of idolatry” precisely where it belongs: in the eye of the beholder.

In beginning to understand the consciousness of the Hindu worshipper who bows to “sticks and stones,” an anecdote of the Indian novelist U. R. Anantha Murthy is provocative. He tells of an artist friend who was studying folk art in rural North India. Looking into one hut, he saw a stone daubed with red kunkum powder, and he asked the villager if he might bring the stone outside to photograph it. The villager agreed, and after the artist had photographed the stone he realized that he might have polluted this sacred object by moving it outside. Horrified, he apologized to the villager, who replied, “It doesn’t matter. I will have to bring another stone and anoint kunkum on it.” Anantha Murthy comments, “Any piece of stone on which he put kunkum became God for the peasant. What mattered was his faith, not the stone.”8We might add that, of course, the stone matters too. If it did not, the peasant would not bother with a stone at all.

Unlike the zealous Protestant missionaries of a century ago, we are not much given to the use of the term “idolatry” to condemn what “other people” do. Yet those who misunderstood have still left us with the task of understanding, and they have raised an important and subtle issue in the comparative study of religion: What is the nature of the divine image? Is it considered to be intrinsically sacred? Is it a symbol of the sacred? A mediator of the sacred? How are images made, consecrated, and used, and what does this tell us about the way they are understood? But still another question remains to be addressed before we take up these topics. That is the question of the multitude of images. Why are there so many gods?

Excerpted with permission from The Life of Hinduism, edited by John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan, Aleph Books.