Representations of religions and faiths

When the enormous Bamayan statues of the Buddha were destroyed in 2001, my friends expected me, as a Buddhist, to be horrified and offended. My response was rather different : I couldn’t understand why these destroyers could be so angered by ancient pieces of rock. I simply felt sad that anyone should be so outraged by a statue of Shakyamuni; had he done them any harm ?  Some religions call this ‘idol worship’; the technical term for such behaviour is iconoclasm – destruction of or opposition to the adoration of statues, religious icons and other symbols.

Those statues were revered by the people who created them. We have no idea what was in their minds when they started carving the stone. They could have imagined that the lifeless figures connected them to the original Buddha or they could have treated the statues as gods or saviours.

If we assume that the Bamayan statues were created by believers as testimonies to their devotion, then we can only admire them. But these were imaginary images, since nobody knows what the Buddha looked like. Today we have representations of Tibetan, Indian, Western, Japanese versions of the Buddha; many of these images are very beautiful just as many paintings and statues of Jesus Christ are beautiful.

From the beginnings of history, humans have made images of their gods, goddesses and religious teachers. It is only recently that we have been able to see more or less accurate depictions of these figures : we know exactly what the Dalai Lama, Pope  Benedict, a whole load of prophets look like. (So far, we haven’t had any authentic photos of God.)

Maybe religion is too abstract to be encompassed in the mind; maybe it helps to visualise some aspect of that religion, to use a physical representation like a statue or an image as a short-cut, a symbol, an icon. This brings the risk of idolatry, the worship of the image. (Of course Islam is totally opposed to such imagery.)

We must be ultra-careful when approaching the sensitive areas of any religion. Christians are likely to react strongly against ‘blasphemous’ books or films; Buddhists too might react with some vigour against hateful mockeries of their faith.

At this point, let’s consider an opposite view of the representations of religious figures. Modernists, atheists and humanists would argue that no protection should be awarded to any such speech, texts or visual objects. Freedom of speech should be absolute; it’s one of the foundations of our civilisation. Why should any god be so sensitive to ridicule ? Can’t s/he take a joke ?

From a similar viewpoint, militant atheists and others would insist that all religions are nothing but superstitions, leftovers from historic times. Our ‘Age of Reason’ should reject such irrational beliefs inherited from our primitive ancestors. Atheist materialism has triumphed. Full stop.

Turning to a recent phenomenon, the Internet adds another layer of complexity. This is a new platform where a single word or image can explode with international consequences. The ‘Net amplifies the voice of every user. Never before has it been possible for a single word or image to spread so fast or so globally. That person has the power to create harm or harmony. The ‘Net is the perfect platform for proselytisers of all shapes and sizes and, of course, for hate-mongers, racists, ‘phobes and demagogues.

This new medium also provides a perfect illustration of the need for Right Speech, one of the virtues on the Noble Eightfold Path.* It doesn’t mean that we should be neurotically worried about every word we utter. Over a period of time, we can adjust our speech so that it becomes more truthful, more mindful, more empathetic. (It does mean that we should do our utmost to avoid gossip, rumour, ugly jokes and swearing; not so easy but it can be done.)

Above all, perhaps we should learn how to become less reactive, less thin-skinned.  The best personal protection against extremists may be to develop a greater resistance to this kind of plague, a greater equanimity. Followers of religions might need to avoid getting so angry about  ‘offensive’ materials. And believers of any faith may have to revise their traditional standpoints, to soften their responses to provocations.

In the end, it all comes down to awareness. If you have an altar at home, and there’s a statue of the Buddha or Avalokitesvara on it, what does it mean to you ? Is it simply a talisman or a decoration ? Or is it a profoundly-felt focus for your practice ? Or could you continue your practice without it ? It might be interesting to examine your mind.

Maurice George February 2015

* The others are Right View, Right Intention, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration.