At the end of OMG, Kanjibhai throws away Krishna’s keychain to avoid idolatry. Do we need to similarly discard everything connected with God to avoid idolatry?

by January 31, 2014

This incident is a classic example of how scripturally uninformed logic ends in iconophobia, the irrational fear of material representations of God.

The underlying thread of such logic is valid, but its conclusion isn’t.  The valid thread of logic is as follows: When we worship a material representation of God, we will over time focus only on that material representation and forget God whom we were intending to worship. Thus, the logic goes, the material representation will become a competitor to God and will take for itself the worship that was meant for God. That’s why, the logic concludes, no such representation should be worshiped and if it is already being worshiped then that worship should be stopped.

This course of events may be a logical possibility, but it is not a universal necessity. It won’t happen when there is proper education about the nature of Deity worship. This education informs us that God is spiritual and the ultimate goal of life is to rise to the spiritual level of consciousness and enter into the ultimate spiritual reality: God’s eternal world of love. With such a spiritual-centric understanding, the Deity is never seen as material and is never regarded as something separate from God. So the Deity never becomes a competitor to God; all the worship offered to the Deity automatically goes to God. Devotion to the Deity doesn’t distract us from devotion to God, but enhances our devotion to God. In fact, such devotion becomes non-different from devotion to God.

Education can provide us a similar spiritual vision of things connected with God. Those things can remind us of God and nourish our devotion to him. That’s why far from rejecting them we should cherish them. The Srimad Bhagavatam (11.6.46) glorifies their purifying potency: there the great devotee Uddhava speaks to Krishna, “Simply by decorating ourselves with the garlands, fragrant oils, clothes and ornaments that you have already enjoyed, and by eating the remnants of your meals, we, your servants, will indeed conquer your illusory energy.”

The iconophobia demonstrated in rejecting Krishna’s keychain ends in logical absurdity. If the keychain can lead to idolatry, then even the vision of Krishna when he manifests himself can also lead to idolatry. Just as the keychain was limited, so was the form of Krishna that was revealed to Kanjibhai. And both were manifest to material vision. So, if one has to be rejected, then why not the other? And if Kanjibhai had to actually adhere to this iconophobia, then just as he threw away Krishna’s keychain, he would have had to push away Krishna too when Krishna first came to his rescue. Because if there had never been any icon, any representation of Krishna through matter, then Kanjibhai would never have known what Krishna looked like. So when Krishna himself appeared before him, Kanjibhai would not have known that this was Krishna. Due to the dogmatic belief that nothing material can represent God, he would have had to consider Krishna himself to be some material representation of God. And like all other icons, he would have had to reject Krishna. Then what would have happened to Kanjibhai?

To conclude, this final incident is a perfect metaphor of the danger of OMG-type critiques of religion: they intend to expose the bad within religion. And there is much that is bad in religion as it exists today, blind faith in self-serving godmen being a tragic example. Such blind faith must be eradicated. By raising sound, sensible questions about issues that most people unthinkingly accept, OMG has forced many people to think and thereby given a boost to the drive against blind faith. The problems it has underscored are real and grave. But their solution lies not in rejection of everything religious but in education of the actual purpose of religion so as to arrive at the balance of intelligent, discriminating belief.

When fake currency circulates in the economy, the government warns people about it. But if the government depicts all currency to be false, then it does a disservice. It needs to educate people to distinguish genuine currency from fake currency. Similarly, much of what goes on in the name of religion today is fake in the sense that it doesn’t fulfill the purpose of religion. The movie tells about the ‘fake religious currency.’ But someone has to tell about the actual currency – the real purpose of religion. This book, I hope, will make a small contribution towards that much-needed education.

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