With the growing interest in India and Hinduism, it behooves us all to try to understand a little more about the Hindu religion, which by sheer number of temple adherents* is probably the largest religion in the world.
From the Vedic religion(s) Hinduism took two basic principles:
1. Rita: Everything must be ordered; everything and everyone, including the immortal gods, must obey the rules of order. Related words: rite, ritual, right (as in the right and proper way of behaving, and in human rights).
2. Triloka (literally three places): Here we learn that the earth/cosmos is divided into three planes:
a) the earth itself and the sea;
b) the air and sky;
c) the heavens, where the immortal gods and goddesses exist.
The only immortal god who moves among all planes is Agni, the god of fire and lightning. The other immortal gods cannot function in planes other than their own. This means that they cannot be interventionist gods on the earth plane, and they cannot be human. Thus images of them make them clearly non-human by (for instance) giving them lots of extra limbs and sometimes multiple heads or faces.
When you go to a Hindu temple and see images of Shiva and his goddess-partner Shakti, you do not pray to them. You meditate on their meaning and on how you can gain enlightenment to get off the wheel of samsara (reincarnation) and moksha (escaping the wheel).
We all occasionally need a little help in our lives; to get that help Hinduism uses idols and avatars, accessible on the earth plane. Since they are on the earth plane, they can act in the earth plane. Such an idol is what we Wiccans call a stone god or a container of energy. You put your energy into it by “worshiping” it, and you can get the energy back out when you need it.
An avatar, in contrast, is the earth plane counterpart of an immortal god. Probably the best-known avatar is Krishna. He is connected to Vishnu: he is an earth-plane avatar of Vishnu. Another avatar, one popular in the pagan movement, is the monkey-god Hanuman.
When the Christian asks his bishop, “Why does ‘God’ allow evil on earth?” the bishop often has no real answer. The Hindu, on the other hand, has a very simple answer. Idols and avatars on the earth plane are human constructs; they have all the positive and negative attributes of humankind. It is not the immortal gods in their heaven that cause evil on the earth; it is the people.
Blessed Be G&Y
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* Adherents: people who attend temple or church services on a regular basis