Origins and Ideas

by Robert Brow

Idols, Incarnations and Saviours

MAN IS INCURABLY RELIGIOUS, and his religion cannot long remain abstract. Philosophers may argue principles and moralists enforce their ethics, but the ordinary man needs a god that can be seen, or sensed, or visualized. In previous chapters we have looked at the process of degeneration from Monotheism into Polytheism. We must now examine some of the forms under which God has been worshipped.

The Use of Idols

We must start with a distinction between the city dweller and the countryman. People who live close to nature have little difficulty in believing in a Creator-God. They see his evidences in the sun and the storm, the lightning, and life itself. God is there, and he can be addressed directly. The countryman, especially the nomad, is usually a Monotheist, though he may personalize God in the sun, the stars, or other mysteries of the universe. We saw how the early Aryans of India were still basically Monotheists, though they saw and worshipped God in the phenomena of nature. This type of Henotheism, which is basically monotheistic, changes into Polytheism once the story-tellers have made the forms of nature into separate gods who begin to hate and love and compete for favours from their worshippers.

The city dweller, on the other hand, is protected from direct impressions of God. It is the markets and law courts and entertainments that are vividly real, and God recedes into the background. But since the frustrations of city life make him need God all the more, he tries to localize him in an idol or shrine where he can find him when he needs him. It was when the children of Israel stopped their march and formed the equivalent of a city near Mount Sinai that they felt the need for an idol, and Aaron made them the golden calf. Idolatry was characteristic of city-state civilizations like Sumer, the Indus Valley, and Greece. When Paul came to Athens, the centre of Greek philosophy, he was horrified to find the city entirely given over to idols.[1]

At first the city dweller is satisfied with a simple idol in a niche of a wall, or a little unattended shrine under a tree, or even a portable household god such as Rachel carried away from home.[2] As priestcraft develops, the idol is enclosed in a temple with a courtyard arranged in such a way that the collection of gifts is easy. The city dweller may laugh and pretend he is an Atheist, but he likes the comforting reminders of God in the temples of his city. In any case they are good for business.

In addition to their local temples, most city dwellers feel the need for a larger, more impressive national centre where they can attend with the crowds on special occasions. The centre may be on a mountain, or by a river, or in an impressive capital city, where the pleasures of an outing can be added to the religious experience. Typical of this kind of centre was the Olympia of Greece, where games were held in honour of Zeus, the temple dedicated to Diana of the Ephesians 'whom all Asia and the world worship' (Acts 19:27), and the vast temples of Egypt and Mesopotamia. In our modern age we have the Hindu pilgrimage centres of India, the Shinto shrines of Japan, the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in Ceylon, and strangely enough, in a religion opposed to idolatry, the Kaaba of Mecca, where a black stone is the solitary remnant of the idols which Muhammad destroyed.

When a king attains the status of divinity, as with the priest-kings of Babylon, the emperor of Rome, the Dalai Lama of Tibet, or the Japanese Mikado, the king himself takes on the functions of a central idol. Thus when the Japanese emperor renounced his divinity after the defeat of Japan, the effect was like the cutting down of a great national idol. In these cases the person is worshipped only because of his office, and worship terminates at his death, to be transferred to his successor.


The Greeks were familiar with the idea of theophanies, or gods appearing to men. When Paul and Barnabas performed a miracle in Lystra, the Lycaonian people cried out, 'The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!' and Barnabas was called Zeus and Paul, Hermes. The priest of Zeus had no difficulty in immediately arranging a sacrifice to these 'gods' in his temple.[3] This type of theophany was accepted in Hinduism in the centuries before Christ, but we must distinguish it clearly from the incarnations and saviours of later Hindu Bhakti. The characteristic of a theophany is that the god never remains long enough to be considered as an historical flesh-and-blood person. Nor is he believed to have any real individual interest in his worshippers. An incarnation must give evidence of having been known in this world as a historical person.

With the deification of Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism we have apparently the first example of a clear-cut historical person being worshipped after his death. The actual date when this began to happen is hard to determine, but there seems to have been a division between the two Buddhist sects later called 'Mahayana' (the great or easy vehicle) and 'Hinayana' (small or lesser vehicle) in the reign of the Buddhist emperor Asoka (c. 270-230 BC). Buddha was opposed to idol worship and even had little place for God in his teaching. He would have been horrified to know that the vast majority of Buddhists, who now follow the Mahayana way, were going to deify him, and make idols for people to visualize and address him as saviour. The Southern[4] or Hinayana Buddhists continued much closer to Buddha's original teaching in discouraging the deification of their teacher.

As soon as the followers of Buddha began to worship him as a divine being, Hinduism also felt the need to develop its own incarnations as a counter-attraction. In this it was so successful that both forms of Buddhism were extinguished in the land of their birth just as they were making disciples in the other great nations of the East. There had been many gods in Hinduism since the Vedic period, and occasional theophanies, but Ram and Krishna appear to have been the first historical persons who were deified.

Ram was a prince, who, after a period of exile and wars, established an ideal kingdom. He must have combined the qualities of David and Solomon. Many modern Hindus more than 2,000 years later still long for the kind of peace, justice and prosperity which Ram Rajya evokes. Ram's wife, Sita, was a perfect example of the dutiful faithful wife. When she was kidnapped by the wicked king of Ceylon, Ram was helped by the monkey people of South India to recover her. This story was popularized through a beautiful epic poem in Sanskrit by Valmiki, who lived about the fifth century BC. A thousand years later, Tulsi Das (1532-1623), an eastern contemporary of Shakespeare, embellished Valmiki's story in the most captivating Hindi poetry. From having godlike qualities as a wise and kindly king, Ram came to be worshipped as an incarnation of the sun god, Vishnu.

Another incarnation adopted in Hinduism was Krishna. He appears in history as a religious reformer who preached a monotheistic supreme God named Bhagwan ('The Worshipful') about the sixth century BC. Krishna may have been part of the sixth-century revolt against the Brahmin priests, and he might even have learned his Monotheism from the eighth-century prophets. He was included with Ram as another incarnation of Vishnu, together with such mythological incarnations as a fish, a tortoise, a boar, a man-lion and a dwarf. Krishna is best known in India as the spokesman of the Gita, which we shall discuss shortly. Few educated Hindus would consider the stories of the life of Krishna found in the Puranas as history. Either their immorality is considered as a later invention or the love stories are spiritualized. In any case, with both Ram and Krishna as flesh-and-blood incarnations, the worship of Vishnu is by far the most popular form of Hinduism in North India.

The other very prevalent form of popular Hinduism is Shaivism, which does not have any incarnations in the strict sense. Its continuance unchanged over centuries of Hindu history shows that an actual historical incarnation is not needed for idol worship. Shaivism's god is Shiva, The Destroyer, who personifies the destructive powers of nature. Shiva has an equally terrifying consort, Kali, and they are worshipped because they are dangerous, rather than loved because they are kind. Kali is usually represented as a carved goddess, and Shiva appears in images as a five-faced ascetic with three eyes. The interesting thing is that temples devoted to the worship of Shiva nearly always have a lingam (phallic symbol) made of stone as the main idol. This form of idol was already in use in the Indus Valley civilization from 3500 to 2500 BC. It is almost certainly identical with the Canaanite stone pillars which were forbidden to Israel as a particular abomination to God.[5]

The Gita

Some time between 250 BC and AD 100 one of the world's religious masterpieces was created by an anonymous writer. It provided a solution to the problems raised by Buddhism, and gave a neat reconciliation of the apparently contradictory ways of Hinduism. The Gita (in full Bhagavadgita, lit. 'Song of God')[6] was the master weapon which enabled the Brahmins to drive the Buddhist heresy from India. It is a short brilliant book of only nine chapters, but it provides Hinduism with its main armoury against other religions.

The Buddhist revolt had attacked Brahminism at many points. Buddha had said that sacrifices were not necessary, which meant that priests were superfluous, and the whole idea of the caste system was rejected. As Buddha began to be worshipped, as his temples attracted devotees and their money and even a great king (Asoka) became an ardent Buddhist, the Brahmins were in danger of losing for ever their hold on India. Another problem was that the worship of Ram and Krishna, added to the older idol worship connected with Shiva, and all the newer monistic philosophies, made Hinduism into a fragmented jumble. Priests were expected to teach, but who could explain all this confusion? The Gita was the ideal answer, and it has stood Hinduism in good stead, and the Brahmins especially, for 2,000 years.

The Song is set on a battlefield. The hero, Arjun, is a warrior prince of the same second caste which had led the revolt against the Brahmin priesthood. The two armies are in array, and just before giving the signal to attack, Arjun wonders why he should kill the many friends he can see in the opposing ranks. His arguments are typically Buddhist. He feels great compassion, he sees no good in killing, he has no desire for victory, or kingdoms, or pleasures. He would rather be a monk, and so he decides to follow the way of non-violence. His charioteer, who turns out to be Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu, then marshals all the arguments for doing his duty as a warrior, which is to fight the enemy. It would be cowardly to lay down his arms, his duty as a warrior would be denied, the caste system and all ordered society would be overthrown. Then follow arguments from Absolute Monism suggesting that the enemy would not be killed anyway since they only appear to be people. Reincarnation is used to show that death and rebirth are inevitable, so death is not a tragedy. Arjun's Buddhist ideas of having no desire are correct, but that does not mean not fighting. He should fight without any desire for the fruits of victory or hatred for his enemies. Duty must be fulfilled but the heart must remain unattached. The final argument is that Krishna gives a vision of himself as God, and since he commands, Arjun must fight. The book ends as Arjun agrees that he must do his duty and the battle begins.

The effect of the Gita was to restore the concept of caste as a divine institution with the duties of each in his place. Warriors were to fight, and Brahmins to function as priests. The nature of sacrifice was changed in deference to vegetarianism by using cereal offerings. Vishnu worship with Ram and Krishna as the main incarnations was greatly developed. Most important of all, Brahminism, Buddhism, Monism and popular Krishna worship were all reconciled for 2,000 years of restored Brahmin supremacy. The Brahmins had learned that philosophers must be left to philosophize, and the common people to worship their gods, and kings and nobles to fight and govern. All that priests needed was the privilege of functioning at births, marriages, deaths and national occasions, with appropriate fees according to what each could pay. They would also have their temples and places at the ceremonial bathing centres to take gifts from those who were inclined that way.

Hindu Bhakti

We now come to a development in Hinduism which can only be the result of direct Christian influence. Bhakti[7] is a Sanskrit word meaning fervent devotion to a personal god. Whereas in the pre-Christian era gods, incarnations and idols were addressed with a view to obtaining favours, the later Hindu Bhakti starts with the grace of a god who desires the love of his people. It is no longer man reaching up to find God, but a loving God seeking ordinary sinful men. Over the past thirty years, more and more evidence has pointed towards the probability that the apostle Thomas, one of the twelve, made at least one missionary journey to India, established churches, and was martyred in Madras. Even if this is questioned, it is impossible to place the establishment of Christianity in South India after AD 345, since at that date we know of the settlement of 400 Persian Christians at Cranganore.[8] It would be strange if they were not preceded by Christian missionaries in view of the constant travel in those days and the busy sea route straight across the Indian Ocean.

It is significant that the origin of Hindu Bhakti can be pinpointed in an area within a few miles of known Christian centres in the sixth century AD. The Alwars were a group of Tamil-speaking devotees of Vishnu in the extreme south of India, and they wrote a large number of beautiful hymns which are used to this day. Their doctrine of God's grace and many of the expressions of devotion are similar to Christian hymns in the West. Their theological discussions also were the same as the controversies between Arminians and Calvinists in Europe. Some of the Alwars held the 'cat' view of grace and others defended the 'monkey' view. The difference is that the mother cat carries her babies by the neck without their co-operation, whereas the baby monkey has to hang on to his mother - which puts the whole argument in a nutshell!

The effect of the Alwars was so strong that by the ninth century AD all the Tamil-speaking Christians had been reconverted to Hinduism or moved across the mountains into Kerala, where they continue to this day. The preacher mainly responsible was a scholar prime minister named Manikkavachakar[9] who became a wandering monk, wrote theology, and obviously overcame the Tamil Christians by his fervour and greater scholarship.

In defence of the Tamil Christians we must add the sad fact that no translation of the New Testament was made into any Indian language until 1714. The only Scriptures and books were in Syriac. Without the Bible in their own language there was little hope of withstanding Hindu Bhakti, or the later advances of Islam, or any other vigorous religion.

Bhakti began as a warm devotion to a personal god. It produced hymn books rather than commentaries, and its devotees were obviously bored with the rituals and discussions of the Brahmins. As a movement it must have presented the same kind of threat to Brahminism as Buddhism had 1,000 years before. It was a Brahmin named Ramanuja (c. 1016-1137) who eventually wrote the Sanskrit reconciliation of Bhakti with monistic philosophy and brahministic ritualism. The fact that he lived within a few miles of the place in Madras where Thomas was martyred, and where there was a Christian community, may or may not have stimulated his thinking. His explanation was that God was the Soul of the universe, and so was personal enough to be the object of Bhakti. True, Bhakti was not just devotion to a god, but it had to be accompanied by one's regular caste duties (and of course proper gifts to the priests) as well as by a pursuit of the way of knowledge according to the theologians. He thus fused the three main `ways' of Hinduism, the way of ritualism, the way of knowledge, and the way of Bhakti. This fusion, or confusion,[10] is Hinduism's strongest weapon against the claims of Jesus Christ to be the only true object of Bhakti.

We have concentrated on Hindu Bhakti, as the characteristics of this kind of religion are best seen in its development. There is also a strong movement of the same kind in Buddhism. As we saw, Mahayana Buddhism had very soon begun to deify Buddha in contradiction to his express teaching. Later it developed the doctrine of Bodhisattvas, who were other human beings who attained illumination and merit, and were able to impart this to those on earth who asked for them. Buddhism never quite developed the doctrines of grace which we have found in Indian Bhakti, but in the cult of Amida we have a doctrine of justification by faith, which the early Jesuit missionaries to Japan denounced as the Lutheran heresy. Amida appears originally to have been a Persian, but he became a Buddha, though his compassion for man made him forgo immediate entry into Nirvana (the perfect state). Now his merits are available to those who seek them, and they are obtained by simple faith in Amida.

We must now conclude our survey of incarnations and saviours by asking certain questions. Obviously many have claimed, and others have claimed for them, the title of incarnation. Many gods and idols have been approached for help and salvation. There is no doubt that some of these claims must have been false, and the faith of many worshippers has therefore been misplaced. How are we to evaluate the claims of an incarnation or a saviour? I suggest the following are reasonable questions to ask.

1. Is there any evidence that this was an historical person?

2. Did he make any claims about himself?

3. If God has sent him, does God give any external attestation of his credentials, such as scripture, prophecy, or miracle?

4. Do the claims of his disciples agree with his teaching, or are they in fact a contradiction of what he said himself?

5. Does the change in his true worshippers indicate that he is still active as a saviour today?

6.Does he have a universal appeal to young and old, men and women, wise and simple, and to people of all nations?

Chapter 5...


1. Acts 17:16.

2. Genesis 31:19, 34.

3. Acts 14:8-13.

4. Prevalent in Ceylon, Burma, and Thailand.

5. Exodus 23:24; Deuteronomy 16:21, 22 (notice that both stone and wooden forms of this idol were condemned).

6. S. Prabhavananda and C. Isherwood (translators), The Song of God (Mentor Books, 1965); J. Mascaro (translator), The Bhagavad Gita (Penguin Classics, 1962).

7. Rudolph Otto, India's Religion of Grace and Christianity compared and contrasted (SCM Press, 1930).

8. Stephen Neill, A History of Christian Missions (Pelican, 1964), pp. 50-52.

9. See P. Thomas, Christians and Christianity in India and Pakistan (Allen and Unwin, 1954), pp. 209, 210.

10. Many Hindu philosophers themselves find Ramanuja's system inconsistent.

Chapter 5...