On Unwashed Masses and Idol-worshipping

When confronted by a human being who impresses us as truly great, should we not be moved rather than chilled by the knowledge that he might have attained his greatness only through his frailties?
— Lou Andreas-Salome – Biographer of Freud

The notion that one’s weaknesses could be the fountainhead of one’s accomplishments is certainly intriguing and counter-intuitive. At least on one occasion I have seen that up close and personal. A certain friend of mine was driven to become an over-achiever because at a deeper level he suffered from an inferiority complex.

Someone once remarked (I don’t recall who and I am too lazy to Google right now) that the greatest strength of a country is also its greatest weakness. After pondering about that for a bit, not only did I convinced myself of truth of that claim, I realized also that it is true about individuals. In the case of individuals, it was fear of one extreme that pushed one to the other extreme. And like in a circle, if one moves far enough from one’s starting point, one finds oneself back to where one began. Virtue, taken to an extreme, becomes a vice.

One of the many reasons I admire Gautama, the Buddha, was that he realized the importance of moderation, of avoiding extremes. He preached and practiced what is called the “Middle-wayed Way.” That is pure and simple genius. It is a pity that Mahatma Gandhi, the most well-known of modern Indians, never bothered to learn the lessons the Buddha had taught about 2,500 years ago. If he had, he probably would not have been the extremist he ended up being and for which India has paid a very heavy price and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

For example, Gandhi’s insistence on self-sufficiency is contrary to the basic nature of the universe. Last year, I wrote about Gandhian self-sufficiency and why I oppose it. Of course, I got some hate-mail basically saying “how dare you!” Some take idol-worshipping to an extreme. So I followed up with a post on idol-worshipping gone haywire.

I have a tentative theory why Indians appear to be so susceptible to idol-worshipping. It has to do with Hinduism. Hinduism employs idols as symbolic representation of divine ideals. But the unwashed masses end up confusing the symbol for the real thing. So instead of worshipping the ideal, they end up worshipping the idol. It is a short step from there to worshipping their political leaders. Of course, I should hasten to add that Hindu unwashed masses are not unique in this respect. Unwashed masses of all faiths worship idols, whether in the form of a black meteoritic rock or a cross. Even Buddhist u. m. worship statues of the Buddha even though he expressly denied the existence of a god and thus naturally could not be one himself. But Hindus take that to an extreme and anything from cows to rocks to corrupt politicians are fair game when it comes to idol-worshipping. Case in point, you ask? After the last general elections, a few of the unwashed masses insisted that they would commit suicide if one particular idol declined to become the prime minister of India. Would have been better if they had carried out their threat but unfortunately they chickened out in the end.

Well, that is about it for now.

Author: Atanu Dey


15 thoughts on “On Unwashed Masses and Idol-worshipping”

  1. Case in point, you ask? After the last general elections, a few of the unwashed masses insisted that they would commit suicide if one particular idol declined to become the prime minister of India. Would have been better if they had carried out their threat but unfortunately they chickened out in the end.

    LOL funny.
    Also what was with the Gandhi’s fasting/hunger strike thing.
    Its like a kid throwing temper tantrum and saying, ”
    Maan main khana nahin khaunga agar meri baat nahin manonge.
    Even today this is a tactic people threaten to use and i’ve read of a few hunger strikes, but not of any deaths due to self starvation.


  2. I am not so sure that Buddha himself followed the middle path that he advocated. Why did he live the life of an ascetic? Why did he not go back to his wife and child? What was the middle path he followed? I guess, I need to read more.
    I think it is also an extreme to accept one person’s views in totality. Obviously no mortal is perfect.
    My take is that we should take what we like and yet keep questioning all the time.
    Things are always relative and at the risk of a cliche…the only constant is change!


  3. Its the tragic flaw of not being able to differentiate between the signifier and the signified that ails the masses. But wasnt the grovelling sycophant of g. just trying to gain political mileage and patronage through the act?

    The real Gandhi’s cats too might have been a response to the extreme acts of the government, wont it? In that sense, they are a anachronisms now. Wouldnt that actually be a reflection on the poor show of the politicians now?


  4. I think that a certain degree of self-sufficiency in a nation helps in acting as a buffer in withstanding the sharp ups and downs in the surrounding world. Like when the whole of south-east Asian Economies almost collapsed a few years back, when the added assault of sars aggravated the misery. But India somehow stayed above water because of its way of handling various aspects of economy, the controls in the currency markets etc.

    So, as always, a bit of this and a little of that and much more of the other is the sanest way of living, maybe – which takes us to the Golden Middle of the Buddha; where the bottomline is, to see what works best under the given conditions. Very effective, sensible and non-energy-draining way of living, whose eye is always on the effectivity of a certain attitude or an idea or a strategy..Effective where solutions go, and also where handling tensions and stress of one’s own personality is concerned…

    As to idol worship, human beings need the melodrama of extremes when they are not imbued with a calm and poise that is the mark of a mature adult. Indians are more so, they need the tangy spice of stupid hero-worship, because they think anything quiet is boring. But hero-worship of Michael Jackson or the Beatles, as seen in their concerts at least, is equally childish.

    But, yes, we Indians deserve the honours for this ambiguous title of being THE BEST hero-worshippers of the world..


  5. Hello Atanu,
    It would be great if you could follow up with another post explaining the “middle way” theory. Not sure if all of us here grasp it well now…


  6. Hi Atanu!
    Very true words… We Indians just idol-worship everything (people, cow, politicians). This reminds me of how people went mad last week about The Big B’s illness. Let him be a great actor, but that doesn’t mean people have to spend their precious time crying or praying for him. In that time, they could have prayed for the poorest of the poor people who live sans food, sans housing sans everything! Afterall, AB is a rich guy who could afford to fly to anywhere and get treated at the posh of all hospitals! Should the commons behave so melodramatically?!
    And, I have this question for which I don’t seem to get any answers. How come some countries/economies have been able to resist internal/external pressures and grow faster and demonstrate their capabilities while many fail to do so? Does that mean, the people in those (developed) countries are more efficient than their counterparts in the less-developed countries? Does IQ of citizens play an important role? Though we know as a cliche of the prowess of Indian mathematical mind, we never see it in action across the political spectrum? Where do we go wrong? Atleast point the main few reasons…


  7. None among us can escape being the product of our times. Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru were a product of their times as we are of ours. In hindsight (which is always 20/20) it is easy to blame them for India’s weaknesses today.

    I am not sure if Gandhiji thought about it in this way or not, but when you have a large illiterate, superstitious mass of people who have been rendered humiliated and emasculated by a ruthless, exploitative foreign power, what recourse do you have in order to inspire your countrymen other than championing the exact opposite by being and advocating that everyone else be compassionate, inclusive and proudly self-sufficient?

    I too believe that a creed of compassion, inclusiveness and self-sufficiency carried to extreme can lead to adverse consequences as it has done for India, but that is not the fault of all the great men who led us to independence. Instead, it is the fault of those who followed them after independence and refused to open their collective mind to the possibility that the ideas (and the leaders )that were best for achieving independence may not be the best for achieving progress; or to the possibility that true inclusiveness requires acceptance of one’s limits, that true compassion requires a resolute commitment to one’s security and that for most nations true self-sufficiency only comes through trade and inter-dependency.

    Nevertheless, in order to have any chance succeeding as a nation we have to mature psychologically as a people. One of the requirements of psychological maturity is that we stop seeing all things in black and white; we have to begin to accept that two seemingly contradictory things are not always so and can be believed at the same time without going insane.

    Being human, most visionary thinkers and leaders in history have demonstrated the flaw of being too slow to realize the ideas that they advocate for a particular set of circumstances may not be the best ideas for completely different goals.For all of us it should be possible to admire Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru as great men and awesome leaders of India’s struggle for freedom and to simultaneously believe that they had many ideas that were harmful to Independent India’s quest for rapid economic and political progress.

    Atanu’s response: That a person is a product of his time is undeniable. But that fact has little to do with the argument that a particular leader was incompetent as a leader. It is the incompetency of the leader that I am pointing out, irrespective of why the leader was incompetent.

    My disagreement is simple: if the leader was an idiot, let’s just recognize that and figure out what we can do differently instead of heaping infinite praise on them for having been great and wonderful while not recognizing that it was their stupidity that has created so much misery. If only people would stop praising these incompetent leaders to the high heavens, I would be quite content not to call the leaders incompetent. Let us meditate on the statement: “The louder he talked about his honor, the faster we counted our spoons.”


  8. I would say that Indians love extremes. We either raise a person to the level of divinity and indulge in idol worship OR we paint a person as a villain of the darkest kind and view his every action from those glasses.

    Objectivity in judging the merits of their actions is lost in both cases. We do not measure people like Gandhi, Nehru, Bose, Savarkar et al. as people. We paint them first as Mahatmas or Villain (depending on personal choices) and then judge them through those glasses.

    Buddha’s middle way in this case would be to treat them as people (not a Mahatma neither a villain) and judge their actions on that basis.

    Atanu’s response: Thanks for the observation.


  9. Hello Atanu,
    I love your choice of topics and your ability to get a bunch of people to react in a gamut that covers all extremes of for and against the topic in each post.
    And I loved this post, like Guru Gulab Khatri said, the end was funny!
    We all are capable of making a decision. But we mostly tend to forget that, since everything around us is always done in a certain manner and the ‘decide’ factor never comes into picture. We become totally oblivious to any other possibility even if it were to exist.

    Atanu’s response: Thanks. I appreciate your comment.


  10. Be that as it may, a certain religion, prevelant in the middle east and the neighbouring countries of India, which condemns idol worship seems to be a cause of much terror across the world today. This may be a case in point to put your “idol worship leading to people worship” in question? Idol worship is just a means, there are deeper causes in “poverty” which makes the unwashed masses behave as they do.

    Atanu’s response: Vikram, it is not that the religion under question is against “idol-worship” per se; they have their own specific idols in terms of a book, a particular rock, a particular region of the earth, and a couple of particular proper names that they worship. They just want everyone else to worship these specific idols and not any other idols. And they are so attached to those idols that they are willing to terrorise others who won’t bow to these.

    The non-monotheistic creeds — whether idol-worshipping or not — are flexible enough to go about doing their own thingswithout bothering those who worship different idols. That is India’s saving grace. How long India continues to be a non-monotheistic majority society is a matter of debate. The monotheists have mounted a fairly impressive campaign of late. Let’s just see how it all pans out.


  11. Atanu,

    I disagree with your vehemently asserted imcompetency of Mahatma Gandhi. He knew how to inspire millions to struggle for freedom. He got them there. Smartly, he thought better of taking office in Independent India.

    Some may argue that he merely got credit for the unique set of circumstances that the British found themselves in after World War II, but the reality is that all great and effective leaders know how to take advantage of their times and besides, the British would certainly have assessed their chances of keeping India differently had they not been dealing with the freedom struggle for decades by that point in time.

    Again, I hope some day it will be possible for us to acknowledge and critique the mistakes of great men while being respectful of them and their accomplishments.


  12. The pinnacle of idolization in Indian culture is the person of Puttaparti Sai Baba.

    The one person who seems to have understood the Indian psyche well is Naipaul. A lot of my own friends don’t agree with Naipaul; Naipaul may not got it fully right but I love his third-person-perspective of looking at things. After reading Atanu’s current post, I sat down to write the review of one of his books for the benefit of audience on this thread. See my write-up at http://www.nachiketa.org/archives/2005/12/review_of_naipa.html

    Atanu’s sharpness in some of the insights remind me of Naipaul (but Atanu himself may not like such an association).

    Atanu should put some of these ideas into a print book. Whatever we discuss in these blogs are only “A/C room intellectualism” which can not reach masses. Masses don’t have access to the internet. Please do think seriously of putting into book.


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