Lord Ram and the colonization of conscience

I’ve been following the (Western English-language) news coverage of the dedication of the temple in Ayodya, and, in the spirit of religious literacy, I think there’s something about the choice of language that we should note. But first, some background. Let’s start with leader from Reuters:

AYODHYA, India, Jan 22 (Reuters) – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the consecration on Monday of a grand temple to the Hindu god Lord Ram on a site believed to be his birthplace, in a celebratory event for the Hindu majority of the world’s most populous nation.


Before we discuss the use of language, I want to acknowledge that this temple is controversial. The Reuters article gives a sketch of this controversy:

Hindu groups, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliates have portrayed the temple opening as part of a Hindu renaissance after past centuries of subjugation by Muslim invaders and colonial powers.

The temple in the city of Ayodhya has been a contentious issue that helped catapult the BJP to prominence and power, and delivers on its 35-year-old promise, which analysts say should help Modi as he seeks a rare third term in an election due by May.

For decades, the temple site was bitterly contested by Hindus and minority Muslims, leading to nationwide riots in 1992 that killed 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, police say, after a Hindu mob destroyed a 16th-century mosque that had stood there.


While we should acknowledge the political and religious significance (and trauma) of this event, the issue I want to raise in this post has to do with the English-language news coverage, and particularly with the choice of the term used to refer to the image of Lord Ram.

In much of the coverage, including English-language publications in India, journalists used the term idol for the statue. In Indian outlets, this makes a certain amount of sense, as idol is a typical translation of the Hindu term murti, which derives from the Sanskrit word murti (मूर्ति). This Sanskrit word derives from the root “mūr” (मूर्) meaning “to form,” “to shape,” or “to create.” Essentially, a murti is the “product” of shaping or forming material to represent a deity.

At the risk of gross oversimplification, murti refers to an image that is created and consecrated for use in Hindu ritual practices. This word comes with connotations: The image has been purposefully created or shaped to embody a divine presence, which, together with consecration, is what makes such images suitable for worship.

So far, we might observe that there’s a similarity between such images and the images that appear in many forms of Christianity. The Cross, the Chi-Rho, Crucifixes, Madonnas, icons, and other images of divine presence come to mind. Of course, this is also a simplification: There has been considerable theological energy behind the need to differentiate between a symbol of divine presence and the Divine itself, and there is a fine line between worship of the Divine through such an image, and worship of the image itself.

Reading the English-language coverage in Indian news outlets, I have the sense that the word idol is merely a translation of the term murti. In other words, it seems likely to be understood as a proxy for murti, with the same connotations. However, interpretations steeped in so-called “Western” religious traditions are likely to be informed by the prohibition against the making or worship of “graven images,” for instance, in the Second Commandment (Exodus 20:4-5):

This context is important, as it is a source of the connotations of the term idol as it appears in notions like idolatry, namely “heathen” or “ungodly” worship of human-created images.

And that is the problem with the use of this term in journalism. In the context of this prohibition, there’s a implicit positioning of Hindu worship as idolatrous, or in more colloquial terms, “heathen,” “ungodly,” or “blasphemous.” And this point brings us to the second element of my title for this post, the colonization of conscience.

There are many definitions of “conscience,” depending on the context and intentions of the proposer. Here, I want to use conscience as a marker for a certain kind of experience: the spontaneous, visceral moral appraisal of a person, thing, or action. For many people steeped one of the “Western” religions, the response to idolatry is spontaneous and visceral in just the way I mean.

It’s important to notice that the “dictates” of conscience in the sense I’m developing here need not be “natural” or “innate.” Indeed, that’s my point: No one is born with a visceral disapprobation of idolatry. Nor is this visceral disapprobation merely the product of assent to a rational principle or definition: Otherwise, the recognition that the angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees would be a matter of conscience for a lot more people.

On the contrary, my point is that a sense of disapprobation or even revulsion toward idolatry is an inclination resulting from deep internalization of the prohibition. Internalization of this sort is not inherently good or bad: The internalization of the proper fingering for producing specific pitches on a bassoon is an essential part of mastery of that instrument. But the unreflective facility that results from internalization is its danger, too.

In invoking the notion of a colonization of conscience, I do not in any way diminish the suffering and exploitation of human beings, who were (and are) daily subjected to less-than-human conditions. What I do suggest is that there are subtler forms of colonization at work as well, with many of the same dynamics of self-rationalization. From within the arena of a faith-community, the perspective is different: There, the inner logic of faith may well commend the internalization of a specific value to the degree that confronting a possibility produces a visceral response — just as we might commend the mastery of the bassoon.

But there is a delicate balance here between the voluntary and the involuntary, between fulfillment and denial, between monism and pluralism. The word idol in the news coverage is a locus of this balance — of the failure to find balance.

I wonder: Who had (has) a choice about the language in which Lord Ram must appear?

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