Durga Puja

If you’ve read my post on Amritsar, in which I criticise Sikhism for its tendency towards idolatry, then you might be wondering how I feel about Hinduism, the most idolatrous religion of all.

Actually, I have a bit of a soft spot for Hinduism. Obviously, it’s just as wrong as every other religion. But you’ve got to love the way it goes all out, celebrating life and sensuality and excess as sacred.

Also, it wasn’t idolatry per se that I had such a problem with regarding Sikhism. Idolatry is a basic human instinct. It’s craven and misguided, and should be resisted, but it’s just a particular way of doing religion. What I really hate about the religious practices of Christianity, Islam and Sikhism, among others, is the hypocrisy: they were all founded on the basis that idolatry was wrong, but then descended into it themselves. Hinduism doesn’t commit the same hypocrisy, as it never denies that there’s anything wrong with idolatry in the first place. On the contrary, it rejoices in it.

A whole load of idols being worshipped

I’d go further. Hinduism doesn’t just accept idolatry. It is idolatry. It’s the supreme expression of it. It’s a thousand ancient idolatries, bundled up, mingled together and exploded across the continent like a giant firework. Hinduism is what you get if you say, “ok, idolatry is good, that’s what we’re going to do, now let’s see how carnal and joyous and magnificent we can make it.”

A couple of weeks ago, while I was in Delhi, I was invited by some friends to attend a Durga Puja celebration. This is a Hindu festival which originated in Bengal, but which has spread across India, partly because of the Bengali diaspora but also, I suspect, largely due to the inherent fitness of the meme: it’s a flashy and conspicuous form of the idolatry to which all Hindus are already partial, it encourages participation and involves fun activities like music, dancing and eating sweets, it includes the whole pantheon of Hindu gods, and it’s held as a mass celebration, bringing the community together in its execution.

Spontaneous audience participation at the Durga Puja

Basically what happens is, you put up a big marquee several days beforehand, and at one end of it, you put a tableau of statues of the Hindu gods, centred around the goddess Durga herself. (Durga is an incarnation of Devi or Shakti, the primary female personification of the divine, and a variation of Parvati, wife of Shiva, and Kali, the black goddess of death and destruction – the theology is all quite complicated and you can look it up yourself if you’re interested.) You then hold several days of music and dancing in the marquee, which are free for people to turn up and watch, or participate in. At the end of the five day festival period, you take the statues and throw them in a river. It’s as simple as that.

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