The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 | Idol worshipping makes you intuitively liberal, says Amish Tripathi

The author noted that temples in ancient times would give jobs and sustenance to a community and became the source of education

January 27, 2024 12:48 pm | Updated 07:39 pm IST - Chennai

Amish and Bhavna Roy in conversation with Anita Ratnam at The Hindu Lit for Life festival 2024 held at the Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert hall in Chennai.

Amish and Bhavna Roy in conversation with Anita Ratnam at The Hindu Lit for Life festival 2024 held at the Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert hall in Chennai. | Photo Credit: Velankanni Raj B

The second day of The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 kicked off with a conversation on the power of idol worship, with authors Amish Tripathi and Bhavna Roy discussing their latest book on the same subject with dancer, choreographer and writer Anita Ratnam.

The book, titled Idols: Unearthing the Power of Murti Puja (HarperCollins India), has been inspired by the ancient principles of philosophical debates and is centred around members of the Deshpande family, who are in the process of choosing a Ganesha idol for the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations. Their conversations become a tool to impart the philosophy and history of idol worship as a practice.

Noting that this conversation was taking place just five days after the inauguration of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Ms. Ratnam began by asking Mr. Tripathi to “describe the Ram Lalla murti” for the audience. Mr. Tripathi, who was in Ayodhya for the inauguration, spoke about being struck by some things as he viewed the murti of Ram Lalla. The first was the economic transformation of Ayodhya and he said that this tied into how India’s traditional economy had worked. He noted that temples in ancient times would give jobs and sustenance to a community, and become the source of education. “The modern Western economy has the mall at the centre of life. Our traditional economy had the temple at its centre. And socially perhaps a temple at the heart of the economic life leads to better outcomes,” he said.

He said that the next thing that struck him was that temples were a place for building national consciousness traditionally, and he felt that the temple in Ayodhya would become a site for that too.

Finally, Mr. Tripathi said the third thing that struck him was the effect that the murti of Ram Lalla had on him. “I’m a Shaivite. I respect and worship all Gods and Goddesses, but the deepest recesses of my soul only get touched at a few Lord Shiva temples.” This was the first time that he was moved to tears by another murti. “My wife and I were allowed to go close to the Ram Lalla idol … I started crying … I was so deeply moved,” he said.

Choosing ‘ishta devata’

The conversation returned to the book, and since its two authors also happen to be siblings with another literary collaboration behind them — a book on dharma — Ms. Ratnam asked Ms. Roy to speak about the projects, noting that the first one had come on the heels of a personal tragedy in Ms. Roy’s life — the loss of her husband. “Amish pulled me out of a flood of grief and back into life and living,” she said, adding that she had grabbed that lifeline of working on the book, and that it had “stemmed the noise” in her head and my heart.

The conversation moved on to the practice of idol worship itself, and both speakers explained the various points of the practice, their research, and including the process of choosing Lord Ganesha as the focal point of the book. “There’s something called ishta devata, the chosen deity. But we don’t choose, the deity chooses us.”

Philosophy behind idol worshipping

Mr. Tripathi talked about how he thinks that as many pagan idol worshipping cultures have been wiped out over the last 2,000 years, the remaining have what he thinks of as an “interesting variation of the battered wife syndrome”. Like women who sometimes blame themselves after facing domestic violence, he said that idol worshippers, after facing attacks and having their temples destroyed, have also started wondering if they are doing something wrong.

It was out of a need to put across the philosophy behind idol worshipping that the book arose, and Mr. Tripathi added that while he wasn’t claiming that idol worshipping is perfect, he does believe that it “makes you intuitively liberal”.

The conversation ended with a few questions from the audience, and Ms. Roy and Mr. Tripathi shared their views on the idea of pluralism, the possibility of being able to love and respect your chosen god while also accepting the beliefs of others and aspects of the Dvaita and Advaita schools of philosophy.

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