Indian Idolatry in Every Heart

Bangalore, the city where I spent most of my time on a summer mission project, is in the south-central part of India. It resides on a plateau, which makes the weather perfect — it is in the 70s-80s the whole summer! Ban-galore is one of the five largest cities in India, with a population pushing eight million and growing everyday — growing so quickly in fact that the infrastructure can barely keep up with the growth.

Traffic and construction are everywhere. It seemed like roads, buildings, and lots of things in India are in a constant state of being almost finished but never quite done. Some parts of the city look just like North America, with shiny skyscrapers, paved roads, men in business suits, and even several McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chickens, and Pizza Huts.

Most areas, however, are still very very Indian—dirty and dusty, with cows wandering in the middle of the road and leaving their cow patties all over the place, women wearing sarees and gold anklets, and with their hair in long black braids. Streets are congested with motorcycles, cars, camels, and dump-trucks. Everyone takes breaks for tea in the afternoon, shamelessly relieving themselves on the side of the road, and squatting to eat their rice with their hands.

I went to Bangalore hoping to work with street children — children who have been either abandoned or orphaned, or who have a home but are not welcome in it. These children spend most, if not all, their time living and working on the streets — as beggars, trash collectors, construction workers, prostitutes, or street vendors.

While in India, I lived with the family of a pastor and worked closely with them, as well as with the assistant pastor, his wife, and an American named Elizabeth who was a two year intern in Bangalore. Our daily schedule took us out into the city every day. I loved the constant bustle of people living their daily lives spilling over onto the streets. There was always something new to see.

One thing we saw a lot of was the religion of the people. Like most of India, Bangalore has a huge Hindu population. Whether they are nominal or devout, about 80% of the people in the city claim to be Hindus. There were also Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, and the occasional Buddhist and atheist. You could tell most people’s beliefs clearly from their clothing—a colored saree and a red dot or jeweled bhindi on her forehead meant a woman was Hindu. A man with a beard was probably a Muslim, especially if he had a white skull cap or a long white khurta shirt on. A woman with a black robe and black veil was clearly Muslim. Turbans were a sign that a man was a Sikh. Simple orange robes were a sign of a Buddhist monk. All these styles gave clues to what religion a person followed, and that religion, in general, was an important part of their daily lives.

In the midst of such a highly religious atmosphere, idolatry was something we encountered constantly. It was everywhere. Tiny shops and big western malls alike had a small shrine somewhere in them, with a picture of the favored deity, and with incense burning in front of it and offerings of flower garlands and fruit laid out for the god. When we got in the auto-rickshaws, the motorcycle-taxis that we rode in everyday, there was often a multi-colored blinking icon of some Hindu god stuck to the dashboard. Empty walls or surfaces around the city would be painted or carved with gaudy statues, religious symbols, or scenes from their holy stories.

Other evidence of their devotion and superstition was seen in the hideous masks that were sometimes hung on the corners of roofs to scare away evil spirits, and in the faithful Hindu wives who would daily adorn their doorsteps with complex decorative chalk designs to welcome the gods into their homes. Every day as we rode around the city we would pass countless shrines and temples, painted cartoonish colors on the outside but dark and eerie inside.

As we passed these buildings, I would always try to peer inside them, but the most I ever saw was a glimpse of gold or a shadowy outline of an idol covered in flowers and offerings. This overt idolatry intrigued me. I searched the faces of the people surrounding the temples for a clue to understanding the idols and the effect they had on their lives. Part of me felt that the idols were merely physical objects, no different from the lamp sitting on my desk, but it also seemed that the idols held the people in a very real and powerful bondage.

I wondered if it was something purely psychological or cultural that they could snap out of if they wanted to, or if there was more to it, perhaps a demonic presence involved. Something seemed to be enslaving the people — ruling their lives and routines, and keeping them in perpetual fear and uncertainty as to whether they had done enough to please the god. It made sense to me that it could be some demon behind the idol, since the devil would love to do anything to steal worship from the true God. As I thought about all these things, I continued to wrestle with the obvious idolatry around me and sought to understand it.

One day, during the last few weeks of my time in India, I got a clear wake-up call about what this idolatry was about. I was sitting with my host family in the living room eating lunch when we heard a strange drumming. I got up and looked out to see a wild procession coming down the street. My family told me it was something connected with bringing a new idol to a temple, or celebrating or asking blessing from the Hindu gods.

As we watched the procession come closer, I sensed an eerie feeling. First came men dancing with heavy jingling bracelets and anklets on, performing all kinds of contortions and acrobatics. Behind them were the drummers. A little farther back, surrounded by dozens of women in bright orange and yellow sarees, balancing offerings on their heads, was a man who was clearly the most important part of the procession. He had a huge, wide, “tower-thing” covered in flowers, precariously balanced on his head. He was swaying and dancing, but must have been in intense pain from all the weight on his head. Around him, thick black smoke and heavy incense were pouring from silver bowls held by men in red robes. The whole group of them would walk and then stop to dance and chant and cheer, then move on.

At first, the mother of the family I was with, who was a Christian, did not even want us to watch — she said that demon-possession was closely associated with these parades, and that we should just pray inside, away from the windows and not even let them see us. But I watched from a side window (while praying).

Among the followers you could see people who definitely did look like they were demon-possessed. One man had a long metal rod with weights on the ends pierced through his face, through his cheeks. He was walking calmly and you could not see any trace of blood around the holes. A few women were swaying with their faces painted and eyes closed, or staggering along as if walking was a horrible chore. Others seemed like they were dragging huge weights, and one woman was dancing slowly with her eyes closed, but looked like she did not want to be dancing at all.

As I watched, the procession finally passed and continued down the next block. It left me sobered. I could not ignore what I had just seen. I knew that spiritual warfare and oppression were very real and very close, and that these people needed to be set free from their idolatry.

Clearly, the enslaving effects of demonic power and idolatry in India were obvious and plentiful. As I observed this and pondered and prayed about it, I came to realize is that idols are really everywhere. Idols in our culture and in our lives might not be as obvious to us as the blue elephant-headed god Ganesh, or the goddess Shakti with her six arms that I saw in India. Though they have different forms, I realized there still was idolatry — at home, in churches, in my friends, on college campuses, and in my own life. These idols around us are harder to see, but they are just as powerful, and have just as many lives in their grip. Idols are more than just things like “money” or “your grades” or “friends.” Idols are at the root of all our sin and all our motivations. Anything we try as an alternative to fully putting our hope and trust in God is an idol. All our hearts have the tendency to stray to something other than Christ for salvation and righteousness and happiness.

Just as idols were dominating the lives of the people I saw in that procession that came past my house in India, idols may be dominating our lives more than we know. Just as some of those people seemed to be weighed down by invisible chains, or dragged along against their will, idols we are not even aware of might be ruling us, beating us up, lying to us, and robbing us of joy and freedom.

Idols can be identified by looking at whatever makes you bitter, scared, frantic, or discouraged; whatever you look to for happiness but is not giving it; whatever you look to make you sufficient; whatever you think you are not an acceptable person without; this might well be your idol. Maybe your idol is manifested in how you change your personality to try and be the right person for your parents or boyfriend. Maybe it is seen in you not eating enough and working out too much in order to keep your body just how you want it. Maybe it is you getting horribly angry on the sports fields when your team misses a pass. Maybe it is your desperate fear of letting a friend go and grow in new ways apart from you, or maybe it is being consumed with getting perfect grades to ensure your future.

For me, God showed me that while I was indeed a Christian, desiring to love and serve Christ more each day, there was still a huge idol in my life that I had been completely blind to — the idol of approval.

In my own life, the desire to please others and be approved and liked by them had become a god I bowed down to, and really, a form of works-righteousness — something I looked to as an alternate source of salvation, a way I tried to earn love and favor. This idol of Approval promised its blessing in the form of acceptance from others, but was never satisfied, and never gave peace. It warned of punishment in the form of rejection by others if I did not obey its commands. Its chains on me kept me intimidated by people and things — anxious, jealous, always striving and treading water, just trying to get scraps of approval from people around me to make me reassured again that I was okay and that I was a good person. These ideas had become such normal parts of my life that I did not even realize it was an option not to struggle with them! But God showed me that idols do not have to weigh us down and keep us blind and enslaved.

In Luke 4, Christ speaks hope and life and freedom for all those bound by sin and idolatry. In this passage, He is just beginning His earthly ministry, after wrestling with Satan in the wilderness. Satan did not win that contest, and Christ comes back to proclaim His dominion, and the freedom He brings. Satan and his idols are defeated! Christ the Messiah has come to set us all free! Luke 4:17-21 says, “The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ Then, he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

This passage shows that Christ brings freedom — He is the answer for us, for the Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs in India, and for all those trapped in idolatry. It is only in salvation through Christ and His work that we have already been given everything we need even though we deserve none of it and can never earn it. In Christ we are already accepted and approved, loved, and precious. Every need we have—whether for comfort, for control, for power, for meaning, or for anything else—can only be filled by Christ. When we turn to Him, He does fill those needs and longings in us. In Him we are free. We do not need to earn anything or save ourselves by “being” or “having” or “doing” anything more; we do not need to pierce ourselves, or dance, or perform certain rituals. He has done it all, given all to us, and saved us. He gives us a sense of worth, confidence, peace, and zeal that no idol can ever give. I challenge you to look for idols in your life, and flee from them and to Christ. Idols make us poor. Idols make us captive. Idols make us blind and oppressed. Christ sets us free!

Miss Abigail Barr is from Portsmouth, Virginia. She is a Senior at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania majoring in Christian Thought.

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