The Beauty and Significance of Murtis
By Ushi Patel
I am the first-born in the U.S. in my family who arrived here in the second wave of Indian immigrants. My parents chose a Catholic school because they liked the discipline and at the time charter schools had not yet surfaced to rescue a vulnerable California school system. True to my Indian over-achieving bloodline I excelled in this system, even earning highest marks in the Catholic Religious Studies mandated courses. By day, New Testament, by night arati.
There are actually many similarities in both traditions that I found hard to explain to my growing friend circle at school, who out of genuine curiosity would question the presence of the large bronze flute-playing cow herder or multi-armed elephant in our home. As a child, I thought of these beloved characters, Lord Krishna and Lord Ganesha, as trusted friends whom I often confided in and spoke with about my life experiences.
The legendary stories surrounding their lives fascinated my evolving and whet imagination, providing a framework for learning. Later, while in design school I came to appreciate the artistry and cultural variations of these pieces – entire lineages devoted to the meticulous craft of bringing the divine into form.
Today, they adorn the fire-dancing burner and lulu-lemon devotees as symbols of a prescribed lifestyle. What was once weird, perhaps blasphemous to some, has now become mainstream – dare I say hip.
No matter the arc of acceptance, I still converse with Lord Krishna and Lord Ganesha, with the awareness that they are facets of my own Self. I think about how I will share this valuable part of my heritage with my children. I want them to have exposure and choose what is right for them, yet I also want our heritage and ritual to flourish. I want them to know the “why.”
In my search for the right language, I found the following excerpt from Dr. Varadaraja V. Raman’s book Glimpses of Indian Heritage.
Gods as Murtis
By Dr. Varadaraja V. Raman
From the theoretical point of view, and for certain minds, gods in gorgeous costumes may be neither necessary nor relevant to the spiritual quest. Forms in clay and bronze may even offend the religious sensitivities of those attuned to other theological visions. But if the image serves the needs of the practitioners, if it inspires them to reverence for an invisible Almighty and enriches them with a touch of love for the divine, what more can the human striving for the eternal be expected to accomplish?
The material representations of the god-symbols are called murtis, sometimes translated idols. A murti is, in fact, a mapping on the visual plane of a transcendent principle that is far too subtle and abstract for ordinary minds to grasp. A murti is not unlike a geometrical figure or a set of equations that a mathematician may write out to reach a result that he cannot as easily derive through mental reasoning alone. Like it or not, the human being is symbol prone; indeed it is this capacity that creates and fashions much of human culture.
Whether the symbol is spoken or written word, a drawing on slate or a sculpture in stone, is a question of variety, not of content. One may surely take a book or a cross, a star or a crescent to mediate between the worshipper and the worshipped. But there is no religion for the masses beyond the mediating entity. The murti is the Hindu mode, and it also enables the practitioner to engage in meaningful interactions with what it stands for. The fantasies of the child with the doll may be mere play from our perspective, but it is a profound and meaningful experience for the child. We see again and again that in the Hindu view divinity is to be experienced, not simply invoked in the abstract.
To reinforce the idea that the murti is merely a medium, a powerful pointer to the Ultimate, not the substance behind the symbol, many festivals involve the construction of clay murtis expressly for the purpose of ritualistic worship to be followed by their immersion into lakes or rivers or oceans. The clay form must thus dissolve from our perceptions: we must experience their expansion into the vastness which they represent.