(The following article was posted in the "Meditations" column of the Hindustan Times, one of India's largest english language daily newspapers, on 6 May 2003.)
'FAMILIARITY BREEDS contempt' is a maxim known to almost every English speaker. It's even found in the Bhagavata (10.30.31), referring to one who while living on the Ganga wishes to travel to another holy river.
Ancillary to this epigram is 'absence makes the heart grow fonder' Ironically, psychological surveys have determined that absence does not make the heart grow fonder. In fact, it tends to make us forget even our nearest and dearest. 'Till death do us part' is more than just a leave-taking, according to mental doctors. It's forgetting, plain and simple. But what about extra-marital and paramour love? There's a longing, an aching to meet the secret lover, so write many mundaners and even higher-order thinkers like Krsna Dos Kaviraja. This type of love, sometimes called parakiya rasa, is said to be more intense than ordinary conjugal love.
Can such longings be used in a spiritual way, or is this a violation of transcendentalism? In sanctified circles it is said that prema is the ultimate form of love. Some sadhus inform us that vani or separation is greater than vapu or meeting. They claim that longing can make us more pious and godly - longing, that is, for the Supreme Being.
This is a reason icons are part of Vedic culture. Though some traditions think images are sacrilege, symbolic, or for the imagination of dullards, such forms are necessary even for those who score high on IQ tests. Deities appear in homes, outdoor shrines and temples, and we find them in sculpture, necklaces, paintings, etchings, cufflinks, timepieces and photographs. They appear in media that range from mud to metal.
Attraction to gods and goddesses is not the sphere of the ignorant and superstitious; such mentalities are found everywhere. Rather, it addresses a fundamental issue: all of us are hungry for love, and we're sometimes disappointed in relationships we hold sacred.
Images of God are more than meet the savage eye. While all people are human and animals simultaneously, our higher nature perceives that there is a greater dimension to anything solemnly revered. Worship and adoration, when not directed at film stars and rock idols, can fulfil a higher, more fundamental need. Our central requirement to revere something needs to be redirected, and dovetailing this natural love toward God would benefit the world.