Some Thoughts on Image Worship or Idol Worship

Image worship or Idol Worship

by Jayaram V

Whether you worship a small image or a thousand feet high large image, what makes the difference is not the size of the image but the strength of your faith and devotion. Jayaram V


Image worship, idol worship or worshipping God in image form (vigraharadhana) is an important aspect of ritual worship in Hinduism. People worship the images or idols of their personal gods and goddesses as if they embody them. For the duration of the worship, they regard the images as living entities and accord to them the highest respect and attention according to their beliefs and devotion.

There are many justifications in Hinduism why people resort to this practice. The main reason for its continued practice, despite efforts in the past to stop it, is that images make the deities relatable, earthly and familiar. It is extremely difficult to focus your mind upon an invisible, formless, abstract God. It is also difficult to emotionally relate to an abstract phenomenon and feel devotion to it.

The images or statues help us overcome such problems. They provide us with a starting point in our religious or spiritual journey. Hinduism does recognize and venerate an abstract and formless God, who is incomprehensible to the human minds. In the scriptures and speculative philosophies, he is often addressed as That. However, in ritual worship he is looked upon as a living being with names and forms.

To a keen observer, worshipping an image of God also conveys a deeper meaning. It points to the difficulties humans have in gaining the attention of God, who is indifferent and essentially stone like. In many ways you may consider it a test of your devotion, faith and perseverance. If you can manage to invoke God through a lifeless or inert object, it is the proof that you have reached the highest point in your devotion and spiritual transformation.

One may see God in an image, but it is extremely difficult to materialize him within oneself or in the external world. The image worship is a work around, a human invention to cultivate nearness to God and earn his mercy. Besides, it affirms the all-pervading nature of God, the ideal of seeing God in all, and helps worshippers concentrate their minds upon him and experience peace and equanimity.

However, image worship is neither the best nor the only means to worship. At the best, it is a starting point. At some stage in their spiritual progress, worshippers have to advance from external methods of worship into internal methods such as meditation and concentration. Image worship is a means to an end, but not an end in itself. One should not become lost in the externalities of the world or in the play of forms and objects.

The ultimate purpose of life (purushartha) is to find God within oneself. For that, one has to go beyond names and forms (nama rupa) and become absorbed in the transcendental Self. In truth, the physical images of God are also sense objects, and sense objects have the tendency to disturb the mind and keep the soul bound to materiality, mortality and Nature.

Therefore, one may worship the images of God, but shall not become attached to the forms such images represent. The images may not have any correlation to the reality of God because they are the creations of the mind. The form is a mere support for the deity, just as the body is a support for the Self. However, that form has no basis, except in your mind or that of its creator. You may see God in it, but you should not mistake it for God.

The forms are temporary. Each time you worship God and visualize him, you give birth to a form of God. Mistaking one’s own form or the forms of God for real is considered delusion. It is one of the reasons why at end of Ganesha's festival, we immerse his idols in water. Hence, discretion is important. The focus should be upon the divinity who is hidden in the form. A worshipper should not lose this distinction when he is engaged in idol worship.

We cannot escape from duality in this world. Even gods cannot escape from it. In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna described Brahman in the first person (as himself) as well as in the second person (as other than himself). By using the first person, he indicated his oneness with Brahman and by using the second person he suggested whom we should worship and who should be the real object of our veneration.

When he said that those who worshipped gods went to the gods and those who worshipped him came to him only, he was not suggesting that people should worship him, but Brahman, the Supreme Self, the highest goal. Krishna was the form in which Brahman took birth on earth as an incarnation. You may worship Krishna as Brahman, or Brahman as Krishna, but you cannot take Brahman out of the equation or replace him with Krishna. Many people ignore this fundamental truth. They become lost in names and forms and worship the forms of gods with duality, ignoring the deity, who pervades all.

Image worship must lead to inwardness, withdrawal, and absorption of the mind in the contemplation of the Self. The mind must be drawn from the gross to the subtle. Even when you are engaged in worldly activities, a part of you must remain inward so that even your involuntary actions become part of a great sacrifice.

You may worship the images of God to obtain favors from him, fulfill your desires or overcome difficulties. However, you must know that it does not free you from your karma or bondage. For that, your worship must evolve into a sacred sacrifice, in which you pour your actions, body and mind as an offering. Then your living becomes a continuous way of worship and a declaration of faith and devotion.

If you want to suppress mental modifications and experience peace and equanimity, you must withdraw your mind from the forms and objects and turn to the God within. Otherwise, you will remain bound to the world and find it difficult to escape from here. The same will happen, if you worship gods without recognizing their underlying unity or connection with the Supreme Being. By worshipping them or their forms, you may earn good karma, but you will have no redemption from suffering and rebirth.

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