by Jayaram V
Many religions scoff at the idea of idol worship as an act of
Hinduism accepts idol worship with open arms as a simple way of expressing
one's faith, love and devotion to God. There is a child like innocence and
purity of approach when a person stands reverently in front of an
idol and bows before it in total submission, which qualities are
hard to achieve by an adult grounded in materialism, but which are
much sought after in the bhakti marg or the path of devotion in
A devout Hindu is not much ashamed of going to a temple and bowing
before an idol. He has no hesitation to stand in front of it and
speak to it as if he talking to an individual with the faith and
devotion that is exemplary. He may be rich or he may be poor, he
may be seeking something or he may be simply praying without any
expectation, but his commitment to what he is doing is unquestionable.
If the idol remains mute without any response which is generally
the case, it would not shake his confidence or faith, for he is
a realist too. Deep in his heart he knows the truth, suffering from
no illusions. He will be contended with the mere fact that his prayers
have been heard and accepted.
When Mohammad Gazni invaded India and attacked the famous Somnath
temple, the temple priests there, instead of engaging themselves
in self-defense, said to have prayed continuously to the temple
deity for help. But no help came forth and the temple was plundered
without mercy. History is replete with such instances where Hindu
idols were subjected to desecration and vandalization by the Muslim
armies in medieval India. For reasons unknown to us, the gods remained
silent and offered no material help. But, strangely, while all this
was going on, the bhakti (the path of devotion) movement, of which
idol worship was an integral part, was gaining ground throughout
India, offering solace to millions. No amount of external violence
and desecration of the temples could shake the faith of the Hindus
in their gods and goddesses and their sense of justice.
It is not that Hindus worship their idols in vain. The idol is
just a symbol, a form, with which the mind can be connected and
concentrated upon. The ultimate reality is beyond the senses, beyond
the known field of illusion or maya. All human activity including
the positive and negative aspect of it is part of this great illusion
from which man has no escape till he gains true knowledge.
But sometimes as recorded by human experience, the idols do respond
and converse with man. If there is enough devotion in the heart
of a devotee God responds to him with a direct response. The lives
of Mirabai, Sant Tukaram, Shri Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Shri Yogananda
are a few instances to prove the point. They proved beyond doubt
that idol worship has its own brighter side and through simple faith
and intense devotion one can realize God through it.
According to historians, the Vedic Aryans did not worship idols
though they invoked various gods through performance of sacrificial
rituals. The practice came into existence probably during the later
vedic phase when many new tribes were incorporated into the Aryan
society and some of their practices including the worship of idols
were accepted by the former as an acceptable form of divine worship.
The practice became popular definitely by the Mauryan and post Mauryan
period when idols and temples started appearing in various parts
of India. The Guptas were great worshippers of Vishnu and built
many temples in His honor.
There are enough reasons why a Hindu worships idols. There is
no doubt that idol worship is a superior form of divine worship,
a very simple way of uninhibited declaration of man's faith in God,
if we put aside the empty ritualism and the pompous display that
are generally found associated with it. We are presenting a few
insights into why a devout Hindu worships his idols so dearly while
the rest of the world looks at him with scorn, amusement and disbelief.
1.It is the easiest way to install faith and devotion in man.
As an abstract concept God may be appealing to the intellectual
minds, but to the ordinary individual who is busy with his own household
responsibilities and not well versed in the scriptural knowledge,
scholarship or the path of knowledge may not be very appealing.
On the contrary an image can appeal to him instantly and draw him
into religious life. The idol becomes to him all that God represents
to others: the all compassionate giver of boons and blessings, who
would pay attention to their woes and help them in times of distress.
2. It is a way of acknowledging the omniscience and omnipresence
of God. If God is omnipresent, then every thing in the universe,
including the idol one worships, is filled with His energy and presence.
Every thing in the universe becomes equally sacred and worth worshipping.
When we look at the photograph of a person, we almost feel as if
we are looking at the person though we all know that it is just
an image. If the photograph belongs to a great personality, some
one like a national or religious leader, we treat it with the great
respect as if we are treating the real person. It would hurt our
sentiments greatly if some one shows disrespect to it openly in
the public or in front of us. In idol worship the approach of a
devotee is much the same. He ascribes a particular form or image
to his personal God and gives Him as much love and respect as he
would give to God Himself.
3. In Hinduism there is a religious sanction for such a practice.
The Hindu epics and puranas are full of instances where many devas,
asuras and human beings obtained boons from God after worshipping
Him in a particular image. The mighty demon king Ravana in the epic
Ramayana was a great devotee of Lord Shiva and worshipped Him religiously
in the image of a shivling every day. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Lord
Krishna does not condemn worshipping gods in various forms, though
He advises his devotees to worship the Supreme Self only because
, those who worship gods go to them while His devotees would come
to Him only. (VII. 23). Besides idol worship gives immense freedom
to an individual to worship God in his own way. This is in line
with the true traditions of Hinduism which gives unlimited choice
to its followers to approach God in whatever they choose to worship
4. The idols help the devotee to become deeply religious. A devout
Hindu goes to a temple and worships his favorite deity to charge
himself with religious currents and keep himself going for days
together amidst busy worldly activity. It reinforces his faith in
God and his confidence to face the difficulties in life. Once installed
in the house or in a puja mandir (place of worship in a house),
the very house becomes a place of God's residence, a very sacred
place, a temple by itself. The image that stands there reminds the
devout members of the household to become constantly aware of the
divine presence amidst them and of their religious duties and responsibilities.
It inspires devout men to keep their houses pure and clean and not
to indulge in sacrilegious acts.
5. Aid to concentration: More than any abstract concept, an image
or a symbol (yantra) is the best aid to concentrate and control
ones mind and attention. By keeping the mind concentrated on a particular
image, the mind can be stabilized. Modern science is slowly unraveling
the secrets of the mind and its capacity to manifest reality. It
is now a widely accepted fact that mental images and forms one entertains
in ones mind greatly shape ones life and destiny and that the mind
(especially the subconscious part of it) has the capacity to realize
whatever form or symbol it concentrates upon. The ancient Hindus
were aware of the potentiality of the mind and therefore they did
not object to the worship of idols. They knew that it is was one
of the best ways to lead the other wise fickle human mind towards
6. In idol worship the "true" worshipper becomes God! The statue
stands symbolically for the whole process of creation. According
to Hinduism the worlds and beings came into existence when Purusha
(Divine Will and consciousness) entered Prakriti (Nature, Energy
or Matter). The forms and ideas already exist in the consciousness
of Hiranyagarbha (the world soul, the first creative golden germ)
and He brings them to life by pouring into them His essence. The
world (Viraj) was an idea until the life breath entered into it
and brought it to life. The word "jagat" (the world) means that
which is bright, awake or conscious. When an idol is worshipped
with intense love and devotion, almost a similar process takes place
in the mind of the worshipper. The statue is no doubt inert and
inactive piece of matter at the physical level, but in his mind,
the devotee can pour his devotion and thought energies into it and
bring it to life and derive inspiration and guidance from it. This
is exactly what happens when someone worships a deity deeply and
devotedly. The idol, which is physically inert and unmoving, becomes
alive and active at least in his thoughts and dreams. In doing so
the worshipper is but repeating the act of creation. With the help
of his mental energies, he is trying to bring to life in his mind
an image that is outwardly inactive. Thus, deep in his inner world,
he becomes a creator, the very Hiranyagarbha, God Himself.
7. The statue reminds one of the ephemeral nature of our existence.
The statue reminds a devotee of his or her own body. The gross body,
which is the outer aspect of ones existence, is not much different
from a statue as long as it is not suffused with divine light and
divine consciousness. A person is as good or as alive as mere matter
so long as he does not discover his true nature and come into contact
with his true self.
8. It is the best means of silent communication. Idol worship
is more effective than a prayer. Prayer is a part of idol worship
but not as effective as the latter. Idol worship helps us to concentrate
the energies that emanate from a prayer into one strong flow of
current in one particular direction. Besides, the supposed physical
proximity to God intensifies the emotional fervor and makes the
prayer charged with ones devotion and faith.
9. It is an acknowledgement of ones ignorance and helplessness.
God is far and above, vastly unknown or known only through glimpses
and symbols. The ordinary individual who is a slave to his senses
and desires can never come face to face with Him. How can He be
known by him who is beyond the senses, the mind, the words and even
ones own intelligence (buddhi)? The ego can never understand Him.
No amount of logic can help us to unravel His secrets. So the devotee
creates an image of Him in his mental world and worships him expressing
his gratitude and his deep devotion.
10. Worship of God is worship of Self. It is also not known to
many that when a devotee worships an idol in the most traditional
manner, first he transfers a part of his prana (life energy) into
the deity (sometimes variously to the water in a pot, a yantra,
or a lump of sandal paste etc.,) and thereafter worships it as if
it is a living and breathing deity, giving to it all the respect
due to God as per the scriptures and laid down procedures. According
to Hinduism, man is verily divine. He is the microcosm, the very
Brahman in his aspect as Atman. All the divinities exists in him.
All the powers too. Actually when he is worshipping the idols, praying
in front of them, he is invoking the divinity within himself to
wake up and liberate him. When a devout Hindu folds his hands in
front a deity, and prays, his hands point to both the deity in front
of him and the deity that reside in his heart, thus symbolically
representing the fact that worship of deity is also worship of the
divinity that exists in oneself.
There are many reasons why a devout Hindu worships idols. These
reasons may not satisfy the intellectual curiosity of an erudite
scholar. But for a deeply religious Hindu, it is the best way of
communicating with his gods and seeking their blessings. Religion
is a matter of faith. No religion can arrogate to itself the ownership
of God or the status of a true religion condemning others. The paths
to God are many and many are the ways one can reach him. No one
can doubt it or question it.
The advice from the Isa Upanishad is very appropriate here as
a conclusion to this subject," Into blinding darkness enter those
who worship ignorance and into still greater darkness those who
worship knowledge alone... He who knows both knowledge and ignorance
together, crosses death through ignorance and attains immortal life
through knowledge." (Isa I. 9& 11).
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