The Justification of Image Worship or Idol Worship

Image Worship

by Jayaram V

Image worship is justified in Hinduism because it is approved by God. According to the Puranas, even gods and goddesses practice it. Jayaram V


Hinduism is known for image worship or idol worship (murthi puja). To those who are not familiar with it, image worship is the practice of ritually worshipping God or Hindu divinities in image form. The practice dates back to the Indus Valley period (5000 BC). However, large scale image worship began in the Indian subcontinent much later with the rise of devotional sects such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism. According to the Upanishads, Brahman, the Supreme Self, is both with form (murtham) and without form (amurtham). Tradition supports the worship of both, but suggests that worshipping the forms of God is easier than the alternative since the mind cannot easily be stabilized in a formless God.

The images which are used in Hinduism for worship come in various forms, shapes and sizes. They are also made of various materials, depending upon the purpose and duration of worship. Apart from using statues, carvings and sculpture, devotees use photographs and paintings for worship. In domestic worship, people keep their idols in a clean place such as a shelf or a room in the house and offer them worship, either every day or on specific days.

Image worship in Hindu temples is more organized since it is done strictly according to established norms. Images which are used in temple worship are usually made of stone, metals, alloys, precious stones, or wood. They may be anthropomorphic forms or symbolic representations, which are strictly made by qualified sculptors according to geometric specifications. Before they are worshipped in the temples, the images have to be ritually cleansed and formally installed by qualified priests. Otherwise, they are not qualified for worship. The installation procedure may also vary from deity to deity.

The images of some deities cannot be installed alone in the temples. For example, the nine planetary gods (Navagrahas) have to be installed together, since they are worshipped as a group and their relative positions in the group are also predetermined So is the case with deities whose consorts or associate gods (vehicles) cannot be separated from them. While the deities in the temples are regularly worshipped, some are kept separately and worshipped on specific occasions. They are known as festive images (utsava vigrahas).

The images used in worship vary in size. The ones used in domestic worship are usually small, but those used in temples or installed in public places vary in size. Some of them are as large as a multistory building. Most temple images are housed inside the temples, but some are left in the open or on the top of hills and mountains due to their size or for attention. One may also see numerous images on the temple towers (vimana or shikhara), but they are not usually worshipped. Apart from Images, Hindus also worship various symbols, diagrams and formulas.

The practice of worshipping humans or animals as the personification of certain deities is also in vogue in Hinduism. However, it is not a popular or common practice. People who are selected for the purpose have to meet certain criteria. For example, in Nepal Hindus worship young, preadolescent girls as Kumaris, or living goddesses. The process of selecting a Kumari is elaborate. Once selected, she will be treated with great respect as a goddess until she is replaced by another.

On certain auspicious occasions Hindus also decorate animals such as cows or bulls and worship them with the offerings of food. In some parts of India Indonesia and Himalayas, people worship ancestral spirits, snakes, trees, rivers, mountains, volcanoes and lakes as a continuation of ancient rustic traditions. The Bhagavadgita explicitly warns of the consequences of worshipping lower gods and demigods and recommends the worship of the highest, supreme God only.

Justification for Image worship

It is difficult to conceive Hinduism without image worship. The practice is one of its most striking features. However, within Hinduism itself you will find divergent opinions about it. Some progressive Hindus consider it a superstitious practice, while some believe it to be a transformative and purifying method by which one can emotionally bond with God and achieve liberation.

Hinduism also received a lot of ridicule and criticism from outside for image worship. People who do so are usually ignorant of Hinduism. They are either conditioned and indoctrinated by their own beliefs and prejudices or motivated by an agenda to denigrate the faith and convert people. Certainly, image worship is a beneficent practice, and a superior form of worship, which has its own justification. For the common people it is a very useful and convenient method to engage their minds in the thoughts of God and begin their daily routine on a positive note. In fact, even now many educated Hindus go to their work, after worshipping their gods and applying tilak or vibhuti on their foreheads.

The following are few important reasons why image worship has its own place and importance in the religious and spiritual practice of Hinduism.

It is easier.

In the Bhagavadgita, Lord Krishna says that it is very difficult to worship an unmanifested God or the God who is invisible (Avyakta Brahman). It is much easier to focus your mind and senses upon a manifested from of God and worship him. Each image is a manifested form of God only. Since God has no specific form, any image that you create or use to worship him qualify as his form only. You may either consider it symbolic, or representative or a living embodiment (arca)

It is convenient.

Image worship is a very convenient way to develop an emotional connection with the deity you worship. To worship the images of God, you do not have to go temples or a sacred place or seek the help of a priest. You can do it in your own house or wherever you like. You only have to keep the place clean and take a few precautions. Besides, when you keep the gods in your house and worship them, you convert it into a sacred place or a temple.

It is inexpensive.

Image worship does not cost you much. You do not have to make expensive offerings, or invite people. There is no need to spend money on a priest or make extensive arrangements to perform the ceremony. It can be done in the comforts of your own house according to your ability and knowledge. You may not even require to buy images, since you can make your own. Besides, if you cannot afford the offerings, you can worship the deities in your mind (manasa puja), making imaginary offerings. Because of this, both rich and the poor alike practice image worship in their homes as part of their daily routine.

It is personal.

The images which you worship in your house are part of your life and family. As your family deities, they stay in your house, live with you, share your food and become an integral part of your life, inheritance and family tradition. In most cases, children continue the tradition when they grow up and have their own families. For generations, many Hindus worship the same deities and even the same images. Overtime, the images which you worship grow upon you and become your guardian deities. They also gain strength and mystic powers according to your devotion, purity and sincerity.

It is direct.

In image worship, the relationship between you and the deities you worship is direct. It is like having invisible support from another world. During the worship you directly communicate with your gods, with no middlemen in between. In their presence, you mentally step into their company and open your heart to their love and blessings. Through personal prayers and direct conversation, you can express to them your feelings or confide in them in good trust your problems and difficulties, seeking their help. The biggest advantage of image worship is that you can treat the gods of your veneration as if they are your closest allies and friends in need.

It is transformative.

Any contact or communication with God is purifying in itself. Even if you spend a few minutes every day in the contemplation of God, it will do you immense good by purifying you and clearing some of your negative karmas. When you spend time worshipping gods with physical or mental offerings, you will experience peace. The negative energy which accumulates in your mind and body during your interactions with the world becomes dissipated. Besides, the practice prepares you for advanced spiritual methods such as concentration and meditation. It will also help you stabilize your mind in the contemplation of God and strengthen your devotion. In turn, you experience peace and progress on the path of devotion.

It is auspicious.

Evil cannot reside in a house where gods stay, and where they are regularly worshipped. When you keep gods in your house and worship them, your house becomes spiritually clean and divine whereby evil forces and bad energies cannot enter it or trouble you in your sleep The deities you worship sanctify your house and protect you from evil influences

It makes you god-centric

Image worship is beneficial, convenient, direct, personal and transformative. Despite what critics argue, it is neither sinful nor decadent, but a very innocent and effective way to express your love and devotion to God and become religious. It is better than not worshipping God at all, or indulging in worldly actions that do you no good. Since God is omniscient and hidden in all, every object in creation is worthy of worship and veneration. By worshipping his images, you acknowledge his universal presence and live with the assurance that you are surrounded by him, watched by him and guarded by him, who has thousands of hands, feet, eyes and ears everywhere and in all directions.

The spiritual value of image worship

Technically, image worship is a form of concentration and meditation only. In concentration you focus your mind upon a particular form or object. In meditation, you go a step further and think about it either passively or actively. If you persist in both practices, you begin to see subtle images of numerous gods and goddesses manifesting on their own in your consciousness, as you enter the subtle realms of your mind. If you persist, you will eventually reach the final stage of self-absorption (Samadhi), in which you will transcend all names and forms and become absorbed in the formless. In most cases, the beginning phase of this arduous process, which culminates in liberation or self-realization, is image worship only.

Hinduism says that if you want to reach God or find him within yourself, you must begin your quest from the outer to the inner. You usually start as a simple worshipper, with names and forms, because they are the outer aspects of a hidden reality in which you can easily engage your mind, which is not yet fully trained or tamed. Once you make progress, you should try to go beyond them, to see what you can find in the deepest core of your own being. It is a very logical, systematic and practical approach, which works very well as long as you do not become stuck with the names and forms of the perceptual world or develop egoistic notions of right and wrong.

God pervades his whole creation. He is hidden in all. Therefore, if you are determined and focused, you can find God in any object upon which you set your mind. It is what we learn from yoga. For a self-realized yogi, the omnipresence of God is not a mere concept, but an experiential reality. With the help of yoga, it is possible to experience oneness with the object of your concentration. That object can be anything. It can be a stone, a tree, the Self, or an image of God. In that effort, by withdrawing your mind and senses and making them still, you can bridge the gap between the subject and object and subjectively experience the object as if you are absorbed in it or as if you are its very essence or it is your very essence. If that object is God or any of his forms, it is even better because you can experience oneness with him. Thus, although image worship may appear to be too simplistic or primitive, it is the best way to prepare yourself for the practice of yoga and enter the essence of God which is hidden in everything to experience him as your very Self.

All worship is image worship only

No one in this world can worship a formless God. Whoever claims to do so does not understand how the mind functions. The human mind cannot relate to anything, perceive anything or cognize anything, unless it perceives or conceives it as an object. Because of the duality and division which are inherent to it, it objectifies everything and treats everything as an object only. Hence, you always perceive the world as the sum of objects, things, concepts, categories, divisions and dualities.

For the same reason, in the mind even the abstract idea of formlessness or invisibility becomes either an objectified concept or an object itself. The mind is programmed to objectify everything. It is by objectification that it makes sense of the world. It makes sense of all abstract concepts also through objectification only in relation to or in opposition to other similar concepts. For example, it cannot explain what love is. However, it understands it as a feeling and objectifies it in relation to itself as the subject. It also objectifies it in comparison with other feelings, which are already objectified, so that it can distinguish each of them.

This is the truth. In the mind every idea, or concept or thought becomes an object, which may be physical, mental, or conceptual. The moment you hear the word "God" or any of his names, or when you think of him, your mind instantly objectifies him, using your memories and the imagery which you have accumulated, and embellishes it further with imagination. Whether you worship formless God or the forms of God, mentally or physically, you cannot do it without objectifying him and without the duality of subject and object. Be it an image, a form, a name, a word, a symbol, or an abstract concept of God, they all end up becoming objectified in your mind. Therefore, anyone who claims that he does not worship images but an invisible God, ought to rethink about his argument because in the mental realm both the image worshipper and the worshipper of an invisible God are but worshipping an objectified God only.

If you want to truly worship a formless God, beyond all objectification and duality, and without the involvement of your mind and senses, you have to cease to become a worshipper and become the worshipped. Worship itself implies duality. Therefore, you have to transcend it and enter the state of nonduality or the indivisible and indistinguishable pure state, in which the division of the subject and object disappears. In that state you become the Self, the one, indivisible reality. It is what the tradition calls oneness or the state of union (Yoga). The Yoga Sutras objectifies it as Dharma Megha Samadhi and others as Nirbija (seedless) Samadhi. Until they reach and merge in it, everyone is but a worshipper of names, forms and objects only.

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