The Secrets of Idol Worship or Image Worship

Isvara, the Supreme Self

by Jayaram V

Question: Why do Hindus worship images? Is there a deeper meaning to it? On the surface it looks like an innocent practice to declare one’s devotion and allegiance to God, which can be done with even a simple prayer. I read your previous explanations about this subject. However, I still want to know whether it has any spiritual relevance.

There are many reasons behind idol worship. On the surface, idol worship may look like a rustic practice, which may make some believe that worshipping images and idols of God is an inferior practice, fit for lay people to strengthen their faith and religiosity. However, it is incorrect. Image worship may have its own drawbacks. In the hands of wrong people, it may degenerate into a superstitious practice or a purely commercial activity.

However, if you practice it with faith and right intentions and in a right manner it can uplift your mind and spirit, and bring you closer to the divinity in you, strengthening your divine qualities and righteous conduct. In this regard, we can say that it is beneficial to lay people as well as spiritually advanced devotees. In the following discussion, we will focus upon the not so well-known aspects of this form divine worship.

1. Idol worship is a holistic practice in which we combine many yogas

Idol worship contains within itself aspects of all the important yogas which are mentioned in the Bhagavadgita. First, you need to acquire right knowledge (jnana yoga) about the deity and the procedure to practice it correctly. Second, you need to practice detachment, selflessness and renunciation (sanyana yoga) to cultivate right attitude and virtuous conduct. Third, you have to engage your thoughts in the contemplation of the deity to stabilize your mind and experience tranquility (atma samyama yoga). Fourth, you have to purify your intelligence to cultivate discernment (buddhi yoga) so that you can choose the right way to practice the worship and the right deity for the worship.

Lastly, you have to perform the ritual itself mentally or physically as on offering (karma sanyasa yoga), with utmost devotion, in which you lose the sense of Self (bhakti yoga). Thus, as you can see, the ideal form of idol worship is an integrated practice with many sides and contains in itself a holistic approach to conduct divine worship and transform your mind and body for the inner awakening. By all means it is a transformative practice, just as any other spiritual practice in Hinduism such as yoga or meditation or concentration.

2. In idol worship we invoke the visualizing power of the mind

The mind is central to all forms of divine worship. The mind, senses, speech and breath play an important role in most forms of worship in Hinduism. In ritual worship, we rely upon speech and sound to invoke gods. In devotional service, we invoke the power of love. In Yoga, we invoke the power of purity, silence and unified consciousness. In idol worship, we employ all these powers to declare our love and devotion. Additionally, we also invoke the visualizing power of the mind.

To the human mind, images have a stronger appeal than speech, sounds and mantras. When we use images as the visual representation of our gods and goddesses, their power to draw our minds and hold our attention increases manifold. Having become integrated in our consciousness, they influence our thoughts and emotions in many ways, depending upon our state of mind and perceptions. As we install them in our consciousness and frequently visualize them, our devotion grows and our hearts open to sublime emotions. It is why image worship is considered the heart of bhakti yoga. By holding our attention and arresting our thoughts, the visual forms of our personal deities arrest our thoughts and stabilize our minds in concentration and contemplation.

3. In idol worship we invoke the power of Maya

The mind is an aspect of Nature. It is subject to modifications and delusion, which are considered major impurities and obstacles to liberation. We engage in idol worship not only as a ritual to fulfil our desires but also as a transformative practice to overcome impurities and achieve liberation. Just as the world is a projection of Nature, the objects, names and forms in our consciousness are our own projections. They create the make-believe reality which in many ways is similar to the one produced by Maya in the outside world. It is also a chief source of modifications and mental instability.

If you examine closely, you will realize that the images which we hold in our minds interfere with our perceptions, discernment and comprehension. Just as we are deluded by Maya, we are deluded and distracted by the objects of our own creation. In our daily lives, we deal more with the images in our minds rather than the reality around us. They also play an important role in our relationships and attachments because we deal mostly with the images of the people we meet rather than the people themselves.

This is true with regard to all the objects we perceive or interact. We rarely see things as they are, since the mind constantly brings up the stored images to interpret the perceptions. In idol worship, we use images and visual objects to transcend our attachment to names and forms. We invoke the very power of Maya and our attachment to names and forms to overcome delusion and attain purity, discernment and mental absorption.

4. In idol worship we engage the not-self to realize the Self

The mind, the body, the world and all the objects and phenomena in them constitute the not-self (anatma) or the objective reality. According to our scriptures, the objective reality is impermanent, unreal and a major source of suffering and afflictions. In idol worship we engage the not-self to worship the Self (Isvara) or the divinities who are considered to be his numerous aspects, projections and reflections and who also constitute the not-Self of the cosmic reality. As our scriptures affirm all names and forms, even of gods, belong to the domain of objective reality. They do not exist in the absolute reality of the Self.

This distinction is important. In idol worship we do not rely upon the Self alone, nor do we ignore the importance of not-self. Rather, we use the not-self (our minds and bodies) to worship the Self (God or deities) and dissolve the individual Self (Atman) in the Supreme Self (Brahman). We bring the gods into the objective realm of our minds and of this world and objectify them, imparting to them names and forms who are otherwise nameless and formless.

We worship them objectively in a state of duality, becoming witnesses in the process. Through that worship, we fulfill the condition which is stated in the Isa Upanishad. The Upanishad clearly warns that those who worship only the Self or those who worship only the not-self enter the sunless worlds (asurya lokas) of suffering. In idol worship, we engage both the Self and the not-self. With the help of the individual Self, we transcend the not-Self to enter the sunlit world of the Supreme Self (Brahman).

5. In idol worship we become creators and engage in the act of creation

In many ways, idol worship is similar to the act of creation itself. As an aspect of God upon earth or his devotee, during the worship you perform five important functions of God, acting as the creator, preserver, concealer, revealer and destroyer. For example, before you begin the ritual, you create the form of the deity and preserve it for the duration of the worship. You conceal the transcendental aspect of the deity when you breathe life into the image. You also conceal some sacred sounds, which are not to be uttered loudly. As the revealer, you disclose your devotion and intention through prayers and invocations and also open your mind to the sublime thoughts which may enter your consciousness. In the end, you become the destroyer or Death (Kala), the eater of all, as you say farewell to the deity and conclude your worship by eating the sacrificial food.

Thus, as can be seen, idol worship is essentially an act of creation. The gods who inhabit the subtle planes of our minds in image form are also our exclusive creations only. They reside in our microcosms as our very own pantheon. In their highest aspect as Brahman, they do not possess any names and forms. When we manifest them through our thoughts and intentions, they assume names and forms and become active in our consciousness.

Thus, just as we create our lives through actions (karma), we create the deities of our subtle minds through our thoughts, visualization, emotions and feelings. In both instances, we are responsible for what happens to us and how we shape our lives and destinies with our thoughts and imagination. If you want better results, you must cultivate purity so that your deities will be suffused with the transformative and purifying power of sattva.

As your own creations, the gods of your subtle mind also partake of your essential nature. If you are a sattvic devotee, they become sattvic. If you are rajasic, they contain rajas, and so on. In this regard idol worship is not much different from classical yoga. Just as our world is a projection of God, the images of gods we create during worship and contemplation are the projections of our minds. For best results, even in case of idol worship, you have to practice both rules (niyamas) and restraints (yamas) to cultivate purity.

6. In idol worship we energize the idols and enhance their power

In some sects of Vaishnavism, an idol is considered to be a living incarnation of God (Arca). Its power and potency grow in proportion to the devotion and the offerings it receives. If you keep the image of deity in your house and worship it regularly for a long time, it becomes suffused with the power of your devotion and transforms into a wakeful deity with power and potency to grant your wishes or protect you from harm and evil. With its continued presence, your house becomes a temple by itself.

It is why you should never keep the idols and images of our gods and goddesses in your house for ornamental purposes. Many people keep them for aesthetic or egoistic reasons, but do not offer them worship. Those images do not serve any purpose in your spiritual evolution. They are not much different from the flower vases, or the photographs you keep in your house. If you want your house to be sanctified with divine presence, you should regularly worship the deities in your house and make them offerings. A flower, a simple gesture of love and devotion or a small prayer is sufficient to keep them awake and active.

The same is true with regard to the gods we collectively worship in temples and public places. If a million people worship the same deity in a temple or a sacred place, over a period of time that deity becomes a living incarnation with enormous powers. When we worship the images of that deity in our houses, the images in our houses as well as the one in the main temple also become energized. By worshipping in this manner, we can not only fulfill our desires and overcome our problems with divine help but also make the world a better place with the living presence of God.

7. Idol worship is validated by scriptures

Idol worship is an acceptable form of divine worship. Our tradition supports it, and our scriptures validate it. Some people may scoff at the idea, but it is an integral part of the Hindu way of life. It is transformative and very helpful to lead a divine-centered life and cultivate a personal relationship with God, keeping him uppermost in our thoughts and imagination and freeing our minds from delusion.

For example, in the Bhagavadgita, we have the assurance that in whatever form a devotee worships him, in that form he manifests to him. He also states that anything, be it a leaf or a fruit, which is offered to him with love and devotion, he will accept it. If you worship him, you will directly reach him. If you worship other gods, you may go to them, but eventually you will attain him only. Elsewhere, it is suggested that your faith is according to your essential nature or predominant gunas. He also gives the assurance that those who are drawn to him and whose minds are constantly engaged in his thoughts, they are his best devotees, and he would take care of their lives and salvation.

Bhagavadgita may be a scripture of spiritual teachings, but image worship is implied in it throughout. In the discourse, Arjuna is the devotee who worships Lord Krishna, the living image of God. Lord Krishna also shows him his universal form after explaining to him his numerous forms and manifestations (vibhutis), each of which is worthy of worship.

The Vedas validate image worship rather indirectly, since they primarily focus upon the traditional forms of ritual worship (yajnas). For example, the Upanishads state that the worship performed with the mind is superior to the worship performed with speech. In course of time the model of Vedic fire ritual became transformed into an internal, contemplative ritual (antar yajna) as well as mental worship (manasapuja).

In the latter the devotees worship God with the full force of their minds, replicating all the physical and material processes into their mental counterparts in complete detail. For example, they begin with a few prayers to stabilize the mind and clean their internal organs. Then, they recreate an image of the deity in their minds in full regalia and install it firmly with visualization, (prana pratishta), breathing life into it. Having mentally bathed and clothed the deity and made all the required offerings of food, light, smoke, incense, flowers, fruit, prayers, etc., they conclude the rituals by bidding farewell. The method is more powerful because in physical worship, you may be constrained by circumstances or resources, but in mental worship there is no limit to what you can do or offer.

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