Why Do We Worship Stone Idols?

Shiva and Parvathir

Shiva and Parvathi, India, Uttar Pradesh, Deogarh region, 750-800 A.D, Gray sandstone Sculpture

by Jayaram V

Hindus ritually worship images made of stone and other materials. Is the practice of idol worship or image worship justified in Hinduism?

Yes, it perfectly justified. I have written about this a few times. Please check the links at the end of this response. Here, I will focus upon the most important reason, which is rooted in the Upanishads.

There are many reasons behind idol worship or image worship, which is a standard practice in Hinduism. The most important reason is that it helps us see God in a stone object and remember that he is hidden in all.

We do not worship any stone. We worship only those which are properly installed in a temple or at home and which contain prana or the self of the deity.

The moment we see God in it, we worship it. We may even build a temple to house it and let everyone know that it is a sacred object worthy of worship and devotion.

What makes the stone in a temple different from the one outside? It is our perception of prana or the divine Self in it. In the early Vedic descriptions, Prana was equated with Atman, the Self.

In Sanskrit, the stone is called rayi. It is mentioned in the Prasna Upanishad, according to which in the beginning of creation Prajapati performed a penance and created the pair namely rayi and prana, thinking that together they would further produce many beings.

Rayi represents creation, more specifically Nature, matter, energy or shakti. It includes her tattvas or the finite realities such as the elements and the organs. It is the not-Self or the objective reality, which we can perceive through our senses and objectify. Prana represents the Self, the subjective reality. It cannot be objectified, except conceptually for our understanding.

Our minds and bodies are part of the Not-self or the objective reality. It is also one of the important building blocks of the mortal world because we use stone or matter for various purposes to build our homes, roads, images and other objects.

Our ancient people used stone images to convey this important truth of creation. They wanted us to remember that things become sacred when we perceive God in them and extend the same feeling or attitude to everything else in creation.

We do not worship the stone as such, but the deity in it, the breathing one, the one who is the source of all Prana or breath energy. The stone need not be even beautiful or symmetrical as you can see in many temples, especially in the rural areas. It may not even have a specific form. When we see that it is inhabited by God and installed at a sacred place, we worship it.

Just as everything else in creation, the stone is subject to decay and destruction. Yet, when we see that it is suffused with the energy of God, we do not neglect it. We decorate it and worship it with devotion, knowing that the God who is hidden in it cannot be seen otherwise since he is transcendental. We believe that our thoughts and prayers will reach him through the deity in that image.

Here is an important lesson.

God inhabits everything in the universe. As the Isa Upanishad declares, “Isa Vasya midam sarvam.” All this is inhabited by God. Therefore, everything in creation is the same as the image in a temple or at a place of worship and should be treated with respect and consideration.

If you truly believe in the omnipresence of God, you do not have to even visit a temple. You can worship him everywhere, seeing him in everything, within yourself and outside also. Seeing God everywhere and making him the center of your life, this is the Hindu Way of life, which we frequently come across in many discussions as the definition of Hinduism.

Hinduism teaches us the importance of oneness not only with the Self but also with the not-Self. It points to the deep connection between God and his creation, in other words, between prana and rayi, the two fundamental realities of existence, which are often symbolized as Shiva and Parvathi..

It is true that creation is an illusion or a projection, and we are expected to cultivate detachment towards it. However, since it is an aspect of God, we cannot ignore it. We must treat it as his body and show the same respect just as you are supposed to treat your own body.

In other words, it is not sufficient to see God in the images and sacred objects. We must see him hidden in all. Otherwise, idol worship will be an empty ritual with no heart and soul in it.

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