by Jayaram V
Many religions scoff at the idea of idol worship as an act of superstition. But 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 Hinduism.
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 Him.
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 God.
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).
Suggested Further ReadingAspects, Emanations, Incarnations
and Forms of God in Vaishnava Tradition
Bhakti, Spiritual Devotion To God
Bhakti Marg, the Path of Devotion
Symbolism of Puja, the Ritual
Worship of God in Hinduism
Hinduism and polytheism
Hinduism and prayers
Brahman, The Universal Self,
The Highest God Of Hinduism
Bhakti yoga or the Yoga of Devotion
The True Marks of A Devotee
The Meaning of Prarthana
or Prayer in Hinduism
Tuesday , March 1, 2011