Idol Worship and Beyond - Why Idol Worship?


29. Idol Worship and Beyond - Why Idol Worship?


‘Hindus worship Idol’ or ‘Hindus are idol worshippers’ is the most common opinion. However this opinion is a result of incomplete knowledge about Hindu dharma which is so different from other religions especially those not born in India. The truth is no Hindu ever worships any idol. Idol is not God. If one says that idol (mūrti) is God, then it would lead to a kutarka (bad-logic), 'Humans make God and they worship God'. There are two common procedures that are easily noticeable in so-called idol worship


  1. prANa prathisTA

  2. Closing of eyes while praying and bowing to any Idol


Lets understand what these means


29.1. prANa prathisThA


prANa pratisThA is the first ritual that has to be done before any idol can be worshipped. In this ritual, God which is formless, is invoked to be present in the idol and manifest his blessings on devotees through this idols. An idol is like a postman who is the ‘middleman’ between sender and receiver. A guru plays the same role. Since not all are fortunate to have a guru who can guide you, hence temples are created where devotees can gather and pray to God directly through an idol which represents him / her. prāṇa pratisṭhā is also known as consecration. In this process, a part of (ansha) of the Īshvara's shakti (energy) manifests in the Idol. In other words, prāṇa pratisṭhā is a kriyā (process) in which one requests Īshvara to bestow his / her grace and blessings to the idol and shine forth through idol just like Īshvara shines (empowers) the mind and shines through the mind.It is said in Gītā that 'Īshvara sarva bhūtānām hṛidyese Arjuna tisthatī' meaning Īshvara is in all five bodies but it's magnificence shines through the heart. This indicates that though Īshvara or Brahman is everywhere (sarva-vyāpi) and is spread in all five bodies of Humans, it's energy manifests in greater magnitude in the heart. 


In this sense, invoking Īshvara to be present in Idol makes the idol live with his grace and it becomes a bridge between the devotee and God.


29.2. Closing of eyes while praying and bowing to any idol


We must have observed that after devotees offer their salutations to God, they join hands, bow down and close their eyes when they are in front of idol. The question arises - Why would you close your eyes when the very purpose you have come to temple is to have darshan (sight) of your beloved God? Meaning of darshan is generally taken as ‘to see’, however darshana in deeper sense means ‘to know’. Eyes here represent all five senses (eyes, ears, etc). Hence closing of eyes symbolically means to pull back all senses or to disconnect any external stimuli and see within. bhagavAn in gItA BG 18.61 says, ‘I am in your heart’ meaning that though ISvara is omnipresent and is present everywhere, but as said earlier, the degree of manifestation is more in heart. Hear heart is not the physical heart. It is either taken as anAhat chakra or heart could mean ‘core’, ‘center’, ‘source’. Hence this practice of closing eyes (pulling senses back and focusing inwards) is an advise to look ‘within’.


There are more reasons for worshipping idol. Mind is habituated of seeing names and form. Each form has a name and vice versa. It is difficult to visualise an abstract God who is formless and present everywhere. How can mind visualise it? It is much easier to focus on a particular object. Hence idol is preferred.


Each form of God has his / her unique character. God performs deeds that no human being can replicate. They have various devotional hymns, compositions and mantra-s dedicated to them. bhagavAn in gIta says, ‘leave all types of dharma (and adharma) and (unconditionally) surrender to Me, the Brahman’. The order is given by Īshvara in Gītā, but one cannot produce bhAva (spiritual emotion) and attachment towards God. Here too a form and character of God help.s purANa-s help create a unique personality of God. When glorious divine deeds of krShNa or Siva are known through purANa-s and other works, an entire scene of created in mind. For example, when krShNa is playing flute and all cows and other animals get attracted towards him, and a pleasant, divine atmosphere is created, mind constructs the whole scene and stays immersed in it. Concentration becomes natural when one has natural liking for a subject. Repeated reading of such divine stories, inspiring incidences of their life, their unparalleled divine deeds, and listening and singing infinite glories will make one stay immersed in God and increase devotion to the all mighty. It helps increases satva guṇa which has divine qualities, like devotion, surrender, compassion of all, spiritual love, kindness, let go (forgive and forget), patience, etc and removes negative lower emotions of rājasika and tāmasika nature like greed, anger, attachment, possessiveness, revengeful attitude, urge to gain glory, etc.  


After devotee becomes inwardly pure so much so that now s/he losses interest in worldly activities, external objects and loved ones and heart longs only and only for God, then one can either shift to formless aspect of God or can continue to worship his/ her IshTa devatA (form of God of personal choice). In such a blessed devotee, satva guṇa is at it's peak i.e it is predominant guṇa and one feels peace and bliss constantly flowing through the body the whole day even while working in office. One feels God is God is very near. Such a devotee unconditionally surrenders to God and does not ask anything in return but constant company of beloved God, then God takes control of his / her life and gives what is best for the devotee. God himself shows his / her true nature.

29.3 Formless Ishvara and Ishvara with Form - both can exist

In Sanatana Dharma, Ishvara or Brahman can be formless and can appear in many forms. This can be verified in many puranas like Vishnu Purana and Bhagavat Purana. The trinity of Brahman-Vishnu-Mahesha appear as different as they assume different jobs of creation-preservation-destruction. In reality all three are one. On the other hand Ishvara can be formless (nirAkAra) and can be with and without any attributes (nirgUNa). Four out of five basic elements of creation known a panch-mahAbhUta-s can be nirAkAra only pruthvi (earth) can be seen and has definite shape. Jala (water) and agni (fire) can be seen but does not have any shape and last two vAyu (air) and AkAsha (space / ether) cannot be seen. vAyu can be felt but AkAsha cannot even be felt and is only present and subtlest of all five, then why can’t Ishvara can be nirAkAra and nirguNa, which is subtler then the subtlest of five elements?

29.4 One Becomes Many


According to Puranas, formless Godhead takes the form of Trinity based on work. This supreme Godhead is known as MahaVishnu or Shiva or say Mahaganapati. Mahavishnu is sometimes simply referred as Vishnu, but yet it can be seen that Vishnu creates the trinity or divides itself into three. Here, Vishnu is not chaturbhUja Vishnu holding (shankha, mace, etc) in his hands. In other words, Vishnu which creates trinity is not a person but formless Godhead who is eulogised of being creator, preserver and destroyer. 

In simply words, One Godhead, appears as many. This Ishvara is said to have name, form and a personality. There are glories associated with a particular form of Ishvara. There are mantra-s associated with that form of Ishvara and Ishvara can be invoked (AvAhana) and a part (ansha) of his infinite power can be concentrated (prANapratishThA) in an idol. There is a definite process for each form of Ishvara. Thus the formless, infinite, omnipresent, all-powerful Godhead or Ishvara can be visualized in a form and can be worshipped through this form. 

29.5 Idols are not Gods, they represent God


Idols are an important part of spiritual progress, but as explained earlier, they are not Gods. Just like national flag is not a country, but represents a country, so does idols represent a form of Ishvara. If one says that Idol is God, then those Idols are made by humans and humans cannot ‘make’ God. Secondly, there are festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi and Durga astami. On the last day of these festivals, Idols of Ganesh and Durga are devoutly submerged in water. It would imply that God is now no more. How can this be possible? If God dies or ceases to exist, then the world too will cease to exist. The ideal of visarjana (submerging Idols of Gods in water) implies that for many days we have worshipped them externally in Idols, now we must carry forward our devotion toward them by establishing them in our hearts permanently. 

29.6 Does not veda-s say 'God does not have Idol' - na tasya pratimā asti ?

There is popular belief that earlier during vedic times, there was no idol worship as in veda-s idol worship is not found. In support of this claim, sloka-s from from Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.19 and yajurveda 32.3 and 32.4 are quoted.

It is rightly said that earlier there was no idol worship only yajna-s, however, recent excavations have established the fact that  idol worship is not a recent creation. In Iraq, in 2015 archaeologists have found 6000 years old carvings and in Jharkhand, 6000 years old idols of Rāma, Sītā, Lakshmaṇa and Hanumāna (with folded hands) were found.

Idol worship was practised in the Kaliyuga. Details about idol worship which is called as archa-vigraha is not only found in purāṇa-s like Bhāvagat Pūṛaṇa (in Uddhava Gītā) but also in many Āgama śastra-s which give details like size of mūrti, shape of havan kuṇḍa, temple construction, etc. Certain features that are to be present in each form of God for e.g. Viṣṇu mūrti has to be of a particular size and shape and it has certain shape and size of eyes which makes it distinctive. This helps the devotees to recognise the form of deity from distance. Many deities do not have clean human like facial features. They have big eyes, or a nose ring (in case of devi mūrti).  So such rules were made to easily recognise the name of deity. 

Coming back to the above sloka-s let us first quote the one from Svetasvarata Upanishad 4.19. There is a commentary attributed to Śrī Ādī Śankarāchārya jī available on this upanishad. The sloka is -

नैनमूर्ध्वम्  न तिर्यच्चम्  न मध्ये परिजग्रभत्  | 
न तस्य प्रतिमा अस्ति यस्य नाम महद्यशः || 4-19 ||

nainam ūrdhvaṃ na tiryañcaṃ na madhye parijagrabhat /
na tasya pratimā asti yasya nāma mahad yaśaḥ” // 4.19 //

No one can catch hold of Him either from above, or across, or in the middle. 
There is no likeness (pratimā) of Him. His name is Great Glory (Mahad Yasah) (Translation by Tyagisananda)

The problem comes in this sloka is the word 'pratimā' - 'na tasya pratimā asti' which many translate into 'there is no idol'. Here pratimā is often translated into idol or mūrti. However, this translation is not true. There are many meanings of the word 'pratimā' like - copy, image, likeness, resemblance, measureextent, picture, symbol, statue, idol and even creator. 

In hindi translation of Gita Press, the word used is 'upamā' which translates to 'resemblance' or 'similarity'. This means that the word pratimā is used to compare Brahman. Swami Tyagisananda of Ramakrishna Mission has used to word 'likeness' for 'pratimā' (refer page 96-97)

So the simple translation is that there is no one else who can be compared to Brahman, who in this upanishad, is referred as 'rudra' and in this sloka is termed as 'the great glory'. So the translation will be 

No one can catch hold of Him either from above, or across, or in the middle. 
There is no one comparable to him. His name is Great Glory (Mahad Yasah) - Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.19

Śankara bhāśya will give clarity.

'...due to being of the form (rūpa) of akhaṇḍānanda-anubhava i.e. 'of the form of unbroken, undivided, continuous bliss-experience', there is no second similar to it and there is no pratimā of this Īśvara'. - Ś. Bhā. Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.19

Ādi Śankarāchārya jī has used the word 'pratimā' in his commentary and not any other word, but the meaning is clear from his interpretation that the sloka does not intend to say 'that is no idol of God'. Even if one translates pratimā into idol, the sloka or any later or earlier sloka-s does not say that 'one cannot worship God as idol' or 'idols cannot be worshipped' or 'idol worship is forbidden'

Similarly, Yajurveic sloka can be translated as - 

na tasya pratima asti yasya nama mahadyasha
Hiranyagarbha ithyesha ma ma hingseethithyesha yasmanna jatha ithyesha
Esho ha deva prathishonu sarva poorvo ha jatha sa u grabho antha
Sa eva jatha sa janishyamaana prathyang janasthishttathi sarvathomugha

O God your mightines , supremeness is the top, you are unmeasurable, only you knows your true form, you created the things like sun, the God who is not born from anything is worshipable, let him not hurt us
The Supreme God is filled everywhere, he was in the mind and in the creations of all times , he is in everything in a secret form. he exists in all times, his strength is filled everywhere.

Then another sloka from yajurveda 40.9 is wrongly understood as 'ones who worship idols go to hell'

Antham thama pravishanthi yesambhoothimupasathe
Thatho bhooya iva the thamo ya u sambhootyang retha - Yajur veda 40:9

One who ignores the truth enters darkness.he worship or follows the worldly subjects (for material desire) he thinks there is nothing beyond this world and tries to gain pleasures from it.

Thus we can understand that though there was no idol worship during treta yuga or even dwapar yuga, it is suitable in Kalyuga ans is often recommended in this yuga in purāṇa-s like Bhāgavat Purāṇa and by many saints like Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa.
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