The practice of Idol Worship in Hinduism

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By Nithin Sridhar

An Analysis of Hindu Symbols and Practices: Part 1

“In Indian society, idol worship is one of the major superstitions that preclude the development of a scientific bent of mind….. Almost all societies of the world practiced them in one form or another during certain period. But, considering its evil effect, many societies began to shed ‘Idol worship’. Jewish society dropped it during 600 BC. European societies gave-up idol worship from the third century onwards synchronizing with the spread of Christianity. Arabian societies dispensed with idolatry from the seventh century onwards coinciding with the spread of Islam…..

“In India, idolatry remains as an integral part of Hindu religion. It is being given much importance by the priestly class to further their interests. Many fictitious stories about the effectiveness of the worship of the idols of Gods and Goddesses are being spread by the priestly class. Believing those fictitious stories, Hindus throng the temples in large numbers to worship the different idols…..

“The masses assume that by worshipping idols, their sins will be forgiven and they will be rewarded in this life as well as after life. Only under that notion, they perform costly pilgrimages to the so called holy places and fill the temple coffers with money and valuables. This illusion prevents people from acquiring worldly wisdom. It also averts people from realizing the value of thought and work. As a result, people live in vain hope. They expect wonders to happen in their lives. Under this false hope, they don’t involve themselves in any productive and creative activities sincerely. This wrong mental attitude towards life and work acts as a major hurdle to our progress.”

Idol-worship has been the favorite weapon Hinduphobic people who have used it to criticize Hinduism for the last many centuries. It is considered as the foremost evidence that establishes Hinduism as being nothing more than a set of superstitions.

The passages about ‘idol-worship’ that have been quoted at the beginning are from an article titled ‘Superstition and Indians’ by N. Anandan, published in the July 2011 issue of ‘The Modern Rationalist.’ Though the article is a few years old, the views expressed in the article clearly sums up the view of many self-claimed liberals, rationalists, and secularists of present society about the issue of idol worship in Hinduism.

Now let us see what idol worship really is and how valid are these assessments and criticisms.

Idol Worship and Moksha

Photo: The Hindu
Photo: The Hindu

‘Idol Worship’ or ‘Image worship’ is one of the central aspects of Hindu practice. Sanatana Dharma has created a wide framework of spiritual practices and lifestyle choices to suit people of different temperaments and competencies. Hence, it has an equal place for those who worship nature as well as those who contemplate on their innermost self. Further, these diverse practices are not segregated belief systems distinct from one another as many scholars have concluded over last few centuries. Instead, these diversities are expressions of one united wholeness. There is a unity in the goal that various spiritual paths lead to as well as in the framework that upholds these diverse paths.

The ultimate goal of Hinduism is Moksha or Liberation and every aspect of life, both secular and spiritual have been propounded to assist a person to eventually attain this goal. Hence, there is clearly a unity in the ultimate goal. Further, there is another unity that interconnects all the various paths and stays beneath them, and acts as the very foundation of them. It is the unity provided by Dharma which upholds life and which is the framework that has made it possible for such diverse paths to express itself without losing the eye on the goal.

Hence, Idol worship is one of the prominent valid means that a person can adopt to travel the path that leads to Moksha. The validity of the worship of idols is its efficacy in helping a devotee to connect with his object of devotion i.e. Brahman.  In fact, the worship of the idol is not about worshiping stone or wood. Instead, it is about worshiping Brahman/God who has manifested in the form of a Devata (deity) in that idol. Before proceeding further, let us briefly understand how Brahman is understood in Hinduism.

Concept of God in Hinduism

God or Supreme reality is referred by the term ‘Brahman’ in Hinduism. Unlike some religions that conceive God as a creator who is different from his creations, Hinduism recognizes that Brahman is both transcendent reality as well as immanent reality. Hindu scriptures speak about Brahman as being present in all objects as their very innermost Self-Atman. The term Brahman therefore refers to the transcendent aspect and the term Atman to the immanent aspect. Hence, the often quoted Vedanta definition of Moksha as the realization of ‘Brahma-Atma-Aikyam-Union of Brahman and Atman’.

The scriptures further speak about Brahman in its transcendent absolute state as being nameless, formless, attribute-less, and birth-less infinite whole. At the same time, the scriptures also recognize that this Brahman can take an infinite number of forms and names as well. He is formless, yet a repository of all forms. Hence, the famous Veda statement “One truth is called by various names” (Rig Veda 1.164.46). Yaska in his Nirukta says that there is only one God, and that God appears as Agni on the physical universe, as Indra in the middle realms, and as Savitr in the celestial realms. Further, various other deities in these three realms are various aspects of these three manifestations of God.(1)

Therefore, though Brahman is one infinite whole without any forms, he himself assumes various forms of Devatas/deities to uphold the Universe. Hence, various Devatas are in essence non-different from Brahman, but in their limited aspect (of name and form), they represent particular aspect/attribute of Brahman. Therefore, Devatas serve as a bridge between devotees (who cannot comprehend Brahman because He is beyond perception) and Brahman (who is the end goal of spiritual path).

Worship or Upasana in Hinduism

As mentioned about, Moksha is possible only by the realization of Brahman as being non-different from the innermost Self (Atman). In other-words, Moksha is possible through Self-Realization or Atma Jnana. But, people in general are completely attached to the material objects. A person identifies himself with his name, body, and his possessions.

Therefore, in order to truly realize the innermost Self, a person must remove the false identifications with his possessions, with the body and the mind. But, this is not easy. The mind is full of thought patterns called Vrittis. The mind is further afflicted by impurities like lust, anger, delusion, pride, etc. that increase the attachment to the body and material objects. Hence, the false identifications can be removed only by purifying the mind by removing the impurities and further calming the mind by bringing thought Vrittis to rest. Yoga Sutra calls this as “Chitta-Vritti Nirodha”.

This purification and the stilling of mind in turn is brought about by the practice of duties (Dharma Anushtana) and devotion (Bhakti/Upasana). It is for this reason, the Vedas are divided into Karma Khanda (duty/actions portion), Upasana Khanda (Meditation/devotion portion) and Jnana Khanda (Knowledge portion). The purpose of Upasana is to attain one-pointed concentration, so that the mind can be stilled.

Upasana literally means ‘to sit near or become close to.’ Hence, the act of worship is nothing but bringing a devotee close to his devata/deity. In fact, Mahanirvana Tantra (14.123) defines worship as the union of the Jiva (individual) with Atman (God). How is this closeness achieved? By the practice of various external and internal spiritual practices.

In fact, every external practice has been designed such that it induces certain internal transformations. The external practices may be in the form of Yajna (fire ritual), Tarpana (using water), or Murti puja (representing earth element) wherein the Devata is invoked in the fire, water, or the idol respectively. These external practices are accompanied by internal meditations on the Devatas.

These internal meditations itself are referred as Pratyahara (withdrawal of senses), Dharana (concentration), Dhyana (meditation) in Patanjali Yoga. These meditations are referred as Vidyas (Knowledge of the deities) in the Upanishads. It is by concentrating on the Nama (name), Mantra, or the Rupa (form) of the Devata, a person purifies the mind and removes all thought Vrittis of it.

Therefore, Upasana is inevitable for spiritual progress. But, this Upasana is not a one size fits all kind of practice. Instead, there are hundreds of methods of Upasanas that have been explained in various scriptures to help people of various temperaments. Idol-Worship is one such important and very effective mode of worship.

Philosophy behind the practice of Idol Worship

Photo: www.newindianexpress.com
Photo: www.newindianexpress.com

The most important element of Idol worship is Idol itself. Idol called as ‘Murti’ is both a symbol for God as well as His abode. An Idol is basically a form, an image that represents a particular Devata. Hence, the primary function of an Idol is that of ‘Pratima’. It acts as a symbol that helps a devotee to have a connection, to have some perception of the essence of Devata, who otherwise is beyond sensory perception. Thus, Idol can be understood as a reflection, an image that gives a glimpse of the Devata, just as a photograph of a person helps one to remember him.

This function of the Idol or Murti as a Pratima is very crucial in the practice of one pointed concentration and meditation. A meditator who thus meditates realizes that the Idol itself is neither Brahman nor Devata, but it is a reflection, an image of the Devata that aids concentration. This concentration will further lead to deep meditation on that form, which will slowly result in the manifestation of the real Devata within the mind.

This fact is further brought out in the iconography details that is associated with each deity. Devatas have many common features, yet each one of them have some unique features as well. These are not accidental or the products of imagination of some artists of the old. Instead, each element of the iconography represents a particular element about that Devata. For example, the moon on Shiva’s head represents Shiva as being endowed with pure Knowledge. Similarly, the ten hands depicted in some deities represent the 10 directions that include the top and bottom. The idols are made only according to the iconographic descriptions given in various scriptures and not otherwise. These show that, idols act as symbols for decoding the essence of various deities and when concentrated upon the idols, thought Vrittis corresponding to those aspects of Devatas are formed in the mind.

This kind of meditation where external or internal aids are used as props to attain one-pointed concentration is well established in the Upanishads, Puranas, as well as Tantrika literatures. But, this is only one way of worshiping Devatas using Idols.

The other way is self-evident in the very name with which the idols are referred- ‘Murti’. Murti literally means form, manifestation, embodiment, or simply an abode. Hence, idol is not simply a symbol, but it is a place that can hold the energy and the essence of the particular manifestation of Brahman. That is, the idol is nothing but a body of the Devata. It is for this reason, the worship of the Devata begins with Prana Pratishtapana where in the life-force, the essence, as well as the form of the deity is infused into the stone or wooden idol. This is done through procedures like Kumbabhishekam etc. in the temples. In fact, without consecration, the stone idol remains simply a stone and does not become a Pratima (image) of God.

Regarding this, S.K. Ramachandra Rao, a renowned author and Sanskrit scholar says: “The devotee knows that the image of a god is a mere artefact and toy unless it is properly consecrated. And consecration involves the investment of the devotee’s devotion and passion, and getting the devotee effectively related to the particular god invoked in the image. Rituals are naturally important for transforming an artefact into an icon. The icon is meant to accommodate the rituals, so that human devotion can flower out in the light of God that is reflected through the icon.(2)

Therefore, the idols are not just the symbol or a reflection of the Devata, but it is the very abode of the Devata. A common criticism of Idol worship is that Hindus worship the stone and other such insentient objects. But, as seen above it is not the stone that is worshiped, but the Devata who has occupied the stone idol for a duration of time, who is worshiped.

Jagadguru Sri Abhivnava Vidyatheertha MahaSwamiji, the late Shankaracharya of ‘Sringeri Peetham’ says: “We do not worship mere stones. If we did, then, on seeing a stone idol, we would have addressed it as, ‘O Stone’ and not as ‘O Lord.’ We use idols as aids to worship, realizing that it is He who resides in them. In the temple deities, the divine presence is installed through the Kumbhabhishekam performed to consecrate the idols. This is strengthened by the sincerity and tapas (austerity) of the priests performing the worship, and by the special characteristics of certain idols. Though without form Ishwara (God) is capable of giving Darshana (appearing in front of) to His devotees. He indeed does so.”(3)

Photo: http://belurmath.org/
Photo: http://belurmath.org/

The fact that idols act as an abode, or a body of the deity can also be ascertained by the manner in which they are made and the philosophy that guides the idol making. The work of art is no different from that of Yoga. In the Hindu scheme of life, all actions are indeed a Yoga, or a Yajna when they are done with one pointed concentration and without the hankering of the results. Hence, for a sculptor, his making of idols for worship itself is a Yoga.

When a sculptor is commissioned to make an idol, he is supposed to prepare himself thoroughly through purification rituals, withdrawal from mundane routine, and meditate. The sculptor then contemplates on the Dyana mantra (meditation mantras giving iconographic descriptions of the deities) for an extensive period till the image of the deity becomes stable and clear in his mind. It is for this reason the Shilpa-Shastra(4) (treatise on sculpting) says that a sculptor must be well versed with Atharvaveda, treatises of sculpture, and the Vedic mantras by which the deities are invoked.

Shukracharya says: “Let the imager establish images in temples by meditation on the deities who are the objects of his devotion. For the successful achievement of this Yoga, the lineaments of the image are described in books to be dwelt upon in detail. In no other way, not even by direct and immediate vision of the actual object, is it possible to be so absorbed in contemplation, as thus in the making of images.(5)

Therefore, a sculptor should not make any idols by looking at other idols. For then, there will not be any spiritual element in the idol thus made. Instead, the sculptor must become so completely absorbed in the deity such that he must be pre-occupied with this even during mundane activities like eating food, going to sleep, etc. By such a practice, a sculptor is not only able to perceive clearly the image of the Devata in his mind, but he will also perceive the very presence of Devata all around him. Only an image carved out after such contemplation of God, can truly become worthy of worship. (6)

Thus, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy concludes: the imager is required, after emptying his heart of all extraneous interests, to visualize within himself an intelligible image, to identify himself with therewith, and holding this image as long as is necessary, then only to proceed to the work of embodiment in stone, metal, or pigment.”(7)

These clearly establish few points:

  1. An idol is first and foremost a symbol, a reflection of God who is formless.
  2. An idol is the body or an abode that a particular form of God occupies.
  3. An idol itself is prepared and concentrated, such that it becomes a proper body that can be occupied by the deity.

Therefore, instead of assuming Idol worship as stone worship, a correct understanding is that it is the worship of a Deity who has temporarily taken the idol as an abode or body. Now, just as human souls re-incarnate by changing bodies, similarly, the deities can be invoked in a new idol, once the old ones are degenerated, or broken, or are simply become unfit for worship.

This is clearly witnessed in the Puri festival of Nabakalebara, in which Lord Jagannatha is given a new body by installing new idols once every 19 years. Hence, no questions of Hindu Gods being harmed when an idol is broken, or Gods being insulted when some rationalist urinates on the idols arises. Such statements and actions only goes to depict not only the crass ignorance of such people, but also their perverted thinking.

Much of the misconception and criticism of Idol worship has been because of the perception of Idol worship in isolation and the subsequent branding of them as superstition. But, when idol worship is perceived from the standpoint of the framework of spirituality and worship, idol worship is just one among the various practices that can help a person to travel the path towards Moksha.

An analysis of certain criticisms that have been made against Idol worship will be taken up in the next part.

Footnotes:

  1. The Cultural Heritage of India, Volume 1, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture
  2. K. Ramachandra Rao, Devata Rupa Mala, Part 1, Kalpatharu Research Academy
  3. Exalting Elucidations of His Holiness Jagadguru Sri Abhinava Vidyatheertha Mahaswamigal, Sri Vidyatheertha Foundation
  4. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva
  5. Shukranitisara 4.4.70-71. Quoted by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, The Dance of Shiva
  6. K. Ramachandra Rao, Devata Rupa Mala, Part 1, Kalpatharu Research Academy
  7. Ananda Coomaraswamy, Art in Indian Life, The Cultural Heritage of India, Volume 7, Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture

More in the Series:

Part 2- Fallacies in Criticism of Idol Worship

Part 3: Hinduism and Cow

Part 4: Yajna, Madhuparka, and the use of beef

Part 5: Origins of beef consumption in India

Part 6: Beef Controversy: Beef parties and the celebration of violence

  • Rathish

    One thing that the author didn’t mention when referring to the reference passages from N Anandan’s work was, the word play used by him in stating that European and Arab societies ‘gave-up / dispensed’ idol worship. It is a well-known fact that the advent and spread of Christianity and Islam was very violent and people were forced to convert or were perished. And just because those religions do not believe in Idol-worship doesn’t mean idol-worship is incorrect. The author has very rightly put it that it should not be seen as simply a stone worship and the inner meaning needs to be brought out.

  • Krishna Kumar

    Nitin, I think you have used several wrong words to describe what in essence is a good argument. You should use Murti instead of the word Idol, ‘Devata’ instead of God. Also, Atman is not God. In fact, the word God as described in Bible is completely negated by the aspects of Atma that you yourself describe. Using wrong words to describe a concept defeats the very concept. It is high time we decolonized ourselves completely. Otherwise a good article.

  • Rathish

    One thing that the author didn’t mention when referring to the reference passages from N Anandan’s work was, the word play used by him in stating that European and Arab societies ‘gave-up / dispensed’ idol worship. It is a well-known fact that the advent and spread of Christianity and Islam was very violent and people were forced to convert or were perished. And just because those religions do not believe in Idol-worship doesn’t mean idol-worship is incorrect. The author has very rightly put it that it should not be seen as simply a stone worship and the inner meaning needs to be brought out.

  • Krishna Kumar

    Nitin, I think you have used several wrong words to describe what in essence is a good argument. You should use Murti instead of the word Idol, ‘Devata’ instead of God. Also, Atman is not God. In fact, the word God as described in Bible is completely negated by the aspects of Atma that you yourself describe. Using wrong words to describe a concept defeats the very concept. It is high time we decolonized ourselves completely. Otherwise a good article.