Image and Idol Worship
Continued from Part I
The most common criticism from the critics of Hinduism are idol worship, caste system and promoting vegetarianism through safeguarding cattle (mainly cow).These critics are Westerners and many educated and forward looking Indians under the influence of the former culture but the most hostile and vehement opposition comes from the clergy and fanatics of the dominant Abrahamic religions who treat idol worship as sin and such worshippers as sinners. Perhaps this is the reason why for centuries in the past diehard fanatics and radicalised rulers and tribesmen mainly from the Middle East systematically invaded and destroyed Hindu and such other cultures massacring millions in the name of religion. The recent destruction of the gigantic statue of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan under the decree of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in 2001 is a case in point after the Taliban government declared the structure as idol.
It is a grossly mistaken belief of fanatics desecrating idols and places of worship that the practicing Hindus and other pagans would so stupid as to think or believe that the statues made out of stone, clay or wood themselves are Gods. Instead Hinduism recognises the idols as the material symbols of the human requirement for the concentration and devotion to their deities. A devotee very well knows that the idol is merely a representation of the Supreme Spiritual Power i.e. Brahman/Atman or God in common parlance. The fundamental principle of the Vedic Dharma (Hinduism) has been that the Brahman is omnipresent in all forms and names thereby allowing freedom to the devotees to create multiple symbols with multiple names to enable concentration and attachment to the Divine. The Hinduism doctrine also holds that as the devotee becomes spiritually more strong, he (or she) would need less of the material symbols for his devotion.
The clergy and many devout followers of Abrahamic religions often hold strong opinion and bitter criticism of the polytheistic nature of Hinduism but the concept of polytheism is not new or unique to Hinduism only. In fact, the ancient Romans, Egyptians, Greeks, Sumerians, Vikings, Goths and perhaps many others too were worshippers of many Gods and Goddesses. Hinduism is perhaps the only major religion which traces its origin in monotheism during the Vedic period but with its diversified nature, philosophy and doctrines, it assumed the characteristics of a polytheistic religion over a period of time. Actually, Hinduism is a ‘transcendental polytheism’ because it is all encompassing polytheism and monotheism into the true spiritual realization.
To sum it, the doctrine of Hinduism is not as simple as the modern Abrahamic religions. It philosophically encompasses gems of all cults and spiritual sects that originated in the Indian sub-continent since Vedic age and those do not explicitly oppose the Vedas. Consequently, almost all major beliefs from the Vedic Brahmanism to tribal & folklore animism are considered part of the Hinduism. Perhaps this is also the reason why some scholars consider Hinduism more as an all-pervading cultural way of life than religion and within it the only unifying factor remain for all Indian-born cults and sects that all of them identify self with Hinduism. In the following paragraphs, the author proposes to explore the origin, evolution, merits and demerits of idol worship under various headings.
Vintage - Idol Worship in Hinduism
It has been widely believed and acknowledged world over that the Hinduism is at least 4000 years old. In the remains of the oldest known Indus Valley Civilization, several statues and idol like artefacts and objects were recovered but they did not convincingly establish the origin and practice of idol worship during that period. Hence the exact beginning of the idol worship is difficult to predict or arrive at but it is generally believed that the practice started somewhere around 500 BC. However, since the first century CE, the idol worship and multiple Gods have definitely been part of the mainstream ‘Hindu’ culture and the same was very popularly practiced during the Gupta dynasty at its zenith from around 320 to 550 CE in most of the Indian subcontinent.
Idols Are Not Just Clay, Stone or Metal
For any non-Hindu or a non-believer Hindu, it would be grossly erroneous idea to presume that the idols in the common Hindu household and temples are mere statues of stone, wood or metals. Be it in a temple or in a household, essentially the devotees follow the practice of energizing idols in a ritual traditionally known as ‘Prana Pratistha’. The scientific concept and procedure behind this ritual and further handling is elaborated at length in the Hindu scripture Agama Shashtra and the idol and the structure housing it (temple) are believed to be thus energized to vibrate in a sacred way impacting everything surrounding them. The practice of energizing idols through the Prana Prathishta literally means reinforcement of the life energy into the idol, which is akin to the consecration in the Christian belief.
Many atheist, non-believers and followers of other religions may doubt if it is indeed possible to energise an object with the life energy. The most obvious and straight argument could be that in the matter of faith everyone should have liberty and non-interference of others, and none should question Hindu beliefs in the same manner as Hindus do not interfere with the religious beliefs of the other religions. However, in this context it would be relevant to cite the findings of the research of Dr William Tiller of the Department of Materials Science & Engineering, Stanford University in the field he referred to as ‘Psychoenergetics’ which relates to the effects of human intention on the properties of materials and physical realm. He also authored the book ‘Science and Human Transformation’, which deals with the concepts such as subtle energies beyond the four fundamental forces, that, he believes, act in concert with human consciousness. He had chosen highly trained Tibettan monks for his experiments and from his research he concluded that it is indeed possible to make significant change in the properties of any material substance with the conscious and clear intention to do so.
The Agama Shastra referred to in the preceding paragraphs inter alia provides for the dimensions and rules for the temple, idol creation, philosophical doctrines and meditative practices. The scripture consists of four parts viz. Kriya Pada, Charya Pada, Yoga Pada and Jnana Pada. While the Kriya Pada propounds the rules of construction, sculpting, carving and consecration of idols; the Jnana Pada essentially elucidates the philosophy and spirituality of temple worship; and the Charya Pada lays down the rules and procedure of worship and observance of religious rites, rituals, festivals and prayaschittas (atonement). Hindu temples and religious places of worship cannot be arbitrarily built on some personal conception or belief, instead laid down rules are to be followed for everything including the minutest details, from the materials from which the temple is to be constructed to the very positioning of the holy statue or figurine. Agama Shastra is like a scientific blue print for the temple construction including the sanctum sanctorum and energising idols.
Do Idols Symbolize Gods?
In my earlier essay on the subject, I referred to Hinduism as perhaps the only major religion in the world that traces its origin in monotheism during the Vedic period but apropos to its diversified nature, philosophy and doctrines, it assumed the characteristics of the polytheistic religion over a period of time. I also referred to in the same write-up that as the oldest civilization and religion, the Hinduism is also metaphysically the most debated and complex religion that has origin in monotheistic belief yet spanned through pantheism, monism, polytheism and atheism during the vast expanse of time because it professed tolerance and allowed debate, reasoning and dissent.
To find the answer, one needs to understand the true nature of the Hindu philosophy and traditions. For illustration, two of the six Astika Schools of Hindu philosophy i.e. Samkhya and Advaita are essentially and primarily atheistic in nature. The Samkhya relates the existence of the Supreme Divine to be a play between Purush and Prakriti synonymous to ‘Masculine’ and ‘Feminine’ energies. On the other hand, the Advaita essentially professes non-dualism (monism) which means the Soul is not different from Brahman (Supreme Soul). The followers of this philosophy seek moksha through vidya or gyan (knowledge) while still conscious about own true identity as Atman, and the identity of Brahman. So in these cases, what is God then? The Lord Krishna described the concept of God in Bhagwad Gita’s 9th and 10th chapters in the following manner. Mesmerized to have seen the vast expanse of universe within Him, Arjuna specifically asked about His true nature. Having already referred to vast expanse of discreet things in the universe, Krishna then pointed out - “I am All”. In spiritual terms, He was describing Himself as the “Infinite curve” with several discrete points, such that every discrete point described the curve completely. In a plain and simple term, there is one Universal Consciousness with no distinction of space and time, no matter what you look at, it describes the Divine completely.
This doctrine of the Hinduism has been proven to be in alignment to the distinction between quantum world and the physical world at the minute level. So as per Hindu philosophy, it doesn’t matter whether it is a tree, a rock or carved stone, a piece of metal or an animal cow – everything is just a manifestation of the same ‘Universal Consciousness’ - the Supreme Divine. Coming back to the very mundane question whether an idol indeed symbolises God, the answer both scientifically and spiritually is ‘Yes’ for an energised or consecrated idol. The accomplished and knowledgeable Hindus understand this finesse and the common Hindu does it innocently with sheer devotion and reverence yet it is a complete system of faith conducive to their social and spiritual growth and well-being.
Because Hinduism does not bind its followers by force and allows freedom of opinion and debate, many Hindus remain atheist and don’t believe in one or many Gods; but the truth-seekers for sure know the reality i.e. Brahman as the ultimate Truth, and many Gods are as real as their persona are real i.e. as temporary aspects of the same eternal Brahman. This intellectual freedom may well be the reason why all over the world the Indians are acknowledged for their wisdom and intelligence despite the unfair hurdles of the foreign language and hateful religious fanaticism.
Reasons and Justification for Idol Worship
The foregoing account should be sufficed for those who distrust the practice of worship in image form. Eventually, everyone worships God in image form only and this is true even in respect of those who think they are worshiping the formless God. It is so because the human mind instinctively tends to objectify everything even the idea of formlessness. This is the reason why people of different faiths declare certain places, structures and symbols as sacred and sanctified for offering their prayers to God lest there should be no need to travel thousands of miles for the religious offerings. In essence, there should be no room for any dispute or objection on the means or methodology adopted by different faiths for achieving the same ultimate goal.
An energised idol or image becomes a living manifestation of God and devotion has power to pour life in any idol or image when it is reverentially worshipped. To illustrate the above point, I would like to refer to the concept of Sadhak, Sadhya, Sadhna and Sadhan in Hinduism. Here the Sadhak stands for the devotee, Sadhya for the ultimate Divine, Sadhna relates to devotion and Sadhan is the enabling medium of devotion. To understand this in a plain and simple term, one needs to appreciate that it is difficult for the ordinary subject (devotee) to understand the complex nature of the universal consciousness. Therefore, while for an accomplished and higher level devotee it is not difficult to concentrate on the formless God, it becomes so much easier for the ordinary devotee (Sadhak) to offer his prayer (Sadhna) if an energised idol or image (Sadhan) is conceptualised as the God (Sadhya). Thus in essence, it is a simplified means of achieving the same goal.
According to Hindu philosophy, the whole creation of universe is a form of Brahman (God) and each form and variety in it actually reflects His omnipresent manifestation. When certain people or sect or faith choose to discreetly define God with an element of bias, they are actually limiting Him and limiting the methods of His worship. In essence, a Hindu faithful accepts idol worship as a simple way of expressing his (or her) faith, love and devotion to God with a childlike innocence and purity with total submission. Such a submission is possible only when a person has strong faith without any reservations.
For centuries, Turk and Arab invaders and subsequently by many Muslim rulers, the temple were vandalised and plundered, the idols were desecrated and destroyed and the priests were mercilessly killed. The Indian history is a cruel legacy of numerous such instances particularly during the medieval period but all this could not stop preservation and resurgence of Hinduism in space and time. The constant violence against Hindus and desecration of deities could not shake the pillars of Hinduism which rather witnessed the rise of the Bhakti Movement during the medieval period with renewed vigour and devotion to the idol worship. The period gave birth to numerous saints and religious poets who helped their people with their teachings and literature to more intimately connect to deities through devotional songs, ritual worship and worship of Gods at homes and temples. The largest and most revered Hindu epic Ramayana was written by Tulsidas during this period only. Every devotee Hindu is aware that an idol or an image of a deity is an object or medium that enables him to concentrate and meditate, worship and connect with the God.
Some Unique Features of Idol Worship
Whatever antagonists say but the idol worship is indeed a superior and scientific form of divine worship wherein a devotee is able to express his (or her) love, reverence and faith to God(s) in a simple and submissive manner. A few unique features of idol or image worship are enumerated below:
It is the easiest way of expressing faith and devotion to God by his subjects. The concept of universal consciousness or Brahman or formless God requires superior awareness and knowledge of scriptures which only few can imbibe and afford. The ordinary people find it easier to follow the simple route of Sadhak, Sadhya, Sadhan and Sadhna that the idol worship comfortably and conveniently provide.
Idols provide an ideal medium for concentration and meditation by the devotees. For the common folks, it is so difficult to conjure about the formless God while concentrating through an object of attachment makes it so easy to control and stabilize feelings for the deity. Ultimately, it is the intention and spirit of the devotee that really matters in devotion. Even scientifically it has been proved that through concentration and meditation the mind can be effective controlled and employed to heal the physical self or even modify the thoughts and attitude. The ancient rishis had tapped this energy of mind and hence encouraged ordinary people to concentrate and meditate through visual objects like idols and images.
This method of worship is a powerful and effective means of inculcating purity and obeisance in the mind of people because the devotees are able to combine the power of prayer with the power of concentration and meditation which in the long run enable the person to be morally and spiritually strong too. This is the underlying reason why many people experience blissful peace and energised spirit after performing worship at the home or temple.
The idol worship offers devotees to achieve consistency and equanimity of the body and mind. Philosophically like our physical body, an idol or image is also impermanent and destructible. The case in point could be ‘Durga Puja’ and ‘Ganesh Chaturthi’ festivals of Hindus in various parts of the country. On these occasions, devotees worship the energised idol of the deity to celebrate the occasion and following the Puja celebration, the idols are immersed in water or discarded at a designated place. Such rituals remind impermanence of body and physical surroundings, hence the need to strive for liberation of soul achieving Moksha. These rituals also remind that the Hindus are aware of the idols being only a means or medium to connect with the Supreme Divine (God).
As per Hinduism, the God is omnipresent and by that logic every object in the universe, living or non-living, is filled with His energy and presence. The same logic applies on an idol or image, hence worshipping it with the same love and reverence and using it as a medium to connect with God is fully justifiable. To further illustrate this point, we can take example of one of our own families’ elder or some great national hero or saint. If someone incites us to mutilate or desecrate their image, do we do that? The obvious answer is “No, we don’t” because we love and respect the person so we will not insult his shadow image too. Here we are relating the image to the persona of the revered man in our conscience and thoughts; the same logic stands good in relation to an idol and the God.
Idol worship is not a blind repetitive practice but a purifying and transformative process. An overwhelming majority of those who criticize idol worship are not aware that before an idol is designated for the reverential worship, the event is invariably preceded with the ‘Prana Pratistha’ i.e. the ritual of installation and breathing life (Prana) into it as referred to in the earlier paragraphs. The underlying idea behind this ritual is that the devotees are worshipping the living form of the deity.
Idol worship is a plain and simple mode of declaration of faith in the universal presence of God. The Brahman or Supreme Divine (God) is infinite, absolute, transcendental and unseen. Whether one prays to the formless God as many people from other faiths do or offers prayer through idol worship as majority Hindus do, both means have similar constraints of understanding the true nature of God and its creation. Ordinary people with their limited knowledge and awareness cannot understand the universal truth and boundaries of the existence of Brahman or God. In such a scenario, the idol worship provides the simplest mode of expression of faith, love and devotion to the largely unknown and incomprehensible yet true realm of God.
In Hinduism, the idol worship has the sanction of scriptures, epics and puranas which have numerous illustrations and references where, not only humans, even Gods and Demons have been quoted following this practice to please and seek attention of the superior Gods. For instance, in Ramayana Lord Rama as well as Asura Ravana worshipped Shiva of the famous ‘Trinity’. This is also in conformity of the basic tenets of Hinduism which allows freedom to devotees to worship Brahman (God) in any form of their choice. Even Lord Krishna at one place in Bhagavad Gita said that in whatever manner devotees approach Him, He will reciprocate accordingly.
Epitome of Belief and Acceptance
As already said the idol worship has a long history in Hinduism supported with many scriptures, epics and puranas, many of which validated it as the most convenient method of divine worship. Besides, it also suits from the point of view that the majority of followers have no or little knowledge of scriptures yet they can worship without the intervention of priests following this method, communicate with God(s) and seek their blessings.
The above submission may be best elaborated by citing one such much talked about event from the life of Swami Vivekananda. As the story goes, he once visited the State of Alwar in Rajasthan. Mangal Singh Bahadur, the king of Alwar was westernised in his outlooks with no respect for Indian and especially Hindu culture and traditions and felt proud making mockery of the Hinduism. Being an atheist, he made a mockery of the idol worship and told Swami that he had no faith in idol worship which were just a piece of clay, stone or metal…on which people were wasting their time under illusion.
On this, Swami quietly asked the dewan in the king’s court to take down the portrait of the deceased father of the king that was hanging on the wall. Though utterly confused, the dewan complied seeking King’s nod. Now Swami asked him to spit on the picture that shocked everybody including the king and dewan who simply helplessly looked at the Swami and king. Swami simply persisted with his demand repeatedly asking the dewan time and again to comply his instructions. The king was getting increasingly impatient and angry while the dewan finally broke down and cried that how he could spit on the picture of the respected father of his beloved and reverend king!
Now the Swami explained that the father of the king was a physical entity while the picture was merely a piece of paper that could neither speak, hear, think or move, yet the dewan could not spit on it because he perceived a shadow of the king’s father in it. Hence spitting on the picture was akin to the spitting on the father of the king itself. Similarly when a Hindu worshipper worships an idol, the idol reminds him about his beloved deity and he feels the presence of the deity in the idol. It is all about the feelings and realization. The king looked at Swami and bowed down as he had clearly understood what the latter was referring to. So the essence of the story is that in Hinduism, the idol worship is like the worshipping of God who is omnipotent and omnipresent.
The idols remind people to treat the whole creation with respect and acknowledge the presence of God everywhere, in both living and non-living objects. Hence, Hindus not only worship idols in home and temples, but also have humility to respect natural objects and phenomena like the rivers, mountains, oceans, trees, the sky, the earth, the stars, the sun and the moon and other planetary bodies and constellation.
When other major religions proclaim that God is kind and compassionate to the believers who follow His instructions sent down through the special messengers but unkind and unmerciful to non-believers who are sent to the eternal hellfire, Hindu scriptures talk about peace, prosperity, love and respect for all without any strings attached. As per Bhagavad Gita, the good or bad deeds and commensurate reward or punishment is determined by Karma and not by birth or belief.
The basic tenet of Hinduism could be perceived from the following mantra from Upanishads:
"Om Sarve Bhavantu Sukhinah
Sarve Santu Nir-Aamayaah |
Sarve Bhadraanni Pashyantu
Maa Kashcid-Duhkha-Bhaag-Bhavet |
Om Shaantih Shaantih Shaantih ||
[Om! May all become happy, may all be free from illness. May all see what is auspicious, may no one suffer. Om! Peace, Peace, Peace.]
(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad verse 1.4.14)
Continued to Part III