The path of devotion or bhakti is a path common to all religions. In fact, by tradition and usage, religion and devotion are so intertwined in their connotation that the words ‘religious devotion’ and ‘religious zeal’ stand for superlative states of devotion and zeal. Bhakti is intense devotion. This is the stage where a man realizes that morality is not all there is to life. Beyond the moral pinnacles of perfection one looks for something which touches one on the emotional and mental plane. Morality and ethics are only the first steps. Just as a gateway to a temple is not the temple, morality is only a gateway to religious life. Man’s mental anguish very often leads him to seek someone in whose embrace he can get solace and relief. His first resort is to nature and its powerful forces, but on a scientific and rational analysis he discovers that nature follows certain permanent discernible patterns called the laws of nature. Very soon he finds that, however deep one penetrates into these laws, there is always something beyond, something deeper. Long before such a deep penetration into the heart of nature, however, man postulated the existence of a Cosmic Power which is the motive force behind every expression of nature. This Cosmic Power was called God. The entire Veda literature of Hinduism declares with one voice that this is not a postulation but the absolute Truth.
QUESTION: So is God nothing but Nature with a capital ‘N’?
Let us not jump to conclusions. The concept of God in Hinduism is too complex to admit such a naïve explanation. Every physical expression amenable to sense perception is nothing but an expression of the divine. In other words, everything that you see, hear, touch, smell or taste is divine – that is, comes from God. Since everything is God, you cannot ascribe an individual name or form to it. The moment you delineate God by one name or form you have circumscribed Him or limited Him by the shallowness of worldly expressions and imagery. In fact anything that has name and form is a creation of our mind. Try to think of something which has neither name nor form. You will not succeed. Even supposedly abstract concepts like colour are no longer abstract in our scientific understanding of the world; and they have name and form. Even qualities like honesty and fairness can be recognised and talked about only through their names. Nothing that exists is without name or form. But all that exists has a common factor that subsists as a sub-stratum in all. Just as all gold ornaments, though different in name and form have gold as their commonality of content, just as all clay toys, though distinguishable by their name and form, are not distinguishable as clay, just as the movie screen is the base for all the drama that is superimposed on it while the screen itself is unsullied by the turmoil that ‘takes place’ on it – so also the substratum of Divine Existence called Brahman permeates everything in the world, and that being the common content of all that has name and form has no name or form for itself. The Upanishads speak of it as ‘that’ or ‘it’ in the neuter gender. This is the God, or, more precisely, the Godhead of Hinduism. It is the source of all energy, and of all power, not only in Nature but in all beings, including humans.
QUESTION: But if this is the Ultimate Godhead of Hinduism why are there practices in Hinduism like idol worship, for example, which totally contradict the concept that God is nameless and formless?
Exactly. Godhead is nameless and formless. But just as we gave a name ‘Brahman’ to it in order to talk about it we could as well have given it any other name. Here we come to the uniqueness of Hinduism. No name or form will describe Him fully. Therefore, say the Vedas, all names and forms are His. An idol or a picture is only symbolic of this statement, that all names and forms are His. Hinduism carries this rationale to its logical conclusion and hence it is that we find a plethora of gods and goddesses in the framework of Hinduism. If you mistake them to be distinct divinities, each powerful in its own realm and warring with others for supremacy, as an unwary reader of the Puranas may be led to think, then you have missed the central teaching of Hinduism – ekam sad viprA bahudhA vadanti: meaning, There is only one Truth; the wise speak of it in several ways. Since Godhead transcends all human description the concept becomes so sophisticated and complex that the ordinary mortal needs something concrete to cling to. This is where a human form or an idol enters the picture.
An idol serves the same purpose for a religious devotee as a flag does for the army. Hinduism clearly lays down that mental worship is superior to the worship of images. In fact, however, it must be admitted that all worship is idol worship. Primitive man makes a scrawl of a head on wall and calls it God. Civilized man shuts his eyes and imagines an anthropo-morphic image with arms and legs and calls it God. Both are idols. The difference is not one of kind but only of degree. Hinduism has the courage to say so. It also has the humanity to admit within its fold even those who cannot rise above grossly concrete representations of God. A common illiterate labourer and an intellectual scholar require different concepts of God to satisfy them. So Hinduism declares that each can worship God in whatever form that suits his competence and stage of spiritual evolution.
The example, however, of the army flag that was given above is only an incomplete example. The idol for a religious devotee is more than a flag. The incompleteness arises as follows. Since the common mind of man cannot comprehend the abstractness and transcendence of the nameless and formless version of God, different idols and images enter the picture. Though these myriad images and idols may appear to be only symbols each of them points to the Supreme Power inherent in everybody and it is that One God who is worshipped in the form of idols and images. We are worshipping God in the idol and not the idol as God. This fundamental point in the practice of idol worship is the most important lesson to be learnt about Hinduism. So long as you think it is an idol you have not got it. People who do not believe in God propose excuses to find fault with the worship of God through idols and appear to be 'more loyal' than the religious, by putting forth the argument that God is formless and so should not be worshipped through idols. God can take any form and so the form of the idol is good enough for us to worship God.
A naïve example which goes back to Swami Vivekananda carries home this concept in a dramatic fashion. Suppose you decide to worship 'Electricity'! How will you do it? How will you represent 'Electricity'? It has no form. But then how do you bring it to view? Does it not make sense to re-present 'the God of Electricity' in the form of a glowing bulb? Here the bulb or the glow of it is all Matter. But what makes the bulb glow is the Electricity behind it. And that is exactly what we do in Idol Worship!
Here a subtle point has to be noted. The above analogy, though on the face of it rather naïve, is full of significance. Carrying the analogy further, suppose one is worshipping 'Electricity' through the form of a bulb, which cannot glow because it has fused. Would he not be laughed at? In order to make sense that 'Electricity' is behind what we are worshipping, one would look for a glowing bulb rather than a dead bulb. This is exactly the reason why we invoke the Almighty through mantras in the so-called idol worship.
QUESTION: Is the idol or icon of a deity itself the deity?
The deity is not just an idol or icon; it is that which has been invoked by mantras in the image. An idol, by constant worship through Mantras culled from the scriptures, becomes actually the very deity which has been invoked into the physical frame, by Mantra-chanting.
QUESTION: A flag is just a symbol for the nation; it is not the Nation. Does it not mean then that an idol of a deity is also only a representation and not the 'real thing'? But the Hindu tradition of giving absolute sanctity to temples and icons seems to point to the view that the icons themselves are the deities.
The answer to this question has to be carefully absorbed. In Hinduism the same question may have different answers to different levels of questioners. From the point of view that there is only one absolute Truth and everything else is only a manifestation of that Truth, an icon is only a representation and not the 'real thing'. But from the point of view of a devotee who needs to worship Divinity in name and form, the images and icons which have been sanctified by the various mantras and rituals are themselves the deities that have as much power as the Absolute. So a Balaji in Tirupati, a Nataraja in Chidambaram, a Meenakshi in Madurai, a Visvesvara-linga in Kasi, a Jagannath in Puri, a Guruvayoorappan in Guruvayyor, a Krishna in Udupi, a Varadaraja in Kanchi and a Venkatesvara in Pittsburg and hosts of such sanctified 'images and idols' should not be cast into the role of just a 'representation' of the Absolute as a flag for the army. It is with this orientation that every devotee approaches a temple and worships the deity in the temple. In the beginning his attitude is to assume that the Lord God is in the idol. But the Lord is certainly everywhere and so, in due time, the devotee, by the Lord's Grace, realises that his assumption that the Lord God is in the idol, is actually a truism. Thus what starts as an attitude or assumption, even though one may not have a belief, results in the realisation of the truth and this is far more than just belief or faith. This is the esoteric significance of idol worship. The millions of devotees who have benefited by such worship over the centuries both in their personal homes and in public temples constitute the unique testimony for the validity of this significance. The flag example is only an incomplete example.
Any worship for that matter introduces a duality between the worshipper and the worshipped and so is a comedown from the unique mental cognition of the Divinity inherent in oneself. Hinduism is therefore human enough to admit within its fold even those ordinary mortals who cannot mature, in their understanding, above the grossly concrete representations of God. In fact the religion goes even one step further. It says, in essence, each individual can worship God in whatever form that suits his competence, taste, and stage of spiritual evolution. This principle is indeed a concession to the weakness of Man. If the grossest manifestation is the only thing that suits one's taste, mood, psychological make-up or intellect, one is free to worship God in that form. Even the same person may worship an idol at one time and at another time may meditate and attempt to merge in the transcendental Reality which is the basic chip that we are all made of, if we care to look within ourselves. One may choose one's favourite deity (ishTa-devatA) and worship that as if it were the Ultimate. To be free to find expression to one's search for a personal God and seek His Grace for the purification of one's mind is a prerogative which every Hindu enjoys. This, in passing, is the reason why the definition of a Hindu cannot be pigeon-holed into any grid that the western mind is familiar with. It is an extension of this thought that makes Hinduism a very tolerant religion. It is this train of thought in the Hindu mind that makes it accept different Puranas extolling different deities. The Shiva Purana may say that Shiva is the greatest God, every other God is subordinate to it. The Vishnu Purana may say the same thing of Vishnu. There is no contradiction meant, implied or slurred over. Such is the eclecticism of the religion. Here we certainly invite the criticism that Hinduism is too tolerant. But, is there something like too rich a man or too beautiful a woman?
The One Being whom the sages call by many names is referred to in the neuter gender, signifying divine existence and not a divine individual. Hinduism is neither Monotheism, which contemplates the Divine in heaven nor is it polytheism which contemplates the Divine in the universe. Max Muller coined the word henotheism for indicating this tendency of the vedic seers to magnify the importance of the particular deity they are praising in a hymn at the expense of the other gods. This is a remarkable feature of Hinduism. When they say that all Gods are nothing but names and forms of the same Ultimate Transcendental Reality, they mean it. If we understand it the wrong way, we are the one to blame, not Hinduism. This is why all good explanations and presentations have to begin from the philosophical end. Naïve explanations of Hinduism without touching the basic philosophy inherent in everything in Hinduism not only do not give the truth but they run the risk of misrepresenting the religion. The strength of Hinduism, writes Monier-Williams,
lies in its infinite adaptability to the infinite diversity of human character and human tendencies. It has its highly spiritual and abstract side suited to the philosopher, its practical and concrete side congenial to the man of the world, its aesthetic and ceremonial side attuned to the man of the poetic feeling and imagination and its quiescent contemplative aspect that has its appeal for the man of peace and the lover of seclusion.
The Absolute Brahman, in relation to the material universe, is called ISvara. When we refer to ISvara in His creative aspect, we call Him BrahmA; when we refer to His aspect of sustainer and protector, we call Him Vishnu; and when we think of Him in His destructive and dissolutive aspect, we refer to Him as Shiva. In each case the power or energy of the aspect is referred to as the corresponding Goddess. Just as sunlight is inseparable from the sun, so also is the power (shakti) of ISvara inseparable from ISvara and India naturally worships this power as Shakti, the Mother of the Universe.
QUESTION: But the practice of deity worship through idols and images seems to throw to the winds the majestic concept of Impersonality so emphatically asserted in the Upanishads. How can this be explained?
It must be admitted that all worship is image worship. Primitive man made a scrawl of a head on a rock and called it God. Civilized man shuts his eyes and imagines an anthropomorphic image with arms and legs and calls it God. Both are images. The difference is not one of kind but of degree. Hinduism has the courage to say so and also has the humanity to admit within its fold even those who cannot rise above grossly concrete representations of God. An illiterate commoner and an intellectual scholar require different concepts of God or Divinity to satisfy them. So Hinduism declares that each can worship Divinity in whatever form that suits the competence and stage of spiritual evolution of the worshipper.Bhakti_Tradition_page2