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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. These myriad symbols, images and idols are only symbols, images and idols. They are not substitutes for God. Each of these 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 about idol worship is the most important lesson that one should learn 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 nave 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 I want to add a subtle point. The above analogy, though on the face of it rather nave, 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. It is not just an idol; it is the deity that has been invoked in the idol.

Since the permanent residence of God is in one's heart, every time a Hindu starts a ritual worship at home he invokes the God of his heart in that idol or the picture which suits the occasion and worships it in all the external forms he likes. This method of worship is recommended to give devotion a concrete focus. It is the Infinite Absolute Brahman, the all-knowing all-permanent Soul of our Souls that is invoked into the form of the idol that is before us. 'Him the Sun cannot light, nor the moon, nor the stars, nor lightning, nor what we call fire, through Him all of them shine, and through His expression, everything is expressed' - says the Upanishad.

Is the idol of a deity a deity?

Idol worship can probably be understood by the incomplete example of a flag of an army. An idol for a devotee is what a flag is for the army. But the idol is more than a flag. This is where the incompleteness of the example arises. An idol, by constant worship through Mantras culled from the scriptures, is actually the very deity which has been invoked into the physical frame of the idol, by Mantra-chanting. In Hinduism, the same question will 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 idol 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 idols which have been sanctified by the various Mantras and rituals are themselves the deities which have as much power as the Absolute. Thus the idol of a deity is the deity itself. So

a Balaji in Tirupati,

a Nataraja in Chidambaram,

a Meenakshi in Madurai,

a reclining Ranganatha in Srirangam,

a Visvesvara-linga in Kasi,

a Jagannath in Puri,

a Guruvayurappan in Guruvayoor,

a Krishna in Udipi,

a Varadaraja in Kanchi, and

a Venkateswara in Pittsburg

and hosts of such santified '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.

One more observation before we leave the topic of idol worship. 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 rise, 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 in fact a recognition of 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, in Sanskrit) 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 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 live with different Puranas extolling different deities. The Siva Purana may say that Siva 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 it is 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. Nave explanations of Hinduism without touching the basic philosophy inherent in everything in Hinduism not only do not give the truth but they misrepresent 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.

Hindu tradition has mainly six types of Ishta-Devata (=favourite deity) worship. These can be listed as the worship of

Aditya, the Sun-God;

Ambika, the Mother-Goddess, in her three forms of Durga, Lakshmi or Saraswati;

Vishnu, belonging to the classic Trinity;

Ganesa, the elephant-faced God, considered as the primal God of all worship;

Mahesvara or Siva, the third God of the Trinity; and

Subrahmanya, the six-faced God known also as Kumaran or Murugan in Tamil.

These six are the original subtle manifestations of the Absolute Transcendental Reality. The Avatars (=Divine Descents) of Vishnu, like Rama and Krishna are more concrete manifestations of the same Absolute Reality. So they are identified with Vishnu in the above list. Every other variation of the favourite deity worship may be considered as belonging to one or a combination of these six traditions. In addition, the choice of the favourite deity, instead of being an academic exercise, became a choice of one among the thousands of temples all over the country and the deity chosen may very well be the particular deity enshrined in that particular temple, with a specific name and form, though belonging to one of the six streams of divinities listed above. Thus arose the concept of each family, having a kula-devata (=family deity) and this is sacredly revered as a legacy from generation to generation among the male descendents of the same family. It is this variety that gives richness to Hinduism and it is this possibility of 'to each according to his need and capacity' that brings together under the one banner of Hinduism people with varying practices, attitudes and states of evolution. Accordingly carving of images of gods both for worship at home and in the temples became one of the most highly developed art and profession in India. The religious life of India has thus been nourished through the ages on a visual panorama, unmatched, perhaps, in the history of any civilization.

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Copyright. V. Krishnamurthy October 7, 2000

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