A Guru Shishya Conversation!
Though Hindu way of life doesn't support idol worship but with time it has been embraced by all and with reasons too. Primitive man makes a scrawl of a head on wall and calls it God. Civilized man shuts his eyes and imagines an image 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.
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.
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 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 God is in the idol. But the God is certainly everywhere and so, in due time, the devotee, by the Lord's Grace, realises that his assumption that the 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.
Thus you see, Hindu way of life, its way of thinking, is broad enough to admit within its fold even those ordinary mortals who are yet to mature spiritually, 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. 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 Ishvara. When we refer to Ishvara 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 dissolution 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 Ishvara inseparable from Ishvara 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.