Misconceptions on Hinduism: Idol Worship

Many people scoff or are amused at the idea of idol-worship. Really, it’s not difficult to put yourself in their shoes and understand why they may react so sceptically to this thousand year old Hindu practice. Having grown in a multiracial country which hosts individuals of various faiths, I have met my fair share of sceptics or just simply curious individuals. Many a time, questions such as ‘Why do you worship idols made by human hands?’ or ‘Why do you pray to stone pieces?’ have been posed to me. Unfortunately for me, majority of these incidents occurred during my young schooling years. Back then, I didn’t have answers to supply and could either react by being ashamed or offended and storm off. Neither of which would benefit anyone.

I wish that I can proudly tell you today that I had reacted by going home with veins pounding full of determination to find an answer to the questions ringing in my ears, that I bombarded my parents with questions or that I played detective and did some sleuthing around, in other words conveniently googling the answer. I did no such thing and I’m not proud of how I dealt with the issue.

It was only years later that the answer came to me one Sunday morning. It was during one of the Geeta children classes I attended at the Ashram. I remember distinctly that we were reciting chapter 12 and how I attempted to multitask by reciting in Sanskrit and at the same time by reading the English translation inserted below. At one of the verses I remember stopping abruptly and inhaling a sharp gasp of air. It was somewhat an epiphany. Before me in one of the verses was an answer to the questions I had once avoided. Despite having recited the chapter innumerable times, I had never noticed that message before. I had a feeling similar to the one you have when you discover forgotten money in articles of clothing you haven’t worn in ages. It was a wonderful feeling and I’m overjoyed to inform you that even today the Bhagavad Geeta surprises me constantly with answers, sound advice or solutions when I least expect them. The verse that answered the questions I had about idol or deity worship was verse 5 from chapter 12 of the Bhagavad Geeta.

kleśo ‘dhikataras teshām
avyaktāhi gatir duhkham
dehavadbhir avāpyate

Severe is the path of those whose minds are set on the Unmanifest, for the goal of the Unmanifest is painful to reach by the embodied beings.

– Bhagavad Geeta Chap 12, Vs 5

In this verse, Bhagwan says that it is very difficult for an embodied being like you and me to worship him in his unmanifest form. The realized person, the sthitaprajna sees Divinity or God in every being, human or animal, the animate or the inanimate. But for ordinary people like you and me, it is easier to focus our thoughts and devotion on something visible, be it a stone, wood or clay. The shape and size of the statue does not matter. Even a picture if you look at it day after day with love and devotion, you will build an unseen bond with the object of your devotion and that regular Abhyasa (practice) will finally make you aware of The Divinity within you.With help from the verse above and other verses from the Bhagavad Geeta, I have been able to destroy the doubts I once harboured as well as fully understood the reason and meaning behind idol worship.  Today, I have decided to illuminate those who have yet to discover the answers to the many questions regarding idol worship. Hopefully by the end of this article I would have dispelled any ignorance and replace your doubts with answers.

Below are a few insights explaining idol worship:

  1. Easiest way to install faith and devotion
    To intellectuals who are well informed in spiritual knowledge, the abstract concept of God may be engaging, but to an ordinary individual the idea is complex and difficult to comprehend. On the other hand, an ordinary individual like you and me will find a concrete image or idea of God that we can easily grasp far more appealing. For example the image of Ganesha or the idea of Krishna we hear from many stories. An idol will represent God and his many qualities thus making it easier for us to believe in His existence and to devote ourselves to Him rather than attempting to worship the unmanifest or the formless.
  2. A way of acknowledging the omnipresence of God
    From a sub-atomic particle to the great stars, God is manifested in all His creations.
    We believe that God is ‘Omnipresent’. If God is everywhere, then surely He is in that idol. In idol worship, a devotee gives as much love and respect to his/her idol believing that God resides in it.
  3. Idol worship helps devotees to become deeply religious
    Once an idol is installed in the house or in a puja mandir (place of worship in a house), the very house becomes a place of God’s residence, a very sacred place, a temple by itself. The idol reminds household members of the divine presence and of their religious duties and responsibilities. It inspires devout men to keep their houses pure and not to indulge in sacrilegious acts.
  4. Aid to concentration
    More than any abstract concept, an image or a symbol is the best aid to concentrate and control one’s mind and attention. By focusing the mind on an image, the mind can be tamed and stabilized. Today science has been able to proof that images subdued in the subconscious plays a significant role in shaping one’s life and destiny. The ancient Hindus were aware of the potentiality of the mind and therefore did not object to the worship of idols. They knew it was the best way to lead the fickle human mind towards God.
  5. An effective prayer : Communicating with God.
    Idol worship helps us to focus the energies from our prayer into a strong current flowing in one particular direction. Besides, the supposed physical proximity to God intensifies the emotional fervour and charges the prayer with love and devotion.

There are many reasons why a devout Hindu worships idols. To simply explain it, idol worship is the best method of communication with God for many Hindus.

Religion is a matter of faith. There is no one right way to attain God. The paths to God are many and many are the ways one can reach Him.

Hari Om.

This truly insightful article has been written by Nayantara Soni, 19 years