My urge to write on this topic arose from a small story going around in social media nowadays. The story goes like this…
“…father and his little daughter go to a temple, the little kid looks at the stone lions in the temple facade and gets scared. Father says they are just stones, so don’t get scared. Smart daughter replies, if the stone lion cannot do anything how can the stone gods do any good to us if we pray to them?”
An incredibly simple yet powerful rationale…on the face of it. But before we go gaga about how foolish the ‘conservative’ father’s beliefs are (and by extension the Hindu religion’s idol worshiping is) and how smart present day ‘simple’ children are…it is worth looking at our own understanding of the Sanatan Hindu religion and how we convey its precepts and belief systems to our kids.
There are two things that we need to be aware of:
One, in the Hindu belief system, which is perhaps the most democratic of all religions, monotheism and polytheism (in fact all kinds of isms) exist and are respected in equal measure as means to God or Self realization…thus respecting the natural differences that exist in each and every human being, in terms of ability, nature and inclinations. Idol worship is our sages’ method to give the constantly fluctuating human mind a solid object to concentrate on and march ahead towards ‘Realization’ which ends up in the awareness that the whole universe, including us are but one and the same…the same goal both idol worshipers and non-idol worshipers eventually reach.
Second… simultaneously there is the very real issue of people getting fixated with the rituals alone and not really understanding the deeper concept of God as a “Saakaar” object/form.
We should be careful, when we start ridiculing this belief system and our very own religion, as to what exactly are we making fun of. Let us not use the latter (people’s ignorance & misrepresentation of a practice) to criticize the former (idol worship as a concept).
I’m reminded of a small incident of many years ago. We were doing some extensions to our house in Bhubaneswar and were planning on constructing a room exclusively for Puja, with a “Singhasana/Alter” at one end and space for us to sit and meditate and pray, at the other end, something common in many Hindu homes. All of us, especially my mother, were very excited and intensely thinking about the room and the Singhasana and how it will look etc., associating in our minds the divine nature of the small structure (that was yet to be built). Interestingly the work of actually building the Singhasana fell on a Muslim Raja Mistri (mason). As he was building it he started passing hurtful comments about idol worship and its uselessness, and for a brief moment even had the temerity to put his leg on top of the structure (to prove his point). Unfortunately my mother caught a glimpse of that and spontaneously tears ran down her eyes. The day came to an end and the mason went home. The next day he disappeared. When we tried contacting him…we were told by his relative that he had met with a really bad accident while returning home from our house and had fractured his leg…
Now, some people will say this is proof that the person’s emotion and his/her association is what is more important than the sanctity or divinity of the structure/idols or place. I would say that is partially true. Idol worship is a two way connection. The deep emotion that a person associates to an idol and his/her relationship with the inner living entity (as per worshiper’s belief) forms one part of the connection. The other part is the “Supreme Universal Consciousness/God” omnipresent and omniscient, expressing Itself as a vibrant reality and reaching out to the worshiper to complete the connection, to give the ultimate Truth awareness of the two sides being one and the same, like the relationship between drops of water in an ocean and the ocean itself.
The sacred “Prana Pratistha” that is done when installing idols in temples is not a joke. Mantras, as many who have used them with faith can attest to, have power and efficacy that have the ability to awaken and shake up into subjective consciousness the deepest of secrets of the Universe. And the whole practice of mantraputa Pranapratistha (invoking with mantras) in sacred atmosphere, inculcates life and power into these idols. That is the reason, you feel different in front of an idol inside a temple versus a stone idol kept as a decorative item in a restaurant (or lack thereof). I don’t remember a single time (of my multiple visits to Sri Jagannath Temple in Puri) when my eyes didn’t fill up with tears (for no apparent reason) as I stared at the Lord’s massive eyes with folded hands from behind the Garuda Stambha. Do I feel the same when I see the image of Lord Jagannath in a showpiece by a roadside stall? No.
Sri Adi Shankaracharya, enunciator of the awe-inspiring and mind bending monotheistic philosophy called “Advaita”, never ever asked the existing temples at the time, to shut their doors or called idol worship a fallacy of the religion. Because he was wise and even from the height of his Realization, he firmly understood the importance and significance of idol worship. Very few have the ability to meditate and contemplate on the “Nirgun/nirakar” right away and get to their goal on the spiritual path. The vast majority of us are beings with some degree of emotion who can connect easily with an objective representation of the infinite consciousness and that is where “Murti puja’s” significance comes in. You don’t teach calculus to a Standard 1 or 2 student (too simplistic a comparison but will suffice for now)
An incident from Swami Vivekananda’s (that hearty proponent of Vedanta and Upanishads and a towering stalwart of rational spiritual thinking) life… Swamiji used to visit a learned and curious Muslim dewan to discuss about secular matters and sometimes on religious matters as well. Stately pictures of the Dewan’s ancestors were hung on the walls of his courtroom. Once the Dewan asked Swamiji…”how do you explain your religion’s rather irrational practice of praying to images and idols?” Swamiji didn’t reply. Instead he got up, walked up to one beautiful image of the Dewan’s grandfather on the wall, pulled it out, put it on the floor and raised his leg to stamp on it. The whole court was aghast and then the Dewan, in a furious tone shouts…Swamiji stop! How dare you do such an act. Don’t you know who he is?”Swamiji stops, picks up the picture, puts it back on the wall and comes and sits down. And says…”so that piece of canvas is your grandfather?” The Dewan goes silent…and Swamiji then continues…”when a Hindu pours water on a Shivling or bows down in reverence before an idol or image, he/she is not praying to the stone but to the consciousness that he has superimposed unto the stone, as being the Divine Reality, just as for you the canvas is not a canvas but the very embodiment of your grandfather and his memories”.
Prahallad & Hiranyakasyapu’s story teaches just that. God is everywhere but if you firmly believe Him to be inside a pillar, He will burst forth into objective form and be a living reality. We might dismiss the story as a myth, but can we dismiss the stories of Mira Bai, Tukaram, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, Namdev, Sant Gyaneswar…and so many of others who experienced and reached the supreme God consciousness in their lives, through idol-worship? And certainly my mother is not a myth…
So before we criticize & ridicule our Hindu religion’s idol-worship practice, let’s stop and think exactly why our ancestors prescribed it as a vital part of the religion. Criticize the misrepresentation and ostentatious display that has crept in but not the very concept of idol-worship.
Yes if our faith is strong enough the stone lions too will spring to life…just as those stone idols will listen to our prayers (and they do)