Idol Worship is often considered as one of the major distinctions between Western religions and Hinduism. This misperception results from ignorance, not only among the foreigners, but even among Indians about the underlying philosophy of God in Indian tradition and the symbolic nature of idols that are hardly different from other symbols like a sacred site or holy book revered in other religions.
Religion is an abstract concept, which often gets oversimplified in order to make everyone understand. An example is idol worship of deities by Hindus. It is something difficult to comprehend for atheists, who do not believe in the existence of God. It is also incomprehensible for followers of religions which prohibit idol worship. Then there are others who just wonder what it means.
Between the devotees who pay their reverence and express their gratitude and devotion to the idols of deities and the others who do not consider it permissible within their beliefs and faith, there seems to be a huge gap of ignorance, misunderstanding and misperception, which needs to be filled up with information and explanations so as to make the two sides at least have some minimal idea about the rationale followed by the other side.
One can begin to fill this gap by analyzing idol worship in Hinduism and what it basically means to the devotees.
Interestingly, idols were not worshipped in early Hinduism. Initially, it was abstract God and nature that people worshipped.
The oldest scriptures in human civilization - the Vedas, begin by expressing human gratitude to nature - Sun, water, air, earth, trees, rivers and the like – all objects that made human life and existence possible.
Idol worship got introduced in the Indian civilization, (the so called Hinduism) long after its advent, with certain sects like Buddhism, who began worshipping their saint-teachers. Hinduism is not exactly a religion of the kind that arose from the Middle East, and religious philosophies of India were called dharma, literally meaning ‘duties’.
While dharma has existed and remains the central part of Hinduism for several millenniums, idol worship was not an essential part initially and acquired popularity during the middle third of the first millennium after Christ. This was the time when Buddhist and Jain philosophies were getting merged with mainstream Hinduism and some of their practices, like extreme adherence to non-violence and idol worship became part of the culture as masses frequently shifted their allegiance between them.
Here it may also not be out of place to understand that Jain and Buddhist philosophies were two of the several similar schools of religious philosophies that have prospered and become popular at different points of time in India, and their followers were not considered to belong to a different community as is the case with religions like Islam and Christianity. It was common for a person to shift his allegiance from one school to another, and for members of same family to follow different schools. A classic instance of this flexibility is that of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya, who found the Maurya dynasty in fourth century before Christ. He was initially a follower of Vedic philosophy, but later began to follow Jainism. His son Bimbisar patronized another school of Ajivikas that existed at that point, and his son Asoka, one of the most famous rulers of India, was initially a follower of Vedic school, but began to follow Buddhism later in life. He was also responsible for the spread of Buddhism far beyond the borders of India.
There is a common saying in India that might explain the understanding of the divine, "If you believe, then it is God; if you don't, then it is a mere stone". There is another interesting concept that considers God as something that has no beginning and no end, that is omnipresent, omnipotent and beyond the comprehension of ordinary mortals. Further, in Indian philosophy, God is believed to be all pervading. It is there everywhere, inside human beings, even animals, even inside sinners, even inside inanimate objects.
In Indian philosophy, God is worshipped in two forms. One is NIRAKAR or abstract form, without any concrete shape. The other is the SAKAAR form, wherein God is perceived in a particular form. It is for the person who wishes to worship, to decide which of these two forms is more convenient for her to worship.
Here, it may also be relevant to understand as to why one worships God. It is definitely not to please God. One can safely presume that God does not suffer from any complex that needs to be addressed by devotion of the human mortals, nor does it have vanity as one of its weaknesses. Simply put, God does not need man’s worship, yet, man must worship God for one’s own sake. As per Indian philosophy, one should worship God to understand one's own limitations - the temporary nature of life and the fact that it is the universe that controls man and not otherwise. Simply put, one needs to worship God and have a spiritual outlook in order to have a balanced perspective, mental peace and an orientation that will also benefit humanity.
Coming back to idols, these idols usually represent deities, mythological characters who are believed to be one of the forms in which God manifested himself or herself. The SAKAAR form of God is perceived not only in male forms but also the female forms, which are referred as Goddesses and are equally revered. As it is up to the devotee to perceive God in whatever form she can, (with an awareness that God id beyond her comprehension) there are innumerable forms or deities, each representing and symbolizing the same universal divine power of nature that we usually refer as God.
Thus, the idols of deities in Hinduism represent those innumerable and possibly infinite forms of the universal Lord of this universe. Each is a symbol of divinity and blessed with his powers and benevolence. Benevolence is an important characteristic of divinity in Hinduism, which lacks a concept similar to that of Devil in Christianity and Shaitan in Middle Eastern philosophies. It is for this reason that those powers of nature that sustain humanity with their benevolence, as also great individuals who sacrifice their own interests for the larger interest of humanity are seen to represent divinity in human form and are equally revered and worshipped as deities. The most popular idols in Hindu temples belong to such human divinities.
In Indian philosophy, there exists more than one school of thought about God's relationship with universe. In ADVAITVAD, universe and God are inseparable. In DVAITVAD, universe and God are separate. In VISHISTADVAITA, God and souls are one but there is also an illusion that separates the two, which is this world that we live in.
For most ordinary people, these concepts are a little too complex to comprehend fully, and they are generally happy indulging in prayers to the Lord and following the right path of conduct, based on truth, compassion and other values preached by Hinduism. In addition, they follow certain rituals, like worshipping an idol, or some natural objects and paying respect to their elders and teachers. However, those willing to devote more time to these philosophies, can follow either of the schools, while appreciating that human knowledge is limited and the mysteries of this universe are still beyond our full comprehension.
A common misperception about Hinduism is that there are millions of Gods and Goddesses. Millions there are, but not Gods and Goddesses. Millions are the deities or the forms in which one can worship God. Just like there can be a million different photographs of a man, and somebody may chose one of them to keep, a devotee can decide which form he would like to worship. God is only one… or rather not even one, since it is actually infinite and cannot be limited in numbers. May be it is something like water or air, spread around, indivisible and uncountable … or maybe it is not even like that. What we know is that we do not really know him.
Thus, it is not the idol made by man himself that a devotee worships. That is just a ritual. Everyone knows that the idol is actually just sand, or stone, or wood, or whatever else it may be made of. It is worshipped because it symbolizes something otherwise not in front of you. Just like a soldier salutes the flag that represents his country, just like there is a statue of Jesus in a church where devotees come to pray, or a holy book only made of manmade paper that is an object of reverence, idol is an object of reverence for a devotee in Hinduism. In a way, an idol reminds you of God, helps you focus your attention on him and lets you pray with full sincerity. It helps one meditate, without being distracted by the more concrete realities of life.
There are many festivals where idols are made just before the festival, worshipped for a brief period (say a fortnight) that ends with the festival and then disposed in water by submerging the idol in the nearest river or pond. A ritual is just a ritual, but sometimes, out of ignorance, it may be misperceived as the most important aspect, or even the only important aspect. In a world, where materialism is a norm, possessions the object of life and showing them off the biggest religion, such rituals can overtake and overshadow their underlying philosophy or understanding.
Hence, It should not come as a surprise if non-Hindus think that Hindus are worshipping man made idols. A large number of Hindus also know or understand very little beyond that!
Hinduism is primarily a philosophy of life that guides an individual to make the best of his existence in spite of all the travails and challenges one faces day in and day out. It aims for the individual a comprehensive fulfillment that consists of Dharma, Artha, Kaama along with Moksha - a state of ultimate peace, which can be attained by three different routes..
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In the human world, the lines dividing reality from illusion are far hazier than what we generally believe. The universe is certainly real, but it is not necessarily the one that we experience.