The Idol -A Prop For The Spiritual Neophyte
A symbol is absolutely indispensable for fixing the mind. The mind wants a prop to lean upon. It cannot have a conception of the Absolute in the initial stages. Without the help of some external aid, in the initial stages, the mind cannot be centralised. In the beginning, concentration or meditation is not possible without a symbol.
The mental image also is a form of idol. The difference is not one of kind, but only one of degree. All worshippers, however intellectual they may be, generate a form in the mind and make the mind dwell on that image.
Everyone is an idol-worshipper. Pictures, drawing, etc., are only forms of Pratima. A gross mind needs a concrete symbol as a prop or Alambana; a subtle mind requires an abstract symbol. Even a Vedantin has the symbol OM for fixing the wandering mind. It is not only the pictures or images in stone and wood that are idols. Dialectics and leaders also become idols. So, why condemn idolatry?
There are others who would glibly say, "Oh, God is all-pervading formless being. How can He be confined to this idol?" Are these people ever conscious of His omnipresence? Do they always see Him and Him alone in everything? No. It is their ego that prevents them from bowing to the idols of God and with that motive puts this lame excuse forward!
Empty vessels only make much sound. A practical man who does meditation and worship, who is full of knowledge and real devotion keeps always silence. He influences and teaches others through silence. He only knows whether a Murti is necessary in the beginning for concentration or not.
However intellectual one may be, he cannot concentrate without the help of some symbol in the beginning. An intellectual and learned person, on account of his pride and vanity only says, "I do not like a Murti. I do not wish to concentrate on a form." He cannot concentrate on the formless One. He thinks that people will laugh at him when they come to know that he is meditating on a form. He never does any meditation on the formless One. He simply talks and argues and poses. He wastes his life in unnecessary discussions only. An ounce of his practice is better than tons of theories. Intellect is a hindrance in the vast majority of intellectual persons. They say that the existence of Brahman is a guess work, Samadhi is a bluff of the mind and Self-realisation is an imagination of the Vedantins. Deluded souls! They are steeped in ignorance. They are carried away by their secular knowledge which is mere husk when compared to the Knowledge of the Self. There is no hope of salvation for such people. First their wrong Samskaras should be flushed by good Samskaras through Satsanga. Then only they will realise their mistakes. May the Lord bestow on them clear understanding and thirsting for real knowledge!
A piece of ordinary white paper or coloured paper has no value. You throw it away. But, if there is the stamp or picture of the King or Emperor on the paper (currency notes), you keep it safe in your money purse or trunk. Even so, an ordinary piece of stone has no value for you. You throw it away. But, if you behold the stone Murti of Lord Krishna at Pandharpur or any other Murti in shrines, you bow your head with folded hands, because there is the stamp of the Lord on the stone. The devotee superimposes on the stone Murti his own Beloved and all the attributes of the Lord.
When you worship an image, you do not say, "This image has come from Jaipur. It was brought by Prabhu Singh. Its weight is 50 lbs. It is made of white marble. It has cost me Rs, 500/-." You superimpose all the attributes of the Lord on the image and pray, "O Antaryamin (Inner Ruler)! You are all-pervading; you are omnipotent, omniscient, all-merciful. You are the source for everything. You are self-existent. You are Sat-Chit-Ananda. You are eternal, unchanging. You are the Life of my life, Soul of my soul! Give me light and knowledge! Let me dwell in Thee for ever." When your devotion and meditation become intense and deep, you do not see the stone image. You behold the Lord only, who is chaitanya. Image worship is very necessary for beginners.
If you shake hands with a man, he is highly pleased. You have touched only a small part of his body and yet he is highly pleased. He smiles and welcomes you. Even so, the Lord is highly pleased when a small portion of His Virat (cosmic) body is worshipped. An idol is a part of the body of the Lord. The whole world is His Body, Virat Form. The devotion goes to the Lord. The worshipper superimposes on the image the Lord and all His attributes. He does Shodasopachara for the idol, the sixteen kinds of paying respects or service to the Lord, such as Padyam (water for washing the feet), Arghyam, Asana (seat), Snana (bathing), offering clothes, Achamana (water for sipping), applying sandal paste, offering flowers (Archana), burning incense, waving of lights and camphor, Maha Naivedyam, etc. The wandering mind is fixed now in this form of worship. The aspirant gradually feels the nearness of the Lord. He attains purity of heart and slowly annihilates his egoism.
To the worshipper who believes the symbol, any kind of image is the body of the Lord under the form of stone, clay, brass, picture, Saligram, etc. Such worship can never be idolatry. All matter is a manifestation of God. God is present in everything which exists. Everything is an object of worship, for all is a manifestation of God who is therein worshipped. The very act of worship implies that the object of worship is superior and conscious. This way of looking at things must be attained by the devotee. The untutored mind must be trained to view things in the above manner.
Just as the picture of a famous warrior evokes heroism in your heart, a look at the picture of God will elevate your mind to divine heights. Just as the child develops the maternal Bhava (mother-feeling) of the future caressing, nursing, protecting mother by playing with its imaginary toy-child made up of rags and suckling the child in an imaginary manner, so also the devotee develops the feeling of devotion by worshipping the Pratima and concentrating on it.
Idolatry is only the beginning of religion. Certainly it is not its end. The same Hindu scriptures which prescribe idol-worship for beginners speak of meditation on the Infinite or the Absolute, contemplation on the significance of the 'Tat Tvam Asi' Mahavakya, for advanced aspirants.
There are different grades of worship. The first is the worship of idols. The next is recitation of Mantras and offering of prayers. Mental worship is superior to worship with flowers. Meditation on the Absolute or the attributeless Nirguna Brahman is the best of all.
The supreme state is Self-realisation or Brahma-sakshatkara. The second in rank is meditation. The Yogi practises Sadhana or unceasing meditation on the Supreme Self. The third is the worship of symbols. The fourth is the performance of rituals and pilgrimages to holy places. The Sastras and Gurus are like kind mothers. They take hold of the hands of the aspirants, take them step by step, stage by stage, till they are established in Nirvikalpa Samadhi or super-conscious state. They prescribe gross forms of Sadhana or spiritual practices for the neophytes or beginners, with gross mind, and give lessons on abstract meditation for the advanced aspirants who are endowed with pure, subtle and sharp intellect.
Each marks a stage of progress. The human soul makes different kinds of attempts to grasp and realise the Infinite or the Absolute according to his strength, degree of evolution. He soars higher and higher, gathers more and more strength and eventually merges himself in the Supreme and attains oneness or identity.
Glory to the Hindu Rishis (and the Hindu scriptures) who take the aspirants from the lower to the higher form of worship, stage by stage, step by step and ultimately help them to rest in the attributeless, all-pervading, formless, timeless, spaceless Brahman or the infinite and the unconditional Brahman of the Upanishads.
Beloved children of the Lord! Shed your ignorant disbelief this moment. Enshrine supreme, unshakable, living faith in your heart this very moment. Recall to your mind the glorious examples of Sri Mira, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the South Indian Alwars and Nayanars. They believed; they reaped the rich spiritual harvests. You, too, can enjoy great peace, happiness and prosperity here and attain Him here and now if you have this faith in idol-worshipping.
Though you may perform external worship at regular intervals, let the internal worship of the Lord in your heart be constant, unbroken. Here worship attains completeness. Life is a divine worship. May you realise the significance of the universal worship of the Virat in daily life and performing it, attain the summum bonum of life. May the Lord bless you all!
Sri Swami Sivananda
Excerpt from The Philosophy and Significance of Idol Worship
First Edition: 1960
A DIVINE LIFE SOCIETY PUBLICATION
Back to Apprentice Weavers