What is an idol? It is a symbol. The Divinity which is formless, which
cannot be described, which cannot be seen or touched, to see and
understand that Divinity you need a medium. And that medium is what
you call an idol.
God does not reside in the idol but an idol points you to God.
See, in your house there is a picture of your grandfather on the wall.
Now if someone asks you, 'Who is your grandfather?' You point to his
picture. Is the picture your grandfather? No. Your grandfather is no
more, but if someone asks you, you point to his picture and say ,
'This is my grandfather'.
So a picture (or idol) is a medium or a symbol, that is why it is
called pratima (an image or idol).
And it is good that there is not just one symbol or image as God.
Otherwise people would think of God to be that way only. That is why
here in India, we have thousands of different images of God. You can
see God in any of these forms, whichever is dear to you (Ishta Devta:
referring to a particular deity being fondly revered and worshipped by
a person or a group of people).
All the rays come from the same sun but the rays have seven different
colors. This is why we have the Pancha Devta (referring to the five
primary deities or forms of the Divine that are honored in all rites
and rituals: Lord Shiva, Goddess Parvati, Lord Vishnu, Lord Ganesha
and the Sun God), and the Sapta Matrikas (referring to seven different
forms of the Mother Divine: Brahmani, Narayani, Indrani, Maheshwari,
Varahi, Kaumari, and Chamunda).
Similarly God is one, but our ancestors have given different names and
forms to God.
Then there is the tradition of establishing an idol of the Divine
through chanting, and devotional worship. Whichever form is
established with chanting, with devotion, and is given a seat of honor
See, someone can simply keep the Bhagavad Gita, or the Guru Granth
Sahib (the main scripture of the Sikhs) anywhere. But when you worship
it, bow down before it, offer service to it, and food to it, then it
has a different meaning. And if you also give the form a shape, or a
face then that bring even more devotion in you.
For example, just by looking at Lord Krishna’s face, Meera Bai (a
great Indian saint) became so deeply in love with Him. Lord Chaitanya
Mahaprabhu (revered as one of the greatest saints and devotee of Lord
Krishna) reached the highest state of consciousness on seeing the form
of Lord Krishna (referring to the image of Lord Krishna standing with
a flute in his hand, wearing a peacock crown and dressed in brilliant
yellow dress under a tree).
One who needs an idol, can use it as a staircase to reach the Divine.
But don’t get stuck with the idol. Always remember that God is within
That is why in the earlier days, the ritual of going to a temple was
to sit with oneself (to see the Divine within) for sometime after
looking at the idol. One should not leave the temple without sitting
for some time. But nowadays what people do is, they sit for a few
seconds for the sake of sitting and then get up and leave. This is
In earlier days, the idol would be kept in the dark, in the Garbha
Griha (the sanctum sanctorum of a temple housing the idol of the
deity) and you could only see the deity’s face when shown with the
light of an earthen lamp.
The message behind this is for you to remember that God resides deep
in the caves of your heart. You need to see Him with the light of
Self-knowledge. This is the true essence.
People in ancient days would decorate the idols very beautifully, so
that your mind would not wander here and there, and you would be
completely captivated by the Divine. They would make beautiful idols
out of marble, and adorn it with beautiful clothes and jewelry. It is
like going window shopping. Many people even today go window shopping,
isn't it. They see all the nice things and they feel good. Why? It is
because the mind gets attracted to beautiful clothes, good fragrances,
flowers, fruits and good food.
Our ancestors knew this, and so they would keep all these items by the
idol to retrieve the mind through five senses and directed it to the
The Buddhists also use this strategy to capture the mind. This is why
they make such beautiful idols of Lord Buddha and the Bodhisattvas
from emeralds, sapphires, gold and silver. They keep flowers, fruits,
incense and sweets before the idol so that the mind together with the
five senses becomes centered in the Divine.
Once the mind settles down, they ask you to close your eyes and
meditate. This is the second step. In meditation you find God within
There is a very beautiful saying, 'Manusyanam apasu Devata manishinam
divi Devata. Balanam tosha kashteshu gyanino atmani devata'.
When a person asks ‘Where is God?’, the wise ones reply with this
verse, which means, ‘For human beings, love itself is God; for the
highly intellectual ones, they see the Divine in all Divine powers and
Divine qualities; the less intelligent ones see God in idols of wood
or stone; but the wise ones, see God in their own Self (Atman)’.
Tomorrow we will have the Chaturdashihavan in the ashram. You all can
participate in that. As the chanting goes on, you can all meditate.
See, though there are elaborate rituals prescribed for pooja, we do
not really need to perform them because when we meditate, we see
everything is the Divine. But for the sake of preserving the ancient
traditions and customs, we should perform all these rites and rituals.
This is why we should regularly light a lamp, offer flowers to the
deity, so that our children can learn from this and the future
generations can be aware of our ancient traditions and rich cultural
Why do we celebrate Diwali? There is no real need to celebrate it. But
if we do not, then how will we tell the future generations of the
cultural and mythological significance of the festival and how our
ancestors celebrated it and why. So if we do not do all this, then an
ancient process, a sacred tradition will be lost.
When you go deep into all of this, you will see how wonderful
everything is. That is why Lord Krishna says, 'Everything is Me'. So
you need not abandon these customs and rituals.