Today Adi Shankaracarya's Adavaitvaad is a prominent philosophy in Hinduism but if we go through his life, we see that he not only preserved the idol worship practices across India but actively promoted it through certain rituals like 'Panchayatan' pooja and composed numerous 'Stotras' for various deities. This probably could be the start of Polytheism or at-least, the formal establishment of the Polytheism in Hindus.

As per my understanding Advait vedanta doesn't accept a the notion of personal God/Godess. Then why didn't Shankara eliminate the idol worship?

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    Hindus should have no problem worshiping idols. The concept of idol worship being evil or wrong is a very Abrahamic one where creator and creation are separate. In Hinduism they are the same, hence an idol as as sacred as anything else. The very question of why didn't x or y abolish idol worship is invalid in Hinduism. And Advaita does accept the notion of personal God(Saguna Brahman). – Bharat Jul 30 '14 at 15:17
  • worship God through his idol. slowly the form of the idol will be visible even when eyes are closed. the thoughts will be immersed in that form of God. eventually every form will remind you of that form. everything will become manifestation of the God whom one worships. the final stage will be the removal of duality. There will be no more distinction between world and God. No distinction between you and God. This is Advaita. One cannot think of God without thinking of a form. Although we think God is infinite, in our mind we picture a vast ocean or sky or light. This is also idol worship only! – Sai Jan 20 '15 at 23:19
  • just as how thorn stuck to your foot is removed with another thorn the duality which has been causing your suffering can also be removed by duality. One type of such duality is called Knowledge (the duallity that something is knowledge and the other is ignorance, Neti, Neti). Other type of such duality is called Devotion (God is separate jiva is separate, jiva has to serve Bhagavan). This is grand doctrine of Shankaracharya that you can use duality to realize the non-duality. Thus why should Shankaracharya be opposed to His own philosophy? What he said was the Ultimate Truth sir, all the best – Sai Jan 20 '15 at 23:21
  • @Bharat: The separation between the Creator and Creation can also be a Hindu concept, like in Dvaita Vedanta. – AdityaS Feb 15 '15 at 21:00
  • Why not? What is wrong with worshipping idols? Idol (or pratima) worship is sanctioned by Sri Krishna himself. – user1195 Feb 6 '17 at 12:22

Shankaracharya came down to uplift mankind through different ways one such is idol worship! Unlike the yogic/tantric/karma path, one can enjoy the fruits of this idol worship soon. It may be hard for a layman to worship the god who is formless, nameless and characterless. One may find worshiping this unimaginable form hard, So the noble forms of Almighty are adopted for idol worship which have a form and name. Rituals (like alankara, abhisheka, unjal,..) to each deities of such are specified in the scriptures.

On intense worship of these idols, one finds easy to mediate on such deity. Out of love, devotion and affection the mind can be submerged with god in meditation! The personification of god makes devote to develop strong relation at ease!

  • What Krishna has written is mostly correct. He makes a small mistake when he seems to differentiate between Tantric path and murthi (not idol) puja. Otherwise he is correct. – Pradip Gangopadhyay Jul 30 '14 at 14:11

Why didn't Shankara eliminate the idol worship?

How could he? He was not just any scholar biased by his own views and prejudiced to others, he was a true knower of the Vedas and scriptures. From answers like this you can know that scriptures support both sakara(with-form) and nirakara (formless) Brahman. Adi Sankarachrya only preached one aspect of the whole truth as it was required for that time to win over the Buddhists.

During his time Buddhism was spreading widely in India. So by his scholarly work he created a doctrine that was easier for Buddhists to accept. The Advaita philosophy was pseudo-Buddhist in nature and hence it was a compromise that was easier for the Buddhists to accept. So by preaching the Advaita philosophy Shankaracharya blocked the widespread of Buddhism and by establishing various temples, chardham, etc. at the same time he revived Hinduism.

So at one hand he defeated Buddhist philosophers through his advaita philosophy converting them to Hinduism and at the other hand he promoted idol worship and established various dhams, monasteries etc. to strengthen Hinduism. So reviving Hinduism was the purpose why he also promoted idol worship.

From the scriptures it is known that Shankaracharya was actually an incarnation of Shiva and he had taken birth for that purpose only. Chapter 30 of Kurma Purana says

तदेव साधयेन्नृणां देवतानां च दैवतम्।
करिष्यत्यवताराणि शंकरो नीललोहितः॥ ३३॥
श्रीतस्मार्तप्रतिष्ठार्थ भक्तानां हितकाम्यया।
उपदेक्ष्यंति तज्ज्ञानं शिष्याणां ब्रह्मसंज्ञितम्॥ ३४॥
सर्ववेदान्तसारं हि धर्मान्वेदनिदर्शितान्।
सर्ववर्णान् समुद्दिश्य स्वधर्मा ये निदर्शिताः।। ३५।।

The people should adore lord Mahadeva, who happens to be the god of gods. The brown complexioned Siva, for the establishment of Srauta (Vedic) and Smarta dharmas (belonging to the Smritis), and for the welfare of the devotees shall incarnate on earth. He Will enlighten his devotees on the subjects of the gist of Vedantas, the knowledge relating to the Brahman, and all the dharmas enshrined in the Vedas, which have been narrated earlier.

Hence, even though he preached the theory of impersonal Brahman, he himself was a great devotee of Lord Krishna. This is evident from his numerous writings like Bhajagovindam, Achyutashtakam, Jagannathaastkam, etc. In Prabodh Sudhakar he writes:

bhuteṣvantaryāmī jñānamayaḥ sadcīdānandaḥ
prakruteḥ paraḥ parātmā yadukulatilakaḥ sa evāyam

The crown jewel of Yadu dynasty, Shri Krishna, is the all knowing supreme soul of the form of knowledge and eternal bliss who is beyond prakruti (material nature/maya) and resides in every being.

So his philosophy was for a special purpose, but internally he was a devotee. His devotion for Vishnu or Krishna is only but obvious because Shiva is the greatest of all Vaishnavas [SB - 12.13.16]. Hence, even though he preached theory of impersonal Brahman, didn't eliminate idol worship.

  • That passage in the Padma Purana is widely considered to be a later interpolation. – Keshav Srinivasan Jul 30 '14 at 15:30
  • @KeshavSrinivasan Many things in the scriptures are considered to be a later interpolation. But accepting them as authority I quote them. Regarding Shankara's birth it has also been mentioned in many other scriptures like Linga Purana, Shiva Purana, etc. – Be Happy Jul 31 '14 at 12:33
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    Are you saying that you accept the authority of everything that's there in current manuscripts of scriptures, whether they're authentic or later interpolations? – Keshav Srinivasan Aug 1 '14 at 2:59
  • @KeshavSrinivasan: can you please point me to "some link where it is mentioned that which part of Padma purana or any other purana etc is a later interpolation"? – zaxebo1 Feb 25 '18 at 14:09

Adi Sankara did not promote idol worship. He accepted (not promoted) sakara upasana because according to him sakara upasana leads to chittasuddhi (purification of heart). He did not accept that sakara upasana would lead to moksha but that it is a preparatory step. He claimed that sakara upasana is for dull people and thus required since most people are dull and nirakara sadhana is for advanced seekers. He did this to unite several streams of Hindu thought. He is known as shanmatastapaka. It is another matter that Vasihnavas did not accept his position and obviously disliked being called dull people.

I question several of the assumptions of this question. Hindus do not worship idols. They worship God through murthi puja. A murthi is not an idol (a lifeless piece of stone) but an image of spirit because a special Divine presence is invoked in a murthi through the prana pratistha ceremony. A murthi properly worshipped is filled with spiritual energy.

Hinduism is also not polytheistic. Vaishnavas are of course monotheists. Those who follow kevala Advaita of Sankara regard sakara Brahman as ultimately unreal and nirguna Brahman to be undefinable. Thus they are also not polytheists. Those who follow the Vedanta of Ramakrishna which regards sakara and nirakara as two sides of the same coin are also not polytheists. Ramakrishna order Swamis used to tell us that Vaishnava call Brahman, Krishna and Saivites call Brahman, Siva and Saktas call Brahman, Devi.

  • Regarding polytheism, average hindu persons revers multiple deities, hindu temple and homes have multiple deities. If this is not polytheism I don't know what polytheism is. – gaj Jul 30 '14 at 15:00
  • No Hindu great (neither Sankara nor Vivekananda nor Vaishnava Acharyas nor any great Acharya) has ever accepted the claim that Hinduism is polytheistic. The Upanishads claim that Brahman is ALL (think of OM as sabda Brahman) and that Brahman is ekamevadvitiam (one without a second). There is no second entity!! – Pradip Gangopadhyay Jul 30 '14 at 15:10
  • Secondly, regarding difference in idol and murti, you are saying murti is the god himself as divine presence is 'invoked' which is against the basic notion of omni presence of god. – gaj Jul 30 '14 at 15:12
  • Yes that is what Hindu scripture says. There is a Tantric saying that I read somewhere which says that those who think of a murthi (after prana pratistha) as a piece of stone goes to hell. There are many stories about the Divine presence in a murthi helping a seeker. Just read through the lives of some of the great adepts. It is because a murthi is not simply a piece of stone that ordinary Hindus go to a temple to have darsan of the deity. – Pradip Gangopadhyay Jul 30 '14 at 15:17
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    @zaxebo1 I gave a summary of the Introduction in 'Bhakti Schools of Vedanta' by Swami Tapasyananda. Sankaracharya talks about the fate of Sakara Upasak in Brahma Sutra Bhasya IV.iii.7-14.. Sankaracharya has poor opinion about people who follow Bhakti marga. Read his commentary on Gita 13.2.14 where he calls Bhakti Vedantins Panditapasadas (mean and despicable scholars) and murkhas (ignoramuses). – Pradip Gangopadhyay May 28 '18 at 11:58

Acceptance of Personal Deity in Maya vada

Advaita Vedanta does accept Notion of personal Gods/Godess commonly known as Ishta devta although the Ishta devta must be chosen from Panchayatan or Shanmata.

Why Did Adi Shankaracharya Promote Idol Worship

It's because Krishna tells arjuna that Human beings or jeevas find it difficult to associate with Avyakta Bramhan aka Formless Bramhan. Although Worshipping formless Bramhan leads to Moksha, but that path is dreadful.

क्लेशोऽधिकतरस्तेषाम् अव्यक्तास्क्तचेतसाम् ।

अव्यक्ताहिगतिर्दु:खमदेहवाद्भिरवाप्यते ॥१२.५॥

For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.


I feel My reality is whatever I can perceive and comprehend. The state of the being determines the reality that it can perceive. I am a Hindu and I do visit the temples see the different forms as representations of the different properties of the infinite. As a child I was told to worship Ganesha first, Saraswathi for knowledge, Lakshmi for wealth and Parvathi for strength. As I grew up I had my own questions of what it is that I am worshiping. Do the idols have the power to grant what ever I ask for. I mean is the duality exist always or it is non-dual sometimes. May be I might get to know the real I ( which I can only comprehend logically now ) and someday internalize it and become that.

One question that humbled me is during a visit to Thirupathi, my son asked if we can see the real god during the Darshan. My son is only 10. I said yes if you have the true love to see god you will and showed the picture of how Hathiramji was playing dice with Balaji.

With my current understanding and perception I believe there is a transition from Dvaitha, Visista-Advaitha and finally Advaitha which I have observed based on how my thinking is moving. Going by the steps to find the real "I", The body conscious I that I am now do logically see that the "I" should be the infinite one that has taken the form of me to experience.

I believe, Until I realize the true I. Its the mind and interpretations.

  • What I was describing here are my thoughts. I landed here when I was trying to find out as to why Sri Adhi Shankara created so many slokas, installed so many deities, energized them, Composed the Bhaja Govindam at Kasi when he sees an aged Sanskrit scholar trying to explain the details of Sanskrit grammar to his students. When he calls the all pervading consciousness as Govinda. Finally when he composes the Nirvana Shatakam. – Venu Feb 3 '15 at 14:04

Adi Shankara not only advocated idol worship but he was also responsible for streamlining the various sects of Hinduism as six major groups:

  • Saivam
  • Vaishnavam
  • Saktam
  • Sauryam
  • Koumaram
  • Ganapatyam

dedicated to Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Surya, Karthikeya and Ganesh.

As to why the Advaita Acharya promoted idol worship and worship to personal Gods, it is because one cannot teach the advanced concepts of Advaita to an unfocused mind. It will be like trying to teach doctoral programs to a pre-k.g student; It simply is not possible. Even the Advaita approach, can be explained in terms of steps of increasing complexity:

  1. There are many atmas and one paramatma (First step - Easy to understand; Many souls, One higher power)
  2. There is one jivatma and one paramatma (Second step - The many souls are interlinked as a single soul - jivatma )
  3. One supreme reality that pervades everything. Nothing is different from this reality.
  • Welcome to Hinduism.SE! First of all, you should cite sources. Second of all your answer isn't quite correct. Adi Shankaracharya didn't create the six sects you mentioned like Vaishnavism and Shaivism and the like - those already existed. But he did do something similar - he created a new sect called Smartha which was a streamlined version of Hinduism, worshipping five gods (Panchayatana) : Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, Surya and Ganesha, which were all considered as manifestations of Brahman. See my answer here: hinduism.stackexchange.com/a/3796/36 But Vaishnavas and the like are not Smarthas. – Keshav Srinivasan Jan 20 '15 at 5:39
  • @KeshavSrinivasan Thanks. Your link was detailed and proved to be an interesting study. As for references, this answer was purely based on my understanding. I haven't mentioned that Adi Shankara "created" these sects but actually streamlined the then disparate sects within Hinduism. But it was not six but five as you have correctly mentioned in the link. – Raghav Jan 23 '15 at 0:34
  • No, the sects like Vaishnavism and the like which exist today were not streamlined by Adi Shankaracharya at all. The only people who follow Adi Shankaracharya's streamlined version of Hinduism are the adherents of Smarthism, for instance the Iyer Brahmin community: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iyer – Keshav Srinivasan Jan 23 '15 at 1:22
  • In any case, answers on this site should be backed up with sources, so I suggest you try to find some references. – Keshav Srinivasan Jan 23 '15 at 1:26

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