Hindus believe in Murthi pooja or idol worship. What is the reason behind this?
Since my childhood, I believed that God does exist in an idol but I don't have the exact clarification or history behind it.
From the Vaishnava perspective: Taken as the summary of Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 11, Chapter 27. Click here for the specific verses.
Worshiping the Deity form of the Supreme Lord automatically brings purity and satisfaction to the mind. Thus it is the source of all desirable gains. If a person has no engagement in Deity service he will simply remain attracted to material sense gratification, and he will have no hope of giving up bad association. The Personality of Godhead has given instruction, among the regulations of the Sātvata scriptures, on the process of worshiping Him as the bona fide Deity. Brahmā, Śiva, Nārada, Vyāsa and all other sages have recommended this process described by the Lord as most perfectly beneficial for all the occupational classes and spiritual orders of human society, including even the women and śūdras.
There are three varieties of arcana, Deity worship, based on either the original Vedas, the secondary tantras, or a combination of these. The Deity image, the ground, the fire, the sun, the water and the heart of the worshiper are all true locations of the Deity’s presence. The Deity form to be worshiped may be constructed of any one of eight substances — stone, wood, metal, clay, paint, sand (drawn upon the ground), the mind or jewels. These categories are further subdivided into two: temporary and permanent.
The details of the worshiping process are as follows: The devotee should bathe both physically and by chanting mantras, and then he should perform the utterance of Gāyatrī at the prescribed juncture of the day. He should arrange a seat facing either east or north, or else directly facing the Deity, and should bathe and clean the Deity. Then he should present clothing and ornaments, sprinkle water on the vessels and other paraphernalia to be used in the worship, and offer water for bathing the Deity’s feet, arghya, water for washing His mouth, fragrant oils, incense, lamps, flowers and food preparations. After this, one should worship the Lord’s personal servants and bodyguards, His consort energies, and the spiritual masters by chanting their respective mūla-mantras. The worshiper should recite prayers from the Purāṇas and other sources, offer obeisances flat on the ground, beg for benediction, and place on himself the remnants of the Lord’s garlands.
Included in this method of Deity worship are the proper installation of the transcendental Deity by constructing a fine temple, and also the conducting of processions and other festivals. By worshiping Lord Śrī Hari with unconditional devotion in this manner, one gains access to pure loving service to His lotus feet. But if one steals property that has been given as charity to the Deity or the brāhmaṇas, whether given by himself or by others, he will have to take his next birth as a stool-eating worm.
dve vāva brahmaṇo rūpe, mūrtaṃ caivāmūrtaṃ ca [Brh. Up - 2.3.1]
God (Brahman) has two modes, formless (nirakara) as well as form (sakar).
So when God has two forms, it is just obvious that there will be two different ways to worship Him. Those who worship the formless Brahman, require no image and idol. But worshiping the formless Brahman is difficult for an embodied being who itself has a form:
kleśo ’dhika-taras teṣām avyaktāsakta-cetasām
avyaktā hi gatir duḥkhaṁ dehavadbhir avāpyate [BG - 12.5]
Their hardships are more whose minds are attached to the Unmanifested (formless Brahman). Walking on the path of the Unmanifested is certainly troublesome for the embodied beings.
Hence, people also worship the Brahman with a form. Now, when it comes to worshiping God with a form, certainly an image or idol becomes necessary. So we have the concept of worshiping God in the form of an idol.
However, this doesn't mean that God is present only in the idol. God is equally present everywhere:
हरि ब्यापक सर्बत्र समाना। प्रेम तें प्रगट होहिं मैं जाना।। [RCM - 1.185]
God is equally present everywhere and is revealed only by love (devotion).
Hence, idols and images are only a mean to increase our inner feelings and devotion to God. It's the feelings for God in the heart that matters. Hence, Garuda Puran says:
na kāśṭhe vidyate devo na śilāyam na mrutsuca
bhāve hi vasate devastasmādbhāvo hi kāraṇam [Grd. Pu. - 2.28.11]
Deva (god) is neither present in the wood nor in the stone or in the soil (i.e. idols made of these things). He resides only in the emotion or feelings (bhava), hence bhava (devotion / emotion) is the only reason.
Because it's mental worship that matters Shrimad Bhagavatam says:
bhaktasya ca yathā-labdhair hṛdi bhāvena caiva hi [SB - 11.27.15]
A devotee may worship Me with whatever paraphernalia he is able to obtain, and may even worship Me within his heart with emotion.
But because emotion is all that matters it does not mean that worshiping the idols are all in vain. Actually when the prana pratistha (establishing life) of an idol has been properly done, the deity in the subtle form receives the offerings of the devotee. So while inner feeling is the important thing, outer worshiping also matters.
So these are some explanations for murti puja (idol worship) in our culture.
Murthi Puja became a subject of intense debate in 19th century Bengal mainly due to Christian missionary propaganda. Even educated Bengali Hindus began opposing murthi Puja. I am posting below a conversation between M and Sri Ramakrishna where M asks Sri Ramakrishna about murthi puja.
M:"Sir, suppose one believes in God with form. Certainly, He is not the clay image!"
Sri Ramakrishna (interrupting):"But why clay? It is an image of spirit."
M could not understand the significance of this "image of spirit".
"But sir," he said to the Master," one should explain to those who worship the clay image that it is not God, and that, while worshipping it, they should have God in view and not the clay image. One should not worship clay."
Master (sharply):"That's the one hobby of you Calcutta people - giving lectures and bringing others to light! Nobody ever stops to consider how to get light himself. Who are you to teach others? He who is the Lord of the universe will teach everyone. He alone teaches us, who has created this universe ; who has made the sun and moon, men and beasts, and all other beings; who has provided means for their sustenance; who has given children parents and endowed them with love to bring them up. The Lord has done so many things - will He not show people the way to worship Him? If they need teaching, then He will be the Teacher. He is our Inner Guide. Suppose there is an error in worshipping the clay image; doesn't God know that through it He alone is invoked? He will be pleased with that very worship. Why should you get a headache over it? You had better try for knowledge and devotion yourself. You were talking of worshipping the clay image. Even if the image is made of clay, there is need for that sort of worship. God, Himself, has provided with different forms of worship. He who is the Lord of the universe has arranged all these forms to suit different men in different stages of knowledge. The mother cooks different dishes to suit the stomachs of her different children. Suppose she has five children. If there is a fish to cook, she prepares various dishes from it - pilau, pickled fish, fried fish, and so on - to suit their different tastes and powers of digestion." [March 1882]
REF: English translation of Ramakrishna Kathamrita
'M' is Mahendranath Gupta who wrote Ramakrishna Kathamrita. Master is Sri Ramakrishna.
I am posting here some shlokas from Shiva Purana, Rudra Samhita Section I, Creation, Chapter 12 that is self explanatory:
- Till the realisation of perfect knowledge a man should continue the ritualistic worship of Shiva. 59-60. In order to convince the world, the rituals must be continued. Just as the sun is reflected in many vessels, in the same manner, O devas, know that the supreme Brahman, Shiva, assumes the form of whatever is seen or heard in the world real or unreal.
- There is difference in vessels but not in the water they contain. This is what those who know the real meaning of the Vedas say.
- "Lord Shiva is within the heart of beings in this world." Of what avail are images to those who have the real knowledge?
- Having an image is very auspicious for a person who has no such knowledge. It is a ladder that enables him to climb to a higher position.
- It is very difficult to climb to a position without a support. The image is only a means to achieve the Nirguna Shiva.
- The attainment of the Nirguna through a Saguna is certainly possible. In this manner, the symbols of all lords are conductive to steady faith and belief.
- This lord is very great and this is the mode of worship of that lord. If there is no image, of what avail are scents, sandal paste, flowers etc?
- Till the realisation of true knowledge, the image shall necessarily be worshipped. If any one does not worship the image before he attains perfect knowledge, his downfall is sure.
Lord Shiva gives very good arguments regarding this in chapter 10 of Shiva rahasya. Some of the arguments are - I am representing here. Note that - Here Image can have two meanings - one idol or image form another Rudra form of Lord Shiva BhattAraka (who is ultimate reality according to Shaivism).
- Now, concerning the worship of My Image, it will be said by some, Lord Shiva lives in the heart of all beings; of what avail is the worship of an Image to those who know thus?
- Well, My Form is both Subtle and Gross and so shall be My Image. The Flash of Lightning is at once a mighty fire and also one that is distant. Those who are far off cannot reach it and those who are too near cannot touch it. Even so it is with My Divine Splendour.
- When wishing to make fire one takes not a flash of lightning or a whole blazing forest but the burning power is taken from the source to some combustible material by means of a firebrand. Just so My Divine Splendour cannot be brought down among the dwellers upon Earth, only an Image thereof.
- If someone says, Bring me some fire, no one will seek to bring the whole fire, but only a burning twig. Likewise, the illumining power of My Divine Light is transmitted by means of artistic skill and imagination to a material likeness wherefrom it shall inspire and enlighten the devotees' mind according to every one's capacity and receptivity.
There are three kinds of bodies exist.
Now, science being materialistic, only accepts the existence of gross body (eyes, nose, ears, mouth, bones and all other things which are made up with five elements). By materialistic, I mean things which can be realized by our senses. But god and soul are something which cannot be realized by our senses. Our human body consists of all the three; Gross, subtle and Casual. But gods are usually in Sukshma form i.e., Subtle body ( I mean something which cannot be observed by our senses). Through idols, we are giving the third body to gods, i.e., the gross body. Through these gross bodies (idols) we worship gods which are in Sukshma form (Subtle body).
There was no idol worship in ancient India. Gods were worshiped through fire only.
In Srimad Ramayana, we will come across Sage Agasthya offering his prayers through fire only.
स तत्र ब्रह्मणः स्थानम् अग्नेः स्थानम् तथैव च || ३-१२-१७ विष्णोः स्थानम् महेन्द्रस्य स्थानम् चैव विवस्वतः | सोम स्थानम् भग स्थानम् स्थानम् कौबेरम् एव च || ३-१२-१८ धातुर् विधातुः स्थानम् च वायोः स्थानम् तथैव च | स्थानम् च पाश हस्तस्य वारुणस्य महात्मनः || ३-१२-१९ स्थानम् तथैव गायत्र्या वसूनाम् स्थानम् एव च | स्थानम् च नागराजस्य गरुड स्थानम् एव च || ३-१२-२० कार्तिकेयस्य च स्थानम् धर्म स्थानम् च पश्यति |
Rama entered inside the hermitage and saw therein the sanctus of Brahma, Fire-god, Vishnu, Indra, Vivasvat - the Sun-god, Soma - the Moon-god, Bhaga - one among the twelve Suns, and the sanctusms of Kubera, [Wealth-Management-god, are seen and passed by the three of them, sanctums of Dhaata, Vidhaata - Vedic deities created by Brahma to help Svayambhuu Manu, santucm of Vaayu - the Air-god, and also like that the sanctum of great-soloed VaruNa - the Rain-god who also wields noose, and the sanctum of Gayatri - the presiding deity of gnosis, sanctum of Vasus - eight of them, and the sanctum of cobra's king - aadi sheSa, the divine Thousand-headed serpent that bears this globe on its head, and on which Vishnu reclines, and even the sanctum of GaruDa - the Divine Eagle and the vehicle of Vishnu, and the half brother of aadi sheSa, and the sanctum of Kaartikeya - chief of gods army, second son of Shiva, and the sanctum of Dharma - Dharmaraaja, presiding deity of Virtue-Vice-Time of living beings, in-charge of the hell.
Idol worship is relatively new concept. The origin of Idol worship cannot exactly be fixed.
However, if we ponder over the incidents took place in India, we can vaguely conclude that Idol worship might have started somewhere after Mahabharata war.
Many kings participated in that Great war and got eliminated and the Yadava army that survived the war, got extinct due to infighting that took place after 36 years of the war.
Normally, a powerful and strong administration and patronage is necessary for any arts, culture to thrive and make advancement.
Owing to elimination of many kings and decadence of human thinking, the earlier vedic way offering prayers might have slowly got replaced with Idol worship.
Now coming to significance part of Idol worship, it is like elementary school education.
The children will be asked to write very big letters first, so that the children will get accustomed to it.
Slowly, a smaller and still smaller letters will replace that big letters. In the next step, the children will learn words, sentences, etc. When grows up, the children will read books on their own.
As the spiritual aspirant progresses, he has to leave Idol worship and resort to internal DHYANA for getting realisation.
Idols are a medium to move from the form to the formless. This is done because the mind finds it easy to relate to the form rather than the abstract formless.
Excerpts from a Q&A with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar:
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 becomes honorable.
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 you.
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 cheating.
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 Divine.
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 you.
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 heritage.
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.