Q: Dear Gurudev, my question is about idol worship in the Hindu religion. Christians don’t have churches everywhere. Mosques and Gurudwaras are also not everywhere. Then why do Hindus have temples everywhere? Under every tree and in every corner you see a temple. To what extent is idol worship acceptable?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar: Who says that idol worship is not practiced in Christianity? Even Christianity gives importance to idol worship. They put the symbol of Cross anywhere, even on the road, or on top of the hills, isn’t it? Many mosques are also being built at many places.
Now to what extent is idol worship acceptable in Hinduism? This is a question worth pondering upon.
Wherever people have opposed idol worship, some other form of symbolism has come up.
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'.
-(A verse from the Sruti in Vedanta literature)
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.