Sri Sri Ravi Shankar:
The religions, which deny idol worship, propagate some sort of idol worship themselves.
When I visited Iraq, I travelled to Najaf, and Karbala and saw an installation of gold and silver, with sacred cloth on the samadhi. People do mannat (pray) to fulfill their wishes. This is like idol worship.
The same with Kaaba. People perform seven circumambulations around it, and kiss it. This is also idol worship.
Of course, it doesn’t have ears, eyes, and a nose, yet it is the same thing.
If some people don’t worship an idol, they worship books, or a picture, and offer flowers, and decorate it.
Irrespective of whether you worship a stone or a picture or an idol, it is a representation, a symbol of God.
What is a symbol? It is something that touches a chord in you.
Puja is an act of honoring. Honoring symbols is puja.
In India, our ancestors believed that one develops a bond with a face. You make a connection. It is because of this connection that they promoted idol worship.
Idol worship is only one of the forms proposed by our ancestors.
They said start with an idol. More important than an idol, is yantra (an energy diagram).
Even more important than yantra is mantra.
They said that mantra is mukti (freedom). Mantra is chetana (consciousness).
There is a shloka (phrase) in Sanskrit, which says:
For a farmer, water is God,
For the intellectual, the brain is God,
For a child, an idol is God,
For the wise man, the Soul is God.
When do people perform Ganesha puja? It is believed that the energy of Ganapati comes into the idol for a few days.
So people do pran prathista (evoking the soul) in the idol.
People pray to Lord Ganesha to say: ‘You always stay in my heart. Come into the idol, so that I can play with you.’
After performing the puja, people again pray to Lord Ganesha to return to their hearts.
The idol is then immersed in water (visarjan).
This is a festival. It adds celebration and color to your life. Sometimes it is not fully understood, and people become too caught up with rituals. That too is wrong.
That is why it is important to sit for puja in a meditative state.
When you sing bhajans in satsang, you don’t visualize the God. You sing and your mind becomes empty. Thus, chetana (consciousness) grows.
Jains started idol worship, then Buddhism followed. Sanatana Dharma adopted this very quickly. It was also adopted by Christianity. To criticize idol worship is foolishness. It is important to understand it.
Yet people should not be superstitious about idol worship.
This also doesn’t mean you can skip idol worship altogether. You board a bus and get down, but the place you got on and the place you got down are different. You don’t think: “I have to get down from the bus anyway, so why should I get on it?”
This is foolishness, (a kutark mindset).
When you sit to worship, be in a meditative state. In meditation, you unite with the sky.
Then through words and mantras, offer wind, fire, then water. With that kalash of water (a pot of water decorated with mango leaves at its mouth and a coconut), waves in creation are evoked. It is said that there is no life in an idol if it is not evoked through mantras and made strong with devotion.
Our ancestors have given us this great method as a way to unite people, spread love and wisdom.
In Sabari Malai (Mount Sabari) in Kerala, Lord Aiyappa is worshipped. There is a mosque on the way, dedicated to a Sufi saint. Everyone circumambulates the mosque and then proceeds to the Aiyappa temple. People believe that the Sufi saint was a good friend of Lord Aiyappa.
This is how India is united.
Guru Nanak (central figure in Sikhism) made a Guru Granth Sahib (Holy Book of the Sikhs) in simple language. The Guru Granth is the gist of knowledge from all other religions. Many religious texts were written in Sanskrit, which few people could understand. The Guru Granth was written in simple language so that the knowledge could reach the masses.
Now we have even forgotten that and started making subdivisions. Paths can be different, yet the truth is only One. That has to be recognized. Otherwise, there are fights and misunderstandings.