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.
Gurudev, the way today’s TV serials depict characters like Mahadev, Parvati, Jalandhar, etc., is it realistic? Please shed some light on this.
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar:
Well, it does not quite appeal to me either.
They show Parvati (the consort of Lord Shiva and form of Mother Divine) as someone who keeps getting angry, keeps getting upset so easily and keeps yelling every now and then. These are not divine qualities. Divine qualities are that of equanimity, happiness, naturalness, simplicity, and foresight. This is what should be shown.
See, there are some divine forces and some demonic forces. But these serials ignore this and are portraying these Divine characters as human being, and that too not normal human beings, but people who are emotionally unhealthy or filled with negativity and misery. So I do not think this as a very wise thing to do. This is one thing.
Secondly, you should not take the story as the real truth, but you should extract the deeper meaning behind the stories that are portrayed. Otherwise it becomes just another form of entertainment and nothing more.
For example, in the program, a demon named Jalandhara emerged. Now where did this demonic energy come from when everything is Lord Shiva? When there is nothing beyond Lord Shiva, then this demon too must have come from Shiva.
So all the demons that have ever emerged are a part of the Brahman, and not separate from it. This is what you must understand first.
The story goes that Lord Shiva became very angry with Indra’s arrogance.
Lord Shiva is the manifestation of peace (and is pure consciousness), and Indra represents the collective consciousness or mob psychology.
They say one Indra is equivalent to a 1000 eyes, which means representing a mob of 500 people. A crowd generally has a consciousness or mind of its own, what is known as mob psychology, which is most of the time destructive. They will go somewhere and burn or destroy some public property and create nuisance. This mob mindset always has a destructive tendency. So it was very natural for the Shiva Tattva (the element or principle of pure consciousness, and bliss) to get angry at this destructive consciousness of Indra.
So anger arose from the peaceful Shiva Tattva. But the anger did not stop there. Lord Shiva’s anger took the form of a demon (a personification of the destructive nature of the Lord’s fury). No matter where anger comes from, even if it comes from God, it will surely have a reaction and come back to that person. Everything ultimately returns back to the source where it originates from, even anger.
So the anger (represented by Jalandhara) too had to come back (and dissolve into) to Lord Shiva, who was its source. Lord Shiva invokes the Adi Shakti (referring to the Mother Divine as the primordial energy) to destroy Jalandhara.
Lord Shiva represents the peaceful aspect of consciousness, while the Mother Divine is the energy which is responsible for all activity in Creation. Now, Adi Shakti is the combination of three energies or powers: Gyan shakti (the power of knowledge), Kriyashakti (the power of action), and Icchashakti (the power of will).
So when Lord Shiva and Adi Shakti became one, they defeated the anger that came from Him. In this way they destroyed Jalandhara, the demon who kept trapping people in the web of delusion using his powers. This is the essence of the story.
Gurudev, if a woman has lost her husband, is it okay for her to dress up again? Can she dedicate herself to serving and helping others? Can she lead a normal life as she did before?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar:
Yes, definitely. But first you have to come out of the sorrow of your loss. You should grieve only for 13 days, at the most for a year. After that you must come out of your sorrow.
How much time your husband came to the planet for, he stayed for that much time and then left. That is all right. Now you move on.
Did you come to this planet together? No. You came alone and met him somewhere along the way. So now you can walk alone again.
Be at peace with yourself, and keep your attention on the Divine.
This is what Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita also, ‘I am your father, I am your mother. It is me who is your grandfather and whosoever that came to your life'.
Whoever has come to you in whatever form, know that to be the Divine.
Gurudev, I am a Government servant. My earnings are meager. Can I lead a successful and luxurious life without engaging in corruption?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar:
Do you want to sleep in peace? Do you want to walk fearlessly? Do you want to live with confidence with your head held high?
The happiness that you get from leading an honest life is something you can never get by leading a dishonest life. You may have all the gadgets and luxuries at your disposal, but what is the use if you are not able to sleep in peace.
Now you choose what you want. Do you want to live peacefully, sleep peacefully, and walk with your head held high? Can you boldly say that you have led an honest life?
To be able to say this can bring you happiness and satisfaction that nothing else can.
Gurudev, everyone in this world seems to be troubled with some problem or the other. Have we come to this world only to solve problems?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar:
If you consider them as problems, they will appear as problems to you. If you see them as a play (of the Divine), they will appear as a play to you.
Many times we get so used to problems that without them we feel restless. If there are no problems then we create some for ourselves, and then we become a problem for others around us. We need to change our perspective of life. Have a broad vision.
This world is full of diversity, and every person has a different nature and different behavior. You should understand this.
Gurudev, my parents have been married for 25 years but they do not get along with each other. When I go to my father he seems correct, and when I go to my mother she seems correct. What do I do?
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar:
My first advice for you is to keep going to both of them. Tell them both that they are right and continue making efforts to maintain the friendship between them. Don’t give up. If you try 100 times at least one time something good will come out.
See, already 25 years have passed, and another 20-25 years will pass like that. We will see later what happens after that.
Do not try too much to maintain peace in such a situation. Just accept the way things are and relax. It is difficult to change the nature of people. It is better to leave them the way they are.
If the fire is too much then sprinkle some water. Stand in between if they start to fight. You are sensible and strong. That is how things are in our society.
There was a gentleman, and someone asked him, 'Why do you fight with your wife?'
He replied, 'What do you mean? She is my wife and I love her, so how can I go fight with someone else? I can only fight with the one I love'.
That is very true.
See, they will fight now and then, but then they will get back together and love each other also. It is okay. Don’t interfere too much and don’t worry.
(Note: The discourse was given in Hindi. Above is a translation of the original talk.)
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