Introduction

In many religious systems worshiping idols and icons are considered primitive or even worse condemned as satanic devil worship. The Christians quote Moses from the one of the ten commandments which condemns worshiping an imaginary form of God. So is Vedic deity worship mere idol worship? Lets examine.

Deities in Vedic theology

Deities, called murtis in Sanskrit, are an important part of Vedic temples and the Vedic tradition, but what is the significance of Deities and Deity worship? One thing to understand is that all the images of the Deities in the Vedic pantheon, as found in the temples, are made according to explicit details and instructions found in the Vedic texts called Shilpa Shastras. From these instructions we find the means to portray the proper stance, hand gestures, and other factors in the image of the Deity. In this way, Deities are not formed according to whim but in compliance to the scriptural regulations. Then they are installed in the temple in an elaborate ceremony known as Prana-pratishta, wherein the divine personalities are called to appear in the form of the Deity. Some of the Deities are demigods, while others, such as Krishna, Vishnu, Ramachandra, are of the Supreme Being.

Idol Worship and the associated stigma

Some people, however, do not believe that God has a form. But many verses in the Puranas and, particularly, the Brahma-samhita establish that the Supreme Being does have a specific form. These texts also describe His variegated features, which include His spiritual shape, characteristics, beauty, strength, intelligence, activities, etc. Therefore, it is considered that the authorized Deities of the Supreme that are shaped according to these descriptions provide a view of the personal form of God.

Those who have no knowledge of God or His form will certainly consider the temple Deities as idols. But this is the effect of their ignorance. They think that the Deities are simply the products of someone’s imagination. Of course, there are those who say that God has no form, spiritual or material, or that there is no Supreme Being. Others think that since God must be formless, they can imagine or worship any material form as God, or they regard any image as merely an external manifestation of the Supreme. But images of the demigods are not additional forms or representations of an impersonal God, nor are they equal to God. All such people who think in the above mentioned ways have resorted to their own imagination to reach such conclusions and are, therefore, idolaters. The imaginary images and opinions of God that are formed by those who have not properly learned about, seen, or realized God are indeed idols, and those who accept such images or opinions are certainly idolaters. This is because these images or opinions are based on ignorance and are not a likeness of His form.

Nonetheless, God is described in the Vedic literature, which explains that God is sat-chit-ananda vigraha, or the form of complete spiritual essence, full of eternity, knowledge, and bliss, and is not material in any way. His body, soul, form, qualities, names, pastimes, etc., are all nondifferent and are of the same spiritual quality. This form of God is not an idol designed from someone’s imagination, but is the true form, even if He should descend into this material creation. And since the spiritual nature of God is absolute, He is nondifferent from His name. Thus, the name Krishna is an avatara or incarnation of Krishna in the form of sound. Similarly, His form in the temple is not merely a representation, but is also qualitatively the same as Krishna as the archa-vigraha, or the worshipable form.

Some people may question that if the Deity is made from material elements, such as stone, marble, metal, wood, or paint, how can it be the spiritual form of God? The answer is given that since God is the source of all material and spiritual energies, material elements are also a form of God. Therefore, God can manifest as the Deity in the temple, though made of stone or other elements, since He can transform what is spiritual into material energy, and material energy back into spiritual energy. Thus, the Deity can easily be accepted as the Supreme since He can appear in any element as He chooses, whether it be stone, marble, wood, gold, silver, or paint on canvas. In this way, even though we may be unqualified to see God, who is beyond the perceptibility of our material senses, the living beings in this material creation are allowed to see and approach the Supreme through His archa-vigraha form as the worshipable Deity in the temple. This is considered His causeless mercy on the materially conditioned living beings that He would allow Himself to appear to humanity as a Deity to accept our worship and service.

Interaction with the deity

In this manner, the Supreme Being gives Himself to His devotees so they can become absorbed in serving, remembering and meditating on Him. Thus, the Supreme comes to dwell in the temple to accept our worship and attract the eyes to concentrate and meditate on the Deity, and the temple becomes the spiritual abode on earth. In time, the body, mind and senses of the devotee become spiritualized by serving the Deity, and the Supreme becomes fully manifest to him or her. Worshiping the Deity of the Supreme and using one’s senses in the process of bhakti-yoga, devotional service to the Supreme, provides a means for one’s true essential spiritual nature to unfold. The devotee becomes spiritually realized and the Deity reveals His spiritual nature to the sincere souls according to their evolutionary spiritual development. This can continue to the level in which the Supreme Being in the form of the Deity engages in a personal relationship and performs reciprocal, loving pastimes with the devotee, as has previously taken place with other advanced individuals.

Indian sub continent is abound with numerous temples were there are accounts of deity having interacted with its devotee. Every ancient temple has its stala purana or the history involving the deity. It is not necessary that it has to be etched in the history but there are still stories of such divine interactions. So it is not just an iconography for decoration and rituals it is representing the demigod itself.

When an Idol becomes a deity

An idol becomes a deity only if it is properly carved as per the Shilpa Sastras and installed by sacred rituals called “avahana” or a call to the personality to descend by spiritually advanced priests. The [Shilpa Shastras (Sanskrit: Åšilpa Śāstra) are traditional Vedic texts that describe the standards for religious Hindu iconography, prescribing e.g. the proportions of a sculptured figure, as well as rules of Vedic architecture.They form one of 64 branches of divinely revealed arts.

So not that any idol like the one of Ganesha with a computer becomes a deity this is just a product of artists imagination nothing to do with worship of Ganesha. The material of the deity, pose, color and other bodily characteristics should match the agama sastras to qualify to be worshiped as a deity. Infact a vishnu deity is always carved out of a stone which has life by qualified sculptors. But unfortunately in today’s India we have all sorts of aberrations like above which discredits the vedic culture.

Vedic Observer

At this stage, darshan is not simply a matter of viewing the Deity in the temple, but to one who is spiritually realized it is a matter of experiencing the Deity and entering into a personal, reciprocal exchange with the Supreme Personality in the form of the Deity. At that stage, you may view the Deity, but the Deity also gazes at you, and then there is a spiritual exchange wherein the Deity begins to reveal His personality to you. This is what separates those who are experienced from those who are not, or those who can delve into this spiritual exchange and those who may still be trying to figure it out. For those who have experienced such an exchange with the Supreme or His Deity, at this stage the worship of the Supreme Being in the Deity moves up to a whole different level, with no limits as to the spiritual love that can be shared between the devotee and the Deity.


References

1. Darshan and the Significance of Deity Worship By Stephen Knapp
2. Why go to a Temple

Compiled by LNDAS

2 Comments

  • girimurari says:

    Moses is said to have received ten commandments directly hearing from God. It was a clear human male voice and not sound from any lesser creature. So when Moses could hear a male voice then why cannot God have a Male form ? In those days, in parts of Israel, there were frequent attacks from one group of faith upon other and a show of dominance was destruction of their diety which meant their God is finished ! So it is said that the concept of ‘formless’ God was adopted as a releif from the pathetic feelings of seeing the diety destroyed and death of their God !

  • I always had this question why would Hindus need to worship idols. The God has to be above all form and limitations and Vedas and Upanishads talk about nirguna Brahman. But after studying further from the sages like Ramanuja and Madhva we can to know that the Supreme One cannot have a materialistic form with limitations like mortal humans, rather he should have a perfect spiritual form or aprakrta rupa (non material) which doesn’t undergo any deformation with time. It has to be sat-cit-ananda full of eternity, knowledge and bliss. The Bhagavat settles all questions on form it says the Supreme can be realized in three stages namely Brahman or nirakara, nirvisesa formless which is inferior to Paramatma or as an all pervading person with limited attributes and the ultimate being the Bhagavan or the Lord with all qualities and attributes. How can the Lord not have a form when mortal humans the he created have a form? He must have most beautiful of all forms hence the name Krishna the all attractive.

    This article establishes the science of diety worship in Hindu scriptures. But I had a question how is it possible that the idols of Gods can be broken or vandalised? Then I came across an interesting fact that was quite astonishing. In India there are numerous dieties said to be established by great sages or acharyas dating back to Satya Yuga i.e. millions of years ago. Like the diety at Srirangam is said to be given by Lord Rama to Vibhishana in Treta Yuga which is 864000 years ago. All such dieties established by true saints have remained to this date inspite of many attempts by invaders.

    So a diety is much more than just a carving out of clay, metal or wood, the presence of God in the diety is subject to the devotion of the worshiper and the saint who installed it. They can never be destroyed. One should definitely try to learn proper understanding of God from such saints.

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There is no stronger obstruction to one’s self-interest than thinking other subject matters to be more pleasing than one’s self-realization.

by Bhagavatam 4.22.32

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