Why Hindu Worships Idols?

Do Hindus really worship idols?

Do Hindus reject God and instead worship lifeless statues carved of stone or cast of molten bronze? 

Well, if you ask any of these worshippers at my guru’s ashram in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, they’ll insist that they’re worshipping the very same God that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship. Their deep conviction is based on an important teaching from the Rig Veda, the most ancient of the Hindu scriptures, which says, “God is one, the wise call him by many names.” 

Hindus believe that the Almighty God can be addressed as Jesus or Krishna, Allah or Yahweh, or Shiva; that one God with many names is Ishvara in Sanskrit.

Hindus possess a unique theology that describes Ishvara, God, as having created the universe from his own body. The Vedic scriptures present Ishvara as saying, “May I become many.” These same scriptures teach that Ishvara is the fabric of existence, the fundamental material from which the universe is woven.

The universe is made of Ishvara like this pot is made of clay. For this reason, Hindus believe that God is present in everything like clay is present in this pot. So, God dwells in every person, animal, insect, tree, and rock, and that’s why Hindus consider everyone and everything to be fundamentally sacred. All that exists, whether animate or inanimate, is divine because it’s a manifestation of Ishvara.

Based on this theology, Hindus worship God in an almost infinite variety of forms.

  • Hindus worship God in the form of the Sun (Surya), the shining source of spiritual wisdom.
  • Hindus worship God in the form of graceful rivers like the holy Ganges, whose sacred waters purify all sins.
  • Hindus worship God in the form of mountains like Arunachala, which is considered to be an earthly form of Lord Shiva.
  • Hindus even worship God in the form of trees sometimes to seek blessings for the birth of a child.

So, it’s no surprise that Hindus also worship God in beautiful figures of stone, metal, plaster, and wood; after all, Ishvara is present in each and every form.

The religions of the world differ sharply in their views about sacred objects and religious imagery. For example, Islam strictly forbids the depiction of any divine or human form whatsoever, so their exquisite mosques are ornamented with geometric and natural forms as well as flowing Arabic calligraphy. On the other hand, some religions make extensive use of sacred forms and objects. Most Christians venerate the cross. Statues of holy saints and the mother of Jesus are held in great reverence by Roman Catholics. Precious icons are kissed with adoration by the Eastern Orthodox. Huge scrolls, painstakingly inscribed with the words of the Torah, are venerated by Jews. The main scripture for Sikhs, Guru Granth Sahib, is lovingly cared for as if it is a living guru. Tibetans revere elaborately painted Thangkas that depict Buddha’s celestial diety and intricate mandalas. Yet, in none of these religions is God actually worshipped in the various forms and images they hold sacred.

Hindus are unique in their worship of Ishvara in countless forms. Form found in temples large and small, forms found in little roadside shrines, in the homes of the pious, and even on the dashboards of taxis, buses, and auto-rickshaws.

Lord Ganesha in Car Dashboard
Lord Ganesha in Car Dashboard

Now, to refer to these sacred forms as idols is a big problem because, for most non-Hindus, the word “idol” means a false God. The Old Testament of the Bible chastises those who worship idols instead of worshipping God. Yet, as we saw before, Hindus actually worship the same God that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship. To say that Hindus worship idols suggests that Hindus don’t worship God, which is simply untrue. To make matters worse, the word “idol” is commonly used by Hindus themselves throughout English-speaking India. It would be more accurate to use the Sanskrit words “vigraha” or “murti,” which means sacred form. The English word “deity” can also be used.

It’s ironic that Ishvara, who pervades the entire universe as the fabric of existence, is worshipped in a sacred form that stands only a few feet tall. Certainly, no educated Hindu believes that the deity standing on an altar is itself the almighty, all-pervasive creator of the universe. Hindus worship the Almighty God by means of the deity on the altar. In a manner of speaking, Hindus don’t pray to the deity; they pray to God through that deity. 

A wonderful metaphor explains this.

Suppose you call a friend who lives across the country. When you speak into your phone, you’re not talking to the phone; you’re talking through the phone. The phone in your hand is simply an instrument or means through which you can talk to your friend. In a similar way, the deity on an altar is simply a means through which you can worship Ishvara. If your friend lives thousands of miles away, you don’t need a huge phone to span the distance. So, a huge deity is not needed to worship the creator of the universe. Yet, you can’t talk to your friend using just any electronic device; you have to use a cell phone. In the same way, you can’t worship Ishvara using just any object on an altar; it needs to be a sacred form that represents Ishvara symbolically.

Symbolism is important not just in Hinduism, but in all cultures. The power of symbolism can transform an ordinary piece of cloth into a flag that represents a mighty nation. Important religious symbolism is incorporated into each deity, which are crafted by hand following age-old traditions to produce forms that are both rich in symbolic meaning and endowed with great beauty. 

Hindu Idol Worship

For example, this deity is a form of Lord Shiva known as Dakshinamurti. Dakshinamurti is Ishvara in the form of a guru, a teacher. His lower left-hand holds palm-leaf manuscripts of Vedic scriptures; his lower right hand is held in chin mudra, a gesture indicating the act of teaching; his upper hands hold a drum and fire, symbols of creation and destruction, respectively. At his feet are his students, the first four Rishis, the ancient sages who received spiritual wisdom from Ishvara and passed it on in the scriptures they composed. Under his right foot is a demon that represents ignorance. 

Every deity worshipped by Hindus incorporates this kind of symbolism. Symbolism is important, yet each deity is more than a mere symbol. A deity is not simply an iconic representation of Ishvara. As discussed before, Ishvara is present in everything as the fabric of existence, so Ishvara is certainly present in a sacred form of stone or metal. But there’s a second, more significant reason that the deities worshipped in temples worldwide are more than mere symbols.

Returning to our metaphor, if your cell phone isn’t charged, it’s a useless lump of metal and plastic; only after it’s charged can it be used. Similarly, it can be used for worship only after the deity in a temple has been prepared through special consecration rituals. Before daily worship began in this temple thirty years ago, a group of highly trained priests performed elaborate consecration rituals over four days. In these rituals, the Dakshinamurti deity was first purified and then permanently established on its altar. Later, it was symbolically infused with life, with prana, in the ritual of prana pratishta.

Kumbha Abhisheka

Finally, in a ritual called Kumbha Abhishek, the entire temple structure was purified with pots of sanctified water ceremoniously poured over its towering spire. These complex rituals figuratively charge or energize a deity and prepare a temple for worship. And just like your cell phone needs to be recharged occasionally, all these rituals must be repeated every 12 years to maintain the sacred power of the temple.

In Hindu tradition, there are several different forms of ritual worship. In ancient times, the most common form of worship was Yajna, also called Homa or Havan. In this ritual, each Ishvara is worshipped through oblations offered into a sacrificial fire accompanied by reciting sacred mantras. The sacred fire consumes the oblations and symbolically conveys them to  Ishvara. Today, Yajnas are still performed, but the most common ritual worship practiced in every Hindu temple is called puja.

The word “puja” specifies a ritual in which a series of offerings are bestowed upon a deity on an altar as if the deity were a living person. Performing puja is like honoring a highly respected and much-loved guest. When a guest arrives at your home, you shower him with gifts, serve him a sumptuous meal, and praise his accomplishments. These same tokens of respect are offered symbolically during puja performances. Gifts, food, and words of praise are all presented with Sanskrit prayers and mantras.

Sixteen Steps to Worships Lord Ganesha

Puja can be performed in many ways, but a typical ceremony often includes sixteen steps or offerings. Let’s go through these sixteen steps and see how a traditionally trained priest performs them in worshiping Lord Ganesha, whose altar is adjacent to Dakshinamurti in this temple. 

The first step of puja is to meditate on Lord Ganesha,”Om mahaganapataye namah……..” This step is like fondly remembering your special guest before he arrives.

The second step is to invoke Ishvara’s presence in your altar: “Om mahaganapataye namah (Om! Salutations to Lord Ganesha).” This step is like inviting an honored guest into your home.

The third step is to symbolically offer a seat, as you would offer a seat to a guest: “Om mahaganapataye namah, asanam samsthapayami (Om! Salutations to Lord Ganesha, I offer a seat).”

The next three steps are water offerings for the feet, hands, and mouth. 

  1. Padya: water for feet
  2. Arghya: water for hands
  3. Achamana: Water for mouth 

Long ago, a guest would come to your home on foot, walking a long dusty road, so washing a guest’s feet was originally for practical reasons, though it’s now ceremonial. “Om mahaganapataye namah padayoh padyam samarpayami ( I offer water to wash the feet).” 

Water for washing one’s hands and rinsing one’s mouth were also offered to guests and are similarly offered in puja.

  • Om mahaganapataye namah hastayoh arghyam samarpayami (I offer water to wash the hands),
  • Om mahaganapataye namah achamaniyam samarpayami (I offer water to rinse the mouth). 

The next step of puja is to offer a bath, which can be offered symbolically by sprinkling the deity with a few drops of water, “Om mahaganapataye namah snanam snapayami ( I offer a bath).” The bath can also be done very elaborately with milk and other liquids in a ritual called Abhisheka.

After bathing, the deity is draped with fine clothing and glittering jewelry; if the deity is already adorned, flowers can be offered instead. “Om mahaganapataye namah vastrartham abharanartham ca pushpani samarpayami”(For clothes and jewelry, I offer flowers).

Next, the deity is anointed with sandalwood paste, “Om mahaganapataye namah gandhan samarpayami (I offer sandalwood paste).” 

A central feature of most pujas is Archana. Archana is the recitation of a litany of holy names to praise the particular form of Ishvara being worshipped; a flower is offered along with each name.

  • “Om gajananaya namah (Om ! Salutations to the elephant-headed God),
  • Om ganadhyaskhaya namah (Om! Salutations to the main attendant of Lord Shiva)
  • Om vighnarajaya namah (Om! Salutations to the remover of obstacles),
  • Om vinayakaya namah (Om! Salutations to the leader).”

Often, a litany of 108 names is recited in this manner. 

After Archana, incense is offered, “Om mahaganapataye namah dhupam aghrapayami (I offer incense),” which is followed by a offering of a lamp, “Om mahaganapataye namah dipam sandarshayami (I offer a lamp).”

Of course, food is offered. The food is first purified by sprinkling it with water while reciting the Gayatri mantra, “Write mantra here.” Then, the food is offered with a series of mantras: “Om pranaya svaha, apanaya svaha, unto prana, unto apana….mahavaivedam vivedayami (I offer this food).” https://whyhindu.com/prasada-blessing/

Read more about the Prasada: The Sanctified Food

The high point of every puja is Arati. Arati is a ceremonial presentation of a shining lamp accompanied by reciting special mantras. This step is based on an ancient custom. Long ago, a guest arriving at night could hardly be seen in the dim light cast by oil lamps; to see the guest more distinctly, a lamp was held in front of his face. Even today, in some temples, the deity can barely be seen in the shadowy interior until the priest performs Arati and reveals the deity to the worshippers.

Om na tatra suryo bhati na candra-tarakam…….nema vidyuto bhanti kuto yam agnih (The sun does not illuminate it, nor the moon and stars lightning cannot illuminate it, so how could this lamp do so?).” 

Read more about Arati: the act of waving light here

Symbolically, the Arati light represents the light of knowledge that can reveal Ishvara’s presence in your own heart. For this reason, worshippers gesture the Arati light towards their eyes and pray for spiritual knowledge to destroy the darkness of ignorance and illuminate their minds.

At the conclusion of puja, worshippers bow in respect, which is like bidding farewell to an honored guest before he leaves, “Om mahaganapataye namah namaskaran samarpayami (I offer my prostrations).” After puja is complete, the food offered earlier is distributed to worshippers as a gift from Ishvara, known as Prasad.

Many Hindus indeed participate in puja without knowing the significance of each step. Despite this, they still receive God’s blessings due to the strength of their devotion. However traditional religious teachers are quick to point out the pitfalls of performing puja without knowing the symbolism. 

They tell a delightful story about this

All the residents of a certain ashram gathered at the altar each morning to perform puja together, led by their elderly guru. One day, a stray cat wandered into the ashram and was immediately taken in as a pet. The next morning, during puja, the cat came and jumped up on the altar. They chased the cat away, but each morning, it came back and made a pest of itself. To solve this problem, the Guru tied up the cat with a string before starting puja. He had to do this every morning, and he did so for several years until the cat died. By then, the ashram residents had grown fond of the cat, so they soon acquired another one. This cat, too, jumped up on the altar and had to be restrained with a string.

After several more years, the elderly guru died, and it became the responsibility of his successor to tie up the cat each morning before puja. Over 50 years at this ashram, many cats came and went, as did several gurus. Then, one day, just before morning puja was to begin, the current guru was abruptly informed that their cat had just died. “Oh no,” he exclaimed. He immediately left the ashram and went to town to get another cat. Why? Because everyone in that ashram knew very well that the first step of puja was to tie up a cat. Without a cat, how can you perform puja?

This ridiculous story is told to warn us not to perform rituals mechanically without knowing the symbolism and significance of each step, as is often the case. But when such rituals are performed with full understanding, they become highly meaningful and more completely engage our minds and hearts in worship of Ishvara.

Swami Tadatmananda

Swami Tadatmananda is a well-known spiritual teacher and Vedanta scholar. He is associated with the Arsha Bodha Center in Somerset, New Jersey, USA. Swami Tadatmananda has been teaching Vedanta, Sanskrit, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, and other traditional Indian philosophies for many years. He is respected for his depth of knowledge, clarity of expression, and ability to make complex philosophical concepts accessible to modern audiences. Swami Tadatmananda founded the Arsha Bodha Center, a spiritual organization in Pennsylvania, USA. His life is dedicated to teaching Vedanta, a branch of Hindu philosophy.

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