This article is a chapter from the book “Yoga”.
Bhakti Yoga or Love of God is basic to all religions that encourage their adherents to use icons and rituals in their spiritual practices: it is one of the main features of the Indian approach to God. This was regarded by the ancient spiritual teachers as so vital that they wove it into the fabric of the Indian’s daily life.
It is often inevitable that the common man clings to the icon and the ritual and forgets the spirit underlying their use. Worship of the God-in-the-idol degenerates into mercenary idolatry which has nothing to do with religion but which is just another trade. However, whenever this has happened in India, it has immediately been arrested by saintly religious reformers who have restored to religions its pristine purity.
Man swings from one extreme to the other! People misinterpreet these reformers’ utterances and use them to their own advantage. The words of Lord Krishna, the Biblical Prophets, Lord Jesus, Lord Buddha and Prophet Mohammed sprang from their realization or direct experience: it is good to hold them as “lamps unto our feet” in order that we, too, may reach that experience. But when we assume the role of their representatives here and quote their words in order to run the followers of other faiths down, then we present a grotesque picture thus described by a Tamil poet: “An ugly bird saw a peacock dance; and, feeling equally important, spread its own plumes and began to dance!” The mischief is completed by the atheistic, materialistic and worldly man who uses all this to shake the faith of the devout.
We got to a Temple, Synagogue, Church or Mosque not in obedience to what the priest says, but to commune with God. We should not stop going there on account of what the priest says within it, nor what the reformers says outside it. To judge God and to make our devotion to Him dependent on the thoughts, words and deeds of any man, is to blaspheme against Him. You will be the loser; don’t forget that. You go to a restaurant to eat and appease your hunger. If you do not like a particular curry, you do not go away starving, but leave it and eat what you like. Understood and applied rightly idol-worship gradually leads the devotee to the realization of the Absolute. My Master, Sri Swami Sivananda was devoteed to idol-worship till the end of his life, though he was a monistic philosopher. He was regular in his daily ritualistic worship of his Deity. Thus he set an example for all of us to emulate. But, he, as Lord Krishna before him, reminded us that we should not stop there. We should practice constant remembrance of God. We should feel His (Omni)presence everywhere, in all.
It is very well to say so, but quite another thing to do so. Two factors are involved in this: (a) we should know what it is to feel the Presence of God – a “salesman’s sample” of it-and (b) we should have a method by which we shall be able to remember Him. The first is provided by the ritual of idol-worship. The icon enables us to feel His Presence and at the same time look within and sample the feeling. Without it, it is quite possible for the novitiate to pay lip-homage to the wonderful idea of feeling His Omnipresence.
The second is provided in the Bhagavad-Gita, the tenth chapter. The technique is this: let everything that we see remind us of God. The light of the sun, moon, stars, fire and the electric lamp; the vast blue sky or ocean; the beautiful flower and the innocent face of a child; the gigantic tree and the strong arm of a gymnast; the image of God on the altar and the radiant face of a saint-let them all remind us of the existence of God in them. Side by side, our Master wanted us to practice constant Nama-Smarana (repetition of the Name of God). One helps the other. When they are combined, we grow God-conscious very soon.
How does idol-worship fit into this ? What is an idol but a piece of matter, from the point of view of an ignorant man, whatever may be his wealth, position or titles ? Yet, the devotee feels the Presence of God within-that material substance (clay, stone, metal or wood). The wise sage allowed him to “play” (pray) with it as a child might play with a doll. The child gets its training in mothercraft; the devotee gets to know that God indeed does dwell in even that piece of matter. Then, he turns around and sees the sun, moon, etc., and realizes that even as God is the Indweller of the idol, He is the indweller of the sun, moon, etc. This looks apparently simple: but in practice it is difficult.
Why did not the sage advocate such a practice of the Presence of God, without prescribing idol-worship as a preliminary ? For the simple reason that the simple human mind is more ready to associate Divinity, pure and untainted by prejudice, with the idol (on account of tradition) than to see God in the face of a child. In the case of the latter, immediately your eyes behold it, your mind says, “It is my child”, etc., etc., and you have to overcome a good deal of thoughts and counter-thoughts before arriving at the ideal thought, “God is shining through its eyes.” But, in the case of an idol, on account of the age-old association of ideas, this difficulty does not arise. And, with a little practice, it becomes easy to extend the practice of the Presence of God to everything in this world.
There is another important angle to this spiritual exercise. Idol-worship should lead us on to meditation on the Absolute. Without the first step of idol-worship, meditation on the Absolute is almost impossible. And, if we do not extend the frontiers of divinity beyond the idol, we may get stuck there. Hence, even in the method of worshipping idols, our ancient seers had introduced elements of adoration of the Nameless and the Formless Being-in fact, they emphasized that we should superimpose the qualities of the Absolute on the idol.
In the ‘Mantras’ they provided for the worship, they wove expressions like, “I bow to the All-pervading,” “I bow to the Eternal” which are obviously irrelevant to the personalized form of God (e.g. Rama, Krishna who are historical personalities) the devotee worships. Again, they declared that mental worship of the chosen deity was superior (when we are ready for it, of course!) to gross external worship, and that Para Puja (a way of adorning the Omnipresent God through all our thoughts, words and deeds) was superior to all other forms of worship.
The sincere spiritual aspirant realized always that he could not get anywhere on this path without the help of an image to fix his mind on. The idol also provided a concrete Form of God on which he could pour out the devotion of his heart, to which he could pray, and on which he could lean in times of stress and strain, trials and difficulties. He found great relief from tension, worries and anxieties when he had a ‘tangible God’ to whom he could talk. The Omnipresent Divinity which was, of course, present in that idol, too, heard his prayer and granted it.
When the concentration grew intense, the power latent in the idol was revealed; and thus we have stories of great mystics who could ‘see’ God in and through the idols. Let us not forget that God who is Omnipresent is in the idol, too: and He who is Omnipotent can reveal Himself in any Form to the devotee. And, it is in this respect that the idol is different from the child’s doll. Whereas the doll would for ever remain a doll, because it is lifeless, the idol will reveal the hidden Godhead in response to the devotee’s prayer and concentration. The concentrated beam of the devotee’s consciousness will one day be powerful enough to burn the gross ‘matter’ of the idol and liberate and reveal the hidden God in it, even as the rays of sunlight, when focussed through a lens, are able to burn a piece of cotton and make it burst into flame. But, let us not forget that it was not the idol that they saw in the vision, but the Divinity in the idol- the Divinity that is in all, for that matter.
When this principle is not understood, people unwisely should not say, “We do not want to worship a stone.” Of course, they should not. But first answer these questions: “Who is worshipping the stone ?” ‘I’. What idea have you of this ‘I’ ? The first one is of the body. It is the body that actually performs the worship. What is the body ? Predominantly water, with some other chemical elements. After all, what harm is there in water and matter worshipping a stone: was it ignorance or superstition ? Of course, you exclaim, I am not only the body, but I have a soul in it. Then, let the body worship the stone, let the heart, mind and soul in you realize the Lord in the stone.
Secondly, will you worship all stones ? No. Only a particular stone which has been given a shape. Who worships it ? If this ‘I’ is also chiselled and sculptured into a divine shape, it is divine. The stone image of God reminds you of this “When this was stone, you stood upon it. When those chips of the stone which did not belong to this divine form were chiselled away, and the stone assumed the divine form, you worship it. In the same way, there are a lot of undivine elements in you. Chisel them away. You will become a divinity on earth, adorable by mankind.” That, incidentally, is the argument underlying the adoration of the Guru or the spiritual preceptor.
If idol-worship thus leads us step by step to divinization and God-realization through the worshipful service and recognition of the Omnipresence of God, it is ideal worship. Else, it degenerates into idle worship.