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Do Hindus Worship Idols?

Do Hindus Worship Idols?



The answer to this question is most certainly yes! Hindus do worship idols, but so do Christians, Jews and even Muslims. In fact, it is impossible to conceive of God without some form of idol, for idol worship is the way of religion. Let me explain.

In Hinduism there are many words to describe the nature of God, and we will refer to them as the need arises, but in this regard, the most relevant word is acintya, which means “inconceivable,” “beyond thought.” The true nature of God is, therefore, beyond the ability of human beings to understand, yet we have a need to reach out in our mind and try to conceive of God, so we create an image of God in our minds. This mental image of God is an idol. Most people, including Hindus, think of an idol solely as a graven or carved image and, while this is true, an idol is a carved image, it is also a form that begins in the mind. It is a mental form. Consequently, mental forms are also idols.

It does not find any support from Vedas. In chapter 32 of Yajurveda it has been said that God Supreme or Supreme Spirit has no ‘Pratima’ or material shape. He cannot be seen directly by anyone. His name is so great that only the Name is enough to invoke Him. He pervades all beings and all directions.

As God is formless and his name is enough, syllables comprising the words may, therefore, be taken as adequate representation. What God is like? The answer is, it is like the word ‘God’ containing the syllables G, O, D. The most striking example of this is the word ‘Om’ which means God in spiritual and material form. Thus according to the Vedas God neither has any image nor He resides in any particular idol or statue.

idolHowever we find that Hindu temples are filled with images or idols of gods and goddesses. This phenomenon can be easily understood if we try to know the necessity of assumptions. If we teach a child at nursery stage that ‘A’ stands for ‘apple’ we are making an assumption for easy learning of a letter of alphabet. While teaching geometry the teacher draws a triangle and says, “Let ABC be a triangle”. The word ‘let’ is used here because the lines forming the triangle are not really lines according to the definition of a line. A line, by definition, has length but no breadth. How to draw such a line on a blackboard? Breadth invariably accompanies length whenever one attempts to draw a line. Hence one has to use the word ‘let.’ One has to assume that what has been drawn is a line. Similarly, geometry asks us to assume a point also. A point is defined as having neither length, nor breadth nor thickness. It is without any dimension; still we try to draw it on a blackboard. What we draw is practically a circle, but it is assumed to be a point. A true triangle and a true point exist only in definitions. Yet we have to proceed on the assumption that they actually exist.




As the mind cannot concentrate itself on a formless being or spiritual form of Supreme Being one has to assume God in some visible object or image. During the Vedic period there were neither temples nor images or idols of deities. So God was invoked through the fire kindled for havan materials. The seers of Upanishads discarded the practice of havans and concentrated on Imperishable ‘Om’. When the Buddhism and Jainism flourished in India the idols or statues of Gautam Buddha and Vardhaman Mahavir got much popularity. To rejuvenate Hinduism different images of God varied in shape according to different names of God came into existence. One may say that it resulted in spread of superstition in Hinduism. Yet it is a fact that all temples, mosques, churches and other religious buildings are also idols and images where God does not come to reside. It is weakness of the man that he likes human shape. So majars (graves) of Sufi saints among Muslims and crucified figure of Jesus Christ in the churches command much reverence. In the same way personification of different names of God and giving different forms to them have helped sculptors to make statues or idols that may find place in temples to be adored by devotees.

The Image of Father

With this in mind, perhaps the most common mental images that human beings use to conceive of God is as a Father, a King or a Mother. The idea of a father, a king or a mother is, therefore, a mental idol, a tool we use, to conceive of what is actually inconceivable, beyond thought. Convert that mental idol into a wooden or stone image and you have created a graven idol. From a Hindu perspective there is little difference between a mental idol and physical idol. One is just an extension of the other. And so, if you conceive of God as the supreme Father, or as the King of kings, or the divine Mother, you have created an idol, a material image with which to approach God. Human beings have no choice other than to approach God through these idols, even though all idols are simply crude and limited approximations of what God is in reality. Of all religions Hinduism seems the most adept at converting mental idols into physical form as graven idols, or what we prefer to call, sacred images. In fact, we generally teach our students not to use the word idol at all because it gives the wrong impression amongst many non Hindus. Indeed, Hindu temples are full of such sacred images of God and Hindus have special ways to install and interact with these images in their temples and homes, and in most cases these images are viewed, not as material images, but as spiritual forms. This is the result of seeing through faith.

Goddess DurgaWhich Image?

Another Sanskrit word that describes the nature of God and which comes into play in regard to idols is sarva-gata, which means literally “gone everywhere.” In other words,sarva-gata refers to the all pervading nature of God. God is in all things and in all places. In fact, you are sitting or standing on God right now, which means, technically speaking, you could worship the floor or chair or anything as an idol of God. This, however, is generally not done. Instead, Hindus worship specific images that are described in scripture(shastra). The technical name for these sacred images of God is arcya-vigraha. Arcyameans ‘worship-able’ and vigraha means “form” and so arcya-vigraha is the “form to be worshipped.” We can also say that God agrees to appear in these special forms that can be understood by human beings in order to allow Himself to be worshipped. A more common term that is used instead of arcya-vigraha is murti. It simply means divine form. These sacred images that you find in Hindu temples and homes are installed according to specific rituals also described in scripture (See Prana Pratishtha). How Hindus perceive of these images varies according to adhikara, but one simple way is to see these sacred images as “mail boxes.” Devotees come to a temple bringing fruits and flowers and all their prayers and hopes and stand before the sacred image and “post” their offerings and prayers through the sacred image. The worshippers are not bowing down to stone, they are not worshipping a statue; they are approaching these sacred images as the means to get to the God behind the image. In a similar way, a Christian may kneell before a crucifix of Jesus and pray. The worshipper is not worshipping the wooden cross, but instead he is approaching his object of devotion, Jesus, through the manifestation of the crucifix. This is a form of idol worship from a Hindu perspective. Even a Muslim, who will never worship any form, cannot help but have some abstract mental image or concept of God. This too is an idol of God, albeit an abstract mental idol. It can not be helped. This is what I mean when I say there is no way to conceive of and worship God except through some form of idol worship.

Language as an Idol

Closely related to these ideas of idol worship is the use of human language to express our understanding of God. The very words acintya or sarva-gata, are human attempts to touch God using language. But even language is a product of this world and therefore is limited to the boundaries of physical reality. Language, even though it is a crude instrument used to express what is beyond thought is still the best instrument we have. So when we speak about God as our Father, our King, our Lord or our Mother, these words are also idols of God. But, again, how can we speak of the divine without these idols of language? Idols of the divine cannot be avoided.

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17 Responses to "Do Hindus Worship Idols?"

  1. Paul  March 19, 2014 at 8:53 pm

    I am slightly perplexed by your argument that the Vedas prohibit murti worship. Firstly, am I right in saying this is part of your argument? If so, why can we use our human limitation (of requiring a medium through which to worship God) as a justification to using murtis and going against the Vedas. Surely the Vedas would have allowed murti worship and not prohibited the use of images outright if it was clear that humans would not be able to conceive of God without sacred images.

    This, in my opinion, depends on the the interpretation of ‘pratima’ which, if it does not mean image and simply means ‘likeness’ (in that there is no other being than God), means that murti worship is not prohibited in the Vedas. This is the correct interpretation because I don’t understand how we can use human limitation to discard commandments from Holy scripture.

    Reply
    • Nandakishore N  January 15, 2015 at 1:01 pm

      I personally don’t think Vedas have *prohibited* murti-worship. I think they were just silent on this matter.
      And I even don’t think it’s proper to say that Hindu Idol-Worship started after Buddhism and Jainism. Most of our temples are thousands of years old and come with a great history.
      It’s said that the Idols of Sita, Raama and Lakshmana were installed by Jaambavant near the Saptagiri. The temple was later rebuilt by Janamejaya, S/o Parikshit and then was later renovated by none other than Sri-Krishnadeva-raya of Vijayanagara Empire.
      The udupi Sri Krishna’s idol is said 2 b the one worshiped by none other than Devi Rukmini.

      Reply
    • GOPI CHAND BUDUMURU  April 18, 2016 at 5:24 am

      Firstly, Vedas were not written in English. Discussing Vedic ideas originally conceived in Sanskrit, in English, will definitely bring in more difficulties in interpretations. It is because a language is not just a tool to express ideas. It works the other way round too. It shapes thoughts. An English mind, with a ‘dissect to understand’ approach won’t be able to understand the subtleties of Sanskrit thoughts.

      Secondly, we look at the Vedas as a nurturing and guiding spirit and not as an ultimate authority on everything. Although a the Vedas are treated with a lot of respect, they are open to discussion and understanding through arguments and counter-arguments. The more the enlightened you are, the more discriminating you will be on the subject. Hence, any misinterpretation can only be called as deviating from the path and not as going against the scriptures. It is only people with believer versus non-believer mentality that put forth such arguments.

      Reply
  2. 1  May 6, 2014 at 8:55 am

    Hi,
    pls be clear that no muslim worship idol. And the belief is thee is no one other then ALLAH to worship and Mohammed(s.a.w.) is his messenger. How come there be different GODs… As the fact is there is only one Creator. Thee is no worship at any saint grave, but only prayer for him. And Namaz us offerred only in single direction where ever you are in the world. And its not worshipping any ifol. But to ALLAH to show our gratitude.

    Reply
    • Atul  June 6, 2014 at 6:15 pm

      Hi,
      Although they say that there is no idol worship, Muslims do bow to the Mecca and Medina. They bow to the graves there ? So that is sort of bowing to a figure an idol. If Namaz could be read in any direction then yes we would agree that there is no idol worship. But they bow in the direction of Mecca during Namaz and so that is rigid and therefore idol worship..

      Reply
    • Nandakishore N  January 15, 2015 at 1:17 pm

      Turning towards the KABA and performing NAMAZ wherever U are in the world itself is kind of IDOL-Worship. Muslims treat KABA as the representation of ALLAH and offer the prayers.
      And besides, U offer prayers 2 Allah near Mazhaars of saints. Those Mazhaars are decorated in flowers and chaadars and are treated as holy icons. That’s what’s called *Idol-Worship*.
      And we all know that Vedas have reiterated time and again that there’s only ONE GOD.
      *Eeshaa-Vaasyam Idam Sarvam*; *Vaasanaath-Vaasu-devasya”; “Sarva-Bhoota-Nivaasosi*.
      All these various mantras and verses point to the same truth that GOD is omnipresent and ONE.
      Instead of imagining KABA, Hindus imagine GOD everywhere in everyform in every temple.
      So the only contradicting thing for Muslims is that we don’t read QURAN, we don’t call GOD in Arabic Language, and we have different rituals 2 offer our prayers.

      Reply
  3. Atul  June 6, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Hinduism is soo old that there are amazing information hidden in it. There are 2 types of deity worship. One deity is that was born on earth. Like Rama Krishna, Buddha.
    The other type is that of GOD like Ganeshji, Lakshmiji, Vishnujee etc.

    These GOD were not born on earth. The picture or deity have a lot of information stored in them. A picture is worth a thousand words. That information can only be deciphered if one bows to the idol and gets rid of their ego. And when the information is revealed it is awesome, jaw dropping and wonderful. WIth that information one is able to achieve higher spiritual connection !!

    Reply
  4. Rajesh  August 3, 2014 at 10:08 am

    Atul, Perfect answer. Also Search in youtube “Concept of God in Hinduism – Revolutionary talk by Nithyananda”

    Rajesh

    Reply
  5. rinku  August 30, 2014 at 6:51 pm

    According to this those who do idol worship they are not Hindu according to vedas

    Reply
  6. Amreen Shaikh  January 16, 2015 at 9:46 am

    Muslims do not do idol worship! It is prohibited in Islam. Muslims believe in One-God (Allah) and follow Islamic Monotheism. Kaaba is no way a form of Allah, but a holy place and so cannot be considered as idol or object. We pray in the direction of Kaaba to signify one-direction and oneness towards Allah and not pray to it or bow to it but Allah. There is no form of idol worship of any kind. Also, in Masjids, everyone perform prayer in direction of the Kaaba and not praying it as an object of worship. Also, when we perform prayers at Makkah and Madina, they are performed in direction of the Kaaba and not any grave worship. Kaaba doesn’t consist of any graves.

    Dargahs are not places of worship in Islam. We visit Dargahs to pray for them and not bow down and pray on it. It is Shirk. If a Muslim is in travel, he does not necessarily have to perform namaz in the Masjid, if there isn’t one. He can perform it on dry land too, only in the direction of the Kaaba. As stated in the article, Allah is everywhere and anywhere. Kaaba is a direction for namaz prayer. If we need to invoke Allah, we can call him anywhere and everywhere, that is why we call him as “Ya Allah” which means he is present everywhere and so he listens to us.

    Also, Allah does not have any shape or form. He is one. He is Alone, He is sufficient.

    As stated above, I agree that God is supreme, he has not pratima or material shape. These lines verifies Allah’s identity. And as stated above, his name is sufficient, I agree. Allah is an arabic word meaning, “There is no one worthy of worship but Allah” which is the most supreme name of Allah. Allah has 99 more names, each constituting his greatness and healing qualities, like As-Salaam is a name of Allah, which means “He is the best of healers”. Like hindus have different gods and goddesses, each signifying one healing quality, like for example, Saraswati symbolizes education, lakshmi symbolizes wealth. For muslims, all these symbols and qualities are present in Allah as he has different names, each symbolizing a healing, a power, a quality of his being. Like, Al-Alim, a name of Allah, which means the “knower of all” and Al-Ghani, a name of Allah, which means “The Rich one”.

    Quran is but the word of Allah, in Islam, we say that when we want to listen to Allah, we should read the Quran and when we want to speak to him, we should perform Namaz.

    The article uses Language as an idol. An idol is a material or an object. Language isn’t. So, Language and idol are 2 parallel thoughts and conceptions, which can rarely meet.

    My comments are just in response to the article and a few comments which didn’t sound appropriate in terms of Islam. I feel that we all must learn different religions to know about them.

    Thanks!

    Reply
    • saroj  January 17, 2016 at 9:06 am

      hi ma’am,
      one thing i liked in your comment is your open mindedness as evidednt in your statement “i feel the same we all must learn different religions to know about them”.thats really great.i am actually a panantheist-cum-agnostic.
      coming to my study of hinduism(i myself is a hindu, but do read a bit of scriptures), in Hinduism, God is the ABSOLUTE ONENESS, and these gods and goddesses are representations/personifications, or in other words, personalities signifying disintegrated aspects of that supreme reality, which we call as God.
      we do not call God as a separate being possessing various qualities, but the supreme one whose different aspects are these different qualities.
      the gods/goddesses are different representations of these disintegrated qualities of Godhead.
      furthermore, in upanishadic view, derived from earlier Vedas, starting from the Rig Veda, the whole universe is said to be a manifestation of Adithi, which is one aspect of God/REALITY.this aspect, adithi, later underwent changes in concept when it came to the puranas, but in the vedas, it represents the “shining aspect” of God, meaning that aspect whoch manifests as the universe, is beings and the laws of nature that the universe works.this is not pantheism, since pantheism does not believe in a transcendental Being, here, we have a transcendental being, whose an infinitestimally small portion/part transforms as the manifested universes/heavens, etc.this is just the belief that i hold.
      in this way, i belove in a supreme being that is both imminent/encompassing (by manifesting as the universe) and transcendental.
      coming to the different gods, again these are manifestations of different qualities of Godhead that lead us to the supreme light beyond which there is nothing to be reached.here, we are leaving the material platform of the universe, and going to the supreme spiritual/transcendental platform-which is the “bahmajyothi” , “”paramjyothi”or the “supreme light”.the word used for gods is “devas” meaning”the lightened/enlightened ones”, that is the ones that are personifications of various aspects of this supreme light. as per hinduism, these aspects include all those attributes/qualities that leads us on the right track-knowledge over ignorance, righteousness, etc. and these “gods” are different manifestations/personifications of that same “supreme light”. and this is given in Rig Veda 1/164/46:they hail him as indra,mithra,varuna agni,to that which is ONE, learned call him by many a title….”
      the deities represent all aspects of that supreme abode.”abode” here is not in the conventional sense, but in a metaphorical sense,as the state into which one merges by following the path of righteousness/dharma, truthfulness, and other forms of spiritual life these are disintegrated aspects of that supreme state which manifest into the universe nd into our lives..the deity worshipped is the personification/personality of these aspects which we are expected to follow/mandate in our life to reach that supreme abode/state.and, as per rig veda, we are supposed to fix our minds, and channelise our spiritual life unto the deity.it can be formless as Allah/Yahweh, or the formful deities such as the ones in hinduism. this is explained in Rig Veda 10/170.thus, that supreme being, Brahman, is disintegrated into many aspects, both material and spiritual.
      when viewed from a scientific perspective, we only look at the ,aterial manifetation as the universe and discard, the spiritual aspects, and thus these different deities,which are different forms of the same supreme being in different aspects of Godhead.

      these are my thoughts on theology, which i part;y derive from Vedas, and other histprical cults/religions like egyptian and mesopotamian.(well, iam juz starting to learn the mesopotamian ones).
      infact this idea is explained in maithrayaniya upanishad(4.5 to 4.6).and a couple of other books too.

      please put your thoughts on this.kindly know the gaps in my undersanding, or loopholes/contradictions in this concept taking into account the basic idea of panantheism-where the one God manifsts into many, so that, i can improve more on it.take it as some sort of strong conviction or something else, i somehow feel this to be correct.might be just my perspective..i have taken the time to write all this, because i see you as an open minded person who can see from other’s perspectives too, n i wanted to share it with someone for more healthier discussions on such matter.

      Reply
  7. swamiji  January 30, 2015 at 8:54 am

    Very well said GOD has no name or form. As form is defined as a limitation of space by the human mind to comprehend. A form is only a form when it is limited to certaim dimetions and having a color to be recognized. The mind of human beings are lumited, so it understands things with limitations.
    If the human mind could understand the concept of GOD then no “Mandur , Church, Masjid, Guru dwara or direction toward Kaabaa is needed. Mahlo me nahi , kutiyo me nahi, mandir me nahi, masjid me nahi, na Kaabaa na Kailash me.
    Jaha yaad karo bhagwaan wahee hai.
    Just to acommodate the limitations of the common human understanding ,these limited images, directions , places are created. But understand the Omnipresent which is also Omnisient and Omnipotent, some imagine to see it , and you can only See when something is limited in space. Because it is Omniseeent, some people imagine it as HIM, which is a personification, because we think: the only one with”Eyes” can see so we imagine some one with eyes. To move it must have Legs, to act phisically it must have some kind of Body.
    But none of it is true: IT moves, see, and act without any phisycal means.
    Binu pad chalai, sunai binu kana…….
    It is only the limited mind of us that we have to put some limited form in front of us to understand what we talk about.
    Thanks

    Reply
  8. Ramakrishnan  April 16, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    Why do we have to explain to the non-believers why we pray to idols. And whats wrong praying to idols? For me it is better than praying a invisible being somewhere in the sky. Why should we pacify the non-believers for their wrong understanding of our style of believe system.

    Reply
  9. rekha babli  April 16, 2015 at 6:56 pm

    Our divine deities help us in self realisation when we worship Him. When we meditate with full concentration, on ishta devatha, over a period of time, many might have had the darshan of the sakar, like Mirabai for whom Lord Krishnas image was not just an idol but a living form n for some in nirakar form like a manifestation of jyothi. And hinduism stresses to get mukti by our individual effort by meditating n for this murthis n images r used which are very effective for self realisation.

    Reply
  10. Abhishek jairaj  April 17, 2016 at 4:42 am

    I feel the argument of a Muslim that they don’t worship any form or idol is fundamentally wrong as in most muslim homes and shops I have seen an image of the kaala. . Now for me the kaaba is nothing but a black box but for the muslim it represents god and the very image of the kaaba brings the thought of god to their minds no matter in which direction the image is hung on their walls.. so I feel it actually is impossible to imagine and pray to God without medium..

    Reply
  11. Habeebul Haque Ansari  April 19, 2016 at 6:25 am

    This is not just an academic point about symbols and signs and their subjective interpretations (semiotics and semantics) but a question about actual orthodoxies and orthopractices. It involves how people see beauty and truth. It is possible people’s icons are different but their sense of aesthetics is similar. They may share a similar love of the true and the beautiful.

    Reply
  12. Sridhar  May 14, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    The Bhagavat Gita is very clear that God is a person and his material and subtle body is also a spirit as much as the soul is. In other words he is spiritualized and much bigger than you or me or the contents therein, whether visible or invisible. When you meditate you have focus on something. How can you focus attention on something that has no existential form. There cannot be meditation or prayers on the formless. Therefore you have vigrahas amongst Hindus. Muslims too bow down and pray to the Kaaba in whichever direction it is located. God is a person and every part of his person is a ear, hand, leg, mouth, etc, etc. Every part of his subtle body functions as an object of enjoyment and so on and so forth. It is easy to complicate but the Holy Bhagavat has explained it very well.

    Reply

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