Although it is Hinduism that is primarily known for idol worship, there are many religions in the world that use idols to “communicate” with their gods. Christianity and its various offshoots copiously use idols. In every church and in every religious-minded household there is a cross (which is a symbol) bearing a crucified Christ. People kneel before the idol and pray in front of it. Buddhism has idol worshipping and so does Jainism.
Tufail Ahmed, a renowned journalist, posted this Twitter update today:
Different people have been reacting differently to this update and some have even made personal attacks, but some thoughts came to my mind and I decided to write them down.
There are many opponents of idol worshipping. As I have written above, in the contemporary world and among the 4–5 major religions of the world, it is mostly Hindus who are identified as idol worshippers and sometimes they attract unnecessary criticism for bowing in front of inanimate objects and statues.
Sikhs, for example, are great opponents of idol worshipping but in one way or another, they also bow in front of various religious symbols such as Nishan Sahib. You will find photos of various Sikh gurus in almost every household. What’s the big difference between photos and statues? Nothing much. They are both imaginary representations.
Historically (and even now at various places) Muslims have broken and trampled idols to cause religious hurt to Hindus. Throughout history they have known how much idols mean to Hindus.
Hindus, and this is something that I really love and respect about Hinduism, don’t just worship in front of idols, they also worship in front of trees, rivers, mountains and rocks, and animals. Everything that sustains life or contributes towards life is worth worshipping. There are some awesome lines in a song from Purab Aur Pashchim:
इतनी ममता नदियों को भी
जहाँ माता कह के बुलाते हैं
इतना आदर इंसान तो क्या
पत्थर भी पूजे जाते हैं
If you can set your biases aside these are actually very beautiful lines. In English they mean…
There is so much fondness and love here
that even rivers are called mothers
There is so much respect in our culture
that not just humans, even rocks are worshipped
But this is just a quick post on why I think idol worshipping should be encouraged even among other religions (at the risk of offending some zealots).
For more than a couple of years my wife has been going to the neighbourhood temple every Saturday to light an earthen lamp in front of Shani Dev. Her father advised her to do so and she does it in my name and her nephew’s name. Sometimes I accompany her. Since my wheelchair cannot go inside the temple I normally wait outside.
So, that day I was sitting outside and observing my wife and other people bowing in front of various idols placed at different places inside the temple premises.
When people bow in front of an idol, when they fold their hands, close their eyes and say whatever they want to say or chant whatever mantra they want to chant, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they see God in that idol at that particular point.
An idol helps you focus. It is like creating a persona when you’re writing a book or a blog post (in content writing we do that a lot). The idol acts as a focal point.
For example, when you are standing in front of the idol of Shri Ram you can see the object of your focus in three dimension. It becomes easier to communicate then. You know whom to face. You know whom to look at. And when you want to say something, you know whom to say it. You’re not talking to space. You’re talking to an identity. When you’re releasing your thoughts into the universe, the idol helps you remain focused.
You may say why then, an idol? You can use any object to focus, and I totally agree with you. You can focus on a candle. You can focus on a rock. You can focus on a photograph. You can focus on your mobile phone. You can focus on your penis or vagina for all I care.
So, if you can focus on anything, what’s the problem if some people want to focus on an idol? An idol has a shape. For example, if I want to pray to Lord Hanuman and I find it difficult to concentrate and imagine him while praying to him, isn’t it helpful if there is an idol in front of me that can help me focus?
I think it’s great that Hindus can place a rock somewhere and call it Shiv Ling and start praying. An idol doesn’t always have to have a human shape.
I can understand the opposition to idol worshipping in some cases. Religious institutions have been run over by greedy priests and the so-called agents of God. Since most of the idols are inside temples God suddenly becomes inaccessible if you are not allowed to enter a temple. In that sense, if there are no idols, you can pray in whichever manner you feel like. To connect to God you don’t have to depend on an idol that has been taken hostage by a priest.
But then this is not the problem with the idol, it is the problem with the system that has been allowed to develop over the centuries. Idols should not be at the mercy of priests. Temples should not be at the mercy of priests.
It is the system that needs to be changed. As far as idol worshipping goes I think it is the best form of worshipping, that is, if it suits your religious and spiritual proclivities. You need a focus point and the Idol gives you one. A beautiful focus point that puts you at ease and helps you focus on your prayer.