Hinduism and Icon worship
Think Hinduism (sanatana dharma) and the first mental image will be the temples and the icons inside. Ganesha, Shiva,
Krishna , Kali, Muruga, the list is endless.
The icon worshippers are ridiculed by many , notably the Christians and Muslims, and also by some sects of Hindus themselves. Is this form of worship disgraceful or is it inferior to other methods ? We will see here.
Pooja(Worship) and the ‘Icon’
The terms ‘icon’ and ‘worship’ go hand in hand. They have such a complementary existence that it in is inconceivable to think one without the other. The terrain on which they both stand is ‘devotion’- Bhakti.
Right from Rig-Veda, we see hymns in praise of Ganapathy, Vishnu, Shiva, Sarasvathi, Lakshmi etc. The devotion or Bhakti element of Hinduism is continuing from then to now.
Krishna gave a name to it as ‘Bhakti Yoga’ in Srimad Bhagavad Gita and placed it at par with Dhyana, Jnana, and Karma yogas , the other three royal paths of realization.
Bhakti – the love of the Ultimate
It was Bhakti that necessitated worship and worship needed icons. Bhakti is an expression of love to the absolute Brahman. Logic tells us that only a form can be loved. Brahman is beyond all forms , expressions and at the same time is the very embodiment of forms and expressions. So Bhakti needed and created forms.
In the Bhakti tradition of Sanatana Dharma( Hinduism), worship occupies a prime place. So what ? any other religion does that, some may ask. Look closely. The Hindu, in his daily pooja (worship), carefully decorates the picture or statue of his deity with flowers and clothes , shows perfumes, lights agarbathies, lamps, performs arathi , all the while singing in praise of the deity.
In all this what we see is an expression of unconditional love, an attitude of Honouring the Supreme and total surrender to Him. Bhakti here, is both the means to an end and the end in itself. The end point in the royal path of Bhakti Yoga is realization of the Lord and union with him , and He will grant him release from all bondages, both positive and negative. Swamy Vivekananda says, consummate Gnana automatically reaches the Bhakta who has reached such a state.
The Sanatana Dharma acharyas like Narada and Sandilya refined Bhakti to such an extent that even sutras- meaning formulas were written for the practitioner. An unquantifiable parameter finally was defined and the limits between stages of the practitioners were expounded, and the end stage was clearly shown.
Hindu ‘Pooja’ versus Semitic ‘Prayer’
Compare our pooja to the mere prayers of other religions. Either they are mere acts of begging God for various earthly and heavenly things which are not eternal. Godhead is beyond everything heavenly and earthly. A Hindu seeks union with Him. He does not want to be a mere possessor of his creations such as heaven, paradise etc. nor does he despise the various hells which are also God’s creations.
I have seen the Christians dressed in their best proudly going to the Church. The Hindu, humility personified, flowers in hand as offering to the Lord , goes to the temple and prostrates surrendering totally.
Viewed in the above context , one can visualize what an icon symbolizes to a Hindu. It is not an ‘idol’ as a Muslim thinks or a ‘pagan’ symbol as a Christian thinks. These ‘idols’, as per the semitic religions , are forms depicting various smaller Gods or God like beings capable of giving some limited benefits.
For example, the Catholics despised Sun worship of the European natives since they worshipped Sun for what it represented. In other words , Sun was worshipped as Sun. Naturally it contradicted with Jesus’s teachings that the Father in Heaven created the sun and the earth. So a created object cannot be worshipped. So the creator God, the Holy Father was worshipped by the Catholics.
The Hindus also worship the Sun, but in what way ? Here is a mantra , (hymn) which is chanted every day at sunrise and sunset.
nama: savitre jagadeka chakshuse jagat prasuti sthiti nAsa hetave |
trayee mayAya trigunAtma darine virinji nAraya sankarAtmane ||
“Obeisances to you Lord Sun, who has your eyes every where in the universe, who creates, maintains and destroys the universe, who is the embodiment of the three Vedas, who is also an embodiment of the three Gunas (of Satva, Rajas and Tamas) , who is differently seen as Brahma , Vishnu and Shiva.”
The Sun here , has the attributes of the Supreme , Absolute Brahman. All the Christian and Muslim clerics misunderstood the subtlety and depth of Hinduism here for mere ‘idol’ worship. What ignorance ! Gaznavi, in his hatred against idols, is known to have destroyed thousands of temples including Somnath. Had he and his mullahs understood Vigraha Aradhana of Hindus, such a colossal loss would have been averted.
In another angle, the religions where the Iconic worship was practiced, were more peaceful than the religions that preached against it. The crusaders and Jihadis would have eliminated more than 20 millions of people in the name of God. No love, No Bhakti, No wisdom.
In essence, whatever the form, the attitude is what is to be seen. In every Hindu ‘Iconic’ worship, they are worshipped as the ‘Supreme Brahman’. The proviso always has to be ‘worshipped as’. So, there is no problem in worshipping a mere stone. The Hindu sees the supreme God in that stone !
Various Icons of Sanatana Dharma
The icons were established according to the six religions of Sanatana Dharma. The Shanmathas as they were popularly called, each offered forms or Icons or Vigrahas or Prathimas to the practitioner of the respective religion.
The six Sanatanic religions were
- Souram- which worships Lord Sun as the supreme Brahman
- Ganapathyam- Which worships Ganesha as the Ultimate Brahman
- Koumaram- which worships Lord Muruga or Skanda as the Brahman
- Shaivam- Where Lord Shiva is worshipped as the supreme Brahman
- Vaishnavam- Where Lord Vishnu and his incarnations are worshipped as the Supreme Brahman.
- Saktam- Where the Mother like Female deity of Kali or Durga or Amba or
is worshipped as the supreme Brahman. Amman
Sanatana Dharma is not a religion per se but a conglomerate of six major religions each with separate Agamas for rituals, worship and Dhyana and Gnana. The first three religions have got assimilated into the latter three religions now. Each of these religion has its own Deities. Sometimes these deities are coded like the Linga , basically representing more of the formless or Nataraja, the cosmic dancer.
So, to conclude Icon worship is a valid and satisfying spiritual truth. Next time you hear Mulla Omar or some self conceited western missionary declare something silly, be armed with facts to raise your head and thunder.
References- Bhakti Yoga by Swamy Vivekananda- Ramakrishna Mutt, Chennai
Kadavulin vadivangal( Tamil)- Swamy Chidbhavananda, Ramakrishna tapovanam