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Defending Idol Worship

Barry Nirmal

Defending Idol Worship

Birendra (Barry) Nirmal Tiwary

For a long time some people have been heard saying that idol worship is wrong, that it is ancient, and not modern and so on. This argument is advanced mainly by the followers of the so-called monotheistic religions with the aim of attacking and slandering Hinduism and it practices. But regrettably it is also given by some confused people like the followers of some Hindu sects. This author has talked to some people who belong to one Hindu sect that opposes idol worship. One day these people will claim not to be Hindus but the next day, when they meet a staunch Hindu, will say, “We too are Hindus.”

In this essay I wish to discuss the great merits of the Hindu practice of idol worship. First of all let us understand that when we Hindus pray in front of the idols of Gods and Goddesses, we are not worshipping the idols. Rather we are worshipping the Gods and Goddesses that these idols represent. These idols are merely a medium to help us focus our thoughts on God. When you go to a Hindu temple, what prevents your mind from wandering and thinking about your stocks investments or about the people you met at the party the previous night. These idols restrict our mind from wandering into different directions and instead focusing on God that these idols represent.

Chanakya, the great Hindu teacher from the ancient era says the following about idols.

“If you worship God by focusing your attention on a statue made out of wood, stone or metal, and if you worship with love and devotion, you will attain God. God will be pleased with you. “ (1)

He also says the following.

“God does not reside in the statue made out of wood or stone. He resides in the feelings of men and women. In other words when a person worships God with faith, love and devotion, God makes himself present there. “ (2)

So, the point is that it is not important whether the idol is made of iron or wood or clay. It is not important whether the idol is three feet high or five or ten feet high. What is important is the love and devotion with which we pray to God in front of these idols. If we do not have love for God but merely prostrate ourselves in front of these idols, our prayer is useless. If we pray to God in a temple or at home, but lack the love for God, if we lack the compassion for other human beings, if we do not feel for the sufferings of other human beings, then such a prayer is useless.

Idol Worship is the essence of the Hindu way of worship

As I have written before, all religions were founded by men and all religions have similar characteristics e.g. believe in religious dogmas. But what differentiates a Hindu from a Christian or a Muslim? If Hindus too stop praying in front of idols but engage in practices that are followed by Christians or Muslims then what sets the Hindus apart from Christians and Muslims? If Hindus were to oppose idol worship, the next step will be to replace the Vedas or Bhagawat Geeta with a Bible or Koran and then the Hindu identity will be destroyed forever. It seems that the enemies of Hinduism are using all methods including bribery, violence, coercion, terrorism, control of the media and psychological manipulation to convert the Hindus into other faiths. Attacking the practice of idol worship is part of psychological warfare waged by the enemies of Hinduism.

Swami Vivekananda saw the magic of idol worship when he met his guru, Sri Rama Krishna

Thus is what Swami Vivekananda says about idol worship.

“It has become a trite saying that idolatry is wrong, and every man swallows it at the present time without questioning. I once thought so, and to pay the penalty of that I had to learn my lesson sitting at the feet of a man who realized everything through idols; I allude to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. If such Ramakrishna Paramahamsas are produced by idol-worship, what will you have — the reformer's creed or any number of idols? I want an answer. Take a thousand idols more if you can produce Ramakrishna Paramahamsas through idol worship, and may God speed you! Produce such noble natures by any means you can. Yet idolatry is condemned! Why? Nobody knows. Because some hundreds of years ago some man of Jewish blood happened to condemn it? That is, he happened to condemn everybody else's idols except his own. If God is represented in any beautiful form or any symbolic form, said the Jew, it is awfully bad; it is sin. But if He is represented in the form of a chest, with two angels sitting on each side, and a cloud hanging over it, it is the holy of holies. If God comes in the form of a dove, it is holy. But if He comes in the form of a cow, it is heathen superstition; condemn it! That is how the world goes. That is why the poet says, "What fools we mortals be!" How difficult it is to look through each other's eyes, and that is the bane of humanity. That is the basis of hatred and jealousy, of quarrel and of fight. Boys, moustached babies, who never went out of Madras, standing up and wanting to dictate laws to three hundred millions of people with thousands of traditions at their back! Are you not ashamed? Stand back from such blasphemy and learn first your lessons! Irreverent boys, simply because you can scrawl a few lines upon paper and get some fool to publish them for you, you think you are the educators of the world, you think you are the public opinion of India! Is it so? “ (3)

More from Swami Vivekananda’s thoughts on idol worship

This is what Swami Vivekananda says about idol worship.

“Superstition is a great enemy of man, but bigotry is worse. Why does a Christian go to church? Why is the cross holy? Why is the face turned toward the sky in prayer? Why are there so many images in the Catholic Church? Why are there so many images in the minds of Protestants when they pray? My brethren, we cannot think about anything without a mental image than we can live without breathing - by the law of association the material image calls up the mental idea and vice versa. This is why the Hindu uses an external symbol when he worships. He will tell you, it helps to keep his mind fixed on the Being to whom he prays. He knows as well as you do that the image is not God, is not omnipresent. …. (4)

Swami Vivekananda continues, as follows.

If a man can realize his divine nature with the help of an image, would it be right to call that a sin? Nor, even when he has passed that stage, should he call it an error. To the Hindu, man is not traveling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth. To him all the religions from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, mean so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realize the Infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of these marks a stage of progress; and every soul is a young eagle soaring higher and higher, gathering more and more strength till it reaches the Glorious Sun.

Unity in variety is the plan of nature, and the Hindu has recognized it. Every other religion lays down certain fixed dogmas and tries to force society to adopt them. ……The Hindus have discovered that the absolute can only be realized, or thought of, or stated through the relative, and the images, crosses, and crescents are simply so many symbols – so many pegs to hang spiritual ideas on. It is not that this help is necessary for everyone, but those that do not need it have no right to say that it is wrong. Nor is it compulsory in Hinduism.

One thing I must tell you. Idolatry in India does not mean anything horrible. It is not the mother of harlots. On the other hand, it is the attempt of undeveloped minds to grasp high spiritual truths. The Hindus have their faults, they sometimes have their exceptions; but mark this, they are always for punishing their own bodies, and never for cutting the throats of their neighbors. If the Hindu fanatic burns himself on the pyre, he never lights the fire of Inquisition. And even this cannot be laid at the door of his religion any more than the burning of witches can be laid at the door of Christianity.

To the Hindu, then, the whole world of religions is only a traveling, a coming up, of different men and women, through various conditions and circumstances, to the same goal. Every religion is only evolving a God out of the material man, and the same God is the inspirer of all of them. Why, then, are there so many contradictions? They are only apparent, says the Hindu. The contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the varying circumstances of different natures.

It is the same light coming through glasses of different colors- And these little variations are necessary for purposes of adaptation. But in the heart of everything the same truth reigns. The Lord has declared to the Hindu in His incarnation as Krishna: ‘I am in every religion as the thread through a string of pearls. Wherever thou seest extraordinary holiness and extraordinary power rising and purifying humanity, know thou that I am there.‘ And what has been the result? I challenge the world to find, throughout the whole system of Sanskrit philosophy, any such expression that the Hindu alone will be saved and not others.

Says Vyasa, ‘We find perfect men even beyond the pale of our caste and creed.’ One thing more. How, then, can the Hindu, whose whole fabric of thought centers in God, believe in Buddhism which is agnostic, or in Jainism which is atheistic?

The Buddhists or the Jains do not depend upon God; but the whole force of their religion is directed to the great central truth in every religion, to evolve a God out of man. They have not seen the Father, but they have seen the Son. And he that hath seen the Son hath seen the Father also. .. “ (4)


(1) Chanakya Niti and

(2) Chanakya Niti and

(3) Extracted from--- MY PLAN OF CAMPAIGN (Delivered at the Victoria Hall, Madras)

The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda/Volume 3/Lectures from Colombo to Almora/My Plan of Campaign.


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