Idol worship – good or?

The essence of worship or bhakti and its meaning is what I continue to see for the last 43 years all around me; my mother, when I was young, my in-laws after I got married, we were all devout people and performed Pooja everyday very religiously. SRCM, the meditation practice that I am following for the last four years, does not advocate Idol worship. In the beginning I used to be very skeptical about the SRCM philosophy, it questioned the very foundation on which Hindu religion is structured! And every Hindu performs ritualistic Pooja or rituals every day. This is what I have been sincerely doing, practicing for the last 35 odd years. It was very disconcerting to leave it all, give it the name of increased grossness and stop idol worship. I actually could not give up idol worship for almost an year after joining the Mission, call it fear of displeasing the Gods or deep rooted samskara, a diehard habit of lighting the lamp after bath, then eating food, anything, it was just too ingrained in me and I could not let go. So, I continued Idol worship and maintained my beautiful marble temple with the same love, affection and devotion.

A book I recently read, Temple the heart of worship, describes the method, the aim and the resultant effect of Idol worship very beautifully. Only if one can follow what is written in that book, holding on to that thought in our mind, with that emotion in our heart and pray to the Idol will our prayer be called a prayer and worship has the probability of bearing fruit. Every step has a significant meaning and a reason for performing that particular ritual. If we can worship exactly the way it is said in the scriptures and be able to recreate the essence every time we worship or pray, then alone can it be true idol worship.

 I quote the book, “All worship is meant to lead us to the Brahman. That is what is called Karma Yoga. The temple is a place to worship Isvara, or to perform rituals. Lord Krishna points out (Bhagvad Gita, 2-14) that Vedic rituals help a person who has a clear understanding about the ultimate goal in life, whereas those who do not have such an understanding get lost in the jungle of rituals. Therefore, the temple worship should create ‘jignyasa’ an intense desire for self – knowledge in the devotees.

We have to worship Isvara in a temple with the right attitude.  Even though there is difference in the upadhis, or titles, names, Isvara and Jiva are essentially the same; just as a stone is different from a mountain. Because of the false identification with the ‘upadhi’, the emerging individual may appear to be very insignificant vis-à-vis the universe and its creator.”

It is clear from the above that the most ancient and till date accepted, read and followed scripture, Bhagvad Gita, also says that devotion or worship has to be for self knowledge. The lord is inside, within all of us; through worship we need to delve deep inside and seek HIM there! The more we go to different temples, the more we try to see HIM in different forms on the outside, the more we are running away from HIM within. Whatever is within us, how can we possibly achieve it on the outside?

The author further writes, “The temple architecture is symbolically significant in all aspects. Space is the very first manifestation of Hiranyagarbha, the cosmic person. Every temple has four gates, representing the four directions.” This is the body of every temple, the exterior. But do the devotees flock from world over to see the architecture and go home happy with the thought that they met God? No, they wait for ‘Darshan’ a glimpse, ever so fleeting, of the lord, sitting in the heart, the sanctum sanctorum of the Temple. What is the life source of the temple? The heart, the inner most corners in the temple is where God resides!  That is what a true devotee wants to see. The author beautifully writes, “The Lord verily abides in the cave of the heart. Similarly, a figure symbolizing the Lord is installed in the cave – like Garbha Graha, the inner sanctum – sanctorum in the temple.” It is really no coincidence that even the biggest temples have a very small sanctum sanctorum. “It is just by sheer ignorance that one assumes or imagines that merit and sin accrue to Atman obtaining in the heart. Brahman can be cognized in the cave of the heart of every human being as his innermost reality.”  

To reiterate the same point, we are seeking on the outside and in a defined form what is inside and in a very subtle form. To take the analogy a little further, Even though the temple has four doors, the inner sanctum has only one door. We can take as many paths we wish to walk on the road to self realization, but to really reach HIM or merge with HIM there is only one way, through the heart with self knowledge.

I never knew that there was a reason for keeping the inner sanctum or the Lord’s abode so dark and dimly lit! The inner most corner of our Heart; the sanctum sanctorum is filled with darkness or ignorance. “The idea is that the spiritual aspirant may think of his ignorance, at least in the sacred presence of the Lord. The significance of burning the lamp round the clock is that the lamp of knowledge should ever shine in our heart.

The seers have incorporated the entire teachings of the Upanishads and the Gita in temple worship. When we visit any temple we should keep this vision in mind. Once we understand correctly the symbolism of temple worship, the temple emerges from a seat of worship to a seat of learning”

The small booklet has every single word that is thought provoking; every word has a reason and a meaning. I will also talk about the significance of an oil wick lamp, and why the now used electric lights hold no meaning. Also the meaning and essence of Prasad, the offering received after prayers in the temple.

But first let us try and ask ourselves whether we are actually worshipping the way it has been prescribed in the scriptures? If we are, then is there an increment in self- knowledge? Are we able to see the Idol sitting in front of us, within us after some time? If yes, then Idol worship is your path to self – knowledge. Does our prayer really move you to the very core of your heart? Are you changing after all these years of worship? Is the little lamp continuing to burn or is it getting snuffed and struggling to stay alive drowned with the soot of ignorance and ego? I have been visiting temples and a very diligent devotee for 35 years of my life.  Every shloka and Mantra was by heart to me. I could parrot them even in my sleep. Did I change? When I look back and assess, my honest answer is ‘no’. I never really knew or understood the essence of Idol worship. I prayed because I was supposed to and more often than not it was out of fear that I used to pray. I had never really lit the lamp of my heart. Self – knowledge was very far away. I realized that I had only grown up; I was yet to grow wise.

If we are really worshipping for years with the essence of worship, my perception is a change must be visible and the path to self knowledge must be illuminated by now. If either of these has not occurred then we are not even in the race and we really need to figure out if Idol worship is for us!  Knowing shloka and mantras may even contribute to adding to our ego, a chance to boast about our knowledge and awareness of the religious scriptures.  If no change has come till date then it is time we re-read the texts and try to understand the essence of worship once again. It is what you do, rather how you do whatever you do which is detrimental or beneficial for taking us closer to our real goal of life.