We are all idol-worshippers. We worship actors, sportsmen, thinkers and – when we are feeling proud – even ourselves! Our subconscious desire is to mold ourselves in the image of our idols. The Hindu practice of idolatry directs this urge to spiritual goals by clothing the Divine in various forms. The modern rational mind forgets the original psychological motive behind image worship and dismisses it all as an abomination. On the other hand, there are those who narrowly fix themselves in adoration of their chosen image forgetting that this is only a preparatory step in the spiritual path. This post explores the various pros and cons of idolatry(aka image worship).
For monogamy may be the best for the body, but the soul that loves God in men dwells here always as the boundless and ecstatic polygamist; yet all the time – that is the secret – it is in love with only One Being.
Sri Aurobindo, The Hour of God: Bhakti
Rationale behind idol worship
A very cogent defense of this practice of worshipping external images comes from the British Orientalist Arthur Avalon(John Woodroffe) who discussed this topic in detail in his book Shakti and Shakta. As he points out, “the mind cannot seize the pure Spirit any more than a pair of tongs can seize the air” . This is why the mind requires some external form to contemplate upon. The path of Tantra distinguishes three classes of Divine seekers in ascending order of evolution: Pashu (animalistic), Vira(heroic), Divya (divinized). The first and second type of seekers require some external form to concentrate on while the third kind is the one who has gone beyond the need for images. Tantra in fact offers three kinds of external forms as aids in contemplation: Yantra (geometric diagrams), abstract symbols and, lastly, anthropomorphic images. 
In the following passage, Sri Aurobindo elucidates on the rationale behind external worship.
In ordinary religion this adoration wears the form of external worship and that again develops a most external form of ceremonial worship. This element is ordinarily necessary because the mass of men live in their physical minds, cannot realise anything except by the force of a physical symbol and cannot feel that they are living anything except by the force of a physical action. We might apply here the Tantric gradation of sadhana(spiritual practice), which makes the way of the pasu, the herd, the animal or physical being, the lowest stage of its discipline, and say that the purely or predominantly ceremonial adoration is the first step of this lowest part of the way. It is evident that even real religion, — and Yoga is something more than religion, — only begins when this quite outward worship corresponds to something really felt within the mind, some genuine submission, awe or spiritual aspiration, to whichit becomes an aid, an outward expression and also a sort of periodical or constant reminder helping to draw back the mind to it from the preoccupations of ordinary life. But so long as it is only an idea of the Godhead to which one renders reverence or homage, we have not yet got to the beginning of Yoga. The aim of Yoga being union, its beginning must always be a seeking after the Divine, a longing after some kind of touch, closeness or possession. When this comes on us, the adoration becomes always primarily an inner worship; we begin to make ourselves a temple of the Divine, our thoughts and feelings a constant prayer of aspiration and seeking, our whole life an external service and worship.
Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – II: The Way of Devotion
Similarly, in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the first stage of concentration which is espoused is Savitarka Samadhi, wherein the mind is guided into concentration on some gross object (i.e. an external image of the Divine). (see Taming the Monkey Mind). Vedanta recognized that the mental substance is transformed into an image of the object it sees (see Epistemology of Perception). That is why concentration on external forms has a positive effect for it temporarily focusses the mental and emotional being on some ideal conception of the Divine instead of dissipating them on phenomenal pursuits.
Sri Aurobindo further points out that the personal and impersonal aspects of God are complementary. The forms by which we conceptualize the Divine are suited to our personality and gradually alter as our consciousness expands and attains Divine union. Those who are intellectually inclined tend to belittle idol worship in favour of a God who is seen as Formless but they forget that this Formless God is also another form of the Divine bearing some qualities such as vastness, delight or puissance.
Ordinarily, man is limited in all these parts of his being and he can grasp at first only so much of the divine truth as has some large correspondence to his own nature and its past development and associations. Therefore God meets us first in different limited affirmations of his divine qualities and nature: he presents himself to the seeker as an absolute of the things he can understand and to which his will and heart can respond; he discloses some name and aspect of his Godhead. This is what is called in Yoga the ista-devata, the name and form elected by our nature for its worship. In order that the human being may embrace this Godhead with every part of himself, it is represented with a form that answers to its aspects and qualities and which becomes the living body of God to the adorer. These are those forms of Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Kali, Durga, Christ, Buddha, which the mind of man seizes on for adoration. Even the monotheist who worships a formless Godhead, yet gives to him some form of quality, some mental form or form of Nature by which he envisages and approaches him. But to be able to see a living form, a mental body, as it were, of the Divine gives to the approach a greater closeness and sweetness.
Sri Aurobindo, The Synthesis of Yoga – II: The Mystery of Love
Arthur Avalon examines two other questions in his book Shakti and Shakta. The first is a response to the retort “If objects can be worshipped, why not worship (say) shoes?“. His response is as follows…
Question: “Why not then worship my boot?”
There is no reason, according to Shakta teaching, why even his boot should not be worshipped by one who regards it and all else as a manifestation of the One who is in every object which constitutes the Many. Thus this Monistic belief is affirmed in the worship by some Shaktas of that which to the gross and ordinary mind is merely an object of lust. To such minds, this is a revolting and obscene worship. To those for whom such object of worship is obscene, such worship is and must be obscene. But what of the mind which is so purified that it sees the Divine presence in that which, to the mass of men, is an incitement to and object of lust? A man who, without desire, can truly so worship must be a very high Sadhaka (aspirant) indeed. The Shakta Tantra affirms the Greek saying that to the pure all things are pure(Omnia munda mundis). In this belief and with, as the Jñanarnava Tantra says, the object of teaching men that this is so, we find the ritual use of substances ordinarily accounted impure. The real objection to the general adoption or even knowledge of such rites lies, from the Monistic standpoint, in the fact that the vast bulk of humanity are either of impure or weak mind, and that the worship of an object which is capable of exciting lust will produce it, not to mention the hypocrites who, under cover of such a worship, would seek to gratify their desires. 
The other issue that Arthur Avalon dwells on is the practice of installing power into the idol (Prana-Pratistha). The basis for this practice is that if the invoker (sage or priest) has acquired some spiritual power due to austerities, then he or she is capable of animating and filling the idol with a Presence or Force of the Divine.
The worshipper must see Divinity before him. This he invokes into the image by what is called the welcoming (Avahana) and Life-giving (Pranapratishtha) ceremonies, just as, at the conclusion of the worship, he bids the Deity depart (Visarjana). Uncomprehending minds have asked: “How can God be made to come and go?“. The answer is that He does not. What come and go are the modifications, or vrittis, of and in the mind of the Sadhaka or worshipper. To invoke the Deity means, then, a direction not to the Deity, but by the worshipper to himself to understand that the Deity is there. Deity which is omnipresent is in the Image as elsewhere, whatever the Sadhaka(aspirant) may do or not do. The Sadhaka (aspirant) informs his own mind with the notion that the Deity is present. He is then conscious of the presence of and meditates on Divinity and its attributes, and if he be undistracted, his mind and its thought are thereby divinely shaped. 
…All this (idol worship) is based on the old idea that whatever the image – which we disdainfully call an ‘idol’ – whatever the external form of the deity may be, the presence of the thing represented is always there. And there is always someone – whether priest or initiate, sadhu or sannyasi – someone who has the power and (usually this is the priest’s work) who draws the Force and the Presence down into it. And it’s true, it’s quite real – the Force and the Presence are THERE; and this (not the form in wood or stone or metal) is what is worshipped: this Presence. 
The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: April 29, 1961
Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus
(those unaware of the context of the above phrase can see wikipedia)
“Ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti”
The Divine is One but the sages call it by many names (Rig Veda 1:164:46)
Sri Aurobindo was once asked by one of his disciples, “Do these Gods really exist or are the images just inventions of the human mind?“. (I faintly recall Swami Vivekananda asking Ramakrishna Paramahansa this same question and was told to discover the answer on his own. I can’t find the relevant text right now). The answer is that Gods do exist as Cosmic Powers representing the Supreme in the same manner as cabinet ministers fulfill certain responsibilities on behalf of the leader of the country. The Gods have their own original forms native to their own plane of consciousness (see Cosmology for more) which are distinct from the forms that humans have given them. Here is the exchange between Sri Aurobindo and his disciples on this topic.
Sri Aurobindo (turning to a disciple) : You asked yesterday about the forms of the Gods and whether they have fixed forms on their own plane. I was thinking it over and I am inclined to believe that they have fixed forms.
Disciple : It is said that each God has his nitya-rupa – “eternal form”. ,
Sri Aurobindo : I think so. One cannot see that unless one passes entirely out of the human consciousness. They have forms by which they define themselves from other Gods and also through which they express what they are. It seems there are three elements that enter in this question. One, the form we see may be the reflection of the true or nitya form – which may not be entire and which may not be the same for all the planes. It may vary according to the plane on which it is reflected. Secondly, the mind or consciousness of the Bhakta – the devotee, may contribute something to it. Thirdly, it may be a mixture of the two.
Disciple : Have the forms of the Gods any resemblance to the human form ?
Sri Aurobindo : Not necessarily. But those who approach the plane of the Gods through the impersonal attitude without stopping at Sachchidananda-consciousness arrive, when they have passed beyond the mental consciousness, to a plane where they see the Gods in forms which resemble the human form. That is, perhaps, the reason why in the Veda we find the name purusa given to the Gods. 
The Mother (Mirra Alfassa), born French and therefore having no subconscious exposure to the images of Hindu Gods since childhood, mentions how she was able to confirm the existence of a being named Ganesh (Elephant God).
And one day when the subject of prosperity or wealth came up, I thought (they always say that Ganesh is the god of money, of fortune, of the world’s wealth), I thought, ‘Isn’t this whole story of the god with an elephant trunk merely a lot of human imagination?’ Thereupon, we meditated. And who should I see walk in and park himself in front of me but a living being, absolutely alive and luminous, with a trunk that long … and smiling! So then, in my meditation, I said, ‘Ah! So it’s true that you exist!’ – ‘Of course I exist!
The Mother, Mother’s Agenda: July 6, 1958
Limitations of idolatry
The worship of external forms should be regarded as a preparatory step to a more intense spiritual practice. What begins as adoration of an external image can bifurcate into two distinct paths – one higher and other lower. Either it can turn into the higher path of consecration, surrender and the path of Yoga or it can degrade into the lower path of sentimentalism coupled with the ambition to impose a certain form of God onto others. One must beware of any exclusionary and sectarian tendencies where one form of the Divine is regarded as the ONLY correct one, and all other forms of the Divine are discarded as false. That is why Sri Aurobindo insists on self-purification as an important step in Yoga.
Image worship truly ends only after a spiritual experience for then one knows for certain that God is within as well as without. All external support can then be discarded. Ramakrishna Paramahansa describes his own experience of ending image worship thus:
“After God-realization one gives up formal worship. I have given up that kind of worship. I used to worship in the Kali Temple. It was suddenly revealed to me that everything is made of pure Spirit – the koshakushi, the altar and the door-frame – everything made of Spirit; men, birds and beasts all made of Spirit. So I began to shower flowers all around like a crazy man. I began to worship anything and everything I saw.
“One day when I was offering bel-leaves on the head of Shiva, it was revealed to me that the vast universe itself, Virat, is Shiva. Then I stopped worshipping the image of Shiva. And when I was picking flowers, it was suddenly revealed to me that every flowering plant is like a bouquet.” 
In Sri Aurobindo’s Synthesis of Yoga, the chapter on the Yoga of Divine Love contains further discussion on the conception, motivations and pitfalls related to the path of Devotion.
- Arthur Avalon. Shakti and Shakta, Hindu ritual http://www.sacred-texts.com/tantra/sas/sas21.htm (accessed on 2nd Jan 2010)
- Arthur Avalon. Shakti and Shakta. Shakta Sadhana http://www.sacred-texts.com/tantra/sas/sas26.htm accessed on 2nd Jan 2010)
- Arthur Avalon. Shakti and Shakta. The psychology of the Hindu religious ritual http://www.sacred-texts.com/tantra/sas/sas23.htm (accessed on 2nd Jan 2010)
- A.B. Purani. Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo.
- The Gospel of Ramakrishna http://www.kathamrita.org/kathamrita3/k3sec08.htm (accessed on 2nd Jan 2010)