Those who are astounded by this deification/idolatry can read The purpose of idolatry and its limitations. The general technique of using an image to concentrate the mind is very valuable in the early stages of meditation. Once the mind has stabilized, the external image gets gradually replaced by inner vision.
Although this page refers to the Mother Mirra Alfassa, the method of concentration can be applied to any “Ishta-Devata (cherished divinity)“. Choose whichever Guru or God that you feel drawn or devoted to.
Not everyone is drawn to meditating on the image of a deity or Guru. The Gita chapter 12, verses 1-3 discusses two types of people: those meditate on a deity and those who worship the impersonal Absolute. The second category of people prefer to contemplate on the vast sky or the ocean. See Widen the consciousness for more on that method.
Sri Aurobindo’s advice to a six year old girl named Esha
“Remain calm and remember the Mother, gather faith and strength within. You are a child of the Divine Mother, be tranquil ,calm and full of force. There is no special procedure. To take the name of the Mother, to remember her within, to pray to her, all this may be described as calling the Mother. As it comes from within you, you have to call her accordingly. You can do also this – shutting your eyes you can imagine that the Mother is in front of you or you can sketch a picture of her in your mind and offer her your pranam, that obeisance will reach her. When you have time, you can meditate on her with the thinking attitude that she is with you, she is sitting in front of you. Doing these things people at last get to see her.”
(See the comment below)
The six-year old girl, Esha Mukherjee, to whom the letter was written has changed a lot since then. Her latest photograph is available here.
Buddhasmriti (recollection of the Buddha)
In Buddhism, images of the Buddha are used to achieve mental concentration. The following passage is from the paper “Meditation and the Neuroscience of Consciousness.” by Antoine Lutz, John D. Dunne, Richard J. Davidson published in the Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness (eds.) P.D. Zelazo, Morris Moscovitch & Evan Thompson Cambridge (Cambridge University Press, 2007).
“The practice of Recollection of the Buddha is probably, along with Loving kindness meditation, one of the oldest Buddhist practices. Recollection involves the recitation of the Buddha’s attributes, and in its earliest form it may have involved nothing more than that. At some point, however, the recitation of the Buddha’s physical attributes was linked with the visualization of the Buddha in the space in front of the practitioner practitioner. This basic technique of recitation and visualization is representative of a wide range of similar Buddhist practices that evolved during the first millennium. Chief among these is the practice of visualizing deities and paradisiacal environments, a technique especially important in most forms of Buddhist tantra.”
Also see the following pages:
Ramana Maharshi on this technique
Question: Some disciples of Shirdi Sai Baba worship a picture of him and say that it is their Guru. How could that be? They can worship it as God, but what benefit could they get by worshipping it as their Guru?
Answer: They secure concentration by that.
Question: That is all very well, I agree. It may be to some extent an exercise in concentration. But isn’t a Guru required for that concentration?
Answer: Certainly, but after all, Guru only means guri, concentration.
Question: How can a lifeless picture help in developing deep concentration? It requires a living Guru who could show it in practice. It is possible perhaps for Bhagavan to attain perfection without a living Guru, but is it possible for people like myself ?
Answer: That is true. Even so, by worshipping a lifeless portrait, the mind gets concentrated to a certain extent. That concentration will not remain constant unless one knows one’s own Self by enquiring. For that enquiry, a Guru’s help is necessary.
(David Godman. Be as you are, p 145)
There are several instances in the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna where Ramakrishna Paramahansa exhorts people to keep pictures of holy men. Here are a couple of passages:
Master: “One should keep pictures of holy men in one’s room. That constantly quickens divine ideas.”
(Gospel, Vol. 1, Chap. 22 – Advice to an Actor, 1944 Nikhilananda version)
Suddenly Sri Ramakrishna turned to M. and said: “You see, it is good to keep pictures of sannyasis and holy men in one’s room. When you get up in the morning you should see the faces of holy persons rather than the faces of other men
(Gospel, Vol. 1, Chap. 23 – Advice to Ishan, 1944 Nikhilananda version)
Sri Aurobindo on the photograph as a vehicle
The photograph is a vehicle only – but if you have the right consciousness, then you can bring something of the living being into it or become aware of the being for which it stands and can make it a means of contact. It is like the prāņapratişthā (i.e. infusing life) of the image in the temple.
(Sri Aurobindo. Letters on Yoga, Sadhana through Love and Devotion, p 777)
Different photographs bring different experiences
Question: Sweet Mother, Why does meditation in front of different photos of you give different experiences?
Mother Mirra Alfassa: It is because each photo represents a different aspect, sometimes even a different personality of my being; and by concentrating on the photo, one enters into relation with that special aspect or different personality which the photo has captured and whose image it conveys.
The photo is a real and concrete presence, but fragmentary and limited.
[Works of the Mother, vol 16, series 8, 4 November 1959]
Photographs can become animated!
The following anecdote occurs in Ramana Maharshi’s works:
…Then the experience of a young disciple was mentioned. The young man, educated and in good circumstances, in good health and sober mind, was once facing Ramana Maharshi’s picture in his home and meditating on the figure. The figure suddenly appeared animated with life, which threw the young man into a spasm of fear. He called out for his mother. His mother came and asked him what the matter was. He was surrounded by his relatives who were perplexed by his appearance. He was aware of their presence, but was still overpowered by a mysterious force which he tried to resist. He became unconscious for a short time. Fear seized him as he regained consciousness. The people became anxious and tried to bring him round with medicines
When later he came to Tiruvannamalai he had some foreboding of similar experience. The proximity of Ramana Maharshi prevented any untoward happening. But whenever he wandered away from the hall he found the force almost irresistible and himself in the grip of fear.
Ramana Maharshi said: “Is it so? No one told me this before.”
A devotee asked, if it was not saktipata (descent of divine power)?
Ramana Maharshi: Yes it is. A madman clings to samskaras(past impressions), whereas a Jnani does not. That is the only difference between the two. Jnana is madness of a kind.
(Talks with Ramana Maharshi:Talk 275, 5th November, 1936)
Some might wonder as to why the young man became afraid on seeing the animated photograph of Ramana Maharshi. This fear arises because there are parts of the personality that are impure, and tend to recoil from the initial contact with the Divine Power. That is why complete transformation of human nature takes a long time.