Have you ever realized how many times while visiting any old Indian city when we ask the guide where to go or what to see, the answer comes up as “Temple”. It can be a Shiv/Vishnu/Hanuman or any one of ‘36 crore’ God Goddesses temple but the fact is that our country is filled with temples and not just small temple but huge gigantic ones too are no less in number. Existence of such large number of temple becomes even more astonishing when you realize that this country has been ruled by Muslims for 800 years and then 200 years by Christians. Ever since Arab and later Europeans set foot on this great land (आर्यावर्त) we Hindu’s have been called Idolaters/ बुतपरस्त and what not. This religion was hit on what they thought to be the weakest link, idol worship. Millions of temple were demolished and desecrated during that period.

Now the question arises, why so many temples? Bigger question being why do we need temple at all? This is what we have been criticized for, and not just by foreigners who don’t understand Hinduism but also from those who are one of us, fellow Hindus. Past 200 yrs or so, many sects in Hinduism have come up, formed by some seriously good thinkers and intellectuals, which denounce idol worship. Many of them quote Veda’s and great Hindu luminaries like Shankaracharya in their defense, mind you they are not wrong in quoting them, but they quote Shankar and Veda’s out of context to prove their point, that is what many people fail to understand and hence give in to their arguments, thinking idol worship is actually not required and it is one of the impurities acquired by this religion over the time.

As I realized how big and important question these are, I started to dig into our scriptures, to my surprise i had to dig a lot.

Rigved, our oldest and supreme scripture, talks a lot about numerous god and goddesses (not just Agni, as many scholars say) but strangely you don’t find a single reference to any temple, however when you read purans  there are quiet a few temples mentioned.  This might be due to the fact that veda’s were here from the very beginning, even before our civilization started (probably I need to write a different blog post to explain this point hence I’ll leave it at that) where as purans and others were written much later when our dharma has already flourished.

This though is not the only argument given in opposition of idol worship, bigger one is that veda’s themselves don’t approve of idol worship and this is what gyaankand of rigved states. Here I have to admit that to some extent I do agree with this argument but my contention is that again it’s taken out of context.

Let’s go into a little bit of detail. Our scholars and thinkers who commented on Veda’s and Upanishads later divided them into two sections, Karmakaand (the former part of Veda’s) and Gyaankaand (Upanishads, which are the latter/concluding part of Vedas). Gyaankaand comes after Karmakaand and does say that idol worship is not required as god is nirgun, nirakaar. This is the point from which the concept of saguna puja and nirgun puja arose.  Therefore all our great sages and ascetics went and still go to Himalaya’s or dense forest for Samadhi to find Brahma, not to any temple. Even Shankaracharya’s advait theory is based on this point. However, both Gyaankaand and Shankar never criticize Karmakaand, they never tell us to stop with karma, instead they tell us to go beyond karma. (Explanation of that is beyond the scope of this post).

Just as there is a Karmakaand for Gyaankaand, there is Madhavachrya’s dvait theory for Shankar’s advait theory.

Both of them, Karmakaand and dvait theory, are for the worldly people, in other words for the minds like us, you and me. Now when you read these two, you will realize that Idols are not just idols; they are the reflection of god, having said that let me also accept that these scriptures also say that idol should not be mistaken to be considered as god himself. Take for instance, we wear glasses to see the world clearly but that doesn’t mean glasses are the real world. They just correct your eyesight, what you see actually depends on your perception. Similarly idols are just the manifestation of god, they are there to show you a path and then if you have the guts and knowledge to go on that path, you don’t need them anymore because gyaan cuts that string by which you are attached to this world and then joins you to Brahma himself.

Consider this, when we teach our kids about new things, what do we do so that they can understand it better? Let’s say you are teaching a kid about a car or a ship, what is it that you do to explain it to him? You show him the picture of it, but when he’s in senior school or colleges (when he’s more mature) then do you need to show him the picture? No you don’t, because he already knows about it, it’s in his mind. Similarly idols and temples are for the worldly men, men of lesser intellect as I say, we need those idols and temples to focus, to remind ourselves that the world we live in is not the only truth; there is someone who controls us all, we go there so that we can connect to god in a better way. People criticizing idol worship quote Chhandogya Upanishad and say “ सर्वं खल्विदं भ्रह्मः ” “god is everywhere then why look for him in idols and not in people around us”?

 Now if you believe in this interpretation of the quote then tell me one thing; god is in you as well, do you see him when you look in the mirror? Or do you see him when you look at other people? No you don’t. But what exactly is the first thought that comes to your mind or whom do you think about when you see a temple or an idol?  Do I need to state the obvious here..

Another aspect of this reply to the argument given is that I believe idols and their worship is in human nature, it’s in our DNA. Let me elaborate on that; tell me why do we keep pictures of those who are dear to us? Pictures of those who are not with us anymore?  It is because we want them to be with us all the time, closer to us, to focus our thoughts on them or to channelize our memories, hence the pictures and similarly the idols of god. We are not that knowledgeable to feel god around us all the time, only enlightened mind can do that, so we keep idols or go to temples, were we feel god’s presence much clearly.

Then there is this question which often accompanies the previous ones. Why so many of them, God and Goddess that is? To understand this, let’s talk about Hinduism a little and then the reply will follow.

Hinduism in these lakhs of years (if not more) has faced a lot. From highs of popularity to the lows of Atrocities from invaders, it has seen it all. Hinduism has not only successfully resisted all efforts made to demolish it but also it still remains to be the most evolved religion. This happened because of its strong base (laid down by our great rishi’s) and the flexible structure erected on that base. This flexibility is the key when we talk about idols and the huge number of gods we pray to.

Sri Krishna says in the Gita:

In whatever way or form a man worships me, I increase his faith and make him firm and steady in that worship.

This is the root ofसर्वधर्मं  समभाव”. Jainism came, rose to new heights, but now they are not that different from us in fact they are like one of us, same thing happened with Buddhism (once Hindus and Buddhists were at daggers end but now we consider Buddha to be Vishnu’s avatar) and trust me it will happen to others as well, when they’ll realize the greatness of our religion, Hinduism.

Coming back to the original point, in all these years many have seen god in many different forms, depending on their faith and devotion.

एकम् सत् विप्रा बहुधा वदन्ति 

The truth is one, but there are hundreds and thousands of ways to look at it, or keeping in mind the matter of our discussion let’s say there are ‘36crores’ way to look at it. It doesn’t matter which form or image you see your god in, only thing that matters is that whether you follow and understand his teachings or not. That is the sutra of so many gods and goddess yet one religion.

Finally the only argument left is that why does only Hindus need idols and why not other religions like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, etc.?

Well I have two things to say, firstly Hinduism is far more evolved than any other religion, therefore it has a better understanding of human mind and hence gives each and everyone what he/she needs, it doesn’t forces itself on you or puts any fear in you to follow, instead it gives you the freedom to find your own god. Let’s put it in this way, Hinduism gives you the liberty to choose your own means to find the ultimate end, which is GOD.

 Secondly the argument in itself is wrong, why?

It’s a myth that only Hindu’s worship idols, every single religion has built temples (place of worship) and has an idol/symbol to worship. Buddhist have made biggest of the idols we have ever seen, Jain are not far behind. Christians have an idol of Jesus or a cross in all their churches. Islam has a black stone in the middle of Mecca, without touching and bowing in front of it hajj is not considered complete, also they require a loudspeaker to remind them of their god. Sikhs too have their guru’s images and Jews have mezuzah (to remind them of god’s presence). They all started with criticizing idol worship and temples but eventually realizing its importance they all accepted it. Some incorporated idol worship as it is, others did it under the pretext of different rituals.

Lastly I would like to say that our religion has always given us the space to question it but then no one else is going to answer them, it’s up to us to find the answer of those questions which were and are being raised by us and others.

धर्मो रक्षति रक्षितः” ~ Religion when protected, protects.

Only knowledge of our religion through our holy scriptures can answer the questions raised and to attain that knowledge, all you need to have is DEVOTION, and lots of it.

                                   “Bhaktyamam abhijanati yavan yascasmi

                           By devotion he comes to know who in truth I am.