Why Images?

Swami Atmananda Saraswati (presently directing a new yoga centre in Singapore)

In the Christian religion, the worship of images is strictly forbidden. Moses destroyed the heathen images and forbade the Israelites to bow down to any idol. 'God is formless and invisible' he said. But many Christians keep a small statue of Christ or the Virgin Mary. Christian Europe, from Ireland to Italy, is full of little shrines where devotees go to pray and leave sweet-smelling garlands of flowers. At Christmas the churches bring out models of the baby Jesus and the shepherds and all the congregation flock around to admire them. It seems natural and spontaneous to worship the image of God.

Many Indian children keep dolls of Krishna, dress them, bathe them and care for them. This tradition is carried on into adulthood. Most Indian homes are dedicated to one god or another, and the mother keeps some sort of shrine - maybe a cupboard on the wall or a tray by the bed - with small statues and pictures of the deity. Every day she lights the incense by the statue and waves it in the air while repeating various prayers and mantras. At certain times she will do puja (worship) to them, dressing them in tiny pieces of silk or brocade and putting tika on their forehead. In some households, food is not taken until a certain portion is placed before the statue, and then the whole meal becomes prasad (blessed food).

To some people the image is a strong reminder. You see the form of Krishna each morning and you reaffirm your resolve to follow in his footsteps. It is like tying a knot in your handkerchief to remind you to keep calm before you plunge into your daily problems. Of course, God is not confined to one little statue, but we can imagine him more easily in human form; that is what they say. It is a kind of ritualistic worship in which the object is not worshipped for its own sake but for what it represents. To the bhakta (devotee) the statue is not just a piece of wood or clay. It is a real person.

Saint Giuseppe was one of the early Italian saints. He was a clumsy fool, no use to anyone. His mother took him to a monastery as the last resort, because there were no 'homes' for such people in those days. There he was lodged in the stable, the only place where he was safe from mishaps. But Giuseppe was disliked by one of the monastery workers, a hunchback, who used to blame him for all his own mistakes - which Giuseppe never denied. One day the hunchback leaned against a precious statue of the Madonna and it broke. He put the blame on Giuseppe and Giuseppe didn't really mind. But even though the statue was shattered the head remained intact, and Giuseppe took it to the stable and kept it on a shelf. Little by little he grew to love it. He used to talk to it and call it 'My Lady'. One day when the hunchback came to the stable he found Saint Giuseppe had levitated off the floor and was suspended at the level of the Madonna's head, deep in prayer. When the abbot asked him to repeat the miracle he could not, but when he was alone with his Lady he would talk to her in mid-air. Later, when he became a priest and was repeating his daily prayers, a boy used to hold on to the end of his tassels to stop him soaring up to the roof and having an accident.

Why is the image so powerful? What secret magic does it possess? The image is the focal point to whom you can surrender all your joys and sorrows. It relieves the subconscious mind of its burdens. You take them out of your mind and transfer them to the image. It is like the other self. But at the same time it represents a higher power, an infinite cosmic source. By focusing the mind on the image, the consciousness is sublimated, just as we use a ladder to climb up high. The purpose is to expand the consciousness.

Princess Mira's whole being was directed towards Lord Krishna. With her eyes she saw Krishna's form, with her ears she heard the sound of his anklets or his flute. With her hands she caressed the little statue and believed it was her husband. She would smell the sandalwood from which it was made and think of him. Through one-pointed devotion the sense organs, which draw the mind outwards, are redirected towards the spiritual core of our being. The union of Mira and the image is the union of jiva and atman, the individual soul and the universal, cosmic soul.

Once the image has served its purpose, it should be discarded. It is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. A little boy was praying to Lord Vishnu to reveal himself. He put flowers by his statue, burned incense and prayed hard, but nothing happened. Ultimately in anger he broke the statue and cried out, 'Vishnu. Where are you? Why don't you listen to me?' Then, when the boy abandoned the external image and spoke from his heart, Vishnu revealed himself. The vision was so strong that the boy could not tell whether he and Vishnu were separate or one and the same, if he was in Vishnu or Vishnu was in him. The image is the ladder to super consciousness. It may be a statue of Rama, a shiva lingam or a wooden cross - it makes no difference. You may see it as your guru, friend, mother, father or lover - one or all of these. The relationship is an inner dialogue between friend and friend, father and son, self and Self.