A human being does not receive complete satisfaction from sensual pleasures. He always feels that he is in want of something and is restless and discontented. Then he longs to come into conscious communion with the Lord of the universe, and to attain immortality and everlasting peace. This ultimate craving of man finds its satisfaction in worship. The individual soul desires to unite himself with his father, the Supreme Soul. This is done through worship. Love and devotion naturally arise in the heart when you hear the glory and greatness of the Lord.
An object of worship is therefore necessary for you to pour forth your love and devotion. Worship helps spiritual evolution and eventually brings the devotee face to face with God. As the Absolute cannot be comprehended by the limited and finite mind, the concept of the impersonal God in His lower, limited form came into existence. It is an external symbol of God for worship. It is a reminder of God.
The practice of worship differs according to the growth and evolution of the individual. There is nature worship. The Parsis worship the element of fire. Hindus worship the Ganges, the cows, the ashvattha tree and the tulasi plant. In the Vedas there are hymns to Indra, Varuna, Agni and Vayu. This is nature worship. There is also hero worship. Great heroes like Shivaji and Napoleon are worshipped even today. In hero worship the individual imbibes the virtues of the person whom he worships. Birthday celebrations of great persons and their anniversary celebrations are also forms of worship. There is also the worship of gurus, rishis and different deities.
As one evolves, one passes from one stage of worship to another. The lower stages drop away by themselves. However, a person at a higher stage should not condemn another who is at a lower stage. One should not forget the underlying, indwelling, interpenetrating essence or intelligence when one performs any kind of worship. The fundamental object in worship is union with the Lord who permeates all names and forms. This has to be achieved by developing intense love.
It is not possible for most people to fix the mind on the Absolute or the Infinite, to behold God everywhere and to practise the presence of God. The external symbol of God is necessary for worship in the beginning and is a support for the aspirant during his spiritual childhood.
A symbol is absolutely indispensable for fixing the mind. The mind wants a prop to lean upon. Without the help of some external aid, in the initial stages, the mind cannot be centralized or have a conception of the Absolute. In the beginning, concentration or meditation is not possible without a symbol. Steadiness of mind is obtained by saguna or worship with form. The worshipper will have to associate the ideas of infinity, omnipotence, omniscience, purity, perfection, freedom, truth, omnipresence in the form.
Saguna worship makes concentration of mind simpler and easier. You can bring before your minds eye the stories the Lord has played in the specific avataras in which you view Him. This is one of the easiest modes of self-realization. Just as the picture of a famous warrior evokes heroism in the heart, a look at the picture of a form of God will elevate your mind to divine heights. Just as the child develops the maternal feeling by playing with its imaginary toy-child made up of rags, so also the devotee develops the feeling of devotion by worshipping the image and concentrating on it.
While all things may be objects of worship, choice is naturally made of those objects which, by reason of their effect on the mind, are better fitted for it. An image or one of the useful emblems is likely to raise in the mind of the worshipper the thought of a deity. The shaligram stone easily induces concentration of mind. Everybody has got a predilection for a symbol, emblem or image. An idol or murti, the sun, fire, water, the Ganges, a Shivalingam are all symbols of the Absolute which help the aspirants to attain one-pointedness of mind and purity of heart. They refer to personal inclinations in the worshipper due to his belief in their special efficacy for him.
The Shivalingam represents Lord Shiva. It represents the one, formless Brahman. There is no duality here. The lingam shines as one and is attractive to the eye. It helps concentration. Ravana propitiated Shiva and obtained boons by worshipping the lingam. The shaligram is a symbol of Lord Vishnu. Every image of a god or goddess suits the tastes of a different devotee.
God reveals Himself to His devotees in a variety of ways. He assumes the very form which the devotee has chosen for his worship. If you worship Him as Hari with four hands, He will come to you as Hari. If you adore Him as Shiva, He will appear before you as Shiva. If you worship Him as Durga or Kali, He will come to you as Durga or Kali. If you worship Him as Rama, Krishna or Dattatreya, He will come to you as Rama, Krishna or Dattatreya. If you worship Him as Christ or Allah, He will give you His vision as Christ or Allah. You may worship Shiva or Hari, Ganesha or Subrahmanya. You may worship Saraswati or Lakshmi, Gayatri or Kali, Durga or Chandi. All are aspects of the one Truth.
Psychologically, all this means that a particular mind finds that it works best in the desired direction by means of particular instruments, emblems or images. The vast bulk of humanity has impure or weak minds. Therefore, the object of worship must be pure for these people. The objects that are capable of exciting lust and dislike must be avoided. However, an advanced sadhaka, who has a pure mind and sees the divine presence everywhere and in everything, can worship any kind of object.
Worship goes to the indweller through the form which is being worshipped. It is sheer ignorance to think that one form is superior to another. All worship goes to the one basic reality, the Supreme Brahman. The differences are only differences in name and form, on account of differences in the worshippers. There is no difference in the essential object of worship. It is only out of ignorance that different religions and sects fight and quarrel among themselves. Therefore, be tolerant and have a broad outlook on life because the basic essentials of all religions and paths leading to God are the same.
The image in a temple, though it is made of stone, wood or metal, is precious for a devotee as it bears the mark of his Lord, as it stands for something which he holds holy and eternal. A flag is only a small piece of painted cloth, but for a soldier it stands for something that he holds very dear. He is prepared to give up his life in defending his flag. Similarly, the image is very dear to a devotee. It speaks to him in its own language of devotion. Just as the flag arouses martial valour in the soldier, so also the image arouses devotion in the devotee.
The Lord is superimposed on the image and the image generates divine thoughts in the worshipper. A piece of ordinary white paper has no value. You throw it away. But, if there is the stamp of the king on the paper, you keep it safe in your money purse as a currency note. Even so, an ordinary piece of stone has no value. You throw it away. But, if you behold the stone statue of Krishna at a shrine, you bow your head with folded hands, because there is the stamp of the Lord on the stone.
The devotee superimposes on the stone statue his Beloved and all His attributes. When your devotion and meditation become intense and deep, you do not see the stone image. You behold only the Lord in it.
The idols which are made and used in form worship are not simply products of imagination or the fancy of sculptors. The form is a shining channel through which the heart of the devotee is attracted to and flows towards God. Though the image is worshipped, the devotee feels the presence of the Lord in it and pours out his devotion into it. It is the appalling ignorance of the modern sensual man that clouds his vision and prevents him from seeing divinity in lovely and enchanting idols of His form.
The scientific advances of this century ought to convince you of the glory of idol worship. How are the songsters and orators confined to a small box-like thing to be called a radio? It is a mere piece of a mechanical lifeless structure which breaks into a thousand pieces if you throw it away violently; and yet, if you know how to handle it, you can hear through it music that is being played several thousands of miles away or the discourse that is being delivered in the remotest part of the globe. Even as you can catch the sound waves of people all over the world through the radio receiving set, it is possible to commune with the all-pervading Lord through the medium of an idol.
The divinity of the all-pervading God is vibrant in every atom of creation. There is not a speck of space where He is not. Why do you then say that He is not in the idols? There are others who would glibly say, Oh, God is the all-pervading formless being. How can He be confined to this idol? Are these people ever conscious of His omnipresence? Do they always see Him and Him alone in everything? No. It is their ego that prevents them from bowing to the idols of God and with that motive puts this lame excuse forward.
However intellectual one may be, one cannot concentrate without the help of some symbol in the beginning. An intellectual and learned person, on account of his pride and vanity says, I do not like an idol. I do not wish to concentrate on a form. He cannot concentrate on the formless One. He thinks that people will laugh at him when they come to know that he is meditating on a form. He never practises any meditation on the formless reality. He simply talks and argues and poses. He wastes his life in unnecessary discussions. An ounce of practice is better than tonnes of theory.
Intellect is a hindrance in the vast majority of intellectual persons. They say that the existence of Brahman is guess work, samadhi is a bluff of the mind and self-realization is an imagination of the vedantins. Deluded souls! They are steeped in ignorance. They are carried away by their secular knowledge which is mere husk when compared to the knowledge of the Self. Empty vessels make much sound. A practical man who practises meditation and worship, who is full of knowledge and real devotion, always keeps silence. He influences and teaches others through silence. He alone knows whether a form is necessary in the beginning for concentration or not.
Puja is the common term for ritual worship of which there are numerous synonyms such as archana, vandana, bhajan, etc., though some of these stress certain aspects of it. The object of worship is the ishta devata or guiding deity or the particular form of the deity whom the devotee worships.
By the performance of puja, the deity is pleased. The idol is made up of the five elements; they constitute the body of the Lord. The idol remains an idol, but the worship goes to the Lord. If you shake hands with a man, he is highly pleased. You have touched only a small part of his body and yet he is highly pleased. He smiles and welcomes you. Even so, the Lord is highly pleased when a small portion of His virat (cosmic) body is worshipped. An idol is a part of the body of the Lord.
The worshipper superimposes on the image the Lord and all His attributes. He performs shodashopachara, worship with sixteen kinds of offerings, such as padyam (water for washing the feet), arghyam (water offered in a vessel), asana (seat), snana (bathing), vastra (clothes), achamana (water for sipping), pushpa (flowers), dhupa (incense), dipa (waving of lights and camphor), naivedyam (food), etc. The wandering mind is fixed now in this form of worship. The aspirant gradually feels the nearness of the Lord. He attains purity of heart and slowly annihilates the ego.
To the worshipper who believes in the symbol, any kind of image is the body of the Lord under the form of stone, clay, brass, picture, etc. Such worship can never be idolatry. All matter is a manifestation of God. The very act of worship implies that the object of worship is superior and conscious. This way of looking at things must be attained by the devotee. The untutored mind must be trained to view things in the above manner.
Regular worship unveils the divinity latent in an idol. God is then enshrined in the idol. From here, He will protect you in a special manner. This is truly a wonder and miracle. The picture comes to life. The idol speaks. It answers your questions and solves your problems. The awakened divinity in the idol acts as a guardian angel blessing all.
The God in you has the power to awaken the latent divinity in the idol. It is like a powerful lens that focuses the suns rays on to a bundle of cotton. The lens is not fire and the cotton is not fire either, nor can the suns rays by themselves burn the cotton. When the three are brought together in a particular manner, fire is generated and the cotton is burnt. Similar is the case with the idol, the sadhaka and the all-pervading divinity. Therefore, the devotee should have the same attitude in regard to the idol which he would evince if the Lord were to appear before him in person and speak to him in articulate sound.
The place where an idol comes alive is transformed into a temple. Those who live in such a place are freed from miseries, diseases, failures and from samsara itself. The image guides the devotee. It talks to him. It assumes human form to help him in a variety of ways. There are many marvels and mysteries which only a devotee understands.