IN DEFENCE OF WORSHIP OF SACRED IMAGES


I have been often told by many Muslims that worship of sacred images or “idol” worship has not been sanctioned by Vedas and on the contrary it is to be positively eschewed as per Vedic dictum. This was the view of Swami Dayananda, the founder of Arya Samaj, and has been picked-up and argued by Dr. Zakir Naik and his followers. However, Vedas do not speak about such prohibition at all. It is true that Vedic mode of prayer and worship would have been offering sacrifices. I think worship of sacred images arrived with Buddhism. However, it is not the same as saying Vedas prohibit it or is contrary to Vedic dharma.

2. Hindu hermeneutics has never questioned the efficacy of worship of sacred images. On the contrary in Srivaishnava  theology, sacred images are regarded as archa avataras i.e. that god takes avatara for the sake of receiving worship and blessing his devotees. Long before Srivaishnava formalized its theology, there have been innumerable stories of devotees worshipping images. These have been based on tenets of Agamic shastras which prescribe the method, construction of temples, consecration of sacred images and ritual worship.

3. Purusha Sukta says that “The Purusha (the Supreme Being) has a thousand heads, a thousand eyes and a thousand feet. He has enveloped this world from all sides and has (even) transcended it by ten angulas or inches (sahasra shirsha purushah sahasrAksha sahasrapAt sa bhumim vishvato vritva atyatishthad dhashangulam)”. There are many such Upanishadic vakya talking about transcendence and immanence of Brahman. Brahman immanent in all objects while being transcendent too. Thus whether you worship a material object presuming it to be a Brahman, you are already in touch with Brahman. As the famed elephant simile has it, whether it is the trunk or tail feet or the stomach that you touch, it is still Brahman. It is impossible for an embodied jiva not to think in terms of images, be it material or immaterial images. When we say that God is formless but merciful, beneficent etc. we by anthropomorphizing the Formless Attributeless God create a mental image. How is adoring this {mental} image different from adoring material icons?

4. You may ask, is not Brahman immaterial, spiritual? How does then worshipping a material object lead to Brahman?  Images in Hinduism also involve a great amount of symbolism, which I shall not go into here.  Worship of sacred images is a upadhi, i.e., means to attaining an end. When we worship a sacred image, it is to concentrate on that image with single pointed devotion. This single point concentration of mind leads to dharana, dhyana and samadhi. And in samadhi there is that absolute oneness – with no second at all. As Ramakrishna Paramahamsa puts its we realize that this Creation is nothing but a play of One all pervading undivided pure conspicuousness. The division of jeeva, Brahman and this Universe are seen as manifestations of One. It is this realization of oneness that is important and not mere doctrinal assertions.

5. Muslims regard Qur’an as the Holy Word and would not tolerate desecration such as tearing, stomping or any such blasphemous acts. Christians regard bread and wine as having transformed into body and blood of Christ (Read about Transubstantiation and Consubstantiation of the Eucharist). During worship of sacred images in Hinduism, the divine is invoked and requested to take his presence within the image, to receive the worship and bless the devotees. Thereafter, the divine is requested to “go back” to his own “abode”. It is not a man-made image that Hindus bow down and worship but to all-pervading gracious God which invoked every time. It is by the grace of Almighty that he condescends to descend into images. A simile for this is like a father playing with his children – when the child wants he becomes a horse and carries him on his back. But then neither does father cease being a father nor the child a child. Both are aware of the status, yet both enjoy the roles that the play.

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