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When was Murti Puja (idolatry) born? What do the major religions say about idolatry? Does it play an important role in grooming our lives? The following article deals with some salient aspects on idolatry.

Mysterious are the ways in which people are sometimes drawn towards idolatry. Thakorbhai Patel, an eminent gynaecologist, was elected the Mayor of Baroda City in the late 1960's. During his term he contracted a fatal disease. An abscess in his liver threatened to kill him, He was also bleeding internally. As an expert medico he knew, rather too well, that he would breathe his last within a few days.

It is one thing to speak of death but altogether different when a person comes face to face with it. He becomes terrified.

Thakorbhai became desperate. He wanted help. Someone suggested the name of Yogiji Maharaj, a very humble saint. But Thakorbhai had no religious inclinations. Far from it, he fancied that a Murti(idol) is no more than a piece of stone, God a myth and saints a burden on society.

Nevertheless with the surfacing of the survival instinct, he went to meet Yogiji Maharaj with mind doubting and heart longing. Yogiji Maharaj consoled him, gave him sanctified water and advised him to drink it daily. Thakorbhai was overwhelmed by his utter simplicity, transparent purity and selfless love. So he willingly accepted that gift from a humble saint.

The first spoonful of the sanctified water, he gulped down, stopped his bleeding. With some more spoonfuls his disease was cured. He was amazed. Although, what occurred was contrary to his years of experience, something beyond his ken, he said, "I am a changed man. Now I have come to believe in Murti Puja and God, not so much because I was miraculously saved but because I experienced murti puja the Divine in Yogiji Maharaj.

Belief in Murti Puja is born, nourished and consolidated by the contact of a God-intoxicated saint. Not all are fortunate like Thakorbhai to come across a saint like Yogiji Maharaj. So naturally they have questions about Murti Puja. They want to know more about it.

Birth of Murti Puja: The precise date of the birth of Murti Puja is shrouded in mystery. However, the earliest spiritual texts of the world, the Vedas, refer to it, both covertly as well as overtly. The seed of Murti Puja lies certainly in the idea of a personal God, that is, God having a form.

A spiritual aspirant not only loves God but also experiences love from Him. However one can only love or experience love from someone if it has a live form, So it obviously follows that God has a form, that is, He is personal. The aspirant also believes that this God, is infinite, all-powerful, all-merciful, all-pervasive, all-knowing and the fountain-head of all goodness. You may question, how can God who is infinite have a form? But the aspirant is not worried by this query, for he believes that God is above all contradictions. For him, it is only love that matters.

He has given shape to these abstract ideas, something that he can adore and worship. Thus we have the rituals and the worship of symbols and idols, that mediate between him and God.

Benefits of Murti Puja: Ultimate redemption of the soul is possible only through the service of God or a God-intoxicated saint who is present on this earth as a human being. But it requires a spiritual insight to know and understand them. Ordinary people are short of it and thus it is likely that they are misled by imposters masquerading as God or His chosen ones. Sages and seers have, therefore, enjoined Murti Puja worship of worship. This is never misleading. In fact this kind of worship purifies the senses and mind to such an extent that the worshipper can readily perceive the difference between a true saint and an imposter. This is the fruit of Murti Puja.

Purification of the Senses and Mind: The senses are purified because the body is involved in worship. And the mind is purified because the worshipper, while worshipping the Murti does not take it to be a piece of stone but mentally attributes to it the qualities of God.

The more he thinks of it the purer he becomes. Purification corresponds to concentration. It is easy to concentrate when the Murti is in a human form and dressed exquisitely.

Queries regarding Murti Puja: Some people ask, "How can an infinite God reside in a Murti?" This question will not arise at all, were they to believe that God is omnipresent, for if God is present everywhere He cannot be absent from a Murti.

There are others who ask, "How is it that the presence of God is more pronounced in a Murti than other things?" For a moment let us forget things and consider human beings. It is a fact that God's presence is more in some people than others. Otherwise, how would you account for saints like Meera and Tulsi, Eknath and Tukaram, Gunatitanand and Bhagatji Maharaj? When ordinary people come into the contact of such saints, God within them starts manifesting. The more the contact, the more is the manifestation and the more the presence of God is felt. Such saints have the power to invoke God in a Murti.

The history of religion is replete with incidents wherein the Murti of God has responded to the loving calls of the devotees. No less are such incidents even in the history of the Swaminarayan faith.

Premanand Swami was garlanded by the Murti of Gopinathji in Gadhada when he was engrossed in singing His glory. Yogiji Maharaj had frequent talks with the Murti. We too would see the actual presence of God in a Murti, provided our hearts are sufficiently pure.

Swami Vivekanand was bold enough to say that every spiritual aspirant is an idolator as he has not fully realised God and his soul. And this is quite true, for it is impossible to conceive God without associating Him with some form or the other.

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