|When was image worship born? What do the major religions say about image worship? Does it play an important role in grooming our lives? The following article deals with some salient aspects on image worship.
Mysterious are the ways in which people are sometimes drawn towards image worship. Thakorbhai Patel, an eminent gynaecologist, was elected the Mayor of Baroda city in the late 1960's. During this term he contracted a fatal disease. An abscess in his liver threatened to kill him. He was also bleeding internally. As an expert medical doctor 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.
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 an 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 a mind doubting and a 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 the humble gift.
The first spoonful of the sanctified water 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 image worship and God, not so much because I was miraculously saved but because I experienced the Divine in Yogiji Maharaj.
Belief in image worship is born, nourished and consolidated by the contact of a God-communion saint. Not all are fortunate like Thakorbhai and come across a saint like Yogiji Maharaj. So naturally they have questions about image worship. They want to know more about it.
Birth of Image Worship
The precise date of the birth of image worship 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 image worship 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.
Humans need something that they can adore and worship. Thus we have the rituals and the worship of symbols and idols, that mediate between him and God.
Benefits of Image Worship
Ultimate redemption of the soul is possible only through the service of God or a God-communion saint who is present on this earth as a human being. But it requires spiritual insight to know and understand them. Sages and seers have, therefore, enjoined image 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.
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 idol, 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 image is in a human form. Image worshippers, therefore, prefer such an idol.
Queries Regarding Image Worship
Some people ask, "How can an infinite God reside in an image?" 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 an idol.
There are others who ask, "How is it that the presence of God is more pronounced in an idol 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 Swami 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 who have the power to make the presence of God felt in human beings, also have the power to invoke God in an image.
The history of religion is replete with incidents wherein the idol 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 idol of Lord Swaminarayan when he was engrossed in singing His glory. Yogiji Maharaj had frequent talks with the idol. We too can see the actual presence of God in an image, provided our hearts are sufficiently pure.
Image Worship in some Major Religions of the World
Hinduism believes in image worship, for Hindus it is a wonderful technique devised by divine personages to assist devotees to reach God.
Buddhism doesn't believe in God. So the subject of image worship holds no meaning. Nevertheless we see thousands of statues of its founder, Gautam Buddha, being worshipped akin to a personal God. This is also true of Jainism.
Christianity does not believe in image worship. But a lot of image worship has crept into its main division, Roman Catholicism. Even the next major division, Protestantism, holds churches as more sacred than other places. And for them the Bible has a special significance. The Catholics, therefore, charge them with the defect of 'Bibliolatry'. They in turn charge the Catholics with the flaw of Mariolary, because there are a number of statues of Mary in churches. They are adored, respected and almost worshiped.
Islam strongly condemns image worship. Worship of any form is considered sinful by the Muslims. But they don't think so when they kiss their most sacred shrine, the black Kabah stone. Wherever they pray they have to visualise mentally that they are standing before the Kabah. They believe that millions of kisses stamped on it by them will stand up as witnesses for their benefit, on the Day of Judgement. Isn't this a kind of idol-worship?
Thus, in the major religions of the world we perceive at least some kind of image worship.
Swami Vivekanand was bold enough to say that every spiritual is an idolater 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.
When such exalted souls practise image worship, why shouldn't we?