ARTICLE : Idol worship and Hindu Symbolism

Posted By Ram Chandran (chandran@nmaa.org)
Thu, 08 May 1997 23:40:43 -0400

Significance of Idol Worship in Hinduism

First let me assure Mani Varadarajan that I do not doubt his sincerity
in his beliefs and values. But I request him to be less emotional and
more understanding. I agree with the general sentiment expressed on the
discussion concerning "idol worship." We don't need to be apologetic.
But it is important that we study, understand and explain the role of
deity worship to those who questions its relevance in Hinduism. A
great majority of people in the western countries judge us by the way we
communicate our religious ideas and beliefs to them. It is very
important that we pay more attention in creating a positive image of us
and the religion that we represent.
Our religion and deity worship has great significance but because of
our poor public relations with the western society, we fail to
communicate its role in Hindu way of life. We should have invested more
resources on Public Relations to educate, motivate and change the
opinion of people who do not seem to appreciate our way of life. Good
public relations can effectively cause those people to agree with our
point of view on Hindu religion and customs. There is plenty of
information available in Vedas on the integration of rituals and
philosophy in Hindu civilization. But information alone rarely will
change people's opinions or ideas. The information that is available in
the Internet is developed by a diversified group of dedicated
individuals. Currently available information does not focus on the
audience psychology and they fail to impress them! They concentrate
more on the intellectual logic and ignore the emotional appeal.
Hinduism is an evolved religion with multiple roots and beliefs to
permit a diversified group of people to practice what they believe!
What is the incentive for those who do not appreciate Hinduism to go
through the volumes of Vedas and Puranas to grasp the Truth?
Credibility and Goodwill are other two factors which can influence
favorable public opinion. First, the person who represents and
communicates need credibility and should create reputation for
trustworthiness and expertise. Such integrity is necessary to change
negative opinion Hindu religious customs and beliefs. The response to
our viewpoint will be determined largely by whether we are liked,
respected, and trusted. Good parents follow the goodwill approach to
raise their kids. It is a time-consuming process but it yields higher
dividends. Goodwill when created, will sustain the reputation for
longer time duration! If show kindness and respect to other
viewpoints, they are more likely to listen and respect our viewpoints.
Religious disputes and doctrinal conflicts are always motivated by
egoism. The existence and practice of different religions demonstrate
that no single religious perspective is absolute and complete.
The Hindu philosophy and logic provide unassailable strength to
the concept of the fundamental unity in the worship of a multitude of
gods. Hinduism is highly individualistic and Hindus love the freedom to
worship their personal choice of an icon to visualize the abstract
Brahman. That explains the rapid growth of temples, gods, and rituals
across India and beyond. Even illiterate villagers are proud and
enthusiastic to elaborate on stories about their temple gods and their
significance. Such stories invariably are more adventurous and heroic
than "Superman" episodes, but with a divine touch. The temple
epitomizes God in a spiritual form and the various parts of his body
symbolizes philosophical concepts. It serves as the symbolic link
between Human and God, between Material and Spiritual and between
Obvious and Ideal. Names of the miscellaneous segments of the temple
designate different organs of the human body (garbhagraha (Sanctum
Sanatorium) represents the human heart).
The symbolism in Hinduism is analogous to the modern
communication methods adopted by the computer industry. They both
adjust to the diverse tastes and needs of the world. Only a small
segment of the general public looks for sophistication and special
features. A majority of common demands simple illustrations and
practical examples rather than lengthy logic! The computer industry
employs creative graphic displays of "icons" to satisfy the general
public. Hindu symbolism seems to imply that it does not believe in a
one-size-fits-all theory! Artistic temples with idols, heroic stories,
and colorful rituals demonstrate this fact. Educated Hindus may grasp a
lot more from such symbolism, and unravel philosophical and spiritual
truths of Vedanta. Puranic stories create role models by dramatization
of legendary events to preserve social ethics (Dharma). An ideal
spouse, parent, offspring, or teacher is orchestrated to help the
society to conduct its daily duties (nithya karma). Hinduism has
perfected the art of symbolism as a powerful media to teach complex
philosophical ideas to the common man. The communication of values using
the puranic stories in Hinduism, resemble the case study procedures in
business management institutions.
The purpose of my reference to "icon" in this article is to communicate
effectively to those who are eager to understand the symbolism in Hindu
worship. Hindus may consider Nataraja in a museum as an art piece but
at Chidambaram Temple in Tamilnad, the sculpture becomes holy and
sacred. Hindus invoke their choice of God in their heart and visit the
temple to pray and worship what they have invoked! Heart becomes the
shelter for God when kindness, compassion, generosity and spontaneity
are invoked! In Hindu symbolism, idol worship and prayers are utilized
to motivate kindness, compassion, generosity and spontaneity in our
heart. They are the means, not the ends!