Idol Worship (Murti Puja) Significance in Hinduism

      Vedas and Upanishad have created Brahman the supreme. But in due course of time that God had become very remote and people felt he is no more approachable. They needed a God who can watch over them, guide them for good and punish for wrongdoing. History suggests that whenever one God fails to deliver, people get ready to create another God. This is something they always do and will continue doing so. When one religious idea ceases to work for them, it is immediately replaced. This is what happened in Hinduism too.

Emergence of Krishna and Rama through the epics and emergence of Puranas has shown that Gods like Shiva and Vishnu could also be visualized in human form. Worship of Gods in such visible forms was sure to help them visualize the incomprehensible divinity in form and with attributes. A common worshipper still believed in Vedic ideals and power of mantras never was under question. What was missing was the form to easily identify with. The Brahman without form was no more cutting ice.
Idol Worships

      Following the popularization of Puranas and process of sectarianism, Vedic divinities no more met common person's aspiration of connecting with the Supreme and achieve salvation. The Upanishad's Brahman, which was formless and without attributes, was felt to be so far away and hence, neither available nor achievable. Human mind with its limitations, finds it difficult to comprehend God in absolute. (This experience is Universal in nature and true for all times in History). People were yearning for a system where they can directly connect with their Ishta Deva and establish their own contact without the need of any intermediary. But Vedic approach was collective in nature and conducting yajna required specialization of priests. Yajnas were very elaborate and only very rich people can afford their arrangements. By the beginning of Common Era, Yajnas were getting conducted only by kings and aristocrats.

      Emergence of Krishna and Rama through the epics and emergence of Puranas has shown that Gods like Shiva and Vishnu could also be visualized in human form. Worship of Gods in such visible forms was sure to help them visualize the incomprehensible divinity in form and with attributes. A common worshipper still believed in Vedic ideals and power of mantras never was under question. What was missing was the form to easily identify with. The Brahman without form was no more cutting ice.

      The situation of that time will be well understood by a story narrated in Vishnu Purana which deals with this 'formless' or 'with form' dilemma. It correlated the form of God that a common man loves with the formless by an example of playing flute. It says; the air that fills in the lungs of the player, the air that flows through the bamboo of flute, and the air that flies out of the holes of the flute are but different aspects of the same air that fills the whole space. But it is the specific vibrations, the modalities and the pattern of relation of the air that flows in and out of the flute that creates the sweetness of the melodious musical notes. Meaning that omnipresent God being there everywhere does not help in a seeker identifying with the same but once the seeker can see him in some form with his own eyes, the essence can be better grasped through human ingenuity; imagination and devotion.

      In addition to imagining their God in a form, the common man was yearning for a direct relation with the object of their worship. They also felt need for a God who can be loved, respected, be submitted to and even feared of. The wanted a God who can be approached during pressing situations of life and who can be relied to extend His support and provide his blessings, who could protect the good and punish the evil. Devotees wanted to pray for happiness and enjoyment in this world rather than the life after. And all this was desired without losing the aim of salvation. People needed something concrete, simple, and yet attractive to worship and to address their prayers. They were looking for seeking the divine with the help of Deity and other forms whose shape is symbolic.

      It was in this background that Tantra tradition got revived with desired variations.

      Tantra had been intimately related with Vedas but had remained dormant for a very long period. While Vedas primarily focused on true knowledge as the source seek to liberate, Tantra believed that mere knowledge is not enough. Tantra had said that mere mention or understanding of "lamp" is not enough to dispel the darkness. They had believed that prime essence of liberation is the actual, direct experience i.e. "Sakshatkar" with the Supreme. Truth had to be realized and brought into one's experience and that was not possible unless there was a definite, determined and sustained action to attain one's ideal of truth. This determined action was called "Sadhana Kriya" in Sanskrit. Tantra followers maintained that rituals of sacrifices performed routinely in daily life are rather shallow but 'Sadhana', on the other hand, is a spiritual discipline. They promised that if their system were followed, the seeker would achieve Siddhi.

      With due progress over centuries, Tantra practitioners have expanded their practices to include mantras, yantras (postures and gestures), offerings of flowers and incense, pranayama. The Tantra was promising its followers Bhukti and Mukti i.e. wellbeing in this world and liberation from the samsara. The core faith of their ideology is the conviction that the worshipper will get united with the worshipped. Tantra is also known for another key ideology that liberation can be achieved by common householders and not by denial of the worldly pleasures but by sustained discipline and practice. In the context of its time, the Tantra approach was more open and radical. It also overlooked the artificial restrictions of Vedic system in terms of gender and class segregation. Actually, Tantra was always open for women and men alike.

      Every idea has to wait for its time to flourish. Time for many concepts of Tantras had arrived. Tantra recognized the urge of natural human desires and admitted the ever-ongoing conflict between flesh and spirit. Surely; these ideals of Tantra were earlier not acceptable to orthodox followers of Vedic tradition who always had distanced themselves from Tantra branding it a cult and non-Vedic wisdom; but things change with time.

      Tantra followers didn't thought so ever since beginning. They acknowledged Vedas of great antiquity and revered them highly. It never claimed itself to be opposing any Shastra, used the Vedic mantras with vigour. So, all said and done, the worship practices of Tantra started getting popular support of all and sundry. Here come the Temples and Deities...

      To summarize, the living religion of Hindus, beginning first centuries of Common Era, worship practices of an Ishta Deva in the form of a chosen Deity of the God of personal choice established in homes or temples. This worship of the Ishta Devata could be of Vishnu, Shiva, Kul Devi, Kul Devata. A Devata who had most appeal to his Upasak (devotee) is named Ishta Deva. And it could have taken any shape (like Vishnu represented by a simple saligram or Shiva by a Linga) or any other pratima (physical form) or even a picture. Ordinary worshippers made images using perishable material not surviving for long. Later other materials like stones and metals got used, a practice which continues even today.

      Vast majority of human beings are weak minded. Presence of a physical object helped these people to attain Ekagrata (one pointedness) of mind and purity of heart. Once the devotee was able to raise his level of understanding and can see the divine presence every where and in every thing, he/she was free to worship without any particular object as well.

      In due course of time, images of Vishnu with His Avatars, images of Shiva and Shakti became more popular fuelled by sectarian growth throughout India. Such idols started getting established at homes and temples and eventually, this form of worship became popular leaving only a few, mostly Brahmins, continuing with Vedic rituals and yajnas.

      Speaking philosophically, an Idol is just an external symbol of God for worship—it is just a reminder of God's presence. It is a material image igniting a mental form of God in devotee's mind. It makes achieving steadiness of mind easier, especially for the beginners. All forms, in general, are all alike and are merely a different manifestations of same Almighty God. Any one trying to show one superior to other will only be reflecting his ignorance and nothing else.

      Idol Worships are not idle fantasies but aid that channel devotee's attention towards God. Through an idol, the devotee feels the presence of his God in his vicinity. As a direct symbol, an idol made of stone, wood or metal or any other material, for a devotee, bears the mark of his Lord, something sacred and holy; and something eternal. Its worship is just a beginning of religious process. Next stage of worship comes with recitation of mantras. The next stage of mental worship, the best of all stages called 'Meditation on Absolute' follow that. So these different ways are like different ladders available to be used for that ultimate purpose of all—to raise the consciousness to a level where the Devotee feels the overpowering union with His God. 

      Hindu traditions are like kind mother. A mother helps her child to stand up, to hold on, to take first step and finally to run as fast as feasible. Hinduism, with all its variations and multiplicities of ways for a single destination, provides its followers its guidance and motivation right until the aspirant follower attains its due destination. But it works as a strict mother who will always hold her child in due care and will show the alternate ways without forcing or without any barricading to force you go only in the direction she feels right. Alternate Hindu practices of worship hold hands of the aspirant by encouraging them to climb up taking one step at a time until such time that Nirvikalpa Samadhi (stage of super consciousness) is achieved.

      Evolution of Temples and Allied Practices began with Murti Puja, riding on the inclusion of several minority communities, soon started giving impetus to establishment of Temples. We could also get some hints of temple worship in the epics as well where some mention starts coming giving descriptions of existence of images of deities and practice of invocating the gods and their worships. But let us be clear, in the very beginning, that temple does not merely means a place having one or more deities of various Gods and people visiting these places just for Murti Puja.

      The local word for temple is "Mandir" which literally means "a place where human mind becomes still and soul floats free". It was only later that use of temples as a place for meditation or a serene and quite environment allowing the devotee to concentrate for connecting with his God, decreased to just symbolic while the use of the place for making offerings to and establishing eye contact with the deity became more popular. It may be attributed to increasing population that, at present, only few temples remain suitable for attempting meditation in quietness as most places are crowded and well frequented by a large number of devotees.

      Regarding the evolution of Temples, it is also expected with larger acceptance that Yajna Shalas used for conducting Vedic Havans have gradually mutated to emerge as temples in a slow process and under the counter influence of Buddhist stupas which have certainly marked their beginning before full fledged temples arrived on the screen. By the epic period, the cults of devotion had started having their wide spread influence and are said to contribute for slow emergence of places of worship which took forms of temples as we know them today. The very first presence of proper size temples are generally traced back to Gupta Dynasty, the golden period of Hinduism, where we come across with earliest temples at Sanchi, near Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, Bhumara in MP, Nachna in Rajasthan and Deogarh near Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh.

      Further, under logical influence of sectarian progress, the temples also evolved with distinct mark of regional and sectarian evolutions in North and South of India. This is evident from distinct style of curvilinear towers of Nagara style in initial temples in North India to truncated pyramid style of 'Dravidian' style used in South India and finally, in style named 'Vesara' which came out as a combination of both styles.

      With the need for worship of a Deity well settled, next evolution must have lead to other related questions like how to put it all together - how to house the images of deities, what kind of place should be selected, what should be the architecture plans, what should be the size of such places, how to create idols, how to worship different deities, etc. It was to address all such questions that got addressed by emergence of new form of literature called the Agamas.

      Agamas are a set of ancient texts originated initially in oral traditions and subsequently consigned to writings over a long period of time beginning around 600 CE. Final versions of these texts came out as complete guides for temple worship addressing all aspects of constructions, worship practices, worship methodologies, instructions for people identified for carrying all activities of a temple. Agama had its roots in the 'Kalpa Sutras' which were to guide daily life and conduct of the people affiliated with the Vedic rituals during ancient times. Kalpa Sutras have touched upon prescribing vidhi vidhana (holy procedure) for domestic rituals, formal yajnas, mathematical calculation for construction of Vedi and specifications of implements used. Soon, these were to be reinvented to respond changed social requirement, a process one sees so often in every connected practice and tradition in Hinduism.

      First qualified text on design of temple can be traced to Brihat Samhita composed by Varahamihira sometimes around 560 CE who was agreat astronomer, mathematician, astrologer from Ujjain and was one of the Navratnas of the court of Yashowardhan Vikramaditya of Malwa. This text came out with comprehensive calculations involving all these elite subjects to decide the most suited architecture for a temple of God. That is why most temples have complete square mandala formation, four gates with one on side, incorporating radial balance technique to facilitate a strong structure and congenial atmosphere for meditation, worship and sacred space.

      Following temple culture, scholars started working on Agama Shastra to address all the issues relating to temple construction and operations, in the true nature that Shastras are known for. One Agama will always consist of four parts dealing with knowledge, meditation, rituals and ways of worship. This fourfold classification with similar details is also common to Buddhism and Jainism. It is hard to assume for a normal Hindu like me myself that Hindu temples are largely a catching game response by Hinduism to Buddhism and Jainism as construction of Buddhist Stupas had started earlier and, facilitated the need for temples in Hinduism.

      Each of these four parts has both external and internal interpretations. External part talks about ways of doing things while internal talks about spiritual significance of the rituals performed. The parts relating to Rituals and ways of worship pertain to worship in temples and hence occupy major space of these texts. Also included are training manuals meant for performing priests, their induction into temple service, worship attitudes, details of occasional celebrations or festivals, etc.

      Pulled by the sectarian preferences, the Agamas also had to branch out into each sect. Each sect and its sub sect had specific Deity with specific characteristics, and hence, each of these required a separate Agana text providing uniqueness of their own sect/sub sect. As a result, there are 28 Shaiva Agamas, 77 Shaktas and 215 Vaishnava Agamas and another large number of sub Agamas. Then, there are exclusive Agamas in Tamil prescribing similar requirements of temples in South India with their unique flavour.

      Regarding Temple constructions, Agama texts forge special relationship with Shilpa Shastra to deal with all aspects of architecture, design and even material of construction. Besides Shilpa Shastra, the text require the temple architecture to combine principles of Yoga, Astrology, and consideration for sacred geography of the proposed location for temple construction. Also are prescribed principles of Vaastu Shilpa in terms of dimensions, proportions, air circulation, agni sthana, location of temple pond, directions and size for entrances along with lighting considerations. Similar considerations apply to building the Deity. They are very particular and maintain that a temple is to be built for a Deity and not the other way around. So, no work can start unless one already has the Deity.

      There are substantial differences in architecture, customs and rituals in Temples in different parts of the country largely due to applicability of unique characteristics of the sects and sub sects combinations concerned.

      Murti Puja (Idol Worship) is a daily ritual by which a devotee or a seeker communion with his divine - it symbolizes the desire to offer love and devotion, thereby; surrendering one's individuality to Him. Self-surrender
is considered, supreme path to salvation in almost all religions. The Puja or prayers, start with a complete trust in the being to which appeal is made with a feeling of a profound need with an understanding in background that the God is indeed well disposed towards the seeker and is capable and willing to grant his blessings.

      Besides seeking plentiful blessings, a properly conducted Puja is also to seek guidance and strength from God for moving on right path to live a righteous living.

      Since every Hindu is expected to conduct Puja regularly; it may not be out of place to briefly touch upon right way of conducting Puja at both public and private places. Proper Puja vidhis is to follow the following steps:

1. Avahana: First of all, we should invoke the deity for whom we wish to conduct Puja. It may be our Ishta Deva for regular or may be Goddess Laxmi on Diwali or any other deity on their days.

2. Asana: Offer the deity proper seat to make the deity comfortable. Generally; the place is created on a higher pedestral but within reach of the person performing the Puja.

3. Swagata: The deity is extended unspoken welcome and requested to rest on the asana and be comfortable, similar to what we do to any important guest.

4. Padya: Cleaning of deity's feet with water similar to a real guest.

5. Arghya: Offering water laced with flowers, sandal or saffron. Normally; a tumblar full of water is prepared well in advance to be offered at this stage.

6. Achamanam: Offering of water for washing mouth and face of the deity as last activity for shedding tiredness of the long travel undertaken by the deity to arrive at worshipper's home.

7. Madhu arpan: Deity is offered a drink consisting of honey, sugar, milk and water as a ritual to offer food to the invited guest.

8. Abhushanatn: Deity is presented with clothes, jewels and ornaments. Normally, threads of red colour are used as a symbol for all the apparels.

9. Gandha: Offering of sandalwood powder or any other substitute.

10. Akshat: Offering of grains of rice coloured with saffron and sindoor.

11. Pushpa: Offering of flowers.

12. Dhupa: Offerings of lighted incense.

13. Deepaki Lighting of lamp for offering light.

14. Naivedya: As a last offering, Naivedya is to be offered which is made by cooked rice, fruits, ghee, butter, sugar and other sweets.

15. Ashirwadam: This is the real part of the ceremony. Here the worshipper and his family and friends, sitting quietly with closed eyes, assuming the divine presence of the deity among them, seek blessings or other desires from the invited deity.

      The last part of Puja is Aarti that is supposed to establish a direct eye contact of the devotee with his Ishta deva to pass blessings of God via the flame as if the God has appeared in person to provide Darshan. The flame, kept near the God during Puja, is passed before the image of God and then brought to the devotees for them to have Darshan - God is supposed to see devotee's face in the flame and then transmit his power to devotee through the flame into his eyes.

      So finally we have a yet another mix of traditions drawn from different periods, different ideologies, different philosophies, some continued, some forgotten, some brought back from past, some repackaged, some borrowed, some revived, some consigned. It is to the credit of this development that temple worship is completing nearly two thousand years in India. In spite of so many changes have happened on all fronts of personal and social life, political and economic, but the temple based idol worship facilitated by Agama texts starting early centuries of the first millennium, is still going great and providing followers same experience of connection with their Ishta Deva.

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