the brilliant mind and soul of Adi Shankaracharya to the simple
village farmer, murti puja, or image worship, is firmly entrenched
in the daily lives of all Hindus through countless generations
of fruitful worship. The hundreds of thousands of mandirs, large
and small, scattered over the Indian subcontinent, are visited
daily by tens of millions of the faithful.
The advent of the industrial age and the rise of science as
a supposedly omniscient superpower created a parallel disregard
for things spiritual. Unexplainable phenomena of supernatural
implications were denounced as primitive beliefs or plain heathenism.
It has been overlooked that advancement in one field of human
interest does not necessarily initiate degradation or confirm
the untruth of another field.
The bafflement of many who first behold the array of Hindu murtis
springs from the deep-rooted Western and antagonism to imaging
the Divine at all.
However, worship of God through belief in His presence in an
image is considered to be one of the foremost aids to spiritual
realization in Hinduism.
The Hindu Viewpoint
A mandir without an enshrined murti is not a mandir, it remains
a building, no matter how majestic and scripturally correct
its construction may be. Just as houses have a meaning only
when they have people. Murtis are to the Hindu worshipper what
diagrams are to the geometrician.
One day Swami Vivekanand went to the royal court of Alwar. The
young westernized Maharaja was a sceptic.
"Swamiji, you talk of God. Do you believe in the stone
gods in the mandirs?"
"But how can God be a thing made of stone?"
Swamiji turned to the Prime Minister present at the court. "Please
take down the picture of the Maharaja and give it to me."
When the Prime Minister did so, "Now spit on it! It is
not the Maharaja." Vivekanand suggested,
"Oh, no, How can I?" said the Prime Minister.
Swamiji then turned to the Maharaja and said: "Do you see
my point now? This stone God is like your portrait – a symbol."
The Prime Minister out of respect for the Maharaja refused to
spit on the Maharaja's portrait. To him the portrait represented
That the portrait was a painting unable to move or talk, or
respond or receive in any way did not in any manner lessen the
respect the Prime Minister had for the portrait.
Although Swami Vivekanand in the above incident uses the word
'symbol' to describe the murti, the Hindu worshipper sees no
symbol or representation, but an actual manifestation.
From the moment the Vedic rites are completed and a statue or
painting of the deity is consecrated God through the image manifests
in all His glory and grace. He accepts various devotions. He
listens to prayers and woes. He is at once a confidant and giver
Thus a murti cannot be said to be a beautiful statue or doll,
nor an excellent painting. The image is God.
Says Swami Vivekanand, "It has become a trite saying that
idolatry is bad, and everyone swallows it at the present time
without questioning. I once thought so, and to pay the penalty
of that, I had to learn my lessons sitting at the feet of a
man who realized everything from idols. I allude to Ramakrishna
"Yet idolatry is condemned. Why? Some hundreds of years
ago, some man of Jewish blood happened to condemn it. He happened
to condemn everybody else's idols except his own. If God is
represented in any beautiful form or any symbolic form, said
the Jew, it is awfully bad; it is sin. But if He is represented
in the form of a chest (box) with two angels sitting on either
side, it is the holiest of holies. If God comes in the form
of a dove, it is holy. But if He comes in the form of a cow,
it is heathen superstition, condemn it..."
To complicate the issue, murti puja is also frowned upon by
some professing Hindus. They question the use of murti puja
by arguing that if God is present in all creation it means He
is present within every atom. So why not meditate on an individual
atom! Without a definite shape or symbol the mind cannot be
Swami Dayanand Saraswati, an ardent Vedantist once saw a mouse
crawl over a Shivaling. Doubts arose in his mind – Is God so
impotent that he cannot brush even a mouse from his body? Dayanand
soon lost all faith in murtis and founded the Arya Samaj – a
society vehemently opposed to murti puja.
Over the years Dayananda Saraswati has found some support and
great opposition. One scholar writes, "For one whose life
is the Vedas and who believes the omnipresence of God, how can
Dayanand not believe that God is present in an image? It is
said that he lost faith in murti puja when he saw a mouse crawling
over an image. If a person loses faith by such a small incident
can he be termed great? And from the debate point of view, how
great is God, who, although no one else allows, did allow a
little mouse over His head!"
Another great Indian leader, Vinobaji, says, "If an insignificant
animal such as a mouse is not allowed to play in its creator
Lord's lap, where is it supposed to play?"
God is all-powerful. He can at will assume a form finer than
the smallest of atoms or a form more vast than the most colossal
of galaxies! What is to stop Him from making Himself accessible
through an image – be it of wood, stone or canvas?
Bhagwan Swaminarayan explains citing the case of Shukdevji who
spoke to his father, Ved Vyas, by entering a tree and Adi Shankaracharya
entering the dead body of a king. Bhagwan Swaminarayan says
that if a human can attain such miraculous powers of entering
other bodies at will surely God can do so as well. (Vachanamrut
Gadhada I-68). Bhagwan Swaminarayan says again, "(A Yogi),
who has attained a yogic feat can hear talks from thousands
of miles away as if he is hearing them from very close quarters.
He can also behold any object from a distance...
"Similarly, Shri Krishna Bhagwan even though He resides
in His divine abode manifests wherever He desires before many
in many forms simultaneously. If a yogi possesses such yogic
powers to see or hear from a distance, why is it surprising
if God wields such powers? The scriptures describe Him as immanent
because of His divine powers of manifesting in forms at many
Adi Shankaracharya, the proponent of Advait philosophy says,
"Although Parabrahma is all pervading, to attain Him one
should accept that He is 'more' present in one particular place.
Just as we 'see' Vishnu in the Shaligram a small round stone..."
In other words Shankaracharya supports murti puja!
Ramanujacharya who propounded the Dvait philosophy says in his
"Although God is all pervading,
using his omnipotent powers He appears before devotees to accept
their devotion through a murti."
Here it suffices to say that, with the ancient Hindus murti
puja was not left to be treated as an ignorant and useless practice
fit only for the ignorant and spiritually immature; even the
greatest visited mandirs, and worshipped murtis, and these thinkers
did not do so blindly or unconsciously. A human necessity was
recognized, the nature of the necessity was understood, its
psychology systematically analyzed, the various phases of murti
puja, mental and material were defined. The modern Hindu follows
in the footsteps of his forefathers.