A common misconception is that Hindus practice idolatry, as in worship of statues, stones or material objects/images. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Sri Alkondavilli Govindacharya mentions in The Holy Lives of the Azhvārs (1902)[PDF page 45]:
We Hindus, even stronger than the Christians, repudiate meaningless Idolatry. We do not advocate God-less idols or souls, but very God-full. We invite our readers to the following science [of Deity in Images] as contained in our Scriptures formulated by Parthasārathi Yogi:
“‘What ought not to be worshiped, is of three kinds :—
1. Mere matter or body: for it is an entity inferior to the worshippers, and is only an inert, unintelligent chattel or instrument, placed by providence at the disposal of worshippers, the latter being “superior” thereto.
2. The mere finite soul: for, no finite soul has any worth of its own, God alone being the Lord by whom are given and preserved the properties that pertain to every entity in the Universe.
3. The mere ‘sum’ too, of matter and the finite soul: for such sum is as valueless for purposes of enlightened worship, as the sum of two ciphers is for purposes of arithmetical calculation.
It follows, therefore, that just as ciphers have value, only when they are known to follow figures, the three objects— enumerated above—are worshippable, only when it is realized that they are bodies having God for their Soul“.
[P. 32. Universal Religion Formulated.]
In other words, a “God-full” idol is a Deity, and thus worshippable, whereas a mere stone or statue or material object is NOT worshippable. God is, by definition, capable of taking any form for His body. And He takes a body/form at the sincere prayerful urging of devotees, through a consecration/vitalizing process called Prāṇa-pratishta. The Image incarnation is called the Archa-avatār of the Lord.
By God’s eternal will (Nity-ēcchā) are determined the (beatific) bodies of God and of the Eternals and the Freed (souls)… The bodies of God in His Vyūha, Vibhava and Archa-avatār manifestations are of the immaterial (i.e., spiritual) nature. In the case of the Archa-avatār (or Images consecrated in Temples), the spiritual body, by God’s grace won by propitiation, incarnates (in the Images) after the vitalising (Prāna-pratishtha) process. ‘How can happen a junction, between the material and the immaterial? ‘ need not raise a doubt, for the doubt is cleared when it is shown that this is illustrated by the (spiritual) bodies of Incarnations as of Rāma and Krshna, — authoritatively known to us.
avajānanti māṁ mūḍhā
mānuṣīṁ tanum āśritam
paraṁ bhāvam ajānanto
‘The witless fancy Me as man incarnate, ignoring My transcendent character, that I am, of beings, the Sovereign Paramount.’1
On account of their sins, ignorant dunces mistake Me —Who am in human semblance— to be like any other specimen of (ordinary) humanity; —Me the Great Lord of creatures, the Omniscient, The True-willed, the only Cause of the vast Kosmos,— Who assume the mask of humanity from motives of infinite compassion for creatures that they may have access to Me.
Ignoring this My superior and singular hypostatic nature, disguised in human form, —assumed on purpose, to be within the reach of all, and a vehicle for the display of Divine qualities of shoreless mercy and bounty, simplicity, love, etc., pertaining to the Great Lord of beings— they despise and disregard Me as if I belonged to the human kind.
The Image-Incarnation is the species of Forms presented (for worship), in homes, hamlets, cities, selected hills etc., devoid of distances interposed by space and time; deigning to descend with His immaterial (i.e., spiritual) Person into any material substance as may lovingly be chosen by the votary; lending Himself to the sweet will of His worshipper in all details (of worship such as) bath, food, place and rest; All-forgiving; the All-sufficient God! Four varieties of this (aspect) exist viz., Self-manifest (Svayam-Vyakta), Superhuman or Celestial (Daiva), Saint-made (Saiddha) and Man-made (Mānusha).
From The Artha-Panchaka of Sri Pillai Lokacarya (July 1910):
The Arcā-Form consists in the images of Bhagavān (God) which accommodate themselves to the various tastes of His creatures for their worship, having no fixed form, but that which the worshipper may choose and desire to have of Him; having no fixed name but that which the worshipper may choose and desire to call Him by; all-knowing, but seeming as if not-knowing; all-powerful, but seeming as if powerless; all-sufficient but seeming as if needy; thus seeming to exchange places, the Worshipped with the worshipper, and choosing to be ocularly manifest to him in temples and homes, in short at all places and at all times desired.
Note: Cf. Professor Max Muller (Physical Religion, p. 201): “The old commandment ‘Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image, nor the likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or in the earth beneath or in the water under the earth,’ has been broken by all religions, if not by making likenesses, at least by conceiving the Deity in the likeness of man.”
God in Images is described thus:
It is like electricity, which pervades the conducting wire, but which is nevertheless latent, and lacking in utility, till it becomes patently present, by its power of illuminating darkness, at the poles in a vacuum bulb. According to the Bhagavat-Śāstra entitled the Pañcarātra Āgamas, the types for making material representations on canvas or in sculpture are furnished by the Vyūha and Vibhava manifestations of the Deity. Cf. Bhagavad Gita XI.46 ff., tēnaiva rūpeṇa caturbhujēna, etc.
From The Vade Mecum of Vedanta or a Compendium of Vedic Philosophy (1909)[PDF page 178] (there is more info on this topic than has been presented below, especially with references to Christianity starting on PDF page 181):
Now comes the Archa, or Manifestation Worshippable, which is that Form of the Lord, in which, unlike His Manifestation Distinctive, (Vi-bhava or the Avatāras), which, being occasional, were realised by souls of appropriate endowments, at particular times and places according to the Vishnu Purana verse above quoted, the Lord, according to the text:…
“Whatever Form is dear to His Devotees, He of His own will dons”,
is pleased, without any kind of limitation as to times, places, or persons, to be present and manifest Himself to all, in temples and homes, all-forgiving, and accommodating Himself to the whims and fancies of the worshipper, whose heart is so fascinated by objects of sense, and mind so obscured by sophistry, that he is assailed by a thousand doubts whether God is really capable of representing Himself in symbols for the sake of the poor little-witted humanity. If God could be suspected incapable of even such a most insignificant feat for blessing misguided mankind, it is far more reasonable to deny Him altogether. The blight of atheism and materialism, has so swept the land of Bharata [constituting the present day India and surrounding areas], that were it not for the Holy Temples so endurantly instituted by our sages and mages [i.e., wise-men] of yore, the vandalism of the Moslem and the stratagem of the Christian Missionary should have completely blotted ere this, the Hindu nation’s individualism, in the chaos of rising and falling races of mankind. Our Temples are sermons in stone, and immemorial monuments on which paleology of our religion is inscribed in indelible characters. All credit is due to Pax Brittanica for their policy of non-interference and non-aggression, and eagerness to preserve the vestiges of the sacred history of God as it took place in India.
The enshrined Archa-Form in temples and homes and everywhere possesses the characteristics of:
- Weaning souls from wandering and creating in them (by attractive beauty and boon-granting generosity) a taste for worship (such as the mere injunctions of the Law could never produce, vide Bhagavad Gita III-33),
- Presenting (when taste for worship has arisen in souls), an amiable image (subhāśraya) on which the worshipper’s eye and heart may be rivetted and rest there in spiritual rapturousness.
- Accessibility as Saviour, to all kinds of souls (without distinction of high and low), and,
- Enjoyability (as in the Highest Heaven itself, by souls – grown ripe in realising the beatitude of this worship), …
Cardinal Newman acknowledges that the doctrine of Divine Incarnation is Indian, and Novalis says that if God can deign to be incarnate as a man, He can deign like-wise to become incarnate as an animal (vide Matt. III-16, and Luke III-22), or as a plant, or as wood or stone, (Gen. XXVIIIV-18 and 22, and Dr. A. Clarke’s Commentary).
Cardinal Newman, in his Meditations and Devotions P.555-ch-x-part III writes: “And it is love, which keeps thee here still, even now that thou hast ascended on high, in a small tabernacle, and under cheap and common outward forms. O Amor meus, if thou wert not infinite Love, wouldst thou remain here, one hour, imprisoned and exposed to slight, indignity, and insult?”
“Since all things are the manifestors of Being, One amongst them must be an idol.”
Here’s another related observation in an articled titled “IDOLATRY” from the Theosophist Vol. 4 No. 4:
Discussions have often been raised whether Idolatry or Moorti Pooja is allowed by the Vedas, the sacred books of the Aryans. But as yet no special meaning is given to the term Idolatory or Moorti Pooja. Can the worship of Vishṇu as performed by the present Aryans, or the worship of the three-eyed Shiva., or of the Thibetian Lama be safely termed Idolatry? I think not. But before putting down my opinion on the subject, I must define as accurately as I can, because defining accurately is the task of great philosophers. Then here is one explanation. ” If a man or woman worships the Supreme Being through an Image, thinking all the time when worshipping that he or she is worshiping the Supreme Being and not the stone, or when he or she has kept the image to remind him or her of the said Supreme being, or when he or she thinks that the Supreme Being has entered the image, he or she is said to worship the Supreme Being through an agency; but he is not worshipping the Idol and thus his or her worship cannot be called idolatry“. Now, we see that the Aryans are not Idolaters. If they are, then I can safely say, there is nothing like non-idol worship. Even the Christians resort to an agency while worshipping. If they have no such agency when worshipping, why do they kneel down and uncover their head in the Church? What is an Idol but a bigger Church than the image? What for do they look up while praying? Why look at the heavens? Is God there only? Is he not everywhere? He is in every part of space. Then why look up? No special reason, but they do so because their ancestors did so. They worship God through the agency of the sky, the Church, &c. and thus it can be conceived that all those nations are as much Idolaters easily be as the poor inhabitants of Arya varta.
The present Aryan youths instead of thinking deeply into questions of this kind, unlike their ancestors of yore, cling blindly to any man who starts a new thing. All their zeal has been taken away by a defect in the present system of education. What that defect is, one can easily guess. Let me ask the learned Swami Dayanand, one of the strictest so called non-idolaters, if he employs any agency while worshipping God. By agency I mean any medium whether with or without any shape. Let me ask if he looks up while praying or has the Moorti Pooja of beads. If he employs no medium will he be good enough to let you know through your journal how he worships God? By describing his mode of worship, the Swami will not only oblige our Society, but the public at large. Because if I mistake not, there is none who worship without using some medium or another.
Vice-President, The National Legend Investigating Society’s Hall.
Malabar HilI, 20th November 1882.
Indeed, Lord Krishna says in Bhagavad Gita verse 4.11:
ye yathā māṁ prapadyante
tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham
manuṣyāḥ pārtha sarvaśaḥ
Not only, by the method of Incarnations, in the forms of devas, men etc., I am saviour to those who seek Me as their Refuge, but any other method or form3 which it may be their pleasing option to select4. Whatever that is, to that I adapt Myself. By whatever conception5 they choose to seek Me, I manifest Myself to them in that mode6.
Bhajāmi is literally ‘I serve (in love).’ Here it means, ‘I appear to them’ (darśayāmi).
In short, albeit My nature is such as even Yogis (exclusively God-devoted men) find it to be transcending thought and speech, yet to all who are of My ways, I suit Myself in a manner that I am, to them, not only a Visible Demonstration, but they may enjoy Me by every one of their sense-faculties, and in all diverse ways.
Note: This verse is a wonderful proof of the catholicity of the religion of Gita. It affords freedom of worship to all in any manner. As such, the verse is an authority for image-worship (Read, Bh: GI: VII-21, IX-23 and 25., also [Srimad] Bhāgavata, XI-3-52.
Also, from The Divine Wisdom of the Dravida Saints (1902) Topic 124 (there is more info on this topic in this book, than has been presented below, especially with references to Christianity starting on PDF page 186):
God manifest in Images
Of the five-fold manifestations of God, the Manifestation Worshippable, or God present in Images is one which purposely hides His Transcendant nature, that thus He may suit and be acceptable to the weak and ignorant state of His worshippers [Editor’s Note: The “weak and ignorant state” refers to the inability to see the Lord inside of their own hearts, whereas great Yogis/meditators are able to see Him]. In this Manifestation, God, out of His condescension [i.e., unbounded mercy], chooses to will that He seem entirely in the hands of His worshippers, hiding His omniscience and omnipotence, or seeming the very reverse of these in his worshippers’ hands. God Supreme is experienced in His symbols made of wood, stone &c, only by saints of extraordinary faith and fervour.
A devotee —a Viṇṇappam-Ṣeyvār— carried about him his nut-wallet with him; and in it he had kept his Sālagram-image as his constant companion. When by accident, the tiny marble like image, mixed up with the nut (which he ate), entered his mouth, he would feel the hardness of the marble differing of course from the nut. He would then reverently take it out,wash it in water he had in his vessel, dry it with his robe, dress it, and taking cymbals in his hand sing a song of praise from St. Nammāzhvār and then lull it to sleep again in his nut- wallet. This confusion often happened with him. A Vaishnava of the ritual type (more than of love to God) often observed this, to him blasphemous, proceeding of Ṣeyvār ; and not containing himself any longer, burst out: “Sire, will you deign to present me with your (desecrated) marble-God?”. “Most gladly “, he [Ṣeyvār] said, and transferred his Holy Property. The Vaishnava took it home, and worshipped it in all the strict detail of ceremonial worship, enjoined for such occasions. The Image appeared to him in his dream and spoke thus :— ” Fool , I was happy in the temple of my Ṣeyvār’s nut-wallet, —Ṣeyvār to whom St. Nammāzhvār’s Holy Chant, Tiruvāimozhi, is his life and soul. I had the felicity of becoming bathed in the nectar-like saliva of his holy mouth. I had too the delight of listening to the sweet canticles from St. Nammāzhvār’s, which he warbled to me. But thou hast deprived Me of all this happiness and subjectest me to all the tedious trials of thy formal worship.” The Vaishnava was by this dream put into great trepidation. He ran to Ṣeyvār forthwith and restored to him his dear Sālagrama.
[Bhag. Vish: Bk VI, P 2981. “Vandirundu “]
: From Tattva Traya or Aphorisms on The Three Verities, Soul, Matter and God, by Sri Pillai Lokacharya, translated by Śrī Pārthasārathy Aiyangār (1900):
The Manifestation Worshippable (Archavatara), is that Form of the Lord, in which, unlike His Manifestations Distinctive (which, being occasional, were realised by souls of appropriate endowments, at particular times and places), the Lord, according to the text—
” Whatever the Form His Devotees choose, He, of that Form becomes,” &c. (St. Saro-yogin’s Psalm, v. 44),
is pleased, without any kind of limitation as to times, places, or persons, to be present and manifest Himself to all, in temples and homes, to wink at faults, and to be, for every movement or business, dependent on the worshipper….
Though appearing with the true Relation of Proprietor and Property reversed, and in the character of something devoid of knowledge, power, or liberty, the Lord, in this Incarnation, is pleased, out of His Infinite Mercy, to confer on His devotees, every needful boon.
A few more excerpts from a detailed discussion of this topic in Tattva Traya or Aphorisms on The Three Verities, Soul, Matter and God, by Sri Pillai Lokacharya, translated by Śrī Pārthasārathy Aiyangār (1900) with special references to Christianity (anyone interested is encouraged to study the topic in full starting on PDF page 157):
And Macaulay, accordingly, bears the following testimony to the mental state of the Protestant iconoclasts: “The men who demolished the images in cathedrals have not always” [nay, never, except while completely, i.e., dreamlessly asleep; vide Luther’s confession, cited on p. 87 of the Rev. L. Meurin’s Use of Images already referred to] “been able to demolish those enshrined in their minds.” (Essay on Milton, page 11, col. 1, in the book of Macaulay’s Essays, Longman’s edn.. 1884). Even the great, Protestant philosopher Leibnitz (in his System of Theoloqy), protests against the Roman Catholics being condemned as ‘idolators’ (i.e., as “pratikālambanas”or worshippers of what ought not to be worshipped) inasmuch as even the least enlightened among them does not pray saying— “O stone! grant my petition,” but prays, saying— “O spirit, who dwellest in the figure before me, and whose body this figure is, grant my petition.” As to even the man of the meanest capacity among Hindus excelling even many educated Christians in this very matter of distinguishing the body from the indwelling soul or spirit, we have the admission of the Tinnevelly Bishop Caldwell himself, who even goes the length of proving this fact by (according to Trench’s rule of utilizing the evidence of language) contrasting the ailing Christian’s expression—”I am unwell” with the corresponding Hindu expression—”My body is out of order” (=”Mama sariram a-swastham”). So also, the Rev. L. Meurin, S.J., says “The Hindus …. believe ” God “to reside and to act as an invisible power in the visible things, like our soul in our body.”…
Mr. George Thibaut (Intro : Sacred Books of the East, vol, XXXIV, p. ) has been already quoted to the following effect: “The only forms of Vedantic philosophy which are —and which can at any time have been— really popular are those in which the Brahman of the Upanishads has somehow transformed itself into a being, between which and the devotee there can exist a personal relation, love and faith on the part of man, justice tempered by mercy on the part of the divinity.”
Among Christians it is the Roman Catholics that have best realised the glorious character of the Lord’s Worshipable Incarnation, and, through Cardinal Newman —their representative man— have had the candour lo acknowledge their indebtedness to Indian Sages for their first initiation in the saving doctrine of Incarnation, it is they that have in all straight- forwardness appropriated to the service of religion, one and all of the five arts, namely,-
- Architecture which builds majestic Shrines unto God.
- Sculpture which shows the glory of His Form
- Painting which exhibits the beauty of His Colour
- Music which represents the Melody of His Voice, and
- Poetry which enchants the Magic of His Love.
May souls revere all the Five Manifestations of the Lord—in which He successively “Stoops” (to use Milton’s-language at the conclusion of his Comus,) to their humble necessities, and which have been sung together by our sage, Kūra-natha, in the following majestic verse, (namely, V. 18 of his Hymn to the Boon-Giving-Lord as manifest in Kānchi or Conjeeveram, Madras Presidency):-
” (1) Transcendent, (2) Operative, (3) Distinctive, (4) Heart-throned, (5) Visible Ever,
Whatever Thy Form, O Grantor of all good! Thou art perfect ever, In every Attribute, to them that love [You]; not so to foes!”