India is the only country in the world where other faiths evolved on the top of the existing one i.e Hinduism. Buddhism, Jainism etc evolved and western faiths like Islam and Christianity were accepted by the people of India. “Athiti Devo Bhava” has always been the mantra. This only shows the true tolerance of Hinduism. Other signs of tolerance in Hinduism is the acceptance of symbology to represent and address the ultimate reality and its various manifestations. This includes names and idols or statues. Some people also address by sitting in a particular direction.
But many westerners look down upon the concept of idol worship. What exactly is idol worshipping? Is there a differentiation between the various idols? Idol worshipping is a very subjective form of bhakti (devotion). It is also a means of meditation and focus to raise one’s conciousness to a higher state. The western concept of worshipping, religion and theism are very different from that of the Hindu point of view. One shouldn’t mix western terminologies with the Indian ones or try to comprehend Indian scriptures from a western prism.
The very definition of theism has originated in the west where god is isolated from the nature, who created the nature and has his own set of miracles to perform. The western conception of god or theism involves fear and hatred. Whereas in Vedic concept, the closest english translation of deva is god. Deva is nothing but a part of ultimate reality which is manifested for a particular role just like science has physics to serve one field, chemistry to serve another and biology another. Thus one cannot say if Hinduism is polytheistic or monotheistic as these very concepts are western. Some people by stating “Veda consists of polytheism”, unknowingly impose a non-spiritual and distorted definition of god from a limited western frame of understanding on to the Vedic conceptualizations which are metaphorically personified. All the devas, that some people percieve as different gods, are part of ultimate reality, and by inducing inferior terms like polytheism they limit the devas in isolation to one another and to ultimate reality. Neither physics is isolated from science nor chemistry, neither wind (vayu-dev) is isolated from the nature (prakriti) nor fire (agni-dev). All the devas, as mentioned in Vedas, are the elements of the nature which are essential for the human survival or constitute the human body. A man cannot live without the sun (Surya-Dev), wind (Vayu-Dev) or agni (Agni-dev). One of the message of the scriptures is to comprehend the truth i.e the ultimate reality which is called by various names, “Ekam Sat, Vipra Bahuda Vadanti”. Thus the conception of polytheism gets contradicted directly when faced with the understanding of the vedic scriptures and the upanishads.
BG 9.22: But those who always worship Me with exclusive devotion, meditating on My transcendental form — to them I carry what they lack, and I preserve what they have.
BG 9.23: Those who are devotees of other gods and who worship them with faith actually worship only Me, O son of Kunt?, but they do so in a wrong way.
Thus, the western definition of god remotely resembles the Vedic conception of ultimate reality and deva. These vedic conceptualizations are reduced when one tries to understand them from western perspective of “God”.
Related to the western conception of God, comes the conceptualization of the term “religion”. It is a word which was never used by the Indians in the past. Buddha never asked to follow something called “Buddhism”, Mahavira never created the term “Jainism” and Vedas do not consist of the term “Hinduism”. These very categorizations were done by the westerners who identified the teachings and induced the various “isms”. What exactly is religion? Religion is a set of beliefs which is blindly followed and usually not questioned. Thus we had plethora of cases of witch burning, crucifications and chopping of limbs of the people who questioned the western gods or western holy books. Buddha was never burnt for questioning the authority of the corrupted or deviated brahmins who distorted the Varna system by “karma” to cast system “by birth”. Instead, he was adored by many. On the other hand, Dharma in its true meaning refers to righteousness, ethics, spirit of questioning, spirituality and scientific bent of mind. It is something which opposes blind beliefs. Hence there is hardly any connect in the western conception of “religion” and sanskrit term “dharma” which has no equal terminology in English. Vedas do not talk of forced conversions or to impose a thought on someone by hook or crook. Veda in sanskrit itself means knowledge. When people blindly believe, it leads to attachment and degradation of intellect. For example, many people when questioned about the origin of life and how it started, instantly reply with the answer “Theory of evolution” not even knowing that the theory of evolution does not talk about creation or origin of life, but the subsequent evolution as theorized. More over, modern scientists are divided on it and the theory has been debunked plenty of times. Some scientists question the theory and other play as an apologist to it. Some people go one step further in their “beliefs” that science will eventually solve everything which marks a sense of their faith in science without even knowing that science only explores the existing and does not guarantee anything. How can a person find a flaw in a concept or a theory if he is attached to it, blindly believes and would not question? Thus, there are many people who follow science religiously and that is not how science progresses. A person may find a flaw in a mathematical or science concept only if he would have a healthy skeptic and questioning mind.
Similarly, Astik in sanskrit means one who understands and accepts Vedas after deep meditation and thinking. Vedas means knowledge and one cannot progress in science/knowledge if he blindly accepts. Thus if one comprehends the fundamental definition of astik, he would realize that it is actually the opposite of theism as blind belief in an isolated god (as per western view) is neither spiritual nor intelligent. But worshipping ( or revering ) the elements of nature, understanding their properties as stated in the Vedas and hence maintaining a balance in the nature is the very essence of spirituality. Hence again, neither monotheism nor polytheism can ever be used to explain the essence of spirituality or the context of the Vedas.
Worshipping in vedic context means to rever the nature, treat it as divine so as to maintain peace, balance and harmony all around. If a person cuts the trees, i.e abuses the nature, for the generation of wealth i.e laxmi, then it is simply not spiritual. Hence worshipping has to be done in a holistic way. Worshipping by animal killing, polluting or abusing the nature and the mankind is neither spiritual nor a vedic form of worshipping.
Thus letting go of the western terminologies and comprehending the scriptures from purely an Indian point of view, one would understand that the ultimate reality as described in Veda and upanishads is comprehended by different symbols i.e various names and idols. Hence, one who doesn’t understand the core of Hinduism i.e the Vedas would normally think that Hinduism consists of various gods and diversifications. But when one tries to move beyond that diversification, he converges to the point of ultimate reality which the vedic seers percieved as formless, nameless, unmanifested, unborn, inconcievable. That very question that converges to the ultimate reality is stated in the “RigVedic Hymn of creation”.
RigVedic hymn of creation :
There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
In whose protection?
Was there water, bottlemlessly deep?
There was neither death nor immortality then.
There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day.
That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse.
Other than that there was nothing beyond.
Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning,
with no distinguishing sign, all this was water.
The life force that was covered with emptiness,
that One arose through the power of heat.
Desire came upon that One in the beginning,
that was the first seed of mind.
Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom
found the bond of existence and non-existence.
Their cord was extended across.
Was there below?
Was there above?
There were seed-placers, there were powers.
There was impulse beneath, there was giving forth above.
Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced?
Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?
Whence this creation has arisen
– perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not –
the One who looks down on it,
in the highest heaven, only He knows
or perhaps even He does not know.
Hence, different names and idols were given by the people to comprehend the ultimate reality. As explained, idol worshipping in its true meaning enhances one focus and concentration. Some people concentrate on the idols, some on the light of candle and some on the rising sun. Many idols personify the different aspects of nature. A person who doesn’t understand the essence of symbology, would percieve idol worshipping as some infatuation to a physical form. But for different people it means a different and subjective state of concentration. In mahabharata, Eklavya trained himself in warfare by worshipping the idol of Dronacharya who was considered as a master in the art of warfare.
Gitopanishad explains various steps to achieve or focus on the ultimate reality,
BG 12.8: Just fix your mind upon Me, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and engage all your intelligence in Me. Thus you will live in Me always, without a doubt.
BG 12.9: My dear Arjuna, O winner of wealth, if you cannot fix your mind upon Me without deviation, then follow the regulative principles of bhakti-yoga. In this way develop a desire to attain Me.
BG 12.10: If you cannot practice the regulations of bhakti-yoga, then just try to work for Me, because by working for Me you will come to the perfect stage.
BG 12.11: If, however, you are unable to work in this consciousness of Me, then try to act giving up all results of your work and try to be self-situated.
BG 12.12: If you cannot take to this practice, then engage yourself in the cultivation of knowledge. Better than knowledge, however, is meditation, and better than meditation is renunciation of the fruits of action, for by such renunciation one can attain peace of mind.
BG 12.13-14: One who is not envious but is a kind friend to all living entities, who does not think himself a proprietor and is free from false ego, who is equal in both happiness and distress, who is tolerant, always satisfied, self-controlled, and engaged in devotional service with determination, his mind and intelligence fixed on Me — such a devotee of Mine is very dear to Me.
BG 12.15: He for whom no one is put into difficulty and who is not disturbed by anyone, who is equipoised in happiness and distress, fear and anxiety, is very dear to Me.
But just as in the case of attachment to science, when a person gets overly attached to idol worshipping it leads to counterproductivity and non-spirituality. For example, many people attached to the physical form and ignorant about the higher nature of the ultimate reality, think Shiva is the only god and they look down upon other names to that ultimate reality. Some people think it is Vishnu and some think it is Krishna.
BG 9.11: Fools deride Me when I descend in the human form. They do not know My transcendental nature as the Supreme Lord of all that be.
Some people dedicate different days to different gods and some forbid eating their favorite meal because it is a tuesday or a saturday, a belief set by people of earlier age and conditioned to the youngsters who blindly believe it. Some people sit in a particular direction in this directionless universe. One may ask where is north, south, east and west? These are only the frame of references created by humans. When they get attached to this idea, they look down upon others who sit in a different direction. Some people even kill in the name of the god “assuming” God would be pleased. This kind of blind belief is rampant specially in the west where hate and fear are propogated in the name of god. One may ask, if God hated us and we were born sinful, then why would he or she even create us? Thus, blind belief and lack of questioning leads to degradation of mind, superstitions and non-spirituality. This is similar to the case where the fans of a politician or a celebrity would demolish public property on hearing any constructive or destructive criticism of him. When extreme attachment comes into the picture, then even contructive criticism is denied and consequently it belittles any freedom to questioning. A person who follows what the others are doing would only blindly believe. This is called the herd instinct. When a member of the herd tries to glorify what the herd follows, he usually sneers at anyone who “questions” what the herd is following. Thus, in a group of science “followers”, people usually tend to look down upon the one who questions the scientific theories. The followers attached to the theory, treat the scientists as gods, quote them blindly without questioning or understanding the basis of the quote and ironically treat the questioners as an outcaste or unscientific. Thus to attain knowledge, to focus or meditate one has to detach from the physical form or world which is forever changing.
BG 15.3-4: The real form of this tree cannot be perceived in this world. No one can understand where it ends, where it begins, or where its foundation is. But with determination one must cut down this strongly rooted tree with the weapon of detachment. Thereafter, one must seek that place from which, having gone, one never returns, and there surrender to that Supreme Personality of Godhead from whom everything began and from whom everything has extended since time immemorial.
Vedas although do not mention idol worshipping, they do not criticize or condemn it either. The true experience of the ultimate reality as mentioned in the Vedas and the various Upanishads, cannot be realized through words or names alone. Thus in a higher state of consciousness, a person transcends to experience the formless and the nameless.
BG 3.42: The working senses are superior to dull matter; mind is higher than the senses; intelligence is still higher than the mind; and he [the soul] is even higher than the intelligence.