I have heard it too often; way too often as to why do Hindu's have a concept called idol worship that governs the fundamental principle of their faith. Frankly, I have been questioned and mocked at by people of other faiths and nationalities who simply don’t understand the basics of idol worship.
We fall into this trap very often simply because we don’t have an answer to give them, one that will shut them up for good. I have been contemplating this thought for a very long time and what shows up as answers are realizations over a period of time. Idol worship means different things at different points in our lives based on our spiritual maturity. And as this rises, idol worship starts to look way more interesting that it was.
Our introduction to our Gods is through pictures; we relate to them and believe in their existence through these pictures. Unlike all other faiths which originated or finally got established by a successful seeker like Buddha, Mahavira, Prophet Muhammad or Christ, ours is one of a kind where the Gods existed and lived way before we even showed up. Hence, the question arises about whether our Gods really exist. And our answer is doubtlessly "Of course they do". That picture is currently our only proof that they do... but seriously, are we looking for proof at all?
The first rule we need to learn, which may not be explicitly taught is, don’t look for proof. Just believe, and it will come by. And so we all believe. While on one side almost all of us are inducted into the western system of education which basically states that we should believe only that which we can sense [touch/taste/see/hear/feel] our hearts still yell out in love for that cute elephant God Ganesha, who is not just a God, he is hybrid as well and mostly none of us have experienced him yet. That makes our case a little tougher to the outside world to digest. No worries.
In our search, and if our search is strong enough the outside world that questions us slowly starts to fade away. We graduate as well, from pictures of Gods and Goddesses in costumes that we don’t wear anymore to energies that have certain characteristics. Our growth curve starts from pictures and as our worship intensifies it moves towards idols/statues which graduates towards yantras and transcends into sacred emblems of worship till finally we don’t need any of it and we just reach a state where the mind itself has been tamed well to be the idol of our worship. [Note, all these elements are available to us and we are aware of them all the time, but when it comes to understanding their presence consciously, its a different ball game]
How does this work? It is the mastery of our consciousness that helps us grow up and ascend this ladder of faith. It would have taken us at least 20 years to get to looking at that picture carefully and ask why that God or Goddess is depicted that way. This is the first sign of curiosity and awareness that we develop in this field. We want to know, we seriously want to know. If we have asked that question there is a good chance, we didn’t get the answer simply because, in most cases, mom and dad didnt ask the question themselves and they now don’t have an answer. At this point the decision is either to give up or hunt. Almost all of us give up and very few take to hunting. The next question is about where we look. This is when we want the Guru, and we are given the line, "Oh the Guru will come to you when you are ready" How are we ever going to be ready when we don’t even know where to start? The point is the fact that we are curious enough is a sign of readiness.
Realizing very quickly that the [human] Guru is not going to make it to our door step in a hurry, and that curious God/Goddess still hangs within the frame staring at us every day, the next logical step is to pick up a book and get reading and all the associated mythologies, mantras and stories come flowing down to us like a reservoir just broke open. This is the next stage which when complete possibly takes us in the direction of the idols. Idols, the default location to get to see them with the new acquired Bhakti is at the temple, the one single location where they are treated as real, given a bath, dressed, anointed, and offered food and offering from devotees. The temple march is the next possible solution. Tanked up with mythology in the mind, the temple next door suddenly starts to make a lot of sense. We identify with all the being in there, with the many forms of Shiva and Vishnu, with the ganas, gandharvas, kinnaras flying about the sky in the paintings hanging in the temple hallways. We get into the mad hunt for the Holy One, visiting temple after temple, looking at the same God, in a new avatar. This journey is fun, total and complete fun. I still have not gotten out of it. Despite the corruption of the priests and the dirty maintenance and long queues and loud noise the temple is still good fun.
They say, dont look for God outside, because he is within us. Yes, He/She truly is inside of us, but to realize that we do need to go outside. The temple visits give us new emotional experiences and the various forms we have seen begin to raise new questions. What is this deity all about? Now we come to a new set of book, the actual shlokas, the actual bija mantras the root logic of their existence. Here is a mix of Tantra, Mantra and yantra. This is a level of abstraction, one that is slightly hard to understand but fantastic to realize. This science shakes the apple cart. It makes us realize a few things, like Ravana was not so evil as he is painted out to be, like Kali drinks the blood of evil souls after death, like Shiva canbe discovered in the cremation ground, like death is another state, not something to be scared of. That things happen to us in life might not be something we judge as good, but they are good because they teach us something more about ourselves. And then of course... tat tvam asi...
This stage is long and might take more than a life time to figure out. This stage can also be coupled with the emblems of worship namely, banalingas, and/or shalagramas. This is stepping into the complex zone, its the zone of Panchayatna puja. By this time we are in sync with most of the philosophies, we understand where we stand in the hierarchy of beings and we know where we need to go. But are we equipped - possibly no. On the face of it, the banalingas and shalagramas look like stones, but no, they are not just stones, they are sacred emblems, energy rich naturally and pure. They need stricter rules in the homes that they reside in. Stricter rules are the definition of a disciplined life alias orthodox. These are self energized stones as opposed to the stone idols in the temple which are manually energized through elaborate ritual. This is why they are stronger, more potent and require that much more care and love.
Till now our worship has visibly been external but our maturity has been completely internal. We reach a stage where we follow no one [human avatar of sorts, Gurus] but we cave into ourselves and detach from the world outside and get into dialog with our spiritual Guru. Now its all about ourselves, our mind and our heart towards our Guru. With the combination of logic and emotion and sustained practice we reach the doors of spiritual experience. Idol worship is a catalyst to reach this state and once we are there, we get the divine vision to see the real form of the same deity in the picture frame, in the temple idol.
This is the state we all aspire to reach, where we can get a glimpse of the deity as we had seen in the temple, and in the pictures. With Divya Dristi, and acquired spiritualism, we now reach the gates of heaven and now a trip to the temple reinforces the same form, the same love, the same bhakti that we have matured and grown into appreciating. What we see there is no longer an Idol; it is the very presence of the divine. Ganesha and Hanuman appear in orange red skin, Bhairava appears with yellow flames surrounding him, and Kali appears with deep blue hue to bless us. Our idols only re-created this truth, to reinforce this concept, this belief that if we try hard enough we can be blessed with the divine vision to set eyes on them in real consciousness.