Hindus worship images and icons of stone, clay, and metal. Is not this practice of idolatry contrary to the teachings of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita ?
—jayantkumar dhruv, india
The validity of worshiping any material object always depends on the inner understanding and consciousness of the person doing the worship. I read something interesting a number of years ago. It was about a man who had visited India many times to study the different forms of worship done there. He was a Westerner and had a deep respect for India. He did this kind of study for over 20 years. To him it was something of great interest, but nothing deeper.
On one of his visits, he was invited to a special worship ceremony in a small rural village. Here the Divine Mother was worshiped in the nub of a tree. This “nub” was covered with vermilion powder, and draped in beautiful cloth. It had been worshiped in this form for many, many years. The particular ceremony he was invited to was performed each year to invite the “Devi,” or spirit of the Divine Mother, into the tree. It was during this ceremony that this man had a powerful experience and actually felt the “Devi’s” presence and felt it come into that tree! This experience changed his life, and after that he viewed everything he had studied outwardly for over 20 years very differently.
The villagers knew they were not worshiping just the nub of a tree! They also knew that they were in reality worshiping the Divine Mother of the Universe in this simple form. For this reason worshiping a statue, or outward symbol of any kind, can be either idolatry or true worship. It is idolatry if we think that that object is itself Divine, or true worship of the Divine if we understand that it is the Spirit behind the object that we are actually worshiping.
Here is the part of the commentary on this topic from the book The Essence of the Bhagavad Gita, 7:19, by Swami Kriyananda.
“Anything one desires intensely becomes for him, in a sense, a god. This is the true meaning of idol worship. An idol is not a statue or a painting that people use to remind them of some high ideal. Such people are, indeed, ideal worshipers, not idol worshipers. Idol worship means to harbor a desire for anything other than God.
Every man, unless he loves God alone, is in this sense an idol worshiper! To love something, or some person, because it reminds him of God is a virtue, not a fault. To get to the top floor of a building one must ascend by the other floors: No one can leap all the way to the top. To feel love for God as He really is, formless and impersonal, is almost impossible for human beings. Such love comes naturally, however, to those who first envision divine perfection in some human form. The important thing in such worship is always to keep in mind that the form one loves (even of a living person) serves one only as a window onto infinity.”
I hope this explanation will be helpful. It’s a good question that needs to be understood more deeply. The actual experience and understanding of this point will come to us more as we meditate regularly and engage in the spiritual life more deeply.