Images and image worship
Images (murti) play an important part in Hindu worship both in homes and temples. Although Vedic ritual did not involve image worship, it is the mainstay of devotional Hinduism. The image is understood to be one of many forms in which the formless divine manifests in order to allow the devotee to demonstrate their devotion and receive darshan (auspicious vision – note that this is the same word – darshana – as used for the six schools of philosophy). The worshipper does not regard the image in itself as divine, rather as a means of experiencing the divine presence. Hindus obviously know that images are made by human hands, as is demonstrated in the way that temporary festival images such as the famous images of Durga that occupy shrines during Durga Puja are created for the celebrations and then destroyed, usually by immersion in water. Iconic or formal images are created following strict guidelines; even so they must be ritually consecrated to make them fit for the divine presence to occupy, in a ceremony which involves completing the eyes of the image.
As well as icons of gods and goddesses, other objects can function as images such as decorated rocks and natural forms of the divine such as ammonites identified with Vishnu or the Amarnath stalagmite (ice lingam or phallic pillar) identified with Shiva, as well as sacred plants, for example, Tulsi (basil) who is revered as a goddess. There are also images of sacred animals associated with deities, including the ‘vehicles’ on which each deity rides, such as Shiva’s bull Nandi, the lion or tiger for the Goddess Durga, the swan for Brahma and Saraswati, a mouse for Ganesh, and Garuda, a mythological winged creature, on whom Vishnu rides.
Images are located in temples, though some are processional images that are paraded during festivals as in the Rathayatra (procession of chariots) celebrating Krishna as Jagannath (Lord of the Universe) together with his brother Balarama and sister Subhadra. Images feature in domestic and wayside shrines, and can be found almost anywhere from Ganesh in a school exercise book to Shiva dangling from a bus’ rear view mirror. Probably one of the most famous images is that of Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of the Dance). Within a circle of flame representing samsara (round of existence), Shiva is depicted as a four-armed dancer crushing the demon of ignorance beneath one of his feet, holding a drum to symbolise creation and a platter of fire to symbolise dissolution while the positioning of his other hands promise protection and indicate how the devotee can be released from the bonds of samsara. Caught in motion with one leg raised in blessing, Shiva’s face is calm with an expression of repose.
When Christian missionaries first came across Hindu images and image worship, many interpreted it as idolatry, worshipping an object instead of the divine, as forbidden in the Bible and Qur’an. In response, some modern Hindus such as the neo-Vedantin Vivekananda (1863-1902) argued that images were not idols but should be understood as symbolic of the deities they represented and a focus for contemplation. However, Dayananda Saraswati (1824-83) recommended doing away with image worship and returning to the practice of Vedic times when images were not used. This did not catch on, and for most Hindus, while the image may be used in meditation as suggested by Vivekananda, image worship is usually a devotional activity of love and service to the chosen deity, and a means of experiencing the presence of the divine.
The accusation of idolatry is not just historical. As late as the 1990s, the American television evangelists, Pat and Gordon Robertson, stirred up the issue by condemning Hindu idolatry which was identified as the most pressing of India’s problems and blamed as the cause of poverty, prompting a storm of protest from Hindus across the diaspora who made effective use of electronic media to campaign against the resulting portrayal of Hinduism as demonic.