Shri Datta Swami

Posted on: 11 Jan 2021


Is there any reference to idol worship in the Veda?

[An online spiritual discussion was conducted on December 19, 2020, in which several devotees participated. Some of the questions of devotees answered by Swāmi are given below.]

[Śrī Pavan Kuppa asked: Is there any reference to idol worship in the Vedas?

Śrī Phani said: It is said that only beginners do such worship (Pratimā hyalpabuddhīnām…).

Dr. Nikhil said: In the Kaṭhopaniṣad, there is a clear mention of the mediated God or God-in-a-medium. The relevant verses are given below:

aśarīraṁ śarīreṣvanavastheṣvavasthitam |
mahāntaṁ vibhumātmānaṁ matvā dhīro na śocati ||22||
Yamevaiṣa vṛṇute tena labhyaḥ
tasyaiṣa atmā vivṛṇute tanūm svām ||23||

This proves that the Veda clearly confirms the existence of the mediated God (Saguṇa Brahman). When the mediated God exists, worshipping His image is certainly possible. Elsewhere in the Veda there are statements that suggest that idol worship or image worship was carried out even in Vedic times. One such statement says that there cannot be an image or idol of the unimaginable God (Na tasya pratimā asti—Veda). Another statement says that the unimaginable God is not that (idol or image) which you worship (Nedaṃ yadidaṃ upāsate—Veda). This proves that the Veda acknowledges that people performed idol worship.

So, in conclusion, God is not only unimaginable, but He also enters a form to become the mediated God. That mediated God can be worshipped indirectly through an idol or image and people have been doing it since Vedic times. The only thing that the Veda is saying is that that idol or image is not actually God. I think this is what Śrī Pavan is speaking about.

Śrī Pavan said: The Gītā also says that God resides in a human body (Mānuṣīṃ tanumāśritam…).]

Swāmi replied: It is true that the unimaginable God is present in human form and that He can be directly worshipped by human beings. But due to ego and jealousy, which is the repulsion between the common human media, direct worship of the Human Incarnation is very very difficult for the majority. Only very few blessed devotees directly worship the Human Incarnation. Diamonds are always very few in number. Gravel stones are many. But God has to take care of the ignorant majority too. For the sake of the majority, idol worship is introduced. We cannot worship Kṛṣṇa present in a human body, but we can worship an image or statue of Kṛṣṇa to the climax of madness. Again, the reason for not being able to directly worship Kṛṣṇa in human form is the repulsion between the common human media of Kṛṣṇa and us.

Certainly, God is not present in the statues or images. They are only representative models of the energetic or human forms of God. This type of indirect worship of God through statues and images is called pratīka upāsanā. The direct worship of God-in-human-form is called sākṣāt upāsanā. The Veda and the Gītā clearly say that God is not in the statue or the image and that God exists only in human form (na tasya pratimā…, mānuṣīṃ tanumāśritam…). The Smṛti also says that the worship of statues is only for beginners. There is only one merit in the worship of statues which is that a high intensity of theoretical devotion can be developed even in beginners. The disadvantage, of course, is that it is not direct worship. The Veda clearly says that disliking the form of God present before us in a common medium and liking the God who is not before our eyes is not only the disease of human beings, but it is also the disease of angels (paroka priyāḥ…)!

There are some extremists who do not even worship the mediated God. They neither worship Kṛṣṇa, the Human Incarnation, nor do they worship God Viṣṇu, the Energetic Incarnation. They only wish to worship the formless God like light (Prakāśa). They think that the formless God is the original absolute God. Actually, the formless light is also an imaginable item. It is not the original absolute God, who is unimaginable. Light is energy travelling in the form of a wave! The Śiva Liṅgam is also a statue that represents the wave. They can worship it. One cannot worship the light directly. The Gītā says that the worship of the unimaginable God and the worship of the imaginable formless God only give misery and not happiness (avyaktā hi gatiḥ duḥkham…). Since one cannot properly and completely worship the unimaginable God or even the imaginable formless God, misery is the result.

There cannot be a representative statue of the unimaginable God just as one never sees the photograph of a naked person. We agree that the original absolute God is unimaginable and that He can never even be imagined. But when He becomes mediated, He merges with the medium to become that medium. He remains as the orginal unimaginable God and at the same time, He becomes the medium also, as said by the Veda (sacca tyacca…). Hence, there is not even a trace of difference between non-mediated unimaginable God and the mediated unimaginable God.

The photograph of a clothed person can be seen in his absence and worshipped, to bring some satisfaction to the mind. A devotee might be greatly attracted to Kṛṣṇa, but Kṛṣṇa is not present now. So, the devotee can find some satisfaction in worshipping the statue or image of Kṛṣṇa. This is not wrong. Do you not see the photo album of past family functions and feel entertained? Do you not imagine yourself re-living those happy moments during that function? For the development of theoretical devotion to God, statues and images of God are very helpful, even though no practical devotion (service and sacrifice) can be done to them. In fact, many people want to please God only with their theoretical devotion and not with practical devotion. This is due to their excellent knowledge of applied economics! They want all the benefits of devotion such as God’s protection, but they do not want to practically serve Him or sacrifice anything to Him. Alright, at least let their theoretical devotion develop by representative worship. One day it will generate practical devotion because theory is the mother of practice.

You should not mock at the devotees worshipping statues quoting the Smṛti, which says that the worshippers of statues are beginners having little knowledge (pratimā hyalpa buddhīnām). For that matter, every soul has only a little knowledge. God alone is omniscient. The soul is called alpajña meaning that it only has a little knowledge. This applies to the entire humanity and not only to a particular group of people. Both these words alpajña (little knowledge) and ajña (no knowledge, ignorant) are used with reference to souls in spiritual knowledge. God alone is called sarvajña (ominiscient). Certainly, you can call a soul stupid and having no knowledge (ajña) if the soul tries to worship a statue of God in practical ways by wasting precious food materials like milk, ghee etc. Souls trying to develop theoretical devotion by worshipping God through statues and images, without wasting any precious food materials, can be called ‘little knowers’ (alpajña). Only the devotee expressing practical devotion to the statue leaving the contemporary Human Incarnation can be called fully ignorant (ajña). What a pitiable situation it is when you are unable to give a cup of milk to the contemporary Human Incarnation or a devotee or at least a beggar, while you pour litres of milk on a statue representing the same Human Incarnation of God!