When Hindus do it, it is labeled as “idol worship”, but when modern psychiatrists does it is called “guided imagery”. Guided imagery is a technique used by
psychiatrists to instill a positive role model image — where one is lacking in the real world. There is very little difference between guided imagery and “idol worship” as performed by Hindus.
Idol worship by Hindus spiritually nourishes and insulates their soul (their identification with the Higher Self) from being hijacked by mass-market pop-culture (and the peer pressure and stress associated with) that can make your soul spiritually, psychologically, and intellectually weak and impoverished.
In contrast, in the West it is common to witness thronging crowds of thousands around pop star idols. In India it is much more common to witness a similar passion around more ideal idols – that represent Higher Wisdom, Learning, Strength, and Compassion. Through out the year, crowds of several thousands throng to a temple, and tens of thousands on special days, and hundreds of thousands on important festival days.
Ancient India (and other indigenous cultures) has produced numerous spiritually enlightened sages because of their ability to harness their mind into extreme focus within meditation (to the point difference between subject and object disappears, you get a glimpse of the One, the Source). In contrast, Christianity produced only a handful of enlightened sages because it has less devices/yantras, and Islam even fewer – only one (because they absolutely forbid devices – symbols, idols, even music).
True religious feeling/inspiration (i.e. spirituality, yoga) is not really “religious”, but about spiritual growth: knowledge, wisdom, compassion, humility,
strength, including the freedom to ask critical questions. Any religion that suppresses the aforementioned is a cult and easily prone to fanaticism. As the saying goes, religion is the opium of the masses. And nothing fits that better than the religion of mass market pop culture and the addiction associated with it, and most of Christianity and most of Islam (the exceptions do not prove the rule).
Why So Many Idols?
Given the range of human temperaments and levels of spiritual maturity, a single God (or faith, spiritual tradition, or path) cannot satisfy everyone. For example, it is like saying you can reach “heaven” only if you like bananas. But that would condemn those who have no taste or temperament for bananas (they might be allergic to bananas).
So, it is common sense that God manifests differently to different cultures, people of different temperaments, and even evolves with age as one matures.
This results in a freedom of expression of love for God (or approach to God) in whichever way you feel is attuned to your spiritual progress (which is reflected by contentment, clarity of thought, peace of mind, non-violence, understanding, etc).
A murthi (Sanskrit मूति) is an image (a stone idol or picture) of God (in you favorite liking). An even more abstract terminology (the superset of murthi) is yantra (Sanskrit यन्त्रा, literally means “device”), which includes any device including statues, images, flowers, oil lamp, incense sticks, bells, chanting, chakra images,… are all yantras, to help focus your mind. So a murthi is a type of yantra, a device to help you focus your mind on god or meditation.
“Don’t confuse the moon with the finger pointing to it”
— Buddhist proverb
So calling a murthi an idol very shallow understanding of the murthi. In addition the word idol carries too many undesirable western attributes associated with
the word (like considering the idol to be god itself). Hindus may give the same reverence and respect to the murthi, as they would to god, but they do not
confuse it as literally being god. For example, if the murthi were destroyed, they would recreate the murthi, and give the same reverence to the new murthi as they would do to god. This is because the murthi is not god, but a porthole to god.
Hindus believe if you energize anything (a mala, a stone, a picture, etc) with mantras, puja, focus, etc, (like one would rub a magnet to magnetize something) intense enough and long enough, it opens up a porthole to God. This is why great value is placed on murthis of ancient antiquity and murthis that have been worshiped by people with lot of spiritual focus (like sages, siddhars, sadhus, monks, etc).
Just as if you rub a piece of metal with a magnet, the metal becomes magnetized. There is an experiment which shows if you expose a cup of water to angry/harsh words, and expose another cup of water with love and affection, a sample of the later will form beautiful snow-flake-like patterns when it is crystallized, while the former will not.
Idol Worship In Other Cultures
Christian missionaries tend to portray Hindus as some sort of primitive idol worshipers worthy of the need to be saved. If one were to cast the same narrow lens – we could look at Christianity as some sort of perverse religion where they worship (and their God is represented by) “some dead man nailed to two wooden planks” . Or one can choose to characterize Christians as cannibals (or crude cannibalistic rituals) when they symbolically partake the drinking of the blood of Christ and eating the flesh of Christ (in Churches, red-wine and bread are offered as “the blood and flesh of Christ”).
The Christian might protest that I’m ignorant and don’t know what I am talking about. Precisely my point: that Hindus are broadminded enough (since way back before Christianity) to understand the symbolism of other faiths, but for some reason these other faiths don’t reciprocate that.
One could call it Christ worship, Mother Mary worship, or cross worship. One can also say Christianity even has pagan rituals like “Christmas tree” celebration and Easter. See Christian Traditions.
Perhaps because these other “faiths” are not just faiths, but religions (i.e. by definition fundamentalist in nature; i.e. “my way or the highway” attitude). It is only natural then that they would not care to accommodate the idea of symbolism to other faiths. Yet, another justification why [fundamentalist] religions have to go.
Similarly one can argue that many Muslims have pretty much idolized the Koran. Not to mention that the word “Allah” in Arabic script. I remember early in the Iraq War, a US soldier was beaten to death because he took a flag off its post and kicked it — apparently the flag had the words Allah written on it in Arabic. This happens on a much larger scale that does not make it to headline news: that even the smallest criticism of Mohammed is dealt with severely in many Islamic countries – including death or punishment by stoning.
If one were to look at Islam with the same narrow lens that it looks at other faiths then one can say Islam is “Koran worship” (the way the smallest ill-treatment of the Koran, whether it be in words or physically is a grave offense), Mohammedism (even if not in form, in concept the idolization of Mohammed as the role model beyond question, and any questioning is a grave offense), or “black-stone worship” – referring to the millions who throng to Mecca to worship/kiss the locket around a black-stone known as the Kaaba (“the Abode of Allah”). Or for that matter the thousands that go for the “stoning of the devil” (not worship, but idolization nevertheless; a sort of reverse-worship, or allegiance to Allah through negative-reinforcement).
The Muslim might protest that I’m ignorant and don’t know what I am talking about. Precisely my point: that Hindus are broadminded enough (since way back before Islam) to understand the symbolism of other faiths, but for some reason these other faiths don’t reciprocate that.
Islam can be accused of not taking the least attempt to appreciate (not just tolerate) other faiths; because of the inherent belief that theirs is the true faith. This is in contrast to Hindu culture that has welcomed countless number of faiths over thousands of years – with exception of inherently fundamentalist faiths (like Christianity and Islam). Islam/Christianity only begrudgingly accepted the pluralism of Hindus (and because of that they were only begrudgingly integrated at a far slower rate than other numerous faiths and cultures that today comprise Hinduism).
When a Christian bows down to a wooden cross, is the wooden cross God? When millions of Muslims go on pilgrimage to Mecca to kiss the black-stone, is God in there? All these are symbols elevated to the sacredness of God. When a mathematician draws a symbol of infinity, is that small symbol infinity? No, it is representational of infinity. It is not infinity itself.
Similarly, each of these numerous representations of God that Hindus have are just that, representations. Each representation is God in totality to the Hindu. So not only is Hinduism not idolatry, nor polytheistic, but possessing a broadmindedness and pluralism way beyond its time (while the Western world is still struggling to embrace secularism and multiculturalism (let alone genuine pluralism)). Total freedom of expression (not in the closet, but literally wearing it on your sleeve) of expressing your love/vision of God in whatever way or form you like (i.e., not limited by some “religion” to be only one way – like a wooden cross, black-stone, a particular prophet, or a particular holy book).