Temple Worship and Murti Puja: Part VI

“The image to the Hindu is a physical symbol and support of the supraphysical; it is a basis for the meeting between the embodied mind and sense of man and the supraphysical power, force or presence which he worships and with which he wishes to communicate.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 147)

It should be obvious to any casual observer that the murtis or vigrahas (the English word “idol” which is often used for ‘murti’ is not the most appropriate one) that we see in the Hindu, Buddhist or Jain temples are not mere statues. They have, in fact, been energized to vibrate in a certain way so as to impact everything around them.

The ancient Agama Shastras of the Tantric tradition have described the entire concept and the science behind the murtis, their making, handling and also the worship practices. The murti of the deity as well as the entire sanctum sanctorum (garbhagriha) are consecrated as per the shastras. This practice of energizing the murtis is known as “Prana Prathishta”, which literally means Establishment of the Life-force.

The Beginnings

The earliest Vedic religion seems to have excluded physical images in its worship and devotional practices. The yajña or fire sacrifice was the primary ceremony along with other related practices and rites including the construction of elaborate altars (vedi) for the fire ritual. Many believe that it was the movements of Jainism and Buddhism which either introduced or at least popularised and made general the worship of images in India.

As the Vedic-Upanishadic phase of Indian spiritual culture gave way to the PuranoTantric phase, gradually “the house of Fire was replaced by the temple; the karmic ritual of sacrifice was transformed into the devotional temple ritual” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 209). The highly symbolic images of Vedic deities which figured in Vedic mantras yielded to the more precise conceptual forms of the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and of their Shaktis and their offshoots.

“These new concepts stabilised in physical images which were made the basis both for internal adoration and for the external worship which replaced sacrifice. The psychic and spiritual mystic endeavour which was the inner sense of the Vedic hymns, disappeared into the less intensely luminous but more wide and rich and complex psycho-spiritual inner life of Puranic and Tantric religion and Yoga.” (ibid, p. 209)

But this should not be seen in any way as a base and ignorant degradation of an earlier and purer religion. As Sri Aurobindo explains, this phase represents rather an effort, successful in a great measure, to open the general mind of the Indian people to a higher and deeper range of inner truth and experience and feeling.

Calling this phase of the evolution of Indian religious culture as “an immensely audacious experimental widening of the basis of the culture,” he explains that while much of the profound psychic knowledge of the Vedic seers might have been lost, there was also a great development of new knowledge as “untrodden ways were opened and a hundred gates discovered into the Infinite.” (ibid, p. 209).

Sri Aurobindo explains that in its aims and the intrinsic value of its lines of development, means and forms this Purano-Tantric stage of Indian religious culture tried to:

• awaken a more inner mind even in the common man,
• lay hold on his inner vital and emotional nature,
• support all by an awakening of the soul and to lead him through these things towards a highest spiritual truth.

The Deeper Significance

“Indian image-worship is not the idolatry of a barbaric or undeveloped mind; for even the most ignorant know that the image is a symbol and support and can throw it away when its use is over.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 20, p. 192)

The elaborate practices of temple worship and murti puja are important means to bring the masses into the real temple of the spirit, says Sri Aurobindo. He explains further:

• The outward physical sense is satisfied through its aesthetic turn by a picturesque temple worship, by numerous ceremonies, by the use of physical images.

• But these outer practices are given a psycho-emotional sense and direction which is open to the heart and imagination of the ordinary man.

Sankrant Sanu, in an article, provocatively titled “Why Murti-puja is an antidote to fundamentalism” has clearly explained the deeper significance of the murti-puja, especially for the beginners on a spiritual journey. He explains that just like a musical composition can affect the mind through the listening, certain visual compositions or forms are chosen for their effect on the mind. These forms are meant to embody positive qualities like love, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, courage, and strength, and thus help orient the mind to these qualities. A murti, literally, is an embodiment of such divine qualities, it is in essence a divine form.

Sanu further adds:

“But is a murti simply a beautiful sculpture like a musical composition? What makes it sacred? The qualities it invokes in the mind makes it sacred. And we make it sacred. We make it sacred with our attention, by sanctifying it. We install it in a proper manner, we chant mantras to imbue it with our power, the power of our attention, of our āstha. We have chosen to elevate it, to put that form on a pedestal. And then we connect to it through the ritual of puja.

“When we do puja, we use the five elements in a conscious way. All five—space, air, fire, water, earth are present in the puja. This connects us with the manifest. Rather than getting the mind stuck in a concept, puja brings that attention to the present moment. We worship the divine with those elements and that allows us to be human and connected to the entire universe….

“When we see the entire universe as part of one consciousness we start to be free of fundamentalism that divides the world into us and them, into believers and non-believers, into profane and sacred. Sacred is what we have chosen to be sacred and when we choose wisely that which we have chosen brings us back to our self, to the self where we are all connected. So, the act of going out with our attention to the elements brings us back as we worship a divine form. The mind is always choosing idols, whether a movie star, or money, clothes, cars. All this has an effect on our consciousness. Not all these idols elevate our consciousness. Whatever form we choose, we imbue the qualities of that form. Worship is attention. So, when we are paying attention to divine forms we become elevated. The sages cognized these forms aware of what would help the mind. A concept can come in the way of that experience.

“Indic traditions accepted the fact that the mind clings to idols. The first step towards any freedom is accepting the reality of bondage. Rejection of idols is an ignorant denial of the tendency of the mind.

“When the mind is truly free it would not need idols to hold on to. But who is at that stage?”

Indeed, who is at that stage where no outer form is required to hold one’s attention, where one can easily concentrate on that One Formless, Unmanifest, Indivisible, Transcendental Supreme? Human mind needs a form upon which to focus itself, to concentrate itself. That form, that divine form is the murti or image of our chosen deity that we see and worship in our temples, that we install most lovingly and adoringly in our homes, in our places of work, all places we wish to sanctify and where we want to bring the divine presence. Because indeed the murti is a divine presence. The Mother (spiritual collaborator of Sri Aurobindo) once explained this in simple and clear terms:

“Whatever the image—what we disdainfully call an idol—whatever the external form of the deity, even if to our physical eye it appears ugly or commonplace or horrible, a caricature, there is always within it the presence of the thing it represents. And there is always someone, a priest or an initiate, or a sadhu, a sannyasin, who has the power and who draws—this is usually the work of the priests—who draws the force, the presence within. And it is real: it is quite true that the force, the presence is there; and it is that, not the form of wood or stone or metal, which people worship—it is the presence.

“But people in Europe do not have this inner sense, not at all. For them everything is like a surface—not even that, just a thin outer film with nothing behind—so they cannot feel it. And yet it is a fact that the presence is there; it is an absolutely real fact, I guarantee it.” (The Mother, CWM, Vol. 10, p. 95)

To begin to feel that Presence in the murti, to begin to develop that vision which sees the Form as a manifestation of the Spirit within – this is the aspiration of a devoted heart. But until the heart and mind is ready to transition from the Form to the Formless, let us not reject the Form, because in the Form dwells the Spirit.

Let us conclude this section with the following poem of Sri Aurobindo, where he speaks of the divinity of form. This, we believe, is a perfect response to the human ignorance which questions and/or fails to understand the deep wisdom behind the outer worship practice of murti puja.

O worshipper of the formless Infinite, 
Reject not form, what dwells in it is He.
Each finite is that deep Infinity
Enshrining His veiled soul of pure delight.
Form in its heart of silence recondite
Hides the significance of His mystery,
Form is the wonder-house of eternity,
A cavern of the deathless Eremite.

There is a beauty in the depths of God,
There is a miracle of the Marvellous
That builds the universe for its abode.
Bursting into shape and colour like a rose,
The One, in His glory multitudinous,
Compels the great world-petals to unclose.

(CWSA, Vol. 2, p. 625)

The End

Beloo Mehra is a student of Sri Aurobindo and writes on topics related to education, culture and society. Many years of experience in the field of education and research led her to the discovery that the central thing is to constantly un school oneself and become a freer and truer learner. She enjoys playing several roles Life offers a woman – with a hope to learn from all that happens and doesn’t happen, and with a wish to gradually become free of those roles because only then the possibility of the birth of true actor (or the non-actor) within exists

3 thoughts on “Temple Worship and Murti Puja: Part VI

  1. This is a very interesting article, thank you.
    To me as an outsider it still feels like a justification or rationalisation of the proliferation of “items”.
    Just like over thinking leads to anxiety.. The attachment to the murtis can lead to exclusivity and dutiful worshipping without knowing why.. As a Westerner I often feel bamboozled by the complexity of my Indian group ( Sathya Sai ).


  2. Thank you Janine for your comment. I appreciate the sincerity and honesty in your perspective. I lived in the US for about 14 years and one of my dearest friends there – a German-American woman, often asked me a similar question. I knew she was genuinely seeking to understand and that’s what made it possible for us to have an open and sincere exchange on this topic.

    Over the years I have come to realise that perhaps there is something quite unique in the Indian temperament which does not see devotion and love for a particular form of Divine – a deity often represented through a murti or a picture – as any ordinary attachment. Indian mind, even without knowing it consciously, somewhat intuitively understands the difference between the higher and lower nature (paraprakriti and prakriti), the higher and lower knowledge (para and apara vidya), the higher planes of existence (sat-chit-ananda) and lower ones (bhu-bhuvar-swar – that is physical, vital and mental planes of existence).

    The attachment that we ordinary humans feel toward objects that occupy us in our ordinary existence on the lower hemisphere is the cause of pain and suffering – this much most Indians, even those with no philosophical orientation/reading etc (provided they have some sincere lived experience in the vastly diverse Indian religio-spiritual traditions) would know almost intuitively. And they can easily recognise that the only way to work around these ‘lower’ attachments is to attach oneself to something higher, something wider, larger than our mere existence on physical, emotional and mental level. This could be seeking of the self, the atma-vidya path for those inclined to the path of knowledge, the jnana yoga.

    This could be bhakti for ishta devata for a bhakta – the one on the path of bhakti/devotion. So if and when with the Grace of the Divine, a seeking heart finds refuge in any particular form of the Divine – ishta deva/devi or a Guru who is seen as the Divine or a form of the Divine by the heart – the heart knows that it is not an ordinary attachment that will bind. But rather it is a kind of attachment that will free oneself from the lower bondages of the emotional heart, the mental games of the thinking/analytical mind, etc etc.

    The other thing Indian mind steeped in the Indian religio-spiritual tradition instantly recognises is that all the different Gods and Goddesses are in fact different forms and names of the same Divine, representing different powers or forces of that One Force, that One Power, the Infinite. Each individual nature is different, so each heart’s aspiration is for the form of the Divine that matches his or her temperament most. There is no room for exclusivity here. Rather, a sincere bhakta intuitively recognises that the same Divine is in all other forms also.

    None of this happens in any analytical or forced fashion…it is the natural seeking of a sincere heart that may lead it to the particular form of the Divine, the Deity, the Guru, the Avatar that resonates most deeply. Without the Grace of the Divine, nothing moves. And without an inner preparation, a true and sincere seeking and aspiration, nothing moves either. Grace also answers if there is a receptivity and aspiration from below.

    I know this comment has already become very long, but your question is so important that I feel compelled to write in detail. In this regard, let me now share a few beautiful passages from Sri Aurobindo which will give you something more to contemplate on:

    “The Gods are Personalities or Powers put forth by the Divine—they are therefore in front limited Emanations, although the full Divine is behind each of them.”

    “If a man is attracted by one form or two forms only of the Divine, it is all right,—but if he is drawn to several at a time he need not torment himself over it. A man of some development has necessarily several sides in his nature and it is quite natural that different aspects should draw or govern different personalities in him—he can very well accept them all and harmonise them in the One Divine and the One Adya Shakti of whom all are the manifestations.”

    “All true Gurus are the same, the one Guru, because all are the one Divine. That is a fundamental and universal truth. But there is also a truth of difference; the Divine dwells in different personalities with different minds, teachings, influences so that He may lead different disciples with their special need, character, destiny by different ways to the realisation. Because all Gurus are the same Divine, it does not follow that the disciple does well if he leaves the one meant for him to follow another. Fidelity to the Guru is demanded of every disciple, according to the Indian tradition. “All are the same” is a spiritual truth, but you cannot convert it indiscriminately into action; you cannot deal with all persons in the same way because they are the one Brahman: if one did, the result pragmatically would be an awful mess. It is a rigid mental logic that makes the difficulty but in spiritual matters mental logic easily blunders; intuition, faith, a plastic spiritual reason are here the only guides.”

    Thanks again for your comment and for reading this article. Warm regards.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: