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Q: Does Hindu Scriptures allow to make images of Bhagwan or God? If yes then please give some references from Hindu Scriptures.
A: This is a truly amazing question. On the surface it seems so easy to answer. Yes, of course, Hinduism is a religion replete with many images, both in temples and in homes, and so, obviously, Hindu scriptures would be filled with exhortations for people to make images and worship them, right? Wrong! The core of the Vedic scriptures (shruti) is very reticent about worshiping images of God or gods.
For example, here is a passage concerning God from one of the Upanishads: “No one has grasped him above, or across, or in the middle. There is no image of him whose name is Great Glory. His form cannot be seen, no one perceives him with the eye. Those who through heart and mind know him thus abiding in the heart, become immortal.” (Svetasvatara Upanishad 4:19-20, trans. by Max Müller, Sacred Books of the East, vol. 15, 1884). That does not sound like a religion advocating worship of God by means of images; to the contrary, it certainly seems to cast negative aspersions on the idea of making images of God. Consequently some Hindu teachers would just as soon people gave up images altogether. They say that the only way to truly know God is to do away with all ways of limiting our thoughts about him, particularly if we think we can get closer to God by worshiping a material object.
Still, anyone saying such a thing is definitely swimming against the stream of Hindu thought and practice. The above verses from the Upanishad are actually made in specific reference to the god Shiva, and as soon as I call attention to that fact, several important consequences emerge. For one thing, I am distinguishing this god (Shiva) by name and some relevant attributes from some other gods, again at least by name and some relevant attributes. There would be no point in saying anything about a specific god if we cannot tell one god from another. But how can we distinguish one formless thing from another? And second, a quick reality check reveals that Shiva in particular is said to have many different forms, such as Nataraya (“Lord of the Dance”) or the lingam (phallic emblem). So again, the puzzle continues.
Two verses from the Bhagavad Gita may help clarify the conundrum. Krishna, in disclosing himself as God to the warrior Arjuna states, “Whosoever desires to worship whatever deity — using any name, form, and method — with faith, I make their faith steady in that very deity. Endowed with steady faith they worship that deity, and obtain their wishes through that deity. Those wishes are, indeed, granted only by Me.” (7.21-22, trans. by the American-International Gita Society). What Krishna is saying in these verses and their context is this: First of all, he is not formless; rather he is the supreme form of God. Second, to worship him by way of a material image is inferior to worshiping him in his true super-form. Third, it is nonetheless valid for people to worship him under the guise of any object, going by any name, pursuing any kind of ritual, because Krishna will accept the faith of that person and reward him or her as though the faith had been extended to Krishna himself.
So, there we have the way in which the idea of a transcendent God (one who is different from any object in the world) and the worship of a physical image are brought together. Hindus do not think that the god or goddess they are worshiping is limited by the statue, or identical with the piece of material. A god cannot possibly be contained by a four-foot statue. However, Hindus believe that the god makes himself available in a special way within the statue in order to aid people in their quests in life.
Let us quickly clarify some important vocabulary in order to get a better handle on this notion. The crucial term for our discussion is “murti,” which means form. Each god has his own form, but it is first of all a spiritual form that cannot possibly be seen with human eyes. However, the gods are willing to come down and indwell physical statues, at which point they are expressing themselves with manifest visible forms. Speaking of vocabulary, how should we refer to those visible forms? “Statues” is a good neutral term, though it does not by itself convey the difference between a religious object of worship or a work of art per se. The term “idol” is actually used quite frequently, even among Hindus themselves, though to many ears it has a somewhat negative ring. Some people have substituted the word “icon,” which has far fewer negative overtones, but is also too weak inasmuch as an icon is not usually thought of as an object of worship in the way in which the Hindu gods are worshiped in their material representations. The great compromise has been to use the term “deity,” which, of course, can refer to a god in his physical or spiritual form. By common usage, when referring to the statues containing gods in homes or temples, the most accepted word today is “deity.”
Now, don’t let yourself get confused about whether the physical deities in a Hindu temple are actually objects of worship. They definitely are. Some Hindus, trying to avoid appearing crudely idolatrous, insist that everyone knows better than to think that the material object or statue is the actual recipient of the worship. Nobody worships the actual physical wood or the metal, they say. This is likely to be true, but, be that as it may, neither are the statues merely representations of the gods. They are not just physical depictions of the gods in order to help us remember them, the way that you might have pictures of Bible stories on the wall in a Christian church. Otherwise there would be no point in having some statues in a temple designated specifically as objects of worship, while other simply function as decorations or reminders. Hindus believe that the gods are not identical with their statues, but that they live inside of their statues. When a temple receives a new statue, at first it is nothing more than a piece of physical stuff. But then there will be a great celebration, and at the heart of the ceremony, called “pratishta,” the god is called down into the statue. From that point on, what was just lifeless matter is now the physical home of the god, just as we often picture a soul inhabiting a body. The god will continue to live inside of that statue so long as he receives the attention he deserves: a daily bath, new clothes, food, and--of course--regular worship. All protestations from more philosophically inclined Hindus notwithstanding, for millions of Hindus, this is the way in which they experience the gods in their lives most often: as the deity who is residing inside of a sacred statue.
So, you see that Hinduism has here, as it so often does, established great latitude for its followers. Some Hindus promote a religion without any images, but the majority is willing to use images for worship. The problem is that, once you’ve opened the door to image-worship, it’s virtually impossible to close it again. To be more specific, idol-worship is not something you can just do a little bit at a time because by its very nature it violates a whole logical category of thought.
Let me clarify these general assertions. Assume that we try to find some ideas that a Hindu and I could agree on. Let us agree that God is transcendent, viz. he is greater than the world in all of his attributes, and also that he is immanent, viz. that he is present and active in the world. So far, we have no problem. However, we can only ascribe transcendence and immanence to God if we observe a fundamental distinction between God and the world he created. What would be the point in stating that God is greater than the world or that he is within the world, if he is actually just one entity in the world among others? Only a God who is not himself a part of the rest of the world is truly God. And here’s the glitch: as soon as one allows image-worship to become a part of the worship of God, the distinction between God and his created world has become blurred. Whom are we worshiping--the God who made the world or the world that he made? The apostle Paul says in the Bible about people who worshiped images, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” (Rom. 1:25)
I realize that one might say that this is not really all that important; some people like their god with images, some without--why the big deal? But it is an important matter because only a God who is truly sovereign over his creation is one whom we can fully trust for our salvation. Without ignoring the important philosophical qualifications, it still comes down to this: How could I possibly turn my eternal destiny over to a deity who is available to me only during “open” hours at the temple, and then only if he continues to receive his daily material comforts?

- Gerhard Wohlberg

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