The unfortunate fallout of the colonial experience is the attitude of scorn that persists in certain minds towards the worship of idols or forms. The view that this is rudimentary and archaic overlooks the deep psychological wisdom that underlies the phenomenon. It also overlooks the science of consecration—the unique contribution of this culture to the world.
Merely proclaiming that the divine is all-pervasive can become an exercise in punditry rather than spirituality. Until it is experiential for you, merely parroting the words is meaningless. But actually expressing your devotion towards something or someone can be deeply transformative. Contrary to popular Western perception, the idol was not considered synonymous with god. It was seen, instead, as a yantra, a device, a tool for transformation.
Human beings gradually started seeing nature and the elements as divine because they desperately needed assurance and consolation in a universe that seemed terrifyingly vast and capricious. Besides consolation, the sacred form also addresses the human need to express wonder and gratitude. When feelings of love and gratitude find full expression, you become a full, radiantly alive human being. Just the simple act of venerating a form—even if it is a rock—can feel wonderful because it allows you to express some of the deepest dimensions of yourself.
This culture has always recognised the equality of forms. It never prescribed just one kind of idol. Instead, it encouraged people to express their need for the sacred in an exuberantly imaginative variety of ways. Everything could be considered sacred in this land because the underlying premise was that there is no piece of creation from which the hand of the Divine is absent.
And so, you can put a garland around a tree, smear vermilion on a rock or a cow, and you will immediately find people stopping to offer their salutations. In minutes, a wayside shrine can come to life.
Human perception is essentially through form. Because you have an individuated form, you perceive life as forms. Emptiness is the biggest presence around us, but relating to it is another matter. When you look up at the sky, you see the moon and stars, but how many see emptiness—the dimension that is so much bigger than this sprinkling of celestial bodies?
So, to fulfil these varied needs at different stages of one’s spiritual development, this culture manufactured idols. However, idols are not mere lifeless dolls. Instead, this culture evolved a highly complex science of idol-making. We decided what kind of form would work best for a person, not only in terms of psychological consolation, but in terms of energy support. Different forms were created to address human needs ranging from health, prosperity and material wellbeing to moksha or liberation.
This is the only culture in the world with the technology to manufacture gods. Everywhere else people believe that God is the Creator and you are a piece of creation. But in this culture, we always knew that human beings are capable of creating and embodying the Divine. We see ‘god’ as an ultimate possibility attainable by every human being. Implicit in this is a profound understanding of life.
We never believed the Divine needed our devotion. But we knew that we needed devotion. Devotion enhances receptivity. In a state of receptivity, if you sit before a consecrated form, your capacity to imbibe its energies is augmented. This can enhance the quality of your life in unimaginable ways. If you know how to employ it, the deity can become a powerful possibility, an incredible machine. In its presence, your very body can become an instrument of divinity, a doorway to the beyond. This is the incredible intelligence that underlies the much-maligned culture of idol worship.
Sadhguru, a yogi, is a visionary, humanitarian and a prominent spiritual leader (www.ishafoundation.org)