In my last blog post Mind and I, the focus was how to become the master of one’s mind. In the well known yogasūtras of Patañjali, he says īśvarapraṇidhānād vā. This sūtra means ‘Or, one can gain this complete mastery mind by total dedication to Īśvara [God]’.  He follows this with a few more aphorisms on the definition of God and the name of God, the syllable Om. No other name, form, function or relationship to creation is given. In our yogasūtra group we continue to discuss the few aphorisms on this topic of God over several sessions (

This question of God almost always comes up during my conversations with many of my friends and relatives. It takes many forms – “I do not believe in idols, many Gods and worship”; “I do not believe in droning on mantras without knowing what they mean”; “I believe in a Higher Being and praying is not my thing”; “I do not pray but I meditate” and similar sentiments. Long ago, in an interfaith seminar, I heard a buddhist declaring ‘we do not believe in God’. This blog post focuses on the topic of God and the worship of idols in our homes and temples, the milieu in which I was born and raised.

At the outset I have to say that I do not think it is possible to logically establish the existence or non-existence of God. His/Her/Its existence is asserted by resorting to scriptures, a kind of logic called śruti-sammata-yukti in Sanskrit. Also I do not think that anyone can be commanded to have faith or belief in God, scriptures or to take up a religion. One has to discover in oneself a faith or belief in God, develop a personal relationship not through externally imposed religion, culture and society. With this caveat I delve into this topic.

The Webster dictionary’s definition of the word God:

(1) A being conceived of as possessing supernatural power and to be propitiated by sacrifice, worship, etc.; a divinity; a deity; an object of worship; an idoland, (2) ‘The Supreme Being; the eternal and infinite Spirit, the Creator, and the Sovereign of the universe’ (Webster’s Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition).

In my tradition several names are used to refer to God. As far as I  know, there is no semantically equivalent word in Indian languages to the Anglo-Saxon word God. A few popular names in Tamil and Sanskrit follow.

Tamil words: there are two commonly used words in Tamil – Iraivan (இறைவன்) and Kadavul (கடவுள்). One of the meanings of the first word is ‘The Lord’, though the word can also mean all pervasive. The second word can have two meanings – ‘One who is inside’ and ‘One who transcends everything’.

Sanskrit words:  A few words are common – Īśvara ( ईश्वरः), The Lord; puruṣa (पुरुषः), indweller, all pervasive; and paramātman (परमात्मा), the limitless self. Limitless means not limited by time and space. Note the word ātman is also resolvable to one who dwells in the body and one who is all pervasive.

Note that a majority of these traditional words indicate nature of God to be both indweller in all living beings and all pervasive. This is not just the words I cite here but what is stated in many of the Upaniṣads, the last portion of the Vedas, also known as Vedānta. The vision of Vedānta is that one Limitless manifests as both the creation and the consciousness in all creation. The word limitlessness naturally includes no limitation of either time or space. This Limitlessness (called Brahman in the Upaniṣads), from the standpoint of the created world is called by the word God (Īśvara  or puruṣa or paramātman). In reality nothing exists apart from this God including me, the devotee.

The question then for the believer is ‘How can I focus my mind on such a Being that includes me, the entire phenomenal world and beyond?’ This is where one uses a form or name as a focus for the mind on this Limitless Being called God. My Vedānta teacher used to cite the flag and the national anthem of a country as examples of symbols representing the country. It is not that the song is the country, nor is it that piece of cloth. We superimpose on that piece of cloth and the sound of the anthem the lofty vision of the vast nation we live in to pay our respect. This conscious superimposition is called upāsanam in Sanskrit.

So too, in a temple, the idol symbolizes that which defies all definition and description. This unfortunately is not widely understood, nor is it stressed or taught when one becomes an adult. Thus the whole temple worship is reduced to the idea that God is other than, and separate from, the human being, and our role is to worship Him/Her. By His/Her Grace one gains freedom, either here in terms relief from pain and sorrow or, after death of the physical body, in Heaven. Unfortunately, this lack of understanding of the idea of God (as revealed in Upaniṣads) results in establishing, if not perpetuating the I-God duality, master-servant mentality with inescapable logical inconsistencies about creation and the creator. It is left to the ‘mystical’ side of most religions to explore the existing essential non-duality between me and God. This idea itself is considered sacrilegious in many religions. In the Indian tradition however, this teaching of nature of God is relevant even today. The appreciation of the existing non-duality between the created me and the Creator can be nurtured during our lifetime. This knowledge is considered to be the highest knowledge, parāvidyā.

The representation of God as an idol is a symbol one uses for the purpose of worship. There can be two types of symbols, pratīkā, sound symbol and pratimā form symbol. The sound symbol Om referred to by Patañjali in his Yogasūtras is considered to the most sacred symbol. Māndūkyopaniṣad is dedicated to elaborating the symbolism of this sound. This and a number of other sound symbols in the tradition are not God, but indicators or pointers representing God.

With this in mind, idols and idol worship in temples can be seen as symbols pointing to the divine, and form an integral part of almost all religions, though in different modalities. This idea of God, concretized as a pratimā, form symbol is the idol in a temple. This separation of God from me, the devotee, not appreciating the true nature of God, nor understanding the symbolism behind the symbol is what is called ‘idol worship’. This type of blind idol-worship is ridiculed in a millennia old Tamil verse.

Natta kallai daivam enru nālu pūvum sāttiye
Suttivandu munumunukkum mūda mandiram edadā
Nattakallum pesumo nādanullirukkaiyil
Sutta satti sattuvam kariccuvai aryumo.

Offer a few flowers on a stone that is planted (in a temple),
Circumambulate (that stone) mumbling some dumb chants,
Will that stone talk while the Lord is within?
Can the ladle that stirs a curry know the taste?

Even so, the tradition of temple going, offering flowers and circumambulating the sanctum sanctorum mumbling some chants whose meaning is not known, is still alive and vibrant in modern India, including in the software capitals of Hyderabad and Bangalore! More new temples are being built and old ones renovated across the subcontinent. Despite the possibility that many of such temple-going worshippers have no idea nor interest in understanding the philosophical underpinnings of God, Creation and the devotee, they do gain peace of mind and relative quietude.

This tradition, like many other religious traditions believes in divine Grace and that it helps the devotee. Also it is said that this act of what appears to be an empty ritual in itself, but performed in a dedicated manner can make one see God everywhere. There was a Tamil saint who lived a few centuries ago who was an ardent devotee of Lord Śiva, who used to fetch flowers from his garden daily to offer at the altar in his home. One day while in the garden he realized that the flowers he picked are but the same Śiva, the picker, the altar, the garden, and everything is but one Limitless Śiva. This is the culmination of true devotion to God. This kind of devotion is described in Nāradabhaktisūtra as one that ‘does not admit of otherness’.