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Ideal behind the idol

'Rituals'and'Ideal behind the Idol'
these two pages complement each other

Worshipping the formless reality by unthought thought is the best kind of worship. But when one is not fit for such formless worship of God, worship of form alone is suitable. Formless worship is possible only for people who are devoid of the ego-form. Know that all the worship done by people who possess the ego-form is only worship of form.

-Sri Ramana Maharshi

Click on a bookmarked topic to open paragraph

There is great beauty in the idea
of worshipping an image
By Sri Vinoba Bhave

There is no polytheism in India
By Swami Vivekananda

The Life of Sri Ramakrishna
Ideal behind the idol

The Teachings of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa

Topic highlights

1.Do you believe in a God with form or in a formless God?

2.The vision of the Chosen Deity is equivalent to Self-knowledge.

3.Do you know how to pray?

4.Does God listen to our prayers?

5.'Look, here is the living Shiva.’

6.How can He who is the Absolute Brahman, omnipresent and
pervading the whole universe, incarnate Himself as man?

7.Why does one take so much care of his body?
How to increase our longing for God.

The Manner of Worshipping the Deity
From Yoga Vaasishtha

The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi < Click here for full text

Worshipping the formless reality by unthought thought is the best kind of worship. But when one is not fit for such formless worship of God, worship of form alone is suitable. Formless worship is possible only for people who are devoid of the ego-form. Know that all the worship done by people who possess the ego-form is only worship of form.

From Yogavaasishtha
For those who have not known the essential nature of Deity, the worship of form and the like has been prescribed.
To one who is incapable of (travelling) a distance of one Yojana (eight miles), a distance of one Krosa (two miles) is provided.

Sri Ramana Maharshi wrote
We project ourselves into the idols and worship them because we do not understand true inward worship. Therefore, the Knowledge of the Self, which knows all, is Knowledge in perfection.

From The Bhagavad Gita, Ch.12, Verse 5

"Greater is their trouble whose minds are set on the
unmanifested; for the goal, the unmanifested, is very
hard for the embodied to reach"

Explanations by Swami Shivananda
Divine Life Society, Rishikesh:

Worshippers of the saguna (qualified or with form) and the nirguna (unqualified or without form) Brahman (God) reach the same goal. But the path of the nirguna (formless) is very hard and arduous, because the aspirant has to give up attachment to the body from the very beginning of his spiritual practice.

The imperishable Brahman (the Supreme Reality) is very hard to reach for those who are attached to their bodies. Further, it is extremely difficult to fix the restless mind on the formless and attributeless Brahman. He who meditates on the unmanifested (formless) should possess the four means and who have sharp and subtle intellect and bold understanding. 
The four means are discrimination, dispassion, sixfold virtues, and longing for liberation. The sixfold virtues are: control of the mind, control of the senses, fortitude (endurance), turning away from the objects of the world, faith and tranquillity.

From The Mahabharata
Aswamedha Parva, Section XLIII
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Brahma (Prajapati) said: The Kshetrajna which is eternal and is destitute of qualities as regards its essence, is incapable of being seized by symbols. Hence, the characteristic of the Kshetrajna, which is without symbol, is pure knowledge. The unmanifest resides in the symbol called Kshetra, and is that in which the qualities are produced and absorbed.
[Note:Kshetrajna is called Purusha or Spirit. Kshetra is called Prakriti or matter.Purusha or Spirit is sentient. Prakriti or matter is insentient.]

Related article


In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4-14
The wife of sage Yajnyavalkya, and she herself a soul
far advanced in the spiritual path, says to her husband:

"Constituted as we are, we need something concrete to fix our minds on and stir our imagination before we can think of subtler ideas".

Therefore for purposes of meditation and other spiritual practices for less advanced aspirants, the scriptures provide more concrete representations of Reality, which are within their reach..


From The Mahabharata
Santi Parva, section CCXVII
Translated by Sri Kisari Mohan Ganguli

Bhishma said: Some worship Brahman in images. Some worship Him as existing in attributes. Some repeatedly realise the highest Divinity which has been described to be like a flash of lightning and which is again indestructible. Others who have burnt their sins by penances, attain to Brahman in the end.
All those high-souled persons attain to the highest end.

There is great beauty in the idea
of worshipping an image.

Explanations by Sant Vinoba  Bhave:

The saguna (with form) devotee serves the Lord through the indriyas, the organs of perception and action, whereas the nirguna (formless) devotee thinks constantly of the good of all the world.

The first (saguna devotee) appears absorbed in outward service but he meditates constantly within. The other (nirguna devotee) seems to do no direct service, but within him a great service is going on. Though differing outwardly, the two are of the same nature within, and both are dear to the Lord.  But, of the two, Saguna bhakti (devotion or worship) is much the easier.

For the saguna (with form) worshipper, the indriyas (organs of perception and action) are an aid. They are like flowers to be offered up to the Lord. With his eyes, he beholds His form; with his ears, he listens to His story; with his mouth, he utters His holy name; on his feet he performs pilgrimages; and with his hands, renders service. In this way he dedicates all his indriyas to the Lord. They are not there for enjoyment.  The flowers are there to be offered to the Lord, not to be worn around  one's neck. Thus he uses all his senses in the service of the Lord. This is the way of the saguna worshipper.

But to the nirguna worshipper, the senses seem to be an obstruction. He keeps them under control. The saguna worshipper surrenders his indriyas at the feet of the Lord.   Both these are methods of controlling the indriyas (senses),  two ways of restraining them. Whichever method we adopt, we must keep the indriyas (senses)  under control. The aim of both the methods is the same - to prevent them from wallowing in the pleasure of the senses. One method is easy, the other difficult.

The nirguna worshipper is devoted to the welfare of all beings. This is no ordinary matter. "To work for the good of all the world" is a thing easy to say, but difficult to practise. One devoted to the good of the world can think of nothing else. That is why nirguna worship is difficult.

Saguna worship, however, can be rendered in many ways, according to one's powers and opportunities. To serve the little village we were born in, to look after one's parents, this is saguna worship. All we have to make sure is that we do not work against the welfare of the world.  No matter how insignificant your service is, as long as it causes no harm to others, it will ascend to the scale of bhakti (devotional worship); otherwise it would become a form of attachment. Whether it is our parents or our friends, our suffering kinsfolk or great saints that we serve, we should regard them as the Lord.   Imagine that in every one of them you see an image of the Lord and rest satisfied.   This saguna worship is easy, but nirguna worship is hard. The meaning and substance of the two are the same.

We must admit that it is difficult to distinguish between what is saguna and what is nirguna. What looks like saguna from one point of view may be nirguna from another.   We worship saguna (with form) by placing a stone in front of us and performing puja (devotional worship). In this stone we conceive the presence of God. In our mother and in our saints, we see the visible presence of chaitanya (the conscious principle), the living spirit.

In them jnana (knowledge), love and warmth of heart shine clear. But we do not regard them as the Supreme, and as such we do not worship them. Such people, filled with the living spirit, are seen by us all.  We should, therefore, serve them. We should see in them the concrete manifestation of the Supreme.

And yet, instead of doing this, people prefer to see the Lord in a stone. To see the Lord in a stone  is in a sense the ultimate limit (test) of nirguna. In the saints, in one's parents, in one's neighbours, love and knowledge and willingness to help are manifested. It is easy to conceive the presence of God in them; but it is difficult to conceive it in a stone.

But on the contrary, if we do not conceive the presence of God in the stone, where else can we conceive it? It is only the stone that is fit to be the image of the Lord.  It is motionless, full of peace. Light or darkness, heat or cold, the stone remains the same. The motionless, passionless stone is best fitted to be a symbol of the Lord.  Father, mother, neighbour, the people, all  these are subject to passion and change.   Therefore, in one sense, it is more difficult to serve these than to serve the stone.

There is great beauty in the idea of worshipping an image. Who can break this image? The image in the beginning was merely a piece of stone. I filled it with my bhavana, my feeling. I put life into it. How can anyone destroy my feelings? Stones can be smashed and broken into pieces, but not feeling. When I withdraw my feelings from the image, then what remains will be mere stone, a thing which anyone  can break to pieces.

What after all, is the weight of a hundred Dollar bill (paper currency note)?   (Much less than a bulky sunday newspaper). If we burn the hundred  Dollar currency note, we might perhaps, be able to warm a drop of water. What gives this small piece of paper the value (which is far greater value than the the value of bulky newspaper)? The stamp it bears gives its value.  It is after all, an inanimate piece of paper. We placed our value in that piece of paper.

My mother scribbled three or four lines on a piece of paper and sent it off to me. Another gentleman sent me a long discursive fifty page letter.   Now, which is more weighty?  But the feeling in my mother's few lines is beyond measure; it is sacred.  The other stuff cannot stand comparison with it.

Suppose two men go for a bath in the Ganga river. One of them says: "What is this Ganga river that people talk so much about? Take two parts of hydrogen and one of oxygen; combine the two gases- it becomes Ganga. What else is there in the Ganga?"

The other says: "The Ganga flows from the lovely lotus feet of Lord Vishnu.   Thousands of Rishis, seers, both ascetic and kingly, have done penance by her banks. Countless holy acts have been performed by her side.  Such is the sacred Ganga, my mother."  Filled with this bhavana (feeling), he bathes in the river. The other man, regarding as combination of hydrogen and oxygen also bathes. Both derive the benefit of physical cleansing.  But the devotee gets the benefit of  inner purification as well.  Even a buffalo, if it bathes in the Ganga river, will achieve physical cleanliness. The dirt of the body will go.

But how to wash the mind of its taint? One got the petty benefit of physical cleanliness; the other, in addition, gained the invaluable fruit of inward purity.

Nirguna is all  jnana, knowledge, but saguna is full of love, of bhavana, of feeling. There is the moisture of the heart in it and perfect safety for the bhakta (devotee). When the principle of devotion or bhakti, enters into any action, it is only then that it appears easy.   It is not difficult to push a boat in the water; but how hard to drag the same boat on land, on rocks?  If there is water under the boat, we can cross over to the other shore  as without effort.  In the same way, if our life's boat floats on the waters of bhakti (devotion), we can sail easily in it. But if life is dry and the way dusty, stony, full of pitfalls then it would indeed be hard to drag the boat along.  The principle of bhakti (devotion), like water, makes easy the voyage of our life. 

The truth of the matter is that saguna and nirguna complement each other.  Both these means take us to the same end.


There is no polytheism in India

By Swami Vivekananda
The first disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa

Descend we now from the aspirations of philosophy to the religion of the ignorant. At the very outset, I may tell you that there is no polytheism in India. In every temple, if one stands by and listens, one will find the worshippers applying all the attributes of God, including omnipresence, to the images. It is not polytheism, nor would the name henotheism explain the situation. "The rose called by any other name would smell as sweet." Names are not explanations.

I remember, as a boy, hearing a Christian missionary preach to a crowd in India. Among other sweet things he was telling them was that if he gave a blow to their idol with his stick, what could it do?

One of his listeners sharply answered:
"If I abuse your God, what can He do?"

The preacher said:
"You would be punished when you die."

The Hindu retorted:
"So my idol will punish you when you die."

The tree is known by its fruits. When I have seen amongst them that are called idolaters, men, the like of whom in morality and spirituality and love I have never seen anywhere, I stop and ask myself, ‘Can sin beget holiness?’

We can no more think about anything without a
mental image than we can live without breathing

Superstition is a great enemy of man, but bigotry is worse. Why does a Christian go to Church? Why is the cross holy? Why is the face turned toward the sky in prayer? Why are there so many images in the Catholic Church? Why are there so many images in the minds of Protestants when they pray? My brethren, we can no more think about anything without a mental image than we can live without breathing. By the law of association, the material image calls up the mental idea and vice versa. This is why the Hindu uses an external symbol when he worships. He will tell you, it helps to keep his mind fixed on the Being to whom he prays. He knows as well you do that the image is not God, is not omnipresent. After all, how much does omnipresence mean to almost the whole world? It stands merely as a word, a symbol. Has God superficial area? If not, when we repeat that word ‘omnipresent’, we think of the extended sky or of space, that is all.

The whole religion of the Hindu
is centred in realisation.

As we find that somehow or other, by the laws of our mental constitution, we have to associate our ideas of infinity with the images of the blue sky, or of the sea, so we naturally connect our idea of holiness with the image of a church, a mosque, or a cross. The Hindus have associated the idea of holiness, purity, truth, omnipresence, and such other ideas with different images and forms. But with this difference that while some people devote their whole lives to their idol of a church and never rise higher, because with them religion means an intellectual assent to certain doctrines and doing good to their fellows, the whole religion of the Hindu is centred in realisation. Man is to become divine by realising the divine. Idols or temples or churches or books are only the supports, the helps, of his spiritual childhood: but on and on he must progress.

He must not stop anywhere. "External worship, material worship," say the scriptures, "is the lowest stage; struggling to rise high, mental prayer is the next stage, but the highest stage is when the Lord has been realised."

Mark the same earnest man who is kneeling before the idol
tells you, "Him the sun cannot express, nor the moon, nor the
stars, the lightning cannot express Him, nor what we speak of
as fire; through Him they shine." But he does not abuse anyone’s idol or call its worship sin. He recognises in it a necessary stage of life. "The child is father of the man." Would it be right for an old man to say that childhood is a sin or youth a sin?

If a man can realise his divine nature with the help of an image, would it be right to call that a sin? Nor even when he has passed that stage, should he call it an error. To the Hindu, man is not travelling from error to truth, but from truth to truth, from lower to higher truth. To him all the religions, from the lowest fetishism to the highest absolutism, means so many attempts of the human soul to grasp and realise the Infinite, each determined by the conditions of its birth and association, and each of these marks a stage of progress; and every soul is a young eagle soaring higher and higher, gathering more and more strength, till it reaches the Glorious Sun.

Unity in variety is the plan of nature, and the Hindu has recognised it. Every other religion lays down certain fixed dogmas, and tries to force society to adopt them. It places before society only one coat, which must fit Jack and John and Henry, all alike. If it does not fit John or Henry, he must go without a coat to cover his body. The Hindus have discovered that the absolute can only be realised, or thought of, or stated, through the relative, and the images, crosses, and crescents are simply so many symbols- so many pegs to hang the spiritual ideas on. It is not that this help is necessary for every one, but those that do not need it have no right to say that it is wrong. Nor is it compulsory in Hinduism.

One thing I must tell you, Idolatry in India does not mean anything horrible. It is not the mother of harlots. On the other hand, it is the attempt of undeveloped minds to grasp high spiritual truths. The Hindus have their faults, they sometimes have their exceptions; but mark this, they are always for punishing their own bodies, and never for cutting the throats of their neighbours. If the Hindu fanatic burns himself on the pyre, he never lights the fire of Inquisition. And even this cannot be laid at the door of his religion any more than the burning of witches can be laid at the door of Christianity.

To the Hindu, then, the whole world of religions is only a travelling, a coming up, of different men and women, through various conditions and circumstances, to the same goal. Every religion is only evolving a God out of the material man, and the same God is the inspirer of all of them. Why, then, are there so many contradictions? They are only apparent, says the Hindu. The contradictions come from the same truth adapting itself to the varying circumstances of different natures.

It is the same light coming through glasses of different colours. And these little variations are necessary for purposes of adaptation. But in the heart of everything the same truth reigns. The Lord has declared to the Hindu in His incarnation as Krishna, "I am in every religion as the thread through a string of pearls. Wherever thou seest extraordinary holiness and extraordinary power raising and purifying humanity, know thou that I am there." And what has been the result? I challenge the world to find, throughout the whole system of Sanskrit philosophy, any such expression as that the Hindu alone will be saved and not others. Says Vyasa, "We find perfect men even beyond the pale of our caste and creed."

The following text is taken from other souces:

The statue of Liberty in New York harbour is a gift to America from the people of France. It represents noble values such as liberty, freedom, justice. If an American patriot is proudly showing me this statue of Liberty, how would he feel if I insultingly spat on this statue?  The American patriot will surely feel greatly hurt. One can argue that the statue is, after all, a piece of stone and metal; something inanimate. Why have feelings about it?
Who put the feelings there?

I carry a hankerchief in my pocket. I can blow my nose into this piece of cloth (hankerchief). Suppose I wave  this hankerchief before an audience and ask the people to salute my hankerchief. Who will salute it? And yet, people of all nations proudly salute their nations' flags. They will lay down their lives for their nations' flags. The hankerchief and the flags are both, after all, made of inanimate cloth. But the flag is infused with the noble sentiments of the nation. 

The black and white photograhs of my late father and mother hang on a wall of my house. A visitor spits on these photos and hurts my feelings. It is, after all, a piece of paper with black and white dots. Why have feelings for such inanimate piece of paper? 

The people of India display such fine sensitivities to seemingly inanimate objects like mountains and rivers and infuse in them feelings and noble values. Such objects (such as the sacred Ganga river) are not confined to India. Judaism  reveres the sacred Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, Islam reveres the stone of Kaaba, and the sacred fount that exists near the Kaaba; its waters are held as sacred by Islam (Zam-Zam Waters), Christianity reveres the Cross and the statues such as Mary and the child. All these are, after all, made of inanimate materials. Why have any feelings for them?
Should one try to understand the ideals behind those idols?
In the absence of any ideal, one might otherwise look upon them as stone worshippers or idol worshippers.

Ideal Behind the Idol

The Life of Sri Ramakrishna

By Romain Rolland.

Kamarpukur is the name of a village in Bengal.
An old orthodox Brahmin couple, called Chattopadhyaya lived there. They were very poor and very pious and devotees of Sri Ram. At the age of sixty, the Brahmin went on a pilgrimage to Gaya, where there is an imprint of the foot of Lord Vishnu. The Lord appeared to him in the night and said:
"I am about to be reborn for the salvation of the world."

About the same time in Kamarpukur his wife, Chandramani, dreamt that she had been possessed by some Divine Spirit. In the temple opposite her cottage the divine image of Shiva quickened to life under her eyes. A ray of light penetrated to the depths of her being. Chandramani was overthrown and she fainted. When she regained consciousness, she realised that she had conceived. Her husband on his return found her transfigured. She heard voices; She carried a Divine Being. The child whom the world was to know as Ramakrishna, was born on February 18, 1836. His childhood name was Gadadhar. He was a little boy full of fun and life, mischievous and charming. Nobody imagined what tremendous depths lay hidden in the little body of this laughing child. They were revealed to him when he was six years old.

In Sri Ramakrishna`s own words:

"I was following a narrow path between the rice fields. I raised my eyes to the sky as I munched my popcorn. I saw a great black cloud spreading rapidly until it covered the heavens. Suddenly at the edge of the cloud a flight of snow-white cranes passed over my head. The contrast was so beautiful that my spirit wandered far away. I lost consciousness and fell to the ground. The popcorn was scattered. Somebody picked me up and carried me home in his arms. An excess of joy and emotion overcame me. This was the first time that I was seized with ecstasy."

His father died when he was seven years old. His elder brother, Ramkumar, went to Culcutta and opened a school there. He sent for his younger brother, now an adolescent, in 1852, to study at the school, but Gadadhar, filled with the urge of his inner life and quite undisciplined, refused to learn.

At that time there was a rich woman, named Rani Rasmani. At Dakshineswar, on the eastern bank of the river Ganga, some four miles from Culcutta, she founded a temple to the great Goddess, the Divine Mother Kali. Gadadhar`s (Ramakrishna's) brother Ramkumar was appointed as a priest to this temple. In the following year, Ramkumar died, and Ramakrishna decided to take his place.

The young priest of Kali was twenty years old, and the young priest was associated with all the intimate acts of the day. He dressed Her (the image of Goddess Kali), he offered flowers and food. He was one of the attendants when the Goddess arose and when She went to bed. The very first touch left the sting of Kali in his fingers and united them forever. Within the temple She dwelt, a basalt figure of Kali. She was the Universal Mother.  In the words of Sri Ramakrishna

"My mother, the all powerful, who reveals Herself to Her children under different aspects and Divine Incarnations. The visible Goddess who leads the chosen to the invisible God."

But after Kali had left Her sting in him, She withheld Herself from him.

Passion for the dumb Goddess consumed him. To touch Her, to win one sign of life from Her, one look, one sigh, one smile, became the sole object of his existence. He flung himself down in the garden, meditating and praying. He tore off all his clothes. Like a lost child he besought the Mother to show Herself to him. In despair, he writhed on the ground in front of visitors, and became an object of pity, of mockery, even of scandal; but he cared for none of these things. Only one thing mattered. He knew that he was on the verge of extreme happiness. Nothing but a thin partition, which he was nevertheless powerless to breakdown, separated him from it. He is described by those who saw him in those days of bewilderment as having face and breast reddened by the afflux of blood, his eyes filled with tears and his body shaken with spasms. He was at the limit of physical endurance. And then the partition was suddenly removed and he saw!

Let him speak for himself:

"One day I was torn with intolerable anguish. My heart seemed to be wrung as a damp cloth might be wrung. I was racked with pain. A terrible frenzy seized me at the thought that I might never be granted the blessing of this Divine vision. I thought if that were so, then enough of this life! A sword was hanging in the sanctuary of Kali. My eyes fell upon it and an idea flashed through my brain like a flash of lightning. `The sword! It will help me to end it.' I rushed up to it, and seized it like a madman. And lo! The whole scene, doors, windows, the temple itself vanished. It seemed as if nothing existed any more. Instead, I saw an ocean of the Spirit, boundless, dazzling. In whatever direction I turned, great luminous waves were rising. They bore down upon me with a loud roar, as if to swallow me up. In an instant, they were upon me.They broke over me, they engulfed me. I was suffocated. I lost all natural consciousness and I fell. How I passed that day and the next I know not. Around me rolled an ocean of ineffable joy. And in the depths of my being I was conscious of the presence of the Divine Mother"

This experience had led Ramakrishna from the formless to the form of his Beloved Mother Kali. .He wished it so; for once he had seen and possessed it for an instant, he could not live without it. From that day onward he would have ceased to exist if he had not constantly renewed the fiery vision. Without it the world was dead, the living people as nothing but vain shadows, like painted figures upon a screen. The shock of the first encounter was so violent that his whole being remained in a shuddering state. He only saw those around him through a veil of drifting mist. He could no longer control his eyes, his body or his mind; another will guided them, and he passed through some terrible hours.

He prayed to the Mother to come to his aid. Then suddenly he understood. He was possessed by the Mother. He ceased to resist. She filled him. And out of the mists little by little, the material form of the Goddess emerged, first a hand, then Her breath, Her voice, finally Her whole person. It was evening. The puja rites were over for the day. The Mother was supposed to be asleep, and Ramakrishna had returned to his room outside the temple above the Ganga. But he could not sleep. He listened. He heard Her get up; She went up to the upper storey of the temple with the joy of a young girl. As She walked the rings of Her anklets rang. He wondered if he were dreaming. His heart hammered in his breast. He went out into the court and raised his head. There he saw Her with unbounded hair on the balcony of the first floor, watching the Ganga river flow through the beautiful night.

From that moment, his days and nights were passed in the continual presence of his beloved Mother. Eventually he was identified with Her, and gradually the radiance of his inner vision became outwardly manifest.

The Teachings of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa

Excerpts from the book 'God Lived With Them'
by Swami Chetanananda, Belur Math

Do you believe in a God with form or in a formless God?

(Episode one)

One of these visitors, Gadashankar, was a follower of Keshab Chandra Sen. The Master (Sri Ramakrishna) talked with him on the eastern veranda while I was there.

"Do you practise the brahminical rites daily?" the Master asked him.

"I don’t like all these rituals," he said.

"You see," the Master went on, "do not give up anything by force. If the blossoms of gourds and pumpkins are plucked off, their fruits rot, but when the fruits are ripe the flowers fall off naturally. Do you believe in a God with form or in a formless God?"

"In the formless aspect," was the reply.

"But how can you grasp the formless aspect all at once?" the Master asked. "When the archers are learning to shoot, they first aim at the plantain tree, then at a thin tree, then at a fruit, then at the leaves, and finally at a flying bird. First meditate on the aspect with form. This will enable you to see the formless later.

Do you believe in a God with form or in a formless God?

(Episode two)

Since Manomohan was an ardent devotee of Keshab Chandra Sen and the Brahmo Samaj, he was averse to idol worship. Sri Ramakrishna understood Manomohan's attitude and said to him:

"As an imitation custard apple reminds one of the real fruit, so the divine images enkindle the presence of God. He is all-powerful. It is possible for Him to manifest in anything."

Manomohan, Ram and Gopal had a long conversation with Sri Ramakrishna, and they returned to Calcutta in the evening full of peace and joy.

Manomohan decided after that first visit to see the Master every Sunday. On his second visit he asked Sri Ramakrishna: "Some people say God is formless, others say He is with form, and again others call Him Krishna, Shiva, or Kali. Could you tell us what the real nature of God is?"

Sri Ramakrishna smiled and said: "He is sometimes with form, He is sometimes formless, and again He is beyond both. He is all-pervading. It is difficult to ascertain His real nature. Just as there is nothing to compare gold with except gold, so there is nothing equal to God. He is the cause of the gross objects as well as of the subtle mind and intellect. For example: The same substance in its solid form is ice, in its liquid form is water, and in its gaseous form is vapour. According to the mental attitude of the spiritual aspirant, God manifests Himself. A jnani experiences God as all-pervading, formless space, and a devotee perceives God with a particular form. So, if you sincerely want to know the real nature of God, meditate on Him in solitude. Have patience. Surrender yourself to him and pray. When the right time comes, you will see Him."

Manomohan: "We get peace when we feel the presence of God in our hearts; otherwise mere intellectual understanding of God and atheism are the same."

Sri Ramakrishna: "In the beginning one should move forward on the spiritual path holding to an initial faith (i.e., faith in the words of the scriptures and the guru). One then attains direct perception. There are two kinds of faith - initial and real faith (i.e., faith that comes from direct experience). Be steadfast in the first one and then you will see God."

The vision of the Chosen Deity is
equivalent to Self-knowledge.

On another occasion, Gangadhar (later Swami Akhandananda) went to Dakshineshwar and found that the Master was in samadhi. When he came down to normal consciousness, he spoke of God-vision and Self-realization, saying: "One’s own Chosen Deity and the Atman (Self) are identical. The vision of the Chosen Deity is equivalent to Self-knowledge."

Do you know how to pray?

Sri Ramakrishna taught from his own experience, not through knowledge acquired through books. Gangadhar (later Swami Akhandananda) recalled:

"Once I spent a night at Dakshineshwar with several other disciples, and the Master had us all sit for meditation. While communing with our Chosen Deities, we often laughed and wept in ecstasy. The pure joy we experienced in those boyhood days cannot be expressed in words. Whenever I approached the Master he would invariably ask me, ‘Did you shed tears at the time of prayer or meditation?’ And one day when I answered yes to this, how happy he was!"

The Master said: "Tears of repentance or sorrow flow from the corners of the eyes nearest to the nose and those of joy from the outer corners of the eyes."

Suddenly the Master asked me: "Do you know how to pray?"

Saying this he flung his hands and feet about restlessly – like a little child impatient for its mother. Then he cried out: "Mother dear, grant me knowledge and devotion. I don’t want anything else. I can’t live without you."

While thus teaching us how to pray, he looked just like a small boy. Profuse tears rolled down his chest, and he passed into deep samadhi. I was convinced that the Master did that for my sake.

Does God listen to our prayers?

Sri Ramakrishna: "What are you saying? You will call on God and He will not listen? He is omnipresent and omniscient. How do you know that He does not listen to your prayers? You have no faith, so you are doubting Him."

'Look, here is the living Shiva.’

One morning Sri Ramakrishna took me to the Kali Temple. Whenever I went there alone I stood outside the threshold, but on this occasion the Master took me into the sanctum and showed me the face of Lord Shiva, who was of course lying on his back while Kali stood over Him. His face was not visible from outside the shrine, where one could only see the top of His head. The Master said: ‘Look, here is the living Shiva.’ I felt that Lord Shiva was conscious and breathing. I was astonished. How potent were the Master’s words! Up to that time I had thought that this image was just like all other Shiva images I had seen.

Sri Ramakrishna then gently pulled Mother Kali’s cloth and placed Her ornaments properly. When we left the temple he was reeling like a drunkard. He was escorted to his room with difficulty and remained for some time in samadhi. I cannot describe the details of that day – the joy the Master poured into my heart cannot be communicated. After coming down from samadhi the Master sang many songs in an ecstatic mood."

 How can He who is the Absolute Brahman, omnipresent and
pervading the whole universe, incarnate Himself as man?

Once in Dakshineshwar some non-dualistic devotees came from Varanasi to visit the Master when Gangadhar (later Swami Akhandananda) was present. He later recorded their conversation in his memoirs:

One person asked: "Sir, how can He who is the Absolute Brahman, omnipresent and pervading the whole universe, incarnate Himself as man?"

"You see," the Master replied, "He who is the Absolute Brahman is the witness and is immanent everywhere. The divine incarnation is an embodiment of His power. The power is incarnate somewhere a quarter, somewhere else a half, and very rarely in full. He in whom the full powers manifest is adored as Purna Brahman, like Krishna. And three quarters of the Divine were manifested in Rama."

Why does one take so much care of his body?

To this one of the gentlemen said: "Sir, this body is the root of all evils. If it can be destroyed, all troubles will cease."

The Master said: "The raw earthen pots when broken are made into pots again, but the burnt ones, once broken, can never be remade. So if you destroy the body before the attainment of Self-realization, you will have to be reborn and suffer similar consequences."

"But, sir," the gentleman objected, "why does one take so much care of his body?"

The Master answered: "Those who do the work of moulding, preserve the mould with care till the image is made. When the image is ready, it does not matter whether the mould is kept or rejected. So with this body. One has to realize the Supreme Self. One has to attain Self-knowledge. After that the body may remain or go. Till then the body has to be taken care of."

The gentleman was silenced.

How to increase our longing for God

Sri Ramakrishna: "As hunger and thirst arise spontaneously, so does longing for God. Everything depends upon time. Mere thinking cannot make a person hungry. In the same way longing for God does not come simply by saying, 'Let there be longing.' Yearning is awakened in the mind automatically when a person feels the need for God. Yearning for God does not come until and unless a person has satisfied his cravings for mundane objects, renounced all attachment to lust and gold, and shunned worldly comforts and enjoyments like filth.

How many people are restless for God-realization? People shed jugfuls of tears for their wives, children, or money, but who weeps for God? He who longs for Him certainly will find Him. Cry for Him. Call on Him with a longing heart. You will see Him.

Spiritual life begins with symbolic worship

The goal of the Upanishadic teachings is the attainment of the unitive knowledge of Brahman (God). This knowledge is incompatible with rituals in any form, which naturally presupposes a distinction between the doer, the instrument of action, and the result.

But direct knowledge of God can be attained only by a fortunate few who are altogether free of worldly desires and attachments and who have practised uncompromising discrimination and renunciation. The minds of average seekers are restless and attached to the world

Hindu teachers say that spiritual life begins with symbolic worship but in the end such worship is transcended.

According to the Puranas, to see God everywhere naturally and spontaneously represents the highest spiritual stage. Meditation comes second. In the third place is worship through symbols and fourth is the performance of rituals and pilgrimage to sacred places.

According to another text, worship through images is the preliminary stage. Next higher is the recital of Mantras and the offering of prayers. Superior to that is mental worship, and the highest of all is contemplation of the Absolute (God).

The adept sees God everywhere, but the weaker devotee requires a concrete support. As the pilgrim makes his progress, he goes from the lower to the higher form of worship. After reaching the goal, he sees the same godhead everywhere – in images, stones, nature, in all living beings, and in his own heart.

One of the means of gradually acquiring inner calmness is ritualistic worship. According to Vedantic teachers, rituals, in order to be effective, should be accompanied by meditation. Meditative worship called upasana, is directed to the saguna (with form) Brahman (God), that is to say, the conditioned Brahman, or to any other deity approved by the scriptures. Upasana is described as a mental activity; the mind of the worshipper should flow without interruption toward the object of worship.

The mechanical performance of rituals without meditation has very little immediate spiritual value. But rituals are conducive to deeper concentration, which has a real spiritual significance.

The physical symbols used in the popular religion of India are classified into two groups:

  1. They may be natural objects such as the sun, a river, fire, or a special piece of stone.
  2. They may be images or pictures.

These symbols remind the devotees of certain aspects , powers, and attributes of the Godhead; through it one contemplates the Godhead.

All worship and contemplation, in so far as they are mental activities, are symbolic. To see God everywhere and to practice the presence of God uninterruptedly is not possible for the beginner. So he is asked to see God wherever there is a manifestation of His power, splendour, beauty and love.

From Srimad Bhagavata Mahapurana, Book 11, 2

He who does worship to the Lord with faith in an image only and does
not serve His devotees and other beings is an ordinary devotee.

From Kapilopadesha   V.20-27
Translated by and comments by
Swami Tapasyananda, Advaita Ashram

Image Worship versus Seeing God in All

I abide in all beings as their innermost soul. Disregarding My presence within them, men make a show of worshipping Me through images.  21.

If one disregards Me present in all as their soul and Lord but ignorantly offers worship only to images, such worship is as ineffectual as sacrificial offerings made in ashes.  22.

A man who persecutes (others, not realising that ) I am   residing in others, who is proud and haughty, who looks upon God as the other - such a person will never attain to peace of mind.  23.

If a man disregards and persecutes fellow beings, but worships Me in images with numerous rituals and rich offerings, I am not at all pleased with him for proffering such worship. 24

A man should, however, worship me in images, side by side with discharging his duties, which include the love of all beings, until he actually realises My presence in himself and in all beings. 25.

As long as man is self-centred and makes an absolute distinction between himself and others (without recognising the unity of all in Me, the Inner-Pervader), he will be subject to the great fear of death (including every form of deprivation of self-interest). 26.

So overcoming the separativeness of a self-centred life, one should serve all beings with gifts, honour, and love, recognising that such service is really being rendered to Me who reside in all beings as their innermost soul. 27.

[Note:Comments by Swami Tapasyananda:
Verses 21-27 are of very great practical importance. They inculcate the healthy habit that while a devotee worships God through images and other symbols, he should not forget that God's real presence is in the hearts of living creatures, and all external worship through symbols is only a means to realise His presence within all. So service to all beings with the consciousness that such service is worship of God, should always accompany his worship in images. If this is not done, image worship is ineffective and degenerates into hypocrisy. At the same time, until man has come to realise God's real presence in all, he should also practise worship of God in images and not look down upon such practice as meaningless ritualism. Image worship is full of meaning, as it is the stepping stone to higher realisation, if practised with sincerity and proper understanding.]

By Swami Nikhilananda
Sri Ramakrishna Math

The Upanishads abound in symbolic representations of Brahman and Atman. What is the meaning of a symbol?  It is a visible sign of an invisible entity.  The Sanskrit words generally used for "symbol" are pratika and pratima. Some of the important symbol of Brahman are prana (the vital breath), vayu (wind), akasha (space), manas (mind), aditya (the sun), and Om.

A pratima or image as seen in the popular religions, is also a symbol of the Godhead. Beginners, with their restricted understanding, need a symbol in order to contemplate the Highest. Thus a Cross, an Ark, a Crescent, a statue, a book, fire, and temples have all been used as so many symbols. In the minds of the unworthy a symbol often degenerates into an idol which is worshipped: to worship a God through a symbol is a legitimate means of divine communion. In the one case the Godhead is brought down to the level of a material object; in the other case, the image itself is spiritualised.

The Upanishads stress the method of knowledge more than that of formal worship. The Truth is to be realised by hearing about It, from a qualified teacher, reasoning about It in one's own mind, and lastly by contemplating It.

The Manner of Worshipping the Deity

From Yogavaasishtha Chapter 22(extracts)
Compiled by Sri Jnanananda Bharati
Translation by Samvid

For those who have not known the essential nature of Deity, the worship of form and the like has been prescribed. To one who is incapable of (travelling) a distance of one Yojana (eight miles), a distance of one Krosa (two miles) is provided.
Verse 19.

Know that as the worship of the Deity in which the Divine Self is worshipped by the flowers of tranquillity, knowledge and the like. Worship of the form is not worship. Verse 20.

The worship with flowers and the like is laid down (in the scriptures) only in the absence of tranquillity, perception (or knowledge) and similar virtues. Verse 20.

Pure intelligence (or Consciousness) which is beyond all parts (or fragmentation) and which is of the nature of the generality of Existence, attaining to the nature of vast Existence (or the totality of Being) is described by the word ‘Deva’ (or Deity). Verse 21.

(That Pure Consciousness) gradually moved by the splendour of the energies of space, time and the like, having become the Jeeva (individual soul or individualised consciousness), soon becomes the Buddhi (the intellect). Thereafter (it becomes) the sense of "I". Then attaining to the state of the mind, it clings to worldly existence. Verses 22-23.

This (Pure Consciousness) experiences sorrow, abiding in the body, due to the idea of "I am". This unhappiness that has come, nourished by mere imagination is destroyed only by the absence of imagination (or thought). There is no doubt in this matter. Verse 24.

Warding off the turbidness of your own imagination by yourself and having reached the highest clearness (or serenity) of the Self, be supremely happy. Verses 25-26.

The Self is indeed full of all powers (or energies). He accomplishes everything thoroughly. He is the Deity. He is also the highest. He is always worthy of worship by the wise (or virtuous ones). Verses 26-27.

His worship is only meditation within. Nothing else is (His) worship. Therefore, let one worship Him, who is eternal, who is the support of the three worlds, who is of the nature of Pure Consciousness, who shines like a hundred-thousand suns and who illuminates all appearances, by meditation. Verses 27-28.

His Powers like Will, should be contemplated as residing in the body. He is infinite, the Supreme support (of everything), one who has Pure Existence as His only form, and who has turned round (or unfolded) the web (or net) of the world. Time is His gatekeeper. Verses 29-30.

Having contemplated the Divine Lord as possessing abundantly the power of seeing everywhere, having the power of smell on all sides, endowed with the sense of touch everywhere, possessed of taste all round, full of sense of hearing everywhere, endowed with thinking everywhere, beyond thinking (or cognition) all round and the Supreme Bliss (or auspiciousness) everywhere, let one worship Him then, according to rules. Verses 30-32.

This Deity who is of the nature of one’s own Consciousness is not worshipped by (ceremonial) offerings. He is worshipped by one’s own perception (or knowledge) which is always obtainable without trouble. Verse 33.

This is called the highest external worship of the Self. Now I shall describe the internal worship of the Self. Verse 34.

[Note: The contemplation and worship described in verses 28 to 32 is referred to as the highest form of external worship.]

Let one meditate on this Supreme Spirit (or Siva) who is ever abiding in the body. Let him consider this splendour of Pure Consciousness in his own body as the Deity. Verse 35.

Let him disregard whatever is lost and receive (or accept) whatever has arrived, disinterestedly. This indeed is the highest worship of the Self. Verse 36.

Having resolved that everything is Brahman (the Supreme Spirit), let one practise the religious vow (or austerity) of worship of the Eternal Self. In this mode of worship of the Self, whatever auspicious materials are prescribed (for worship in general), these are conceived solely by the sentiment of tranquillity. Verses 37-38.

The Self is not comprehended (or perceived) by scriptural precepts; nor by the words of the Guru (or spiritual guide). It is perceived by itself on account of one’s knowledge (or awareness) spontaneously. (However), the Self is not perceived without the teachings of the spiritual guide and scriptural precepts. The existence of the combination of these two alone is the manifester of the knowledge of one’s own Self. Verses 38-40.

[Note: The import of the above verses is that scriptures and the guru can only show the way. It is the spiritual aspirant who has to arrive at enlightenment by his own investigation and meditation.]

One who ever performs thus the worship of the Deity, absorbed in it, he attains to that Supreme abode where (even) people like us are servants. Verses 40-41.

The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi

Question: I have faith in Murti Dhyana (worship of form). Will it not help me to gain Jnana (knowledge)?

Sri Ramana Maharshi: Surely it will. Upasana (meditation) helps concentration of mind. Then the mind is free from other thoughts and is full of the meditated form. The mind then becomes one with the object of meditation, and this makes it quite pure. Then think who is the worshipper. The answer is ‘I’, that is the Self. In this way the Self is ultimately gained.

Worshipping the formless reality by unthought thought is the best kind of worship. But when one is not fit for such formless worship of God, worship of form alone is suitable. Formless worship is possible only for people who are devoid of the ego-form. Know that all the worship done by people who possess the ego-form is only worship of form.

The pure state of being attached to grace (Self), which is devoid of any attachment, alone, is one’s own state of silence, which is devoid of any other thing. Know that one’s ever abiding as that silence, having experienced it as it is, alone is true mental worship (Manasik-Puja). Know that the performance of the unceasing true and natural worship in which the mind is submissively established as the one Self, having installed the Lord on the Heart-throne, is silence, the best of all forms of worship. Silence, which is devoid of the assertive ego, alone, is liberation. The evil forgetfulness of Self, which causes one to slip down from that silence, alone, is non-devotion (Vibhakti). Know that abiding as that silence with the mind subsided as non-different from Self, is the truth of Siva Bhakti (devotion to God).

When one has completely surrendered oneself at the feet of Siva, thereby becoming of the nature of the Self, the resulting abundant peace, in which there is not even the least room within the Heart for one to make any complaint about one’s defects and deficiencies, alone is the nature of supreme devotion. One’s thus becoming a slave to the Lord and one’s remaining quiet and silent, devoid even of the egotistical thought ‘I’ am His slave’, is Self-abidance, and this is the Supreme Knowledge.



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