One of the most outstanding and contemplating icons of Hinduism is the worship of murtis (idols). The Divine Spirit is perceived in an image. In this perceptive role murtis are an integral part of Hindu institutions and traditions.
In its colorful and expressive craftsmanship, a murti is an adorable symbol of identity in Hindu iconology. From an object of worship, a murti becomes divinity in itself. The Lord is in the idol too.
Idolatry establishes a direct one-to-one relationship between a devotee and the divinity. And in that connection, a dialogue is possible when the mind of an Upasak (devotee) is earnestly invoked in the Upasana stage (sitting near a murti) to seek Divine guidance and blessings.
A blissful bond of non-duality can be realized between an Atma (individual soul) and Paramatma (Supreme Soul).
Image formation is a very natural trait in human psychology. In our conscious state all our feelings, ideas, and impulses manifest images. The genesis of an image is a cognitive imagination influenced by the perception of an object.
In the Philosophy and Significance of Idol Worship, a Divine Life Society publication, Sri Swami Sivananda says:
“Idol is a support for the neophyte. It is a prop of his spiritual childhood. A form or image is necessary for worship in the beginning. It is an external symbol of God for worship. It is a reminder of God. The material image calls up the mental idea. The steadiness of mind is obtained by image worship. To behold God everywhere and to practice the presence of God is not possible for the ordinary man. Idol worship is the easiest form of worship for the modern man.
“A symbol is absolutely indispensable for fixing the mind. The mind wants a prop to lean upon. It cannot have a conception of the Absolute in the initial stages. Without the help of some external aid, in the initial stages, the mind cannot be centralized. In the beginning, concentration or meditation is not possible without a symbol.
Pratima (idol) is a substitute or symbol. The image in a temple, though it is made of stone, wood or metal, is precious for a devotee as it bears the mark of his Lord, as it stands for something which he holds holy and eternal. A flag is only a small piece of painted cloth, but it stands for a soldier for something that he holds very dear. He is prepared to give up his life in defending his flag. Similarly, the image is very dear to a devotee. It speaks to him in its own language of devotion. Just as the flag arouses martial valor in the soldier, so also the image arouses devotion in the devotee. The Lord is superimposed on the image and the image generates divine thoughts in the worshipper”.
Besides offering a symbolic presence of divinity and its psychological proximity, murtis enrich the diversity in Hindu iconology. The liberal credentials of Hinduism are reposed in its murti representations.
Moreover, creating an ambiance of sanctity and offering a channel of devotion, murtis play a significant role in projecting Hinduism in the field of fine arts.
Shilpa Shastra, the school of art, is an academy in itself. The Hindu faith in its immensity welcomes members of the art community irrespective of their religious affiliations to pursue their talents in murti kala (art). It is the faith in spirituality which motivates an artist irrespective of religion to create and shape a sacred murti.
The secular character of Hinduism reflects in the domain of art.
In the world of both early and contemporary Indian arts, one of the most popular godheads is Lord Ganesh. He has been a favorite and popular subject taken up by artists to create their artworks. Metal, stone, drawings, ingenious material like pipal leaves and even fruits and vegetable arrangements are used to create His multi-posed images.
(Excerpts from the book: Hinduism beyond rituals, customs and traditions, Chapter 6 “Worship of Idols”).