Idol worshipping (Murti Puja) in Hinduism
There are always questions raised on diverse worshipping systems in Hinduism such as multiple forms of deities and demi-gods, rise of several deities, system of idol worshipping etc. Replies of such questions have been attempted in this article.
Multiple forms of Deities:
The Upanishads preaches the doctrine of the Absolute Being (Brahman) who is non-dual, formless, infinite and Sat-Chit-Ananda (Existence-Knowledge-Bliss). The different Gods and Goddesses are of the same one Supreme Being. Hence, the deity is an expression of the Universal Being, the Sat-Chit-Ananda. The practice of concentration on formless God is extremely difficult except for very highly advanced aspirants. Sri Ramakrishna says that God is with form, without form and beyond form. As you know our ordinary mind can conceive only finite things. So, one uses the form to go beyond the form.
System of worshipping multiple forms Deities:
Hinduism recognised various needs and desires of human being and to fulfil them various deities & forms are invoked. The desires include material needs such as power (Durga Devi), wealth (Lakshmi-Vishnu), knowledge (Sarasvati Devi), good fortune (Ganesh ji), energy (Sun God), to overcome health problems & evil spirits (Hanuman ji), to avoid sorrows (Shiva) etc. It is proper to adore the Divine in any form, provided there is the basic understanding that the other deities are only His partial manifestations. When the devotee sits near the God in form and commune with Him and meditates on His attributes, it helps. It purifies the heart and steadies the mind. It fills the mind with Suddha Bhava (feelings) and Prema or pure love for the God. It gradually transmutes man into a divine being.
Ancient History of Idol Worshipping:
Rise of Idol Worshipping since Adi Shakaracharya (8th century):
The philosophers of great Vaishnava movement during 5th-15th century gave big impetus to the idol worshipping in India. Vaishnavite (Sagun) Bhakti movement in Tamil Nadu was led by twelve Alvers or Azhwars. The Azhwars were influential in promoting the Bhagavata cult and the two Hindu epics, namely, Ramayana and Mahabarata.
Adi Shankaracharya (born in Kochi, Kerala and lived during 788-820), though was founder of Advaita Vedanta (Non-dualism) and was exponent of formless Supreme Being, the Brahman, he gave boost to idol worship as under:
Sri Chaitanya (born at Mayapur near Navaidip, district Nadia, 75 miles from Kolkata, West Bengal, lived during 1486-1533) identified Sri Krishna as the Supreme Being, the source of all incarnations, the First cause. Radha, the Krishna’s powers are infinite, but three of them are the most important. These are Chit-Shakti, Maya-Shakti and Jiva-Shakti. Chit Shakti is internal and intrinsic power (Svarupa-shakti); Maya-Shakti is external creative power and Jiva Shakti is His preservative power. In the Chaitanya cult, the love of the Gopikas for Krishna, known as Madhura-bhava, is predominantly preached. He started Gaudiya tradition which expanded beyond India due to the efforts of Swami Prabhupada, who founded International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
Ramananda (Born in Prayagraj UP and settled in Varanasi, lived in 1300-1411), placed devotional focus upon Rama, whom he considered supreme Lord, and his wife Sita. He was the spiritual stimulator & Guru of the twelve great leaders of Vaisnava cult in North India. They belonged to all caste. Among the group's most prominent members were Tulsidas, Kabir (Muslim), Mirabai, Ravidas (cobbler by birth), Sena (barber by caste), Dana (jat), Pipa (Rajput), Dadu and others.
Tulsidas (born in Varanasi, UP, lived during 1532-1632) was a great poet and was born in a Brahman family. His works include Ram Charit Manas (popularly known as Ramayana) include Gitawali, Kavitawali, Vinaya Patrika etc. In Ram Charit Manas, Tulsi Das made an exposition of religious devotion of the highest order in his writings. Tulsidas says, “There is one God; It is Rama, creator of heaven and earth and redeemer of mankind….For the sake of his faithful people a very god, Lord Rama, became incarnate as a king and for our sanctification lived as it were; the life of any ordinary man.” Rama was a personal and supreme God, which had feeling of compassion for the humanity which suffered.
Reference: Bhakti Schools of Vedanta – by Swami Tapasyananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai.