Worship of Icons | Vivekananda


The point to be considered is the worship of Pratikas or of things more or less satisfactory as substitutes for God, and the worship of Pratimās or images.

What is the worship of God through a Pratika? It is

—“Joining the mind with devotion to that which is not Brahman, taking it to be Brahman,”

says Bhagavān Rāmānuja.

Worship the mind as Brahman—this is internal; and the Ākāsha is Brahman—this is with regard to the Devas,” - says Shankara.

The mind is an internal Pratika, the Ākāsha is an external one; and both have to be worshipped as substitutes of God.

He continues:

“Similarly, ‘The Sun is Brahman—this is the command’ . . . ‘He who worships name as Brahman’—in all such passages the doubt arises as to the worship of Pratikas . . .”

The word Pratika means going towards; and worshipping a Pratika is worshipping something as a substitute which is, in some one or more respects, like the Brahman more and more, but is not the Brahman.

Along with the Pratikas mentioned in the Śrutis there are various others to be found in the Purāṇas and the Tantras. In this kind of Pratika-worship may be included all the various forms of Pitri (manes)-worship and Deva (god)-worship.

Now, worshipping Ishwara and Him alone is Bhakti; the worship of anything else, Deva or Pitri, or any other being cannot be Bhakti.

The various kinds of worship of the various Devas are all to be included in ritualistic Karma which gives to the worshipper only a particular result in the form of some celestial enjoyment, but can neither give rise to Bhakti nor lead to Mukti.

One thing, therefore, has to be carefully borne in mind. If, as it may happen in some cases, the highly philosophic ideal, the supreme Brahman, is dragged down by Pratika-worship to the level of the Pratika,

and the Pratika itself is taken to be the Atman (self) of the worshipper, or his Antaryāmin (God as Inner Ruler), the worshipper gets entirely misled, as no Pratika can really be the Atman of the worshipper.

But where Brahman Himself is the object of worship, and the Pratika stands only as a substitute or a suggestion thereof, that is to say, where, through the Pratika the omnipresent Brahman is worshipped

—the Pratika itself being idealised into the cause of all, the Brahman—the worship is positively beneficial; nay, it is absolutely necessary for all mankind, until they have all got beyond the primary or preparatory state of the mind in regard to worship.

When, the before any gods or other beings are worshipped in and for themselves, such worship is only a ritualistic Karma and as a Vidyā (science) it gives us only the fruit belonging to that particular Vidyā;

but when the Devas or any other beings are looked upon as Brahman and worshipped, the result obtained is the same as by the worshipping of Ishwara.

This explains how, in many cases, both in the Śrutis and the Smriti, a god, or a sage, or some other extraordinary being is taken up and lifted, as it were, out of its own nature and idealised into Brahman, and is then worshipped.

Says the Advaitin, “Is not everything Brahman when the name and the form have been removed from it?”

“Is not He, the Lord, the innermost self of everyone?” says the Vishishtādvaitin:

—“The fruition of even the worship of Ādityas etc., Brahman Himself bestows, because He is the Ruler of all.”

Says Shankara, in his Brahma-Sutra-Bhāshya:       

 “Here in this way does Brahman become the object of worship, because He, as Brahman, is superimposed on the Pratikas, just as Vishnu etc., are superimposed upon images etc.”

The same ideas apply to the worship of the Pratimas as to that of the Pratikas; that is to say, if the image stands for a god or a saint, the worship is not the result of Bhakti, and does not lead to liberation; but if it stands for the one God, the worship thereof will bring both Bhakti and Mukti.

Of the principal religions of the world we see Vedantism, Buddhism, and certain forms of Christianity freely using images; only two religions, Mohammedanism and Protestantism, refuse such help.

Yet the Mohammedans use the graves of their saints and martyrs almost in the place of images;

and the Protestants, in rejecting all concrete helps to religion, are drifting away every year farther and farther from spirituality, till at present there is scarcely any difference between the advanced Protestants and the followers of Auguste Comte, or the Agnostics who preach ethics alone.

Again, in Christianity and Mohammedanism, whatever exists of image-worship is made to fall under that category in which the Pratika or the Pratima is worshipped in itself, but not as a “help to the vision” of God; therefore it is at best only of the nature of ritualistic Karmas and cannot produce either Bhakti or Mukti.

In this form of image-worship the allegiance of the soul is given to other things than Ishwara, and therefore such use of images, or graves, or temples, or tombs is real idolatry; it is in itself neither sinful nor wicked—it is a rite—a Karma, and worshippers must and will get the fruit thereof.