Let the sight of the deity unite you to your own awareness. That is the true meaning of darshan (vision of your own Self).
Just as without virility a man is impotent, and without life the body is dead, so is the external worship[without inner feeling].
Many Western yogins, after arriving at the doorstep of Hindu yoga, suffer in silence with a nagging resistance to the images of Gods, Goddesses, and other idols that are part of the aesthetic. They feel they are falling prey to the deadly Biblical sin of idolatry, or they have trouble connecting the stone or marble statues with the idea of Consciousness, which is what we are really after. So how can we bridge the very exotic and very Indian practice of temple worship with our Western background? (Of course, some of us are quite happy with our Judeo-Christian heritage, while some of us are atheists or agnostics who want to experience the peace that meditation offers regardless of whether we believe consciousness is a product of the brain.) But some, like myself, fell in love not just with meditation but with the entire cultural enterprise.
When we step into a temple and approach an idol, we should do so with right understanding. The moment we make eye contact with the deity actually encompasses the beginning, middle, and end of the ritual. Standing before the deity with folded hands, we can either try to feel the absolute consciousness the murti (statue) represents, or simply see a statue made of marble, bronze, wood, or granite. The choice is ours.
Once Swami Vivekananda was trying to explain the use of idols in Hinduism. To get his point across, he asked a man whether he would spit on the framed photograph of a family relative. The man grew angry and asked why on earth would he do such a thing? In the same way that the picture strongly invoked the presence and dignity of the person it was depicting, so do idols invoke the presence of God or pure Consciousness to those with right vision.
Being able to see the idol as Consciousness presupposes our own internal contact with Consciousness, developed through our meditation practice. Otherwise, Consciousness remains only an intellectual concept and external idols will be very limited in their ability to still our mind or trigger an experience of deeper Awareness. We may feel religious sentiments as we gaze at the idol, but we probably won’t have access to Consciousness.
For a temple visit to be truly transformative, we need to understand that our own Consciousness is the source of the grace and blessing power of an idol. This might sound controversial, as we usually try to invoke feelings of humility and surrender when prostrating before an idol, ascribing all power to the deity we are praying to. But as Abhinavagupta points out, it’s really the Consciousness behind our thought-screen that is responsible for the efficacy of any ritual action.
In other words, the true power behind even the simplest act of folding our hands before an idol to the most complex Vedic fire ritual rests on our ability to have the awareness that both the idol and we are nothing but Consciousness. That is why, for example, we can approach the murti of Hanuman and feel that he’s the sole Lord of the universe, then move to Ganesh’s form and also feel he’s the sole Lord of the universe and so on. There is no inherent contradiction here, as each representation of God is really a symbol of the undivided formless Consciousness underlying all of creation. Then it doesn’t matter if we are worshipping an intricately carved and decorated life-size white marble statue of a four-armed Goddess or a small elliptical black stone. They are equally nothing but the same Consciousness.
To successfully gaze at an idol with a vision of Consciousness, we must succeed in uniting our own sense of being with the external object before us. The experience is similar to suddenly realizing that we are in the middle of a dream, understanding that everything we are witnessing is our own creation. To the degree we are able to see the external world as Consciousness, to that degree we are practicing opened-eyed Self-awareness. Within the context of a temple idol, our efforts to experience the figure as not different from Consciousness is what allows us to tap into the grace that “flows” from the deity.
Similarly, for any ritual to have its full effect, those engaging it in must do so with the awareness that every mantra, oblation, or hand gesture employed is really overflowing with consciousness. The ability to detect awareness in movement grows stronger as we deepen our meditation practice, and it’s one of the secrets that yields the fruit of any ritual. Otherwise, the repetition of mantras and throwing of offerings into a sacred fire or the throwing of petals onto an idol are reduced to mechanical displays which produce little besides the short-lived “buzz” we get from the inherent purificatory vibrations of the mantras (this is from a yogic perspective, not from an astrological perspective where other protective results might be achieved according to the aim of the puja or ritual).
Needless to say, unless we are highly evolved souls, we are probably not going to walk into a temple, set our eyes on the deity, and be thrust into an experience of unity awareness. But as yogins, we can and should try to gaze beyond the statue and into the pure Awareness. This is, after all, the very reason we are practicing yoga.
So the next time we enter a temple let’s not approach the idol as a human being approaching a marble statue. Let’s approach the deity as Consciousness having a vision of Consciousness.
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