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Concept of Image Worship

Swami Vivekananda

#. God is eternal, without any form, omnipresent. To think of Him as possessing any form is blasphemy. But the secret of image worship is that you are trying to develop your vision of Divinity in one thing.

#. All of you have been taught to believe in an omnipresent God. Try to think of it. How few of you can have any idea of what omnipresence means! If you struggle hard, you will get something like the idea of ocean, or of the sky, or of a vast stretch of green earth, or of a desert. All these are material images, and so long as you cannot conceive of the abstract as abstract, of the ideal as the ideal, you will have to resort to these forms, these material images. It does not make much difference whether these images are inside or outside the mind. We are all born idolators, and idolatry is good, because it is in the nature of man. Who can get beyond it? Only the perfect man, the God-man. The rest are all idolators. So long as we see the universe before us, with its forms and shapes, we are all idolators. This is a gigantic symbol we are worshipping. He who says that he is the body, is a born idolator. We are spirit, spirit that has no form or shape, spirit that is infinite, and not matter. Therefore any one who cannot grasp the abstract, who cannot think of himself as he is, except in and through matter, as the body, is an idolator. And yet how people fight among themselves, calling one another idolators! In other words, each says, his idol is right, and the others' are wrong.

#. Two sorts of persons never require any image--the human animal who never thinks of any religion, and the perfected being who has passed through these stages. Between these two points all of us require some sort of ideal, outside and inside.

#. The Christians think that when God came in the form of a dove it was all right, but if He comes in the form of a fish, as the Hindus say, it is very wrong and superstitious. The Jews think if an idol be made in the form of a chest with two angels sitting on it, and a book on it, it is all right, but if it is in the form of a man or a woman, it is awful. The Mohammedans think that when they pray, if they try to form a mental image of the temple with the Caaba, the black stone in it, and turn towards the west, it is all right, but if you form the image in the shape of a church it is idolatry. This is the defect of image worship.

#. We may worship anything by seeing God in it, if we can forget the idol and see God there. We must not project any image upon God. But we may fill any image with that Life which is God. Only forget the image, and you are right enough---for "out of Him comes everything". He is everything. We may worship a picture as God, but not God as the picture. God in the picture is right, but the picture as God is wrong. God in the image is perfectly right. There is no danger there. This is the real worship of God.

#. 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 as 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 the word "omnipresent", we think of the extended sky or of space, that is all.

#. 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.

#. It has been a trite saying, that idolatry is wrong, and every man swallows it at the present time without questioning. I once thought so, and to pay the penalty of that I had to learn my lesson sitting at the feet of a man who realised everything through idols; I allude to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Take a thousand idols more if you can produce Ramakrishna Paramhamsas through idol worship, and may God speed 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.

#. 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.

#. Therefore, we should get rid of these childish notions. We should get beyond the prattle of men who think that religion is merely a mass of frothy words, that it is only a system of doctrines; to whom religion is only a little intellectual assent or dissent; to whom religion is believing in certain words which their own priests tell them; to whom religion is something which their forefathers believed; to whom religion is a certain form of ideas and superstitions to which they cling, because they are their national superstitions. We should get beyond all these, and look at humanity as one vast organism, slowly coming towards light----a wonderful plant, slowly unfolding itself to that wonderful truth which is called God---and the first gyrations, the first motions, towards this are always through matter and ritual.


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