The concept of Murti (idol) Puja is something that is unique to the Hindu tradition. Why has so much importance been given to these forms? Why has so much effort been dedicated to maintaining these forms over thousands of years? Let’s try to dissect and understand why Hindu’s ‘pray to idols’.

On the most basic level, we can appreciate that a Murti (idol) is a symbol – objects and images that have been thoughtfully designed in order to represent specific ideas or concepts. Repeated exposure to a symbol, acts as a reminder of said ‘idea’; and invites us to reflect upon it. Maybe over time our perception of that symbol, and what it represents, changes, and we have a deeper understanding and a different experience with it. Even in our daily lives, we naturally create symbols for ourselves – e.g. a song we may play to invoke a specific emotion or memory; or a work environment we may create, to condition our minds to think in a certain way. Although we may not have deeply thought about the symbol of our choice, we impose certain qualities and ideas onto these objects/images that we find are useful to us. We may have noticed how powerful these symbols can be, for changing how we think or behave in certain instances. To harness the strength of such a concept and take it to a deeper level, the Hindu tradition chose to attribute the idea of the Divine, to the physical form of a Murti.

But here one question may arise – why is the Divine specifically limited to a form and its physical constraints? Is this not contradictory? Furthermore if within the Hindu tradition there is a belief that the Divine exists within everything and everyone; then what is the need of an idol? First of all, let’s take a step back and contemplate – what is the nature of our relationship with the Divine? Is it of indifference, or love, or fear? What even goes through our minds when we ‘pray’? What is our motivation to ‘pray’? Can prayer be used as a personal tool to mould our understanding of the Divine, and our relationship with it?
As humans, we perceive the world around us through our senses. When I say the word ‘Rose’ you immediately visualise the red petals; the green stem; and the sweet smell of the Rose. Immediately, you build this image in your mind, and that image, based on your past experiences, may invoke a feeling of happiness.
‘kleśho ’dhikataras teṣhām avyaktāsakta-chetasām’ (Bhagavad Gita Ch12 V5).
“To try to concentrate and contemplate upon a formless, abstract form of the Divine poses a challenge.”
We rely on tangible representations to conceptualise and internalise abstract notions, and therefore the idol acts as the supporting medium to do this. The idol is a powerful symbol of the ‘ideal’ – it reminds us of the philosophies and virtues we may seek to embrace and embody. The act of praying to the idol becomes a dynamic exchange – an internal dialogue that broadens and deepens the realm of our introspection, and bolsters the aspirational journey towards the ‘ideal’…
We may have now started thinking about the nature of this idol. How should it be designed to elicit the greatest effect on us? It is interesting to see that the vast majority of Murti’s are portrayed in the Human form. Why is this the case? A few reasons come to mind:
Human life, in the context of the cycle of rebirth, is considered a unique opportunity for spiritual growth. When the Divine is portrayed in a human form, it carries a profound message – a recognition that individuals, in their human existence, have traversed a path to achieve ‘enlightenment’. It instils a sense of optimism, that attaining similar heights of consciousness is not an abstract ideal; but that within our current lives, there exists a path and a potential for progress.
Additionally, personification of objects or ideas is such a natural tendency of ours. We inherently understand and can connect with the human form to such a greater extent. Ideas, for the development of individuals, are not stand-alone thoughts, but are intertwined with one’s emotions, aspirations, and a rich tapestry of human experience – the depth of the human character here, is essential to allow a complete portrayal of these ideas.
Engaging with an idol in the human form nurtures a more intimate relationship with the idea; as it enables individuals to project their emotions and innermost thoughts onto the divine figure. This creates a space for a more heartfelt relationship that increases a sense of love and devotion towards the Divine. The nature of this relationship almost mirrors that of a mother and son, and evokes a comforting warmth within us.
To further understand the beauty of the concept of Murti Puja, we should try and think about how these forms came about. Why has so much effort been dedicated to preserving and celebrating these forms over thousands of years? And why are there so many different forms?
Throughout history, Rishi’s (sages/spiritual leaders) have thoughtfully crafted idols as representations of the diverse aspects and qualities of the divine. These revered figures, have had profound experiences of ‘seeing’ the Divine or experiencing ‘transcendental states’. To try and translate these experiences into an accessible form, they designed idols that encapsulated the essence of their divine encounter. With a desire to become like these Mahapurush (’great beings’), the forms they created have been embraced and celebrated by people over time, and have acted to connect individuals to their inspirational life and ideas. Shlokhas recited during acts of prayer, are in fact written by these Rishi’s, who are moved so strongly to poetically capture their transcendental experience. Take an example of an excerpt from the Madhurashtakam written by Sri Vallabhacharya:
‘Vacanam Madhuram Caritam Madhuram Vasanam Madhuram Valitam Madhuram | Calitam Madhuram Bhramitam Madhuram Madhura-Adhipate-Akhilam Madhuram’
‘Your Speech is Sweet, Your Nature is Sweet, Your Clothing is Sweet and Your Posture is Sweet. Your Walking is Sweet and You’re Wondering is Sweet; Everything about You is Sweet and Charming, O Lord of Sweetness.’
Vallabhacharya beautifully describes Sri Krishna’s qualities and actions, likening them to ‘madh’ (honey/nectar). The devotee essentially ‘falls in love’ with the idea of the divine, as everything that pertains to the deity is sweet and graceful, as he is the embodiment of sweetness.
One thing to note is that the existing plethora of forms does not signify a fragmentation of the divine, but rather a recognition that these experiences of transcendence or ‘enlightenment’ can manifest in countless ways, that are personal to the individual, but reach the same end goal of self-development.
Prayer, performance of rituals and the veneration of idols goes beyond a simple act of trying to please some divine figure; it is instead an expression of the love and devotion developed through the deeper connection forged with the idol, and the idea it represents. The veneration serves as a celebration of the impact that these ideas have had on people’s lives. Individuals are driven to adorn the idols with rich offerings; or hold colourful festivities like Janmasthami or Ramnavami, which encapsulate the richness and colour of their sentiments, in reverence to the divine figure. Furthemore, the regular rituals performed, involving offerings, act as a medium through which one can regularly contemplate and reflect on the ideals and foster a greater attraction to achieve them.

The concept of Murti Puja seems so natural – people are driven by their deep emotional feelings of love, gratitude and devotion towards the Divine, to create these idols. No wonder we see so much richness and colour within the Hindu tradition – there exists so many traditional artistic expressions of people’s devotion through the form of poetry, dance, theatre etc.

To conclude:

Murti Puja, especially in the human form, increases our resolve to obtain all that can be obtained spiritually
Murti Puja allows us to get closer to the ideals Rishis lived by
Murti Puja enhances our creative faculties and allows our imagination to be a useful tool for personal development.
Murti Puja encourages deep internal monologue and can be the basis of spiritual transformation