Icons not idols

NatarajaThis has been written about so many times on the web that I thought that it did not need writing again. Then I realized that there were so many sites that misunderstand this issue that perhaps its something that should be mentioned on all sites connected with Hinduism.

To most Westerners the term idol implies a false god. Idolatry is defined as “the worship of a physical object as a god” or “immoderate attachment or devotion to something”. Hindus refer to the statues used in worship as murtis, but this term is not understood by westerners.

Unfortunately, many Indians use the term idol when translating murti into English. This is probably because this word was used by the English to denigrate Hinduism, but it was picked up by Indians learning English without them understanding the negative connotations.

The best western word used to describe these statues is icon, meaning a sacred image or representation. A Hindu no more worships a statue than a Christian worships a cross. The statue is a representation of God, not something to be worshipped in itself. Hindus believe that there is one God with many names. God is ultimately the unmanifest Brahman, but can be manifest in many forms. There is an interesting essay about how a westerner came to see the truth about murtis on the Himalayan academy site: Breaking the idol barrier.

2 responses to “Icons not idols

  1. chris,
    i get the meaning of idol and icon as explained by you.
    thanks for dropping by my blog.
    cheers !

  2. I like your blog a lot. I would request to add some quotes. I tried to put in one of the posts based on some references from Bhagwad Geeta. I consider a learned sage can only can explain it in clear sense. Deities are different to the ultimate truth (or the ultimate reality or God). Deities could be called an interpretation of God in a form which can benefit us in certain way. There are three levels of devotion:

    1. Devotion to Deities (of whom some people create Idols)- this one purifies human through rituals and blesses him with material gains.

    2. Devotion to Emotional God Interpretaion(I hope you understand when I talk about “Allah”)

    3. Devotion to the Ultimate Truth (Which is beyond interpretation to the thoughts and beyond argument of speech).

    Or we can call this the level of illusion of the mind for which they debate and argue. The first level is the deities, then the Emotional version. When one reaches beyond these illusions – there is no argument. There is no thoughts as thoughts are confusion.


    The three levels of spiritual quests. Each one of these purify the human and raises him to the next level. The final path is the Truth Absolute. It is beyond argument, beyond thoughts and beyond understanding of our petty minds and intelligence:

    The levels of Spiritual Quest are:

    1. Quest for material gains and purification by Rituals. This purifies the human and makes him worthy of the second one. Deities are worshiped as one of the forms of God and worshiping the Godheads purifies humans and bless him with material gains. Some people make Idols.

    2. Quest for heavens. Certainly better than the first one. Abrahamic religions {the “Allah(swt) guys} are yes better than blind Idol worship if you don’t know the true path.

    3. Quest for the Absolute – The Ultimate Reality or the ultimate truth. This is where the argument ceases to exist. The thoughts cease to exist. There is peace absolute. There is acceptance absolute. This is beyond definition which words can ever express and which thoughts can ever conceive. Sages only point towards it, they will never claim to have a one to one conversation with God.

    In Hinduism, we never reject any of these paths. Yes “Allah(swt)” interpretation is accepted as well. But still, there is a further path to go for them as well. But they never know it, and never want to know it either closing their minds.

    Now none of the three quests is rejected but yes part of them are un-aware of the right path.


    1. Quest for material gains and purification by Rituals:

    BG- III

    10. With sacrifice the Lord of creatures of old created creatures and said: By this shall you bring forth (fruits or offspring), let this be your milker of desires.

    11. Foster by this the gods and let the gods foster you; fostering each other, you shall attain to the supreme good.

    12. Fostered by sacrifice the gods shall give you desired enjoyments: who enjoys their given enjoyments and has not given to them, he is a thief.

    13. The good who eat what is left from the sacrifice, are released from all sin; but evil are they and enjoy sin who cook (the food) for their own sake.

    BG – IX
    23. Even those who sacrifice to other godheads with devotion and faith, they also sacrifice to Me, O son of Kunti, though not according to the true law.

    24. It is I myself who am the enjoyer and the Lord of all sacrifices, BUT THEY DO NOT KNOW ME IN TRUE PRINCIPLE and hence they fall.

    But criticized:

    24. Petty minds think of Me, the unmanifest, as being limited by manifestation, because they know not my supreme nature of being, imperishable, most perfect.

    2. Quest for Heavens:


    16. The highest heavens of the cosmic plan are subject to a return to rebirth, but, O Kaunteya, there is no rebirth imposed on the soul that comes to Me (the

    20. The Knowers of the triple Veda, who drink the soma-wine, purify themselves from sin, worshipping Me with sacrifice, pray of Me the way to heaven: they
    ascending to the heavenly worlds by their righteousness enjoy in paradise the divine feasts of the gods.

    21. They, having enjoyed heavenly worlds of larger felicities, the reward of their good deeds exhausted, return to mortal existence. Resorting to the virtues
    enjoined by the three Vedas, seeking the satisfaction of desire, they follow the cycle of birth and death.

    22. To those men who worship Me making Me alone the whole object of their thought, to those constantly in Yoga with Me, I spontaneously bring every good.

    3. The truth absolute – the firm knowledge

    38. There is nothing in the world equal in purity to knowledge, the man who is perfected by Yoga, finds it of himself in the self by the course of Time.

    39. Who has faith, who has conquered and controlled the mind and senses, who has fixed his whole conscious being on the supreme Reality, he attains knowledge; and having attained knowledge he goes swiftly to the supreme Peace.

    40. The ignorant who has not faith, the soul of doubt, goeth to erdition; neither this world, nor the supreme world nor any happiness is for the soul full of doubts.

    41. He who has destroyed all doubt by knowledge and has by Yoga given up all works and is in possession of the Self is not bound by his works, O Dhananjaya.

    42. Therefore arise, O Bharata, and resort constantly to Yoga, having cut away with the sword of knowledge this perplexity born of ignorance.


    21. Whatever form of Me any devotee with faith desires to worship, I make that faith of his firm and undeviating.

    22. He endowed with that faith worships that form; and when by the force of that faith in his cult and worship he gets his desires, it is I myself who (in that form) give these fruits.

    23. But these fruits are temporary, sought after by those who are of petty intelligence and unformed reason. To the gods go the worshippers of the gods, but my devotees come to Me.

    24. Petty minds think of Me, the unmanifest, as being limited by manifestation, because they know not my supreme nature of being, imperishable, most perfect.

    25. Nor am I revealed to all, enveloped in My Yoga-maya; this bewildered world knows Me not, the unborn, the imperishable.

    =====OHM TAT SAT========

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