Bhakti is of two kinds, viz., Para-Bhakti, and ritualistic Bhakti. Ritualistic worship is Vaidhi or Gauni Bhakti. It is formal Bhakti. Vaidhi Bhakti is a type of devotion depending on external aids. The mind becomes purer and purer. The aspirant gradually develops love for God through ritualistic worship. He who does ritualistic worship rings bells, adores a Pratika (symbol) or Pratima (image), does Puja with flowers and sandal paste, burns incense, waves light before the image, offers Naivedya or food for God, etc.
Mukhya Bhakti or Para Bhakti is advanced type of devotion. It transcends all convention. A devotee of this type knows no rule. He does not perform any external worship. He beholds his Lord everywhere, in every object. His heart is saturated with love for God. The whole world is Vrindavana for him. His state is ineffable. He attains the acme of bliss. He radiates love, purity and joy wherever he goes and inspires all who come in contact with him.
The aspirant who worships the idol in the beginning beholds the Lord everywhere and develops Para Bhakti. From Vaidhi Bhakti, he passes on to Ragatmika Bhakti or Prema Bhakti. He beholds the whole world as the Lord. The ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, etc., vanish. He sees the Lord in a rogue, dacoit, cobra, scorpion, ant, dog, tree, log of wood, block of stone, sun, moon, stars, fire, water, earth, etc. His vision or experience baffles description. Glory to such exalted Bhaktas who are veritable Gods on earth, who live to lift others from the quagmire of Samsara and save them from the clutches of death!
Hinduism leads the aspirants gradually from material images to mental images, from the diverse mental-images to the one Personal God, and from the Personal God to the Impersonal Absolute or the Transcendental Nirguna Brahman.
The Glory Of Worship
How sublime is Hindu philosophy and Hindu mode of worship! It does not stop or end with worship of idol alone. The Sadhaka is taken, step by step, to higher stages of devotion and Samadhi or communion, through the worship of the idol.
Though he worships the idol, he has to keep before his mental eye the all-pervading Lord. He has to feel His presence in his heart and in all objects also. Even in worshipping a small idol, he has to repeat the Purusha-Sukta and to think of the Virat Purusha with countless heads, countless eyes, countless hands, etc., who extends beyond the universe, the Lord or the Atman who dwells in the hearts of all beings.
The same man who burns incense, scented sticks and camphor before the idol says: “The sun does not shine there nor the moon nor the stars nor the lightning. How then could the little fire shine there? All shine after Him. His effulgence alone illumines the whole world.” The ways and rules of worship—Puja Vidhi—and the secrets of worship that are described in the Hindu scriptures, are scientifically accurate and highly rational. It is only ignorant people who have not studied the scriptures and who have not associated with the devotees and great souls, who vilify worship of idols or Murtis.
The Hindus know that the images, crosses and crescents are simply so many symbols to fix the mind in the beginning for developing concentration, so many concrete pegs to hang their spiritual ideas and convictions on. The symbol is not necessary for everyone. It is not compulsory in Hinduism. It is not needed for an advanced Yogi or sage. Symbol is like the slate which is useful for a boy of the first standard. Those who are not in need of it have no right to say that it is wrong. If they say that it is wrong, they only betray their ignorance.
There is nothing wrong in worshipping an idol in the beginning. You must superimpose God and His attributes on the idol. You must think of the Antar-Atman hidden in the idol.
The aspirant gradually begins to feel that the Lord he worships is in the idol, in the hearts of all creatures and in all the names and forms of this universe. He begins to feel His presence everywhere.
Idol-worship is only the beginning of religion. Certainly it is not its end. The same Hindu scriptures, which prescribe idol-worship for beginners, speak of meditation on the Infinite or the Absolute and contemplation of the significance of Tat Tvam Asi Mahavakya, for advanced aspirants.
There are different stages of worship. The first is the worship of idols. The next is recitation of Mantras and offering of prayers. Mental worship is superior to worship with flowers. Meditation on the Absolute or the attributeless Nirguna Brahman is the best of all.
The supreme state is Self-realisation or Brahma-sakshatkara. The second in rank is meditation. The Yogi practises Sadhana or unceasing meditation on the Supreme Self. The third is the worship of symbols. The fourth is the performance of rituals and pilgrimages to holy places.
The Sastras and Gurus are like kind mothers. They take hold of the hands of the aspirants, take them step by step, stage by stage, till they are established in Nirvikalpa Samadhi or superconscious state.
They prescribe gross forms of Sadhana or spiritual practices for the neophytes or beginners with gross mind and give lessons on abstract meditation for the advanced aspirants who are endowed with pure, subtle and sharp intellect.
Each marks a stage of progress. The human soul makes different kinds of attempts to grasp and realise the Infinite or the Absolute according to his strength or degree of evolution. He soars higher and higher, gathers more and more strength, and eventually merges himself in the Supreme and attains oneness or identity.
Glory to the Hindu Rishis and the Hindu scriptures who take the aspirants from the lower to the higher form of worship, stage by stage, step by step, and ultimately help them to rest in the attributeless, all-pervading, formless, timeless, spaceless Brahman or the infinite and unconditioned Brahman of the Upanishads.
Beloved children of the Lord! Shed your ignorant disbelief this moment. Enshrine supreme, unshakable, living faith in your heart this very moment. Recall to your mind the glorious examples of Sri Mira, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the South Indian Alvars and Nayanars. They believed and they reaped the rich spiritual harvests. We too can enjoy great peace, happiness and prosperity here, and attain Him here and now, if we have this faith in idol-worship.
Though we may perform external worship at regular intervals, let the internal worship of the Lord in our heart be constant and unbroken. Here worship attains completeness. Life is divine worship. May we realise the significance of the universal worship of the Virat in daily life, and performing it, attain the summum bonum of life. May the Lord bless us all.