"Believers need no reasons, nonbelievers accept no reasons." This intellectual polarization has separated heists and atheists all over the world since time immemorial. In the Indian subcontinent for centuries, a similar polarization has divided those who enthusiastically practice Deity worship and those who fervently condemn it as idolatry.
Thousands participate in Deity worship, be it by performing the worship themselves or by witnessing the worship being performed. They know little about the philosophical significance of what they do and they care little. For them, the proof of the pudding is the eating they feel the presence, the protection, the grace of God by going to his temple and they don't need anything more. I am referring to the pious followers of India's ancient Vedic culture. Thousands others consider Deity worship outrageous. They find the "worship of sticks and stones" utterly absurd from the intellectual perspective and "the greatest of all sins" from the religious perspective. I am referring to the orthodox followers of the three Semitic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Many thousands lie in between. They have no strong emotions about Deity worship, but often have some questions about it. What is there in it that evokes such strong faith and fervent devotion in the hearts of so many people? What is it that brings the feeling of peace and tranquillity when one visits a temple where Deity worship is performed? And does this feeling have some deeper meaning, some higher purpose? Why does Deity worship evoke strong antipathy among some? I am referring to the vast majority of people who have passing thoughts like these whenever they encounter Deity worship.
Among these, the third group may find this book may be the most useful. The reason for this apparent partiality is simple. I myself be- longed to this group for the first twenty years of my life. At that time I had never thought I would be writing a book that would attempt to answer these questions. In fact, I didn't even think that I would myself find these answers.
But by the mysterious mercy of the Almighty I met my teachers who, I must say, belong to a fourth group, a group that is mostly unknown to the other three groups. They have a spontaneous love for Deity worship and also a lucid and profound understanding of the philosophy underlying it. Over the last fifteen years of my life as I collected the answers from them, it struck me how a single book that contained all these answers was conspicuously lacking. My many teachers are much more qualified than me to write such a book, but their heavy and hectic responsibilities in the service of God and humanity do not leave them the time to do so. Yet I strongly felt that the insights that my teachers had could help all the other three groups. These insights would deepen the understanding of those practicing Deity worship, offer fresh perspectives to those who condemn it as idolatry and provide systematic answers to those with questions about it. Therefore, although I am acutely aware of my own limitations, I am even more aware of the need to share the wisdom of my teachers. So, with their blessings, I have ventured to write this book.
I have structured the book in the form of a conversation between two non-historical personalities, the teacher, Sanatana Swami and the seeker, Rahul Vaidya. I have modeled the teacher on my many teachers and the seeker on myself. Using non-historical personalities to convey philosophical teachings has many precedents in the Vedic tradition. The most well-known modern example is the nineteenth century classic Jaiva Dharma by Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura.
Personally, I have found the conversation format an excellent tool for making a difficult subject interesting to read and easy to understand.
This book has into five chapters. The first "Setting the Scene" explains the need for education and training to understand the difference between the Deity and an idol. The second "Can God have a form?" supplies logical, philosophical and scriptural arguments that establish God as the Supreme Person with an eternal transcendental form, thus laying the intellectual basis for understanding Deity worship. The third "What is Deity Worship?" is the heart of the book. It explains the non-difference between God and the Deity by comparing ascending and descending symbols. It explains how the love and compassion of the Lord impel him to manifest as the Deity and also to give the user-friendly Vedic scriptures that teach Deity worship. The fourth "What is Idolatry?" examines idolatry as understood in the Semitic traditions and shows why equating Deity worship with idolatry is short-sighted. As the Semitic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam, despite their significant mutual differences, share remarkably similar attitudes toward idolatry, I have generally discussed them collectively under the "Semitic" label. The fifth "Why Deity Worship is the Ideal Worship?" traces the cause of the two menaces threatening the world - materialistic fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism - to the inability to experience spiritual happiness, an inability that can be effectively compensated for by Deity worship. The book concludes by discussing how the extraordinary resilience of Deity worship in India and its dramatic spread all over the world may suggest that we are on the threshold of a new age of higher consciousness.
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