I received this message recently:
Why do Hindus worship idols when God told us he is everywhere?
Once Swami Vivekananda visited King of Alwar in present day Rajasthan. The king in an attempt to mock idol worship told Swamiji, “I’ve no faith in idol worship. How can one worship stone, wood and metal? I believe people are in illusion and just wasting time!”
Swamiji smiled. He asked the king’s assistant to take down the picture of the king that was hanging on the wall. Although confused, the assistant did so. Then Swamiji ordered him, “Spit on the picture!”. The assistant was shocked and looked at both of them. Swami repeated again and again, becoming more stern each time. The king was growing angry and the assistant started trembling. Finally, he cried out, “How can I spit on this? This picture is of our beloved and respected king!”
Swamiji then told him, “The king is sitting in front of you in person. This picture is merely a paper – it does not speak, hear, think or move. But still you did not spit because you see a shadow of your king in it, Spitting on it was like spitting on the king itself.” The king looked at Swamiji and bowed down, clearly understanding what he was referring to.
This is the essence of idol worshiping. God is everywhere, but people want to pray to Him, ask favors, offer food, tell stories, bathe Him, play with Him and do what they do in their lives. Creating a human-like idol creates an image of God as a companion, a guide, a friend, a protector, a giver, a fellow being and so on. An idol is just a concrete representation where they find Him. When I look into the eyes of an idol, I do not see stone or metal, but another pair of eyes looking affectionately at me, smiling.
In response, I wrote this:
For a full look at my understanding of idols, you should read Understanding Hinduism. But the problem with idols is that they never remain a means to an end but become an end. As Muktinath said, if someone gives to the temple instead of doing seva to parents, then that is wrong. (read Mark. 7:6-12) But your seva to the parents cannot be ignored by offering something instead of it to the temple.
The servant hesitated to spit at the portrait of the king, and he is correct that he cannot do it before him. But his loyalty is not in not spitting on the portrait but he shows real loyalty in his service to the king and never betrays him in his absence too. But out of our experience we know that our respect to others are often only on the lips and not in our heart. The same is true when one substitutes following the moral and spiritual teaching and expectation of any god rather than showing mere reverence to any portrait of an idol.
Regarding the development of idol worship, it is not as simple as we try to understand and explain. Behind it there are economic and political reasons, about which I have slightly pointed in Understanding Hinduism. After sharing several scholarly views on idol worship at the end this is what I wrote about it in Understanding Hinduism:
So then what is an idol? In my opinion an idol expresses our limitation of understanding God, who is beyond our human comprehension. The idol as a symbol neither expresses nor interprets God. It is in fact a symbol of our limitations. And those who try to worship God through an idol only manage to communicate their limitations. Though it is a good way to express and accept our limitations, it is not necessary either to understand or express that limitation, because it may directly or indirectly restrict our efforts to understand God in our spirit beyond all human limitations.
History shows that several kings were defeated by un-loyal servants who betrayed them accepting some small bribe. At the same time several loyal servants gave their life to protect the king. But this is not a good illustration to explain a greater truth which goes beyond human action to compare and comprehend.
Every religion created some kind of structure to control people. But any spirituality which keeps ethical and moral issues at the core will guide people to go beyond the symbol to understand and apply those ethics in personal life and also in social life. People, due to their inherent weakness, also resort to easy methods to get rid of their guilty conscience when they fail in their spiritual life which is mainly oriented on moral issues. Then it become convenient for religious Leaders and lay people to be happy and not disturbed when they fail in ethics.
Millions and millions of rupees are dumped in temples which could be used for the need of deserving people. This happens in every religion. A diamond crown worth 45 crore was presented to one famous deity by mine mafias in our land. Several crore rupees were thrown in a temple when Modi demoted the currency. But I say this not comparing with any other religion. But this is a common phenomenon in every country and in every religion.
Remember the temple prostitutes who were abused in the name of religion in India. Children were abused by priests in several religious institutions all over the world. Women were denied their basic rights in several countries in the name of religion. So anything which religion upholds and promotes at the cost of ethics will be idol worship and not these simple status made out of wood or stone or metal or any portraits.