There is a peculiar propaganda being circulated by Islamists on social media to the effect that Hindus don’t understand their own scriptures, that the “real” meaning of the Vedas is compatible with Islam, and that these Muslim proselytizers who have never studied the Vedas nor even learned basic Sanskrit, somehow still know this “true meaning” of the Vedas.
The conclusion of their propaganda is, of course, that Hindus should give up their Hinduism and quickly convert to Islam.
One of the bizarre claims being made by these self-appointed, Islamist, pseudo-scholars of Hinduism is that the Vedas forbid “idol worship.” As many Hindus know, “idol worship” is the the vulgar term used by Islamists to refer to the Hindu practice of mūrti-pūjā, also known as arca-mūrti-ārādhana, arca-vigraha-pūjā, and kriyā-yoga. In this connection they quote an interesting statement. And to be clear, by “quote” I mean that they copy-cut-paste questionable translations obtained from Google searches or Islamic propaganda websites such as the following:
This “translation,” likely coming from the post-colonial, revisionist, Neo-Hindu Arya Samaj organization, is that of part of a mantra from Śukla Yajur Veda Saṁhitā 32.3. The entire mantra is ignored by the Islamist, but we shall give it here, because a very different meaning is arrived at by considering the full context:
न तस्य प्रतिमा अस्ति यस्य नाम महद्यशः ।(Śukla-Yajur Veda 32.3)
हिरण्यगर्भ इत्येष मा मा हिंसीदित्येषा यस्मान्न जातीत्येषः ॥ शु.य.वे. ३२.३ ॥
na tasya pratimā asti yasya nāma mahadyaśaḥ ।
hiraṇyagarbha ityeṣa mā mā hiṁsīdityeṣā yasmānna jātītyeṣaḥ ॥
The main point of contention is the proper meaning of the Sanskrit word “pratimā,” which the Islamists insist on translating as “image” or “idol.” In Abrahamic verbiage, an “idol” is a “craven” (false) image. Abrahamics reject the idea of God having a form, and very few things inspire more antipathy in Islam than the dreaded “idol worship” of heathen civilizations. Since the Abrahamic mind is insufficiently nuanced to appreciate the difference between mūrti-pūjā (the worship of the Deity Who is lovingly invited to be present in a sacred physical form) and “idol worship” (the worship of a false image), they naturally gravitate towards the latter translation that is demeaning to Hinduism.
Sure enough, in Sanskrit dictionaries, one can even find words like “image,” “picture,” “likeness,” etc as a translation. But those aren’t the only meanings as can be seen below:
As is typical of many sectarian anti-Hindu ideologues of mediocre intellect, the Islamists are oblivious to the fact that most Sanskrit words have a wide range of nuanced meanings. It therefore comes as no surprise that they immediately jumped to the meaning that spoke to them, given their fixation on the alleged evils of “idol worship.” Philosophical and literary context simply do not factor into their reading of the text.
The result is that they have offered a meaning that is extremely awkward. If the Veda was trying to tell us not to worship “idols,” should it not simply say “You are forbidden to worship Him as an Idol” instead of “There is no Idol of Him?” Consider the statement, “You should not tell lies to your father.” Would it seem logical to express this by saying, “Of your father, there are no lies?”
In fact, there is no sensible reason to select “idol” or “image” as the appropriate meaning of “pratimā” in this context. Let us look at how this part of the mantra is translated in the Griffith/Arya rendering done according to Sāyana Bhāṣya, published by Parimal Publications:
न तस्य प्रतिमा अस्ति यस्य नाम महद्यशः ॥ शु.य.वे. ३२.३ ॥(Śukla-Yajur Veda 32.3) [translated by R.T.H. Griffith/R.P. Arya]
“There is no counterpart of Him Whose glory verily is great.”
What does it mean to say that Brahman has no counterpart (pratimā)? One part ignored by the Islamists, “mahad yaśaḥ” (having great glory) is an obvious clue. It describes a Being whose glories make Him exceptional. Thus, there is no one like Him, and “pratimā” refers to a counterpart who is an equal. His glory is so great that He has no pratimā or equal.
This exact same view of the uniqueness of Brahman is repeated again and again throughout the texts of Hinduism. For example:
एकधैवानुद्रष्टव्यमेतदप्रमेयं ध्रुवम् ।(Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad 4.4.20) [translated by N.S. Anantha Rangacharya]
विरजः पर आकाशादज आत्मा महान्ध्रुवः ॥ बृ.उ. ४.४.२०॥
“After steady contemplation, this infinite and unchanging Brahman should be realized as being one only. The Supreme Self is bereft of any defect whatsoever and is the cause of even the unmanifested ether. It is indestructible and unborn.”
अनेजदेकं मनसो जवीयो नैनद्देवा आप्नुवन्पूर्वमर्षत् ।(Īśopaniṣad 4) [translated by Vidyavachaspati V. Panoli]
तद्धावतोऽन्यानत्येति तिष्ठत्तस्मिन्नपो मातरिश्वा दधाति ॥ ई.उ. ४ ॥
“Unmoving, It is one, faster than the mind. The senses cannot reach It, for It proceeds ahead. Remaining static It overtakes others that run. On account of Its presence, Mātariśvā conducts the activities of beings.”
पितासि लोकस्य चराचरस्य त्वमस्य पूज्यश्च गुरुर्गरीयान् ।(Bhagavad-gītā 11.43) [translated by Swami Adidevananda]
न त्वत्समोऽस्त्यभ्यधिकः कुतोऽन्यो लोकत्रयेऽप्यप्रतिमप्रभाव ॥ गीता ११.४३ ॥
“You are the father of this world, of all that moves and that does not move. You are its teacher and the One most worthy of reverence. There is none equal to You. How then could there be in the three worlds another greater than You, O Being of matchless greatness?”
In other words, since the recurring theme of the Vedic religion is that Brahman is One only without a second, the Śukla Yajur Veda is merely saying the same thing: “There is no counterpart or facsimile to Him” (na tasya pratimā asti).
That this interpretation makes more sense can be readily appreciated from the full context of the mantra:
तदेवाग्निस्तदादित्यस्तद्वायुस्तदु चन्दरमाः ।(Śukla Yajur Veda 32.1-6) [translated by R.T.H. Griffith/R.P. Arya]
तदेव शुक्रं तद्ब्ह्म ता आपः स प्रजापतिः ॥ श.य.वे. ३२.१ ॥
सर्वे निमेषा जज्ञिरे विद्युतः पुरुषादधि ।
नैनमूर्ध्वं न तिर्यञ्चं न मध्ये परि जग्रभत् ॥ श.य.वे. ३२.२ ॥
न तस्य प्रतिमा अस्ति यस्य नाम महद्यशः ।
हिरण्यगर्भ इत्येष मा मा हिंसीदित्येषा यस्मान्न जातीत्येषः ॥ श.य.वे. ३२.३ ॥
एषो ह देवः प्रदिशोऽनु सर्वाः पूर्वो ह जातः स उ गर्भे अन्तः ।
स एव जातः स जनिष्यमाणः प्रत्यङ् जनास्तिष्ठति सर्वतोमुखः ॥ श.य.वे ३२.४ ॥
यस्माज्जातं न पुरा किं चनैव य आबभूव भुवनानि विश्वा ।
प्रजापतिः प्रजया सँरराणस्त्रीणि ज्योतींषि सचते स षोङशी ॥ श.य.वे. ३२.५ ॥
येन द्यौरुग्रा पृथिवी च दृढा येन स्व स्तभितं येन नाकः ।
यो अन्तरिक्षे रजसो विमानः कस्मै देवाय हविषा विधेम ॥ श.य.वे. ३२.६ ॥
“Agni, is That; Āditya is That; Vāyu and Candramā are That. Śukra is That; Brahmā is That, those waters, That Prajāpati. All twinklings of the eyelid sprang from Puruṣa, resplendent One. No one has comprehended Him above, across, or in the midst. There is no counterpart of Him Whose glory verily is great. In the beginning arose Hiraṇyagarbha. Let not Him harm me, than whom there is no other born. This very God pervades all the regions; yea, born aforetime, in the womb He dwell. He verily born and to be born hereafter meets His offspring, facing all directions. Before Whom naught whatever sprang to being; Who with His presence aids all living creatures, Prajāpati, rejoicing in His offspring, He, Ṣoḍaśī, maintains the three great lustres. By Whom the heavens are strong and earth stands firmly, by Whom light’s realm and sky-vault are supported; By Whom the regions in mid-air were measured. What God shall we adore with our oblation?”
These mantras are clearly describing a Supreme Deity, as the epithets “Prajāpati” and “Puruṣa” when used in the Vedas are commonly understood to be those of Brahman. The Puruṣa is also identified in the Puruṣa-sūkta, as the Supreme Deity Who is the only giver of liberation:
वेदाहमेतं पुरुषं महान्तम् । आदित्यवर्णं तमसः परस्तात् ।(Taittirīya Āraṇyaka 3.13.1, part of the Puruṣa-sūkta) [translated by V. Sundar]
तमेवं विद्वानमृत इह भवति । नान्यः पन्था विद्यतेऽयनाय ॥ तै.आ. ३.१३.१ ॥
“I Know Him, glorious, bright as the Sun, beyond all Darkness. Who knows Him thus conquers death now. I know of no other ways, than this.”
The Śukla Yajur Veda mantras say that He is the in-dweller of all other devas (“Agni is That, Āditya is That….etc.”) that no one can fully comprehend His greatness, that He is all-pervading, and that He pervades and sustains all others. Since all of the attributes invoked are those of a Supreme Entity, the word “pratimā” must be similarly understood in the same fashion as upholding His exclusive supremacy.
Given this, let us paraphrase and summarize the mantras with the divine attributes mentioned in the text and look at how well different translations of “pratimā” fit them:
1) “The Supreme Puruṣa is the in-dweller of all devas, is beyond all comprehension, has no equal, is all-pervading, is the first being in existence before any other, and sustains all other creatures and worlds.”
2) “The Supreme Puruṣa is the in-dweller of all devas, is beyond all comprehension, has no idol, is all-pervading, is the first being in existence before any other, and sustains all other creatures and worlds.”
Clearly the “He has no idol” translation doesn’t just feel awkward. It is crassly and laughably wrong.
This illustrates one of the many problems with the sloppy scholarship of Islamic sectarian ideologues. Employing copy-cut-paste as a strategy to deflect from one’s obvious ignorance of the subject matter is not a winning strategy. One of the overriding themes of the Vedas is the incomparable greatness of Brahman Who pervades and sustains everything, and the understanding of the mantras must necessarily be consistent with that theme. The attempt to translate “pratimā” as “idol” is incongruous with that purpose, being based on a silly Abrahamic prejudice against the use of icons in one’s worship rather than an in-context reading of the mantras.
In reality, there is no prohibition of arca-mūrti-ārādhana, for it is an integral part of Hinduism. This is substantiated by no less an authority than the celebrated compiler of the Vedas, Śrī Veda Vyāsa himself:
नि:सृतं ते मुखाम्भोजाद् यदाह भगवानज: ।(Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa 11.27.3-4)
पुत्रेभ्यो भृगुमुख्येभ्यो देव्यै च भगवान् भव: ॥ भा.पु. ११.२७.३ ॥
एतद् वै सर्ववर्णानामाश्रमाणां च सम्मतम् ।
श्रेयसामुत्तमं मन्ये स्त्रीशूद्राणां च मानद ॥ भा.पु. ११.२७.४ ॥
“It (the knowledge of Kriya Yogā, the Yoga of formal worship of the Lord) emanated (for the first time) from Your lotus-like lips, and (receiving it from You) the self-born Brahmā taught it to his sons headed by Bhṛgu, and Lord Śiva imparted it to (his wife) Devī. It is highly commendable for all the varṇas (classes of society) and āśramas (stages of life) and I consider it to be the best of all the courses of discipline conducive to blessedness even for women and Śūdras, O Bestower of honor!”
Here, there are several points to note. First, this knowledge of arca-mūrti-ārādhana, like the Vedas, came from Bhagavān Himself, Who is identified as the Brahman of the Upaniṣads. Second, this knowledge was imparted to the greatest jñānis and sages including Brahmā, his sons, Śiva, and his wife Pārvatī. These two points attest to the validity and greatness of this form of worship, for Hindus do not doubt the significance of knowledge originating with Bhagavān, nor the great knowledge and devotion of these spiritual authorities who practiced it. Third, people of all varṇas are eligible to perform this worship. This means that even Dalits and Śūdras can (and do) worship the same Bhagavān through the same process prescribed for great sages and scholars.
Thus, arca-mūrti-ārādhana is a very inclusive aspect of Hinduism, and prohibiting it means prohibiting a shared spiritual experience of Hinduism that cuts across all social differences. To put it simply, without the tradition of arca-mūrti-pūjā, Hinduism would be unrecognizable and totally alien to the common people not raised in the ascetic tradition.
The worship of Bhagavān in His arca-mūrti form is not, as childishly conceived of in Abrahamic faiths, the worship of a “craven image.” The Hindu worldview does not place a limitation on God by claiming that His having a divine body or appearing in a personal form negates His omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience. At the same time, the scriptures acknowledge the reality that only a few individuals with purified senses and intellect can see Him:
एष सर्वेषु भूतेषु गूढोऽत्मा न प्रकाशते ।(Kaṭha Upaniṣad 3.12) [translated by N.S. Anantha Rangacharya]
दृश्यते त्वग्र्यया बुद्ध्या सूक्ष्मया सूक्ष्मदर्शिभिः ॥ क.उ. ३.१२ ॥
“This (Puruṣa, the Supreme Self) is residing hidden in all beings as their self and does not show Himself (to those who have not controlled their mind and senses). He is seen by those who are capable of seeing the subtle with their fine and pointed intellect.”
The lack of that pointed intellect and senses being the reality for most, Bhagavān mercifully accepts the invitation to be present within the visible arca-vigraha to receive the worship by His devotee.
The process of invoking His presence begins with the meditation on Paramātmā within oneself, and than inviting Him to be present within the arca-mūrti:
तयात्मभूतया पिण्डे व्याप्ते सम्पूज्य तन्मय: ।
आवाह्यार्चादिषु स्थाप्य न्यस्ताङ्गं मां प्रपूजयेत् ॥ भा.पु. ११.२७.२४ ॥
“On his body being permeated (as a house by the light emanating from a lamp) by that subtle form contemplated as his own being (the Paramātmā, the self of oneself), he should (first) worship Me in that form (mentally) and, full of that presence, should (then) invoke My presence in the arca-form, and having installed Me there and assigned the syllables of the Mantra to the (various) limbs of the image, proceed with My worship.”(Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa 11.27.24)
Thus, this form of worship is in fact, an extension of the worship of His form as the antaryāmin (in-dweller), the latter being taught in the Upaniṣads:
स य एषोऽणिमैतदात्म्यमिदँ सर्वं तत्सत्यँ स(Chāndogya Upaniṣad 6.8.7) [translated by N.S. Anantha Rangacharya]
आत्मा तत्त्वमसि श्वेतकेतो इति भूय एव मा ॥ छा.उ. ६.८.७ ॥
“That ‘Sat’ of this nature is very subtle. All this is having this ‘Sat’ as its Ātman. That (fact of having Sat as its Ātman) is real. He (Sat) is the ātman in all. That (Supreme cause) is thy (inner) self. Thou (i.e. your Antaryāmin) art that.”
Here, the meditation being taught is Bhagavān aka Paramātmā as the ātmā of oneself, or in other words, the ātmā of the jīvātmā (the SuperSoul within all souls). That God is within everyone as the antaryāmin (in-dweller) is a well-known teaching of the Upaniṣads, and it is that Puruṣa Whom the devotee invites to be present externally within the arca-vigraha to receive worship. To put it simply, because the worship of the arca-vigraha is an extension of the Vedic worship of Paramātmā as one’s antaryāmin, it is just as Vedic in its very nature.
There is nothing obscene, base, or unintelligent about the worship of Bhagavān as arca-mūrti. This act of worship is one of dedication and devotion:
“The worshiper should bathe the Deity every day, as opulently as his assets permit, using waters scented with sandalwood, uśīra root, camphor, kuṅkuma and aguru. He should also chant various Vedic hymns, such as the anuvāka known as Svarṇa-gharma, the Mahāpuruṣa-vidyā, the Puruṣa-sūkta and various songs of the Sāma Veda, such as the Rājana and the Rohiṇya. My devotee should then lovingly decorate Me with clothing, a brāhmaṇa thread, various ornaments, marks of tilaka and garlands, and he should anoint My body with fragrant oils, all in the prescribed manner. The worshiper should faithfully present Me with water for washing My feet and mouth, fragrant oils, flowers and unbroken grains, along with incense, lamps and other offerings. Within his means, the devotee should arrange to offer Me sugar candy, sweet rice, ghee, śaṣkulī [rice-flour cakes], āpūpa [various sweet cakes], modaka [steamed rice-flour dumplings filled with sweet coconut and sugar], saṁyāva [wheat cakes made with ghee and milk and covered with sugar and spices], yogurt, vegetable soups and other palatable foods. On special occasions, and daily if possible, the Deity should be massaged with ointment, shown a mirror, offered a eucalyptus stick for brushing His teeth, bathed with the five kinds of nectar, offered all kinds of opulent foods, and entertained with singing and dancing.”Śrīmad Bhāgavata Purāṇa 10.27.30-35, copyright Bhaktivedanta Book Trust
In other words, once invoked within the arca-mūrti, one relates to Him meditating that He is physically present there, and one offers Him articles of worship as befitting a worthy guest. Compared to the abstract forms of worship in other religions, this is a very personal form of worship that brings the devotee out of the realm of the abstract and into the realm of concrete action. Hence it is known as Kriyā-Yoga, the yoga of acting, in this case to worship Bhagavān directly.
So to summarize:
-Vedas do not prohibit arca-mūrti-ārādhana
-Having no “pratimā” means having no equal
-The view of Brahman as having no equal is well-substantiated in the Upaniṣads and Bhagavad-gītā
-All Hindu scriptures maintain the same purpose and must be interpreted consistently
-The Purāṇic concept of Deity worship originates with Bhagavān Himself
-Deity-worship (arca-mūrti-ārādhana) is an extension of the Vedic concept of meditating on one’s indwelling Paramātmā.
-Deity-worship is act of loving devotion between the devotee and Bhagavān
And finally, we cannot overstate the obvious:
-Hinduism should be learned from traditional Hindu scholars utilizing evidence-based methods based on Hindu scriptural sources, not from the hit-and-run, copy-cut-pasting-out-of-context of Islamic proselytizers.