Philosophy of Idol Worship

Saji Koduvath, Advocate.


  1. Philosophy of Worship
  2. Philosophy of Offerings
  3. Principles behind Founding Endowments by Rulers
  4. History of Idol Worship
  5. Not God but Worshippers, Ultimate Beneficiaries
  6. Idols Represent Supreme God; Idols can be replaced
  7. Explanation of Conception onLegal Personality
  8. Crown and court – Protector of all Charities
  9. It is the Duty of Courts to Protect Trusts

Philosophy of Worship

Primitive man feared all the forces of nature. He thought heavy rains, furious storms, frightful thundering, etc. were plunged on him, out of fury of some unseen powers in the sky. Man began to offer prayers to please those ‘powers’ so that they may not hurt him. Gradually man incarnated these unknown forces – ‘God’.

Even now man wonders looking at nature. People worship God because they consider Him powerful. He is believed to be the creator, sustainer and destructor of all and everything. Man who realises himself to be insignificant and meek, adore Him to humble himself: sometimes out of fear, and sometimes out of regard to Him for the ‘grace’ He showered. Worship is also considered to be the way to please Him to benefit in life-with-Him-in-eternity, or to attain moksha (salvation) finally. According to some, it helps to escape from the ‘bondages of sin’. Certain theorists exhort that God deserves continuous praise since He is ‘perfect’, and mindful to those who worship Him. Certain logicians urge that God demands men to worship Him; for, the purpose behind all creations is to fetch glory to the creator.

The benefit that is derived by a worshipper, by worship, is depended upon his faith, attitude and notions. According to some people, worship bestows satisfaction, content and happiness. Some others assert that worthy worship brings spiritual gains, happiness or ‘heavenly bliss’. And, still other ardent worshippers testify that proper worship is even capable of bringing improved mental and bodily condition.

Philosophy of Offerings

Why people make donations to religious establishments, or offerings in the name of God?

The answer to this question is also that it depends upon the faith, attitude and notions of each person. One thing is certain: most people make offerings, only because it is a tradition followed by generations to pray God making some kind of valuable presentation. Worship generally implies offerings of some kind. In Babu  Bhagvan Din Vs. Gir  Har  Saroop (1940)[1] Privy Council observed that ‘worship generally implies offerings of some kind’.

Man who feared the forces of nature began to offer sacred food (prasada) and to sacrifice animals, and at times, even human beings also, at specified sacrosanct places.

With respect to offerings, some may say: it is to please God as we make elders happy by giving presents; some others may say: it is a depiction of renouncement or sacrifice of a part of material-possession they consider dear and substantial; and still others may say: it is to acquire benefit, or to get their wishes granted, as God will reward in the proportion one glorifies Him. The rationale of offerings may also be a thanks-giving expression.

In the celebrated decision DeokiNandanVs. Murlidhar[2] it was observed that the true purpose of a gift of properties to the Idol is not to confer any benefit on God, but to acquire spiritual benefit by providing opportunities and facilities for those who desire to worship.[3]

History of Idol Worship in India

In Vedic times a number of beneficent and radiant powers of nature were named and worshipped as Gods, e.g. sun, air, earth, sky, fire, etc.; making offerings to them, mainly of clarified butter which was poured on the sacred fire. In this period rituals and sacrifices were prevalent.

In Sri Venkataramana Devaru v. The State of Mysore, AIR 1958 SC 255, it is held as under:

  • “There has been difference of opinion among the writers as to whether image worship had a place in the religion of the Hindus, as revealed in the Vedas. On the one hand, we have hymns in praise of Gods, and on the other, we have highly philosophical passages in the Upanishads describing the Supreme Being as omnipotent, omnicient and omnipresent and transcending all names and forms. When we come to the Puranas, we find a marked change. The conception had become established of Trinity of Gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva as manifestations of the three aspects of creation, preservation and destruction attributed to the Supreme Being in the Upanishads, as, for example, in the following passage in the Taittiriya Upanishad, Brigu Valli, First Anuvaka:
    • ” That from which all beings are born, by which they live and into which they enter and merge.”
  • The Gods have distinct forms ascribed to them and their worship at home and in temples is ordained as certain means of attaining salvation. These injunctions have had such a powerful hold over the minds of the people that daily worship of the deity in temple came to be regarded as one of the obligatory duties of a Hindu. ‘It was during this period that temples were constructed all over the country dedicated to Vishnu, Rudra, Devi, Skanda, Ganesha and so forth, and worship in the temple can be said to have become the practical religion of all sections of the Hindus ever since. With the growth in importance of temples and of worship therein, more and more attention came to be devoted to the ceremonial law relating to the construction of temples, installation of idols therein and conduct of worship of the deity and numerous are the treatises that came to be written for its exposition. These are known as Agamas, and there are as many as 28 of them relating to the Saiva temples, the most important of them being the Kamikagama, the Karanagama and the Suprubedagama, while the Vikhanasa and the Pancharatra are the chief Agamas of the Vaishnavas. These Agamas, contain elaborate rules as to how the temple is to be constructed, where the principal deity is to be consecrated, and where the other Devatas are to be installed and where the several classes of worshippers are to stand and worship.”

Rise of Budhism, a Non-Theistic Religion

The epoch of Budhism which came as a protest against the ritualism and sacrifice prescribed in the Vedas. Budhism was actually a non-theistic religion. They developed monasteries. In this period there was no place for the worship of images of Gods but the Budhists paid respect to relics and sacred structures, and later image of Budha himself. This paved way for image worship in India.[4]

The image worship was developed as a symbol of the one Supreme Being. The devotee attributed to the Supreme Being (Idol) all functions of creation, preservation as well as destruction. But, Dr. PV Kane, in History of Dharmshastra took a different view when he depicts the origin of image worship. He discussed three principal views:

  • (1) that the worship of images was derived from Sudras and Dravidian tribes, and absorbed in Brahminical cult;
  • (2) that the making of images was copied from the Budhists; and
  • (3) that the practice was a natural and spontaneous growth.

Dr. Kane did not agree with the view that the images of Gods originally came to be made in imitation of images or statutes of Buddha, as temples and images of Gods had become widespread throughout India in the fourth or fifth century BC. According to him when Vedic Sacrifices became less and less owing to various causes, particularly because of the influence of doctrine of Ahinsa, various Upasanas and the Philosophy of the Absolute set forth in the Upanishads, there arose the cult of the worship of images. Originally it was not so universal or elaborate as it became in the medieval and modern times.[5]

Idols Represent Supreme God

Idol is regarded as the image or embodiment of Deity, which ultimately represents the Supreme Being. Idol or Image may be broken or lost; it can be replaced or substituted.[6]But Deity remains as same. In spiritual and legal concepts the ‘Deity’ is an image or a representative.

Actually, when a devotee worships at the temple, he offers his prayers, or glorifies the Eternal Spirit attributed, to the Idol (and not the visible material of Idol, as it is).  This is the reason for regarding the Idol as Deity (one of the Gods).

In Hinduism, physical manifestations of the Supreme Being exist in the form of Idols to allow worshippers to experience a shapeless being. The Idol is a representation of the Supreme Being. The Idol, by possessing a physical form is identifiable.[7]

In BhupatiNathVs. Ram Lal Maitra (1910) [8] the question before the Privy Council was whether dedication to an Idol which was then not in existence was valid. It was held that a Hindu Deity was in the contemplation of Hindus and is always in existence and consecration of Hindus and is always in existence and consecration of a visible image was merely a physical manifestation. The dedication of the property to a Deity, even if it was not installed, was valid.

The above view was accepted by the Supreme Court in Mahant Ram Swaroop Das JiVs. SP Shahi[9] wherein it was observed that even if the Idol was broken or is lost or stolen, another image might be consecrated and it could not be said that the original object had ceased to exist. The concept of image worship invites the philosophy of Upanishads that the image reflects the Divine spirit which is Omnipresent, Omniscient and Omnipotent.[10] It is neither mud nor clay, but it is the Divine spirit which is relevant.

Adverting to Dr. BK Mukherjea, J. ‘On Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trusts’ the Apex Court has pointed out in Ram Jankijee Deities Vs. State of Bihar,[11] the principal principles underlying Idol worship as under:

  • “That whichever God the devotee might choose for purposes of worship and whatever image he might set up and consecrate with that object, the image represents the Supreme God and none else. There is no superiority or inferiority amongst the different Gods. Siva, Vishnu, Ganapati or Surya is extolled, each in its turn as the creator, preserver and supreme lord of the universe. The image simply gives a name and form to the formless God and the orthodox Hindu idea is that conception of form is only for the benefit of the worshipper and nothing else.”

In this decision[12] the Supreme Court demonstrated the principles as to Idol-worship quoting following passage from BhupatinathVs. RamlalMaitra(1910):[13]

  • “A Hindu does not worship the ‘Idol’ or the material body made of clay or gold or other substance, as a mere glance at the mantras and prayers will show. They worship the eternal spirit of the Deity or certain attributes of the same, in a suggestive form, which is used for the convenience of contemplation as a mere symbol or emblem. It is the incantation of the mantras peculiar to a particular Deity that causes the manifestation or presence of the Deity or according to some, the gratification of the Deity.”

Rationale of Founding Religious Institutions

In Vidyapurna  Tirtha Swami Vs.  Vidyanidhi  Tirtha Swami (1904)[14] it was observed by the Madras High Court that ‘the religious instinct of the people designed’ the Hindu Temples ‘as places of public resort for worship’; and they were established ‘in order that organised worship of God and spiritual knowledge might go hand in hand’. It was observed by our Apex Court in Thayarammal  Vs. Kanakammal[15]that Hindus in India considered the establishment of temples, mutts and other forms of religious institutions or excavation, consecration of tanks, wells and other reservoirs of water, planting of shady trees for the benefit of travelers and  establishment of Choultries, Sarais or alms houses and Dharamsalas for the benefit of mendicants, wayfarers and pilgrims, as pious deeds which would bring happiness and heavenly bliss.

In PF Sadavarthy Vs.  Commissioner, HR and CE[16]our Apex Court observed as under:

  • “A religious institution will be a temple if two conditions are satisfied. One is that it is a place of public religious worship and the other is that it is dedicated to or is for the benefit of, or is used as of right by the Hindu Community, or any section thereof, as a place of religious worship.”
  • “To constitute a temple it is enough if it is a place of public religious worship and if the people believe in its religious efficacy irrespective of the fact whether there is an Idol or a structure or other paraphernalia. It is enough if the devotees or the pilgrims feel that there is some super human power which they should worship and invoke its blessings.”[17]

Religious institutions and worship there are for strengthening faith in God and to derive heavenly blessings by bringing people closer to God. Though the Supreme Beingis bodiless, consists of pure spiritand has got no second, it is for the benefit of the worshippers that theconception of images of Supreme Being has been brought in. It is a general feeling that divine power abides in places where people worship and that grace dwells with people who are associated with saintly activities.

‘Hindu and Mohamedan Endowments’ by PR Ganapathi  Iyer[18] reads as under:

  • “Religion has always occupied an important place in the public life of this country as it is believed to be a potent factor in raising humanity to a higher level of thought and life. It is in this view that Temples, Mosques and Churches were founded by Kings and by men of piety…”

The real motivation for ‘dedication’ among devotees may differ. But the Hindu scholars say: true purpose of gift to a religious endowment is not to confer benefit on God/Idol, but to acquire spiritual benefits by providing facilities to worshipers.[19]

[1]     Babu  Bhagvan Din Vs. Gir  Har  Saroop, AIR 1940 PC 7.

[2]      AIR 1957 SC 133

[3]      See notes under: Hindu Conception on Legal Personality of Idol

[4]      BK Mukherjee on the Hindu Law of Religious and Charitable Trusts (Chapter I)

[5]      Thakur Charnar  Bindu  Yogal Jodi Shri  Gokul  Nathiji Vs. Third Addl. District Judge Mathura: 1997-29 All LR 575: 1997-1 ARC 216

[6]      Mohatap  Bahadur  Vs Kali Pada  Chatterjee: AIR 1914 Cal 200. Referred to in M Siddiq Vs. Mahant Suresh Das (Ayodhya Case): 2020-1 SCC 1.

[7]      M SiddiqVs. Mahant Suresh Das (Ayodhya Case): 2020-1 SCC 1.

[8]      ILR 37 Cal 128

[9]      AIR 1959 SC 951

[10]    Thakur Charnar  Bindu  Yogal Jodi Shri  Gokul  Nathiji Vs. Third Addl. District Judge Mathura:  1997-29 All LR 575: 1997-1 ARC 216; See also: Jankijee Deities Vs. State of Bihar: AIR 1999 SC 2131.

[11]    AIR 1999 SC 2131.

[12]    AIR 1999 SC 2131 

[13]    (1910) ILR 37 Cal 128.

[14] 27 ILR Mad 435.

[15]AIR 2005 SC 1588

[16]    AIR 1963 SC 510

[17]    It  is quoted in Ram Jankijee Deities Vs. State of Bihar AIR 1999 SC 2131. See also: TRK Ramaswami  Servai Vs. The Bd. Commrs. Hindu Endnts: ILR 1950 Mad 799; Venkataramana  Murthi Vs. Sri Rama Mandhiram: (1964) 2 ANWR 457.

[18]    Quoted in: Papanna  Vs. State of Karnataka: AIR1983 Kar 94.

[19]    Deoki  Nandan  Vs. Murlidhar, AIR 1957 SC 133.

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