The Biology of Idol Worship in Hinduism - Dr. Sudhirdas Kumar Prayagaby Ohmkaram Members on 12/08/22
I have discussed the difficulty of translating the meaning of many Sanskrit words to English and how many of the words connected to Hinduism are misunderstood and misappropriated. In the context of this article, the words ‘idol’ and ‘worship’ used to explain Hindu religion are grossly inappropriate and do not do justice to the original word meanings in Sanskrit (please refer to my previous article on ‘the philosophy of idol worship in Hinduism’). This article is my attempt to give a scientific basis of idol worship.
The biology of human spirituality
Man, since the dawn of civilization has been curious about the supreme and the nature of reality. All cultures or groups of people around the world have developed their own rituals and practices for God realization and spirituality. We can find archeological evidence of these all across the globe, from simple burials to great pyramids. Most of them did not survive the test of time, belief, intellect or science. In addition, during the medieval and modern times, western organized religions called them pagan and uncivilized to show their superiority and led to the destruction most of these native or indigenous cultures, customs, rituals and practices from around the world.
Dean Hamer in his book ‘The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired in Our Genes’, gives scientific and genetic evidence for human religiosity. He proposes the God gene hypothesis, where he reasons that human spirituality is hard wired into our genes and is heritable. Humans by nature are gregarious and the sense of optimism are the advantages provided by the natural selection (evolutionary advantage) of spirituality. The psychosomatic changes brought out by the God gene product at the effector level are proteins which cause the release of feel good neuro-chemicals such as serotonin, and dopamine by the pineal gland in the brain. Pineal gland is associated with the ajna chakra or the so called third eye of the shiva. Mystic experiences, feeling of connection to the nature and the universe, and God realizations are examples of these.
Psychologist Claude Robert Cloninger, author of ‘Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being’, developed methods to quantify human spirituality and concluded that spirituality is an innate human behavior. While specific religious beliefs, such as belief in a particular God, has no genetic connection and is cultural. One of the qualities he measures is ‘self-forgetfulness’, the tendency to become totally absorbed in some activity, such as meditation. This is similar to that described in Gita as ‘apohanam’, (Gita 15:15).
The arrival of communism in late 19th century and establishment of communist governments in many counties in 20th century led to the thinking that belief in God is not required and human religiosity is ephemeral. But communism turned out to be worse than other organized religion (I am comparing it to other western religions because of its inherent structure and principles are like that of other organized religions). In less than 100 years communism and communist governments are almost non-existent around the world. Probably one of the major reasons of its demise is its active suppression of religious practices. This is the most physical evidence for the requirement of religiosity for human existence at population level.
Although I am driving the point that biologically religiosity is an innate human behavior, it does not mean every person is religious or spiritual at individual level. In fact, religiosity varies from individual to individual based on their genetic makeup (nature) and epigenetic modification (nurture). In Hinduism God realization is personal and varies from person to person, unlike that is claimed by western religions, and is one of the major differences which sets Hinduism apart. That is why at the practical level Hindus have very many Gods to suite individual needs. Our modern scientific understanding of spirituality also supports this view of variance.
The biology and psychology of idol worship in Hinduism
Hinduism is the evolved over several millennia inculcating various ideas and practices to accommodate different ways for God realization. The six major darshanas (or ways) of Hinduism are Samkhya, Yoga, Nyaya, Vyshashikam, Poorva Mimamsa and Uttara Mimamsa. The essence of yoga darshanam is that self-realization is God realization. Self-realization requires turning inwards by controlling the mind or chittavritti nirodhanam. Ancient Hindu rishis have recognized the connection between body (comprising of 5 sense organs or jnanindiryas) to breath (prana), breath to mind (cit), mind to intellect (buddhi) and intellect to soul or spirit (atman). Yogasutra written by Pathanjali maharishi is a detailed treatise on Yoga darshanam.
Human beings are endowed with five sense organs (jnanaindriyas), to perceive the universe around us and five organs (karmaindriyas) to interact with it. But these sense organs often work independently until we put our mind (cit) to it to focus. Similarly, our mind also wanders until we put our intellect (buddhi) to focus. With proper practice one can bring all jnanaindiryas, cit and buddhi to focus for self-realization. In Gita Krishna says that controlling mind is very difficult (Gita 6:34), and requires rigorous practice or yoga (Gita 12.9). Our ancient Rishis have recognized this fact and developed many techniques, including vigraha upasana or idol worship as a means to focus our mind.
Katho Upanishad gives a good analogy, it compares our body to a chariot (ratham), our 5 sense organs or jnanaindrias as the five horses which pulls the chariot, the mind or cit as the strings which control the horses, intellect or bhuddi as the charioteer (the driver) and atman as the owner of the chariot (Katho Upanishad 3 - 4, 5). An intelligent person controls the senses with mind and mind with intellect, if not body will follow the senses for physical and material wealth like the untamed horses.
Just like human abilities varies from individual to individual, so does humans’ abilities for self-realization varies from individual to individual. Few people can strive for self-realization and God realization without any physical material or properties, this is called nirguna-upasana. While majority requires some additional help to satisfy their biologic and sense perception, because we are all limited by our sense organs to know everything about us (Gita 12.5). In saguna-upasana the idol helps one to focus our senses, mind and intellect.
During idol worship or vigraha upasana, the idol and the decoration like flowers helps our visual sense. Bhajans, japa or ringing of bells during puja helps our hearing sense. Burning incense helps our smell sense. Prasadam or nivedyam helps with the taste sense. And finally, the physical posture and beads used during japa helps with touch of sense. All these works together to bring your mind into a single focus. Our ancient Rishis have clearly understood the psychology or the mind. They have devised many techniques and rituals to achieve this. For example, Bhajans (singing songs), is the most out word and simplest form. Then comes japa, (chanting a mantra like Aum, loud, quiet or in the mind) or other levels like yoga and meditation. Fasting for example, helps to control the physical desire and interests (scientifically it is also shown to increase life expectancy).
In his book ‘59 Seconds’ Richard Wiseman report on a study concluding that in a relationship if images or materials connecting with your loved ones are around you the relationship will last long and strong. For example, we place pictures of our loved ones in our office or wallet, but the picture itself is not our loved ones but a representation of the person we love. Similarly, if you are trying to have a relationship with God you need to have images or materials that identify Gods presence with you. An Idol or vigraha is a good example for a good imagery. Of course, we do not know how God looks like, and definitely God does not look like what is depicted in an idol.
Lots of scientific studies have shown the benefits of yoga and meditation on human health. I am sure many such health benefits can also be found in persons performing regular vigraha-upasana too. Majority of the changes we see in practitioners are probably due to epigenetic changes and not genetic. Epigenetics is probably the effects of emotions, hormones and such directly affect an individual.
There is no Blind Faith and Miracles in Hinduism
Finally, I would like to emphasize that Hinduism is not based on beliefs, blind faith and miracles. This could sound confusing or illogical as it is our general understanding that religion means beliefs and miracles due to the influence of western religions, because blind faith and miracles are an integral part of western religions. Unfortunately, due to aggressive marketing of western religions for conversion, many think that such unscientific principles are part of all religions, including Hinduism. The gullible are taught that if you believe in their religion God will grant your wish by a miracle. According to Hinduism, one should be called a bhakta and not a believer. Blind faith or belief is not bhakti but fear someone has instilled in you.
The purpose of religion is to know the reality, and not asking God for favors and benefits. To know reality means to know the cosmos, to know the creator and to know ourselves or our role here. The Hindu temples are a place for darshan, to help solidify an image in our mind and not for worship as in the western religious sense. In fact, the general concept of praying, asking God to give money, health, or cure a disease, etc. are not really a part of Hindu concept of religiosity. There is no miracles in Hinduism, because miracle means breaking the natural law. Hinduism is founded on logic and reason with scientific validity, even God has to follow the rules he made.
Unlike in Hinduism, the western religions are as set of belief systems formulated by someone. Religions should not be about belief system, but about knowing the reality. If you believe something, that means you are not using your intelligence but following blindly some rules or laws made by someone. If you look around the world you will realize that most of the conflicts around the world are due to one belief system against another. When you believe in one belief system you are against the other; there is no logic, reason, use of intelligence or an attempt at realization of the facts. You cannot question the rules of such a belief system, if you cannot comprehend the logic of the belief. Hinduism takes a different approach to religion and requires one to use intelligence and experience. Human mind wants logic, reason and facts to experience reality. That is why Hinduism has no conversion because it is not based on a set of belief systems but on realization. It is based on logic, and reason and experience by each individual.