Do Hindus Worship Idols?
In Hinduism, sacred images of the gods and goddesses are called murti and are a central part of home and temple worship. Because murti is sometimes translated as an "idol," there's a misconception (especially among Westerners) that Hindus are "idol worshippers," one of the chief sins of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Shukla says that a better translation of murti is "embodiment." Much like all of existence is believed to be an embodiment of the Divine, the image of a Hindu god or goddess is understood to be an embodiment of a certain aspect of the Divine. A murti of the goddess Saraswati embodies learning and wisdom, while a murti of the goddess Lakshmi embodies prosperity.
In a Hindu home, one or more murti are typically placed on a small altar and serve as visual tools for contemplating a particular attribute of the Divine. The murti is sanctified or made holy through a priestly blessing called prana prathista. Once sanctified, the image is incorporated into daily rituals (nitya) of prayer and meditation.
"There's a specialness that comes with the form of a murti, because of the divine attributes that we're seeking to honor through that form," says Shukla, "and also through the ceremonies that are conducted in order to elevate that material form into something even more sacred."
One of the most common home-based ceremonies is called puja, in which the murti serves as a focal point on which to train all the senses on the Divine. The sense of smell is stimulated by incense and fragrant flowers. The ears are awakened with the sound of traditional mantras and tingling bells. The eyes soak up the colors and contours of the murti and the light of candles. The sense of taste is satisfied by eating prasad, small treats offered by the god or goddess. And touch is engaged throughout the ceremony.
Again, it's important to clarify that Hindus are not worshipping these "idols," or even worshipping the god or goddess represented by the murti. Rather, they use the murti as a sacred tool for focusing their minds and spirits on righteous qualities that they wish to bring into their daily lives and interactions with others.