How does the prana-prathistha ritual convert a lifeless idol into a living murthi?

Many of the world’s popular religions condemn Idol worship. Hindus counter this by saying that Hindus worship God in a murthi only after the prana-pratistha ritual converts a life-less idol into a living murthi.

The idea behind prana-pratistha can be understood only if one understands the Yoga physiology of a human being. Yoga physiology is discussed in this answer,

Yoga physiology says that the human body and personality are contained in 5 sheaths or koshas:

  • Annamaya kosha
  • Pranamaya Kosha
  • Manomaya Kosha
  • Vignanamaya Kosha
  • Anandamaya Kosha

Of these koshas, Annamaya Kosha is the gross body. The word anna means food and the name suggests that our physical body is sustained by food.

The next three koshas make up the subtle body.

  1. The word prana means life and is the vital energy that permeates all existence. Our physical life is sustained by prana. We die when this prana leaves the body. This pranamaya sheath or kosha is more subtle than annamaya kosha but more gross than the other three sheaths.
  2. The word manomaya means mental. This manomaya sheath is the mental sheath. This is where part of our mind resides. This is more subtle than annamaya and pranamaya koshas but more gross than the remaining two.
  3. The word vijnanamaya means intellect and is the intellectual or discriminating sheath. It is the seat for rational thought and is mistaken by most people as the ‘self’.

The last Anandamaya Kosha is the causal body. The word ananda means bliss. This last sheath is blissful because it is very close to the blissful Atman. You may be wondering why this sheath is also called the causal sheath. The reason is that the record of all our karmas is kept in this sheath and since our karmas lead to rebirth this sheath may be thought of as causing rebirth.

At the center of these 5 koshas lie the Atman. The practice of Yoga in practical terms leads to digging though these 5 barriers and finally reaching the Atman.

A detailed description of these sheaths is in Taittiriya Upanishad II.1.1, II.2.1, II.3.1, II.4.1 and II.5.1.

A human being has a physical body, a subtle body, a causal body and the Atman.

In prana-pratistha (prana means life; pratistha means to establish) the priest transfers his consciousness i.e. his Atman to inhabit the idol that has been installed. What is the principle behind this?

This Self has entered into these bodies up to the very tips of the nails, as a razor lies hidden in its case, or as fire which sustains the world lies hidden in its source….

(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.IV.7)

Brahman is capable of entering bodies just like a razor enters a case. So it is believed that the Atman enters the idol. It is this event that changes the lifeless idol into a living murthi.

Image worship is based on the principle of love. It is love that attracts Brahman into a murthi.

Sri Ramakrishna (to the teacher):” What is wrong with image worship? The Vedanta says that Brahman manifests Itself where there is ‘Existence, Light and Love’. Therefore nothing exists but Brahman.”

The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

The physiology of a living murthi is a physical non-organic body, a subtle body and the Atman. The only difference with a living being is the nature of the physical body.

Now usually there are 2 objections to this idea. People say that the Atman inhabiting a body consisting of organic materials is at least plausible. How can Atman inhabit a body of metal or clay since there is no example of a conscious creature with a non-organic body? Moreover the organic physical body moves while the clay or metal body of the murthi does not move.

The answer to the first objection is that an organic body is as inert as a non-organic body. Hence there is no principle that says that a body made of clay or metal cannot be inhabited by a mind or subtle body. The answer to the second objection is that while normal people do not see any life in a murthi, an advanced Yogi can in fact detect life. In fact the deity present in a living murthi has helped many Yogis.


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One Reply to “How does the prana-prathistha ritual convert a lifeless idol into a living murthi?”

  1. Dear Dr. PradipG

    My few cents here..

    From the prAna prathistA mantras we recite during the pUja, I can say the following.

    1. The core of prAna prathistA is the mantra Hamsa Soham – Soham Hamsa which actually is aham Sah – Sah aham. In this mantra we transfer our ‘aham’ (our Self or Atman) to the idol and invoke the Atman in us , in the idol.

    2. After the above mantra we recite

    “asyam murthau jIvasthistathu
    asyam murthau sarva indriyani vAg manas tvac cakSu Zrotra grhAna vac paNi pAda pAyu upasthAni iha agatya
    svasti sukham ziram thistanthu svAha”

    That is after we transfer our Atman into the mUrthi, it becomes alive with ten Indriyas and consciousness. It becomes a living being. After this mantra, the idol (or even a picture) we make small offerings to the mUrthi as it is now a living being.

    3. Before aham Sah Sah aham mantra, the ten Indriyas are invoked in the idol by kara nyAsa, HrdyAdi nyAsa and dhyAna mantra. At the end of dhyAna mantra Ham Sam Ram Lam Vam like ten sounds are repeated to symbolize that the ten Indriyas are established in the idol.

    The dhyAna mantra is meditating on pancha-prAna devi and invoking that pancha-prAna devi in the idol. The pancha-prAna devi establishes the organs required for five karma Indriyas. The Kara nyAsa and hrdayAdi nyAsa establishes the organs required for five buddhi Indriyas.

    4. Before kara nyAsa, we recite RsyAdi nyAsa which says brahma, vishnu, shiva are the Rsis which originate everything, all expressions (chandam) of Universe are in the form of Rg, Yaju, sAma, atharvana, all life creation, stability, destruction is caused by prAnasakthi.

    An idol essentially is given life by us during a pUja during prAna prathistha.


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