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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
More posts by this author:
- How should one interpret Hindu scripture?
- Why is Sanskrit considered a Divine language?
- Is it possible for an ordinary person to become enlightened without raising Kundalini?
- The problem of evil in Hindu thought
- An outline of Hindu dharma
I did my school, college and parts of my University education in Kolkata. I got my M.Sc degree from Kolkata University. I went to USA in 1979 and got my M.S and Ph.D in Physics from University of Pittsburgh in 1984. I did my Post Doctorate in University of Southern California, Los Angeles and then worked as a Research Scientist in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Space Sciences Center of University of Southern California. My scientific work includes heavy ion-atom scattering, multiphoton ionization and heliosphere data analysis of Pioneer 10/111 and Voyager 1/2 deep space spacecaft and analysis of solar extreme ultraviolet data obtained from SOHO spacecraft. I have been a National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) Principal Investigator from 2002 – 2007. I have been a member of a NASA awards committee to decide allocation of money to different scientists. I have also refereed scientific articles submitted to Journal of Geophysical Research and Astrophysical Journal.