How can a stone image be God?
Can we stop God from manifesting through a stone image if he so desires? He is omnipotent; he can convert matter into spirit and can transform a stone image into a divine manifestation known as the archa-avatara (the incarnation for receiving worship). Contemporary Vedic savants refer to this manifestation as the Deity to differentiate it from ordinary stone images.
In fact, those who claim that God cannot manifest himself through matter are limiting God and depriving him of his omnipotence. Does matter have so much power that it can counter God’s omnipotence and prevent him from manifesting through matter? Obviously not!
They may argue that matter is impure, whereas God is pure. But is the impurity of matter greater than the purity of God? Wouldn’t that imply that the potency of matter is greater than that of God? That would be a logical absurdity. Therefore, the correct understanding is that, God, if he so desires, can surely manifest through matter. And when he does so, he never becomes impure by contact with matter; rather, by his contact, matter becomes pure.
So, if we want to understand Deity worship, we have to stop obsessing on the obvious fact that the image is made of stone – everyone knows it and no one denies it. Yet why do people – and not just ordinary people but even many of the greatest saints and the greatest spiritual scholars – worship that image? Because they can see something more than the obvious fact. They can see in action the profound truth of God’s omnipotence.
And because it is God’s will that makes Deity worship possible, it is essential that we worship the Deity according to his will. This means that we should fashion the stone image according to his will as revealed in the scriptures, and not according to our own imagination.
God doesn’t manifest in an image fashioned as per our imagination. Such an image is a mere lifeless statue, like the statues of politicians that we find on many street squares. Such a statue may help people remember the politician, but beyond that it has no connection with the actual person. That person is a soul who if alive is residing in his or her own material body or if dead has gone to some other body according to his or her karma. Worshiping such a statue as if it were divine is a form of idolatry and should certainly be given up. That’s why, as depicted in OMG, Kanjibhai is perfectly justified in lopping of the head of his own stone image and vehemently forbidding that kind of worship.
What is unjustified, however, is to extrapolate from the rejection of that kind of worship and reject all forms of image worship. Such unwarranted extrapolation limits our access to God. Why? Because presently we can perceive the world only through our material senses. As these senses cannot perceive spirit, our current perception is limited to matter and material things. So, if God does not manifest himself through matter, then we will never be able to perceive him. And without perceiving him, developing our love for him will be extremely difficult. That’s why out of his kindness he makes himself accessible to us as the Deity.
The Deity is different from an ordinary stone idol in two significant ways. Firstly, the form of the Deity is fashioned precisely according to the description of the form of God given in the scriptures. Secondly, God’s presence is invoked in the Deity through the scripturally prescribed ceremony called the prana-pratistha. During this ceremony, the great devotees of God request him to manifest as the Deity and to thereby provide them the opportunity to see and serve him. Mercifully responding to their prayers, God manifests as the Deity. Thereafter, any worship offered to the Deity form directly reaches God just as a letter placed in an authorized letter box reaches the destination. In contrast, just as placing the letter in any ordinary box is futile; worshiping any ordinary statue is futile.
So it is not that any ordinary stone image is treated as God; rather, God manifests through a specially designed and sanctified stone image to help us love and serve him.