Mrs. Besant on the use of Images in Religion.
Mrs. Annie Besant delivered a very interesting lecture on the above subject in the last meeting of the Kashi Tatva Sabha. The following is the summary of her speech:-
"This is a subject of great dispute in India. I have avoided the word "Idolatry" for it is always used with implication of something objectionable. "Murti" is translated, therefore, by the word Image." Image-worship in some form or other is found everywhere in all stages of civilization and at all periods of time. Human nature always craves for it and its form depends on the different stages of human development. Let us took at Europe. We find that images were used, images were to be found in Cathedrals, Churches, homes of the nobility, street, markets and other places throughout Christendom. Some 800 years ago Reformation was directed against the use of images. Owing to the growth of its abuse, it was identified with the objects worshipped. People made non-essential, essential and superstition took the place of a rational Image-worship. As reformation advanced the Puritans did away with Image-worship in England and Scotland. Images were broken down, the traces of which are still to be found. If you now go again you will find the image re-appearing. It is a very significant fact that human nature always yearns for an external object of worship. Images have appeared in the Churches, you will find images on the window-panes and the other places in the Church and Cathedral. This re-appearance of the public worship of image in the Church is a fact which goes to show the craving of human nature for an external object of worship. Images are used now but the central idea is kept clear – the object of worship is not identified with that object itself. In India very much the same thing has happened. Here image-worship was abused to a very great extent, and hence a certain section of the people revolted against it and attacked it because people began to lose sight of the central idea and identified it with the object of worship. But as you have seen in Europe it again appeared when people caught hold of the central idea, so it will not disappear today from India until and unless people fail to understand its real significance and fell into mere superstition. Take the case of those religions where its use is spoken against – Islam and Judaism. In Judaism all images are prohibited. The result was the art of the people died. All true arts are based on religious ideals. If you deprive them of the religious element they become vulgarized. The Jews made presentations of fruit in the temple of Solomon. Inside the temple they had a holy place where they had the arch – a symbol of Jewish polity. Islam has no representation of any divine form but every Mahomedan turns towards Mecca and goes round the Black stone. That black stone round which the Mahomdean pilgrims go is far from the image of Divine form for their religious purpose. Image worship stimulates and helps a man to think on concrete lines round which his thought can gather and claim affection. There are two kinds of the use of images: (1) Outer-physical image made of stones &c. It is included for them who cannot concentrate their thoughts on one particular point, and it greatly helps them in obtaining concentration. Thought is best fixed on it. (2) Mental image-worship. People create an image mentally in their minds. It is the second stage of devotion. You can't meditate unless you create a mental image. Protestants do pray and address Christ as Father. All these are images of mental concepts. There is one great us in Mental image-worship. People are more likely to identify the mental image to the object of worship than the physical image. Thought exercise is far more compelling power over mind than an external object. An external object is after all the mind representation of the object of worship, but a mental image makes a man completely forget the difference and thus it makes him fanatic and bigoted. Each one has a particular mental ideal and he is so absorbed in it that he decides his brother's conception of it. Thus mental image worship creates sectarianism and thus we find many sects springing up in the Protestant church. Those who thus worship by forming a mental conception say that they are nevertheless image-worshippers. One worships a gross form while the other a subtler one. Many people find it very helpful to have an image for the purpose of meditation and concentration. Hence we find the images of Christ and Buddha worshipped with great reverence. Mind is always going out after external objects, so it is very helpful to have an external object of worship on which the mind will very easily rest. To draw the mind from external words to which it is always flying, it is very necessary to choose one form. According to psychology it is very difficult to turn the mind from one thing to quite a different thing. So we can easily turn our mind from external objects by fixing a particular external object for our meditation and worship. If you have one object of worship the mind rests on it and other objects vanish from the mind. If you want to get rid on any idea don't fight against it, but try to get rid of it, by attracting to it something contrary. For instance if you want to control anger, don't revolt against it, but employ your mind to its opposite and it will vanish. Don't struggle against it, but deliberately think of its opposites. When a man worships a particular image his mind rests on it and remains fixed to it and other things drop away from it. So the use of image worship is of an immense help to the people, for it facilitates steadiness and concentration. If you want to communicate to some friend, have the photo of him. Try to vivify it by your memory of your friend and thus by constantly thinking of him you make the photo living and responsive. Your friend, in his mind will be attracted to you - his mental force will concentrate magnetically on that photo. Thus the photo will become a center of magnetic communication between you and your friend. Thus you can easily communicate with your friend. You do the same with the object of worship. By constantly meditating on the image you spread a magnetic film over it and thus attention of the objects of the image is drawn both kinds of worship, viz., by the help of a physical image and by the mental image, are identical. He who worships an outer image also tries to reproduce it in his mind and thus he tries to rise to subtler intellectual conception of the Great Existence. The majority of men cannot conceive of the infinite, boundless, and the void and therefore image worship, worship of Him in his limited and conditioned manifestation is very useful. Void is not a thing of which mind can rest. Whenever a person worships the universal Self he thinks of Him as pervading the whole of universe. For shrines, temples, all these sacred places are built only to form a magnetic communication between the Divine form and the worshipper. In old days men highly developed in occultism used to go from place to place to magnetize the images. The more a man worships an image with devotion the more magnetized it becomes. If you get a good photo you look at it with great affection and you find delight in seeing it because it responds to you. If it is true of a photo how far it is true of the images of Divine form placed in the shrine and temples. So the use of images in worship should not be disregarded and condemned. If a person cannot worship, concentrate and meditate without an image, let him have one by all means. If a man can better do the word without and work without an outer image, let him worship without it. If you want to reach a particular individual like Shri Krishna, Buddha and others, then an image will greatly help you – image makes a bridge between the worshipper and the worshipped and facilitates communication.
We must guard against the danger of the abuse. Let people worship image not as God Himself, but as a thing kept for His representation. Let people realize that image are the outer forms of the inner realities. It is the duty of the educated men to teach the people the real significance underlying image worship instead of condemning a thing which is a natural outcome of the yearning of human nature."