Harih Om. It is not uncommon to be faced with the ageless, boring question: “If Bhagavan is formless why go to a temple and worship idols”. Ever so often, these are the queries posed by zealous Islamists on the internet, who make it their business to style themselves after a Wahabi mindset.
1) Because a form is a representation of all the qualities of Ishvara, in full Cosmic glory. Take for instance a mUrti of Shiva BhagavAn. The damaru (drum) represents the?k?sha (space), the gangA flowing in his hair represents the Apa? (water), his matted locks represent the vAyu (air) princple that blows and needs to be matted down; the moon on his head (hence he is called chandrashekhar, the one whose head is adorned by the moon) represents kala, time. The ajNa chakra (third eye) represents kAlAgni, the fire which decimates the universe, and finally, the vibhUti (ash) on his body represents the pRthvi (earth) element.
2) By looking at any single form of Ishvara, we are not just focusing on one entity, but on the WHOLE TOTALITY that exists. Hence though everything is Ishvara, there is nothing contradictory about doing pUjA to the forms of Ishvara
3) Unlike the Muslim obsession that Allah is formless, we are a bit more sensible than that. If Allah is formless, this world clearly has forms, and hence Allah must be separate from the world, and if Allah is separate from the world in some far-away place called heaven, then automatically he becomes a small, limited, tiny, being, because the entire universe of names and forms is different from him, and he exists in one small pocket of space called heaven. That makes Allah not very different from any other living creature. Moreover, if Allah is considered formless, why is he described as ‘sitting’ on a throne? How does the formless sit on a formed throne, does he have a tailbone with a form that allows him to do so? It’s very, very strange.
4) If, like the Muslim alluded, we don’t need temples, why then does the Muslim go to the Haj pilgrimage? If their god is so called ‘formless’, why do they need to bow down ONLY in the direction of the kaabaa, no matter where in the world they are?
5) Muslims worship forms, they just don’t know it. A form is anything that can be identified. The very Arabic inscription of ‘Allah’, is in itself a form. Certainly it isn’t formless. The very word ‘Allah’ is a form, because every Muslim who reads the inscription recognizes it as ‘Allah’. So truly, Muslims do worship forms, but in their ignorance and bias against vaidikas, they forget the definition of a form.
6) For Hindus, Ishvara is formless, and ALSO the sustainer of all forms. Every form that is there, is nothing but a manifestation of Ishvara alone, which means, unlike Allah, NOTHING is separate from Ishvara… he does not sit in some far off place in heaven like Allah; the very space, time, matter, energy, life- all of this is Ishvara- IshAvAsya idam sarvam- all that is here is only Ishvara, as taught in the IshAsyopanishad. The very material substance of the universe is Ishvara. Every form is Ishvara, and yet Ishvara is also distinct from the forms… just as every wave is water, but each wave appears different- some are big; like a tsunami, some are small; like a ripple. Does water have a form? Yes, in one sense it does, as a wave. And in another sense, water has no form, because every form is water alone. Same applies for Ishvara.
7) Hence we refer to Ishvara as saguNa brahman in the form-ful aspect, and nirguNa brahman as the formless aspect. This makes our philosophy complete, water tight, and definitely non-negatable by ANY person from other faiths who find the necessity to educate us, when their own philosophy is completely incongruent with logic and common sense.
Taking human birth is a rare incident, as VivekachUDAmaNi talks about, being born in a Vedic household where the highest truths that exist are unfolded is even rarer, and to be able to understand it and live by it is the rarest. I hope we all study our scriptures diligently and take stock in what we do.