Idolatry vs worship of Sri Murti explained by Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasva

In this text from Ray of Visnu chapter 13, Srila Bhakti Siddhanta Sarasvati discusses the difference between Idolatry and worship of Sri Murti with an American Professor.

Introduction to the discussion:

[Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, herein clearly describes the situation that he, and later, Srila Sarasvati Thakura were forced to combat in their preaching. Bengalis, in particular, and Indians, in general, had largely been made into foreigners in their own land, due to the British Sanskritists and educators, who had portrayed Vedic literature and culture as something recent, barbaric, and inferior. Prabhupada once commented that by this tactic, the British were able to do more harm to Indian culture and religion in their short period of rule than the Mohamedans were ever able to do in their much longer one. To this day, although Indian pride in their great cultural and religious antecedents is more developed due to the efforts of Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura, Srila Sarasvati Thakura, Srila Prabhupada and others, still the Sanskrit dictionaries, text books on Indian religion and culture, etc. reflect this cultural bias, the result of deliberate undermining work done by the British in Indological studies with the disguised intention of asserting the superiority of their own Christian-based cultural values and outlook.]

In 1929 Sarasvati Thakura had a series of meetings with Professor Albert E. Suthers of Ohio State University and spoke to him on a number of topics, including Vaisnavism and Christianity, transmigration, evolution, idolatry, and avataras. Professor Suthers had come from Bombay to do research for his course in comparative religions at Ohio State University. He went to Calcutta to meet Srila Sarasvati Thakura, who was at that time in Krishnanagar. So the professor journeyed there and heard from him for three days consecutively. The professor, as will be seen, was initially very argumentative and skeptical, but was clearly very impressed with Srila Sarasvati Thakura's presentation, and concluded his visit with a pilgrimage to the birthsite of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu. Although the following exchanges are a bit lengthy, they are representative of the type of questions posed by Western intellectuals who met Srila Sarasvati Thakura in the course of his preaching, and are entirely relevant for our preachers today, who can study the masterful presentation of Vedic culture and philosophy by Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura as the pinnacle of all human thought and potential.

Professor Suthers: I am able to feel the super-excellence of the Vaisnava philosophy among the Indian Philosophies. But to my mind, the acceptance of idolatry in the Vaisnava philosophy like the other Indian philosophies seems to be a stigma in it.

Srila Sarasvati Thakura: Idolatry has never been accepted in the Vaisnava philosophy; on the other hand, it has been more or less accepted in the other philosophies, at least mentally, if not in so many words. In the very word 'Bhagavan' (God) have accumulated all the excellences that are there in the human and supra-human conceptions. The existence of Majesty, viz., the furthermost limits of both vastness and minuteness, is a characteristic of God. The second characteristic is His Omnipotence. If one understands the word 'omnipotence' to mean what is conceivable by the human intellect or what is possible for man, one is wrong. God is Omnipotent, because what is impossible according to the human intellect is within the ambit of the inscrutable power of God. Due to His inscrutable power, He is simultaneously both with and without Form. It will be the denial of His inscrutable power, if you say that He cannot have His Form, or He has not his Eternal Form, only having a Form for the time being, none in the end. By dint of his inscrutable power, He is with His Eternal Sportive Form before a liberated soul conversant with the service of His Potencies. Contemplation only on formlessness is rather unnatural and devoid of all differential excellence. God is always All-Good, All-Glory and All-Beauty. His Beauty is visible only to the transcendental eye. God is the Transcendental Reality, Pure, Full and sentient in essence and Sentient Essence is His Form.

It is true that God has no material body, but He has His Sat (eternal), Cit (all-Sentient), Ananda (all-Blissful), Transcendental Body visible only to the eye that is clear (devoid of matter). To the material eye, God is Formless, but to the transcendental eye He is with His Body of Cit or All-Sentience. The Murtis (forms of body) prepared and worshipped by those who have not seen this Cit-Body of God with their true and eternal eye cleansed with the collyrium of the Love of God are of course idols and all the worshippers of those idols must be idolators. The worship of murtis of God prepared from imagination may be called idolatry. Suppose I, who have not seen Jacob, make a murti of his out of imagination, this murti is not the replica of his form. Besides, if Jacob is a creature of this world, whose body, mind and soul are different from one another, his photograph being only the replica of his material body is different from his eternal and intrinsically true form. But God with His Sat-cit-ananda Body is not such a thing; His Body and Soul are not different from each other; nor are his Name and Soul, His Attribute and Figure, His Attribute and Soul, His Sport and Soul, His Sport and Figure, His Sport and Attribute, different. If a pure entity or unmixed soul sees that Eternal Form of God and receives It in his own pure receptacle and then places this Transcendental Form in the world from his heart as illuming the intrinsically and essentially true Form of God, that never deserves to be called an idol. Just as even by coming down to this phenomenal world, God remains untouched by the influence of maya by dint of His inscrutable power, so does His true Form, too, as revealed to the unmixed entity of His devotee, remain above it even though brought down here. For this reason the Vaisnava philosophy terms Sri-murti as His 'Arcavatara' (Worshipable Descent). The conception of God without Form in contra-distinction to His Essential Form is as calamitous as is the falsely imagined Form of God for one competent to see His True Form. Such insignificant processes occur before attaining to the Real Entity and do only grope in the darkness. The Sri-Vigraha of the Vaisnava philosophy cannot but be the direct indication of the Essential Form of God. By way of an imperfect comparison it may be said to be the proxy of the essential Form of God which is beyond the cognizance of the material eye, just as there are, in art and science, crude representations of invisible matter.

How can those, that have not in their heart Love of God which is the true function of the soul and is the science of the true knowledge of realities, think of the Sri-murtis (Sri-Vigrahas) as other than idols? The deliberations of the Vaisnava philosophy are very fine. These have shown by true scientific analysis that they are all, more or less, idolaters who declare themselves as partisans either of the doctrine of no Form of God or that of His material Form. Just as those who attribute God-ship to matter and worship it like the fire worshippers among the uncivilised people or the worshippers of the planets, such as Jupiter, Saturn, etc., of Greece, are crude idolaters, in a similar manner the others, who declare everything beyond matter as formless, and become exponents of the doctrine of non-distinction, are equal or even greater idolaters. The Henotheists or worshippers of one of the Vedic deities or the worshippers of the five deities (called Panchopasakas) worship imaginary icons, considering them as God. According to them, God has no Sat-Cit-Ananda-Vigraha, and as without some form there can be no subject for contemplation, to make it easy to meditate on Him, some form has got be imagined. They are all idolaters. So also is the conduct of some of the yogis and others to be regarded as idolatry, who, for purifying their heart or improving the functions of the mind, imagine a God and perform practices of contemplation, etc., of some imaginary form of His. Those who consider jivas as God are the most blasphemous idolaters, because to imagine any worldly thing or form as God is idolatry.

There is a world of difference between the worship of Sri-murtis as ordained by the Vaisnava philosophy and the doctrines of God with Form and without Form of the other thinkers. Mahaprabhu Sri Caitanya Deva has refuted all sorts of idolatry and instructed the service of the Arcavataras of the All-merciful God of Inscrutable Potency.

Professor Suthers: (amazed) I have truly been astonished to hear from your Holiness these mysteries of the Vaisnava philosophy and their scientific analysis with the most reasonable arguments. I could not even think before that there are in the Vaisnava philosophy such excellent solution, corroboration and elucidation of the problems of Indian philosophy.