Based on speeches of Kanchi Paramacharya and Kanchi Sankaracharya Sri Jayendra Saraswathi

Why do we Hindus need a moorti or an image of god to perform a puja? Indeed, why do we have so many gods – 33 crores or 330 million at the last count?

According our Sanatana Dharma, or ancient Hindu religion, there is really only One God. Every object, animate or inanimate, we believe is merely a manifestation of that One God. God is here, there, everywhere and does not have a form. Therefore, one form of worship according to our Dharma is in the Nirguna form.

Our Dharma also recognises that we, the ordinary men and women, have psychological limitations. Few, if any, of us can contemplate and focus on God in His abstraction without any physical features. For directing our mind towards God and keeping it steady during our prayers, we need a concrete image. So, the alternative form of worship is in Saguna form or a form with attributes – uruvavazhipadu in Tamil. Even religions that do not permit, or indeed object to, idol worship, tend to have some sacred or holy symbols. The Catholics worship the images of Virgin Mary and of Christ. All Christians hold the Cross in reverence and worship it as a sacred symbol. The face and figure of the Enlightened One are found all over the world and worshipped by Buddhists.

Although God is omnipresent and formless, for practical purposes of worship, He is conceived as being localised for the duration of worship in a particular object and form. The concrete image can be in stone, metal or clay, but, we need to be clear that it is not the physical material that we worship: we do not do ‘idol’ worship, it is the Deity symbolised by it that we worship. Therefore, before we actually worship the image, we go through a process of divinising it – praana pratishta.

God in his omnipresent nature is in each of us as well. So, while doing praana pratishta, we dip into our own divinity, but, before we do so, we first purify our own body, including praanas and sense organs. We do an Aatma puja - meditating on our inner aatman that is encased in ourselves. Then we transfer the vital airs and organs of perception and activities that are present in ourselves to the image through gestures and mantras and invoke the manifestation of our ishta devata or chosen form of God.

The logic behind this process is explained in the following prayer:

Swaatmasamsttham ajam suddham tvaamadya paramesvara
Aranyaamiva havyaasam moortau aavaahayaamyaham

‘O! Lord of the Worlds, you are in my heart; I invoke you in this moorti. Make yourself visible to me in my concentration’.

Once this is done, the moorti becomes fit for worship and we offer the puja. The saguna form of woship provides scope for abhishekam, archana, naamavali, neivedyam, kirtan, bhajans etc. The worship can be done alone or with many participating in it.

The various forms of the images that we worship are modelled after the description of divinities in our Puranas. Each of the 18 Puranaas written by Vedavyasa celebrates a different manifestation of the Surpreme. The different images help us visualise the relevant divinity described in the Puranaas. Typically their features emphasis the super-human and mysterious aspects. Thus we have the image of Devi with sixteen hands, Kumaran with six heads and twelve hands, Vishnu with four hands, Siva with a third eye and Ganesh with elephant face. To a devotee, they signify a puraanic event and evoke belief and faith.

Why do we have so many gods? In fact, we believe that there is only one God but for the purposes of worship we think of God in many ways. We have given a separate name to each of these forms to help us in our worship and contemplation. We think of the One as three, next as thirty three, and then as thirty three crores: all we really do is to recognise that the One manifests in infinite forms.

According to Gita, devotees can be classified into four main categories: people suffering form some ailment or other, those who want money and wealth, those who want certain things done and those who simply want to know the Lord! We choose a particular ishtadevataa depending on why we do a worship, but, happily add on other wishes, e.g., vinayaka primarily for removing obstacles, but for lots of other things including moksham, or, Lakshmi for wealth but for other blessings as well. While we believe that the ultimate God, or paramatman, displays some specific power in one ishtadevataa, we also believe that that devataa has got all other powers.

The Gita also says:

‘Yo Yo yam yam thanum bhakthyaa shradhayachinthum ichchathi
Thasya thasyachalaam shraddham thaameva vidhachaamyamam’

‘Whatever may be the form in which devotees seek to worship Me with reverence, I make their faith steadfast in that form itself’.