Mata Amritanandamayi: What is worshipped is not the idols per se, but the all-pervading divinity. Idols are symbols of that divine principle; they are means of fostering concentration. We teach children about birds like parrots and mynahs by pointing to their pictures and saying, “This is a parrot,” or “This is a mynah.” That is necessary at a young age. When the children have grown up, they do not need pictures to distinguish between the birds. Similarly, for ordinary people, idols and other such means are necessary initially to fix their minds on divine consciousness. When we progress sincerely in our sadhana (=spiritual practice), the mind will be able to concentrate without the aid of external forms. Idols are a good means of enabling the mind to concentrate.
Moreover, one cannot say that God does not dwell in the idol. If He dwells in all moving and unmoving beings, we should realise that He is present in idols, too. Idol worship trains the mind to behold God in all sentient and insentient matter in the universe so that we can cultivate a heart that can love and serve all.
Suppose a man presents his lover with a gift. The gift might cost just five paisa. Nevertheless, the lover sees her beloved in that gift. Even though the flag of a country or a political party may cost only a few rupees, we will not permit anyone to spit on it because that flag is not just a piece of cloth; when it has been elevated to the stature of a flag, it denotes a lofty ideal. We respect and rever it. In the same way, what we behold in an idol is God Himself. The idol is a mirror that reflects the divine consciousness inhering in us. Standing before the idol, we close our eyes in prayer. Therefore, the idol helps the mind turn inwards towards God, who is the antaryami, the in-dweller.
Religions that oppose idol worship themselves engage in idol worship in one way or another,. Christians worship the cross; Muslims worship in the direction of the Kaaba—these are just different forms of idol worship,. The possible drawback of idol worship is that people might become attached to the idol without understanding the principle behind it. But if the principle is understood through spiritual discourses, scriptures or study, then, there is no problem. We should strive to offer such services in temples.
Source: pgs. 6 – 7, Matruvani, Sept 2013, Vol. 25