Idolatry is bad; not so, idol worship.
An idolator makes a fetish of his idol. An idol worshipper sees God even in a stone
and takes the help of his idol to reach union with God.
Master: Do you like to meditate upon God as `with form' or `without form'?
Disciple: I should like to meditate upon God as the Formless rather than as the Being `with form'.
Master: That is good. There is no harm in looking at Him from this or that point of view. Yes, to think of Him as the Formless Being is quite right. But take care you do not run away with the idea that that view alone is true and all others false. Meditating upon Him as a Being `with form' is equally right. But you must hold to your particular point of view until you see God, when everything will become clear.
Sir, one may hold that God is `with form'.
But surely He is not the earthen images that are worshipped?
Master: But why should you call it an earthen image? Surely the Image Divine is made of the Spirit?
Disciple: But is it not one's duty Sir, to make it clear to those who worship images that God is not the same as the clay forms they worship, and that in worshipping they should keep God Himself in view and not the clay images?
Master: It has grown to be a fashion with you Calcutta people, to think and talk only of `lecturing' and `bringing others to light'. Pray how are you going to bring light unto your own self? Eh? Who are you to teach others? The Lord of the Universe will teach mankind if need be -- that Lord who has made the Sun and the Moon, men and brutes, the Lord who has made things for them to live upon, who has made parents to tend and rear them, -- that Lord who has done so many things, will He not do something to bring them also to light? Surely, if need be, He will. He lives in the temple of the human body. He knows our inmost thoughts. If there is anything wrong in image worship, does He not know that all the worship is meant for Him? He will be pleased enough to accept it knowing that it was meant for Him alone. Why must you worry yourself about things above you and beyond your reach? Seek to know and revere God. Love God. That is the duty nearest you.
You were talking of `images made of clay'. Well, there often comes a necessity of worshipping even such images as these. God Himself has provided these various forms of worship. The Lord has done all this -- to suit different men in different stages of knowledge.
The mother so arranges the food for her children that every one gets what agrees with him. One gets rich pilav with the fish, while she gives only a little soup to another who is of weak digestion; she makes a sauce of sour tamarind for the third, fries the fish for the fourth and so on; exactly as it happens to agree with the stomach. Don't you see?
Disciple: Yes Sir, now I do, The Lord is to be worshipped in the image of clay as spirit by the beginner. The devotee, as he advances, may worship him independently of the image.
Master: Yes. And again when he sees God, he realizes that everything -- image and all -- is a manifestation of the Spirit. To him the Image is made of Spirit, not of clay. God is Spirit.
The Master has said elsewhere: "God is present everywhere; but he manifests himself especially in the sacred place of a temple worshipped by devotees. Water can be had anywhere if you dig deep in the ground. But where there is a lake or a tank, one has not to dig for it, but can get it whenever when one needs it and wants it.
The Master's statement: "When one sees God, one realizes that every thing is a manifestation of the Spirit" is explained with two examples by Tirumoolar in Verses 2289 and 2290 of the 8th Section of his Tirumantiram (Tamil) :
Tirumoolar's Tirumantiram - 8th Tantiram
2289 Thought Process for Self-Realization
Think of gold
maraththai maRaiththathu mAmatha yAnai
maraththin maRainthathu mAmatha yAnai
paraththai maRaiththathu pArmuthal bhUthaM
paraththin maRainthathu pArmuthal bhUthamE
2290 Sublimation of Thought
Think of wood