Mūrti: The Living Form of God

Whatever you wish to see, can be seen all at once within this body. This universal form can show you all that you now desire. Everything is here completely.

Bhagavad Gītā 11:7

I was late for the train back to Delhi, but Auntie was not bothered. “First things, first,” she announced. “The train will wait.”

Finishing up a long research trip in Madhya Pradesh’s central Indian hinterlands, I’d come back to Bhopal to catch the night train to Delhi. One of my friends had invited me to stay with her maternal aunt in that city. “She’ll love having you,” she assured me. And she did.

As one who relishes visiting temples and holy places, Auntie found in me a kindred spirit and took me to every famous temple—except one. And she wouldn’t let me leave until I met this living goddess.

Driving out of the city, we stopped at a riverbank. Auntie grabbed my hand and lifted her sari with the others as we both waded knee-deep through the flowing water. Then climbing up a steep bank on the other side, we reached the mouth of a cave. 

In its entrance stood a baba—the cave temple’s caretaker—decked in brilliant saffron robes, with dreadlocks reaching past his ankles. Learning I was a scholar, he narrated the story of how he’d come to serve the goddess inside. 

It began with his guru, the cave’s first resident. Once while the holy man was meditating, he heard a woman’s pleading voice, “Let me out. Let me out.” Following its source outside, he began digging at a spot of earth until he unearthed a mūrti—a “living statue”—of the goddess Sati. 

He installed her in his cave (now her temple) and where his disciple had invited me to take a seat. As he directed my gaze to meet the painted marble eyes of the goddess, I lost all memory of anything else. I fell into a deep meditative state. When I emerged I didn’t need the baba to tell me. I knew that goddess was no mere statue. She was alive.

Before I left the cave, the Baba asked me to take some photos. “So your students in America can have her blessing also,” he directed. 

I quickly clicked some shots and dashed back to my waiting taxi. Amazingly the train was indeed delayed. It pulled into the station just as I reached the platform. Arriving in Delhi, I raced to develop the film. I wanted to see that goddess again, but in every single photo I’d taken there was a smoky cloud obscuring her face. The remaining scenes were crystal clear—only her face was blurred. I concluded this was no mere idol. This was a living Being who didn’t want her photo shared. And the photo shop owner, a devout Hindu, agreed.  

Yet I feared ridicule in sharing my experience. More than any other aspect of Hindu dharma, the worship of “idols” and the belief in their living presence has been favored to attack. Swagato Ganguly in his Idolatry and the Colonial Idea of India suggests that during British rule, the colonizers used “idolatry” as their main means of suppressing Hindu beliefs and practices, denouncing it as the expression of a morally “inferior” race.

Even prior to the British Raj, whenever invaders “of the Book” encountered Hindu worship of deities, idols were smashed. The fear and loathing of Hindu “idolatry” stems from the Biblical prohibition of worshipping “golden idols,” or “false gods”—and became the moral high ground on which the entire subjugation of India was based.   

But a mūrti is not an idol. It’s a living “vessel” of manifestation, incarnation, and personification. It follows the same logic that if you want to drink water, you require a glass. If you want to become a human being, you take on a body. If you want to meet God, s(he) requires an embodiment—a form you can relate to.

That God is limitless (but needs to be “contained”) is at the heart of Vedic thinking. It forms the crux of classical Nyāya-Vaiśeṣikha philosophy that the whole is contained within the part. It’s behind the “body-positive” Tāntrika philosophical and practice traditions. And just as Śrī Kṛṣṇa’s foster mother, Yaśodara perceived the entire universe within the open mouth of her babe, the way to the formless is through form—as the Bhakti paths affirm. 

Yet what’s actually being worshipped as mūrti (often “lost in translation” as “false” gods) is clarified by the Vedic understanding of matter itself. Name and form are identical in Vedic Sanskrit. There’s no separation between the inner vibrational structure and the outer shape of any object in nature. The name for an apple, for example, is the same as its form. 

Likewise, the gods are invoked with Sanskrit mantra. When recited according to precise meter, the Vedic “gods and goddesses” (deva/devī) are provided a sonic mūrti through which to enact their laws. The deity’s mantra is its “shape,” determined by a specific pattern of anudatta (low), udatta, (medium) and svārīta (high) tones—that create a wave with gaps for the deity to take form. 

In order to experience Savitrī (the goddess of Dawn), for example, a brahmin chants the Gayatrī meter in an arrangement of 24 low, medium and high tones to define her “shape,” which is the 24-hour day. The Vedic invocation ascribes the solar day’s mūrti through which the sun’s blessings are made approachable in the shape of the hours.

Vedic invocation is the science behind “installing” a living mūrti within a temple that becomes elaborated in the later Tāntrika and Bhakti traditions. The physical form of the deity is carved according to the rules of the Śilpa Śāstras (treatises on sculpture) with materials that resonate with its mantra or sonic form. After installing it in the temple’s “womb center” (gārbha gṛha), the life of the mūrti is enlivened through chanting its mantra. Its prāṇa (life force) is literally chanted into being (prāṇa pratiṣtha). 

Just as the Divine first spoke the world into creation, the mūrti reflects back that spoken arrangement. It becomes a living portal to the infinite. When her eyes are opened, she sees you. You see her. The cycle is complete.