In Hindu marriage rituals , ‘ gau daan ‘ ( gift of a cow ) precedes ‘ Kanya daan ‘( giving away of the bride ) . In agricultural societies , gift of a cow, apart from being considered auspicious , provided sustenance to the family in many ways. As society became urbanized, this practice has been largely abandoned as keeping and tending to a cow in an urban milieu is difficult. The attending priest, therfore, resorts to symbolism by making a cow of mud and dung.
Symbols are a mundane representation of abstract reality as perceived. Most of the religious scriptures, including Hindu scriptures, describe God as beyond comprehension as He is beyond attributes and beyond grasp of human intelligence.
Arjuna entreated Lord Krishna to reveal His divine form ( Gita XI.4 ) ” But surely you cannot see Me with your gross eyes : therefore I vouchsafe to you the divine eye to enable you to behold My divine power of yoga “.
Gita propounds four ways to reach God viz GYAN yoga or path of knowledge, KARM yoga or yoga of selfless action, DHYAN yoga or path of meditation and BHAKTI yoga or path of devotion. The last mentioned path is said to be superior to all other paths as the devotee renounces the feeling of doership in all undertakings and surrenders to His will- ” That devotee is dear to Me ” ( Gita XII.16 ).
It is , however, difficult for ordinary mortals , like us, to concentrate on an abstract God. Hindus have, therefore, devised a simpler method of giving form and image to Gods and Goddesses, according to one’s choice and beliefs , in symbolic form. Even followers of other faiths have devised some symbols of veneration . For instance, Christians venerate crucifix which is an image of Christ on Cross, Muslims bow to Kaaba in Mecca , Sikhs hold Guru Granth Sahib with great reverence and prostrate before It… etc. Humans need some concrete symbol of God or avatar or Guru through whom they may pay pay their obeisance to their object of worship. For the wandering attention we need some fixed point or a tangible object of concentration.
Hindu scriptures , particularly Vedas , extend their object of worship to Elements of Nature which are considered manifestation of the Supreme as the sustainer of life like the sun, the earth, the mountains, the rivers, the trees etc as God is considered to be Immanent and all pervading. The symbolic form could be in the shape of a mud or stone idol or painting. However, it is not the shape that matters but the feeling or intensity of devotion. In fact, in many old temples the shape is indecipherable but still being the object of veneration. Similarly the practice of offering animal sacrifice in some Kali temples , which was a hangover of shamanic rituals followed by tribals , has largely been refined and given symbolic form of breaking coconuts . A humane and sublime gesture as which God or goddess would be pleased with blood splatterd in His / Her temple.
It often so happens that while paying obeisance to an idol in whatever form, we begin to confuse it for Reality. The idol becomes the deity and we get attached to it. We begin to lose sight of the ultimate Reality- which transcends all human attributed shapes, forms and images. GOD IS ESSENTIALLY ONE AND WITHOUT FORM, HENCE , FIGURATIVELY SPEAKING, CAPABLE OF ASSUMING ANY FORM. Lord Krishna says in the Gita, ” maya tatmidam sarvam, jagadvyakta murtina ” ( Ch.IX.4 ) -that the God dwells in the cosmos in formless form …and further in Verse 15, ” …the gyanyogis worship Me in My Absolute and Formless aspect…while still others worship me in My Universal Form in many ways, taking Me in diverse celestial forms “.
Shakespeare used symbolism to call ” All the world’s a stage/ And all men and women merely players “. We perform different and diverse roles on this stage as assigned by God, the Director. We have no choice in selection of a particular role – tragic or comical. How well we perform this assigned role is , however, entirely on us. WE HAVE FREE WILL TO THAT EXTENT. How well we have performed our respective roles is left to the judgement of the God through our Karmas.