[ The following is in response to questions from students in yoga teacher training that feel apprehension about chanting mantras that refer to Hindu and other idols; as this often seems to oppose their Christian (or other) non-Hindu ideologies. ]
The mantras we chant in yoga training are about the science of vibration and reflection on Holy Attributes; or that which governs harmony in the universe such as the universal virtues. It is not about the worship of an image or statue but the virtues such things remind us of. We never worship "things," but only the universal ideals they represent. When images are involved we are to think of them as tools for contemplation, not objects of worship. But usually there is not even an image associated to what we chant. Usually the meaning comes just like a prayer, but it also has specific qualities of vibration.
For example, chanting the sound OM brings us into harmonic resonance with the universe – this is a scientific fact. OM is said to vibrate at 432 Hertz, which is the natural musical pitch of the Universe, as opposed to 440 Hertz, which is the frequency of most modern music. All of the mantras have such vibrational qualities that help us balance the energies inside of us.
Decreasing your frequency to coincide with that of the Universe stills the fluctuations of the mind, allowing you to practice yoga through sound. OM is an idyllic way to begin and end a yoga or meditation practice, and also comes in handy when you just need to chill out. Furthermore, some have traced the origins of saying a long drawn out congregational "Amen" back to "Om." They feel very alike vibrationally and both seal in meaning for us.
Hinduism is actually a Monotheist Faith
Most people are surprised to hear this, but all of the so called idols in Hinduism are actually meant to represent the Highest Ideals, Attributes or Virtues of the One God of all of us. In nearly all traditions it is either eluded to or said directly that the Virtues are the greatest example of the Image of God (and that God is above all attributes as well). For example when you see "Compassion" you are seeing the image of God.
Another common misconception is that Hindus believe they can become One with God. This is true in the sense that we can align our self with God's Will in the sense that God can then work thru us. However, we are not God anymore than a painting can become equal to the Artist which has painted it. But God is the spark of life in all of us and all creation.
Again, the idol is a representation of the ideals - the virtues. Thus when we need strength we can think of how God made the elephant: a long nose/trunk represents breath control, the large size represents being very present, the weight represents being grounded, and so on. Hindu took this concept and personalized it with a name. In this case, Ganesh, the half human half element idol/ideal that is mainly reflected upon for "removing obstacles" in our life. Reflecting on these attributes of Ganesh can remind us to cultivate them in our self. In this way not only do we get thru the obstacles in our life but we cultivate the virtues of Ganesh in the process. And that is what this life is all about, to cultivate the heavenly virtues so that we can reflect more and more of the Image of God into the world.
All of God's creation (earth, water, fire, air, space and their endless combinations/endless forms) is here to teach us how to grow in mind, body, and spirit. In other words, there is wisdom in contemplating and cultivating the virtues of Gods creation. But there is something else, something deep and remarkable, but jives without both Christian and Hindu scriptures.
In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.
You probably know the above passage from the Old Testament but it comes, identically, from the Rig Veda of Hindu scriptures as well. This passage says so much about the meaning of life. First their is God, which is also the word, which is also the heavenly/Godly attributes. God made creation to make Himself known; even though God is ultimately unknowable to us. But we can know God's attributes which are expressed through creation -or the 5 elements. In short, it is our interaction with this world that demonstrates to us Gods attributes and helps us to reflect them as well. Furthermore, besides the virtues withing the elements there is also the vibration they give off. This is too much to go into here, but ultimatley you alreaady know this. You know that hate can lead to words of a very low and destructive vibration. You also know that love gives off vibrations that can not only heal but empower.
Thus besides the intention with the Word there is also a vibrational influence; and this is what makes the difference between a prayer from the human heart and a "revealed prayer" that we find in scriptures and are passed down through the ages. Prayers from the heart are great, but revealed prayers and mantras have both great power in their meaning as well as their vibration.
Nevertheless, most of the mantras we chant have no image to contemplate and translate into ideals people of all faiths share, such as this translated mantra:
"Lead us from untruth to truth, from darkness to light and from fear to eternal life."
And This one:
"O Lord, bring in that sin destroying light that guides us in the right direction."
But when we do chant a mantra that also has an image for contemplation, these should never be mistaken for that which even Hinduism considers as false idols; such as "things" like money, power, materialism and all things perishable.
When we do sometimes chant the Shiva mantra and/or the Ganesh mantra we should understand Shiva dancing in a ring of fire or as a part of the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva; and if you understand what these three energies are about you cannot help to see its correspondence to the "Father, Son and Holy Ghost." - As well as Mind, Body and Spirit, and not to mention Protons, Neutrons and Electrons,.. i could go on for a while here. But even Hindu's explain this trinity to westerners as G. O. D: Generator Operator and Destroyer.
Such "cross referencing for truth" as we call it in the training can actually help one to deepen their understanding in their own Faith. One of the miracles of scripture is that such terms as Father, Son and Holy Ghost can work with both the simple minded while also holding mysteries that can appeal to those who like to dig deep. We think this is what students who come to our yoga training are thirsty for; and you will find this theme again and again throughout the training. This deeper understanding of such things is also desperately needed in this new age we live in. In other words, such understanding can also be a bridge to understanding among the followers of the worlds religions. And bonding the worlds religions together as one, like the bonding of One Holy Book with its many successive chapters (the world religions revealed thru the ages), is the greatest Yoga (peace, union, oneness, harmony) humans will ever achieve; with Gods help!
There are far more similarities among the religions than divisions. If people could focus on those there would be no time to see the differences; and most of them would also prove to be false differences. The religions are in complete agreement, but often the followers are too preoccupied with the differences that they cannot reach the awesome realization of their utter and complete Oneness.
Ultimately however, to answer those who feel apprehension about chanting more succinctly: No, you do not have to chant the mantras. It is not required of you. However, while others are doing it i would invite you to contemplate the meanings behind them which i will explain repeatedly throughout the training. For example, that dance of Shiva in a ring of fire teaches us about the dance of life: light and darkness, good times and bad times, hot and cold. As we repeatedly experience all the so called opposites, eventually we no longer perceive their illusions of being opposite. We find that no such thing is an obstacle, but rather a steeping stone. That "what's in the way Is the way" to wisdom. We become more evened out, equanimous, peaceful; and we have depth.
Nevertheless, you could also just feel the vibration inside of you instead of contemplating the meaning. The vibration has the power to bring about vibrational balance. Again, it brings new meaning to the Old testament concept of the "creative word", which holds both meaning / intention and vibration. Again, we will go into this in the training at some point; and even see and feel examples of how negative words and vibrations can change how we feel; it is a high science that western science has only recently begun to acknowledge and prove.