Conceptual thinking is hard to the many. To contemplate upon the formless and therefore the Transcendental Essence is given but to a few. The majority needs some grosser expression of the Pure and the Infinite, for their mind to conceive It and their intellect to contemplate upon It. These ‘symbols’ of the Supreme Truth are called the idols.
Thus, an idol represents an ideal. When we do not know the ideal which a given idol represents, it is something like seeing a portrait in a studio! If it were my beloved’s portrait I would have seen in it more than what the black-and-white picture represents.
In the same way the religious symbols and idols have a deeper depth for us to discover, over and above their mere external shape, the general forms of the symbol and, in each, even the exact arrangements of its various aspects.
To bring out eloquently the voiceless beauty and joy of the Infinite, through unsaid significances of Its finite expressions and symbols, is called Mysticism. All religious idols are mystic symbols. To learn the art of interpreting them is to experience a harmony in our devoted contemplations heard without ears, seen without eyes!
(Source: Extracts from the Introduction to Symbolism In Hinduism published by Chinmaya Mission)