Most people misunderstand worship of the Deity to be a mere worship of dead stones
with imaginary forms. Let us understand the actual science behind it.
[Extracted from the book Idol Worship or Ideal Worship?, which is a conversation on the logical, philosophical, scriptural, and sociological aspects of Deity worship between two non historical personalities, the teacher Sanatana Swami (SS) and the seeker Rahul Vaidya (RV).]
SS: Deity worship is a powerful and practical method to gain sensory experience of the divine.
RV: Sensory experience of the divine? What does that mean?
SS: Generally our senses drag us away from the divine; among the most powerful of all the senses are the eyes, which crave alluring forms. For most people, resisting this sensory pull is extremely difficult, if not impossible. But resisting the pull toward the material is essential if we want to get closer to God, who resides on the nonmaterial, or spiritual, plane. That’s why curbing the unruly senses is an injunction common to all religions. Deity worship offers us an extraordinarily potent and easy method to help us follow this universal injunction. Deity worship provides a spiritual channel for the senses. Without Deity worship the appetite the eyes have for beauty has to be starved to death. But with Deity worship, that appetite can be satisfied by letting the eyes feast on the beautiful form of the Deity. Moreover, the devotees can express their love for the Deity by offering Him the best they can: gorgeous dresses and lavish decorations. The Lord does not need these things; it is we who are benefitted by offering Him garments and ornaments because such devotional offerings reduce our own infatuation with these things as objects for our own enjoyment. The Lord’s beauty is not dependent on what we offer Him He is the ornament of all ornaments but our eyes appreciate His beauty all the more when He is dressed and decorated artistically. Srila Bhaktivinoda Thakura explains the necessity of Deity worship: “For when spiritually neophyte people somehow become inspired to approach the Supreme Lord, if they do not find a Deity form of him, they may feel disappointed and disconsolate. The religions which have no provision for Deity worship face the danger that those children born into the religion and those just beginning spiritual life both of whom may have little or no understanding, or deep faith in Godhead may become overtly materialistic and even develop aversion toward the Supreme Lord as a result of the absence of a Deity form upon which to fix their minds. Therefore, Deity worship is the foundation of religion for general humanity.”
RV: Why will the lack of Deity worship lead to aversion to God?
SS: Approaching God requires that we give up our selfish sensuous desires. Giving up these desires is painful at least initially because we feel we are being deprived of our rightful enjoyment. Without practical spiritual methods like Deity worship, spiritual happiness remains largely an abstract, unrealized concept. So sometimes people tend to think that God is simply torturing them by demanding that they deny their senses, and they become averse to him.
And in fact we see this aversion evident in the rise of militant atheism in the West, where self proclaimed atheists imagine that religion is “the source of all evil” and mouth perverted slogans like “For humanity to live, religion must die.” These atheists want to eradicate God and religion from humanity’s cultural and intellectual landscape.
Another effect of rejecting Deity worship predicted by Bhaktivinoda Thakura is the increase of overt materialism. This is something we can see all over the world, and it is much more widespread than atheistic fundamentalism. People have been misled into rejecting the Deity as material, but because they are naturally attracted to forms, they have ended up idolizing material forms as if they were special. The sheer infatuation that people have for good looking film stars and entertainers borders on the ridiculous. The bodies of these stars are as material as ours; like ours, their bodies eject dirty excrements, become wrinkled with age, and end up deformed and dead in a few years. Still people adore the bodies of entertainers as if they were sacred; fans treasure shreds of their favorite actors’ clothes, fill their homes with photos of their sports heroes, and constantly think about and dream of meeting them.
To the spiritually astute eye, this is nothing but a perverted version of Deity worship. Instead of worshiping the true God, who has an eternally youthful and attractive form, and experiencing everlasting fulfillment, people are adoring false gods, physically attractive entertainers and sports heroes who can offer only temporary sensory titillation and often not even that. This form of idolatry is so rampant in our culture that it has even been acknowledged in the dictionary: the word idol is now defined as both “a material effigy that is worshipped” and “someone who is adored blindly and excessively.” In fact, a popular magazine that spreads gossip about matinee idols is named Stardust; the name belies, perhaps unintentionally, a perversion of Deity worship, wherein the devotee humbles him or herself in front of God by bowing down and taking the dust from his lotus feet.
People are also perpetually infatuated with forms they imagine will provide sexual gratification. So even more widespread than movie star worship is the “idolization” of the bodies of the opposite sex or of the same sex. The corollary of this infatuation is the obsession with one’s own body with dressing and decorating and perfuming and coifing it. People live and die with the hope of making their bodies sexually attractive enough that they can compete in the sexual marketplace. If only these people had the facility to direct their desires toward the Deity, then they would become free from their sickening infatuation with temporary forms.
RV: I never thought that the lack of Deity worship in our culture has such grave and far reaching ramifications.
SS (gravely): The ramifications reach even farther.
Ironically, the rise in hedonism we can call it materialistic fundamentalism is paralleled by a rise in religious fundamentalism, because they fuel each other. The fundamentalist religions feel alarmed by the rapid spread of rampant materialism, which jeopardizes their traditional values, and so they react by imposing religious doctrines all the more strictly including, unfortunately, the doctrines against Deity worship. These fundamentalists demand that everyone conform to their particular brand of rituals and deem all those who don’t threats, enemies, or “agents of Satan,” fit only to be terrorized and destroyed.
TO GOD THROUGH MATTER
Seen from a spiritual perspective, both material and religious fundamentalism are caused in the same way: by the inability to experience spiritual happiness. Materialistic fundamentalists respond to this inability by saying that all religion is a hoax and that there is nothing beyond matter. Confronted with this materialistic onslaught, religious fundamentalists want desperately to preserve their faith in a world beyond the material. But as they have rejected matter as profane and as they are not spiritually advanced enough to immediately experience nonmaterial happiness, they try to fulfill their craving for pleasure by substituting spiritual fulfillment with political achievement or power brokering in one form or another. Their religion then degenerates from the search for spiritual truth to the pursuit for power.
To save the world from being devoured by these two dragons of fundamentalism, we need to offer people tangible divine experiences of God, including direct experiences of the beauty and joy of serving him. Deity worship is one of the best ways to provide such experiences because it offers a channel through which our material senses can flow toward the source of spiritual happiness. Reverentially beholding the beauty of the Deities with our eyes, participating in the arati by singing prayerfully and dancing gracefully, bowing down respectfully and offering fervent prayers, circumambulating the Deity, ringing the temple bell, smelling the flowers offered to the Deity, drinking the sacred water that has bathed the Deity, receiving a sprinkle of the water offered to the Deity all these practical forms of Deity worship offer spiritual experiences one can touch through the material senses.
Deity worship is not merely an isolated ritual; it is the foundation and herald of a spiritual, God centered way of life. For the devotee who adopts Deity worship, the temple where the Deity resides becomes the heart of his or her community and the home altar where he worships a smaller Deity becomes the heart of his or her home. As the best part of the community generally the most beautiful or majestic building should be reserved for the Deity’s temple, so the best part of the home is reserved for the Lord’s altar. In this way, the Deity becomes the master of both the community and the home, not just figuratively, but literally. With the Deity present in the heart of the home, the devotee can more easily develop the consciousness of service that he or she is the servant of the Lord and all living beings. Devotees can lovingly offer to the Deity food they have cooked and then honor the Deity’s mercy in the form of prasada. By thus eating sanctified food, their lives become spiritualized.
Materialistic fundamentalism “worships” matter as the only reality and source of enjoyment, and religious fundamentalism states that since matter is the source of illusion, it must be entirely abandoned if one wants to make spiritual advancement. The Vedic culture, through Deity worship, cautiously and expertly utilizes matter to offer us glimpses of spiritual happiness. Thus Deity worship comprises a sound spiritual pathway that is a balanced intermediate between the two extremes of materialistic fundamentalism and religious fundamentalism. Therefore Deity worship is one of the greatest needs of the world today.
RV (impressed): Wow! That was quite an insightful analysis of the cause of the current problems of the world. But do you really feel that Deity worship can make such a big difference?
SS (emphatically): Yes. In fact, it is already making a significant difference.
RV (intrigued): How so?
DEITY WORSHIP GOES GLOBAL
SS: The very resilience and revival of Deity worship in India is a strong testimony of its living potency. Despite nearly a thousand years of physical and intellectual attacks by Semitic fanatics, Deity worship continues strong and is growing ever stronger. Today, millions of people daily flock to the thousands of temples that dot the Indian landscape. Even today, festivals centered on Deity worship, like the Jagannatha Ratha yatra, attract hundreds of thousands of people. In fact, in the sixty years since India achieved political freedom from Semitic rulers, Indians have built more temples than in the five hundred years prior to that. And these temples have been built not just in India by Indians but also outside India by non Indians.
This global spread of Deity worship is the harbinger of a new age of higher, spiritual consciousness. Srila Prabhupada, founder acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, is the pioneer of this new age. At the advanced age of sixty nine, he traveled alone to America and, within eleven years, empowered thousands of people to taste spiritual happiness and transform themselves into selfless servants of God and his children. He also inspired the building of 108 temples worldwide and established magnificent Deity worship in these temples. His followers have built several hundred more temples and expanded his legacy of Deity worship.
Why are Indians (and now non Indians) continuing to worship the Deity? Is it because they are being forced? No, not at all. Unlike the Semitic traditions, the Vedic tradition as it exists today in India doesn’t have any central enforcing authority to compel Indians to either worship the Deity or punish them if they don’t. Indians continue to worship the Deity because they experience God and His love through it.
RV (reflectively): That’s true. Deity worship is like a magnet that spontaneously attracts many Indians.
SS: Yes, Deity worship is at the heart of India’s spiritual culture. In fact, India’s spiritual culture is the most deep rooted and widespread among all the spiritual cultures in the world. That’s why India continues to attract serious spiritual seekers from all over the world, who brave diseases, lack of amenities, and cultural barriers to search for the spiritual treasures of India. And what is it that makes Indian spiritual culture so attractive? Many factors could be listed, but there’s no doubt that Deity worship would be among the top factors in the list. In fact, not only Indians but people all over the world are worshipping the Deity. Most of the non Indians who come as spiritual seekers to India are from Semitic cultures. Due to their past Semitic aversion to idolatry, most of them are initially skeptical or even averse to Deity worship. But the more venturesome among them are open minded enough to at least give the benefit of doubt to Deity worshippers: if the Deities are being worshipped by so many millions of people and these millions includes many educated, intelligent, compassionate, and saintly people, then surely there could be something more to Deity worship than the worship of “sticks and stones,” as Semitic dogma portrays it. When these open minded seekers inquire from competent spiritual teachers and come to know about the profound philosophy and meticulous practices that underly Deity worship, then they understand that Deity worship is as different from idolatry as light is from darkness.
The book Idol Worship or Ideal Worship? can be obtained either at the local ISKCON bookstalls or from Krishnakishoredas@gmail.com
Caitanya Carana Dasa holds a degree in electronics and telecommunications engineering and serves full time at ISKCON Pune. To subscribe to his free cyber magazine, visit thespiritualscientist.com