THE Sri Isopanisad (Mantra 13) declares:
anyad evahuh sambhavad
anyad ahur asambhavat
iti susruma dhiranam
ye nas tad vicacaksire
"It is said that one result is obtained by worshiping the supreme cause of all causes and that another result is obtained by worshiping what is not supreme. All this is heard from the undisturbed authorities, who clearly explained it."
This important verse tells us that in matters of worship, one must exercise discrimination. Since we exercise discrimination even in ordinary affairs, how much more careful should we be in spiritual concerns.
The Isopanisad says that we must first identify the supreme cause of all causes and then worship Him. Worshiping anyone else will yield different results. So it's not "all one," as popular belief might hold. Under the misconception that all is one, multitudes throng to all kinds of temples without seeing any fundamental distinction between them.
The task of identifying the Supreme is made difficult by the diverse family traditions coming down through generations and all manner of so-called gurus and sadhus dishing out their own concocted philosophies. Add to this confusion a mindboggling range of deities, and we have a heady mix potent enough to make the bewilderment of the public complete.
Therefore, proper knowledge coming down through a bona fide disciplic succession of saintly, self-realized souls (dhiras) is necessary. Our worship must be set on the firm foundation of genuine gurus, sadhus, and sastra (scripture).
From that standpoint, let's take a look at the wide variety of temples that abound. Let's begin with those that, although called temples, are not really temples at all, because the "deities" worshiped in them find no mention in the revealed Vedic scriptures. You might be surprised by how many such "temples" there are. One example: in some places one finds images of persons (often supposedly demigods) who are nonexistent or at best of dubious origin. Another example: in some places a powerful and charismatic human being is worshiped. For instance, in Tamil Nadu one finds "temples" where awe-struck admirers reverentially worship the "deity" of a former state chief minister, who was also a famous film star. Also in this category come temples of various persons who, without authoritative evidence, are considered in popular folklore to be saints, powerful mystics, or even God. Clearly, such worship has no spiritual value. It is just a waste of the worshiper's valuable human life.
Then there are "temples" devoted to various otherworldly beings such as nagas (snakes), bhutas (ghosts), pretas (spirits), and so on. Their worship, usually based on local customs, traditions, and superstitions, often involves spooky "possession" by a spirit or such abominable practices as the slaughter of animals (sometimes even humans). From the Bhagavad-gita we can understand that this is worship in tamo-guna, the mode of ignorance, and is therefore to be completely avoided by those who wish to rise to the spiritual platform, beyond the three modes of material nature.
Next we have the many temples dedicated to the major gods and goddesses, such as Siva, Ganesa, and Durga, in their multifarious forms. While the worship of demigods (devatas) is within the house of the Vedas, so to speak, Lord Krsna does not recommend such worship. Why? Because the devatas are not the Supreme. Any benefits they grant their worshipers are actually bestowed by the Supreme Lord, Sri Krsna, alone. The demigods are empowered representatives of the Supreme Lord entrusted with the administration of the universe. The power to discharge their functions comes from Sri Krsna. He is the fountainhead of all there is, including the demigods and the great sages, as He declares in Bhagavad-gita.
Apart from being Krsna's authorized representatives, the demigods are great devotees of the Lord. So one should respect them and never offend them. Yet the devotees of Lord Krsna know that the respect offered the demigods is due to their connection to Him. Devotees of Krsna do not see the demigods as independently worshipable.
The conclusion, therefore, is that since Lord Krsna is the supreme cause of all causes, one should worship Him and become His devotee. The temples of Krsna (or Visnu, His personal expansion) are nondifferent from the eternal spiritual world, and one can derive the greatest benefit of human life by visiting such temples, seeing the Lord's beautiful form with devotion, partaking of His prasadam (food offered to Him), and hearing and chanting His holy names and glories in the association of His devotees.
Devamrta Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Radhanatha Swami, holds master's degrees in finance and electrical engineering. He heads the thanatology department at the Bhaktivedanta Hospital at Mira Road, Mumbai. (Thanatology is the scientific study of death.)