“How can we worship our deities, who are not manifest before us, if we neglect the worship of our parents, who stand right before our very eyes?” (Lord Rama speaking to Sita Devi, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 30)
Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead according to the Vedas, expanded Himself in human form as Lord Rama many thousands of years ago in the town of Ayodhya in India. Born into the very noble Ikshvaku family, the Lord was raised as a pious prince, strictly dedicated to the rules of dharma, or religiosity.
As the eldest son of the king, Lord Rama was next in line to succeed His father, Maharaja Dashratha. When Rama reached the appropriate age, all the plans were put in place for His coronation. As it so happened, events took a different twist, with Dashratha choosing Bharata as the new king instead. Bharata was Lord Rama’s younger brother and son of Kaikeyi, Dashratha’s youngest wife. Making matters worse, Rama was also ordered by His father to spend fourteen years living in the forest as an exile. These requests were actually made by Kaikeyi, but Dashratha was forced to agree to them due to promises he had previously made to her. The Lord, being magnanimous and ever devoted to His father’s interests, gladly accepted such a punishment. Prior to leaving for the forest, Rama had to tell His wife Sita Devi the bad news. In opposition to her husband’s desires, she insisted on coming along to the forest. After she had delivered a heartfelt plea, the Lord agreed to her coming along.
Lord Rama, in allowing Sita to accompany Him to the forest, wanted to make sure she knew that He hadn’t changed His mind about following Dashratha’s orders. Though she may have convinced Him to change His mind regarding her going to the forest, she had not changed His mind regarding His desire to follow His parents’ orders and to leave the kingdom. In the above referenced statement, the Lord is describing the importance of worshipping and respecting one’s parents, even more so than respecting the deity of the Lord.
In the Vedic tradition, one of the central components of religious life is the process of archanam, or deity worship. The deity is the physical representation of Krishna, God Himself. Though many mistake it for mundane idol worship, worshiping and respecting a deity is an authorized process. God isn’t always physically present before us. However, due to His causeless mercy, He is kind enough to appear in front of us in His deity form. Usually a statue or a picture, the deity is to be treated in the same way as one would treat God Himself. Lord Krishna in fact laid out the processes for archanam to His dear friend Uddhava just prior to returning to the spiritual world some five thousand years ago.
A deity is worshiped by caring for it, similar to how one would care for one’s child. It is bathed regularly, in what is known as an abhishek. It is also dressed daily. Most important of all, the deity gives us an opportunity to offer prayers and obeisances directly to God. We tend to think of God when we are in trouble or if we want something, but in actuality, we should think of Him out of pure love. The deity allows us to see God, thus we automatically can think of Him in a loving way.
The process of deity worship may seem very difficult to some, since the statue or picture is inanimate by itself. One not accustomed to such a process will find it very difficult to perform proper worship in the beginning stages. This is the exact point made by Lord Rama in the above referenced statement. It’s not so easy to develop an attachment to something simply by looking at it. Lord Rama advises us to worship our parents, who are physically present before us.
The Vedas, like most other religions, enjoin that one should worship and honor one’s parents. They are our first spiritual masters. A newborn child is completely helpless and cannot survive on its own. It needs the protection and guidance of its parents. For this reason alone, parents are worthy of our reverence. They serve as our first teachers, guiding us along the rocky road of life, teaching us right and wrong and steering us away from things that are bad for us. Respecting our parents shouldn’t be a strange concept since most of us instinctively love them.
The Vedas declare that after our parents give us our initial guidance, the spiritual master is the next person from whom we should take instruction. The spiritual master, or guru, is Lord Krishna’s direct representative on earth. He is to be treated as good as God, and his instructions are to be followed without question. Through this system of respect, one gradually becomes detached from sense gratification, making them fit for fulfilling the real mission in life, that of connecting with God.
Our parents and the elderly sometimes may go astray, but the laws of dharma tell us that we should still respect them. A great example in this regard can be found in the Mahabharata. The Bharata war involved two families, who were related as cousins, fighting over a kingdom. The Pandava brothers, the rightful heirs to the kingdom, were headed by Maharaja Yudhishthira, who was very pious. The other side, known as the Kauravas, was headed by Duryodhana, whose father was Dhritarashtra. Dhritarashtra knew very well that the Pandavas were the rightful heirs to the kingdom since they were the sons of his late brother Pandu. However, Dhritarashtra turned a blind eye to the unlawful usurpation of their kingdom by his sons, headed by Duryodhana. The Pandavas ended up winning the war, breaking the heart of Dhritarashtra. Yudhishthira, as the new king, still gave Dhritarashtra all the respect in the world. Yudhishthira respected him as if he were his own father, giving Dhritarashtra an exalted status in the new kingdom. Thus, he was setting the example for future generations to come.
If Yudhishthira could offer respect to someone as deplorable as Dhritarashtra, what does say about how we should treat our elderly family members? In today’s society, since people are too caught up in karmic activity, they send their parents off to nursing homes rather than taking responsibility themselves. As Lord Rama says, we should relish the opportunity to serve our parents, for it serves as a means of purifying our souls. By learning to respect those worthy of respect, we get practice in serving and respecting the Supreme Person, God. This is the ultimate aim of life, the reason for our being on earth. Sense gratification has limits, and it can never fulfill all our desires. Only through devotional service and surrender to the Lord can we be truly happy. Krishna is our Supreme Father, and if we learn to respect Him, then our lives will be perfect.