“Oh Ganga, protected by you, may (Rama) the son of the intelligent and mighty monarch Dashratha, execute the mandate of His father. Having spent complete fourteen years in the forest, He will return in company with His brother and myself. Then, Oh worshipful one, Oh you of auspicious fortune, having returned safely, I will, Oh Ganga, worship you, you that crown every desire. Oh you that wend in three ways, Oh revered one, you envelope the regions of Brahma. You appear in this world as the spouse of the Ocean king. I will, Oh respected one, bow down to you, Oh beauteous one, I will hymn you, when, with good fortune returned, the foremost of men has obtained the kingdom, I will, to please you, give away to brahmanas hundreds and thousands of cows, cloths, flavorful rice, and vessels of wine by thousands, and pillows. Oh worshipful one, I will worship you on Rama having returned to the city. And I will worship all the gods that dwell on your banks, as well as the holy spots and fanes, as soon as, Oh sinless one, that mighty-armed one without sin will, coming back from His abode in the forest, enter Ayodhya in company with His brother and myself.” (Sita Devi speaking to Ganga Devi, Valmiki Ramayana, Ayodhya Kand, Sec 52)
Demigod worship is generally frowned upon by Vaishnavas, those who are worshipers of Lord Vishnu or Krishna. According to Vedic teachings, the purpose of human life is to develop a love for God, so any other discipline or religious practice outside of loving God is seen as second class.
The demigods, referred to as devas, are the chief deputies of the Supreme Lord Krishna. Just as a president or prime minister has assistants and cabinet secretaries, Krishna also has assigned posts for elevated living entities to manage the affairs of the material world. Their duty is to see to it that things are running smoothly and also to grant benedictions to those who please them. There are thousands of devas, but some of the more notable ones are Lord Shiva, Ganesha, Goddess Lakshmi, and Durga. They each provide different material benedictions to those who worship them properly and vigilantly. Their janma, or birth, as well as their specific duties are described in most of the Puranas.
Generally speaking, those who are less intelligent worship the demigods. The reason they are considered less intelligent is because the demigods, by rule, are only allowed to bestow material benedictions. If one is seeking great wealth, success in material endeavors, or the acquisition of great powers, they approach one of the various devas. Lord Krishna Himself describes this in the Bhagavad-gita:
“Men of small intelligence worship the demigods, and their fruits are limited and temporary. Those who worship the demigods go to the planets of the demigods, but My devotees ultimately reach My supreme planet.” (Bg 7.23)
One need only research the great Vedic texts to find examples of those who performed demigod worship. They were all generally asuras, enemies of God. The great Rakshasa demon Ravana worshiped many demigods including Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma in order to procure great material benedictions and powers. He didn’t use any of these powers for good, for he was committed to harassing the great sages performing sacrifices in the forest. His kingdom of Lanka was a sinner’s paradise, with people regularly overindulging in meat eating and intoxication. He had such a voracious appetite for sex that he regularly cavorted with his hundreds of wives in his palace. These women were always drunk, so much so that they would fall asleep on each other not knowing where they were. Other great demons such as Hiranyakashipu and Bhasmasura were also dedicated worshipers of the demigods.
Not all worshipers of demigods can be classified as unintelligent. In the Hindu tradition passed down for thousands of years, householders generally follow demigod worship very strictly. This is done more out of duty than anything else. The Vedas provide various forms of religion, a series of stepping-stones aimed at elevating one’s consciousness. Those in the grihastha ashrama, householder life, regularly perform worship of the devas so that their family life will be peaceful and prosperous. God Himself followed this tradition when He incarnated on earth as Lord Rama and Lord Krishna. Rama and His family were very pious. They all regularly offered prayers in the morning and evening. When traversing the forest, Rama, Lakshmana, and Sita would worship various demigods prior to building cottages as a way of purifying their living quarters. In a very famous scene, Lord Rama worshiped Lord Shiva just prior to marching to Ravana’s kingdom of Lanka. Lord Krishna followed similar traditions:
“Somewhere the Lord was seen engaged in performing different types of sacrifices to satisfy the demigods, who are only His qualitative expansions. Somewhere He was seen engaged in public welfare activities, establishing deep wells for water supply, rest houses and gardens for unknown guests, and great monasteries and temples for saintly persons. These are some of the duties enjoined in the Vedas for householders for fulfillment of their material desires.” (Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Volume 2, Ch 2.14)
Ironically, just prior to delivering the Bhagavad-gita to Arjuna wherein the Lord condemned demigod worship, Krishna ordered Arjuna to worship Goddess Durga to ensure victory in the upcoming battle of Kurukshetra.
"The holy one said,--'Cleansing thyself, O mighty-armed one, utter on the eve of the battle thy hymn to Durga for (compassing) the defeat of the foe." (Mahabharata)
All of this can seem confusing. On the one hand, worship of the devas is condemned, and on the other hand we see Krishna Himself performing such acts. Which example is correct? For the answer, we need only look to Sita Devi, the wife of Lord Rama. In the above referenced statements, Sita is praying to Ganga Devi, the river Ganges, to protect her husband and ensure His successful return to Ayodhya. When God took birth as Lord Rama many thousands of years ago, as part of His pastimes, He accepted a fourteen year exile sentence delivered by His father, Maharaja Dashratha. Sita, along with Rama’s younger brother Lakshmana, accompanied the Lord in His travels through the forest, for they couldn’t bear to be separated from Him. Sita’s worship of Ganga Devi took place early on in the exile period, just after Rama had sent Sumantra, the family charioteer, back home.
Sita Devi only worshiped Ganga Devi so that Rama, God Himself, would be satisfied. Due to this fact, her practice of demigod worship was completely spiritual and in line with bhagavata-dharma. In general, those who are somewhat pious seek the four primary rewards of material life: dharma (religiosity), artha (economic development), kama (sense gratification), and moksha (liberation). Bhakti yoga, or devotional service, is above this religious system since it involves lovingly serving God without any personal motives. Sita prayed to Ganga only for the satisfaction of Rama, and not for any material benefit. This is the highest form of religion. She didn’t resent the demigods or look down on them. Rather, she had the highest respect for them. She recognized their incredible powers and decided to take advantage of them. Sita’s only mission in life was to love Rama to the fullest extent, so she used any tool at her disposal to execute her tasks. Her worship of Ganga Devi was done with conditions. “If you help my husband, then I’ll worship you.” In actuality, Sita was doing Ganga Devi a favor since she was allowing Ganga, a demigoddess, to directly serve the Supreme Lord. Generally the demigods don’t get to directly serve God since they are busy doling out material rewards to their devotees. For this reason, taking birth as a human being is considered a greater boon than taking birth as a demigod, for humans have the opportunity to be directly engaged in God’s service.
Sita Devi was the perfect devotee, someone so kind and compassionate that her glories can’t be put into words. From her example, we learn that demigod worship is justifiable if we can use it for the right purpose. We can worship the Lord’s great devotee Hanuman to give us devotion to Rama. We can worship Lord Shiva to give us the power of concentration so that we may always fix our mind on the lotus feet of the Supreme Lord. We can humbly ask Lord Ganesha to remove the obstacles that come in our way of performing devotional service. In this way, we can combine forces with the devas to help satisfy God.