“Whenever one develops faith in Me—in My form as the Deity or in other bona fide manifestations—one should worship Me in that form. I certainly exist both within all created beings and also separately in My original form, since I am the Supreme Soul of all.” (Lord Krishna, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.27.48)
Question: “Is worship of idols prohibited in the Vedas?”
Answer: The concept of worshiping a deity as a means of achieving salvation for the soul is certainly a unique and often misunderstood aspect of the most prominent spiritual tradition of India, the Vedas. As the ancient law codes provided by the Supreme Lord Himself, the Vedas provide many roadmaps towards ultimate success, with a commonality shared amongst all the different processes. Turning one’s back on material life to attain spiritual enlightenment and the sublime life that follows requires a shift in consciousness. The gross elements that surround a soul at any given time will ultimately be discarded, but consciousness carries from one body to another. One whose mind is completely fixed on the Personality of Godhead at the time of death will immediately go to the transcendental realm and never have to deal with material nature again. Indeed, whatever consciousness we have while quitting the body acts as the determinant of our future fortunes. As such, the process of deity worship, wherein a statue or picture representation of the Supreme Lord’s transcendental features is erected, observed, honored and adored, proves to be extremely beneficial. Dare we say that any spiritual tradition that lacks this potent weapon capable of attacking the negative influences of material nature will be substandard in its effectiveness? The deity is the visible manifestation of the Lord’s ever available benevolence and mercy. During His many visits to this world, the Lord Himself not only practiced deity worship, but He also recommended it to others. Anyone who says otherwise and tries to use the Vedas as the authority for their misinformed statements should be understood to be the greatest fool and cheater.
Let’s first review the logical basis for worshiping a deity. Indeed, it is the emphatic dogmatic insistence of many followers around the world that the outward offering of obeisances to anyone, including a statue representation of the Absolute Truth, should be avoided at all costs. But at the same time, the central component of any religious practice is worship. Who could argue this fact? Allegiance to political leaders, actors, actresses, sports figures, and even family members is held strong through keeping pictures and posters within the home. The wallpaper on the computer desktop provides an indication of who or what the owner of the device assigns top priority status to in their mind. Any dedicated attention given to another entity is a form of worship. The nexus of the different varieties of worship is consciousness, the thoughts of the mind. We can say that we worship a certain individual, but if we never think about them in any way, the professions are just empty words. For instance, if we say that we are a fan of a particular athlete, and we never watch them play or even follow their ups and downs, to what value is our allegiance? Support must involve some type of worship, which starts with contemplation.
At least according to those who are spiritually inclined, God is supposed to be that one person we should always think about no matter what. Visiting church once a week or praying a few times a day are certainly wonderful habits, but the point of emphasis is still on the altering of consciousness. To this end, how can the benefits of deity worship ever be denied? The Supreme Lord has a transcendental form; otherwise He would be inferior to the living entities occupying the phenomenal world. With that form comes a penchant for activity, a desire to perform pastimes. Denying the sportive tendencies of the Supreme Lord is another foolish tactic employed by those who have no understanding of the blissful aspect of Truth. Every living entity is seeking ananda, or bliss, and this desire is derived from the eternal bliss that is found in full in the Personality of Godhead, who, not surprisingly, is addressed as Krishna in His original form. Only God can be the most attractive person who is never disturbed under any circumstance.
Since there is no benefit to worshiping a mentally concocted form representing the Truth, we must hear of the Lord’s features from authority figures, those whose spiritual lineage descends from Krishna. Just as any accompanying branch or twig is ultimately connected to the original tree, the bona fide spiritual teachers have some sort of link to the Original Person. As such, they can present to us tangible information of what the Lord looks like, what behaviors He takes to, and what pleases Him. Indeed, from authorized teachings we also find out that Krishna is not God’s only form, as He kindly expands into multitudes of non-different personalities which are equally as worthy of worship and similarly appealing to those looking for a higher taste in their activities. When the deity representations are crafted off of authorized explanations, and if they match one of the non-different expansions of the Absolute Truth, then surely worship of them would be beneficial. Any other type of idolatry is equivalent to the worship of any ordinary figure, so such practices are not only unauthorized, but they also lead to inferior results.
“Those whose minds are distorted by material desires surrender unto demigods and follow the particular rules and regulations of worship according to their own natures.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.20)
Since spirit is the opposite of matter, which is the temporary manifestation of a separated energy emerging from the original Energetic, worship of Supreme Spirit is completely different than any other display of reverence. When the desires of the individual are to feed the hungry senses, which are always starving for attention, the mind gets deluded into giving entities not on an equal footing with the Supreme Lord top priority. Attention is not only paid to ordinary human beings, but also to some elevated personalities, who are known as demigods. Deity representations of the divine heavenly figures can also be crafted, honored and worshiped, but the results only lead to a continuation of material life. It is said in the Bhagavad-gita, the Song of God spoken by Krishna Himself, that worshipers of the devas, or demigods, go to the planets of the devas, while devotees of Krishna go to the eternal land in the spiritual sky. Even the home of the demigods goes through cycles of creation and destruction, so nothing permanent is achieved by worshiping an inhabitant of the heavenly realm. Not all gods are the same, as no embodied being, one that is forced to accept a temporary material body, even one that remains in its form for millions of years, can be considered equal to the Supreme Personality.
As a medium of communication, words can transfer information and also bring great pleasure. When read on a page, words that describe some appealing subject matter bring joy and bliss to the reader. Sound vibrations have a similar stimulating effect, as a pleasant song can alter the mood within the mind and bring the attentive listener back to a previous time. Pictures also can evoke pleasurable feelings and allow for extended contemplation on a particular person or subject. If all such aspects of the material creation can have beneficial effects, how can we not derive tremendous transcendental satisfaction from worshiping a deity? Why would the Lord deny us that benefit, especially knowing that we are already prone to worshiping man and the demigods? The claims made against the validity of deity worship don’t pass the smell test in any way. Matter is considered maya, or that which is not personally God, only for as long as it is not used to purify consciousness. God is the creator of matter, so why should He prohibit us from utilizing material elements to gain an understanding of the pastimes that continue uninterrupted in the spiritual world?
It is one thing for the uninformed outsider to rail against the deity worship tradition of the Vedas, but it is even more appalling, and humorous at the same time, to see deity worship attacked by those who cite the Vedas as the authority for their skewed viewpoint. The Vedas are originally a collection of songs that praise the Absolute Truth. Any book or poem that reaches the same conclusion as the original Vedas - that of Krishna being the only object worthy of worship and undivided affection - is considered Vedic literature. The Vedas are non-different from Krishna since they sing His names and describe His glories. As such, whatever Vedic texts say and whatever Krishna speaks personally are completely in accord with each other. To say that the Vedas prohibit deity worship is to say that the original law codes for mankind deny the validity of worshiping Krishna; a claim which, by definition, is a contradiction. The Vedas are Krishna, so they can never speak anything against any practice which aims to further one’s Krishna consciousness.
The worst offenders are those who dare to claim that Krishna Himself prohibits deity worship through His teachings. This is an even more foolish viewpoint because it is well known that Shri Krishna appeared on earth during the Dvapara Yuga, a time period that saw a preponderance of temple worship. During that time there were many grand temples across the world which held regular worship of Lord Vishnu, who is Krishna’s four-handed expansion in charge of the majority of the aspects of creation. Krishna Himself worshiped deities, so what sane man will say that the Lord prohibits such behavior? These erroneous viewpoints come about through a narrow study of Vedic literature which focuses on versions of the Bhagavad-gita that are translated and commented on by someone who is not a devotee of the Lord. The Bhagavad-gita is one small chapter in an enormously large work known as the Mahabharata. Nevertheless, we can’t just pick up the Mahabharata and understand all the underlying purports and deep meanings behind the different accounts of historical incidents contained within. Such information has to be learned from someone who has dedicated their life to serving the Lord and understanding Him.
“The devotee should more fully establish My Deity by solidly constructing a temple, along with beautiful gardens. These gardens should be set aside to provide flowers for the regular daily worship, special Deity processions and holiday observances.” (Lord Krishna, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.27.50)
In addition to the instructions He provided on the battlefield of Kurukshetra to Arjuna, just prior to His return to the spiritual world Krishna imparted Vedic wisdom to His dear friend Uddhava. In this talk, which is found in the eleventh canto of the Shrimad Bhagavatam and which is also known as the Uddhava-gita, an entire section is dedicated to deity worship and how it should be performed. One who only reads the Bhagavad-gita without following the guidance of a bona fide spiritual master, an acharya belonging to an unbroken line of spiritual teachers descending from Krishna, will not understand the different verses properly, no matter how many times they are read. Indeed, even the information presented by Krishna in the Uddhava-gita about deity worship is very basic and only touches on the essentials. The practice of visiting temples and worshiping the deity was commonly known to all sincere followers of Vedic traditions in the Dvapara Yuga, so these concepts didn’t need to be expanded upon in great detail. In more recent times, the kind and merciful followers of Lord Chaitanya have very elaborately described what goes into deity worship and how to perform it properly. Shrila Sanatana Goswami especially took the time to explain these concepts by writing the handbook for devotional service known as the Hari-bhakti-vilasa, which includes countless references to Vedic scriptures to support the guidelines and recommendations for behavior contained within.
Deity worship has been around since the beginning of creation, even long before Krishna in His original form appeared on this earth. During the Treta Yuga when His incarnation of Lord Rama roamed the earth, there was a brahmana living in the kingdom of Ayodhya who had to see his beloved Rama every day before eating. A brahmana is a member of the priestly class, so he spends all his time involved in religious affairs. Since He was the king of Ayodhya, Rama especially took care of the brahmanas in the community. But since the Lord had administrative affairs to tend to, sometimes He had to go away on business, leaving the devoted brahmana bereft of the nectar of the Divine vision for certain extended periods of time. Rather than break his vow, the brahmana simply didn’t eat on days when he couldn’t see Rama. When the Lord later found out about this, He felt greatly distressed, as He was causing one of His devotees to suffer unnecessarily. Rama then told His younger brother Lakshmana to go to the brahmana’s home and install a set of Sita-Rama deities. Indeed, this set of deities had existed in the royal family, the Ikshvakus, since even before Rama’s appearance on earth. Thenceforth, the brahmana simply viewed that statue of his beloved Rama, which was paired with the Lord’s wife, Sita Devi, every day and took this vision to be as good as viewing the Lord personally.
This one incident illustrates the magic and potency of deity worship. The archa-vigraha, the worshipable representation of the Supreme Lord in the material world, is meant to evoke the spiritual consciousness within the mind, an arousal which then leads to a consciousness that can guide all activities properly. Therefore the worshipable form erected must be authorized and cannot be just any collection of wood and stone. The ordinary statue is an idol, but when the figure is authorized and fully empowered through its connection to the Supreme Lord, it turns into a deity. The Supreme Lord is certainly everywhere, but understanding His personal presence is very difficult, especially for the material eyes that are prone to worshiping anything that is not Krishna. It also doesn’t help matters when bogus spiritual leaders try to use the Vedas as justification for their denial of devotional practices, which have deity worship as a cornerstone. Indeed, one must wonder what the motives are behind such a nefarious and dangerous viewpoint. Since deity worship is so effective and authorized, there can be no other reason for the willful neglect and erroneous teachings presented by the enemies of bhakti besides jealousy and hatred for the Supreme Lord.
A non-devotee who studies the Vedas will never capture a complete understanding, as the first condition prevents the second. By following an authorized acharya, one who understands the Bhagavad-gita and presents it as it is, there will be little chance of becoming a victim to the jealous practices of the miscreants. The deity is the sight for the vision that has become sore through many lifetimes on earth. Bringing spiritual life to the otherwise dull and mundane material existence, the deity can help transport us back to the spiritual land, where the personal presence of Supreme Spirit can be felt and enjoyed at every single moment.