Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Worship in Tradition

Shiva Parvati Ganesha“Unable to say anything, with a worried heart Sita laments. Remembering Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha, she prays.” (Janaki Mangala, 100)

kahi na sakati kachu sakucati siya hiyam̐ socai |
gauri ganesa girīsahi sumiri sakocai ||

Vaishnavas are often asked: “Why don’t you worship Shiva and Parvati? Why don’t you worship Ganesha? Why do you just focus on Krishna, Vishnu, or Rama?” The short answer is that the spiritual teachers in the present age of Kali have streamlined their teachings to suit the hustle and bustle of the modern society, where one is considered fortunate just to have a firm faith in God that goes beyond looking at the Supreme Lord as an order supplier. And of course there is also the truth that with worship of the personal aspect of the Supreme Lord, all other kinds of worship are automatically satisfied. Indeed, all other worship is meant to eventually bring one to the platform of pure love for God.

Bhagavad-gita, 7.23“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.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.23)

In the Bhagavad-gita, Lord Krishna says that those with little intelligence worship the demigods. There are many gods in the Vedic tradition, but there is still only one singular leader, an original personality. He is the same person addressed in other spiritual traditions, except the details of His names, forms, and pastimes may not be disclosed fully. It is said that Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, can award liberation, material opulence, and mystic perfections very easily, but love for Him will not be granted so freely. This makes the gift of love for God that much more special, and it requires that the individual be worthy of receiving it.

The requirement for qualification explains the many rules, regulations and rituals of religious life. In the Vedic tradition there are so many rituals that span from the time of birth all the way until the last rite at death. Consciousness is constant; it is an integral aspect of the individual, who is represented by the spirit soul. This soul is what animates us. In fact, it animates all life. Thus there is a soul in an animal as well, and also a plant. There are not different kinds of individual souls; just different kinds of bodies. There is a Supreme Soul, however, who is an expansion of the original Lord. This soul is all-pervading; it exists within everyone and has a consciousness that is singular.

Vedic ritualPart of the Vedic rituals involves worship of divine figures known as devas, or demigods. But it seems that we’ve reached a contradictory point here. Part of the culture, which is millions of years old, is demigod worship, but in the sacred work that best describes the purpose of the Vedas, it is said that only the less intelligent worship the demigods. Why even have demigod worship then? Why allow the less intelligent to fall into a pattern of behavior that is not the highest worship?

Actually, the question answers itself. The less intelligent by definition will not be wise enough to follow the highest path that is pure devotion to God. But just because someone is less intelligent doesn’t mean that they can’t gather knowledge. One doesn’t have to stay unintelligent forever. After all, we are all born ignorant. We have a consciousness that carried over from the previous life, but in the present life we still require education to reawaken our dormant consciousness. If no one teaches us, we’ll stay as ignorant as the animals.

Demigod worship helps to awaken the spiritual consciousness. The less intelligent are allured by aims of temporary significance. For instance, if I’m concerned with getting married, it means that I give a lot of attention to having a life companion of the opposite sex. Yet even if I do get what I want, it doesn’t mean that life’s problems will be solved. You can be separated from your spouse and family at any moment. There are no guarantees. More importantly, the love everyone has inside of them is meant to be offered to God. Any other kind of love is a watered-down version of the pure form, which is known as prema.

Shiva Parvati GaneshaWorship of Ganesha, Shiva, Parvati, and others who are not the Supreme Lord Vishnu, who is the same Krishna, is part of a culture in families who have had the tradition for too many past generations to even count. If I am born in the United States, I know that my ancestors have lived here for at most a few hundred years. Before that, maybe they lived in Europe, and before that no one knows. Yet if I am born in India, it is highly likely that my ancestors have been in the same area for several thousands of years. The culture stays with the family for that long as well, and so it is not surprising that the demigods continue to be worshiped by those born into the Vedic tradition.

The Vaishnava spiritual masters, however, don’t recommend demigod worship and neither do they teach it to their students. Assuming the identity of a Vaishnava is the fruit of all past religious observances, from present and past lives. In other words, the Vaishnava is the most intelligent, so they don’t require allegiance to traditions reserved for the less intelligent. And because they are so wise, they don’t attempt to recreate the same level of tradition in their disciples. Instead, the sole focus is on worship of Vishnu, which means that the descendants in the chain of spiritual instruction won’t even know how to properly worship the demigods.

In the above referenced verse from the Janaki Mangala, Sita Devi, who is Lakshmi, Vishnu’s wife for eternity, is praying to Shiva, Ganesha and Parvati. Lord Shiva is the greatest Vaishnava. Though he plays the role of a demigod to those who are desirous of material rewards, he himself is only interested in worshiping the Supreme Lord. Parvati is his chaste and beautiful wife, and Ganesha is one of their sons. One could spend an entire lifetime describing the glories of that family, but just from this one incident with Sita we get an idea of how worthy of honor they are.

Sita worshiping ParvatiSita here is playing the role of the daughter of King Janaka. Janaka has drawn up a contest to see who will marry his precious daughter. The first person to lift an extremely heavy bow, which not coincidentally belonged to Lord Shiva, will get to marry Sita. Shri Rama is the favorite of everyone in the family. He hails from Ayodhya, and He happens to be an incarnation of Vishnu. Thus Vishnu and Lakshmi were about to meet in the marriage of Rama and Sita.

It is said here that Sita is so worried that she is unable to say anything. She is worried in the heart, and in that helpless state she remembers Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha. This remembrance is significant because of the powers they have. Shiva and Parvati are especially worshiped by those desirous of a good spouse, and Ganesha is known as the remover of obstacles. In this instance the weight of the bow was the obstacle, and Sita wanted that removed so that Rama would be able to win the contest. She had previously prayed to Parvati to get Rama as a husband, and Shiva was a de facto officiator of this contest through the presence of his bow.

Sita gives us an example of how to avoid the pitfalls of demigod worship while satisfying family tradition at the same time, if the situation calls for it. This event took place during the Treta Yuga, which is the second time period of creation. People were very pure during the second age, so the Vedic culture was vibrant. Through family tradition, people knew how to worship Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha. In this instance Sita prayed so that Vishnu, or God, would be successful. Thus she did not desire a temporary material reward. And what an honor it was to be worshiped by Sita. Of all the people who have walked this earth, none has a better character than her. And that wonderful person thought of Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha when she ran into trouble.

Today the Vaishnava can respond to the question of demigod worship by simply saying, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know how to properly worship people such as Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha. My spiritual master never taught that to me, so all I can do is offer them my respect. Since Vishnu is loved by Shiva, I know that he will be pleased by my worship of Him through the chanting of the holy names, ‘Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare’”. And if we ever run into difficulty in our devotional service, we can always remember Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha as well, informally asking for their favor in pleasing the Supreme Lord.

In Closing:

Guru directed my thoughts to Krishna to go,

How to worship Shiva and Parvati I don’t know.


Certainly they are of character great,

Sita worshiped them when in troubled state.


Desired obstacle of heavy bow to go away,

So as her husband Shri Rama would stay.


From her worship highest honor they received,

Wish granted, Rama as husband achieved.