“The maha-bhagavata, the advanced devotee, certainly sees everything mobile and immobile, but he does not exactly see their forms. Rather, everywhere he immediately sees manifest the form of the Supreme Lord.” (Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 8.274)
In Sanskrit the term ishta-deva means the “deity of choice.” The deity is that which is worshiped. The ishta-deva is the deity you most prefer to worship. You have a choice in the matter, as since you are a servant at heart, there are so many objects which can accept your service. There is an original source of all objects, and He has many non-different expansions. He also has many separated expansions that serve in the godly capacity. This leaves so many choices. Since the original is complete, worship of it automatically brings appreciation for everything else.
It doesn’t work the other way around, however. For instance, water comes from the original person. Water is a material element. There is also air, fire, ether and earth. You can choose any of these as your worshipable deity, but for this example we’ll use water. You drink it when you are thirsty. You pour it over your head in the morning to clean your body. You add it to other ingredients to make your favorite food dishes. On top of it you place a boat that you built. This way you can travel across long distances more quickly.
Indeed, transportation has always existed. We marvel at the ability to travel halfway across the country in a single day using an airplane, but this doesn’t mean that travel was prohibited in the past. It may have taken a little longer, but even many thousands of years ago people could travel long distances. Populations are typically larger around bodies of water. This is because of the increased convenience for travel. You build a simple boat and it can take you somewhere easily. You don’t need electricity. You don’t need to pay that much, either. In this way, we see that water can be worshiped.
The person who drinks the water to quench their thirst after a strenuous workout may not appreciate the water they have. This is an instance of indirect worship. We indirectly worship so many other things. The person who does appreciate the water is engaged in a more direct worship. They may pray to the “water gods” from time to time. They may think of how wonderful it is to have water, and so forth.
Indirect worship of combinations of the elements of material nature also takes place quite frequently. Money is worshiped indirectly when it is chased after feverishly. The body of the human being is merely a collection of these elements, and we know that these bodies are worshiped frequently by the less intelligent. Kama, or lust, is driven by the attraction to the material body.
Thus there are so many ishta-devas. But notice that knowledge of the complete whole doesn’t automatically come from such worship. In the Bhagavad-gita is found the apparently demeaning statement that those who worship the ordinary gods, the heavenly figures, are less intelligent. If right now I worship one of these figures regularly, I will certainly take offense to this statement. Who likes to be called unintelligent? Even the stupid don’t like being called stupid.
The statement is factual, however. The results of such worship alone validate the claim. The consciousness of the worshiper is also accounted for. The various devas, or gods, of the Vedic tradition provide more or less material rewards. From material rewards, we satisfy our lust. In lust, we don’t see things properly. We think one person is different from another. We think that one person is our friend and another our enemy. We think that money, wine, women, gambling, and animal flesh will bring us everlasting happiness. We become overly saddened upon the death of another, not realizing that the spirit soul inside never can be killed.
“This individual soul is unbreakable and insoluble, and can be neither burned nor dried. He is everlasting, all-pervading, unchangeable, immovable and eternally the same.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 2.24)
Worship of the origin of matter and spirit brings only one reward: continued devotion. That’s right. You worship so that you can continue to worship. Why wouldn’t you ordinarily be allowed to continue to worship? Well, so many obstructions could get in the way. In the Vedas, the obstructions are put into three general categories. There are those caused by mother nature. Think hurricanes, tornadoes, chilling winters, and brutal summers. There are those caused by other living entities. Think tyrannical governments, rogues and thieves, and nasty people you encounter in society. Then there are those caused by the body and mind. Disease is bad enough, but even if you are apparently healthy, your mind can prevent you from worshiping. You could get caught up with a trivial issue, like with something someone may have said to you. You could get caught up with worry over the future, though in reality everything will likely be alright.
From the best ishta-deva you get the continued ability to worship. And since you are worshiping your deity of choice, you are automatically happy. The choice here is made in full knowledge. This means that you know that this particular ishta-deva is full of all opulences. He is all-attractive and ever powerful. He is also the kindest person in the world. He will rescue you from any situation, in this life or the next. He will stand tall when your confidence is shaken. He will bring to you what you lack and preserve what you have. He will remove the obstacles from your path, which will be accomplished by either Himself or His representative, Lord Ganesha.
Best of all, if you make the original your ishta-deva, you’ll automatically appreciate all the other worshipable objects. You’ll appreciate the water. The taste of it will remind you of the original person. You’ll appreciate the friends you have, and how they support you in your worship. Even your enemies will get some positive acknowledgment. Goswami Tulsidas offers obeisances to his enemies in the beginning of his Ramacharitamanasa, which is a wonderful poem describing the life and pastimes of Lord Rama, an incarnation of the original person. Tulsidas does this because even the enemies help the devotee. They help the devoted soul to see the difference between material and spiritual life. They also keep the devotee humble, making sure they don’t get too puffed up. An inflated false ego is the surest way to ruin your devotional life.
The original person is known as Krishna. He is a personality, and a supreme one at that. Krishna’s avataras are also worshipable, and sometimes devotees choose one of the avataras as their ishta-deva, such as with Tulsidas and Rama. Works like the Ramayana, Shrimad Bhagavatam, and Bhagavad-gita help one to understand Krishna better, making the choice much easier. You can worship inanimate matter or a personality who can bring an apparently better combination of matter to you. Or you can worship the origin of spirit and matter, who is so attractive that worship of Him will make you reach a level of happiness never thought to exist.
Tasting water worship indirect,
Honoring it then worship direct.
Fire too an element to use,
In worshipable object you can choose.
Only one to give knowledge of the rest,
Thus worship of Him only the best.
Worship Him for your devotion to go on,
This ability only which need rely upon.