“We are offering obeisances to the Deity and at least trying to become His devotees. And we are worshiping the Lord with fruits, flowers, incense, and so on. None of this is difficult. Anyone can collect a flower, a fruit, or a little water and offer it to Krishna.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Quest for Enlightenment, 2d)Download this episode (right click and save)
Perhaps you’ve heard that deity worship is strictly prohibited in many popular religious traditions around the world. You can do any other kind of worship, including of the material variety through philanthropic ventures, but the one thing you cannot do is prostrate before a physical manifestation of the Supreme Lord which depicts His transcendental features in all their glory. But applying a little logic, the restriction does not make sense, for this form of worship is merely another means of expression. And to express love, gratitude and honor in an artful way means to reach the pinnacle of an existence.
It’s a fresh Spring day. The weather is neither too warm nor too cold. This past winter was particularly brutal. While in previous years the high temperatures dipped below freezing only in January, this year it seemed to be that way all throughout the winter months. You thought Spring would never come. But it finally did, and on this day you decide to take a walk through the city streets.
The air is crisp, but the sun’s shining rays negate the cool breezes. You walk past the various shops, one by one. Then something catches your eye and you suddenly halt. This store has an interesting display. It’s a bakery, and they’ve laid out cookies and cakes in the most decorative fashion. You decide to go inside and peruse a little further. After studying the artistry, you understand that through baking the shop owner has found their own means of expression. “This is her way to speak to the world,” you think to yourself. “Some people express through music, others through poetry, and some through painting. Though she is running a bakery, this is just as much an artistic display as what we see in an art gallery. Her emotions are thoroughly expressed in this variety of food. There is no end to the wonders of the mind.”
In bhakti-yoga the idea is to express the love that rests deep within the heart. It’s so lodged in there that we don’t really understand it. We know that we have to love, but we can’t realize on our own to whom that love should be directed. Therefore we find random objects of interest. We get hooked to the television soap opera. We follow the saga of a relationship between two celebrities. If we don’t have a significant other, we bring a dog home to care for. And through the random objects of affection, we find ways to express our love.
But in fact that love is meant for the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Our love for Him is what makes us love in the first place. The pure love is known as bhakti, and when it gets muddied in the conditioned living entity it turns into kama, which is lust. The difference between the two is that kama doesn’t last. We say that we love pizza, but we likely couldn’t eat it every day. We say that we love someone else, but if that were eternal there would be no such thing as infidelity or divorce.
Bhakti is forever. This is because the recipient of the affection remains manifest forever. We change our form constantly. To us there is no such thing as a fixed form. I am different right now than I was five seconds ago. I just can’t notice the difference until I see pictures of myself taken between larger gaps of time.
The Supreme Lord’s body and soul are one, and so He never changes. This is another reason that the process of deity worship is authorized. In His original form, God is a beautiful and charming youth who holds a flute in His hands, wears a peacock feather in His hair, and sports an enchanting smile. The Sanskrit word to describe this form is Krishna, which means all-attractive. That name befits the form, which never changes.
For sure we could worship this form in the mind. We could keep it at the forefront of our consciousness and offer kind thoughts to it. Simply thinking of it is enough to constitute proper worship, for thinking is a sacrifice of some sort. We could be thinking of so many other things, but if we’re thinking about God we’re not thinking about those other things.
Yet in the mind the mode of expression is limited. With the deity, the options increase. One can use their artistic ability to craft the most stunning dresses, which can be put on the deity daily. Just as the stereotypical woman is known for having a closet full of many pairs of shoes, so the Supreme Lord in His deity form can be known for wearing so many different dresses, all provided by the devotee wishing to express their love.
The same cooking ability can be used in worship of the deity, with the endless variety of dishes in the mode of goodness offered in a timely fashion for the Lord to eat. He eats with His eyes and returns the offering to the worshipers with a special bonus: a spiritual infusion. The person who wishes to express their love through music can sit in front of the deity and chant the names of Krishna in endless ways. Using the main ingredient of the maha-mantra, Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, the singer can come up with different melodies, put to the call-and-response format. This allows others who are too shy or not yet willing to fully express themselves to at least get a chance at worshiping by repeating the holy names, as they are presented by the leader of the singing.
Just by looking at the deity, the intelligent person can compose beautiful poetry and string together cogent words of praise and philosophy in support of the Supreme Lord, who has all good features. With this endless variety, we see that the deity is expression itself. And to deny such worship through blanket sentimentalism or misbeliefs due to narrow-mindedness is to suppress the natural love that one feels towards God. Therefore the Vaishnava saints strongly recommend expression of bhakti to the souls looking for the true meaning to life, and deity worship nicely provides a wonderful outlet for such expression.
Worship all creatures, large and small,
But never in front of deity humbly fall.
Logically invalid is this restriction,
Suppresses innate loving expression.
Your love for God through deity show,
And become more conscious of Him so.
That form to the eyes most wonderful gift,
Into transcendental life forever to lift.