“Lord Shiva's worshipers sometimes appear more opulent than the worshipers of Lord Vishnu because Durga, or Sati, being the superintendent in charge of material affairs, can offer all material opulences to the worshipers of Lord Shiva in order to glorify her husband, whereas the worshipers of Vishnu are meant for spiritual elevation, and therefore their material opulence is sometimes found to decrease.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.4.21 Purport)Download this episode (right click and save)
When explaining the potency of deity worship, which is an integral part of Vedic culture, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada often makes reference to the mailbox. Though e-mail and SMS are popular communication channels in the modern day, physical notes and parcels still get transferred from place to place. If I have a package that I want to send to someone, I can’t drop it in just any box. The box must be authorized for mail. If I use the authorized mechanism, the package will most probably reach the intended destination.
The deity is authorized in this way. Vaishnavas, who are devotees of the personal God often referred to as Vishnu, object to the term “idol worship” for the very reason that the deity is authorized. An idol is something created out of the mind, whereas the deity is a product of authority passed on since time immemorial, first through an aural tradition and later on through written word in books like the Puranas, Mahabharata and Ramayana.
The deity is God’s special mercy, wherein He appears in a form that is understandable by our conditioned eyes. We cannot see the entire cosmic manifestation, nor can we see the basic anatomical unit of life, the spirit soul. The deity is a way to see God, and the more one practices bhakti-yoga under the guidance of a spiritual master, the more they see of Him.
Another point of contention is the exact deity to worship. The less intelligent will say that you can worship any form, of any divine figure, and end up in the same place. The slogan is, “All paths lead to the same destination. God is one.” In giving the proper understanding, Shrila Prabhupada often makes the analogy to riding a train. At the station, there are many trains. They are generally equal in makeup. Yet if I board the train headed for Chicago, I will not end up in New York. This means that all paths don’t lead to the same destination.
In the Vedic tradition, worship of Vishnu is unique. It is actually unique to all kinds of worship, even that done outside of the Vedic tradition. There are specific reasons for this.
1. There are different forms of the original
Vishnu-worship is of the personal God. Specifically, the worshiper thinks, knows, and firmly understands that in the original feature, the Supreme Lord is a personality. He is not merely an attributeless light. He is not formless, in the way form is typically understood. He is without form in that His eyes, ears, legs and hands can do amazing things. They are not limited like material body parts are. Still, God is an individual distinct from you and me.
Even in that original form, He can expand Himself. It is something like taking an original candle and lighting many replica candles. God is known as Advaita since these candles are identical to Him. Vishnu is the same as Krishna. Krishna is also Rama. Rama is Narasimha. This means that in Vishnu-worship you do have a choice. The preferred deity is known as the ishta-deva. Indeed, even within one particular expansion you can choose a specific time period for worship. For example, the ishta-deva for the crow Kakabhushundi is the baby form of Shri Rama, who plays in the kingdom of Ayodhya.
2. It stops rebirth
Krishna, who is the same as Vishnu, perfectly summarizes Vedic teachings in the book known as the Bhagavad-gita. In one particular verse, He reveals the destination for the different kinds of worship. Though Vishnu can expand Himself into identical forms, this doesn’t mean that all divine forms are equal to Him. There are devatas, who are elevated beings but not God Himself.
yānti deva-vratā devān
pitṝn yānti pitṛ-vratāḥ
bhūtāni yānti bhūtejyā
yānti mad-yājino 'pi mām
“Those who worship the demigods will take birth among the demigods; those who worship ghosts and spirits will take birth among such beings; those who worship ancestors go to the ancestors; and those who worship Me will live with Me.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.25)
The worshipers of the devatas go to the planets of the devatas. Those who worship Krishna go to His planet. The difference is that when you go to Krishna’s planet, you never have to return to the material world. This means that rebirth stops. The planets of the devatas are actually within the material world, so even by going there rebirth is slated to occur again.
3. You may not get what you want
Have you ever been angry at God? So many people swear off religion after they have prayed for something and then later not gotten it. In the Vedic tradition if you worship the devatas properly, you are practically guaranteed to get what you want. The available rewards, the basket of stuff, consists of practically everything in a material existence. You can get good health, intelligence, the removal of obstacles, peace of mind, and even special powers.
If you worship Vishnu or one of His personal expansions, you may not get what you want. This is only the case when you worship God the person in an authorized way. Why would anyone worship Vishnu, then? It is because of the reason that some requests are denied. Vishnu considers the impact the reward will have before bestowing it. If He thinks that it will cause harm to the person or to other innocent people, He will use His discrimination. The devatas do not show this special mercy, as they are bound by duty to give whatever is asked. That is why worship of the devatas is something like a business transaction. The smartphone is used by the law-abiding and the lawbreakers alike; the seller does not discriminate.
4. You ask for God’s welfare instead
There is an interesting dichotomy between worshipers of Shiva and worshipers of Vishnu. Though Shiva is the greatest Vaishnava, he also plays a secondary role of devata, or demigod, in the material world. It is not his preference, but when Vishnu asks him to do something, Shiva does not say “no.” When someone worships Shiva for material rewards, they get their desires fulfilled very quickly. This is one reason why Shiva is known as Ashutosha.
The worshipers of Shiva tend to be quite opulent, while the Vishnu worshipers are poor. Again, after seeing this why would anyone worship Vishnu? The reason is that Vishnu worshipers seek the welfare of God. They ask that Vishnu always be pleased and happy, and that the goddess of fortune forever remain by His side. The worshipers of Rama ask that Lakshmana always be by His side, for Lakshmana is happy only when serving Rama directly. The worshipers of Vishnu are happy when Vishnu is happy. This is real love, also known as bhakti.
5. You get His association in different moods
It is not that everyone who worships Vishnu is forced to associate with Him in the same way. Hanuman acts as dedicated servant, sometimes putting Rama and Lakshmana on his shoulders. Kakabhushundi gets to speak on Rama’s glories and His life and pastimes. Lord Shiva does the same, delivering wonderful discourses to his beautiful, chaste and dedicated wife Parvati.
Shrimati Radharani associates with Krishna in the mood of conjugal love, madhurya-rasa. Mother Yashoda acts as loving parent, thinking that Krishna cannot survive without her full care and attention. The trees in Goloka Vrindavana appreciate Krishna from a distance.
All of this means that there is freedom in devotional service. The soul who worships Vishnu is already liberated. They are no longer under the clutches of maya and the rules of the material world. Their welfare is fully under the care of the Supreme Lord, who gives special favor to His devotees.
When proper assessment to take,
What in Vishnu-worship unique to make?
On future impact to assess,
Not always to accept request.
For God’s personal welfare praying,
That associates always by His side staying.
If understanding of Him I have got,
Then automatically rebirth to stop.