“We may find some mailboxes on the street, and if we post our letters in those boxes, they will naturally go to their destination without difficulty. But any old box, or an imitation, which we may find somewhere, which is not authorized by the post office, will not do the work. Similarly, God has an authorized representation in the Deity form, which is called archa-vigraha. This archa-vigraha is an incarnation of the Supreme Lord. God will accept service through that form.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Bhagavad-gita, 12.5 Purport)Download this episode (right click and save)
The objects of worship in a temple are often referred to as idols. While to some this classification is harmless, Vaishnavas are not comfortable using it. This is because “idol” connotes something imaginary. Indeed, the school of impersonalism urges the practitioner to choose from one of five objects of worship known as the panchopasana.
“Not understanding the process of disciplic succession, so-called logicians put forward the theory of panchopasana, in which a person worships one of five deities - namely Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, the sun-god or Ganesha. In this conception the impersonalists accept one of these five deities as supreme and reject the others. Such philosophical speculation, which is certainly idol worship, is not accepted by Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu or by Vaishnavas.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 9.360 Purport)
The idea is to choose any form that you like. It doesn’t make a difference. The goal is to merge into the formless Absolute. The deity in this case is simply a vehicle towards reaching an end. The philosophy behind the practice is really no different than conjuring up an image of the Divine, creating an idol based on that image, and then following worship.
The authentic deity is something entirely different. We can think of it like the movie version of a book, but purer. It is common for popular books to be turned into movies. The books often aren’t illustrated. This means that the filmmakers must rely solely on the words themselves to decide how the characters will look on screen. They have no other reference point.
The person watching the film cannot say that the characters are conjured up. The characters are based on the book, after all. Artists may create different renderings after reading the same description, but the variety in the finished product doesn’t invalidate the existence of the original character.
In the same way, the deity worshiped in the temple is authorized based on the descriptions found in ancient books. Moreover, the process itself has been handed down through generations. This is known as parampara, or disciplic succession. As an example, when we see 18th century America depicted in theater, the visuals are not based solely on the written word. Theater dates back far before the 18th century. This means that people who put on plays two hundred years ago continued the process going forward. There wasn’t necessarily a gap in production.
The same applies for deity worship. It has been practiced since time immemorial. The forms are not imaginary. The process itself is authorized, as it is a kind of special mercy on the fallen souls of this world. Man is very proud of advancements in science and technology, but so far the eyes have the same limitations. I cannot see through walls. I cannot see what is going on thousands of miles away without the help of satellite technology.
The deity is a way to see into the spiritual world. The Supreme Lord arrives in a form that I can see with my own eyes. Obviously, He is much taller than the statue. He is much more durable than wood or stone. He is animate, while the deity apparently cannot move. Nevertheless, through authorized worship of that statue, a person can come in direct contact with God. This is the magic of the Divine.
Worship of the archa-vigraha can involve offering prayers, flowers, and pure food items. If such offerings are too difficult to make, a person can simply chant the holy names: Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. This worship can take place over an entire lifetime, as the Supreme Lord is known to be all-attractive. The process of connecting with Him is not boring. Worshiping an imaginary idol does not bring any benefit, whilst viewing the deity in a loving mood can bring rescue from the cycle of birth and death.
Idol something from the mind created,
Worship of deity through parampara demonstrated.
First giving benefit none,
Other bringing the Supreme One.
Though from scientific advancement proud to be,
Still great limitation for these eyes to see.
Mercy of the Lord, for our benefit coming.
Through proper worship purified becoming.