“O most unfortunate Prahlada, you have always described a supreme being other than me, a supreme being who is above everything, who is the controller of everyone, and who is all-pervading. But where is He? If He is everywhere, then why is He not present before me in this pillar?” (Hiranyakashipu, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 7.8.12)Download this episode (right click and save)
“Worship a statue, you say? This object consisting of earthly elements, which you yourself have told me is inanimate in nature. After all, the fundamental truth of the spiritual science is the very difference between spirit and matter. Spirit is purusha, the enjoyer, while matter is prakriti, the enjoyed. Isn’t there a major contradiction with this idea of deity worship, then?”
These doubts make sense. Any person can create any image using material elements. That doesn’t automatically make it worshipable. The distinction is between imaginary and authority. The mind, which is a subtle material element, can never properly conceive of the Divine on its own. It is in the individual’s nature to serve a higher power. That is the real definition of dharma. Thus the practice of idol worship is quite common; the method is not exclusive to statues. Man makes divine figures out of practically anyone who displays exceptional skill in a particular area.
Authority is something different. It is following guidelines passed on for many generations, with the origin being the highest authority. There is no way to test the accuracy of the claim through simple sight, as we weren’t around at the beginning of the creation. There are other ways to establish authority. We can look to historical incidents to increase our confidence in the potency of the authorized practice of deity worship.
1. Narasimhadeva coming from a pillar
In this case the deity worshiped was in the heart. A young child knew that God is everywhere and that He always has a distinct spiritual identity. The conditions did not allow for formal worship of a physical deity. But where there is a will in devotion, there is a way to practice it. Even when facing the greatest obstructions, love for God will triumph.
Prahlada was only five years old and his father was antagonistic to the worship of Vishnu. Prahlada did not mind, but the father did. So Hiranyakashipu tried every which way to kill his son, but Prahlada survived. Finally, in mocking the boy’s claim that God is indeed everywhere, Hiranyakashipu asked if Vishnu was in the pillar next to them. To his surprise, God then emerged from that very pillar in a horrifying form, that of a half-man/half-lion. If He can appear from a pillar, He can certainly accept worship in the temple through the statue created on authority.
2. Hanuman on the flag on Arjuna’s chariot
The famous Bhagavad-gita has the setting of a battlefield set to see the greatest war in history. The attention is focused on one particular chariot, just prior to the war’s commencement. That chariot has wonderful and significant decorations. It holds the lotus feet of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Shri Krishna. He is the same Vishnu worshiped by Prahlada. He is the same Narasimhadeva who emerged from the pillar.
The lotus feet are the shelter for the distressed warrior named Arjuna. Also on that chariot is the flag bearing the image of Hanuman. The flag is symbolic of a past victory of a courageous devotee. Hanuman served Rama, and now the same Rama is there as Krishna.
But from the Mahabharata we learn that the flag was more than a symbol. Hanuman had previously offered to stay on the chariot of Arjuna, adding to the shouts of victory through that flag. The promise was made to Bhima, who is one of Arjuna’s brothers. If Hanuman, a great servant of the Lord, has the ability to appear through an image marked on an official flag, then certainly Vishnu has the ability to do the same with the deity in the temple.
3. Rama donating a deity
Visits to the temple are not a strict requirement. The atmosphere is the key, as just from seeing the deity a person can be reminded of their long forgotten link to the Divine. He is the best friend, but unless there is a connection the benefits of friendship do not come.
In Shri Rama’s kingdom a long time ago, a particular citizen had great attachment to Rama in His physical form. But as a king, the Lord sometimes had to leave town on business. To spare the pain of separation for this citizen, Rama donated a deity of Himself. It was understood that worshiping the deity was as good as worshiping Him.
At the present moment, due to the influence of maya we think that God is far away. The deity is the mercy of the Divine, appearing before us in a form that we can somewhat understand. Thus the deity is not to be taken lightly.
4. The story of Sakshi-gopala
Shri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu loved hearing the story about Sakshi-gopala. This was a specific deity that once did something amazing. Of course the devotees know that God can do anything, but even the non-believers this time were surprised.
Gopala is another name for Krishna. It means “protector of the cows.” The deity became sakshi, or witness, to an agreement made between two brahmanas, or members of the priestly order. One brahmana went back on his promise, claiming he had never made it in the first place. The other brahmana vowed to bring the deity of Gopala, since the agreement was made in front of that deity. Gopala did indeed travel, on its own, to bear witness to the truth.
In the Bhagavad-gita we get the simple explanation of what should be offered to God the person. Fruit, water, flowers - nothing extraordinary is mentioned. The key is to make the offering with love. Then Krishna will accept.
“If one offers Me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, fruit, or water, I will accept it.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.26)
This does not mean that sweets and more elaborate preparations are prohibited. Nor does it mean that Krishna is against deity worship simply because it wasn’t specifically touched upon in the conversation with Arjuna.
There is another conversation, between Krishna and another cousin named Uddhava. Found in the latter portions of the Shrimad Bhagavatam, that discussion is also known as the Uddhava-gita. Krishna there specifically mentions deity worship. He gives general guidelines on how it should be performed.
If God exists, of course He should be worshiped. If He can be contemplated, remembered, and honored within the mind, then why not also in the physical form? Not only is such worship authorized by those who know things as they are, there is tremendous benefit received from even the smallest effort.
Non-devoted as idol to see,
But deity equally potent to be.
Supreme Lord for our eyes coming,
Proof as Gopala witness becoming.
And once from pillar emerged,
For giving punishment deserved.
Worship guidelines to Uddhava gave,
To reap reward, Divine image to save.