“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.” (Lord Chaitanya, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 8.274)
Question: “I love Sri Krishna but temples turn to make worship into a cult similar to the Roman Catholic Church, don’t you think?”
Answer: To those unaccustomed to the Vedic traditions, visiting a temple can be an awkward experience. You walk in and you immediately have to take your shoes off. Then you enter a room where you see a bunch of people with shaven heads, all bowing down before a statue made of stone or wood. Then everyone gathers together and starts chanting, singing, and dancing. At the end, food is distributed and you are told that “you must eat this”, for it is not a good thing to reject this thing called “prasadam”. All of this definitely has a cult-like feel to it, but it is intended to benefit all of mankind. It is due to Krishna’s mercy that the temple exists.
Deity worship appears to be idol worship to the outsider. Idol worship involves adoring or worshiping someone or something. We are all minute spirit souls who have been thrust into this material world where we compete with each other over issues of money, fame, sense gratification, and other material perfections. Thus we have a tendency to worship and adore those people who have already achieved perfection in some material venture. It is quite common for young children to idolize sports athletes. The great golfer Tiger Woods used to idolize former great Jack Nicklaus. Woods would keep track of all of Nicklaus’ achievements and victories. In a similar manner, tennis star Roger Federer used to idolize former players Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker.
At the core of idol worship is the desire to imitate. Deity worship as it relates to Lord Krishna, or God, is nothing like this. Devotees do not want to imitate God, but rather, they want to be with Him and offer Him prayers. This is a key distinction. By default, we all want to imitate God, for that it is the driving force behind the existence of this material world. God creates, maintains, and destroys, so we like to pretend that we can do the same. God is the supreme controller, ishvara, and we too are ishvaras in a sense that we have control over our own bodies. The spirit soul, or atma, is the commander of the ship known as the body. Yet the body is all that we have control over. God is the supreme commander, for He resides within every living entity as the Supersoul, or Paramatma. To take things even further, the Paramatma is simply an expansion of the original form of God known as Bhagavan.
“Although the archa-murti, the worshipable Deity form of the Lord, appears to be made of material elements, it is as good as the spiritual forms found in the spiritual Vaikunthalokas. The Deity in the temple, however, is visible to the material eyes of the devotee. It is not possible for one in material conditional life to see the spiritual form of the Lord. To bestow causeless mercy upon us, the Lord appears as archa-murti so that we can see Him.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Madhya 20.217 Purport)
It is to perform the worship of Bhagavan that the deity exists. The deity is known as the archa-vigraha in Sanskrit. Archa refers to archanam, or worship or the offering of worship. Vigraha means embodiment or form, so the deity is a body of the Lord that one can worship. This is not to say that God does not have His own body, for He most certainly does. His spiritual body is completely blissful and full of knowledge, sach-chid-ananda-vigraha. The deity directly correlates to Krishna’s original form and His avataras, or incarnations which appear on earth.
This is the part where many people get hung up. “How can God appear on earth? This place is full of miseries and is governed by maya. How can God ever associate with maya?” The idea of the incarnation certainly makes followers of the Vedic tradition easier to criticize. As mentioned before, the deity is not simply stone or wood. It is shaped to match the appearance of specific incarnations of Lord Krishna. Krishna is the original form of God, but He takes many direct expansions to carry out specific duties. The purpose of the incarnation is to punish the miscreants and to give pleasure and protection to the devotees. The deities that exist in temples are constructed to be replicas of the same Lord who appeared on earth in the past. Some of Krishna’s most famous incarnations include Lord Rama, Narasimha, Parashurama, Kurma, etc. Lord Krishna Himself personally appeared on earth some five thousand years ago. Deities are even constructed of His famous devotees like Hanuman, Radha, Shiva, etc. The life and pastimes of all these personalities and incarnations are chronicled in the voluminous Vedic literatures.
The incarnation is another part of Krishna’s mercy. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say the incarnation didn’t exist. Let’s say that God decided that He would never appear on earth. This would certainly make it easier from a criticism standpoint. Outsiders would have less ammunition to make fun of followers of the Vedic tradition. However, this would also make it harder to achieve life’s aim; that of knowing, understanding, and loving God. The Vedas tell us that the spiritual world is our real home, for life there is all about associating with God in a loving way. The material world is just the opposite, for life here is about imitating God and competing with Him. Without the existence of the incarnations, it becomes much easier to worship matter instead of worshiping God. We see that this is the current predicament that most of the world finds itself in.
The Vedic religion, more accurately known as sanatana-dharma, is focused around developing a loving attachment to God. Other types of religious systems are subordinate because they keep people away from loving God. We see that most of the world today worships matter, in the form of other living entities and their material perfections. Everyone is religious, even the atheists; it’s just the objects of worship that vary. The communists/socialists want everyone to worship government. And who is this government? It is comprised of a set of pseudo-intellectuals/elitists who have anointed themselves as being superior beings. “Trust me and I will make you happy.” Others worship the almighty dollar and the pursuit of everlasting fame and fortune.
Those who know the Supreme Absolute Truth, Lord Krishna, know that no materialist or material fortune can ever make anyone happy. Why is this? It is because matter is inferior to spirit, which is the antithesis of matter. We see evidence of this principle in our own lives. Our body is only important as long as our soul remains within it. At the time of death, the soul exits the body and leaves it to rot and decay. Our own spirit soul is certainly superior to matter, but there is a supreme spirit, known as God, who is superior to everything. Since He is greater than any one person or collection of people, He should be the supreme object of worship.
A religious system that does not include deity worship, or the concept of incarnations, makes it much more difficult to foster attachment to God. The incarnation not only brings a form of God to the world, but also pastimes and teachings. For example, devotees of Krishna relish in the pastimes He performed as a child in Vrindavana. His teachings found in the Bhagavad-gita are so profound that they have even been studied by non-devotee scholars and religionists throughout the past five thousand years. If these pastimes didn’t exist, what would devotees hear about? We would be forced to hear about the exploits of common men; exploits which may certainly be laudable, but which nonetheless fail to provide liberation from the cycle of birth and death.
Since spirit is completely opposite in quality to matter, it makes sense that spiritual life will look completely different from material life. In this regard, temples will always have a cult-like aspect to them. People who visit Vaishnava (related to Vishnu/Krishna) temples are devotees of the Lord, so their goal is not to increase their wealth, strength, or fame, but rather to reconnect with God. Deity worship is a central process of the discipline known as bhakti-yoga, or devotional service. Chanting, hearing, offering, remembering, etc. are all spiritual activities which many of us are not accustomed to, so it makes sense that the practice of such activities will appear strange.
The ultimate purpose of a temple is to allow people to see God and hear about Him. It is a place where people can worship together and learn something about the true meaning of life. Christian leaders advise people to attend church at least once a week on Sundays, and followers of the faith use this attendance as a barometer for determining who is religious and who is not. In reality, there is no single litmus test that can determine a person’s devotion to God. The great Vaishnava acharyas all advise us to make religious life our full-time occupation. This is something that can be easily accomplished in this age by regularly chanting, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”.
The temple exists to induce people to take up this chanting process. Deity worship involves chanting, the offering of prayers, and the offering of food. Vegetarian food, in the mode of goodness, is prepared with love and offered with devotion to the deity. The Lord spiritually eats the food and then returns everything to the devotee. The resultant food is known as prasadam, or the Lord’s mercy, and is considered completely spiritual in quality. For this reason, devotees try to distribute as much prasadam as possible. Those who grow up in Hindu families are quite familiar with prasadam, for the parents demand that their children eat it. “You don’t say ‘no’ to prasadam.” By visiting temples, we can partake of this prasadam and be forever benefitted.
The other good thing about visiting a temple is that it can lead to imitation. Even though we try to imitate God, we have an inherent understanding that our powers are limited. This causes us to have a fragile ego, which then leads us to perform activities that aim to boost our ego and self-esteem. By visiting a temple, we can see how full-time devotees perform their duties. Naturally, we can end up thinking, “I can do this better. This looks simple enough, let me try this at home.” This competitive spirit helps us in the end, for the devotees at the temple would like nothing better than to see other people take up devotional service.
In the end, no matter how often we visit temples or how many devotees we associate with, our relationship with God is a personal one. We came into this world alone, and we die alone. Our only true friend is the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Shri Krishna. It is nice to visit temples, but the end-goal should be to feel like we’re always inside of a temple. This means turning our homes into mini-temples, where the Lord is always worshiped and offered prayers. It is much more beneficial to society to have many homes acting as temples than having just one centralized public place of worship in a community.
We visit a temple, see how things are done, and then take up the process at home. Is this the end of spiritual life? From the example set by Lord Chaitanya, Krishna’s most recent incarnation, we see that there is one further step that should be taken. While it is nice to worship God on our own, it is even nicer to distribute His mercy to others. Lord Chaitanya set the example by travelling all across India, visiting many temples, and chanting the names of Krishna and Rama wherever He went. This is the perfection of devotion. We too can easily take up this process. By turning our homes into temples, we can invite our friends and family and regularly perform kirtana and deity worship. This is a very simple process which yields tremendous results.
Categories: deity worship