“Always chanting My glories, endeavoring with great determination, bowing down before Me, these great souls perpetually worship Me with devotion.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 9.14)
Though the ancient scriptures of India, the Vedas, are quite complex as far as teachings go, there is one truth that stands above all others. This truth is known as the ultimate conclusion, the definitive explanation of the relationship between the individual and the higher reality, the divine person in the spiritual sky. This ultimate conclusion is known as achintya-bhedabheda-tattva, which stipulates that the living entities are part and parcel of the Supreme Lord. They are simultaneously one with and different from the Absolute Truth. More important than this conclusion is the relationship derived from it. As part and parcel of the Supreme Energetic, the original Absolute Truth, God who has an ever-blissful form, the fragmental sparks are meant to be constantly in association with their superior “twin”. This connection is achieved through worship of the divine in His original form as the Personality of Godhead, who is addressed as Krishna.
This ultimate relationship derived from the highest truth seems simple enough to understand. It sounds like a fancy way of saying that we should love God with all our hearts and that we should always be in His association. Instead of dedicating our lives to mundane sense gratification, wherein we compete with our fellow man for resources, pleasure, and the enjoyment of members of the opposite sex, the real business in life is to take to worship of God. Who could argue with this mindset? The sectarians and the sentimentalists, however, have their own sets of scriptures. Vedic wisdom, the crown jewel of which is found in the hallowed pages of the Shrimad Bhagavatam, is very comprehensive and thus covers all aspects of material and spiritual life. Since the Vedas are so detailed, they even account for the existence of rivaling and varying religious systems. Vedic wisdom is complete, or purna, but there are other systems of spirituality, some of which are even rooted in the Vedas, that crop up based on time and circumstance. This isn’t to say that other systems are not legitimate, but rather they aren’t as complete in their philosophy and instruction as the highest truths of the Vedas are.
“…Due to the great variety of desires and natures among human beings, there are many different theistic philosophies of life, which are handed down through tradition, custom and disciplic succession. There are other teachers who directly support atheistic viewpoints.” (Lord Krishna, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 11.14.8)
Since the sentimentalists and sectarians hold steadfast to their one or two scriptures, the intelligence they acquire from studying such philosophical doctrines often peaks at a level below the summit. As a result, instead of merely focusing on their own business and the recommendations given to them, they take to criticizing others, especially the followers of the Vedic tradition. One of the more commonly lodged complaints about devotees of Krishna is that they spend their time worshiping a personal form of God. Moreover, they carve out images, turn them into deities, and then worship by prostrating before them and chanting various hymns. The narrow-minded sectarians cannot fathom ever taking up such activity, for they claim that their scriptures strictly prohibit such practices.
To justify their position, the sentimentalists will quote from their own scriptures, invoking statements which can be summarized in the following way: “One is meant to worship such and such God and no one else. Carving out images of such a God or any other heavenly figure is strictly prohibited. Moreover, no one should prostrate before such a carved out image, nor should they offer it any prayers. God is an angry and jealous man who severely punishes those who violate His orders. One should surrender to such and such personality since they are the only ones who can lead us to God. Such surrender, which is acknowledged through a formal acceptance process or ritual, enables a person to become free from all sinful reactions.”
This is certainly a lot to digest. If we cover the basic components, however, we’ll see that the restrictions imposed actually prevent one from achieving the desired aim, i.e. that of worshiping God. As a result, the restrictions and the ultimate conclusion end up contradicting one another. Since the aforementioned viewpoints are held by the sentimentalists and the sectarians, not much thought is given to the statements contained within. Rather, everything is accepted blindly, without much attention given to the justification and effectiveness, or lack thereof, to such procedures. A quick analysis of each one of the above mentioned stipulations can help clarify the similarities and differences that exist between the sentimentalists and the purified devotees of a personal God.
“Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 18.66)
The first injunction is that one mustn’t worship any other God except the specific personality in question. Actually this injunction exists in all major religions. In the Vedic tradition, this same point is raised in the famous Bhagavad-gita, the discourse on philosophy, life, and the soul given by Lord Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Though the Gita delves into several topics of interest, the ultimate conclusion, the final instruction, is that one should simply surrender to Krishna, giving up all other religious systems, or dharmas, and be ultimately freed from all sinful reactions. This is most certainly true, for only God can permanently remove all sinful reactions. Direct worship of the Supreme Person indeed represents the highest form of religion.
Are followers of the Vedic tradition violating this principle of surrender by worshiping Krishna instead of other notable personalities? Are the followers of other faiths guilty of the same crime through their own religious practices? In order to understand what it means to not worship any other God, the term “God” itself needs to be defined. Every person in this world is religious. This is because every person, whether they believe in God or not, has an ultimate object of worship. They may not be able to identify this object with ontological certitude, but they most certainly act in a reverential attitude towards it. This speaks to the fact that the acknowledgment of something as the ultimate object of worship occurs through acts of devotion, not merely statements of allegiance or professions of faith.
To understand this point more clearly, let’s take the example of the romantic dealings between men and women. In today’s world, men and women are free to intermingle; therefore anyone can have sexual relations with anyone else. It is the natural tendency of the man to want to have sex with as many women as possible, while the woman is generally more interested in establishing a safe and secure relationship. In order to meet his objective, the man will often lie and misrepresent his true identity in the beginning stages of the relationship. The thought process is pretty simple. “I want sex, so I will do whatever is required to get it. Afterwards, I can act naturally, or I can just move on to another woman.” The three famous words, “I love you”, give testimony to the great lengths that some men will go to to get sex. If the woman is unwilling to have sex with a man unless and until love is established, the man will have no problem saying “I love you” to get what he wants. In the end, these three words merely become a profession of faith, a hollow statement. There is an ulterior motive, thus making the words meaningless. If a man professes to love the woman, but then casts her aside at some point in the future, the article of faith was simply a hoax, a way to cheat the object of affection.
In the realm of spirituality, simply professing a faith is not enough. In order to accept someone or something as God, we have to make them our ultimate object of worship. Therefore if one simply pledges allegiance to a specific notable divine personality, but then still treats other people and entities as their ultimate objects of worship, their worship of God becomes meaningless. This is actually the case with many so-called religious followers around the world. During the weekdays, they engage in meat eating – which is facilitated through the killing of innocent animals – illicit sex, intoxication, and gambling, and then on Sundays they will attend some religious function and feel as if everything is alright. It must be said that every living entity has freedom in how they choose to act. If someone chooses to eat meat, devote time and money towards leisure activities, or profess their love to their significant others, they have every right as free people to do so. At the same time, such activity certainly violates the tenet of not worshiping any other God. Worship is facilitated through activity and, more importantly, consciousness. If a person’s consciousness is focused on material life, it must be said that their main object of worship, their “God”, is matter. In this way, they are violating the primary rule of the doctrine they are so fond of quoting.
The sentimentalist’s next stipulation is that one should not carve out any images of God or any other heavenly figure. One especially shouldn’t bow down to such a carved image or offer any worship. This activity is deemed as idol worship and is strictly prohibited by most faiths. This stipulation is probably the most contradictory of all the rules and regulations of the non-Vedic faiths. The contradiction again lies with the issue of worship. In order to worship God, a Supreme Person, the greatest divine figure, one must remember. Remembering, which is known as smaranam in Sanskrit, is the quintessential devotional act. Wherever we are, wherever we go, we simply have to remember God in order to be worshiping Him. Even if we are sitting in church or going through some other religious function, the remembering process is still at the forefront.
So how does remembering contradict the restriction on deity worship? In order to remember, we have to have something to focus the mind on. This object of focus cannot be nothing. If something is void or formless, by definition, it cannot be remembered. In this paradigm, the concept of worship immediately becomes null and void. The sentimentalists will counter with the argument that the mind should focus on the specific divine personality that one goes to for salvation. Yet this argument actually further enhances the contradiction. If we are to worship God through remembering a divine personality, a great prophet of the past, are we not fixing our minds on a specific form? Did these prophets not have a physical form when they roamed the earth?
Obviously these divine figures were real and full of form. Therefore remembering their form is certainly an authorized method of worship. If remembering such figures in our minds is an accepted method of worship, how can carving an image of them be prohibited? Is not the carved image simply a replica of the image that is in our minds during times of worship? Moreover, isn’t the worship of the carved replica image a higher religious practice than simply remembering them in the mind? After all, if we worship a deity, we get to act out our devotion. Without such a practice, our level of devotion remains in a theoretical state. “Oh I love God; I accept such and such as the savior.” These sentiments are meaningless unless acted upon. If a carved image is created, worshiped, and prostrated before, then not only is the worshiper benefitted, but so is anyone else who witnesses such a display of devotion.
This brings us to the next restriction: prostration. Not only are the sentimentalists against carving out worshipable forms of their divine figures, but they are against offering prayers to such images. The prostration before the deities of Krishna, Vishnu, and the spiritual masters are seen as great sins by outsiders and neophytes. Ironically enough, people are already offering their obeisances to other “Gods”, prostrating themselves in different ways. Prostration simply means acknowledging the supremacy of the object of worship. This is already occurring in the areas of sports, politics, and entertainment. Though the prostrations can take on different forms, the end-result is the same. In the world of sports, the bowing down occurs through the buying of tickets to events, the screaming in jubilation, the purchasing of memorabilia and apparel, and the overall love and adoration directed at the sports figures. In entertainment, a similar style of worship is seen through the attendance of movies and the following of the day-to-day happenings of favorite actors and actresses. Politics sees the greatest form of worship, with the prostration occurring through attendance at campaign rallies, political donations, and the dedication to showing up to vote for particular candidates. In the realm of romantic love, men even kneel before their significant others when making marriage proposals. Pet owners regularly bow down to pick up the waste that their pets leave on the ground. There is even a popular saying, “Dogs have owners and cats have servants.” So if we are already bowing down to other gods, other people that we have turned into our ultimate objects of worship, what is the harm in prostrating before the real God?
The next point raised by the sentimentalists is that God is angry and jealous, and that He punishes those who forget Him. Vedic information actually debunks these opinions quite systematically. First off, everyone is already punished through taking birth in the material world. Our current residence is governed by an energy known as maya, which means “that which is not”. Maya is “not God”, therefore this place is one where every living entity is competing to become God. The Supreme Lord has no interest in this competition, therefore He remains neutral. At the same time, He kindly seeks our prayers so that we can be benefitted, not Him. The Supreme Lord is described in terms of thousands of names in the Vedic tradition, each of which speaks to His transcendental qualities. One of God’s names is Achyuta, which means one who never falls down. He is also described as atmarama, meaning one who is self-satisfied.
“While contemplating the objects of the senses, a person develops attachment for them, and from such attachment lust develops, and from lust anger arises.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 2.62)
In order for God to be angry, He must be fallible. Anger is a result of frustration, the inability to satisfy one’s lusty desires borne out of attachment to material objects. By definition, this emotion can never apply to God because there is nothing that He is incapable of doing. The Supreme Lord can never be frustrated in any effort or endeavor. He especially has no reason to be angry with the living entities, for their powers are insignificant and puny when compared to the great energy of the energetic Supreme Lord. Jealousy is an emotion that results from insecurity, the worry that someone else will surpass us in beauty, wealth, strength, fame, renunciation, or wisdom. Since God is known as Bhagavan, He already possesses all of these opulences simultaneously and to the fullest extent. Therefore He has no reason to be jealous of anyone.
The sentimentalists’ last point of surrendering unto a specific personality is probably the most important one to properly understand, for without legitimate surrender no one can make advancement in spiritual life. Surrender means losing one’s will to fight. It involves putting someone else in charge of everything and having complete faith in their abilities. Surrender is not accomplished simply by waiving a white flag, signing a document, or professing an allegiance to a specific figure. Surrender in the realm of spirituality comes from giving up the fight to be God, relinquishing the idea that one can enjoy more than the Supreme Enjoyer.
“For those whose minds are attached to the unmanifested, impersonal feature of the Supreme, advancement is very troublesome. To make progress in that discipline is always difficult for those who are embodied.” (Lord Krishna, Bg. 12.5)
For surrender to truly occur, one must worship God in His original, personal form. This is because surrender, salvation, and the elimination of sinful reactions can only occur through a change in consciousness. Worship starts and ends with the mind. The mind is always working, so whatever it chooses to spend the most time thinking about is what constitutes the ultimate object of worship. Moreover, the mind can only contemplate on things that it has experienced or seen. If a person spends all their time in material pursuits – not giving credence to the subtle laws of nature, the plight of their fellow man, and ignoring the equality of all forms of life – the mind will focus on maya, or not God. Therefore such a person can never truly surrender to the Supreme Lord. In order for one’s consciousness to be changed, the nature of their activities must also be altered.
This is where bhakti-yoga, or devotional service, comes into play. Devotees in the Vedic tradition take to directly worshiping Krishna, the primeval Lord, the oldest and kindest personality in all the universes. Krishna was there at the beginning of creation. At that time He expanded Himself into His four-armed form of Lord Vishnu and then imparted Vedic wisdom to the first created living entity, Lord Brahma. It is the duty of every person to follow the example of their original father. Lord Brahma, the progenitor of man, took to devotional service immediately, spending all his time thinking about Vishnu. Since that time, Lord Vishnu has been kind enough to make several appearances on earth. In these instances, Vishnu appeared in a transcendental and spiritual body, though it appeared as though He was an ordinary living entity. The conditioned souls can practice bhakti-yoga by regularly remembering Krishna, Vishnu, or one of the non-different expansions which appear on earth.
The deity plays a central role in this worship, for it allows a devotee to back up their claims of religiousness. By carving out a deity based on the specifications provided in the authorized scriptures, a devotee can worship a non-different form of the Lord. This form is completely transcendental and vital towards achieving advancement in spiritual life. A devotee can offer prayers, dress the deity, and prepare nice food preparations to be given in sacrifice. More than anything else, the devotee should regularly chant, “Hare Krishna Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare”, in front of this worshipable form. If God wants us to think of Him, why not use all the tools at our disposal to ensure that such remembrance continues uninterrupted?
A sin is an activity which results in a temporary unfavorable condition. Separation from God must be considered the most unfavorable of conditions. Since we all find ourselves in this situation today, we must all be considered sinful. The only way to remove the reactions to our sins, the unfavorable conditions, is to reconnect with God. The Lord is already residing inside of our hearts as the Supersoul, but we are currently unaware of His presence. Through the changing of consciousness, this connection with God can be reestablished. By worshiping the deity, bowing down before the Lord and the spiritual master, and regularly chanting the holy names of the Lord, we can achieve the ultimate objective in life, that of returning back to God’s spiritual kingdom.
Categories: deity worship