“One may protest and ask, ‘Why should God be worshiped in images and not in His original spiritual form?’ The answer is that we cannot see God immediately in His spiritual form. With our material eyes we can only see stone, earth, wood – something tangible. Therefore Krishna comes as archa-vigraha, a form conveniently presented by the Supreme Lord in order for us to see Him. The result is that if we concentrate upon the image and make offerings with love and devotion, Krishna will respond through the image.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Raja-Vidya: The King of Knowledge, Ch 3)
Friend1: The image of God.
Friend2: An old man?
Friend1: Not a chance.
Friend2: Just waiting to punish the sinners?
Friend1: On the contrary. The most forgiving.
Friend2: How so?
Friend1: He is within everyone in the heart as the Supersoul. This is His unmanifest feature. Brahman is the same. Some spiritual traditions refer to either one as nirguna.
Friend2: What is significant about Supersoul, or Paramatma?
Friend1: It is the all-pervading witness. Through this feature God sees everything. More specifically, He is keenly aware of our forgetfulness. He knows for just how long we have forgotten Him, choosing instead the struggle of material existence.
Friend2: So He’s the most forgiving for leaving the door open to the spiritual world in spite of that.
Friend1: Exactly. Transitioning to a related topic. We’ve established that God is not old.
Friend1: Always fresh and new. We know that He has form, a spiritual one. The original is all-attractive, so one name of address is Krishna. We know what Krishna looks like based on the testimony of others, passed on in the chain of disciplic succession.
Friend2: Parampara. That is the way to know God. Not by any other way. Mental speculation won’t do.
Friend1: Okay, so maybe this pertains to speculation within the system of authority. When you see different images of Krishna, is not the effort alone offensive?
Friend2: What do you mean?
Friend1: Who am I to think that I can reduce the Almighty to a painting or statue? He is unlimited. His transcendental goodness is unfathomable. There is no way I can accurately depict Him.
Friend2: For starters, that is a good sentiment to have. Humility is a cornerstone of success in devotional service, bhakti-yoga. If you’re creating the images simply to test your artistic ability, then I would agree that there is something offensive in the effort.
Friend1: How can it ever be right, though? How can I ever be satisfied with an image of Krishna? Won’t I put limits on Him, when He is in fact unlimited?
Friend2: These are good questions, but the explanation is pretty simple. Let’s use an example. Backtrack two hundred or so years.
Friend2: There are no cameras. No smartphones, obviously. The only way to get an image of someone is to paint it. Let’s say that you are living during that time. You have a son. He wants to make a portrait of you.
Friend1: That’s awfully kind of him.
Friend2: He tries his best. The resulting piece of art looks somewhat like you. Now, because of your job, you travel a lot. Your son misses you when you are gone. He can’t talk to you on the phone. The most he can do is exchange letters.
Friend2: The portrait he has made of you is his saving grace. He looks at it every day. Just by seeing it, he remembers you. He feels as if you are with him, offering unconditional love. From looking at that painting, he remembers all the good times the two of you shared. He remembers that he has a loving father who has taught him so much.
Friend1: Wow, thanks. That is so nice.
Friend2: Exactly. Nice! That is the reason the devotees attempt to paint Krishna. It is a way to increase their consciousness of Him. Krishna is so merciful that He agrees to appear in the image. Of course it is limiting. The statue we see in the temple, it is Krishna Himself, but the Lord can never be reduced to a small size. He is the universal form and beyond. But how are we going to worship such a gigantic form?
Friend1: Not possible.
Friend2: When the devotee paints using the authorized descriptions found in works like the Bhagavad-gita and Shrimad Bhagavatam, the Supreme Lord helps them. The attempt itself is bhakti. The painting helps to remember Krishna, which is called smaranam in Sanskrit. It is one of nine ways to practice bhakti-yoga. Therefore it is purifying, a way to get closer to God, which is the ultimate goal.
How God to a painting can reduce?
From faulty mind features to deduce.
An offense of the highest kind,
Since Lord beyond anything of mind.
In bhakti loving effort the attempt,
For increasing consciousness meant.
Way to remember beloved so dear,
Authorized texts giving picture clear.