“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)
Friend1: One of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of Vedic culture is deity worship.
Friend2: Through what avenue? The idea that you are making an image of God?
Friend1: Or just the fact that it’s stone. It’s a figure crafted from human intelligence or ability.
Friend2: Well, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada makes an important distinction in that regard. The deity is not imaginary; it is based on authority. Sure, there is some artistic skill in the input. You assign two people the same project to create a painting, and the results will be different.
Friend1: Yes, because of a host of factors, including ability.
Friend2: Vision, as well. With deity worship the basis is not imagination, though. Everything is authorized, or at least it is supposed to be. The hands, the legs, the feet, the paraphernalia, up to the positioning of the hands – the guidance is from shastra, which is scripture.
Friend1: I get that. There is certainly something to the process. In the beginning we may not understand, but through further immersion in the culture there is a purification in terms of vision. While a visit to the temple in the past may not have made an impact, now there is an immediate feeling combining peace, respect, awe, and inspiration simultaneously.
Friend2: For sure, and the same effect is absent from interaction with something material.
Friend1: As in, ordinary stone, wood, resin or what have you. Here is the thing. How do we handle the argument which says to give priority to those objects which are animate? First feed and serve the living beings; then God.
Friend2: What do you mean?
Friend1: Service to man. Instead of bringing offerings to the deity in the temple, feed the poor, those who are starving.
Friend2: I would first say that there is some validity to the argument. Shri Rama, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, remarks similarly in the Ramayana. He is trying to justify the need to honor the wishes of the father, King Dasharatha, by carrying through with the exile order. Rama says that if you can’t properly worship those who are animate, like the parents and guru, then how can you properly worship the Supreme Lord, who is beyond our vision?
Friend1: That is a good argument, but I guess the question is over who is worthy of worship.
Friend2: That’s the thing. A person claims that the deity is stone and that man should be served instead, but what if the man being served is worse than stone?
Friend1: Such as a criminal? But how would we know that in the beginning? I can’t tell that the hungry person will one day lead a life of crime after I have served them.
Friend2: Precisely. You don’t know. You are following the path out of sentiment, based solely on the externals. You fail to realize that worshiping the deity in the proper way is like watering the root of the tree. The component parts automatically get served. There is no need to worry so much. It may seem like a practice based in sentimentalism, but there is a science to it. It is an age-old tradition providing lasting value, whereas helping this person or that may not even benefit them in the long run.
Friend1: Are you saying we shouldn’t help the less fortunate?
Friend2: In terms of priority, there is no question.
Friend1: Are you saying that by serving the deity the hungry will automatically be fed?
Friend2: You cannot solve every ill or every injustice in society. It is simply not possible, no matter how hard you try. You were given this human birth to fulfill a higher purpose, and the Supreme Lord is so merciful as to descend as the deity to help make the achievement a reality. Don’t squander the chance.
No more in bodies to wander,
This best chance don’t squander.
Through illusion succumbing,
And averse to God becoming.
With the deity something more,
To help understand Him for.
Better than service any other direction,
Deity not an imagination production.