“We may be very proud of our eyes, but we cannot even see our next-door neighbor. People challenge, ‘Can you show me God?’ But what can they see? What is the value of their eyes? God is not cheap. We cannot see anything, not to speak of God, without sunshine. Without sunlight we are blind. At night, we cannot see anything, and therefore we use electricity because the sun is not present.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Easy Journey To Other Planets, Ch 2)
“Let me present a situation to you. It is a warm summer’s day. The kids at home are driving you crazy. You wish they were in school, but that is closed for a few months. Watching television for hours a day is not a constructive way to spend time.
“On the previous drive home from work, you noticed signs for a carnival. Coming to town for only a few days, it looks like the perfect venue to place the children to pass the time in a more meaningful way. They will run around, eat some candy, go on some rides, and have a good time. Most importantly, they will tire out by the end of the day and thus keep quiet when at home.
“You go to the carnival, and one of the attractions you visit involves puppets. There is a curtain at first. The master of ceremonies then removes the curtain at the beginning of the show. It is a moment to be a grand unveiling of the participants in the play.
“Transitioning to the realm of spirituality, particularly that descending from the Vedas, is not the practice of deity worship the same? You enter the establishment designated for such a purpose, and the altar might not show anything. There is a large curtain in front.
“You are not surprised by this, since the public announcement lists the viewing times. The Sanskrit word is ‘darshana’. This means that you will only be able to see the objects being worshiped during certain intervals of the day.
“There is a similar presentation when the time arrives. That is to say, someone in the front removes the curtain and then everyone in attendance is happy to see what is behind. There are deities, considered to be identical to the Supreme Lord Himself. Often times there is a side companion, such as the goddess of fortune.
“Do you see the similarity to the carnival show? Does this practice not cheapen the concept of God? Shouldn’t He be much more than a puppet or a statue? I am not criticizing the tradition, but I am wondering about people who might mistakenly make such a correlation.”
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada warns about falling into the ways of a particular group. The Sanskrit word is sahajiya, and it generally refers to someone who takes the principles of spiritual life in a cavalier way. They do not necessarily show the proper respect to the deity, and they may concoct some style of worship, following a manner that is not authorized.
In the practical sense, deity worship is kind of an entry-level into dedicated spiritual practice. The mature person understands that God is everywhere. He is omnipresent, in the physical sense, but also in the concept of antaryami, which refers to an all-pervading witness.
There is the chief resident in the temple, who has the permanent home of the altar. Depending on the deity worshiped, sometimes the resident leaves to be paraded around town, to grant darshana to even those who might not visit the temple.
Yet this does not mean that God is limited to that specific setting. He is the chief resident in the temple, but He lives outside, as well. Not a blade of grass moves without His sanction, and there is not a space in the universe where He cannot be found.
The deity gives an idea of God. Since we are embodied, since we succumb to the forces of illusion, since we make so many mistakes, the archa-vigraha removes much of the doubt. It clears confusion arising from speculation, proving that God is indeed a person.
It is His causeless mercy to appear in such a form, and when the worship takes place in an authorized way it is like connecting with God directly. I lack the eyes to see Him, but He is so kind as to appear in a way that I can begin to understand Him. Even a little understanding on this path is enough to provide full protection in the future, where the individual moves on to some unknown place.
Moving on to unknown place,
But remembering His face.
Where from the deity shown,
Features of Almighty known.
Causeless mercy for me,
That finally I can see.
Blind for so long I was before,
But now of the Truth I’m sure.