Deity worship

Sri Radha-Ramanaji: The Self-Manifested Deity

Seeing His devotee’s desire to increase His loving service, Lord Krishna responds in a most glorious way.

When Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu visited South India on His tour of the holy places, He visited the Sri Rangam Temple. In front of the Deity He chanted and danced in ecstatic sankirtana. The head priest of the Sri Rangam Temple, Sri Vyenkata Bhatta, was very much impressed with Sri Mahaprabhu’s love of God.

After Mahaprabhu’s kirtana, Vyenkata Bhatta invited Him to his house. There he requested Mahaprabhu to stay during the four months of Chaturmasya, which was soon to start. Mahaprabhu, as a sannyasi, accepted his request.

Vyenkata Bhatta directed his son, Gopala Bhatta, to render all services to Mahaprabhu during this period, and Gopala Bhatta with great sincerity took care of Sri Mahaprabhu’s every need. As a result he received great benefit by Mahaprabhu’s association. Being pleased with Gopala Bhatta’s devotional affection, Mahaprabhu gave him initiation and ordered him that after the disappearance (death) of his parents he should go to Vrindavana to live there, performing bhajana, devotional service, and writing books.

At the age of thirty, after his parents disappeared, Gopala Bhatta went to Vrindavana. When he reached there, he heard that Mahaprabhu had already visited Vrindavana and had returned to Puri. Hearing this, Gopala Bhatta was disappointed, thinking that Mahaprabhu had never ordered him to visit Him in Puri. Mahaprabhu, however, through Rupa Goswami and Sanatana Goswami, sent Gopala Bhatta His personal asana (seat) and cloth as signs of His blessings.

Later, when Gopala Bhatta heard of the disappearance of Mahaprabhu, he felt great separation from the Lord. But in a dream Mahaprabhu instructed him, “If you want My darshana, if you want to see Me, make a pilgrimage to Nepal.”

In Nepal, Gopala Bhatta visited the Gandak River and took his bath there. After his bath, he filled his waterpot, but was surprised to see that some shalagrama-shilas had entered it. He emptied them back into the river and refilled his water pot, but again he saw that some shalagrama- shilas had entered his water. pot. He emptied his waterpot one more time, and upon filling it a third time, he saw that now twelve shalagrama-shilas were there. Thinking that this must be some mercy of the Lord, he decided to bring all the shalagrama-shilas to Vrindavana.

Gopala Bhatta gave initiation to Gopinatha Dasa, a brahmacari who lived with him and rendered him all services.

One day a wealthy man came to Vrindavana and offered Gopala Bhatta all kinds of dresses and ornaments for his shalagramas. Gopala Bhatta, however, told him to give them to somebody else, since his shalagramas were of a round shape and therefore the dresses and ornaments could not be used.

This incident made Gopala Bhatta think deeply. It was Nrisimha Cahturdashi, the appearance day of Lord Nrisimhadeva, and Gopala Bhatta remembered how Lord Nrisimha, in His form as half- lion, half-man, had come out of a pillar. Gopala Bhatta prayed to the Lord, “O Lord, You are very merciful. You fulfill all the desires of Your devotees. I wish to serve You in Your full form.” He read the pastimes of Lord Nrisimhadeva in the Srimad-Bhagavatm, and after chanting in ecstasy he fell unconscious. The next morning he awoke to find that one of the twelve shalagramas, the Damodara shila, had manifested as Sri Radha Ramana. He informed Sanatana Goswami and Rupa Goswami.

Gopala Bhatta started serving Sri Radha-Ramanaji. After some years, however, he became concerned: after his disappearance, who would continue the service of Sri Radha- Ramana? He asked Gopinatha Dasa, his brahmacari disciple, to get married and take the service of Sri Radha- Ramana as a hereditary duty. Gopinatha Dasa did not want to marry but suggested his younger brother, who was married. Gopala Bhatta agreed and initiated him.

After the disappearance of Sri Gopala Bhatta Goswami, this disciple, known as Damodara Dasa Goswami, continued the worship of Sri Radha- Ramanaji. Since then the Goswami families descended from Damodara Dasa Goswami and, spiritually, from Gopala Bhatta Goswami have continued the worship of Sri Radha-Ramana very nicely in Vrindavana to this very day.

Before preaching in the West, Srila Prabhupada, the Founder- Acharya of ISKCON, was for many years a close friend of Sri Vishwambhar Goswami, an acharya in the line of Gopala Bhatta Goswami. Srila Prabhupada advised his devotees to learn the high standard of Deity worship and Vaishnava etiquette from the Sri Radha-Ramana Temple. Many times Srila Prabhupada visited the Sri Radha-Ramana Temple and was very much impressed.

Idol worship, Deity worship, and hell

Question: 
Some Christians say ISKCON is an idol-worshiping 'cult,' and that if I joined ISKCON I would be turning away from God and going to hell. Is there any similarity between Deities and the Ark of the Covenant?


Our Answer:

If you have faith in Christ, do you think he would say that you would go to hell? We also disapprove of idol worship. We make very clear distinctions between idol worship and Deity worship. When one imagines a form of God and worships that according to his imagination, that is 'idol' worship. When God says in scripture that if you make a form of Me using these substances and worship according to these directions, I will reveal Myself to you through the medium of the Deity. That is Deity worship.

Srila Prabhupada explains that Deity worship is authorized by God while idol worship is not. He uses the analogy of the mailbox. If you put mail in a U.S. Postal Service mailbox it will go to the destination. If you make your own box, and paint it red and blue and write 'U.S. Mail" on it, the letter won't go anywhere, because the box is not authorized by the postal service.

Catholics generally have fewer problems with the concept of deity worship than Protestants since in that tradition the form of Christ and those of the different saints are seen as spiritual and worshipable. Some Catholics are surprised by the similarities in the traditions. The Eastern Orthodox Church is also similar but they call their worshipable forms "Icons" rather than deities. In Sanskrit such forms are called ‘murtis’.

It could be argued that the Ark of the Covenant—which carried the Ten Commandments, Aaron’s staff, and holy manna, and was protected by angels—was also spiritual and therefore worshipable, like a deity. We consider scripture to be as worshipable as God.

Deities and Deity Worship

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Krishna's Deity form is His physical likeness in the material world. Such forms are made of stone, metal, wood, paint, or other materials and are worshiped as Krishna Himself.

Krishna is the Absolute Truth, the source of all things, including personality and form. His personal form is superior to all other forms. He is completely spiritual—permanent, all-knowing, and supremely joyful—and there's no difference between Krishna and his form.

He appears in this world as the Deity—an apparently material form—because our materially covered senses can only perceive matter. We can't see spirit, but we can see and serve Krishna in His Deity form. The philosophy and practices of Deity worship are elaborately described in the Vedic writings.

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Krishna consciousness is a science of practical action. The goal isn't to stop acting but to fully engage in service to the Supreme Person. Deity worship allows us to associate with Krishna in a form we can see and touch.

The process of Deity worship provides opportunities to bathe, dress, feed, and decorate Krishna, as well as entertain Him by singing and dancing, decorating the temple, and bringing others to see Him. The more we become involved in such service, the more tangible our relationship with Krishna becomes.

Deities and paintings of Krishna are based on descriptions found in Vedic literature, which also explain in detail how to worship Them. Deity worship is distinct from idolatry, which is usually defined as worship of any cult image, idea, or object, as opposed to the worship of a personal form of God.

God is omnipotent. All energies, material and spiritual, are completely under His control—He can turn matter into spirit and vice versa. Krishna is not wood or stone, but Krishna appears to us as stone or as wood to enable us to see and serve Him.

(The painting depicts Krishna devotees chanting in kirtan before the temple Deity.)

The Concept of Deity Worship

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Devotees of Krishna worship Him in various Deity forms with the understanding that God is the source of all energies—the Absolute Truth—and can appear before us in any form He likes. Everything about the Supreme Person, including His form, is spiritual and worshipable.

Vedic scriptures first of all define who is Supreme and who isn't. They also describe the science of Deity worship in detail—what Deities should look like, how they're supposed to be made, how to worship Them, and the benefits of such worship.

Krishna, or God, is pure spirit. He's not made of anything material. But in the material world, we can't see spirit. All we can see is matter. By agreeing to appear in the form of a Deity, Krishna allows us to see, honor, and serve him, even while we're still in material existence.

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Krishna consciousness is a science of practical action, not an armchair philosophy. Deity worship is meant to fully engage our senses in serving a form of the Supreme Person we can see and touch. One can bathe, dress, feed, and decorate the Deity, as well as entertain Him by singing and dancing. The more absorbed in such service we are, the more tangible our relationship with Krishna becomes.

Deities may be made of stone, wood, metal, paint, or even worshiped within ones mind. Deity worship is distinct from idolatry, which is usually defined as worship of any cult image, idea, or object, as opposed to the worship of a personal form of God.

God is omnipotent. All energies, material and spiritual, are completely under His control—He can turn matter into spirit and vice versa. So, if He wants to appear in a form (apparently) made of wood or stone, who are we to say no?

(Image depicts Krishna devotees chanting in kirtan before the temple Deity.)

Getting the Picture of God

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Reporter 2: Your Divine Grace, the various scriptures I’ve read refer often to the life breath. They say the breath comes directly from God, so one path of yoga is to concentrate on the breath and then on God.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. There are various kinds of air within the body, and the soul is within the heart, floating on those airs. So one preliminary form of yoga has to do with controlling those airs. At the time of death, the idea is to elevate the soul from the heart to the brahma-randhra, a small opening at the top of the head. From there the soul goes out to any planet he desires. Naturally he’ll desire to go to a spiritual planet, where he can live without material miseries and in association with God. That is the goal of yoga. But here in your country, yoga means a certain type of physical exercise. Yes.

Reporter 3: And this path of devotional yoga or bhakti-yoga that you teach—this is the path for this time, this age?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Bhakti- yoga is the real yoga. You’ll find in Bhagavad- gita that when the Lord describes the yoga system, He says,

yoginam api sarvesham
mad-gatenantaratmana
shraddhavan bhajate yo mam
sa me yuktatamo matah

“The firstclass yogi is he who is always thinking of Me [Krishna] within himself and rendering transcendental loving service to Me.” The bhakti-yogi is the first- class yogi. So these students of ours are being taught how to think of Krishna always, twenty-four hours a day, without any stop. And that is first-class yoga.

Reporter 3: To think about something, don’t you first have to see it?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes.

Reporter 3: Well, are you showing your disciples Krishna?

Srila Prabhupada: Oh, yes. Certainly.

Reporter 3: Then what is Krishna?

Srila Prabhupada: Ask my disciples. They have already seen Krishna. Ask them. They’ll tell you what Krishna is. But let me ask you, as before: if they give realized information about Krishna, will you accept it?

Reporter 3: Yes.

Srila Prabhupada [motioning]: Then see. Here is Krishna.

Reporter 3: But that’s a painting.

Srila Prabhupada: That is a painting. Suppose a painting of you were there. Could I not say, “Here is Mr. Such-and-such”?

Reporter 3: Yes.

Srila Prabhupada: Then what is the wrong there?

Reporter 3: Well, to paint me, the artist would have to see me.

Srila Prabhupada: No, first of all, are you in your picture or not?

Reporter 3: Yes, I am.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Similarly, Krishna is in His picture. But the difference is that people cannot talk with your picture, but we can talk with Krishna’s picture. That is the difference.

Reporter 3: But some of these pictures of Krishna seem a bit different.

Srila Prabhupada: No. We are speaking of the basic principle. Krishna’s blackish/bluish colour is there. Krishna’s flute is there. Krishna’s peacock feather is there. These things are described in the shastra, the scripture. So these paintings follow the actual form of Krishna described in the scripture.

Now, take even a painting of yourself. One man may paint your face a little differently from the way another man paints it. But on the whole, your form is the same, and of course, it does not depend on the painter’s conception. So Krishna’s form is not dependent on the painter’s conception but on the description of His features given in the scripture. Since Krishna is absolute, He and His picture are nondifferent.

Reporter 3: But if a painter were to paint a picture of me or anybody else, first he’d directly study the subject—a living subject.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. In this case, also, the subject is living. Krishna is living, and in the scripture He is described: “Krishna’s colour is bluish. In His hand Krishna has got a flute. Krishna has got a peacock feather on His head.” And tri-bhanga-lalitam: Krishna stands gracefully, His form curving in three places.” Tri- bhanga means that when He stands, in three places His form curves. You see. shyamam tri-bhanga-lalitam niyata- prakasham: “Krishna’s graceful dark-bluish, threefold-bending form is eternally manifest.” These are the descriptions given in the Vedas. And for instance, from these descriptions my students have painted so many pictures. From these descriptions I have simply given hints that “This picture should be like this.” So they take note and make the pictures, and people very much appreciate our pictures. So you can paint pictures by consulting the scriptural authority—the Vedas—and those who have studied the Vedas. That is what we are doing. If you are intelligent, you can make genuine pictures of God like that.

Reporter 3: But still, somebody must have seen Krishna to actually paint Him.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. People have seen Krishna. For instance, when Krishna was present on this earth, so many people saw Him. Ever since then, people have built so many temples. And by worshiping the Deity in their temples, they are regularly worshiping Krishna’s form—just as it is described in the Vedic literature and as the people centuries ago saw personally.

Reporter 3: But has anybody now actually seen Krishna? Now?

Srila Prabhupada: How can someone see Krishna now? One has to see through the parampara, the disciplic succession that began with those who saw Krishna. You may not have seen your grandfather. How do you know what he was like? How do you know? Your grandfather and his father you have not seen. How do you know anything about them?

Reporter 3: By your parents’ telling you.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Your father has seen your grandfather. Although you may not have seen him, still, your father can describe all about your grandfather. “My father was like this, like this, and like this.” What is the difficulty? So therefore, you have to receive knowledge from the authorities, the disciplic succession.

How Do We Understand The Temple Deity?

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Most of us from India, regardless of where we’re living now, at times go to a temple to see the Deity form of the Supreme Lord Krishna or Vishnu or one of His incarnations. We also many times see the deities of various demigods.

Perhaps on a few occasions, which we may remember as high points in our lives, we have gone with friends and relatives to holy tirthas, places of pilgrimage. We then performed special penances or pious acts. And so we appreciated the audience of the Deity in an especially rewarding manner. We came back from these journeys feeling peaceful, content, and purified.

Many of us appreciate our visits to the ISKCON temples deeply. In the 1970’s these were perhaps the only temples of Lord Krishna we found outside the borders of India. We were struck with wonder by the dedication and devotion Srila Prabhupada’s disciples showed towards the Deities. The cleanliness, punctuality, decorations, and high standards of offerings amazed us. Even in India, it was rare to see such fine arrangements. The lives of the devotees seemed centered on the Deity. Lord Krishna’s words from Bhagavad- gita seemed to come alive all over the world as we saw men and women living His teachings.

Today many of us continue to visit the ISKCON temples or other temples to see the Deity regularly. For one person that may mean going to the temple every day, for another once a week, and for others only once or twice a year, on special days such as Janmashtami and Diwali.

Each of us has different hopes, realizations, thoughts, experiences, and feelings when in the presence of the Deity. As we stand before the Deity, we find ourselves in the court of the Supreme Lord Himself. We have been granted an audience with the Lord. He seems to give us His attention. And we can have the most intimate exchanges with Him. We find ourselves asking questions of the Deity. We say prayers, make requests, and ask for explanations, forgiveness, or blessings. Somehow we know that the Deity hears us, and that alone is most satisfying. Many times the smile on the Lord’s face is enough to tell us we have been heard.

Knowing that the Supreme Lord is our eternal maintainer and wellwisher, we leave satisfied, knowing that everything is in the right hands.

To various degrees we have had the good fortune of realizing that the Supreme Lord is fully present in His Deity form, as much as in His teachings, His holy name, and His pastimes. No amount of criticism, ridicule, disbelief, or challenge deters us from our relationship with the Deity. Feeling sorry for the unfortunate who don’t understand the Lord’s presence in their city or village as the temple Deity, we go on trying to deepen our relationship with the Lord.

We understand that until we are completely free from all impurities we will not fully realize the Lord’s presence. And we hesitate to drink, smoke, gamble, eat nonvegetarian foods, or indulge in irreligious sexual activity because we know that these things may make us feel embarrassed about going before the Deity. These, we know, block our attraction for the Lord.

We remember the words of great acaryas who tell us that one day when we’re sufficiently pure the Deity will speak to us and enable us to see His transcendental pastimes.

The scriptures and great acaryas tell us that our relationship with the Deity develops through cultivation. To understand the Lord’s presence, many activities will help us.

When we go to the temple we can develop the habit of always bringing some offering for the Deity. Usually the temple priests guide us to bring appropriate gifts. We offer our respects and bow our head before the Deity. We see His beautiful form, observe His worship or arati, hear and sing His glories, partake of His maha-prasadam and caranamrita, pray to Him. These all help cultivate our relationship with Him.

As we perform these scientific devotional acts prescribed in the scriptures, our relationship with the Deity gets deeper and deeper. We look forward to visiting the Lord and having His audience. The importance of our relationship with the Deity becomes greater and greater, and material relationships in the world seem less and less important. We begin to understand the feelings and realizations of great souls known to be dedicated and devoted to their Deities.

By the mercy of the Deity we can feel ourselves making genuine spiritual advancement. Knowledge about ourselves, about the world, and about the purpose of life seems to awaken. Detachment from less important material affairs and attachment for the reality of committed spiritual life seem to grow simultaneously.

We find ourselves becoming more and more attracted to the name, form, teachings, and pastimes of the Supreme Lord. We want to make the best offerings possible to the Deity and make all kinds of arrangements to provide for His worship. And we avoid all irreligious and immoral acts.

Feeling unworthy yet deeply grateful, we desire and act to help others receive the same good fortune. We become eager to distribute the mercy of the Lord. We take part in teaching the less informed. And to those still unreceptive we distribute prasadam, remnants of the Lord’s food, so that their hearts may soften and they will take advantage of their rare human birth. In these various ways, we begin to appreciate and understand the greatness of our Vedic or Indian heritage.

As these symptoms begin to appear steadily in our lives, we know that we are moving forward on the spiritual path. We know that we have received the mercy of the Supreme Lord and that He is attracting us back home, back to Godhead.

Encounter with The Lord of the Universe

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Few things seemed more expressive of heathen idolatry to British missionaries in India than the annual chariot festival at Jagannatha Puri in Orissa. When the three great forms of Jagannatha (Krishna, “Lord of the Universe”), Balarama (His first expansion), and Subhadra (His spiritual energy) were pulled on towering chariots mobbed by ecstatically chanting devotees, missionary outrage knew no bounds. Published reports from the last century evince an utter inability to comprehend the spectacle. Jagannatha is denounced as “the Moloch of Hindoostan:” with “a frightful visage painted black, with a distended mouth of a bloody color.” The European failure to understand Jagannatha naturally placed the onus on the Indians: the parade of Jagannatha was simply an instance of the cultural inferiority of Indians, an example of primitive idol worship in all its pomp and savage ostentation, to be expected in India, “where the benighted Hindu,” as one hymn put it, “bows down to wood and stone.”

The British Empire has vanished, while the festival at Puri goes on. What is more, Lord Jagannatha now yearly rides His huge chariot through the streets of New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, and many more cities. Thousands of Westerners turn out to throng about the chariots. The times have changed; Jagannatha has prevailed. The triumph of Jagannatha means at least that the worship of the deity, once so incomprehensible to Westerners, has become intelligible and important to many of us. It has transcended mundane cultural differences and become the focus of a universal spiritual culture in its own right.

I want to tell you how Lord Jagannatha came into my own life, how I came to understand and indeed to worship Him as God Himself. Even though you may not embrace such worship yourself, you might like to understand why some of us do. The coming of Jagannatha to the West is arguably one of the significant cultural events of our time, and anyone who wants to understand these times will have to understand how Jagannatha came to be pulled down Fifth Avenue. My own story is part of that history.

I can see how the physical appearance of the deities of Jagannatha Puri could lead some to a superficial apprehension of them as “heathen idols.” Krishna Himself is usually shown in His eternal, spiritual, two-handed humanlike form. (Precisely speaking, our human form is Krishnalike.) But in the form of Jagannatha, Krishna appears somewhat stylized or abstract, like a work of primitive art. His body is rounded, without visible legs. His two arms come sraight out at you, and His hands are indicated only by the outline of a discus on the end of one arm and of a conch on the other; these are emblems of divinity held by the Lord. His large countenance is jet black, and He has huge and perfectly round white eyes that stare at you intently. His wide red mouth is drawn up in a mirthful smile. Balarama, who is Krishna’s first expansion and who appeared historically with Krishna as His older brother, is slightly larger. His complexion is pure white, and His red- rimmed eyes are shaped like teardrops. Balarama is smiling in delight. The deity of Subhadra, Krishna’s spiritual potency and, historically, His sister, is yellow complexioned. Her arms are not visible at all. Her eyes are like Balarama’s, and she is smiling almost mischievously from her place between her two larger brothers. All three fix their gaze on you with the round black centers of their wide eyes.

It is said that King Indradyumna first commissioned these three deities, and engaged Vishvakarma, the architect of the demigods, to carve them. The impatient king took a peek at the work before the sculptor was finished, thus breaking his promise. Angered, Vishvakarma walked off the job, and Indradyumna installed the deities as they were. We understand, however, that Krishna intended to appear in these particular forms; there was no happenstance. A person with spiritual vision can see that the deity of Jagannatha is nondifferent from Krishna Himself. A devotee once asked Srila Prabhupada (who introduced the authorized process of deity worship to the West) why Jagannatha looked different from Krishna. “Oh?” Srila Prabhupada replied. He looks different?”

The deity of Krishna is a form of Krishna Himself, and this is directly perceived by an advanced devotee. The appearance of Krishna as the deity is, however, especially intended for those of us who are not so advanced, who do not have the purified vision to see directly the spiritual form of God. God is not wood or stone: He is spirit. But He is capable of appearing as wood or as stone. Since we can see or touch only wood and stone, God, out of mercy to us, appears so that we can see and serve Him personally. For God there is no problem in turning matter into spirit and spirit into matter. The authorized worship of the deity is thus quite different from the worship of idols, of manmade surrogates for God. I will return to this point later.

I came into personal contact with Lord Jagannatha in the summer of 1968, some time before I met His devotees, who revealed His identity to me. I had just finished my first year of graduate work in religion. My study of religion was far from academic. I had come to view the historic collapse of value and meaning in Western civilization as an immense threat not only to our culture but to me personally. Religion had been on the retreat for at least five hundred years, and all attempts to construct secular substitutes had failed. I saw that most sensitive, intelligent people held no convictions at all, while those who believed did so with a fanaticism that exposed their convictions as a desperate defense against the terror of their own bottomless nihilism. I needed options other than these. I had decided to study religion especially to see if any solutions were available outside contemporary Western culture.

That year I had learned Hinduism from a scholarly swami of the impersonalistic or monistic school; I found his teachings attractive. He taught that the highest truth, called “Brahman” in the Vedas, was “the negation of all attributes or relationships.” If we can destroy the illusion of multiplicity, we will realize our identity with Brahman and be liberated.

The characterization of “Brahman” by thoroughgoing negations was plausible to me, since it was cognitively no different from the atheistic or nihilistic view of reality I already held. To think that there is nothing beyond the world and to think that beyond the world is “Brahman,” without relations or qualities, is practically the same. The latter idea, however, occurs in a context that promises ultimate liberation from the world.

We also learned about karma-yoga and bhakti- yoga as means to attain impersonal liberation. Bhakti was the worship of God in a personal form, a worship that ultimately ends, according to my teacher, when the aspirant realizes that the difference between himself and God is illusory. And that summer I tried practically to apply the swami’s teachings about karma-yoga.

During the summer I worked in a tin-can factory in Salem, Oregon; my wife and I were visiting her family there. The pay was good, the work hellish. Our ears plugged against the din, we crawled like ants around the sprawling body of a roaring assembly line that devoured sheets of metal at one end and spewed out endless racks of finished cans at the other. Serving the machine like a robot, moving without letup at the machine’s pace in a fixed mechanical routine, I tried to apply the “yoga of work” as taught by the swami.

In the Bhagavad-gita, Krishna says that we should perform our work as an offering to Him by surrendering the fruits of our work to Him. This means practically I should give the fruit of my work—my earnings—to Krishna’s representative, the devotee, for him to use in Krishna’s service by preaching, temple worship, and so on. That is how we can perform our work for God without attachment: we give the results to Him.

This straightforward understanding of the Gita, however, was not available to the swami, since, according to him, we ourselves are God. To keep the money for ourselves is to give it to God. The swami had to propound a more convoluted doctrine. He taught that karma-yoga entailed a sort of conceptual renunciation, trying to become unattached to the fruits of our labor by a mental act, while, all the same, we enjoy them. To do this, the swami said, you should try not to think about the results of your work while you are working: you should try to work for the sake of the work itself. You should merge yourself totally into your work, become lost in it. So, day after day, I tried to merge into the tin-can factory, to become absorbed with all my might in the endless repetition of a mindless routine. But I felt no liberation, no ecstasy. The only joy I could take in the work was getting the paycheck at week’s end.

Yet in spite of my bad instruction in karma-yoga, there may have been something sincere in my efforts, for as it turned out, part of the fruit of my work did become used (without my knowledge) for Krishna. Krishna says in the Gita that He is in the heart of every creature, and when He sees in one a sincere desire to return to Him, He makes the proper arrangements.

At the end of summer my wife and I visited a famous import plaza in Portland, where we wandered for hours, making a few purchases with the summer’s savings. As we were preparing to leave, I happened upon a large cardboard box filled with carved figures six inches high; some were black, some white, and some yellow.

I stopped and picked one up, staring in wonder at its glowing black face; its wide round eyes looked back into mine. I examined each figure in amazement. They seemed to be primitive works of art, and yet they achieved an effect so sophisticated it contrasted startlingly with the apparent crudeness of execution. The faces of the figures, with their intensely staring eyes and their broad smiles, exquisitely combined profound wisdom and spontaneous joy. The unity was fascinating, and I remember thinking how unfathomable was the mentality that had produced these figures.

Having only enough money left to purchase one of them, I stood before the box, picking up one and then another. When we left, I was carrying Lord Balarama home with me.

“One cannot attain the Supreme or any form of self- realization.” Srila Prabhupada writes in Krishna. “without being sufficiently favored by Balarama. One must have the spiritual strength which is infused by Balarama. Balarama is spiritual power, or the original spiritual master. And the spiritual master is the representative of Balarama, who gives spiritual strength.”

Not knowing the identity of my figure, not even knowing that He was somewhere an object of worship, I placed Him on the shelf over my desk in Philadelphia, where for the next two semesters He watched over my labors, my speculative struggles to find some transcendent purpose to my life. His face, which so extraordinarily fused knowledge and bliss, never lost its fascination.

It was the height of the social warfare of the sixties. I belonged to both sides and equally mistrusted both. I attended classes, read books, wrote papers, even taught courses, but I saw no future for me in the academic establishment. (“Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift,” Bob Dylan wisely warned.) My friends belonged to what came to be called the counterculture. In the evenings we would sit together seeking pharmacological liberation, watching reality crumble. Sweet anarchy sang to us from the streets. We waited for the end, that apocalypse just around the corner, which for some reason never came. The most evident disintegration was taking place in the relationships and in the personalities of the people about me: there was no future in it.

I delved into the world’s religions, toiled over books while my white-faced figure smiled down. I concluded that year that some essential teaching of all religion had been succinctly captured by the Buddha in three propositions. The first was that material existence is suffering. Some people never see this; to me it was excruciatingly obvious. The second proposition was that the root cause of this suffering is our cravings, our desires. I accepted this on the testimony of the Buddha and many other spiritual authorities from different traditions: it made a great deal of sense to me. Consequently, I accepted the third proposition: freedom or release from suffering is attained by extirpation of these desires.

As I became increasingly convinced of these things, I also became more and more aware that the life I was leading was wrapping me tighter and tighter in the skein of desires. Both the counterculture and the establishment were dedicated to the satisfaction of material desires; the whole disagreement was in the method to achieve it. Whether indigenous or imported, all the religions with which I had had personal contact had also accommodated themselves to the same enterprise. No help or even encouragement would ever come from these quarters. Yet by myself I was utterly unable to control my senses. I wanted to extirpate all material cravings and attachments, yet I couldn’t even quit smoking cigarettes.

Whatever illusions I retained about the possibilities of material life were completely shattered in the fall, when my brother Bob, two years my junior, was killed on the highways. Death shed its abstractness and lived with me with the vivid immediacy of another person. And beneath all the turmoil of grief, I began to gain the hard kernel of a dreadful, awesome clarity. I saw that we live our ordinary lives only by virtue of a frenetic denial of death. The close proximity of death released me from the desperate charade so necessary to our ordinary life: the denial of mortality that makes confidence men of us all. I saw how we waste our spirit in elaborate self- deceptions, in the endless barren labor of a fake consciousness. Yet I knew that in time these deceptions would grow back. We require our lies. We must pretend not to see the slaughter all around us, the knife at our throats. Consciousness would destroy our paradise. I realized that the only means to a consciousness free of illusion and self- deception lay in becoming genuinely unattached to material existence. After the death of my brother, my desire for release became intense and urgent.

That same fall, when crossing campus on the way to class, I saw for the first time a row of saffron-robed Krishna devotees chanting. It intrigued me that the missionary effort was now coming this way. The next time I saw them, I purchased a pamphlet called Who Is Crazy? I gave it a quick reading and couldn’t make much of it. Soon after that, a friend dropped by with news of something new in town, something really “far out”: a Hare Krishna “love feast.” He had never been to anything more far out. He came Sunday to take us. I had to be coaxed; I hated to disturb the languor of my Sundays.

We parked on a drab street of tightly packed row houses, went up some broken steps, left our shoes on a sagging porch, and when the door opened walked into dazzling splendor and overwhelming beauty. That was my immediate impression. Looking back, I realize that the temple then was rather makeshift and barren: a few pictures on the wall, a tacked-together altar against the front window. Still, the air was thick with heady incense and the pungency of exotic spices cooking; the throbbing chant of the Hare Krishna mantra came from the temple room, where a press of bodies, hands upraised, swayed to the music. We chanted, heard a lecture, feasted. My senses were overwhelmed by the density of stimuli put out by this utterly strange environment; every item of the feast exploded against my palate like a small revelation.

I never heard anything as welcome as the lecture after the chanting. The devotee spoke very strongly about the need to become free from material desires. He laid down four regulative principles, the pillars of spiritual life: no meat- eating, no intoxication, no illicit sex, no gambling. I know that many people who hear this in a Krishna temple are put off. I was attracted at once. At last, I thought, someone is willing to tell the truth.

Then the devotee began to explain how the control of the senses was practically possible. Mere negation or suppression of material desire, he said, will not work. The senses require engagement: if you try to stop the material activities of your senses without replacing those activities with something superior, you will quickly fall down. But if you give your senses superior spiritual engagement, your material activities will naturally cease, and you will remain fixed in consciousness. Spiritual life, he said, begins with control of the tongue: eating for sense gratification and talking of material things bind us firmly to material existence. Of course, it is virtually impossible to stop eating or talking. But if we eat only the spiritual food offered to Krishna and chant and talk only about Krishna, then our senses have spiritual engagement and automatically cease their material activities. Similarly, the devotee explained, all the other senses can be engaged in the spiritual activity of devotional service.

For the first time I had heard a reasonable account of how to become free from material desires. The devotee had, as if talking directly to me, explained my own failure and told me how to succeed. The lecture was so sensible, and the devotees and their temple were so attractive, that I began that week to chant Hare Krishna, and I returned to the temple next Sunday with enthusiasm.

If I had realized how coherent the philosophy of Krishna consciousness was, I might have been able to deduce from the lecture on sense control that it was integral with an extremely personal conception of God. Without such a conception, the idea of “spiritual activity” or “transcendental engagement of the senses” becomes meaningless. If God has no name, form, or qualities, how can we talk about Him? If He is not an individual person, how can we serve Him? If the impersonalists are right, then chanting and hearing about Krishna or serving Krishna are material activities, and they would not purify our senses and gradually uproot our material desires.

I naturally assumed, however, that the devotees were impersonalists like me. They were speaking strongly to the contrary, but it took some exposure for their words to penetrate the barrier of my own impersonalism. Their conception of God, of Krishna, was so concrete, so specific in its detail, that I assumed it had to be taken as a symbol or qualified in some other way. Krishna’s luminous blue complexion, the peacock feather on His fine black hair, the silver flute raised to the smiling lips—surely these were material images, at best a manifestation in the world of time and space of something originally unmanifest, before which all words and images must fail. If we brought such words and images to the Supreme, then wouldn’t we be limiting it by our mundane conceptions?

All my preconceptions were destroyed, however, when at the love feast I overheard a devotee say to someone: “Oh, no, you don’t understand. Krishna is beyond that light! The clear light is emanating from the transcendental body of Krishna!” Instantly, all the different pieces of the Krishna conscious philosophy I had heard came together coherently. And in my mind the conceptual edifice of impersonal philosophy came crashing down as though someone had put a bomb under it.

The devotees presented a powerful case. I had thought that a personal conception would have limited the Supreme, but I found their arguments that the impersonal conception was the most limiting of all to be completely persuasive. For what is the difference between God defined completely by negations and no God at all? (I recalled the ease with which I had passed from nihilism to impersonalism.) What is great about a big zero? It is the impersonalists, the devotees argued, who impose their material conceptions on the Supreme, not the personalists. The impersonalists assume that if God has form, it must be a material form like ours; if He has activities and qualities, they must be material activities and qualities. Upon hearing about God’s name, form, qualities, and activities, the impersonalists immediately limit Him by thinking of them as material. Therefore, they deny all these attributes and reduce God down to a nullity. Because they are enmeshed in the material conception of life, they cannot comprehend that there can be spiritual name, spiritual form, spiritual qualities, and spiritual activities. The devotees of God accept such transcendental variegatedness. They admit that God has an impersonal feature, but they affirm that He also possesses, beyond that, an eternal personal feature of transcendental name, form, qualities, and activities full of bliss and knowledge. In this way, there are no limits placed upon the Supreme. Specific form does not limit God, for He has unlimited transcendental forms (but of all such forms, that of Krishna is the highest).

I found these arguments unassailable. True, it was still amazing to think that God was, in His highest feature, a bluish youth, tending cows in His spiritual abode—but then, on the other hand, shouldn’t God be amazing, the most amazing of all?

The detailed artistic depictions of Krishna I saw in the temple were more than just accurate representations of Him; they were nondifferent from Him. This was a feature of His absolute or spiritual nature. Krishna, the devotees explained, is absolute, or nondual. The variety of the spiritual world is not affected by the duality that characterizes material variety. When, for example, I say the word water, it doesn’t quench my thirst, because in the world of duality the object and its name are different. But in the spiritual world there is no such duality. I say “Krishna” and Krishna is fully present. As He is fully present in His name, Krishna is also fully present in His picture or statue. Because of such nonduality, we can associate with Krishna directly through His name, or through the deity, and we become purified by that association. (I knew this to be factually true: after a few weeks of chanting, I was beginning to give up my bad habits; the clamor of material desire was subsiding.)

Thus, the deity worship of the Krishna devotees, as witnessed with such distress by the foreign missionaries at Puri, is based on a cogent and powerful philosophy of personalism, one which, I became convinced, far excels any religious philosophy produced in the West. At the root of the missionaries* failure to understand the worship of Jagannatha was their own deep impersonalism. For even though Christianity claims to be a personal religion, it has become undermined by impersonal speculation. If you ask a Christian to describe God, he will generally be able to give you only a concatenation of abstractions, which he will then qualify by saying that they do not literally apply to God. What little he gives with one hand, he takes away with the other. As the great Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas confessed—“We cannot know what God is, but only what He is not.” If this is so, then how can we love God, a cipher, an unknown? There can be no spiritual engagement for the mind and the senses, only denials and barren abnegations, and then an inevitable return to material activities in frustration. This is the tragedy of Western spirituality.

The full import of the philosophy of personalism came to me gradually. I studied the books of Srila Prabhupada with close attention, and one by one tested all his arguments until I was fully satisfied of their soundness. But at the same time, I could feel the effects of chanting as a direct experiential confirmation. And on my third or fourth visit to the temple, something extraordinary happened.

During the chanting, my eyes roamed about the temple. I was only beginning to take in all that was there. Suddenly I saw, high over the altar, something that stopped me cold. There, looking down at me, was an intimately familiar face: the same pure white complexion, those same intense eyes, that same wide smile. It was a larger version of the figure who had stood for so long over my desk. I was so shaken I could hardly eat. As soon as I could, I sought out the temple president.

“Who is that figure over the altar—the white one?” I asked him with great trepidation.

“That’s Lord Balarama,” he said. “He’s Krishna’s brother. He’s Krishna’s first expansion and is nondifferent from Krishna.”

“The black one is Krishna?”

“The black one is Krishna, and the white one is Balarama.”

I had to tell him.

“Look.” I said, “I don’t know what to do about this. But the white one—“

“Balarama.”

“Balarama. I have Him at home.”

The devotee looked at me.

“Really. I have Him at my house. I got Him at an import plaza a couple of years ago ... What should I do with Him?”

“Worship Him,” the devotee said immediately.

So when I got home, I took Lord Balarama down and dusted Him off. I got some cloth and made a place in my living room for Him. I began to offer Him incense, and I would sit and chant in front of Him.

It was impossible to persuade myself that there was merely a coincidence here. It amazed me each time to look upon that face which had attracted me for so long, whose mystery I had tried so often to fathom, and now to know that it was in fact the face of the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Balarama had led me to Krishna consciousness. A devotee had told me that by the grace of Krishna you get a spiritual master, and by the grace of the spiritual master you get Krishna. I didn’t doubt that at all.

A year later, my wife and I and our two children moved into the Krishna temple. By the summer of 1972, when I was president of the Philadelphia temple, by the kindness of Srila Prabhupada I was able to install in the temple large and gravely beautiful deities of Jagannatha, Balarama, and Subhadra and to take them out through downtown Philadelphia in the first chariot festival on the East Coast of America.

I wanted to give you a personal glimpse into a small part of a large story of the coming of Jagannatha to America. You can see many elements at work: the frustration of material life, the pressures of a turbulent time, even an intellectual confrontation between personal and impersonal theology. Many elements were at work, but there is one thing that should not be overlooked. Krishna Himself—in the forms of the Jagannatha deities—was there for me to take. He had arrived on these shores coincidentally with His pure devotee, Srila Prabhupada. Jagannatha came to the West of His own accord, because He wanted to. Because we were at long last ready for Him.

Whose Worship is Idol Worship?

Complexity: 
Easy

It’s natural for us to want to know what God looks like, just as it’s natural for a child who’s never seen his father to want to know what his father looks like. And just as such a child may imagine, “Maybe my father looks like this” or “Maybe he looks like that,” so we, too, speculate about what God must be like. The artist Michelangelo, for example, knowing God to be the original person, speculated that He must actually look old, with white hair and the features of an aged man. In this way, perhaps all of us have at one time or another formed at least some mental picture of God from whatever little we knew of Him. Imagination, however, is not reality, and therefore the Supreme Lord, both in the Bible and in other scriptures, warns us not to engrave our imaginary conceptions in wood or stone and thus offer homage to our illusions,

But the soul hankers to see the beautiful form of God, and if he cannot do so, he is likely to try to satisfy himself with the beautiful but temporary things to be seen in the material world. Or worse still, in frustration he may conclude that there is no such thing as God or that God really has no form at all. However, actually seeing the form of God in the Ratha-yatra festival can rescue the soul from the perils of materialism and the hopelessness that comes from thinking that God is void or dead.

Sometimes people unfamiliar with the meaning of the Ratha-yatra festival think that the devotees singing and dancing with their arms in the air are offering homage to a statue. Indeed, sometimes they condemn the entire celebration as paganism. Or else they hesitate to join the Ratha-yatra parade, for they remember that God is “a jealous God” who commands, “Thou shalt have no other God before Me” and “Thou shalt not worship a graven image.” What about this? Are the Hare Krishna people really idol worshipers?

Golden Calf

To know for sure, first we must define what idolatry is. Concisely, idolatry is the worship of a material form of God imagined by the human mind. The classic example occurs in the Bible. When Moses ascended Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, in his absence the Israelites molded a golden calf and began to worship it as God. This, indeed, was idolatry, for instead of worshiping God, they had worshiped their own whimsical creation.

But aren’t the Hare Krishna people also worshiping statues made of metal and wood? To understand what is actually going on in the Hare Krishna temples and the Ratha-yatra parade, first we must think about Krishna, or God (Krishna is a name of God), as a real person. We must overcome false notions that God is impersonal or void, for such ideas arise only from a poor fund of knowledge. A child who sees a satellite floating in space may think that it’s traveling on its own, but the enlightened father knows that great teams of scientists are applying their intelligence and energy to guide the satellite in its orbit. Similarly, a thoughtful human being must know that directing all the greater satellites we call the stars and planets is a supreme intelligence, a supreme person. The cosmos, with its seemingly unlimited wonders, could not have just hatched from some void or impersonal force. Such an idea is absurd. “Force” implies that ultimately a person must be applying the force. We may not know who that person is, but that is no excuse for denying that He exists.

Honest Ignorance

Granting, as we reasonably should, that such a person does exist, why should we deny Him a name, form and other personal qualities? We may honestly admit that we don’t know what they are, but to say that what we don’t know about cannot exist betrays a narrow, unreasonable mind. If God is the Supreme Person, the Supreme Father, He must have all the qualities of a person. Otherwise, how could personal qualities appear in His sons? The emanations cannot have more than their source; the parts cannot have more than the whole; the tiny drop cannot have more than the ocean. Just as an ocean of water has the same chemical makeup as its individual drops, the Supreme Living Being must have all the personal qualities found in the innumerable living beings who are part and parcel of Him. Therefore, God must also have a name, form and senses.

So if God has a personal form, what is it? Our limited, imperfect mind and senses cannot tell us, for He is beyond them. Indeed, God is beyond the entire universe. (How else could He be its creator?) Therefore if we want to know about the personal qualities of God, we must receive this information from God Himself, through the revealed scriptures. We may also learn from a self-realized saint or spiritual teacher, but the qualification of such saintly teachers—like Jesus Christ, for example—is that they always speak on the basis of the scriptures and refer to the scriptures to support their own words. They never invent anything new.

However, although the scriptures of the West consistently speak of God as a person, they give only scanty information about His personal form, qualities and kingdom. If we want more detailed information about God, we must turn to the Vedic scriptures of the Krishna consciousness movement. These are books like Bhagavad-gita, Srimad-Bhagavatam and other scientific scriptures, which were first compiled in writing in India some 5,000 years ago.

This is the call of the Krishna consciousness movement: if you indeed want to understand God in His full glory as the Supreme Personality of Godhead, then you must turn to these scriptures, for nowhere else will you find the details of His spiritual name, form, qualities, pastimes and abode.

Consider this excerpt from the Bhaktivedanta purports of Bhagavad-gita As It Is: “The supreme abode of the Personality of Godhead, Krishna, is described in the Brahma-samhita as chintamani-dhama, a place where all desires are fulfilled. The supreme abode of Lord Krishna, known as Goloka Vrindavana, is full of palaces made of touchstone. There are also trees called ‘desire trees,’ which supply any type of eatable upon demand, and there are cows known as surabhi, which supply a limitless supply of milk. In this abode, the Lord is served by hundreds of thousands of goddesses of fortune (lakshmis)and He is called Govinda, the primal Lord and the cause of all causes. The Lord is accustomed to blow His flute (venum kvanantam). His transcendental form is the most attractive in all the worlds—His eyes are like lotus petals and His bodily color like clouds. He is so attractive that His beauty excels that of thousands of cupids. He wears saffron cloth, a garland around His neck and a peacock feather in His hair.”

Not Imagination

It is to be stressed that these are not imaginary conceptions, like those of a poet or an artist. These are the explicit descriptions of the revealed Vedic scriptures. The Vedic scriptures tell us God’s name—Krishna—and they describe in minute detail His qualities, pastimes, entourage and abode. And most important for resolving the question of idol worship, they describe in detail His form.

The forms of Krishna on the Ratha-yatra car and in the Krishna consciousness temples are not imaginary creations. They are fashioned exactly according to the descriptions of the Vedic literature. The Deity is not a whimsical icon. When we see the form of the Deity of Krishna, what we are seeing is the actual form of God.

But even if we accept that the Deities in the Krishna consciousness temples accurately represent what God looks like, this still does not explain why the Hare Krishna people worship the form of the Deity as if it were actually God Himself. This is a matter that requires some philosophical astuteness.

The reason the Deity is accorded such reverence is that the form of God is God. There is no difference between the form of the Lord and the Lord Himself. On the material platform, a person and his picture, for instance, are different. Seeing a picture of a friend may remind us of that friend, but the picture is only a representation, not the friend himself. Furthermore, in the material world a person is different even from his very body, for the body is matter whereas the person is the spiritual spark within the body. But God, if we accept Him as being fully spiritual, must be free from all such dualities. The Supreme Personality of Godhead and His transcendental form are the same spiritual identity. The Vedic literatures describe that each part of His transcendental body can perform any of the functions of any other part. Thus although with our eyes we can only see, the Lord can not only see with His eyes, but also taste, smell or hear with them. Thus the transcendental form of the Supreme Lord is unlimited and all-powerful.

Transcendental Appearance

The Lord’s form is eternally transcendental wherever He appears, even in the material world. When an ordinary living being comes to the material world, the material energy subjects him to many limitations. It covers him with a temporary material body that afflicts him with many miseries. Thus he has to get old and diseased and finally die and accept another body. But the Supreme Lord is not under the material laws of nature; He is beyond those laws, just as a king who visits a prison is beyond the laws that govern the prisoners. The transcendental form of the Supreme Lord has all opulence and power. Therefore the Lord has the power to appear in the material world in His transcendental form as the Deity but always remain the same transcendental Lord.

We may object that God cannot have a form made of ordinary matter like wood or stone. But we should consider that for the Lord there is no difference between matter and spirit, for the Lord can change spirit into matter and matter into spirit. Everything is God’s energy, and God is all-spiritual. Therefore all of God’s energy is also spiritual. We call it “material” or “spiritual” according to how it acts upon us, but in reality it is one spiritual energy. To draw another comparison, electricity is one single energy, although sometimes it works in a refrigerator to cool things and sometimes in a stove to make things hot. The expert electrician who can master electrical energy can use it to perform either function. Similarly, the Lord, the master of all energies, can turn matter into spirit at His will. Who can stop Him? So even if we accept the Deity as being stone or wood, we must admit that the Supreme Lord has the power to change stone or wood into spirit at any moment.

Eternal Omnipresence

In one sense, the Lord is already present in all stone and wood—as well as everywhere else—because everything is His energy. Wherever God’s energy is existing, God Himself is also existing, just as the sun is present wherever there is sunshine. A fully God conscious person can recognize God’s presence in His energy, and therefore He can see God everywhere. For the benefit of those who are not so advanced, however, the energy of God can be shaped into the transcendental form of God so that even in this material world we can see the transcendental form of the omnipresent Supreme Personality of Godhead.

Those who are addicted to the idea of a formless, impersonal God object to the worship of the Deity in the temple. “God is everywhere,” they say. “Why should we worship Him in the temple?” But if God is everywhere, is He not in the temple also? God is certainly everywhere, but we cannot see Him everywhere. We are all eternal servants of the Lord, but we have forgotten our relationship with Him. Therefore the Lord, by His causeless mercy, appears as the Deity in the temple so that even in this world of material forgetfulness we can see Him and revive our eternal relationship with Him.

How does the Lord change matter into spirit? He does so when He appears, by the grace of His devotee, as the transcendental form of the Deity. When a pure devotee paints or carves the form of the Deity and calls upon the Lord to kindly agree to accept his humble service, the Lord agrees to do so, provided everything is done according to the scriptural regulations. One’s sincere attitude of service to the Lord and strict adherence to the rules of the scriptures are the essential ingredients that make Deity worship vastly different from worship of an ordinary idol. If the form one worships is merely imaginary, then one’s worship is whimsical idolatry. But if one worships the authorized transcendental form of the Lord with a sincere desire to serve the Lord, and if one strictly adheres to the rules and regulations of the scriptures, his worship is transcendental, and the Lord will certainly accept it. The example is often given of a post office and an authorized mailbox. Because the post office may be far from our homes, the postal officials install authorized boxes in various neighborhoods so that we can use them to send our mail. One can paint any box blue and red and call it a mailbox, but it will have no value. However, when the postal officials install an authorized mailbox, that box is as good as the post office itself. Similarly, an imaginary form of God is nothing more than an idol; but the authorized form of the Lord is as good as the Lord Himself, and the Lord, in His transcendental form as the Deity, will accept the service we render to Him and will also reveal Himself to us more and more.

Now, we may see the Deity to be no more than wood or stone, but that is due only to our defective vision. The Lord cannot be seen with our blunt material senses. One has to purify his eyes by seeing through the vision of the scriptures and by rendering devotional service to the Lord. This is the process for developing our spiritual vision so that we will be able to see the supreme Lord.

Process of Purification

Only by devotional service can the Lord be known. As confirmed in the Padma Purana,

atah shri-krishna-namadi
na bhaved grahyam indriyaih
sevonmukhe hi jihvadau
svayam eva sphuraty adah

“No one can understand the transcendental nature of the name, form, qualities and pastimes of the Lord through his materially contaminated senses. Only when one becomes spiritually saturated by transcendental service to the Lord are the transcendental name, form, qualities and pastimes of the Lord revealed to him.”

The Padma Purana specifically mentions that we can best begin to purify our senses by purifying the tongue. Of all the senses, the tongue is the most difficult to control. Nevertheless, one can control it very easily by eating food first offered to Krishna and by chanting the holy name of Krishna, as found in the maha-mantra—Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare. This will certainly purify the tongue of even a most materialistic person. And when the tongue is thus engaged in the service of the Lord, all the other senses can also be engaged.

The worship of the Lord as the Deity—and specifically the worship of Lord Jagannatha in the Ratha-yatra festival—is an opportunity for us to purify our senses in this way. When the Lord appears before us as the Deity, we can purify our minds simply by thinking about Him. Similarly, we can purify our eyes simply by seeing Him, our ears and tongues just by hearing and chanting His holy names, our nostrils by smelling the incense and flowers offered to Him, and our bodies by standing up to see Him, dancing before Him or bowing down to offer Him our obeisances.

Krishna says in Bhagavad-gita, ye yatha mam prapadyante tams tathaiva bhajamy aham:“As one surrenders himself unto Me, I reciprocate with him.” Thus for one who refuses to accept the verdict of the Vedic scriptures and who therefore considers the Deity a wooden idol, Krishna will remain an idol forever. The scriptures say that such a person is cursed with a hellish mentality. But for one who tries to appreciate the Lord’s presence as the Deity and render service unto Him, the Lord will one day fully reveal Himself.

The Treasure of the City of Victory

Complexity: 
Easy

In Jaipur, the capital of “the Land of Kings,” Lord Krishna is the center of devotion.

While visiting Jaipur, the capital of the Indian state of Rajasthan (“the Land of Kings”), I have the good fortune to stay two houses away from the city’s most famous Krishna temple, the Govindaji Temple. I can easily walk to mangala-arati, the early-morning worship, without having to look for a ricksha. At 4:55 A.M. I walk out my host’s front gate and join the hundreds of rickshas, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians hurrying toward the temple. The street buzzes with spiritual energy.

I walk across the temple compound and leave my shoes under a tree, praying to find them again among the thousands of shoes scattered all around. The large pink latticed wooden doors to the Deity room are still locked and chained, but a large crowd has already gathered, and people are singing again and again, “Govinda Hari, Gopala Hari, JayaJaya Prabhu Dina-dayala Hari.”

As the doors open, a white curtain is drawn sideways, unveiling another white curtain. Worshipers throw coins and flower petals toward the Deity chamber. Then the second curtain opens to disclose the beloved forms of Sri Sri Radha- Govinda. A shower of coins and petals falls at Their feet, amid shouts of “Jaya ho! Govinda! Radhe- Govinda!”

The men gather to the left, the women to the right, and while the pujari (priest) offers arati (a ceremony of worship),the people sing. All at once, devotees ring brass gongs, at the back of the hall a group plays hand cymbals and clay drums, and small groups carry on with separate kirtanas—a joyous cacophony in praise of Lord Govinda.

As the pujaris prepare to sprinkle sacred water over the heads of the worshipers, the crowd edges forward. No need to push—the mighty waves of the crowd’s ecstatic love for Govindaji carry one forward, closer and closer to the railing separating the hall from the raised platform around the Deity chamber. Some devotees dip under the rail and, arms outstretched, press their foreheads against the marble platform strewn with ghee-soaked grains. Their torsos forward, lower body in the kirtana hall, they are pressed still further forward by eager seekers of Govindaji’s mercy. Yet soon they pull themselves back from under the rail and rejoin the crowd.

For about half an hour, Lord Govinda’s devotees happily walk a circle around the Deity chamber, singing “Radhe-Govinda, Jaya Radhe Govinda, Radhe- Govinda, Jaya Radhe-Govinda, Jaya Radhe- Krishna, Pyare Krishna, Radhe-Govinda …” And while encircling the Deity, or on their way out, people share Deity prasadam.Women sit together in small groups to sing or speak about Govindaji and His wonderful pastimes.

Looking at the great multicolored river of devotees, crosscurrents flowing in and out of the Govindaji Temple, I remember Srila Rupa Gosvami’s “warning”: “My dear friend, if you are indeed attached to your worldly friends, do not look at the smiling face of Lord Govinda as He stands at Keshi-ghata on the bank of the Yamuna. Casting sidelong glances, He places His flute to His lips, which seem like newly blossomed twigs. His transcendental body, bending in three places, appears very bright in the moonlight.”

Yes, Govindaji has ruined the worldly life of many of the people of Jaipur. All they seem to care for is to see Him and get His mercy.

Jaipur: City of Victory

In 1727 the rajput king Jai Singh II laid the foundation for a new capital city on a recently annexed territory. Jai Singh dedicated the city to Lord Govindaji and named it Jaipur, “city of victory.”

Jai Singh had Jaipur designed according to shilpa shastra, the part of the Vedas that deals with design, architecture, and construction. The city was so well planned that even today town planners from all over the world come to study its layout.

The original city was protected by seven fortified gateways (pols), all still standing, and a masonry wall twenty feet high and nine feet thick. The city has now spread far beyond the wall, much of which has been torn down for building material.

The buildings of old Jaipur are built from solid blocks of reddish-pink sandstone. Sandstone readily cleaves into slabs, so buildings not built of it are faced with it. Jaipur was painted pink for a visit by Prince Albert in 1853 and became known as the Pink City. Staying true to the name, Jaipur still keeps the buildings diligently pink.

The major streets of the city are 111 feet wide. They cut the straight, narrow side lanes at right angles. The main street, two and a half miles long, runs from the Chand Pol to the Suraj Pol. On this street lies the entrance to the City Palace.

Within the precincts of the City Palace, which covers one seventh of the original city, Jai Singh built the Jantar Mantar, then India’s greatest astronomical observatory. Its sundial gives the time down to two-second accuracy.

Jai Singh’s great attachment to Lord Govinda led him to place Govindaji’s temple across from his palace and link the two with fountains bordered with four rectangles of gardens. The gardens, where peacocks still strut about, are neatly surrounded by stone balustrades. From his bedroom Jai Singh could see Govindaji on the altar.

The flat-roofed temple includes a hall in front of the Deities, a wide area for walking around them, and a large Deity chamber topped with marble-embossed domes with brass spires. The walls and ceilings of the temple are decorated with intricate white stucco designs on a pink background.

North of the temple are extensive pools and gardens dotted with chatras, or gazebos. The rectangular gardens line the sides of two intersecting rows of fountains and pools. A watchtower stands above each of the four entrances to the temple compound.

Other Temples to Visit

Many Deities of Lord Krishna left Vrindavana during the Mogul invasions, and several of them ended up in Jaipur. A few are within walking distance of the Govindaji Temple.

Radha-Gopinatha

Madhu Pandita Gosvami worshiped these Deities in Vrindavana. The temple is located in the Topkhanadesh area of Jaipur, near Chandpol Bazaar. Ask for directions when you’re in the area.

Radha-Damodara

These are the original Deities worshiped by Srila Jiva Goswami in Vrindavana. The temple is on the right side of Chaura Rasta Road, about two hundred feet south of Tripolia Bazaar Road.

Vinodilal

In this temple devotees worship the Deities of Radha-Vinoda originally worshiped by Srila Lokanatha Gosvami at the Radha- Gokulananda Temple in Vrindavana.

The Vinodilal Temple is on Tri-poliya Bazaar Road, about 150 feet west of Chaura Rasta Road. To the left of shop 295, a flight of stairs goes up to the temple.

Radha-Madhava

Srila Jayadeva Gosvami worshiped these Deities. The temple is about five kilometers from downtown on Amber Road, on the right, next to a temple called Kanak Vrindavana. Look for the sign “Kanak Vrindavana and Govinda Deoji, Birla Restored.”

Visiting Jaipur

How to Get There

Plane: Direct flights from Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Udaipur, Varanasi, Aurangabad, and Ahmedabad.

Bus: From Delhi, 5 hours. From Vrindavana, 6? hours. Deluxe buses are available from the interstate bus terminal in Delhi. Private companies also offer deluxe buses to Jaipur.

Train: From Delhi, about six hours, depending on the train. Trains also run from Agra, Udaipur, Hyderabad, and Mathura. Reservations are required.

Car: Taxis are available for round trips from Delhi or Vrindavana.

Where to Stay

Jaipur has many hotels. We list here some recommended in the travel guidebook Holy Places and Temples of India, byJada Bharata Dasa (available from our Hare Krishna Catalog).

Lower priced: Ever Green Guest House (phone: 363-4460), Jaipur Inn (316-157), Diggi Palace (373-091), Swagatam Tourist Bungalow (310-595).

Middle: Aangam Travellers Home (370-880), Atithi Guest House (378-679), Madhuban (319-033), Hotel Mangal (75126), Hotel Megh Niwas (32266).

High: LMB (565-844), Hotel Khasa Kothi (375-151), Narain Niwas Palace Hotel (310-3710).

Where to Eat

Strictly vegetarian restaurants: LMB (Johari Bazaar), Natraj and Surya Mahal (MI Road), Annapurna (behind Raj Mandir Cinema), Woodlands (Sawai Ram Singh Road), Canakya (MI Road).

ISKCON Jaipur

ISKCON has a center in Jaipur, of modest size, about twenty minutes from the middle of town. The center has no rooms for overnight guests, but otherwise has the full range of ISKCON programs.

The address: E-243 Ram Path, Shyam Nagar, Jaipur 302 001; phone: (0141) 364022.

Devotees Do Not Worship Idols

Complexity: 
Easy

An excerpt from the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 3, Chapter 25, verse 35, purport

Mayavadis and atheists accept the forms of the Deities in the temple of the Lord as idols, but devotees do not worship idols. They directly worship the Personality of Godhead in His archa incarnation. archa refers to the form which we can worship in our present condition. Actually, in our present state it is not possible to see God in His spiritual form because our material eyes and senses cannot conceive of a spiritual form. We cannot even see the spiritual form of the individual soul.

When a man dies we cannot see how the spiritual form leaves the body. That is the defect of our material senses. In order to be seen by our material senses, the Supreme Personality of Godhead accepts a favorable form which is called archa-vigraha. This archa-vigraha, sometimes called the archa incarnation, is not different from Him. Just as the Supreme Personality of Godhead accepts various incarnations, He takes on forms made out of matter — clay, wood, metal and jewels.

There are many shastric injunctions which give instructions for carving forms of the Lord. These forms are not material. If God is all-pervading, then He is also in the material elements. There is no doubt about it. But the atheists think otherwise.

Although they preach that everything is God, when they go to the temple and see the form of the Lord, they deny that He is God. According to their own theory, everything is God. Then why is the Deity not God? Actually, they have no conception of God.

The devotees' vision, however, is different; their vision is smeared with love of God. As soon as they see the Lord in His different forms, the devotees become saturated with love, for they do not find any difference between the Lord and His form in the temple, as do the atheists. The smiling face of the Deity in the temple is beheld by the devotees as transcendental and spiritual, and the decoration of the body of the Lord is very much appreciated by the devotees.

It is the duty of the spiritual master to teach how to decorate the Deity in the temple, how to cleanse the temple and how to worship the Deity. There are different procedures and rules and regulations which are followed in temples of Vishnu, and devotees go there and see the Deity, the vigraha, and spiritually enjoy the form because all of the Deities are benevolent.

The devotees express their minds before the Deity, and in many instances the Deity also gives answers. But one must be a very elevated devotee in order to be able to speak with the Supreme Lord. Sometimes the Lord informs the devotee through dreams. These exchanges of feelings between the Deity and the devotee are not understandable by atheists, but actually the devotee enjoys them. Kapila Muni is explaining how the devotees see the decorated body and face of the Deity and how they speak with Him in devotional service.