Krishna's forms

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.)

We Worship Everything

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A conversation with His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada

Devotee: Srila Prabhupada, if material nature is the absence of Krishna, then what is material?

Srila Prabhupada: Nothing is material. If you continue Krishna consciousness, there’s nothing material. When we offer this flower in Krishna consciousness, is it material?

Devotee: No.

Srila Prabhupada: So how has it become spiritual? It was material in the tree and now it has become spiritual? No. It is spiritual. As long as I was thinking that it is meant for my enjoyment, it was material. As soon as I take it for Krishna’s enjoyment, it is spiritual.

Devotee: So actually this entire world is spiritual.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. That we want—to engage everything in Krishna’s service. Then this world will be the spiritual world.

Devotee: So we can also appreciate Krishna’s creation in that light? For example, this flower is very beautiful because it is Krishna’s.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. We realize that. The Mayavada philosophy says jagan mithya: “This world is false.” We don’t say that. Krishna has created so many nice things for His enjoyment, why shall I say mithya [false]? Suppose you build a nice house and you call me, “Just see,” and if I say, “It is all mithya.”

Devotee: I’ll be offended, because I can’t enjoy it if it is false.

Srila Prabhupada [Laughing.]: How depressed you’ll be!

The Bhagavad-gita explains that the demons say like this—asatyam apratishtham te jagad ahur anishvaram. The rascals, the demons say that this world is asatya, untruth, and that there is no cause, no ishvara. This is the declaration of the demons.

But if Krishna is a fact, His creation is a fact. His energy is a fact. Why shall I say it is false? We don’t say it is false. The Mayavadis say it is false.

Devotee: If someone looks at the Deity of Krishna and thinks it’s only stone or wood, for him it’s still material?

Srila Prabhupada: That is his ignorance. How can it be material? The stone is also Krishna’s energy. For example, electricity is everywhere, and the electrician knows how to utilize it. Similarly, Krishna is everywhere, even in the stone, and the devotees know how to utilize stone to appreciate Krishna. The rascals do not know. The devotee knows because he has no other view than of Krishna. Why should the stone be without Krishna? “Here is Krishna.” That is real oneness. The Mayavadi philosophers propose oneness, but they divide—this is stone, this is not Krishna. Why bring another thing?

Devotee: For a Krishna conscious person is Krishna as much in the stone as in the Deity?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes.

Devotee: Just as much?

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Why not?

Devotee: But we order Deities all the way from India?

Srila Prabhupada: Krishna explains, “Everything is in Me, but I’m not everything.” This is called acintya- bhedabheda—simultaneous oneness and difference. Everything is Krishna, but you cannot worship this bench as Krishna. That is rascaldom.

The sunshine is also sun. Is it not? But when the sunshine is in the room, you cannot say, “The sun is my room.” This is called acintya-bhedabheda.

Devotee: But you said one can see Krishna within the stone.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. Why not?

Devotee: And one can worship Him within the stone or within everything.

Srila Prabhupada: Yes. We worship everything. We see Krishna everywhere. We don’t see the tree; we see Krishna’s energy. Therefore the tree is also worshipable because Krishna and Krishna’s energy are both worshipable. Therefore we say, “Hare Krishna.” Hare means Krishna’s energy. We worship everything.

In our childhood we were taught by our parents that if a grain of rice falls on the floor, we must pick it up and touch it to our head to show respect. We were taught like this—how to see everything in relationship with Krishna. That is Krishna consciousness.

Therefore, we do not like to see anything wasted, anything misused. Why are we preaching? Because we see that so many rascals are misusing their life. We think, “Let us give them some enlightenment.” This is our mission.

We could think, “Let them go to hell.” Mayavadi sannyasis engage in meditation or go to the Himalayas, but we have come to Los Angeles. Why? This is our mission. “Oh, these people are being misused under maya. Let them gain some enlightenment.”

We are teaching how to utilize everything for Krishna, how to understand Krishna in everything. That is our mission. See Krishna in everything. Krishna says, “Anyone who sees Me everywhere, and everything in Me, is perfect.”

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: 
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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 Devotee and the Deity

Complexity: 
Medium

Living a Personalistic Theology

Family offering candle-light to Krishna during Karttika

What is Deity worship? What makes it different from "idol worship?" How can anyone claim to have direct experience of the Supreme Being, who is beyond all material conceptions, and beyond everything "material?"

Here is an excerpt from an article on the subject of Deity worship—in our opinion, one of the most comprehensive and well-written in existence—by Ravindra-svarupa dasa (William H. Deadwyler, Ph.D.), courtesy of Google Books. (To read more of the article, click the right arrow):

Note: Google Books isn't able to provide us with the full article. As soon as we're able to present the article in its unabridged form, we will. Trouble reading the article here? Try reading The Devotee and the Deity on the Google Books page.