More on Deity worship

Jaiva Dharma – [excerpt from] Chpt 11 (Deity Worship)

by Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura

Discussions with the Mullah and Mohammadan Scholars…..

“…. It was a very beautiful sight. On one side were fifty white-bearded Mohammedan scholars, nicely dressed and decorated. Behind them some decorated horses were tethered. On the other side were four humble and effulgent Vaishnavas. Behind them were many Hindus who had come and taken their seats out of curiosity. The pandita Goracanda spoke first, “O noble ones, for what purpose have you remembered us poor people?” The saintly mullah Badaruddin Sahib humbly replied, “Salaam! Please accept our respects. We have come to ask some questions. The pandita Goracanda replied, “As far as I am able, I shall answer your learned questions.

Badaruddin Sahib stepped forward and said, “Brothers, in Hindu society the worship of demigods and demigoddesses has existed for many days. In our holy Koran I see that Allah is one, not two. He has no form. To make an image of Him and to worship it is a great offense. I asked many brahmana panditas about this, and they said that although Allah is indeed formless, the mind cannot meditate on a formless thing, and therefore one should create an imaginary form of Allah, and that form should receive our worship and meditation. I am not able to accept these words very happily. Why not? To create an imaginary form like that is the work of Satan. We call that ‘byut’. To worship ‘byut’ is completely forbidden. By that worship one is pushed far away from pleasing Allah and one becomes worthy of punishment by Him. We have heard that your first preacher, Chaitanyadeva took all the faults of the Hindu religion. Still, He was in favour of this ‘byut’ worship, or worship of a material thing. We want to know from the Vaishnavas is: Why, after consulting the scriptures, have you not rejected this ‘byut’ worship?”

Hearing this question from the mullah, the Vaishnava panditas smiled within their minds. Openly they said, “This saintly pandita babaji will give the answer to you.” Replying with, “As you order”, the pandita Goracanda said, “He whom you call Allah, we call Bhagavan. Both these words refer to the same Supreme Personality of Godhead. He is called by different names in the Koran, the Puranas, and in different countries and languages. The name that best expresses all the qualities of the Supreme Personality of Godhead should be accepted. That is why we favour the name Bhagavan over Allah, Brahman, Paramatma and all other names. The word Allah means ‘He who has no superior’. We do not call superiority the best of the Lord’s qualities. We say that wonderfulness is the best of His qualities. To be very big is certainly very wonderful. However, the opposite, to be very small, is also very wonderful. Therefore the name Allah does not reach to the highest limit of the Lord’s wonderful qualities.

The word Bhagavan, however, refers to all wonderful qualities human beings can know. It puts them all in one word. The ultimate of greatness and the ultimate of smallness are only one feature of Bhagavan. That He is the master of all potencies is a second feature of Bhagavan. Whatever a human being thinks is impossible, His inconceivable potency can easily accomplish. It is by the power of His inconceivable potency that He both has a form and does not have a form. If we say that He does not have a form, then we deny His inconceivable potency. By His inconceivable potency He has a form and He enjoys pastimes with His devotees eternally. Allah, Brahman and Paramatma are formless, therefore They do not have these wonderful features.

Bhagavan is all-auspicious and all- famous. His pastimes are sweet like nectar. Bhagavan is sublimely handsome. With spiritual eyes, the liberated souls gaze on His handsomeness. Bhagavan has all knowledge. He is pure and perfect. He is beyond the touch of matter. His form is spiritual. He is beyond the material elements, or ‘byut’. Although He is the creator of the material world, Bhagavan is untouched by matter. He is independent. The word Bhagavan means “He who has six opulences’. Bhagavan has two features: 1. opulence and 2. sweetness. The feature of sweetness is the best friend of the spirit souls. He is the Lord of our hearts. He is Krishna or Chaitanya. Therefore if someone says that the word of an imaginary form of Bhagavan is ‘byut’ worship, or worship of matter, that is not in opposition to our philosophy. The Vaishnava religion teaches that one should worship the Lord’s eternal form (which is perfectly spiritual).

According to the Vaishnava philosophy this kind of worship of the Lord’s form is not ‘byut’ worship. If in any book it is said that this kind of worship is ‘byut’ worship and is forbidden, then that book has no authority to forbid it. Everything depends on the faith within the heart. A person whose heart is free from ‘byut’, who is beyond the material world, can worship the pure spiritual form of the Lord. You are Mullah Sahib. You are a great pandita. Your heart is certainly free from the touch of matter. But are the hearts of your neophyte disciples free from the thought of ‘byut’? To whatever extent a man is filled with thoughts of ‘byut’ to that extent his worship of God is really worship of ‘byut’. With his mouth he says God is formless, and his mind is filled with thoughts of ‘byut’. The people in general find it very hard to worship the pure form of the Lord. Only a person who is specially qualified, who is beyond the touch of matter, can rise above thinking of ‘byut’. I request that you consider these points.”

Mullah: I have considered these points, and I think that the six wonderful qualities of Bhagavan you have described are also ascribed to Allah in the holy Koran. There is no need to debate the etymology of whether the word Allah is synonymous with Bhagavan.

Goracanda: Good. Then you accept that the Supreme Being has opulence and handsomeness. Then it is accepted that he has a handsome form in the spiritual world, which is a place different from the material world. That form of the Lord is the Deity we worship.

Mullah: In our Koran it is also written that the Supreme has a spiritual form that is greater than the greatest. We accept that. However, when you make a statue of that spiritual form, that statue is material. Therefore I say that it is ‘byut’. Worship of ‘byut’ is not the same as worship of He who is greater than the greatest. Please say what you think of this.

Goracanda: In the Vaishnava scriptures it is said that one should worship the pure and spiritual Deity form of the Lord. Exalted devotees would not worship the Deity form of the Lord if that form were made of earth or any other material element. In Srimad Bhagavatam (10.48.13) it is said:

“A human being who identifies this body made of three elements with his self, who considers the by-products of this body to be his kinsmen, who considers the Deity form of the Lord to be made of earth or other material elements, who goes to the place of pilgrimage simply to take a bath rather than to meet men of transcendental knowledge there, is to be considered as an ass or a cow.”

In Bhagavad-gita (9.25) it is said:

“They who worship matter remain in the material world.”

Therefore the conclusion of the scriptures is that worship of matter is not allowed. That you can see. However, a certain point should be explained. Human beings are situated on different levels of knowledge and purity. A person situated in pure spiritual knowledge is able to worship the pure spiritual form of the Lord. Persons situated on lower levels of spiritual awareness understand the Lord to a lesser degree, and they who are on the lowest level cannot understand the Lord’s spiritual nature at all. When he meditates on God, a person on the lowest level inevitably imagines that God has a material form with material qualities. To think that the Deity form of the Lord is a statue made of clay is the same as to meditate in the mind on a Supreme that one imagines to have a form made of matter.

Actually for persons on that level of advancement, worship of the Deity form of the Lord is very beneficial. In fact, if there were no deity worship, the people in general would be in an inauspicious condition. If an ordinary person eager to see God were not able to see the Deity form of the Lord, then he would lose hope that he would ever see the Lord. The followers of religions that forbid Deity worship are on a low level of spiritual advancement. They are materialistic and not interested in worshipping the Lord. Therefore Deity worship is the foundation of religion. Pure and wise saints gaze on the form of the Supreme Lord. When their hearts are purified by devotion, they know that the Deity form of the Lord is pure spirit.

As the heart becomes more and more purified by devotion, the worshipper gradually comes to understand that the Deity form of the Lord is a spiritual form reflected within the realm of the material world. Thus the Deity form is the spiritual form of the Lord, a form that the great saints have arranged to be reflected within the material world. An advanced devotees can directly perceive that the Deity form is perfectly spiritual. An intermediate devotee thinks the Deity form is a mental image. At first a neophyte devotee thinks the Deity is a statue made of material elements, but as he gradually become pure in heart, he also gradually comes to understand that the Deity is actually made of spirit. Therefore the Deity form of the Lord should be worshipped by all classes of devotees. To worship an imaginary form is forbidden. However, to worship the real eternal form of the Lord is very auspicious. Therefore the worship of the Deity of the Lord is established for all three classes of Vaishnavas. There is nothing wrong in it. On the contrary, it brings the greatest auspiciousness. In Srimad Bhagavatam (11.14.26) the Supreme Lord Himself declares:

“When a person purifies his heart by hearing and singing pure songs describing Me, he gradually becomes able to see spirit. He becomes like a person whose eyesight is restored by medicinal ointment.”

In the material world the mind tends to be filled with material thoughts. In that condition the soul is not able to understand his true spiritual identity and he is also not able to serve the Supreme Lord, who resides in his heart as the Supersoul. By hearing and chanting the Lord’s glories and by performing other kinds of devotional service, the soul gradually becomes powerful. Then the bonds of matter that hold him become slackened. As the bondage of matter becomes slackened, the soul becomes stronger, and in the course of time the soul becomes exalted. He can directly see spirit, and he can act on the spiritual platform. Some say that one should far away all that has no relation to the Lord and one should act only to attain Him.

However, one cannot become spiritually strong merely by dry knowledge. How can a conditioned soul get the power to suddenly renounce all that has no direct relation to the Lord? Can a prisoner in jail release himself simply by wishing to be free? The soul imprisoned in the material world has committed an offense to the Supreme Lord. He must find a way to lessen that offense. The spirit soul is by nature an eternal servant of Lord Krishna. The root of the soul’s offense is that he has forgotten that. Therefore, somehow or other he should turn his mind to think of the Lord. By gazing at the Deity form of the Lord, hearing the description of the Lord’s pastimes, and other devotional activities, the soul gradually revives his original spiritual nature. The more the soul’s original nature is revived, the more the soul can see spirit directly. Serving the Deity of the Lord, and hearing and chanting the Lord’s glories are the only way for the neophyte devotee to make spiritual advancement. For this reason the great saints have established Deity worship in this world.

Mullah: Is it not better to meditate on an imaginary within the mind than to make an imaginary Deity form out of the material elements?

Goracanda: They are the same. When the mind is material, it thinks only of material things. You may say, Brahman, the Supreme, is all-pervading”. Still, the material mind will think Brahman is like the material element ether, which is also all-pervading. However, if I continue to meditate on Brahman in that way, in the course of time the real truth about Brahman will be manifested in my heart. Time and space are material. If the mind’s meditation is not beyond time and space, then how can the mind meditate on something that is beyond the material world. Rejecting the Deity form as something made of earth, water, or other material elements, you meditate on an imaginary form of the Lord, a form made of time and space. That is worship of a material form of the Lord, a graven image of the Lord. A material so-called form of the Lord is not needed. The Lord is not material. His is spiritual. That is His nature. Therefore a process is given to the conditioned souls by which they can approach the spiritual Supreme Lord. By chanting the Lord’s holy names, by narrating His pastimes, and by worshipping His Deity form, one gradually becomes more and more devoted to the Lord. When the worshipper attains pure devotion, he can see the spiritual form of the Supreme Lord. Philosophical speculation and fruitive work will not help one to see the Lord.

Mullah: The Supreme Lord is different from matter. It is said that Satan introduced the worship of material things in order to trap the souls in the material world. Therefore I think it is not good to worship material things.

Goracanda: The Supreme Personality of Godhead is one without a rival. No one can possibly compete with Him. Everything in this material world was created by Him and is dependent on Him. The Supreme Lord may be worshipped in many different ways. He is pleased by all these different kinds of worship. It is not that He will become an enemy if someone worships Him in a particular way. He is all-auspicious. If you say that Satan does something, then I say that Satan does not have the power to do anything against the Supreme Lord’s will. If Satan exists, then he must be an individual soul dependent on the Supreme Lord. However, I think that this Satan does not exist. Why not? Because in this world nothing can ever be done to thwart the Supreme Lord’s will.

There is not a single individual soul who is not dependent on the Supreme Lord. You may ask, ‘What is the origin of sin?’ I reply: The individual soul is by nature a servant of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. Awareness of this fact is knowledge. To forget this fact is ignorance. If an individual spirit soul forgets this fact, then he sows the seed of sins in the field of his heart. A person who always remains a liberated associate of the Lord does not plant the seed of sin in his heart. Instead of imagining this mythological Satan, one should honestly see the ignorance in his own heart. Therefore, even if one worships the Supreme Lord as present in the material elements, he commits no offense. Therefore Deity worship is necessary for the neophyte devotee and the source of great auspiciousness for the advanced devotee. Therefore the idea that Deity worship is not good is only a theory of some thinkers. It is not at all supported by the pure scriptures.

Mullah: Deity worship is not good for attaining love of God. It simply fills the mind with many material ideas.

Goracanda: By studying the ancient history books we can see that your conclusion is wrong. Many neophyte devotees begin their spiritual life by worshipping the Deity form of the Lord. As they continue the Deity worship in the association of the devotees, they gradually become advanced, and then they can directly see that the Deity is the spiritual form of the Supreme Lord Himself. Then they become plunged in a great ocean of spiritual love for the Lord. This is the undeniable truth: Association with the devotees of the Lord is the root of all that is good. By associating with spiritually advanced devotees of the Lord, one gradually attains spiritual love for the Lord. When one attains spiritual love for the Lord, the idea that the Deity form is material perishes. As one gradually becomes advanced, he attains great good fortune. Non-Aryan religions are generally opposed to deity worship. But look! How many followers of those religions have attained spiritual love for the Lord? They simply spend their time arguing with each other and hating each other. How can they understand loving devotion to the Lord?

Mullah: If one has love for the Lord, then there is no fault in His worshipping the Deity. However, how can the worship of a dog, a cat, a snake, a debauchee, or some other kind of being be worship of the Supreme Lord? The honourable prophet has specifically forbidden worship of ‘byut’.

Goracanda: The people in general are grateful to God. Whether they sin or not, they have faith in the supremacy of God, and they bow down before the wonders that are displayed in this world. Prompted by their gratitude to God, the ignorant aborigines bow down before the sun, the river, the mountain, or anything that is very big and grand. They offer themselves to these things and they reveal their hearts to them. Although there is certainly a great difference between spiritual love for the Lord and the worship of material things, the bewildered people who show their gratitude to God by bowing down before these material things gradually attain a good result. Therefore if you see with the eye of reason, you will not blame them for worshipping material things. If one meditates on a formless all-pervading God, or if without any spiritual love one offers namaz prayers or other prayers, then how is that different from worshipping a cat? It is our idea that one should do whatever is necessary to arouse one’s love for God. If those neophytes are mocked or attacked, then the path of gradual spiritual advancement will be blocked. Dogmatic people refuse to honour the followers of other religions. They mock and attack others who do not worship in the same way they do. They make a great mistake.

Mullah: Should it then be said that everything is God, and the worship of anything is the worship of God? Is the worship of sins worship of God? Is the worship of sinful desires worship of God? Is God pleased by any kind of worship?

Goracanda: We do not say that everything is God. Rather, God is different from all else. Everything is created by God and dependent on Him. Everything has a relationship with God. By following the thread of that relationship, any thing may lead one to become curious about God. Therefore the sutra says:

“Curiosity pushes one to tastes things.”

Therefore this kind of curiosity gradually pushes one to try to experience what is spirit. You are all great panditas. If you are merciful and generous, you will understand what is the truth of this. We are only poor Vaishnavas. We do not like to enter into debates. If you give permission, we will now hear the musical play Sri Chaitanya-mangala.

No one could understand what conclusion the mullah came to by hearing these arguments. After a short silence he said, “I am glad to hear your arguments. I will come on another day and ask about something else. Now it is late. We wish to return to our homes. After speaking these words, the mullah sahib and his followers mounted their horses and left for Satasaika Paragana. The babajis happily called out the holy names of Lord Hari, and entered the temple to hear the play Sri Chaitanya-mangala.”

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