California, USA — February 12th, 2013

Deities and idols

What is the difference between a deity and an idol? Is deity worship idol worship? Could deity worship ever be idol worship? Are we devotees or idolaters?

Now some readers may refuse to even entertain the notion that 'our' deity might be an idol, and huff, "We worship a deity, not an idol!" but let's face it, to non-devotees, this is just a semantic distinction.

In keeping with Srila Guru Maharaj's axiom, "As connotation increases denotation decreases," let's concede that the word deity has the same denotation as idol and focus on the connotative difference, okay?

What is the difference between a deity and an idol?

As with just about everything in Krishna consciousness, it all depends on our consciousness. Consciousness is the key. Without the proper consciousness and without an intimate understanding of why we do what we do — Why do we offer a lamp to the deity? Why do we rotate the lamp? Why do we rotate the lamp clockwise? — our devotional duties (sadhana) are just mysterious, ceremonious religious rituals.

So the short answer is that the difference is in the perception, or the consciousness of the beholder.

Could deity worship ever be idol worship?

Well, yes... in the sense that Srila Guru Maharaj gives in Sri Guru and His Grace, where he admonishes us not to let form take precedence over substance:

If I miss the real thing that the guru came to give me, everything will be dull, idol worship. To follow the form alone will be idolatry.

This applies to all our sadhana, obviously. If our devotional duties are just quaint, carelessly performed rituals, then we may as well worship lifeless idols, for all the good it will do us. If our sadhana does not revolutionize our consciousness, we are not performing those duties properly:

yat karosi yad asnasi / yaj juhosi dadasi yat
yat tapasyasi kaunteya / tat kurusva mad-arpanam

Bhagavad Gita (9:27)

The primary objective of our sadhana (yat karosi, etc) is, essentially, to make us more aware of Krishna in the background of everything we do (tat kurusva), to make us more Krishna-conscious (mat-arpanam).

Is deity worship idol worship?

Again, it depends on our consciousness. In Search For Sri Krishna — Reality the Beautiful, Srila Guru Maharaj says:

When we go and stand before the Deity, we should not think that we can see Him, but that He is seeing us. He is in the subjective plane; I am His object.

This, it seems to me, is a very simple formula to determine whether we are worshiping a deity or an idol: if it is the object of our vision, then it is, for all practical purposes, an idol; but if He is the subject and we are the objects that He sees, then it is God Himself, in Person.

It all comes down to this: who is the subject and who is the object?

If we (the subject) go to the temple to see the deity (an object), then we see a material object: an idol. But if we go to the temple to be seen by the Deity, then He holds the superior, subjective position. God is always the subject, never the object. God is superior; we are inferior. (That's why He is God!) He sees us; we do not see Him.

So depending on our angle of vision, or consciousness — are we seeing or being seen? — the statue in the temple 'becomes' a deity or an idol.

This is something like the 'observer effect' in quantum theory: the act of observation changes the state of the object being observed. In terms of quantum mechanics, the statue is in a condition of 'superposition' (it exists simultaneously in the form of a deity and an idol), but once it is observed, one form is established to the exclusion of the other. The observer affects the observed reality by the very act of seeing.

In this case — since we are observing, not being observed — the 'deity' is an idol, essentially, since it is the (material) object of our superior, subjective experience.

This 'quantum' analogy might be useful in helping us to grasp how our perception (the observer effect) defines our perceived reality, but from a Krishna conscious perspective, it must be emphasized, the deity is always the Deity; it is our perception of the deity that is in a condition of 'superposition.' This is corroborated in Bhagavad Gita (4:11).

ye yatha mam prapadyante / tams tathaiva bhajamy aham

"However you interact with Me (ye yatha mam prapadyante), I reciprocate accordingly (tams tathaiva bhajamy aham)."

In other words:

"I show you what you expect (bhajamy) to see. If you objectify Me, you see a material object. But if you are conscious that I am always in the superior, super-subjective position — that I see you — then, by My own sweet will, I may reveal Myself to you in all My glory. Behold the Subject of your devotion: Reality the Beautiful!"

In Search For Sri Krishna — Reality the Beautiful, Srila Guru Maharaj emphasizes this subject-object relationship to inculcate us with the proper conception of darshan:

To our material senses the Deity seems to be wood, stone, or earth, but that is our polluted vision. Krishna is there, and sometimes He is seen to walk and to talk with devotees of a higher order. We must not think that He is made of material stuff.

When we go and stand before the Deity, we should not think that we can see Him, but that He is seeing us. He is in the subjective plane; I am His object. He is mercifully seeing us to purify us.

In this way, our vision must be adjusted.

Although our gurus are jnaninas tattva-darsinah (devotees of a higher order who see, talk, and interact with the Deity on the transcendental plane of reality), in Affectionate Guidance Srila Gurudeva adopts the persona of one of his disciples, for our edification, to show us how to follow Srila Guru Maharaj's prescription for dealing with deities:

[When] I go before Jagannath in His temple, I say: "My dandavat pranams to Your lotus feet. I am present, Sir. I am here."

I cannot see Jagannath because I cannot see Him through my mind and vision, therefore I am not trying to approach Him in that way. Instead, I am presenting myself in front of Jagannath with the mood and prayer: "I am here at Your lotus feet. Please see me."

'Please see me' means 'my good and my bad [side]': "Everything is in front of You. You please make me as You like to see me."

That is the mood.

We are not sahajiyas (sentimentalists with overactive imaginations), so we do not pretend to see what our gurus see.

When Mahaprabhu would look at the Deity of Jagannath-deva, apparently it seemed that His aim was fixed on the same thing we see when we look at the Deity. To our vision, however, the Deity of Jagannath is only a doll made of wood.

And yet when Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu would fix His eye there, He would shed tears of joy, and His tears flowed in an incessant current. Where is His vision of reality connected?

What we see as a wooden doll, He sees in a completely different way. And just by looking at that, an incessant current of tears pours from His eyes. Where is His connection with reality located?

He is viewing things from the opposite side, from the subjective world...

Loving Search For the Lost Servant

So... because we see 'a wooden doll' instead of divinity, we must be idolaters, not devotees... right?


We all have a guru, don't we? Just as we cannot offer anything directly to Krishna Himself, so we offer everything through the intermediary of the guru, similarly, we 'see' Krishna through the telescopic medium of Srila Gurudeva.

tad viddhi pranipatena / pariprasnena sevaya
upadeksyanti te jnanam / jnaninas tattva-darsinah

Bhagavad Gita (4:34)

We may be unable to see divinity ourselves, but when Srila Gurudeva (jnaninas) is there to see Krishna (tattva-darsinah) on our behalf, we may get a fleeting glimpse of what he sees (upadeksyanti te jnanam). How much of this transcendental reality (tad viddhi) we see, needless to say, is determined by our sincerity (pranipatena), our humility (pariprasnena), and our dedication (sevaya) to His Divine Grace.

To reiterate: the deity is always the Deity. We may see 'a wooden doll' or idol, but that is our mundane, defective vision. As long as the deity is commissioned and installed by Srila Gurudeva, it does not matter what we see: it is Krishna because Srila Gurudeva sees Krishna.

This is like a variation of George Berkeley's subjective idealism. Berkeley posits that 'the world is in the mind' — that objects and the world only exist in the mind that perceives them — but even if we are unconscious, the world does not cease to exist, because it exists in the omniscient mind of God.

Even if we cannot perceive that the deity is more than just 'a wooden doll' because our materially contaminated minds are unconscious of spirit, the deity does not cease to be the Deity, because He exists in the uncontaminated mind (prayatatmanah) of Srila Gurudeva.

...So how should we approach the Deity? When we have a look at the Deity, what should be our attitude? The Deity form of the Lord is not a mundane thing, and so we should learn the proper way in which to see the Deity.

And more than this, we must try to look at this from the other point of view. As we are trying to see the Deity, He sees us. He has come down to help the fallen souls in this material world, and He has come down in such a way as to take us up to His domain.

Loving Search For the Lost Servant

"To look at this from the other point of view" means to understand that the Deity is the subject and we are the objects of His vision: "As we are trying to see the Deity, He sees us." If we look at this Bhagavad Gita verse from that perspective,

janma karma ca me divyam / evam yo vetti tattvatah
tyaktva deham punar janma / naiti mam eti so 'rjuna

Bhagavad Gita (4:09)

Krishna implicitly asserts that even when He comes down to help the fallen souls in this material world as the deity, He is never a mundane object because whenever, wherever and in whatever form He appears (janma), He and the pastimes He performs (karma ca) are always on the transcendental, super-subjective plane of reality (me divyam).

When we truly understand (evam yo vetti tattvatah) that even when Krishna comes down in such a way, His deity form is never an object — that is to say, when we no longer identify ourselves as the subject (tyaktva deham) — He lifts maya's curtain (punar janma naiti) and, by revealing Himself, takes us up to His domain (mam eti sah).

And since the subject is active (sees) and the object is passive (is seen), obviously we can have no experience of the Deity unless and until He decides, of His own volition, to reveal Himself to us.

It is imperative that we understand that although the soul (atma) is a subject, the Deity is the super-subject (param-atma), and we are merely objects in His omniscient vision. So if we truly wish to see the Deity we have no alternative but to wait patiently, passively, until He decides to reveal Himself to us, if He so chooses, of His own sweet will.

Tags: Deity Worship · Slokas


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