by Dwarakadhisha Devi Dasi
God is a person, and out of His infinite kindness He allows us—even in our present condition—to render Him personal service.
In the Srimad-Bhagavatam, the devotee Prahlada Maharaja, a great spiritual authority, says, “Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu [Krishna], remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship …, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him (in other words, serving Him with the body, mind, and words)—these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service. One who has dedicated his life to the service of Krishna through these nine methods should be understood to be the most learned person, for he has acquired complete knowledge.” Here we continue our series on the nine processes of bhakti- yoga, or devotional service to the Lord.
Few experiences are more beautiful and sacred than the early morning ceremony, mangala-arati. Worshipers gather in the stillness that precedes dawn to sing devotional songs in praise of the Supreme Lord. The focus of the ceremony is the deity form of the Lord, a physical manifestation of God Himself. During mangala-arati, the soft glow of the deities dispels the night’s darkness, as a pujari [priest] offers before them a succession of auspicious objects, such as incense and flowers. Voices blend in ancient melody, accompanied by small cymbals and the heartbeat of a drum.
Archanam, worship of the Lord in His deity form, may be an alien concept to persons raised in the West. Although strands of deity worship can be found in Catholicism and Orthodox churches, most Westerners suspect that reverential treatment should never be offered to “objects,” that God is spirit and cannot be contained within marble or brass. Often when visitors to a temple first see the deities, they struggle for words, calling them “dolls” or “statues,” reluctant to acknowledge any divinity in physical form. The practice of deity worship, familiar to even the smallest of households throughout India, contributes to the Western perception of Krishna consciousness as a cult.
So why do we worship God in this way? Vedic scriptures prescribe worship of the deity as a means to develop a relationship with the God as a person. While it is true that God is spirit, it is also true that, as spirit, God permeates all matter, including marble and brass. God cannot be separated from His creation, and so to worship His form, even if constructed of physical materials, is certainly to worship Him. Scriptures mention a variety of materials that may be used to create the deity, including earth, sand, and the mind.
The Western observer may also be confounded by the variety of deities in the temple. Often an altar will have many deities, all beautifully dressed and garlanded with flowers. Which one is God? To many people, the plurality of deities implies a primitive religion with no one Supreme Being. How is deity worship different from allegiance to the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology? Within India itself, different personalities, such as Lord Vishnu and Lord Siva, are elaborately worshiped in deity form. Some Hindus will even say, “All of them are God.” And yet Krishna consciousness is the worship of one God, Lord Krishna. Why, then, are there so many deities, even in Hare Krishna temples?
There is one God, yet He manifests in many forms. As the Supreme Lord, He enjoys relationships with all living beings, each relationship intimate and unique. In His form of Lord Ramachandra, the Lord enjoys the role of king and faithful husband. In His form of Lord Nrisimha, He is the ferocious protector. In His form as child Krishna, He is playful and mischievous. All of these roles are manifestations of His supreme personality, and thus all of these divine persons may be worshiped in deity form.
Although all of these forms are truly God, devotees may feel a strong attraction for a particular deity. In the Krishna consciousness movement, our most beloved deity is Lord Krishna. Our founder-acharya, Srila Prabhupada, explained with numerous references to Vedic scripture that the form of Krishna is the original form of God, with full power. Just as many candles may be lit from one lamp, and all of the candles may burn with equal brightness, there is nonetheless one original flame. That flame is Sri Krishna.
The deity of Lord Krishna is never seen alone. And one of the most asked questions of visitors to Hare Krishna temples is “Who is that girl with Krishna?” The quick answer is that She is Srimati Radharani, Krishna’s beloved girlfriend. That answer, of course, only raises further questions. How can God have a girlfriend? What makes Her so special?
Just as Krishna Himself is both the charming cowherd boy and the incomprehensible Lord of the universe, Radharani is both the shy young girl and the personification of bhakti, or love for the Supreme Lord. No one can approach God without the mercy of Radharani, because Her love envelopes Krishna, protecting Him from the insincere. We cannot see Krishna without Radharani’s help, just as we cannot experience the presence of God without a heart full of devotion.
Foremost among the deities usually found in Hare Krishna temples are Lord Caitanya and Lord Nityananda. Srila Prabhupada initiated Their worship because it was Lord Caitanya who widely spread the processes of devotional service so dear to us today, namely shravanam and kirtanam, hearing and chanting the names of God. Lord Caitanya is especially compassionate to those approaching Krishna in the turbulent age we live in, when pure religious aspirations are so mercilessly drowned in the cacophony of materialism. Sravanam and kirtanam are main components of deity worship.
In ISKCON temples you might also see the smiling forms of Lord Jagannatha, Lord Balarama, and Subhadra Devi. These deities are perhaps the most compassionate of all of the Lord’s forms, for they allow themselves to be removed from the confines of the temple once a year for Rathayatra, or the cart festival, a joyous procession in the streets. In India thousands of people crowd the streets to see the Lord, elegantly displayed on a large, colorful cart pulled by long ropes. Under Srila Prabhupada’s inspiration, Rathayatra is now held all over the world, from major cities such as New York and London to tiny communities. Although deity worship is generally restricted to the temple, on the special occasion of Rathayatra anyone may see the Supreme Lord’s beaming face. Whether one is a believer or not, one’s heart is purified by the sight of the Lord, just as medicine effects the body whether one has faith in it or not.
Like all processes of devotional service, deity worship combines an external ritual with internal meditation. Deity worship in the temple is highly ritualized. The Lord must be awakened, bathed, dressed, and fed at the exact same times every day. Specific prayers are used for each aspect of worship. Worshipers must be clean and punctual. All of this attention to detail helps train the mind to understand that God is a person. If you know you are disappointing someone with your tardiness or carelessness, then you develop a heightened awareness of that person’s needs. Likewise, when you please someone with your ardent attention, you bask in the pleasure of his or her delight. The details of deity worship become part of a sweet exchange with the Lord.
One can, however, become enamored by the rituals and lose the internal devotion. In every church, mosque, and temple, piety is easily mimicked. But empty worship is an offense to the Lord. All of us come with impurities, doubts, and fears, and deity worship can surely relieve us of those burdens if that is our prayer. But to come before the Lord requesting His complicity in our material plans is hardly real worship. Similarly, even a beautiful ceremony such as mangala- arati cannot be truly appreciated if it becomes a routine gathering, or an opportunity for business contact or social excitement. Heart must accompany actions, for God is never interested in facile oblations. The deepest element of worship is loving surrender, relinquishing the postures that make us the deity. There is but one God, and archanam can help us realize just how true this is.
Perhaps the most wonderful aspect of archanam is that it employs the four processes of devotional service discussed so far: hearing about Krishna, chanting His names, remembering Him, and serving His lotus feet. Deity worship always includes chanting, whether exuberant or subdued, and chanting allows for hearing.When standing in the Lord’s presence, we naturally remember Him. And service to His lotus feet truly takes on meaning when we see them beautifully decorated with sandalwood and flowers.
The Arati Ceremony
Arati is an offering of respect, welcome, or worship to an exalted person, such as a king or a brahmana. Since the greatest exalted person is the Supreme Lord, it is most appropriate to offer arati to Him.
Arati is one aspect of archanam. In temples it is the only function of archanam the public can view. All other worship is conducted behind closed doors. The Lord kindly comes out in public to see everyone while receiving the worship of arati.
In The Nectar of Devotion (Chapter 9), Srila Prabhupada emphasizes the benefit of seeing the arati performed. “In the Skanda Purana there is the following description of the result of seeing arati (worship) of the Deity: ‘If someone sees the face of the Lord while arati is going on, he can be relieved of all sinful reactions coming from many, many thousands and millions of years past. He is even excused from the killing of a brahmana or similar prohibited activities.’ ”
During arati, auspicious items are waved before the deity to offer protection by dispelling inauspicious influences. Although the Lord doesn’t need protection, the devotee, in the mood of His servant, acts to please and protect Him. Srila Prabhupada writes, “Precautions should always be taken so that demons and atheists cannot harm the body of the Lord.” (Caitanya-caritamrita, Madhya 24.334, Purport)
Aratis can be short or long, according to the temple’s standards, the time of day, or the resources available. And time, place, and circumstance also dictate how many aratis are offered each day. Whatever standard is set should be maintained. Temples with full deity worship usually have at least five aratis, while someone’s home worship might be one short arati a day, or one full arati a week.
In a full arati, incense, a flame (ghee lamp), a conch shell with water, a cloth, flowers, a camara (yak-tail fan), and a peacock fan are waved before the deity. While doing so, the devotee chants mantras appropriate for each article and rings a bell with the left hand. In a short arati, one or more of the articles used in the full arati may be offered.
In the temple, generally only devotees who have received second initiation (Gayatri) from a bona fide spiritual master can go into the deity’s private quarters to offer arati or perform other archanam services. Anyone may worship the deity at home.
Explanation of Articles
The Hari-bhakti-vilasa, a guidebook for devotees written by Sanatana Gosvami, one of Lord Caitanya’s main disciples, says that the articles of arati represent the material elements in their pure form and correspond to the sense objects. In other words, the arati articles are satisfying to the senses and represent our offering all the elements in the Lord’s creation back to the Lord for His satisfaction.
The conch shell blown at the beginning and end of each arati drives away inauspicious elements. The sound of the bell is dear to the Lord and embodies all music. Flowers and incense provide beautiful aromas for the Lord’s pleasure. The ghee lamp represents lighting someone’s way. Offering water in the conch shell represents offering arghya, a mixture of auspicious items offered above or touched to the head of an honored guest as part of reception. It is a way to welcome the Lord and make Him feel at home. The handkerchief represents offering new cloth.
The yak-tail camara and the peacock fan are both aspects of kingly service. The camara keeps flies away, while the peacock fan provides a cooling breeze.
Aratis must be accompanied by the singing of the Hare Krishna mantra. Srila Prabhupada taught that chanting was the most important part of deity worship. Worshipers attending the arati may sing, or the devotee offering the arati may sing or play a tape.
A Day of Service to the Deity
In temples around the world, archanam is elaborately performed according to strict guide-lines. The Lord is wakened early in the morning; then He receives a meal and His mangala-arati. Afterwards, He is massaged with oil, bathed with water, dried, dressed, and ornamented with jewelry, flowers, flower garlands, and tulasi leaves. Then the Lord receives breakfast and His next arati. At noon He is offered lunch and an arati, after which He takes a nap. On awakening, He receives a snack and another arati. In the evening He receives His evening meal and another arati. Then He is dressed in His night clothes, offered another arati, and laid to rest in His bed. Each function requires many prayers and mantras, and everything is done following detailed procedures. The functions help the worshiper remember himself as the servant of the Lord.
Bhakti on Two Tracks
The Nectar of Devotion lists deity worship (archanam) as one of the five most important of the sixty-four items of devotional service, along with hearing Srimad-Bhagavatam (shravanam), chanting the holy names (kirtanam), associating with devotees, and living in a holy place. Three of the nine processes of bhakti-yoga are present among these five, namely shravanam, kirtanam, and archanam. And these three hold another special place in the practice of Krishna consciousness today. Srila Prabhupada said that the train of bhakti, or devotional service, runs on two tracks: bhagavat-vidhi (the nine processes of devotional service)and pancaratrika- vidhi (temple worship). If one track is missing, bhakti cannot proceed properly for the neophyte. Sravanam and kirtanam, or hearing and chanting, are bhagavat-vidhi, and archanam, or deity worship, is pancaratrika-vidhi.
When Srila Prabhupada came to the West to teach Krishna consciousness, he first introduced the religion of the age: chanting Hare Krishna. By chanting Hare Krishna, one performs shravanam and kirtanam in the most sublime form. Adding the chanting of Hare Krishna to one’s life is easy, as shown by the thousands of people who welcomed it into their lives when Prabhupada gave it out.
After some time, Prabhupada introduced archanam. He explained that archanam was a necessary part of our devotional service. Devotional service was creating the fabric of our lives, and shravanam, kirtanam, and archanam were the weave.
Prabhupada introduced deity worship gradually, and over the years, ISKCON temples established more elaborate forms of deity worship. By introducing the chanting of Hare Krishna first, then gradually teaching the elements of deity worship, Prabhupada showed how any one of us, any where in the world, can begin our spiritual life. Immediately begin chanting Hare Krishna, and gradually allow your love for the Lord to flow by worshiping His transcendental form.