How Do We Understand The Temple Deity?
by Navina Krishna Dasa
Most of us from India, regardless of where we’re living now, at times go to a temple to see the Deity form of the Supreme Lord Krishna or Vishnu or one of His incarnations. We also many times see the deities of various demigods.
Perhaps on a few occasions, which we may remember as high points in our lives, we have gone with friends and relatives to holy tirthas, places of pilgrimage. We then performed special penances or pious acts. And so we appreciated the audience of the Deity in an especially rewarding manner. We came back from these journeys feeling peaceful, content, and purified.
Many of us appreciate our visits to the ISKCON temples deeply. In the 1970’s these were perhaps the only temples of Lord Krishna we found outside the borders of India. We were struck with wonder by the dedication and devotion Srila Prabhupada’s disciples showed towards the Deities. The cleanliness, punctuality, decorations, and high standards of offerings amazed us. Even in India, it was rare to see such fine arrangements. The lives of the devotees seemed centered on the Deity. Lord Krishna’s words from Bhagavad- gita seemed to come alive all over the world as we saw men and women living His teachings.
Today many of us continue to visit the ISKCON temples or other temples to see the Deity regularly. For one person that may mean going to the temple every day, for another once a week, and for others only once or twice a year, on special days such as Janmashtami and Diwali.
Each of us has different hopes, realizations, thoughts, experiences, and feelings when in the presence of the Deity. As we stand before the Deity, we find ourselves in the court of the Supreme Lord Himself. We have been granted an audience with the Lord. He seems to give us His attention. And we can have the most intimate exchanges with Him. We find ourselves asking questions of the Deity. We say prayers, make requests, and ask for explanations, forgiveness, or blessings. Somehow we know that the Deity hears us, and that alone is most satisfying. Many times the smile on the Lord’s face is enough to tell us we have been heard.
Knowing that the Supreme Lord is our eternal maintainer and wellwisher, we leave satisfied, knowing that everything is in the right hands.
To various degrees we have had the good fortune of realizing that the Supreme Lord is fully present in His Deity form, as much as in His teachings, His holy name, and His pastimes. No amount of criticism, ridicule, disbelief, or challenge deters us from our relationship with the Deity. Feeling sorry for the unfortunate who don’t understand the Lord’s presence in their city or village as the temple Deity, we go on trying to deepen our relationship with the Lord.
We understand that until we are completely free from all impurities we will not fully realize the Lord’s presence. And we hesitate to drink, smoke, gamble, eat nonvegetarian foods, or indulge in irreligious sexual activity because we know that these things may make us feel embarrassed about going before the Deity. These, we know, block our attraction for the Lord.
We remember the words of great acaryas who tell us that one day when we’re sufficiently pure the Deity will speak to us and enable us to see His transcendental pastimes.
The scriptures and great acaryas tell us that our relationship with the Deity develops through cultivation. To understand the Lord’s presence, many activities will help us.
When we go to the temple we can develop the habit of always bringing some offering for the Deity. Usually the temple priests guide us to bring appropriate gifts. We offer our respects and bow our head before the Deity. We see His beautiful form, observe His worship or arati, hear and sing His glories, partake of His maha-prasadam and caranamrita, pray to Him. These all help cultivate our relationship with Him.
As we perform these scientific devotional acts prescribed in the scriptures, our relationship with the Deity gets deeper and deeper. We look forward to visiting the Lord and having His audience. The importance of our relationship with the Deity becomes greater and greater, and material relationships in the world seem less and less important. We begin to understand the feelings and realizations of great souls known to be dedicated and devoted to their Deities.
By the mercy of the Deity we can feel ourselves making genuine spiritual advancement. Knowledge about ourselves, about the world, and about the purpose of life seems to awaken. Detachment from less important material affairs and attachment for the reality of committed spiritual life seem to grow simultaneously.
We find ourselves becoming more and more attracted to the name, form, teachings, and pastimes of the Supreme Lord. We want to make the best offerings possible to the Deity and make all kinds of arrangements to provide for His worship. And we avoid all irreligious and immoral acts.
Feeling unworthy yet deeply grateful, we desire and act to help others receive the same good fortune. We become eager to distribute the mercy of the Lord. We take part in teaching the less informed. And to those still unreceptive we distribute prasadam, remnants of the Lord’s food, so that their hearts may soften and they will take advantage of their rare human birth. In these various ways, we begin to appreciate and understand the greatness of our Vedic or Indian heritage.
As these symptoms begin to appear steadily in our lives, we know that we are moving forward on the spiritual path. We know that we have received the mercy of the Supreme Lord and that He is attracting us back home, back to Godhead.