Advaita Vision

Advaita for the 21st Century

The Fundamentals of the Bhakti Tradition
in Hinduism

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by Professor V. Krishnamurthy

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Part IV: Favourite Deity

Part I Part II Part III

The doctrine of iShTa-devata (favourite divinity) has now to be mentioned. In Hinduism one may choose the deity that satisfies one's spiritual longing and make that the object of one's adoration, love and worship. Since each name and form of God constitute a pointer to something that is beyond and since each is at the same time a representative of some aspect or manifestation of the Supreme Reality, it is the entire array of all names and forms of God that will perhaps point to the fullness that is God. But it is advisable for each individual to concentrate on, and have a special place for, one particular manifestation or form of God and this would be his iShTa-devata, favourite deity. Even a person who has realised the brahman as the Ultimate Reality that pervades everything, does not reject image worship. For him all deities are alike. He is not averse to worshipping or meditating on any particular form of the Absolute. This is the reason why we see our advaita-AchArya, give as much importane to devata worship and temple offerings as the non-advaita AchArya.

Hindu tradition has mainly six types of iShTa-devata (=favourite deity) worship. These can be listed as the worship of:

  • Aditya, the Sun God;

  • Ambika, the Mother Goddess, in her three forms of Durga, Lakshmi or Saraswati;

  • Vishnu, belonging to the classic Trinity;

  • Ganesha, the elephant-faced God, considered as the primal God of all worship;

  • Mahesvara or Shiva, the third God of the Trinity, mostly in the form of the unanthropomorphic linga; and

  • Subrahmanya, the six-faced God known also as Kumaran or Murugan in Tamil.

These six are the original subtle manifestations of the Absolute Transcendental Reality. The Avatars (=Divine Descents) of Vishnu, like Rama and Krishna, are more concrete manifestations of the same Absolute Reality. So they are identified with Vishnu in the above list. A capacity for recognition of the figures of these six divinities and their manifestations is the first lesson that a Hindu child gets in religion. Every variation of the favourite deity worship may be considered as belonging to one or a combination of these six traditions. In addition, the choice of the favourite deity, instead of being an academic exercise, could also be a choice of one among the thousands of temples all over the country and the deity chosen may very well be the particular deity enshrined in that particular temple, with a specific name and form, though belonging to one of the six streams of divinities listed above.

Thus arose the tradition of each family having a kula-devata (=family deity) and this is sacredly revered as a legacy from generation to generation among the male descendents of the same family. It is this variety that gives richness to Hinduism and it is this possibility of 'to each according to his need and capacity' that brings together under the one banner of Hinduism people with varying practices, attitudes and states of evolution. Accordingly carving of images of gods both for worship at home and in the temples became one of the most highly developed art and profession in India. The religious life of India has thus been nourished through the ages on a visual panorama, unmatched, perhaps, in the history of any civilization.

QUESTION: When one goes through the various Puranas, why don�t we find a single uniform hierarchy of all these deities?

Yes, it is very common in Hindu scriptures to glorify different divinities in different contexts. Each time a divinity is glorified they talk about it as the highest Transcendental Supreme; not only that, the other divinities without exception are said to be subservient to the divinity under consideration. It is difficult for a newcomer to Hindu thought to subscribe to this because he thinks of it as a confused hierarchy. Naturally he may misunderstand the whole presentation and think it is partisan. There is only one hypothesis by which one can clear oneself of this misunderstanding. And that is the hypothesis which Hinduism declares from the mountain tops every time it has an opportunity: there is only one Godhead whatsoever. There is no hierarchy in the worldly sense of the word. Each manifestation or presentation of that Godhead, as per the context, is to be considered supreme, for the period of that context.

It may be Vinayaka who is considered supreme or it may be Subrahmanya in another Purana or upaniShad, and in another, Mother Goddess may be considered the supreme Godhead. Mother Goddess as the Gayatri is the parA-shakti, non-different from the absolute brahman. She is the UmA of kenopaniShad. She is the devAtma-shakti of Shvetasvatara upaniShad. She is the parA-prakRRiti of bhagavadgItA. In another context, say the Ramayana, Lord Rama may be considered as the Absolute brahman. The right understanding would be to consider all divinities to be so many presentations of the same one Godhead about which the entire gamut of scriptures talk in so many varied ways.

For several centuries there existed an internal dissension (which is happily disappearing now amidst the modern onslaught of anti-religious attitudes) within Hinduism, particularly among the orthodox wing, about which name or what God is ultimate - Shiva or Vishnu. The vedic literature does not distinguish between the worship of Shiva or Vishnu. If we carefully go through the rituals which are totally veda-based, the names Vishnu and Shiva would occur almost indiscriminately without any connotation of the differences we attribute to the forms denoted by the two names today.

Whether it is Shiva or Vishnu it refers only to the Supreme God - this is the intent of the veda-s. 'He is Brahma, He is Shiva, He is Vishnu, He is Indra, He is the Imperishable, He is the Transcendental Supreme', says the NarayanopaniShad part of the Yajur veda. This teaching of non-difference is important for the proper understanding of Hinduism. So long as you think it is Shiva or Vishnu and not the Transcendental Supreme you have not got the purport of the veda-s. References to this identity among the literature composed by devotees of Shiva are innumerable; but this is not surprising since most of the devotees of Shiva also appreciate the non-dualist philosophy. But references to the identity of all names of God are also available in Vaishnava literature; here is a sample. Nammalvar, the Tamil Saint-poet, who is the foremost of the twelve Alvars and whose contribution of 1352 �prabandhams� (songs, stanzas) to the four thousand prabandhams of Vaishnava canon is considered as the Tamil Veda, writes:

Even if we scrutinise hard and discuss it further, the concepts of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva - after all the verbal exchanges, are tantamount to only one God of which these three are the names.
(Tamil: tiruvAymozhi (1-1-5)).

Thus God is One, in spite of His many names and forms. Many youngsters who have been influenced by the organization of religions in the Western world constantly express doubts about the rationale of the multiplicity of gods and goddesses in the Hindu religious ethos. It is only when there is multiplicity, diversity and variety there is life, there is challenge, there is employment. The challenge may be demanding but Hinduism has not only perfected it but also enjoys it as is evident from the endless festivals and colourful celebrations with a convenient mixture of devotion and extravagance, connected with the temples all over India. The many names and forms of God suit the multifarious tastes of people and their different levels of spiritual evolution. Multiplicity leads to enjoyment and the one-ness at the back, at the base, at the bottom, stands for peace.

While oneness is primary, its manifested plurality is secondary. The one-ness is in spite of the visible external multiplicity. When a Hindu worships the sun as the Sun God, what he is worshipping is not the physical star called the sun, but the Absolute supreme in its manifestation as the sun. A Purana dedicated to Shiva may extol Shiva as the highest God, the Transcendental Supreme and a Vishnu Purana may say the same thing about Vishnu. There is no contradiction meant, implied or slurred over. When Hinduism says that all names and forms are those of God it means it.

The stories and complex mythology all go to show that it is the Ultimate Divine that is being talked about, though in terms of its manifestations, names and forms. When we worship the sun as Sun God what we are worshipping is the Absolute Supreme. A Shiva Purana may extol Shiva as the highest Transcendental Supreme and a Vishnu Purana may say the same thing about Vishnu. The Rama Sahasranama says that He is worshipped by Shiva and all other deities. The Shiva Sahasranama says that Rama is His devotee. There is no contradiction meant, implied or slurred over. When Hinduism says that all names and forms are those of God it means it. It is this catholicity of the culture and tradition of Hinduism that welcomes other religions as so many varied paths to God and consequently does not find anything contradictory or harmful in the coexistence of several faiths. The external multiplicity is only an expression of the underlying truth of advaitic (non-dualistic) unity.

All religions talk of the Transcendence of God Almighty. Hinduism adds to this the important factor of immanence to that God Almighty. This is another of the most distinguishing features of Hindu thought. The one message that the upaniShads are never tired of repeating is: man is essentially divine. Not only man�s core essence is divine but the same divinity is immanent in everything in the universe. Thus it is not enough to say God is everywhere. The truth is: God is the only thing everywhere. In other words, what we see, hear, or smell, or touch or taste is all nothing but Divinity. It is this conviction that is the consummation of all spiritual quest.

QUESTION: Does it mean then that good and bad people have both God immanent in them? Should we not postulate some �degrees� of immanence?

No. God is equally immanent in everyone and everything. But in the case of conscious entities like ourselves, the goodness or badness depends on the quality of the outer covering that is made up, particularly of the mind and its accumulated tendencies, called vAsanA-s. It is the mind that is the villain of the peace.

To sum up, since the permanent residence of God is in one's own heart, (Gita 18 � 61) every time a Hindu worships outwardly, he creates an idol or a picture for the God of his choice, or the God that suits the occasion, invokes God in that idol or picture from his heart and worships it in all the external forms he likes. This method of pUjA (worship) is recommended to give devotion a concrete focus. Mark that it is God that is worshipped in the form of the idol and not the idol as God. So long as you think it is an idol you have not got it. People who do not believe in God find excuses to find fault with the worship of God through idols and appear to be 'more loyal' than the religious, by propagating the argument that God is formless and so should not be worshipped through idols. God can take any form and so the form of the idol is good enough for us to worship God. It is the Infinite Absolute brahman, the all-knowing all-permanent Soul of our souls that is invoked into the form of the idol that is before us.

Him the Sun cannot light, nor the moon, nor the stars, nor lightning, nor what we call fire; through Him all of them shine, and through His expression, everything is expressed.
(muNDakopaniShad (II, 2, 10))

This upanishadic passage is one among the many that are recited at Arti time, at the conclusion of a pUjA performed in the vedic tradition.

In the orthodox traditions initiated by Adi Shankara, five main divinities are worshipped through a sophisticated ritual called pancAyatanapUjA, meaning, worship at five altars. Here the divinities are worshipped not in their human-like forms but in certain symbols in the form of stones, which are nothing but certain rock formations available in specified locations in India. The Sun God, SUrya, is taken as inherent in certain crystals normally found in Vallam in Tamilnadu. The Mother Goddess, shakti, is represented by the SvarNamukhi stone found in the bed of the river of that name in the Andhra region of South India. Vishnu is worshipped in the SAlagRAma stone that can be had in plenty on the bed of the river Ghantaki in the Himalayas. Ganesha is the red Shonabhadra stone found on the bed of the river Sone flowing into the Ganges. Finally Shiva is the BANa-linga found in the Omkarakunda of the river Narmada, near the island of Mandhata.

The pancAyatanapUjA tradition may be taken as an intermediate stage between the worship of Godhead with form and the worship of the formless, because the symbols of worship as rock formations have certainly a form but they are also formless in that they have no parts like face, eyes, body, hands and feet. It is as though the devotee trains himself to take the mind from the formful to the formless while at the same time allowing full scope for one�s emotional feelings of devotion and surrender. Also note that in the Vaishnava tradition, the emphasis is on the SAlagRAma to such an extent that the other four of the pancAyatana tradition are mostly omitted.

Part V

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Page last updated: 10-Jul-2012