Every place is God’s place—and here’s one way to put that understanding into practice.
by Madhyama-devi dasi
We ran down the echoing, tiled hall with delighted shouts, all nine of us, released from Sunday school, our Sunday shoes clattering, our Sunday hair-ribbons flying. At the end of the hall we went leaping down the steps, then swung around the corner to the breezeway and almost made it out the door to freedom when—
Uh oh. Mrs. Gorensman. “Children, we must always remember that this is God’s house. We don’t run and shout here. We always walk nicely and keep our voices down. All right?”
(Chorus) “Yes, Mrs. Gorensman.”
We managed decorum the last ten feet to the door, as I recall. But once out the door of God’s house and onto the streets of God’s world, any thoughts of God or Mrs. Gorensman were dissolved in the autumn sunshine as we ran the ten blocks home for lunch.
And really, this attitude of ours was founded on what Mrs. Gorensman had taught us. What she meant to instill in us was respect for God’s house. But implicit in her admonition was a dichotomy: God’s house was where we behaved nicely and got gold stars for remembering Bible verses; our house was where we threw our socks on the floor and watched Mickey Mouse (and remembered every commercial, gold stars or not). Religion had a place in our lives, of course. But it was a place apart. God was ten blocks away, from ten to eleven in the morning, on Sunday for the Protestants and Catholics, on Saturday for the Jewish kids.
As we grew older, though, and explored our varied religious traditions more intently, we began to understand, at least theoretically, that every place should be God’s place, since this world is His creation. But theoretical knowledge didn’t help us in our daily lives. Walking nicely and keeping our voices down was fine for church or temple, but what do you do at football games? In fact, what does a football game have to do with God? And how about dates?
The conflict between theory and practice led me to search for a more integrated way of life, a way of life in which every activity in every place could be directly related to God. This search ended when I learned about the process of bhakti-yoga, devotional service to God.
One important step in the process of becoming God conscious is to make your home God’s home. Instead of going to visit Him only once a week, invite Him into your home through the process of Deity worship: by setting up and taking care of a home altar. By remembering Him and having His association daily, you’ll naturally develop more love for Him.
Krsna, or God, is the Supreme Person. He has unlimited powers. One of those powers is His ability to be present personally in any of His multifarious energies. We’ve already spoken, in previous articles, about how He appears, or incarnates, in the energy of sound vibrations. When you chant His holy names or read scriptures spoken by or about Him, He is personally present with you.
But that is not the only way He can appear. God’s form, which is unlimited and spiritual, can also manifest in an apparently material medium, in a way just suitable for our seeing Him. And in this form, whether it be a picture or sculpture. He will also kindly accept our service. This is His special mercy on us. Because we are imprisoned in our material bodies, with material eyes, we can’t see His spiritual form now. So He comes in a form that is apparently material, just to encourage us to remember and serve Him.
This doesn’t mean that we can worship anything or anyone as God. Bhakti-yoga is not pantheistic. We can’t worship a brick, a tree, or our 1981 BMW and expect to be in touch with God. Nor does it mean that we can “make unto ourselves idols,” which are no more than artistic concoctions of our imagination (golden calves, voodoo dolls, and so on). The Vedic scriptures are clear on this point. Only those forms carefully described by the authorized scriptures, and confirmed through the disciplic succession of spiritual masters, are worshipable.
If you want to get a letter to its destination, you have to drop it into an authorized mailbox. You can’t just build a box, paint it red and blue, and expect your letter to reach its destination when you drop it in. (And if someone catches you making phony mailboxes, you’ll be in big trouble.)
Now, the Mayavadis, or impersonalists, say that God is not really a person but we pretend He’s a person to focus our meditation, to make it easier for us to become “self-realized.” At that point, the Mayavadis say, we will understand that we are God. Then we can throw away our altars—or, better yet, just climb up and sit on them ourselves!
It’s clear that this theory is silly. God never forgets that He’s God, and He doesn’t have to do yoga to remember. We are tiny parts of God. Because we are small, we have forgotten Him. But He is an eternal person, and so are we. And bhakti-yoga, loving devotional service to God, is the eternal activity we’re meant to engage in. Our perfection is not to become God, but to become perfect servants of God. And in order to engage us in that service, even in this material world. He has given us the means to worship His form, which is nondifferent from Himself.
But although we are in the material world, we don’t perform Deity worship for material, fruitive results. We don’t offer the Lord water so that He will reciprocate by making it rain. We don’t burn candles and pray to hit the jackpot in the state lottery. We don’t give a tenth of our income as some kind of “seed,” hoping to reap financial security in return.
Because God is the owner of everything, whatever we give Him is actually already His. He has no need of our offering. But if we give Him our service out of love for Him, He will make that love increase. Automatically, our love for materialistic, self-centered life will decrease. And when our last bit of selfish attachment is gone, we will have fully developed our spiritual vision, our spiritual eyes.
When our love for God has fully developed, our senses will be purified. As the Brahma-samhita says: “The devotees whose eyes are smeared with the ointment of love of God sec Him within their hearts twenty-four hours a day.”
Atheists often challenge, “All right, if there’s a God, why can’t I see Him? Can you show me God?” Such cynics will never see God. We cannot see God by our own efforts, but God has the power to reveal Himself to us if He likes. Trying to see God by our own efforts is like trying to see the sun at night. We may foolishly scan the heavens with powerful searchlights, but our efforts will prove useless. In the morning, however, when the sun rises by its own will, we can easily see it. Similarly, we cannot see God by our own endeavors, because our material senses are imperfect. But bhakti-yoga, including Deity worship, helps us purify our senses. We simply have to purify our senses and wait for the time when God will be pleased to reveal Himself to us. By our loving service, we try to please God. This is the process of bhakti-yoga.
Having a home altar is part of this process. Every time you see it, you’ll remember Krsna. You’ll have a focus for your chanting and reading, and active engagement for all your senses. As Srila Prabhupada’s spiritual master, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, once said, “Don’t try to see God. Rather, act in such a way that God will want to see you.” When Lord Krsna sees your sincere desire to serve, He’s sure to reciprocate.
Setting Up Your Altar
When you set up your altar, you’re inviting Lord Krsna and His pure devotees into your home. If you keep in mind that they’re the most honored guests you will ever entertain, the rules of Deity worship will be easy for you to understand and apply.
Where should you set up the altar? Well, how would you seat a guest? An ideal place would be clean and well lit, and free from drafts and household disturbances. Your guest, of course, would need a comfortable chair, but for the picture you’ll be worshiping, a wall shelf, a mantelpiece, a corner table, or the top shelf of a bookcase will do. You wouldn’t seat a guest in your home and then ignore him; you’d provide a place for yourself to sit, too, where you could comfortably face him and enjoy his company. So don’t make your altar inaccessible.
What do you need for an altar? The essentials are as follows:
1. A picture of the spiritual master
2. A picture of Lord Caitanya and His associates
3. A picture of Sri Sri Radha-Krsna
You’ll also want an altar cloth and as many items for offering as you can procure. These include water cups (one for each picture), candles and candle holders, a special plate for offering food, a small bell, incense and an incense holder, and fresh flowers, which you may offer in vases or simply place at the feet of the person they’re being offered to. Let’s explain the items one by one. The first person we worship on a home altar is the spiritual master. The spiritual master is not God. Only God is God. But because the spiritual master is the dear-most servant of God, he deserves the same respect and honor as that given to God. He links the disciple up with God and explains the process of bhakti-yoga to him.
There are two kinds of gurus: the instructing guru and the initiating guru. Everyone in the West who takes up the process of bhakti-yoga owes an immense debt to His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Before Srila Prabhupada came to the West, no one here knew anything about the practice of pure devotional service to Lord Krsna. Therefore, everyone who has learned of the process through his books, his BACK TO GODHEAD magazine, his tapes, or his Hare Krsna movement should offer respect to Srila Prabhupada. As the founder and spiritual guide of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, he is the instructing guru of us all.
As you progress in bhakti-yoga, you will eventually want to accept initiation. Srila Prabhupada, before he left this world in 1977, also provided for this. He set things up in such a way that senior devotees would carry on his work by initiating their own disciples in accordance with his orders. When you accept initiation, you’ll also worship a picture of your own initiating guru along with Srila Prabhupada.
Another picture that should be on your altar is a picture of Lord Caitanya and His four associates, who are called (all together) the Panca-tattva. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is the incarnation of God for this age. He is Krsna Himself, descended in the form of His own devotee to teach people how to surrender to Him, specifically by chanting His holy names and performing other activities of bhakti-yoga. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu is the most merciful incarnation. His mercy is so great that even if we offend Him in our worship (by doing things wrong, or by not doing everything we should). He ignores our offenses.
And of course your altar should have a picture of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krsna, with His eternal consort, Srimati Radharani. Srimati Radharani is the internal potency of Sri Krsna. She is devotional service personified, and devotees always take shelter of Her to learn how to serve Krsna.
Now that you have the place and the pictures, set up the pictures nicely on the cloth, and you can begin your worship. The simplest worship you can offer is to chant the holy names of the Lord before your altar. In fact, this chanting of Hare Krsna, Hare Krsna, Krsna Krsna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare is something you should do along with any other kind of worship. The chanting of the holy names of the Lord is the basis of all other methods of bhakti-yoga, and it is the sacrifice intended for this age.
Besides the chanting, offer the other items daily. Each morning, you should carefully clean the altar. Cleanliness is essential in Deity worship. You wouldn’t neglect cleaning the room of an important guest in your house, remember. Rinse out the cups and put fresh water in them daily. Place them conveniently close to the pictures. You should take away the flowers as soon as they become a little wilted if they are in vases, or daily if you have offered them by putting them at the base of the pictures. You can offer fresh incense at least once a day, and you can have the candles lit when you are chanting before your altar.
Krsna explains in Bhagavad-gita that although He is in need of nothing, He accepts offerings of fruit, flowers, leaves, or water, provided those offerings are made with love. If you wish, you may offer Krsna fruit (or other foods that do not contain meat, fish, or eggs) by placing a generous portion on a special plate, which should be used only for that purpose. Set the plate on your altar before the pictures, bow down before the Lord, and humbly ask Him to accept your offering. While offering your prayers, ring the small altar bell; others in your home will know that you’re making an offering and should not be disturbed.
Everything offered on your altar becomes prasadam, the mercy of the Lord. Flower remnants, incense, the water, and the food—everything you offer for the Lord’s pleasure becomes spiritualized. The Lord enters into the offerings, and the remnants of such offerings are directly the Lord Himself. Therefore, not only should you deeply respect the things you’ve offered to Him, but you should distribute them to others. This distribution of prasadam, the Lord’s mercy, is an essential part of Deity worship.
We’ve only barely touched the surface of Deity worship in this article. (If you’re interested in the more elaborate Deity worship that goes on at the Hare Krsna temples, visit the one nearest you and ask to talk to the head priest, or pujari, or write to me at our editorial offices in Philadelphia.) Next time, we’ll discuss in more detail the proper way to cook and offer food to the Lord. Please try the things we’ve suggested so far. It’s very simple, really: if you try to love God, you’ll gradually awaken to the realization of how much He loves you. That’s the essence of bhakti-yoga.