The issue comprehensively addressed.
Translated to English from the Bengali article
Sri-Murti-seva o Pautalikata
published in Gaudiya magazine.
The Supreme Lord’s Form, Qualities, and Pastimes combine to reveal His nature. If we say that He is formless, then we negate His eternal, spiritual, conscious, joyful form. He is not formless because He has no material form; His qualities are inconceivable.¹ If we say that He is only all-pervading, then we are saying that His qualities are limited. Although He is medium sized, He is simultaneously present in full everywhere—this quality is extraordinary and inconceivable. If we say He is impersonal, then we are attributing to Him the one and only quality of being impersonal and in effect saying that He is limited. If we say that He is simultaneously personal and impersonal, then we recognise His quality of being extraordinary and inconceivable. “He creates all living beings in the wombs of their mothers and with them further develops the abode of joy that is this world; He bestows happiness on living beings to the extent that they perform actions that are pleasing to Him”—if we say that He created the world and all living beings according to this idea, then we speak in opposition to His inconceivable Pastimes. If the omnipotent Lord, whose every wish is fulfilled, desired that the world would greatly improve from where it is now and become free from all deficiencies, then just by His desire the world would immediately become that way. “This has happened to a certain extent, and He will do part of this by way of the souls in the world”—those who think in this way consider the Lord limited like an unproductive goldsmith, blacksmith, or carpenter.
By way of these feeble and inconsequential conclusions, many of the conceptions adored by the ignoble (non-aryans) have spread throughout the world. Although, in all respects, the Lord by nature is one, He adopts difference appearances according to the qualifications of the souls who observe Him. Denying the Lord’s oneness based on one’s own vision of Him is also to oppose His quality of being the supreme controller.² Although He cannot be overshadowed, the Lord manifests brightly as the Deity through the practice of devotion; this is the work of His inconceivable power. Serving this brightly manifest Deity is the proper engagement for the life of a devotee. Those who reject this, conclude that the Absolute (Brahma) is formless and not innately personal, and create and worship a false form to attain formless Brahma are outright idolaters. The fruit of their worship is idolatry. Amongst them, some, considering themselves wise, reject such idolatry, and engage in the pursuit of self-realisation thinking om to be a bow, the self to be an arrow, and Brahma to be their target.* So doing, they reason that when idolaters open their eyes, they see an earthen or wood replica, and when they close their eyes, they see a replica of that replica within their hearts and direct all their love towards that but do not attain Brahma thereby. They have spoken truthfully in this regard, but they themselves engage in something that is no different from this.
A form made by anyone who has not seen the Supreme Lord’s form is necessarily an idol. For example, if I make a form of Sanatan Rsi when I have never seen him, then that form will not be accurate. But whether or not I will feel Sanatan’s presence if I express love for that form is a subject that may be doubted. If someone has seen and taken a photograph of Sanatan, then when they see that photograph and close their eyes, they will see the real Sanatan in their heart. The photograph simply gives rise to genuine cognition. This is not a case of idolatry. Rather, this is a method accepted by the scientifically minded as authentic.
The pursuit of self-realisation through the method of conceiving of om as a bow, the self as an arrow, and Brahma as the target is an elementary matter meant only for beginners.³ The heart of a practitioner does not reach perfection thereby. So long as they have not seen the Lord’s form, such methods, which are for the most part elementary, should be practised by practitioners in that stage. Those who have seen the Lord’s form always meditate on that form within their hearts, and to extend the service of that form into the material world, they manifest a Deity of that form. This Deity is a stimulus for those who see Him; the Deity bestows spiritual wealth on sincere practitioners. As a falsely imagined deity is inauspicious to those who have seen the Lord’s form, so also meditation on formless Brahma is injurious. All such methods are common prior to the attainment of the real goal. In colloquial language, they are called “groping for the goal”. All such conceptions that are opposed to the Lord’s form should be rejected in all respects.
People who are blind to the truth and unable to understand the form of the Supreme Lord describe the devotees’ service to the Deity as idolatry and criticise it. When the incomplete dharma of the non-Hindus, the meagre conception of Christians, and the dharma based on Brahma that follows them corrupts the pure sense of dharma within the residents of India, disregard for the Deity arises amongst new schools of thought, and it is a sad fact that prior to criticising Deities, none of the members of such new schools give the subject proper consideration.
In the teachings of Sriman Mahaprabhu we learn that dharmas in which there is no service to the Deity are extremely dysfunctional. On the path of devotion, there is no better way to engage in the practice of dharma than serving the Deity. Analysing, to some extent, the conception of those who criticise it is extremely necessary. There is a vast difference between service to the Deity and idolatry. The Deity is served after acceptance of the eternal form of the Supreme Lord. The form of the Supreme Lord is seen through the eyes of the soul’s spiritual form. Vyasa, Narad, and other enlightened sages, as well as all pure devotees in general, see the eternal form of the eternal, conscious, joyful Lord when immersed in meditation (samadhi). They constantly meditate within their minds on this form. Seeing the Deity, the reflection of this eternal form, in the material world, they increase the joy of their eyes. In this case, the Deity is never something imagined or fabricated by humans. For those who have no devotion, the Lord has no form, but for devotees, the Deity is a worshippable manifestation of the Lord’s eternal, spiritual form.
The Deity is certainly a direct illustration of the Lord’s form, but the Deity cannot be that form itself; as in all types of arts and sciences there are gross representations of unseen entities, so the Deity is a representation of the Lord’s form which is otherwise unseen by material eyes. Devotees are always verifying that this representation of the Lord’s form is authentic through the result of their worship: increased pure devotion. The real connection between electricity and an electronic device is seen only through the result, the production of the effects of electricity. In this regard, what will those who are inexperienced with electricity understand when they see an electronic device? What can those who have no devotion in their hearts call a deity other than an idol? The devotees’ conclusion is that those who serve the Deity are not idolaters.
Let us now briefly analyse what idolatry is. Those who worship objects that have no connection with the Lord’s form are idolaters. They are of five types: (1) those who, lacking proper knowledge, worship matter considering it the Lord;⁴ (2) those who deem matter insignificant and worship consciousness of its opposite, considering that to be the Lord;⁵ (3) those who have decided the Lord has no form but, because nothing can be thought about other than form, imagine a material form of the Lord to make worshipping Him easier;⁶ (4) those who imagine and meditate on a form of the Lord to purify and elevate their own consciousness;⁷ (5) those who worship the soul, considering the soul to be the Lord.⁸
Uncivilised forest tribes, fire worshippers, and the Greeks who worshipped Jupiter, Saturn, and the other planets are in the first class of idolaters. When people have no understanding of the Lord’s form yet have natural faith in the Lord, then it is seen that, in ignorance, they worship the Lord through shiny objects. This is this the first class of idolatry. Considering the qualification of such persons, we should not criticise such idolatry.
When the quality of being impersonal, the opposite of all material qualities, is believed to be the Lord through logic on the basis of extensive cultivation of material knowledge, the second class of idolatry begins. Idolaters of this class believe the Lord is only formless. The quality of being impersonal can never be the form of the Lord or a quality related to the form of the Lord. But if we say impersonality is one feature amongst the Lord’s innumerable features, then it can be a quality related to the Lord’s form. The Lord’s form is different from matter, but that form is not the opposite of matter.
Those who aim ultimately at self-extinction (nirvana) and imagine deities of Visnu, Siva, Prakrti, Ganes, and Surya to be means of reaching that do not acknowledge the eternal form of the Lord. Therefore, because they serve an imaginary deity, they are counted as the third class of idolaters. What is today called “fivefold worship” (pancha upasana) is the idolatry of this class. How the opposite of a particular quality or the state of being free from that quality can be attained by immersing oneself in that quality is not intelligible.
The yogis’ meditation on an imaginary deity of Visnu is the fourth class of idolatry. Thereby, other types of attainment may be had, but the highest attainment of direct perception of the Lord’s eternal form cannot be.
Those who worship the soul considering the soul to be the Lord are the fifth class of idolaters. According to the teachings of Sriman Mahaprabhu, there is no greater offence than this. All souls are worshippable, and if we worship them as devotees of the Lord, then we do not make the offence of considering them to be the Lord. That worshipping the forms of Sri Rama and Sri Nrsimha is not idolatry can be understood by reading the book Sri Krsna-samhita that I have written.
It is not that the five types of idolaters I have mentioned only criticise the Lord’s form; they needlessly criticise one another as well. The first class of idolaters consider the sky’s quality of being all-pervading to be the foremost quality of the Lord, disregard the Lord’s form, and criticise all imaginary and appropriate forms of the gods.
Amongst those of equal qualification, co-wife-like behaviour and the quarrel that results from it are inevitable. Only idolaters criticise idolaters. Non-idolaters and self-realised devotees of the Lord have no animosity towards idolaters. They simply understand that so long as someone has not realised the Lord’s form, what can they do other than imagine it? As they go on imagining, by virtue of the association of the sadhus, they will come to disregard such imagination and understand the Lord’s form. Then, they will no longer dispute the matter.
avyaktam vyaktim apannam manyante mam abuddhayah
param bhavam ajananto mamavyayam anuttamam
naham prakasah sarvasya yoga-maya-samavrtah
mudho ’yam nabhijanati loko mam ajam avyayam
yesam tv anta-gatam papam jananam punya-karmanam
te dvandva-moha-nirmukta bhajante mam drdha-vratah
(Srimad Bhagavad-gita: 7.24–5, 28)
“The unwise think the unmanifest (Brahma) has become manifest as Myself. They do not understand My transcendental, superexcellent eternal nature. Covered by My spiritual energy (yogamaya), I am not manifest to everyone. The foolish do not understand that I am unborn and eternal. Performers of virtuous acts, whose sins have been destroyed, become free from the illusion of duality and serve Me with firm resolve.”
na chantar na bahir yasya na purvam napi chaparam
purvaparam bahis chantar jagato yo jagach-chayah
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 10.9.13)
“The Lord has no interior and no exterior (He is all-pervading), no beginning and no end (He is eternal). He is the beginning and the end, the exterior and interior, of the universe. He is the universe.”
na te ’bhavasyesa bhavasya karanam
vina vinodam bata tarkayamahe
bhavo nirodhah sthitir apy avidyaya
krta yatas tvayy abhayasrayatmani
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 10.2.39)
“O unborn Lord, we cannot understand the cause of Your birth to be anything other than Your play. O abode of fearlessness, the creation, maintenance, and destruction are carried out by Your illusion, which is sheltered in You.”
pranavo dhanuh, saro hy atma, brahma tal laksyam uchyate
apramattena veddhavyam saravat tanmayo bhavet
“Om is the bow, the self is the arrow, and Brahma is the target. The target, Brahma, should be shot at with an undistracted mind, and like the arrow, the self should become one with it.”
asse sruteksita-patho nanu natha pumsam
yad-yad-dhiya ta urugaya vibhavayanti
tat-tad-vapuh pranayase sad-anugrahaya
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 3.9.11)
“O Lord, O path that is heard about and then seen, You sit on the lotus of Your devotee’s hearts, which are infused with devotion. O object of the highest praise, You manifest whatever form Your devotees meditate on out of mercy for them.”
vidito ’si bhavan sakṣat puruṣaḥ prakṛteḥ paraḥ
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 10.3.13)
“I have understood that You are the Lord Himself beyond material nature, the embodiment of pure conscious joy, the observer of all.”
yasyatma-buddhih kunape tri-dhatuke
sva-dhih kalatradisu bhauma ijya-dhih
yat-tirtha-buddhih salile na karhichij
janesv abhijnesu sa eva go-kharah
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 10.84.13)
“Those who think a corpse made of mucus, bile, and air is one’s self, one’s spouse and family are one’s own, earthen images are worshippable, and bodies of water are holy places, and never associate with the wise are nothing more than donkeys who serve cows.”
antar-gatah svavivarena chakara tesam
sanksobham aksara-jusam api chitta-tanvoh
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 3.15.43)
“The breeze carrying the nectar mixed with tulasi from the stamens of the lotuses that are the feet of the lotus-eyed Lord entered the nostrils of the sages meditating on Brahma and delighted their minds and bodies.”
praduschakartha yad idam puruhuta rupam
tenesa nirvrtim avapur alam drso nah
tasma idam bhagavate nama id vidhema
yo ’natmanam durudayo bhagavan pratitah
(Srimad Bhagavatam: 3.15.50)
“O Lord who is always called upon, our eyes are delighted by seeing this form You have revealed. We offer our obeisance to You, O Lord, who have appeared before us although You are unmanifest even before those who have conquered their senses.”
kamais tais tair hrta-jnanah prapadyante ’nya-devatah
tam tam niyamam asthaya prakrtya niyatah svaya
antavat tu phalam tesam tad bhavaty alpa-medhasam
devan deva-yajo yanti mad-bhakta yanti mam api
(Srimad Bhagavad-gita: 7.20, 23)
“The unintelligent, as a result of their respective desires, worship other gods and adhere to particular rules, being governed by their own natures. The attainments of these less intelligent persons, however, are temporary. The worshippers of the gods reach the gods, and My devotees reach Me.”
jive ‘visnu’ mani’ ei aparadha-chihna
jive ‘visnu’ buddhi kare yei brahma-rudra-sama
narayane mane tare pasande ganana
(Sri Chaitanya-charitamrta: Madhya-lila, 25.78–9)
“Considering the soul to be Visnu is an offence. Those who think the soul is Visnu or consider Narayan equal to Brahma and Siva are wicked.”