Human Worship in Hinduism

Divine Worship

by Jayaram V

Summary: This essay answers the question of whether human worship (vyakthi puja) is allowed in Hinduism and if so in what context.

Can people make humans gods? Can you see the God in a human? They are two different questions although they seem to be the same. People often become confused taking the rope for the snake. It is nothing but an illusion of the mind, and illusions have a tendency to unsettle your mind.

Hinduism, unlike other religions, do not distinguish God from his creation. While philosophers may argue whether God and his creation are the same (as in non-dualism) or different (as in dualism), the popular consensus is that God pervades his whole creation and remains established in them as their very selves.

Hence, in Hinduism you have the practice of worshipping God in numerous forms such as gods of the higher worlds (Indra, Varuna, Agni, Shiva, Vishnu, etc.), demigods (village deities), trees, rivers (Ganga, Sarasvathi), mountains (Meru, Kailash), symbols (conch shell, shivalingam), forms (circles, triangles), images of gods, parts of the human body (feet, hands, face), elements (earth, water, fire, wind, space), magical formulae (yantras), objects (coconut, kalash, grains), planets, stars, directions, weapons, animals, serpents, birds, words (mantras), books (Ramayan, Bhagavadgita), ancestors, departed souls, enlightened masters (Ved Vyas, Agasthya, Dattatreya), spiritual gurus, oneself (atman), and so on.

It is believed that one can reach God by worshipping any of them with devotion or by meditating upon them with concentration. In the same manner, Hinduism also permits worship of human beings whose divinity is established beyond doubt. For example, Rama, Krishna, Parashurama, Vamana, Buddha were essentially human beings who lived and died like human beings. People worship them because they are believed to be the incarnations of Maha Vishnu.

The above general sanction by the tradition has created many controversial and questionable practices some of which fall on the verge of superstition. Many temples have come up in honor of spiritual masters, film stars, and even politicians with questionable integrity. While such practices may be justified from certain perspectives, they have the potential to lead people astray and damage their spiritual destinies. In this regard the following points are worth remembering.

1. One may worship any object or person, but in doing so the focus should be upon the God in that object rather than the object or the person. For example, you may worship a spiritual guru, not because he has long shining hair and an appealing personality that fits into your idea of spirituality and sainthood. Your focus should be upon the formless God in that person not upon the form of that person. Worshipping the form itself is self-defeating because the purpose of divine worship and spirituality is to escape from the delusion of names and forms, not to become stuck in them.

2. According to the Upanishads, physical worship and ritual worship are inferior to mental worship and spiritual worship. It is because through worship you are expected to transcend the physical world and enter the calmer and stable realms of your mind. Forms and objects have the tendency to disturb you and distract you. If you keep worshipping forms, you will fall in love with them and become attached to them, whereas the purpose is you have to rise above them and enter the formless world of Brahman. You may thus worship a film star or a good looking person as God, but in doing so you must remember the inherent dangers, and remain careful about your purpose and your attention. Worship of forms in Hinduism is allowed to facilitate the cleansing of the mind and body and permitted until you rise above the forms and become absorbed in the formless inner Self or Supreme Self.

3. In the Bhagavadgita you have the clear message that if you worship the gods and demigods, you will reach their worlds and if you worship the highest Supreme Brahman, you will reach his world and become liberated. This advice is based upon the above stated points only. You may choose any form, person or object, but you should always stabilize your mind in the thought of the highest Self. Any other form of worship can potentially lead to your spiritual downfall, rebirth and delay your liberation.

4. Worshipping God or gods with desires and expectations is inferior to the worship of God without desires and motives, and purely as an expression of your love and devotion. You cannot falsely love anyone, especially God. You may pretend that you love someone, but your heart knows the truth and probably the person to whom you feign love. In other words if your heart is filled with selfish desires and concerns, true bhakti to God will not arise in your heart. You may wear malas, do japas, sing beautiful bhajans, and invite a hundred people to attend a satsang in your house, but it does not qualify as true devotion. True devotion or true love for God arises only through the predominance of mental and physical purity (sattva). Hence, first focus upon the do's and dont's (yamas and niyamas) of the scriptures since they are self-cleansing and transformative, and remain engaged in spiritual practices and devotional worship until your mind calms down and selfishness weakens. At some point, your heart will open and radiate pure love and compassion not only for God but also for everything in the world. It is the highest form of love and devotion that you can ever experience in a human body. With that love you will find God in any object or form you choose, as it happened in case of Ramakrishna Paramahansa, and experience oneness with the whole existence.

Therefore, the answer to the question that we asked at the beginning is this. No, you should not make humans gods. You may worship them as symbols of God or forms of God only, with your mind firmly fixed upon the thoughts of Brahman or the Supreme Self. The same holds true whether you worship any god or demigod, unless you want to reach their world and return to the earth for another birth. As Yajnavalkya advised his wife Maitreyi in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, you may love a person not because that person is lovable or charming but because of the Self that resides in her. That Self is worthy of worship and veneration, and that Self is an aspect of the Supreme Brahman awaiting his liberation. The form of a person or an object is the clothing, the outer covering. It will fall off at the time of death. What remains is the Self, which is eternal, indivisible, and indestructible. You may worship the forms, but only to transcend your attachment to them, and your preoccupation with them. The form is a means, just as the worship. Hence, during worship it is important not remain stuck in the play of transient forms and the illusions of life. And not to confuse the car and the road for the destination.

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