आत्मैव परमो देवः - The Self is the Highest Deity
The debate on religious conversions has occupied the public mind-space in India. More or less all over the world idea of religion, views and counter-views on religion, religious conflicts etc. constantly appear in the news. depending on ones understanding of religion, based on ones affiliation to some religious group, based on benefits from associating to some religious viewpoint, one tries make his case in such debates.
In India, one major point discussed during religious debates is 'worship of deity'. Sanatan Dharma (so called Hinduism) has an option of worshiping a deity by the seeker or religious practitioner. Other semitic religions generally differentiate themselves from Sanatan Dharma on the point of 'not believing in deity worship'. So is 'Deity Worship' the prime differentiator of Sanatan Dharma from other religions?
Well, Sanatan Dharma, as the literal meaning of the term suggests, is the way of life since eternity. Its not just living a specific lifestyle but also philosophy of lifestyle. And the basic philosophy says that the purpose of life is to 'do away with the sorrows' of life. And the sorrows of life occur because of disconnect or imbalance in the understanding of basic elements of Supreme Soul (Paramatma), Soul (Atma) & the universe (Prakriti). To do away the sorrow, one should seek higher knowledge, engage in actions those bridge the disconnect in the above three.
Simplest means to reach the balance or unison of these three is mediation - where the seeker tries to rise above the state of 'bodily being' to the state of 'Soul Existence' and then reaches and remains in the state of Samadhi where the 'oneness' with the supreme soul is attained.
What appears simplest in the above method of raising consciousness is sometimes the most difficult thing to do for many practitioners - i. e. going beyond the state of bodily being. Worldly attachments, various distractions, lack of focus, bodily ailments, lack of primary knowledge etc. act as hindrance in raising the consciousness beyond the body. As one can imagine large number of people will fall in this category because they are so deeply attached to their family, jobs, emotions, friends, social issues etc. For such seekers option of 'deity worship' is recommended.
The worship is not only of a statue made of stone or metal but of the nature, of the river, of mountains, of the sky, of the Sun, the moon, of living person (Guru), of parents, of the animals like Cow, Bull etc.
Yoga Vaashishtha says, For those who have not known the essential nature of the Deity, the worship of form and the like has been prescribed. To one who is not capable of traveling the distance of Yojana (eight miles), the distance of one Krosha (two miles) is prescribed.
Deity worship is creation of an environment. Its a conducive environment that will help one raise his consciousness. When the distracted mind would find it difficult to focus on the supreme consciousness, the medium of deity is provided here. The deity, style of worship, its relationship with five elements, chanting of mantras, burning of incense, decorating the deity as a human being, sense of purity and faith involved in the whole ritual helps one to calm down his mind. It helps to transcend to a higher level of consciousness. The sense gets generated that some power is there which is above my bodily being. Continuous engagement is such ritual (pooja) helps the mind to settle & forms a take off ground for the mind fly high.
Yoga Vaashishta explains further journey of the devotee very beautifully. It says, आत्मैव परमो देवः (Aatmaiv Paramo Devah) - The Self itself is the highest deity. Worship it. Nourish it so that the union with the Supreme Soul could be attained. It says further, "The lotus eyed Vishnu is not the deity, the three eyed Shiva is not the deity. For the deity is not incarnate in the body, nor is the Deity of the form of the mind. The splendor which is not artificial and which is without beginning and the end is called deity.
Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras says that the Deity, or God or Ishwar is the one who is beyond the sufferings, bondage of karma, remnants of Karma that cause suffering or the desires. Such special being is God!
क्लेशकर्मविपाकाशयैरपरामृष्टः पुरुषविशेष ईश्वरः॥२४॥
Yoga Vaashishtha says, Pure Consciousness, which is beyond any fragmentation and which is of the nature of generality of existence, attaining to the nature of vast existence (totality of the being) is described by the word 'Deva'(Deity).
Yoga vaashishtha explains the relationship beween God and 'I'. The Supreme Consciousness gradually moved by the splendor of energies of space, time and the like, having become the Jeeva (Individual Soul or Individual Consciousness) soon becomes the Buddhi (Intellect). Thereafter it becomes the sense of 'I'. Then attaining the state of the mind, it clings to worldly existence.
This pure consciousness experiences sorrow abiding in the body due to this idea of "I am". This unhappiness which is nourished by mere imagination is destroyed only by the absence of imagination (the thought).
Coming back to the current affairs, the deity worship in the form of 'Worship of the form' is helpful to keep ignorant, illusionary souls engaged in the spiritual journey. If they are not directed to such endeavors, they will engage more into body dominant enterprise like acquisition of things, competing for acquisition, fighting for acquisition for bodily gratification. To keep masses engaged in 'good deeds' religion can play good role. Good deed of 'Deity worship'is one such remedy to help raise consciousness of the masses.