THE PURPOSE OF A TEMPLE
A temple is a place where the deities are enshrined and worshiped. In personal expression, a temple is the abode of God. A temple represents an ocean of spiritual energy, which preserves and protects culture and tradition. It magnifies the spiritual vibration which the devotees can then use like a spiritual launching pad from which one can hasten and charge one’s own spiritual development by coming closer to the spiritual dimension. Even a temple room in one’s own house can work in this way to some extant.
PURPOSE OF THE DEITY OR IMAGE (MURTI) IN THE TEMPLE
Followers of Sanatana-Dharma believe in the concept of Atma (soul) and Paramatma (Super Soul). The Atma is the individual soul and is present in all beings. The Paramatma is the plenary expansion of Lord Vishnu which expands and appears as the Supersoul in all beings, and accompanies the individual soul in any situation or species. Yoga is meant to establish a connection, link or relationship between the soul and Supersoul, God. It is easier to build a relationship with God if one thinks of Him as a person. The deities are the personal manifestation of God that provides the mercy for us to see Him with our material eyes. Generally, until we become more spiritually developed, we cannot see spiritual items with our material mind and senses. So, the deity is the Lord’s mercy on us so that we can still see Him in our present materialistic conditioning. The deity, once formed under strict rules, is then also installed in the temple in a special ritual in which by various means we call the Lord to inhabit the deity. Then the deity is considered to be no different than the Lord Himself.
WHY WE WORSHIP IMAGES
Almost any person [except maybe Jews] believes or utilizes an image or symbol of their religion, culture, or even business. This is not unusual. The Cross in the Christian church, the picture of Jesus Christ, the statue of Mary, statues of patron saints, even the black stone in Kabba are all what we could call images. If anyone bows in front of any of them, they are breaking laws of Old Testament. [LE 26:1, and EX 20:2-5.] So, use of images is practically everywhere and all people worship something or someone. In fact, the first sculpture of Christ was in the form of a small boy holding a lamb. Now, everywhere in the world people have pictures of Christ according to their culture. A loving, young, white man in the USA, or a tough man looking like a judge in Russia, a nice black man in Africa, and you find a man looking like a typical Chinese with a sheepish beard in China. All religions have some concept of God with name and form, but Hindus have the courage to present the details as described in their scripture.
The images and deities of the Divine that are worshiped in the Vedic temples or in homes of those who follow Sanatana-dharma are not someone’s concocted imaginings. They are based on the detailed descriptions of God’s form as described in the Vedic texts. This is another beauty of the Vedic culture. Whereas most texts of other religions offer little information on God’s appearance and characteristics, these become specifically revealed in the Vedic tradition. Thus, we know what God looks like and can form images accordingly. Then these deities are installed, calling the personality of the Divine, according to specific prayers and rituals. And this is called the Prana Pratishta ceremony.
As the Supreme Controller, God can appear to His devotees in any of His specific forms. And even if some say that these images that are presented are made of nothing but stone or wood, still God can turn what is spiritual into something material, or something material into something spiritual. In this way, we can use our material senses and still have the vision of God in the form of the deity, and approach Him with our love and service. Thus, the authorized deity is not an idol, and should not be called an idol, but is the Lord’s mercy in giving us the chance to see something spiritual with material eyes. Of course, as we become more spiritualized, we can see with our inner spiritual eyes the transcendental form and activities of the Supreme Being, even while in this body that we have now.
An example is that the Post Office has authorized post boxes in which we put our mail, which is then picked up and delivered to the address on the envelope. If, however, we make our own unauthorized box and put it where we like, if we put our mail in it, it will not go anywhere. In the same way, by praying to the authorized forms of God our service will reach Him and be accepted by Him. Besides, there are many stories of how deities have come to life and interacted with devotees and engaged in all kinds of pastimes with them in very personal ways. So they are always full of potential to interact with us, or merely watch and see what we do, or even leave the deity form if we are too offensive or do not understand the basis of the deity. Thus, a deity, though appearing to be made of material ingredients, should in no way be considered material. The Lord can indeed make what is material into something spiritual, or take what is spiritual and make it appear as material. In short, the deities are the personal manifestation of the gods or goddesses they depict. So we should never think that deities are nothing but stone or wood. In fact, the Vedic scripture says that anyone who thinks in such a way exhibits a hellish mentality.
In this way, even though we may be unqualified to see God, who is beyond the perceptibility of our material senses, the living beings in this material creation are allowed to see and approach the Supreme through His archa-vigraha or His form as the worshipable deity in the temple. This is considered His causeless mercy on the materially conditioned living beings that He would allow Himself to appear to humanity as a deity to accept our worship and service.
In this manner, the Supreme Being gives Himself to His devotees so they can become absorbed in serving, remembering and meditating on Him. Thus, the Supreme comes to dwell in the temple to accept our worship and attract the eyes to concentrate and meditate on the deity, and the temple becomes the spiritual abode on earth. In time, the body, mind and senses of the devotee become spiritualized by serving the deity, and the Supreme can become fully manifest to him or her. Worshiping the deity of the Supreme and using one’s senses in the process of devotional service to the Supreme provides a means for one’s true essential spiritual nature to unfold. The devotee becomes spiritually realized and the deity reveals His spiritual nature to the sincere souls according to their progressive spiritual development. This can continue to the level in which the Supreme Being in the form of the deity engages in a personal relationship and performs reciprocal, loving pastimes with the devotee, as has previously taken place with other advanced individuals.
At this stage, darshan is not simply a matter of viewing the deity in the temple, but to one who is spiritually realized it is a matter of experiencing the deity and entering into a personal, reciprocal exchange with the Supreme in the form of the deity. At that stage, you may view the deity, but the deity also gazes at you, and then there is a spiritual exchange wherein the deity begins to reveal His personality to you. This is what separates those who are experienced from those who are not, or those who can delve into this spiritual exchange and those who may still be trying to figure it out. For those who have experienced such an exchange with the Supreme or His deity, at this stage the worship of the Supreme Being in the deity moves up to a whole different level, with no limits as to the spiritual love that can be shared between the devotee and the deity. This also opens up a completely new level of conversation on this topic, which we can save for another time. But this is why the deity in the temple is the main focal point of everything that goes on