The Antiquity of Deity Worship in the Vedic Tradition

By Stephen Knapp


There have been some people who have declared that the worship of Deities or images or the murti in the temples is but a recent invention of Vedic culture. However, that is not an accurate point. It is true that according to the different yugas or ages (such as Satya-yuga, Treta-yuga, Dvapara-yuga, and Kali-yuga) there are different processes for spiritual development that have been more recommended than others. For example, meditation was the recommended process for Satya-yuga, when people lived much longer and could sit in concentration or in samadhi for long periods of time. Then in Treta-yuga it was best to engage in various and extravagant rituals, havans, yajnas, or fire ceremonies. Then in Dvapara-yuga it was best to engage in elaborate worship, with opulent offerings to the Deities and prayers and mantras sung to the Deities. So, all of these processes have continued down through the ages to some degree or another. However, in Kali-yuga, though we still see all of these processes used, it is now the chanting of mantras, especially the Hare Krishna mantra, that is the most highly efficient and recommended process of spiritual growth in this age.

So, Deity worship as seen in the temples has been around for thousands of years. And as evidence of that, we can find references in the Vedic texts, as well as in the historical holy sites around India.



For example, seven kilometers south of Gokula, not far from Mathura, is the Dauji temple. Dauji is the Deity of Lord Balarama that was originally installed 5,000 years ago by King Vajranabha, Krishna’s great-grandson. From Lord Krishna and His queen Rukmini was born the great warrior Pradyumna, one of His prominent sons, who married the daughter of Rukmi, Rukmavati. They gave birth to Anirudha. Anirudha married Rukmi’s son’s daughter, Rachana, and from her was born Vajra, who would remain among the few survivors of the Yadus’ battle. (Bhagavatam 10.90.35-37)

In fact, King Vajra established a number of Krishna Deities in the area. The present Dauji temple that we see today was built 200 years ago by Shyama Das of Delhi. Many people also attend this temple to get darshan of the single Deity of the 6 feet tall Lord Balarama. From the other side of the temple you can see the Deity of Revati, Lord Balarama’s wife. Nearby is the Balabhadra Kund or Kshira (milk) Sagara (sea) where the Deity of Lord Balarama had been hidden during the Moghul invasion. Near this kund is a temple to Harideva, and in the bazaar is another temple to Krishna as Banke Bihari.

There is also much history on the site of Krishna’s birth, the Krishna Janmasthana in Mathura. Historical records indicate that the first temple here was also built by King Vajranabha. This temple lasted for many years. The next temple was supposedly built by King Vikramaditya in 400 BCE. That was destroyed by the infamous Mahmud Ghazni in 1017-18. Ancient descriptions relate that such a magnificent building would have taken 200 years of great toil by the world’s greatest craftsmen. Thereafter, a third temple was built by a citizen named Jajja during the time of King Vijayapalavadeva, ruler of Mathura, according to an inscription on a stone slab discovered in the area. Sri Chaitanya visited this temple during His visit in 1515. Unfortunately, that was destroyed by the Muslim Sikander Lodi shortly thereafter. The next temple was built by Raja Virsinghadeva Bundela during the reign of Jehangir (around 1650). It is said that this temple stood 250 feet tall and was a stately structure made of intricately carved red sandstone, costing some 33 lakhs of rupees. But again it was destroyed by the fanatic Muslim Aurangzeb in 1669-70. Then it its place a mosque was built, which still stands today. The next temple over the place of Krishna’s birth appeared later in the mid-20th century.

Also in Mathura, not far from the Dwarkadish Mandira, there is the temple of white Sweta-Varaha, and another of Adi-Varaha. According to local history as explained by local pandits, back in Satya-yuga this Deity had been given to Lord Indra who worshiped Him in Swarga, his heavenly abode. The Deity was later taken by Ravana when he defeated Indra who took Him to Sri Lanka. Then, after Ravana was defeated by Lord Ramachandra, the Deity was taken to Ayodhya by Lord Ramachandra. Lord Ramachandra gave it to His brother Satrughna who brought it to Mathura when he was dispatched to conquer Madhu Daitya and Lavanasura. After defeating the demonic father and son, Madhu and Lavanasura, he installed the Deity of Adi-Varaha here. This story is more fully explained in Chapter 163 of the Varaha Purana.

East of Mathura is Vrindavana, and in Vrindavan is the Radha-Govindaji temple that is another of the seven major temples of Vrindavan. It is across the road and a little farther down the street from the Rangaji temple. It was established by Rupa Gosvami where he discovered the Gopala Deity. The beautiful temple is made out of red sandstone and was completed in 1590. The temple is now only two storeys tall but once reached up to seven storeys. The Muslim fanatic Aurangzeb, doing his dirty work, dismantled the upper five storeys of the temple due to his envy. While his men were destroying the temple, there was a loud thunderous noise that shook the ground. This put fear into the hearts of the men and they immediately stopped and ran away. Due to fear of the Moghuls, before they arrived the devotees moved the original Deities to Jaipur where today many pilgrims go to see them. So the temple now has pratibhuh Deities, or representative expansions, of the original Radha-Govindaji that are worshiped. The original Govindaji Deity is said to have been installed in Vrindavan thousands of years ago by Vajranabha.

Also, in Vrindavan, farther into the eastern part of town, are many other temples, including the large and ornate Lala Babu Mandir with Deities of Radha, Krishna, and Lalita. Then at the corner where we turn off from Loi Bazaar to go toward the Banke Bihari Mandir, we find the Gopishwara Mahadeva Shiva temple with a Shiva linga, said to have been originally installed by Krishna’s great-grandson, Vajranabha, and is the place where Lord Shiva did austerities in hopes of entering the rasa-lila dance as a gopi (cow-herd girl). In the morning devotees wash the linga with milk and other items, and then later the pujaris dress the linga in bright colored clothes.

A few miles from Barsana is Nandagram, another place where Krishna performed many childhood pastimes described in the Bhagavatam. On top of the hill is the main temple that has Deities of Krishna, Balarama, Nanda Maharaja (Krishna’s father), Mother Yashoda, Srimati Radharani, and two of Krishna’s friends. There is also a Shiva lingam in a small shrine across from the temple called Nandisvara, which again is said to have been installed by Vajranabha many hundreds of years ago. It is considered that this hill is an incarnation of Lord Shiva. From the top of the walls that surround the temple we can get good views of the area, and someone who is familiar with it can point out other nearby places connected with Krishna’s pastimes that we may want to visit.

Now, let us go into the foothills of the large Girnar Hill in Gujarat where we find the Radha-Damodara temple with beautiful Deities of Krishna’s four-armed form. As Lakshmi-Narayana, the Deities are formed of the typical black and brown stone, and are described in the Skanda Purana as being self-manifested over 12,000 years ago. Next to the main temple is another for Lord Balarama and Revati, His consort. The original temple at this site is said to have been built 4500 years ago by Vajranath, Lord Krishna’s grandson. Not far away is a place where lived Vallabha, the 16th century Vaishnava acharya.

Another interesting story is in regard to Guruvayoor in Kerala, South India, which has the Deity of a four-armed standing Vishnu with a chakra in the right hand, conchshell in the left, and mace and lotus flower in the other two. Sri Krishna showed this form of His only twice during His appearance on earth: once to Arjuna just before the battle of Kurukshetra while speaking the Bhagavad-gita, and once to His parents, Vasudeva and Devaki, at the time of His birth. This Deity is said to have been worshiped by Lord Krishna Himself at Dwaraka thousands of years ago. The legend is that when Krishna left this world, He gave the Deity to His devotee Uddhava to look after it. He then ordered Brihaspati, the guru or spiritual teacher of the demigods, and Vayu, demigod of the wind, to take care of this Vishnu Deity and to install it somewhere for the benefit of humanity. When they arrived at Dwaraka to get the Deity, the city of Dwaraka had already sunk into the sea. After searching in the water, they found the Deity and went south. Not knowing where to go, they sat down by the side of a lake and began to meditate. Soon, Shiva appeared and after some discussion they decided to start a new temple for the Deity of Vishnu near the Rudratirtha Lake. Since that time 5,000 years ago, the place has been known as Guruvayoor (guru for Brihaspati and vayoor for Vayu). Hundreds of devotees visit the temple everyday for seeing the Deity. Western devotees, however, are not allowed in without a letter of permission from the Arya Samaj.

Going eastward we go to Simhachalam. There we find the Jiyada Narasimha temple. It is here at Simhachalam where Lord Narasimha’s devotee Prahlada is said to have built the original shrine when he was saved from his father Hiranyakashipu. The story is that the hill at Simhachalam is the one from which the demon Hiranyakashipu had his devotee son thrown from it in an attempt to kill him. The mountain was also placed over Prahalada, but the Lord saved him by jumping over the hill and lifting Prahlada from the sea. The hill may seem somewhat lopsided since it is also accepted that the Lord had lifted the hill enough for Prahlada to escape from underneath it. Thereafter, Prahlada asked the Lord to assume a Deity form as both Lord Narasimha (the lion form) who would soon kill Hiranyakashipu, and Lord Varaha (the boar avatara) who had already killed Hiranyakshya, the brother of Hiranyakashipu. Thus, the Deity is of Varaha Narasimha.

When Hiranyakashipu was later killed by Lord Narasimha, Prahlada built a temple around the Deity where worship was conducted. In time, however, the temple was neglected and earth covered the Deity. Much later, the king of the lunar dynasty, Pururava, was drawn to Simhachalam and rediscovered the Deity under the earth. Hearing a voice, it instructed him to cover the Deity with sandalwood paste and worship Him, and only uncover Him once a year. This practice has continued and they have an annual festival when everyone can see the Deity without it being covered in sandalwood. Pururava also rebuilt the temple and established the worship of the Deity again, which has continued to this day.

Also, we can take note of the famous Kanaka Durga temple Kanaka Durga temple on the hilltop that overlooks the town of Vijayawada. This deity is considered to be self-manifested. It is said that Adi Shankara Shankara had worshiped the goddess here, as well as Agastya Muni, Markandeya, and even the Pandavas, all of which suggests how old this Deity is. Legend relates that she killed the powerful demon Durgama in this area, and is presently accepted as the protector of the city. This is an interesting temple and many people come to see it. You can see families arrive to see the Deities and to perform their puja together.

At the nearby Mangalagiri hills, the Pana-Narasimha temple is at the top of a flight of 600 steps on the hillside. The Deity called Pana Narasimha is worshiped only with offerings of water mixed with jaggery, which is a mixture of raw cane sugar, camphor, cardamom, and black pepper. He drinks only half of the offerings while the other half goes for the devotees. It is said that in times long ago other ingredients used to be offered. This is explained in a story. The sage Kashyapa Prajapati had one son, Namuchi, who was a cruel demon. To acquire powers, Namuchi underwent severe austerities which produced intense flames from his body. The fire became so powerful that it began to flow through the universe. The demigods could not withstand the heat that was spreading, so they went to Brahma about this matter. Brahma went to Namuchi to appease him by granting him a boon. Namuchi asked to never be killed by anything either wet or dry, which Brahma granted. After that he was overconfident and began harassing the demigods, who then had to go to Lord Vishnu. He assured them that Namuchi’s end would come at the right time.

Later, during a battle which involved Indra killing the armies of Namuchi, Lord Vishnu in His form as Lord Narasimha took His disk and dipped it into some foam, which was neither wet nor dry, and then gave it to Indra who threw it at Namuchi. Namuchi fled and even went into a cave at Mangalagiri, hiding by giving up his physical form. But the disk followed and killed him there. The blood that began to flow turned into a stream called Raktakalya that spread into the area. Red soil surrounds the temple to this day. The Devas were fearful of the Lord as Narasimha, so they offered Him divine nectar to drink. He drank only half of it and said that in Satya-yuga he would drink only half of the nectar offered to Him. In Treta-yuga He would drink ghee. In Dvapara-yuga He would drink milk from a Kamadhenu cow, and in Kali-yuga He would drink half of the sweet jaggery water that was offered to Him. This is why He only accepts half of the offering, leaving the rest as prasada to be accepted by the devotees. The next place we can go is 200 kilometers south from Hyderbad to SrisailamSrisailam. This town is next to the Krishna River. It is found on Rishabhagiri Hill. It is mentioned in the Mahabharata and the Puranas, which indicates its antiquity. It has the Mallikarjuna (Shiva) temple, known as one of the 12 jyotirlinga JyotirlingaMallikarjuna (self-manifesting linga) temples in India. It is a large temple, built in 1404-5 by King Harihara Raya. There is a hall of finely carved stone work, beautiful silver doors, and a huge Nandi. The original Shiva linga is to the right of the main temple. This temple was visited by Adi Shankara Shankara and later by Lord Chaitanya Chaitanya, as well as by Lord Narasimha’s devotee Prahlada and Lord Rama, who is said to have installed the Sahasra linga, noticeable by the three-headed Naga which surrounds it. Therefore, it is an extremely ancient site. There are also the Panchapandavas, the five lingas installed by the five Pandava brothers found in the courtyard. The Parvati (Bhramarambika) temple, one of the 54 Shakti-peeths, is up a flight of stairs behind the Shiva temple. Parvati took the form of a bee to kill the Mahisasura demon, the buzzing of which you can still hear by putting your ear to a small hole in the back wall of the sanctum. Other shrines around the temple are for Chandramamba, Rajarajeshwari, Virabhadra, and Annapoorni.

Tirupati, in the Tirumalla Hills, has one of the most famous of the ancient temples. The legend behind the temple to the Deity of Lord Balaji is summarized as follows: Once Bhrigu insulted MahavishnuBhrigu insulted Mahavishnu, which annoyed Goddess Lakshmi. She then went to earth and did penance in Kolhapur, a location of another famous temple for Lakshmi. The Lord then came in search for the Goddess and arrived at these hills and stayed as Srinivasa. Here He met PadmavathiPadmavathi, an incarnation of Bhudevi and a princess of Narayanapuram, whom He had promised to marry when He appeared as Lord Rama. When He married Her, it was a huge wedding, and the pastime was that He needed extra funds. He borrowed it from Kubera, the treasurer of the demigods. KuberaKubera insisted on repayment with interest. Hence, the devotees in Andhra Pradesh call the Deity Vaddi Kasulaswamy (the Lord of interest), repaying Kubera’s interest which never ends. The demigod Kubera is enshrined in the Govindaraja Swamy temple, believed to be there collecting the interest with a brass measure. Thus, somehow, many funds are always coming into the temple. In this way, this temple at Tirupati represents a tradition that goes back many, many hundreds of years.

Thirukkovilur is our next stop of temples with Deities that go back many years. It is located about 35 kilometers south of Tiruvannamali and 40 km west of Villupuram. Its history makes it occupy a distinct place in Vaishnava history. It is one of the 108 Divya Desams Divya Desams of Lord Vishnu. The Kshetra Khanda section in the Padma Purana discusses some of the glories of this holy place. It is associated with the Trivikrama avatara of Lord Vishnu. After Trivikrama or Lord Vamana had taken the whole universe with three steps from Bali Maharaja, ablution to Trivikrama’s feet was performed by Brahma with the sacred waters of the Ganges. That water trickled off His feet and took the form of the sacred tank called the Chakra Tirtha. Indra is said to have had a dip in that water tank, and regained his lost possessions that had been taken by Bali.

Vaithisvarankoil is a small village about 25 to 30 miles south from Chidambaram, and just south of Sirkazhi. The stone temple has long halls with numerous columns. At the sanctum, I easily entered and the guard there was kind enough to show me around and explain a few things. I was able to get darshan of the main temple sanctum of Sri Vaidyanathaswamy, as well as the other smaller shrines for the other divinities. The shrine for Murugan is said to be where he received his trident. And the Jatayu Kundam or pond found off the southern hallway is where Jatayu, the great devotee bird of Lord Rama, had his last rites performed by Lord Rama.

Tirucherai is a small village located 15 kilometers southeast from Kumbakonam on the main road to Tiruvarur. Tirucherai, which like many villages may not be on the map, is one of the 108 Divya Desams Divya Desams of Lord Vishnu. It is here at the Saranatha Perumal temple where the Deity of MahaVishnu resides.

The temple compound occupies 1½ acres of land (116 meters in length, 72 meters wide). In front of the temple is the large Sara Pushkarini water tank, which also occupies the same dimensions. The front gate of the temple complex has a fine looking nine-tiered gopuram that rises 120 feet tall. Inside the front gate is an additional but smaller gopuram of two tiers that leads into the temple. The sanctum is guarded by two sculpted dwarapalas or guards. Inside the sanctum, Saranatha Perumal, the presiding MahaVishnu Deity appears in a standing pose that is twelve feet tall while facing east. He is carved from black stone but is adorned with silver hands and chest plate. It is very auspicious to have darshan of this Deity. On the left side is the personification of the Cauvery River, Cauvery Devi, and on the right is the sage Markandeya. In front is the smaller utsavar festival deity of Saranatha, accompanied by Bhudevi, Sridevi, and Neeladevi. Actually, the presence of all five consorts of Vishnu, namely Sridevi, Neeladevi, Bhudevi, Saranayaki Amman, and Mahalakshmi within the same temple is a unique feature that is not found in other Vaishnava temples.

Many other shrines also exist within the temple, so there are numerous blessings we can receive by visiting each of them. First, another Deity of Vishnu as Sri Rajagopalaswamy occupies a separate shrine, and is accompanied by His consorts Rukmini and Satyabhama. Another shrine has Lord Venkatesha as Thiruvenkatamudayan. The metal Deities of Sri Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana are in another shrine, as well as Lakshmi-Narasimha. Other shrines are for Kaliyamardhana, Balasaranatha, Senai Mudaliar, Manavala Munigal, Ramanuja, and the twelve Alwars. At the southwestern corner of the Sara Pushkarini lake is a separate shrine for Cauvery who is seen embracing the child form of Vishnu. Images of Brahma and MahaVishnu are also there. This represents the austerity Cauvery Devi performed in order to gain the favor of the Lord.

Texts such as the Brahmanda Purana, the Bhavishya Purana (Chapters 68-72), and the Maheswara Narada Samvardha offer descriptions of the importance of this tirtha and pastimes related to it. One of the pastimes is described how Lord Shiva explained the significance of Tirucherai to the sage Narada Muni. The story is that on the eve of the universal deluge MahaVishnu ordered Brahma to safely keep the sacred Vedic texts, like the Vedas, Agamas, Sashtras, and Puranas in an enormous earthen pot. But with every attempt the pot would brake. He felt discouraged and prayed to MahaVishnu about this. Vishnu then told him that there are twelve Vaishnava holy places that are the most sacred. These included Sri Rangam, Tirupati, Kanchipuram, Tirunarayanapuram, SriMushnam, Naimisaranya, Kumbakonam, Vrishabathri, Ayodhya, Badarikashrama, and Sara Kshetram (Tirucherai). Out of all of these, He regarded Sara Kshetra as the most sacred. The hallowed center is graced with nine sacred tirthas of which the Sara Pushkarini Lake is the highest. So he instructed Brahma to journey to this place and take a dip in the Sara Pushkarini Lake and form a pot from the clay found in the lake. This would be successful. This is the lake located across the street in front of the temple.

So Brahma went there and he felt greatly satisfied. He then had a dip into the sacred lake and formed a pot from its clay. The earthen pot stood firm, much to his surprise. Brahma then stored all the major Vedic texts within it and kept them safe. Thus, his mission was complete. It is also believed that the seven great rishis, namely Bhrigu, Sowraga, Vyasa, Markandeya, Parasara, Vamadeva, and Baninthrathiya, continue to perform penances here to preserve the holy sanctity of the place. Thus, the antiquity of this temple and its holy shrines go back many hundreds of years.

The Senneriappa Iswara temple, a noted Shiva temple, can also be found in this town along the southern bank of the Cauvery River Cauvery River. This is not far from the Vishnu temple described above. It is smaller but no less sacred, and the priests are glad to see visitors. In front of the temple is a lake that is said to have been formed by a drop of ambrosia. It is called Jnanavavi or Bindhusuda. It has a small three-tiered gopuram over the second entrance into the temple. Passing through a few hallways one can reach the place of the presiding Deity. This is the Shiva linga known as Senneriappar or Sara Parameswara. It was the sage Markandeya who, so many years ago, installed a linga in this temple, which is now in the inner sanctum. The sage worshipped it everyday. Surya the Sun-god also is said to have atoned for his participation in Daksha’s ritual here. Every year the rays of the sun grace the presiding linga for three days in the month of Masi (Feb-Mar). In the inner hallway are other shrines for various Shaivite saints. There are also three images of Durga and two of Chandeswara that are also in this temple. The outer walls of the main shrine have lovely sculptures that depict the pastimes of this place.

If you have stayed at Thiruvarur, then it is easy to take a morning bus for a short day trip east to Nagappattinam. It is on the seashore 24 km east of Thiruvarur, or 70 km east of Tanjore. This town has a Vishnu temple with three full sized Vishnu Deities that are standing, sitting, and lying on Ananta Sesha. It is a Divya Desam Divya Desam, one of the 108 most important Vishnu temples in India. You go in the front entrance, down a hallway and into the main temple hall and then into the sanctum. This is surrounded by a courtyard wherein we find a few other shrines, such as to Lakshmi. Once inside the sanctum you can see the smaller brass standing Vishnu Deity with Sridevi and Bhudevi at His sides. Behind Them is the main Deity, Sundaryarajan, who stands over 15 feet tall. He is spectacular, made of shiny black stone, but He and His ornaments and weapons are covered with solid silver, with a gold Lakshmi on His chest. He is really something to see and I was in awe gazing at Him. This was the whole reason for coming here, and I was glad to do so. After the crowd moved on, I was able to get a close up view. Afterwards I was able to circumambulate the temple and view the other shrines.

The Brahmananda Purana explains that this temple, called the Soundarvaraja Perumal temple, has existed in all four yugas, beginning with Satya-yuga. The legend is that Nagapattinam was originally called Soundaranyam. The name Nagapattinam, which means City of the Serpent, is derived from the fact that Adisesha, in Satya-yuga, performed austerities here to get the blessing to be able to stay forever in the presence of his Lord, Vishnu. The Purana also relates how Dhruva also performed austerities in this place. Dhruva’s intention was to get the Lord to appear before him and then ask for the blessing of becoming ruler of the entire world. However, when Dhruva saw Lord Vishnu, he was so overwhelmed by the Lord’s beauty that he was entirely content and forgot his materialistic wish. He then simply requested the Lord to remain in Nagapattinam as Soundarya Rajan, "The King of Beauty," and bless the devotees. This is how the temple was manifested.

Another important and ancient temple is in Tiruchirappali, otherwise called Trichy or Sri Rangam. It is said the town was originally known as Tirusirappally, named after the three-headed asura Tirusiras who got a blessing from Lord Shiva after worshiping him here. Trichy has three major attractions. One is the Rock Fort temple in the heart of the old city. To get there we board the number 1 bus near our hotel and ride to a place several blocks away from the hilltop temple. We walk past the Teppakulam water tank and find the entrance to the Rock Fort temple in the Chinna Bazaar. We leave our shoes at the shoe minder’s stall and proceed up more than 400 steps that are cut through the rock of the hill. It is a steep and laborious climb to the summit 273 feet up where the views are great. If it is not too hazy, you can see the Sri Rangam temple to the north. Westerners are, unfortunately, not allowed inside the hilltop temple to see the image of Vinayaka, known here as Uchi Pillayar.

Nonetheless, the Puranic legend of this Deity, as explained in the Sri Ranga Mahatmya, is that after Lord Brahma had done penance to help in the creation of the universe, when Brahma was in a state of deep meditation, Lord Vishnu was pleased with him. So Lord Vishnu manifested Himself as the Deity of Lord Ranganatha, known as Ranga Vimana, a form of Vishnu reclining on Seshanaga, the Lord’s great serpent servant. Brahma worshiped Lord Ranganatha for many years and later gave the Deity to Vivasvan, the sun-god, who later handed the deity over to Svayambhuva Manu. Manu passed on the Deity to King Ikshvaku, the great leader of the solar dynasty in which Lord Krishna would later appear as Lord Ramachandra.

Lord Ramachandra gave the deity to Vibhishana, who was a great devotee and brother of the demon Ravana of the Ramayana epic. Vibhishan was returning to Sri Lanka from Ayodhya with the Vishnu Deity that had been presented to him by Lord Rama. However, he had been told that if he should set the Deity down on the ground, he would not be able to move it again. However, the gods were not pleased that the Deity would be taken away from the area of India and devised a plan to keep the deity in Bharat. Thus, when Vibhashan stopped at Sri Rangam Sri Rangam to take bath and perform his worship on the banks of the Kaveri River at a holy place called Chandra Pushkarini, h Kaveri Rivere gave the Deity to a brahmana boy with instructions not to place it on the ground. But the boy, who was Lord Ganesh in disguise, placed it on the earth anyway. Then the Deity became firmly fixed to the ground and could not be moved from the spot where it remains to this day. Vibhishan became angry and chased the boy who ran to the summit of the hill that is the Rock Fort today. There Vibhishan caught and struck the boy, who then revealed his real form and stood transformed as Vinayaka. Even though Vibhishan begged to apologize before going on to Sri Lanka, the image of Vinayaka still has a depression on his face where he had been struck.

Another part of the tradition is that a king, Dharma Varma, had seen Lord Ranganatha in Ayodhya, Lord Ramachandra’s capital, and prayed to worship Him. So the Lord blessed the king to stay at Sri Rangam. Nonetheless, the Deity also blessed Vibhishana by promising to always look toward his kingdom. This is why the Deity reclines with His head to the west, looking toward the south in the direction of Sri Lanka, Vibhishana’s kingdom.

King Dharma Varma and his dynasty of the Chola kings built a large temple around Lord Ranganatha. The worship was quite opulent. But, unfortunately, things declined and gradually the temple was forgotten and covered over by a thick forest. The Deity was only discovered thousands of years later by a Chola king who accidently found it while chasing a parrot. The parrot explained that Lord Ranganatha was buried in the sand. So the king excavated the temple and restored it. It was the king who again established the Sri Rangam temple. Over time, many other Chola kings again expanded the temple, which is presently one of the largest temples in India.

However, the 14th century saw the invading Moghuls plunder most of the Lord’s treasures from this temple. The Vijayanagar and Nayak rulers again revived it in the 15th and 16th centuries. Then in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Muslims, French, and then the British used the fortress in furthering their domination over the area. Only after India gained independence in 1947 did the Indian government and the Ramanujas or Sri Vaishnavas finally gain control to oversee the temple properly.

Another ancient temple is found at Tiruthangal (Tiruttangal), a town located two kilometers north of Sivakasi, which is about 18 km east from Srivilliputtur. It is reached by bus from places like Madurai, Srivilliputhur, Sankarankoil, and Virudhunagar. It has the Ninra Narayana Perumal temple.

The temple faces south on a small 100-foot tall hill in the northern part of town. Climbing the stairs, one reaches the spacious entranceway. A sculpture of Narayana Ramanuja, who was the person who spent much of his money to build this hallway, adorns one of the pillars. In the back and to the west is the cave temple wherein we find the Deity of Pallikonda Perumal, Lord Vishnu in His reclining pose. Sridevi and Bhudevi are at His feet while sages like Markandeya and Bhrigu are on either side. The history of this place is that once Lord Ranganatha journeyed to Srivilliputhur to seek Sri Andal for marriage and spent the night here.

The history of this place goes back to a time when the three main Devis, namely Sridevi, Bhudevi, and Neeladevi, wondered who was most favored by Lord Vishnu. Sridevi (Lakshmi) wanted to prove her supremacy and retreated to a secluded spot in order to engage in deep meditation. Many devotees and sages came to that spot to have darshan of this Goddess of wealth. In response to their devotional requests, she agreed to reside there eternally as Arunakamalamahadevi. Realizing that living there in isolation would be improper, she prayed for the appearance of Lord Vishnu. The Lord was pleased and agreed to also reside there. Bhudevi and Neeladevi followed in His footsteps and reconciled with Sridevi. It was actually the desire of Lord Vishnu to bless His devotees at this spot, along with His Devis. Thus, this drama was enacted only to accomplish His desire.

Another piece of history of this place deals with Banasura. Many years ago he was the ruler of Mahishmathi and a zealous devotee of Lord Shiva. He had the strength of 1000 arms that adorned his shoulders. His daughter Usha was a devotee of Parvati, who prayed to the goddess for a suitable husband. That night after praying, she dreamed she met a prince of unparalleled charm, but after awaking, she did not know who he was. Her good friend Chitralekha knew the art of painting the images of all the eligible princes. When Usha saw the portrait of Aniruddha, the grandson of Lord Krishna, she greatly blushed. Chitralekha then used her skills of conjuration to transport Aniruddha to the palace of Usha. There they merrily spent a few days together.

Banasura soon detected something was amiss and was infuriated to learn what was going on. Banasura took his army to find and crush Aniruddha, but Lord Krishna also brought His army to find His grandson. Then, due to the entreaties of Banasura, even Lord Shiva appeared to offer assistance. It looked as if Shiva and Krishna would engage in battle. But by Lord Krishna’s power, Banasura lost his 1000 arms and was left with only two. After realizing his mistake in the matter, the marriage of Usha and Aniruddha was allowed to take place in grand style. The Sthala (or local) Purana relates that it was here at Tiruthangal where the extraordinary wedding took place. Thus, the images of Usha and Aniruddha are also found in the main shrine.

Ramesvaram is easy to reach after seeing Madurai and the surrounding area, where we can catch the early morning train for RamesvaramRamesvaram. It is a relaxing ride (about six hours) as we head toward the coast. Ramesvaram is a tropical island surrounded by coral reefs and sandy beaches with coconut palms and tamarind trees. It is a major center of pilgrimage for both Vaishnavas and Shaivites. The Sri Ramanathaswamy temple is one of the most important in India. It is a massive complex with a number of shrines, holy wells, gopurams, and several long hallways, one reaching 4000 feet in length, the longest in the country. The halls are adorned with many large pillars, some of which are covered with scroll work, lotus designs, animals, and other figures, and colorfully painted medallions are on the ceilings.

According to legends, this temple was originally started by Lord Rama. Lord Rama had gone to Sri Lanka to rescue His wife, Sita, and engaged in a great battle during which He killed the demon Ravana. Afterward, He wanted to absolve Himself of the sin by installing a lingam at Ramesvaram. He sent His most trustworthy servant Hanuman to get a Shiva lingam from Mount KailashMount Kailash, but Hanuman was delayed in his return. Since Shiva had to be worshiped by a certain time, Sita made a Shiva lingam (known as Sri Ramanatha) out of sand. When Hanuman returned with a linga, he was disappointed and angry to find another linga already installed. To pacify Hanuman, Rama had the Hanumath lingam (known as Visvalingam) installed next to the Ramanatha lingam. Then He ordered that all worship should first go to the Visvalingam. So, in this complex the main shrines are for Visvalingam and the Sri Ramanatha lingam. It is now the seat of one of the 12 JyotirlingaRamesvaramjyotirlingas. Thus, the worship here goes back many thousands of years.

The Ramesvaram temple is also where Sri Chaitanya Chaitanya Mahaprabhu found the Kurma Purana. Within it He found a verse stating that Ravana kidnapped an illusory Sita, and the real Sita was safely hidden by Agni. This information has greatly relieved many devotees of Sri Sri Sita-Rama.

The Channekeshvara temple at Belur (155 km from Mysore) is the only one of the remaining Hoysala temples that is still a functioning temple. This temple is over 800 years old, started in 1117, and was built entirely of green chlorite by Vishnuvardhana after his victory over the Chola armies. It is said to have taken nearly 103 years to complete it. The temple enshrines the beautiful, four-armed deity of Keshava, which is said to have been worshiped by Lord Brahma at his abode of Satyaloka. Later, King Indradyumna is said to have brought the Deity here and worshipped Him until he left this world, after which the Devas continued the worship until King Vishnuvardhana began the worship. The king discovered the Deity when he was traveling through the area and one of his servants took a bath and was cured of leprosy while bathing in the lake known as Vishnu Samudra, which is situated on the outskirts of town. Legend says that the lake appeared from a drop of nectar that fell from Garuda’s pot. The king understood that this was a special place, which was confirmed when the Deity of Keshava appeared in the dreams of both King Vishnuvardhana and Ramanujacharya Ramanujacharya, telling them to build a temple for Him. Thereafter, as instructed, the king discovered the Deity at Chandra Drona Hill, from where he took the Deity to Sri Narayanapura and then on to Velapura, now known as Belur. The Deity of Chenna Keshava is four-armed, holding the disc and conch shell in the upper hands, and lotus and club in the lower.

One interesting thing is that there is a large pair of chappals in a glass case in the front mandapam hall. The local cobblers believe the Lord walks to Bababudangiri hill daily to visit Lakshmi who resides there. It is said that the Lord appears in the dreams of the cobblers when the chappals need replacing. They spread red kumkum on the ground so that His footprints appear when He walks through it. Then they prepare new chappals according to the size. This is all quite miraculous for most people, but is common in the pastimes of Sri Krishna.

At another place knaon as KankroliKankroli, 18 kilometers north of Nathdwara, there is the temple of Lord Dwarkadisha, managed by the Vallabhacarya sampradaya. The legend is that the Deity came from Mathura where He was worshiped many thousands of years ago by the great devotee King Amburisha. The temple is located on the banks of the man-made lake of Raja Samand.

Many other examples could be given of the stories and legends of Deities that are found in various temples throughout India, or holy places where temples have been established thousands of years ago, that show how long ago the process of Deity worship has been going on. There are also many additional references in the Vedic texts themselves which show the importance of Deity worship from many thousands of years ago, some of which we will review next.



Even in the Puranas, for example, there are stories that include and relate the importance of worshiping Deities. For starters, in the Bhagavata Purana (4th Canto, 8th Chapter) there is the popular story of the great sage Narada Muni teaching Dhruva Maharaja the best way to become spiritually realized. Therein he explains the form of the Lord upon which to meditate and how to worship the Deity or Sri Murti of the Lord. The interesting thing here is that the Bhagavata Purana was composed by Srila Vyasadeva about 5,000 years ago, and the incident of Dhruva Maharaja is known to have taken place thousands of years before that. So, this gives some indication of how long Deity worship has been going on.

Narada Muni describes, "The Lord’s form is always youthful. Every limb and every part of His body is properly formed, free from defect. His eyes and lips are pinkish like the rising sun. He is always prepared to give shelter to the surrendered souls, and anyone so fortunate as to look upon Him feels satisfaction. The Lord is always worthy to be the master of the surrendered soul, for He is the ocean of mercy. The Lord is further described as having the mark of Shrivatsa, or the sitting place of the goddess of fortune, and His bodily hue is deep bluish. The Lord is a person, He wears a garland of flowers, and He is eternally manifest with four hands, which hold [beginning from the lower left hand] a conchshell, disc, club, and lotus flower. The entire body of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vasudeva, is decorated. He wears a valuable jeweled helmet, necklaces and bracelets. His neck is adorned with the Kaustubha jewel, and He is dressed in yellow silk garments." (Bhag. 4.8.46-48)

This gives a little idea of the descriptions from Narada Muni to Dhruva Maharaja. Yet, he goes on to explain that yogis who meditate on this form very soon are freed from material contamination. The mantra Om namo bhagavate vasudevaya is also worthy of chanting in one’s meditation. But the physical form [Deity] of the Lord should also be installed. Then Narada describes how the Deity should be worshiped and with what procedures and paraphernalia. He also says, "It is possible to worship a form of the Lord made of physical elements such as earth, water, pulp, wood, and metal. In the forest one can make a form with no more than earth and water and worship Him according to the previous instructions." (Bhag. 4.8.56) This shows some of the elements of which a Deity can be made. But a devotee who seriously engages in this process becomes blessed by the Lord according to whatever is his desire.

Furthermore, in the 11th Canto, Chapter 27 of the Bhagavata Purana, Lord Krishna explains to Uddhava the details of Deity worship, how it is important, the benefits of someone installing a Deity in the temple, maintaining it, or the harm that comes to one for dishonoring the Deity or the temples.

Therein, Uddhava relates that all the great sages, including Narada Muni, Srila Vyasadeva, and Brihaspati, have declared that such worship brings the greatest benefit possible in human life. The instructions for this process first emanated from the Lord Himself, and were thereafter also spoken by Lord Brahma to his sons, headed by Bhrigu, and by Lord Shiva to his wife, Parvati. Thus, according to the conclusion he was presenting, this method of worship is appropriate for all orders of society.

Then Lord Krishna begins to explain some of the important points of Deity worship to Uddhava. Some of what He relates are that a person should worship only after cleaning the body with water and the use of mantras. One may worship the Deity form, or a form on the ground, in fire, in the sun, in water, or within the worshiper’s own heart, and offer the appropriate paraphernalia in loving devotion. The Deity form appears in eight varieties, such as in stone, wood, metal, earth, paint, sand, with jewels, or in the mind wherein the offerings are provided mentally. A Deity may be temporary or permanent, the latter of which, once installed, should never be sent away. The Deity may be cleaned or bathed, and, thereafter, once the devotee has purified himself and the items, offered the appropriate things according to the type of Deity it is.

"Even very opulent presentations do not satisfy Me if they are offered by non-devotees. But I am pleased by any insignificant offering made by My loving devotees, and I am certainly most pleased when nice presentations of fragrant oil, incense, flowers, and palatable foods are offered with love." (Bhag.11.27.18)

In this way, the instructions of Lord Krishna continue in how to care for the Deity and what is to be offered, by which a person can receive both material enjoyment and liberation. Afterwards, "Singing along with others, chanting loudly and dancing, acting out My transcendental pastimes, and hearing and telling stories about Me, the devotee should for some time absorb himself in such festivity.

"The devotee should offer homage to the Lord with all kinds of hymns and prayers, both from the Puranas and from other ancient scriptures, and also from ordinary traditions. Praying, ‘O Lord, please be merciful to me!’ he should fall down flat like a rod to offer his obeisances.

Placing his head at the feet of the Deity, he should then stand with folded hands before the Lord and pray, "O my Lord, please protect me, who am surrendered to You. I am most fearful of this ocean of material existence, standing as I am in the mouth of death." (Bhag.11.27.44-46)

In this way, Lord Krishna concludes: "By worshiping Me through the various methods prescribed in the Vedas and tantras, one will gain from Me his desired perfection in both this life and the next. The devotee should more fully establish My Deity by solidly constructing a temple, along with beautiful gardens. These gardens should be set aside to provide flowers for the regular daily worship, special Deity processions and holiday observances.

"One who offers the Deity gifts of land, markets, cities and villages so that the regular daily worship and special festivals of the Deity may go on continually will achieve opulence equal to My own. By installing the Deity of the Lord, one becomes king of the entire earth, by building a temple for the Lord one becomes ruler of the three worlds, by worshiping and serving the Deity one goes to the planet of Lord Brahma, and by performing all three of these activities, one achieves a transcendental form like My own. But one who simply engages in devotional service with no consideration of fruitive results attains Me. Thus, whoever worships Me according to the process I have described will ultimately attain pure devotional service unto Me." (Bhag.11.27.49-53)

The process of Deity worship is so important and special to the Lord, that He also gives a warning to anyone who may try to impede in this process: "Anyone who steals the property of the demigods or the brahmanas [priests], whether originally given to them by himself or someone else, must live as a worm in stool for one hundred million years. Not only the performer of the theft, but also anyone who assists him, instigates the crime, or simply approves of it must also share the reaction in the next life. According to their degree of participation, they each must suffer a proportionate consequence." (Bhag.11.27.54-55)

Also, Sukadeva Goswami, over 5,000 years ago, explained in the Srimad-Bhagavatam the means for worshiping the physical Deity of the Lord, starting with this prayer: "‘My Lord Vishnu, full of six opulences, You are the best of all enjoyers and the most powerful. O husband of mother Lakshmi, I offer my respectful obeisances unto You, who are accompanied by many associates, such as Vishvaksena. I offer all the paraphernalia for worshiping You.’ One should chant this mantra every day with great attention while worshiping Lord Vishnu with all paraphernalia, such as water for washing His feet, hands and mouth, and water for His bath. One must offer Him various presentations for His worship, such as garments, a sacred thread, ornaments, scents, flowers, incense, and lamps." (Bhag.6.19.7.)

He also emphasized the importance of worshiping the Deity of Lakshmi-Narayana, where he explains: "If one desires all opulences, his duty is to daily worship Lord Vishnu with His wife, Lakshmi. With great devotion one should worship Him according to the above-mentioned process. Lord Vishnu and the goddess of fortune are an immensely powerful combination. They are the bestowers of all benedictions and the sources of all good fortune. Therefore, the duty of everyone is to worship Lakshmi-Narayana." (Bhag.6.19.9)

One other example is in the popular story of Prahlada Maharaja and the Lord’s half-lion avatar of Lord Narasimhadeva. Therein, Prahlada explains the nine processes of bhakti-yoga, devotional service, to the Lord. The verse is:

sri-prahrada uvacha

shravanam kirtanam vishnoh

smaranam pada-sevanam

archanam vandanam dasyam

sakhyam atma-nivedanam

"Prahlada Maharaja said: Hearing and chanting about the transcendental holy name, form, qualities, paraphernalia, and pastimes of Lord Vishnu, remembering them, serving the lotus feet of the Lord, offering the Lord respectful worship with sixteen types of paraphernalia, offering prayers to the Lord, becoming His servant, considering the Lord one’s best friend, and surrendering everything unto Him–these nine processes are accepted as pure devotional service." (Bhag.7.5.23) In this verse, the word archanam means "offering the Lord respectful worship" in the form of the Deity, the archa-vigraha.

A further recommendation for engaging in Deity worship is found in the Bhagavata Purana on the occasion of the solar eclipse at Kurukshetra, when many sages gathered to participate during the time of Lord Krishna. Upon being questioned about the best way to become free from the karmic bondage to fruitive and sensual activities, they replied: "It has been definitely concluded that work is counteracted by engaging in Vedic sacrifices [rituals] as a means of worshiping Vishnu, the Lord of all sacrifices, with sincere faith. Learned authorities who see through the eye of scripture have demonstrated that this is the easiest method of subduing the agitated mind and attaining liberation, and that it is a sacred duty which brings joy to the heart. This is the most auspicious path for a religious householder of the twice-born [brahminical] orders–to selflessly worship the Personality of Godhead with wealth honestly obtained." (Bhag.10.84.35-37)

Many of these stories that we are relating herein are also repeated in other texts, such as the Vishnu Purana, Padma Purana, Varaha and Brahma Puranas, and others. So, they are not exclusive to the Bhagavata Purana, which shows how important they are.

The following verse also begins to show the process that is involved in worshiping the archa-vigraha, or the Deity form of the Lord: "One should worship the Deity along with each of the limbs of His transcendental body, His weapons such as the Sudarshan Chakra, His other bodily features and His personal associates. One should worship each of these transcendental aspects of the Lord by its own mantra and with offerings of water to wash the feet, scented water, water to wash the mouth, water for bathing, fine clothing and ornaments, fragrant oils, valuable necklaces, unbroken barleycorns, flower garlands, incense and lamps. Having thus completed the worship in all its aspects in accordance with the prescribed regulations, one should then honor the Deity of Lord Hari with prayers and offer obeisances to Him by bowing down." (Bhag. 11.3.52-53)

All in all, this shows that Deity worship has been a serious aspect of the Vedic process for spiritual development for many thousands of years. Thus, as it is further said, anyone who engages in the worship of the Deity in the temple is said to have reached the truth of studying all of the Vedas.



What we have been describing is called, in certain cultures, such as the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) idol worship, which immediately has the connotation of something bad, false, evil, wicked, and certainly misdirected, as if it will take one to hell. It can conjure in the mind something to do with pagan worship of the devil, or other aberrations as something being a false god. It is, however, most peculiar that none of these religions have, nor do they offer, a clear concept of what is God or what He looks like. But they seem to offer a clear conception of the imaginary idea of what is the devil or Satan. They cry against the process of Deity worship, when that has been outlined most precisely in the Vedic texts, but they cannot give a substantial description of God or the various ways in which He can be worshiped. Christianity is responsible for this more than any other sect.

There is certainly a difference between idol worship and worship of the Deity in the temple. So, let us briefly clarify this point. In this age of Kali-yuga, the worship of and desire for the almighty dollar is certainly a popular but easily recognized form of idol worship in this age. The idol that is worshiped and striven for is the dollar itself. And this extends itself in many ways and forms. Worship of a product of our imagination is also a form of idol worship, which should be avoided. We cannot make up just any form and expect suitable results from worshiping it. But we must understand that the authorized Deity is not someone’s imagination, but is formed according to the precise descriptions in the Vedic texts, and is installed according to the exact processes as outlined therein as well. That is what makes the difference. It is similar to the authorized mailboxes set up by the government. If you put your mail in one of them, it will be picked up to be delivered to the address that is on your envelope. However, if you make up your own mailbox and put it on a street corner somewhere, the letter placed therein will go nowhere. Similarly, a pure devotee or acharya who is qualified to communicate with God is also qualified to install Him in the Deity form. This is also done through the prescribed Vedic rituals, such as the prana prathistha or installation ceremony. Then Krishna accepts that form as His expansion to receive service, prayers, obeisances, and worship from His devotees through this authorized means.

The thing to understand is that once the Deity in the temple has been established through the sacred rituals that call the Divinity to occupy the Deity, the Deity then becomes an expanded form of the Lord. Thus, by worshiping the archa-vigraha or Deity form of the Lord, one can approach the Lord who then accepts the service of a devotee by His omnipotent energy. The archa-vigraha of the Lord descends upon the request of the acharyas, the spiritual masters, and works as an expansion of the Lord in allowing us to view the spiritual form of God with material eyes, and in accepting the service of the devotees. Otherwise, for most people, it is very difficult to see that which is spiritual with material senses, at least until we are qualified with a spiritual consciousness. Thus, the Deity is also the Lord’s causeless mercy on us.

Foolish people who have no spiritual perception, or no knowledge of spiritual scripture, consider that the Deity is merely made of material elements, and is, thus, something material, not spiritual. But they do not know or realize that the Lord, being the controller of both material and spiritual energies, can turn what is material into something spiritual, and what is spiritual into something material again. Thus, He can appear as both spiritual or material, but His spiritual nature is never compromised in any way. That is the difference, and that is what must be perceived. When a person begins to realize that, then the act of darshan, or seeing the Deity is not a mere exercise in respect and veneration, but it opens the relations between the devotee and God so that it becomes seeing the Deity and being seen by the Deity. There is a special reciprocation between the devotee and Divine which opens to a new level of experience, and new level of a loving devotional relationship. That is when the Deity is no longer mere stone, paint, or wood, jewels, etc. It is the Divine, vibrant with life that is revealed by the Infinite Supreme to the infinitesimal living being.

In many places, as we have seen in the previous section and will further uncover in later chapters, there are stories connected with particular Deities and various temples across India and beyond of how the Deity acted in various ways in reciprocation to the love of the devotee, or in other ways to show the supreme spiritual nature of the Lord in His Deity form. The Lord Jagannatha Deities in Jagannatha Puri, for example, is one such place with myriad pastimes that have taken place between Them and the devotees. Many of these are recorded and can be read and enjoyed, which show that such pastimes with the Deity, of which some people would call miracles, have continued from ancient times down to the present day.

In the Vedic tradition, there have been numerous spiritual authorities and acharyas who have attained high levels of realization, love of God, and relations with the Lord through the Deity. These include Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Vallabhacharya, Sri Chaitanya, along with Saint Jnanadeva, Namadeva, Tulasidas, Meera Bai, Ekanatha, Tukaram, Ramadas, and many others who have pastimes with the Deity that have been recorded. Reading the biographies of such advanced devotees can be especially inspiring.

Even Sri Adi Shankaracharya had specific relations with the Deity in the temple. Some people may question how this could be since Shankaracharya was an impersonalist, one who accepts that God has no ultimate form but remains impersonal as in the Brahman effulgence. However, if we study a little of his history, we will see that he not only had special communications with the Deity of the Lord, but he also established Deities in various temples.

He was known for having installed a Shiva linga at his matha at Gokarna, worshiped the Deity at Ramesvaram, constructed the Kamakshiamam temple and installed the image of Devi therein at Kanchipuram, visited Tirupathi and recited slokas or verses that glorified the form of the Lord, Bhagavan Venkateshwara, from foot to head. He built the Sringeri Matha after having constructed a Sri Chakra on a rock and worshiped the image of Sarada Devi. He had also established a temple of Lord Krishna, his family Deity, at his birthplace of Kaladi for his mother, which you can still see today. He had also visited the Guruvayur temple many times. Near the end of his travels, Sri Shankara went to Badrinath where Lord Vishnu appeared to him and explained that His Murti or Deity form was in the Alakananda River, which should be taken out and established in a temple that Shankara was to build. Thereafter, Shankara had the Deity of Lord Vishnu, Badrinarayana, taken from the river and then constructed and consecrated a temple and installed the Narayana Deity therein. The pujas or worship ceremonies were established and Shankara brought suitable Brahmana priests from Kerala and appointed them the traditional temple priests after giving them proper training.

In this way, it is clear that Sri Shankara recommended and established Deity worship in various parts of India for the practice and preservation of Sanatana-dharma, and for the personal spiritual development of the people.

In conclusion, with the kind of evidence as provided above, the importance and the antiquity of temple Deity worship in the Vedic tradition cannot be denied.

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