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Statue, or Deity?

  posted by Daniel on January 28th, 2011

A fledgling interest in deity worship is developing in me!

I've previously been mostly into connecting with the divine through music, most especially kirtan of course, and through meditation and prayer.

Last year in Mayapur, though, I got to witness first-hand the many many many methods of cultivating love of God that Vaishnav Bhakti culture possesses: The beautiful and varies arati services throughout the day; the chanting of round upon round of Hare Krishna mantra on japa beads in a discreet cloth pouch; the lively heart-felt discourses on key Bhakti texts such as Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatum; the preparing, offering, and relishing of prasadam (meals offered to the deities, then shared by devoties); the mellow bhajans, ecstatic kirtans and street-roving harinam; the affectionate care and worship of the cows (those companions of the cow-herd Govinda); and so on... A real Bhakti culture, with more elements than I could wrap my head around during last year's 5-week visit. During that trip, I did catch the Hare Krishna japa bug though... and during this trip, I seem to be falling for the deities!

A few years ago, I thought deity statues were just art... Cultural, interesting, but not spiritually potent like meditation or chanting. But last year in Mayapur, the Panchatattva deities (five large golden-hued statues of the saint Chaitanya and his closest buds) in the main temple forced me to question this view... for, tangible spiritual light was shining from them intensely.

I would do double-takes upon entering the temple and seeing them anew - perhaps it was the lighting on their stage, I thought, or the shiny bright clothes they were dressed in... But try as I might to explain away their potent luminosity, eventually they won me over and I would often meditate in front of them, basking in their heart-opening glow. And during the temple kirtans, we would all face these deities, musicians included, and sing and jump and dance, offering all that was within us to the loving deities.

I couldn't understand it, as the mystical is ever a mystery to the mind, but upon return to California, I came up with a theory to explain the luminous consciousness that esconsed those metal statues. Perhaps, I conjectured, as the people in the temple engaged the catharsis of kirtans and rituals, the purified energies released - the shakti from their practices - lingered where they had been focussing at the time.

In this way, I understood the light of the deities to be caused by the spirit-raising efforts of the people focusing on them... not somehow emerging from within the statues, or anything crazy mystical like that.

But now I'm back in front of those Mayapuri deities (Panchatattva as well as Nitai & Nimai, Radha Krishna and the Gopis, Nrisingadev, etc.) and am again being baffled by their light.

Well, last week I picked up a copy of "The Condensed Chaitanya Charitamrita," the life story of the 15th century saint Chaitanya who inaugurated the Hare Krishna kirtan movement. It's pages, condensed from the full version's seventeen volumes, are filled to overflowing with delicious story vignettes, fascinating debates about bhakti and how to obtain the true goal of life (love of God), and intoxicating glimpses of Chaitanya's ecstatic moods - the dancing, singing, crying, shaking, laughing and fainting caused by his overwhelming love of God...

One story relayed by Chaitanya to a gathering of devotees explains how a particular deity statue had become famous for his love of kheera (spiced cucumber yogurt). The story relates a number of times when a man named Madhavendra Puri had dreams of Gopala (the young Krishna) which impelled him to perform some service to a statue form of the deity. In the first of such dreams, Gopala tells Madhavendra Puri of a bush in the forest under which he is currently buried, having been hidden by a Vaishnav priest when the Muslims conquered the area. Assembling the villagers with tools to clear a path through the dense forest the next day, Madhavendra eventually arrives at the bush - digs, unearths the statue Gopinatha, and has it installed in a temple where it can still be seen today. Wild!

Other such dreams are more playful, with the deity letting on that he's hidden a pot of kheer behind his curtain for a specific purpose - and upon awakening, indeed the pot is there...

Anyway, all this has me chewing on the relationship between God, a personality of God such as Krishna or Gopala, and a physical deity form of that personality... Although my mind wants to put "spirit" and "matter" (and thereby, God and statues) in separate categories, perhaps reality is not so segmented.

This morning, pondering this led me to remember a dream that I had a few weeks ago, before coming to India. It was a vivid, colorful dream featuring a small blue boy. The boy was magical, joyful, unlimitedly powerful, carefree and loving... and was putting on a kind of show for a bunch of us in a huge barn with stained-glass windows. There were fireworks, and the blue boy leapt and flew through the air, and music played... At the end of the dream, the blue boy - and the whole magical world he'd been in - shrank into a handful of blue popsical sticks bound together with some yarn, in a stick figure shape.

Looking back, I ponder - could that have been Gopala? And was his cryptic final display as a small stick figure a demonstration of the relationship between the magical joyful loving Gopala, and a small deity form... as non-different?

...Which prodded a further memory: Just days before the night of that dream, I had had an unexpected darshan (flimpse) of a small Gopala statue at a new friend's house north of San Francisco. When it's cabinet/shrine was opened, I was suprised by its spiritual luminosity, which at the time I imagined was generated by the worship practice of its keepers, my new friends... and had more to do with them than Krishna... but now... well, I am excited to visit that little Gopala again when I'm back in California! And I'm wondering - should I get a little Gopala statue? Should I wait for one to fall into my lap, or announce itself in a dream? And what does he eat?
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