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When Divinity appears as a physical manifestation for a specific purpose, for that context, for that moment, that manifestation is considered to be Supreme.  Hinduism therefore gives the privilege to each individual to choose an ishTa-devatA (favourite deity) and worship as if it were the exclusive ultimate. In this mode of ishTa-devata worship, Hinduism recognizes six traditions, which may be listed as the worship of


1.    Aditya, the Sun-God;

2.    ambikA, the Mother Goddess, in her three forms of durgA, lakshmi and saraswati ;


7.      induism. HHHH


3. vishNu, belonging to the classic Trinity and His concrete manifestations (avatAras) in the forms of Rama,  Krishna  and other avatArs ;

4. ganeSa, the elephant-faced deity, considered as the primal God of all worship;

5. maheSvara or Siva, the third God of the classic Trinity; and

6. subrahmaNya, the six-faced deity known also as murugan or kumaran to the Tamil world.


All these are nothing but expressions with name and form of the nameless and formless Absolute. All variations of ishTa-devatA worship in the Hindu world can easily be pigeon-holed into one or other of these six traditions. In addition, the choice of ishTa-devatA, instead of being an academic exercise, became, over the centuries, a choice of one among the thousands of temples scattered throughout the country and the deity chosen may very well be the particular deity enshrined in that specific temple, though certainly belonging to one of the six major streams listed above. It is this variety that gives richness to Hinduism. It is this possibility of ‘to each according to his needs and capabilities’ that brings together under one banner of Hinduism people with varying practices, attitudes and states of evolution.  Accordingly carving of images of gods both for worship at home and in the temples became one of the most highly developed art and profession in India. The religious life of India has thus been nourished through the ages on a visual statement, unmatched perhaps, in the entire history of civilization.


Let us now come to the concept of Bhakti in action. Bhakti is built on the plank of faith that there exists a supreme power, in the form of an ultimate godhead, without whose Will there is not even a swing of a little leaf but who is represented by all the different deities of gods and goddesses. There are three stages of Bhakti:


bAhya bhakti: This is external devotion. It assumes that God is external to us. He is in the temples, in bathing ghats, in banyan trees. One feels ‘I must go there and worship’. This is a tAmasic bhakti or unenlightened bhakti. Even this has a place in all religions because it is this popular fact of religion that is visible to the outsider and it is here that faith starts. It is this which gets expressed in processions, festivals and melas.


ananya bhakti:  This, categorised as rAjasic bhakti, is the exclusive devotion of a deity irrespective of anything else. The classic example is that of Tulsidas, the author of  rAmcarita-mAnas. In every lin e of this monumental work we find the ananya bhakti of Tulsi reverberating. Not only this. In every line we also see the exclusive Godhood of Ram as the Ultimate Godhead of Hinduism. To the credit of this type of bhakti, however, it must be said that never did such bhakti in India lead to intolerance though the dividing line was and is rather thin between this type of exclusive passionate devotion and religious bigotry.  This is because such devotees are so fully convinced of the all-pervading nature of their God and they are more fully convinced of the One-God foundation of the Hindu religion that they really believe that any other god that anybody else worships is only a different manifestation of their own ishTa-devatA. This is the most welcome spin-off  (particularly in view of the modern upsurges of religious fundamentalism all around the world) of the philosophical foundations on which bhakti in Hinduism stands. A Rama bhakta like Tulsi would sincerely believe that a Jesus or a Buddha is nothing but an avatAr of his Rama and therefore there is no question of any intolerance.


ekAnta bhakti: This is the third stage, the noblest stage. It is sAtvic bhakti. It is devotion done purely as a duty to God, expecting nothing in return, in the fullness of God’s love and living in that Love completely,  totally merged in that Love of God. It is a divine ever-flowing love; it is the love of the Gopis to God. It is a self-effacing love, unmatched by any other love or devotion that we know of.



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Copyright © V. Krishnamurthy  June 25, 2002