Hindu Deities: Objects of Worship or Basic Principles?

Hindu Deities: Objects of Worship or Basic Principles?

As I continue to immerse myself in the teachings of Hindu spirituality, it strikes me that a lot of confusion could be avoided by distinguishing between two different uses of the gods and goddesses. The first use is as a deity or object of worship. Each spiritual practitioner is supposed to select a deity that is his favourite, called the Ishta Devata.  Ishta Devata means “desired divine-form.” I find the this approach refreshing, compared with religious traditions that require worshippers to use a single idea of God as the object of worship. In yogic philosophy, we worship a specific form of God because we like it, not because it’s some grand universal truth. There is a even a God-form for those who don’t like worshipping God with a human form called the Virata Purusha or cosmic person. The Hindu description of the Virata Purusha is pretty close to the non-embodied personal God worshipped in Judaism and Islam. The concept of the Ishta Devata (just ishta for short) allows us to have our religious cake and eat it with a healthy serving of universal toleration. I can be completely passionately devoted to the Supreme Lord of my heart, while also recognizing that this form of God is not for everyone. Yet, God remains one and indivisible. Unlike the gods familiar from Western Polytheism, the Hindu concept of deity or God-form does not involve any fundamental separation within the ultimate divine reality. All deities are understood to be so many facets or faces of the one indivisible God. Thus, we also get to have our monotheistic cake and eat it with a sweet coating of delicious polytheistic icing.

So far so good, but the problem arises when one wants to integrate the more specific teachings of various Indian spiritual texts. For example, if one is into tantra, one finds that the main language used by teachers is that of Shiva and Shakti. If one tries to learn about the spiritual path of devotion (Bhakti) one finds that the main language used is that of Krishna and Radha. So what if one wants to practice tantra, but one’s ishta is say Jesus or Genesh? Or what if one wants to practice Bhakti, but one’s Ishta is the fearsome Goddess Kali? (which interestingly enough was the case for the famous Bhakti saint Ramakrishna)? Does this prevent one from learning from the great traditions that are mainly focused on other deities?

I don’t think it has to. However, in order to not get confused, one has to draw a distinction between the deity as an object of worship (ishta) and the deity as a symbol for a universal principle of spiritual reality. To give an example of what I mean. For millions of Shaivites, the God Shiva is an object of worship. His image as a bare chested, blue skinned yogi carrying a trident and drum serve as  meditative focus for the expression of devotion for those who find this image most desirable.


Shiva is quite impressive looking.


However, in tantric philosophy, Shiva is also the name of a universal spiritual principle, namely the principle of stillness or pure unaffected consciousness. Shiva also symbolizes the masculine sexual energy connected to the phallus, and it’s tendency to penetrate things (literally or metaphorically).

Suppose one is not a worshipper of Shiva, and may or may not resonate with the kind of imagery  shown above. Nevertheless, thinking about the Shiva principle can still be very useful for understanding meditation practice. Whatever tradition one practices in, there is always something that corresponds to Shiva, some aspect of the practice that aims at stilling the mind and stepping back from the constant flux of sensations. It’s helpful to have a single unambiguous term to denote this aspect of spiritual practice, so we can use the term “Shiva” in this way. We might even use the traditional imagery of Shiva to symbolize this concept, if that imagery works for us. However, for many westerners, a different image might serve the same purpose more effectively. For example, the Hermit card of the Tarot, which expresses the same concept of stillness and worldly detachment (although without the overtones of masculine sexuality).

Like the Indian Sadhu, the Hermit embodies the stillness that comes from detachment from worldly desire


So let’s quickly sketch the meaning of some prominent Hindu deities qua spiritual principles. I hasten to add that this is by no means a deep reading of these God-forms, but just my somewhat superficial impressions of their general character. Still, I include these here because I hope it will act as a simple map to start you off in reading the texts of tantric and bhakti wisdom.

Shiva – Stillness, stability, peace, detachment, dissolution, masculinity, phallus

Shakti – Movement, creativity, manifestation, power, bliss, femininity (but not the passive stereotype of femininity)

Krishna – The Beloved, attractiveness, beauty, the concept of the ishta itself

Radha – Love, devotion, attraction, the concept of the devotee

Another way to see these two parings is as articulating two lenses on spiritual practice. The Shiva-Shakti paring is the lens of Awareness. The Krishna-Radha pairing is the lens of Love. If you agree with the statement “God is love,” you’ll likely be drawn to Krishna-Radha, if you agree with the statement  “God is Pure Being” you’ll be drawn to Shiva-Shakti. In both cases, there is an active pole and a passive pole.

Passive Active
Love Krishna Radha
Awareness Shiva Shakti

It’s interesting to reflect upon why the genders of the deities are switched relative to Western assumptions. In Western symbolism, it is the feminine that is typically cast in the role of the Beloved. Think of the Arthurian legends and the role of the fair maiden as devotional object of the active questing knights. We might think that Hindus just have more enlightened conceptions of gender, until we stop and realize that India is an extremely patriarchal society. The case of Shiva is easier to explain. When it comes to consciousness (or in the West rationality)  it’s clear that masculinity is associated with greater detachment and in that sense passivity. Yet, the active side of the male comes into play with respect to love and sex.  Here, we tend to cast the man as the great active devoted lover, which would make us think that Radha should be masculine and Krishna feminine.

It helps if we understand that God-forms are always a compromise between the need to symbolically embody a spiritual principle, the need to serve as an attractive object of worship, and the need to conform to societal norms. I think that Krishna represents a sort of compromise between wanting to preserve the masculine power of the Godhead and wanting to make God the Beloved (in the mythology he is after all a politically powerful king and warrior in addition to being the universal Beloved). In Krisha’s iconography, he is often depicted as displaying outrageously feminine beauty with wide hips, doe eyes, and feminine body language. This imagery is intended to be romantically and erotically exciting for both male and female devotees of all sexual orientations.

The male God who embodies the ideal of feminine beauty

Yet, since straight male worshippers need some way to rationalize their homoerotic feelings for Krishna, they are told to conceptualize themselves as Radha, the female lover of Krishna. So the masculine-feminine wires are all mixed up. Both sexuality and gender identity become fluid in the realm of spiritual practice, which is glorious as far as I’m concerned. The Krishan-Radha dynamic is almost identical, minus the pictures, in Judaism, where male Rabbis conceive of themselves Kabbalistically as God’s female lovers.

Hence in addition to the four principles of Shiva, Shakti, Krishna, Radha we have to think about who is playing what role. Which principles are being identified with by the human worshipper and which with the Godhead.

Christianity is an interesting case, that displays some interesting recursive complexity. Jesus is, of course, the Beloved, hence he embodies the Krishna principle. Yet, at the same time, his life and works are the Radha principle, and the poor, sick, and downtrodden of humanity are collectively the Krishna of Jesus himself. Since in addition to worshipping Jesus directly, devout Christians often try to imitate or embody Jesus in their actions, the Beloved of Jesus becomes the Beloved of Christians. This explains Mother Teresa’s statement that she saw her Beloved Jesus in all the sick and hungry she served. For it’s easy to see how Jesus as Beloved could become merged with the Beloved of Jesus. As a result, Jesus makes a powerful ishta for those for whom God is found through acts of selfless service to the needy.

Which brings me to another point. Certain deities were designed with certain types of spiritual practitioners in mind. Jesus is strong fit for karma yogis, those who realize God through selfless service. Krishna is a natural choice for bhakti yogis, those who realize God through devotion. Shiva alone is the ideal for jhana yogis, those who realize God through detached meditation, and Shakti-Shiva is the ideal for raja Yogis and tantra yogis, who realize God by becoming intimate with power and creativity. Of course, there is no telling what deity one will be drawn to. I mentioned earlier that Ramakrishna a bhakti saint had the ishta of Kali. On the face of it a goddess who symbolizes the primal destructive forces of the universe doesn’t seem like an ideal choice for a yogi whose primary practice is devotional love, but it worked for him. Human nature can never be squished into a system, and I thank God for that.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you enjoyed reading this post, please write a comment.

~May you love yourself as God loving Godself!


4 responses »

  1. I found this to be an excellent summary of an enormously complex body of teachings and practices. The only part I had difficulty following was the Christian analogy of Jesus and Krishna; however, as I experience it, Krishna-Consciousness and Christ-Consciousness are very much the same.

    Interestingly, in biographical material it is often noted that for Ramakrishna, Kali was not so much the fierce and warlike Goddess as the loving and all-embracing Mother, although he obviously recognized both sides: Reality as terrifying and comforting at the same time.

    I’d be happy to discuss any of your points further, if you’d care to. There are endless possibilities.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

    Good point about Ramakrishna. I wonder it there might be a natural tendency to soften the image of deities that one is devotional about. The beloved is always beautiful in the eyes of a lover 😉

    Regarding Jesus and Krishna. Not being either a Christian or a Hindu, I speak as an outsider, but it stikes me that there is a profound differnece in the spiritual orientation they appeal to. Jesus is humble and plain in appearance, Krishna is royal, beatiful, sensual. Jesus is devotional towads the common people, especially the people who are worst off. Krishna, while he may be loving to all, is not depicted as, for example, dying a hideous death for the sake of redeeming all humanity, nor is he shown washing the feet of the poor and sick. So overall, I’d say that Krishna is more appropraite for pure bhaktas, those who want reach God through worship and celebration while Jesus is a better fit for those who want to blend some bhakti elements with a path of selfless service to the needy.

    This way of talking about things is quite a shift from the usual way people think about religion. It makes it not at all about theology or which religion is True. It’s all about which symbols and mythology are most compatible with the individual nature of a spiritual seeker. William James would be happy with the pragmatism of the approach.

    • “Natural tendency to soften the image” — I think you’re right! Most people do like to cultivate tender feelings toward those they love. There are exceptions, no doubt — e.g., the lover that beats one up, the S&M dominant-submissive relationship. I’m thinking of Tennessee Williams story “Desire and the Black Masseur.” Good to remember, in any case, that no size fits all.

      At a certain point in the spiritual life we’re all as much Christian and Hindu as anyone else, whatever place we started from, and you’ve obviously delved deeply into these two traditions such that you don’t have to qualify your perspective as coming from an outsider. Still, I think I understand what you mean. I can speak about Catholicism but not as someone raised in it.

      Interestingly, I don’t think that Jesus ever said anything about the poor except that they would always be among us. The established churches, however, especially the better-heeled ones, seem to have made helping the poor a cause celebre. I can’t help thinking that there is bit of noblesse oblige in that, and perhaps some smug satisfaction.

      The Krishna of the Gita and Jesus of the New Testament, however, come together for me in holding dearest those who are totally sincere in their devotion.

      Whether work in itself can be a way to God-realization is another interesting subject. I tend to think that the answer both for Hinduism and Christianity is that work without devotion is ineffectual, at least in the spiritual realm.

      Thanks for commenting on my comment. And please keep writing! I’m interested in reading what you have to say about Godsex, if you do decide to take that up.

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