In our tradition, Isvara aradhana or Isvara-puja (worship of God) is considered a nityakarma, meaning a compulsory duty. It is one of the five daily compulsory duties prescribed by sastra or the scriptures. Isvara-puja is compulsory because it is an exercise, daily exercise in which we invoke our relationship with the Lord.
As we go through life, we foster numerous relationships, including relationships with our family members, relatives, neighbours, colleagues, etc. Every relationship is important and necessary. Our scriptures however consider one relationship to be primary and fundamental - the most important of all relationships and that is our relationship with God. Why is this so? Our relationship with Isvara is a continuous one, a permanent relationship. It spans from janma to janma to janma. For, Isvara is the creator and we are the created. So there is a karana-karya (cause-effect) relationship. All other relationships are ephemeral. Since people are mortal we can never hope to have a permanent relationship with individuals. These individuals are compared to logs of wood that come together for a brief period while floating down the river or to passengers in a train who interact for a short period of time before going their respective ways. By its very nature, a temporary relationship can only give temporary benefit. If we want permanent benefit, we need a permanent relationship. Hence, our scriptures advise us to keep our relationship with God alive and well nourished.
We maintain temporary relationships by performing some action or other. We wish our family members on their birthdays, visit friends, take part in community activities and so on. We spend a lot of time and effort to develop and maintain these relationships. Should we not spend a little time everyday nourishing and nurturing our permanent relationship with the Lord? We invoke and sustain this relationship by doing puja to Isvara.
Here we face a problem. How can we worship God who is formless and all-pervasive? God is not an tangible object available for worship. As if to address our predicament, sastra or scriptures comes to our rescue. For the sake of puja, scriptures attribute a form to God. Sastra says, "The description of the Lord with attributes is given out of consideration for those who are incapable of comprehending the attributeless God." Thus, a form is given to the formless god. This is the uniqueness of the Vedic religion.
Since the human mind seeks variety and since tastes differ, sastra prescribes numerous forms offering a wide choice to choose from: Siva, Visnu, Devi, Rama, Krsna, man and woman combined (Ardhanarisvara), man and animal combined (Ganesa, Narasimha), animal (Hanuman). We can choose a picture or idol to represent the form which is useful; not only for puja but also for upasana or meditation.
Can any other benefit to be gained by Isvara-puja and Isvara-upasana? These activities infact represent the first step in the spiritual path. Regular and consistent Isvara-puja and upasana give chitta-suddhi (a pure mind) and citta-ekagrata (a one pointed or focused mind).
The next step, after having attained a pure and focused mind, is Vedanta-vicara, meaning a systematic study of the scriptures. A bare minimum of the study of Bhgavad-gita because it is condensed form of the entire sastra. A dhyana-sloka (invocatory verse no. 4) of the Bhagavad-gita says that, 'If all the Upanishads are the cows, the milk is the supreme nectar of the Gita.' In his hymn 'Bhaja Govindam' (verse 21) Sankara advises every householder, 'Let a man read from the Gita'.
When we study the seventh or eleventh chapters of the Bhgavad-gita, we discover a very very important teaching that every spiritual aspirant should understand. In verse 7.6, Krisna says, 'Know that these two (Consciousness and matter) are the wombs of all beings. I am the origin and dissolution of the entire universe.' Bhagvan is jagat-karanam, meaning cause of the creation. Isvara becomes the panchabhutas (the five elements viz., space, air, fire, water and earth, which are the basic building blocks of the universe.) and the (panchabhautikams) the products formed by the mixture of the five elements.
Thus Isvara (God) alone in the form of Consciousness and matter has evolved into this wonderful creation. The world that we see and experience is nothing but a manifestation of God. In verse 7.8 - 9, Krishna says, "I am the sapidity in water, O son of Kunti, I am the radiance in the moon and sun, I am the syllable 'Om' in all the Vedas, sound in ether (space) and manliness in man. I am the sweet fragrance in earth and the brilliance in fie; I am the life in all beings and the austerity in ascetics.'
World darsanam (the vision of the world) is Isvara-darsanam (the vision of God). When we see the sky, it is not a akasa-darsanam but Isvara-darsanam. When we enjoy the breeze blowing against us, it is Isvara-darsanam and when we see fire, even if it be the kitchen stove, it is Isvara. And every interaction is Isvara-interaction. When we drink water, it is Isvara. When we pluck flowers, it is Isvara. When we breathe, it is Isvara-anugraha. We interact with Isvara all the time. By the study of scriptures our bhavana (attitude) changes and we have Isvara-darsanam not at one time but at all times, in and through all our interctions and experiences. Thus, for a Vedic student, Isvara-darsanam (which Bhgavad-gita calls visvarupa-isvara-drsanam) is not a momentary event but a moment to moment business. Sastra says, "O Mother Earth, who has the ocean for your dress and the mountains as the breasts, I salute you! May you forgive me for steeping on you."
When we appreciate Isvara as the very universe, we recognize that every experience that we go through - pleasure or pain - is given to us by Isvara. Consequently, there is a transformation in our lives. We have no raga-dvesa (likes and dislikes) towards any part of the creation. When this attitude develops, spiritual progress becomes faster. We drop negative traits mentioned in the scriptures (anger, greed, etc.) and develop the positive attributes like compassion and generosity.
Chapter eleven of the Bhgavad-gita portrays God as having thousands of heads, arms, feet etc. This does not mean that Bhagavan (Lord) has a human form with thousands of arms hanging from the shoulder joints. The idea is that the arms, feet, etc., of all living beings belong to God. This is the vision of God we should strive for.
Rudram says, "Look at the tree as Siva, the leaf as Siva, the flower as Siva, the root as Siva." In fact, the entire Rudram is visvarupa-varanam - description of Isvara. Whatever we see is Bhagavan, I, the seer am also Bhagavan - aham Brahmasmi' - I am Brahman (God). This is the ultimate, the culmination of our spiritual quest. Thus the spiritual path, prescribed by the scriptures is as follows: Isvara-puja (worship of God) and Isvara-upasana peforming rituals for God), citta-suddhi (purification of mind) and cita-ekagrata, Vedanta-vicara (spiritual enquiry), Isvara-darssanam (vision of God), Isvara-aikiyam (oneness).
One serious obstacle in the spiritual path, however, is a particular misunderstanding of Isvara-puja (worship of God). Many people think that if we do Isvara-puja regularly, sincerely and diligently, God would appear before us in person. If we do Siva-puja, one day Lord Siva would appear in front of us with a blue neck, matted locks and so on. Believing so, Rama worshippers seek Rama as a person, Krishna devotees look for Krishna as a human being. This is a misconception because the scriptures do not highlight the vision of God as a 'person'. Seeing our favourite God in person is not considered a big event in our scriptures, it is not given any value and is not a goal of life.
Anything finite and limited cannot be the ultimate and cannot be the goal of a spiritual seeker. Kena Upanisad (1.5) says, 'Know that alone to be Brahman which cannot be described by speech and by which speech becomes a vehicle of expression. It (Brahman) is not the limited deity that people worship.'
Mandukya-karika (3.1) says that whoever looks upon a personal God (i.e. God as a person) as the ultimate goal is an unfortunate person. A personal God is required for Isvara-puja. But the purpose of Isvara-puja is not to attain the vision of one's personal God, but, as stated earlier, to maintain our relationship with God and to gain citta-suddi (purification of mind) and citta-ekagrata.
Thus we do Isvara-puja, we should keep in mind the God is not a person, but the cosmos itself. Can we remember so? We need only to reflect upon the Dhyana-slokas (Meditation verses) that we chant every-day. A Dhyana-sloka of Visnusahasranama says, "Lord Visnu's feet are the Earth, His navel is the space, His breath (Prana) is the air, eyes are the sun and moon. Ears are the directions, His head is the heaven, fire is the mouth, lower abdomen is the ocean. Within Him obtains the universe consisting of gods, human beings, birds, cows, serpents, Gandharvas, asuras who dance about in wonder." A Dhyana-sloka of Rudram says, "The dome of space is Siva - lingam. The earth is the base (of the lingam), the clouds are the water pot, the stars are the flower garland. Clusters of planets are loose flowers. The moon, the fire and the sun are the eyes. The seven oceans are the belly. The Himalayas (the Meru Mountain), is the bed, the seven lower worlds are the feet. The Veda (scriptures) with six limbs is the mouth. The face is turned in all the ten directions, I salute this divine lingam."
May the Isvara-puja that we do on Sivaratri especially remind us that everything is Bhagavan (Lord).
Source: From the Talk delivered by Swami Paramarthananda on Sivaratri, March 8, 2005.