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Ishta-Deva, or Ishta Devata is a term from Hinduism that means chosen Deity or revered aspect of God by a devotee and is a widely held concept in Smartism. In such a concept, different aspects of God are held equivalent and hence equal. Thus, the preferred form of God, i.e., Isthta-Deva, is up to the individual devotee's preference.
According to some commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, the devotee will receive deliverance from ignorance and divine wisdom from the Divine and come to perfection by practicing bhakti yoga regardless of the form he worships.
Idols or Icons?
The theory behind it is, that the human mind needs a concrete form to understand the Divine which ultimately can never be defined. Just as one can understand the abstract concept of a chair only after one has seen the concrete form first, then only one can realize God.
However, it is important to note that Hindus do not worship the idols. The concept of murti is equivalent to the concept of icon, where the murti is a symbol for a devotee to utilize and focus on God.
Misunderstanding from outsiders
The Ishta-Deva concept has confused outsiders and hence made them perceive Hinduism as polytheistic as many of Hinduism's adherents (i.e., Smartas) are monists, and view multiple manifestations of the one God or source of being. Hindu monists see one unity, with the personal Gods, different aspects of only One Supreme Being, like a single beam of light separated into colours by a prism, and are valid to worship. Accordingly, this Smarta concept is a specialized type of monotheism, termed monistic theism. Some of the Hindu aspects of God include Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Siva. This view of Smartism, the Ishta-Deva concept, has colored the perception of what Hinduism is to the outsider, when in fact the other denominations, as explained below, do not strictly espouse the belief and more closely adhere to a more conventional Western perception of what a monotheistic faith is.
Disagreement within Hinduism
Other denominations as well as sects of Hinduism don't strictly hold this belief. For example, Arya Samaj worships only the formless God, Brahman, in particular, Nirguna Brahman. Other denominations such as the monotheistic faiths of Saivism and Vaishnavism respectively hold Shiva and Vishnu to be the only Ultimate Reality, although those faiths recognize other manifestations of God to be emanations of them and lesser deities subordinate to this one Supreme Being. For example, Shaivities may recognize Vishnu to be a manifestation of Shiva but accord Shiva the status of being the only Ultimate Reality. A Smarta, on the other hand, would consider Vishnu and Shiva to be the same but different aspects of only one Supreme Being. (See Adi Sankara's commentary on Vishnu sahasranama.) Vaishnavites may hold the same belief of other manifestations as Shaivites, thus viewing Shiva as a manifestation of Vishnu but hold that Vishnu is the only Ultimate Reality. The distinction is a subtle difference but noteworthy.
However, the monotheistic nature of Saivism does not necesarily contradict the concept of Ishta-Devata. It is the view of Saivites, like most Hindus, that God, the ultimate reality whom they call Shiva, can be approached and experienced through many paths. A certain deity, an aspect of God, chooses and is chosen by the devotee and embraces him in lifestyle and vibrations, subtly guiding him to God. A devotee moving towards Shiva through the worship of God Ganesa, Shiva's son, supposedly receives blessings and guidance of a much slower and kind nature than a devotee of the more destructive aspect of God Rudra.
ISKCON and New religions
The Hare Krishna/ISKCON, organization, which is part of the traditional Gaudiya Vaishnavism denomination would accord Shiva the status of a demigod rather than another equivalent aspect of God. However, there is a controversy about whether ISKCON is indeed part of Hinduism or whether the organization is outside mainstream Hinduism in a similar manner as how Christians often view Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormonism. Some even consider ISKCON to be a cult. They, unlike Vaishnavite denominations consider Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu to be an avatar of Krishna but worship Krishna, like many traditional Hindu adherents, as their preferred Ishta-Deva.
Other new religious movements related to Hinduism (see Contemporary Hindu movements), many of them cults, have more contentious views, including a tendency in modern times to place their guru as Ishta-Deva. This is of course an unpopular view both in the minds of orthodox Hindus, as well with outsiders who often misunderstand this phenomenon as a tendency common within Hinduism.
Swami Tapasyananda of Ramakrishna Mission, on commentating about this phenomenon, said:
- "The avatar doctrine has been excessively abused by many Hindus today and we have the strange phenomenon of every disciple of a sectarian Guru claiming him to be an avatar. Christianity has therefore limited the Divine Incarnation as an one-time phenomenon. The theory has strong points and equally strong defects but it surmounts the gross abuse of the doctrine indulged in by many Hindus."
Thus, if followers respect and revere the guru, it is only proper if they are using him as a conduit to God, and respect him as a teacher of God, perhaps in a similar manner as Catholics do when they pray to a saint to intercede for them to help attain's God's grace.
However, Swami Sivananda has said that a guru can be likened to God if he himself has attained realization and is a link between the individual and the Absolute. Such a guru, according to his definition and interpretation, should have actually attained union with God, inspire devotion in others, and have a presence that purifies all. Such a case is limited in contemporary times.
- "The search for knowledge is never easy. As the Upanishads say it is like walking on the razor's edge. But for those who have strong faith and put in sustained effort and have the blessings of Shi Hari and guru this is not difficult. Always keep away from people who merely perform miracles without following the shastras and yet call themselves God or guru. I have performed miracles, and so have great persons like Shrimadacharya. These are based on yoga siddhi and the shastras. There is no fraud or trickery at all. These miracles were performed only to show the greatness of God and the wonderful powers that one can attain with His grace. Right knowledge (jnana) is greater than any miracle. Without this no real miracle can take place. Any miracle performed without this right knowledge is only witchcraft. No good will come to those who perform such miracles and also those who believe in them."
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