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Friday, July 2, 2010


Dhurga recently mentioned Isha-Devata in the comments. Simply put, this would be one's personal God.

There are many, many, many Gods in Hinduism. Each has different qualities and different personalities. The idea is that out of all those, there will be one that will speak to you and seem well suited to your spiritual growth. Often that is also based somewhat on family or regional traditions and maybe your birth chart.

For my branch, it is traditional to pick from the "five forms" that Shankara picked as the principle forms, uniting all branches. One of these forms is selected for main worship, but the other four are still worshiped also and all are seen as manifestations of the same Ultimate Reality, Brahman. The five are Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Devī, and Sūrya.

A murti (statue, idol) is used for worship. It is believed that the mind needs a physical form to focus on. Sometimes in Smartism, the five forms are represented by five stones. For more dualistic branches, the worship of the murti is more like the Catholic communion. The God has actually come and inhabited the statue.

Sometimes if a great sage is thought to be an avatar of God, he or she might also be worshiped as one's Ishta-Devata. I mentioned before that some believe Jesus to be an avatar of Vishnu and I came across an interesting article articulating some about why and how Jesus is chosen as an Ishta-Devata at times. I know we had one person comment to say that this is impossible, but I am not in the habit of dismissing the beliefs of others and I am unwilling to say that it wouldn't be possible for Jesus to have been an avatar.

I've heard about this phenomenon of Indians adding Jesus to their alters from both perspectives. I knew of a girl in college who loved India and was also an evangelical Christian. She frequently went to India to work on converting people (which completely horrified me, but I didn't know her personally). I was told that a problem she often had was that Indians seemed to have a hard time understanding that they couldn't just add Jesus in. Jesus had to replace ALL Gods and only he could be worshiped. The article above sees this as possibly just a survival technique, to keep Hinduism alive while compromising with Christianity. I'm much closer to the perspective of seeing Christianity trying to destroy Hinduism.

Some believe that it doesn't matter which God you choose, all lead to moksha. However, some branches believe that only particular Gods will. For Vaishnavites, only a form of Vishnu will work (Rama, Krishna...).

To find one's Ishta-Devata some believe that you must go by astrology. Others just find that one in particular speaks to him. It can be something chosen oneself or chosen for you by a guru. This form of God will stay with you all your life.

So, what is my Ishta-Devata?

Shiva, in the form of the nata raja.

It wasn't always clear to me. When I was a kid I was fascinated by Krishna. I loved how different he was at different points in his life. I liked the teenage Krishna best, with the gopis worshiping him.

I was initiated into mantra-based meditation when I was 13. Ideally, one's mantra would be connected to one's Ishta-Devata, it would be a way of calling on that God. The organization I grew up in does not believe in Ishta-Devatas. A mantra was chosen for the entire organization to use and given to us through a Chankaracharya in India. It is a sound connected to Rama.

Despite these moments with other forms, the little bronze nata raja statue that I bought at the new age shop in my town clicked with me in a way that the others hadn't. I spent long periods of time just staring into his tiny face, and entranced by the grace of his arms.

I started dance five years later.

Nata raja still sits in the central place on my alter. A couple years ago my mother gave me a Krishna statue, remembering how much I loved Krishna as a child. That image just never had the same effect on me.

As soon as I look at my nata raja, I feel calmed and centered and I feel as though there is fire in his eyes.

No one gave me that form to worship, I chose it (or it chose me).


  1. Ammba Ji,
    Satguru Sivaya Subramuniyaswami of the Himalayan Academy saw potential dangers in this practice:

    Even a statue of Jesus and Mother Mary are seen today as valid Ishta Devatas, and they stand next to a statue of Lord Ganesha on a liberal, nonsectarian Hindu's home altar. On the positive side this is a sign of the broadness of our religion, which embraces all. But on the negative side it is a dilution of that same religion, which can lead to its destruction. Out of this comes a diluted religion, its strength sapped, its Gods exiled while foreign Gods hold sway. From my experience and inner findings, this idea of the Ishta Devata chosen from any of the Gods or Goddesses, or none of them, should be closely looked at, as it can bring about a distortion of the traditional continuity of our religion.

    It is not something that followers of this tradition would do, and it is worth considering that the children who are taught to accept Jesus as an Ishta Devata are more likely to be open to the messages of the Christian extremists who want to destroy Hinduism.

  2. If having an Ista-Devata is not advisable then I think the practice of following one's own Kula-Devata (Clan/Gothra devata) would be wrong as well. For example, my Kula-Devata is Perumal (Vishnu) but I'm drawn to the personality of Shiva (Nataraja in particular) as that's the form that I feel comfortable with and a form that feels like home if you will.

    All Gods are the supreme Brahman. Therefore I think it's personally ok to choose an Ishta Devata to focus upon that will allow the native to complete their Samakara. Following on, on what Tandava has stated, it is definitely wrong to have Jesus as an Ishta Devata if one is a Hindu. I think the fact that some people have Jesus on their altar along side Ganesh or Krishna is that in their mind, they think all are one. I know some families who do that, but they don't stop at Jesus, Buddha and other Chinese Gods make their appearance as well.

    The concept of Ishta Devata is just a label. Everyone has their favorite that they pray to. Sri Ramana Maharshi provides a wonderful example and sums it up: "Ishta-devata and Guru are aids - very powerful aids on this path. But an aid to be effective requires your effort also. Your effort is a sine qua non. It is you who should see the sun. Can spectacles and the sun see for you? You yourself have to see your true nature. Not much aid is required for doing it!".

  3. I'm back again. Forgot to include another thought of Sri Ramana: "Under whatever name or form we worship It, It leads us on to knowledge of the nameless, formless Absolute. Yet, to see one's true Self in the Absolute, to subside into It and be one with It, this is the true Knowledge of the Truth"

  4. Great follow ups. I love the quotes you shared, Dhurga. And I agree with you both that I am very skeptical of Jesus being worshiped as part of a Hindu practice.

    It seems that this is not enough compromise to be a Christian and too much compromise to be a Hindu, so where does that leave someone who chooses Jesus as their form to worship?

    But again, I try to let each person follow his own heart and desire in spiritual matters and not criticize other choices if I can help it. I figure the more acceptance I can give out, the more I will get back.

  5. Thanks for the information Aamba. I had been told what Adi's Ishta-Devata was when we first started dating, but was never given the term or an explanation.

    I may not be Hindu, but all your information allows me to learn a little here and there about my future in laws in a positive non pressured way.

  6. You know, I'm never sure whether my information is only for particular groups of people or not all that accurate anymore or something like that.

    I do my best to present interesting information, but luckily I have some fact checkers here!

    This blog is a nice way for me to check things out with others and see what some smart, modern thinkers have to say about things that I may not have questioned before.

  7. Amba, among the only ten of the dashavatars, there is no room for outsiders.THE 10TH ONE YET TO APPEAR IS CALLED kALKI.So Jesus as an avatar is a fallacious asssumption and soft deception frankly.Google search dasavatars for info. Surya

  8. amba,even my parents worship jesus as a god.i mean,we worship him as another form of grandmother is quite religious.she visits both temple n church.i dont have any qualms about it.we place a framed photo of jesus alongside other dieties.i have even seen jesus inside some indian temples like that of sai baba temple.i believe that jesus is a saviour n worshipping him is not disregarding hinduism.btw, i'm an indian.thanks.

  9. Well, Anonymous, I agree with you. I see no problem with putting Jesus on an alter along with other gods.

    As you can see from the comments, there are many who disagree.

    I've also heard complaints from Christians that this Indian practice is a terrible misunderstanding because one cannot worship Jesus and others, if you're going to worship Jesus it has to be him alone.

    As I said, I disagree, but because of my uncomfortable history with Christianity, I have no interest in adding Jesus to my own alter!

  10. Surya, the trouble I have with that is, who says there are only ten? A human being made that statement and it could be wrong...