Is the worship of Deities a tool meant for less intelligent people, a tool that should be given up once one becomes spiritually advanced?
Not at all.
It is true that Deity worship is especially essential for those who are spiritually under-evolved. As they can’t perceive that God is present everywhere, he manifests within their sense perception as the Deity. Thereby they can at least begin their God consciousness by respecting him as the Deity.
But the fact that Deity worship is essential for the under-evolved doesn’t imply that it is meant only for them or that those more evolved should give it up.
To properly understand the relationship of Deity worship with spiritual advancement, let’s first understand how the Srimad Bhagavatam (11.2.45-47) classifies devotees based on the level of their God consciousness:
- Kanishtha-adikhari (third level): Devotees at this level perceive God only in the Deity and nowhere else. The spirituality of these devotees is limited only to the temple or the home-altar; they can’t perceive God’s relationship with other people and aspects of their life.
- Madhyama-adhikari (second level): Devotees at this level understand that their God consciousness depends not only on how they see the Deity, but also on how they relate with the things and people of the world. Accordingly, in addition to worshipping the Deity, these devotees befriend other devotees, help the uninformed and avoid those inimical towards God.
- Uttama-adhikari (first-level): Devotees at this level are so advanced that they can perceive God’s presence everywhere. This does not mean that they worship everything as if it is God or that they give up worshipping the Deity as if it is not God. It means that everything in the world reminds them of God just as everything reminds a lover of the beloved.
So, whereas the third-level devotees need the Deity to remember God, the first-level devotees don’t. But this doesn’t mean that the first-level devotees neglect or reject the Deity. Not at all. Rather, due to their great love for God, they serve the Deity with even greater devotion.
The notion that Deity worship is for the less intelligent is a misconception propagated by those averse to serving the Deity. To mask their aversion, they self-servingly claim that they are more intelligent and so don’t need the Deity worship that is meant for less intelligent people. But the fact is that even the less intelligent or the third-level devotees can perceive God’s presence as the Deity and so are inclined to serve the Deity. Those who can’t see God’s presence as the Deity are below even these third-level devotees. If only they would open their mind to understand the profound philosophy underlying Deity worship, then they would realize how the Deity manifestation is a great blessing of God for all levels of spiritual aspirants; everyone’s remembrance of God becomes enriched by beholding and serving the Deity. Otherwise, though they may claim to be more intelligent, they will, unfortunately, remain less than less-intelligent.