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Within Hinduism, an Ishta-deva or Ishta devata (Sanskrit iṣṭa-deva(tā), literally "cherished divinity" from iṣṭa "desired, liked, cherished" and devatā "godhead, divinity, tutelary deity" or deva "deity") is a term denoting a worshipper's favourite deity.
It is especially significant to both the Smarta and Bhakti schools wherein practitioners choose to worship the form of God which inspires them the most. Within Smartism, one of five chief deities are selected. Even in denominations that focus on a singular concept of God, such as Vaishnavism, the ishta deva concept exists. For example, in Vaishnavism, special focus is given to a particular form of Vishnu or one of his Avatars (i.e. Krishna or Rama), and similarly within Shaktism, focus is given to a particular form of the Goddess such as Parvati or Lakshmi. The Swaminarayan sect of Vaishnavism has a similar concept, but notably differ from practically all Vaishnavite schools in holding that Vishnu and Shiva are different aspects of the same God.
Variations in practices
There is no universally accepted perspective of God throughout the branches of Hinduism, and thus the specific nature of belief and worship regarding a practitioner's Ishta-deva depends largely on which tradition they are following. However, no matter which tradition attracts the devotee's mind and heart, Hinduism teaches Ekam Sadvipraha Bahudha Vadanti, i.e., "While Truth is One, the Names are Many." Adherents of the monistic schools (such as Advaita Vedanta) worship multiple forms of God as emanations from the ultimately formless Brahman, whereas followers of the bhakti traditions may worship a particular form or Avatar of Vishnu, Shiva or Ganesha as the Supreme God (Ishvara) in the dualistic sense.
Even in Vaishnavite traditions, a particular form of Vishnu is favored by the devotee. For example, Hanuman's Ishta-deva was Lord Ramachandra. Other notable examples would be that of Tulsidas who was another devotee of Rama and Mirabai a devotee of Krishna.
Formal Smarta worship
The "worship of the five forms" (pañcāyatana pūjā) system, which was popularized by the ninth-century philosopher Śaṅkarācārya among orthodox Brahmins of the Smārta tradition, invokes the five deities Ganesha, Vishnu, Shiva, Devī, and Sūrya. This system was instituted by Śaṅkarācārya primarily to unite the principal deities of the five major sects (Gāṇapatya, Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, Shakta and Soūra) on an equal status. The monistic philosophy preached by Śaṅkarācārya made it possible to choose one of these as a preferred principal deity and at the same time worship the other four deities as different forms of the same all-pervading Brahman.
Forms of worship
Typically a practitioner worships their Ishta-deva through the form of a murti. This worship may involve offering items to their chosen divinity such as incense or flowers, reciting mantras, singing their names and offering prayers.
Remembering the deity and internally building a relationship with (or through) them is considered essential to the practice. Within the Advaita schools it is believed that the human mind needs a concrete form to understand the divine that ultimately can never be defined. Just as one can understand the abstract concept of a color only after one has seen a concrete form, one can only realize the deity through a form of murti. In contrast, the Dvaita associated schools believe the Supreme Being to possess a divine form, and offer worship to their Ishta-deva as either a representation or direct expansion of the Supreme Person. For example Vaishnava schools offer worship exclusively to murtis of Vishnu, or his associated avatars such as Krishna or Rama.
Within a number of Hindu traditions, both presently and in the past, living people have claimed (or are claimed by followers) to be Avatars of a divine or Supreme being. In these cases followers have then in some instances worshipped these individuals as Ishta-devas. Although these tend to be minority groups within Hindism, it has been a growing tendency in modern times (the followers of Sai Baba being one such example). This often attracts criticism from other Hindu traditions who do not share the same belief.
- 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 a 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.
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."
- Bhakti Yoga
- Henotheistic aspects of Hinduism
- Patron saint, for a similar concept of a personally-favoured supernatural being
- V. S. Apte, A Practical Sanskrit Dictionary, p. 250.
- Grimes, John A. Ganapati: Song of the Self. (State University of New York Press: Albany, 1995) p. 162.
- Dating for the pañcāyatana pūjā and its connection with Smārta Brahmins is from p. 163, Courtright, Paul B. Gaṇeśa: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings. (Oxford University Press: New York, 1985). ISBN 0-19-505742-2
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