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Worshipping the Bodies of Saints and Sadhus: a Dual Perspective

by Niscala dasi

Posted May 23, 2012

Recently a learned devotee wrote to me with an unusual perspective, one that goes very much against tradition, though imbued with the concepts of the sastra. He argued that the worship of the bodies (photographs and statues) of saintly people is an emotional reaction due to our identifying the body with the self and that it is not helpful to spiritual realization, but reinforces the bodily concept, and makes us prone to fear of death.

I welcomed this viewpoint, firstly because Srila Prabhupada advised us to view the philosophy from all angles, and secondly because I believe that tradition is not always supported by good reason; it may just as easily spring up from group emotions or even from misconception. However, I could not agree with him, due to other implications of the philosophy.

This article has two parts; his viewpoint and mine. To keep the article to a readable length, I have included only his first realizations on the matter and my last ones. Readers are welcome to add their own viewpoints afterwards, after digesting both in due course, and to give a fresh perspective.

Objection: — Distinguishing Matter from Spirit — a Humble Request

It is only due to the extreme grace of Almighty God that the soul acquires a human body. Its only purpose is attaining God. But after obtaining this body, the human being tends to forget his original purpose, gets firmly attached to the body and starts believing in bodily pleasures as being ultimate. By giving power and importance to the body, he starts relating to it and, hence, is so attracted to it that its name, too, becomes dear to him.

Of all the bodily pleasures, the most menial is respect-seeking. To attain this, he also indulges in vices like falsehood, cunningness and dishonesty. Due to the love for his body, he desires its praise and compliments from others. He desires to seek self praise throughout his life and wishes that his name and fame remain eternal after his death. He tends to forget that the name given to this body for worldly convenience does not have any existence whatsoever after the body perishes.

In light of this, body worshipping, respect-seeking and eternity of name is of least importance, but due to widespread inner desire for bodily respect and eternity of name and fame, a human may behave in such a manner, not only with himself and his near and dear ones, but also towards those who are knowledgeable and, thus, following the righteous path shown by esteemed scholars and by the scriptures and trying to attain their ultimate goal of being one with the Almighty.

When the body of such an enlightened one dies, in order to continue their remembrance of him, the body is captured in pictures and, with all pomp and decorations (garlands etc.), the body is taken to the cremation ground. In order to immortalize the mortal name, they erect edifices, structures in the form of memorials. In addition to this, they write exaggerated and one-sided incidents of the deceased being and publish them as hagiographies and remembrances. On one side, they call themselves followers of that enlightened one, and on the other they do exactly what he discouraged in life.

The essence of belief is immortal. Hence, the belief must be in the principle and words of such an enlightened one and not in his mortal body or name. There is only desire and not belief in the mortal body and name. But when desires take the garb of beliefs, the undue importance we place on mortal bodies may deter the worship and praise of the eternal, immortal, divine and immaculate Almighty Being, not only making our life useless but also ditching the self.

If seen in its true perspective, this body is, throughout life, a machine that produces urine and excretion. Given the best of foods — even prasad of God, it shall leave the body through excretion; given the best of drinks or even water of the holy Ganga, the same will be passed out as urine. Once death prevails, even touching that bodily machine requires bathing. In reality, this body is dying at every moment. The real and authentic consciousness which is present in the body cannot be captured in pictures. Only the body that is decaying every second can be pictured. That is why the body also does not remain the same as it was while the picture was taken.

Hence, worship of a photograph is worship of the asat (that which is not there). In a photograph, the body remains lifeless, and the picture of the lifeless collection of bones and tissues is more lifeless than the dead body itself.

Those whom we term as Mahatma, enlightened ones, are Mahatma because of their total renouncement of bodily pleasure and not because of their attachment to it. They consider their body as of no more value than excretory matter. Hence, showering respect over a Mahatma's body can be seen as like respecting excretory matter. Is this right? Someone may say: "We worship God's photograph, so what is wrong in worshipping a Mahatma's photograph?" However, saying this is not apt, because God's body is divine and immortal, while that of that of a Mahatama is made of destructible and perishable matter.

Reply: — "Goloka Appears in my Home — Bridging the Mundane and Transcendence

While I agree with your points about the body not being the self, still even this material energy is the energy of Krsna, who resides in every atom. Therefore, there is nothing which is not Krsna. He is non-different from his energy. What we call "material energy" acts to cover the consciousness, so that the living entity can forget His eternal relationship with God. When the material energy is utilized in the opposite way — to help the living entity remember his eternal position and relationship with God, it is no longer acting as material energy. After all, this material world is simply a covered portion of the spiritual sky. It is not separate from it.

Electrical energy can be used in one way to heat a room and in another way to cool it. It is the same energy but can be used, according to our desires, in different ways. I can use my own energy from digestion to kill a person or save his life, so desire is the driving force behind the way in which energy is used. When we use the body and mind, to remind ourselves of our relationship with the Lord, the body no longer acts as material energy does, yet because of the effects of maya, it appears to act as material objects do.

In the same house, electrical energy can be keeping food cold in the fridge while heating the lounge room. Just so, in the same body, energy can be making transformations as material energy does, and stopping those transformations as well, by enlightening the living entity residing within. By using the body to read sastra, chant, visit the temple, bow down, etc., we are burning up the reactions from actions that these bodies performed. We are reversing the process, much as an engineer reverses the heating effect of electrical energy when he designs a fridge. Therefore Krsna advises Arjuna that he can be free from karmic reaction by using his body for divine realization, not merely by giving up bodily activity and taking to meditation — though that is one path.

We have been discussing whether the material bodies of saints should be worshipped or their tombs revered and whether this is confusing the body with the self. Certainly the molecules in the saint's departed body are transforming as the matter disintegrates. But while the saint inhabited that body, it was used solely for spiritual realizations and devotional service, which reverses the process of transformation by nullifying karmic reaction. In that sense the bodily constituents acted as Krsna's energy is meant to act, for transcendence, and they nullify the effects of the material energy.

Can they still nullify the effects of the material energy once the saint has departed them? Can Vrindavan still purify visitors even after the Lord has left? In every respect, Vrindavan appears like any other village in an underdeveloped country — open sewers, deforestation, heaps of garbage, polluted rivers. It is in a state of decay, yet devotees go on pilgrimage to Vrindavan and bow down in her dust. Are they mistaking material elements for transcendence? They feel some effect, even now, of a transcendental event that took place when the effects of the material energy were reversed and the earth resembled Vaikuntha. The Lord and his associates were present, teaching unconditional love and surrender, which reverses the effects of time and turns the material energy into spiritual energy.

Srila Bhaktivinode Thakura wrote: "Goloka Vrindavan appears in my home whenever I see the worship of Lord Hari going on there." Does that mean that if worship were always to go on there, the bodies of his family members or of the plants and animals in his home would not grow old, get sick or die? It simply means that the energy is being transformed back into spiritual energy, and much like a home where there is both a fridge and a heater, there are two opposing processes taking place at the same time. That's my understanding, anyway.

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