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From Form to Formlessness: Saints, Symbols, and Devas

by Swami Kriyananda
Summer 2010 6 Comments

Many years ago in America, a young man from India laughed as he told me how his grandmother, after listening to a spiritual talk on the radio, would place a flower on the radio — “as though,” he chortled, “the radio itself were aware of what it was transmitting!”

After we’d parted, I mulled over his words. His grandmother’s sensitivity, I thought, was greater than his. Granted, the radio itself wasn’t aware, but how else could she demonstrate her gratitude to God outwardly for the truths she’d been hearing? To her, the radio was simply a symbol, as also was the flower she placed on it.

“I Myself accept their offering.”
Certain images remind us more naturally of God and noble qualities, but any expression of selfless love—to images as well as to people—can help to stem the tides of natural selfishness in the heart. Images in themselves are neutral. Their influence is positive or negative depending mainly on our reaction to them. One might worship a stone if, through that symbol, one invokes God and views the stone as a reminder of the Infinite Lord. Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita: “In whatsoever form people worship Me, I Myself accept their offering.”

Because it is difficult for people to feel love for something completely formless and without personality, Paramhansa Yogananda recommended clothing God in a form—for people to think of God as their Divine Friend, their Cosmic Beloved, their all-compassionate Divine Mother, their Heavenly Father.

Devotees may also be inspired to love God by visualizing Him as manifested through one of the great masters who are sent to earth by God as messengers of His love. In visualizing a master’s kind eyes and loving smile, it is often easier to visualize the infinite love of God. Others may feel more devotionally inspired if they visualize the Lord as an invisible Presence in every tree, every flower, in the mountains, and in all creatures.

The Hindu, for example, visualizes God not only as omnipresent but as consciously expressed everywhere. Consciousness, according to the Hindu teachings, even in its dimmest manifestations, is actively manifested throughout the universe. The Hindu imagines God smiling from the hearts of clouds, from the rocks, from the rivers. All things, viewed in this light, are seen to belong to a universal awareness in which we, too, participate. Everything is inter-connected—like the members of an extended, and indeed cosmic, family.

A means of activating God’s response
Visualizations are helpful not only for the devotion they inspire in the devotee, but also as a means of activating God’s response. The Divine responds consciously according to whatever form we visualize lovingly. If we look to Him in Nature, He responds through Nature. If we look to Him as our Father, He responds as a Father, with deep wisdom and understanding. If we look to Him as our Divine Mother, He responds to us with motherly love.

Many Protestant Christians oppose the Roman Catholic practice of worshipping the Mother aspect of God in the form of Mary, pointing out that the scriptures don’t describe Mary as being one with the Father. However, in condemning this dogma, they close themselves to God in His motherly aspect: Her sweet concern for humanity, Her kindness, Her compassion. The Mother aspect of God is not limited to a specific form. Mary was the mother of Jesus, but she also symbolizes, and may be thought of as expressing, the Divine Mother of the universe, whose Son is the Infinite Christ.

Through great masters, and to a lesser degree through saints and angels, God responds in a special way. As conscious emissaries of His love, their mission is to help those who long for spiritual understanding. The best practice is to call to God in whatever aspect you find most inspiring, but then also to invoke the help of a great master, saint, or angel in order that, by attuning yourself to their love for God, you deepen your own love for Him.

Spiritual masters: only a hint of infinity
One should not lose sight, however, of the fact that God is infinitely beyond any devotional symbol or man’s ability to visualize Him. In no single expression, nor even in the sum of all of them, is the Infinite Consciousness fully manifested. “The wave,” Paramhansa Yogananda used to say by way of explanation, “is not the ocean.” Nor can the combination of all the waves ever describe the ocean as it truly is.

Even the spiritual masters, enlightened though they are, cannot express fully through their physical bodies the realization they enjoy inwardly. Infinity can never be more than hinted at through a finite vehicle.

Above the human level exist angels, or advanced astral beings. These devas, as they are called in Sanskrit, are less highly evolved than spiritual masters, even if a master is still living on this earth, for the devas are still evolving spiritually, whereas a master has transcended evolution itself. The devas hasten their evolution by stooping down to help human beings. To pray to a deva or angel for help need no more imply lack of faith in God than would a request for help from a brother or sister instead of taking all of one’s problems to one’s parents.

The universe abounds with innumerable entities
Indeed, the Supreme Spirit seldom, if ever, intervenes directly in the affairs of man. It may be compared in this sense to a power station, the voltage of which must be stepped down by transformers so as not to incinerate the wiring in people’s homes. The universe abounds with innumerable entities that actively direct the growth of plants and of living creatures, the manifestation of new species, and the working out of individual and group karmas.

The majority of these astral entities, whom we might call “nature spirits” or even “astral functionaries,” thrive on love, and give us more energy if we offer them our love and appreciation. If they feel unloved and ignored, they withdraw in much the same way people do when their expressions of good will are misunderstood.

The more love we give out, the more all things respond, reciprocating our feelings with harmony and abundance. Indeed, to express love toward the lower astral “deities” is, in the great scheme of things, one way of sharing God’s love, particularly if, by expressing that love, we are offering appreciation to Him, above all, for His inexhaustible bounty.

Human beings, even if unenlightened, express the Infinite Consciousness more fully than do the lower animals. Having achieved some measure of self-awareness, human beings have a duty to help uplift creatures on lower levels of evolution. Kindness to animals helps them in their spiritual unfoldment and helps us, too, for it increases our attunement to the Source of All Love.

A need for heroic dedication
It’s important, at the same time, to remember what Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita—“Those who worship the lesser gods, go to their gods. Those who worship Me (the Infinite Consciousness), come to Me.” He is referring to the different grades or levels among the forms used by devotees to focalize their devotion. Not all of these forms lead to the inner purification, and the deepening awareness and love, which gradually lead the mind to perfect stillness within.

To find God takes serious effort: the sincere offering of every thought and feeling up to Him. Ultimately, you have to offer your own self. The Bhagavad Gita tells us that God is pleased with any sincere effort to know Him, but that same scripture reminds us that if we want to know Him, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that the task is easy. Only by heroic dedication can we reach the spiritual heights; not, be it noted, by mere belief.

A quest for transcendence
The ultimate purpose of visualization and devotional images is to lift the mind into communion with the Absolute. Always, the quest must be for transcendence. Paramhansa Yogananda used to say, “Even if God comes to you in vision, as for example the Divine Mother, try to see shining in Her eyes the consciousness of Infinity. Don’t be attached to form of any kind, but concentrate on achieving union with the Absolute.”

In light of Yogananda’s statement, it would be well to add that the deeper a person’s devotion to God, no matter what his religion, the less interested he or she will be in its outer forms and symbols. Why, indeed, study the advertisements for a product when you have the product itself in your hands? As your devotion grows, you will naturally incline to seek God more in the formless Self within.

Formlessness is the higher reality. Saint Teresa of Avila in Spain once had a vision of what she called the “formless Christ.” Her spiritual confessor expressed doubt. How could Jesus appear without form? He found corroboration, however, in the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, foremost among Christian theologians. The formless Christ, St. Thomas had written, is indeed the higher spiritual experience.

I myself, on entering a Hindu temple, prostrate with love and devotion before the form I see displayed there, but afterward I close my eyes and meditate on the formless Spirit within, for which those forms are but symbols. I worship above all that One who resides in my own heart. For the true temple is the human body.

Behind all their symbols, what all true religions teach is communion with God and the upliftment of the individual’s consciousness into ever-broader, ever-deeper perceptions of Truth. The devotee who at first loves God as his Divine Mother, and visualizes Her in a human form, comes in time to perceive Her everywhere: formless, infinite, and omnipresent.

From: The Hindu Way of Awakening, The Promise of Immortality, and Rays of the Same Light, Crystal Clarity Publishers; and the 1996 talk, Kriya and the Evolution of World Religions.

Growth: “The secret of growth lies in finding more and more strength inside yourself.”  Eastern thoughts—Western Thoughts by Swami Kriyananda.

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6 Comments »

  • michael vera says:

    I could really respond and feel this article hit home. To respect all forms of spiritul manifistations is the first step in accepying all religions. After that, comes the worshiping of all into formlessnes.

  • chhaya says:

    Really good one. thank you very much…for making it available for free

  • Richie Perl says:

    Might there be a danger of “stopping” one’s devotion at the
    ‘lesser” deity’s level?

    Wouldn’t that be the same as idol worship?

    Peace and Blessings!

  • S K Bhanj says:

    The article is very interesting in explaining how to visualize God in different forms particularly how visualizing God as the Mother could ultimately lead us to the formless infinite. Thanks for the clarity,

    Bhanj

  • Anand says:

    Thank you for this article, it is very helpful. I,for example, will often invoke certain gods or goddesses and sometimes ask them for a favor and make them an offering. But I have already opened the “work” with prayer to the Source,my ancestors,teachers,gurus,etc.To value the devas is good,they reflect more of God’s greatness,and so remind us of the Infinite Spirit who has created all things. But “salvation” can only come from the Source Consciousness.

  • Willaim Ian Schemers says:

    I loved this talk. I could hear Swami’s voice in my mind as I read it.
    Thank you for publishing it online. I feel so blessed by my contacts with Ananda. They have made my life so much richer and my spiritual life complete. I am a Christian and a regular church attender who considers his home to be Ananda and his church a mission field.
    Peace and Blessings, Bill

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