QUESTION: In the śāstras an elaborate process of Deity worship is described. If, however, someone is living alone in the West, should they do simple Deity worship, and if so what exactly is necessary for them to do?
ANSWER: In Vaiṣṇava culture, after taking dīkṣā, it is mandatory to perform Deity worship, because this is one of the purposes of taking mantra-dīkṣā. The mantra is nondifferent from Bhagavān and it also establishes our relationship with Bhagavān directly. Bhagavān is called mantra-mūrtikam, or one whose form is inherent in the mantra. So, as the mantra establishes one‘s relationship with Bhagavān and helps one to realize that relationship, worship of the Deity also helps to realize Bhagavān‘s form within the mantra. In this way mantra-japa and Deity worship support each other.
In addition, Deity worship fulfills the meaning of surrender. Because a Vaiṣṇava surrenders to Bhagavān at the time of initiation, it is his/her duty as a servant to render service to Bhagavān. A devotee does not eat food or use any article unless they are offered to Bhagavān. So, for these reasons, in addition to other things, Deity worship is a necessity. We know from Śrī Caitanya’s pastimes that He personally gave a Govardhana-śilā to Raghunātha Dāsa Gosvāmī to worship. Through this act He meant to convey this principle.
Worship should be done according to one‘s means. Generally householders can perform more elaborate and opulent worship than renunciates are able to do. If one does not have facility to perform elaborate worship, they can do simple worship.
The basic principles of worship are similar to those for welcoming a respected guest who comes to your house. Although there are mantras to be chanted in Deity worship, the essential item is the feeling involved. If a relative with whom you enjoy an intimate relationship and whom you respect and love comes to visit, how would you welcome and serve them? Deity worship is performed much the same mood.
Specific details about Deity worship are known from books like Hari-bhakti Vilāsa. There it is described how to wake up the Lord in the morning, how to bathe Him, perform ārati, offer food and so on. Food should be offered directly to Bhagavān, and then the prasāda is given to one‘s guru. Before worshiping the Deity, one should worship the photograph of one’s guru or the guru’s feet and by his permission one can worship the Deity. So either one can have the arcā-vigraha or one can worship a photograph, whichever is convenient or whichever one can perform depending on one’s facility or means. This is the basic principle.
Deity worship requires that at least one offering should be made in the morning. This is the minimum worship prescribed. This means that after rising in the morning, bathing/showering and applying tilaka, one should worship the Deity and then chant the mantra one has received from one’s guru. If one keeps a Tulasī plant, one should also perform tulasī-pūjā, offer obeisance to Tulasī, circumambulate her, and offer water. This is the basic sādhana in the morning. If one has time to perform additional worship in the evening, that is encouraged, but a minimum of one pūjā daily should be done. If one travels frequently, he can worship photographs of the Deity and take them with him wherever he goes.
If one does not have time because of one’s responsibilities, then at least one should offer incense, ghee lamp, some flowers and some fruit. This will only take a few minutes. Then one should chant one’s dīkṣā-mantras minimum ten times. This much must be done.
QUESTION: Worship of the Deity should be done with at least five articles: fragrance, incense, a ghee-lamp, flowers and food. If any article is not available, one should think of it in the mind and offer it. Is this correct?
ANSWER: Yes. At least this much should be offered. Out of these five articles, the only problem may be getting flowers. There should be no problem with the other four. Generally, if a particular article is not available, it should be offered mentally.
QUESTION: Should prayers also be recited at this time?
ANSWER: Generally, after performing ārati, one can recite certain prayers to the Deity. One can read some prayers from the Bhāgavatam, which is filled with prayers. At least one can recite the praṇāma-mantras of the Deities and pray to Bhagavān for His blessings that one can become His pure devotee. One should also beg for forgiveness for offenses committed. This much should be done.
QUESTION: Is it necessary for one who has Deities to have them installed?
ANSWER: As far as Śālagrāma-śilā and Govardhana-śilā are concerned, they are installed naturally. There is no need of installing them. Concerning Deities, installation basically means inviting Bhagavān. So if you have facility to install your Deities with proper mantras, you should do it. If not, you can just perform the worship for your Deities, invite Them to reside in your home, do a simple abhiṣeka (bathing for the purpose of installation) and then invite people to take Bhagavān’s prasāda. This is the simplest method of installation. In actuality, however, installation is not required. The ceremony is performed to instill faith in people’s minds toward the Deity.
Once the Deity is installed, worship should not stop or be interrupted. The Deity must be worshiped every day at least once. If one is personally unable to perform the worship for any period, one should arrange for someone else to do it. If even that is not possible, one should do it mentally.