07. Setting Up Your Altar
You will likely find that your japa and kirtana are especially effective when done before an altar. Lord Krishna and His pure devotees are so kind that they allow us to worship them even through their pictures. It is something like mailing a letter: You cannot mail a letter by placing it in just any box; you must use the mailbox authorized by the government. Similarly, we cannot imagine a picture of God and worship that, but we can worship the authorized picture of God, and Krishna accepts our worship through that picture.
Setting up an altar at home means receiving the Lord and His pure devotees as your most honored guests. Where should you set up the altar? Well, how would you seat a guest? An ideal place would be clean, well lit, and free from drafts and household disturbances. Your guest, of course, would need a comfortable chair, but for the picture of Krishna’s form a wall shelf, a mantelpiece, a corner table, or the top shelf of a bookcase will do. You wouldn’t seat a guest in your home and then ignore him; you’d provide a place for yourself to sit, too, where you could comfortably face him and enjoy his company. So don’t make your altar inaccessible.
What do you need for an altar? Here are the essentials:
- A picture of Srila Prabhupada.
- A picture of Lord Chaitanya and His associates.
- A picture of Sri Sri Radha-Krishna.
In addition, you may want an altar cloth, water cups (one for each picture), candles with holders, a special plate for offering food, a small bell, incense, an incense holder, and fresh flowers, which you may offer in vases or simply place before each picture. If you’re interested in more elaborate Deity worship, ask any of the ISKCON devotees or write to Temple Services.
The first person we worship on the altar is the spiritual master. The spiritual master is not God. Only God is God. But because the spiritual master is His dearmost servant, God has empowered him, and, therefore, he deserves the same respect as that given to God. He links the disciple with God and teaches him the process of bhakti-yoga. He is God’s ambassador to the material world. When a president sends an ambassador to a foreign country, the ambassador receives the same respect as that accorded the president, and the ambassador’s words are as authoritative as the president’s. Similarly, we should respect the spiritual master as we would God, and revere his words as we would His.
There are two main kinds of gurus: the instructing guru and the initiating guru. Everyone who takes up the process of bhakti-yoga as a result of coming in contact with ISKCON owes an immense debt of gratitude to Srila Prabhupada. Before Srila Prabhupada left India in 1965 to spread Krishna consciousness abroad, almost no one outside India knew anything about the practice of pure devotional service to Lord Krishna. Therefore, everyone who has learned of the process through his books, his Back to Godhead magazine, his tapes, or contact with his followers should offer respect to Srila Prabhupada. As the founder and spiritual guide of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, he is the instructing guru of us all.
As you progress in bhakti-yoga, you may eventually want to accept initiation. Before he left this world in 1977, Srila Prabhupada authorized a system in which advanced and qualified devotees would carry on his work by initiating disciples in accordance with his instructions. At present there are many spiritual masters in ISKCON. To learn how you can get in touch with them for spiritual guidance and association, ask a devotee at your nearby temple, or write to the president of one of the ISKCON centers listed at the end of this book.
The second picture on your altar should be one of the païca-tattva, Lord Caitanya and His four leading associates. Lord Chaitanya is the incarnation of God for this age. He is Krishna Himself, descended in the form of His own devotee to teach us how to surrender to Him, specifically by chanting His holy names and performing other activities of bhakti-yoga. Lord Chaitanya is the most merciful incarnation, for He makes it easy for anyone to attain love of God through the chanting of the Hare Krishna mantra.
And of course your altar should have a picture of the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Lord Sri Krishna, with His eternal consort, Srimati Radharani. Srimati Radharani is Krishna’s spiritual potency. She is devotional service personified, and devotees always take shelter of Her to learn how to serve Krishna.
You can arrange the pictures in a triangle, with the picture of Srila Prabhupada on the left, the picture of Lord Chaitanya and His associates on the right, and the picture of Rädhä and Krishna, which, if possible, should be slightly larger than the others, on a small raised platform behind and in the center. Or you can hang the picture of Radha and Krishna on the wall above.
Carefully clean the altar each morning. Cleanliness is essential in Deity worship. Remember, you wouldn’t neglect to clean the room of an important guest, and when you establish an altar you invite Krishna and His pure devotees to reside as the most exalted guests in your home. If you have water cups, rinse them out and fill them with fresh water daily. Then place them conveniently close to the pictures. You should remove flowers in vases as soon as they’re slightly wilted, or daily if you’ve offered them at the base of the pictures. You should offer fresh incense at least once a day, and, if possible, light candles and place them near the pictures when you’re chanting before the altar.
Please try the things we’ve suggested so far. It’s very simple, really: If you try to love God, you’ll gradually realize how much He loves you. That’s the essence of bhakti-yoga.