Introduction to Deities
Deities are external, concrete symbols of God that are used for worship.
Deities can be three-dimensional statues or murties, or two-dimensional pictures or drawings. Abstract symbols of God include geometrical representations such as yantras, the saligram (form of Vishnu), or Siva lingam. Abstract symbols can also be either two- or three-dimensional.
Ganesha - remover of obstacles
While traditional yoga practices are spiritual (not religious) in nature, they are often associated with the Hindu religious deities because yoga originated in India where Hinduism is prevalent. Yoga practitioners can practice any religion, or none at all.
Why So Many Deities?
Each deity represents a different aspect of One Supreme God. Usually, Hindu Gods and Goddesses are mistakenly referred to in the West as the Hindu pantheon in which there are some 33 million different Gods or Goddesses being worshiped all at the same time. This is an incorrect understanding.
Man's mind is very limited and cannot exist outside the confines of time, space and causation. On the other hand, God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, everywhere and in everything, beyond space and time and therefore, beyond the understanding of mortal man's limited mind to comprehend. So to try to better understand the incomprehensible, each deity represents a different aspect of One God. These different aspects support many of life's mundane activities which makes God approachable and part of every moment of daily life - man is reminded of some aspect of God all through the day in various circumstances.
One example is the avatara Lord Rama. Lord Rama represents the descent of God into the perfect man. Family life can be very difficult in its day to day ups and downs, and Rama and his wife Sita represent the ideal personification of righteousness and responsibility for all families. They give householders someone to look up to and provide an example of a righteous way of living.
Another example is the goddess Lakshmi who represents wealth, money, and abundance. While it is not possible to entirely get away from money and live in the world, it is pretty much commonly agreed that worship of money and greed in and of themselves are a bad thing. The goddess Lakshmi gives us a way to remember that God is more important than money, from Her all wealth ultimately comes. And so, many people through the course of their day whenever they handle money are reminded of Lakshmi, and they think about the Lord and offer a silent prayer. This helps keep remembrance of God forefront in the devotee's mind and the quest for money in and of itself becomes less important.
Lakshmi - goddess of abundance
Worship of Deities
There are many ways to worship God. Each different religion or path of yoga has their own methods for worship. Worship of deities is part of the path of bhakti yoga.
Worship of murtis includes puja, worship with flowers, arati, homa, worship with fire, etc. More advanced forms of worship include reciting mantras, offering prayers, mental worship, and meditation on the Absolute form of God.
Homa - worship ceremony with fire
Idol Worship - False Idols?
It is common in the West to believe that worship of deities is worship of false idols. In fact, every major religion worships idols in one form or another. For example, Christians worship the cross and have many statues of saints in their churches. There are many other examples across many religions.
Christian symbol for Christ
Idol worship in every religion or spiritual practice has the same purpose - to develop devotion for God and to help the mind concentrate on God. The human mind needs a concrete symbol on which to concentrate. Beautiful images of God in whichever form they appeal to the devotee help the devotee develop feelings of love for the Lord. Since God is present in all things, it does not matter in which form the devotee seeks Him; there is only one God at the end of the search.
In the heart of a true devotee there can be no false idol because the Lord is present in every single thing that exists. However, deities and other sacred symbols are often used for worship because they are beautiful and invoke aspects of the divine, and therefore they are more powerful than other non-divine symbols that might be used.