The incarnate or embodied being for whom we feel an attraction and who represents the manifestation of the power of the supreme being, is called the ishta deva.
That supreme power controls and regulates the universe through its threefold controlling powers – will, action and knowledge. The divine powers or devatas presiding over these three aspects are also called ishta devas. Ishta deva is the manifested being or the symbolized glory of the supreme power. He is never separate from that. Just as the light of the sun, though regarded as separate from the sun, in reality is not so but represents expression of the glory of the sun, similarly, the glory of the supreme being or the ishta deva is never separate from it.
You must realize that your ishta deva represents the active expression of the power (karya shakti), the glory, the extension, the projection or partial incarnation of the supreme being. And remember also that the omniscience, omnipresence and the omnipotence of the supreme being are reflected in the same measure in him.
The supreme being represents the formless reality. The ishta deva is the reality with form, the guru is the paroksha satya (mediate reality) and the sadhaka is the seeker of reality. Just as from a hypothesis one law is derived, and from the law the conclusion, so through the guru the ishta deva is attained, and then through the ishta deva, intuitive realization of the supreme being.
I have told you that ishta deva is the name for both the formless reality and the reality with form. Therefore, knowing the one with form is also knowing the nirakara (formless). In other words, when the sakara ishta, or ishta with form, is realized in experience, then you take it that you have also realized the nirakara tattwa (formless reality).
The reality with form has two aspects. One is gross and the other subtle. The manifestation of the tattwa depends upon the intensity of devotion of the devotee. Similarly, the guru is the gross form. He assumes a subtle form depending upon the intensity of the disciple’s devotion.
Subtle form means that form which assumes a divine body and remains in regions beyond the senses or on divine planes. It means that those (ishta devas) have bodies also, but these bodies are not like those of the gross elements. They are naturally divine bodies, although during inner realization they look gross.
It thus follows that any one of us can, attaining yoga, assume a divine form wherein formless reality can descend assuming a form. This is not difficult. Even now the highest consciousness is in you but it is enveloped by the gross elements. Make your body pure by the fire of yoga (yogagnimaya). The gross will be destroyed and then dormant supreme consciousness, through the purified (yogagnimaya) body, will assume a form.
The same is the case with our ishta deva. But there is one difference and that difference is great indeed. Whereas here you have to purify the body by yoga and make it the medium for the expression of reality with form, there the ishta deva comes with the yogagnimaya body from the satyaloka, the region of truth. The difference then, is that you leave the gross and become divine, while he descends from the supreme and takes the divine body as the medium.
If you can make your body divine, then any being from satyaloka will leave the formless state and descend and make you the medium. Similarly in the case of a siddha who is purified by penance, whose body has become pure by the fire of yoga, any one specified being from the satyaloka will come down and make him the medium. This is called the ishta deva. On this basis we can have the vision of the gross form of the ishta.
Even though our ishta deva has a divine body, its support is the gross. Therefore, if he desires, he can manifest through the inner being, assume a form, make himself visible through the senses and also descend in your person. This depends on his will as well as on your sadhana.
If your heart is full of emotions, if you continue to feel constant discomfort and restlessness and his image often comes up before your mind’s eye, then certainly he will come before you. If you are full of his thoughts and all your mental tendencies remain suspended, then he will even descend in you.
The short point is that our ishta is in this world, on the earthly plane, but because his body is divine he is invisible and he is never attainable by those who are not tapasvins. But when he realizes that his devotee is doing penance for him, then without wasting a moment he appears.
But before that, he always sends his thoughts to assist in the welfare of the people, but to him alone who has initiated himself, as it were, into his devotion and is fully immersed in it. Not only does he manifest himself or descend, but at every step he inspires and guides the devotee who is steady and eager. Remember this.
And the devotee who at every stage of his sadhana and life is aware of his aspiration and help, is constantly assisted in his spiritual progress. He does not need only devotion but also this, that the devotee looks upon his devotion to him as his inspiration. Study this carefully.
And since you have taken initiation, whatever you have surrendered, whatever vows for sadhana you undertake or whatever acts you have committed, were all the result of his inspiration and you were only the medium of his thoughts. You have already become the medium or the good conductor of his thoughts.
Therefore, gradually your sense consciousness and body consciousness will be suspended, gradually your mental consciousness will also be suspended. Slowly your ego consciousness will be suspended, and finally your experiences of samskaras will be suspended. Ultimately, when the gross, the subtle and the causal are withdrawn, then he will either descend or enter into you.
Lastly, when under my instructions you will, while remaining on the gross plane, enter into the subtle; and under my instructions, again migrate from the subtle to the causal; and then again, under my instructions leave the causal and enter the plane of divine consciousness – then see for yourself what happens.
I say that you have to reach there, to the place about which I am giving you hints.
Do not be confused or frustrated. Do not be defeated, afraid or exhausted. Do not stop. Go on moving. I am moving with you. This four-plane journey is not difficult to undertake nor inaccessible; it is easily attainable but it is so unfamiliar, unseen, unheard of and unknown. It is not that you have never seen this path. You have seen it but only up to the three planes where the door of the fourth is closed. The way by which you have gone into the three planes extends only up to there. From there the way to the fourth plane is permanently closed. I know another way where these three stages are the same, but the fourth plane is also there and the gates are wide open.
I have often taken you to the gate of the second plane, which constitutes the transition stage between the first and the second planes. Tell me, how less successful have you been in that?
When I have led you up to the last stage of the first plane I can lead you still further. I also know that you are aware of this fact. Realize its truth and believe in it. I also can declare that if sometime I take it into my head to do so, then I can drag you there! Then why this delay? I know it but you do not.
I will have to make you practice some sadhana. Otherwise how would you continue the guru tradition? You will have to practice some sadhana so that you receive his grace fully and he may descend into you.
I repeat that water appears red in a red vessel, yellow in a yellow vessel and green in a green one. Real colour is only seen if the colour of the vessel and of the water are identical.
If the form, nature, sentiments, love, memory, inspiration, japa, purity and divinity of the ishta are transformed into love of humanity, then he will descend into you and express through you in his total unadulterated nature. His original essence will remain unchanged while expressing itself through you and will be seen by others also.
You have to mould yourself into the pattern of your ishta and for that purpose you have to purify your body, mind, speech and so on, by discipline. That is why I am making you practice sadhana.
And if I am given the choice, then I can immediately raise you above the three planes. But then you should not tell me that I had not purified your body, mind and every constituent of your being. I am your guru and you are my disciple. I know my duty, apart from considerations of your extraordinary and undivided love, inclinations and hopes, and that is what I am doing.
Therefore, in the name of the ishta deva, I ask you to remain awake.
And on the strength of his guarantee, I ask you to continue moving on.
And for the sake of his grace, I will tell you that you should constantly dwell within.
It is my advice to you that you should not go out, not go far, not indulge the senses, not be overcome by the six enemies, not go into gardens or bazaars. Do not seek for sweets, nor accept gifts or seek pleasures. Do not remain on earth or drink water or go on the fire or touch the wind – for you are going towards the high heavens. Understand this. You have to pierce the tripura (three planes) with the trishula (trident). Raise the Tripurari!
You have to go in, where there are two now, and then will be one. Then there would be the union of the formless and the one with form. But what concern is that of yours?
You have left the gross and are moving into the subtle plane. Wait for me at the temple of the causal plane. Do not go forward, for without me you will be lost on the causal plane. Until I come, remain on the subtle plane. I have told you this much. Now reflect on what I have said.
—Letter to a disciple, first published in Taming the Kundalini