Knowledge about the ishta is spontaneous and easy; it happens by itself. Mirabai did not have to look for her ishta. When she was a little girl, a sadhu came to visit her father and stayed in the palace. He had a statue of Sri Krishna with him that Mira spontaneously accepted. She never felt anything other than acceptance: Mero to Giridhara Gopala doosaro na koi – “To me, only Krishna is dear, and no one else.” Why did she not go towards Rama or Shiva? Understand first what is meant by ishta. Ishta means ‘desired’, that which I desire mentally is ishta. In the same vein, a desired person is an ishta person or a desired god is an ishta devata. The one you desire is your ishta. You should know what you wish for. How would anyone else know? If you want many things, if you want Rama, but you also want Krishna, and you also wish for Devi, then it is difficult to fix the ishta. I faced this problem, too. Since childhood, Sri Rama has naturally been my ishta. Later, I joined a Shaiva community – after all, sannyasins are all Shaiva – and what mantra did I receive? That of Shiva! Now who is my ishta? I thought to myself, ‘I will keep Sri Rama as my ishta, but my ishta mantra will be panchakshari.’ So, my ishta mantra and my ishta devata are different. This is no loss to me, but a profit.
Here, ishta devata means that devata through whom you are trying to reach God. Ishta devata is that ladder by which you are trying to reach the roof; it is the road by which you are trying to reach your goal. Which road you take is something that each person must decide for themselves. Guru only gives you a mantra. He does not tell you of your ishta. Guru will not tell you to worship Shiva, Rama or Devi. No, he only gives mantra. The mantra may be Om Namah Shivaya, Sri Rama, Namo Narayana or Hrim Krim, it can be anything.
Ishta mantra is the name and ishta devata is the form. Name and form are the two appellations of God. A form is necessary in choosing an ishta. Which is the form that appeals to you, and what is your relationship with it? Is it a relationship of lover and beloved like Mirabai, a master-servant relationship like Hanuman, a mother and son relationship like Yashoda, or a friendship like Radha and Krishna? These are only examples that I am giving you. You have to see the relationship you have. Ishta mantra and devata can be the same or different.
There are no two Gods. Yes, the form of God that is chosen may be different. You have chosen to believe in one form, I have chosen to believe in another, and somebody else has chosen yet another form. In our minds and brains there can be different portraits of God. Just as the light of the sun appears to be red through red glass, blue through blue glass, yellow through yellow glass, green through green glass and white through white glass, the fact is that the sun is none of these. Similarly, there is a different picture or form of God in every person’s mind: Jaki rahi bhavana jaisi, prabhu murata tina dekhi taisi - “As is one’s sentiment, so is one’s perception of the form of divinity.”
When God incarnates, He takes some form. Whenever God has granted someone a vision of Himself, it has been in some form. Whenever a rishi has written a song of praise, it has been of some particular form and figure. This does not mean that God is many. You made rabadi from milk, I made peda and she made rasagulla, but the milk is the same. The forms of milk are many. The clothes that you are wearing all come from cotton. Many things have come out of cotton, a kurta, trousers, a sari or a bedspread, but the cotton remains cotton.
Similarly, God is not many; He is one. Rama and Shiva are both one. Meditate on Rama and repeat the mantra Om Namah Shivaya; there is no conflict between the two. The stories may have differences, Shiva lives in Kailash while Rama lives in Ayodhya; however, when you are meditating on the truth, there should not be confusion of this kind.
I believed in Sri Rama because I was born into the same clan as Sri Rama. I was born into the Ikshvaku clan, and Sri Rama was worshipped in our home. Shiva was also worshipped, and in Kumaon it is common practice to worship Devi. In Almora, Garhwal and Nainital all the people are worshippers of Devi. All of Uttarakhand worships Devi, and it is said that She took birth there as an avatara. As I was born into a kshatriya family of the Ikshvaku clan, I naturally liked the bow-bearing Sri Rama. Since childhood he has captivated me. He always carried a bow and arrow, and was a symbol of courage and bravery. To all, he was the model of beauty and decorum, an example of appropriate behaviour. However, I came into Shiva’s community. I liked Shiva too and then I came to understand that they are admirers of each other. Shiva praises Rama and Rama prays to Shiva. No problem!
For Sita’s wedding, which is going to happen here this year, a picture of Shiva and Parvati will be painted on the back wall of the wedding pandal. People will think, ‘Oh, how has Shiva come to be at a Vaishnava wedding?’ Actually, it is very important for Shiva to be present at the wedding of Sita and Rama. Shiva has even said to Sri Rama, “Whenever you are married, I will certainly be there.” It is even written in the Puranas that he had attended the wedding of Rama.
Do not become confused about ishta devata and mantra. Whatever form of God appeals to you, make it your own. Eat whatever sweet you like. After all, they are both made from milk; it does not matter. It is okay to repeat the mantra of Rama and worship the same form. Also, it is not essential that the form is worshipped; worship of only the name may be done. It has been emphasized in the Ramacharitamanas that the repetition of the name of Rama alone is enough, whether you worship the form of Shiva or Rama.
—24 October 1997