The Vedic Concept of God in all its aspects

  • By Swami Mukhyananda
  • November 2002
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Courtesy & copyright Prabuddha Bharata   
The article has two chapters, one is pre-Vedanta & two is Vedanta & after.

Pre - Vedanta

From the most ancient times man all over the world has conceived of a powerful being or beings, supernatural, or quasi supernatural, controlling the affairs of the world. These conceptions have varied from time to time, and from clime to clime, but the basic idea of a powerful controller has remained, whether conceived crudely or in a refined manner. It was man’s inherent curiosity to understand himself and his environment, and his need for physical and psychological succor in a strangely hostile and benevolent environment that gave rise to a conception of God. These are the factors again which have stimulated his enquiry into the nature of God and His relationship to the universe and its beings. These conceptions of God have evolved over the ages simultaneously with the growth in the knowledge of man about himself and the surrounding nature, and influenced by social and political developments.

Primitive Conceptions
In the beginning, conceptions of God were of the character of just response to stimuli from external environment-in other words, instinctive. Because they were instinctive, the primitives at times had profound intuitive glimpses of Truth, which they could not fully understand or rationally formulate. They could not separate them from other crude tribal conceptions at the intellectual level. But they gave very direct and forceful expressions to these glimpses.

However, God’s existence was assumed, based on faith that was never questioned. A conscious enquiry into God as the cause of the universe sets in at a much later stage, and that again in only some parts of the world and some civilizations. For the rest, conceptions of God rested on the stimuli-response basis, sometimes reinforced by sublime mystic insights and prophetic utterances. As such they could not have any universal rational appeal or philosophical and scientific value. They had only religious value to the followers of different cults and faiths, affording them psychological and emotional satisfaction. Even where a rational enquiry was instituted, in most cases such enquiries could not get free from the hold of religious theology. They then got involved in religious terminology and symbolism, and gradually relapsed into dogmatic and creedal sectarian views, because passions and prejudices-racial, tribal or national-prevented the growth of a universal vision.

Three Stages in the Conception of God
In the early stage, we find that man and his world are the central theme of the picture, and the God who created them intervenes physically in the affairs of humans. He has all the qualities of goodness and failings of humans, only on a large scale, but is powerful. The anthropomorphic conceptions of humans, their desires and passions, cling to him. He has a definite form, has an abode has human qualities and is moved by hatred and jealousy, has likes and dislikes, favors some and pours his wrath on others. He has his sons, daughters, angles, prophets, chosen people, and so on. And Satan opposes him. He is like a powerful autocratic king who does not brook other gods or any opposition.

It is only at a later stage that man tries to shed his anthropomorphism and gradually rises to a purer conception of God as the source, sustenance and refuge of the whole universe and all its beings, human or non-human. God is divine. In Him all things, animate and inanimate, live, move and have their being, and He loves all His creation equally. But He is still a person based on faith and generally male.

At the third stage, man shifts from human-created conceptions of Personal God to Truth-centered philosophical enquiry. God sheds even His-ness and remains as the Truth and ground of the phenomenal universe, the infinite impersonal spiritual Reality in all Its glory, inspiring the functioning of the universe and its beings from within, and receiving their homage as the Source. It is the home to which all will return in the end for rest. The final rest is achieved when the individual being realizes its unity and identity with the universal Reality. This also means cessation of all outward movements. There is no duality in the Infinite, and hence no movement no want no fear or sorrow: What delusion what sorrow can there be to him who realizes the oneness of all Existence? It is Peace that passeth understanding; para shanti (supreme Peace); moksha (freedom from all limitations); and nirvana (cessation from all phenomena).

The Uniqueness of Vedic Conceptions
We find all these three types of conception of God-especially the second and third stages-reflected in the Vedic literature. Yaska, an ancient Vedic etymologist, classifies them in his Nirukta: the anthropomorphic or natural (adhi-bhautika), the divine or supernatural (adhi-daivika), and the philosophical or transcendental (adhyatmika), culminating in the highest conception of the absolute spiritual Infinite (nirguna Brahman) in Vedanta or the Upanishads which form the last portion of the Vedas.

In comparison with the conceptions of God in other parts of the world, the conceptions in the Vedic literature-the earliest extant living literature in the world-are unique in that a sort of enquiry or conscious quest is associated with them from the very beginning. They are not mere groping apprehensions or instinctive beliefs. The conceptions poised of a Personal God are often questioned and analyzed deliberately. Progressively new solutions deliberately. Progressively new solutions are offered to overcome logical difficulties and to satisfy psychological and emotional needs.

Another line of enquiry runs parallel to these conceptions to meet the philosophical requirements of Truth and the actual existence of a supreme divine Being. These two conceptions-religious and philosophical, the Personal God (deva) and the Impersonal Reality (sat)-run parallel, meet, intermingle, and coalesce. As reflected in all Hindu thought, all through the Vedic literature the approach to problems is synthetic and comprehensive. The approach is inclusive and not exclusive taking care not to leave any loose ends. The conception of God leads to the conception of the absolute Reality (Brahman). Again God is derived from and treated as the phenomenal manifestation of the absolute Reality, giving God thus an existential status. They are two aspects of one and the same Reality Brahman (the infinite spiritual Reality): Dual the manifestations of Brahman, the formed one and the formless one. They are the saguna (phenomenal or with attributes) and the nirguna (noumenal or absolute) aspects of one Brahman. Saguna

Brahman is Personal God, the Creator and Lord of the universal (Ishvara), possessed of all divine qualities; and nirguna Brahman is the pure spiritual Ground of the universe, which gives substance to the universe and makes its manifestation possible.

To be more accurate, Brahman the single Reality, appears to us in Its phenomenal aspects as God, universe, and the living beings while remaining all the times as the impersonal Reality, their essence and substratum. Brahman is called Ishvara when thought of with maya or prakriti, Its inherent creative divine Power. In other words, when the creative divine Power maya is kinetic as prakriti, Brahman is seen as Ishvara. It is this divine Power again which manifests as the universe on the substratum of Brahman. And according to the Vedic thought this phenomenal appearance of the universe is evolutionary in character, with God presiding (adhyaksha) over and evolving it through cosmic law and order in terms of Truth (rta and satya). Satya (derived from sat, Existence, Truth Reality) is never haphazard; It is always perfect and orderly and the path to the Divine is paved with Truth. Hence law order and reason are inherent in the universe and these are also the means through which we can discover the Truth or Realit.

Nature and Definite of God
In Vedanta, therefore God should not be taken merely as an extra-cosmic Creator of the universe, creating the universe out of nothing by an act of will as in Semitic religions. Neither is God a mere He. He is both personal and impersonal. He is only a convenient description to show that God is a conscious being (chaitanya) and not an inert existence (jada). As such God can be equally described as She or It, and can be thought of in all relationship such as father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, master, lord, friend, and even as enemy (in the case of Ravana for example), to establish emotional communion with the Divine to suit one’s nature. From different standpoints God in Vedanta is extra-cosmic, intra-cosmic and supra cosmic as the pure non-dual absolute Reality, in relation to which no relativity or any touch of duality can be posited. He is also transcendental and a cosmic (nishprapancha).

God is also the infinite spiritual Reality (Brahman) from which the universe emerges, in which it rests, and into which it merges back, leaving no trace behind, like waves in the sea. The Taittiriya Upanishad defines Brahman precisely in this manner. The universe is not something apart from God either in substance or in existence. God is to be meditated upon as the tajjalan in silence, says the Chandogya Upanishad. It is the same idea as in the Taittiriya, but put in an aphoristic formula, using the first syllables of the words: Tasmin jayate liyate aniti (That in which the universe is born, in which it merges, in which it vibrates/breathes/lives). The Vedanta Sutras begin the enquiry into the nature of God or Brahman (athato brahma-jijnasa) with this very definition: Janmadi asya yatah, That from which the origin and so on of this manifested universe.

Evolution of the Concept of God in the Vedas
After this brief introduction, we shall now try to trace the evolution of the conception of God in Vedanta from the early Vedic times. By this we do not mean any chronological development of the conception but only logical and psychological since the various conceptions overlap from the earliest period from time to time. Just as in modern times too various conceptions of God exist side by side, even at that time they existed side by side. In historic times too among Vedantic systems the subtle philosophy of Advaita (non-dualism) came first to prominence next Vishishta-advaita (qualified non-dualism) and then Dvaita (dualism) to spread it among the common people. It is also said that krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa collected and rearranged the Vedic hymns (samhitas) in ancient times and classified them into the present four Vedas to serve different purpose. So we can only seek to trace a logical and not a chronological evolutionary process in the Vedic literature.

(a) Vishvakarman: The first logical conception of God in the Vedic literature is that of Vishvakarma (the architect and builder of the universe): Who is our Father our Creator, maker; who every place doth know and every creature. By Whom alone to gods their names were given; to Him all creatures go to ask Him. He builds the universe, just as a carpenter builds a house from wood (as in early times). But then questions arose: Where was the material of the building? Where were the living being? Does He evolve these things out of Himself? At the time of creation what was His basis? How and whence did He start creation the great Vishvakarman, the Seer of all? How could He extend the sky above and the earth below? His eyes are everywhere, His face is everywhere, and He is of all hands and of all feet. He that one God moves His hands and wrings [imagination] and creates the sky and earth. What was that forest and what was that tree (material) out of which have been manufactured the earth and sky? O wise ones, enquire basis He created the universe.

(b) Hiranyagarbha: The enquiry was made and we come across the next conception of God as the Hiranyagarbha, He who has the luminous germ of the universe (hiranya = [brilliant like] gold; garbha = womb, foetus, germ). That is Mahat or the cosmic Intelligence has the germ of the universe within Himself (as it were in His womb). This could be compared to the hen’s having the egg within itself created out of its own body. This cosmic germ or egg (anda) comes out of Hiranyagarbha, evolves and manifests as the universe with all its beings. Hiranyagarbha is also known as Brahma (the great Creator) and the universe is His cosmic egg, called brahmanda. Prajapati the lord of creatures is also one of the epithets of Hiranyagarbha/Brahma.

In the beginning Hiranyagarbha alone flourished and He was Lord (pati) of all that was born. This earth He settled firm, and heaven established. He is the giver of life and strength whom all gods and beings worship and obey; whose light and shade are life and death;…… who by His own glory is the one Lord of all that breathes and is their ruler…. What other God than He shall we alone with oblations?

When it develops into a chicken the egg resembles its parent. Similarly, Hiranyagarbha also must have a similarity to the universe. As such He is called Virat in His cosmic form. He is Brahma the vast. From different functional points of view Hiranyagarbha is called differently, such as Virat, Brahma, Mahat, Mahan Atman, Sutratman and Prana. Just as the hen is both outside the egg, and again is potentially in the egg, Hiranyagarbha also is both within and without the universe and encompasses it as well. He is extra-cosmic, and also intra-cosmic. That is, He is within the cosmos as Mahat and the cosmos is within Him as Mahat in a subtle germ form. The seed is in the tree, and the tree is in the seed in a subtle form.

(c) Purusha: But like the hen and its egg, which develops into the chicken do the two. Hiranyagarbha and the universe, exist separately? Then where do they exist? Or is Hiranyagarbha immanent only and is exhausted in the universe? And such other questions begin to impinge on the mind. The answer, already latent in the conception of Hiranyagarbha, is made explicit in the conception of the Purusha (the supreme Being). When the conception of the Purusha arose, sometimes Hiranyagarbha was considered as proceeding from the Purusha, and evolving the universe from within as its inner soul or Sutratman. ‘The Purusha-Sukta’ declares:

This entire universe and its beings are only a part a quarter of the Purusha; three quarters of the Purusha transcends all manifestation (Padoasya vishva bhutani tripadasya amritam divi). All this whatever exists is Purusha only, whatever was in the past and whatever will appear in the future (Purusha evedam sarvam yat bhutam yat chabhavyam). It is a reflection of His glory (Etavanasya mahima); He far excels His glory (Ato jyayamshcha purushah). The Virat is born from the Purusha-the manifested cosmic universe (Tasmat virat ajayata).

Like waves in the sea the universe arises from the Purusha. The waves are only a small part on the surface and the vast sea beneath is wave less, and is the support and substance of the waves. The form is only a condition or state of the sea, and not a separate thing in Itself apart from the sea.

In these three conceptions of Vishvakarman, Hiranyagarbha and the Purusha, we have the conceptions of God as extra-cosmic, intra-cosmic and supra cosmic, and as the source of the universe. Vishvakarman is extra-cosmic, standing outside the universe and building it as it were; Hiranyagarbha is both extra-cosmic and intra-cosmic. The universe is part and parcel of Him, and though manifesting outside of Him, it comes out of His own being and is similar to Him in being and nature. It is not something separate from Him. Nor is He separate from it; He is the Virat, He activates it from within as the cosmic Energy (prana) or cosmic Ego (mahan atman). Purusha is supra cosmic and is the source of the universe. The universe is only a part of His glory and is not an entity different from Him; it is like the sun and its rays, the sea and its waves. We may note that Vishvakarman is personal; Hiranyagarbha is cosmic and personal; and Purusha is supra cosmic and personal-impersonal, which later on paves the way to the conception of the absolute impersonal Advaita.

(d) Aditi and Vak: Along with these conceptions of God in masculine terminology, we also find in the Vedas God conceived in feminine terms. The conception of Aditi, the Mother of gods, as the all-pervasive Infinite is significant. Says Max Mueller in his English translation of the Rig Veda: ‘Aditi, an ancient god or goddess, is in reality the earliest name invented to express the Infinite; not the infinite as the result of a long process of abstract reasoning, but the visible Infinite, visible by the naked eye, the endless expanse, beyond the earth, beyond the clouds, beyond the sky’. The root meaning of Aditi is boundless’, ‘unbroken’, ‘indivisible’ or ‘infinite’. The Rig Veda describes Aditi in these terms: ‘Aditi is the celestial sphere; Aditi is the intermediary space; Aditi is the mother, the father, the son; Aditi is all gods, the five classes of beings, the created, and is again the cause of creation.’ (1.89.10)

Similarly Goddess Vak (Word or Logos personified) is conceived as the all-pervading divine Power, which empowers and animates all gods and beings. She is the saguna aspect of Brahman (Ishvara). In the Rig Veda Vak declares:

I move about in the form of Rudras, Vasus, Adityas, and all gods…. I am the Queen of the whole universe, the bestower of all wealth. I am the knower of the Truth, the first among the worshipful. The gods have placed me in various regions, as diverse are my abodes, and I exist in various living beings. All things eat, breathe, see and her only through me… I teach gods and men the highest Truth [compare Kena Upanishad, 4.1]. I make them great….I have entered the heaven and earth and all beings and exist in numerous ways….Having created all the words and beings, I move freely like the wind. I thus exist in my glory above the skies and on the earth. (10.125)

In the foregoing conceptions of God, and also that of Narayan (the supreme Being residing in all being as the Self), which is similar to that of Purusha, there is an echo of God as infinite and impersonal and as the indwelling Self of all beings, a view that later developed in the Upanishads as the impersonal spiritual Infinite, Brahman.

Side by side with these evolutionary cosmic conceptions, we find two other streams of thought all of which later culminated in a confluence, a grand synthesis. This synthesis is reflected even in the Rig Veda in the famous dictum: ‘Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti, Truth/ Existence is One; the sages describe It in various ways.’ (1.164.46)

Concept of God and Gods as Rulers of the Universe

While thus the middle stream of Vedic thought seeks a Personal-Impersonal God in relation to the universe on a logical basis, giving Him impersonal functional names, a side stream running parallel to it seeks psychological satisfaction in conceiving various personal gods, phenomenal aspects of divine Power, who intervene in human affairs look after their welfare, satisfy their emotions, and control the forces of nature. These are gods like Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, Vayu and Surya. Even in this conception their personality is vague. Often they are embodiments of the forces of nature, or their controllers or presiding deities. Natural objects like fire, wind, sky and earth form their bodies and they, their inner soul. They are the guardians of the universe (Lokapalas), performing different functions. These gods may be liked to government functionaries in the governance of the universe. Though the repository of all power, the government remains personal-impersonal and operates through personal functionaries like the king and ministers to whom the powers and delegated. they act on behalf of the government in a personal manner, controlling different departments.

The supreme God stands for the king, who is the sovereign as well as the highest functionary. He is the supreme Ruler of the universe; and He delegates His power to other gods. In His personal aspect God rules from outside, as it were; but in His impersonal aspect He controls things from within as the inner Ruler (Antaryamin), pervading everything as the great cosmic Law (ritam brihat). According to the Katha Upanishad, He is in man, in the gods, in the space in the sky; He is in whatever is born in water, born on earth, born in space and born in heavens. He is the great cosmic Law. His great cosmic Power (prana) vibrating the whole universe, along with everything in it, is projected forth (yadidam kincha jagat sarvam prana ejati nihsritam – 26.2). He is the inner law of being of things, of all that exist, and none can transgress it. He is the great Fear (mahad bhayam) as the cosmic Law, which everything obeys implicitly. He is like a raised thunderbolt (vajramudyatam) for fear of whom all the forces of nature, all the other gods, perform their respective functions. For fear of Him the fire burns, the sun shines, the rain pours, the wind blows and death stalks everywhere.’ (2.6.3)

By the force of the immutable Law (prashasana) of this abiding supreme Reality the sun, the moon and the earth (and all other things in the universe) are held in their proper places and perform their functions duly. He is the unseen immortal Ruler abiding within all these beings as their Self and controls them (yah sarvanti bhutani antaro yamayati esha te atma antaryami amritah – 3.7.15).

God and Gods as the Self
Thus by a gradual penetration of exterior gross manifestations, God is conceived as the very Self of all beings, which makes things what they are. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad declares, He who worships God or gods as apart from the Self does not know the truth; he is like a beast to the gods to be enjoyed. (1.4.10)

Interactions with other streams of thought lead to the gods being seen as aspects or manifestations of the same supreme Reality. They are raised to the status of the supreme God by turns and in hymns sung to them the other gods are described as subordinate to Him. Yaska explains the origin and nature of these gods:

Mahabhagyad-devataya eka atma bahudha stuyate; ekasya atmano anye devah pratyangani bhavanti; itaretara janmano bhavanti; itaretara prakritayah; karmajanmanah, atmajanmanh. …. Atma sarvam davasya. It is because of the great glory and infinite facets of the Divine that the one Self (Atman) is extolled in many ways. The other gods (devas) come to be sub-members of the one Self. They are mutually born from one another; they are of one another’s nature; they originate according to their function (karma); they are born of the Self…. The whole essence of any god is the Self (Atman only).

In different contexts the same God appears differently or is viewed differently as Indra, Mitra, Agni, Vayu, or Varuna. The one Essence (asuratvam) runs through all these gods (mahad devanam asuratvam ekam).

The Philosophical Quest for God as Reality or Truth
On the other side of the middle stream runs parallel to it the rational philosophic enquiry about the nature of the impersonal Reality or Truth (sat) which is the source of all God, gods, the universe and its living beings. In the very early stages of the Rig Veda (10.129) itself the rishi questions in the Nasadiya Sukta about the nature of the Reality before creation:

Then there was neither Aught nor Nought, no air or sky beyond.
What covered all? Where rested all?
In watery gulf profound? (1)

Nor death was their, nor deathlessness,
Nor change of night and day.
That One breathed calmly, self-sustained,
nought else beyond it lay. (2)

[it was neither nothingness, nor insentient material entity.

Who can predicate anything about the pre-creation nature of Reality? It remains indescribable in Its own nature:

Who knows, who ever told, from whence this vast creation rose?
No gods had then been born who then can ever the truth disclose? (6)

Whence sprang this world and whether framed by hand divine or no—
Its lord in heaven alone can tell, if even He can show. (7)

[ even the Lord is post-creation in conception.]

All our views are post-creation, even of God, for who saw the First One being born? But still from the phenomenal point of view some relationship between Reality and manifestation has to be conceived without which the mind, being itself an emanation from Reality, feels lost and restless as Reality impinges on it all the time. Hence the poser:

The kindling ray that shot across
the dark and drear abyss-
Was it beneath? Or high aloft?
What bard can answer this?

The answer follows:

Gloom hid in gloom existed first-
One sea, eluding view;
That One, a Void in Chaos wrapt
by inward fervor grew. (3)

Within it first arose desire,
the primal germ of mind;
Which nothing with Existence
links as sages searching find. (4)

One kindling ray from that One (tad ekam) gives rise to mighty creative cosmic forces:

There fecunding powers were found,
and mighty forces strove-
A self-supporting mass beneath,
and energy above. (5)