What is the concept of God in Christianity and in Sanatana Dharma

  • By Dr. Subhasis Chattopadhyay
  • February 8, 2023
  • 3434 views
God, the Father-Yahweh.
  • What is the Problem of Evil and what is its relation to the Christian understanding of God? What is the Hindu understanding of God?

The word God is used very often. What does it mean in Christian and Indic contexts? Read on. 

 

What is the Christian concept of God?

All Christians hold that God is external to human beings and it is God or, YHWH (Yahweh) who has created humanity from nothing.

 

So all humanity is created and sustained by a merciful, all-loving God who is entirely different from all of us. Even after death, Christians hold, there remains a distinction between the individual soul and God.

 

Further, the Christian God is triune in nature --- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Son, that is, Jesus the Christ is co-eternal with the Father and in no way inferior to the Father. Jesus is both God and human at the same time.

 

Had Jesus not been crucified, there would be no atonement for the sins of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve are considered to symbolically represent the first humans that God created ex-nihilo --- from nothing. The sins of the first humans include pride and disobedience against God.

 

God according to Christianity is self-originated. There was nothing other than God ever. Time has been created by God. God is partly knowable (passible) and partly unknowable (impassible). God knows everything (omniscient) and is everywhere (omnipresent). So those who believe that there is no God are atheists.

 

A point to note is that the Christian understanding of God cannot explain why evil exists. The justification of the presence of sorrow and pain including natural disasters is known as theodicy. Christianity fails to offer a logical theodicy. The Christian concept of God gives rise to the Problem of Evil.

 

What is the Problem of Evil and what is its relation to the Christian understanding of God?

William Rowe (1931-2015) writing for the American Philosophical Quarterly in 1979, stated the Problem of Evil in this manner: 

 

“In some distant forest lightning strikes a dead tree, resulting in a forest fire. In the fire a fawn is trapped, horribly burned, and lies in terrible agony for several days before death relieves its suffering…” (337) 

 

So if God exists then why did not God stop the lightning from striking the dead tree in the first place? If God exists, why does God need a baby deer to suffer so horribly?

 

Because by definition, God is all-knowing, all-powerful and therefore, knows all futures possible even before a being comes into existence. Rowe’s is the classical illustration of the Christian Problem of Evil. 

 

So Christian intellectuals like the deconstructionist, John Caputo (b.1940) points out that the Christian conception of God is that theirs is a weak God. A God bound through love (‘hesed’) to humanity. Caputo’s book The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (2006) is one of the best books available to understand how the Christian understanding of God is very different from other Abrahamic religions and from our Dharma.

 

God is helpless to punish because the message of the New Testament is that God is Love. God propels human history and speaks to the seeker in a still small voice. Christ hangs in shame and helplessness from his Rood (Cross) writhing in agony at humanity’s brokenness. Evil, therefore, is a mystery within Christianity. It should be noted that God did not create evil or is less than all Good. 

 

God is the sovereign Good, perfect in Himself. Except in rare instances, God is addressed as a male.

 

What is the Hindu understating of God?

Our Shastras do not admit of an exterior God. Our Faith is not monotheistic but in all its various branches, our Dharma is monistic (Advaita).

 

So, the category of being atheistic does not even arise in our Dharma.

 

The Bhagavad Gita which is the touchstone of all Hindu Shastras will be quoted to show how our Dharma is monistic. The importance of the Bhagavad Gita is acknowledged within all branches of our Dharma so much so that seers as different as Adi Shankaracharya and Sri Abhinavaguptacommented on the Gita. Adi Shankaracharya was an Advaita Vedantin, admitting of no duality in his arguments against Buddhism. Buddhists subscribe to the theory of dependent origination (प्रतीत्यसमुत्पाद) and as is well known, Gautama Buddha was silent about the existence of God.

 

Notwithstanding the objections of Western polemicists of Buddhism, like Johannes Bronkhorst (b.1946), Buddhism too derives from our Dharma, and we consider the Sakya Muni as an Incarnation (Avatara) of Lord Vishnu.Sri Abhinavagupta was an ardent practitioner and commentator of Tantra in its forms as Kashmiri Shaivism. Acharya Avinavagupta’s voluminous Tantraloka and separately, the Vijñāna Bhairava Tantra clearly state that all the Tantric Deities and the Mahavidyas are within us. They are not exterior to us.

Our Dharma is therefore, essentially a non-solipsistic (non-selfish) turning inward where we aim to realize that the world outside is only a hat-trick played conjured by our own minds.

 

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) discovered phenomenology through his readings of the German Romantics who were familiar with our Shastras in their original Sanskrit. This has been illustrated by this author in his de Nobili Endowment Lecture in person, at Chennai in 2022 funded by the Jesuits of the Chennai Province. The point here is that even the most important philosophical movement which ushered in Modernism in Europe denies any external God since phenomenology derives from our Dharma. 

 

This last fact is not mentioned in standard textbooks on either Modernism or in texts on phenomenology. Now we turn to the Bhagavad Gita to illustrate the point that our Dharma does not agree with any subject/object distinction. In other words, we hold that we are the One already and due to perceptual errors cannot cognize or understand that we are One (शिवोऽहम्/Shivoham). There is no second. This one who types and the one who reads this are One already. There is nothing to attain, nothing to lose, nothing to find. Everything is Brahman.

 

Here are two passages from the Bhagavad Gita to prove that our Dharma is non-dual and does not admit of an external God. We hold that it is important to divinise ourselves for the Rig Veda commands us to be a god to worship God who is within us. Not outside of us.

 

The textual register God is used since English, being essentially a dualist language, has no better word for Brahman.

 

After the relevant quotes from the Bhagavad Gita, we will briefly quote other canonical scriptures to show how we do not admit of an external God who created us from nothing.

ब्रह्मार्पणंब्रह्महविर्ब्रह्माग्नौब्रह्मणाहुतम् |

ब्रह्मैवतेनगन्तव्यंब्रह्मकर्मसमाधिना || 24|| (Chapter4)

brahmārpaṇaṁ brahma havirbrahmāgnaubrahmaṇāhutam

brahmaiva tenagantavyaṁ brahma-karma-samādhinā

Brahman is the oblation; Brahman is the clarified butter, etc., constituting the offerings; by Brahman is the oblation poured into the fire of Brahman; Brahman verily shall be reached by him who always sees Brahman in all actions. (Translated by Swami Chinmayananda)

 

There is none other than Brahman. This is the message of the Bhagavad Gita and of all our Scriptures. There is but the One who manifests as the many. Our Agamas and Tantras too reiterate this Truth. Monism is the telos or goal of all our worship or dulia. The aim is to obliterate the difference between the worshipper and the worshipped.

 

In Chapter 6, Verse 5, the Bhagavad Gita declares:

उद्धरेदात्मनात्मानंनात्मानमवसादयेत्।

आत्मैवह्यात्मनोबन्धुरात्मैवरिपुरात्मनः॥६-५॥

uddharedātmanātmānaṃnātmānamavasādayet

ātmaivahyātmanobandhurātmaivaripurātmanaḥ

 

Let a man lift himself by his own Self alone, and let him not lower himself; for, this Self alone is the friend of oneself, and this Self is the enemy of oneself. (Translated by Swami Chinmayananda)

 

So, what or who is this Self which alone exists in the Gita and elsewhere? To understand this Self, we use cognate terms like Paramatman (परमात्मन्) and antaryāmin to speak of God. The word Paramatman can be parsed as parama + atman. While parama can be roughly translated to ‘supreme’ or, beyond; it is very difficult to translate the word ‘atman’; which does not mean either soul or only being. 

 

‘Atman’ can only be understood if we study it alongside the word, antaryāmin (अन्तर्यामिन्) --- That which regulates from within. Thus, we discard the notion of the Heideggerian Dasein or, the being in the world in the here and now separated from God. We hold that we are not 'star dust' but so to speak, God dust ourselves:

शृण्वन्तुबिश्वेअमृतस्यपुत्राआयेधामानिदिब्यानितस्थुः … (Shvetashvatara Upanishad , 2:5)

 

Swami Vivekananda translated this line as being a call to humanity to realise that we are“Children of immortal bliss”. We are not fallen beings, neither are we different from Brahman. Due to cognitive errors we cannot realise that we are ourselves divine. 

 

That is why we do not call deep thinking about the hard questions of life, philosophy (love for wisdom) but we call our experiential gradual realisation about our oneness with Brahman, Darshana. We slowly see the Truth and realise that It is One, though sages call it by many names, एकंसद्विप्राबहुधावदन्ति (Rig Veda).

 

Within the Indic faiths there does not exist the categorical imperatives of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). This does not automatically mean that absolute good and absolute evil also does not exist. To understand this, we need to be aware of a cornerstone of Indic philosophy --- the concept of anekāntavāda.

 

Anekāntavādaderives from the Vedic injunction that the Truth is perceived differently by different people, as quoted above. This is to say, that unlike Western philosophy our Darshana, accepts the existence of the excluded middle.

 

Western philosophy does not accept the excluded middle which therefore gives rise to various theistic and dualist ideas.

 

Within our Dharma such duality is not admitted, neither do we have the concept of monotheism or even polytheism. The discussion on the excluded middle is for another essay. It suffices to end this essay by pointing out that when someone talks of materialism, there is a presupposition of another entity (the Logos which is corporeal). Such a theistic position has been discarded by our seers because theism in all its forms cannot solve the Problem of Evil as the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948) rightly remarked that the Problem of Evil is the only worthwhile philosophical/theological Problem that needs solving in Western theistic and therefore, dualist philosophy/theology.

 

There is one last point about Christian thought today. Christian theologians are arguing for a fallibilist theology. They admit that their understandings of God are open to revisions and may be outright incorrect. This is because of problems arising out of mainly two lines of thought: finite beings, that is, humans, cannot ever understand an infinite being and of course, due to the existence of evil. Evil includes social inequalities and painful conditions and natural disasters.

 

Our Dharma which had been revealed to seers over aeons is not fallibilist. It is open to interpretation but is in no way uncertain; following it, even in times to come as in the past, the results will be the same. We know without doubt that:

ॐपूर्णमदःपूर्णमिदंपूर्णात्पूर्णमुदच्यते।

पूर्णस्यपूर्णमादायपूर्णमेवावशिष्यते॥

Om, That (Outer World) is Purna (Full with Divine Consciousness); This (Inner World) is also Purna (Full with Divine Consciousness); From Purna is manifested Purna (From the Fullness of Divine Consciousness the World is manifested),  Taking Purna from Purna, Purna indeed remains (Because Divine Consciousness is Non-Dual and Infinite). [See https://greenmesg.org/stotras/vedas/om_purnamadah_purnamidam.php accessed at 22:16 on 3rd February, 2023]

 

Brahman has revealed itself to us through our Shastras and seers. We are Brahman. There is no doubt about it.

 

Harih Om.

 

Author Subhasis Chattopadhyay has a Ph.D. in Patristics and the Problem of Evil in American Horror Literature from the University of Calcutta. His reviews from 2010 to 2021 in PrabuddhaBharata have been showcased by Ivy League Presses. He has qualifications in Christian Theology and Hindu Studies and currently teaches English Literature in the PG and UG Department of a College affiliated to the University of Calcutta. He also has qualifications in Behavioural Sciences.

 

To read all articles by author

 

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