The Vedic Concept of God in all its aspects

  • By Swami Mukhyananda
  • November 2002

Vedanta & After
Various questions that assail the mind of the Vedic investigator deliberately discussed, analyzed, and their solutions sought in the later Vedic literature-the Upanishads, which are called the Vedanta or the last portions of the corpus of Vedic literature. The thought-process of the Vedas as knowledge (from vid, ‘to know’) also reaches its culmination (anta) in the Upanishads. From this point of view also the Upanishads are called the Vedanta.

Experience the Central Core
What is the relationship between the One and the many? Where do both these aspects the noumenal and the phenomenal, converge? What is their relationship with the investigator? Is not the experiencer the central core in all these problems? The ultimate Reality, God in His personal or impersonal aspects all gods and nature itself-all these have a subject-object relationship with the experiencer. All conceptions of Reality are his. Without the experiencer, all talk about their existence becomes absurd; all problems become meaningless. For even to affirm negate doubt or characterize their existence, the experiencer is necessary. Then what is the nature of the experiencer? Is it that the secret of Reality, God and nature somehow lies hidden in the experiencer himself as his inmost and intimate essence? What is the nature of the experiencer, our inmost Self?

The Relationship between the One and the Many
The search for the Unity of all existence or Reality (Brahman) and Its realization in the Self (Atman, the locus of all experience) pre-dominate the Upanishads. Without the unity with the Self, the experiencing subject, Brahman merely remains an object an, incomplete objective infinite; and without the unity with Brahman, the Self is reduced to a point of mere individual subjective consciousness. It is soon realized that the subject and the object are the two poles of one and the same Reality. The external search for the absolute and infinite Brahman-which mind and speech fail to comprehend-culminates in Its discovery as the omnipresent Self of all existence, hidden in all things and beings, inspiring their functioning and that of the universe. Instead of being merely a remote inference and an object of logical thought-process, Brahman is intimately experienced as one’s innermost Self (antar-atman). Says the Shvetashvatara Upanishad: The one supreme divine Being, the attribute-less Absolute is hidden in all beings [as their inmost Self]. He is the all-pervasive, indwelling Self within all [and energizes the whole universe and inspires and guides its functioning], the witness of all their activities, and the Reality beyond the three gunas.

The sage Shandilya expresses his realization of the Self thus: This is my Self within the heart, smaller than a grain of rice than a grain of barely than a mustard seed, than a grain of millet or than the kernel of a grain of millet; this Self within my heart is greater than the earth, greater than the mid-region, greater than heaven, greater than all the worlds. This is Brahman. The Katha Upanishad declares: This Self hidden in the heart of all beings is smaller than the smallest particle and greater than the greatest entity. We find the same idea echoed in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad: ‘Subtler than the subtlest, the Creator abides in the minutest germ, manifests this whole variegated universe and also enfolds it within Himself…..

The Great Equation
The great equation ‘Atman = Brahman’ and vice versa, is discovered and declared in the maha-vakyas (great utterances) in the Upanishads. The Mandukya Upanishad declares: This Self is Brahman. The Brihadaran-yaka Upanishad points out that one can experience one’s Self to be Brahman, like the sages Shandilya and Vamadeva. But this ‘I’ is not the ego in me as the corporeal individual but the Essence that is in me, you, and all other beings and things as their substratum. Thou art That Reality, assures the Chhandogya Upanishad. The Isha Upanishad and the Bhagavadgita point out that it is not mere solipsism or subjective visualization of all beings and the universe in oneself. On the contrary it is a direct realization of one’s Self in all beings thus reinforcing each other and removing any mutual shortcomings. It is a direct awareness (aparoksha anubhuti) of the unity of all existence. Brahman is pure universal Consciousness within all, according to the Aitareya Upanishad. The source of all existence and experience, that Consciousness enables everyone to reveal (bha) himself.

Brahman and the Universe
According to the Taittiriya Upanishad, Brahman is of the nature of absolute Existence-Consciousness-Infinity. It is the basis of all relative existence, knowledge and boundless manifestation on the phenomenal plane. But from the absolute Infinite the relatively infinite universe has emerged without infringing the character of the infinite Brahman in the least, as a affirmed in the invocatory verse of the Isha Upanishad: Purnam-adah, purnam-idam, purnat purnam udachya; Purnasya purnam adaya, purnam-eva avashishyate. And as this universe has for its substratum Truth (satya-sat stands for Truth as well as existence, for Truth alone exists), it is phenomenally and rationally apprehended by the mind as an evolutionary process. The unmanifest, subtle avyakta projects grosser manifestations by stages guided by the cosmic Law and Order (rita). But it is not a straight-line evolution, but a cyclic process of evolution and involution, like the cycle of the seed and the tree. In the process, more and more of the hidden

Truth is manifested. There is no hiatus or disjunction anywhere in existence. It is the appearance of the continuous, unbroken (akhanda) Existence as different things at different levels, from the subtlest to the grossest, one leading to another (compare: H2O and its various from such as water, ice, vapor, frost, dew and fog). As the Katha Upanishad describes, than intelligence, and the Unmanifest (avyakta) (creative Power of the supreme Being, Purusha), is subtler than the cosmic Ego, and Purusha is subtler and more pervasive than the Unmanifest, avyakta; there is nothing higher that transcends the Purusha, the infinite. That is the culmination and that is the supreme Goal.

On the macrocosmic scale, the Ego is represented by Hiranyagarbha, and the Unmanifest by the inscrutable primal energy-matter, prakriti or maya, the great creative Power of Purusha as Ishvara, which is highly wonderful and indescribable (maha-adbhuta anirvachaniya-rupa). There is an interesting parallel in the Bhagavata: Receiving energy from Thee (the infinite Brahman), the Purusha (Ishvara) of infallible power, along with maya (avyakta), holds within Himself the Mahat (Hiranyagarbha or cosmic Ego), signifying, as it were, the embryonic state of the universe. Backed by the same maya, this Mahat projected from within itself the golden sphere of the universe provided with outer covering (that is, enclosed in different layers of cosmic existence of varying subtlety).

The Atman Is to Realized
Because everything of the manifested universe is Brahman, by knowing That-the self or Brahman-everything of this (phenomenal universe) becomes known; Therefore the Atman is to sought after is to be enquired into and realized; ‘O, dear one, the Atman is to be seen – the Atman, which is the direct and immediate Brahman, the inner most core of one’s being. Then knowing his true infinite immortal nature, man rises above all sorrow, all delusion, all fear (shoka, moha, bhaya) and remains in his blissful nature.

Interrelationship of Man, God and the Universe
Though from the noumenal (paramarthika) point of view everything is Brahman alone and there is nothing other than Brahman, from the phenomenal point of view we need to examine the mutual interrelationship of living beings (jivas), the universe (jagat) and God as the Lord of the universe (Brahman as Ishvara). What must be the attitude of man towards these and how should he conduct himself? These questions also occupy the mind of the Upanishadic rishis. On the basis of their insights, great thinkers built up systems of philosophy, all of which come under the name Vedanta. As already explained in these systems all the three aspects of God as extra-cosmic (Dvaita), intra-cosmic (Vishishta-advaita), and supra cosmic (Advaita) are propounded and paths of realization delineated.

These are not really mutually exclusive conceptions, but are only indicative of man’s psychic journey from the external to the internal until its culmination in the realization of the Atman, the supreme Reality, as the inmost core of his personality. These are different stages of psychic evolution and not external independent realities. The internal psychic states are projected externally as seen in a mirror or as in dreams where the ego projects its own universe which, thought internal, appears to be outside of oneself says Acharya Shankara in his Dakshinamurti Stotra. Similarly though we apprehend this projection of the universe empirically as an evolutionary process within an externalized space and time with a causal relationship, we need to remember that space, time and causality themselves are the products of maya, the principle of relativity and divine Power that makes the Absolute appear as relative.

Man’s personality is a viewing point, and his conception of the external world point and his conception of the external world depends on how he views himself. When the locus of his personality is in the body (deha) he finds there is a corresponding concrete external universe of which his body is a part and there is a Lord of the universe with a divine form and attributes, separate from the universe and its beings which are dependent on His will. This is Dvaita, dualism.

When the locus of his personality is in the living soul within the body (jivatman), he sees the universe animated by a Soul. That Soul is God, whose body is the universe and its living beings. The souls of all beings are parts of God, who is the universal Soul (paramatman), the Soul of souls. He controls the universe and the souls from within as the antaryamin or sutratman, just as the individual soul controls the body from within. This is Vishishta-advaita, qualified non-dualism.

Finally when the locus of man’s personality is in the Self the Atman transcending the body and soul the universe and God are transcended in Brahman, which is the inmost Self or the Atman in all. The bodies, which are parts of the universe, and the souls, which are parts of God, are seen merely as the manifested glory of the one Self or Brahman, the sole Reality the sole infinite spiritual Existence. This is Advaita, non-dualism.

Hanuman the great devotee of God in His incarnation as Shri Rama says to Him: ‘O Lord, when I look upon myself as the body you are the Master and I am Your servant; when I think of myself as a soul, I am a part of You; when I realize that I am the Self, verily I am You, this is my conviction.

These three main conceptions of Dvaita, Vishishta-advaita and Advaita are interspersed with several shades and grades of views according to man’s psychic or emotional necessities; but all those views are comprehended by one of these three main concepts.

God in Popular Religion
A part from these philosophic and quasi-philosophic conceptions, there are popular versions of these conceptions in the Itihasas and Puranas which Hinduism accepts as a secondary authority to meet the devotional needs and practical spiritual life of people at different stages of mental growth, understanding and capacities. These Itihasas and Puranas render abstract philosophic conceptions of Truth into picturesque and poetic, living deities with divine and philosophic attributes for the sake of worship and meditation in people’s daily life. They have given inexhaustible inspiration to art, architecture and sculpture; music and song; poetry and literature, in numerable hymns and joyful rituals and festivals and have permeated people’s lives through and through. In one word, they render philosophy into living religion.

According to the Kularnava Tantra, Those people of weak intellect who are not able to realize the absolute, attributeless Brahman are helped to think of it through improvised forms with attributes. The Mahanirvana Tantra has this to say with regard to Kali: To facilitate concentration of mind, to help in subtle meditation and to hasten the fulfillment of aspirations, the supremely glorious formless Kali, the Mother of Time is invested with forms consistent with Her attributes and functions.

The Evolution of the Concept of Deities
Brahman in relation to the universe is Ishvara, the Lord, with the threefold function of creation, sustenance and dissolution or re absorption of the universe. In relation to these three functions, He is a Trinity (Trimurti). These threefold aspects are personified into three separate deities: Brahma (Projector), Vishnu (Protector) and Shiva (Dissolver). They carry out the functions of srishti (projection), sthiti (protection / maintenance) and laya (dissolution). At the next stage, they are conceived as male deities, and the powers (shaktis) through which they function are personified into their female counterparts or spouses. Gradually, from philosophic conceptions they descend to be popular deities or gods with their own families and retinue (subsidiary powers). Then again the curve takes an upward turn and by a process of synthesis, abstraction and refinement each god is raised to the philosophic conception of Ishvara or the supreme Lord performing all the three functions of projection, protection and dissolution of the universe. Then He is identified as the manifestation of the impersonal Brahman, the supreme Reality. The female counterparts are also similarly sublimated to the power of Brahman, like maya and prakriti. Thus to the followers of Shiva, Vishnu, Ganapati, Surya, Kumara, and other deities, the respective deities cease to be mere subsidiary gods, but represent God (Ishvara) Himself, performing all the threefold functions. Ultimately, in their true nature they are thought of as, and identified with the supreme absolute Brahman Itself.

Similarly, those who conceive the supreme God as female (Devi) as Mother instead of as Father of the universe, identify the Devi with the conception of Ishvara and attribute to Her the threefold functions of the Divine, just as the followers of Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu and other gods do in the case of their deities. The Devi is then thought of as the maya Power of Brahman (Maha-maya, Shakti), and ultimately identified with the absolute Brahman (Brahma-mayi), based on the principle that Shakti and Shaktimat (possessor of Shakti) are non-different being inseparable. In the Tantric literature, Shiva (not one of the Trinity) stands for absolute Brahman, and Devi is Ishvari, His Shakti responsible for Ishvara. Shiva is Maha-kala (the great potential Time or Eternity), and Shakti is Maha-kali (the great kinetic Time, who dances forth the universe on the bosom of Shiva, the still Eternity). Shiva and Shakti are non-different like light and its brilliance. Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva-the Trinity-are looked upon as Her three forms. Devi is also conceived in many popular forms with different names and attributes such as Durga, Lalita, Meenakshi, Chandi, Kali and Parvati.

God and His Shakti are often thought of together with prominence to Shakti as in Uma-Mahesvara, Lakshmi-Narayana, Sita-Rama, Radha-Krishna, Uma-pati, Sita-pati and Lakshmi-pati. Shiva and Shakti are also thought of in the combined half-Shiva (male) and half-Shakti (female) form as the famous Ardha-nari-ishvara. The Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are also fused into a single popular form of Dattatreya with three heads and six hands. The deities are also thought of together in combined names such as Rama-Krishna, Shiva-Rama-Krishna, Shiva-Rama, Rama-Gopala and Rama-Ishvara (rameshvara). This process was current in Vedic times also.

Meditation on Deities
As already discussed, the Reality is beyond names, forms and genders, but can be conceived in any manner to facilitate meditation. The Shvetashvatara Upanishad declares: This supreme One is neither woman nor man, nor is This neuter. It is connected with the particular body in which It dwells and is described as such. So the Divine can be described in all ways for It manifests in myriads of ways: Thou art woman, Thou art man, Thou art body and the girl too; Thou art the old man tottering with a stick, Thou art manifest everywhere in myriads of forms.

All subtle things share this characteristic as we see in empirical experience too. The life principle itself is neither male nor female, but works through male and female physical bodies and in asexual plants and microorganisms. Similarly, electrical energy is neither a fan nor a light bulb nor a motor, but works through different machinery and manifests its power differently. So the divine Spirit animating all these forms may be conceived or addressed in any suitable way. That is how God is addressed as our Mother, Father, Friend, and so on. The Divine Mother also is similarly conceived as male or female and beyond both: Think of the Divine Mother as of male female forms; or meditate on her as the formless Reality with the attributes of Existence-Consciousness-Bliss.

Since God is all pervading? He can also be contemplated in non-human forms of animals, plants or image (pratima) with or without form. Different images and figures made of gold are nothing but gold. Similarly, all forms of God are nothing but God. He may also be meditated upon in objects like the sun, the sky and time, which reflect some of His characteristics (pratika) such as all-pervasiveness, detachment, equality for all, removal of darkness (of ignorance) and the source of life and activity. He can also be meditated upon as word symbols (Logos) like Om, knowing full well that the supreme Reality is beyond words and thought (avak-manasa-gocharam). In fact, there is no symbol that can really represent It.

What is important is divine communion and a rapport with the divine Reality, and not the form in which It is conceived, worshipped or meditated upon as a help. Thus a man may have very high intellectual conceptions of God and yet be of demoniac nature, and there may be another very saintly by worship with inner fervor of God through a stone image. As Swami Vivekananda a pointed out, Religion is the manifestation of the Divinty already in man. Divine qualities are to manifest from within; they are not to be filled in from outside. The outside is only a help in this process. It is the lack of understanding of this psychological law that lies at the root of so much confusion and conflict in the field of worship of God through different methods. A person can be helpful to others, but should not violently force his ideas and methods on them. What is important in food is nutrition and not the names and forms of various dishes. The Reality is thought of differently because of different tastes, temperaments and stages of development of persons; but the objects of love and worship is the same all-pervading divine Reality. As the Shiva-mahimna Stotra puts it, “O Lord, due to variations in tastes, people think of You in different forms and names and follow different paths, whether straight or meandering; but ultimately, Thou art the only goal of all people, just as the ocean is the one goal of all rivers. the Hindu hymnal literature is full of such universal sentiments. To quote another from Shri Hari-sharanashtakam, ‘Some describe Shiva as the goal of meditation; some say it is Shakti (the Divine Mother); some say it is Ganesha; some say, verily it is Surya. But O Lord, everywhere in all these forms Thou alone art shining.’

The Nature and Significance of Deities
These different deities with their myriads of forms, statuses, families and retinue serve, so to say, as containers and purveyors of the Sat-Chit-Ananda Brahman (infinite Existence Consciousness-Bliss); they serve as objects of worship and adoration to bring the Sat-Chit-Ananda Brahman within the reach of all, according to their own inclinations, temperaments and capacities. They intimately live, move and have their being among people and give them the needed emotional and psychological satisfaction.

Though God can be conceived and worshipped in any form, certain forms have become convenient and useful and avoid confusion in social life. They have been visualized and adopted by saints and sages and have been handed down to us by tradition. They are often conceived symbolically with divine attributes and philosophical principles and are of great help in meditation. In some respects these conceptions may be compared to popular descriptions of abstract science in concrete terms. Or they could be thought of as similar to working models to facilitate easy comprehension and appreciation of subtle phenomena, like models of atomic structure or of the DNA molecule. However, one should not imagine that the conceptions of God or gods are only imaginary and have no phenomenal existence. Though like currency bills they may be apparently imaginary and artificial, they have an empirical value. Again though an aeroplane is an artificial thing, it serves the purpose of taking people to the destination. A simple ladder helps us ascend to a higher level. The Reality behind the conceptions of God is like the gold that supports the paper currency. The ultimate Reality is not insentient or material, but of the nature of universal Consciousness operating in all beings. It abides as the Self in all beings and insentient things. It responds to devotees by a appearing in the very forms in which It is conceived and approached. It is this same Reality that is apprehended by our minds in several ways on the phenomenal plane through deities receiving our worship.

Again to illustrate from modern science: Our views of matter have changed, reducing it to subtle energy-particles. Still that does not preclude its manifestation as atoms, molecules, elements, compounds and various articles of daily use. Further, our ideas of many of the laws governing energy, material bodies, time and space have changed. But the old conceptions are also true to a certain extent and serve the purpose as far as they go. Each view has its own validity and unique purpose in its limited field of operation (sva-kale satyavat bhati). Similar is the case on this spiritual plane.

It may be mentioned in passing that the scientific view of things, which itself has been changing from time to time, is also just one of the standpoints valid in its own particular field. Neither is it the only view of phenomena possible, nor is it coterminous with Reality. The Bhagavata says: That from which a thing originates, into which it dissolves, and in which it abides in the intermediate stage-that alone is Real. The modifications have a mere phenomenal existence…. A state from which another state originates and into which it is dissolved is also relatively called real. We accept as true the causal order and enumeration of the categories upheld by the different exponents, just as they put it; for they are all equally reasonable from different points of view.

God Listens to His Creation
It should always be kept in view that the Reality is not only impersonal absolute Brahman, but, as far as Creation is concerned, It is also the personal Ishvara under whose guidance the whole universe consisting of the living and the non-living evolves. Ishvara listens to His creation, for He says: I am the Father of this world, the Mother the Sustainer and the Grandfather (impersonal reality); the Purifier, the one thing to be known, the Om (the Word), and the Scriptures. [He is also] the Goal, the Support, the Lord, the Witness, the Abode, the Refuge, the Friend, the Place of origin and merging, the Storehouse (of all power), and the Seed Immutable (of the universe).

In the Gita the Lord further assures devotees that He accepts and grants their prayers in the very form in which they worship Him, and also favors them in the way they approach Him. He is the essence that runs through all forms in the universe, like the thread in a necklace of beads. The Bhagavata also emphasizes this truth. The Gita is the great charter of spiritual liberty, freedom of worship and equality and fraternity before the Lord. He is close to His creation and resides in the heart of all beings. He is easily pleased and is easily approachable by all who want Him alone, the greatest sinner not excluded. The Lord is our very own, our very Self.

In the Gita the Lord has declared that he appears to devotees in the form in which they worship Him, for He in fills and permeates the forms conceived by their minds, though He Himself is without form, just as the formless water when poured into containers of different shapes assumes their forms. Not only that; He Himself assumes special forms of His own accord and lives among men from time to time when there is need, like water freezing into icebergs and assuming shapes and forms in the formless ocean. Thus though there are apparent forms, the content of all the containers is the same water, the same infinite Sat-Chit-Ananda Brahman.

Brahman, the supreme Reality is infinite and indivisible and is of the nature of absolute Sat-Chit-Ananda. Time and space and all other phenomena are derived from It, through its creative divine Power, prakriti or maya. The projection of the universe in its varied forms goes on for the experience of the soul through an unbroken succession of causes and effects until the term of its continuance ceases, according to the will of the Lord. The whole of manifestation-God, gods universe an all the living beings-is permeated through and through with Brahman, which abides as the Self (Atman) of all. This realization and living in that is the highest worship (para puja).

Receive Site Updates