Monday, May 16, 2011

The Concept of God in Hinduism

Sri Ajit Halder


The teacher of a primary school asked a little girl to describe her family to the class. She replied: ‘We are five in the family; my mum and dad, my brother and me, and with our God who lives in mum’s Tulsi plant our family of five is complete’. The belief that God is part of the family lingers on in the mind of a Hindu child as it grows up into adulthood. To a Hindu, God is not something that stays away in a far off heaven, He is right in front of us perceived amidst His creations and He is right inside us too. God is not just Magnificent Almighty, but is also a lovely One with whom you, I and everyone else, can have a relationship as a devotee. The essence of Hinduism is that God, protector of humankind against all adversities, can be realized in this life here in this world through prayer, worship and righteous living. We often hear it said: ‘May God be with you’ as if God is apart from you but Hinduism preaches that God is residing within each one of us. So to a Hindu a more appropriate statement should be this: ‘Realise God who is resident in your heart’.

Hinduism considers God not just as the Supreme and Benevolent to humanity but also a personal God whom the individual can worship with love (prema) and devotion. Devotion or bhakti is a very key concept in Hinduism and more on this will be covered later on in this article. The Hindus believe that God possesses many qualities and therefore no one word could adequately describe all His attributes and hence serve as God’s name. Hindus use different names when referring to God’s many adorable qualities. One Sanskrit word for God is Ishvara. The word Ishvara is derived from the roots Isha (meaning powerful/lord) + vara (meaning most excellent). So Ishvara refers to a divine being with extraordinary powers. Hindus express their allegiance to God by uttering ‘Hey Ishvara’.

Another popular address made to God is ‘Bhagavan’ – the divine being endowed with ‘bhagavatta’ meaning the possessor of good qualities, usually the six main attributes. These attributes and their interpretations are:

(1) Jnana (Omniscience); (2) Vairagya (Detachment); (3) Yasha (Fame) (4) Aishvarya (Sovereignity); (5) Sri (Glory) and (6) Dharma (Righteousness).

Other important qualities attributed to God are Gambhirya (grandeur), Audaarya (generosity) and Karunya (compassion). Bhagavan is also described as the representation of all that is good.

Definition of God:

Since this article discusses Hindu concept of God it will be of immense help if a definition of God is provided. Hindu theologians defined God as one possessing a number of graces that includes God’s omniscience, omnipotence and omnipresence, perfect goodness, eternal, all pervading and necessary existence.

The Upanishads talk about God’s many virtues and reaches a conclusion that God (Brahman) is the ultimate Truth, the Reality and the visible world perceived by our senses is Maya, an illusion of God, and beyond Maya is Brahman, The worldly objects which are God’s various manifestations, are helps to focus on God. Each manifestation of God is given an image that represents one attribute of God. A devotee chooses an image to worship as a personal deity.

How to know God:

The scriptures of Hinduism are the pathways to know God, are sources that reveal God to the devotees. The Vedas and the mythology of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata tell us a lot about God through stories and proclaim the glory of God. The scriptures are genuine help to know God but the spiritual calling that emanates from within brings a devotee closer to God.

The seeker who wants to know the true nature of God may feel puzzled because the Vedas say God is unknowable, incomprehensible yet many ancient sages (rishis), seers have known God. God is knowable and perceivable only through the grace of God. Rigveda (1.164.46) states – ‘Ekam Sad Vipra Bahudha Badanti’ - meaning God is one, sages call Him by many names. Also in the Rigveda (8:1:1) – ‘Ma cid anyad vi sansata sakhayao ma rishanayata’ - meaning ‘O friends, do not worship anybody but Him, the Divine One, Praise Him alone’. The Brahma Sutra states: ‘Ekam Brahma, dvitiya naste neh na naste kinchan’ - meaning ‘Here is only one God, not the second, not at all, not in the least bit. Chandogya Upanishad (6:2:1) says: ‘Ekam Eva Advitiyam’ which means ‘God is only one, without a second’.

In ancient India there were many saintly figures like rishis, munis who had received the calling from above and also the vision of God. The scriptures abound with their wise discourses and their messages are guides to help aspirants to realise God. In Hinduism, there have been many saints but no single mediator (prophet) between God and humans; the beauty of Hinduism is that one can gain direct communication with God through prayer, meditation and worship.

Hindus believe in one God (the English word used to denote Ishvara) and the word God is always written with a capital ‘G’. His many representations (deities) are Gods or Goddesses - but all point to the same unique God. Note that the word god, a perceived image of God, begins with the letter ‘g’ in the lower case. The Vedas refer to God possessing three aspects:

‘Bhakta bhogyam preritaram ca matva

Sarvam prokritam trividham Brahmametam’ –

This verse means: first is the enjoyer (rasika); the second is the enjoyable (rasa) and the third Brahman, the inspirer. God’s grace is the fundamental condition for attainment of supreme bliss and gaining liberation from material affliction.

It is accepted that God has created every thing; therefore, there must be a trace of God in every item He has created just like a baby carries the gene map, the DNA signature of its parents. This is quite simple to comprehend and Hindus believe in the link with God that exists in everything, living and non-living. It is not enough to know that one is linked to God and is divine; one should strive to manifest it every moment of one’s life.

Why do we need God?

The simple answer is that as our creator, God knows us best; also He understands our sorrow, cares for us and forgives our wrongdoings... We need God as our protector, our saviour and with His compassion we will achieve spiritual perfection.

When we are in distress suffering alone, the thought that God is with us gives the strength that we need to overcome the difficulty. God’s message to us is one of love, hope and by following Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion, we prepare ourselves to receive God’s blessings.

Bhakti, the path of devotion to reach God:

Bhakti is self-giving entirely to God to attain salvation or liberation and more over to enjoy a better quality of existence which comes about with one’s progression from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. The Bhagabad Gita emphasizes Bhakti, the loving devotion to God, as the only way to realise God. In Chapter 11 of the Gita, after exhibiting His cosmic vision to Arjuna, Lord Sri Krishna says in verses 53-55, ‘…only by one-pointed devotion (bhakti) to me and me alone that you see and know me as I am in reality and ultimately reach me …’. Also in Chapter 18, verses 65-66, Lord Krishna tells Arjuna (and through him the entire humankind): ‘Let your mind be constantly directed towards me (i.e. Sri Krishna); be devoted to me; dedicate all your actions to me, prostrate yourself before me; completely surrender to me and me alone, and consider this to be your religious duty i.e. your practice of dharma. Bhakti, therefore, is the only way to the true knowledge of God and the surest way to reach Him.

In Gaudiya Vaishnavism, the epithet Svayam Bhagavan is exclusively used to designate Krishna(Krishnastu Bhagavan Svayam). Certain traditions of Hinduism consider Krishna to be the source of all avatars (incarnations of God) as such Sri Krishna is regarded as Svayam Bhagavan.

Some advice may help a devotee reach God through Prayer, Meditation and Nama Samkirtan. We start with Prayer. When an individual prays s/he devotes all his/her attention to the Lord and almost attains merger with the Lord. Prayer is considered an essential part of Bhakti. When we say a prayer with a group of worshippers in a temple, our minds are linked together with thoughts focused on the same God. This congregational worship adds a new dimension to our religious act and creates a spiritual bond with the worshippers all praying to the Lord.

Meditation ensures peace of mind and in that tranquil mental state the seeker concentrates on a deity. It is suggested that you select a quiet corner and after seating comfortably relax and allow the symbol ‘OM’ to come into your awareness. Visualize the symbol with your entire being and you will begin to achieve a perfect union with your object of meditation. Gradually a gentle, subtle awareness of the wholeness of ‘OM’ will fill your consciousness leading you on to the holiness of the Lord.

Nama Samkirtan means chanting the holy names of the Lord with rhythm and sweet melody believing that chanting ‘Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna; Krishna Krishna, Harey Harey’ and singing other kirtan songs is a process to purify the soul. Hari Nama Samkirtan begins with ‘srinvanti’, hearing about the greatness of the Lord. As soon as we are convinced about the attributes of the Lord it will be our religious duty to broadcast it, to proclaim it to the world through ‘gayanti’, chanting Nama kirtan. Nama Samkirtan contributes to the spiritual gain of the singer and also to the spiritual awakening of the whole of humanity.

Is God Formless or With Forms?

God has infinite, limitless attributes. But in the Upanishadic tradition God is referred to as Nirguna Brahman meaning God is neither limited to any specific form nor possessing any particular attribute. This view of the Upanishads makes sense because if God is given a form (a particular shape), He will be limited to that form manifesting just one attribute – something that would be contradictory to Hindu belief that God’s qualities are limitless. However, God takes form(s) as perceived by the Hindus and this perceived form is called Saguna Brahman (God with good attributes). Each form has its significance and provides a basis for the Hindu worshipper to easily pursue the otherwise incomprehensible Supreme. Hinduism accommodates diverse ways of worshiping God with form or without any form. Whether one worships in Saguna or Nirguna way, it is ultimately the same God being adored.

Is God only a He?

Hinduism says God is beyond the gender diversity. When God is called the Lord of all creatures, God is above the differentiation of gender and is referred to by using He or She whichever is deemed appropriate to describe Him. God may be masculine or feminine but the representation of God as ArdhaNarishvara clearly displays both male-female aspects of Him blended into one divine form.

Face to Face with God:

We have learnt a lot about God and we adore His love and care for humanity. Time is now ripe when instead of hiding away from God we would better be closer to Him. We need to listen to His voice and feel His presence all around us. We can hear the voice of God in many sounds that Nature provides for us and we can perceive God in His creations visible to us. Do we have ear to listen to the voice of God and an eye to see, riveted with wonder and admiration, the many sights that God offers for us in this world and in the outer universe?

How nice and enchanting it would be to listen to the murmur of the breeze rustling through the leafy boughs of trees, the sweet note of the cooing of a cuckoo, the chirping of birds, the humming of bees, the cry of a newly born baby, the flutter of the wings of a crane standing on one foot in the water of a lake, the perennial sound of sea waves breaking on the shore, the rumbling of thunder-different sounds of celestial music but all ringing God’s voice into our ears in a variety of notes.

For heavenly sights we only need to look up towards the sky and watch the clouds sailing by gracefully, admire the colours of the rainbow painted on the sky’s wide canvas, the setting of the sun on the western sky radiant with golden sunrays and the beauty of thousands of stars sparkling like diamonds in the night sky. And here on earth, the stunning view of lofty mountains, the meandering rivers, rain drops falling on perched earth making the soil fertile for a rich harvest, lush green valleys strewn with flower beds on which daffodils dance in the spring, colourful roses, sweet smelling jasmines, sprightly children chasing butterflies in a summer afternoon – all these are glimpses of God presented to us in various shades, forms and sizes.

The simple act of hearing the varieties of sound issuing out of Nature and observing the eye-catching sights becomes an act of adoration of the Lord. This offers us a wonderful benefit. Our soul is purified; our minds freed and calmed because the burden of the world is lifted by the grace of God. Being face to face with God, we are indeed in His merciful presence and this makes us feel grateful to praise the Lord for everything good He has done and is always doing for us all.

Life is a journey, and like any other journey one should be in possession of a route map and secure the service of a trusted guide to ensure smooth progression along the way. Luckily for us, God is our guide and what a relief that He has already drawn up our life’s route map. We will never walk alone for God is our constant travelling companion leading us from the front. So ‘Ma Bhai’ : have no fear; proceed in confidence believing that God is always with you and leaving your footprints behind, you will surely move forward in your life’s journey. It should be borne in mind that the happiest, luckiest person on earth is s/he who lives every moment of his/her life in God.

Concluding Remarks:

Years ago, I attended the AGM of the UK Hindu Parishad held in Bradford, England. At that AGM, I gained a clear indication of the mission that God wanted us to fulfil in our worldly life. In his opening address the President of the UK Hindu Parishad warmly welcomed all to the AGM. Then the ritual of introduction began. One person said: ‘I am Harish Kumar, Managing Director of Globe Trading, Bradford’; the next guest said ‘I am Jos Patel, Chief Executive of International Finance, Wembley’ and others followed boasting about their superior social status. Then, it was the turn of a young man who said humbly: ‘I am Suresh, a community care worker and I am here to serve you’. This modest introduction is a gem of a statement focusing our attention straight on to the Concept of God in Hinduism which is:

‘Serve humanity as your act of worship of the Divinity and thus realize God’.

Swami Vivekananda touched on this point in his lecture on Karma Yoga delivered in America in 1893 when he said: ‘Our duty to others means helping others, doing well to the world. Be grateful to the man you help, think of him as God. Is it not a great privilege to be allowed to worship God by serving your fellow men?’

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