God (Part 1): Perceived in Three Ways
Many Hindus describe God as sat-cid-ananda, full of eternity, knowledge and bliss. These correspond to three main features of the Supreme:
- Brahman – residing everywhere
- Antaryami – residing within
- Bhagavan – residing outside, beyond
- Brahman refers to the all-pervading aspect of God, often called “the all-pervading world-soul.” Since everything comes from God, it is non-different from Him. Scripture states “everything is Brahman.” This sat (eternal) aspect of God is realised by understanding one’s own eternal nature as atman.
- Antaryami means “the controller within” and refers to God residing within the hearts of all beings. He is sometimes called the Supersoul, Paramatman. The Katha Upanishad likens the soul and the Supersoul to two birds sitting within the same tree (i.e. the heart). The Supersoul is initially perceived in various ways, through memory, instinct, intelligence, inspiration, and exceptional ability. He is the object of meditation for many mystic yogis. This feature of God represents his cit (knowledge) aspect.
- Bhagavan means “one endowed with unlimited opulence” and refers to God who lives beyond this material world. Bhagavan is personal and the individual soul can enter into a direct relationship with him, thus experiencing ananda (spiritual pleasure).
Most traditions accommodate these three aspects of God, but will understand the relationships between them differently. They often stress one feature as more important than the others. They also differ as to the exact identity of God and their understanding of the many gods and goddesses.
God has three main aspects:
- as the all-pervading Brahman
- as the Lord within the heart (Antaryami)
- as the Supreme Person (Bhagavan or Ishvara) living within the spiritual abode
“That Brahman is in front and in back, in the north, south, east, and west, and also overhead and below. In other words, that supreme Brahman effulgence spreads throughout both the material and spiritual skies.”
Mundaka Upanishad 2.1.1
“The Supreme Lord is situated in everyone’s heart. 0 Arjuna, and is directing the wanderings of all living entities.”
“Bhagavan is He who possesses without limit the six types of opulence – strength, fame, wealth, knowledge, beauty and renunciation.”
See also: Bhagavad-gita 9.4–6,
The sun, sunshine and sun’s reflection are one but also different.
- All-pervading sunshine is non-different from the sun. Both are heat and light, yet the sun retains its form and identity as the source of everything.
- Just as the sun may be reflected in numerous pots of water, so the same one God is reflected in the hearts of all living beings as the Antaryami.
The story of Prahlad (STO-111)
God appears from a pillar.
Ways of perceiving the presence of God in various features. Initially, God’s Brahman nature is realised by philosophically understanding the eternal and unchanging nature of one’s self. The mystic yogis, who initially perform the hatha-yoga exercises, often meditate on Antaryami, the Lord within the heart (see left). The process of bhakti (devotion) is aimed at worship of the Lord as a divine person, Ishvara, or as the Supreme Person (Bhagavan or Param-Ishvara), situated in his spiritual abode.
Conscience – following or ignoring “the still, small voice within.”
- What evidence is there to support the idea that the real self is eternal or temporary?
- Reflect on the ways in which you, if at all, perceive the divine. How do we account for exceptional ability in people? What is conscience? What is inspiration? How can you explain instinct?
- Can God be a person? What must He/She be like?
Hindus believe in brahman, the all-pervading world soul
Although largely true, such statements often neglect the other two aspects of God – within the heart and without, as a person. Even when God’s personal form is mentioned, it is often considered expedient or imaginary, to help the worshipper focus on the invisible and inaccessible Supreme. This represents one main school of thought (advaita), but there are others which hold that the personal feature of God is equally important or higher.
God is personal in immanence but impersonal in transcendence
Some prominent Hindu traditions consider transcendence to be personal – or, more commonly, both personal (saguna) and impersonal (nirguna).
Meaning and Purpose
- Questions concerning the existence of God: If there is God, then why can we not perceive him?
- Where does God reside?
- Brahman – spirit, the Supreme
- Antaryami – the Lord within
- Bhagavan – God as a person
- Paramatman – the Supreme Self, God
- Ishvara – “controller” often used of God, or a god or goddess
- Ishvari – a female deity
- Parameshvara – the Supreme Deity (God)
- Purushottama – the Supreme person
- Deva – God
- Devi – Goddess
Note: the various traditions tend to use somewhat different terms. Vishnu is often termed “Bhagavan”, whereas Shaivites call Shiva “Ishvara”. Shakti is often called “Bhagavati”, the feminine of Bhagavan.