Hindu Concepts of God
Hinduism has no single founder, no common creed nor a unified code of practice. It boasts many founders of diverse denominations, many spiritual leaders and many sacred books. It has no traceable beginning and its past recedes into uncertainty. Yet it remains today an overwhelming reality, a living and dynamic tradition — not only in India but throughout the world.
There are over half a million Hindus in Britain. Their culture is conspicuous through their food, dress and music. But not only amongst Hindus themselves! Nose rings abound on the High Street; politicians’ wives wear silk saris; and we, the more lowly, can buy samosas in the pub, to the strains of Kula Shaker.
Ironically, it was the Colonialists in the nineteenth-century who wished to ‘civilise the Hindoo’ and convert the natives to European and Christian values. From the Hindu perspective, perhaps the tides of karma have now inevitably turned … .
The reality, as the millennium closes, is that we live in a multicultural society. In the past we may have dispensed with others’ beliefs and practices as ‘foreign’ or ‘superstitious’. Today its hard to avoid the challenge — and the opportunity — to reassess our own faith, our own world-view and our own spiritual values. We desperately need to understand the faith of those with whom we live, eat and work, who are often on the same, arduous, spiritual journey, though coming from traditions other than our own.
Understanding Hinduism, though, presents specific challenges. For example, it features no single deity but a bewildering array of gods and goddesses, usually with many arms and often more than one head. Whereas previously we could have raised our own arms in dismay, charging the perpetrators with ‘polytheism!’, such an approach is no longer acceptable — nor accurate. Today, more enlightened experts claim that Hindus do indeed (like all educated people) believe that ‘God is one’. Nevertheless, their attempts to reconcile this with the many deities often — and quite understandably— fail to represent the breadth and depth of Hindu thought. In this article, I will attempt to unravel some of the complex issues surrounding Hindu concepts of God. In so doing, I will try to present a broad and accurate picture, whilst sharing some of my own convictions and experience as a member of the Vaishnava tradition. I will focus on the concept and meaning of “a personal God”, seeking to disabuse those who maintain that true monotheism is absent from Hinduism. I hope that this will not only enhance our comprehension of this ancient tradition but will help us reflect on our own ideas of the Supreme.
What is Hinduism?
Hinduism is difficult to precisely define and use of the term remains somewhat arbitrary for both scholar and practitioner. It has been described as ‘a family of religions’, suggesting a high degree of variance between beliefs and practices, yet the existence of an overall commonality. It is not easy to define this ‘family likeness’. Whatever definition we choose, we will undoubtedly find some who call themselves Hindus (or whom others consider Hindu) who fall outside these bounds. Nevertheless, we need some definitive form, and here we choose to define Hindus as ‘those who follow the Vedas’, the ancient Sanskrit texts of India.[i]
Only more recently have the followers of this Vedic tradition been called upon to define their faith as a separate entity, in much the same way as the other great religions. Until the modern age, and particularly the rise of patriotic fundamentalism, Hindus hardly perceived their religion in terms of ethnic or political boundaries. Rather, they viewed it according to the psycho-physical nature and spiritual development of the individual. This was formalised through the varnashrama social system.[ii] In this way, diversity of belief and practice — and indeed, focus of worship — did not represent the break up of a creedal tradition into opposing camps of opinion. Rather, it represented a unified system, a continuum, which accommodated the spiritual inclinations of everyone. Such an over-arching concept was more plausible with a theology that considered the spiritual journey a long one, spanning many lifetimes. In other words, the different traditions were considered to represent various stages on the prolonged path of spiritual evolution. So although there is no one ‘Hindu concept of God’, it is useful to consider that the myriad ideas may be somewhat connected, though some are seen as ultimately more desirable.
The Hindu religious traditions may well represent the whole gambit of human responses to God — from the propitiation of ghosts and minor deities up to direct communion with the Supreme. Keeping this in mind, we will focus here on the six orthodox traditions, and specifically Vedanta, usually considered their culmination. Indeed, the very word Vedanta means ‘the end of the Vedas’ or, more precisely, ‘the ultimate conclusion of all knowledge’.[iii]
Vedanta was first popularised in the West by Vivekananda, a disciple of Ramakrishna. Both followed the footsteps of Shankara, a theologian who preached the philosophy of monism. Very often today his specific philosophy is considered representative of all Hinduism. However, not only is Hinduism broader than Vedanta, but there are several prominent schools within the Vedantic traditions. Here we will explore the two broadest categories, namely the advaita and the dvaita schools of thought.
Advaita means ‘non-dual’ and refers to the doctrine of monism, in which the soul, God and matter are considered one undifferentiated whole, called Brahman. Brahman is often translated as ‘God’, or in this specific tradition, ‘the universal world-soul’. Any apparent distinction between the soul and God, or indeed any variety in life, is considered maya (or illusion), a mere projection of the worldly mind.
This concept easily reconciles the multiplicity of Hindu deities with the belief that ‘God is one’. The gods and goddesses are considered imaginary, symbolic representations of the various aspects and qualities of the Supreme. This stance also rationalises well the worship of the murti (sacred image) which is considered a meditational aid rather than a factual object of worship. The murti is, at least initially, a necessary device to help focus the mind on the inconceivable Supreme, who is without form.
In this paradigm, liberation consists of merging one’s individual existence into the Supreme, or dissolving all notion of self as a distinct being. In the words of the famous Beatles song, ‘I am you, and you are me, and we are all together’.
Advaita was largely established and propagated by Acharya Sankara (788 CE – 820 CE). As we have already touched upon, much of current popular writing suggests that Sankara’s view is largely or exclusively representative of all Hinduism. This is a mistaken view and in Britain today much of the worship of Krishna and Rama (perhaps the two most popular deities here) follows in the footsteps of other great thinkers.
Dvaita theology has several principal forms. Each is represented by a corresponding disciplic succession headed by theologians such as Madhva, Ramanuja, Ballabha and Caitanya. Unlike Sankara, they acknowledge distinctions between the soul, matter and God (though they do, to different degrees, accept some commonality). They teach of a God who possesses attributes such as form, name, qualities, activities and, ultimately, personhood. Unlike the monists, they accept such attributes as real, rather than imaginary, and as intrinsically spiritual rather than the material embodiment of spirit.
Most dvaitins are Vaishnavas (worshippers of Vishnu). They believe that Vishnu (or one of his forms such as Rama, Krishna or Narayana), is Supreme and that all other gods are subordinate, wielding different degrees of cosmic or universal power. In this sense, these traditions also claim to be monotheistic (i.e. believing in one Supreme God), whilst accepting the existence of the other Hindu deities. This doctrine has been aptly termed ‘inclusive monotheism’.[iv]
For dualists, liberation also consists of ‘union with God’ but not in terms of merging with the Lord’s existence, as in the monist view. Rather, both the individual soul and the Supreme Soul maintain their individual identity but are united in purpose through loving devotional service’ (bhakti).
My experience, as a member of the personalistic tradition, suggests that its actual theology is largely misunderstood. Although many scholars and practitioners ostensibly accept bhakti and its attendant practices, underlying their support is adherence to the monistic worldview. Thus, for them, bhakti is a means to a different end, or a higher goal. It is often considered suitable for the less intelligent or those still largely influenced by emotions. Academics, who tend to favour the philosophical approach of Sankara, have largely accepted this view and through their influence have reinforced certain misconceptions in this minds of the public. Although these beliefs may represent the monistic understanding of God, they contradict the bhakti tradition itself. Here I’d like to address three such common misrepresentations of the personalistic theology.
The first fallacy is that worship of the murti or any image of a personal God is necessarily anthropomorphic. Accepting that worshippers often do project human experience onto God, and that such concoctions are personalistic, does not imply that God is therefore impersonal. Hindu monotheists believe that God has form and personality, intrinsically and ontologically, whatever others may or may not believe. According to scripture, those ‘whose eyes are smeared with love of God’ can constantly see Him within their hearts, and they carry forward, however imperfectly, those perceptions first to the mental plane and then to the physical. Thus, from the hearts of the pure, the painting or sculpture represents the absolute dimension. Any similarity to our relative experience is not because God has been fashioned within the workshops of the human mind, but because, in Christian terms, ‘man is made in God’s image’.
The second misunderstanding is that, in trying to synthesise the different aspects of God, many consider Him personal in immanence and impersonal in transcendence. From my experience, this is a widely held Christian point of view. For Hindu theologians, however, it is akin to monism, where the forms of the various deities are held to be manifestations of the formless Brahman — the way by which an impersonal God interacts with humankind. For Hindu personalists, however, God’s personal form is transcendental. The Bhagavad-gita suggests this, stating that when God appears within the material realm, He brings a non-material body, rather than incarnating in the literal sense.
The third misconception is that Hindus believe that all worshippers will reach the same goal. The Bhagavad-gita differs, stating, ‘Those who worship the demigods, reach their respective planets. Those who worship ghosts and spirits, will take birth amongst such beings. And those who worship God will attain His kingdom.’ It is accepted, however, that if the spiritualist is sincere and follows Vedic injunctions, he or she will eventually come to the ultimate goal. In the meantime, there is every chance of falling from the path (as Krishna discusses in the sixth chapter of the Gita). Thus the rather bland portrayal of Hinduism as ‘all paths lead to the same goal’ needs careful qualification.[v]
In concluding this section, the Hindu tradition accommodates both personalist and impersonalist viewpoints and synthesises both in various ways. The pure monist ostensibly accepts bhakti, but pragmatically, as a means to an end. The dualist usually accepts the commonality between God and the soul but qualifies this by also accepting differences. What is clear is that the monotheistic traditions within Hinduism are, for various reasons, seldom acknowledged in the Western world. This is particularly evidenced by common reference to the Semitic traditions as ‘the monotheistic religions’. Ironically, from the Hindu perspective, prominent groups within each of these three religions may be better described, not as ‘monotheistic’ but as monistic; that is, they do not have a personal concept of God.
Male or Female?
A key feature of personhood is sexuality. Hinduism is conspicuous for its many goddesses, raising the pertinent question as to God’s gender. Hindu theologians accept that God, as the source of everything, must be the reservoir of both male and female attributes. Nevertheless, many contemporary Hindu writers suggest we use the pronoun ‘it’ to refer to Brahman (or God). What I really suspect, in many cases, is an attempt to gain credibility by pre-empting any claims of sexism. The problem here, though, is that ‘it’, whilst getting round the sexist problem, suggests neither male nor female and is usually befitting a material object rather than a living being. Many of us would quite naturally be offended if someone used ‘it’ to refer to our pet dog or cat. This may be less of a problem for the impersonalists, though I personally know some unhappy with the term.[vi] For personalists, it is definitely problematic. We find them worshipping both male and female, as Sita-Rama, Radha-Krishna, Laksmi-Narayana, etc. — not as gods and goddess (i.e. lower deities) but as part of the Godhead itself. The Hindu concept, therefore, is not one of smudging the boundaries or of the hermaphrodite[vii], but one in which male and female qualities remain quite distinct. This is evident in much foundational theology. The male is termed purusa, the female prakriti. Purusa is translated as ‘the enjoyer’, prakriti ‘the enjoyed’. Purusa is ‘the worshippable’, prakriti ‘the worshipper’. In response to anticipated claims of sexism, we could well point out that in most traditions the female deity is considered more powerful than her counterpart. For example, in the Caitanya school of Bengali Vaishnavism, Krishna is considered almighty. None of the demigods, even Shiva or Brahma, is equal to or greater than Him. This is demonstrated by many traditional stories, such as the famous lifting of the Govardhana Hill. Equally though, Krishna devotees relish hearing how the Lord remains pliable and subservient to the love of His devotees, his friends, his parents and especially his consort, Radha. In the region of Vraja today, where Krishna lived, Radharani is considered the queen and the inhabitants worship Krishna only because He is Radha’s consort, and not vice-versa. In this case, the female deity is more important than the male — yet their distinct and complementary roles are preserved.[viii] In fact, the differences, such as male and female, are considered impetuses for enjoyment, whether material or spiritual. Hinduism well endorses the proverb that ‘variety is the spice of life’ — hence, a whole range of deities, both male and female, which some texts number as high as thirty-three million.
The Main Hindu Deities
Naturally, some deities are more popular or considered more prominent, though the various schools will dispute their respective positions. The three most widely worshipped deities are as follows:
- (1) Shakti, Shiva’s wife (also called Durga or Parvati and often addressed simply as Mataji, ‘respected mother’)
- (2) Lord Shiva himself, famous for his form as Nataraj (‘the king of dancers’)
- (3) Lord Vishnu, usually worshipped through the forms of Krishna and Rama.
Generally speaking, those who worship Shakti have a greater tendency for material enjoyment; those who worship Shiva are usually impersonalists, aspiring after liberation, and the Vaishnavas are personalists whose highest goal is service to God.[ix]
Of the three above-mentioned deities, Vishnu and Shiva are also part of the trimurti, the three deities who preside over the three gunas, or ‘attributes of matter’ (namely goodness, passion and ignorance). Vishnu is in charge of sustenance and the quality of goodness. Brahma[x], the engineer of the universe, controls the creative quality of passion and Shiva presides over destructive functions and the quality of ignorance. Everything temporary goes through three stages — creation, staying for some time and final annihilation — and hence it is through these three principal deities that the Lord (however conceived) acts in this world.
The idea of a personal God is best exemplified in two deities: Krishna (often worshipped with Radha and usually considered a form of Vishnu) and Lord Rama (also a form of Vishnu and the hero of the Ramayana). In Rama’s battle to regain his kidnapped wife Sita, he was helped by Hanuman, the famous monkey warrior. In India today, Hanuman is also worshipped in his own right in many shrines and temples and particularly by soldiers and sportsmen.
Two important goddesses, in addition to Shakti,[xi] are first, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and fortune and the consort of Vishnu. She is worshipped particularly at the time of Diwali. Second, Sarasvati, the goddess of learning and the arts, who is often extolled by students, dancers and musicians.
Another striking deity is the elephant-headed Ganesh, one of the two sons of Shiva and Parvati. He is specifically worshipped at the beginning of any task or religious performance as the remover of obstacles. His brother, called Skanda or Murgan, is worshipped predominantly in South India.
These eleven deities, as mentioned above, I have identified as those most revered by Hindus today.
Stages of God-realisation
Practically all Hindu traditions accommodate the various principal deities within their specific notion of the Supreme. We have already briefly explored the monistic and dualistic paradigms, which are extrapolated into a whole range of progressive concepts. As we have mentioned before, these do not represent mere opinion formed through speculative processes, but correspond to successive degrees of revelation based on the individual’s level of realisation. The Vedas consider spiritual understanding a practical science, requiring apprehension of far more subtle truths than material disciplines. Thus brahman (the Supreme) is not a mere object of belief (or non-belief) but the ultimate goal of knowledge through realisation and direct perception. The Vedas describe this absolute truth as sat-cit-ananda, i.e. displaying the three features of eternity, knowledge and bliss. According to the many Hindu traditions, these correspond to three successive stages of spiritual awareness, accommodating all the main ideas of God.
The first step entails perceiving the eternal all-pervading feature of the Supreme — the imperishable background of all temporary manifestations. Within this first stage, called ‘brahman-realisation’, there are three main sub-categories of worshipper. They are described in the Bhagavad-gita (9.15) as follows:
- The polytheists, who worship imaginary forms of deities as representing the one God.
- The monists, who by negating matter, try to understand their eternal identity as non-different from God.
- The pantheists, who worship the universe as a gigantic form of the Lord.
After these three, in the second stage, come the yogis who engage in austerity and meditation. They strive to perceive the localised aspect of God, seated within their hearts. The Gita describes this paramatma (supersoul) as the source of all remembrance, knowledge and forgetfulness’. In human beings he is perceived through ability, conscience and inspiration, in animals through instinct, and in inert life, through the wonderful features of nature.
The third and final stage corresponds to Bhagavan[xii], the Supreme Person. He is the goal of the monotheistic traditions engaged in devotional service. He is transcendental, situated far beyond this world.
Most religions largely confine God’s role and identity to this one planet, the world as we know it. Hinduism is less Earth-centred. Particularly conspicuous is its ability to accommodate vast expanses of time and space. Vedic cosmology describes our universe as ‘one mustard seed within a whole sack’. Through the agency of cyclical and eternal time, these innumerable universes, like giant bubbles, are continually created and destroyed. And the whole material sky is but a quarter of the entire cosmos.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Hinduism conceives of God’s identity principally in relationship to His world, rather than our own . Hence we find, in relationship to Vishnu, the concept of lila — spiritual ‘pastimes’ which the Lord performs in His kingdom. This does not suggest that God is unconcerned for this world — He is concerned, but not as His exclusive or principal role. Hindus deny that God’s main function is to create and maintain the world for our enjoyment — rather it is a place of dukha, suffering. For this reason, the Lord periodically ‘descends’ to attract fallen souls back to the eternal world. He thus appears in various forms, called avatars[xiii], and exhibits His pastimes, as an exact replica of the spiritual realm. Most importantly, He displays His own all-attractive personality.
Although the Lord may not be directly present in this world, He can be perceived through his energies. One text cites the example of how the mother fondly remembers her son when catching sight of his shoes. Similarly, the neophyte spiritualist is advised to meditate on the Supreme by contemplating His opulence. These Lord Krishna describes in the tenth chapter of the Gita — ‘of seasons I am spring’, ‘of fishes I am the shark’ and ‘of bodies of water, I am the ocean’.
More importantly, God is represented by any benign and natural authority (such as the mother and father) and particularly by the guru (religious teacher). Some traditions equate the guru with God; others consider him or her God’s representative, and thus worthy of appropriate respect. Although Vedic texts recommend ultimate worship of the One Supreme Lord, revering His representative does not contradict this edict. Most Hindu traditions affirm that without a spiritual mentor, one cannot succeed on the spiritual path but will fall prey to the many forms of egotism. In fact, the Hindu’s relationship with God is reflected through his or her conduct with holy people, and specifically the guru. Through His representative, the Lord becomes accessible.
Reciprocating with God
The Hindu understanding of the immediacy of the sacred and the unity of life, forms the foundation for giving respect to everyone and everything — to all people, all species, and to nature itself. Special veneration is offered to those who more keenly represent God, such as family elders, the guru, or one of the gods and goddesses. Such adoration does not diminish the Lord’s greatness, but embellishes it. Furthermore, these displays of affection are to gradually focus the mind exclusively on the Lord and to enter into a personal relationship with Him.
Hinduism embraces the whole range of motives for approaching God — from the fulfilment of sensual and economic needs up to the complete abandonment of self.[xiv] These impetuses largely account for the variety of ways Hindus view and describe their reciprocation with God, usually expressed in terms of familial relationships.
At the lower stage, God is considered the provider, much like a parent. This is demonstrated through the placation of natural deities, such as Surya (the sun-god) or Indra (the lord of rain). More often, though, the Supreme is represented as ‘Mataji’, the Divine Mother.[xv] In this concept, the worshipper generally approaches God for material benefit. This is considered a preliminary stage since the attitude of service is not yet mature. Such worshippers perceive God’s main role as serving their needs, just as children take for granted their parents’ protection.
At more mature levels, the Lord is considered an intimate friend[xvi], or the worshipper’s very own child. In this way, there are higher degrees of service and intimacy, characterised by diminishing awe and reverence, and the abandonment of the very notion that the beloved is God Himself. This is epitomised in the conjugal relationship, most popularly portrayed in the love of the gopis (cowherd girls) for Krishna. The Lord may enjoy the prayers of the pious brahman, but relishes far more the cutting reproaches of his angry beloved.
Although some claim that these relationships are merely symbolic, many Hindus consider them real. Whatever their conviction, they unanimously warn against comparing divine pastimes to our own sexual affairs. Simply describing the activities of Shiva or Krishna as ‘amorous’ or ‘erotic’ is misleading, muddying the boundaries between the spiritual and the mundane. Many great Hindu saints, totally renounced of sexual affairs, enjoyed discussing such spiritual themes. The misconceptions we have in the West may be further fostered by the fact that the word ‘love’ is so broad, spanning a whole spectrum of emotions. It can be applied to practically anything, ranging from hamburgers to husband and from gambling to God.
Despite the shortcomings of the English language, it is clear that the Vedic tradition the concept of divine love is the highest expression of spirituality. Indeed, the Gita itself confirms that of all the paths of yoga (spiritual union), bhakti is the culmination.[xvii]
How God reciprocates our love
In the personal conception, the love between God and his devotee is the foundation of Vaikuntha. The spiritual realm is nothing but a manifestation of the love between the Lord and His devotee and is full of unending bliss. The material world, on the other hand, the Gita describes as ‘temporary and miserable’. The text further addresses the question of suffering and its cause. It maintains that God is omnipotent, omniscient and all-loving and that suffering is due to the soul itself. It cannot be attributed to God, as a defect in His knowledge, potency or personality. Free will, the soul’s natural prerogative, is considered the ‘pivot of loving service’, and by misuse of free choice he creates his own material joy and sorrow. This forms the basis of the law of karma, or the divine principle of ‘personal responsibility and individual accountability’. Under its dictates the soul ‘reaps what he sows’ and, tasting the sweet and bitter fruits of selfish desire, becomes hopelessly entangled in samsara — the cycle of birth and death.
Hindus largely agree that freedom from samsara is the ultimate goal of human life, but differ on the precise means, especially with regard to the perennial ‘grace or works’ polemic. Self-appointed adversaries of Hinduism also point out that the theological emphasis on personal endeavour indicates the absence of grace. Interestingly, similar controversies have embroiled Hindu scholars, with the opposite poles represented by the ‘baby monkey’ and ‘kitten’ analogies[xviii]. Most Hindus favour the synthesis of both extremes, as best explained through the following story.
As for determination, one should follow the example of the sparrow who lost her eggs in the ocean. She laid her eggs on the seashore, but the waves carried them away. The sparrow became very upset and asked the ocean to return her eggs, The ocean did not even consider her appeal. So the sparrow decided to dry it up. She began to pick out the water in her small beak, and everyone laughed at her impossible determination. The news of her activity spread, and at last Garuda, the gigantic bird-carrier of Lord Visnu, heard of it. He become compassionate towards his small sister bird, and so came to the spot. Garuda, very pleased by the determination of the small sparrow, promised to help. Thus Garuda at once asked the ocean to return her eggs lest he himself take up the work of the sparrow. The ocean was frightened at this, and immediately returned the eggs. Thus the sparrow became happy by the grace of Garuda.
The moral of the story is that although the task of spiritual realisation appears formidable, it is possible by the grace of the Lord, pleased by our determined yet often futile endeavours. There are many verses from scripture which confirm the theology of grace.
It is exhibited in numerous ways — through the Lord’s provision of material facility, sacred books, the association of sadhus (holy people), the spiritual mentor, and the Lord’s appearance as the avatar. Many traditions also consider the murti another display of the Lord’s kindness. It is central to Hindu worship.
For members of ‘other faiths’ image worship can be problematic. They often equate it with idolatry. Apologists familiar with monism attempt to refute this, pointing out that the image is not directly worshipped, but symbolises the inconceivable formless Supreme. Nevertheless, this is not entirely true. First of all, in actual practice most Hindus do worship the image as if it were divine. This could be attributed to naivety. However, many of the best Hindu thinkers also consider the murti to be identical with God, a type of incarnation. It should be noted, however, that such worship cannot be whimsical (as may be the case in idolatry), but must be performed according to strict regulation. In temples, a rigorous and often demanding schedule ensures that the deity is timely bathed, dressed, worshipped, offered food and put to sleep. Cleanliness, punctuality and devotion are essential and any laxity or omission is considered inauspicious. On the positive side, the devotee is able to serve his or her Lord in a form that is entirely spiritual, yet visible to material eyes. Thus through God’s mercy, the devotee enters a loving relationship with Him, and absorbed in love, sees Him everywhere.
The Mandir (temple)
Conspicuous, particularly in India, is how religion and spirituality, both orthodox and bizarre, pervade practically every nook and corner of life. Until more recently, Indian culture had a spiritual foundation, evident through its art, music, dress, cooking — and even its earlier films. Yet the temple was, and still remains, a special place. It defines the bounds of sacred space, separating the mundane from the overtly spiritual. It is intended to create an atmosphere so surcharged with devotion, that is distracts the mind from thoughts of money, marriage and mortgage. It is a replica of the Kingdom of God. It has been said, ‘If in Christianity the church is the house of God, in Hinduism it is His home’.
From early in the day, before sunrise, there is a set programme of worship centred on the murtis as if they were lord and lady of the temple. The priests ritually bathe, decorate and dress them, offer food and daily conduct the arati ceremony six or seven times. The temple is at times quiet and conducive to meditation and reflection, but is often a frenzied, buzzing hive of activity. It is certainly not a placid retreat for retirement from materialistic life but is the embracing of a positive, dynamic alternative in which the Lord becomes the centre of focus, the object of thought, speech and devotion. It is not the negation of sensual life but a vibrant festival of sights, sounds and smells. In short, it is an image of the spiritual world.
There is probably no single concept of Deity within any of the great world religions. In comparison, Hinduism is extremely diverse, tending to accommodate, and even assimilate, others’ beliefs and practices. Its inclusive nature is still conspicuous in Britain today. Worshippers with their own chosen deity (istha-deva) and their own specific temple, are generally happy to enter other temples, or the church, mosque, gurdwara and synagogue.
Yet Hinduism is not totally relativistic, holding that ‘one man’s truth is as good as another’s’. The analogy of the journey is essential, demonstrating not only the one common path but the different stages on the long pilgrimage. Whilst Hinduism has attempted to accommodate all types of people, it still retains special affection for a particular ideal. It recognises that embellishing our material lives and relationships with lukewarm morality or the dry crumbs of philosophy will not, ultimately, satisfy the heart. The Vedas openly extol the benefits of a divine love which is real and tangible. For centuries the stories of the gods and goddesses — and of God Himself — have captured the hearts and minds of generations of Hindus. Today, through film, theatre and literature, these stories are becoming popular amongst non-Hindus. Perhaps this reflects that there is within us an inextinguishable desire for loving relationships. Jonathan Swift compared the attempt to squash such frustrated desires to the man who, unable to get shoes, lops off his legs! Impersonalism often suggests the same. The personal concept of God, however, allows us to retain our desire for love, while seeking freedom from the illusion of this temporary world. Such a concept may help us, from other traditions, to reassess our own idea of God — a God undivided by race, caste, creed, colour or gender. Perhaps we could re-examine also our own understanding of the term ‘monotheism’, less in terms of its connotations of exclusivity, and more in the light of God being the supreme object of love — the supremely lovable person.
[i] By the term ‘Vedas’, I include their corollaries, in line with the more traditional use of the term rather than standard academic usage.
[ii] Which many believe was later abused and became the infamous, heriditary caste-system.
[iii] Veda literally means ‘knowledge’.
[iv] By Dr. Julius Lipner.
[v] Such statements may often be an attempt to gain credibility by attempting to demonstrate Hinduism’s inclusive and tolerant nature.
[vi]The author has just spoken to a representative of Kashmiri Shaivite tradition. She expressed that she’s not too happy with the word ‘it’ and believes that many impersonalists don’t like it. It may largely be a matter of semantics in the sense that even the word ‘God’ is not really appropriate for the numerable so-called equivalent terms in the Sanskrit language.
[vii] Although there is one quite common Hindu deity which is hermaphrodite — male on one side, female on the other.
[viii]Nevertheless, since the male is the purusa, Hindus usually have little problem in referring to God as ‘He’. This is to a degree a question of semantics; and the word ‘God’ is an imperfect translation of equivalent Sanskrit terms.
[ix] There will definitely be exceptions to this case. Very often Durga is said to be the bestower of liberation and there is also a set of Shaivites in the South who have a personal conception of Siva.
[x] Lord Brahma is very rarely worshipped directly and in India there is only one major temple dedicated to him, in Pushkar, Rajastan.
[xi]These two goddesses are usually considered daughters of Shakti.
[xii]Literally ‘The one who possesses in full all opulences’.
[xiii] Most famous are the das avatara, the ten incarnations of Vishnu.
[xiv] Some bhakti traditions even condemn the desire for liberation as selfish (though it is considered more intelligent than wishing to stay within the world for so-called enjoyment).
[xv]Usually worshipped as Durga or Parvati.
[xvi] Arjuna, who heard the Bhagavad-gita from Krishna, had this relationship with the Lord.
[xvii] See Bhagavad-gita (6.47).
[xviii] The kitten is carried by the mother whereas the baby monkey clings on for dear life!