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A Hindu perspective on GOD

Seeta Lakhani's picture

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One or many gods?

With Hinduism's bewildering variety of forms and images, philosophies and practices, who or what might be considered ‘God'? This question is further compounded by numerous stereotypes: i.e. that Hinduism is polytheistic (belief in many Gods), ‘idol'-worshipping, ritual-based, etc. To add to the confusion, ask a few Hindus what or who they think God is and prepare to be blown away because their answers will probably be different. Does that mean even they don't know what they're talking about?

 

Maybe we don't all define ‘God' in the same way. Hindus might say, God is that something that gives meaning to our lives. That there is a force, energy, power that is beyond us or that, at the very core of our being, we are eternally free, filled with joy, blissfulness and peace, and that this is God. This essence, energy or Being (however one perceives it) is all-knowing, pure, kind, loving and by its very nature can take on numerous names and forms (or no form at all). Hindus might say God is infinite and therefore his/her attributes, qualities and forms can also be infinite.

 

This suggests that ‘God' who is addressed by many names and forms is One and that the plurality of names/forms is different aspects or manifestations of that one Supreme Being. Generally speaking many Hindus would agree with this, and the notion of many ‘gods' versus that of a single God is therefore not considered irreconcilable. If the various forms are seen as representing the ‘divine' in one way or another- what or who is that ‘divine'?

 

 

 

 

The Ultimate

To simplify matters greatly, Hinduism, generally speaking, points to two different notions of ‘God'. These derive from variations in interpretation of ‘revealed scripture'. One notion conceives of the Ultimate as an impersonal, unchanging, eternal reality consisting of pure, self-sufficient consciousness. This notion does not entertain the idea of ‘God' as an Ultimate Being or an anthropomorphic deity. It is conceived as being the basis of all things and yet imperceptible and indescribable. According to this philosophical stance, this ultimate reality and the ‘self' (i.e. one's soul) are identical. The aim (liberation from the cycle of birth and death) is achieved simply by coming to ‘know' the self.

 

The Supreme Being

The other interpretation conceives of this Ultimate Reality as a personal, absolute Supreme Lord.  The ‘personal' devotional traditions, i.e. one that conceives of God as a Supreme Being, are considered the most popular forms of Hinduism today. One is free to choose one's relationship with God and the manner in which to worship. One may address God as child to parent, servant to master or lover to beloved and may express this devotion in a variety of ways (chanting, kirtan, meditation, loving worship, service, etc.), the ultimate aim being union with God.

 

The devotional trend finds its expression also in temple worship which leads to another stereotype of Hindus as ‘idol worshippers'. The term ‘idol' carries with it entirely negative connotations and suggests that Hindus worship inanimate objects. This view found its origins in very early missionary accounts of Indian religions which judged the externals of some Hindu practice. A more neutral term, and a more accurate one, would be the worship of an ‘image' of God. Hindus call these images murtis. The murti (embodiment) is usually sculpted from marble or made from a composite of five metals. What gives these images meaning are the elaborate consecration rites by an authorized person which take place at the time of their installation. The appeal to God to come and reside in the image is believed to transform the lifeless image and make God accessible[1].

 

The fluidity in the concept of God might seem a bit strange, and because the Divine is considered beyond intellect, Hindus seem to take for granted that this Divine can express itself in numerous ways. I had to smile when recently I visited family friends and noticed unexpectedly that one of the images in their shrine, alongside the Hindu deity, was that of Mary with baby Jesus. It had been a gift and it seemed perfectly natural for them to have it there, as well as perfectly characteristic of the Hindu view!

 

This understanding of the Supreme Being is not homogeneous. The way in which sub-traditions differ relates to their varying interpretation of God's relationship with the devotee, the conception of the end-states of liberation, etc. The Puranas[2] and Itihasa[3] in this regard are considered central to the beliefs and practice of Hinduism today. The eighteen ‘Great Puranas' are divided into Vaishnava, Saiva and Sakta Puranas and extol Vishnu, Shiva or Devi respectively as the Supreme Being.

 

Hindus following any one of these traditions may exclusively worship one form of God, but this does not negate their acceptance of other forms as aspects of the Supreme. How does a Hindu decide? One may follow family tradition, or choose to follow their individual path based on readings, philosophy or simply personal inclination.

[1] This is greatly simplified according to Vaishnava theology, for example, God in his

transcendent nature is considered inaccessible to humans but makes himself

successively available through descent - the final descent being the materialisation of God's

visible presence in an image made of stone or metal.

[2]  Scriptural texts, literally meaning ‘old books'

[3]  Collective term for the two great epics (scriptural texts), the Mahabharata and the Ramayana

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