‘God’ is a much used word yet hardly anyone pauses to find out what is meant by it. ‘Isn’t it clear?’ religious people may ask and answer: God is the Highest, the Creator of the universe, the Almighty who knows whatever any human is dong or thinking and it is He who will give the punishment or reward in the afterlife.
This is a predominantly Western notion. Nobody will quarrel with the fact that this universe and we included have to come from somewhere and ‘God’ is given as the verbal answer. Yet somehow, ‘God’ has acquired strange attributes in the mind of westerners, never mind if they are believers or unbelievers. He is invariably male, has strong likes and dislikes and has supposedly communicated those likes and dislikes to some special people who informed humanity about it. Reading the Old Testament and the Koran reveals a God who is hateful towards those who don’t believe in him and severely condemns those who worship idols. He is keen on smiting those ‘enemies’ and punishing them with eternal hell. However, he is compassionate and loving towards those who believe in him.
Somehow this western view of God has taken over any discussion about God, maybe because the majority of human beings seem to believe it. This view is reinforced and fear of eternal hell is instilled in small children generation after generation. Even as adults, they don’t question their belief. It has become part of their mental make up. And there is comfort in believing that one has the ‘right’ belief and is belonging to a big group of like minded people.
However nowadays, in the Christian west, many people do question their belief and even the very existence of God. Atheists feel they have a cause and do their best to make their religious fellowmen lose faith. In England busses ply with placards saying “There is probably no God”. “God Delusion”, a bestseller by Richard Dawkins, focuses on refuting this God and finds many takers.
This God certainly deserves scrutiny. Is it possible that God is a sort of superhuman entity and heavily biased towards his followers and unforgiving towards ‘others’? Are there different views? Here, ancient India could help the west. Usually, one would expect that over time concepts become more refined, but in the case of ‘God’, over the millennia, the concept became more gross.
In ancient times, long before Christianity or Islam appeared, Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism had a very mature understanding of Brahman which would be ‘God’ in English. Brahman (there are other names, too, like Paramatman or Tat) was not personal, not a superhuman entity, not male or female, but the most subtle, invisible, conscious, one basis of all. The Rishis meditated on Brahman and came out with astonishing insights. They realised that this universe is a sort of shadow play or misinterpretation of Brahman, completely dependent on It but not the real thing. They had criteria for what is true. One: it has to be at all times – past, present and future – and two: it has to be shining of its own and not need anything else to shine or in other words, it has to be self- evident. Those two criteria dismiss the whole apparent universe as untrue. Apart from the fact that it was not always there but started with a bang, it also needs something to ‘shine’ – it needs consciousness. So what is left after the universe is dismissed as not true? That what is left is the real thing and could be called God. It is the extremely subtle, conscious basis of everything. It means that God is here right now as the source of our awareness. Yet somehow we miss out on being aware of this source.
Now how to go about discovering it?
Simply knowing the truth intellectually will not do. The Jnana (knowledge) path is difficult, said Shri Krishna. The Bhakti (devotion) path is easier and here another view of God comes in: Ishwara. This view is relatively close to the western notion of God but far more benevolent. There is no eternal punishment. Everyone gets chance after chance. Yes, suffering may be included depending on one’s karma but it is in the realm of maya, from where one will ultimately wake up like waking up from a nightmare. Ishwara is God with attributes and has innumerable aspects. These are personified in many devas and the devotee can choose the one who is dearest to him. It helps to develop friendship and intimacy with the invisible – through Shiva Brahma, Vishnu, Devi, Ganapathi and many more. Those Devas, who are mistakenly much maligned by western religions, are not separate entities but a kind of access point to the one Brahman. And the scriptures leave no doubt that the devas are ultimately Brahman.
For example, the Ganapathi Upanishad clearly states that Ganapathi is the all in all:
“Tvameva kevalam karta si, tvameva kevalam dharta si, tvameva kevalam harta si.
Tvameva sarvam khalvidam brahmasi, tvam saksadatma si nityam.”
(You alone are the creator, you alone are the sustainer, you alone are the annihilator. All this is Brahman and you are that Brahman. You are indeed the Atman eternally.)
It goes on to analyse that Ganapathi is beyond the 3 gunas (satva, raja, tamas), the 3 mental states (waking, dream and sleep), the 3 bodies (physical, astral, causal) the 3 times (past, present, future) and much more.
It is awe-inspiring that those deep and analytical words were uttered thousands of years ago. Today, this transcendental dimension of God is mostly ignored. Apart from the mystics of all religions, who discovered the transcendental dimension as true, people generally consider God as a personal entity. ‘He’ is supposed to be watching us from somewhere.
Science has done away with this God. Einstein considered the notion of a personal God as naïve. Yet scientists don’t quite realise that the ultimate truth that they seek is basically the Brahman of ancient India. A national daily reported some time ago that Lord Rees, a noted cosmologist and president of the royal society, claims that our brain is incapable of cracking the mysteries of the universe. He suspects that space has a grainy structure but on a scale a trillion times smaller than atoms. Yes, it is very subtle and the ultimate truth cannot be thought of, the Rishis also claimed. Yet this truth is not some thing at some place. It is our very being and therefore – the Rishis claim – there is a chance to ‘real-ise’ (know it as real) by turning towards what is unchanging and true about us and develop devotion for That – one could call it God in English.