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A Handbook of Hindu Religion: God


God in Hinduism is called by various names, like Brahman, Īśvara, Bhagavān and Puruṣottama and they all refer to the same Being. But many misleading views are held about His nature and qualities and they have to be corrected before the true meaning is explained. The most prevalent mistake is to say that the Hindu makes God in his own image; he worships stones, trees, animals and departed spirits and at best God is man as an excellent person. This view is absurd as it is not Nature but the God in Nature that is adored by him. Man is made in God's image and not God in man's image. It is wrong to say that the Hindu is a polytheist who worships many Gods as Devas. God or Īśvara is in all Gods as their inner ruler or Devadeva and therefore the Hindu is a monotheist who affirms that Brahman is the one without a second. Another mistake is that Hinduism is pantheistic as it holds that all is God and that God is all. God or Īśvara is in all beings as their ruler but is not equated with all beings. He is pure and perfect without any taint or imperfection. Still others say that the Hindu God is a mere abstraction or that it is nothing at all. But all Hindus are agreed that Religion is essentially faith in a personal God and the same is the highest Being of the philosopher. But the existence of God cannot be proved by reason nor is it a blind faith. Every one can see God face to face directly if he eagerly seeks Him, and then he is sought by God and blessed. Just as man seeks God, God also seeks man and saves him from sinfulness and the sense of separation. This is His redemptive purpose and it is gradually realised in five aspects or stages. Brahman is beyond and is pure and perfect and He is called Para. Then He becomes Īśvara or the Infinite who is called the creator, preserver and destroyer of the Cosmos or the Universe or Trimūrti. Then He enters into the heart or all Jīvas as their inner ruler or Antaryāmin. Then on certain occasions of cosmic crisis, He incarnates into the world and these historic incarnations are called Avatāras. In the last stage, He is called Arca or permanent incarnation of love in the form of Idols. The one increasing purpose of God in all these stages or descents is the redemption of the Jīvas from their career of sin and ignorance. The Hindu scriptures with their infinite motherly tenderness reveal the gradual purpose as Śruti, Purāna, Smṛti, Itihāsa and Psalms in Tamil and other vernaculars. The Upaniṣads reveal his perfect nature as Para and Antaryāmin: the Purāṇas describe His nature as Īśvara doing his threefold cosmic function. The Itihāsas describe the redemptive acts of the Avatāras. The Smṛtisexpound his moral and aesthetic excellences and lastly the Psalms describe His love and easy accessibility to all persons. Brahman assumes a bewitching form of beauty in order that He may attract the Jīvas and annex them to Himself. His five aspects may be briefly explained as follows: Brahman is the God of the Upaniṣads and he is pure and perfect in the world beyond. His nature cannot be explained adequately but his essential qualities are mentioned in a way as satyam, jñānam, anantam and ānandam. Brahman is sat or reality, or truth itself and is eternal and changeless unlike prakṛti. He is ever self-luminous and is more effulgent than all the Suns, Moons and Stars. He is supremely good or amala and is free from all imperfections. He is by nature blissful or ānanda and love itself. Brahman is the one without a second, though He has many qualities and His chief quality is love by which He imparts His nature to the Jīvas and makes them like Himself. The whole universe has its being in Him and He is the supreme end of our life.

Brahman in relation to the world or cosmos is called Īśvara and it is He who creates it, sustains it and destroys it. He does the three functions of sṛṣti, creation, sthiti, preservations and samhāra, destruction in the three forms of Brahma, Viṣṇu and Śiva. This threefold function is described in detail in the eighteen Purāṇas of which the chief are Viṣṇupurāṇa and Bhāgavatapurāṇa. The world consists of Jīvas and Prakṛti but they are eternal and not created out of nothing. Before creation they were in a latent stage in Pralaya like the seed before it becomes the tree. In creation they are given new bodies by Brahman according to their previous karma and they get new opportunities of becoming free and perfect. In the state of sthiti they live and move in the three worlds, Earth, Svarga and lower world in accordance with their karma. They have freedom to make or mar themselves, and Viṣṇu the Lord, sustains them as their very life and He guides justly. Then there comes a time when the world is steeped in wickedness and sin and the Lord Śiva destroys it for the time being. The three functions are done by the same Īśvara out of his sweet and loving will and they are aspects of the one cosmic function, namely to redeem the Jīvas from their ignorance and evil. This process goes on endlessly in a circle till all the Jīvas attain mukti.


After creating the Universe, Brahman enters into it as its inner self or antaryāmin. The universe consists of the physical world or acit or jaḍa and also the world of Jīvas, subhuman, human and celestial. Brahman pervades the whole world of acit and cit as Vāsudeva and resides in the heart of every Jīva, plant, animal, man or deva as its inner self or śarīrin. Though He is in all inanimate things and Jīvas, He is not in any way affected by their imperfections. As their inner self, He gives them life, rules them from within and they all exist for His satisfaction, But His chief purpose in dwelling in their hearts is to free them from their sinfulness and make them into His image or likeness. One chief defect pointed out by critics of Hinduism is that it is pantheistic because it says that Brahman pervades all beings and is the same as a stone, dog or dog-eater. That view is wrong because Hinduism says that God is in all beings as their inner ruler and is not identical with all beings. Inanimate things are different from Jīvas and God is different from both, and He enters into them with a view to be in intimate contact with them. As the Lord of love dwells in the heart of the Jīva or man called the lotus-heart of hṛdayakamala, the human body is extolled as the very temple of God or Brahmapuri. As the seat of Divinity, it is held sacred, not defiled as a filthy place of sin. God is love and He is in the Jīva in order that the Jīva may be made Godly.


The theory of Brahman as redeemer is clearly brought out by that Avatāra or Divine incarnation as revealed in the two Itihāsas, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata. It is fully revealed by the author of the Bhagavad-gitā who is the highest incarnation of God. As the Lord himself says in the Gitā, He incarnates into history when virtue or dharma declines and is threatened with destruction by adharma or vice. He comes down with a unique form of his own to punish the evil-doer and reward the virtuous man and restore the moral order of the world. The real motive of the incarnation is moral and religious as it consists in redeeming even the evil-doer from his ways of wickedness or sin and blessing the devotee or bhakta by revealing His form made of love or kṛpā. Even punishment or dandana is dāyākārya as its real object is to reform the offender and not repress him. Avatāra is not descent from a higher place to a lower place with a physical body. It is spiritual descent into human and even subhuman planes and is due to divine love and accessibility or saulabhya. The Itihāsas refer to ten chief avatāras of Viṣṇu of which the most important are Rāma and Kṛṣna. The earlier avatāras like those of the fish, the tortoise, the boar and the man-lion and the dwarf or Matsya, Kūrma, Varāha and Narasimha and Vāmana were made on critical occasions in cosmic history to restore the cosmic moral and spiritual order and establish the kingdom of righteousness. Rāma was born to punish the evil-doers like Rāvaṇa and establish righteous rule or Rāmarājya based on the eternal rules of dharma. The Rāmāyaṇa and the Gitā refer to the avatāra as the very embodiment of Divine Love and they guarantee salvation or mukti to all Jīvas regardless of their birth and status, including even the subhuman species. The Avatāra is, therefore, extolled and adored as sarva-loka-rakṣaka or universal redeemer.


The worship of God as arca or vigraha made of stone, wood or copper is very popular among the Hindus as a permanent incarnation of Divine grace and love, sanctified by the hymns of the Ālvārs, Nāyanmārs and other devotees. What appears a graven image to the critic or the materialist, is to the devotee with a spiritual eye a speaking Beauty radiating life and love. The so-called idol is not an idea or ideal; an image or symbol; but is the loving, all-pervading presence of the Lord who resides permanently as arca in response to the prayer of the bhakta. The image is only the embodiment of divine mercy and it is easily accessible to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear. The devotee seeks the Lord in a particular form as Viṣṇu, Śiva or Śakti and Divinity beyond all name and form incarnates into that form and he melts with love and is lost in the rapture of communion. The Ālvārs sought refuge at the feet of the Lord and preferred to be a stone step at the altar of Śrinivāsa to be trodden by the faithful to even bhakti and mukti.


The doctrine of Motherhood is a special feature of Hinduism as it brings out the tender love and mercy that is the special mark of divine mercy. The idea of Īśvara as the almighty and the holy draws out the quality of reverence and awe around in the worshipper as an unworthy creature. The prayer to God as the father in Heaven or lokapati is based on the doctrine that every man is made in the image of God or son of God. Even this view does not fully bring out the nature of divine love and mercy and it is only the fact of the motherhood of God that appeals to mercy and love as the very heart of creation. God as ruler or law giver metes out justice to every one according to the strict rules of karma and dharma. It provides no hope of mercy for the persons who violate the rules and no man is so pure or sinless as to say that he walks in the ways of righteousness. But God as mother is forgiving and no sin is so sinful as not to merit mercy or dayā. Therefore every one seeks the grace of Lakṣmi or Pārvati or Śakti as the very embodiment of redemptive love. But mercy by itself may encourage favouritism and indulgence and the sinner may exploit the quality of forgiveness. The Hindus therefore worship divinity in the dual form of Īśvara and Iśvari. Law is severe and love is indulgent; but in God law and love are wedded together and they are really one though they function as two.