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God, Para Brahman and Hindu Henotheism

The word ‘Hindu’ stems from the Persian equivalent for ‘Sindhu’, meaning Indus, making a somewhat direct reference to inhabitants who belong to the other side of the Indus in the land we call India today.

Hinduism, unlike the major Abrahamic religions that exist in the known world, is not a decisive dharmic conduct or way of life, as made known by a single holy scriptural text, but an ever evolving, self-sowing seed, with newer dimensions of the religious order ever opening up to sectarian adherents that follow. Being precise, Hinduism is hence, in itself, not such a generalised religion at all. The word ‘Hindu’, as is popularly known nowadays, stems out of the Persian equivalent for ‘Sindhu’, meaning Indus, denoting the populace of a particular race, and making a somewhat direct reference to inhabitants that belong to the other side of the Indus, in the land we call India today.
‘What is ‘God’ (in the Hindu point of view)’ would, for instance, have a multi-dimensional answer, the similar way there exits diversified perspectives when it comes to reality, the soul, and the world of being. Before analysing the aforementioned question however, there is a need to note the difference that exists between ‘God’ and ‘Brahman’, so frequently talked about, in the Hindu literary corpus, and shed some light on the concepts of immortality, rebirth, incarnation (avatara) and the way of moksha (that is again so varied, with different paths of attaining salvation having been, so vividly, talked about in the soteriological frameworks, set by the orthodox philosophical schools (the shad darshana), each of which took its own turn in interpreting ‘Sanatana Dharma’ (the dharmic way of life as preached by the Vedic corpus) in a different light.
Verse 1.2.11 of the Bhagavata Purana, as translated by AC Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada, reads, “Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this non-dual substance Brahman, Paramātmā or Bhagavān”, which, irrespective of what it philosophically talks about, concludes that the relationship between the jivatman (atma or soul in a living entity) and the Paramatma (or the Brahman) is ‘non-dual’ and advaita, symbolic again of the fact that the entire material world, with all the humans, gods, and gargoyles in it, is an illusionary semblance (maya) of the Brahman, and that the soul (atma), in the spiritual level, is a part of, and equated with, the ultimate reality or Brahman. This theory, moving back to the Hindu philosophy, outlines the foundational concepts of the Advaita-Vedānta school, as laid down by Shankaracharya.
However, it would be incorrect again, to talk about the world in Advaita Vedanta as entirely ‘illusionary’ or a form of maya, for it can somehow be perceived in three different ways: pratibhasika (apparent), vyavaharika (empirical), and paramarthika (which is similar to the concept of transcendental idealism, laid down in the west by German philosopher Emmanuel Kant, in his work ‘Critique of Pure Reason’. Transcendental idealism, in a line, talks about perceiving objects not only the way they are, but also, the way our sensory abilities make us perceive them).
The attributes of this highest Hindu God (Param Brahma) are, as pointed out in the Taittirīya Upanishad (verse 2.1.1), “the highest and the eternal truth (satyam), omniscience (jnanam), and the all pervading infinity (anantam).”
It would again be interesting to note that God, also referred to as Ishvara, is svatantra (independent of external influence or intimidation), unlike Jiva and Jagata (being and the world), that are paratantra, i.e., controlled by a superior being or an external agency, and has no independence of action in the metaphysical dimension.
Nevertheless, these concepts somehow delineate the attributes of the ultimate Hindu God, that, in the Christian terminology (bringing back the comparative part into play), resembles eternity, omniscience, the omnipresent infinity, and aseity (that God is independent and, as stated in Acts 17:25 of the New International Bible published by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK, “is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”)
Now, there also exists a misunderstanding with regard to the concept of ‘deva’ in Hinduism and the way it is related to, or directed by (considering its subservience) the Paramatma. Deva denotes a deity, and not necessarily the ‘Ultimate God’. In the Hindu pantheon, or what we can also liken to henotheism (worship of a single ‘God’ while accepting the existence but subservience of the other ‘deities’, in the process of illustrating which “Driven by the prosperities of nature, they who fall from knowledge desire worldly pleasures and in imitation of the prevailing customs, worship other gods (personified deities) instead of the one single God” from the Bhagavad Gita (7/20) can be brought in), this Paramatma manifests itself in various forms, hence giving rise to the Hindu Sampradayas (sects within the religion) that so exist. For instance, to Sri Ramanujacharya, the propounder of the Vishishtadvaita philosophy, and a Vaishnavite, Madhava or Vishnu is that Supreme God, while, to Goraknath and Matsyendranath, Shaivite saints who led the Nathpanthi order during the Bhakti reformation, Shiva is the ultimate reality. Similarly, there is the Shakti sampradaya that recognises Devi or the feminine power to be the highest absolute, and thus, worships her as one would, for the sutradhar of the entire cosmos.
Smartism is supposedly a bit different from the aforementioned sects however. Smartas (followers of the Smarta ideology) believe in the worship of Vishnu, Shiva, the Devi, Surya, and Ganesha (the union of the Devi and the Devadideva (a term that might not mean omnipresence, but presence before the Vedic religious hegemony) with equal importance, on the same pedestal. This can thus be likened to the polytheistic theology.
Nonetheless, ‘Deva’ is different from ‘Paramatma’ because it is from the latter (whatever form that Ultimate One be manifested in) that the Universe, and with it, the nature and the living beings, find their existence, and ‘Deva’ is but personification of a natural force. For illustration, if Vishnu (or Shiva, or Devi, as the case might be) is taken to be the Ultimate One, it is from Vishnu that the universe, the world and every living entity that resides in it, finds existence. It is Vishnu who gives rise to the forces of nature. It is he who strikes thunder, he who burns the jungles, he who lets the streams and the rivers flow, he who causes the winds to blow, and he who controls (as a sutradhar does) the living beings of the world he created, with the threads of the sattva, raja, and tamas.
Thus, in simplified terms, Vishnu is the preserver and the protector of this Universe, while Gods like Indra, Varuna, Agni, and everyone that so comes in the ‘swarga’ pantheon, are mere personifications of the natural forces and the cosmic worlds he gave rise to. Taking on further from here, questions could easily be raised on the attributes of the Vishnu talked about. Is Vishnu immortal? Does he suffer no pain? If he is that one great and good god, why do humans (at times, even His devotees) suffer from disasters and calamities brought about by the natural forces, in this world that is his creation?
The first two answers are in the Gita itself. Krishna tells Arjuna that “all the worlds from Brahmalok downwards are, O Arjun, of a recurrent character, but, O son of Kunti, the soul that realises me is not born again.” This statement, when analysed in the light of cosmic theology, brings up two not-so-distinct but independently important concepts of Hinduism. When he writes “the soul that realises me”, the poet presents a direct reference to the soteriological angle. A soul (atman) realises the One God (Para Brahman) only when it merges with Him, in religious terminology, after attaining what is called ‘moksha’ or ‘mukti’. The ultimate goal of life hence, is to realise the purpose of one’s existence, and do deeds that will earn one ‘moksha’ and not simply a place in heaven, for even Brahma and the swargic deities are mortals.
The conclusion drawn above is seconded by Verses 3.7 to 10.3-7 (that deals with the concept of Transmigration of Souls) of the Chhandogya Upanishad, a translation of which by F. Max Mueller, reads, “they who…practise sacrifices, works of public utility and alms, they go to the smoke, from smoke to night, from night to the dark half of the moon to the six months when the sun goes to the south…From the months they go to the world of the fathers, from the world of fathers to the ether, from the ether to the moon. That is Soma, the king. Here they are loved by the Devas, yes, the Devas love them. Having dwelt there, till their works (karma) are consumed, they return again that way as they came…”
In order to make it more simplified, it would be best befitting to use a rechargeable battery as an example. When a person does ‘good’ work on the earth (the place of his action), his karma meter is filled. He is uplifted to the heavens (swarga) as a result, and enjoys the pleasures of swarga as long as his karma lasts. It is to be noted however, that being uplifted to devaloka or swarga is, in no way, similar to realising the Paramatma. When a person realises the Paramatma, he is free from all worldly attachments. He has no feelings; no sorrow, no elation, no pleasure, no hunger, no thirst, and most importantly, no desire. As a result, he ascends to the highest of all lokas: the Vaikuntha loka, where, in the Ocean of Milk (can be likened to Milky Way galaxy), Lord Vishnu and the Goddesses Sri-devi and Bhudevi (moksha-patni and bhoga-patni) reside, around whom coiled, is the primal being of creation, the Adi Ananta Sesha (the Serpent God who doesn’t have a beginning or an end). However, for those who have done benevolent deeds, but have not yet attained moksha, swarga-loka is the place of ascent. They get to enjoy the comforts of swarga and the heavenly pleasures so long as their karmic charge lasts. When the charge is over, they are tossed back into the world to refill their battery, and so, the process goes on and on, in that never ending cycle called samsara.
This world that we live in, is a creation of the God. What would then make God want to wreak havoc and bring in natural calamities devastating his most precious creation (humans) with the forces of nature that find their origin in Him?
The answer to this lies in the far off West, in a series of letters exchanged between Genevan philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, his French counterpart, in the wake of the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. While Voltaire, a strong critic of Christianity and a practitioner of the pessimistic faith, blamed God for letting the natural forces loose on the thirty thousand civilians that perished, Rousseau (whose ideals are of interest here) defended God and the optimistic faith, and taking on from the views of Leibniz and the Pope, advocated the outlook that the world is a creation of God, and that it is the best world that he could possibly create, but even in a world created by him, there are bound to be imperfections. “Most of the physical evils we experience, are of our own making”, he added, thus bringing about the now very relevant sociology of disaster into play, reminding humans that it is not God who is at fault, but humans themselves, for nature reacts the way one interacts with it.
Souhardya De is a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, an author, columnist and podcaster. He is the recipient of the Rashtriya Bal Shakti Puraskar, the nation’s highest honour for civilians under 18, and the honorary Colonelcy of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, US, for his contributions to art and culture.

De can be reached at hello@souhardyade.co.in