Each of our bodies consists of innumerable cells, each of which is a living being by itself. Still, we identify it as our body. Similarly, what we call our ideas and thoughts are based on the ideas and thoughts that we have learnt and picked from various sources during our life. Still, we identify it as our mind. Thus, the concept of our individuality is only notional.
Similarly, we have the concepts of groups of people like city, state, country, continent, etc. They all have a physical component, of which each of us is a part, and a mental component, of which each of us is a part. For example, when we say, “India has decided to allow more foreign investment”, “USA has sent a rover to Mars”, etc., we mean the country as an entity, very much like a living person. Similarly, the whole of the earth with all its living beings, geological features and oceans can be considered as a single living entity. The whole Milky Way galaxy can be considered as one living entity.
When we extend this concept to cover the whole of existence, we come to the idea of God. God is like the supreme person (parama purusha) to whom, the whole of physical existence is the physical body, and the whole cosmic dynamics is the mind. (We say “like” because, God is more of a principle than a person.)
Also, God is the essence of all that exists. He is the heat in fire. He is the liquidity in water. He is the strength in the strong. He is the intelligence in the intelligent. He is the life principle in the living things.
Thus, God is the whole and the essence of all that exists. When we consider ourselves as individuals, we transact with God as the whole. Depending on the context of the transaction, God interacts with us in various ways.
If we consider ourselves as living beings, God interacts with us as the life principle, all the living beings in the world put together and all that in the universe that supports or obstructs life. If we consider ourselves as jivas (living beings) doing actions, God interacts with us as the bestower of the results of our actions. This is the concept behind the Hindus worshipping God through various deities. If we are starting a work, God is worshipped as Ganesha. If we are studying, God is worshipped as Saraswati. If we are doing business, God is worshipped as Lakshmi. If we are seeking prosperity in the family, God is worshipped as Satyanarayana. If we are seeking spiritual knowledge, God is worshipped as Dakshinamurthy, the divine Guru. If we are taking bath in the Ganga, God is worshipped as the deity of the river Ganga. If we consider ourselves as Indians, God is worshipped as Bharat Mata (Mother India). If we consider ourselves as earthlings, God is worshipped as Mother Earth. Also, a devotee can worship God through any form and in any manner he likes. Thus, the one God is worshipped in different ways based on the idea of individuality of the person worshipping and based on the context of worshipping.
When we are serving people, God interacts with us as the people being served. Thus, every action is an interaction with God. There is no activity which is not spiritual. There is nothing called a secular activity. There is nothing that exists other than God. Whatever we do is an offering to God and whatever results we get is a gift from God. Doing our duty sincerely with this attitude is worship of God. Also, serving the world and the living beings in the world is worship of God.
Let us consider some of the important contexts from which we need to understand God.
In relation to the world, God is the material cause (upaadaana kaarana) of the world, just like clay is the material cause of a pot. God, being a sentient being, is also the sentient cause (nimitta kaarana) of the world, just like a potter is the sentient cause of a pot. Thus, you can say that it is God who appears as this world.
There are three stages of understanding God as the cause of the world:
- God created the world – Everything in this world has been created by God, and belongs to God.
- God has become the world – If God has created the world, what did He create the world with? If there is something other than Him, for Him to create the world out of, then that would limit Him. God would not be infinite. That is not possible. So God created the world out of Himself. In other words, God has become the world.
- God appears as the world – If God can become the world, then He would be subject to change. Anything that is subject to change has to go through stages of growth, decay, pollution, purification, etc. That is not possible. So, God only appears as the world. The changes are only apparent. They are not real. In reality, God does not change.
Still, for the sake of brevity, we can use the expression, “God creates the world.” Though we use the words, “God creates the world”, we actually mean, “God appears as the world”. God is not away or different from the world.
In relation to the jivas, God creates the world for the benefit of the jivas to take a body, so that, they can experience and express themselves. This will give them maturity to finally realize their real nature. God is the bestower of the fruits of action (karma-phala-daata). The sum total of all natural laws, including the physical and moral laws is the will of God.
God has knowledge of everything in the world and has the capacity to create and destroy everything in the world. However, the knowledge and power of God is limited by the freewill of jivas. God has control over the situation presented to the jivas, but God does not have control over the freewill of the jivas. Even that situation presented would be only in line with the past action of the jivas. Every jiva has the freedom to choose to do what it wants, and God gives the result of the action according to the Law of Karma as an impartial judge. Thus, though God is the bestower of the fruits of action, the jiva alone is responsible for its situations and actions.
Thus, God is a formless, genderless, compassionate, impartial, eternal, omnipresent, omnipotent, sentient person, to whom the whole of physical existence is the physical body and the whole of cosmic laws is the mind.
Prayer is an action. It is in the form of asking God to help in a tough situation, thanking God for a favorable situation or asking God for strength to go through all situations in life. This action can fully or partly counter balance any weak undesirable effects of our own past actions. It also gives mental preparedness and strength to face tough situations in life. It helps to face success with humility and failure with dignity.
As the human mind can only think in terms of forms and names, God can be worshipped through forms and names. As God knows the innermost thoughts and intentions of every person, and is compassionate, God can be worshipped through any form and name. Depending on the taste of the person, he/she can choose any form and name that is to his/her liking.
As time goes by, the Law of Karma becomes sluggish because of accumulation of actions that are yet to be fructified. The time gap between the action and the result increases naturally. This creates a situation where some individuals seem to be living well off even though they do a lot of bad actions. Also, people lose faith in the Law of Karma because they are not able to see the action and the result side by side. At such times, God comes in the garb of a jiva into the world and cleans up the system, like a fast-track court being setup by the government for special and serious cases. God may speed up the Law of Karma by clearing of the backlogs by personally dispensing punishment for the vices and rewards for the virtuous actions. Also, more importantly, God teaches the people about the nature of the jiva, world and God, and about the Law of Karma, to instill back the faith in the system. These special manifestations of God are called incarnations (avataara). The incarnations are effective means to worship God through. There are innumerable incarnations. There is no limit or a fixed number.
Also, saints and holy people who have stood for these principles in their life remind us of these principles when we think of them. So God can be worshipped through them also. When we worship God, it is the God principle that is being worshipped and not any individual. So, any symbol, book, person or object associated with the principle of God can be used to worship God through.
When we consider ourselves as conscious beings, God is the Consciousness (caitanya) that powers the jiva. Just as different electrical appliances are powered by the same electricity running through them, God is the light of Consciousness in each jiva. Just as depending on the nature of the electrical appliance, it can create wind, heat, light or coolness, depending on its nature, a jiva thinks and behaves in its own manner, powered by the same Consciousness, which is God.
Thus, by defining God in all these aspects, Hinduism brilliantly brings together the metaphysical reality and the moral authority, while still retaining the freewill of individuals. Thus, God is not a person to be believed. God is a principle to be understood. Also, Hinduism brilliantly brings together the formless and the formed aspects of God. It gives the full freedom for people to access God through any number of means and names, using the simple logic that God knows the innermost intention of the individual.
The concept of God in Hinduism is a satisfying logical reply to all critics of religion. Also, this concept allows coexistence of several ways to God. It accommodates and appreciates all forms of worship from the simple worship of God through natural forces like rain, natural features like rivers, departed ancestors, saints, deities, symbols and formless person with attributes like compassion, to the abstract formless, attributeless, pure Consciousness. Broadly, the ways of worship can be enumerated as below:
- pratima – human-like form (Indra, Vayu, Vishnu, Shiva, Rama, Krishna, Hanuman, etc.)
- pratika – generic form (Om, shivalinga, salagrama, river, etc.)
- vishwarupa – cosmic form (the whole world is the form of God)
- niraakaara-saguna (formless but with attributes like compassion, beauty, valor, justice, etc.)
- niraakaara-nirguna (formless and attributeless pure undivided infinite consciousness).
The Vedas contain various descriptions of the forms of various deities and instructions for various kinds of meditation. During the Vedic times, God was worshipped mostly in the form of the presiding deities of various natural phenomena like sun, rain, water, fire, etc. and as the presiding deities of various faculties like sight, hearing, thinking, etc. However, with the passage of time, this has changed. Today, God is mostly worshipped by Hindus in the form of deities like Vishnu, Shiva, Lakshmi, Ganesha, etc., incarnations like Rama, Krishna, etc. and saints like Hanuman, etc. However, the basic principles are the same. This is an excellent example of how, keeping the fundamental principles as the same, Hinduism has been able to adapt beautifully to the changing times and the psychological needs of people.
For example, Hindus are ready to accept Buddha and Christ as incarnations of God. Any religious group of any land or culture, which does not insist on narrow concepts, is acceptable to Hindus as if it is their own. Narrow concepts like, “God can be worshipped only in this way and not any other”, “What is told in this book alone is true and not others”, “God can be called only by this name and not by any other”, “God lives only in such and such a place, different from the world around us”, etc., are alien to the Hindu ethos. Such concepts are, in fact, harmful to peace in the world.
This broad principle of God as propounded by Hinduism can help in bringing together all the religions and even people who do not believe in any particular religion. It brings together all the human aspirations of the intellect, emotion, morality, social harmony and useful enterprise. This understanding is vital to the peace and prosperity in individual and public life in the world today.