22.1 GODS & GODHEAD
The concept of God, gods and goddesses, and Godhead in Hinduism is too complicated to admit of any naïve explanation. Every physical expression amenable to sense perception is nothing but an expression of the Divine. In other words everything that you see, hear, touch, smell or taste is divine -- that is, comes from God. Since everything is God, you cannot ascribe an individual name and form to it. The moment you delineate God by one name or form you have circumscribed Him and limited Him by the shallowness of worldly expressions and imagery. In fact, anything that has name and form is a creation of the mind. Try to think of something which has neither name nor form. Even supposedly abstract concepts like colour are not abstract in our scientific understanding of the world; they have name and form. Even qualities like honesty and fairness can be recognised and talked about only through their names. Nothing that exists is without name and form. But all that exists has a common factor that subsists as a substratum in all. Just as all gold ornaments, though different in name and form, have gold as their commonality of content, just as all clay toys, though distinguishable by their name and form, are not distinguishable as clay, just as the movie screen is the base for all the drama that is superimposed on it while the screen itself is unsullied by any of the turmoil that 'takes place' on it -- so also the substratum of Divine Existence referred to as brahman permeates everything in the world, and that being the common content of all that has name and form has no name or form for itself. The upanishads speak of it as 'that' in the neuter gender. This is the God, or more precisely, the Godhead of Hinduism. It is the source of all energy, and of all power, not only in Nature but in all beings, including humans.
QUESTION: But if this is the Ultimate Godhead of Hinduism why do we have practices in Hinduism like idol worship, for example, which totally contradict the concept that God is nameless and formless?
Exactly. Godhead is nameless and formless. But just as we gave a name 'brahman' to it in order to talk about it we could as well have gien it any other name. Here we come to the uniqueness of Hinduism. No name or form will describe Him fully. Therefore, say the vedas, all names and forms are His. An idol is only symbolic of this statement, that all names and forms are His. Hinduism carries this rationale to its logical conclusion and hence it is that we find a plethora of gods and goddesses in the framework of Hinduism. If we mistake them to be distinct divinities, each powerful in its own realm and warring with others for supremacy, as an unwary reader of the purANas may be led to think, then we have missed the central teaching of Hinduism: ekam sat viprA bhavanti -- There is only one Truth; the wise speak of it in several ways. Since Godhead transcends all human description the concept becomes so sophisticated and complex that the ordinary mortal needs something concrete to cling to. This is where a human form or an idol enters the picture. An idol serves the same purpose for a religious devotee as a flag does for an army.
QUESTION: Does it mean then that an idol is only a representation and not the 'real thing'? But the Hindu tradition of giving absolute sanctity to temples and idols seems to point to the view that the idols themselves are the deities.
Wait. You are bringing in too many factors into the discussion too soon. In Hinduism the same question will have different answers to different levels of questioners. From the point of view that there is only one absolute Truth and everything else is only a manifestation of that Truth, an idol is only a representation and not the 'real thing'. But from the point of view of a devotee who needs to worship Divinity in name and form, the images and idols which have been sanctified by the various mantras and rituals are themselves the deities which have as much power as the Absolute. So a Balaji in Tirupati, a Nataraja in Chidambaram, a Meenakshi in Madurai, a Visvesvara-linga in Kasi, a Jagannath in Puri, a Guruvayoorappan in Guruvayyor, a Krishna in Udupi, a Varadaraja in Kanchi and a Venkatesvara in Pittsburg and hosts of such sanctified 'images and idols' should not be cast into the role of just a 'representation' of the Absolute as a flag for the army.
But it must be admitted that all worship is idol worship. Primitive man made a scrawl of a head on a rock and called it God. Civilized man shuts his eyes and imagines an anthropomorphic image with arms and legs and calls it God. Both are idols. The difference is not one of kind but of degree. Hinduism has the courage to say so and also has the humanity to admit within its fold even those who cannot rise above grossly concrete representations of God. A common illiterate labourer and an intellectual scholar require different concepts of God to satisfy them. So Hinduism declares that each can worship God in whatever form suits the competence and stage of spiritual evolution of the worshipper. The Absolute brahman, in relation to the material universe is called Isvara. When we refer to Isvara in His creative aspect, we call Him brahmA. Note the distinction between the word brahman (which is a neuter gender noun, standing for the Absolute Transcendental Reality) and the word brahmA (which is a masculine noun standing for the name of the Creator-Aspect of Godhead). When we refer to His aspect of sustainer and protector, we call Him vishNu. When we think of Him in His destructive and dissolutive aspect, we refer to Him as Siva. In each case the power or energy of the aspect is referred to as the corresponding Goddess. Just as sunlight is inseparable from the sun, so also is the power (Sakti) of ISvara inseparable from ISvara and India naturally worships this power as parA-Sakti, the Supreme Mother Goddess of the Universe.
The doctrine of ishTa devatA (favourite divinity) may now be stated. A person may choose the deity that satisfies one's spiritual longing and make that the object of one's adoration, love and worship. Since each name and form of God is only a symbol that points to something that is beyond and since each is only a representative of some aspect or manifestation of the Supreme Reality, it is the entire array of all names and forms of God that will perhaps point to the fullness that is God. But it is advisable for each individual to concentrate on and have a special place for one particular manifestation or form of God and this would be his ishTa devatA. Even a person who has realised the brahman as the Ultimate Reality that pervades everything, does not reject idol worship. For him all deities are alike. He is not averse to worshipping or meditating on any particular form of the Absolute. This is the reason why we see our advaita AcAryas give as much importance to devatA worship and temple offerings as the non-advaita AcAryas. Every variation of the ishTa devatA worship currently in vogue can be traced to one or other of the six traditions -- namely, the deities incorporated in the pancAyatana pUjA syndrome plus the tradition of worship of God subrahmaNya.
It is this variety that gives richness to Hinduism and it is this possibility, of 'to each according to his need and capacity' that brings together under the one banner of Hinduism people with varying practices, attitudes and states of evolution. In all cases, however, since the permanent residence of God is in one's own heart, every time a Hindu worships outwardly, he creates an idol or a picture for the God of his choice, or the God that suits the occasion, invokes God in that idol or picture from his heart and worships it in all the external forms he likes. This method of pUjA (worship) is recommended to give devotion a concrete focus. Mark that it is God that is worshipped in the form of the idol and not the idol as God. So long as you think it is an idol you have not got it. People who do not believe in God find excuses to find fault with the worship of God through idols and appear to be 'more loyal' than the religious, by propagating the argument that God is formless and so should not be worshipped through idols. God can take any form and so the form of the idol is good enough for us to worship God. It is the Infinite Absolute brahman, the all-knowing all-permanent Soul of our souls that is invoked into the form of the idol that is before us. 'Him the Sun cannot light, nor the moon, nor ther stars, nor lightning, nor what we call fire; through Him all of them shine, and through His expression, everything is expressed':
na tatra sUryo bhAti na candra-tArakaM naimA vidyuto bhAnti kuto'yam-agniH /
tameva bhAntaM anubhAti sarvaM tasya bhAsA sarvam-idaM vibhAti // Mundaka upanishad, II-2-10
In ritual worship (pUjA) or at the end of a collective bhajan or recitation, the last ritual is the Arti (also called dIpa-ArAdhanA) which is the ceremonial waving of a lighted lamp or camphor before the idolized God. Every Hindu temple will have such Artis to all the deities of the temple at several prescribed times of the day. The upanishadic passage above is one among the many that are recited at Arti time, at the conclusion of a pUjA performed in the vedic tradition.
As we have said, the Vedas declare:, all names and forms are His. An idol or a picture is only symbolic of this statement, that all names and forms are His. Hinduism carries this rationale to its logical conclusion and hence it is that we find a plethora of gods and goddesses in the framework of Hinduism. If you mistake them to be distinct divinities, each powerful in its own realm and warring with others for supremacy, as an unwary reader of the Puranas may be led to think, then you have missed the central teaching of Hinduism – ekam sad viprA bahudhA vadanti: meaning, There is only one Truth; the wise speak of it in several ways. Since Godhead transcends all human description the concept becomes so sophisticated and complex that the ordinary mortal needs something concrete to cling to. This is where a human form or an idol enters the picture.