The following is an imaginary six-party conversation on the concept of ‘God’ in Hinduism. The six persons who are parties to this conversation, namely, RNB, DD, OT, PP, SV and PA are all Hindus who have grown in an atmosphere full of the culture and tradition. They are such thick friends of one another that each knows the others inside out! But the six have different views on Hindu beliefs, philosophy and practices and that makes the conversation interesting.
1. RNB is a rationalist and a non-believer to the extent that he has serious questions on the existence of God. The one thing he appreciates is the necessity for the purification of one’s mind. He has a soft corner for karma-yoga, because the concept of unselfish service means something to him but his ideas are only vague. His attitudes to his friends’ perception of the ‘faith’ part of religion are rather blurred.
2. DD is a simple and pious devotee, but he is a kind of a ‘doubting’ devotee, because every alternate day he discovers that his prayers are not answered by God. He jumps from one form of God to another (and Hinduism gives him this flexibility) and is carried by naivity to believe in any one who poses the frontal of a saffron colour. He thinks he understands Lord Krishna and His leelas, but of Krishna’s Gita and the philosophical undercurrent runningthrough it, he has only a confused perception, if at all. An undercurrent of vacillation and doubt constantly bothers him. In fact he represents a large number of ordinary Hindus.
3. OT is the orthodox theologist. He knows all the puranic stories. He corresponds to the traditional layman-Hindu, very often superstitious. He does not have a clear understanding of the basic philosophy of the religion and he tends to develop dogmatic attitudes towards viewpoints that do not coincide with his own perception of religion. He thinks he understands both Krishna’s pranks as well as his Gita, but his attitudes which have a colour of dogmatism in them prevent him from a full understanding.
4. PP is one who professes Philosophy. Mostly his is an arm-chair philosophy. He believes in the omnipresence of Divinity. He knows that God is immanent in himself and he has to only realise that Godly presence. He believes or cares for nothing else. For him, neither karma yoga nor bhakti nor surrender theory nor the concept of Avatar has any meaning, much less, any fascination. But he is very knowledgeable because he is well-read.
5. SV, the Scientist-Vedantin, on the other hand, has a great fascination for the intellectual exercises embodied in the philosophical schools of Hinduism, the consequent corollary of a karma yoga and so on. He even probes into treatises which deal with these teachings in their depth. He needs ‘proof’ for everything on the lines of what his scientific mind seems to be familiar with. The concept of One God with myriads of names and forms is unpalatable to him even as an academic hypothesis. He thinks he understands the Gita, but certainly he cannot swallow the pranks of Krishna.
6. AV is an advaita-vedantin. He claims to have read (and understood!) all the advaitic treatises and has probably a good perception of the Prasthana-traya.
The conversation starts in an elementary casual way between #s 1 and 2 on the existence of God. At some point #3 joins in the debate. The conversation turns into a serious debate. #4 also joins now. #s 5 and #6 join in the final stages. Now let us go to the conversation from the beginning. The paragraphs are numbered so as to facilitate any further reference.
1. RNB: Good morning DD, what temple did you visit today? What was your latest prayer?
2. DD: Well, over the weekend I had been to the temple of Guruvayoor. Do you know it draws the second largest crowd of devotees among all Hindu temples, next only to Tirupati? Guru-vayoor-appan is the greatest boon-giver according to Narayaneeyam. Among the many prayers I carried to the Lord was one which concerns you. I prayed that God should grant you what you do not have.
3. RNB: I know what you mean. You have prayed to your God that he should grant me faith in him. And you think he can do that for you.
4. DD: Why not? God can get anything done if He wills it.
5. RNB: So do you think He can put that faith in me in spite of my will otherwise?
6. DD: Certainly. Further I am not asking Him to give me material benefits. I have asked Him, on your behalf, the one and only thing you need and that is not a material benefit.
7. RNB: That is your feeling about me. But I don’t feel I am lacking anything. Why should I have faith in a non-existent God?
8. DD: Come on, don’t repeat all that talk of yours. You seem to take pleasure in denying God. Don’t you know that even in the west they are talking about a super-designer who must have designed this universe with all its fantastic order and in-built regularity, which is unexplainable?
9. RNB: But you are begging the question. Who designed that super-designer?
10. DD: That super-designer is God. Nobody designed Him.
11. RNB: That is exactly my point. You are only making a hypothesis, aren’t you?
12. DD: So what? That is the declaration of all religions of the world.
13. RNB: Religion is man-made. God is just a creation of man’s intelligence. Man created God in his own image as an anthropomorphic super-duplicate of himself. I don’t need such a creation.
14. DD: Have you ever felt depressed when things don’t work the way you wanted them to work for you?
15. RNB: I don’t feel depression at such times. I know I am lucky most of the time and some times I am not lucky; that is all.
16. DD: What is luck, if not God’s Grace?
17. RNB: Why do you bring in God into everything? Luck is luck; there is no God there. What does your God gain by giving me luck? I do my duty and I expect rewards. If I don’t get those rewards it only means there is some fault in the system and I have to work towards removal of that fault. You believers rely on God to give you those rewards or correct those faults in the system. Last year you were visiting local temples one by one for redress of your grievances and this year you have gone all the way to Guruvayoor. But your grievances are still there!
18. DD: You may not agreee with this. But it is God that gives all the rewards.
19. RNB: But if it is a God that rewards only those who pamper him, then I am not willing to have anything to do with him.
20. OT (entering): Hello friends, it appears you are seriously discussing something. Can I join you?
21. RNB. Actually we were looking for you. DD has just returned from a trip to Guruvayoor. He is trying to convince me that Guruvayoorappan is the supreme God. Last year he tried to convince me that the elephant-God Ganesha in the corner of this street is the supreme God. This year it is different!
22. OT. Nobody can convince you, because you don’t believe in anything.
23. RNB. Why can’t you folks give me a logical argument for the existence of God? Don’t bring in a bundle of primitive concepts from your Puranas and all your superstitious beliefs.
24. OT: Is it superstition to believe what hundreds of great men like Shankara, Tirunavukkarasar, Ramanuja, Madhva, Vedanta Deshika, Appayya Dikshidar, Kabirdas, Meerabai, Chaitanya or a Vallalar have believed? Is it superstition to believe a Ramakrishna of our own times who saw the Goddess in person? Is it superstition to have trust in a Raghavendra who lives still in his samadhi and grants our wishes? Have you ever exposed yourself to the sayings or the life story of any of these? That is exactly your problem, the problem of Ignorance!
25. RNB: Wait for a minute! I thought you were going to give a logical argument.
26. DD: The logical argument is three-fold: 1. First you have to let go your mental block which says that that everything can be reduced to simple explanations. You have to change your mental framework to admit truths beyond the reach of your common sense. 2. Just as we individuals have minds of our own there are greater minds which are able to see the global picture more clearly than most of us single individuals. Carrying this analogy further we have to grant a super mind that may be called the transcendental mind. This is the mind of the all-knowing God. 3. The mystics of the world have a common story to tell the rest of the world. It is a compelling story whose authenticity is difficult to dismiss on the basis of our subjective understanding with our limited minds. ...
27. RNB: Excuse me. Pardon me for telling you that you are only making profound statements without an iota of logic or personal experience.
28. PP (entering at this time): What personal experience are you talking about?
29. OT: RNB wants to have a logical argument for the existence of God. And DD is telling him that mystics of the world have a lot of personal experience which we cannot but believe.
30. PP: I agree with RNB that we should not believe in something of which we have no personal experience.
31. OT: Come on, that is false logic. Do you have personal experience that so and so is your father?
32. RNB: Please, my friends, stop going in that direction. Our business here is not to win a point, but to search and find out whether there is any logical way in which we can believe in the existence of God.
33. PP: That is right. As a professor of philosophy I like Hinduism not because of its variety, flexibility and tolerance but because of its ideal mixture of reason and faith. Reason saves the aspiring devotee from avoidable errors and pitfalls and faith supports him with courage in the hour of despondency.
34. RNB: Then what is the final authority? Reason or Faith?
35. OT: Faith in the scriptures, certainly.
36. DD: But even the Gita is difficult to comprehend.
37. PP: By depending solely on faith in the scriptures one tends to be dogmatic. By depending solely on Reason one may fall into the trap of rationalising one’s desire. Such a person proves what he wants to prove. Personal experience by itself can be deceptive because one may be just projecting one’s own favourite ideas. All three have to be combined to arrive at the truth. I am told this is what the Upanishads claim to be doing.
38. RNB: Aren’t the Upanishads also full of dogmatic pronouncements called ‘maha-vakyas’?
39. OT: These mahavakyas are the axioms from which the other things are logically deduced.
40. PP: Do they tell you why man has been created? What must have been the purpose of creation?
41. DD: Man has been created in order for him to work out the path to go back to his source, namely God.
42. RNB: Then it means he was separated from God originally. Why was he separated?
43. PP: You will go nowhere by asking these questions. Because if you assign some purpose to God for his creation you will have then to question the very omniscience and omnipotence which are part of the definition of God.
44. RNB: What is wrong in questioning the omniscience and omnipotence? That is why I say you cannot even postulate a God. Because by the nature of your postulation you have also to postulate that he is omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent. In other words you are postulating everything about him and then you say you can logically deduce his presence from the mahavakyas.
45. OT: But the omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience have been demonstrated in several instances recorded in the puranas of religion. Have you heard of Prahlada’s story where the Lord appeared from a pillar just like that in order to demonstrate the truth of his omnipresence asserted by his devotee?
46. RNB: These are only stories and have only a story-value.
47. PP: All of this tantamounts to saying that one should have faith. As I said already, only by a proper mixture of reason and faith you can arrive at the truth. Neither of them singly will be satisfactory.
48. RNB: On the other hand the laws of nature as discovered by science can explain almost all the phenomena in the universe. And very soon they will also discover explanations for those phenomena which are at present eluding our scientific understanding.
49. OT: Can science explain all the mystery that is experienced at the individual human level?
50. DD: All through history we have heard of thousands of individuals who have been emotionally influenced by the Divnity of temple deities.
51. OT: That is where religion and philosophy play a part. Every temple in the world of Hindus is a monumental example of what spiritual giants have achieved in the past. Their achievements in the spiritual field are all part of the history of that temple.
52. PP: Hindu philosophy, on the other hand, starts by investigating the mystery surrounding the individual mind. The innermost essence of man refers to the substratum of the individual mind. But ancient Hindu philosophers have seen a parallelism between the study of the individual and that of the universe as a whole.
53. SV (entering at this point): Friends, I was standing nearby and I heard the words ‘religion’, ‘philosophy’ and ‘science’ tossed about among you. I think I can join the discussion , if you don’t mind.
54. RNB: What is your opinion, SV, since you have dabbled in both science and Vedanta, about the question of the existence of God? Can you tell us some real good reason why I should believe in God?
55. SV: Frankly, if you ask my sincere opinion, the existence of God cannot be proved. I would love myself to have a proof but all the proofs they are all giving has some flaw or other. God must be the name we have given to what we cannot understand even collectively. Such a God has to be thecreative force, the overall intelligence which governs the universe, the all-pervading essence which binds together everything in the universe and gives life to all living beings.
56. RNB: Beautiful definition! But only a definition. It does not say whether such a thing exists or not.
57. PP: If you are looking for it intellectually, it is the creative force, the sustaining power, the motivation towards change, the overall intelligence, the truth.
58. OT: If you are looking at it emotionally, it is love, goodness, kindness and beauty. Among feminine qualities, says the Lord in the tenth chapter of the Gita, “I am glory, beauty, speech, memory, intelligence, steadfastness and forgiveness”. (KiirtiH shrIr-vAk-ca nArINAM ... )
59. SV: If you are looking at it spiritually, it is the ever-present all-pervading essence or spirit that gives life to everything and binds them all.
60. DD: You are all confusing me. I simply know Him as He who gives me rewards when I do good and punishes me when I default in my ethics or morals.
61. PP: There are different levels of the conception of God. An answer given to a questioner at one level will not suit or be satisfactory to, the questioner at a different level. When a Hindu child asks you to tell her about God, you can tell her stories about Rama and Krishna. When a teen-ager questions you about the existence of God, you may deal out the super-designer argument, which may satisfy the questioner for the moment. When an adult asks the same question you have to answer at a higher level; the super-designer argument may not work with all persons.
62. SV: The beauty of Hindu philosophy and religion lies in the fact that instead of starting with the reality of the universal mind (this is the name that I give to God in my understanding of things), they start from what is experienced at the human level. So the innermost recesses of the human mind are first explored. This investigation leads to what constitutes the innermost essence of man. One finds that the innermost essence of man is the seeker himself, rid of all his tools of search. In fact the mind itself is part of the luggage that is to be shed off. But the exploration of this innermost core is inextricably interlinked with the preconditioning of the mind. This preconditioning is nothing but the cumulative effect of all traces of sensory experience left in the memory bank. This preconditioning differs from individual to individual and so the understanding of the innermost core also varies from person to person.
63. DD: Ah, I see the point now. It is clear now why I jumped from one God to another in my search for that God who will listen to me! It all depends on the preconditioning of my mind at that time. Wonderful!
64. PP: The technical jargon that is equivalent to this ‘preconditioning’ is ‘VasanA’. This innermost core is what I call the psychic principle. The Vedantins call it the Atman.
65. SV: Though there is no scientific proof of this, it is declared by Vedantic works that this psychic principle, the Atman, is so deep-seated within us that it has a sense of undeniable reality that goes with it, in the same sense that one does not look for a proof of one’s own existence.
66. OT: That is because, it is God seated in our heart of hearts. “IshvaraH sarva-bhutAnAM ..” in the last chapter of the Gita. He is the One who prompts all our actions and our thoughts.
67. SV: Don’t confuse the issue now by bringing theology and all that stuff about God being the motivator of our actions. RNB here and I would immediately ask you to give logical proof for it and you will be stuck. The subject here is different; it is about the question as to what the innermost core of Man is. Let me continue my observations. This innermost reality within us is the real subject of all our experiences. It is the eternal witness to everything that I do or think.
68. RNB: But where is God now, in all this?
69. AV (entering and joining the discussion): It appears you are looking for God.
70. SV: Now that you have joined us, AV, we would like you to give us the benefit of all your knowledge about Vedanta and advaita to solve this riddle of the existence of God.
71. AV: Since you have referred to advaita, let me say this much. There is no God other than yourself.
72. OT: I see you are referring to the Atman within each man. But then, that would mean there are several Gods.
73. PP: Simple. There are not several Atmans. The Atman within yourself and the Atman within myself is the same.
74. DD: But the question is about God who is Master of the universe and who is the Creator of this universe.
75. PP: This is where Hindu philosophy has scored. Particularly the advaita school. They assert that the Atman which is the innermost core of ourselves is also the transcendent eternal Reality which is omnipresent . The name given to that Supreme Reality is Brahman. The declaration of the Upanishads is, according to advaita, Atman is the same as Brahman, period! This statement is not amenable to any proof. Yogis however say that it will be seen as true in meditative Samadhi.
76. AV: But instead of getting into those technicalities, let me ask you all: How often have you asked God to provide guidance in making your decisions? And what has been your experience?
77. DD and OT (together): Almost all the time.
78. RNB: Frankly, I don’t remember to have ever asked God to guide my decisions. And the reason is obvious. It never struck me. I have no practice of going to God for every one of my dilemmas. You may call it my ego, if you want to.
79. PP: Both of you, RNB on one side and DD and OT on the other, have a point of view which is acceptable. It is no use asking a non-beleiver of God whether he invokes God in his decisions. The question should actually be posed in another manner. “Have you ever had occasion to feel helpless in making decisions? And in such times what do you do?”
80. RNB: The answer is the same. Even when I felt helpless, how would I go to a non-existent God?
81. SV: I think we are pursuing matters to a dead end.
82. AV: May I be permitted to shock you all at this moment? The matter whether God exists or not is not relevant from the absolute point of view. For, our advaita teachers are very clear on this point. The necessity or otherwise for a God, the existence or otherwise of a God with superlative attributes all arise only in the mundane world which is after all only relatively real. As far as absolute truth is concerned only non-duality is true: namely, Truth is One and only One. You may call it God. But that God is not your God with superlative qualities. It is Brahman, the unqualified Brahman, to which there can be no attributes.
83. OT: Then why do all the scriptures say that everything in the universe owe their existence to God?
84. AV: They say it in the sense that all the movie pictures you see on the screen owe their existence to the screen. If the screen were not there there would be no pictures. This is the famous ‘anvaya’ logic. But the screen alone is always there, before the projection of the pictures on it, during the projection and after the projection . So the screen is relatively more real than the pictures on it. It is in this sense that the scriptures including the Brahma Sutra say that Brahman is the source of everything.
85. SV: That portion of Brahma sutra is usually quoted to affirm that Brahman is the First Cause and is itself uncaused.
86. OT: In fact almost all scriptures say this. Krishna says: “aham Adirhi madhyam ca ...” in the tenth chapter of his Gita.
87. SV: Let us look at it in another way. Man is conscious of his limitations. It means he is capable of imagining or conceiving the infinite and in comparison he knows he has limitations that make him lack that infiniteness. It is that infiniteness he renames as God. It is a vague consciousness, no doubt. But it is that vague consciousness, I think, that brings religion as a vital need of man.
88. AV: The advaita teaching goes somewhat like this. It says that man has to rise from his limitations which are collectively termed as his avidyA. So long as he is subject to these limitations or avidya, he cannot dispense with religion or his belief in God.
89. PP: In other words advaita also tells you what to do in your world of duality.
90. OT: Only through the Grace of God does the saving knowledge of non-duality come to us. We have to resort to prayer and meditation to make ourselves worthy of God’s Grace. Adi Shankara emphasizes this in almost all his devotional poems.
91. PP: Much research has been done to establish a strong connection between prayerful or meditative states and overall health as confirmed by physiological indicators.
92. DD: And that God to whom you do prayers can be your ishta-devata (favourite deity). I don’t see anything wrong in it provided it does not carry with it hatred of any other God, either of Hinduism or of other religions.
93. PP: One can have preferences without exclusions. Hinduism is a graded religious discipline. It takes man step by step from the worship of the popular gods for gaining material ends all the way up to the prayer of the Jiva. This is the prayer which is keen on being led “from unreality to reality, from darkness to light and from death to immortality”. One has to observe all forms of worship and go all the way with religion in order to arrive at a point beyond religion.
94. AV: Reason is strongest when it accepts divine guidance. This divine guidance does not necessarily have to come from a personality called God. Whenever we say ‘personality’ we think of it only in human form. We are not able to think of it as something which makes us think. This something which makes us think is the consciousness within us. This consciousness is actually what guides us. That is divine guidance, not necessarily someone who is sitting there in the distant heavens and guiding every one of us.
95. DD: But then all those descriptions of Kailasa (the divine abode of Shiva) and Vaikuntha (the divine abode of Vishnu) must be taken to be mere imaginations. I for one would not want to accept your stand. The other schools of philosophy like Dvaita and Vishishtadvaita have no problems here, because for them the Ultimate God is personal and his abode is a real place. How can you say that advaita is the right view?
96. PP: As I have already said, there are levels of evolution among us all. There are some of us for whom nothing but the grossest form of a divinity has appeal. There are others among us for whom the most impersonal representation of that divinity is the only thing acceptable. There is no right or wrong here.
97. AV: No. It cannot be made that simple. Different presentations of the all-pervading divinity are true only in their respective spheres . There is only one reality from the transcendental point of view. For purposes of worship various names and forms are superimposed upon it. Note the word ‘superimposed’. Once this process of giving a name and form to what in reality is nameless and formless starts, there is no end to it. We lay down all forms of worship and compose litanies in praise of Gods. We undertake pilgrimages to distant places to offer worship to deities in sacred shrines. All this is quite necessary in the case of ordinary men who choose to live in a world which takes multiplicity as real either as truth or as an unavoidable come-down. The true advaitin belongs to the latter category. He knows all this is maya but he cannot but do it. He knows he is sinning against his own enlightened state in doing all this. Appayya Dikshidar said: “Oh Lord I have in my weakness committed three sins and I beg forgiveness from you. To serve as a support for meditation I have given a form to the Highest who is really formless; I have tried to define the indefinable by composing stotras and litanies and lastly I have confined the omnipresent Lord to particular places of worship and have journeyed to those places”. This is the attitude of a true advaitin towards all forms of worship. Whether each such form or for that matter the formless Ultimate was the first Cause or not does not make any difference to this attitude.
98. OT: I find it very difficult to accept that all the myriad deities in the various temples are part of the passing world of Maya. How come there have been so many theological discussions and stories about different manifestations and deities?
99. DD: I have always been confused about the relationships among the different Gods and Goddesses. The deity called ShAstA is the son of Shiva and Mohini, the feminine manifestation of Vishnu. So Vishnu is ShAstA’s mother and Shiva is his father. So what is the relation of Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, to ShAstA? In fact this question was raised by the famous Appayya Dikshidar himself, whom you just quoted.
100. PP: Yes, the mythological set-up is certainly confusing if you take them all at their story-value. For instance, Shiva and Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning are brother and sister because they both emanated from the Supreme Mother Goddess in her Mahalakshmi form. Like that Vishnu and Parvati are brother and sister. Brahma and Lakshmi are brother and sister. But Brahma himself emanated from Lord Vishnu. So Lakshmi is also the mother of Brahma. Can you take all these things literally in terms of our worldly language, imagery and relationships?
101. AV: The Vedic tradition seems to be contradicting itself if you look at it as if they were written by successive generations to elaborate differing theories. At one place it may say that the universe was created by God in the way in which a carpenter creates or constructs a work of art from his mind. At another place the same Vedas will declare that the entire universe came just out of the will-power of God. At another place it will raise the question: ‘Who knows about this creation?’. Such writing if at all, reflects only a questioning intellectual mind which tries to present the truth to different levels of understanding. For the discerning mind the last word is that of the Upanishads. For example, to the question: Who is this Self, whom we desire to worship? Is he the Self by which we hear, see, etc.? Is he the heart and mind by which we perceive? The answer comes, just to cite one instance, in Aitareya Upanishad. No, these are only adjuncts of the Self. The Self itself is Pure Consciousness. He is Brahman, He is God. He is Creator BrahmA, He is Indra, He is all Gods. The reality behind all the five elements, all that is born, everything that breathes, is Brahman, who is pure Consciousness. All creation and all the universe is established in Consciousness, they exist only through Consciousness, they work through Consciousness, their foundation is Consciousness. Brahman is Consciousness and Consciousness is Brahman. PrajnAnaM Brahma.
102. RNB: What appeals to me in all the scriptures is the repeated appeals for the purification of our mind. Without that basic requisite, everything else is only an academic exercise.
103. SV: What appeals to me most is the theory of the Causeless Cause of all causes. A cause and effect relationship can be entertained only when there is a feature that can clearly distinguish between the two and there is no such distinguishing feature in the case of Brahman. The maxim that says, as in the Mandukya-Karika, That which does not exist in the beginning and the end is equally so in the middle present, is the most wonderful statement that appeals to me.
104. PP: What appeals to me most is the universal human urge to be at all places at the same time, to know everything and to be always happy. These three urges may be summarized as ‘to be’, ‘to know’ and ‘to be happy’. They are actual finite dim reflections of the essential infinite nature of Brahman, namely, existence, consciousness and bliss. These basic insitincts of man are also responsible for producing an innate fear of death, fear of ignorance and fear of misery.
105. OT: What appeals to me most is the fact that this Ultimate Reality that is Brahman, though incomprehensible to ordinary men like me, manifests itself as transcending everything, as immanent in everything and as the supreme perfection. All our stotras and sahasranamas with which we propitiate our deities at temples and in homes repeatedly affirm only this transcendence, immanence and perfection of the ultimate God.
106. DD:The three qualities Transcendence, Immanence and Perfection appeal to me most.
107. AV: What appeals to me most is that these three qualities Transcendence, Immanence and Perfection constitute only the TIP of the Iceberg that is God. T for Transcendence, I for Immanence and P for Perfection. The Reality is far far beyond the TIP.
108. PP: Transcendence points to Sat, Immanence to Chit and Perfection to Ananda i.e., bliss. So the TIP is what points to Sat-chid-ananda.