Sunday, January 22, 2006

On the Nature of Deity

Almost every human culture on the planet has developed ideas of the spiritual and coalesced these into some form of religion. In India, the family of religions called Hinduism has evolved by braiding together threads from many sources some stretching back to the hoary past. Certain current beliefs and practices can be traced back with fair certainty to as far back as 2500-2000 BCE.

Hinduism as we know it today seems to have evolved out of the synthesis of the ancient Vedic faith of the Aryans, intermingling with the beliefs of the Harappans, Dravidans and other cultures extant in India prior to the arrival of the Aryans. Owing to this syncretic beginning, Hinduism has developed an inherent capacity for diversification without schism; a capacity to withstand, accommodate and ultimately absorb alien modes of thought – just add another thread to the braid. It is said that no religious idea in India ever dies or is annulled — it is merely combined with the new ideas and concepts arising from internal change and external infusion. As a result Hinduism today includes a great variety of often contradictory beliefs, doctrines, cults, religious practices and rituals. A Hindu, however, is not bothered by the apparent tension between these various ‘sets’ of beliefs and can operate comfortably and sincerely in more than one of these seemingly irreconcilable frameworks without feelings of anxiety. This can be extremely confusing to non-Hindus.

Partly owing to its multiple roots, Hinduism has neither a beginning or founder, nor a central authority, hierarchy, or organization. It has no prophets, no set creeds or dogma. It’s evolution has been both synthetic and syncretic, and it is more commonly described as ‘the way of life’ of the people of India, the Hindus, than as a religion. A very significant consequence of this syncretic braiding is are multifarious concepts of Deity encountered.

Hinduism can be more accurately described as a ‘mutually tolerant confederation of religions’ each having its own Deit(y/ies), rather than a single faith. These Deities, Gods and Goddesses, together constitute a rather large pantheon. In every day routine Hinduism is frankly polytheistic and practices idol worship opulently. The belief that there are infinite deities is expressed in Hindu scriptures where the number is given sometimes as 33, sometimes as 33,333 and sometimes as 33 crores (330 million). Hinduism’s tradition of tolerance and assimilation is largely responsible for this rather over-populated Hindu heaven. Along with assimilating foreign ideas, Hinduism has also added foreign deities to its pantheon. Historians believe, that local indigenous and aboriginal deities of pre-Aryan India were Aryanised and admitted to the Hindu pantheon, as aspects or avatars of the Great pan-Hindu Gods, as the Aryans spread across the country.

This vast pantheon, verily Hinduism’s tolerance itself, is made possible by a seminal idea that the philosopher of religion, Ninian Smart, describes as ‘trans-polytheism’. Hinduism believes in the ‘Brahman’ the single eternal absolute impersonal supreme reality, the primal source and ultimate goal of all existence, which is attribute-less and beyond all literal expression and comprehension. This super-abstraction of Deity is encountered in other religions of Indic origin as well – notably Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism.

The Gods and Goddesses of the Hindu pantheon are seen as manifestations of the Brahman; a form of mythical and spiritual symbolism. The concept of the Brahman makes it possible for a Hindu to believe in one or more or all of atheism, non-theism, monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, henotheism, and any other -ism he can imagine. The core of religion does not depend on the existence or non-existence of God or on whether there is one god or many. Because religious truth is said to transcend all verbal definition, it is not conceived in dogmatic terms. Moreover, the tendency of Hindus to distinguish themselves from others on the basis of practice (orthopraxy) rather than doctrine (orthodoxy) further de-emphasizes doctrinal differences. It is a paradox to see such a high degree of freedom of religious thought in a religion that otherwise adheres to such rigid (at times even repressive) social and ritual traditions.

Popular Hinduism is polytheistic. We have many Gods and Goddesses. These are believed to be manifestations of the attributeless (Nir-guna, no-qualities) Brahman. Idols of these Gods and Goddesses are worshipped ritually in temples, big and small. Most Hindu homes have a separate ‘mini-temple’ if not a separate temple-room, where small stone or metal idols and pictures of the family’s Gods and Goddesses are placed and worshipped daily. The Sanskrit word for an idol is ‘murti’ - ‘that which shows the form’. A ‘murti’ of the Deity, thus depicts the form of the Deity, its various aspects depicted symbolically. Linking the abstract attributeless Nirguna Brahman to the ‘murti’ of the village Goddess is the step-wise process of de-abstraction (vigraha). This entire spectrum is what essentially constitutes the ‘concept of Deity’ in Hinduism.

At one end of the spectrum is the Nirguna Brahman is abstract, absolute, attributeless, impersonal. Personality is a limitation. The Nirguna Brahman is devoid of personality and hence of gender. Hindu scriptures often refer to the Nirguna Brahman using the neuter Sanskrit pronoun ‘tat’ – its rough English counterpart being ‘That’. The Nirguna Brahman transcends space, hence is Infinite. It transcends time, hence is Eternal, it is not muted by causation hence It is changeless and absolute. An attribute or a quality is a factor of separation, the Brahman is One and Indivisible, One without a Second, hence It is attributeless, free from all qualities. The Brahman cannot be described by our words and or comprehended by our thoughts. Vedic statements averring to the Brahman as ‘Sat-Chid-Anandam’ (Ultimate Reality, Pure Consciousness, Perfect Bliss), are seen as mere ‘hints’ about the nature of the Brahman.

When we think of the Brahman in human terms we attribute to It a human like personality, project on It human characteristics, human emotions. The veil of space, time and causation through which we look at the Nirguna Brahman causes us to experience It as the Brahman with qualities (Saguna Brahman), as Eeshwara (Lord). Eeshwara is the personal God. The creator of the Universe, Eeshwara is omnipotent, omniscient and all pervading. Frequently, Eeshwara is described in pantheistic terms. The Universe is part of Eeshwara, and Eeshwara is ‘immanent’ in the universe, in every atom there is. It is this concept of Eeshwara, the de-abstracted personalised Brahman, which is similar to the idea of the Deity of the monotheistic religions (Yahweh, God, Allah).

Hinduism interprets the cosmos in cyclical terms. The Universe is created, sustained and dissolved repeatedly in infinite cycles. The aspects of Eeshwara that are associated with the functions or roles of Creation, Preservation and Dissolution, are the Hindu Trinity – Trimurti. These three great Gods are Brahma or Brahmadev, the Creator (not to be confused with the impersonal Brahman), Vishnu, the sustainer, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer. Each of these great Gods, has a consort, His ‘shakti’ or power. The consort of Brahma the creator, is Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge, learning, speech, music and art. The consort of Vishnu, the preserver, is Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth, prosperity, abundance. The consort of Shiva, the destroyer is the Parvati, the Goddess who personifies cosmic energy, the ‘Mother Goddess’. Shiva has two sons Ganesha, the elephant headed Lord of Wisdom, arts and crafts, remover of obstacles; and Skanda, the Warlord. All of these deities are worshipped. The old Vedic deities representing the forces of nature, (Indra, Varuna, Agni, Vayu, etc) are the ‘lesser’ Gods of the Hindu pantheon. An important part of the Hindu pantheon is the avatars, incarnations of the Great Gods, particularly of Vishnu. As the preserver of the Universe, Lord Vishnu incarnates upon the earth to protect the good, to vanquish the wicked and to uphold the cosmic order. Two of the most popular incarnations of Vishnu are Lord Rama and Lord Krishna. Numerous local deities in various parts of India are identified with one of these great pan-Hindu Gods. This process of Sanskritisation – the transformation of local & regional Deities into avatars or aspects of the Great Gods was part of the syncretisation that evolved Hinduism from the confluence of the Aryan and pre-Aryan treads.

The chain of de-abstraction spans from Nirguna Brahman, to Eeshwara, to the Great Gods, to the lesser Gods, to the local deities. The central idea is that each individual needs to adopt a spiritual practice depending upon his or her intellectual, emotional and spiritual capacity, and gradually progress to increasingly abstract ideas. It is not uncommon for a Hindu's spiritual practice to include more than one of these ‘levels’. A Hindu may start the day by worshipping the Great Gods in the shrine in his house, pray to the local deity in the temple dedicated to it on his way to work, and in the evening spend his time meditating, contemplating upon the abstract Brahman.

A rough parallel of such syncretism in other cultures, by way example, could be the mixed practices of the Hebrews settled in Canaan in the eighth and ninth centuries BCE where most tended to ‘worship’ both the abstract Yahweh and the de-abstracted local Canaanite Baal – a practice that was strongly denounced and on occasions brutally repressed by the Old Testament prophets.

That such a range of concepts of deity can exist within a unified religious super-structure is one of the strengths of Hinduism.

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