God in Hinduism

The concept of God in Hinduism varies in its diverse traditions. Hinduism spans a wide range of beliefs such as henotheism, monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, pandeism, monism, atheism and nontheism.

Forms of theism find mention in the Bhagavad Gita. Emotional or loving devotion (bhakti) to a primary god such as avatars of Vishnu (Krishna for example), Shiva and Devi emerged in the early medieval period, and is now known as Bhakti movement. Other Hindus consider atman within every living being to be same as Vishnu or Shiva or Devi, or alternatively identical to the eternal metaphysical Absolute called (Brahman) in Hinduism. Such a philosophical system of Advaita or non-dualism as it developed in the Vedanta school of Hindu philosophy, especially as set out in the Upanishads and popularised by Adi Shankara in the 9th century has been influential on Hinduism.

The Dvaita tradition founded by 13th/14th-century Madhvacharya is based on a concept similar to God in other major world religions. His writings led some early colonial-era Indologistssuch as George Abraham Grierson to suggest Madhvacharya was influenced by Christianity, but later scholarship has rejected this theory. Madhva’s historical influence in Hinduism, state Kulandran and Kraemer, has been salutary, but not extensive.

Madurai Meenakshi Amman Temple Load Muruga Deity

Madurai Meenakshi, Amman Temple

Henotheism, kathenotheism, equitheism and non-theism

Further information: Hindu views on monotheism and History of Hinduism

Concept of God in Hinduism

Henotheism was the term used by scholars such as Max Müller to describe the theology of Vedic religion. Müller noted that the hymns of the Rigveda, the oldest scripture of Hinduism, mention many deities, but praises them successively as the “one ultimate, supreme God”, alternatively as “one supreme Goddess”, thereby asserting that the essence of the deities was unitary (ekam), and the deities were nothing but pluralistic manifestations of the same concept of the divine (God).

The idea that there can be and are plural perspectives for the same divine or spiritual principle repeats in the Vedic texts. For example, other than hymn 1.164 with this teaching, the more ancient hymn 5.3 of the Rigveda states:

You at your birth are Varuna, O Agni.

When you are kindled, you are Mitra. In you, O son of strength, all gods are centered. You are Indra to the mortal who brings oblation. You are Aryaman, when you are regarded as having

the mysterious names of maidens, O Self-sustainer.

— Rigveda 5.3.1-2, Translator: Hermann Oldenberg

Related terms to henotheism are monolatrism and kathenotheism. The latter term is an extension of “henotheism”, from καθ’ ἕνα θεόν (kath’ hena theon) — “one god at a time”. Henotheism refers to a pluralistic theology wherein different deities are viewed to be of a unitary, equivalent divine essence. Some scholars prefer the term monolatry to henotheism, to discuss religions where a single god is central, but the existence or the position of other gods is not denied. Another term related to henotheism is “equitheism”, referring to the belief that all gods are equal.

The Vedic era conceptualization of the divine or the One, states Jeaneane Fowler, is more abstract than a monotheistic God, it is the Reality behind and of the phenomenal universe. The Vedic hymns treat it as “limitless, indescribable, absolute principle”, thus the Vedic divine is something of a panentheism rather than simple henotheism. In late Vedic era, around the start of Upanishadic age (c. 800 BCE), theosophical speculations emerge that develop concepts which scholars variously call nondualism or monism, as well as forms of non-theism and pantheism. An example of the questioning of the concept of God, in addition to henotheistic hymns found therein, are in later portions of the Rigveda, such as the Nasadiya Sukta. Hinduism calls the metaphysical absolute concept as Brahman, incorporating within it the transcendent and immanent reality. Different schools of thought interpret Brahman as either personal, impersonal or transpersonal. Ishwar Chandra Sharma describes it as “Absolute Reality, beyond all dualities of existence and non-existence, light and darkness, and of time, space and cause”.

Influential ancient and medieval Hindu philosophers, states philosophy professor Roy Perrett, teach their spiritual ideas with a world created ex nihilo and “effectively manage without God altogether”.

Brahman

Main articles: Brahman and Brahmanas

In Hinduism, Brahman connotes the highest Universal Principle, the Ultimate Reality in the universe. In major schools of Hindu philosophy, it is the material, efficient, formal and final cause of all that exists. It is the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal truth and bliss which does not change, yet is the cause of all changes. Brahman as a metaphysical concept is the single binding unity behind the diversity in all that exists in the universe.

Who really knows?Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced?
Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

— Nasadiya Sukta, concerns the origin of the universe, Rig Veda, 10:129-6

Brahman is a Vedic Sanskrit word, and it is conceptualized in Hinduism, states Paul Deussen, as the “creative principle which lies realized in the whole world”. Brahman is a key concept found in the Vedas, and it is extensively discussed in the early Upanishads. The Vedas conceptualize Brahman as the Cosmic Principle. In the Upanishads, it has been variously described as Sat-cit-ānanda (truth-consciousness-bliss) and as the unchanging, permanent, highest reality.

Brahman is discussed in Hindu texts with the concept of Atman (Soul, Self), personal, impersonal or Para Brahman, or in various combinations of these qualities depending on the philosophical school. In dualistic schools of Hinduism such as the theistic Dvaita Vedanta, Brahman is different from Atman (soul) in each being, and therein it shares conceptual framework of God in major world religions. In non-dual schools of Hinduism such as the monist Advaita Vedanta, Brahman is identical to the Atman, Brahman is everywhere and inside each living being, and there is connected spiritual oneness in all existence.

The Upanishads contain several mahā-vākyas or “Great Sayings” on the concept of Brahman:

Text Upanishad Translation
अहं ब्रह्म अस्मि
aham brahmāsmi
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.4.10 “I am Brahman”
अयम् आत्मा ब्रह्म
ayam ātmā brahma
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.4.5 “The Self is Brahman”
सर्वं खल्विदं ब्रह्म
sarvam khalvidam brahma
Chandogya Upanishad 3.14.1 “All this is Brahman”
एकमेवाद्वितीयम्
ekam evadvitiyam
Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1 “That [Brahman] is one, without a second”
तत्त्वमसि
tat tvam asi
Chandogya Upanishad 6.8.7 et seq. “Thou art that” (“You are Brahman”)
प्रज्ञानं ब्रह्म
prajnānam brahma
Aitareya Upanishad 3.3.7 “Knowledge is Brahman”

Nirguna and Saguna

Main articles: Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman

While Hinduism sub-schools such as Advaita Vedanta emphasize the complete equivalence of Brahman and Atman, they also expound on Brahman as saguna Brahman—the Brahman with attributes, and nirguna Brahman—the Brahman without attributes. The nirguna Brahman is the Brahman as it really is, however, the saguna Brahman is posited as a means to realizing nirguna Brahman, but the Hinduism schools declare saguna Brahman to be ultimately illusory. The concept of the saguna Brahman, such as in the form of avatars, is considered in these schools of Hinduism to be a useful symbolism, path and tool for those who are still on their spiritual journey, but the concept is finally cast aside by the fully enlightened.

The Bhakti movement of Hinduism built its theosophy around two concepts of Brahman—Nirguna and SagunaNirguna Brahman was the concept of the Ultimate Reality as formless, without attributes or quality. Saguna Brahman, in contrast, was envisioned and developed as with form, attributes and quality. The two had parallels in the ancient pantheistic unmanifest and theistic manifest traditions, respectively, and traceable to Arjuna-Krishna dialogue in the Bhagavad Gita. It is the same Brahman, but viewed from two perspectives: one from Nirguni knowledge-focus and other from Saguni love-focus, united as Krishna in the Gita. Nirguna bhakta’s poetry were Jnana-shrayi, or had roots in knowledge. Saguna bhakta’s poetry were Prema-shrayi, or with roots in love. In Bhakti, the emphasis is reciprocal love and devotion, where the devotee loves God, and God loves the devotee.

Nirguna and Saguna Brahman concepts of the Bhakti movement has been a baffling one to scholars, particularly the Nirguni tradition because it offers, states David Lorenzen, “heart-felt devotion to a God without attributes, without even any definable personality”. Yet given the “mountains of Nirguni bhakti literature”, adds Lorenzen, bhakti for Nirguna Brahman has been a part of the reality of the Hindu tradition along with the bhakti for Saguna Brahman. These were two alternate ways of imagining God during the bhakti movement.

Ishvara

androgynous such as Ardhanarishvara (a composite of Siva or Shiva - male - and Parvati - female)

Androgynous such as Ardhanarishvara (a composite of Siva or Shiva – male – and Parvati – female)

The Yogasutras of Patanjali use the term Ishvara in 11 verses: I.23 through I.29, II.1, II.2, II.32 and II.45. Ever since the Sutra’s release, Hindu scholars have debated and commented on who or what is Isvara? These commentaries range from defining Isvara from a “personal god” to “special self” to “anything that has spiritual significance to the individual”. Whicher explains that while Patanjali’s terse verses can be interpreted both as theistic or non-theistic, Patanjali’s concept of Isvara in Yoga philosophy functions as a “transformative catalyst or guide for aiding the yogin on the path to spiritual emancipation”.

Patanjali defines Isvara (Sanskrit: ईश्वर) in verse 24 of Book 1, as “a special Self (पुरुषविशेष, puruṣa-viśeṣa)”,

Sanskrit: क्लेश कर्म विपाकाशयैःपरामृष्टः पुरुषविशेष ईश्वरः ॥२४॥
– Yoga Sutras I.24

This sutra of Yoga philosophy of Hinduism adds the characteristics of Isvara as that special Self which is unaffected (अपरामृष्ट, aparamrsta) by one’s obstacles/hardships (क्लेश, klesha), one’s circumstances created by past or one’s current actions (कर्म, karma), one’s life fruits (विपाक, vipâka), and one’s psychological dispositions/intentions (आशय, ashaya).

Among various Bhakti path practicing sects of Hinduism, which built upon the Yoga school of Hinduism, Isvara can also mean a specific deity such as Krishna, Rama, Shiva, Lakshmi, Parvati and others.

Madhvacharya’s monotheistic God

To what is One

They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni,
and he is heavenly-winged Garutman.
To what is One, sages give many a title.

— Rigveda 1.164.46
Transl: Klaus Klostermaier

Madhvacharya (1238–1317 CE) developed the Dvaita theology wherein Vishnu was presented as a monotheistic God, similar to major world religions. His writings led some such as George Abraham Grierson to suggest he was influenced by Christianity.

Madhvacharya was misperceived and misrepresented by both Christian missionaries and Hindu writers during the colonial era scholarship. The similarities in the primacy of one God, dualism and distinction between man and God, devotion to God, the son of God as the intermediary, predestination, the role of grace in salvation, as well as the similarities in the legends of miracles in Christianity and Madhvacharya’s Dvaita tradition fed these stories. Among Christian writers, G. A. Grierson creatively asserted that Madhva’s ideas evidently were “borrowed from Christianity, quite possibly promulgated as a rival to the central doctrine of that faith”. Among Hindu writers, according to Sarma, S. C. Vasu creatively translated Madhvacharya’s works to identify Madhvacharya with Christ, rather than compare their ideas.

Modern scholarship rules out the influence of Christianity on Madhvacharya, as there is no evidence that there ever was a Christian settlement where Madhvacharya grew up and lived, or that there was a sharing or discussion of ideas between someone with knowledge of the Bible and Christian myths, and him.

Svayam Bhagavan

Bhagavan Krishna with Radharani

Bhagavan Krishna with Radharani

Svayam Bhagavan, a Sanskrit theological term, is the concept of absolute representation of the monotheistic God as Bhagavan himself within Hinduism.

It is most often used in Gaudiya Vaishnava Krishna-centered theology as referring to Krishna. The title Svayam Bhagavan is used exclusively to designate Krishna. Certain other traditions of Hinduismconsider him to be the source of all avatars, and the source of Vishnu himself, or to be the same as Narayana. As such, he is therefore regarded as Svayam Bhagavan.

The term is seldom used to refer to other forms of Krishna and Vishnu within the context of certain religious texts such as the Bhagavata Purana, and also within other sects of Vaishnavism.

When Krishna is recognized to be Svayam Bhagavan, it can be understood that this is the belief of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, the Vallabha Sampradaya, and the Nimbarka Sampradaya, where Krishna is accepted to be the source of all other avatars, and the source of Vishnu himself. This belief is drawn primarily “from the famous statement of the Bhagavatam”(1.3.28).

A different viewpoint, opposing this theological concept is the concept of Krishna as an avatar of Narayana or Vishnu. It should be however noted that although it is usual to speak of Vishnu as the source of the avataras, this is only one of the names of god of Vaishnavism, who is also known as Narayana, Vasudeva and Krishna and behind each of those names there is a divine figure with attributed supremacy in Vaishnavism.

The theological interpretation of Svayam Bhagavān differs with each tradition and the literal translation of the term has been understood in several distinct ways. Translated from the Sanskrit language, the term literary means “Bhagavan Himself” or “directly Bhagavan”. Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition often translates it within its perspective as primeval Lord or original Personality of Godhead, but also considers the terms such as Supreme Personality of Godhead and Supreme God as an equivalent to the term Svayam Bhagavan, and may also choose to apply these terms to Vishnu, Narayana and many of their associated Avatars.

Earlier commentators such as Madhvacharya translated the term Svayam Bhagavan as “he who has bhagavatta“; meaning “he who has the quality of possessing all good qualities”. Others have translated it simply as “the LordHimself”. Followers of Vishnu-centered sampradayas of Vaishnavism rarely address this term, but believe that it refers to their belief that Krishna is among the highest and fullest of all Avatars and is considered to be the “paripurna Avatara“, complete in all respects and the same as the original.According to them Krishna is described in the Bhagavata Purana as the Purnavatara (or complete manifestation) of the Bhagavan, while other incarnations are called partial.

Bibliography

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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