OH MY GODssss!
India is a not just a country …to put it mildly India is a mind-boggling planet. There is so much diversity in India – be it the geography, people, lifestyles, languages, customs, politics and even religion etc. For centuries, India’s forte has been her ‘spirituality and religion’ and that too is so diverse. The Indian sphere of God is so different that it appears quite baffling to the modern mind. Naturally therefore, one asks ‘How come you guys have so many Gods’ etc. But the explanations are not hard to find these days.
There is so much diversity in almost everything Indian – be it the society, cuisines, lifestyles, costumes, languages, customs etc. The knowledge that originated in India made some solid contributions to the world in a variety of fields like science, metallurgy, medicine, literature, mathematics, astronomy et al. The area of spirituality and religion however is India’s love affair.
What is at the heart of Indian spirituality?
Interestingly, India is also the birthplace to four dharmic religions – Sanatana dharma (aka Hinduism), Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. So many scriptures, so many paths and so many stories in Indian religions is a smorgasbord approach to reality. There is no one holy book but a huge library of scriptures suitable to God seekers. Of the many spiritual traditions in India, many scholars and Gurus have long maintained that “Vedanta” is the essential philosophy that is at the heart of Hinduism, even to the extent of claiming it to be the science behind all religions. Vedanta (found in the end portion of the Vedas) is considered the essence of Vedic teaching that attempts to rationalise the seeming diversity in God zone. Yet, questions abound because ‘to know’ is natural for a thinking mind.
So many questions on Indian religions…
Here is a sample of questions that the Vedanta teachers get asked routinely e.g. why so many Gods, why idols, If God is everywhere why go to temples, Why Gods in Hinduism have unusual forms with multiple arms and multiple weapons, Why Lord Ganesha has a elephant head, Why Lord Brahma is seated an a lotus, Why Lord Krishna is said to be blue in colour, Why Lord Murugan rides a peacock, Why did God create this universe etc.
These questions have become so popular that almost every other Vedanta based ashram has at least one frequently-asked-questions (FAQs) book that answers those questions. The many avenues that the internet provides these days and the visiting Gurus have also made the answer hunting easy.
God with many masks…
To the popular question, why so many Gods in Hinduism?”, Joseph Campbell (1904-1987), one of the foremost interpreters of myth of our times states,
“The one God wears many masks, in no other religion does the Supreme Being wear so many masks and invite worship in so many different forms as the eternal religion of Hinduism.”
Hinduism says the higher power, if it may so be called, can manifest in any form – in the form of Gods and Goddesses. Anything is possible with the higher power. When there is so much variety in the plant world, animal world, sea world, mineral world etc the argument as to why God the creator of all worlds can’t appear in any of the myriad forms seems logical.
In the Indian wisdom traditions, the ultimate truth or God is called “Brahman” (not Brahmin). So how does ‘Brahman’ differ in the common concept of God? For the subtle thinker, God is without attributes (Nir-gun). But to those who are unable to grasp abstract concepts, God is with a human face etc (Sa-gun). God in core Hinduism or ‘Brahman’ according to Vedanta is neither male nor female, is without any attributes, formless and not easily conceivable as our senses and mind have limitations. Yet in India, God is in myriad forms. Why?
Experts speak on the God variety in India….
About the seeming multiplicity in India’s Godzone, a modern author and professor from the University of Wales College, Newport – Prof. Jeaneane Fowler writes in her book ‘ Hinduism: Beliefs & Practices’ that
“The relationship between the many manifest deities and the unmanifest Brahman is rather like that between the sun and its rays. We cannot experience the sun itself but we can experience its rays and the qualities, which those rays have. And, although the sun’s rays are many, ultimately, there is only one source, one sun. So the Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism amount to thousands, all representing the many aspects of Brahman”.
The very learned monk Swami Vivekananda spoke,
“The Hindus have associated the idea of holiness, purity, truth, omnipresence, and such other ideas with different images and forms. The whole religion of the Hindu is centered in realisation. Man is to become divine by realising the divine. Idols or temples or books are only the supports, the helps, of his spiritual childhood: but on and on he must progress”.
Many Gods therefore seems to imply the many manifestations of the one divine power just like the different gold ornaments have ‘gold’ as the one common cause. Gold ornaments may be many but gold is changeless. Gods are many but the changeless Supreme is one.
Who are the go-to guys for the answers?
In this modern era of information and reasoning, the baffling questions on Indian religiosity has a better chance of getting a reasoned answer when addressed to the knowers of Vedanta philosophy (also called as Vedantins). Vedantins are known to use reasoning that is likely to satisfy the modern mind. Vedantins tend to have a scientific temper which is found in the teachings of the “Upanishads”. Upanishads is found in the end (‘anta in Sanskrit) portion of the Vedas, hence ‘Veda+anta = Vedanta’. In the Upanishads the scholars say that the highest philosophy about reality is coded. The Upanishads are also accepted as the ultimate authority by all the spiritual traditions of India.
About the Upanishads, Paul Deussen, a 19th century German Orientalist and Sanskrit scholar and student of the great German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed,
“Whatever may be the discoveries of the scientific mind, none can dispute the eternal truths propounded by the Upanishads….the Upanishads have tackled every fundamental problem of life. They have given us an intimate account of reality. On the tree of wisdom there is no fairer flower than the Upanishads and no finer fruit than the Vedanta philosophy”.
The knowledge traditions are thus considered the non-dogmatic source to know Indian spirituality, apart from direct experience of the truth.
Ram Lingam blogs his insights on India and Indian culture at www.indiasutra.co.nz