By Saurabh Bhattacharya
Who, or what, is God? Why is the concept of God so integral to humanity? Where did the concept come from? What does the future hold? The questions are endless. What follows is a tentative hunt for some answers
Welcome to the biggest treasure hunt of all. The game plan is simple. Like all treasure hunts, we start with a map. Only, in this case, the map will not be in our hands. It’ll lie in our head—uncharted, unmarked, and incomplete—like a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces will emerge as we proceed on our quest. Pieces that will continually shift shape, size and color, much in tune with the seeker’s frame of mind. My clue will not be the same as your clue; your map will not be the same as mine.
The rules are simple. There are none. No winners or losers. No time limit or starting point. The only thing common among all participants will be the unquenchable thirst to know, to seek, and to finally find…God!
And in this hunt, God’s decision will be final.
WHAT’S UP, GOD?
Some people say there is a God; others say there is no God. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
First things first. Why do we need to search for God? We all know that He (She? It?) is somewhere taking care of things—or not. The believers have their belief, the atheists their disbelief, and the agnostics their ambivalence. Then why bother?
To answer this, let me share with you a joke. Quite aptly, it is in first person and is true for any faith, Eastern or Western:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said:
“Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked.
I said: “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Well… are you religious or atheist?”
“Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?”
“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”
“Reformation of 1915!”
To which I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.
Funny? Maybe. But jokes are merely humorous shields that protect us from the horrific face of reality that something is really going wrong in the world. Temples are being torn down, statues broken, towers decimated, even food banned—all because you do not agree with my view of God. It doesn’t matter that perhaps you too have a view of God that is equally true. It doesn’t matter that perhaps neither of us actually know what God is all about. I think you, and anyone else who does not believe in my God, is not worthy of living.
So, what’s up, God? How does it feel to be fought over so mercilessly and stupidly? How does it feel to be called upon to save one country while the armies of that country bombard another nation to bits? How does it feel to be worshipped, revered, followed by and prayed to by a humanity that actually has absolutely no clue about You—about who You are, where You came from, why You are, what You are, whether You actually are or not?
As the till now only rational and intelligent species on this planet, I think the least we could try and do is get to know God a bit more before actually believing (or disbelieving). And the sooner the better, before all the heretic scum of the world throw the rest of the heretic scum off the bridge of evolution.
At that point, will there still be a God to fight over? I wonder!
IN THE BEGINNING
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word ‘god’ came into being in English before the 12th century AD. But it is certain that the concept of God is much older than the oldest of all spoken language.
Exactly how old is this concept?
Our first clue lies in anthropology, particularly in the works of a Prof Christopher Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum. While searching for the origin of humanity as Homo sapiens, Prof Stringer discovered that Homo Sapiens were actually one of four subspecies to come out of Africa a million years ago. All these subspecies practiced a crude form of ritual burial of their dead that could well be termed religious.
Explaining this in his The Drama of the Holy, American sociologist T.R. Young notes: “The most ancient religious practices were associated with the cult of the dead and the use of skulls for magic. The Dragon-bone caves near Peiping (now Beijing) in China are around 5,00,000 years old. Bodies in those caves were decapitated and the skulls emptied. Skull cups were used for drinking… and thus for the magical transfer of mana (the immortal spirit)…”
This might be a far cry from the God that we profess to know today, but it definitely shows the first recognition (or should one say discovery?) of some form of being that exists within, and yet beyond this material world. Mankind’s search for God began with this little spark.
For our ancestors, however, the origin of a God-concept perhaps had a cause more basic than that of gaining knowledge from dead predecessors—and that was the dilemma of mortality. Unlike humans, all other animals are born with a set of instincts that enable them to function independently from an early age. They mature, mate, struggle against the elements, and eventually die.
But humans were born with advanced reasoning abilities and few instincts. They felt insignificant, and insecure in the face of natural forces and their own finite lifespan. As Matthew Alper, neurologist and author of The ‘God’ Part of the Brain, puts it: “With the emergence of self-conscious awareness, a life form became cognizant of the fact that it is going to die. More terrifying yet, death could befall us at anytime.”
People do not like chronic anxiety. Some coping mechanism had to be developed. So, in order to cope with what theologian Paul Tillich later termed ‘this shock of non-being’, our ancestors conceptualized animism—the first bona fide religion whose roots go back to the Paleolithic period.
The term ‘animism’ is derived from the Latin word anima, meaning breath or soul. In this belief system, a soul or spirit existed in every object, even if it was inanimate. In a future state this soul or spirit would exist as part of an immaterial soul. The spirit, therefore, was thought to be universal and came to be signified as God.
But then there was no one God. Because every thing on earth—animate or inanimate—had a spirit, everything symbolized God. All were True, and all had their unique functions. Praying to any spirit was not an act to further personal transcendence—it was merely aimed at appeasing the relevant spirit so that the required end could be achieved. If you wanted to cut a tree, you first paid your respects to the tree’s spirit and prayed for it not to get angry, as this was purely business. The same logic applied to totems and idols.
Further, in early animism, if the worshipper didn’t seem to get the required benefit from a specific totem or idol, he or she moved on to look for a more efficient one. This value-based approach towards various gods, coupled with the establishing of families and tribes, led to the creation of a divine hierarchy. The less effective gods inhabited the lowest rungs of the ladder and the more potent ones were promoted by the faithful.
Along with the establishment of a so-called ‘divine’ hierarchy, another feature was added to the formlessness of God—gender. From being a problematic and mystical neuter concept in its earliest manifestations, God was slowly but surely becoming comfortably human.
A QUESTION OF GENDER
If triangles had a God, He’d have three sides.
—Old Yiddish proverb
As societies became more complex, God was conceptualized in all aspects of life, animate or inanimate, and there also began a proper process of worship and reverence. But mere propitiation of an un-definable God was not enough. As scholar Karen Armstrong notes in her best-selling book A History of God: “Naturally people wanted to get in touch with this reality and make it work for them, but they also simply wanted to admire it. When they personalized the unseen forces and made them gods possessing human characteristics, they were expressing their sense of affinity with the unseen and with the world around them.”
So the mystery of a fertile nature that provided bountiful crop in the Paleolithic period was symbolized by the Mother Goddess, and artists gave her the shape of a naked, pregnant woman. In fact, sculptures representing the Mother Goddess are some of the earliest images of God that archaeologists have discovered, a classic example of which is the Willendorf Venus, dated circa 3,00,000 BC
Says Prof Kunal Chakrabarti, who teaches history of religion at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India: “All primitive religions from the earliest Neolithic period, were based on goddesses. There was no concept of god because the goddess symbolized the feminine principle of fecundity, and man’s role in the creative process was not understood.”
This veneration persisted in agrarian civilizations that developed on the banks of rivers, such as the ancient Egyptian and Sumerian cultures. For them, woman was the source of life. God was female for at least the first 2,00,000 years of human life on earth!
But to nomadic pastoral civilizations, God resided not in the fertile earth but in the rain cloud-bearing sky. And this God was a strong male whose voice was thunder and whose frown lightning. He was the all-powerful Sky God who made rain happen to re-green dried pastures for cattle. As religious scholar Mircea Eliade notes: “The Heavenly Father is the Supreme Being typical of nomads who live on their herds; the herds live on pastures, and these in turn depend on rain from the sky.” He was the Indo-European pastoral tribes’ Dyaus Pitar, who later transformed into the Greek Zeus, the Roman Jupiter, and the Vedic Indra.
Schoolbook history tells us how, over time, nomadic tribes of Europe and Asia assimilated the cultures of various agricultural civilizations. As the two cultures overlapped, a celestial marriage took place-between Dyaus Pitar and the Mother Goddess. Notes Dr Young: “Out of changes from hunting and gathering spirits to fixed agriculture came the transformations of god into the universal male sky-god…”
In Hinduism, however, the Mother Goddess retained her place of importance as Shakti, the creative force that, paradoxically, completely upstaged the creator figure of Brahma. “Although Brahma has been given the role of creator in the Hindu pantheon,” notes Prof Chakrabarti, “he is not the active agent. That position was eventually taken up by Shakti, a Brahman-like feminine concept adopted, transformed, sophisticated and internalized by the Vedic tradition from the various indigenous traditions of India.”
The Hindu example notwithstanding, the advent of settled agriculture and ideas of property rights saw to it that the creative role of the Mother Goddess was handed over to the paternal Sky God. The gender change was complete. She had become the patriarchal, omnipotent He.
THIS, THAT, OR THE OTHER?
God…a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive.
—Ayn Rand, philosopher-author
So much for God’s history. But is it enough? Perhaps not. As Prof Chakrabarti put it when I asked him how history would define God: “In our studies, we simply assume that there are gods and goddesses, and then we move on to trace their origin. History can define religions, faiths, rituals, society, but not God.”
In other words, history can only help provide a perception. The job of defining God falls in the lap of philosophy. As the sage once said: “What is perceived is never real, what is real never perceived.”
The basis of philosophy has been doubt, which works as a counterpoint to the faith that religion builds itself on. It is, therefore, not surprising that throughout the world philosophy evolved in tandem with religion. The more organized religion demanded blind faith in rites and rituals, the more philosophy came to the fore.
Interestingly, though, ancient eastern philosophy never negated religion it in fact complemented it with metaphysics. So, while Vedic priests gave oblations to Indra, Prajapati, and Agni, they also never ceased to question this perception of God. A telling example of this paradox can be found in parts of the Creation Hymn of the Rig Veda, arguably the earliest philosophical, and religious, treatise of the world:
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?
Whence this Creation has arisen-perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not. The One who looks down on it, in the highest heaven, only he knows-or perhaps he does not know.
—Rig Veda X:129, translated by Prof Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty
Later Vedic philosophers recognized the fact that all the anthropomorphic gods and goddesses worshipped since the dawn of civilization are nothing more than symbols for the greater Truth. They are essential, because of the role they play in helping people identify with the idea of divinity, but the true God is way beyond the pantheon. Scholars denote the period between 800 BC and 200 AD as the classical or Brahmanical period of Hinduism. It is during this period that the concept of an ultimate reality, a Brahman, came to being in an attempt to define the greater Truth.
Describing this concept of Brahman, Prof Chakrabarti says: “Brahman is an idea. It does not have form. You cannot conceive it in any form except as a source of effulgence. That is the ultimate reality and every god is a manifestation of that.” Although in pockets within Hinduism , such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism, the prime deity will often be identified with Brahman, Prof Chakrabarti adds that when philosophers “try to straddle over these sectarian differences and create an overarching religious formation, they tend to say that there is basically no difference”. Brahmanic writings flesh out the notion of the reality that permeates the cosmos, which the Rig Vedic Creation Hymn called “the One”.
The pursuit of God has led to the creation of two major trends of inquiry in philosophy. On the one hand, I can look at a mountain or a forest and see these as external objects that God creates, which are not literally part of God. God transcends or rises above the things in the world, and is beyond even the cosmos. To communicate with God, I must look beyond this finite created world and seek God in a secluded realm. Western religious traditions of Judaism , Christianity and Islam typically depict God in this way. Reflect on these lines from medieval Christian theologian St. Thomas Aquinas’ spiritual classic Summa Theologica (A Summing Up of Theology):
“Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must need be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle.”
On the other hand, I can look at the same mountain and forest and see these as parts of God. God is not external to the cosmos, but dwells within it or is immanent to it. On this view, God dwells within me too since I am part of the cosmos. To communicate with God I look within myself, and not to a secluded divine realm beyond the cosmos. Communication with God, then, involves a mystical experience by which I become aware of my union with God. Eastern religious traditions gravitate towards this concept of an indwelling or immanent God. Consider these lines from ancient Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism Lao Tse’s Tao Te Ching:
The Way that can be described is not the absolute Way;
The name that can be given is not the absolute name.
Nameless it is the source of heaven and earth;
Named it is the mother of all things.
But philosophy does not always affirm the existence of God. The search of many thinkers seeking God, in fact, went the other way as well—where God did not exist or was nonessential to the scheme of things. Examples of this can be found in the ancient Indian system called Sankhya, considered one of the six main schools of thought in Indian philosophy. Notes scholar Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya in his book Indian Philosophy: “As in the Upanishads, distinct effort was made in the Sankhya to arrive at the first cause of the world. But the view arrived at was fundamentally different. Sankhya not only rejected the Brahman but emphatically denied the existence of God.”
In the Sankhya worldview, since the world was essentially material, its cause too must have been material. This cause was called prakriti or pradhana, the primeval matter in its subtle form. Because of its subtlety, Sankhya argued, this matter could not be directly perceived but it remained essentially material and not metaphysical.
While Sankhya denied God, one of the greatest philosopher-saints of India—Gautam Buddha—made it clear that God could even be irrelevant to the creation of a religion. ” Buddhism ,” says Prof Chakrabarti, “never even discusses God. In the Buddhist scheme of things, it is Man who is important and must transcend the eternal cycle of rebirth and suffering. God has nothing to do with it.”
Keenly aware of the suffering that dogs man throughout life, the Buddha sought to create a practical religion that provided a way out of this interminable suffering without taking recourse to divine grace. The cycle of suffering could be broken only by following the eight-fold path of righteousness.
Much later, communist thinker Karl Marx and existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre vehemently negated the concept of God in their philosophies. While Marx dubbed religion ‘opium of the masses’, Sartre championed the cause of the individual over and above anything divine. But unlike Marx, Sartre’s existentialism echoes to a large extent the thought of Buddhism in that he accepts the reality of suffering and denies man the comfort of escaping from the responsibility of suffering by claiming faith in God. In his thought-provoking essay ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’, Sartre explains: “Existentialism declares that even if God existed that would make no difference… Not that we believe that God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God.”
Brahman, the Way, immanent, omniscient, affirmed, negated—the definitions are numerous but none of them still seem to answer the moot question of proof. Philosophy laid the groundwork for this search for proof, and, over time, two kinds of thinkers decided to further the search in their own unique way. While the mystic sought God in the depth of his deepest experiential soul, the scientist turned the magnifying glass towards the material logic of the universe. The arguments continued…
WHEN ALL IS ONE
All know that the drop merges into the ocean but few know that the ocean merges into the drop.
When Swami Vivekananda , the noted 19th century Indian philosopher-saint, began seeking God as a youth, he asked luminaries from all faiths and philosophies just one question: “Have you seen God?” None of the answers satisfied him till he met Ramakrishna, an illiterate Bengali mystic. When asked if he had seen God, Ramakrishna laughed and said: “But of course! I see Her the way I see you. I talk to Her everyday!”
The rational mind of young Vivekananda simply refused to believe Ramakrishna’s words. Only later, as he became closer to the saint, did Vivekananda realize that Ramakrishna really did have a unique relationship with God—a relationship that was irrational and yet divinely logical, idiosyncratic and yet thoughtfully individual. For Ramakrishna, God was not out there as a reasoned-out persona; God was within. He was God. God was he.
What philosophy theorized, the mystic experienced every second of his life.
In trying to define mysticism, Donald Broadribb, theologian and author of The Mystical Chorus: Jung and the Religious Dimension, notes: “‘Mysticism’ is a difficult word to define, although the experience is fairly easy to describe. The closest mystics have been able to come to a description is to say that it is a direct encounter with God—an encounter without anything or anyone intervening, neither prayers, rituals, doctrines, priests nor teachers.”
In more ways than one, the mystic is an island unto himself. Because of the deeply experiential nature of his God perception, rarely can other people comprehend it. At the same time, the mystic has no patience with either the logic of philosophy or the rituals of organized religion. As the iconoclast mystic Kabir once said:
The Yogi, the Sanyasi, the Ascetics, are disputing one with another:
Kabir says: ‘O brother! He who has seen that radiance of love, he is saved.’
(Poems of Kabir, translated by Rabindranath Tagore)
And yet it is only in the experience of the mystic that we can hope to find the most potent clue of God. For, despite apparent differences, there is an underlying common ground to every mystical vision or experience that simply cannot be discounted as the ravings of a lunatic or hallucinations of a fevered mind.
“In a mystical experience,” says R.C. Zaehner, former professor of Eastern religions at Oxford and author of Mysticism: Sacred and Profane, “there is a direct apperception of the Deity; the mystic knows that God is in him and with him; his body has literally become a ‘temple of the Holy Ghost’… It is a unitive experience with someone or something other than oneself.” Thus Husayn ibn Mansur al Hallaj, a Muslim mystic of AD 922, speaks of his unity with God:
Betwixt me and Thee there lingers an “it is I” that torments me.
Ah, of Thy grace, take this “I” from between us!
I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I,
We are two spirits dwelling in one body.
If thou seest Him, thou seest us both.
(Extracted from From Primitives to Zen, edited by Mircea Eliade)
According to Broadribb, though, union is just one major leitmotif of the mystical mind. The other is what he calls ‘communion’. Broadribb explains the two concepts thus: “Many mystics hold that they merge or unite with God. They often call this the unitive experience. In the God-focused religious traditions, this is taken to mean that there is a total union between God and person so that they are no longer two, but one… In communion mysticism, the mystic feels that the personality meets God person-to-person, in the same way that two persons meet but do not merge.”
So, while the Sufi mystic Jalal-ud-din Rumi express his union with God:
I have put duality away. I have seen that the two worlds are one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.
He is the first, He is the last, He is the outward, He is the inward.
(Extracted from From Primitives to Zen, edited by Mircea Eliade)
The Biblical prophet Isaiah describes his visionary communion with God thus:
I saw the Lord sitting on an elevated throne. His skirts filled
the temple. Seraphs stood above him, each with six wings.
Each covered its face with two, and with two it flew.
They called out to each other: “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh Sabaoth.
His glory fills the entire earth.”
The hinges of the gates shook at the sound of their shouting.
The room was filled with incense.
(Bible: Isaiah 6, translated by Donald Broadribb)
Broadribb, however, admits that the distinction between union and communion is in actuality not so clear-cut. Frequently a mystical experience belongs to both the types. A classic example can be found in the works of mystic-philosopher Sri Aurobindo. In ‘The Indwelling Universe’, one of his later poems, he writes:
I contain the whole world in my soul’s embrace:
To me Arcturus and Belphegor burn.
To whatsoever living form I turn
I see my own body with another face…
My vast transcendence holds the cosmic whirl;
I am hid in it as in the sea a pearl.
The basic mystical experience can, therefore, be termed as the experience of being flooded with the sense of being one with God and yet remaining an individual, an indispensable link in the whole. As metaphysical poet John Donne put it: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.”
what exactly does the mystic see in his vision? What is the face of God that so overwhelms him? According to Broadribb, the form that any mystical experience takes relies heavily upon the cultural-belief system of the experiencer. As a result, God, says Broadribb, “has come to be understood more and more as an inner experience and less and less as an identifiable ‘object’ existing apart from the individual”. I see God in whatever form I wish to see. The focus is not the feature of God but that God is and that I am and both are in complete union.
“Such experience,” says Broadribb, “tends to be understood as finding the divine ‘spark’ that actually is the kernel around which individual personality is formed, and this kernel is the same kernel around which all other individuals’ personalities are formed, so that all persons are manifestations of a single extra-cosmic God.”
Is such a union unique only to mystics? Absolutely not, declares Swami Vivekananda in his book Raja Yoga. Describing the process of mysticism, he writes: “The mind itself has a higher state of existence…a superconscious state, and when the mind rises to that state, then metaphysical and transcendental knowledge comes to man. This state of going beyond reason, beyond ordinary human knowledge, may sometimes come by chance to a man who does not understand its science; he stumbles upon it, as it were. When he stumbles upon it, he generally interprets it as coming from outside. This explains why transcendental knowledge may be the same in different countries, but in one country it will seem to come through an angel, and in another a deva, and in a third through God.”
Vivekananda goes on to state that mystics or ‘prophets’ were just human beings like the rest of us who gained super-consciousness through the practice of yoga: “The very fact that one man ever reached that state proves that it is possible for every man to do so. Not only is it possible, but every man must eventually reach that state.”
The probability that God is yet another manifestation of a superconscious frame of mind is furthered in the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, spiritual teacher and creator of Transcendetal Meditation. According to him, there are seven states of consciousness. The first three states-dreamless sleep, dreaming, waking-are ‘relative states’ where the awareness of the self is absent, the awareness of the outer world present only while awake, and the awareness of the Absolute ‘discoverable by intellect’.
‘Transcendental Consciousness’ follows these, where the awareness of the self is present but that of the outer world and the Absolute absent. Then come ‘Cosmic Consciousness’, ‘God Consciousness’, and ‘Unity’. In the last three stages, awareness of both the self and the outer world is present. The paradox of the Absolute remains perceptible in Cosmic Consciousness, then gets partially resolved while in God Consciousness and is finally resolved with Unity.
Describing what the Maharishi means by God Consciousness, Anthony Campbell, author of Seven Stages of Consciousness, says: “Maharishi is not talking about God as an object of belief, or even, primarily, worship; he is saying that to someone whose awareness has reached this stage the world is ‘glorified’ and takes on a personal quality…The world is suffused with the light of Being, which in this state is seen to be personal.”
When the mind reaches the stage of Unity, the world and the Being become one. Says the Maharishi: “Philosophers call this a mystical experience, but it is no more mysterious than is the working of a clock to a child. On one level of consciousness it is normal, on another it is mysterious, and again on another it is impossible.”
What is this light of Being, this transcendent knowledge? Where does it come from and, more importantly, why is it there? If this is God, then why is it so? The mystic has no answer to such questions, for these questions hold no meaning to him, steeped as he is in the knowledge itself.
But the other seeker of God, the scientist, demands cogent answers to these questions, for he has neither the blanket of the believer to feel snug in nor the intoxication of the mystic to revel in. All he has is skepticism, keen curiosity and a desire to understand the wonder of design and intelligence in the creation all around him.
Although superficially mysticism and science are as close to each other as chalk and cheese, there is an innate similarity between the two that is coming to light only with recent advances in physics.
Life Positive follows a stringent review publishing mechanism. Every review received undergoes -
Only after we're satisfied about the authenticity of a review is it allowed to go live on our website
Our award winning customer care team is available from 9 a.m to 9 p.m everyday
All our healers and therapists undergo training and/or certification from authorized bodies before becoming professionals. They have a minimum professional experience of one year
All our healers and therapists are genuinely passionate about doing service. They do their very best to help seekers (patients) live better lives.
All payments made to our healers are secure up to the point wherein if any session is paid for, it will be honoured dutifully and delivered promptly
Every seekers (patients) details will always remain 100% confidential and will never be disclosed