Hinduism: conceptions of God
Hinduism is one of the most ancient religions of the world. It teaches that there is one Supreme Absolute Reality, Ultimate Truth as such. It is Eternal Being, the essence of Existence. It alone is self-existent, nothing else can or does exist apart from This. The name which Hindus have given to the Supreme is Brahman. Brahman is One Absolute Reality from which all existence arises, and in which it persists and ultimately dissolves away. All of existent reality is included in that undivided unity of Being. All derives its existence, its limited and contingent reality, as some infinitesimal, transient embodiment of that which is in essence only God.
The infinite Brahman is beyond comprehension, beyond understanding. But when That manifests as God or Supreme Being, then we can know it, we can speak of the attributes, qualities and characteristics of God. God can come to us as savior, or benefactor, or judge of righteousness, or teacher. God may manifest as the beloved of our heart, the creator of universes, the preserver of all things. We give different names to each of these manifest forms of God. But all names of God, in whatever religion, merely refer to the same one Supreme, as That is understood by particular people at a particular time and place. There is only one God, people call him by different names.
God is both without form and with form, nirguna and saguna. God transcends all that we can ever know or comprehend, and yet God is profoundly immanent in everything we know. God alone exists of his own power and choosing; all else exists from God, in God, through God. Just as the individual spirit inhabits and controls its body, so God inhabits the universe. Just as the spirit is more than the body but expresses itself through each cell of the body, so God exists independent of the universe but manifests in every thing and being of the universe. Thus everything reflects the presence of God and must be honored and respected as an aspect of God.
The Supreme Reality is unknowable, imperceptible, incomprehensible. But all existence is a manifestation of that Reality; everything reflects some aspect of that Reality. The unseen is reflected in the observable world; the unqualified manifests in the infinite qualities and characteristics of the universe. The universe has come from God, yet it adds nothing to God nor takes anything away from God by its existence.
The long history and innumerable cultures, languages and peoples of our humanity have generated an infinite number of perceptions and names of God. Hinduism tells us that these are all, indeed, One. The one eternal Supreme from whom all comes forth, in whom all exist, is the living center of every thing and being, the object of all worship, the source and goal of every religious devotion.
Hinduism itself comprises innumerable religious traditions. Some say that the one supreme Reality has manifested as Shiva, others say That has manifested as Vishnu. Within these sub-traditions there may be hundreds of other names that are used for Shiva or Vishnu. But every god and goddess is considered as nothing but the manifestation of some aspect of the One Supreme.
God is the formless supreme, yet through the ages of the universe God has taken on material form in order to lead all beings to righteousness and destroy evil in the world. God enters the world in physical form as avatar, or incarnation. Christians believe in one incarnation of God. Hindus believe that God returns again and again to guide those who seek Truth and to invest the universe with the light of Reality.
Some of the most treasured incarnations of God are Krishna, the eternal Beloved of all hearts and Rama the righteous King. Lord Shiva is the Supreme Preceptor, the Perfect Ascetic, and is named Nataraja who dances the unmanifest formless Reality into manifest form. And, because God is infinite, including all things, That absolute perfection who is God may also manifest as woman in the divine form as Shakti, the primal power of God; Saraswati, wisdom personified, and Lakshmi the divine mother.
We are not alone; God is ever-present in every moment of our lives, in every movement and activity of every particle of the universe. God is the beloved of every soul, and the lover of all souls. God is the loving mother, the dynamically involved father. In fact, in order to meet each one in the form through which they will most fully experience the divine Reality, God manifests in many different ways.
The ultimate unmanifest Reality manifests as the supreme Lord, according to any and every name we can imagine to call him. The Supreme Lord manifests again and again as Avatar in human form. And God also accepts the invitation of his lovers who create exquisite images to symbolically represent the innumerable divine qualities of the Supreme; God lovingly inhabits the images for all who adore him-her there with unqualified love. It is our love to which God responds by becoming present in the visible forms we create from our deep love of God’s beauty and wonder. And God resides deep within every heart as the Antaryamin, the indwelling form of God closer to us than our own breath. God is infinite and beyond comprehension and yet profoundly and intimately personal. Each one can come to God as “my God” in the form most precious to our heart. Istadevata means “my God,” the deeply personal form of God who eternally speaks in the core of our being.