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Defining 'God'


Frequently, we engage in passionate argument (which may turn vitriolic in no time at all) over something we haven't clearly defined to each other. I'm arguing to uphold something which may not be the same that you're arguing to uphold - even though we are calling it by the same name. God is one such subject of argument. Some argue over the different forms, some argue over god's very existence. Yet, the god of my liking/disliking may be completely different from the god of your disliking/liking! Before we have ascertained what is meant by God, whether there is commonality in our definition of God, we are ready to kill each other over it. 

I was looking up discourses on Vedanta, when I came across a talk on 'Bhakti' given by one wonderfully erudite teacher from South India, Swami Paramarthananda. In that talk he discussed this every subject - of God, and what it means according to ancient Indian teaching. According to my understanding of his talks, and further reflection on what else I've come across, God is defined in three ways - which appeals to different levels of the intellect.

At one level, we think of Him as the creator of the universe. It is natural for the human mind to flow in this direction, since whenever we come across a created/designed thing, say a wheel, we immediately ascribe it to a source/author/creator. This monitor screen you're reading my gibberish of was designed and created by someone (or some group). Everything that appears distinctly creature-made, including those made by man, or nests made by birds, dams by beavers, hives by bees etc thus has a creator. It then follows from this reasoning that everything else, which may not immediately appear to have a creator, say changing weather patterns, and including our own selves, and is a part of nature - must also be the creation of some supernatural, all-powerful, all-intelligent being. That is how we tend to think, and that is how God came to be defined by us. So we 'call' this Super-being God. Some cultures give an anthropomorphic form to God, some do not, according to their religious teachings, but we all agree that (according to this definition) God is the creator, and all this.. the universe and its multifarious objects are His creations (not going into the debate on God's gender at this moment, I'm using the masculine here for the sake of ease of communication only).

At a second level, that same God (as per our previous definition) is considered to be the substance of his own creation. That is, suppose the carpenter, instead of using an extraneous object like wood, could make the wheel out of his own body. The raw material for creation is not different from God, whose body itself makes up everything in the universe. The common example used in Indian scriptures here is that of the spider, who unlike us (who have to buy brick, cement, sand etc to build our houses) spins its web entirely out of the substances of its own body. Hence, everything we see around us is made of the 'body of God'. If one is ready to adapt to this definition, then the search for the so called 'God particle' becomes a no-brainer (okay, I'm just using this as a metaphor, not in terms of physics), for he is himself then understood to be a particle of God. Just like one of the many sparks that fly out of a raging fire. 

But then, one would immediately point at the many undesirable elements in creation, e.g. harmful bacteria, mosquitoes, cruel despots, so on and so forth. And for him, it would be a stretch to consider say, a child-molester as being of godly substance, and worship him accordingly. It would probably be hard to accept such a definition of god. Its a moot point however, that a bacteria, or mosquito, is harmful in relation to us, and not with respect to itself, or the universe as a whole. Having said that, a wave in the sea may be harmful to the tiny boat tossing about, but not to the body of water itself. Harm and benefit are relative terms, and wherever the wave may arise, its nothing but water relative to the absolute, which is the ocean. A man behaves in a devious way because he thinks himself as being separate from this 'god-substance' (which makes up the universe, according to our second definition), and therefore tries to acquire things for his pleasure. But a wave trying to acquire another wave doesn't make any sense, because all are water in the ocean.

Hence, even if one adapts to this definition of God, we could have less cause for conflict. Simply put, why would man kill man, if all men are considered 'god-material'! Moreover, the problem of trying to find God and His abode is no more, for God becomes manifest in everything we can perceive. It doesn't mean we have to go and offer flowers at the feet/paws of the tiger in the jungle, we respect his tiger-form from a distance and let him pass (and pray that he does the same!) In fact, Ramakrishna Paramahansa had mentioned this same thing, when he alluded to the 'Bagh Devata'. When we come across a difficult person, we do not need to worship him as god, nor pick a fight with him. Treat him, and the godliness of what he is made out of, as you would treat the 'Tiger-god'. Just as one would defend oneself against the tiger's attack, without hating the animal - for it is in his nature to hunt and kill, so should one protect oneself and one's beloved against a malevolent person. In fact, as many wise men have said, there is no concept of a sinner in traditional Indian teaching, only of sin. 

At the third level, the definition of God takes on another dimension altogether. If one is ready to accept the second definition, accepting the third becomes easier. And it is that - God is not the substance with which the universe is made, it is the substratum (like the white screen on which a movie is projected) upon which exists our perception of the universe, and which transcends all its qualities (deemed 'good' or 'bad'). That is, even as the movie projected on the screen may be of fire, water, happiness, sorrow etc, the screen itself remains completely untouched by all this. It doesn't burn, doesn't get wet, doesn't weep, doesn't leap up in joy, and even as the universe - the movie, is switched off, the screen remains as it is. While watching the movie, we are completely absorbed in what's being projected, and rarely, if ever, notice the screen itself. And yet, the screen is there all along, as long as the movie runs,  transcending all its characteristics, untainted by all its colors. God is that substratum on which the universe is projected. According to the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 2 verse 20) this is referred to as - 

'...ajo nityah shasvato 'yam purano
na hanyate hanyamane sharire'


(This one is birthless, eternal, undecaying, ancient; It is not killed when the body is killed - Translation by Swami Gambhirananda, RKM).

If the 'screen' wasn't there, and the movie was projected in space, the universe wouldn't be visible - for the beam would be lost in space. The screen reflects the light of the projector, just like the light of consciousness is reflected, revealing the universe - with all its gore and glory, to our awareness. 

I think before one is ready to fight on matters of religion, we ought (at least) to arrive at a common definition of God. If our definitions do not match, any argument becomes futile - its like arguing who swings better, Sachin Tendulkar, or Tiger Woods! And if it matches, where is there the need to fight at all! 


Kolkata, Aug '15

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