CHAPTER 11 – Vedic Gods: One God: Many Gods: Advaita
CHAPTER 11 – Vedic Gods: One God: Many Gods: Advaita
This way of looking at the Godhead is disconcerting to the Western schematic mind. In the Vedic approach, there is no single God. This is bad enough. But the Hindus do not have even a supreme God, a fiihrer-God who presides over a multiplicity of Gods. If there has to be a plurality of Gods, as is the case in all polytheistic religions, there could at least be a tabulated statement of Gods arranged in some order of superiority and inferiority, each God having some distinctive characteristics of his or her own. But here we have no such thing, no ranking, no order of seniority and precedence, no hierarchy, no recognizable magistracy; it is all anarchy. This melee could not even be called a pantheon—a body of Gods, however disordered (Gk. pan+theos); it is a body of demons and evil spirits, a pandemonium (pan+daimon).
It seems that the Hindus were either confused about their Gods or that these Gods were not jealous enough to be like the God of the Bible. The Hindus worshipped their Gods in turn with the same supreme epithets. It seems to be like a philanderer wooing several women at the same time with the same vows, promises, and protestations and telling each in turn that she is the only beautiful and true one for him. If they only knew what the man was doing, there would be trouble enough for him! In like manner, if a Hindu God knew what his worshipper was telling his rival God, it would either expose the devotee’s insincerity or the powerlessness of his God!
But there is another approach, quite a different one, which was adopted by the people of the Vedas. According to this approach, “Reality is one but the wise call it by different names; they call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, Yama, Matarifvan.”! Reality is like the Ganges; different villages along its banks are differently named but they are all on the same river; the people drink the same water and their soil is watered and fertilized by the same source. The Reality is like an ocean rolling against different continents; you taste it anywhere, it is the same. The Reality is like a nugget of gold; it is the same at the corners, at the top, or at the bottom or in the middle. Like a lump of sugar, it is sweet at all points. Similarly, whether you go East or West, South or North, you move in the same pervading space and you meet the same truth and principle of things.
The Hindus do not call their Gods either ‘One’ or ‘Many’. According to them, what they worship is One Reality, ekam sat, which is differently named. This Reality is everywhere, in everything, in every being. It is One and Many at the same time and it also transcends them both. Everything is an expression, a play, an image, an echo of this Reality.
In Vedic literature, the question of the number of Gods was no point of dispute and agitated no mind. The number could be increased or decreased at will. It all depended on the principle of classification, on the context, and on the viewpoint. In Brhada- ranyaka Upanisad, to a repeated question regarding the number of Gods, Yajfiavalkya’s answer is first three thousand three hundred and six Gods, then thirty three, then three, then two, then one and a half, then one.” But this ‘one’ God of Yajfiavalkya was not that of Christian or Muslim theology. For on further questioning, this one God turned out to be “Breath”, Prana, also called “Brahma, the Yon (tyat).” Yajfiavalkya was speaking the language of the Yoga, the language of the sadhana of the Prana, the spiritual churning of the life-force.
There are two ways of regarding the Godhead. In one approach, God is a jealous one. He brooks no other. He is Ishmael-like, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him. But in the Vedic concept, all Gods are friends, one and equal. Brahmanaspati is associated with Indra, Soma and Dakshina, they are invoked jointly. The Maruts are requested to come along accompanied, samjagmano, by Indra, and both are called of “equal splendour”, samana varcasa.’ Indra and Varuna are offered “conjoint praise”, sadhastuti.® They are invoked together. “I invoke you both”, says the worshipper;’ or, “come Agni with the Maruts”, is the reputed prayer of the devotee in another hymn.
‘Reveda, 1.164.46 Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 3.9.1 3Ibid., 3.9.9
They offer sacrifices to “Indra, Vayu, Brhaspati, Mitra, Agni, Piisana, Bhaga, the Adityas and the Maruts”.’ They solicit “Mitra and Varuna and Rtu” to be present at their sacrifice.’°
Western scholars have called the above approach “heno- theistic”. Henotheism is a compound of two Greek words and it means “towards one God”. It is supposed to be a progress from the polytheism of primitive tribes and a groping towards the perfection of Semitic monotheism. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines it thus: The belief in a single god without asserting that he is the only God: a stage of belief between polytheism and monotheism. Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary defines it as “the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods”.
The Hindus need not accept this description of their approach. For, as we have seen, their approach is neither polytheistic, nor henotheistic, nor monotheistic, but advaitic. They worship One Reality, neither many Gods nor One God. But if henotheism also means, as the English dictionaries tell us, a belief in a God without saying that other Gods are false or that that God alone is true, then this word does describe something of the temper of the Vedic and Hindu religion.
This approach to Gods has bred a spirit of religious tolerance and freedom. Ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt—all polytheistic cultures—were relatively free from religious wars though they had their full quota of wars otherwise. Rome, Alexandria and Athens were open places where different religions met and discussed freely. When St. Paul visited Athens, he was invited by the Athenians to speak about his doctrines. He did avail himself of the opportunity but it is obvious that he did not feel at home in this atmosphere of free enquiry. For the compilers of the New Testament say that “the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing”.!!
4 Reveda, 1.18.5 STbid., 1.19.1-9
‘Ibid., 1.6.7 Ibid., 1.14 “Ibid.,.1,17.9 ‘Tbid., 1.15.6
St. Paul represented not the Spirit’s impatience with what is only cerebral but a passionate attachment to a fixed idea which is closed to wider viewpoints and larger truths of life.
In polytheistic Rome too, men of different religious persuasions and sects met and built their temples and worshipped in their own way. But this freedom disappeared when Christianity, the religion of One True God, took over.
Monotheism was not always a spiritual idea. In many cases, it was an ideology. It was consolidated in wars and in turn it led to further wars. There were wars between different tribes, each tribe claiming its own God to be supreme. Eventually, the Gods of the tribe that lost in battle were supplanted by Gods of the winning side. Or, sometimes, a tribe exchanged its Gods for power. It accepted the Gods of the conquered people in order to consolidate its power over them. Or, perhaps, there was a larger association to create, an empire to consolidate, or other nations and tribes to conquer, and the idea of a ‘One True God’ was handy in the pursuit of this object. Thus, diplomacy, the sword, systematic vandalism, all played their part in making a particular god supreme. From very early days, the One God of Christianity was bound up with the imperial needs of Rome. In more recent times, the Biblical God has tried to consolidate what the European arms and trade have conquered.
But monotheism is not altogether without a spiritual motive. The Spirit is a unity. It also worships nothing less than the Supreme. Monotheism expresses, though inadequately, this intuition of man for unity and for the Supreme.
There is also the fact that once polytheism is admitted, there isa tendency for Gods to multiply to inconveniently large and un- manageable numbers. It is easy to get lost in their crowd. The soul hungers for something simpler and more definite and more manageable. On such occasions, religious reformers appear and use a big broom and sweep away the plethora of Gods. What remains is perhaps not deep enough from a certain angle; but the mind is certainly less cluttered and it can breathe more freely.
When the urge for unity is spiritual, the theology of One God is no bar and the seeker reaches a position no different from Advaita, from ekam sat. He realizes that God alone is, and not that there is only One God.
But if the motive for unity is merely intellectual, it helps little, spiritually speaking. God remains an outward being and does not become the truth of the Spirit. It does not even help to reduce the number of Gods; instead it multiplies the number of Devils—if Christianity is any guide in the matter. We know how Medieval Christianity was chock-full of them. In fact, they occupied the centre of attention of the Church for many centuries to the exclusion of everything else. During these centuries, it was difficult to say whether the Church worshipped God or these devils. One authority calculated that the number of demons was six and a half million. According to another authority, there were 79,05,926 lesser demons presided over by 72 Princes of Hell. All of them were intriguing against the Church and were undermining its work and authority. Each of the Princes had his allotted work. Lucifer promoted pride, Asmodeus lechery, Belphegor sloth, and so on.
The Church also abounded in Gods though they were not as plentiful as the devils. But these were not recognized as such because they appeared in the guise of angels, cherubims, and seraphims. They were organized in nine orders all battling with opposing demons in helping the Church in the task of saving the souls of her flock.
Like monotheism, polytheism too is subject to the despiritual- izing influences of the externalizing mind. The Gods of poly- theism tend to lose their inwardness and thus they also lose their inner unity. In India, this has happened again and again. On such occasions, sages appeared and by their life and work tried to restore to the Gods their inwardness and unity. The Upanishads were one such attempt. In the Kenopanisad, it is shown how Agni, Vayu, Indra exulted in the victory won for them by Brahma. But they soon learnt their lessons. Agni with what he thought was his own power could not burn a straw, nor Vayu carry it off. Thus they discovered that their strength was not their own, and that their victory did not belong to them.
Again, like monotheism, polytheism too has its spiritual motive. If monotheism represents man’s intuition for unity, polytheism represents his urge for differentiation. Spiritual life is one but it is vast and rich in expression. The human mind also conceives it differently. If the human mind was uniform, without different depths, heights and levels of subtlety; or if all men had the same mind, the same psyche, the same imagination, the same needs; in short, if all men were the same, then perhaps One God would do. But a man’s mind is not a fixed quantity and men and their powers and needs are different. So only some form of polytheism alone can do justice to this variety and richness.
Besides this variety of human needs and human minds, the spiritual reality itself is so vast, immense, and inscrutable that man’s reason fails and his imagination and fancy stagger in its presence. Therefore, this reality cannot be indicated by one name or formula or description. It has to be expressed in glimpses from many angles. No single idea or system of ideas could convey it adequately. This too points to the need for some form of polytheism.
A pure monotheistic God, unrelieved by polytheistic elements, tends to become lifeless and abstract. A purely monotheistic unity fails to represent the living unity of the Spirit and expresses merely the intellect’s love of the uniform and the general. Similarly, purely polytheistic Gods without any principle of unity amongst them lose their inner coherence. They fall apart and serve no spiritual purpose.
The Vedic approach is probably the best. It gives unity without sacrificing diversity. In fact, it gives a deeper unity and a deeper diversity beyond the power of ordinary monotheism and poly- theism. It is one with the yogic or the mystic approach.
These ideas could be expressed in another way. Monotheism is not saved by polytheism, nor polytheism by monotheism, but both are saved by going deep into the life of the soul. In the soul, there are no distinctions between the One and the Many. God or Gods do not exist there in the same way as they exist in the intellect. Depending on the cultures in which they are born, mystics have given monotheistic as well as polytheistic renderings and inter- pretations of their inner life and experiences. Both of these renderings have been noble and edifying. But One God or Many Gods, purely on the intellectual plane, feed no soul.
In this deeper approach, the distinction is not between a true One God and the false Many Gods; it is between a true way of worship and a false way of worship. Wherever there is sincerity, truth, and self-giving in worship, that worship goes to the true altar by whatever name we may designate it and in whatever way we may conceive it. But if it is not desireless, if it has ego, falsehood, conceit, and deceit in it then it is unavailing though it may be offered to the most True God, theologically speaking. “He who offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, that I accept from that striving devotee”, says Lord Krishna in the Gita.”
He also assures us that “those who worship other Gods with faith worship me”, for “I am the enjoyer of all sacrifices”.’ Devotion, faith, austerity, striving in the soul—they all belong to Him; they are His food; they can never go to a false God though so declared by a rival theology.
The fact is that the problem of One or Many Gods is born of a theological mind, not of a mystic consciousness. In the Atharva- veda, the sage Vena says that he “sees That in that secret station of the heart in which the manifoldness of the world becomes one- form”, yatra visvam bhavatyekariupam;” or, as in the Yajurveda, “where the world is rested in one truth”, eka nidam.’> But in another station of man, where not his soul but his mind rules, there is Opposition between the One and the Many, between God and Matter, between God and Gods. On the other hand, when the soul awakens, Gods are born in its depths which proclaim and glorify one another.
Gods are bound to appear when the spiritual consciousness awakens; though in another sense they also fall away, God as well as Gods, with all their outward, anthropomorphic forms, and along with all our conceptions of them, however sublime and exalted.
Yes, even God falls away. For there is a spiritual consciousness which can do without God. Buddhism, Jainism, Samkhya, Taoism and Zen confirm the truth of this observation. In fact, in Buddhism and Jainism, though Gods are plentiful, there is very little of One God. Yet in spiritual perception, insight and attainment, these religions are not less than those where One God rules the roost and is the sole cock of the walk. Spengler tells us, though on the conceptual rather than the spiritual plane, that there are equally profound religions and religious convictions that are theistic, pantheistic, polytheistic and even atheistic.
” Bhagvadgita, 9.26 Asmara Ged AgAaM: | ash AAS Hts asrafaerget az aé fe actuate wate a — Bhagvadgita, 9.23-24 A different attitude is expressed in the following declaration: “He that is not with me is against me.” — New Testament, Matthew, 12.20 Morea Wea WH Wet ae aa ard waar | — Atharvaveda, 2.1.1 Soren watated Wer ces faa wactadtey |
— Yajurveda, 32.8
In any case, those in whom spiritual consciousness has awakened, God is “not this that people worship here”, nedam yadidam upaste,’ neither One God nor Many Gods, but some- thing different, something more inward, and transcendental.
Worship is in man’s soul and the divine glory is reflected in everything and in every symbol. Therefore, the Vedic seers worshipped Him in many Forms and under many Names. “Veneration to the great Gods, veneration to the lesser, veneration to the young, veneration to the old, we worship all the Gods as well as we are able,”!” that is their attitude. A true heart’s homage cannot go waste; it cannot go to false Gods; in a divine economy, it is taken up by That which is the secret meaning and the principle of truth in everything.
This discussion should help to promote our understanding not only of Vedic religion and Vedic Gods but also of a whole archetypal spiritual consciousness which expresses itself in the language of Many Gods; and as a result should also help us to understand better the old religions of Europe and Asia which are no more; it should also help us to see in a new light the old Gods of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Gods of the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, the Gods of the Germanic, Celtic, and Slavic peoples. The beliefs of the best of these people were probably not polytheistic but, in deeper interpretation, advaitic.
‘6Kenopanisad, 1.5-8 Mag Heat AH sass TA Gast AA STM: | mara Sar ale Maras AT Vara: BATT Bfet Sa: I — Reveda, 1.27.13
In the cultural history of the world, the replacement of Many Gods by One God was accompanied by a good deal of conflict, vandalism, bigotry, persecution and crusading. These conflicts were very much like the ‘wars of liberation’ of today, hot and cold, openly aggressive or cunningly subversive. Success in such wars played no mean role in making a local deity, say Allah of certain Arab tribes, win a wider status and assume a larger, monarchical role.
Looking at the whole thing from the perspective of today, it is difficult to say whether the replacement was enriching or impoverishing in the spiritual and cultural sense. In most cases like these, outer symbols change without making any significant changes in their psychic meanings. It would, therefore, be difficult to hold that the present Gods of Semitic origin are superior to the now defunct Pagan Gods. There was a time when the old Pagan Gods were pretty fulfilling and they inspired the best of men and women to acts of greatness, love, nobility, sacrifice, and heroism. It is, therefore, a good thing to turn to them in thought and pay them our homage. We know pilgrimage, as ordinarily understood, as wayfaring to visit a shrine or a holy place. But there can also be pilgrimage in time and we can journey back and make our offerings of the heart to those Names and Forms and Forces which once incarnated and expressed man’s higher life. They are holy Names and Symbols.
Here, in the preceding pages, we could do no more than discuss the broader principles of spiritual life, the wider perspective from which Gods could be viewed, illustrating what we had to say with the help of Gods in the Vedic pantheon with which we have greater familiarity and rapport. But there is no doubt that the same principles hold good for Gods of other nations and other times too. We believe that if we could look at those Gods in the light of this discussion, they too could become meaningful to us and we could enter into their larger spirit and be filled with them.
But any approach to a specific pantheon of a specific country or people will still require entering into a special ethos and even imbibing a special mentality. If this could be done, thus recapturing the understanding of the old Gods, there is no doubt that it could vivify the cultural history of the nations believing in those Gods. The present generations of many countries tend to regard their past as a benighted period of their history. A more understanding approach towards their Gods of old will work for a less severe judgement about their past and their ancestors. It will also fill the generation gap, not the one we talk about the most these days but a still wider one, the general rootlessness of a whole nation. Gods provide an invisible link between the past and the present of a nation; when they go, the link also snaps. The peoples of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Germany and the Scandinavian coun- tries are no less ancient than the peoples of India; but they lost their Gods, and therefore they lost their sense of historical continuity and identity.
Today, there is a spirit of revolt amongst Western youths against their parents’ religion. Some are seeking light in new symbols. One of the most fruitful channels for them could be to explore the symbols of their more remote forefathers. This could help to broaden and deepen the religion of their parents with the religion of their ancestors.
What is true of Europe is also true of Africa and South America. The countries of these continents have recently gained political freedom of a sort, but it has done little to help them and to give them a spiritual identity. If they wish to rise in a deeper sense, they must recover their soul, their Gods, their roots in their own psyche; there has to be a spiritual reassertion, a resurrection of their Gods. If they need any change, and there is no doubt they do, it must come from within themselves as a part of their own experience. If they do enough self-churning, then their own Gods will put forth new meanings in response to their new needs. They have to make the best of their own psychic and spiritual gifts and discover their own Gods within themselves. No people can import their Gods ready-made and rise spiritually under the aegis of imported deities, saviours and prophets.
But one cannot retain old Gods or revive their memory artifi- cially. One should develop a spiritual way of looking at things. One should live with these Gods and spend much time with them. In a sense, all Gods are jealous Gods. They want a person wholly with themselves before they become wholly his. One has to dwell with them and meditate on them before they become vivifying forces. If there is sufficient aspiration, invoking, and soliciting, there is no doubt that even Gods apparently lost could come back again. They are there all the time. For nothing that has any truth in it can be destroyed. It merely goes out of manifestation; but it could reappear under propitious circumstances. So could the old Gods come to life again in response to new summons. Where are the minstrels and priests who could preside over the birth of these Gods?
And yet the birth of Many Gods will not herald the death of One God; on the other hand, it will enrich and deepen our under- standing of both. For One God and Many Gods are spiritually one. It is only on the conceptual plane that they are opposed.
This point needs stressing. For in the past, the controversy between One God and Many Gods or between My True God and Your False God led to many rolling heads and much spilled blood; and, even today, there is no dearth of hotheads and the discussion still tends to polemics, bad blood, and frayed tempers. There are still organized churches and missions out to make war on the false Gods of the heathens. We are afraid that even the present dis- cussion will be regarded with less than a friendly eye by the theologians of One God. But to them we say that we have no disrespect for their point of view and we mean no hurt to their feelings. At the present time, when most theologies, whether pluralistic or monotheistic, are suspect and have lost their appeal, we should be able to approach the problem in a more chastened mood and in a more understanding way.