Skip to content

CHAPTER 13 – Names of Gods: Their Attributes

CHAPTER 13 – Names of Gods: Their Attributes

In the preceding chapter, we have been treading on holy ground —at least, that is what one felt. One can easily see how the Names of Gods find a ready response in one’s own psyche; which shows how in some way they incarnate the truths of one’s own mind and heart. Through the Names of Gods we deal with the truths of our own being, truths deep, mighty, lofty, sublime. Gods live in the soul and, therefore, their truths are the soul’s own truths, of the soul at its most divine.

But there is a sense in which the Gods are outsiders. They are external to the ordinary desire-consciousness which we best know and with which we are most familiar. They live in the region unreached by our ordinary interests, experience, and meanings. Therefore, the truths conveyed by the Names of Gods ring a bell only in those minds which have an intuitive feeling for the sublime. To others, these Names are no more than a catalogue of unreal and high-sounding words.

The Names we have given above are only samples. The Mahabharata says that Siva has ten thousand Names out of which it gives only one thousand and eight. In fact, when the mind opens spiritually, all names become Names of Gods. A God is visvandman, to use an expression of the Atharvaveda. In that sense, all lists of Names are incomplete—they cannot be other- wise. But while everything is completed and made good in due course on the spiritual path, and in some way every Name also expresses the God-life wholly and indivisibly, even a partial list has its importance and purpose. It tells us, though only intel- lectually, something about the spiritual Reality. It tells us, for example, about its unity, its comprehensiveness, its immanence, its transcendence; it tells us about the mutuality of Gods; it tells us how the opposites are united in the Spirit; it tells us how Gods remain unknown in some important sense.


One obvious thing that the list tells us is that the Deity that is worshipped under different Names is the same. Sometimes it is called Siva, sometimes Visnu, sometimes Ganga, sometimes Sirya. But all these Gods are the same in essence; they are the Names of the same Name or Deity.

But to call this Deity ‘One’ will not do. For it is also ‘Many’. In fact, this is the only way by which something of the power, majesty, variety, ubiquity, universality, and glory of the divine and the riches of the spiritual life can be suggested. How could the vast Reality of the Spirit be grasped and expressed by one Name? This Reality casts Its shadow differently and our mind also conceives It differently. The Intellect, the Sky, the Sun, the Moon, Fire—all are different shadows of the same Reality. They have to have different names even when they are not different. Even an ordinary thing like water has many names in its different forms as ocean, river, cloud, steam, snow, sap, etc. Then why not the Reality of the Spirit which is much more subtle and fundamental, which is the substance of everything that we see, which is in the seer as well as in the seen and the seeing?

In the way the Hindus conceptualize the higher life, the Gods do not stand apart. They are not autonomous. They are part of each other. Each God is supreme but each is also the other. And understandably so. For each expresses the same Reality. Each is fashioned from the same substance—like a pitcher, a pot, a plate, a saucer, a jug fashioned from the same earth.

In his Lights On The Vedas, T.V. Kapali Sastry quotes Yaska to show that the Vedic Gods are characterized by mutuality of birth and nature, itaretara-janmanah and itaretara-prakrtayah. Not only that, but it could equally be said that they also share the same names, itaretara-samjnakah, or itaretara-nadmanah; they also signify one another, itaretararthah; they are also the form and soul of each other, itaretara-svaripinah and itaretaratmanah. This is so because they are fashioned from the same substance, abhinna-sattvah, and represent the same principle, ekatattvah.

The post-Vedic Gods follow this lead and are conceived after the Vedic pattern.


The lists of the Names of Gods reveal another great character- istic, their deep inner unity. There is unity not only between one God and another but also between the Names of the same God. For example, some of the Names for Siva are Nirvana, Santi, Yoga, Yama, Niyama, Dama, Sama. And very justly so. For how can there be Nirvana without Yoga; and how is any Yoga possible without Yama, Niyama, Dama and Sama? The unity is written all over the Names. That which destroys desire also destroys anger, destroys sorrow, brings fulfillment, brings blessings and happiness, takes away fears and makes life pure and meritorious. That is why some of the Names of Visnu are Kamaha, Krodhaha, SokanaSana, Puryita, Srikara, Sukhada, Bhayapaha, Pavitra and Punya.


These Names are also comprehensive. They signify not only a God’s amiability and goodness but also his other attributes, his power, majesty, glory, authority, dexterity, skill, strength and even his more awesome and terrible aspects. The Old Testament says: “With God is terrible majesty.” But a latter-day pious and sentimental spirituality fought shy of developing this aspect of God. It thought that God was all love, syrup, goodness and agree- ableness—as conceived by the human mind. But Hindu spir- ituality developed and gave Names and Forms to all the divinely mysterious forces of life, to all that was operative in the human psyche, destructive and terrible or constructive and agreeable. Therefore, the Deity is not only Siva and Jivana, Auspicious and Life; It is also Mrtyu, Sarva and Rudra, or Death, Slaughter and Terrible. In the Gita, Shri Krishna, the very embodiment of beauty and attractiveness, also shows his “strange, awesome and terrible form”, adbhutam ripam ugram, “at which the three worlds are terror-stricken”, lokatrayam pravyathitam.’ In Hindu icono- graphy, one often finds images of Kali in her more destructive and terrible aspects. This has put off, through misunderstanding, some Western scholars, and has provided an opportunity for others to malign the Hindu religion.


Another conclusion that can be drawn from the lists of the Names of Gods is that the Godhead exists fully and indivisibly in each Name and Symbol. The Sun, the Sky, Fire, the Moon—they all incarnate that Truth, and that Truth lives in each of them wholly and indivisibly. It means that each is a perfect symbol of worship and what is given by one symbol is also given by the other.

And yet if one single symbol tries to set itself up as the one sole symbol, it loses its integrality. In the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, this point is well brought out in a dialogue between Drptabalaki Gargya and AjataSatru of Kasi. Each time the Person in the Sun or in the Moon, or in the Lightning, or Space or Wind, is worshipped as the sole symbol of the Brahma, the symbol is found in- sufficient. By pretending to be sole, it becomes partial and, there- fore, also yields partial knowledge and partial power. “Brahma is not known by this much knowledge only, naitavata viditam bhavtiti.”

But the lists of Names also yield another conclusion which is just the opposite of the above. God lives in each Name and Symbol equally, wholly and indivisibly; yet He also transcends all Names and all Symbols. The Gita says; “By me, all this universe has been extended in the ineffable mystery of my being; all existences are situated in Me, not I in them. And yet all existences are not situated in Me; behold My divine Yoga; Myself is that which supports all beings and constitutes their existence but does not dwell in them.”

‘Bhagvadgita, 11.20 _ ?Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, 2.1.14


This stresses God’s transcendence and his essential unknow- ability. In spite of man’s visions, experiences, yoga and samadhi, there is a sense in which God remains unknown. In fact, the more one knows Him, the more the mystery clings to Him. There is also a knowledge of God which consists not in saying what He is but in saying what He is not. There is a mystery and a riddle at the heart of the Godhead which can never be fathomed. The unknowability or rather the negated knowledge of God, asamprajnana, is a fundamental insight of the mystic tradition.

Therefore, when St. Paul saw in Athens an altar with the inscription, “To The Unknown God”,‘ he could have interpreted it spiritually. But he chose a lesser way. To him the inscription only proved that the Athenians were “superstitious”.° Then he proceeded to say, “Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you.”® Then he began to proclaim to them what God is and how he has created the world and called upon them to repent and told them about the Day of Judgement, the Resurregtion and the Mediator.

In Hindu thinking, the Unknown does not become known that easily. God does not reside in debates which the Greeks loved and St. Paul disliked; but nor does He reside in a preacher’s harangues and declamations. Some of the Names of Gods are Durlabha (difficult to attain), and Durgama (difficult to reach). He is Guhya (secret), and Gabhira (deep). But He can be known through Yoga, through meditation, through purity and sacrifice. He is Dhyanagamyasvaripa (who can be reached through meditation), Dharmalabhya (attainable through Dharma), and Jaanagamya (attained by gnosis).

saa datas ae srrecreTafear | accents aetna a are Trae: 1 aa AeA yer aya A AAA! YHA YEA AAT STATE: I — Bhagvadgita, 9, 4-5

Acts, 17.23

Tbid., 17.22

S{bid., 17.24. We have quoted from the “King James Version” of the Bible; but the more recent “Revised Standard Version” gives a different rendering which is less objectionable.


God has two natures: transcendent and immanent. Correspond- ing to them, there are two methods of sadhana, spiritual practice. One is the well-known method of neti neti, Not this, Not this. This method is based on the fact that God’s nature is transcendental. He goes beyond every symbol, name, form, conception, or image. It is the worship of the unknown in the known; it is the ‘unknown God’.

The other is the method of etadvaitad, This also is That. Through this method, one finds God residing wholly and indivis- ibly in each symbol. The world is a theophany.

Gods’ Names bring out clearly the two natures of the Godhead. God transcends every one of His Names; He also lives fully and indivisibly in each of them. In one Name, we must be able to see all the Names; in one God, we must be able to see all the Gods; otherwise, our knowledge of a God and His Names is not suf- ficient. We must also be able to see that a God exceeds all his Forms and Names, individually and collectively. The heart of a God is an enigma.