Our ancients have variously tried to tell us what God looks like through our scriptures; some with success, others with interpretations that make little sense.
For purpose of clarity, let’s keep the two aspects of godhead – God and avatar – separate or else we will be very confused. God is beyond what we can apprehend with our minds; avatars, on the other hand, are sparks of divinity that choose to walk among us with a mortal body.
For example, Vishnu is godhead – Rama, Krishna, Buddha and others are aspects of Vishnu that took “birth” on Earth.
The same applies to Shiva – Dattatreya is an avatar of Shiva (or as some want it, a combined avatar of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva) and Dakshinamurti is Shiva in His aspect as a guru.
The cosmic form of God that most people are familiar with is the being with thousands of arms, thousands of heads all doing something. In a population of 7 billion, a thousands arms and heads is, well, peanuts. This ancient description of God as many-limbed and many-headed is of little relevance in a very populated world.
Then we have the individual godhead descriptions: Vishnu reclining on Sesha Naag on the Kshir Sagara; Brahma cross-legged on a lotus and Shiva meditating on Kailasha (or in a cemetery in some portrayals). The images we have of Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva are artists impressions made from description of Godhead in our scriptures. By the way, none of these artists actually saw God but take their cues from someone else’s interpretation of God.
So, are these depictions nothing but fairy tales? Yes, and no.
Yes, because God cannot be visualised, not with our limited minds at least. It is an exercise in futility to paint God, or the Trimurti, or anything we call God. There is no way we can say God looks like this. Take a look at a collection of renditions of either Vishnu or Shiva. The face, the body types, etc are different in each rendition – what remains constant is the attire and the masculinity (or the femininity in case of our goddesses) of the figure. Each artist brought his or her own standard of beauty to the painting – some prefer oval faces, some elongated, but in each case region, religion and race played a part in the depiction of God in art.
Those cultures which like man with a moustache render Shiva with moustache; some others draw Krishna with almost feminine grace, others with a cherubic face even in a teen depiction. Our goddesses are all in the perfect dimension for a female – following the standards of beauty prevalent 50 to 100 years ago. Thankfully they will probably never be drawn as the waif-like, stick figures of womanhood as depicted in our modern ads.
These renditions of gods, and avatars, play a major part in our religious feelings for they are used as points of concentration for both our faith and for identifying ourselves to the world. With the coming of cinema, these paintings then became the launch pad for the various portrayals of God on the silver screen. The cumulative effect of this mistake has been that we generally end up divided on what our gods are really like. But that has already been written about http://www.indianweekender.co.nz/Pages/ArticleDetails/40/1244/Tongue-in-cheek/Bollywooding-of-Hinduism
On the other hand, we have to say ‘no, they are not really fairy tales’ because the depictions are based on imagery of Gods that our ancients used in order to tell us what God is. In telling us of God, the ancients first SPOKE of it through narrations and verses, then WROTE down that God was omnipresent, that He/She/It was everybody, and everything. And that God dwelt in everybody, and was able to experience everything that all others experienced, that God was the in-dweller in our hearts, our very soul – list goes on.
Writing down the experience of God task must have been formidable – for it is generally said that no word can describe the truth, the glory, the auspiciousness and the beauty of God. There is no language refined enough (although people think Sanskrit can do the job), to fully express the attributes (or lack thereof) of God. Even the sound of Aum (Om, Omkara), whilst closest in expressing the word of God, is not the actual word of God (we are saying Om is a thousand different ways).
Yet we tried, time and again, to express God in language, using everything from metaphors, imagery, symbolism, even idioms – every figure of speech has been used and we are no closer to express that which cannot be expressed, that can only be experienced.
We used words like glory, auspiciousness, purity and beauty and then had to resort to our own understanding of these words. It is the interpretation of these words that has led us into the mire that is religion today. And yet, it is this endeavour to express the inexpressible that actually led to the development of our languages.
Otherwise we would have been stuck with rudimentary language to explain the mundane things that happened to us everyday. The abstractions in language is only thanks to our efforts to understand that which cannot be understood.
Colour, of course, plays an important part in ‘understanding’ of God. For example, what personifies purity (Sattwa guna) better than white? So Vishnu reposes in a milk-white sea/sea of milk; Shiva is amidst the snow-capped Kailasha Parvat; Brahma is snowy-bearded, sometimes shown on a white swan, sometimes on a white lotus.
And Shiva the destroyer is dark, a herald of death and destruction (tamasic). In his Rudra aspect he is raging darkness itself (this was toned down a lot later in our history).
Both Rama and Krishna are also dark – but painted/portrayed in blue to show they are not really dark but the colour of rain-laden clouds (so such names as Megha Shyama come about). Some say the colour is of infinity itself, others says it a ‘whitewashing’ of the effect that our avatars were actually dark. Take your pick.
For Lakhsmi the colour of choice is red – rajasic – denoting activity, a go—getting attitude and, most importantly, commerce or success in commerce. We approach her to increase our fortunes.
She is, especially at Diwali, worshipped together with Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. Not a weird combination at all if the shifting of priorities is your only concern when it comes to worshipping. Ganesha needs to be there to remove any obstacles before Lakshmi can bestow bounty on you (can you see how we continually shift things about to suit us?).
The holy apparel (pitambara) is colour coordinated – the yellow throw-on over the shoulder is a favourite for Krishna; white dhotis largely for Vishnu and Rama. Durga is in blood-red sari to denote her avenging spirit. Kali, in tamasic mode, is in darker, even muddier, colours.
Parvati is seldom seen in lighter colours, in keeping with her position as the dark one’s (Shiva) consort. Saraswati is almost always in white – denoting the purity of the arts and learning.
It was always going to be a challenge to depict our gods – though some thought did go in the artistic impressions of them based on our scriptures. It did not start out as deliberate conning of the people because there was integrity in the making of it, but reliability took a back seat in the actual execution of it over millennia.
There is small story of how traditions begin, concerning a cat, a basket and a bowl of milk. In times past a priest offered a bowl of milk as an offering before a goddess at a festival time.
Because he owned a cat that got to the milk, he would ask his children to catch the cat, and hold it captive under an upturned basket. This became a regular ‘event’ during the festival prayers.
All and good for the first few generation when the kids and their kids understood why the cat had to be caught and held captive under a basket. But several generations down the line, whenever the prayers were held, a cat was caught (whether the family had a cat in residence or not) and then held captive under a basket. Because somewhere down the line, someone had forgotten the reason behind the catching of the cat and all had started thinking it was part of the rituals to have a cat under a basket present during the prayers.
A simplistic explanation but nevertheless one that sheds light on our many, many rituals that we really cannot understand.
And so it happened with our gods – someone rendered an image of god based on his understanding of what he/she had read in the scriptures (or following direction from someone who had a good understanding of what needed to go in the image).
Initially the rendition was copied faithfully and even improved on but given the timeline we have for Hinduism, the reasoning behind the renditions were all but forgotten.
Why does Vishnu hold a lotus and a disk in his hands? Why the gadha (mace)? Why does Shiva have a trishool, why is his hair matted, snakes around his neck and body covered with ash (sometimes)?
Why do some of our goddess hold a noose (depicting punishment?). And all of these are offset by the abhaya hasta – the mudra of protection, the palm raised in blessing.
These questions are asked not to look at why these ‘needhis’ or treasures are used for (Vishnu’s disk is used for chopping off heads) but to under stand the background – why was this particular weapon chosen?; why would they need a weapon at all?; why do our gods always have this war-like aspect to them?.
And why do gods have particular personal carriers when they have the power to move anywhere at will – Garuda, king of eagles for Vishnu; a bull for Shiva; Ganesha on a tiny mouse; Kartikeya on a peacock; Durga on a lion? Why is Surya’s charioteer legless? Just symbolism that has either lost its true meaning or has been rehashed over time to mean something different?
It is little wonder, then, that stories get woven about the Gods – how Shiva married (for the second time); how Ganesha got an elephant head (or how he was created out of the dirt of his mother’s body); how Vishnu took the form of a beauteous woman to con the rakhsas from getting their hand on the nectar of the gods; and how as Mohini, she/he had a son with Shiva called Ayyapan.
And it all spirals out of control as various ‘pundits’ move into explain the why and wherefores of our celestial families, adding explanation after explanation to things that cannot be explained off easily. Technically, of course, these explanations are impossibility as Godhead is a force/energy/spirit rather than actual beings. So, why did our ancients start off these ‘rumours’ of God in human form, and of their ‘families’?
Given the dumbing down of the concepts of God for followers of any particular religion, God had to be personified and thus we have God/gods in the image of humans (with some physical animal features thrown in) and reverse concepts such as man was created in the image of God. These concepts were acceptable when we thought the sun revolved around the earth and that we were the centre of the universe. But they are no longer valid as they are only people’s way of understanding God at the level that their minds allow.
Now consider a rishi or sage trying his or her best to make others understand the power of the universal or God, given an atmosphere where the others have no idea of this ‘type’ of God. The tools available to the rishi is only the language concepts that the others can understand – humanness, the emotions, aspects of nature, families, work, play, etc.
Straight off the limitations are apparent – where the mind cannot conceive a tangible aspect, the human psyche balks. So the concepts of omnipresence, omnipotent and omniscience are dumbed down so people could understand them.
What tools would a rishi have on hand to show the concept of God to people? Descriptions, essences, all words that were handy and understandable. The appellations for Vishnu, including names like Amitesh, mean that which permeates everything.
The question raised is: Was God already named Vishnu or was the name chosen by us to show one of his ‘abilities or essences’? Shiva means the auspicious one – note the use of ‘one’. Does this mean someone told someone that God was auspicious and in some language Shiva meant auspicious and they collectively named God “The Auspicious One” and thereby ending up with the name Shiva?
And by a name to God, God then just had to take on a personality. He/She/It became humanlike and gathered all the attributes of humans and humanity – but in large/better doses that made him/her/it divine. And God did not have faults like humans did, although God could get angry and be retributive but these were never considered faults as they were the divine rights of God.
And God had to be born, faced human-like conflicts with mighty being, sometime accepting temporary defeat as the stories spun out of control over the generations. All these stories, while humanising the supreme, left it a fallible entity, capable of weaknesses, judging wrongly and favouritism. Thus, we get “God’s own people”, “The Chosen Ones”, “Beloved of the Lord”, etc.
This, of course, is contrary to the basic make of Hinduism – where God is attributeless (nirguna), deathless, is never born, is eternal and does not have a form (nirakaar), always is forever (nitya). God is the basis, the very substance of the universe. As ‘Creator’ God could only create anything out of himself (the term is generally used). Out of the nabhi (navel) of Vishnu comes the Brahma, the creator. And his term of office is a thousand days and nights before everything is sucked in again at pralaya.
In the beginning we talked of Vishnu permeating the universe/s. Instead of seeing Vishnu reclining and a lotus coming out of him, let’s imagine a coalescing of matter to form a universe within Vishnu, with the starting point being Brahma and then an outward expansion of the said universe within the entity called God. Here we are contained in every aspect in the huge entity called God/Brahman. Brahman comes from the root ‘brh’ (to grow) and connotes immenseness that continues to grow or expand – sounds like a good definition of the growing universe.
In depictions of creation we see a large figure of Vishnu (in some cases Krishna) reclining at the top of the picture, with a lotus stalk growing out of his navel the end of which has a much smaller figure of Brahma sitting on it and then various aspects of creation emanating out of it. Given the limitations the painter had, it is a pretty good depiction because there is no way of showing the Brh (expansion and immensity) aspect of God otherwise. How can one show the immensity of God on a scrap of paper? But we tried.
So, our pictures of God are not fairy tales but neither are they really the whole truth. It is the best we have come so far in expressing God in art form and should be seen as such. There are great initially for the mind to comprehend some aspect of some understanding of God but each of us must strive to go beyond these just as a child moves beyond the kindergarten, into primary school, then secondary and finally to the tertiary level.
The truth of God is beyond the mind of man and so it is said that one has to go beyond the mind to ‘apprehend’ the truth. Most meditations then seek to still the vrittis (mental tendencies, or psycho-physical propensities) of the mind – the individual ideas or elements of thought are first isolated then ‘discarded’ to attain to the anandamaya kosa (the final of the paanch koshas that make the physical entity we call man) and then beyond it.
It is said that the universe is the apparel of the Lord – the Pitambara. And every planet, every star, every country, everything, is a part of the body of God. What this means is we are limited or contained within God, are essentially a part of God and are nothing beyond God. That is a good definition but again it is just words. To know it to be true (or otherwise) one has to actually experience it and that means getting down to embracing spirituality to know the truth.
For it is said that God cannot be known by worship, by rituals, by japa but only by experiencing God – through bhakti (becoming God through emotions/feelings) and jnana (comprehending God through the intellect). This does not mean worship, rituals, japa are wrong – they are an essential part of ‘purifying oneself on the road to knowledge. They are the first steps to godhead, a path to godhead, a means but not the end.
*And bhakti is jnana and jnan is bhakti. The fool separates the two, the wise see them as an essential one.
In Sanskrit, "brihh" or "bruhh" means to grow, "brihad" or bruhad" means great and so on.
Some confuse Brahman with Brahmin, the name of a caste in India. Brahman is different from it and also from Brahma. Brahma is a Deity, in fact he is the very first created by the Lord to create the world. Whereas Brahman is an absolute reality, the original source, the one and the only God from which creation emerges; It is formless, omnipresent and omniscient, all powerful and absolute.
The term Brahman is not to be confused with:-
1) Brahma, the Creator God;
2) Brahmana, Vedic texts, nor with
3) brahmana, Hindu priest caste (English spelling: brahmin).
God created this Universe on His own initiative and ordained various codes for its upkeep and smooth running. There were rules of correct conduct for every individual and groups of people. These form the tenets of Dharma (Righteous Conduct). The word Dharma is derived from the root, Dhr, meaning 'wear'. Dharma means that which is worn or practiced. It is the holy apparel (Pithambara) of the Lord. Dharma guards both honour and dignity; protects and gives beauty and joy, lending charm to life. As clothes maintain the dignity of the person who wears them, Dharma protects the dignity of every country and its people. Every single country in the world, has its own special Dharma or unique duty. Every country (desha) is a part of the body (deha) of the Lord, and is protected by the Dharma that is practised.
Take the five elements, the components of this Prapancha (Universe). Of these, water has movement and coldness as its Dharma; combustion and light are the Dharma of fire. Each of the five elements have their unique Dharma. Humanity for man and animality for animals - these guard them from decline. How can fire be fire, if it has no power of combustion and light? It must manifest the Dharma to be itself. When it loses that, it becomes as lifeless as a piece of charcoal. Similarly man too has some natural characteristics that are his very life-breath; one can be identified as 'human' only when these abilities are present. To preserve and foster such qualities and abilities, certain modes of behaviour and lines of thought are laid down. This is called Dharma. These qualities are not imported from somewhere o utside, nor can it be removed. It is your own genuine nature, your uniqueness.
* Nalinesh Arun is a former Fiji journalist who lived in India for many years. He is now based in Christchurch, New Zealand