BRAHMAN (God) in Hinduism
Hinduism is a monotheistic religion with one God (Brahman) assuming many forms and names. Brahman, as Nirguna, has no attributes (is formless and unmanifested), whereas as Saguna (or Iswara) is manifested and with attributes. People use many different names for God. Consider for example the following hymns from Rig Veda.
"They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutman.
To what is One, sages give many a title they call it Agni, Yama, Matarisvan." RV (Book 1, Hymn 164.46)
"He in his might surveyed the floods containing productive force and generating Worship.
He is the God, and none beside him. What God shall we adore with our oblation?" RV (Book 10, Hymn 121.8 )
Thus various forms (names and perceptions) symbolizing Brahman reflect different visions according to many sages and seers. Note that, like any particular prophet, each sage advances his own concept of God which seems unique (in name and form / image) and may be classed as monomorphic (one view). This concept of divine -- monotheistic and monomorphic -- is usually accepted and followed by the adherents of that particular sage. This is just like any monotheistic religion after a certain prophet. But in Hinduism, this situation is further augmented due to accumulated visions of God from many sages -- each sage's vision being separately monotheistic and monomorphic -- resulting in monotheism with a polymorphic view where one God is perceived in many different ways and with various capabilities (e.g. Nirguna, Unmanifest, Saguna, Manifest, Transcendent, Immanent, and so on). Note that this is not polytheism, because God is still one, even though He is portrayed differently according to different people (sages, etc.) and situations.
Hinduism is also not henotheistic, where people believe in one god but are not concerned if he is the only god. Note that Brahman is one even though He has many names. For henotheism, there should exist a parallel (or competing) deity against Brahman but such is not the case. In addition, even the different Avtars (reincarnations) are not considered as independent of Iswara.
Hinduism is not pantheistic either, since there is no direct identification of God with universe. Note, God and universe (belonging to the Absolute or Reality -- which also consists of souls) are considered as distinct from each other in Hindu religio-philosophy.
Furthermore, polymorphically speaking, God may be worshipped, for example, by a farmer as Varuna (meaning the lord of water) and by a carpenter as Vishvakarma (meaning architect of the world). Since water -- potential boon from Varuna -- is important in agriculture for bringing good harvest etc., the farmer easily, conveniently and even inadvertently is drawn towards the deity known as Varuna. Meanwhile, the carpenter identifies himself professionally more closely with Vishvakarma (the Constructor). People thus have a tendency to assign and accept various functional or phenomenal labels for God, and perceive, worship, and meditate on Him accordingly. In spite of having different names, Brahman (God) still remains one and the Hinduism monotheistic. Note also that worshipping Varuna and Vishvakarma just amounts to worshipping God in two different aspects of water and construction, respectively. In reality, worship of either Varuna or Vishvakarma or both of them together still amounts to -- including the potential benefits -- the worship of one Brahman. The Real, possessing various attributes (i.e. God as Varuna or as Vishvakarma), should not be seen as accumulating them mathematically. Thus, one (as Varuna) + one (as Vishvakarma) is not to be construed as two, but still One (God).
Depending on the basic attributes, God (Hari or Savior) is called Om -- the creator (Omniscient, Brahma, the chaturmukh); Tat -- the preserver / master (Omnipotent, Vishnu, the chaturbhuj); and Sat -- the destroyer (Rudra or Shiva -- good and righteous; RV: Book 5, Hymn 44.2).
Furthermore, in the earthly regions, Iswara (and His power) may manifest as Agni; in the mid-air, as Indra; and in the heavens, as Savitar. Note that the personality or symbol used as a deity in meditation or worship is mainly for spiritual significance and to reflect the real power (God) behind it. Physical and material aspects of the symbol used in worship are less important.
True bhakti (devotion) and the type (method) of worship depend on a person's nature and temperament. Moreover, even if the object of adoration remains the same, there may be several ways to approach it. In addition, Brahman as Nirguna (unmanifested) is simply believed in. The direct worship of Nirguna Brahman is not possible, because it is not known (as Nirguna) and therefore can not be worshipped. The believer therefore simply recognizes the entire creation as a reflection of God and acts accordingly (Gita: Ch 12).
In the case of Saguna Brahman, there are two types of worship -- one is of a personal God as the Immanent, and the other by using symbols. In case of the Immanent, worship usually occurs in the form of pure meditation and at the spiritual level. On the other hand, when a worshipper views God as being external to him, then the worship is symbolic. Here, symbols (objects and deities etc.) used are generally prakrit (comprising of prakrti / nature and therefore involving three modes or gunas -- sattva, rajas, and tamas). Note that the worshipper in this case needs to be careful as to what exactly the object of adoration (such as the deity) and the method of worship (yajna etc.) stand for, because that will determine the outcome (fruits) of such worship.
Object of meditation (worship) should be beyond or above the Law of Karma. It should not become part of the sansara (world) -- as a soul or the constituent matter -- and be not existing at times in the mode of darkness or ignorance (Tamas). Note that only Brahman is above and beyond Karma, is changeless, and meets these conditions (Gita: Ch. 5 - V. 29). On the other hand, if the meditation (worship) is intended towards a secondary figure (such as a guru or a deity) who is subject to the Law of Karma, the results from such effort will also be secondary (Gita: Ch. 9 - V. 25). The meditation (worship) symbols and methods should be therefore carefully selected.
Note also that the religious offerings and gifts, though important, are voluntary and motivated by faith and love. Moreover, worships and rituals should not be performed miserly and with a desire for vainglory (RV: Book 7 - Hymn 32.9; Gita: Ch. 9 - V. 26, Ch. 16 - V. 17, Ch. 17 - V. 13).
By: Dr. Subhash C. Sharma
Date: Feb. 24, 2004
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