God and the Universe
a woodcutter lay dreaming, when someone woke him up. Greatly
annoyed, he said: ‘Why have you disturbed my sleep? I was
dreaming that I was a king and the father of seven children.
The princes were becoming well versed in letters and military
arts. I was secure on my throne and ruled over my subjects.
Why have you demolished my world of joy?’ ‘But that was a
mere dream,’ said the other man. ‘Why should that bother you?’
‘Fool!’ said the woodcutter. ‘You don’t understand. My becoming
a king in the dream was just as real as my being a woodcutter.
If being a woodcutter is real, then being a king in a dream
is real also.’(1) Sri Ramakrishna told this story to illustrate
that according to Vedanta the waking state too is unreal.
World is Unreal, Dreamlike
celebrated half-verse attributed to Sri Shankaracharya sums
up Advaita Vedanta: ‘Brahman is real and the world unreal.
The jiva is nothing but Brahman.’(2) The world is not absolutely
unreal like the son of a barren woman or the horns of a hare.
What is meant is, as it appears to us, the world is not real.
The famous snake-rope illusion explains the point. During
twilight, we mistake a rope for a snake and experience all
the emotions like fear and shock associated with witnessing
a live snake. The rope stands revealed for what it is when
darkness is dispelled by light. Even so, says Vedanta, the
world is nothing but Brahman, the only Reality, but it appears
as world because of darkness - because of our ignorance of
its true nature. Another illustration is of a mirage in a
desert or on a hot road. On nearing the spot we understand
that what appeared as a sheet of water from a distance was
nothing but an optical illusion caused by atmospheric conditions.
significant point emerges from these examples: The illusion
is dispelled only when darkness, or ignorance, vanishes. In
other words, true perception is possible only when there is
knowledge. We saw that from the Vedantic standpoint, the waking
state is also a dream. But our everyday experience seems to
be otherwise: a dream is as much real to us as the waking
state, if not more. The dream objects and the enjoyment or
misery arising out of them are very real to us. We know only
on waking up that all that was after all a dream. Even so,
our experiences in the world during waking state are very
real as long as we are participants in the dream called world.
That it is a dream can be known only when our ignorance vanishes,
when we wake up to our true divine nature. From the standpoint
of a man of Knowledge the world and its events are mere shadows,
since he is aware of Brahman, the divine substratum behind
the world. This can be compared to a movie on a cinema screen.
For the man of Knowledge, the screen alone is real; what appears
on it has only a secondary order of reality. He is not affected
by the proceedings on the screen. (Weapons, fire, rains or
wind in the movie cannot tear, burn, moisten or dry the screen.
Even so, our real nature, the Atman, remains unaffected by
weapons, fire, water or wind, which affect only the body.)(3)
down to Brass Tacks
the world is a dream is all right from the standpoint of the
ultimate Reality, Brahman. Till we realize that, however,
the world continues to be real; the waking state is real;
the dream is real and our sleep is real. The world strongly
impinges on our consciousness and occupies our whole being.
Know your divine nature and break the dream of this world,
say the Upanishads with the solicitude and love exceeding
that of thousands of parents.(4) Breaking the dream of the
world is what spiritual disciplines are about. As long as
our body and mind are real to us, the world is real to us
and so is the practice of spiritual disciplines like selfless
work, devotion to a Personal God, meditation and discrimination.
Though essentially divine, we - this Divinity, or Consciousness
- identify ourselves with the mind and body and think that
we are individual entities. Vedanta has a name for these individual
entities: jivas, or souls. In other words, jivas are different
units of divinity, the difference arising from the degree
of identification with the body and mind. As jivas, we find
the universe very real. Equally real is a Personal God, who
projects, sustains and draws back unto Himself the jivas and
universe and the soul (jiva) stand or fall by the same logic.
As we saw, God and the universe are real as long as the jiva
is aware of his individuality. If (Personal) God, soul and
the universe were three vertices of a triangle, it would be
clear that when one vertex is true the other two are also
true. If the jiva vertex is real, the world is real for him
and so is (Personal) God. Similarly, if the universe vertex
is real, it will necessitate a creator (God) and a jiva to
experience joy and sorrow from it. This is akin to a house
implying a dweller for whom it is meant. Similarly, when the
God (Creator) vertex is true, the universe and souls - His
creations - must exist, for He cannot be called a Creator
when he has no creation to speak of. He would then be just
Brahman, actionless, one without a second.
similar triangle provides further elucidation. Father, mother
and child are the three vertices of this triangle. If the
father vertex is true, the mother and child are implied, for
a husband becomes a father only when the child is born and
his wife becomes a mother. The same is true of the mother
vertex. And if the child vertex is true, it automatically
implies a father and a mother. The point emerging from these
triangles is that a Personal God can be negated only if an
individual has transcended his individuality - characterized
by attachment to body and mind - and knows that he is the
Spirit. Till then the triangle is very real. It will be illogical
to deny any of the vertices to the exclusion of the rest.
of God with Form
next move to an important principle regarding the conception
of God. How man looks upon God and the universe depends on
how he looks upon himself. As long he looks upon himself as
a body-mind complex he is constitutionally bound to look upon
God as a superhuman being endowed with all auspicious qualities,
with a divine family and children to boot - if his attachment
to his own family is deep enough. The world and its sense
objects, and the other beings in the world are very real to
Vivekananda’s words throw more light on the subject. ‘Suppose
a cow were philosophical and had religion, it would have a
cow universe, and a cow solution of the problem, and it would
not be possible that it should see our God. Suppose cats became
philosophers, they would see a cat universe and have a cat
solution of the problem of the universe, and a cat ruling
it.’(5) Cows are constitutionally obliged to worship a cow
God; cats, a cat God. Similarly, as long as man thinks he
is an individual, he cannot but think of a human God, an embodiment
of infinite power and strength and endowed with all auspicious
qualities. Says Sri Ramakrishna, ‘… in the light of Vedantic
reasoning Brahman has no attributes. The real nature of Brahman
cannot be described. But so long as your individuality is
real, the world is also real, and equally real are the different
forms of God and the feeling that God is a person.’(6)
are people who pride themselves in being rationalists. They
deride the worship of a Personal God, but remain attached
to the world and its enjoyments. They cannot be more irrational.
And there are political rationalists who pride themselves
in not believing in God, but have no qualms about worshipping
the statues of their leaders with garlands and so on, or offering
prayers at their memorials, or taking oaths in their names.
A devotee on the other hand does all this to Personal God,
the object of his worship. When he visits a temple he derives
joy in the image of the Deity being bathed, decorated and
taken in a procession. This gradually changes the centre of
his consciousness from his body and reduces his attachment
to it. By degrees his devotion can undergo a qualitative change,
helping him unfold his own divine nature.
Sri Ramakrishna’s householder disciple and author of the Gospel
of Sri Ramakrishna, referred to worship of the ‘clay image’.
Sri Ramakrishna corrected him and said, ‘But why clay? It
is an image of Spirit [chinmayi pratima].’ M felt that those
who worship clay images should be told that it is not God
and that while worshipping it they should have God in view
and not the clay image. The Master sharply rebuked him and
asked him to strive for knowledge and devotion himself instead
of ‘bringing others to the light’. (80)
that first argument of M with the Master, and ‘happily his
last’, the Master taught him: ‘You were talking of worshipping
the clay image. Even if the image is made of clay, there is
need for that sort of worship. God Himself has provided different
forms of worship. (81)
Three States of Consciousness vis-a-vis Conceptions of God
the potential divinity of man, Swamiji makes a bold statement
in his first lecture on ‘Practical Vedanta’: ‘Your godhead
is the proof of God Himself. If you are not a prophet, there
never has been anything true of God. If you are not God, there
never was any God, and never will be.’(7) The idea is this:
According to Vedanta, behind our body and beyond our mind
is the Atman, the divine core of our personality. And microcosm
and macrocosm being built on the same plan, the divine core
in us and the different tiers in our personality help us infer
the presence of God, the divine core behind the universe,
and corresponding different tiers in the macrocosm.
the waking state our consciousness is usually associated with
the body. Vedanta calls this consciousness vishva.
In the dream state the gross body does not exist for the dreamer.
Only his mind is then active and his consciousness is associated
with it. The mind along with the pranas constitutes the subtle
body. The same ‘I’ that experienced objects in the waking
state does it in the dream state too. The consciousness during
dream state is called taijasa. During deep sleep the
‘I’ does not experience any object but remains shrouded in
ignorance. This state of ‘I’, detached from the body and mind
and closest to the Atman, but separated from It by ignorance,
is called the causal body - ‘causal’ since the subtle and
gross bodies arise from it in the dream and waking states.
The consciousness associated with the causal body is called
prajna. Behind the three bodies (gross, subtle and
the causal) is the Atman, their common substratum that lends
continuity to the pre-sleep and post-sleep states of the individual.
referred to the waking, dream and deep sleep states to facilitate
description of the gross, subtle and causal bodies. Our discussion
on the conceptions of God, however, centres mainly round the
three bodies. Thus, at the microcosmic (individual) level,
identification with the gross body = vishva. When body
consciousness is absent, identification with the subtle body
= taijasa. When identification with the mind too is
absent, identification with the causal body = prajna.
Identification with the body and mind cease spontaneously
during dream and deep sleep respectively. Struggling to make
this happen in the waking state is what spiritual life and
spiritual disciplines are about.
Taijasa, Prajna: Their Macrocosmic Counterparts
saw that man’s conception of God and the universe varies with
his conception of himself. This is so because with the shift
in the centre of his consciousness from the gross to causal
bodies, there are corresponding changes in man’s perception
of God and the universe. The dynamic equilibrium between the
microcosm and the macrocosm at different levels is responsible
for these changes in perception. When man is identified with
the gross body (vishva), the universe appears to him
in all its grossness and alluring variety. The corresponding
consciousness in the macrocosm is known as virat.
his subtle body appears more real to him, man lives in the
plane of ideas and is not much troubled by the body and its
cravings. The universe as it appears to others does not hold
much charm for him, for free from body consciousness, he is
now in tune with the universal, cosmic Mind. The corresponding
macrocosmic consciousness is called hiranyagarbha.
he is far advanced in spiritual life to the extent of his
body and mind becoming unreal to him, man identifies himself
with his causal body (prajna) and gets attuned to Personal
God, the cause of the universe. The corresponding macrocosmic
consciousness is called ishvara. Man is now said to
have realized God in His personal aspect.
transcending his identity with the causal body and realizing
the Atman, the divine core in him, man simultaneously realizes
Brahman, the divine core behind the macrocosm. There is now
nothing for him to differentiate between microcosm and macrocosm
and he realizes the famous Upanishadic equation: Atman = Brahman.(8)
a word about the difficulty in conceiving the universe as
the gross body of God and imagining the universal Mind, ishvara
and Brahman behind it. An ant crawling on a human hand may
not be able to imagine that it is moving on a much bigger
human body. It can much less think of the mind and Atman that
are behind the human body. Even so, inhabiting an infinitesimally
small part of the universe - some limb of God - man finds
it odd to visualize this entire universe as God’s gross body
and think of a cosmic Mind, ishvara and Brahman behind. What
prevents this visualization is his attachment to the body.
In fact, it is body consciousness that is responsible for
the distinction between ‘external’ and ‘internal’. Completely
free from body consciousness, great souls are ever in tune
with the universal Mind. This gives them control over other
minds and helps them see their contents like objects in a
glass case. Incidents from the lives of Sri Ramakrishna, Swamiji
and other great souls corroborate this fact.
Need of Worship
the above theoretical background about the conception of God,
we now turn to the question of why to worship God. The answer
depends on our relationship with the world and our needs and
goal in life. According to Sri Krishna four kinds of people
worship God: the (physically or mentally) afflicted, those
after worldly prosperity (wealth, name, fame and so on), the
seeker (of knowledge) and the man of knowledge.(9) Sri Krishna
considers all of them as large-hearted. Seeking God for worldly
things can make seeking God a habit in us and goad us into
seeking Him for His own sake in course of time. But it is
true that higher and subtler conceptions of God become relevant
only to those who do not look upon God as a means to worldly
ends. Swamiji’s words set things in perspective:
there is any seeking for something in return, there can
be no real love; it becomes a mere matter of shop-keeping.
As long as there is in us any idea of deriving this or that
favour from God in return for our respect and allegiance
to Him, so long there can be no true love growing in our
hearts. Those who worship God because they wish Him to bestow
favours on them are sure not to worship Him if those favours
are not forthcoming.(10)
Form or without Form?
who worship God out of love have two temperament-based options:
worship of God with form and worship of God without form.
Sri Ramakrishna lived, moved and had his being in Divine Mother,
in the form of Kali. He taught that both God with form and
God without form are equally true. He called It Brahman when
inactive and Kali when creating, preserving and destroying.
What he wanted us to steer clear of is dogmatism:
you believe that God is formless, then stick to that belief
with firm conviction. But don’t be dogmatic: never say emphatically
about God that He can be only this and not that. You may
say: ‘I believe that God is formless. But He can be many
things more. He alone knows what else He can be. I do not
know; I do not understand.’ How can man with his one ounce
of intelligence know the real nature of God? Can you put
four seers of milk in a one-seer jar? If God, through His
Grace, ever reveals Himself to His devotee and makes him
understand, then he will know; but not otherwise.(11)
Krishna points out that the worship of a formless God is beset
with difficulties, especially for the body-bound: ‘Greater
is the trouble for those whose minds are set on the Unmanifest.
The goal of the Unmanifest is hard to reach for those who
few months after M first met Sri Ramakrishna, the Master asked
him, ‘How are you getting along with your mediation nowadays?
What aspect of God appeals to your mind - with form or without
form?’ M, naturally inclined towards formless meditation,
replied: ‘Sir, now I can’t fix my mind on God with form. On
the other hand, I can’t concentrate steadily on God without
form.’ The Master’s reply was significant: ‘Now you see that
the mind cannot be fixed, all of a sudden, on the formless
aspect of God. It is wise to think of God with form during
the primary stages.’(13)
clear conception of God, universe and man’s unique position
in the scheme of things helps us in proper orientation of
our search for meaning in life. Though formless worship might
appeal more to the intellect, it is what we are able to effectively
practise that counts in our progress towards our spiritual
destiny. For the majority, the way is to worship God with
form or an incarnation of God, who in Sri Ramakrishna’s words
is the doorway to the Infinite. ‘Whether you follow the ideal
of the Personal God or that of the Impersonal Truth, you will
realize God alone, provided you are restless for Him’ - these
are the reassuring words of the Master.(14)
M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda
(Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1985), 417.
Brahma satyam jaganmithya jivo brahmaiva naparah.
See Bhagavadgita, 2.23.
See Sri Shankaracharya’s commentary on the Katha Upanishad,
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta:
Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.155.
Ayam atma brahma. - Mandukya Upanishad, 2.