"After our youngest son had seen Star Wars for the twelfth or thirteenth time, I said, "Why do you go so often?" He said, "For the same reason you have been reading the Old Testament all of your life." He was in a new world of myth." Bill Moyers, interview with Joseph Campbell













PRABUDDHA BHARATAWe, God and the Universe | Editorial  




                We, God and the Universe








     Once 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 dont 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.




     The World is Unreal, Dreamlike




     The 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.


     A 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)




     Getting down to Brass Tacks




     That 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 the universe.




     The God-Soul-Universe Triangle




     God, 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.


     A 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.




     Worship of God with Form




     We 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 him.


     Swami Vivekanandas 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)


     There 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.


     M, Sri Ramakrishnas 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)


     After 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)




     The Three States of Consciousness vis-a-vis Conceptions of God




     Emphasizing 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.


     In 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.


     We 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.




     Vishva, Taijasa, Prajna: Their Macrocosmic Counterparts




     We saw that mans 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 mans 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.


     When 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.


     When 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.


     On 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)


     Parenthetically, 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 Gods 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.




     The Need of Worship




     With 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. Swamijis words set things in perspective:


     Wherever 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)



     With Form or without Form?




     Those 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:


     If you believe that God is formless, then stick to that belief with firm conviction. But dont 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)


     Sri 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 are body-conscious.(12)


     A 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 cant fix my mind on God with form. On the other hand, I cant concentrate steadily on God without form. The Masters 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)




                                                  * * *




     A clear conception of God, universe and mans 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 Ramakrishnas 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)







     1. M, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, trans. Swami Nikhilananda (Madras: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1985), 417.

     2. Brahma satyam jaganmithya jivo brahmaiva naparah.

     3. See Bhagavadgita, 2.23.

     4. See Sri Shankaracharyas commentary on the Katha Upanishad, 2.1.15.

     5. The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, 9 vols. (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1-8, 1989; 9, 1997), 2.155.

     6. Gospel, 150.

     7. CW, 2.308.

     8. Ayam atma brahma. - Mandukya Upanishad, 2.

     9. Gita, 7.16.

     10. CW, 3.87.

     11. Gospel, 634-5.

     12. Gita, 12.5.

     13. Gospel, 127.

     14. Ibid., 867.

International Yoga Day 21 June 2015
International Yoga Day 21 June 2015







 Rambler's Top100