Chapter 10: The Development of the Concept of God
Indian culture reaches its zenith, beyond which it is impossible for the mind to think or contemplate, when it occupies itself with the problem of the nature of Reality. Earlier, in its precedent stages, when it is only in the process of development, it seems to be engaged in the individual and social values of life, and all the appurtenances connected with social and personal security in all ways possible. But when the developmental process of culture reaches a point which we may consider as its apex, it feels a necessity to outgrow its earlier occupational pursuits, and finds that it is encountering something which may be regarded as the Reality of the universe.
As we are here concerned mostly with India’s culture, we may limit our studies to the records available in India on this subject of the developmental process of what we may call religious consciousness, the pursuit of the Spirit, the encounter with Reality. The human mind wonders at the way in which the universe operates. It does not always express this wonderment in its initial stages of evolution. The more material is the outlook, the more physical is the need, the more externalised is the perceptional process, and the less is the pressure of Reality felt by a person or by human society. But when the needs of the body are amply available, as we had in India, when social security is not hampered beyond a certain limit, and all the abundances of nature are at hand, there is less pressure from the external physical and social circumstances of life, and the mind becomes philosophical, as we say.
The search for the causes behind the effects that we perceive in the world is the beginning of philosophical investigation. Philosophy is a very wide subject, and if it begins with wonder and an awesome feeling in respect of the occurrences in nature, it begins to question as to how nature operates and why it operates in the manner it does. Every event, every occurrence, is caused by some pressure, some operating medium that seems to be at the back of it. We have never seen something taking place unless there is some cause behind it. The search for the cause of events, or the antecedents behind the occurrences in nature, is the beginning of philosophy and metaphysical pursuit.
In the earlier stages, it was the discovery of the presence of various causative factors behind groups of phenomena, or even behind each individual phenomenon. Every event that takes place in this world is caused by something which occasions it. If the Sun rises, if the Sun sets, if it rains, if there are seasons, if there is any kind of change observable in the universe, there must be something causing it. We may individually posit causes behind isolated events. Something is causing the rise of the Sun, something is causing the fall of rain, and something else is the cause of something else. This is an initial step in the adventure of the search for causes behind effects.
Since we cannot identify or collate conditions behind rainfall with the rise of the Sun, for instance, or the occurrence of seasons, the mind takes resort to the easiest way of positing causes individually, independently of other causes, because when one event does not seem to be connected with another event, the cause behind that particular event may also not be connected with the other cause. That is to say, the seasons may be caused by some operations which need not necessarily be the operation behind the rise of the Sun or the falling of the rains. This is the stage of religious awareness where a multitude of causes began to be posited behind the multitudes of events as they were observed in daily life.
This is also the stage, as we all know, of the visualisation of spiritual principles, gods in heaven, angelic powers, as it were, operating differently in different places. The universe is populated by gods, as it were. A god is a name that we give to any super-physical power which has to be at the back of all physical phenomena, and gods are said to be residing in heaven in the sense that the abode of these gods or divinities cannot be in this world. The cause cannot be identical with the effect. As the cause is the pressure behind the occurrence of an effect, it has to be different from the effect. Therefore, the events which are caused by the gods cannot be in heaven, and the gods cannot be on the Earth because of the philosophical requirement that the cause cannot be identified with the effect. Therefore, heaven cannot be in the world. It has to be above the Earth. The kingdom of God is not in this world. It cannot be, because of the fact that the causative factors are certainly capable of differentiation from the effects that they produce.
So the gods whom we worship, whether they are the gods of the Veda Samhitas or the gods of the Greek religions or the gods of any other religion, are not standing with their feet planted on the Earth. We are told many a time that the feet of gods do not touch the ground. They stand above in mid-air. This is a religious picturisation of the cause being super-physical. That is to say, the cause of a physical occurrence or event has to be super-physical, again to repeat, because of the fact that the cause is behind the effect as the determining principle of the nature of the effect, but is itself above the effect.
The gods control the world, but they are not capable of identification with the world. They stand above the Earth. This is the visualisation of the gods of religion in the earlier stages of its development. Perhaps it is a phenomenon that can be observed both in the East as well as in the West. We can study Greek religion, for instance, or even the religious themes that we observed in our studies earlier, precedent to Greek religions, and also the earliest visualisation of gods in the Vedas. They seem to have some kind of similarity.
As I mentioned, in the earliest of stages the gods are posited as independent of one another, and later on it was felt that it is possible that certain gods can form a group. In the language of the Veda, the groups of certain gods are called Visvedevas. A combined congregation of certain divinities is designated as Visvedevas. They are members of a family, as it were, but they act with some sort of an agreement among themselves. For instance, in the Vedas we have the Ashwins, two brothers. Of course, one brother is different from the other brother, but they act together. We have the Maruts, for instance, in the Veda Samhitas – forty-nine gods working together in collaboration – and there are varieties of the Vayus, who are branches or segmented operations of a single wind god, and so on.
Religion begins with the necessity felt by the human mind to accept the existence and operation of something which has to be behind activities taking place in the world. The mind of man is made in such a way that it searches for causes of the effects. Is it necessary that every effect should have a cause? This question the mind will not raise because the structure of the mind is such that it can think only in terms of causes and effects.
Philosophers tell us that the structural pattern of the mind is so conditioned that we can practically pigeonhole the way in which the mind basically operates, though it looks as if it thinks in a hundred ways. We have a thousand thoughts in our mind, yet these thousand thoughts are capable of being cast into certain moulds which are the structural patterns of the functioning of the mind. Firstly, the mind can think only what is outside. Anything that the mind thinks has to be somewhere in space; it cannot be anywhere else. The spatial location of an object of cognition is one of the conditions of mental operation. Simultaneously with the spatial location of anything that the mind can think, there has also to be a temporal association; it has to be at some time. The object of the mind is somewhere, and it is also at some time.
Secondly, an object can be only in one place at a time, and it cannot be at two places at the same time. This is a limitation that the mind sets on its perceptional process.
Thirdly, anything that the mind thinks should have a quantity. The mind cannot think a thing that has no dimension. Even if we are to think of the minutest things, like particles of matter – an assumed atom, for instance – we will picture it only as a kind of little globular dimension. Even if it be a minutest sand particle capable of observation only through a microscope, we can think it only as a little substance with dimension. So the mental object, that is, the object of cognition or perception, must have a dimension. It is three-dimensional in its nature; it has length, breadth, height, and it may have weight.
Fourthly, the object of mental cognition must have a quality. It is heavy, it is light, it is brown in colour, it has a shape, it is round, it is square, it is oblong, it is triangular, it is this or it is that. It has a solid mass of a three-dimensional nature, which is what is meant by quantity, and in addition to that it must have a quality. A thing which has no quality at all cannot become an object of perception or cognition by the mind. A thing that has no dimension, also the mind cannot think.
The other limitation that the mind puts on the object of cognition is that it is conditioned by the existence of other objects. There is some kind of relation of one thing with another. The relation may be a distinction that obtains between one and the other, or it can be a relation of one thing determining another or influencing the other. If two large bodies of matter are placed at a particular distance, they may pull each other with a gravitational power, etc. Some kind of relation obtains between them.
Finally, every object is in one condition, and it cannot be in two conditions at the same time. It can be in different conditions at different times, but at a particular moment it can be in one condition only.
These are, to state briefly, the circumstances under which the mind can think. And even if we contemplate the gods in heaven, we apply these mental concepts to them. These gods must be somewhere. Our religions, even the so-called advanced types of religions, we may say, have a subtle predilection to posit their gods in a quantitative measurement, a qualitative picture, a relation, and a condition. It may be the highest Father in heaven; it may be Brahma, Vishnu, Siva; it may be Suriya, Ahriman, Mitra, Agni; it may be Zeus, Thor or Oden. It does not matter who the god is, but that god is to have the characteristics of these limitations which the mind has set upon them, because the mind can think only in this manner.
Now, the religious consciousness, as I mentioned, commences with the necessity to posit causes behind effects, and this law of cause and effect has caused the mind to posit super-physical powers, which are called the independent causes behind events taking place in the world, and they are the gods. Why do we call them gods? Because they are not limited by the laws of the physical universe. They are deathless. We call them immortal because mortality is a characteristic of matter. Matter, which is physical, of which the universe is composed, is partite. It is composed of little bits of internal components. Therefore, it undergoes transmutation, and transmutation is nothing but the characteristic of dying. And the causes, which are the gods, who are not physically conditioned, whose bodies are not made of matter, cannot die. So we say the gods are immortal, deathless. And another peculiar feature we attribute to the gods is necessitated by the fact that all matter and space and time, and the space and time complex, seem to be the reason why there is mutation of material components, and why things die. Therefore, the gods in heaven are non-spatial and non-temporal. If they are to be immortal, they have to be not in any way conditioned by the spatiotemporal complex.
Somehow or other we struggle against odds, as it were, to picture the gods in heaven as non-spatial and non-temporal. Gods can penetrate through the walls. They have no physical obstruction in front of them. They can travel through space, and they can be in the past, present and future. These are ideas that we are conjuring up in our mind, against our own conviction that things cannot be thought without space and time involvement. So on the one hand, there is an internal struggle in the concept of the presence of gods in heaven being unconditioned by space and time; on the other hand, there is the impossibility of the mind to think anything which is not in space and time.
So to come to the point again, the positing of causes behind effects leading to the concept of gods in heaven led us to believe that the heaven of the gods, the heaven of the immortals, is our actuation. When we die, where do we go? The religious mind accepts the conclusion that it has to go to the causes. When the matter of which the body is composed gets decomposed at the time of death, the soul has to go to the source from where it has come. When the effect is dissolved in the components thereof, it goes to the cause. So there was a fond hope in the earlier stages of religion that the soul, which is the inner essence of the human being, goes to the gods in heaven and enjoys the bliss of immortality there. It goes to Indraloka, the swarga, or heaven, of the immortals.
But there has also been a proviso behind this hope that after the death of the body one can go to the heaven of the gods. The proviso is that material forces need not necessarily be confined to visible particles of matter, but they can be certain pressures which are exerted upon the soul, causing its return to the Earth even after the shedding of the body. So another assumption arose, that even if we happen to go to the gods in heaven on account of certain virtuous or righteous deeds that we performed in this world, we may come back to this world if the material pressures continue – that is to say, if desires persist.
The so-called desire of a person is the pressure of matter upon the soul. The compelling force which necessitates the soul to think of matter again and again is what is called desire. A desire is a pressure exerted upon the soul in terms of material objects, in terms of this material world itself. The soul would like to go to the heaven of the gods, but it also would not like to leave this world completely. Do you see any person in the world who is so fed up with this world that he would not like to live a long life? Even a diseased person would like to cure himself and see that his life in this material world is prolonged as long as possible. Do you believe that the world is worthless? Why should there be medical treatment and lengthening processes of life if the world is a wretched thing and it is only sinful, as some people say? There seems to be something which the soul beholds in this world of matter which it likes. This liking is called desire, and that brings it back to this world. Gatāgataṁ kāmakāmā labhante (B.G. 9.21) is a passage in the Bhagavadgita: Those who desire objects outside in space and time will go to the gods in heaven, of course, due to some meritorious deeds that they perform, but they will come back when the momentum of those righteous deeds is exhausted.
Thus, the advance of religion in the direction that it takes gradually through the process of evolution has certain ups and downs. It is not a linear movement like directly walking on a tarred road, as it were, with closed eyes. It is like the road to Badrinath with its repeated climbings and descents. There are so many hills which we have to ascend, and there are depressions in the valley which we have to get down. The ascent, though it be finally a progress and a march onward, is hampered on the way by ups and downs. Therefore, the positing of the gods in heaven does not preclude the coming back of the soul to this world due to desire.
Religion advances further in its assumption that it is good to be with the gods always. Why should we come back to this world? Though there are tastes which it licks with the tongue of desire, yet saner deliberations conclude that it is not good to be in this world for a long time. Even if we live a very long life with natural medicaments, etc., how long will this long life last? If we have the best of medicines, very good health and a panacea which will prolong our life, to what extent will it be prolonged? Even if we live for ten thousand or one million years, what happens after one million years? The law of the world pursues us even then. That which will kill us after fifty or sixty years can kill us after two million years also, so we have not escaped the clutch of death merely by prolonging life. So saner moments brought to the vision of the mind a conclusion that it is fruitless to imagine that we can be happy in this world by living a long life, because even the longest life is short when it comes to an end. Even the wealthiest man is poor when his money is exhausted. So what is the good of this accumulation of moments of time to lengthen life or accumulate dollars in a bank? How long will you accumulate them? One day they will come to an end.
Hence the question arose as to how we can prevent the soul from coming back to this world by the abolition of desires. How could we abolish desire? Desire has been explained as the pressure of matter upon the soul. It tells us, “I am also here, and I am not nothing.” Who can say that this world is nothing? Is there anyone who can say it is an illusion? It is a solid substance. The solidity or the substantiality of the world of matter is the reason why we are unable to extricate ourselves from the clutches of matter. However much we may love the gods in heaven, we love our little brother, this Earth, also. This body is a little brother ass, and this ass has to be carried with us wherever we go.
Whatever be the intensity of our religious contemplations, the pressure of matter cannot be completely obliterated. Everyone who is in the highest state of religious awareness is also standing on the ground, which is matter. We have never seen a saint flying in the air. He is on the Earth. That is the pull of gravity on matter, together with which the mind also gets pulled. As they say, the Moon pulls the whole ocean, and it also pulls the minds of people. The Moon has a force that exerts influence upon everybody’s thoughts. That is to say, matter exerts a tremendous influence on the thought process.
Therefore, to free ourselves from any kind of material influence upon our mind is a herculean task that is a higher form of religion where the bodily pressures are overcome by the love of God, which defines God in a different way altogether. The so-called multiplicity of gods in heaven or the manifold groups of gods assumed in religion melt down into the concept of a single authority which seems to be the architectural designer of this whole world.
The pluralistic concept, the polytheistic concept, the group concept or the herotheistic concept boils down to a theistic concept. The most advanced form of religion is theism, where one God is posited behind the operations of the whole cosmos. There can be thousands of events taking place in this world, but there is no necessity to posit thousands of causes behind them. One supreme force can perhaps handle millions of operations in this world. We have ten fingers. It does not mean that there are ten bodies behind ten fingers. There is only one body controlling the operation of the ten fingers. In a similar manner, manifold operations in the universe, apparently looking different and contradictory to one another, can be the work of one single architect, a designer, an all-knowing I, an all-powerful controller, or a creator. Gradually the mind rises to the necessity of positing the universal existence, which is the supreme Father in heaven, the God, the Vishnu, the Narayana, the Siva or the Brahma, whatever be the nomenclature of this power.
How is it possible for one being to control a universal manifold activity? It is possible only if we accept the other corollary that the controller of the universe also must be as vast as this universe. The cause has to be as big as the effect. We cannot have a large effect and a small cause. The dimension of the effect will require an equally large dimension as the cause. So big is this universe, its end nobody has seen. Endless seems to be this physical universe, so endless also has to be the controller, the designer, the operator, the creator of this universe. All-pervading has to be this God. The one God of creation has to be everywhere in order that He may be able to operate even the littlest things in the world. Even the movement of a leaf in a particular tree has to be known by Him; otherwise, the leaf cannot move, because the movement of a leaf is an effect that is taking place, and there must be a cause for the leaf to move. Who will cause the leaf to move if the God is somewhere else, unconnected with that leaf? And as these leaves or atoms or particles of matter are spread out everywhere, this God, this theistic Supreme Being, has to be equally present everywhere, all-pervading, and it is all-pervading not in the sense of a segregated operator, but as an imminent force.
Now, the concept of all-pervasion has to be explained clearly. What is meant by saying that something is all-pervading? Suppose we have a bucket full of water. If we soak a cloth in that water and allow it to sink down, we will find that the water pervades every fibre of the cloth. The water in the bucket pervades the whole fibrous structure of the cloth. This is an illustration of how one thing can pervade another thing completely. But the water is not the cloth. There is a total distinction between the cloth and the water. The water has never become the cloth; the cloth has never become the water. Is it in this sense we say that God is all-pervading in the universe? Is He like water pervading the substance of this material universe? In that case, He would be totally different and He would remain transcendent.
Certain religions, especially the Semitic ones, have emphasised this transcendent aspect of God, and their abhorrence to the concept of immanence. They do not want to defile God by making Him immanent in this universe of sin and wretchedness. God would be contaminated by the evils of the world if we believe that God is immanent – that is, He is hiddenly the soul of even the smallest things in the world. God has to be transcendent. Such religions completely reject the concept of immanence and maintain only the transcendent aspect of God. God is the maker of the world, but He is not associated with the world of matter, because if that latter conception also is conceded, there will be harm done to the purity of God’s existence. God is transcendent. As a potter is transcendent to the pot that he makes, or the carpenter is different from the furniture that he manufactures, God as the maker of this universe stands aloof from this world. He operates this world with His hands reaching from the skies. A carpenter can touch wood and shape it to a particular model, though the carpenter is not the wood and the wood is not the carpenter. This is a transcendental concept of religious positing of God even in theism.
But difficulties arise. Religion has not ended here, because it is still struggling against certain odds. Gods who are transcendent may be good friends, but there is some difficulty logically, namely, the relationship between transcendent God and the world of creation. What is the relation between God and His creation? The carpenter has wood, but where is the wood for God? In one of the passages of the Atharvaveda a question like this is raised: Where is the beam, where is the wood, where is the furniture out of which God has manufactured this world? Where is the matter? Was there a matter before God which He could fashion into the substance of this vast universe? Did matter exist before God, even before creation took place?
The Sankhya philosophy of India, and other dualistic doctrines even in the West, faced this difficulty of positing something before God, an Ahriman before Ahura Mazda or a Satan before the Father in heaven, or a prakriti before purusha, or a matter before consciousness, or something separating God from what He creates. These are the difficulties in the advance of religions. Is there something in front of God?
Now, the transcendent concept of God also accepts the all-pervading nature of God, though sometimes the limitations of the mind compel it to press God into a corner of creation. When we say God is in heaven, we do not know what actually we are thinking in our minds. Where is this heaven? And does God occupy the whole of heaven, or is He occupying only a throne like an emperor in some part of the heavenly world? There are angels around Him. If angels are there, if there is Gabriel, if there is Michael, if there are other divinities who are the fingers of God operating independently, as it were, then the all-pervading nature of the transcendent God gets marred.
We cannot think of God. Even if we accept the transcendent nature of God as the Creator of the universe, we cannot think of Him except in terms of some spatial location. This is the reason why the religious quest for Truth adventures further and further into the logical limits of it being necessary for God to be all things in future, and not putting Himself into the predicament of having something opposing Him, in front of Him.
God created the heaven and the Earth out of what material? Can we say God created the world out of nothing? What do we actually mean by saying that God created the world out of nothing? What do we mean by ‘nothing’? If nothing is the cause out of which the universe has come, the effect which is the universe also would be a nothing, a zero. Is this world a nothing?
But the senses conclude that the world is not nothing. The solidity and dimension are associated with the world of perception. Is nothing also characterised by solidity and dimension? There is a contradiction in the definition of the term ‘nothing’. We cannot say that God created the world out of nothing, nor can we say that He created it out of something, because there is no ‘something’ before Him. That something which we posit would be the opposite of God, and the opposite of God would limit God’s all-pervading nature.
So in India especially, the schools of thought which struggled with these concepts are the Nyaya, the Vaisheshika, and the Sankhya. The multiplicity of effects which are seen in this world were considered as being operated by a transcendent extra-cosmic God by the Nyaya and the Vaisheshika philosophies. And the Sankhya went further in concluding that it is not essential to posit a multiplicity or a variety of effects because the so-called multiplicity of effects can be boiled down to some basic substance called prakriti constituted of three strands of actions, or gunas as they are called: sattva, rajas and tamas.
Though Sankhya is a great advance that has been made over the Nyaya and the Vaisheshika extra-cosmic concept of God and the multiplicity or the variety of the world of perception, it is not really a solution to the problem. The problem that was raised by the Nyaya and the Vaisheshika extra-cosmic concept of Godhood was not obviated by the Sankhya. It only landed us in another problem, namely, the opposition between consciousness and matter, purusha and prakriti.
Today we conclude with this. We shall pursue it afterwards.