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Who or What Is God?
Reinhardt: I have difficulties relating to the word “God.” I can intellectually grasp the logic of existence and karma and dharma, but I somehow deeply hold the belief that God is someone steering, ruling and judging, some kind of absolute unreachable being.
Sundari: The statement about God you make above is based on a dualistic understanding of reality. The whole problem originates when you identify with the body-mind and believe you are an incomplete and limited person, which makes it look like the world is “out there,” that you are dependent on it, and that whatever is in charge of it is controlling you.
Whether we are aware of it or not, there is only one principle and that is consciousness, you. The whole purpose of self-inquiry is to investigate the true nature of reality, based on your own experience, using a valid and objective means of knowledge, taught by a qualified teacher. The God topic is a very important teaching, and for self-inquiry to work for us, we must understand all three definitions of God.
The First Definition of God
God is the creator of the universe, referred to in Sanskrit most commonly as Isvara. Once we have identified Isvara as the creator of the universe, we may first imagine it as a “Him” in a very anthropomorphic manner. We ascribe human traits to this universal Creator because the only intelligent being known to us is the human being. This conception of a personal deity, omniscient and omnipresent, cannot be seen, so we place “Him” above us, somewhere in the clouds. In Sanskrit, this personal Creator is personified in many forms, such as Shiva, Krishna, Vishnu, Brahma, Bhagavan, but the name we use most is Isvara, the Creator, although any name will do, as in Allah, Mohammed, Jehovah or God. In a more secular fashion, Isvara is also called the Field of Existence, the psychological order of reality (the gunas – sattva, rajas and tamas), or the Creative Force.
God and consciousness are one but they appear to be different. They are one in the sense that God can’t create unless it is conscious. We know that God is conscious because the creation is intelligently designed; everything animate and inanimate follows its nature. It is a complex and perfectly functioning web of physical, psychological and moral laws that can only have been created by a conscious force. Something cannot come out of nothing. The universe in which we live is conscious, purposeful, intricate and impeccably designed. It is so conscious and perfect that it factors in free will, probability and chaos, without losing the plot, i.e. surrendering its nature as ever-free, non-dual awareness.
Religion, the dualistic belief in a God that is “beyond” whom I must supplicate to get what I want or avoid what I don’t, who looks out for and is much greater than the little me (person), does have its place. It is a source of comfort to many people who are not ready for self-inquiry. As much as religion limits people with dogmatic beliefs and rigid rules on how to live, on the whole it promotes healthy values, helping people make good choices and live dharmic lives. It does not, however, offer a valid and independent means of knowledge with which to deconstruct and understand the true nature of reality. It cannot therefore negate the doer – the one who believes it is incomplete, small and limited. In fact religion’s existence depends on your idea of who you are remaining small and not questioning its precepts.
Where Vedanta differs vastly from religion is that it tells you upfront that you are whole and complete as you are, you do not need anyone to save you, because happiness and bliss is your nature, here and now. Nobody has the power to give this to you or take it away. Vedanta also tells you that there is nothing you can do to gain enlightenment, because you are and always have been the unlimited, unchanging, ever-present self – the source of all light. You cannot gain what you already have. If you do not know this, there is nothing wrong with you; you just have a knowledge problem, meaning there is something you do not know, the knowing of which makes all the difference. No action taken by a limited entity can produce a limitless result, which is what moksa is. And although self-inquiry is an action, its result is self-knowledge, which is limitless in that is self-knowledge alone that is capable of producing moksa.
Vedanta is not for or against any particular religion or path. It sees all paths as one, as it is the pathless path that underpins all paths – because everything arises out of consciousness. However, the difference between Vedanta’s take on “God” and religion’s take on God is vast. Vedanta does not promote or teach beliefs, which are purely subjective. It uses irrefutable and non-negatable logic to unfold its teachings. So we don’t “believe” in God. We don’t have to. We understand what God is.
The Second Definition of God
Although God is awareness, awareness is not God. God is a creative power that resides in awareness, and as such exists independently of the creation. The relationship between God and awareness is similar to the relationship between an artist and his or her power to create art. In terms of the total (the creation) the power to create is not conscious. It is an abstract set of instructions, like the default settings of a computer, that require another source of power to activate. The source of Isvara/God’s power is ever-present, unborn, eternal awareness, and in its presence this power is activated and appears as the creation.
When our understanding matures, the scriptures present a higher understanding of Isvara. First of all, we are told that Isvara is the creative intelligence out of which the universe was born, and now we are asked to consider the raw material out of which the universe is shaped. Any creator can only create something with raw materials. A carpenter requires wood as raw material, a potter requires clay, while a builder requires bricks and mortar, among other things. But the real substance of the creation, consciousness, cannot be seen. It can only be inferred.
Before the creation of the universe, nothing else existed. Scientists say that prior to the Big Bang, we cannot even conceive of time, space and matter. But there had to be something there from which the Big Bang banged. We know that prior to the creation of time and space, Isvara/God/consciousness alone existed. So if I understand God to be the builder of the universe, out of what material is the creation built? According to Vedanta, God (consciousness) itself is the material out of which the creation is shaped. The example is given of a spider creating its web out of material from its own body. The spider does not take material from elsewhere; it creates out of itself. Similarly, God is both the intelligence that shapes the creation and the substance out of which it is fashioned.
Since the whole universe is created out of God, this means that the whole universe is God alone, that God is in every form and aspect of creation. There can be no division, just as no part of the ocean can be separated from its essence, water. At this higher level of understanding, Isvara is no longer a personal God, but a universal God. There is no place I need go to seek God, because It is already everywhere, in everything.
The “blending” of awareness and its power to create is very subtle because when God, the Creator (maya), enters the equation duality appears. Creation cannot take place without duality. So the duality belongs to the Creator, not to awareness. Duality is brought about by another aspect of awareness’s creative power – ignorance. It has the power to (apparently) hide itself from itself. This power appears in individuals as the belief that “I don’t know that I am whole and complete, actionless, ordinary awareness,” resulting in the concomitant beliefs that “what I see is separate from me – and I need something to make me whole and complete.” It is these beliefs that cause the idea of good and evil. So the good and the evil belong to maya/ignorance/duality, and not to awareness. Suffering is caused by awareness under the apparent spell of ignorance identifying with what it sees, knows and experiences. So if you want to be free of suffering you need to understand the subtle distinction between awareness and God, the creative power in you, as well as what is the same and what is the difference between the jiva and God. It is the key to moksa. (You can find the full teaching on Isvara/jiva in James’ book Inquiry into Existence or even in the Bhagavad Gita.)
The Third Definition of God
Once the second definition of God is understood, it takes us to the next stage of understanding. As already stated, there are basically only two orders of reality: (1) the subject, or that which is real (always present and unchanging) – awareness, and (2) the object (that which is only apparently real, not always present and always changing) – the individual, who is not conscious. The third “order” of reality is not really an order, as it is the (apparent) “buffer” between the two orders: Isvara – awareness in the role of Creator associated with maya.
Many people struggle to reconcile the notion that God is everything. It is easy to see divinity in the beautiful things in life, such as in nature, forests, waterfalls, the rising sun and the twinkling stars at night. But what of the ugly things in life, such as diseases, poverty, crime and violence? Are these also God? If we say yes, then how can we accept evil as being God? When this question arises, the third and highest definition of God must be taught. God appears as the world, but it does not become the world. Isvara is not affected by any form in which It appears.
Isvara, pure sattva operating maya, is not contaminated or influenced by rajas and tamas. As pure sattva, Isvara is the cause of maya, not its effects. This is the confusing part because Isvara also appears as the jiva, or subtle body (all objects), and as such is also the effects of maya. But as we said, Isvara is the uncaused cause of creation; it is both the intelligence behind the substance and the substance itself. However, although the creation arises from it (because Isvara is really pure consciousness associated with maya), Isvara cannot become the creation. Therefore the effects (matter) are just an apparent transformation of the cause, awareness. It is not an actual transformation, because if it were consciousness would have lost its limitless nature when it transformed into matter. It would have become limited, bound by time and space – and there would be no sentient objects and no movement possible in the creation.
When milk becomes cheese we cannot get the milk back. It has been transformed and changed its form, it is no longer milk – but the essence of cheese is still milk. Cheese is never free of milk, although milk (before it is transformed into cheese) is free of the cheese. However, the creation, although it comes from Isvara, in essence is Isvara and depends on Isvara to exist, Isvara, awareness, is unchanged by the creation. Isvara/awareness exists prior to, during and after the appearance of creation, and is always free of the creation. To put it another way, God/Isvara is the substratum of all forms, but transcends the entire creation. Since Isvara transcends all the forms of creation, no particular form belongs to Isvara. Isvara is a name for all forms. Freedom, or moksa, is the ability to discriminate you, awareness, from the effects, the objects (names and forms) that arise in you, awareness.
The effects of maya are called mithya, i.e. only apparently real. Isvara is not really the effect of ignorance; it only appears as the apparent effects in a different form. Isvara associated with maya is conscious (although it is not a jiva, or person) and is not modified by ignorance/maya (the gunas). Isvara is conscious because with the appearance of maya there is something for awareness to be to be conscious of, i.e. objects. Isvara in the role of Creator “merges” back into pure awareness at the end of the creation cycle. Like maya, Isvara is always present in awareness but it is either manifest or unmanifest with reference to awareness. Therefore Isvara in the role of Creator associated with maya is not real either, although in terms of the apparent person Isvara is “relatively” real and eternal. In other words, Isvara associated with maya is eternal or permanent with reference to the jiva and the objects it experiences, but impermanent with reference to awareness. To say that Isvara associated with maya is eternal with reference to the jiva does not mean that Isvara is limitless with reference to awareness. Only awareness is limitless, although Isvara is omniscient.
Both Isvara and jiva appear to be conscious because consciousness is the common denominator. This is why Vedanta says they are “essentially” the same, except in their capacity to create. We can eliminate them as real because their capacities are different. Isvara is not a person with likes and dislikes, and creates the entire objective universe, unlike the jiva, who is conditioned by its likes and dislikes and creates only its subjective world. We can eliminate both Isvara and jiva because both depend on awareness to exist. However, the omniscience of Isvara is not the same as awareness, which is all-knowing – but knows only itself because it “sees” only itself. The self is self-knowing and does not require objects to know itself. It is not an object of knowledge, because it is that which makes knowledge possible. Isvara is omniscient, or all-knowing, is all-powerful and has all desires with reference to all objects (names and forms) it creates. It is the “big doer.” Jiva is the “little doer” and can never be omniscient, because it only has its own desires and only knows the objects it has contact with. It can know the essence of everything because its essence is awareness, but it cannot have knowledge of all names and forms.
And we can eliminate Isvara and jiva because neither Isvara’s creation nor jiva’s subjective creation hides consciousness. Consciousness is always present prior to the creation and to the birth of individuals. You can’t have a macrocosmic creation without consciousness. That “something” we call Paramatma, pure consciousness, is free of both Isvara and jiva. Isvara and jiva are merely ideas appearing in you, pure consciousness. You never experience a jiva or an Isvara apart from the thought of them. They are objects known to you, so they cannot be you. So if it is true that Isvara and jiva are essentially the same, then we can eliminate both jiva and Isvara as real and take ourselves to be consciousness.
Therefore, as consciousness, we are beyond the jiva and Isvara/God. Consciousness (me) is never affected by Isvara’s creation or by jiva’s creation. It is the knower of both creations. But, as the jiva, enlightened or not, we live in the apparent reality, so to have peace of mind, we must follow dharma. Self-knowledge removes and ends personal ignorance, but macrocosmic ignorance is beginningless and eternal because awareness is eternal.
Unlike religion, which threatens the believer with eternal damnation if you offend God, Vedanta says it is impossible to offend God/Isvara. God is not a big person hanging out somewhere “above” us, recording our actions and meting out reward or punishment. Although Isvara seems to be a person, it is not. It is simply the impersonal forces that make up the field of existence – in other words, that which creates the field in which the jiva can work out its karma, which is why Vedanta also calls Isvara “karma phala datta” – the giver or deliverer of karma. However, Isvara as the Field of Existence is a lawful universe. If we contravene dharma or break universal laws, the jiva, or person, will suffer the consequences. Because the jiva never leaves the apparent reality, Vedanta encourages devotion to Isvara – or God – enlightened or not, which is why dharma is such a big topic in Vedanta. It is a complex topic because personal dharma is different for everyone. There are three basic dharmas, universal, situational and personal, explained in detail in James’ books and in many satsangs at the website.
To summarize the three stages of understanding the nature of God: in the first stage God creates the world, in the second stage God is the world and in the third and highest understanding we see that God appears as the world in its many forms, but does not become them. Just like the spider’s web comes from the spider, is made of the spider, depends on the spider, but is not the spider.
Why Do We Need Devotion?
We need to understand these definitions gradually and systematically until we can see the full vision, the whole Mandala of Existence. The way in which I define God will determine my bhakti, devotion. In the first level of understanding, my devotion will be to a personified deity: a personal God. In the second level of understanding, I will worship the Lord in everything, including nature. In the final stage of understanding, I see God as the formless essence of all, both manifest and unmanifest. The final stage does not negate the previous two; it simply completes the full picture. When we appreciate Isvara as both form and formless, we can happily worship the Lord/God/Isvara as a personified deity, as the totality of nature and as the formless essence of all things. Just as quantum physics does not displace Newtonian physics, both understandings are valid at their respective levels.
The three definitions of God can be broken down further to four stages of devotion. The first three stages are called dvaita bhakti; all three involve free will and the jiva, the person, which is why these stages are called dualistic worship. The purpose of these stages of worship, or bhakti, is that these practices reduce subjectivity and neutralize vasanas – likes and dislikes as well negate the doer. It takes care of the childish ego. The last and fourth stage of devotion, non-dual bhakti, takes place once the doer is negated, and is based on knowledge.
Four Stages of Bhakti
Bhakti, devotion, from the Sanskrit word “bhaj,” means “worship.” It is more than a prayer, a supplication. Its desire is to serve and worship according to the qualities that condition the instrument of love: the mind and heart. If the heart/mind is dull (tamasic) superstition and fear inform one’s worship; for example, fear-based religious worship. If the heart/mind is passionate (rajasic), desire informs one’s worship. The devotee wants something. If the heart/mind is pure (sattvic), the bhakta loves for the sake of the object and for the sake of love itself. But even a pure mind sees the beloved as an object – as “other than.”
There is a doer, a lover. This doer/lover loves something or someone other than his or her self, even though in all cases it is for the sake of the self that one loves. A mature devotee knows that he or she is the self and worships all it sees as the self. But a tamasic or rajasic devotee is unaware of this fact, because they feel incomplete and love an object to feel complete (God or some other symbol of divinity) because it makes him or her feel more secure, more complete, more “happy.” But there is always a sense of separation from the object.
The advantage that a sattvic devotee enjoys over a tamasic/rajasic devotee is that the object of worship (God, in whatever way it is conceived) is always available, whereas if you see God as a person or a thing, it is not always available. The object of fear/desire-based love is not always available to reciprocate, but the lover of God as awareness is never far from the beloved, because God is consciousness and consciousness is – responsive. No matter how the self is invoked, it responds lovingly because consciousness is love. It does not matter whether consciousness is seen as a religious God or as another kind of symbol: an idol, a person, nature, a practice or ritual, or as life itself. Consciousness does not discriminate, because it sees everything as itself. There is a beautiful saying in the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna speaking to Arjuna says: “In whatever way you worship me (i.e. the self, or consciousness) I will respond to make your faith strong.”
Dvaita (dualistic) or stage 1 to stage 3 bhakti (devotion), are stages that all inquirers go through in their inquiry. Stage 1 is not essential, but it is a stepping stone to next stage of bhakti, explained in greater detail in The Yoga of Love.
Stage 1 is informal or undisciplined worship; it is totally subjective and emotional, “heart-based.” It is where all religions originate, where most samsaris worship a personal deity or God, seeing it as a HE usually, a Big Daddy who takes care of them and listens to their problems. It is worshipping God as a person. It is childlike or childish devotion. It’s about supplicating God in order to get results. This is where all religious fanaticism and dogmatism originate; it leads to sectarianism and fundamentalism. It makes people feel self-righteous, that they have “God on their side” and can act out whatever they believe “in His name,” that they are better than others and their way is the only way. It gives rise to all religious wars. It also makes ordinary people feel safe, providing guidelines that help sort out relationship and life issues. This is for people who are totally identified with being people and the world of objects.
Religion on the whole is based on an interpretation of truth by “the Church,” which is made up of people who believe God revealed truth to them personally, not through self-inquiry into reality by an independent, irrefutable and logical means of knowledge. Religion is based on an apparently infallible belief in a superior extra-cosmic deity to whom allegiance must be given to avoid punishment and gain salvation. Its basic contention is that we are flawed at birth and can only be redeemed by divine intervention. If we are saved, we will experience eternal bliss in the life hereafter; if not, eternal damnation is unavoidable. Unlike Vedanta, religion does not encourage the individual to question and think for himself or herself. It requires believers to mindlessly submit to unprovable doctrines.
Stage 2 of devotional practice, or bhakti, is also dualistic, emotional and intellectual. Here you start to practise karma yoga – surrendering the results of actions to Isvara (or God) with an attitude of consecration and gratitude because you have realised that the results of actions are not up to you. This is to help neutralize the idea of doership. Both stages 1 and 2 roughly corresponds to Chapters I to VI of the Bhagavad Gita.
Stage 3 is still dualistic, but much less so. It is what Vedanta calls upasana (meditation) and is also compulsory for moksa. It corresponds to Chapters VII to XII of the Bhagavad Gita. This is where worship of Isvara/God is objective: purely impersonal or intellectual. Knowledge of Isvara and the creation start to crystallize. There is still duality and you see Isvara in special forms (like icons or beauty), but gradually as knowledge becomes firm this progresses into seeing and worshipping Isvara in all forms, the good and the bad.
Stage 4, advaita, or non-dual bhakti, jnanum, corresponds to Chapter XIII to XVIII of the Bhagavad Gita. This is the final stage of bhakti; it is advaita – non-dual jnanum, or self-knowledge. It is non-personal, beyond subjectivity and objectivity, i.e. moksa. This is non-dual vision where you see everything as the self first, and second as the jiva, never confusing the two again. You still live as the jiva, and so follow dharma, your own and universal dharma, which requires following the rules of the field of existence, or Isvara, automatically. And you continue with dvaita bhakti except it is no longer dualistic in that you know that everything is you, awareness – i.e. you have permanently discriminated between satya (what is real, i.e. always present and unchanging) and mithya (what is apparently real, i.e. what is not always present and always changing).
I recommend you watch this video clip of James teaching this subject: link.
~ Much love, Sundari