Swami Tapasyananda discusses the conceptual difference between Vedantic diety and the monothesitic deity of Abrahamic faiths.
…Worship of a God who is not also the Absolute is idolatry, and a mere Absolute, who is characterless and is irresponsive, is not better than matter. The Vedanta accepts the Supreme as both Personal and Impersonal. When the votary in the course of his spiritual development becomes de-personalized on achieving the elimination of his ego-based body-mind, he will be able to understand the true Impersonal. Till then, that is, so long as he is a person, the Impersonal and the Absolute can only mean for him a Personal Being who is much more than what he, a person, has grasped or can grasp of Him. To illustrate, the Impersonal-Personal Divine of the Vedanta is the ocean and the God of adoration of the devotee is like a big field or backwater into which the water of that ocean has flowed. The many deities that form the object of worship of Vedantism are like these tanks and backwaters in the analogy. They are so many manifestations of the Personal-Impersonal Sat-chit-ananda in the thought structures of those who adore Him, or are forms adopted by Him for the achievement of cosmic purposes in his world-play. The worship of these forms with an understanding of the infinitude that informs their finitude …… is the only form of true worship that the human mind is capable of, so long as man remains a limited person. The other ideas of the Divine which Semitic religions hold – their so called boasted monotheism – is only a form of disguised idolatry; for when it is said that Jehovah is a jealous God, or that there is no God but Allah, it is obvious that the Supreme Being is being identified as an exclusive individual and not as an expression of an Infinite Being in terms of the human mind. When the link with the Infinite is forgotten, a Deity, whether it is a monotheistic entity or a polytheistic being becomes a mere idol. Real worship of the Supreme Being is possible only when the principle of Vedantic theism is understood – that principle being the perception of the Infinite Personal-Impersonal Being through a limited manifestation of Him.
A Vedantic Deity is never aggressive, demanding the overthrow of other deities. But, a monotheistic Deity, always a jealous God, cannot tolerate another Deity. As Toynbee has pointed out, the monotheistic Deity of the Semitics is only an apotheosis of the group or tribal consciousness of certain people, a sentiment that held together societies before nationalism took its place. Just as the nationalistic patriotism is eager to absorb all other countries,that form of group consciousness masquerading as monotheism wants to supplant all other religions and establish its Deity in their sanctuaries. Proselytism, for which many religions stand but which has no place in the Vedantic scheme, is the consequence of the Infinite Being but a personalisation of the group consciousness of a people.
The principle enunciated above in regard to Deities is applicable also to worship of God in holy images, which critics, who are practicing real idolatry, have stigmatised as idolatry. The Vedantin’s God is not an individual as the Semite’s. He is the Universal Spirit who has manifested as All-Nature. He is one with all, and if a person with faith wants to see Him anywhere, He is present there. Like water running all through the ground, He is everywhere; and if the well of faith is dug, He becomes available for worship. A holy image is thus a point at which His real presence is available for imperfect man to apprehend and commune with. It is not a mere means for practising concentration as some apologists say. It is much more. It is a point of real communion with the Divine when the eye of faith reveals Him as accepting the worship and offering made by the devotee. It is in this spirit that all great sages and saviours of India, down to Bhagavan Sri Ramakrishna, have seen and adored the Holy Images. Its practice is one of the most excellent and necessary aids for the vast majority of men to gradually rise in the spiritual scale. The Divine presence is made concrete, and prayers and adoration made meaningful to those men who cannot dive into the depths of consciousness by meditation and introspection and commune with the subtle Spirit as the Inner Pervader within. It is therefore a necessary step in practising religion as an experience instead of reducing it to an expression of conformity with a dogmatic creed or adherence to some formal code of conduct and rituals.
[Adapted from Swami Tapasyananda’s introductory remarks in ‘A Primer of Hinduism’ by D.S.Sarma]
Why is it that concepts of God differ?
The answer can be found in Swami Tapasyananda’s insightful explanation of Gita 4.11 which says
O Partha! Whosoever worships Me through whatsoever path, I verily accept and bless them in that way. Men everywhere follow My path.
Swami Tapasyananda in his Commentary on the Gita says the following on this verse:
‘This verse is the fundamental tenet of the universal religion. Wherever
worship is done, only the one Supreme Being is worshipped. No one, except the perfected sage, can worship Him in His fullness, since the human mind can grasp only limited aspects of Him. The more an individual or a community is evolved, the more noble and comprehensive will be their conception of the Deity. But the less evolved man too is adoring the same Deity, grasping such aspects of His as his undeveloped mind would allow. It is just like various forms being chipped from a huge block of marble. The more skilled the workman, the more artistic will be the forms chipped out of the block. Even if it is crude, it is of the same block. Such are the various conceptions of the Deity; none can claim that his conception embraces the whole of Him, because He cannot be contained within the limitation of a mind, as a bottle cannot contain the whole of the sea. He reveals only what one is fit to receive. So according to the stages of human evolution, there will be different conceptions of the Deity, and the followers of one, even if they think theirs is more refined, need not look down upon others as heathens or Kaffirs worshipping false Deities, and consider themselves alone as the followers of the true Deity. For whatever the path, God approaches man through that path, and if the faith of the votary is genuine, he will be led to higher and higher forms of worship. So the followers of every religion must have respect for, and have acceptance of, the faith and form of worship of other religions in spite of the differences that are sure to prevail in their ideologies and practices. For it is the same God that is worshipped by them all. Just as all rivers, in spite of their divergent courses, lead to the same ocean, so do all faiths lead to Him, i.e., take one to the same God who inspires them all. This Gita teaching has been proclaimed to the modern world by Sri Ramakrishna in his saying: “As many faiths, so many paths”.’
Srimad Bhagavad Gita translated by Swami Tapasyananda
More posts by this author:
- Gita on sameness of god
- Do Mantras work?
- Does God care about us?—A Hindu view
- How does the prana-prathistha ritual convert a lifeless idol into a living murthi?
- Shiva lingam and its meaning
I did my school, college and parts of my University education in Kolkata. I got my M.Sc degree from Kolkata University. I went to USA in 1979 and got my M.S and Ph.D in Physics from University of Pittsburgh in 1984. I did my Post Doctorate in University of Southern California, Los Angeles and then worked as a Research Scientist in the Department of Physics, Astronomy and Space Sciences Center of University of Southern California. My scientific work includes heavy ion-atom scattering, multiphoton ionization and heliosphere data analysis of Pioneer 10/111 and Voyager 1/2 deep space spacecaft and analysis of solar extreme ultraviolet data obtained from SOHO spacecraft. I have been a National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration (NASA) Principal Investigator from 2002 – 2007. I have been a member of a NASA awards committee to decide allocation of money to different scientists. I have also refereed scientific articles submitted to Journal of Geophysical Research and Astrophysical Journal.