Thousands of years ago, when self-consciousness blossomed in man and he began to look at the world around him with curiosity, what did he see? Volcanic flames leaping into the sky: molten lava racing down, reducing to ashes everything in its way: blinding lightning: forests devoured by huge fires: turbulent oceans, and fierce waves dashing against the shores : and the roar of the thunders and crash of the thunder-storms! "How am I going to survive in this terrifying world?", he must have shuddered.
But man, who saw such a fierce face of nature and its deadly effects, saw also its other face: the glory of the colourful sunrise and sunset: the enchantment of the rainbow: the festive splendour of forest and field drenched in rains (which arrived in the company of thunders and storms): the fragrance and the softness of the flower that swayed to the breeze: the stars twinkling in the night sky and the mysterious blue depths in the space between them: the grace of the star-lit night sky: the immense expanse of the sea, its majesty .....
Nature, so cruel before, had now turned pleasant. Innocent that he was then, man marvelled at this and was delighted. It was, for him, an inexpressible experience. He could not describe it nor analyse it. The world, both awesome and beautiful, grim and pleased, remained a riddle to him. Who could be its architect? Was it magic? Or miracle? There must be something magnificent behind it all. Was it (or he) a friend or a foe? It must be fickle minded. The breeze, gentle and caressing now, may, the next moment, become a hurricane. The ground right under his feet might crack up! In recent days, philosophers have spoken of a 'power' behind the phenomena of Nature; primitive man was probably incapable of such reasoning. His mind could only conceive of a strong person or object; not an abstract power. All the activities of a person or an object so imagined were the work of magic! This, probably, was how the concept of God took shape. Fear, wonder and the instinct to seek protection- all these can be seen behind this concept. The concept of God is something that continuously crosses our mind. The reasons could be: the fear that if we antagonise Him. He will bring us to harm, or the expectation that He will save us from the tribulations of this dangerous world or the feeling that God is the symbol of the highest of human values. This is the concept that has been with us over thousands of years and this is with us even today. Which explains why even nonbelievers routinely use such expressions as ‘My God!’ or ‘For God's sake!’ without a thought for what they mean. It is indeed no wonder that one feels that this God, so well entrenched in the minds of people all over the world must, in fact, exist.
But can we trust this feeling? It would be better, before deciding on this, to be clear about what 'God' means and what His nature is. It is hot easy to define God, though. Even philosophers are not agreed on this question. So, let us not try to define God right now. What we could do now is this: we will learn, to the extent possible, what men of different ages and climes have regarded as God, and the nature of such Gods. Then, based on this understanding, we can try to generalize on the nature of God. This is the Inductive Method- the method of deriving general principles from a known set of facts.
The question 'What is God?' is prompted by the faculty of reasoning. Even to answer this question, one needs that same faculty. But this, probably, was not what the early man asked. His question must have been : 'Who is God?'· One thing was clear to him : that God was powerful not just physically, but also in some magical, mysterious way. To be able to deal with Him, one had to be similarly powerful and possess magical powers, too. Not everyone was capable of that: only some clever ones were. This is how witch-doctors and sorcerers came on to the scene. And they only strengthened this belief - for, after all, they had their own prestige to protect. Traces of this magic remain in some of our religious rites to this day.
Beliefs about God
Who is the omnipotent God? Man has found many answers to this question. In many places, there was the practice of worshipping the ancestors and heroes of bygone ages. And, to this day, the belief persists, that they exist somewhere after shedding their bodies here, that they still retain their interest in our welfare and that they ought to be revered. Consider the ceremonies we perform for our ancestors. In those rituals, there is, apart from the desire that they may attain an auspicious state and be provided with food and drink, also an element of worship. The priest, in the course of the rituals, refers to them as 'Lord Krishna' or 'Lord Rama'.
Stones and trees may be Gods. In Maramma temples there is, usually, only a stone, not even a stone image. Goddess Maramma is believed to lend it divinity by inhering there. The most common instance of plant worship is the Tulasi Puja, widely practised even now. Tulasi receives worship and is also used to offer worship. The banyan tree is also God for us the divine ‘Ashwatha Narayan’. One who goes around this tree a hundred and eight times will be blessed with a child. There are those who believe, even today, that they acquire merit' (puny a') by growing a neem tree by the side of a banyan tree and uniting the two in wedlock according to religious rites
If trees could be Gods, why not animals? Some tribes in
Africa, it seems,
believed that crocodiles are God and offered sacrifices to crocodiles. We are
quite familiar with the worship of cobras. Millions still believe that ‘Naga Prathishte’ (a form of cobra
worship) would bless them with a child. Indeed, I know of even mighty
scholars, not just illiterate people, resorting to this kind of cobra-worship. And,
I have myself enjoyed sumptuous meals on those occasions! Even those who do
not perform 'Naga Prathiste' do worship snakes during the 'Naga Panchami' festival with milk. It is a sin to kill a cobra! It
is believed that one who kills it will be afflicted with skin diseases and the
whole family will be haunted.
Then there are the instances of animals and birds attaining Godhood through association with a first-class God. Garuda, being Vishun's vehicle, has become God and has also earned the title of ‘the Protector’. But Hanuman, Rama's associate, has scored over Garuda. I do not know of any temple dedicated to Garuda. But there is not a town in this country without a Hanuman temple, usually right at the entrance of the town. Devotees of Hanuman, it is said, will attain many 'siddhis'- supernatural powers. There are thousands of people who visit a Hanuman temple regularly at least once a day. The belief is that in the cOr(ling 'kalpa', or a long long era, Hanuman will, on promotion, become Brahma Himself.
One step above this level (or 'below this level', shall we say?) we encounter deities like Mari and Beera who are supposed to resemble humans in form and Ghost Dieties like Panjurli and Bobbarya. These are usually not referred to as Gods. It is not Maris or Bobbaryas that come to our minds first at the mention of God. Yet, the fact is that we have attributed superhuman powers to them and that we worship them.
Some ‘Ammas’[i] have won the reverence of people in their towns and have risen to Godhead. For instance: the 'Gudiamma' of the Vadda tribe in my town. She is an incarnation of Godess Lakshmi and is not to be classed with the rest of 'Ammas'.
On these deities, we have bestowed a more or less human form and the faculty of speech. These Gods can 'possess' someone and through the 'possessed one' communicate to us their desires and instructions. This 'power' places these deities one step above the plant-deities. Yet, these are petty deities who cause pain, suffering, epidemics and even death. Only after extorting the 'offerings' do they grudgingly halt the epidemics- or, at least so we hope. Tulasi or Ashwatha tree or Garuda or Anjaneya never causes such disasters; their actions are always benign. But the 'Ammas' or the Ghost Deities unleash on us terrible diseases for petty reasons or sometimes for no reason at all. They may even demand the sacrifice of a hen or a sheep or a daily plate of curds rice. I am not aware of these dieties ever volunteering to do anything good for the people. This is how their style may be described: cause harm first, then blackmail and extort in order to halt (?) the harm.
The Forces of Nature
Our Indra, Agni, Vayu and so on are only forces of Nature whom we have endowed with names and forms. Bestowing divinity on these forces is an ancient practice. Zeus of ancient
was one such force of Nature. Like our Indra, he, too, once occupied a position
of supremacy. Just as our Indra wielded the Vajrayudha, lightning was Zeus's weapon. Helios was the Sun God,
Artemis the Moon Goddess. Aeolus was the God of the Winds, Poseidon the Sea God.
The reign of these Greek deities[ii]
is over. Unable to bear the onslaught of Christianity, they are now hiding in
the museum of literature.
While our Indra and other deities have managed to retain their divine status they do not belong to the highest orders. Their decline began in the Upanishadic Age itself. A verse in the Kathopanishad[iii] says, "In the presence of the Supreme, electricity itself has no brightness; what, then, is Agni?" In the story narrated at the end of the Kenopanishad, Agni, unable even to burn a blade of grass (without the grace of the Supreme), stands humbled. Vayu is similarly humiliated.
Similarly, Indra also has stepped down from his exalted position. Only when some one performs 'tapas' and obtains a boon which harms the interests of gods and men (and the gods are foolish enough to grant such boons) Indra collects the gods and rushes to Shiva or Vishnu desperately pleading for succour - to such a level has the might of Indra sunk!
Even today occasionally yagnas are performed to offer sacrifices to Indra and the other gods. But there are no temples solely dedicated to them, and they recieve no worship; only Surya, Agni and Vayu are exceptions. Surya has contested from two constituencies- and won from both. The scientist may not accept him as a true planet, but he is a planet to the common man and to the astrologer. Besides he has merged with Narayana to become Suryanarayana.
Madhwa philosophy has accorded Vayu an exalted position. Any auspicious function in a Madhwa household is 'motivated by Hari and Vayu'. All Hindu sects revere Agni and 'homa' is a very important ritual; naturally, Agni is important.
All this is true but yet the plight of the nature deities evokes pity.
[i] The word ‘Amma’ is applied to all female deities of the Mari-Masani category; the deity who spreads chickenpox is the ‘Young Amma’; the deity who causes smallpox is the ‘Elder Amma’. Plague and cholera have presiding deities; with them are deities like 'Patalamma', 'Ranabheramma' and 'Kalluramma'.
[ii] These gods were worshipped by the Romans, too, under different names.
[iii] "Nemaa vidyutho bhanti kutoyamagnihi"- this verse is found in one or two other Upanishads, too.