Friday, 26 April 2013

Excellences and Values

A.N. Moorthy Rao 

From the stage when man regarded nature forces and animals like the crocodile, the snake and the monkey as God, we rose to the stage of the ‘Trimurti’ concept and have presently reached the vision of a single God. We may rightly say that our cogitation has indeed progressed. It is true that in popular legends, many human vices have been attributed to God. But, as civilization advanced, the tendency to attribute to God the virtues of man along with his vices, a tendency which had been present always became pronounced. This tendency is evident in the concept of the Trimurthis. We have seen earlier that Vishnu symbolizes a full life while Shiva stands for restraint and renunciation. We may, therefore, reasonably expect our ‘one God’ to be a harmonious blend of these two qualities. It would suffice to refer to Him as just ‘God’, no other nomenclature is necessary. Once the labels of Vishnu and Shiva are done away with, the stories they recall can also be forgotten. Everyone - the Dwaitis, Advaitis and Vishishtadwaitis and others - could accept without squabbling, the position that God is only one.

This synthesizing process had in fact been at work in the minds of our people. The supreme deity of Dwaities and Vishishtadwaitis, Krishna (Vishnu), can shun ostentation and affluence like Shiva. Did He not relish the frugal rice flakes offered by Sudama? When He went to Hastinapura as the ambassador of peace, He stayed in Vidura’s house, not in the magnificently furnished royal palace. With Arjuna sitting in the chariot, Narayana (Krishna) was only his charioteer. Krishna, the author of the Gita, toils, though he needs no reward.

Shiva is the Lord of all wealth – ‘ekaishwarye sthitaha’. He is not without wealth, only He is not attached to it. In non­attachment and renunciation He surpasses ascetics; yet, He is no stranger to love. He is ‘Ardhanareeeshwara’ (half man and half woman). When we reach the point of recognizing in a single entity a synthesis of these two principles - involvement and Withdrawal, enjoyment and detachment, passion and renunciation, opulence and uninvolvement - we will have moved beyond mythology and theology and will have taken the first step towards philosophy, that is, a major step in our quest for truth.

Excellence-Related and Value-Related Qualities:

We have seen the list of human shortcomings that have been attributed to God. Now, let us turn to His virtues, which are of two categories. First, God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. These underline God’s power and capabilities and His greatness. These qualities (if they truly exist) may benefit the world or may not: that depends on whether God chooses to exercise them, and, if He does, in what manner.

The second category of qualities relates to the values that inevitably arise from any interaction between God and living beings, values like justice, nonviolence, compassion and love. From our point of view, these qualities are very important. Theologists may revel in eulogizing God’s greatness; the ordinary man seeks help and sympathy from God. We' need help and sympathy. Nature has no interest - neither love nor hatred at all for us (that is, living beings). The sun sheds welcome warmth during winter not out of his love for us but because heat is natural to the sun. An earthquake is not caused by nature’s displeasure towards man: an earthquake has to take place under certain conditions. Nature functions according to its own laws. It never takes into account what is good or bad for us. If justice, compassion etc., are what we are looking for, then, we must seek them elsewhere. That is why we visualize a God. Therefore, from our standpoint, His value-related qualities become more important than His powers.

But the exercise of values in life demands power. Therefore, the qualities of the first category also have their own value. Our feelings about God relate to both these categories. For example, the fear of God is due to His powers: but devotion and love relate to values. This then, isbroadly, the conclusion: an element of fear be may be embedded in devotion.

Power-Related Qualities:

Let us admit that God, if He exists, is omnipresent - that is, present everywhere. But as for His other two power-related attributes - omniscience and omnipotence - can both these qualities be present in the same person at the same time? Can God, in addition to being omniscient, also be omnipotent?

The prefix ‘omni’, in the context of time, includes the past, the present and the future. If omniscient, God must have certain knowledge that a particular event will take place in future, that it is inevitable and that is impossible for anyone to change or prevent it. If, indeed, it is possible for anyone to interfere with that event, then God cannot be said to know the future for, it is now uncertain. And If He does not know the future, then He is not omniscient! Let us take an example. In 1986, Halleys’ Comet came very close to the earth. If He is omniscient, God ought to have known about it. Now if the comet had not, in fact, come close to the earth, that would have belied God's omniscience. It had to come, and it had to be beyond anyone’s, even God’s, powers to prevent its coming. But, if even God did not possess the power to prevent that event, how can we call Him omnipotent?

One of my friends objected; “No, this logic is not sound. God is quite capable of stopping the comet. But, He just does not wish to do so”. Now, this argument is not tenable. How does this gentleman know that God does not wish to stop the comet? Also, the relevant issue is not whether God has the wish or not to stop the comet; Irrespective of the desire He must have the power. If, with such powers, He had prevented the comet from appearing, then His previous understanding (that the comet will come) would have been falsified: His omniscience would then be open to question. If He possesses that power, then, He cannot be omniscient: and without that power He is not omnipotent. Logically omniscience and omnipotence cannot both be present at the same time.

Value-Related Qualities

Let us now turn to the value-related qualities. Our account of the qualities that God is said to possess is in reality, only an account of what we yearn to see in Him. The descriptions of God that readily come to mind are: ‘God is just, He punishes the guilty and protects righteous people, He is compassionate and He is the embodiment of Love’.

God should be the symbol of the qualities we consider the highest and the noblest. Let us now, for the purpose of argument, admit that God (if He exists) is the repository of all those virtues. Since He Himself symbolises many great virtues, it is only natural that righteous persons are dear to Him. Still, assertions such as ‘He is on the side of justice, He punishes the guilty, He protects the righteous’ and so on are debatable. It may be that God upholds justice. But if He should mete out strict justice, would we, human beings, welcome it? Who can dare pray for pure justice? Who knows how often the noblest of men have stumbled? The misery they might have caused and the heinous thoughts that might have crossed their minds? Can we pray for an absolutely just dealing for such acts and thoughts? And if God so deals with man would He still be the Fountain of Mercy? In Shakespeare’s play ‘King Lear’ these lines occur:

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us[1]

(King Lear, V, 3, 170-1)

Should this be true, what fate awaits us! There is no dearth of ‘pleasant vices’ in us. A human father is gentle with his wayward son. God is the Father of the Universe; could His heart be harder than that of man? Which should dominate His nature - compassion or the desire to mete out strict punishment?

Fear of God; Fear of the Law, of Punishment

It may be argued that the fear of divine punishment will make us watch our steps. In English, to call some one a ‘God- fearing man’ is high praise. According to the Old Testament, when God saw that ‘the wickedness of man was great in the earth’, He caused a deluge and destroyed the whole world (except Noah and his collection of animals). Later, when evil again flourished in the renewed world He burnt to ashes the sinful cities and unleashed terrible diseases on Egypt. Such stories evoke the fear of God.

The question of fear is a complex one. One may argue that ‘fear’ itself is deleterious. Some times fear drives us to evil or wrong acts. Animals charge us out of fear. The fear that another person may harm us provokes the evil in us. Perhaps the fear of God is an exception. But should the fear of punishment keep us to the straight path? That would mean that if one were certain of not being caught, one could be wicked. And it would amount to virtual licence for the wickedness of nonbelievers.

Generally, it is not the fear of God that keeps people righteous - although this cannot be entirely ruled out. I remember a newspaper report of a priest appointed to perform worship in a temple, stealing the jewels of the deity. Today (29-7-1990), as I prepare the press copy of this book, the Deccan Herald’ has reported that servants have been regularly stealing money from the hundi (collection box) at the Tirupathi Venkataramana Swamy temple. Venkataramana is reputed to be a sternly righteous God, who inflicts punishment if He does not receive the money or the service that is His due. And yet, His own servants are reported to have looted crores of rupees. Two Assistant Executive Officers are reported to have amassed wealth to the tune of 70 lakhs to a crore of rupees. A servant of the temple is worth 30 lakhs, it seems. And these are the persons who work right in the presence of the Lord!

There are those who amass a crore of rupees by unfair methods and then, a little troubled, say to themselves, “It is prudent to remain on the right side of God”, and spend ten lakhs out of their ill-gotten wealth and build a temple or present a crown to the Lord. The Thugs, it seems, used to offer prayers to Goddess Kali, and set out on their mission of murdering travelers, confident that the grace of the Goddess was with them. There were people who believed that human sacrifice would bring them the fulfillment of their desires. I am told that there are such people even now. In such situations, the fear of God, far from deterring crime, emboldens the criminal.

If the fear of God keeps even a few persons on the path of righteousness, let us welcome it. But no matter whether we have cause to fear some one or another, evil should be revolting just because itis evil. We ought to love goodness because it is good. This is the attitude we have to cultivate.

(We cannot say that fear has no role at all in the world. It is difficult to imagine a civilized state without the police the judges and those who carry out their judgments - when we recall the level man has attained today! I have read in America reports of convicts released on parole[2] committing crime after crime. Here is one such incident: a convict on parole butchered the very people who employed him and fed him and lavished affection on him, violated their women and fled! I hesitate to concede that even a few persons are born evil; but I cannot brush aside the possibility. True, such people are a rare breed, but they are there. Fear of punishment is imperative in such cases) .

What is stated in the brackets above refers to the fear in man - fear of the law, of punishment. Fear of God is something different. Why cannot God transform wicked persons into good ones instead of meting out punishment? After all, it should not be difficult for an omnipotent God to do so! Instead of being the enemy of evil persons, He could be the enemy only of evil. He can destroy evil and save the evil ones. If it is true that He is ‘All Merciful’, only this course would be natural to Him.

[1] These are the words of a character called Edgar. His view need not necessarily be Shakespeare’s opinion.

[2] Parole: A serving convict, who has displayed good behavior in prison, is permitted to leave the prison for a specified period on a written undertaking that he would be law-abiding even outside the prison. He is said to be on parole.

The word for “Excellences” used in the original is ‘mahatvagalu’. The English word does not fully convey the connotation of the word ‘mahatvagalu’ - Translator

Akkihebbalu Narasimha Murthy Rao (June 16, 1900—August 23, 2003) was an eminent Kannada writer.  He was the first Director of Kannada and Culture Department of the Karnataka Government.

His popular book, Devaru (God), won (1992) the Pampa Award instituted by the Government of Karnataka.

This essay is from Chapter III (Stories about God) of the book, which was translated into English by Prof LS Seshagiri Rao and published by Kannada Sahitya Parishath, Bangalore in 1995


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