Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Concept of One God

A.N. Moorthy Rao

We have not succeeded in our attempt to understand the nature of God by the inductive method. Since each one of the gods that we encountered in our attempts has some shortcoming or the other, none of them could be the Supreme God, the Monarch of the Cosmos. We describe God with weighty epithets such as the Holiest, the Sinless, the Chaste, the Benign, and the Compassionate. But, none of the gods that we have considered so far merits these descriptions. Let us, therefore, bid them all good-bye here and proceed further.

The very people who attributed to God all the vices that we saw in the last chapter also claim that God is not only omniscient and omnipotent but is also the perfect repository of all virtues. At least some thoughtful persons must have noticed this contradiction long ago. They are the ones who went beyond that stage and reflected deeply on the matter. The first stage in their reflective process was the conclusion that there cannot be more than one God. Some among them also felt that God ought not to be labelled.[1]

Let us now consider the thoughts of one such reflective person. There is this verse in the 'Shvetashwatara Upanishad'.

Eko devaha, sarvabhutheshu goodhaha
Sarvavyapi, sarvabhootanataratmaa |
 Karmadhyakshaha, sarvabhootadhivasaha
Sakshee, chetha, kevalo nirgunashcha ||

[The gist: God is only one. He is omnipresent, and is present in everything. He is the soul of all living beings. He is the Lord of all Karma, the witness, the Energy Manifest, without attributes, and absolute. (Nothing exists except Him)].

The God described above is at a higher level than the ones we saw in the stories before. Yet, when we analyze this description logically, we encounter difficulties. That God must be only one is self-evident - for there cannot be more than one omnipotent entity. Nor is there any contra­diction in the descriptions that He is the Primordial Spirit and that all our energies are derived from Him. And right now, let us not raise the question whether such a person exists.

We may even accept the description that God is ‘without attributes’ by assigning the word a special sense. The logic of this interpretation is: God is infinite; no limits can possibly hem Him in; attributing any quality to Him only results in imposing limits on Him. For example, no sooner do we describe Him as ‘smaller than the atom’ than we are implying that He cannot be bigger than the atom. But, how can there be something with absolutely no properties? Such a thing just cannot be. If God is without attributes, then God does not exist, and if He has attributes He cannot be God. To escape from this trap, some people interpret the word ‘attribute’ differently: “God cannot be said to possess any particular quality. But he possesses all qualities - all qualities without exception”. This is mere jugglery of words. Also, we are resorting to the same jugglery when we say ‘Anoraneeya’, ‘Mahatomaheeya’ (smaller than the minutest, larger than the largest). To avoid explaining the identity and nature of God by saying ‘Neti’, ‘Neti’ (‘not this’ ‘not this’) is also a similar attempt to wriggle out of these logical contradictions. We need not be critical of such attempts. Once we say, “God is beyond the reach of the senses, the mind and words retreat, unable to grasp Him”, any attempt to describe God necessarily involves such jugglery of words.

The statement that God is ‘without form’ also will have to be interpreted similarly: “No particular form can be ascribed to God, but He comprehends all forms”. If this is accepted, it renders all objections to idolatry baseless. If we concede that God exists and that He transcends all limitations of name and form, then, why can we not visualize Him in a human form with four shoulders? It is just one of the infinite forms that He can assume. After all, even the idolater does not claim that his idol is God’s only form. For the purpose of worship, God may be invoked to rest in the idol. Worship over, one may not even recognize it as God, or, since every thing is, at all times, God only, the idol is God, even after worship, one may say. In fact, even those who oppose idolatry do pay some obeisance to some symbol - for example: the cross or the icon of Mary.

Two concepts, in the verse from Shvetashwatara Upanishad quoted above, generate controversy - Lord of Action (‘Karmadhyaksha’) and witness (‘Sakshi’), Dr. D.V. Gundappa, in his small book ‘Devaru’ has quoted an interpreted this verse. In DVG’s words, ‘witness’ mean “The Spirit which is itself not a part of the universe but only its observer”. Again, in DVG’s own words, the Lord of Action (‘karmadhyaksha’) means, “The Superintendent of all that man does or does not do, that is, one who provides the energy necessary for all action, but is Himself beyond all action” (‘Devaru’ - pages 15 - 16). We must also take note of DVG’s statement in the last chapter of his book: “He (God) rules the entire universe”. The word ‘Karmaadhyaksha’ also suggests governance.

  1. God is neutral, only a witness
  2. He rules the world, as ‘Karmadhyaksa’.

Are these two descriptions logically consistent?

This is how DVG explains the concept of ‘neutrality’:

“The man who stands on the bank of the river, watching others struggling in the water and drowning, is the neutral one, the witness” (Page 16). This means: although capable of saving the drowning man, God does not interfere but remains aloof.

  1. Witness: One relevant question here is: is it fair for God to remain neutral, only a witness? And if He does, does He not become irrelevant to our life? Still, I am not, at the moment, raising that question. I am only asking whether the definition of this concept, accepted by DVG and others, is logically tenable. If God is only a witness, and is inactive, doing nothing at all, how can He rule the world? Ruling involves action of some kind. He will have to make laws to regulate people’s conduct. He must ensure that the laws are obeyed by the people: judges must be appointed to inquire into complaints of violations of the laws: if the violations are proved, then there has to be a mechanism to mete out punishment to the guilty. A mere witness cannot accomplish any of these. God has two options - to act and get things done or to do nothing and remain neutral. We can not expect Him both to act and not to act, at the same time. If He is only a witness, He cannot rule, and if He rules, He IS no witness.
  2. Karmadhyaksha’ (Lord of Action): This word creates other difficulties. As we have seen before, DVG while explaining the meaning of the Upanishadic verse, has entrusted the Lord of Action with two tasks :

1.      He supervises all action. What does ‘supervision’ mean? DVG himself has said that God has no responsibility of action. Therefore, we will have to conclude that “God’s only job is to award the just fruits of action”. But, is it not the deeply prevailing conviction that ‘karma’ (action) yields its own fruits? There is the inevitable cause-and-effect relationship between karma (action) and its fruits.

Who does anything, what can anyone do?
My actions in a former birth haunt me.

So sang Purandaradasa - and this faith manifests itself again and again. The most common answer to the question why God does not save us from suffering is this: “It is our karma. We must suffer it. Even God cannot undo it”. If this is true, then God (karmadhyaksha – ‘Lord of Action’) has no work at all. The chain of karma and the fruits of karma moves inexorably.

2.    It may be said that the ‘karmadhyaksha' (Lord of Action) provides the energy required to perform action. That this can only be done by God, the Primordial Spirit, is also a tenable argument. But, is it that He gives me Just the right measure of energy for each of my actions - for example, when I pick up the pen or sit or stand or go for a stroll? Or is it that He grants all the energy at once and is done with it? There is also the argument that “God has already bestowed all attributes and energy on His creation - man, animals and objects. It is for us to decide to what use we put them. Having completed creation, God now has nothing to do with it. This, broadly, is the stand of the deists. If this is true, then, God’s position, after creation is only titular.   

This is the contradiction in the Upanishadic verse. But leaving it aside, let us concede that God (if He exists) could only be one and proceed further.

[1] I remember reading somewhere that the belief among the Jews is that God is nameless. But even they referred to God by the name of Yahveh. That word is used even to day as Jehovah. But in English there is only one word, God

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 Chapter IV (The Concept of One 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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