God-Concept in Ancient India

Dr. Sunil Deepak, 19 August 2018

Probably no one can tell when did the prehistoric progenitors of humans first thought of God. However, by early historical period, all the human civilizations had a concept of God. Those civilisations were very different from each other, but the concepts of God they developed were similar. However, about 4 thousand years ago, ancient Indians developed a concept of God that was slightly different. This post is about evolution of the God-concept in ancient India.

Before talking about India, lets first take a look at how different civilisations thought of God.

From the “Sacred Nature” to the “Gods Governing the Nature”

Around the world, the first concepts of God were of deities governing specific aspects of nature. This way of imaging the God still exists in many communities. It considers as sacred the objects of the natural world – plants, trees, stones, mountains are seen as manifestations of God and worshipped. The image below has sacred trees (India), trees under which people may place a statue or a stone and worship it as a symbol of God.

Nature worship - sacred trees, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

Other persons imagined God as human-like persons with supernatural powers who controlled specific aspects of the nature. A god for the rain and another for the sea, a god for the war and another for love. From the Amerindians to Romans, Egyptians and Persians, every culture had their gods and their stories of creation. The image below has some of the Indian gods in a temple in Bangalore.

A god for every creature, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

The one God

The ideas of one God arose in the Middle-East, among Jews, Christians and Muslims. Each of them linked it with a specific prophet, and each group claimed that their path to God was the only true one.

This God was imagined as a “benevolent father” – who was merciful and loving, but asked to be worshipped regularly and properly. He also laid down a set of rules for his followers, including rules about dressing, eating, praying and resting. If you did not follow his norms, he could also punish. He did not tolerate that people follow other “false gods” and prescribed different roles for men and women.

These concepts led to the birth of the three organised religions that are known as the Abrahamic religions - Jewish, Christianity and Islam. James A. Michener in his 1965 book “The Source” had beautifully described the evolution of the concept of God in the middle east.

Evolution of the God concept in ancient India

What about the Indians? What was the evolution of God-concept in India? Ancient Indians had different ideas about God – considering nature as sacred, having a set of divine human-like beings with special powers and having a father-like God. However, they also went a step further and thought of God as “Parmatma” or the “universal consciousness” that underlies every particle of the universe. Another unique Indian feature was that all these different ways of conceptualising God co-existed. One idea about God did not replace the other ideas, instead Indians sought explanations that could justify each way and look at them as “different paths” to reach the same eternal truth.

The first Vedas, the earliest texts of Indians about the divine, were written around 2000 BCE, that means around 4000 years ago. These books presented different concepts of the God. This colourful mosaic of belief systems, sometimes contradictory, constitutes Hinduism.

Here are some examples from Vedas to illustrate different ways of conceptualising God. Vedas use different words for God such as, Ishwar (Lord of the desires), Parmatma (ultimate soul) and Brahman (universal consciousness).

The first example is a shloka (verse) from Atharv-veda (11-7-21):

Mantra 11-7-21, Atharva-veda - Image by Sunil Deepak

It says: “Red earth, sand, stones, medicinal plants, creepers, blades of grass, clouds, lightening and rain, they are all interconnected and are all based in the God.”

While considering everything in the universe to be interconnected, it also explains the sacredness of nature. A couple of years ago, while on a walk in Guwahati in the north-east of India, I had met a Sadhu Nobin baba, who had talked to me about the calming of mind till you could feel the energy coming out of some points of the rocks. For him that energy represented the God (Nobin baba in the image below).

Nobin baba and the sacred stone, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

The second example is from Rig-Veda (1-164-46):

Mantra 1-164-46, Rig-Veda, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

It says: “Some call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna or Agni, for some he is a bird with beautiful wings; Agni, Yama or Vayu, all represent the same truth called by different names.”

This shloka explains how the different divinities worshipped by people are all expressions of the same God.

The next example, also from Rig-Veda (10-82-3), describes the God as a father-figure, closer to the concept of God in the Abrahamic religions:

Mantra 10-82-3, Rig-Veda, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

It says: “God is our father, he gives birth to us and controls us. He knows this and all the other worlds. All the different gods are part of him, all the worlds go to him with their questions.”

Thus in this verse, God is a father. However, instead of saying that other gods are false, as in monotheistic religions, here there is an explicit acceptance of praying to other gods, since they are all the expression of the same God.

The last example is from Yajur-veda and is about God as universal consciousness:

Mantra, Yajur-Veda, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

It says: “Searching for the truth, the sage went all around this and other worlds, went in all directions and even to the land of gods. He found that everywhere there was the same all-pervading truth. After knowing this, he became part of that truth and then understood that he had always been a part of that truth.”

This way of describing God as an all-pervading presence is the unique feature of the ancient Indian thought. It denotes the presence of God in all its creatures and thus becomes the logic for respecting life and nature in all its forms. It is a call for recognising the dignity and equality of all human beings.

The concept of universal consciousness and India’s social realities

I love the concept of universal consciousness, that everything in the world is interconnected and expression of the same God. However, I also wonder, why in spite of such a thinking, did India develop a social reality marked by caste hierarchies that exploited and oppressed millions of persons?

Through the centuries, there were many social reformers in India, from Buddha to Basvanna, Nanak and Mahatma Gandhi, who promoted equality of all human beings, but they did not manage to demolish this system. Why?

Perhaps one of the answers to this question lies in the words of a 15th poet-saint Kabir who had written that it is not by reading of books that one gains knowledge; only when you learn love, you become knowledgeable. Our communities have the age-old knowledge, but perhaps it is seen as an abstract concept and not as the living truth?

I want to conclude this post with a picture from Kannur in Kerala in the south of India, in which a person from the "lower caste" gets ready to welcome the God (Theyyam) in his body. For the few days of the temple festival, his caste will not matter and everyone in the community will bow before him, looking at him as the manifestation of God on earth.

Preparation for Theyyam, Kannur, Kerala, India - Image by Sunil Deepak

Our challenge is how to change our thinking so that we can first see the God in all the persons.

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Note 2: I have done the translations of the shlokas presented here.

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Dr Sunil Deepak
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Email: sunil.deepak(at)gmail.com