A deity can either be God or god or both
(A shorter version of the article has been published in July 2013 issue of Hinduism Today Magazine under the title “God’s the Answer“.)
The basic philosophy of any religion relies on the acceptance of the existence of God and that of atheism on the rejection of such existence. Among theists, there have been lengthy debates, arguments and fights regarding what this God constitutes if it exists? Whether God is one or many? Whether it is God or it is god (Upper case and lower case “G”)?
In an Indian scenario, we have on one extreme Monotheists claiming presence of one absolute God separate from world and on the other we have polytheists believing in presence of multiple gods, goddess and demi-gods. And apart from this, we also have Monists who claim the presence of “Only God” (denying even an existence for world separate from God). But Hindu religion as a whole has always been consistently assimilating all these apparently divergent streams of thought into a coherent and all-embracing philosophy of life. This has been possible because there is an inherent awareness in the society that every person is on the same path seeking same goal, some ahead and some behind. This truth is best illustrated in the words of ancient Rishis of Rigveda. While speaking about the “Vishwadevas” (all the gods and goddess), they boldly proclaim-
“They call him (God) Indra, Mitra, Varuṇa, Agni, and he is heavenly nobly-winged Garutmān.
To what is One, sages call by many names like Agni, Yama, Mātariśvan” (1).
In modern times, a similar message was given to mankind by Swami Vivekananda. According to him, “Man is not travelling from error to truth, but climbing up from truth to truth; from truth that is lower to truth that is higher (2).” The realization of this simple truth among people has been best expressed in the concept of deity and its worship.
Our scriptures say that God (Brahman) which is formless manifests itself into infinite number of forms. And each such form represents a specific aspect of the Brahman. A deity is a specific aspect of Brahman which has a rupa-form and Shakti-power associated with that aspect. For example, If Brahman/Para-Shakti is divided into 10 aspects, we get the ten Mahavidhyas. If the Para-Shakti is divided into 64 parts, we get the Yoginis. In other words deities are the personification of the various forces that drive the Cosmos. Also they are personifications of the various phenomenon’s that happen throughout the universe.
For example, when the Brahman manifests the Universe, He becomes Shiva-Gowri. When the Brahman absorbs back the Universe, he becomes MahaKaLa-MahaKaLi. Shiva is personification of the sum total of all manifestation and Gowri is that aspect of Shakti which causes the manifestation/projection of the Universe. Shiva and Gowri are White as white represents Purity and the manifestation/Cosmos. Shakti takes the form of KaLi when the projection is drawn back into Brahman. KaLi causes Laya/absorption of manifestation back into Brahman. KaLi is black which represents her ability to absorb everything into herself.
From the view-point of society, we have Grama Devatas, Kula Devatas, Gruha Devatas and Ista Devatas. Grama Devatas are basically the guardian deities of the villages. Kula Devatas are the guardian deities of a clan, lineage or a bloodline. The Gruha Devatas refers to the guardian deities of the family. Finally the Ista Devata refers to the deity a person choose based on his personal inclination. A person may take any one among the Grama, Kula and Gruha devatas as his own Ista or he can also choose some other deity which attracts him most.
The concept of deity, especially the “Ista devata” can be considered in many senses as a unique contribution of Hindu religion to whole world not only in terms of its theological and spiritual value but also in terms of promoting world harmony. In simple words, any person can connect with God/Cosmos (3) in the way he feels inclined to or is comfortable with. This world view will completely remove any cause for troubles and intolerances because the conception of a deity is completely dependent upon the devotee who worships it. And no two people ever conceptualize or approach a deity in an exactly same manner.
Some people may conceptualize their deity to be Nirguna-Nirakara Brahman (Formless and Attributeless God). For some other the deity may be one of the manifestations of the formless God which does have a roopa-form and guna-attributes. For some, the deity may be only a maintainer (Vishnu-god) or a destroyer (Shiva-god) of Universe. For others the same deity may be the ultimate God whom they call as “Narayana/Sada-Shiva”. For some the deities may be just the forces of nature like fire-Agni or wind-Vayu. And for some other’s they may be mind-manas or soul-atman. A deity can either be God or a god or at times both and at times neither depending upon what a devotee seeks.
The deity-devotee relationship is an intimate connection that heavily depends on the spiritual clarity and mental earnestness of the devotee. The more is the longing and Bhakti-love a devotee has, closer he is to the deity and clearer will be his understanding of Universe. Every devotee perceives his deity according to his tastes and inclinations. Hence, this perception would be very limited. The devotee then projects this limited perception on the the limitless God. Hence, the God projects to the devotee as a deity with limitations. The closer a devotee gets to the deity, the purer his mind will become and his perception will start losing limitations. The only way this is possible is through Sadhana.
Sadhana in general may refer to any action put to achieve a desirable goal. Swami Chidananda of Divine Life society defines sadhana as “the active effort to obtain that which is possible of being obtained through effort (4)”. And this goal for which Sadhana is done defines the nature of relationship between the Sadhak and the Deity. A person may desire to have unlimited wealth, health, prosperity, offspring etc and he will do sadhana just to obtain them. This is called Kamya Sadhana. Such a person will invoke and worship a specific god who could fulfill their desires. A deity is a god for these people. For example, a Lakshmi-Kubera Homa is done only for purpose of getting wealth. A Mahamrityunjay Homa is done to ward of diseases and deliver long life to a person.
Further, even among the people who desire only for God Realization, most cannot contemplate on Formless one. Hence, they perfect their sadhana of a particular deity who will in-turn lead them to the Ultimate Formless one. In Tantras they say, first worship the Mother, reach her; then, she will lead you to Father. Such sadhaks worship Deity as God with form. It may be Ganesha or Durga, Shiva or Tara, they worship it as Saguna Brahman itself.
Take the example of Lord Ganesha. From the puranic stories we come to know that, Ganesha is the son of Parvati and Shiva. Further, he is the leader of Ganas (the fierce followers of Shiva, hence the name Ganesha) and that he is the remover of obstacles. Most people would love to worship Ganesha in his child form who loves to eat sweet food. They worship the deity with above mentioned attributes and pray to him to solve their problems. For them, Ganesha is only a “god” with limited attributes and power. Hence, by their worship, they are connecting with the limited aspect of this Cosmos/God who has the power to remove obstacles in their path.
Then, there are sadhaks (Spiritual practitioners) who worship “Ganesha” as the lord of Muladhara chakra (located at the perenium) who governs “Bhu” loka (The Physical/Material realm of existence). For them, worship of Ganapathi is the key to awaken Kundalini and to make her rise through the Sushumna Nadi (Channel). Hence, they connect with the God/cosmos through their worship and gain power-Shakti to raise their Kundalini. For these Sadhak’s too Ganesha is only a “god”.
Further, there are also those people who worship Ganesha as the Nirakara-Nirguna Brahman. They recognize Ganesha as God, the Ultimate truth, the whole Cosmos. For them, Ganesha is the creator, Maintainer and destroyer of Universe. This view about Ganesha can be found beautifully expressed in the following lines from Ganapathi Atharva shirsha-
Twameva Pratyksham Tatvamasi | (You are the Only Truth)
Twameva Kevalam Kartasi | (You are the creator of the Universe)
Twameva Kevalam Dhartasi |(You are the maintainer of the Universe)
Twameva Kevalam Hartasi |(You are the destroyer of the Universe)
Twameva Sarvam Khalvidam Brahmasi | (You are the Brahman/God who exists everywhere)
Twam Sakashadatamasi Nityam (You are the eternal soul present inside everyone).
It further says-
Twam Gunatrayatitaha | (You are beyond the three gunas-Tamas, Rajas and Sattva)
Twam Dehatrayatitaha | (You are beyond the three bodies- Sthula, Sukshma and Karana)
Twam Kalatrayatitaha | (You are beyond the three time periods- past, present and future)
Twam Brahmastvam, Twam Vishnustvam Rudrastvam Indrastvam Agnistvam
Vayastvam Suryastvam Chandramastvam Brahmabhurbhurvaswarome||
(You are Brahma, You are Vishnu, You are Rudra, You are Indra, Agni, Vayu, Surya, Chandra, You are the Brahman/God who exists in everywhere)
Next comes the category of people who neither worship God nor worship any god. For them, a deity is just Shakti (Energy/Power). They are the Aghoris- the Shakti Sadhakas, people who do sadhana to gain powers. They occupy themselves in understanding different aspects of the working of the cosmos and gaining power to control them. They dive deep in the darkness to reach light. Each deity represents a specific aspect of Para-Shakti. They do sadhana of the said deity to achieve that Shakti. In case of Ganesha, many use the sadhana of him to understand the workings of Bhu-Loka (Physical realmn) and control it. There are also a small section of tantriks who does indulge in Shat Kriyas like Vashikarana (Controlling) and Marana (Killing) and use these Shakti’s wrongly. But, others use their Shakti’s to ultimately merge with the Cosmos/Para-Shakti.
Few people like Ramakrishna Paramahamsa exist, who even after having experiencing the Brahman in Nirvikalpa Samadhi (The highest state of Samadhi), continued to worship his Ista Devi KaLi Bhavatarini. For him, KaLi was both the God and the god. She was both with form and without form. Hence, a devotee who may at first see Ganesha as just a remover of obstacles, with spiritual growth will come to realize that Ganesha is also the Lord of Physical realm. If the devotee keeps walking on the path of sadhana, he will realize that Ganesha is not a god with limitations and attributes, but Formless Omnipotent God. Deeper if he proceed, the devotee will realize that Ganesha is both the God and the god. That the formlessness and the forms are both his own manifestation and hence equally real.
Another simple example that illustrate this phenomenon could be that of Sandhya Vandana-The worship of Sun. The Sandhya worship at its outset appears like a prayer to the Sun who gives the warmth and Light to earth. This appears as a show of gratitude towards nature. If one digs deeper, one will understand that the Sandhya worship is not just a prayer to the external sun which is the center of our solar system and emitting the heat and light using nuclear fusion. But the worship also entails an understanding and a prayer towards this whole cosmos which is at every moment keeps changing, evolving and dissolving. On a deeper level, it is a prayer towards the whole existence, the multiple cosmos that exist and the source, the energy that manifests the Whole. Ultimately, it is worship towards the Innerself, The atman which is the very “Whole” present inside the each of its particle.
In both cases, one can see how a devotee proceeds from his “Limited” understanding of God into “Direct experience of Limitless truth”; how his understanding of deity changed from being limited god to being Omnipotent God who existed as formless and yet manifested infinite number of forms. This spiritual insight about the nature of Cosmic truth (Satya) and its infinite ways of expression has been the very foundation of the “all-embracing and tolerant way of life” that Hindu Dharma propounds. This truth has been imbibed into every Shastras-scriptures that were composed, every rituals that were codified, into every art forms that found its expression. It manifested into every aspect of life making Hindu society, a most diverse yet relatively harmonious one in whole world.
(1) इन्द्रं मित्रं वरुणमग्निमाहुरथो दिव्यः स सुपर्णो गरुत्मान |
एकं सद विप्रा बहुधा वदन्त्यग्निं यमं मातरिश्वानमाहुः || – Rigveda 1.164.46.
(2) Sister Nivedita, “Our Master and his Message”, Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, http://www.advaitaashrama.org/cw/content.php
(3) According to Hindu Philosophy, God is sum total of All existence. He is the whole existence. Hence, God and Cosmos are not different. “Isa vasyam Idam Sarvam” (Ishopanishad)
(4) Swami Chidananda, “Special Insights Into Sadhana No-1”, http://www.dlshq.org/download/insight_sadhana1.htm