What is ultimate reality? This question has different answers given by different religions of the world. These answers include a wide spectrum of concepts such as mysterious forces of nature, a supreme ruler who must be feared and worshipped, a loving father who sent his only son to spread his message, a formless creator, the beneficent and merciful, and the unborn, uncreated, eternal being, who can be experienced only through silence.
Hindus maintain that all these descriptions of the ultimate reality are correct, but incomplete. Describing the ultimate reality in words is like trying to compress an ocean into a test tube. It just cannot be done. In the language of mythology, if Saraswati (Hindu deity of knowledge) were to use waters of all the oceans as ink, all trees of the planet Earth as pens, and the entire space of the cosmos as paper, she would be unable to provide a complete description of the ultimate reality.
If we analyze different answers given by different religions, we are led to the view that the divine is either the impersonal reality (absolute) or the personal reality (God). The spiritual experiences of the majority of the sages and seers of all religions and cultures generally favor the former viewpoint, whereas the ethical theism favors the latter. With regard to the nature of the ultimate reality, the Upanishad says, “There the sight does not travel, nor speech, nor mind. It is unknown and inexplicable. The absolute is beyond known and unknown. Thus we have heard from the wise who taught us That.” (Ken-U 1,3) The human mind, which is logical and rational, is not willing to accept the idea that the absolute is totally incomprehensible. The Hindu religious thought emphasizes the transcendent nature of the absolute but rejects the idea that the absolute is remote to the world and thus altogether transcendent. What then is our relationship with the divine?
A human being uses his or her mind to bring down the unknown to the realm of the known. To him, the human is an imperfect personality (pursha), whereas the absolute is the perfect personality (uttama pursha). Since human personality consists of cognition, emotion, and will, there is a logical necessity to conceive a personal God, who is the supreme knower, supreme lover, and possessor of the supreme will. In line with this thought, Hindu religious tradition affirms the personal aspect of the Supreme Being, but also reminds us of the impersonal or the supra-personal aspect of the divine.
In the Hindu attitude towards the personal God, who is the adorable lord of the universe and who resides in the hearts of all beings, there is room for imagination of different kinds of personal relationships, such as that of the father and son or daughter, of friend and friend, of lovers, of husband and wife, and of master and servant. At the same time, there is a profound feeling in the heart of a Hindu that the lord and the devotee are essentially one in nature.
As early as the Rigveda, the Hindu mind has recognized that the eternally existent one Supreme Being has manifold attributes and manifestations. This idea is articulated in the Rigveda (RV 1.164, 46), which states, “Ekam sat viparaha, bahuda vadanti,” meaning “Truth is one, wise call it by various names.” The Rigveda recognizes that the ultimate reality possesses infinite potential, power and intelligence and, as such, cannot be limited by a single name or form. Hindu scriptures refer to the impersonal aspect of ultimate reality as nirguna brahman (reality without attributes). Since this aspect of the ultimate reality has no attributes, it is not an object of prayer, but of meditation and knowledge. Nirguna brahman is the nameless and formless ultimate reality, and is beyond the human conception, beyond reasoning and beyond thought. Nirguna brahman is the infinite field of pure potentiality, the ultimate principle underlying the universe and is also called by other names such as the cosmic absolute, supreme being, universal spirit, and higher self.
Hindus call the personal aspect of the ultimate reality saguna brahman, i.e. reality with attributes. Saguna brahman is the creator, sustainer and controller of the universe. Again, saguna brahman cannot be limited by one name or form and is, therefore, worshipped by various names and in various forms, both male and female. From the male aspect, saguna brahman is called by many Sanskrit names, such as ishvara, parameshvara, paramatma, maheshvara, and purusha. These Sanskrit names represent more or less the same concept as the word ‘God’ in other religions.
From the female standpoint, Hindus worship the personal aspect of the ultimate reality (hereafter referred to as God) by various names, such as the Divine Mother, Durga and Kali. Hindus recognize both male and female aspects of God in various forms, called deities (or gods and goddesses – note small ‘g’). A deity symbolizes one or more aspects of God. For example, Saraswati symbolizes the learning and knowledge aspect of God. Thus, if a Hindu wants to pray to God for knowledge and understanding, he or she prays to Saraswati for bestowing knowledge upon him or her. This does not mean that Saraswati (or any other Hindu deity) is separate from or independent of God. Just as sunlight cannot be conceived to have independent existence from the sun, a Hindu deity is not conceived to have a separate existence from God. Thus, Hindu deities symbolize various aspects of God and devotees have the freedom to worship whichever aspect of the divine they revere the most, based upon their own mental constitution. There is only one God, the God of all. There is no other God. The Biblical statement “Thou shalt have no other God before me,” really means, “Thou shalt not convert life into something that is dead or suffer a known semblance of reality to be put in the place of reality,” explains late Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan.
Hinduism is sometimes said to be the religion of 330 million gods. This misconception arises when people do not acquire a clear understanding of the symbolism of the Hindu pantheon. According to Hindu scriptures, the living beings are not apart from God, since God lives in each and every one of them in the form of the inner sprit (atman). Thus each living being is an individualized and particularized manifestation of God. In ancient times, it was believed that there were 330 million living beings. This gave rise to the concept of 330 million deities. Actually, 330 million deities could not have possibly been worshipped, since 330 million names could not have been constructed for them. The number 330 million was simply used to give a symbolic expression to the fundamental Hindu doctrine that God lives in the hearts of all living beings.
A Hindu uses a picture or an icon (usually made of metal, wood or clay) to symbolize a deity. The picture or the icon is used as an object of concentration to help the mind to concentrate on the worship, contemplation and meditation. The image or icon itself is not God, but serves as a symbol of God. ‘We associate our ideas of infinity with the image of the blue sky, or of the sea. We also naturally connect our idea of holiness with the image of a church, a mosque, or a cross. The Hindus have associated the ideas of holiness, purity, truth, omnipresence with different images and forms,’ explains Swami Vivekananda. If somebody asks me, ‘Where is the sky?’ I would most probably raise my finger up pointing towards the sky. My finger is not the sky, but it points towards the sky. Similarly, an image or icon of God is not God, but a pointer, which directs the attention of the devotee towards the divine.
Hindu Deity Worship
Since ancient times Hindus have recognized that when the heart is absorbed in the love of God, the soul transcends the narrow bounds of religious dogma and is convinced of the infinite number of possible divine manifestations. This great truth led Hinduism to develop a universal outlook in its religious thought. As Dr. Radhakrishnan explains, “Hinduism is wholly free from the strange obsession of some faiths that the acceptance of a particular religious metaphysics is necessary for salvation, and non-acceptance thereof is a heinous sin meriting eternal punishment in hell.”
As the Hindu looks at various faiths in the world, he knows that the religious opinion of an individual depends on his or her inborn moral and intellectual capacity, training, education and environment. Thus Hinduism does not adopt force or threat to impose one way of worship, but uses suggestions and persuasion to teach religion and spirituality. When a Hindu approaches a guru (spiritual teacher) for guidance, the teacher suggests the student to choose a personal deity (ishta devata) that appeals him or her the most. The teacher further advises the student that any divine name or form conceived symbolizes the absolute and sincere worship of the chosen deity gradually leads the worshipper to realize the absolute symbolized by the deity. The main purpose of Hindu deity worship is to develop one’s spiritual consciousness and sensibility to truth.
Source: Introduction to Hinduism by Bansi Pandit