How can the unlimited have a form?
Whether or not God has a form is a perennial philosophical question perennial philosophical question with arguments on both sides. The way we pray to God, the way the saints address God in their devotional prayers, it seems that God is a person whom we are calling by our prayers. But then God is said to be unlimited. Will his being a person not limit him?
Does a form limit God?
To reconcile these two sides, we need to first understand the definition of God. The Vedanta-Sutra (1.1.2) defines God or the Absolute Truth, brahman, as the source of everything. Janmady asya yatah. Another ancient text, the Brahma-Samhita (5.1), defines God similarly as the cause of all causes sarva karana-karanam. This concise definition of God is essentially in agreement with the understanding of God given by all the theistic traditions of the world. So, if God is the source of everything that we see in this world, then God himself should possess the essential attributes of everything, else he would be lesser than his creation. In this world, there exist both personal beings and impersonal forces, so both these aspects should be present in God. If God were not a person, then he, who by definition is the Complete Being, would be incomplete. Another simpler way of putting this is: if we as the children of God are persons, how can our father, God, not be a person? So, those who say that God is not a person are actually limiting him, by divesting him of what his creation has.
Now let’s consider the question: do personality and form not limit God? Vedic wisdom helps us understand that what causes limitation is not form, but matter. Due to the very nature of matter, all material objects are limited, whether they have form or not. When we think of God’s form, we subconsciously project our conceptions of matter on the form of God and so think that a form would limit God. But God is not material; he is entirely spiritual. Spirit has characteristics different from matter; that which is spiritual has the potential to be unlimited, irrespective of whether it has form or not. So God’s form being spiritual does not limit him. This is how, due to his being spiritual, God is a person with a form and is still unlimited.
Is man made in the image of God?
This brings us to the next objection: even if we accept that God has a form, why should he have a humanlike form? Isn’t this an example of what you were saying earlier: of our projecting humanlike conceptions on God? Because we are human beings, so we imagine that God also has a humanlike form.
Factually, the opposite is true. Anthropomorphism – the idea that we have ascribed a humanlike forem to God – seems sensible initially, but if we think deeply about it, we will realize that it seems sensible because of our self-centered thinking, due to our placing ourselves at the center of things. We think that because we have a humanlike form, we have conceived God as humanlike. But could the reverse not be true? What if God originally had a form and our present human form was modeled according to that original form of God?
So logically both are potential possibilities. How do we know which is the reality? When we want knowledge about physics, we refer to the authorized textbooks of physics. Similarly, when we want knowledge about God, should we not refer to the authorized textbooks about God – the scriptures? The scriptures of the great religions of the world repeatedly refer to God in a personal, humanlike way. For example, the Bible talks about “under his feet” (Exodus 24:10); “inscribed with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18); “the hand of the Lord” (Exodus 9:3); “the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 38:7); “the ears of the Lord” (Numbers 11:1). Ezekiel (1:26) describes God as having “the semblance of a human form.” Such phrases permeate the biblical literature. Similarly, in the Quran, there are references to “the face of your Lord” (055:027), “under My eye” (020:039), “under our eyes” (052:048) & (054:014), “the hand of Allah” (048:010), (038:075) & (039:067).
Some people say that these references should be taken metaphorically. But, isn’t that a human projection on the word of God? Aren’t we imposing our interpretation on the self-evident statements of the scriptures? Further, even if we grant that such references are metaphorical, why would the scriptures repeatedly and consistently present God as having a humanlike form if in reality he didn’t have one? Wouldn’t that be a dangerous and misleading metaphor? Instead of audaciously claiming that the scriptures are presenting a misleading metaphor, isn’t it humbler, safer and more logical to infer that it is our preconceptions, which are misleading and which need to be corrected by the words of the scriptures? Further, there is the classic and clear statement in the Bible: “Man is made in the image of God.” In which scripture is it said that God is made in the image of man? Nowhere. So the correct understanding is not that God is anthropomorphic (having a humanlike form), but that man is theomorphic (having a form modeled on God’s original form).
The Vedic scriptures assert that God has a form, but go further by giving vivid descriptions of his form. For example, the scripture glorified as “the ripened fruit of all the Vedic literatures”, the Srimad Bhagavatam (10.23.22), offers this enchanting description of the Lord’s form:
shyamam hiranya-paridhim vanamalya-barha-
vinyasta-hastam itarena dhunanam abjam
“His complexion was dark blue and his garment golden. Wearing a peacock feather, colored minerals, sprigs of flower buds, and a garland of forest flowers and leaves, He was dressed just like a dramatic dancer. He rested one hand upon the shoulder of a friend and with the other twirled a lotus. Lilies graced his ears, his hair hung down over his cheeks, and his lotuslike face was smiling.”
Similarly, another important scripture, the Brahma-samhita (5.30), offers an enthralling glimpse of the beautiful divine form:
venum kvanantam aravinda dalayataksham
barhavatamsam asitambuda sundarangam
kandarpa-koti kamaniya vishesha shobham
govindan adi-purusham tam aham bhajami
“I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who is adept at playing on his flute, who has blooming eyes like lotus petals, whose head is bedecked with a peacock feather, whose figure of beauty is tinged with the hue of blue clouds, and whose unique loveliness charms millions of Cupids.”
Despite the Vedic literature containing such vivid descriptions of God’s form, a common notion is that they say that God is nirguna (without qualities) and niraakara (without form).
While the Vedic scriptures do say that, but that is not all that they say. Often, the very same scriptures that say that God is nirguna also say that he is saguna. Consider this verse from the Srimad Bhagavatam (8.3.9):
tasmai namah pareshaya brahmane 'nanta-shaktaye
arupayoru-rupaya nama ashcarya-karmane
This verse contains two words relevant for our discussion: arupaya (without form) and uru-rupaya (having many forms). So, if some people quote only the word “arupaya” and declare that the verse says that God is formless, then are they properly representing the verse?
Are such Vedic descriptions self-contradictory? Not at all. In fact, the Vedic tradition teaches a higher principle that harmonizes such contradictions.
Let’s consider a verse from the Shvetashvatara Upanishad (3.19)
apani-pado javano grahita pashyaty acakshuh sa shrinoty akarnah
This verse contains an apparent contradiction: pashyaty acaksuh “God has no eyes, but he sees.” How is this contradiction to be reconciled?
The Vedic tradition contains a special pramana (method of acquiring knowledge) called arthapatti (postulation) that is used for reconciling contradictory statements by postulating a third statement. (In addition to the standard three methods of acquiring knowledge pratyaksha, anumana and shabda, Jiva Goswami in his Sarva-Samvadini gives seven more ways. Arthapatti is one of them) To see how arthapatti works, consider the two contradictory statements:
1. Ravi does not eat food during the day
2. Ravi is growing fat
The arthapatti to reconcile these two statements would be: Ravi eats at night.
Similarly, the arthapatti to reconcile the statements about God having and not having a form is: God has no material form, but has a spiritual form.
The same principle applies to the descriptions of God as nirguna. There are also verses describing him as saguna. So, the nirguna description implies that he has no material qualities and the saguna description conveys that he has spiritual qualities.
At this point, we may wonder: “Why do the Vedic scriptures contain such contradictory statements at all? Wouldn’t it be much better if they gave truths clearly and unambiguously?”
These seemingly contradictory descriptions serve the vital purpose of challenging our preconceptions and stimulating us to rise to a higher understanding.
Consider the following Ishopanishad verse ( mantra 8 ) :
sa paryagac chukram akayam avranam
ashnaviram shuddham apapa-viddham
This verse describes God as akayam (having no body) and then as ashnaviram (having no veins). If God has no body, why is there a need to describe that he has no veins? Isn’t it obvious that someone who has no body has no veins? The Ishopanishad wants us to rise to the higher understanding that God has a special kind of body that has no veins.
The specialty of God’s body is conveyed by describing him as akayam because the word kaya (body) has several connotations that do not apply to God. A body is that which:
• Is separate from the real person, the soul
• Is a product of the past karma of the soul
• Tends to degrade the soul by stimulating bodily desires
• Has to be given up in due course of time
None of these apply to God, whose body and soul are nondifferent, who has no karmic past, who is never degraded and whose body is eternal. Because we tend to superimpose our material conceptions on God, the scriptures sometimes use negative words like akayam to emphasize that God does not have any body – like ours. Why is it important to understand the difference between our material form and God’s spiritual form? Material forms are temporary, so attraction to them leads only to eventual frustration. But God’s form is eternal, so attraction to his form leads to ultimate fulfillment. The negative scriptural statements that God doesn’t have a form (like ours) save us from the frustration and the positive scriptural statements lead us to the fulfillment.
There are some who concede that God is a person, but insist that he doesn’t have a form.
Let’s examine this proposition. We are all children or servants or parts or emanations from God; whatever way different religions word our relationship with him, the essential point is that we are dependent on him and subordinate to him. We are persons and have forms; if God is a formless person, then he would become lesser than us. Can the whole be less than the part? Obviously not. Moreover, the scriptural references we discussed earlier didn’t talk about God’s personality alone, but also about his form: his eyes, hands, legs and so on. So this argument is both illogical and non-scriptural.
People may come up with many such fallacious arguments. Instead of bothering to refute all of them individually, it’s better to understand why such arguments originate. It is because the human mind cannot grasp how God can have a form and still be unlimited. But, if to preserve God’s all-pervading nature, we argue that God doesn’t have any form whatsoever, then we are confronted with another perplexity: without a form, how would he be located anywhere at all?
People try to imagine God as all-pervading and then try to figure out how a form can be imposed on that all-pervasive being. But form is not a quality imposed on God like red paint is a quality imposed on an artificial rose made from white paper. Rather, form is an inherent quality of God, like the red color is an inherent quality of a natural rose. The inherent quality of an object is called as its vishesha and has been elaborately analyzed by the great saintly scholars in the Vedic tradition, especially Madhvacharya and Baladeva Vidyabhushana.
God as the Three-in-One Composite
Shrila Jiva Goswami has compiled the classic philosophical treatise, the Sat-Sandarbha, based on the teachings of Srimad Bhagavatam as explained by Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. In this book, he elaborately analyzes a sutra-like succinct verse from the Shrimad Bhagavatam (1.2.11): “Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this nondual substance Brahman, Paramatma or Bhagavan.” This verse reveals a profound a tripartite ontology of the Absolute Truth that reconciles various contradictory attributes of God like form and limitlessness by integrating them into a harmonious whole.
The various divine conceptions in the world’s wisdom-traditions can be classed under three broad categories:
1. The all-pervading energy (Brahman): What quantum physicists call as the one energy-sea that underlies everything in the universe, what the mystics refer to as the impersonal oneness of all things and beings, the Vedic scriptures explain that to be Brahman, the all-pervading energetic effulgent light.
2. The inner guide (Paramatma): Many spiritual traditions talk about an aspect of God immanent within us. What the Christian tradition refers as the empowering Holy Spirit, the Vedic scriptures call as the Paramatma, the inner guide who mediates the interactions between the spiritual soul and the material body.
3. The supreme person (Bhagavan): Saints throughout history have lovingly connected with God as the Supreme Person. That Lord whom Moses called Jehovah, whom Jesus referred to as his father in heaven, whom Mohammed praised as Allah, the Vedic scriptures reveal as Krishna, God manifesting as the all-attractive transcendental Supreme Person.
Here’s an analogy to illustrate this unity-in-diversity of the Absolute Truth.
Three rural students arrive one night at a railway platform with their teacher eager to have their first sight of a train. After a long wait, when they see a bright light in the distance, the first student asks their teacher, “Is that the train?” When the teacher nods, he departs, convinced that he has seen the train. When the train comes closer, the second student notices the engine – the form behind the light – and asks, “Is that the train?” When the teacher nods again, he too leaves, confident of having seen the train. When the train finally comes into the station, the third student sees the train in its fullness with its driver and multiple compartments and passengers and, with the encouragement of his teacher, even meets and befriends the driver.
Analogically, the bright front-light of the train represents the effulgent spiritual substratum, Brahman and the engine with its concrete shape represents the localized, personalized divine substance, the Paramatma. The third student’s experience is akin to meeting the Supreme Person, Bhagavan, and developing a personal relationship with him. The teacher represents the wisdom-traditions, which give an answer commensurate with the seeker’s level of patience and commitment.
Thus, a proximate, holistic vision reveals a three-in-one Absolute Truth that integrates both the immanent and transcendent aspects as well as the personal and impersonal features.
This discussion is just a small sample of the rigorous logical and scriptural analysis through which the acharyas (exemplary devotee-scholars) like Ramanujacharya, Madhavacharya, Jiva Goswami, Baladeva Vidyabhushana and Srila Prabhupada have established unequivocally that God is a person with a transcendental form. Once this truth becomes indubitably established in our heart, we can wholeheartedly aspire to love and serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna, and gradually achieve prema, divine love, which alone will eternally and completely satisfy our heart’s longing for happiness.
(Adapted from the author’s book “Idol Worship or Ideal Worship?”)
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