The meaning of God in Vedanta
To understand Bagavan (God) it takes a certain way of looking at what “is”. It is not your usual way of looking at something. As a product made by someone. You see the jagat (the universe) and wonder by whom it was made – by Bagavan (God). The eyes go up immediately. Unless this orientation goes, there is no Bhagavan (God). The question of where Bhagavan (God) is should not even arise. “What ‘is’ Bhagavan (God)?” alone should be the question. “What ‘is’?” will yield everything…. You do not search for Ishwara (God) outside of what you see. That orientation does not work. Therefore question, “what is it I see here?” In what you know , Ishwara (God) reveals himself.
The above quote comes from an extraordinary talk given by Swami Dayananda’s on Manana bhava.
When it comes to the notion of God we are confronted with the idea that God is a being separate from creation and is to be found in some other world beyond ours. Or we have a modern version of the same thing, which tells us there is no God; instead there is a spiritual reality beyond our minds, which will answer all our problems. The understanding of God unfolded by Traditional Vedanta is different from both views. The following is an attempt to express what I have drawn from several conversations on this topic with my teacher Swamini Atmaprakashananda.
We experience ourselves as individuals: my life, my thoughts, my feelings, my body, my possessions, my wife and my kids. Everything is either supportive of me, against me or indifferent to me. What I take to be me are my acquired notions about myself, other people and the world. My individuality is made up of notions built into me as the result of past experiences. I look at everything through these notions: “Life sucks. He is a fool. I am right. People should be this way. I should be that way. Life ought to be like this. They are mean. I am better than others. I am less then others. Life is hard. Life is easy. You can’t trust anybody. I am no good. I am not good enough.” The list goes on… These notions don’t just exist in our heads, they are ways of seeing ourselves, others and the world. They are what Swami Dayananda calls our subjective world. They make up our subjectivity, which we live out moment by moment.
Not only do our dogmatic and prejudicial notions make up our subjectivity, but also our desires are centred around what we believe we need to make us secure, peaceful and happy. When these desires are frustrated we can’t but hate. When we are in danger of losing what we believe we need for happiness and security we are full of fear, and when we lose what we think we need we feel sad.
Swami Dayananda suggests that this individuality has as its basis hurt and guilt. The reason for this is that we, as individuals, have been formed in no small measure by the destructive things people have done to us and by the destructive things we have done to others.
Part of this individuality of ours is made up of the accumulated hurt of a lifetime – and from this arises a tremendous, mostly unacknowledged, fear of other people that determines so much of how we relate to them. Everybody, consciously or unconsciously, reminds us of those who have hurt us.
Guilt makes up so much of our individuality; it is deadly. Self-hatred, the punishing residue of our destructive acts, makes us hate other people, and we express that hatred in judgementalism, criticism, condemnation and all kinds of verbal attack (typically in the form of character assassination) whether in front of others or behind their backs. When we project our self- hatred onto others and make them ‘worthy’ of our wrath and criticism – and of course our punishing acts – we feel right and good within ourselves; but we harm others in the process and accumulate more guilt, which increases our hate even more.
This individuality of ours is the source of endless conflict and friction between ourselves, others and the world. It is also a world of our own and is completely subjective. However, our individuality has one predominant characteristic: even though it is the source of insecurity, emotional disturbance and unhappiness, it feels completely right; and when we look out from this individuality, we have a very convincing experience that we are being completely objective. We never see that we are not living in the world as it actually is, but rather are living in our own particular view of it, which we believe is everything. Consequently, due to our very individuality we are cut off from everything.
When we are living a life as a separate individual, we are necessarily cut off from the total. We are one object among many and are all alone in a struggle with what is not ourselves – other people and situations. This individuality is the set-up for conflict and friction. In fact, it does not exist except when it is resisting facts as they are. Resisting what ‘is’ is the basis of our individuality: “How could they do that to me? Why am I so stupid? I just hate that! If only I could have that, then I would be happy. I hope that won’t happen. It is so annoying. I wish I were happy. I am afraid and I don’t want to be. They are so up themselves. I can’t stand people like that. I’m no good.” When we are living out our individuality we are never in harmony with what ‘is’.
Swami Dayananda distinguishes between the world that is my own projection and arises from me, and the world as it is, which is the Lord’s ’creation‘. He suggests that while we live in the context of our subjectivity we are not available for hearing how things really are. We will just turn anything we hear from the Vedantic teaching into our already existing ideas and build an ever-greater subjective edifice of individuality.
This existential condition of being separate from the whole makes friction and conflict ever recurring facts of our lives. As any honest examination will tell us, we are constantly in friction with what is happening. “I don’t like this; I can’t stand this; why do they act that way; you are wrong; I hate feeling down; why am I being treated this way; I wish I could be happy; I hope that doesn’t happen,” etc. Every instance of unhappiness or suffering – from being mildly bored and dissatisfied to being intensely angry, anxious and depressed – always begins with our resistance to facts. We always think it is the way things are that is the problem, hence our resistance. While we are caught in the false conviction that the facts of the situation are the problem, and hence the cause of our suffering, we can’t help but resist. This way of looking at the world is common to us all as human beings; left uncorrected, it will remain so.
Our psychological suffering has as its basis the non-acceptance of facts. When we discover a relationship with the whole in which there is no psychological conflict with facts as they are, the quality of our minds undergoes a radical and fundamental change. There is a fundamental rule here upon which we can always rely. When we find ourselves involved in any form whatsoever of psychological friction or conflict, we are involved in living out our subjectivity and isolation, which makes everything we experience false.
I am not talking about knowledge of the truth of the whole. Rather of coming into a relationship with the whole that, relatively speaking, allows our minds to remain secure, peaceful and satisfied and thereby capable of listening to the Vedantic teaching. Some people are of the view that there is no necessity to resolve the issue of our separated individuality, which is cut off from the whole. Their view is that the mind does not need to be prepared. It can know the truth that sets us free while remaining in a condition of separation and isolation from the whole, a condition which by its nature continually produces arrogance, self-deception, hatred, anxiety, depression and endless friction and conflict. The fact is, our cut-off-from-the-whole individuality is all of these things. All this pain and conflict that we take ourselves to be is what makes up our isolated subjectivity.
The preparation needed to receive the Vedantic teaching consists of a definite shift from living in our own world, which arises from our individuality and therefore is subjective, to living in the world as it is given, which in ‘Vedantic-speak’ is called Ishwara’s (God’s) world.
At this point we come to the question of God and all the terms associated with this word like scripture, prayer, prayerfulness, worship, surrender, devotion, devotee and grace. When I started in Vedanta I wanted the teaching on the self. The religious-sounding stuff seemed a bit of a cultural thing that belonged to the Indian culture alone and was something I could do without, thank you very much. They seemed like unnecessary cultural trappings. But are they unnecessary? Now I see these notions in an entirely new light. In the context of preparing the mind to receive the teaching in a clear and undistorted way, these religious words or notions refer to the necessary ingredients for a way of life that frees us from our subjectivity, which is our insecurity, emotional disturbances, antagonism, unhappiness, as well as our isolation from the whole. Understanding these vital ingredients brings us into harmony with the world as given. Our minds move from being subjective to being objective.
When I started my Vedanta studies Swamini Atmaprakashananda said something which seemed a bit strange at the time but which is now making much more sense to me. She basically said that instead of relying on myself I had to rely on the scripture, teacher and on God, but that ultimately I would find I had all along have been relying on nothing other than myself. When we talk about relying on scriptures, teacher and God we have to be very clear what we mean. We have to ‘purify’ these terms in the sense of removing from them associations and connotations that don’t belong to them in the context of preparing our minds for Vedantic study.
A common notion we have of God, if we live in the West, is of the being that made the world. Certain religions hold that you have to believe in this god otherwise you are in trouble, and some think you go to a place like hell if you don’t believe. This notion of God requires belief as a foundation.
In Vedanta, the notion of God is completely different. The reality of God is discernible at all times and exists right where you are and as you are. This is because all is God. We are all included in God for there is only God. The all-pervading presence or reality that is God does not exist in some place away from us, because the very presence or reality of everything that is here at this moment is God. God or reality sustains all, just as water sustains the ocean wave or clay the clay pot. Reality is never absent: even when the form it takes changes, reality itself remains unchanged – hence our ever-continuing, moment by moment sense of the ‘realness’ of the world. This does not require belief but understanding.
The first thing to see here is that this Reality that may be referred to as God is not some mystical ‘sweetness and light’.
The word God refers to the wholeness of the entire cosmos, which of course includes us. This understanding of God comes from the Vedantic scriptures. Swami Dayananda refers to the world as ‘the given’. This simply means everything that is present in any given experience is the given. But the tradition of which he is a part also teaches a very remarkable thing. The presence of the given is the presence of the Giver. In other words, the presence of all that is given right now, the trees, the keyboard, the sounds, my body, my mind, my fears, my antagonisms is the very presence of the Giver the Lord. Just as when we see a gold ring the presence of the ring is the presence of the gold so too anything we are looking at or experiencing is the presence of God.
So here we have it. According to the teaching, when you come into contact with the given you come in contact with the Giver. The reason is that the presence of the given is the presence of the Giver. Just so there is no confusion, we are not talking about a philosophical concept here or a religious one. We are taking about a clear and undistorted understanding of Reality. We are talking about a conscious contact with the given which is at the same time a conscious contact with the presence of the Giver. So why is this so important? Because conscious contact with the given as the given transforms our minds from being subjective to being objective.
The important thing here is that when objectivity takes up all the room the isolated and separate individuality has no place to be. Only a mind that is objective in this sense can properly receive the Vedantic teaching. Becoming aware of the presence of the given as the given frees us from resistance and friction, and at the same time brings us to a very discernible awareness of the presence of the Giver. This being aware of the given as the given, and aware of the presence of the Giver, is called by Swami Dayananda prayerfulness. This condition of prayerfulness is the result of an understanding of what God is and the value of living in the context of Reality – not in our subjectivity.
It is an extraordinary thing to be very upset about something and right in the middle of it become aware of the given as the given and simultaneously become aware of Reality. The whole situation is exactly the same but everything is different. The conscious contact with the presence of God lifts you out of your subjectivity. Swami Dayananda says there is less of ‘me’ and more of Ishwara (God). Western psychology deals with the individual and all their various issues one by one. Prayerfulness ‘takes out’ the separated individuality all in one hit by turning away from it through coming into contact with what is. When what is takes up all the room we are no longer there with all our fears, hatreds and sadnesses. Much more sensible really! The thing you find is that the more you appreciate prayerfulness in the sense I am talking about, the more prayerful you become. This is not because you are pious or holy. It has nothing to do with that. It is like being in a wasteland where it is cold and uncomfortable and discovering a warm room, which frees you from the burdens of a hard and painful life. You come to value that resting place more than ever, and as you do you find yourself turning to it more and more.