Some Thoughts on God in Hinduism

A  key message of Hinduism is that unlike mathematics and argumentation, lived life as well as visions of the Unknown are not built in a framework of rigid rationality, but in an elastic web of contradictions and complementarities. One who has grown up in Hindu culture is thus able to withstand contradictions in one’s own belief-system and behavior more easily that people brought up in many other cultures. This is what enables Hindus to pay respects to all gods, not just Hindu, but Christian and Jewish, Islamic and whatever. This is why Hindu atheists can still sing bhajan songs, prostrate before an icon of  Ganesh, and invoke Rama and Krishna freely: a capacity that people of few other groups enjoy.
This has advantages as well as disadvantages. The disadvantage is that it can drive your opponent nuts when you argue about these matters. It also allows many Hindus to tolerate the most absurd and silly superstitions. It is okay to decide on the time for a rocket launch on the basic of astrology. But it also makes us morally ambivalent, sometimes incapable of taking a firm stance on issues. The advantage is that Hindus can be more tolerant of the nonsensical beliefs of other groups than is possible for most people
Elusive Divinity is given form and substance through Puranic im­agery, If gods are endowed with many arms and heads, it is to re­mind us of divine omnipotence; if monkeys and serpents, rivers and mountains are worshipped, it is to affirm the omnipresence of the divine principle. Indeed, in the Hindu vision, every aspect of the world is an expression of the Cosmic undercurrent. As the mystic poet sees the world in a grain of sand, the religious seeker discovers god in every atom of the physical world. If it is religious awakening to see god in everything, the Hindu framework goads us to that wisdom. That is why, paraphrasing the Vedic aphorism, we may say, God is one, the Puranas call it by various names.
There is also much esoteric meaning in the forms and faces, sub­tle symbolism in the genesis and doings of Hindu gods. In the Puranic tales and epic allusions it is suggested again and again that divinity is by definition that which transcends the constraints of space and time, of causality and conservation, even of ethical categories. A god may be good and bad, beautiful and ugly, merciful and cruel, majestically grand and dwarfishly small, handsome as a hero and plain as a tortoise. Brahma grants boons to the deserving, yet schemes to deprive a miscreant of what he has won. Vishnu is majestic and manly, but he also becomes gynomorphic as Mohini. Siva is austere and ascetic, yet lusts for Parvati, he is supremely continent and erotical­ly virile.  Puranic gods love and hate one another, collaborate and com­pete, cooperate and are in conflict.
Mutual incompatibilities arise from our narrow perspectives. But in the cosmic grandeur they all dissolve. The same vast sky can be pitch black at night and gloriously bright at noon. We can float on the ocean, and also sink to its dark depths.
Such are the inspirations behind the panoramic pantheon of Hin­duism. In our own times, when physicists wonder how the same elec­tron can be both particle and wave, the ancient Hindu insight comes in handy to resolve the paradox. The world results, not from con­tradictions, but from complementarities. There are no absolutes. Our descriptions depend on our reference system. Two valued logic is useful and appropriate in certain contexts, but they are too restricted in the vision of the infinite.
With all that, when a devout Hindu thinks of God, it is a faceless, ornament-less, vahana-less, invisible personage that comes to mind. The God one invokes in silent prayer or closed-eye meditation is often not one of the Puranic deities, nor even the all-too-abstract Brahman, but a very real personal God who has no features, nor forms. If the Puranic gods are like integers from one to infinity, the personal God of the practicing Hindu is like the symbol x in algebra         which could stand for anything, yet is not anything in particular. This God is refer­red to as bhagvaan.


CNN’s broadcast (Sunday March 5, 2017) on Hinduism by a so-called religious scholar did disservice to the cause of peace and understanding. With obviously no knowledge of Sanskrit or Tamil, he had the gall to report on Hinduism to a public already naive about Non-Christian religions, and can hardly distinguish a Sikh from a Muslim, at a time when anti-immigrant passions are running high,  prompted largely by the extremists of the religion to which this supposed scholar is affiliated. His crass and callous snap shots of an enormously complex and multifaceted religion could be charitably interpreted as arising from superficial book knowledge, and in more sinister terms they can be interpreted as a wanton effort to ignite anti-Hindu  sentiments in the country.

The program was a downright affront to a great religious tradition which, unlike the tradition to which this interpreter of religion may be more familiar, preaches respect and reverence for all spiritual paths. India, with its overwhelming Hindu majority is home to millions of others from different faiths, and has been so for centuries.

The United Nations has thought it fit to include in its motto a quote from  a Hindu poet on humanism.   The scriptures of Hinduism are reckoned among the most poetic and philosophical in the world: from Schopenhauer to Emerson, and countless others, informed thinkers have paid homage to the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita.  The deep insights of Hindu thinkers  into the ultimate nature of reality have found resonance in sophisticated modern physics: The CERN in Geneva has acknowledged this.

The CNN “expert” on Hinduism is obviously ignorant of all this. His expertise seems to be in projecting pictures that titillate the superficial, ill-informed, and perhaps malicious tourist. This show was regarded  as the height of public affront to a billion people. Whether President Trump’s characterization of CNN as a purveyor of fake-news was appropriate or not in the context in which it was made, it was certainly so in this case.

It is important to emphasize that humanity’s cultural legacy is vast. Every nation and group has created art and music, plays and poetry, science and philosophy, dance and delicacy. Thanks to the marvels of technology transfer of information has become much easier. Through our powerful modes of communication it is not impossible to educate the masses on whatever is grand and glorious in every culture and civilization, in every race and religion of  the human family. We have the resources to educate and  enlighten humanity as a whole. We can make people  better understand and appreciate  the cultural richness in all groups.

Contrary to the hopes and wishful dreams of humanists that is not what is happening. Instead, we seem to be heading towards a world of mutual hate and suspicion, devoid of scant respect for the traditions of others,  displaying  religious intolerance of the most abject kind. One reason is programs like this. It is most unfortunate that a respectable medium like CNN did not recognize the motives of this “scholar”.

We are at the threshold of an age of narrow nationalism and sectarian bigotry.   There are at least two reasons for this throw-back to religious intolerance. One is the inability or unwillingness of religious leaders to preach basic tolerance to their followers; the other is the disservice done by the media by focusing on what is wrong and grotesque in various faith systems. No religion is spotless but all religions have their nobler and uplifting aspects too. Responsible groups should know which to emphasize to  whom and when.

I raise my voice of protest not only as a member of the Hindu tradition, but equally as a member of the human family who is alarmed by the divisive trends that are poisoning the world today; and by the fact that a news-providing institution like CNN would air a program of this misleading kind. I can only hope that they will not ask an ignorant Hindu to interpret Islam to the American public.

8 March 2017