Vedānta: Concept of God, Isvara, Brahman

(Adapted from Introduction to the Upanishads by Dr. Radhakrishnan)

The Rig Veda is the root text upon which the other Vedas depend. The Rig consist of hymns to different deities i.e. Agni, Mitra, Varuna, Indra and so on.

The hymns were used in Sacrifices in which oblations of clarified butter and other substances were offered into the sacrificial fire.

These devas were conceived of as the Principalities underlying and governing the different phenomenon of nature, such as fire, sun, wind, rain etc, on which life itself, agriculture, and prosperity depended.

Nature, though presided over by different devas, is subject to the cosmic law (called Rta), which regulates the whole world, the process of nature and all living beings.

In the sūktas each of these devas was praised and extolled with the same epithets and declared to be ‘the Supreme’.

Although the Vedic religion appears to be polytheistic in its approach, there is the peculiarity in that each of the many gods is praised and extolled as the Supreme Being, the Creator of the universe and the Lord of all the Gods etc.

The portfolios of cosmic management were also not unique to one deva only as in Greek mythology, but were reallocated according to the devotion of the poet.

Max Muller who was one of the first western scholars to translate the Vedic hymns, coined the term ‘Henotheism’ to differentiate the Vedic attitude from simple polytheism. Henotheism means that one god is elevated above all other gods to the post of Supreme Being.

Whether one considers the Vedic religion is polytheism or henotheism, depends largely on the perceived basis of this phenomenon. If praising and exalting of each god to the supreme position is not based on the real belief in his supremacy but only a willful exaggeration and poetic hyperbole, then it is simple polytheism.

If on the other hand, the Vedic seers really believed in what they have said in their hymns, henotheism would be a better name.

In actual fact in Rig Veda we come across many passages where it is clearly stated that the different gods are only manifestations of one Ultimate Reality called by various names such as Agni, Yama etc.

ekam sad viprā bahudhā vadanti. ….

The Truth is ONE but the wise describe it in various ways

Many scholars have observed a clear development in Vedic thought.

  • They have postulated that the idea of God gradually evolved from polytheism through henotheism, to reach its culmination in monotheism.
  • This hypothesis may be true but henotheism is not merely a transitional phenomenon.
  • Indian monotheism even in its most developed form, retains the belief that though the Godhead is one, it has countless manifestations in the many devas, anyone of which may be worshiped as a form of the Supreme Godhead.

Even today in India, we have five divergent cults of the Saivism, Vaiṣṇavism, Sāktaism, and the Gānapatya and Saurya cults. All flourishing side by side but all based on a philosophy of one Supreme Godhead.

Indian monotheism in its living forms, from the Vedic age till now, has always believed in unity of the gods in the Godhead.

In Rig Veda, the belief in this fundamental unity of all gods is only a part of a greater theology which can be more clearly learnt from the famous Puruṣa-sūkta.

The Puruṣa-sūkta (Rig Veda 10.90) reveals that all existence i.e. wealth, heavens, planets, gods, living and non-living objects is conceived here as the parts of one great Being (Puruṣa), who pervades the perceptible world, but also stands beyond it. In Him all that is, has been and will be, are united.

The poetic insight of the hymn, not only indicates that the universe is one organic whole, but that the Supreme Reality is both immanent and transcendent (God pervades the world, yet He is not exhausted, thereby, He remains also beyond it).

In terms of Western Theology, this concept is called pan-en-theism (pan-all, en-in, theos-God) not pantheism — that is, all is not equal to God, but all is in God, who is greater than all.

This one hymn, reveals a variety of ideals that inspired the Vedic mind; monism, pan-en-theism and organic symbiosis of the world.

In another hymn of Nāsadīya Sūkta (Rig Veda 10.120), we come across the concept of the Impersonal Absolute. Here, the reality underlying all existence the primal One, from which every thing originates can not be described, it says, either as nonexistent or as existent (na asat, no sat). It is the concept of the Indeterminate Absolute, which is the reality underlying all things, but is in itself indescribable.

When we try to establish the relationship between the idea of the Ultimate Reality as a Person and the concept of it as an Indeterminate Absolute, we find that even in the description of the Ultimate Reality as a Personal Being, there is mention of its transcendent aspect, which cannot be described in terms of the objects we perceive in the world.

Both Personal and Impersonal are conceived here as the two aspects of the same Reality.

Brahman – Ground of Being

‘Verily, in the beginning this universe was Brahman.’ (BU 1:4:10-11; Maitri 6:17).

BRAHMAN is derived from the root bṛh which means to grow big or to expand, so it means the Great Expanse or the Immensity.

In the Taittirya Upaṇiṣad It is defined as:–

yato̱ vā i̱māni̱ bhūtā̍ni̱ jāya̍nte | yena̱ jātā̍ni̱ jīva̍nti | yat praya̍nty-a̱bhisaṁvi̍śanti | tad viji̍jñāsasva | tad brahmeti̍ |

“That from whence all these beings, arise, That by which, being born, they exist, and That into which they merge upon departing, seek to know That, that is Brahman.”

So what is being described in this verse is the Ground-of-Being, the Unified Field from which everything arises, in which everything exists and into which it returns upon disintegration.

According to the Vedas, consciousness precedes matter — evolution and involution are two phases of the same dynamic. Consciousness gradually becomes more contracted and concrete and finally emerges as gross matter – like subtle water vapor becoming solid tangible ice.

The Four Hypostases of Brahman

Māṇḍukya Upaniṣad says that BRAHMAN is catuṣ-pāt, ‘four-footed’, and its four phases are termed: Brahman, Īśvara, Hiranya-garbha and Virāj.

We thus get the four hypostases of the Ultimate Reality:—

(1) The Absolute Ground-of-Being, Brahman

(2) The Creative Force, Īśvara,

(3) The differentiated consciousness, Hiranya-garbha,

(4) The Cosmos, jagat, virāj.

The Absolute in itself, independent of any manifestation is called Brahman.

When It is thought of as having become the material universe, it is called Virāj;

When it is thought of as the differentiated consciousness everywhere and in everything it is called Hiraṇya-garbha;

When It is thought of as a personal God, creating, protecting and destroying the universe, it is called Īśvara. (Īśvara becomes Brahmā, Viṣṇu and Śiva when these three functions are taken separately).

The Absolute is an inscrutable integral unity in which these conceptual distinctions are made – it is a deconstruction in order to understand the relationship of the different phases.

If we are able to hold these four poises together, the conflicting views which are emphasised exclusively by the different schools of Vedanta become reconciled.

1. Īśvara:

The Supreme Lord. Īśvara, is the personification of Brahman who produces the universe. The Personality of the Godhead is not to be conceived of in human terms. He is not simply a greatly magnified person. God is personal, but, personal in an incomprehensible way. The conception of His personality surpasses all our views of personality.

Śaṅkarācārya views the personal Īśvara as a ‘lower’ form of Brahman the Impersonal Absolute. The two, nirguna-brahman (Brahman devoid of qualities) and saguna-īśvara(Brahman with qualities) are not different — they are the reverse and obverse side of the same Brahman.

Absolute Brahman is space-less and time-less potentiality, Īśvara is the vast self-awareness comprehending and apprehending every possibility.

In Īśvara we have the two elements — wisdom (masculine) and power (feminine), Brahmā & SarasvatīŚiva & Śakti, Viṣṇu & Lakṣmī.

By means of the feminine – Śakti – the Supreme who is immeasurable and indefinable voluntarily becomes contracted, measured and defined. It is power or śakti that ultimately controls wisdom and limits it.

2. Hiraṇya-garbha – the Golden Germ.

Hiraṇya-garbha is the collective World-self and expresses itself through all individual sentient beings or jīvātmas. It manifests the multitude of forms contained within Itself. It is the thread, sutrātman, on which all beings and all worlds are strung like the beads of a necklace. It is also called Prajāpati – lord of beings. It is like a picture which is composed of millions of pixels.

Śaṅkara begins his commentary on the Bhagavad-Gita with the verse:—

‘Nārāyaṇa (the Ground-of-Being) is beyond the unmanifest. The golden-egg (hiraṇya-garbha) is produced from the unmanifest. The earth with its seven continents and all other worlds are contained in the Cosmic Egg.’

In the Rig Veda 10:121:1 — Hiraṇya-garbha is the golden-germ which enters into creation after the first act of the creator. Hiraṇya-garbha has within itself the seeds of all things – the eternal archetype of Ideas – also known as nāma.

Brahman is the unity of all that is named (B.U. 1:5:17). Hiraṇya-garbha is kārya brahmā or “effect Brahman” as distinct from Īśvara who is kāraṇa Brahman or “causal Brahman”. Hiraṇya-garbha arises when the Cosmos emerges and is dissolved whenever the Cosmos is withdrawn, whereas Īśvara is not subject to these changes.

3. Virāj

Virāj is the Divine, immanent in matter. The act of self-manifestation is the free expression and self-determination of the Divine mind, iccha-mātram. The material world is the manifestation of Hiranya-garbha and the projection of Īśvara.

Why should the Absolute Brahman, perfect, infinite, self-fulfilled, desiring nothing, project itself into the world? It is not compelled to do so. It may have the potentiality but it is not bound or compelled by it. It is free to move or not to move, to project itself into forms or remain formless. If it still indulges its power of creativity, it is because of its free choice as ‘sport’ (līlā)

While the World-self (hiraṇya-garbha) and the material world are organically related and inter-dependent, there is no such relationship between the Supreme Lord (Īśvara) and the world, for if there was, then the infinite would be conditioned by the finite.

The Absolute Brahman is śūnya or ‘zero’ — the sum total of all possibilities, and through its creative power one of these possibilities is freely chosen for accomplishment.

Sat is used to denote the primordial Being in its undifferentiated unity, Satya is the same being immanent in its differentiations.

The Universal Self is like the sun which is the eye of the whole universe and is untouched by the defects of our vision. He is said to fill the whole Universe and yet extends beyond its confines.

‘Verily motionless like a lone tree does the God stand in the heaven, and yet by Him is this whole world filled’ (S.Up 3:9).

Personal vs Impersonal

There is an on-going argument between the schools of Vedanta as to which is superior — the Personal God (saguṇa īśvara) or the Impersonal Absolute (nirguṇa Brahman).

In the metrical Upaniṣads, as in the Bhagavad-Gita, the Personal is said to be superior —

puruṣān na paraṃ kiñcit — there is nothing beyond the Person.

It is doubtful whether the author of the Brahma Sūtra accepted the distinction of sagunaand nirguna in regard to Brahman. Even the so-called nirguna Brahman is also not without determinations.

Bādarāyana makes a distinction between the super-personal (apuruṣa-vidhah) and the personal (puruṣa-vidha), i.e. between Brahman and Īśvara. The latter is not a fancy or a concession to the weak in mind (as stated by Śaṅkara). The nirākāra (formless), and the sākāra (with form), are just different aspects of the same Reality.

The distinction between the two is practical. The spiritual practitioner can choose either the nirguṇa or saguṇa in his spiritual practices (as declared by Krishna in Chapter 12 of the Gita).

We have thus the four sides of one whole:

(1) The transcendental absolute.

(2) The causal principle of all differentiation;

(3) The innermost essence of the world; and

(4) The manifest world.

They are all co-existent and not alternating poises where we have either a quiescent Brahman or a creative Lord. These are simultaneous sides of the ONE Reality.


Author: Rami Sivan, Priest, Dharma teacher, counsellor, Gov. Advisor (1998-present)

May 1st 2020