One and the same
Whatever god, deity, saviour or prophet we may worship or pray to in this world, the common factor is surely the quality of surrender in our hearts.
The major trinity of gods in India consists of Brâhma, Vishnu and Shiva. In the ancient scriptures, the Brâhma Purana states that the first form of god was Brâhma and that he then created Vishnu and Shiva and all the other gods. In the Vishnu Purana it is Vishnu who creates Brâhma and Shiva and so on, and in the Shiva Purana it is Shiva who is the original form. The Devi-Bhagavata Purana attributes the origin of all the others to the Mother goddess.
From this it is clear that all images of god can be seen as different forms of whichever one you choose to be the supreme.
Brâhma is said to be the creator of the universe, Vishnu the preserver or sustainer, and Shiva the destroyer and regenerator of life. These roles, you may observe, correspond to the primary modes of nature or matter, - every form that comes into existence, lasts for a period of time, and then ceases to be.
Not many temples in India are found to be dedicated to Brâhma, perhaps because his work is already done, although his image is popular in Thailand. Brâhma’s daughter, Saraswati, however, is widely worshipped as the mother goddess of learning, music and the arts.
Vishnu, Shiva and their consorts, however are the major deities worshipped throughout the length and breadth of India.
Vishnu, who carries a discus, lotus flower, mace and conch shell in his four hands, is said to have ten incarnations including Rama, Krishna and the Buddha, of which the last, Kalki, is yet to come.
Arjuna, whenever there is a decline in righteousness, and unrighteousness is in the ascendant, then I body myself forth.
For the protection of the virtuous, for the destruction of evil-doers, and for establishing Dharma (righteousness) on a firm footing, I am born from age to age.”
One amusing story goes that having rescued the world from the depths of the ocean in his third incarnation as a boar, he settled down happily with a sow and their piglets, wallowing in the mud, and quite forgetting his role as a god. At the behest of the other gods, Shiva came and pierced him with his trident, whereupon he returned laughing to heaven.
Primarily Vishnu is worshipped in the form of his two famous incarnations as Rama with a bow, and Krishna with a flute.
The stories of both have given rise to the religion of love, or Bhakti Yoga, whereby devotees strive to perfect an intensely personal relationship with their chosen form. Both represent the perfection of being human, - kingship and nobility, being loving, righteous and wise in all things, and teaching that god is attainable through thoughts, words and actions dedicated to him or her in love. They are both featured in child form, youth and kingship.
I cannot attempt to tell their stories, the great epics of India, here, except for those that may pop up now and then by way of illustration. People in India and elsewhere never tire of hearing the story and teachings of Rama. In addition to the ‘Ramayana’ of the great sage Valmiki, written in Sanskrit, there is also the ‘Ramacharitamanasa’ of Tulsidas rendered in Hindi. Adjunct to these is the highly esoteric teaching of ‘Yoga Vasishtha’, in which the sage Vasishtha, guru of Rama’s family, addresses the despondency and world-weariness that afflicts Rama as young man.
In particular, the teachings of Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, often alluded to as the bible of Hinduism, once again emphasise the oneness of all deities in Arjuna’s vision of his universal form.
O infinite lord of celestials, abode of the universe, you are that which is existent, and that which is non-existent, and also that which is beyond both.
You are the prime deity, the most ancient person; you are the ultimate resort of this universe. You are both the knower and the knowable, and the highest abode. It is you who pervade the universe, assuming endless forms.
Laxmi, Vishnu’s consort is known as the mother goddess of wealth and good fortune, presiding over the cash-boxes of merchants and greeted with lights adorning every home for her visit at the time of Diwali, when gambling is also allowed. Yes, even money is a form of god, but not vice versa! Finally, Vishnu rides on Garuda, king of the birds and enemy of serpents, who remains a significant icon throughout South-East Asia, bearing testimony to the former spread of Hinduism.
Shiva and Shakti
Shiva, to my mind personifies the archetypal father, at once austere, yet having a heart so tender that it takes so little to please. Indeed he is the father of Ganesha and Kartikeya, and yet he appears physically as the antithesis of Vishnu, wearing no crown but the matted hair of an ascetic and his body is smeared with ashes. He symbolises the renunciation of all worldly things as being transitory and a distraction in the quest for true selfhood. He is most often seen in meditation posture, the crescent moon above his head from which the River Ganges flows. Around his neck is a cobra, its hood raised; he wears a bear, tiger or leopard skin and holds in one hand a mighty trident, and in another a dumaru, a small 2-sided drum. Beside him is Nandi, the great white Brâhma bull on which he rides, and behind him the lofty Himalayas. He also carries the small water pot of a Sadhu, - one who has renounced the world and wanders alone seeking the ultimate. He is known as Mahadeva, the great god, and the head once laid at his feet can hardly be expected to rise again.
He is said to reside on Mount Kailas in the far reaches of the Himalayas, - the same mountain that is known in Buddhism as Mount Meru, the centre of the universe.
In the myths and legends his followers are said to include all the odd, even ghoulish creatures that are regarded as freaks and normally rejected by human society.
Though never assuming a human incarnation as such, he is known to be visible in the form of the great sages and teachers of mankind and not least of all in those apparently crazy, dishevelled vagabonds who seem to have completely lost touch with this world and whose physical existence receives no credit, yet who, abiding in the spirit of reality itself, constitute a supreme blessing to the world.
For worshippers of Shiva and his consort, he symbolises god as pure formless spirit, and she his energy, or Shakti, who personifies god as the created universe of matter and energy and its endless play. In this respect, Shiva is usually worshipped in the form of a ‘Linga’, or stone phallus as the symbol of that principle from which creative energy receives its genesis.
Shakti has different forms; the first is Uma, a daughter of the first earthly king, whose sisters also married many of the other gods. Her father was upset that Shiva would not bow to him (for his own good) and consequently bore a grudge. When a great ceremony was planned he invited all his daughters and their husbands, but not Shiva and Uma. However, Uma saw her sisters, dressed in their best finery, on their way there, and really wanted to go too. She went to Shiva who said it wouldn’t be good to go uninvited, especially to a place where the host held a grudge against them; however she was so determined to go that Shiva relented, while still refusing to go himself. Uma arrived at the ceremony to find all the gods and her sisters there but no place for her or Shiva. Embarrassed in front of them all, and ashamed for not listening to her husband, Uma berated her father for not understanding the greatness of Shiva, and promptly departed her body, there and then, on the spot.
When this news reached Shiva he was understandably angry, and pulling out a lock of hair threw it to the ground, whereupon his Shakti in the form of Kali appeared. Kali is dark blue with long black dishevelled hair. The crescent moon adorns her head and she carries the trident too. She wields a machete-like sword and holds a decapitated head and a bowl to catch the blood. She wears a garland of severed heads and a skirt of human arms.
Shiva told Kali to go to the ceremony and wreak havoc, and that she did. Trying to protect them all, Vishnu threw his mighty discus, which nothing can stop, but she opened her mouth and swallowed it.
Thereafter she went on a rampage of destruction that threatened the very existence of the world and this prompted the other gods to run to Shiva to beg his help. In response he went and lay down in Kali’s path where she stepped on him and put out her bright red tongue in surprise and shame. Frozen as it were in this pose she is seen everywhere, - the spark of contact of her foot with Shiva’s prostrate form symbolising the energy and mayhem of the world that yet requires the touch of spirit for it to appear as real at all.
As Uma, Parvati, Kali and Durga, gentleness and terror, chaos and peace, the contradictions of life are reconciled in the great divine mother goddess. For Shiva and Shakti are one, – life and death, spirit and matter, creator and created, unity and diversity, - two sides of a coin that has no sides at all.
Now you see it, now you don’t.
Shiva is also known as Nataraj, the lord of rhythm and dance. If you whirl a flaming stick around it appears as a circle of fire. Given speed and vibration, the whole universe of matter appears. Surrounded by such a ring of fire, Shiva dances to the rhythm of his dumaru, alternately creating and destroying the universe.
Well, such are but a few of the main images of god to be found in India, surrounded by a cast of sages and human experiences that are the common heritage of millions and indeed, the world. The sheer size and breadth of this communal imagination astounds me, inclusive as it is of any and every devotion and wisdom within the human heart.
Most shrines and temples feature these primary deities who, having countless names themselves, are again known by many local names, not to mention the different epithets favoured by each devotee, hence the often quoted 3 million gods and goddesses of India. It is merely an extension to include the Buddha or Christ and the various Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. Quan Yin of Chinese origin, and all the names and forms of god and the numerous saints and sages worshipped throughout the world.
Of somewhat less importance, but just as much a part of Hindu mythology, are the ‘demi-gods’ who reside in a heaven of pleasure that is attainable for the duration of merit acquired on earth, and who manifest the powers of nature, - the sun, the wind, the seas, fire, the passion of love, time, death and so on. Their king is Indra and they exist in an eternal rivalry or counter balance with the Asuras or demons whose realm may also to be experienced as the result of human ‘demerit’. Despite their dominant characteristics however, neither have a monopoly over virtue or vice, and wisdom or desire may manifest in either, - indeed both have a preceptor or ‘guru’. Nor do they represent a permanent state, and on the exhaustion of their merit and demerit, all must return again to human form in order to continue their spiritual journey beyond such dualistic states.
There are times when no amount of reasoning will assuage the pain we feel. There are times when we can see no further than the tether that binds us to the limited circle of our circumstances. There are times when we seem helplessly bound to repeat habitual actions and reactions that only lead to pain. There are times when we yearn to lay down the burden of responsibility for our fate, - to give up and surrender. There are times when we need to know that life is not for nothing.
At such times, our belief in a personal form of god may help us to find trust and faith, and be our refuge; at other times we may be inspired with a sense of purpose in seeking unity, - a single source of diversity akin to the pure awareness in our hearts, of comfort, security and peace.
“Four types of virtuous men worship me, Arjuna, - the seeker of worldly objects, the sufferer, the seeker for knowledge, and the man of wisdom,”
To many people all over the world, their main concern with worship or religion is motivated by the belief that divine intervention will give them what they want or relieve them from what they don’t in this worldly realm. Some may go to church or temple as a kind of insurance policy for their well-being after death. When exams loom in Kathmandu, students swarm to the shrine of Saraswati, the goddess of learning, music and the arts; and shopkeepers offer the first proceeds of the day to Laxmi. Deities are promised special gifts of food, money, service or austerities as you might seek to bribe a child with an ice-cream, - which is only human. In a lot of Asia, it seems that the real god being worshipped is luck, and why not? It acknowledges the power of belief.
Again, we pray for relief of suffering for ourselves and loved ones when life is hard to bear, and the more sincerely we surrender, the more likely we seem to find some peace in our torment.
The search for knowledge appears to be one of the nobler aspirations of mankind, trying to find the answers to so many questions and to satisfy the curiosity of our intellect and belief in purpose and progress. On the individual level we remain a human being manifested in this body for a reason that is not so easy to find, and our search takes us on down many avenues of different perceptions and concepts.
Finally perhaps, in seeking wisdom, we may be blessed, if only for a moment, and be humbled by a vision of the greatness of our total self.
Of these the best is the man of wisdom, constantly established in identity with me and possessed of exclusive devotion. For extremely dear am I to the wise man who knows me in reality, and he is extremely dear to me……
All these are noble, but the man of wisdom is verily my own self; this is my view.
Krishna in the Bhagavad-Gita
Thus, the great sage and teacher, Dattatreya, sings:
Through the grace of god alone, the desire for non-duality arises in wise men to save them from great fear.
How shall I salute the formless being, indivisible, auspicious, and immutable, who fills all this with his self and also fills the self with his self?
The universe composed of the five elements is like water in a mirage. Oh, to whom shall I make obeisance – I who am one and taintless?
All is verily the absolute self. Distinction and non-distinction do not exist. How can I say, “It exists; it does not exist?” I am filled with wonder!
The essence and the whole of Vedanta is this knowledge, this supreme knowledge: that I am by nature the formless, all-pervasive self.
In this image of Dattatreya, he is deified as the combination of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The cow symbolises mother earth, and the four dogs, the Vedas or ancient scriptures that take refuge in him during the dark age of materialism.
As a wandering mendicant he declared "I am happy because of what I am, not because of what I have", and to him is attributed the authorship of the Avadhuta Gita, a sublime declaration of the total independence of self-realization.