The Nature of God | Śrī Vaiṣṇavism | 1

Chapter 1

The Nature of the Godhead

1. Intro

The universe around us is seen to be constantly changing highly complex phenomena which are impermanent.

Behind these transitory phenomena lies an unchanging eternal substratum (noumenon) upon which these effects take place.

This can be likened to a movie which is projected upon a screen. The screen is the unchanging substratum upon which the great drama is played out. Similarly this universe with all its myriad of effects takes place upon a screen which is the Absolute Ultimate Reality.

The term “Absolute” is derived from the Latin and means free from any limiting conditions or restraints.

According to Vedanta, the Absolute Ultimate Reality which is the cause and the basis of the universe is called Brahman which means the “The Immensity” in Sanskrit.

Through a process of logical reasoning the existence of an intelligent Supreme Reality behind the transient ephemeral universe can be reached.

But the actual existence of the Godhead (the Divine Nature) cannot be demonstrated, and nothing affirmative can be said about it which is subject to scientific investigation and proof.

It must be stressed that the Ultimate Truth cannot be known by the human mind which functions through duality and antithetical comparison.

The Absolute which by definition is beyond all our conceptions and ideas and transcends the limitations of time, space and causation, cannot be contained and limited by our thought processes.

All attempts to verbally describe anything result in varying degrees of ambiguity, but do not convey the essential meaning.

In the same way all attempts to describe the Divine are metaphors and symbols indicating the way – we should follow the signs and not argue about their form.

Rāmānuja declares that the existence of a Supreme Godhead cannot even be inferred because inference is based upon a perceived and demonstrable coexistence between cause and effect (such as the connection between smoke and fire).

God and the world cannot be demonstrated to have a concomitance and therefore cannot be inferred through reason.

It is only through Divine Revelation - the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gītā etc. that anything at all can be known about the Supreme Being.

According to Vedanta, the Absolute Reality or Godhead is known as Brahman is the unitary source from which all manifestation proceeds.

Brahman is a Personal Being in terms of being characterised by infinite and expansive auspicious qualities and devoid of all imperfections. His nature consists of consciousness, existence, eternality, purity and bliss absolute.

This Supreme Being or Brahman is referred to in the Vedas by many names but the most prominent of them is Nārāyaṇa an epithet which embodies all the essential qualities of the Godhead. It means “The Ground of all Being”.

Various definitions of the name Nārāyaṇa are given such as:—

- The Super-Self, the Support and repository of all Selves.
- The Prompter of the actions of all beings from within their hearts.
- The Witness (Observer) of the entire universe.

In the Bhagavad Gītā the Lord shows His comic form to Arjuṇa and this theophany appears primarily as an all-expansive cosmic light - refulgent as a thousand suns.

11:12. If a thousand suns were to rise at once in the sky, the resulting magnificence may be (somewhat) like the effulgence of that mighty One.

Again and again we find statements in the Scriptures which declare the nature of the Supreme Being to be inconceivable and inexpressible.

Rāmānuja in his preamble to the Gītā affirms:-

“God has a divine form, which is both pleasing and appropriate. His form is inconceivable, indescribable, divine, eternal and immaculate.”

So whenever we use anthropomorphic terms to describe and to communicate information about the Divine we must do so with the understanding that words are all totally inadequate to serve as vehicles of the Truth; they are merely flimsy pointers, concessions to our human limitations.

All human cognition is dependent upon fixed reference points - pairs of opposites, and therefore, that which is beyond the pairs of opposites cannot be comprehended.

A paper cup is not a fit vessel in which to contain that Supreme Expansive Light of Truth - the brilliance of a thousand suns! We need to avoid the folly of thinking about the Supreme Being and the transcendental realms as a Spiritual “Disney Land”!

2. Essential Nature of the Godhead

In the Upanishads which are the concluding portions of the Vedas, 5 attributes are revealed which define the essential nature of the Supreme known as Brahman or “that which expands ad infinitum”; they are known as the 5 metaphysical qualities called svarūpa-nirupaka-dharma.

These ‘incommunicable’ attributes which emphasise the absolute Being of the Godhead are:-

1. satyam - Truth - this is the attribute of absolute non-conditioned self-existence. The Godhead exists by Itself and for Itself. It is not subjected to any form of change or modification, nor is It dependent upon anything whatsoever. There is nothing in the Universe which the Godhead requires for Its existence, It is entirely self-fulfilled and self-content.

2. cit - Omniscience - The omniscience which the Godhead possesses is archetypal, which means that It knows the universe as it exists in Its own mind as an Idea before it came into being as a finite reality conditioned by time and space. Its knowledge is not obtained like human knowledge from sources outside - it comes from within. It is absolute omniscience; perfect and unobstructed knowledge of everything as it is – past present and future.

3. anantam - Infinitude - the Supreme Being is not subjected to any limitations of time or space, It is omnipresent or present everywhere at once. This definition refers both to Its essential Being and Its attributes; both of which are all-pervading.

4.  anandam - Beatitude - the Godhead possesses unsurpassable indescribable bliss and is also the essence of bliss. Any joy or sensation of bliss which we may experience as human beings is like a drop in the ocean of bliss which is God’s.

5.  amalam - Purity - the Godhead is pure and immaculate and eternally free from all taints and imperfections. The term ‘amalam’ has a moral connotation in that the Divine Nature is the embodiment of moral and ethical perfection - It is never bound by karma.

The other group of attributes of the Godhead namely the “communicable” attributes which emphasise moral perfection and personality will be discussed under the section on redemption.

Although we mostly talk of the Godhead in masculine terms, Vedāntic theology conceives of a duality of gender in the essential unity of the Godhead. God is always conceived of as being accompanied by His eternal and inseparable consort Lakshmi. This topic is also taken up for discussion in the section on redemption.

3. The Five Facets of the Divine

The Divine Nature is both immanent and transcendent:

By immanent we mean that It is present within the world. It is all-pervading and is the ground of all finite existence and activity.

Transcendent means that the Divine Nature is not limited to dwelling within the manifest universe but also encompasses it.

The metaphor often used to describe these two aspects is the fish in the sea:

the sea is immanent in the fish and transcendent as the ocean in which the fish has its existence.

The Divine Nature is not normally perceptible to the senses, but theologically manifests Itself in 5 forms;

1. The transcendental form. para
2. Functional manifestation. Vyūha
3. Incarnations. avatāra
4. Iconic descent. arca
5. Indwelling witness Antaryāmin

4. The Transcendent Form - Para-Vāsudeva

This transcendental form of the Divine Nature is absolute, unconditioned and unlimited. It is self-existent and is not the effect of anything else.

The transcendence of the Godhead is impossible for any human being to understand. It is stated that even the devas (gods) do not know it!

The Blessed Lord said:

It is extremely difficult to behold this form of Mine which you have seen; Even the gods ever long to behold this form.  /Gītā  - 11:52/

It is impossible to describe this transcendent nature of the Godhead. The nearest description we can give is to refer to the Godhead as “an ocean of perfection and bliss.”

This form is located in a supreme transcendental realm called Parama-pāda (‘the Supreme Abode’) or Vaikuṇṭha (‘the unobstructed state’).

While discussing “realms” (lokas) it is important to understand that location in space only has relevance to the physical universe.

God transcends both space and time, the realm of Vaikuṇṭha (‘the unobstructed state’) also transcends space and time and therefore it is futile to even try to imagine a location for this realm in the physical universe or one of the galaxies!

The mystic tradition described realms as inner states of our own being rather than external places.

The Transcendental Divine Nature is distinguished by 6 attributes which have given It the title of Bhagavān;

Jñānam (Knowledge)-This term connotes omniscience or inner wisdom of everything in the universe, past, present and future.

aiśvaryam (Sovereignty) - This refers to that perfection of the Divine Nature by which It is the absolute and highest cause and therefore Supreme Ruler of the universe.

The activity of the Supreme Being is based upon total and absolute independence (sva-tantriya) and Self-determination (satya-sankalpa).

Śaktī (Energy) The Divine Nature is the ‘efficient’ cause as well as the ‘material’ cause of the universe. In the example of the potter - He is the potter (efficient cause) as well as the clay (material cause) from which the pots are made.

The universe is thus a Self-projection by the Divine Nature from within.

bālā (Power) This refers to the omnipotence of the Godhead which has the power to project, sustain and dissolve the entire cosmos and re-project it, without ever becoming fatigued. (The possibility of God becoming tired or needing rest even in a figurative sense is totally rejected.)

vīrya (Creative Potency) This terms indicates that although the Godhead is the cause of the universe, It Itself remains changeless and unaffected by the activities of cosmic projection, sustentation and transformation. The ocean remains unchanged in spite of the rising and falling of the waves, the formation of froth, whirlpools and currents etc., which are all in reality non-different from the ocean - being only its modifications.

tejas (Splendour) This means that the Godhead is totally Self-sufficient and complete in Itself and has no competitors. It does not need to rely on any other being for anything whatsoever. It is complete and perfect.

In their totality, these 6 above mentioned qualities make up the Essential Nature of God and His eternal Consort Lakshmi. (sad-guṇam-vigraham-devam).

5. Functional Manifestations - Vyūha

From this totality of perfect being, four “emanations” proceed.

The operative word being; proceed - one does not create the other. Each emanation proceeds from the one before, just as a series of candles are lit, one from the other.

Another example would be the modern multi-media montage technique where one person is transformed into another using the facial features of the previous person.

These are known as the four Hypostatic Emanations and are named Vāsudeva, Sankarṣaṇa, Pradyumna and Aniruddha.

They are not four separate entities but are forms assumed by the one Supreme Being for the purpose of the cosmic functions of projecting, maintaining and withdrawing the Universe.

Cosmic projection in Vedanta is viewed as cyclic and not linear as in the Semitic Religions.

The basic components of Universal Matter - the atoms, are eternal and are constantly forming compounds and again dissolving.

When this process applies to the Universe as a whole it is termed as sṛishṭi (projection/evolution) and pralaya (dissolution/ involution). This cycle is perpetual and continues forever.

The term ‘Vyūha’ literally means splitting and refers to the splitting of the 6 attributes into three pairs.

This can be likened to the process of mitosis by which cells undergo multiplication by a special process of self-division. This means that each of the Emanations has two particular qualities which are active and the other four remaining dormant.

Each of these Vyūhas has two functions; a cosmic creative one, and a moral one:

The creative function is connected with the origination of beings (ontology) and the moral function is connected with their ethical and spiritual progress in the world.

The creative activities of the Vyūhas come into play one after the other, thus marking out three successive stages in the process of evolution of the Universe.

In the pre-creational phase, the duality of all material matter and conscious Selves exist in a state of undifferentiated unity like the presence of curds and whey in milk.

Everything is absorbed and dissolved at the end of a cycle, into the Godhead which alone remains. The sentient Selves and insentient matter exist in a unity with the Godhead but remain individually separate.

In Mythological terms the Lord Nārāyaṇa (The Ground of Being) lies upon the couch of eternity; represented by the thousand headed snake Ananta, floating on the ocean of Milk (Undifferentiated Unity) - the original state of matter in its potential form.

The Lord mythologically contains the entire universe within His belly.

6. Description of the Vyūhas and the stages of Cosmic Evolution

Sankarṣaṇa –

with this Vyūha the entire future universe comprised of energy (spirit or Purusha) and matter (Prakṛti) is compressed into a tiny point of space (bindu) without internal distinctions.

It is in a state of ‘potentiality’ and the attribute (Guṇa) concerned with developing this potential is Bāla (omnipotence).

Pradyumna –

with this vyūha the compressed embryonic mass of the Universe bursts forth into a duality consisting of Spirit (Purusha) and Matter (Prakṛti).

The attribute which is involved in this separation is Aiśvarya (Absolute Independence).

Pradyumna in turn causes the manifestation of 3 things;-

1. the ‘group Self’ (mānava sarga) - all the individual Selves or jīvas exist together in a conglomeration known as the Purusha or Hiraṇyagarbha.

2. Primordial Matter (pradhāna or Prakṛti) the basic pre-molecular substance from which the universe is created.

3. Subtle Time (kāla) which is the potency of change before it becomes divided into the measurements of gross time consisting of years, seasons, months, weeks, days etc. which are determined by the movements of the spheres.

Aniruddha –

by the means of the attribute called Śaktī (energy), Aniruddha causes the evolution of the gross atoms out of the Primordial Matter (pradhāna) and the development of gross time from subtle time.

Thus the evolution of Matter and Spirit under the influence of Time, produces the Mixed Creation (miśra sṛṣṭi) during which the pre-existent Selves become differentiated.

Aniruddha becomes the ruler of the various galaxies and their contents. From Aniruddha emanate Brahma and Śiva - personifications of his Grace and Wrath.

7. The Ethical Activities of the Vyūhas through Revelation.

The ethical activities of the Vyūhas are accomplished through the means of Scriptural Revelation.

Revelation is defined as a process of self-disclosure by the Divine Nature through its intimate presence in the depths of the human mind and psyche (Antaryāmin).

Receptivity to Revelation (God-realisation) causes one to reach a higher level of consciousness as one is attracted to an increased sharing in the divine activity of creation.

Revelation is universal and is not confined to any “elect” group.

Every nation on this planet has had revelations from the Divine in accordance with its own ‘effect images’, traditions, customs, mores etc.

They are all valid and bona fide for the people to whom they were revealed:

Some of these revelations are universal such as love, compassion, tolerance, charity etc. and some are specific such as dietary guidelines, social conventions, methods of religious practice etc.

Unfortunately one wonders how many of these alleged revelations were the concoctions of selfish priests for their own personal or group ends. Therefore when discussing ethics and spiritual paradigms we need to focus on the universal rather than the specific.

The three foremost qualities of Dharma or universal ethical living are:

Absence of all prejudice, compassion and charity to all beings wherever they may be.

1. Sankarṣaṇa superintends the progress and development of the individual selves (jīvas) and brings about the revelation of the unity of the Godhead to all people, through the means of the Guṇa called jñāna (omniscience).

2. Pradyumna superintends the archetypal-mind and reveals the practical application (tat-kriyā) of the realisation of the unity of the Godhead through the vīrya Guṇa (potency).

Practical application here refers to the practice of Dharma (right living) and pursuit of the spiritual goal (prāpya) which is accompanied by the realisation of one’s identity in relation to God - a relation of complete subordination and dependency.

3. Aniruddha superintends the ego-sense (ahaṁkāra) in all beings and causes the actualisation of the result (kriyā phala) of the spiritual practice through the tejas Guṇa (splendour). The actualisation occurs when one surrenders completely to the Divine, and abandons the false notion of independence.

Incarnations - Avatara

Nārāyaṇa plays an active part in the maintenance of the World Order by periodically incarnating in human form.

This voluntary ‘descent’ into the world out of boundless compassion for all creatures is called Avatāra and has 4 basic purposes;

1. Protection of the righteous
2. Elimination of the wicked
3. Re-establishment of Dharma (righteousness)
4. Bestowing of Grace.

These Incarnations are of two types:

§ Primary (mukhya)

a manifestation (or epiphany) of the Divine with a non-material body e.g. Krishna, whose body did not consist of flesh and blood like other bodies but was a spiritual body consisting of pure Consciousness, Bliss and Existence absolute.

§ Secondary (gauṇa)

these are exceptionally elevated beings (jīvas) who are chosen to act as vessels for the Divine activity. Their bodies are pervaded by the energy of the Lord for fulfilling a particular mission. E.g. Vyāsa, Paraśurāma, Buddha etc.

In addition to these Incarnations there are other manifestations known as:

§ Pradurbhavantaras

these are Divine Beings (devas or gods) which are rays of the Lord’s energy (Śakti) and are manifested for some cosmic function. They are the administrating gods like Indra, Agni, Yama etc.

9. Iconic Embodiment - Archa

It is impossible for the human to worship, meditate or praise a deity without form.

Therefore the Divine should be worship through form.

 Paramā Saṁhitā 3 : 7

When an inanimate object like a statue (icon) is constructed and consecrated correctly - according to the dictates of the Āgamas - which are the Sacred Scriptures dealing with ritual worship - then the Supreme Being by dint of His omnipotence and omnipresence, and prompted by His boundless compassion for all beings manifests in the icon.

The Godhead is indeed omnipresent, and all material nature is pervaded by Divine Consciousness, but with a tiny portion of His Spiritual Energy (Śakti) He particularises His being and His presence in the sanctified icon for the purpose of receiving the devotion and worship of the devotees and for bestowing His Grace and compassion upon them.

The Icon is thus not merely a symbol or a representation of a subtle idea, neither is it simply an aid to concentration. - It is in actual fact the material manifestation of the Divine – it is the divine-auspicious-form (divya-maṅgala-svarūpa).

It is important to understand that it only becomes such when it has been consecrated, and the Divine Presence has been invoked into it by the priests at the elaborate rites of consecration (pratiṣṭhā). This doctrine can be compared to the doctrine of transubstantiation of the Eucharist in the Catholic belief.

Prior to the rites of consecration the statue is a mere image or symbol of the deity but it is through the invocations and prayers of the devotees that the image is infused and empowered with the Divine Presence and becomes a sacred Icon or Presence worthy of being worshipped.

The Presence (sānnidhya) of the Lord is invoked from within the heart of the worshipper at the beginning of the rites (Āvāhana) and is then requested to depart (visarjana) once the rite has ended. The Iconic manifestation is the response of a Perfect God to the earnest supplication of His devotees.

Communion with the other theological manifestations of God and all-pervading perception of the Divine can only be attained by certain highly evolved beings and at certain times and places only, whereas the Iconic form is accessible to all beings at all times.

In Śrī Vaiṣṇava religious practice the Archa form is given the utmost importance and emphasis, along with the temple rituals and festivals.

In fact all devout Śrī Vaiṣṇavas are encouraged to live in the vicinity of a temple, and regular attendance at the temple functions is recommended for spiritual advancement

together with some form of service (kainkarya) which can take the form of either physical labour or cleaning, renovating, making garlands or rendering verbal service in the form of chanting the hymns or simply by gazing upon the sacred forms.

The iconic form is known by several names such as vigraha, bera, mūrti, pratima, bimba & rūpa.

10. Indweller - Antaryāmin

Within all living beings the Lord dwells along with the individual Self (Jīva) as the Over-Self (paramātman).

He is the witness of all the actions of the Jīva. The Jīva alone acts and reaps the fruits of its actions in the form of sorrow (duhkha) and happiness (sukha).

The question can be raised as to why the Lord allows the Self to act in a contradictory way if He is the Indweller, support and constant companion of the Jīva, why does He not restrain it?

The answer is that the Lord has given the Jīva free-will.  He therefore permits the Jīva to act according to its desires, and He observes and rewards it accordingly.

The Jīva initiates the activity and the Lord either sanctions it or vetoes it in accordance with the jīva’s karma.

Like two partners who jointly begin a business venture; one senior and one junior:

The junior cannot do anything without the permission of the senior partner. The senior partner may even allow the junior partner to sometimes make the wrong decisions to enable him to learn by his mistakes.

As the Indweller, the Lord pervades all the creation within and without. The Lord is thus referred to as Vāsudeva - that which pervades all beings from within, and Vishnu - that which pervades all beings from without.