Does God have a form? Or not? Find out here.
Question: Is God personal or impersonal? The way we pray to God, the way the saints address God in their devotional prayers, it seems that God is a person whom we are calling by our prayers. But then God is said to be unlimited. Will his being a person not limit Him?
Answer: That’s quite a thoughtful analysis. Yes, both sides of the argument seem true. To reconcile the two sides, we need to first understand the definition of God. The paramount Vedic text, the Vedanta sutra (1.1.2) defines God or the Absolute Truth, brahma, as the source of everything. Janmadyasya yatah. Another ancient text, the Brahma samhita, defines God similarly as the cause of all causes (sarva kara na kara nam). This concise definition of God is essentially in agreement with the understanding of God given by all the theistic traditions of the world.
So, if God is the source of everything that we see in this world, then God Himself should possess the essential attributes of everything, else He would be lesser than His creation. In this world, there exist both persons and impersonal forces, so both these aspects should be present in God. If God were not a person, then He, who by definition is the Complete Being, would be incomplete. Another simpler way of putting this is: if we as the children of God are persons, how can our father God not be a person?
Q: What you say makes sense. But still my question remains: do personality and form not limit God?
A: No, such a question arises because we superimpose our material conceptions on God. For argument’s sake, even if we grant that form limits a thing, does divesting it of form make it unlimited? We are sitting in this room, which has a form and is limited. If its form were destroyed by, say, the explosion of a bomb, will the formless debris be limited or unlimited? Obviously, limited.
What causes limitation is not form, but matter. Due to the very nature of matter, all material objects are limited, whether they have form or not. When we think of God’s form, we subconsciously project our experiences with matter on the form of God and so think that a form would limit God. But God is not material; He is entirely spiritual. Spirit has characteristics different from matter; that which is spiritual has the potential to be unlimited, irrespective of whether it has form or not. So God’s form being spiritual does not limit Him. This is how, due to His being spiritual, God is a person with a form and is still unlimited.
Q: This is an innovative explanation that reconciles both sides of the argument. But even if we accept that God has a form, why should He have a humanlike form? Isn’t this an example of what you were saying earlier: of our projecting humanlike conceptions on God? Because we are human beings, so we imagine that God also has a humanlike form.
A: This idea is technically called as anthropomorphism; anthropos refers to “humans” and morphos to “form.” Though it may initially seem sensible, but if we think deeply, it arises due to our self centered thinking, due to our placing ourselves at the center of things. We think that because we have a humanlike form, we have conceived of God as humanlike. But could the reverse not be true? What if God originally had a form and our present human form was modeled according to that original form of God?
When we want knowledge about physics, we refer to the authorized textbooks of physics. Similarly, when we want knowledge about God, should we not refer to the authorized textbooks about God—the scriptures? The scriptures of the great religions of the world repeatedly refer to God in a personal, humanlike way. For example, the Bible talks about “under His feet” (Exodus 24:10); “inscribed with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18); “the hand of the Lord” (Exodus 9:3); “the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 38:7); “the ears of the Lord” (Numbers 11:1). Ezekiel (1:26) describes God as having “the semblance of a human form.” Such phrases permeate the Biblical literature.
Similarly, in the Quran, there are references to “the face of your Lord” ( 055:027); “under My eye” (020:039); “under our eyes” (052:048) and (054:014); “the hand of Allah” (048:010); (038:075) and (039:067).
Q: But, from what I have heard, these references are generally taken metaphorically.
A: Isn’t that a human projection on the word of God? Aren’t we imposing our interpretation on the self evident statements of the scriptures? Further, even if we grant that such references are metaphorical, why would the scriptures repeatedly and consistently present God as having a humanlike form if in reality He didn’t have one? Wouldn’t that be a dangerous and misleading metaphor? Instead of audaciously claiming that the scriptures are presenting a misleading metaphor, isn’t it humbler, safer and more logical to infer that it is our preconceptions, which are misleading and which need to be corrected by the words of the scriptures?
Further, there is the classic and clear statement in the Bible: “Man is made in the image of God.” In which scripture is it said that God is made in the image of man?
Nowhere. So the correct understanding is not that God is anthropomorphic (having a humanlike form), but that man is theomorphic (having a form modeled on God’s original form).
The Vedic scriptures also contain similar statements about God having a form. But they go further by giving vivid descriptions of God’s form. For example, the Brahma samhita (5.30) gives a detailed description of Krsna’s form.
venum kva nantam aravinda dalayataksam
barhavatamsam asitambuda sundarangam
kandarpa koti kamaniya visesa sobham
govindam adi purusam tam aham bhajami
“I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who is adept at playing on His flute, who has blooming eyes like lotus petals, whose head is bedecked with a peacock feather, whose figure of beauty is tinged with the hue of blue clouds, and whose unique loveliness charms millions of cupids.”
angani yasya sakalendriya vrtti manti
pasyanti panti kalayanti ciram jaganti
ananda cinmaya sad ujjvala vigrahasya
govindam adi purusam tam aham bhajami
“I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, whose transcendental form is full of bliss, truth, and substantiality, and who is full of the most dazzling splendor. Each limb of that transcendental figure possesses in itself the full fledged functions of all the other organs, and He eternally sees, maintains, and manifests the infinite universes, both spiritual and mundane.” (Bs. 5.32)
Q: But the Vedic texts do contain words like arupam, which indicate that God does not have any form.
A: Yes, but these words generally occur in a context that is often ignored. That context generally also contains some words that describe God as having a form. Consider the following verse from the Svetasvatara Upanisad (3.19)
apa ni pado javano grahita
pasyaty acaksuh sa sr noty akar nah
sa vetti vedyam na ca tasyasti vetta
tam ahur agryam purusam mahantam
This verse contains apparent contradictions. Pasyaty acaksuh: “God has no eyes, but He sees.” How is this contradiction to bereconciled? If we neglect the statements that suggest the personal aspect of God, we are not being faithful to the scriptures.
The Vedic tradition contains a special prama na called arthapatti (postulation) that is used for this purpose. For example, consider the two apparently contradictory statements:
1. Ravi does not eat food during the day.
2. Ravi is growing fat.
The arthapatti to reconcile these two statements would be: Ravi eats in the night.
Similarly, the arthapatti to reconcile the statements over God’s form is: God has a form this is spiritual, not material.
That’s why Srila Prabhupada mercifully translates the above verse as follows: “The Supreme Lord has no material hands and feet but accepts whatever is offered to Him and moves very quickly. The Supreme Person has no material ears and eyes but sees and hears everything. He is the knower of everything, and He is all that is to be known. It is said that He is the best and the greatest of all persons.”
Q: But why do scriptures say that God does not have body, form, senses etc., if He has them?
A: The word body has several connotations that do not apply to the Lord.
A body is that which is:
1. Separate from the real person, the soul.
2. A product of the past karma of the soul.
3. Tends to degrade the soul.
4. Has to be given up in due course of time.
None of these apply to the Lord, whose body is the same as Himself, who has no karmic past, who is never degraded, and whose form is eternal.
Because we tend to drag our material conceptions on God, therefore the scriptures may sometimes use words like arupa to emphasize that God’s form is not like ours. But as Srila Prabhupada succinctly states, “Negation of the negative does not mean negation of the positive.”
In fact, only when we get attracted to the form of God can we become free from our infatuation to the temporarily good looking forms of this word. The notion that God does not have a form makes the material world with all its colorful variety appear more appealing than the spiritual realm. But when the all attractive form of God is presented systematically to people, then their hearts get attracted, they experience the higher happiness of loving God and they can become free from illusory attractions with far greater ease than is otherwise possible.
Caitanya Cara na Dasa holds a degree in electronics and telecommunications engineering and serves full time at ISKCON Pune. To subscribe to his free cyber magazine, visit thespiritualscientist.com