Vedic scriptures may seem to contradict other world religions by advocating polythiesm.
But let us see the greater picture of various gods and their respective positions with respect to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
But let us see the greater picture of various gods and their respective positions with respect to the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Question: Different religions claim their God to be the real God. Sometimes, people even claim to be incarnations of God. Some consider God personal, others, impersonal. Who is God, actually?
Answer: For many, God is the object of naive sentiment and blind faith. However, knowledge of God is a precise and profound science. Based on that divine science, let’s address these questions one by one:
1. As science begins with the definition of the object under study, let’s begin with the definition of God. The Vedanta-sutra (1.1.2) gives a definition that agrees broadly with the conception of God in the major world religions: “God is the source of everything.” Just as there is one source of illumination for the whole world, which is called “sol” in Mexico, “surya” in Hindi, and “sun” in English, so there is one source of all existence. He is called Allah in the Islamic tradition, Jehovah in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Krishna in the Vedic tradition. On a superficial reading, the Vedic texts may seem polytheistic, thus making the Vedic gods appear to be like the pagan gods whose worship the Semitic religions forbid. But a deep and guided study of the Vedic scriptures reveals that, though they contain multifaceted rituals for multilevel forms of worship, they are conclusively monotheistic. That’s why the epithets to glorify Krishna in the Vedic tradition (e.g. Bhagavad-gita 10.32: “Of all creations I am the beginning and the end and also the middle”) are strikingly similar to the biblical eulogies of God (e.g., Revelations 22.13: “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end…”).
2. In the Bhagavad-gita Lord Krishna demonstrated His godhood by displaying to Arjuna His universal form, wherein lay everything and everyone in existence: the planets, stars, and universes as well as all living beings celestial, terrestrial, and sub-terrestrial. If those who claim to be God cannot similarly display how they are the source of everything, we can safely reject their claim to godhood.
3. If God is the source of everything, then He must be the source of both the form-endowed and the formless things we see in this world. To be their source, He must himself have both these aspects. But how can He have form and also not have form? The Vedic texts give the analogy of the sun. The sun has form as a celestial globe and is formless in its widespread effulgence. Similarly, God has form as the Supreme Person, Krishna, and is formless as the all-pervading effulgence known as Brahman. Just as the sun globe is the source of the sunlight, Krishna is the source of the Brahman, as is confirmed in the Gita (14.27).
4. The Vedic scriptures also give us an objective description of God as the person possessing fully the six opulences (excellences) whose fractional presence makes their possessor attractive to everyone. These six opulences are wealth, strength, wisdom, beauty, fame, and renunciation. People are attracted to Bill Gates because of his wealth, to Superman because of his strength, to Emerson because of his wisdom, to [put your favorite movie star’s name] because of his or her beauty, to Alexander the Great because of his fame, and to Gandhi because of the strength of his renunciation.
After listing these objective opulences as distinguishing features of God, the Vedic scriptures describe a personality who possesses these opulences: Krishna is wealthier than Gates, stronger than Superman, wiser than Emerson, more beautiful than the most beautiful movie star, more famous than Alexander the Great, and more renounced than Gandhi. No wonder Krishna is celebrated in the Vedic tradition as God in His highest manifestation, as the epitome of all-attractiveness. This all-attractiveness is also the import of the name “Krishna,” which means sarva akarsati iti Krishna (“the one who has opulences that can attract everyone is Krishna”). There are many names of God that refer to His being all-powerful and all-merciful, but His all-powerfulness and His all-mercifulness contribute to making Him. And His all-attractiveness includes all other divine attributes, like His omnipotence and His fully merciful nature. Thus the name of God, Krishna, conveys all that is conveyed by all other names along with that which is not conveyed by any other name.
Still, some may consider Krishna to be a god worshiped only by a particular tradition or sect. However, in principle the Vedic revelation of God as Krishna doesn’t contradict the revelations of God in other religious traditions. And in details it supplements the revelations of God in other religious traditions. For example, none of the great theistic religions would deny that God possesses the six opulences. Significantly, these traditions don’t reveal any personality who possesses these opulences.
That’s why for the open-minded the Vedic revelation of God as Krishna is a spiritual bonanza. They see the particulars about God revealed therein His charming three-fold bending pose, His mesmerizing bluish-black complexion, His heart-captivating flute music, His endearingly pastoral peacock feather not as signs of sectarianism but of the culmination of the revelation of the Divine given in various religious traditions.
Let’s summarize the rationally analyzable facts:
1. An objective, universally acceptable enumeration of God’s opulences given in the Vedic scriptures.
2. A specific personality fitting that description given in those scriptures.
3. The absence of any competing or contradictory personality revealed as God in any other religious tradition.
No wonder millions of people from various spiritual traditions have concluded that Krishna is indeed the one God whom Jesus called Father and Jehovah and whom Mohammed called Allah.
Question: But don’t the Vedic scriptures teach the worship of many gods?
Answer: No. The Vedic scriptures are conclusively monotheistic. Many people mistake the Vedic teachings as polytheistic, and often consider them absurd in the light of the obvious fact that the Supreme can never be more than one.
That there is only one supreme God is so obvious a truth that if the profound Vedic texts seem to be teaching something else, we should re-evaluate our understanding of those teachings before passing judgment on them.
The oneness of the Absolute Truth is clearly stated in the famous Vedic aphorism, “There is only one Truth; the wise know that Truth by various names.” (Rg Veda 1:164:46)The main cause of misunderstanding is the imposition of Western or Abrahamic preconceptions on the complex Vedic theology. Those bound to Abrahamic notions of the Divine think monotheism and polytheism are the only possible options: if people don’t worship the one Supreme God as taught in the Abrahamic tradition, they must be like the primitive Greek and Roman polytheists.
But the Vedic teachings are much more subtle and profound, as is illustrated in a famous dialogue in the Brhad-aranyaka Upanisad (3.9). There, the great sage Yajnavalkya is asked a critical question: Kati devah, how many devas are there? His answer progresses from three thousand and three, three hundred and three, thirty-three, six, three, two, and finally one and he answers as if there is no contradiction between his various answers.
The Bhagavad-gita helps us unravel this mystery by identifying that the one supreme God is Krishna (Gita 7.7) Gita wisdom also helps us understand that these “many gods” are simply various manifestations of Krishna’s merciful descent: some manifestations exhibit His full power and identity, and, by way of multifarious gradations, others manifest His power partially. This doesn’t mean that these gods don’t have their separate individuality or that they are just temporary faces of an ultimately formless light; rather, these gods get their power from the Supreme God and so are considered, in one sense, His manifestations. When these gods are empowered by Krishna to perform some extraordinary service for protecting the universal order, then they may be occasionally glorified as the Supreme. But what is supreme is not the particular personality but the potency of the Supreme God manifesting through that personality.
The various gods are assistants to, not competitors of, the Supreme, just as the cabinet ministers are the assistants of the Prime Minister. Sometimes these gods, forgetting their position, try to compete with Krishna, but they soon return to their senses by the power and grace of Krishna, as we read in Srimad-Bhagavatam.
Based on all this analysis, it is clear that the Vedic scriptures conclusively teach the worship of the one supreme God, Krishna.
Question: If the Vedic scriptures actually culminate in the worship of the one supreme God, wouldn’t it have been less confusing if they had not talked about the worship of so many other gods?
Answer: It might have been less confusing, but it would also have been less accommodating.User-friendliness is a defining hallmark of the Vedic scriptures. The Vedic scriptures recognize that different people have different natures and are therefore attracted to different objects and methods of worship. The Gita (7.20–23) describes how the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna, mercifully facilitates people to worship, according to their nature, various demigods; it is He who infuses faith in their hearts and bestows power to the demigods to fulfill the prayers of their worshippers. This proxy worship is meant to gradually elevate spiritually undeveloped people who would normally not be inclined to worship the Supreme Lord and would therefore remain atheistic. But through the system of demigod worship they are given the opportunity to worship a higher authority, even if it is not the highest authority, and thus make limited spiritual advancement. This advancement gradually purifies them, eventually inclining them to worship the Supreme Lord. In the Gita revelation, God is not “jealous” of His competitors, for He has no competitors. Rather, He is so compassionate that he is concerned not with maintaining His status as the exclusive object of worship but with elevating people by offering them objects of worship that match their natures. Of course, God wants everyone to arrive at the highest understanding regarding the correct object of worship. Therefore the Gita (18.66) concludes with a call for undistracted devotion to the one Supreme Lord: “Give up all varieties of religion and just surrender to me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reactions. Do not fear.”
Question: This whole system seems complex. Is there any simple way to understand it?
Answer: Yes. Let’s understand it in terms of the Biblical story of the prodigal son, where a rebellious prince leaves his father’s home and kingdom, squanders his inheritance, suffers ignominy, and later returns home to be welcomed with open arms by his royal father. This story, while illustrating how the rebellious soul leaves the Divine Father, suffers and eventually returns, underscores God’s immense love in readily reaccepting the soul.
But let’s look at the prodigal son analogy in the light of the Vedic perspective. Suppose the son is fed up with serving an exploitative boss outside his father’s kingdom but is not yet ready to return to his father. The father arranges for one of His ministers to offer the son a job within the kingdom. When the son accepts this offer, he comes back to his father’s kingdom and thus his father’s indirect care. Eventually, when the son fully recovers his good sense, he returns to the eager, joyful embrace of his father.
The many gods of the Vedic tradition are like the minister. These gods (or demigods, to be more precise) are administrative assistants of the Supreme God who double as temporary, transitional surrogate objects of worship for the souls who have left God’s loving service but are not yet ready to return to it.
This analysis of the strategic, progressive revelation in the Gita offers a sample of the compassionate master plan that underlies the apparent polytheism of the Vedic scriptures; their teachings are conclusively monotheistic, but not exclusively monotheistic. They state that undiverted devotion to the Supreme Lord is the ultimate goal of all religious practice, but they do not make this undiverted devotion the entry-level qualification for passing through the doorway of religion. Thus they allow far more people to enter the protecting, uplifting house of religion than do most other religions. The Vedic system of multilevel worship bears testimony to:
1. A unique concern for the individuality of the worshiper, and
2. An unparalleled flexibility of the worshipable in making Himself accessible.
Said in terms of the six opulences of Krishna, the multilevel monotheistic worship taught in the Vedic scriptures bears testimony to His opulence of renunciation.
To help the uninitiated navigate the complexity of Vedic theology, Srila Prabhupada, the founder-acharya of ISKCON, used precise terminology while translating the words devas (the many gods) and bhagavan (the Supreme God, Sri Krishna). Because the devas partake of some of the attributes and powers of God, he used the word demigods to designate them. As the Supreme Being is the head of all the “gods” and is personal, or supra-personal, to be more precise, he used the phrase “Supreme Personality of Godhead.”
Caitanya Carana Dasa is the associate-editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian edition). To subscribe to his free cyber magazine, visit thespiritualscientist.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org