The concept or the idea of God changes with the maturity of the human mind. The ancients said that the higher reality could be experienced in two forms: as nirakara, formless, nameless, timeless and without attributes, and as sakara, with attributes, forms, names and identities. God with and without form was accepted. The reasoning behind this was simple, pure and innocent. If you are able to realize the subtle nature of reality, then that is your attainment and realization of divinity. However, since you are unable to give it a form, a shape and an identity, it is nirakara.
What can be given a shape and be brought within the ambit of intellect, intelligence and mind was considered with form, sakara. Form does not mean the external body, but that which can be identified. A thought, a desire that generates in the mind has a form. The envy, greed, love and affection are mental, yet they have a form and are identified as something definite. Something abstract takes a form, and the form is given in order to understand the abstract quality. You have an understanding associated with the particular word L-O-V-E, its vowels and consonants. Without the word, how will you identify `love'? Words that we speak are forms expressed by the mind in order to convey something.
Whatever is created and composed of one element or the five elements is a form, while anything beyond the grasp of the five elements of the senses is formless. This is the concept of nirakara and sakara.
The ancient traditions also saw creation as nirakara and sakara, the manifest world which is perceived, perceivable by the senses and the mind, and the unmanifest dimension not perceivable by the senses and the mind. The only tool to understand the cosmic reality is a small mind, which is like a single cell torch light in the pitch black darkness of the jungle, or amavasya, when there is no moon and no stars. How much of the road and what area will you illuminate with it? Only a tiny part. In the same way, how can the cosmic and universal reality be understood and grasped by this monkey mind, which cannot understand or handle the basic principles of human relationships? Yet it is trying to comprehend the concept and mysteries of the universe.
It is not possible to grasp the nirakara or formless. Therefore, in order to access the nirakara, you have to have the sakara. If you say nirakara, the unmanifest, is the top of the roof or the terrace, then you need to have steps. Steps become the medium for you to go to the terrace. In the same manner, the manifest forms become the medium to access the unmanifest.
In tantra the nature of God is Shiva and Shakti, consciousness and energy, who together are identified as God. The word God is composed of three letters G-O-D. G is generation, creation, O is organization and D is destruction, transformation, change. These three qualities of generation, organization and destruction together become God. God is referring to some force or power which has these three potentials inherent in it of creating, developing, organizing, nurturing, caring, improving, changing the old to new, and transforming. The three natures together indicate the quality and character of the supreme consciousness.
The tantrics saw God in the form of Shiva and Shakti. Kriya shakti, jnana shakti, sankalpa shakti, iccha shakti, chitta shakti, manas shakti, prana shakti, the power of action, knowledge, will, desire, mind, perception and prana, everything is shakti. Many shaktis combined together make one God. Your body is identified as a body. A pair of legs, a pair of eyes, a nose, a stomach, a brain constitute your body, but when you refer to yourself you refer to yourself as a person. For you as a person there is a mix of so many different organs functioning together to make you experience life.
In the same manner, there is a collection of many shaktis each with different roles. Just as every organ has a different role, so every shakti has a different role. In order to understand the unmanifest form one resorts to the manifest form of shakti. Jnana shakti is identified in the image or form of Saraswati, kriya shakti in the form of Durga, and iccha shakti in the form of Lakshmi. Desire and fulfillment of desire is Lakshmi. Kriya shakti moving from one place to the next and transforming is Kali and Durga. Jnana shakti, which allows you to realize the world and your life, is Saraswati.
In the tantric view, the manifest forms of these shaktis become devis, and the unmanifest form of these devis is shakti.
The Yoga Sutras of Sage Patanjali describe God as someone with special attributes which normal human beings do not and cannot possess. God is neither masculine nor feminine but a state of being. God is defined in the Yoga Sutras (1:24) as purushvishesha, a special nature which is free from suffering, the bondage of birth and death and the changes that occur around it. This is the state of godliness beyond which there is no other concept of God in yoga.
In Samkhya there is only one Purusha, puri shete iti purushah, 'the power which is dormant in every individual is purusha'. This dormant power is consciousness, and the active principle is identified as Prakriti, the one who performs the action, who is dynamic. In Samkhya the concept of God is Purusha and Prakriti. There are hundreds of purushas and many levels of prakriti, causal, subtle and gross. It is the realization of the higher self identified as the purusha nature which is the aim of Samkhya.
Similarly, in Vedanta, the higher self is identified as Brahman and Maya. Brahman means `expanding reality', not stagnation but constant scope for expansion. Something which is continuously expanding and enlarging is Brahman. In English Brahman is translated as the supreme Self, and Maya as the deluding power, which makes us forget the real nature. Just as we wear different clothes and ornaments to hide our real body and use perfumes to hide our real smell, in the same way maya hides what is real. The power which deludes and the power which awakens are Brahman and Maya. This is the vedantic understanding of God.
According to the Jain philosophy, God is a state of existence in which a person can be endowed with thirty-six specified qualities. Normally, human beings only have four qualities, but in the state of Godhood one attains thirty-six qualities. God is a state of being and a state of living.
The ancient civilizations in South and North America, which existed 5,000 years ago, described God as the Great Spirit who descends and who organizes every thing for people. The Great Spirit descends with other attributes, associates or forms, who were the helpers of that divine nature. In the concept of the Great Spirit and his helpers we see the concept of consciousness as being the Great Spirit and the helpers as the shaktis.
When the Kali Yuga commenced 5,564 years ago, the concept of God changed. Approximately 6,000 plus years ago when creation took place according to the biblical account, the concept of God also changed.
Prior to that, the old civilizations of this planet saw God not as a person or ruler but as part and parcel of their life. They realized that they were experiencing life because God was in that life as spirit, consciousness and energy. The whole experience was God experience, and therefore the monastic thought, monism, was born, where God is in me and God is around me and all pervasive. In monism God is viewed in the two complementary forms of consciousness and energy.
It was only about 2,000 years ago that the concept of one single God appeared with the establishment of Christianity and later with the establishment of Islam. Prior to Christianity and Islam, God had many roles to play. After Christ, 2,000 years ago, and after the Prophet Mohammed, around 1,400 years ago, came the theory of one God. The theory of one God is an Advaita theory, where everything merges into one.
What kind of changes took place in the identity or the concept of God? Some people started identifying with one divine nature, quality or state of being and were attracted to it. They became followers of one image and a sect or sampradaya, which identified either with Narayana, Shiva, Ganesha, Surya or Shakti. In the course of time, the unmanifest became manifest and there was an affiliation to the manifest form. The affiliation to the manifest form became a sect which still belonged to the same idea and identity of a greater belief structure. In India, there are no religions but sects, and they are part of the Sanatan Dharma, the eternal dharma. These sects can change at any time and their ideas can evolve. When the unmanifest transcendental consciousness was identified as having a form, a quality and a role in life, individual affiliations took place and sects were developed.
Five thousand years ago, there was a change in mentality where everything was seen as part of divinity. Nature was seen as a reflection of that divine agency or power, and trees, mountains, rivers, plants and rocks as having the presence of divinity within. The weather, thunder, storm, sun and moon were all labeled as cosmic spirits, which became the devas.
In the last 5,000 years, a multiplicity of gods has appeared in every culture. In Greece Zeus was the king of gods, in Rome Jupiter, in Sweden Odin. In India, we had Indra, the king of gods, and the god of thunder, the god of lightning, the god of water, the god of fire, the god of air, the god of trees. The presence of the divine being was seen in every created form. In China, Japan, India, Greece, Italy, Egypt, in Scandinavian countries and the Celtic culture nature was worshipped in the form of spirits.
In the Iliad, it says that if Poseidon was not made happy with sacrifices before ships set sail, there would always be storms at sea and everybody would drown. If some other God was not worshipped before carrying out a task, some kind of catastrophe would always happen. Are these only stories and fantasies? No, they were not coincidences, but did really happen.
Oracles would invoke different gods and predict what would happen while undertaking a journey or performing a task. We call those kinds of incidences mythologies, because we can't understand them. In the same way, today we say Rama was a mythological figure, but in 10,000 years people will say Christ never existed and was only a mythological figure. Today we know that he existed, because we have the continuation of history. In 10,000 years, nobody will believe that a person like Christ existed, and Christ will become a myth.
However, not only the concept of God evolved but also the relationship one could have with God. Some relationships are based on guilt, which becomes the medium to develop a relationship. Love and other feelings or bhava can become the medium to develop a relationship with God. The Indian school speaks of nine bhavas or nine sentiments.
You can be the lover of God like Radha. This sentiment of love or madhurya bhava is incredible because Radha associated with Krishna only during their young days, but still we call them eternal lovers. After Krishna left Vrindavan and Gokul, at the age of sixteen, he only met Radha again when he was eighty and Radha about ninety-six, but their love was eternal. This is an example of a relationship which one can develop out of love for God.
You can be a servant of God, which is the sentiment of dasya bhava, the relationship Hanuman developed with Rama. He never considered himself to be the equal to Rama, but always subservient to Rama. Today the mentality is that everybody is equal: `I consider myself equal to and as powerful as God'. A relationship which develops with God is according to the particular bhava prevalent and predominant in the mind.
Swami Satyananda has said clearly, "I had to establish a relationship, but I did not know how. Ultimately, I had to discover what my relationship was going to be, whether I was going to be a friend or an equal to God, a lover or enemy of God, or if I was going to be the servant of God. I settled when I identified myself as the servant."
Once you have identified your bhavana, feeling, then your relationship takes a form. If you are a servant and God is the master, then the role of the servant is to obey the command of the master, and that is what Paramahamsaji did. As the lover of God your dharma is to awaken the intensity of love more and more, so that there is eternal union and physical separation doesn't matter. Physical association is not identified as love but as the heart connection. You can see a person only once in your lifetime from a distance and be in love, remembering that person till the end of your days with affection, feeling and respect. That person has never been your friend, husband or wife, but the intensity is so strong that the person is part of you and you are part of that person.
There is one sect of the Vaishnava tradition in Puri, Orissa, which sees God as a person. Once a year Lord Jagannath comes out of the temple, is put into a chariot and taken three kilometres away to another temple where he stays for three days, after which he returns to his temple. On the journey from his temple to the other temple, Lord Jagannath, who is a wooden statue, falls sick. He develops fever, so the devotees put him in a bed in the other temple. The bed is prepared, blood pressure taken and medicine given. The wooden statue of the Lord is looked after as a living being. He is fed, given water and a bath. He is dressed and sponged every day just as sick people are cared for. After three days he gets well and says, "Now I am well, fit enough to go back to my home."
This is a relationship, it is not madness. When the British first saw this, they said, the people were mad, because they had never seen such an interaction happening, where God falls sick and is treated. However, it is one feeling and an entire sect developed out of this bhava.
As an aspirant of spiritual life, the best understanding of God that I can perceive and accept is that the experience of God is possible by sublimating the gross nature of the mind and by connecting with the higher nature, where the influence of disease, birth and old age do not exist and you can be in a state of permanent bliss. If there is a heaven and a hell, they are inside you. You can choose to live in hell during your lifetime or you can choose to live in heaven. If you choose to live in heaven, then equip yourself with the necessary qualities and virtues which allow you to live in heaven. This should be the aspiration and sadhana of everyone.
Ganga Darshan, Navaratri, October 2010