Christian God vs. the Brahman
Christian God vs. the Brahman
I form the light and create darkness,
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I bring prosperity and create disaster;
I, the LORD, do all these things.
– Isaiah 45:7
The Judeo-Christian God, YHWH, is a personal God, whereas the Brahman of Hinduism is the impersonal Truth. They are not counterparts to each other, as the God of one monotheistic religion would be to that of another. The conceptions of Yahweh and Brahman are radically different, and yet they share some basic similarities. It is true that generally the Christian God is considered to be all-good, while the Brahman is seen as encompassing both good and evil or as transcending them. There seems to be some fundamental contradiction here, but the contradiction exists only at a superficial level — we simply need to probe a bit deeper to see that the contradiction is not a fundamental one.
To begin with, the basic premise behind the notion of God in any major religious tradition of the world is that existence is good and has order. Existence is not just random, things happening any which way they like. It is this intrinsic order of the existence that makes way for goodness and beauty. If such an order were not present, then the word ‘God’ would not have any meaning. To believe in God means to believe in some kind of cosmic intelligence that can sustain the infinite order of existence. Yahweh is a crude anthropomorphic conception of this cosmic intelligence, whereas the conception of the Brahman is at the other end of the spectrum — it is too subtle, too abstract and highly sophisticated.
Having established a kind of link between Yahweh and the Brahman, we can now proceed to examine how far the notion that the Christian God is all-good, and that the Brahman is indifferent or transcendent to good and evil, is valid. When we start thinking about it, the idea that any God can be all-good and all-powerful at the same time is a rather preposterous one. There is apparently so much evil and suffering in our world; if the God who created this world is all-good, then why does evil and suffering exist? If we posit an antagonist to God, in the way Christianity does, then the obvious conclusion is that God can have an opposition and therefore He is not all powerful. So, no God can be all-good and all-powerful at the same time.
Nevertheless, it is true that we would like to believe in a God who is all-good and all-powerful, otherwise what is point of God being the God? Christianity, like Judaism and Islam, subscribes to the notion of God being all-good and all-powerful, but it does not really have any explanation as to how can God be both at the same time, given the way things appear to be in our world. In Christian theology, from St. Augustine onwards, typically some explanations are given to explain evil, but they tend to make sense only in the context of Christian theology. While the other two religions, Judaism and Islam, do not argue for their standpoint and simply assert their doctrine, Christian writers and thinkers offer elaborate explanations in defense of their religion. However, Christianity is not a philosophy-based religion in the manner Eastern religions are. It is as dogma-based religion as Judaism and Islam. Indulging in Christian apologetics yields little that is fruitful, and this is the case with all dogma-based religions, including Hinduism.
The Brahman is the supreme God of Hinduism only in theory. When it comes to practice, only a very minor fraction of Hindus, probably less than one percent, have even ever heard of Brahman or have an inkling of what It is. In reality, the Brahman is seen as the Supreme Being not in Hinduism as such, but only in one of the philosophical schools of thought that ancient India produced, called Vedanta. The God of Hinduism is not the Brahman, in fact there is not one but many supreme Gods in Hinduism. Shiva is a supreme God, Vishnu is also a supreme God, Durga is also a supreme God(dess) and so on. Each of these Gods is all-good and all-powerful in his or her own right, even if they could be fighting with each other from time to time. The beauty of Hinduism is that it does not even try to resolve any of the innumerable conflicts and contradictions abounding in it, in fact it seems to thrive on absurdities. Hinduism is simply an elaborate mythological system — when we exclude its philosophic core — and Hindus accept their religion for what it is. As for sublime Hindu philosophy, an overwhelming majority of Hindus in the modern times have hardly any idea of Vedanta. In the case of Christianity, however, the situation is different. Christianity keeps trying to reconcile itself to logic, reason, and science, which is nothing but an exercise in futility.
The basic dichotomy between Yahweh and the Brahman arises not because of the differences between Christianity and Hinduism, it arises because of the difference of approach in exoteric religion and esoteric religion / mysticism. Yahweh is the God of an exoteric doctrine, and the Brahman is the central principle of an esoteric doctrine. Christianity too has a rich tradition of mysticism, and Hinduism is largely a heavily ritual-laden exoteric tradition. All exoteric religions have commonalities, and most of the major mystic traditions of the world bear strong resemblances with each other. In fact, the similarities between mystic traditions can be so strong that the Vedantic concept of Brahman or the Mahayana concept of Shunyata can be best understood through the writings of Meister Eckhart, a 12th century Christian mystic of Germany. Eckhart declared: “It is God’s nature to be without a nature. To think of His goodness, or wisdom, or power is to hide the essence of Him…” (Colledge et al., 42). The deeply mystical wisdom traditions of the world are in truth eerily similar to each other.
The notion of God being all-good and all-powerful is juvenile. The wisdom traditions deeply affirm the complementariness of opposites, good and bad, light and dark, male and female, growth and decline and so on. Even commonsense tells us that good cannot exist without bad. Let’s assume that life is good, death is bad and also that youth is good, old age is bad; now, if we all live forever, being young forever, and it is the same with our children and grandchildren and so on, this might appear like a very good thing at first, but only if we ponder upon the scenario with all its implications would the sheer horror of perpetual life dawn on us. God cannot be all-good not because there is so much bad and evil in our world, God cannot be all-good in the very nature of things, even if we were to conceive an ideal imaginary universe. Good needs bad to exist, just as happiness needs sorrow, and beauty needs ugliness. If we were happy all the time, how would we even know that we are happy, how would we be able to appreciate happiness? If everything around us were perfectly beautiful all the time, then beauty itself loses value and meaning. Wisdom lies in understanding the complementariness of seeming opposites and accepting it.
If we believe in God, it does not have to be the case that the world is all-good and the God who created it is all-good too. Belief in God implies belief in the goodness of the world, but this goodness does not have to be and cannot be exclusively good – all good – since good cannot exist all by itself. Belief in God simply means that the world is good in the final analysis, in fact as good as it can be, but no more. Belief in God means that the existence is essentially good, and not that it is totally good. And what really concerns us is whether existence is essentially good or not, we are not concerned with whether God is essentially good or not, what is the nature of God and such abstract metaphysical things. And it is useless to speculate on the nature of God too, since God is so much beyond our tiny intellects. As Meister Eckhart and all the mystical traditions insist, to attribute any quality to God is basically to limit Him.
As such, the Absolute Brahman has no form, no attributes, or nothing we can humanly relate to. It is beyond all dualities. It encompasses the dualities but transcends them too, It encompasses everything but also transcends everything (Torwesten, 29). Good and bad are relative, but God is absolute. Eckhart’s conception of God and the Vedantic conception of the Absolute is essentially the same. At the same time, the Hindu conception of a supreme God, say a Shiva or a Vishnu, is similar to the Judeo-Christian conception of YHWH, in the fundamentals at least. These Gods are all, or are supposed to be, all-good, all-powerful; they talk to humans, they have motives, desires, emotions and so on. The supreme Gods of exoteric religions have been conceived to provide consolation to the masses. These Gods, as Freud emphasizes, are nothing but an illusion, merely childish fantasies, wish-fulfilling projections of insecure minds. “The religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions of this kind,” says Freud. The conception of the God of mysticism, on the other hand, represents the highest reach of the human intellect. It is the closest we can get to understanding the ultimate nature of reality.
The God of mysticism is vastly different from the Gods of exoteric religion and yet there exists some common ground. If the Christian God is good, the Brahman too is good. Although the Hindu sages of the Upanishads try to desist from attributing any qualities to the Brahman, from time to time they do give him some attributes if only simply to facilitate our understanding. Most prominently, two sets of attributes have been given to the Brahman, Sat-Chit-Ananda and Satyam-Shivam-Sundaram (Subramanian, 2002). Sat-Chit-Ananda means Truth, Consciousness and Bliss while Satyam-Shivam-Sundaram means Truth, Good, and Beauty. So the quality of being good is explicitly attributed to the Brahman by the Upanishads, just as much as it is attributed to the Christian God in Christian theology. In the case of Brahman, good means essentially good; and in the case of the Christian God too, good means essentially good, because the term ‘all-good’ does not have and cannot have any real meaning. It has to be noted though that even when Satyam-Shivam-Sundaram is attributed to the Brahman, it refers to the Brahman only in so far as That Truth is one with the world of our existence. God and the world are one and the same in Vedanta, so when the qualities of Satyam-Shivam-Sundaram are attributed to God, in fact what this means is that existence is full of truth, goodness and beauty. Here, the term ‘goodness’ does not stand in opposition to evil, it subsumes it. It is good too that evil exists. We have to come to accept evil and bad, in the world as well as in our own lives. Eckhart says:
A good man ought so to conform his will to the divine will that he should will whatever God wills. Since God in some way wills for me to have sinned, Ι should not will that Ι had not committed sins; and this is true penitence. (Colledge et al., 77)
The presence of good and evil, beauty and ugliness in an exquisite balance is what makes the existence ultimately good and beautiful.
Thy creation, itself finite, full of Thee, the Infinite; and I said, Behold God, and behold what God hath created; and God is good, yea, most mightily and incomparably better than all these: but yet He, the Good, created them good; and see how He environeth and fulfils them.
— St. Augustine (Pusey, 77)
Colledge, Edmund; McGinn, Bernard; Smith, Houston. “Meister Eckhart , Vol. 2: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises and Defense (Classics of Western Spirituality).” Mahwah, NJ : Paulist Press, 1981
Freud, Sigmund. “The Future of an Illusion.” The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 21. 1968. http://www.adolphus.nl/xcrpts/xcfreudill.html
Subramanian, V. K. “The Upanishads and the Bible.” New Delhi : Abhinav Publications, 2002
Pusey, Edward Bouverie. “The Confessions of Saint Augustine.” Whitefish, MT : Kessinger Publishing, 2004
Torwesten, Hans. “Vedanta: Heart of Hinduism.” New York : Grove Press, 1991