“What is God, and what is our relationship to that God?”, The Speaking Tree
Many people coming from abroad think that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. You come here and you’ve got an image of this God and that God, we have this prayer to that God and this prayer to that God. If you walk into any temple, you’re going to see so many dozens of different statues and different images. The priest will go by, chanting the mantras or doing the prayers or doing the aarti to all the different divine manifestations. So, that gets misinterpreted as being polytheism.
Hinduism is not a polytheistic religion. We do not believe in many gods. What we believe in is one God who is infinite and everywhere. When God is infinite and everywhere, then there is an infinite number of possible manifestations or reflections.
No metaphor for it is perfect, because when it is God you’re speaking about, obviously the words, which are finite, are not able to describe that which is infinite. The words are two-dimensional and are not able to describe that which defies dimension. We sort of run circles around the Truth, getting a little bit closer and closer to it. But one way of thinking about this is: you have the Sun, and the reason it’s not a perfect analogy is because the Sun of course is not infinite. Nonetheless, the Sun is very big and very powerful, and as many different containers as I put on the ground, I’m going to have that many different types of reflections of the Sun. A container that is like a bowl, that’s blue and ceramic, is going to give me a very different type of reflection of the Sun than a container that is glass and vertical and translucent. It’s the same Sun, but different reflections only because the containers are different. So, God is one, there really is nothing but God, and that God is being manifest, seen, and perceived in an infinite number of different containers.
There is a line in the Upanishads that says “Isavasyamidam sarvam yatkinca jagatyam jagat.” It means that everything in the Universe is pervaded by the Divine. There is nothing and no one that is not pervaded by the Divine. These are not just teachings that we read and we say “oh wow” and then go have dinner, fight with our family, watch TV, and go to sleep. These are teachings for how we should live. Whether you sit with your Upanishads in front of you, you chant, you listen to a katha, or you go to a lecture, the whole point is that it should change how you see things. If there is nothing but God, that doesn’t say mean that God is everything but your boss, everything is God except your mother-in-law. There is no scripture that says that. If everything is God, then everything is God. That also includes me, which may be stating the obvious but sadly most of us actually tend to forget ourselves most in the equation. We meditate on compassion and loving-kindness, we look for God around us, we try to practice compassion and love, but what do we say to ourselves? “Oh my God, you are so stupid! Look! You are trying to practice love, how dare you yell at that person! You’re horrible, you’re worthless, you can’t even do this spiritual thing right!” We berate ourselves. We’re negative to ourselves, in the name of compassion and loving-kindness. Well, who you are is also not left out of the equation, so it’s not “everything is God but me because I’m worthless.” The teaching is, how can I live and really see that?
It’s obviously not easy, but we have examples. If you’ve studied the life of saints like Paramhansa Ramakrishna for example, there’s beautiful stories in it from his life of him literally bowing down on the ground in pranam to prostitutes. People would say to him, “What are you doing?? You are a holy man, these are wicked women, how could you be prostrating to them?” And as tears poured down his face, he would reply, “But they are the Mother, they are the Goddess!” That’s really seeing the Divine. It requires us to focus on essence rather than form. So, going back to my Sun example, rather than focusing on the container, focus on the reflection of the Sun.
In our lives, what we tend to do is identify with the container, like seeing the blue ceramic bowl instead of the reflection of the Sun. When people ask, “Who are you?” I say, “I’m female, I’m white, I’m 45, I’m American, I’m a sannyasi, I’m a PhD, these are my parents, this is my life, this is how much I weigh, this is how tall I am, this is what I’m allergic to, this is what I like and don’t like.” But, just like the bowl is just a vessel for the Sun, this is all just vessel. Who you really are is the Divine, and yes, this is a vessel. You can’t see the Sun’s reflection in the air, you need a vessel. The Sun is there, but until and unless I have a vessel, I cannot see the reflection on Earth.
With our two eyes, we are only able to see God in form. This is why when we talk about our third eye. So many people ask, “Why do we put this tilak here in between the eyes? What does that mean?” Well, one of the aspects of it is it reminds us, “Oh God, when I use these two physical eyes, I’m able to only see form. I can see hair color, skin, weight, height, gender, beauty, and clothes, but that is illusion.” The third eye chakra is actually the energy center of the power of discrimination, and it’s the power to discriminate Truth from untruth. The Truth, that capital-T Eternal Truth, is that we’re Divine, so when we put the tilak on or we do meditations for the third eye, the point is: “Oh God, let me see from this eye rather than using these two physical eyes which keep seeing falsehood after falsehood, separation after separation, form after form, instead of essence. Oh God, I want to see content not form, I want to see essence not form. I want to see the Truth.” The third eye is the energy center that’s the center for that power of discrimination that says, “No, this is not female, 45, white, American, sannyasi. This is Divine.” What that means is that there is no separation between you and me. If we’re looking only from that which is false, then you and I are separate. You are an object. I may love you, I may hate you, I may want to bring you into my life, I may want to push you out of my life, but either way you are a separate object. When I am able to use my third eye, when I’m really living with the awareness that there’s nothing but God, there is no separation and there’s no place I end and you begin. It’s all God.
There’s a great story of what happens to so many of us when we embark on the spiritual path and we start to get bits of this knowledge. A Guru was teaching his disciples this exact same teaching that everything is Brahma and there is nothing but Brahma. Two of his disciples go into the city one day, and in the city, there is a big shout that there’s an elephant coming. The man who takes care of the elephant shouts, “Get out of the way!” but the disciple thinks, “Well, my Guru says everything is God, so I’m just going to stay here because this elephant is just an illusion. It’s really Brahma, it’s God, and I’m really Brahma, I’m not just this weak guy, so why do I have to get out of the way?” The elephant handler is screaming at this point, “Get out of the way, get out of the way!” but the disciple says, “No, no, it’s all good, it’s all God, no problem!” The elephant of course comes and picks him up with his trunk and tosses him hundreds of yards, and he falls and breaks every bone in his body. Finally, his fellow disciples catch up to him and find him broken and bleeding. He cries to them, “I hate our Guru! He gave us this false piece of information, that was a horrible elephant, that was not God, I’m never going back to the ashram!” The disciples go back and tell the Guru, and then go back out and find the man again with they’re lanterns in the night, and the Guru goes to him. The Guru asks the man what happened, and the man, in a fit of ego, replies, “I was just trying to implement your teaching, you are the one who said everything is God. Look what the elephant did to me.” And the Guru replies, “Ah, but you really didn’t implement the teaching.” The man questions what he means, as he says he was seeing the elephant as Brahma, and the Guru says, “But what about the elephant man who told you to get out of the way? What about all of the people that tried to grab you and pull you out of the way? I told you everything is Brahma, but in your ego, you decided it was just going to be you and the elephant. You left out the elephant man, all the people, and all your fellow disciples who tried to help you.” This is what happens sadly to us. We tend to develop these very narrow views about what being spiritual means: “I am God, therefore you should do the dishes tonight. Therefore, you should take care of me.” Well, if I am god, then so are you, because God doesn’t play favorites, there is no God that says, “I will be one with you but not with you.” When there is nothing but God, there is nothing but God.
As we implement these teachings in our lives, it is very important to remember that, and of course it is not easy. It is not easy to move through the world remembering that. That’s why when we think about the level on which we live, we have to remember that yes, that is the ultimate highest truth, and yet there is also the creation. There is the Creator and then there is the creation, and that’s us. Yes, at our core, we’re God. There is nothing but God. But as the creation in this leela, this beautiful divine drama that God has created, we have hearts that love, we have minds that think, and we have the ability to have compassion and the ability to reach out a hand. One of the real, tragic pitfalls of a superficial understanding, or rather a superficial implementation, in our lives of these truths is, we tend to just use them to our benefit: “Well, everything is God, so why do I have to do my homework? Everything is God, so why give charity, why pay my taxes, why do anything? If it’s all perfect, if there’s nothing but God, why do I have to wake up in the morning and meditate and pray, I mean, I’m already God.” It really lends itself to very challenging games of the ego. So, what I have found, personally, is that it’s beautiful to hold that Truth, to remember it, to know that it is the highest level of Truth, but it’s also helpful to remember when I can’t live in that in every moment of everyday, to at least live in my humanity, rather than live in simply a pushed-away humanity. That’s a pitfall we don’t want to fall into.
One way to think about existence is like the old TVs which had dials that would turn the TV from one channel to another. On the highest channel is the all-encompassing Truth in which it’s all God. But then, on another channel, we’re here in this human form, and this human form has the ability to smile at each other, hug each other, help each other, make ladoos and feed each other, and use our talents and abilities to serve each other. We don’t want to dismiss that, because if God had wanted us to just disconnect entirely from the world and to just let people suffer and die, I do not believe we would’ve been born with the ability to experience empathy, to experience compassion, and to cry at the plight of another. I do not believe our instinct would be to immediately, before the brain processes it, reach out and help someone who falls down in front of us. If someone falls down in front of us, we don’t take a moment to process in our brains, “Well, is it God? Is it not God?” No. We just reach out and help. If we’re trying too much to push away our humanity, then we’re throwing away a gift that God has given us, which is our humanity. God is perfect, God gave us a human birth on purpose. We could have been a leaf or an Earth worm. Why did God make us human, give us consciousness, love, and intuition?
So, we use those as gifts from God, with an awareness that the perfect, all knowing God gave them to us. We hold in our awareness that the highest, deepest, truest Truth is that it’s all perfect, and yet we still reach down and help the person who tripped in front of us, because that channel also exists as long as we are human.