by Jayaram V
In Hinduism, polytheism and monotheism are like two sides of the same reality. The difference is not conceptual but perceptual. It is a paradox, which Hinduism addresses with great subtlety and openness, while some traditions fail to appreciate it or embrace it. Hindus worship both the gods and the great God Brahman, not because of historical reasons or they arrived at the concept of monotheism slowly and gradually as some ignorant historians tend to present, but because such a practice is in conformity with our fundamental beliefs about the nature of reality and our existence.
For a Hindu everything in the world is sacred, because it is created, supported and pervaded by the eternal Self. While there may be external distinctions, internally all the diverse components of the universe are suffused with the effulgence of Brahman.
Our entire universe, including all the things and beings of this world, floats in the waters of pure consciousness, which is vast, infinite, constant and imperishable.
Just as the waves and currents of an ocean cannot be different in essence from the ocean, the ultimate reality of Brahman is not different from the reality hidden in His numerous manifestations. You may find Brahman in your own being, as your highest Self. With effort, you may even see an entire universe hidden within your own Self. You may find Brahman in any nook and corner of the universe or within your own heart.
You may worship Brahman or any of His numerous manifestations, with your heart focused on Him. If your intentions are pure and sincere, you will find Him everywhere, even in a stone, a plant, a planet or your village deity.
The mind sees the diversity of the world and considers each component of it different and separate. A self-realized yogi knows that they are mere appearances of the self-same reality, which is pervading the whole universe.
At the most basic level, the Universal Self is pure consciousness, just as our consciousness in its most essential nature is. The various manifestations arise in the consciousness as bubbles or reflections.
In the human mind, the reflections may stay for a little while because our minds are impermanent and unstable; but in the cosmic consciousness, they last much longer, thereby giving us the illusion that what we see around us as the phenomenal world is real.
In both instances, the dream states are impermanent and mutable. Things appear and disappear on the surface of the consciousness like clouds across the sky. Is the consciousness disturbed by their presence?
It certainly is, which is why we experience suffering and see the play of chaos and confusion around us. However, with practice we can stabilize the consciousness, suppress the reflections and bring it back to its pristine and pure state.
When that happens, we cease to be part of God’s long dream. We wake up from the torpor and the delusion into which we have subsided and return to our original state of pure awareness and truth consciousness.
What is the nature of this truth consciousness, which creates a world of its own by reflecting things when it is exposed to objectivity and duality? This consciousness exists in each of us.
We all can experience it anytime we want, by just withdrawing into ourselves and becoming pure observers. If we are caught in things, we cannot see it. If we cling to dreams and desires and the perpetuation of our limited selves, we cannot discern it.
If you remove all thoughts, feelings, images, emotions, notions, movements, ideas, memories, concepts, desires and impulses from your consciousness, even for a brief period, what is left is your pure consciousness. This consciousness is universal, divine and pure. Life arises from there and finally subsides into it only.
Forms arise and subside in that pure consciousness only. You can enter into that consciousness anytime you want. Right now you can do it; but most of us do not want to do it because we want to be part of the great Dream of Brahman rather than outside of it.
Pure Consciousness is Brahmic consciousness. It is divine and imperishable. It is the most ancient and most effulgent. It is extremely refreshing and reviving. In deep sleep, we enter into this state. Hence, when we wake up we feel so refreshed and energized.
In Hinduism, the dualities of life and the diversity of creation are finely integrated. Since the religion is free from dogma and the oppression of ecclesiastical tyranny, it has been greatly enriched by the freedom of thought and exploration of truth by free souls who were driven by the spirit of enquiry and passion for truth.
The scholars and philosophers of Hinduism therefore pursued both unity and diversity to understand the nature of reality and the reason for our existential suffering and its possible remedies. They looked to God and His manifestations seeking answers for the intriguing aspects of human life and our relationship with other components of Nature and reality.
The result of this incessant mental churning was the emergence of both theistic and atheistic philosophies and a fine blend of monotheism and polytheism in Hinduism. Hindus consider the whole universe as manifestation of Brahman.
He exists both in manifested condition and in unmanifested state. The unmanifested Brahman is the most mysterious and the least known. He is also the most difficult to worship. Even the gods have no clue about Him. He is prior to all. The yogis, however, consider Him their ultimate Goal and meditate upon Him constantly.
The manifested Brahman is a reflection of the unmanifested Brahman in the pure consciousness. He is made up of suddha sattva (pure sattva) or Isvara Tattva, in contrast to the three gunas (sattva, rajas and tamas) with which the rest of the creation is made up.
He represents but a tiny fraction of the unmanifested Brahman. Still that tiny fraction is as vast and infinite as this universe, filled with numerous manifestations (vibhutis) and infinite powers. The manifested Brahman then descends into layers of objective reality laid out by Him only, through Nature and His Divine Maya (illusion).
In the highest planes, He manifests divinities of the highest order, who share with Him most of His absolute and infinite qualities and several functions of creation and cosmic order. In the lowers planes, descending further deeper into layers of elemental substances and nescient states, He manifests diverse living and non-living forms.
Thus, every creation is an aspect of Brahman, a reflection of Him in things and qualities, or a projection of Him upon the ocean of pure consciousness. The creation of Brahman is a dream state, which lasts for billions of years on the cosmic scale, in contrast to our dreams, which lasts for a few minutes or hours. Our days are shorter and so are our dreams.
A day of Brahma lasts for about 8.64 billion years. Therefore, his dreams last for millions or billions of years. Imagine that we have entered into a dream state and created a dream that lasts for a few billion years. The creation that we see all around us is the result of such a long dream, which has been going on for a longtime and will continue to be so for billions of years.
The beauty and marvel of this Vast Dream is that Brahman enjoys it from above, from below, from outside of it and from within. He also creates dreams within dreams and multiple realities.
In this great dream of Brahman, there are certain things that are permanent, such as our souls and some that are impermanent such as our minds and bodies and all the objects we see around us.
Now, as an aspect of Brahman, we have a choice either to pursue these impermanent things and become attached to them or get out of it and revert to the reality, which is Brahman.
We can either enter into the much deeper states of this dream by descending into the gross layers of objectivity or swim back slowly towards the higher realms and enter into the world of pure light.
We also have a choice to worship the divinities, who are part of this dream to enhance our lives and identities or give up everything, cultivate detachment and dispassion towards them and focus our minds solely upon Brahman, the Pure Consciousness, the imperishable, inexhaustible, immutable and transcendental Self, by knowing whom all becoming, striving and delusion end.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Monotheism and polytheism are two very different belief systems. Monotheism is the belief in one god and polytheism is the belief in more one than one god. The concept of morality can and does exist within cultures that have only one god, as well as cultures that have multiple gods. Without morality, the world would be a place of extreme chaos and pandemonium. However, the foundation for morality within polytheistic religions is quite contradictory to the foundation for morality with monotheistic religions.
Morality within polytheism is somewhat inconsistent and relative; whereas in monotheism, morality becomes more consistent and absolute. Morality exists throughout all cultures and religions of the world in some shape or form. In monotheism, the fact that there is one god that sits in judgment over all of his followers is evidence of morality. For example, in Judaism, God gave his followers ten commandment outlining right and wrong for them. God then places judgment on his followers based upon their obedience to the commandments.
Therefore, if there is one god judging the people’s actions, deciding if their actions are right or wrong, then the people have a standard by which they try to live by or achieve. In most polytheistic religions, although not defined, the notion of good and bad conduct is present. This notion of good and bad conduct, or right and wrong conduct, is evidence of morality in polytheism. For example, in Hinduism there is what is known as PAP and PUNYA. PAP means penalty for bad behavior, and PUNYA means credit for deeds.
PAP and PUNYA assist in determining a follower’s karma; karma determines one’s life form in the next life. (Fisher SOMETIME). The existence of morality is also evident in that there are certain gods whom have such titles as ‘sustainer,’ ‘judge,’ and ‘protector of morals. ’ For instance in Vedic Hinduism, a religion no longer practiced, one of the many gods known as Varuna was described as an “omniscient God and protector of the moral order of the world” (Novak 5). The fact the Varuna was the protector of ‘moral order’ is evidence that some sort of morality concept existed within the religion.
However, the foundations for morality in polytheism and monotheism are quite different. In polytheism the foundation for morality seems inconsistent and relative. Polytheistic religions have no ultimate reality or god to set a standard for morality that all the followers must obey. Instead, each of the many gods ‘could’ have their own set of standards for morality. The inconsistency of morality could theoretically lead one to be faced with the dilemma of which god is correct. Let’s suppose one is having an extramarital affair and is not sure if she should continue the affair or stop.
Should she pray to the goddess of lust and passion, to the god that is all-knowing or to the god of family and relationship? Not only does the inconsistency of morality standards cause followers to be faced with choosing which gods to embrace, but also cause them to be faced which god is appropriate to pray for moral guidance on different subjects. The notion that each of the multiple gods can set their standards for morality, allows for the follower to circumstantially pick and choose which god to follow.
It is possible for a follower to be circumstantially selective because they do not have to answer to one specific god. One can choose to follow a certain god because that particular god’s set of morals allows them to fulfill some desire or need that would otherwise not fulfilled under other gods’ morals. It also works in the aftermath of actions, meaning if one god does not sanction one’s actions, one can look to another god that will give their moral consent. For instance, suppose one has performed an act that causes a god to become ‘angry. Instead of receiving the wrath of that particular god, one decides to pursue another god that condones the act. Therefore, the followers become free to behave as he or she feels fit, and morality in polytheism can be considered relative. However, in some polytheistic religions, the followers choose only one of the many gods to be their main god, accepting their god’s definition of morality as their own. The followers acknowledge that there are other gods, but they do not accept the other god’s definitions of morality.
Followers understand other gods to be but aspects of the one god they have chosen to worship. Therefore, each person has their own understanding of morality depending upon which god they choose to worship. The people do not impose their standards for morality on other another because they understand that each god has their set of standards for their followers. The concept of morality within these polytheistic religions is relative to which god is chosen as the main god, as well as inconsistent because one person is able o have a completely different set of standards as someone else in the same religion. The polytheistic system of religion provides flexibility and a relativistic lack of accountability. As mentioned before, a follower of polytheism is free to behave as he or she sees fit because they do not have to answer to one specific god. Immediate judgment by the gods is not a concern. Within Hindu Bhagavad Gita, man is instructed to basically act without worrying about the results or consequences (Novak, 32). In fact, if something does happen to go ‘wrong’ or ‘bad,’ it is not the people who are at fault.
Instead that particular god has failed the people, and is to blame for the bad happenings. For example, presume that a group of people went to war with a neighboring group and ended up losing the war. The people did not lose the war, the god lost the war. The god failed the people and is to blame for losing. There is a relativistic lack of accountability because the people are not held accountable but the gods are the ones whom failed. Polytheism creates an inconsistent and relative foundation for morality that provides flexibility and a lack of accountability.
The foundation for morality within monotheism is more consistent and absolute than the foundation in polytheism. In monotheistic religions, there is one ultimate reality or god that sets the standard for morality. Each and every follower is given the exact same rules to live by and expected to obey. In Judaism, as well as Christianity, God bestowed upon his followers the Ten Commandments, which is the one moral standard the all must obey. Instead of having to worry about pleasing many gods through their actions, followers only need to please one god.
There is a comfort found within absolute right and wrong because one knows what is expected of them and not expected of them. In monotheism, the people must answer to the one god and are judged by the same god. If the people do not follow the set of standards for morality, the one god will judge them accordingly. In Islam, the followers are warned of a final judgment day, where they will be judged by their thoughts and deeds. The only way for one to find peace within Islam is by learning god’s aws and living by them to the best of their ability (Fisher SOMEWHERE). One god sits as the final moral judge over his people. The foundation for morality in monotheistic religions allows for little flexibility and a sense of accountable of each person. Monotheism more or less preaches an ‘all or nothing’ message to the followers. Islam calls for a “complete surrender to and trusting in God” (Fisher SOMEWHERE). One can not pick and choose which laws they want to follow, instead the option is given to either submit to all the rules or be judged.
The morality foundation in monotheism seems to hold each person, follower, accountable for both their individual and collective actions. For instance, if something goes ‘wrong’ or ‘bad,’ it is not the fault of the one god. Instead, the people are held accountable by that god. Some people may consider that monotheistic religions create harsh realities for its followers. However, as mentioned before, the follower can find comfort in the fact that they can know exactly what is expected of them and avoid the wrath or judgment from their god because the standard for morality is absolute.
Morality is a concept that strives to be consistent and absolute. Monotheism seems to be the belief system that exhibits a moral standard. In both polytheism and monotheism, free will still plays a large part. Differences’ can be found in the accountability concept, the one god versus many gods, and the one standard for morality versus the many. Additionally, all cultures believe in a natural moral code like all people can own property, not to take another’s life, etcetera. These natural “rules” are expanded upon by religion.
The figure heads, or gods, of each religion extend the laws to live by, they offer the concept of accountability and bestow penalties upon their followers for failing to live by their moral code. The question as to whether a polytheistic belief is less moral then a monotheistic belief, the answer is no. Both beliefs perpetuate morality because in both cases there is good and evil. There are penalties for evil and rewards for goodness. The difference lays in the relativity of morality in polytheism versus absolute in monotheism.
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