| Dear Reader,
discussed Dharma, which is really the CORE issue of Spirituality,
we now turn to an interesting but knotty question. To know
more about it, read on!
Good luck and happy reading. Jai Sai Ram.
11. A FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION
A fundamental question arises. It is said that God is Abstract
and Formless. The Hindus, on the other hand, worship so many
Gods; and now, we have a walking God! How does one understand
these seemingly contradictory facts?
Swami has beautifully clarified the point. To start with,
one must note that the question of the nature and form of
God must be dealt with at various levels. To set the stage
for later arguments, let us first consider the case of water.
Water is present in the atmosphere as vapour; this vapour
has no form; nor can it be seen. Occasionally, depending on
the circumstances, some portions of the vapour become visible
as clouds. In contrast to the invisible and all-pervasive
vapour, clouds have shape and form and are also finite. Water
is also present in snow, rain and hail-stone. It is present
in rivers, lakes and oceans. It is present in oceans as iceberg.
It is also present underground where we cannot directly see
it. What this example tells us is that though the vapour in
the atmosphere is not visible, this vapour can manifest itself
as clouds, can come down as rain and snow, and having so come
down, accumulate in lakes, rivers, oceans, etc., or disappear
below the ground. In the same way, we can deal with God at
various levels, depending upon our state of spiritual evolution.
To the most highly evolved, there is only one God who is
Formless, Omnipresent, Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Eternal.
However, if one who is not so evolved imagines God to have
a particular form, then the yearning of the devotee makes
the Abstract and the Formless to take that particular Form
that the devotee wants to see. This is what Swami says. Seen
from this perspective, when some religions talk of only one
God, they are obviously meaning God at the highest level.
When others talk of ‘different’ gods with ‘different’
forms, they are obviously talking of particular manifestations
of the One Supreme God.
As regards Hinduism, Swami says that ancient Hindus felt
complete freedom of choice is best because this way the devotee
can relate easily, effectively, and most comfortably with
God. If the devotee thought God was Abstract, He was so to
that devotee. Alternately, the devotee could choose the form
he wants. Baba says that God is ever anxious to please, and
He will take on whatever form the devotee wants. If he wants
to see God as Siva, he will see the form of Siva. If he wants
to see Ganesha, he will see the form of Ganesha. It is not
the form that is important but the underlying Divinity. Take
the case of sweets – there are so many of them. Yet,
they all have one common property – they all taste sweet
without exception. In the same way, no matter what form one
visualises, it is the Divine aspect that is central to the
is pertinent to introduce at this point the term
Ishta Devata. It simply means ‘favourite God’.
For some it may be Rama, for some it be Krishna, for some
it may be Sai, for some it may be Allah, for some it may be
Jehova, for some it may be Christ or Buddha or whatever. In
some manner or the other, they all fall under the category
of ‘favourite God’. Baba says, it does not matter
by what name you call Him; but when you call, it must be with
a deep feeling of Love. [In fact, there is in one of the Bhajans
a line that stresses this very point. Some readers may remember
that we asked readers to identify this Bhajan, and in fact
many did so correctly.]
The Ishta Devata concept may be abhorrent to those who think
of God as Formless and Abstract. But for lesser mortals who
cannot contemplate and meditate on the Formless and the Abstract,
the Ishta Devata is a most convenient ‘handle’
for developing one’s devotion. Sage Vivekananda says
that for ordinary mortals, it is very difficult to contemplate
on something that is Infinite and Formless. This is because
we are finite ourselves, and live in Universe that also is
finite. With limited minds and thinking, how can we easily
contemplate on the Formless Infinite? Not at all easy. It
is precisely here that the Ishta Devata comes in very handy,
offering hope of redemption to lesser mortals. There is a
song by an Indian saint addressed to Krishna in which he [Tukaram]
says, “O Krishna for Tuka’s sake, You the Formless
and the Infinite have come with a finite form! Otherwise,
how could a simple fool like me worship you?”
To sum up this part of the discussion, though
God is Formless and Abstract, He can be worshipped with any
form pleasing to the devotee. And if the yearning of the devotee
is intense enough, God would even manifest to the devotee
in that particular form. The concept of Ishta
Devata is particularly relevant in the context of the
Avatar. A particular devotee
may worship Siva, and to please this devotee, the Lord may
momentarily manifest as Siva.
But what about the others? They would not be able to see this
manifestation. This problem of selective appearance is completely
solved when the Lord incarnates as an Avatar.
Then anyone can see Him, relate to Him, and receive His Grace.
And one can do this for years and years. That is the unique
speciality of the Avatar. In
other words, the Avatar
is the most convenient choice for the Ishta
Devata or Personal God. Thus, when
one lives in the same time as the Avatar,
the blessing that one enjoys is incomparable.
This brings us to an important point made
by Krishna in the beginning of the 12th Chapter of the Bhagavad
Gita. Arjuna asks [in essence], “O Krishna, which
is the best way of worshipping You?” In His reply, Krishna
points out that there are basically two paths open to the
seeker. In the first, God is reached by what may be called
the Inward Path, which essentially implies worshipping the
Formless and Abstract God. In the second, God is reached by
focussing on Him via the Personal God or Ishta
Devata. Krishna adds, “Arjuna, for you the second
option is easier.” Now, an amplification of this most
important piece of advice.
As a preliminary remark, it may be mentioned that in both
the paths, the key issue is the extinction of the individual
ego. The two paths differ mainly in the strategy employed
for the annihilation. Let us start with the second path, the
path of devotion [especially to the Personal God]. Here one
becomes so much obsessed with God, that one literally forgets
oneself. God becomes the entire object of life, with every
aspect of daily life revolving totally around Him. In the
process, the individual slowly loses his ego, and his identity.
Eventually, having dissolved himself [i.e., his lower self],
there is only God; in other words, he has attained God.
We now consider the first path, which is
essentially ‘inward looking’. The Inward Path
is more ‘sophisticated’. Here, the individual
consciously reminds himself that he is Divine in origin by
[I am Siva], SOHAM
[I am THAT], AHAM BRAHMASMI
[I am Brahman or God]. These
statements ought not to be misconstrued as arrogant declarations.
Rather, while chanting these Mantras,
the seeker makes every effort to become immersed in Divine
feelings such as Compassion, selfless Love, Forbearance, Sacrifice,
etc. If one keeps on with this drill day in and day out ceaselessly
for years, a stage would come when feelings of Compassion,
Love, Sacrifice, etc., are automatically aroused and become
second nature to the individual concerned. At this stage,
the seeker has arrived. As Swami often reminds us, Yad
Bhavam, Tad Bhavati – As you feel, so you become.
In this the Inward Path, one constantly has
to battle body-consciousness, not an easy task. In the path
of devotion on the other hand, one just loves God like a child
loves its mother. Slowly, God occupies so much of one’s
time that ego alias body-consciousness has no chance to manifest.
Eventually, ego just withers away, having had little practice!
Loving God is a lot easier than reminding oneself that one
is God; in the latter, there is the great danger of the entire
exercise misfiring through the boosting of one’s ego!
That is why Krishna says that for ordinary mortals [to which
category 99.9999999% belong], the path of devotion is both
easy and safe. The path becomes particularly easy to follow
when one is living at the same time as the Avatar
– this important point has to be kept in mind.
There are innumerable advantages and concessions that are
available in the path of devotion. Firstly, when one surrenders
to God, He takes over, vastly reducing our problems. [You
take one step towards Me and I shall take a hundred steps
towards you.] Next, no one is excluded; even great sinners
are offered the chance to turn a new leaf, being assured of
full blessings and Grace. Thirdly, one need not be afraid
that one cannot become infinitely pure, etc. God knows very
well our frailties and is fully prepared to help us in every
possible way. All that is required is the DEEP
yearning for God. If deep and genuine yearning is there, He
will just stretch out His hand and pick us up even before
we have become perfectly pure. This is a remarkable bonus.
One can give the following analogy. Let us say one has to
go to the top of Everest. One method is the hard way –
actually climb the mountain! This is by no means easy. Another
way is to go to the summit by helicopter, which is clearly
a lot easier than climbing! The path of Self-enquiry is like
climbing to the summit, while the path of devotion is like
taking a helicopter ride to the summit. Of course the ride
does not come free; one must buy a ticket. And what is the
currency that is to be offered for purchasing the ticket?
Not dollars, not euros, not pounds, not yen, not rupees –
the currency is FAITH, TOTAL FAITH. “Place your faith
in Me and I shall take care of everything.” This assurance
has been given by Krishna and reiterated by Sai.
We conclude by citing two analogies [both given by Baba]
that illustrate the two paths currently under discussion.
Let us first consider two circles, a very large one [an infinite
one actually] and a small one. The large circle represents
God and the small one represents man. Let us imagine that
the small circle lies outside the big circle. We now suppose
that the small circle starts shrinking progressively, till
it finally disappears altogether. At this stage, only the
large circle is left. The shrinking of the small circle symbolises
the gradual elimination of the individual ego. When ego vanishes
completely only God is left, the individual having become
one with God.
Consider now an alternate scenario. Here
we start with the small circle lying wholly within the big
circle. Now imagine the small circle to progressively become
larger. Eventually a stage would be reached when the small
circle becomes one with the larger circle. This expansion
process symbolises the attainment of Self-realisation by the
path of enquiry. In this path, one constantly keeps asking
one self: “Who am I?” The answer is: “I
am NOT the body or the mind.” The question now reduces
to: “Then who exactly am I?” And the answer is
“I am the Real Self or the Atma.”
This answer must not come from the head but the Heart –
that is important!
On now to the second analogy. In this, man is visualised as
being held by fetters or chains. Suppose the man starts reducing
himself in size. When he becomes thin enough, he can slip
out of the chains – this is the equivalent of pursuing
the path of devotion. Alternately, the man can make himself
bigger and bigger; a stage would then come when the chains
would burst and give way, making man free. Becoming free by
‘expanding’ oneself is the equivalent of pursuing
the path of Self-enquiry.
To conclude, one should not get caught up
in pointless debates about whether God has a Form or not.
For those who believe He is without Form, He is indeed Formless.
For those who would have it otherwise, He is ever ready to
adopt the Form favoured by the devotee, and confer His Grace.
The important thing is to Love God and overcome one’s
ego. This objective is more easily achieved by worshipping
a God with Form, than the Abstract God. In particular, one
ought to take advantage of the Avatar,
and adopt Him as the Ishta Devata.
ADDITIONAL NOTES RELATING TO THE ABOVE
In this world there are people who believe in God and
there are people who do not.
Amongst believers, there is a wide spectrum, since each
religion offers its own special view about God. Thus,
while some assert that God has no Form, others go so far
as to declare that God not only has Form but can in fact
assume any Form favoured by the devotee.
As if this diversity of opinion is not enough, devotees
who believe in a Formless God sometimes argue [based on
their religion], “My Formless God is the only Real
God. Your Formless God is no God at all!”
All this diversity of opinion provokes many to totally
deny God! Yet, we must not dismiss such “disbelievers”
because many of them are wedded to Truth. According to
Swami, Truth is God; therefore we must take it that these
people also believe in God in their own way, although
they might not like to use the word God.
So, what are we to make of all this [man-made] confusion?
Let us turn to God Himself for an answer.
Here is a digest of Baba’s declarations on this
subject [in essence]. Swami says:
There is only one God.
He is Abstract and Formless.
He is Sathya, Dharma, Shanti, Prema,
Therefore it is said that Truth is God.
This God is above Space and Time.
God is truly Nameless but man has given Him many
Names – nothing wrong in that.
In the framework of Creation, God is Omnipresent,
Omnipotent and Omniscient.
He pervades the entire Universe.
He is Sathyam, Sivam, Sundaram,
or as Plato put it, He is Truth, Goodness and Beauty.
God’s Power is manifest in the Universe as
Consciousness and Divine Energy.
All aspects of God are immanent in the atom.
Thus God is present in the micro as well as the
He is present in every being as the Indweller.
And so on it goes.
If all the above is true, then it implies that God is
without Form. What sense does it make then to talk of
God with Form? Is it not a contradiction to talk of God
This is not a contradiction. To appreciate this, just
recall that water can be present in various states and
forms. If water can be without form [as in the vapour
state] and with form as in ice, for example, then why
should it be so difficult for God to exist both in a Formless
aspect as well as with Form?
Indeed, even where liquid water is concerned, we see
ponds, lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and ocean. All these
contain only water; yet we perceive them as being different.
From all this we learn the lesson that Swami has often
taught us: TRUTH IS ONLY ONE THOUGH SCHOLARS REFER TO
IT BY DIFFERENT NAMES. God is only One, though devotees
perceive Him in many different ways. And God is kind enough
to oblige the devotee by appearing to him in the Form
that he prefers.
Swami gives another simple example.
He says, “Take water. People speaking different
languages refer to this water with different words. In
English the word water is used. In Tamil it is tanni.
In Hindi it is paani, and
so on. Imagine a Hindi-speaking person arguing, ‘This
is paani not water!’
How stupid would that be!”
Yet this precisely is what humans do
very often. For example, Hindus refer to God using the
word Bhagavan. In Urdu the
corresponding word is Khudha.
Most Muslims in India speak Urdu and therefore refer to
God using the word Khudha.
Though both the words mean the same, ignorant Hindus are
allergic to the word Khudha,
and likewise ignorant Muslims bristle at the word Bhagavan.
All this is utterly foolish.
Swami’s views on all this are
beautifully echoed in a Sai Bhajan where the following
words occur: jo naam chahe who naam
bolo, prem se bolo bahava se bolo ,It does not
matter what Name you use, but make sure you utter the
name with Love and Feeling.
Here is a story that proves the point. Many years ago,
a devout Muslim lady in the southern State of Kerala in
India became quite ill. She suffered a lot of pain and
could not bear it. Constantly she prayed, “Allah!
Please either cure me or take me. I just cannot bear this
One night, she had a dream. Baba appeared before her
and said, “I am the Allah you are praying to. Don’t
worry; you will become alright.” Next morning when
she got up, she recalled her dream. She knew nothing about
Swami and wondered: “Allah is supposed to be without
form but a person appeared before me and said He was Allah.
What does it all mean?” She did not know whether
to believe in her dream or not. However, exactly as had
been promised in her dream, within a few days she got
completely cured. She was happy but even more mystified.
She just could not understand who had cured her.
Soon after this, one day this lady visited the house
of a friend of hers. As she entered the house of this
other lady, she saw at the entrance a large photo of Swami
with a beautiful smile on His face. The Muslim lady stood
there frozen, staring at the picture. She then asked the
lady of the house, “Who is this in the picture?”
The other lady replied, “Oh, that is Bhagavan Sri
Sathya Sai Baba.” “Do you mean to say that
such a person actually exists?” “Yes of course.”
“Where?” “In Puttaparthi.” “Where
is that place and how can I go there?” “I
am going there next week for service [Seva Dal] work.
If you wish, you can come along with me.” “I
would very much like to.” “Good, but why are
you so anxious to go to Puttaparthi?” The Muslim
lady then narrated her extra-ordinary experience.
Swami tells us again and again: “Call Me by any
Name, at any time, and at any place; I shall respond without
fail.” Indeed He does, as this episode reveals.
He has been doing so from times immemorial and He will
go on doing so till the end of Time.
OK, granted all this. What about God with Form? Can
one shed further light on that? Yes one can, and let us
start with an analogy from science. In 1905, Einstein
gave the celebrated equation E = mc2, an equation now
known even to school boys. It says that gross matter and
physical energy are inter-convertible. For example, Hiroshima
got wiped out when about five grams of uranium 235 got
totally converted into energy. The converse, namely the
transformation of energy into matter is also possible
and students of science know all about it.
May be, but what is the point of all this discussion?
Simply this. Gross matter can be touched, felt, seen,
etc. But no one has ever actually seen
energy! This obvious fact is hardly ever discussed. From
this we see that energy which is unseen can manifest as
visible matter in many different ways.
In other words, even at the purely physical level, something
that is formless can manifest with diverse forms. The
same is the case with God.
In this context, the following incident is worth narrating.
Once when Baba was with students in Brindavan, a devotee
narrated an incident about how Swami manifested in a far-off
land and came to the rescue of a devotee there. After
describing the thrilling episode, the narrator asked,
“Swami, how is that though You were here in Brindavan,
yet You appeared in that far-off land? How could You be
in two places at the same time?” Swami replied:
“You are wrong to think that God goes from one place
to the other or manages to be in two places at the same
time. He is present everywhere all the time. Only, He
may not be manifest. If a devotee at a particular place
intensely desires to see God, He will manifest then and
there, irrespective of His presence in other places in
other physical Forms”.
God can have many Forms but there is
a Form that is special, namely the From that God takes
as an Avatar. This Form is
in a category all by itself.
OK, granted that God is Formless and
can also have Forms. Now in which aspect is He to be worshipped?
This is what they call a good question! Interestingly
this is the very question that Arjuna puts to Krishna
at the beginning of the 12th Chapter of the Bhagavad
Gita. Krishna replies, “Arjuna, both forms
of worship lead to Me, but for you [meaning all of us
ordinary mortals], worship of God with Form is a lot easier.
I therefore recommend that you worship the God with Form.”
OK, but which Form to choose? Here the
Hindus have a very liberal prescription. They say, “Choose
the Form that appeals to you most!” However, through
practical experience, most people have converged on the
Form with which God appears as an Avatar.
In other words, the Form preferred by most is that of
Rama, Krishna and now, Swami.
The Poorna Avatars
just mentioned incarnated with human form. Thus, it is
very easy to regard the Avatar
as mother, father, Guru,
friend and so on. And such a view enables one to literally
spend one’s entire life in the company of the Avatar,
if one so chooses.
The lives of many Saints illustrate
the point. Saint Tyagaraja was one such Saint. He lived
in South India in the period spanning the eighteenth and
the nineteenth centuries. A great devotee of the first
Poorna Avatar Lord Rama,
Tyagaraja used to spend the whole day singing for Rama.
In the morning he would imagine that he was waking up
Rama and sing a song for Him. During the day, there would
be songs with praise, adoration, moving recollections
of His Story, and even complaints! And at night Tyagaraja
would sing lullabies. People may say that Tyagaraja was
mad; yes he was, he was God-mad! As Baba often remarks
to be God-mad is infinitely better than to be mad about
power, position, money, one’s husband or wife and
Once again the point about why Krishna strongly endorses
the worship of the personal God. Swami Vivekananda explains
it very nicely. He says that the thinking of most persons
is very limited. Their vision too is quite restricted.
This being the case, how would they be able to properly
worship God in His Abstract, Formless and Infinite state?
The abstract must follow the real and come after it. Indeed,
in mathematics, students are taught first about real numbers
and it is only after about ten years of such exposure
that they are exposed to imaginary numbers.
Swami sometimes tells the stories of two wise men named
Jnanadev and Namdev. Their legend is very popular in North
India. Jnanadev was immersed in the Self-enquiry; he was
in quest of the Formless God. Namdev, however, was a simple
soul, always given to chanting the name of the Lord. One
day the two were trekking through wilderness and in the
process became thirsty. Just then, they came upon a well.
There were no steps and hence they could go down to the
level of the water, which, incidentally was way down.
There was also no bucket for drawing water. Jnanadev used
his powers, transformed himself into a bird, flew down,
drank water, flew up and then reverted to the human firm.
Namdev did not possess such powers. He just stood there
and kept chanting the name of the Lord. And then all of
a sudden, the water level in the well started increasing.
Soon, the water came right up to the top and Namdev was
able to drink water with great ease. Swami says that the
man of Knowledge had to go the water whereas water came
looking for the man of devotion.
The question arises: How does one go
in quest of the Abstract and Formless God? According to
Baba, this has to be in stages. First, one imagines God
to be distinct from oneself. Here, devotion is quite easy,
conceptually. It becomes particularly easy when one worships
the Avatar as the personal God, as many have discovered
over the centuries. Swami refers to this dual state with
the Sanskrit word Dwaitam,
which means duality. With spiritual advancement, there
comes a stage where one realises one is a part of God
but not God Himself. This is what philosophers call Qualified
Monism; in Sanskrit it is called Visishtadvaitam.
Still higher is Advaitam
or Pure Monism, where one identifies oneself totally with
God. Obviously, this would take a long time and many stages
of spiritual refinement.
Baba often quotes Jesus to illustrate
these three stages. He says that in the beginning Jesus
declared that he was a Messenger of God. This corresponds
to Dwaitam. Later Jesus said
that He was the Son of God; Swami says this showed that
Jesus was now in the stage of Visihtadvaitam.
Still later Jesus said that he and his Father were; with
this, Jesus had arrived, meaning that he had climbed fully
to the stage of Advaitam.
It must also be pointed out that many
ardent devotees of the Lord have, unknown to themselves,
reached the pinnacle of Advaitam,
by the sheer intensity of their devotion. They became
so involved with God in their daily lives, that world
ceased to have any significant meaning. God alone remained,
and in practical terms that is what Advaitam
is all about.
Saint Tukaram who lived in the state
of Maharashtra many centuries ago is a classic example.
He was a great devotee of Krishna. Once a savant came
to him and tried to persuade him to listen to a discourse
on Advaitam. Tukaram resisted
stoutly. Yet, towards the end, this very same Tukaram
was seen with Divine Effulgence emanating from him. Unknown
to himself, he had become one with God. When that state
is reached, one has essentially attained the state of
As Baba often tells us, Yad
Bhavam, Tad Bhavati, meaning, as you feel, so you
become. Think of God always and God you become! In other
words, one need not be bothered about the intricate technicalities
about the state of Advaitam;
that is for scholars to debate and argue about. Sheer
and intense devotion can
definitely take one to the goal. In other words, even
the worship of the so-called Personal God can and does
help one to finally merge and become one with the Formless
and the Absolute.
So, one need not really split hairs about ‘God
is without Form or has Form’. He makes Himself available
in both versions, according the preference of the seeker.
The important thing is to adhere firmly and devoutly to
the chosen path, whichever it is.
AN IMPORTANT POINT TO CONSIDER
This topic about God having Form or no Form is not only
an important one but also a difficult one. Many have a
mind-set created by centuries of frozen ideas. If one
encounters such people, it is better not to raise the
topic of God and Form with them. For example, conservative
Muslims stoutly believe that there is no God other than
Allah. They will not concede that the One whom they call
Allah is the same as the One whom others call by other
names. Similarly, there are others to whom any one other
than Christ is unacceptable. Under such circumstances,
it is better not to raise this topic with others, unless
one is sure that there would be no misunderstanding or
At the same time, it is pertinent to draw a lesson from
the life of Gandhi. He made no secret of his adoration
of Rama; yet he made himself easily acceptable to Muslims
and Christians, for example. How? Because his accent was
on Compassion and Non-violence. This is also how Mother
Teresa became widely adored in India despite its Hindu
tradition. The point simply is that people readily converge
when the qualities of the Divine are
talked about. But when it comes to names……!
Hence, a good thumb rule is to postpone discussion of
the question of names and forms till there is a climate
of convergence. That climate is easily created by focussing
on Love, which is universally accepted.
HOW DO YOU LIKE THIS SERIES ON GETTING SPIRITUALLY
BETTER? DO YOU FIND IT HELPFUL? IF SO, HOW ABOUT DRAWING THE
ATTENTION OF OTHERS ALSO, SO THAT THEY TOO BENEFIT? AND, IN
CASE YOU HAVE TO COMMENTS TO OFFER, YOU KNOW WHERE TO REACH
US., DON’T YOU? THANKS AGAIN.