Spiritual Blossoms
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Dear Reader,

Having 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.



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 issue.

The formless essence of all formsIt 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 chanting SIVOHAM [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.


  • 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, Ahimsa.
    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 macrocosm.
    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 with Form?

  • 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 pain!”

  • 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 so on!

  • 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 Advaitam.

  • 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.


  • 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 confusion.

  • 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.



Volume - 2 Issue - 5 Radiosai Journal - PSN 2004