A word of introduction
Many people, however intelligent, find it difficult to understand that seeming contradictions, opposites–even seeming incompatibilities and incongruities–are part of realities. The conflicts, of course, are only in their minds. This is an inherent defect of what we now call “left-brain” thinking, but to the “right-brainers” such appearances are understood as being just that–erroneous perceptions. For them there is the possibility of developing such a degree in intuition that they can see the whole picture in which no contradictions exist.
It is extremely difficult for Westerners to grasp the unity in diversity and the diversity in unity. This is especially seen in the idea of the Trinity, which is to be found in some form in just about every religion. The utter mess that Christianity has made of the belief in the Trinity is actually colossal. And every time theologians set about to make it clearer, it gets more obscure and nonsensical. They just cannot get the idea of a single absolute unity that manifests in a threefold manner. One problem is their insistence that they are three “persons” in the Godhead. They are horrified at the suggestion that the Three are really three aspects or manifestations of Divinity, or three ways in which the Absolute relates to relativity and those sentient beings that are evolving within the cosmos. But that fact is…that is how it is! They propound the existence of three Gods and get furious when it is pointed out to them.
In ancient India the sages clearly understood and expressed the truth that God is Om Tat Sat: divine creative intelligent energy, divine guiding intelligence within that energy, and primal intelligence that transcends those two. Yet there is only One Consciousness, not three. Om Tat Sat is exactly (not approximately) what Jesus meant by “Holy Spirit,” “Son,” and “Father.” He used such symbolic terms in the hope that it would be easier for his hearers to grasp. In most cases it was not, for they were left-brainers. And it certainly was no help that they were addling their brains by eating meat and drinking alcohol. The situation is the same today in the West. I am not writing for them, but for the kind of people to whom the upanishadic teachings were addressed. For them it will be simplicity itself, as is the case with all truth.
Brahman as Ishwara
“The one absolute, impersonal Existence, together with his inscrutable Maya, appears as the divine Lord, the personal God, endowed with manifold glories. By his divine power he holds dominion over all the worlds. At the periods of creation and dissolution of the universe, he alone exists. Those who realize him become immortal” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 3:1).
The one absolute, impersonal Existence. These words are an excellent definition of the indefinable Brahman. Brahman always exists. Indeed, there is nothing but Brahman at any time. And Brahman is always One–never two. But Brahman can appear as many.
Together with his inscrutable Maya. It is through Maya, the creative power of Brahman, that Brahman appears as many. Maya is as incomprehensible to the limited human mind as Brahman Itself. For Maya is Brahman, other wise it could not exist.
Appears as the divine Lord, the personal God. When we get the seeming duality of Brahman and Maya we immediately get the appearance of Brahman as Ishwara, the Lord, the personal God. From time beyond memory it is commonly said in India that “the Father is born as the son,” that a man’s son is an extension of his being. So it is only natural to call Ishwara the Son of God. Brahman is the Father, Maya is the Holy Spirit Mother, and Ishwara is the Son of God. They are the Holy Family, encompassing all beings. It is all Brahman, of course, but we relate to this threefold appearance of Brahman in a threefold manner, for we are ourselves trinities. We possess a transcendent Self (Atman) which has taken on a complex of coverings (koshas) or bodies and began to function within it as its intelligent guide. We are thus mirror-images of Brahman.
Endowed with manifold glories. Brahman is nirguna, without any qualities or traits, but Ishwara is saguna, possessing innumerable qualities. So although we cannot conceive of Brahman or speak of It, we can say a great deal about Ishwara, even though we cannot encompass His total being. And note that we can use a personal pronoun in relation to Ishwara. For Ishwara is of positive (male) polarity and can be referred to as “He,” just as Maya is of negative (female) polarity and can be called “She.” When we say “God” we usually mean Ishwara.
By his divine power he holds dominion over all the worlds. Ishwara, the Son of God, controls and guides the evolution of all creation through His divine power (Mahashakti) that is Maya. All that is done is done by Him in conjunction with Maya, for Brahman never acts.
At the periods of creation and dissolution of the universe, he alone exists. Ishwara, as an emanation of Brahman, arises as the first step in creation, and remains as the last step, as well. Then He merges into “the bosom of the Father” and only Brahman remains. That is why Jesus, referring to Ishwara, not himself, said: “No man [literally: no one] hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:18). Ishwara is the “only-begotten” because he is the sole emanation from Brahman at the beginning of creation. According to Saint Paul: “Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. For he hath put all things under his feet. But when he saith all things are put under him, it is manifest that he is excepted, which did put all things under him. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (I Corinthians 15:24-28).
Those who realize him become immortal. This is important. Because Ishwara is Brahman, those who approach Him and come to know Him thereby become one with Brahman, and know Brahman. Therefore it is mistaken to say that meditation on Saguna Brahman has a different result than meditation on Nirguna Brahman. Saguna Brahman is the bridge to Nirguna Brahman.
This is well explained in the first eight verses of the twelfth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. There Arjuna asks Krishna: “Some worship You with steadfast love. Others worship God the unmanifest and changeless. Which kind of devotee has the greater understanding of yoga?” Krishna replies: “Those whose minds are fixed on me in steadfast love, worshipping me with absolute faith, I consider them to have the greater understanding of yoga. As for those others, the devotees of God the unmanifest, indefinable and changeless, they worship that which is omnipresent, constant, eternal, beyond thought’s compass, never to be moved. They hold all the senses in check. They are tranquil-minded, and devoted to the welfare of humanity. They see the Atman in every creature. They also will certainly come to me. But the devotees of the unmanifest have a harder task, because the unmanifest is very difficult for embodied souls to realize. Quickly I come to those who offer me every action, worship me only, their dearest delight, with devotion undaunted. Because they love me these are my bondsmen and I shall save them from mortal sorrow and all the waves of Life’s deathly ocean. Be absorbed in me, lodge your mind in me: thus you shall dwell in me, do not doubt it, here and hereafter.”
The traits of Ishwara
“The Lord is One without a second. Within man he dwells, and within all other beings. He projects the universe, maintains it, and withdraws it into himself” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 3:2). Being Brahman, Ishwara is Absolute Unity–this must not be forgotten. Ishwara is “incarnate” in each one of us and in all sentient beings. It is Ishwara who creates, sustains, and dissolves the universe, and this all takes place within Him as His creative thought, the Cosmic Dream.
“His eyes are everywhere; his face, his arms, his feet are in every place. Out of himself he has produced the heavens and the earth, and with his arms and his wings he holds them together.
“He is the origin and support of the gods. He is the lord of all. He confers bliss and wisdom upon those who are devoted to him. He destroys their sins and their sorrows. He punishes those who break his laws. He sees all and knows all. May he endow us with good thoughts! (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 3:3,4).
Ishwara is Consciousness Itself. And in this capacity of omniscient omnipresence He interacts with all beings. Those who wish can enter into the most intimate relationship and communication with Him. He indeed is all possible relationships–father, mother, brother, sister, friend–and all functions: king, master, servant, helper, companion and guide. He it is that in this world as well as the next is the dearest of the dear and the nearest of the near. Through the laws established in his universe, which itself is a great, living evolution machine, and especially through the law of karma, he “rewards” and “punishes” right and wrong actions–not as do the rulers on earth who take personal vengeance and exact retribution, but for the teaching and furtherance of all sentient beings. His creation reacts to all action in the manner of a mirror, a reflection which reveals to us the true character of our thoughts, words, and deeds–indeed of our whole state of mind and being (bhava). As is said in the Gita: “My face is equal to all creation, loving no one nor hating any. Nevertheless, my devotees dwell within me always: I also show forth and am seen within them” (Bhagavad Gita 9:29).
Praying to Ishwara
Consequently, prayer to Ishwara is a very real and effective act. How do we address this infinite Being? The upanishad gives us some examples.
“O Lord, clothed in thy most holy form, which is calm and blissful, and which destroys all evil and ignorance, look upon us and make us glad” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 3:5). Ishwara has taken on many forms through which we can approach Him. If a form, whatever the spiritual tradition, “is calm and blissful, and which destroys all evil and ignorance,” then we can know it is a legitimate form of God, one which we can use to commune with God. In this prayer the devotee is not asking for anything but the joy (ananda) that is the essential nature of God. This is only attained when our own Self–which also is of the nature of bliss–is revealed in the eternal Light of Ishwara.
Now we come to the practical means of approaching God. “O Lord, thou hast revealed thy sacred syllable Om, which is one with thee. In thy hands it is a weapon with which to destroy ignorance. O protector of thy devotees, do not conceal thy benign person” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 3:6).
Finally: “Thou art the supreme Brahman. Thou art infinite. Thou hast assumed the forms of all creatures, remaining hidden in them. Thou pervadest all things. Thou art the one God of the universe. Those who realize thee become immortal” (Shvetashvatara Upanishad 3:7).
Read the next article in the Upanishads for Awakening: The Upanishadic Seer Speaks of Ishwara