Is Sanatan Dharma a Monotheist (believes in only one god) or a Polytheist (believes in many Gods) philosophy? This a common question/confusion regarding Sanatan Dharma, however the answer is: Sanatan Dharma is neither a monotheist philosophy nor a polytheist philosophy, it a is a MONIST Philosophy.
Monism is the philosophical view that a variety of existing things can be explained in terms of a single reality or substance. In Sanatan Dharma, this single reality or substance is called Brahman – not to be confused with Brahma (the Creator God) or Brahmin(the priest class). Brahman will be explained later in this article.
The Law of Karma and the concept of Reincarnation
Firstly, in order to understand the Hindu concept of God, it is very important to understand the Law of Karma (and in order to fully appreciate the Law of Karma, one must understand the concept of reincarnation).
The Law of Karma states that every action (mental or physical) results in consequences; this is mirrored by Newton’s Third Law of Physics: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”.
In essence, our current state is due to our previous actions, sometimes this is easy to recognise for example one student studied hard and passed his exam, the other didn’t study and failed his exam, the passing or failing was a direct consequence of their previous actions (one studied, the other did not). Sometimes however our current state being the consequence of our previous actions may not be so easy to recognise, it is often lamented that why do bad things happen to good people or vice versa; this is because the results of our actions may not be instant, they may take time to “bear fruit” or may only “bear fruit” when the time and circumstances are most conducive. Think of planting a seed for a fruit tree, you will not get the fruits instantly, the tree has to grow, some trees bear fruits faster than others.
To sum up The Law of Karma and the Concept of Reincarnation: Sanatan Dharma teaches that everything you go through is a result of your previous actions, you do not suffer because “God” is punishing you and you do not enjoy because “God” is rewarding you arbitrarily out of God’s will, you are merely bearing the fruits of your previous Karmas (actions) and this can happen over more than just one lifetime hence you are reborn.
Sanatan Dharma teaches that “Brahman alone is”; what is this “Brahman”?
Brahman is the highest reality that alone exists, it is unchangeable and is called Sat (truth), Chit (Consciousness) , Anand (Bliss). Nothing apart from Brahman exists, Brahman is the underlying reality of the whole universe and creation. Sanatan Dharma teaches that although the universe is full of change, names and forms, however the underlying substratum of the universe (Brahman) does not change and does not have forms. All names, forms and objects seemingly arise out of Brahman and merge back into Brahman at the end of creation; “Seemingly” because Brahman does undergo any permanent change, modification or subdivision.
The Concept of Brahman is just now beginning to be mirrored by modern Physics by greater understanding of the concept of energy:
- The Law of the Conservation of Energy states: “the total energy of an isolated system cannot change—it is said to be conserved over time. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, but can change from one form to another”.
- Physics now recognises that all matter can be created from energy and when “destroyed” it merely revert back to energy; this is a result of Einstein’s famous equation: E=mc2. Where E is energy, m is the mass of the matter and c is the speed of light.
- The above shows that Energy is the analogous concept of Brahman in physics: the whole universe is made from energy, energy is neither created or destroyed, it merely changes from one form to another, everything in the universe is energy, it is the underlying reality of the universe.
Ass can now be seen, Brahman is the supreme reality and is the underlying reality of the universe similar to the concept of “Energy” in modern Physics, Brahman is the Sanatan Dharma concept of “God”. However, in the Abrahamic faiths God is seen as a separate entity: separate to the creation and separate to us, whereas Brahman is not seen as separate to us or to the universe, this is why making direct comparisons of Brahman to the Abrahamic concept of God is quite difficult and like comparing apples to oranges.
A more appropriate comparison would be “Ishvara”.
As previously stated, everything that happens is a result of pervious Karmas, this is not just true on an individual level (microcosmic level) for all living creatures but also in a total level (macrocosmic level). When the collective Karmas of all beings are being played out on a total universal level, Brahman alone is the power behind all actions, Brahman acting on a Macrocosmic level is Ishvara – the ruling/controlling being. This is the most appropriate comparison to the Abrahamic concept of God, however, it should be remembered that the actions performed by Ishvara are only due to the universal balance of Karma, not due to Ishvara’s will: Ishvara does not create the universe because it wants to but because the collective Karma of all souls requires that a universe be created for them in which the fruits of their Karma’s can be realised etc. Ishvara does not punish or bless according to it’s will but merely facilitates the results of Karmas to be borne by the souls.
The ancient Rishi’s in their great wisdom and love for mankind realised that all people are different and have different intellectual capabilities. They realised that the concept of Brahman may be difficult to grasp for some people so they taught the concept of Ishvara as well. They also realised that the concept of an impersonal God with no form or attributes (Ishvara) may be more difficult for some people to focus on so further construed concepts to make understanding Ishvara easier.
Ishvara performs three major functions on a universal macrocosmic level: creation, preservation and destruction, in order to help people understand Ishvara the three main concepts of Ishvara are personified by Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver/operator) and Shiva (the destroyer). Furthermore, in order to Create something, knowledge is required, the concept is divine knowledge is personified by Saraswati (the wife of Brahma). In order to operate and preserve something, wealth (resources) are required, wealth is personified by Lakshmi (Vishnu’s wife). Finally, in order to destroy, energy is required and the divine energy is personified by Shiva’s wife as Parvati.
In a similar fashion, all the many deities of Sanatan Dharma are merely different aspects and representations of Brahman in place for people to conceptualise and focus on a higher ideal. That is not to say the deities do not exist as Ishvara is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing) there is nothing to say that he/she cannot take up any form he/she may wish to do so in order to aid people’s spiritual development.
It can be seen that the great Deities of Hinduism, such as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Sarawati, Lakshmi and Parvati are all different aspects of Ishvara. A person may choose to build a relationship with the Ishvara using a variety of names or forms.
The various Deities in themselves correspond to different energies of the Ishvara, operating on different levels and Ishvara is nothing but the power of Brahman working on a universal macrocosmic level and that Brahaman is the supreme reality.
The Hindu concept of God is not of an entity that creates the universe and blesses or punishes people at will; the Hindu concept of God is a supreme reality that underlies the whole universe and is not apart from the creation but is itself the creation. When Brahman acts on a macrocosmic level it can be thought of as Ishvara and finally the different aspects of Ishvara are personified in by the Gods.
A constant criticism of Sanatan Dharma is that Hindu’s are limiting God by giving God a form and attributes, Hindu’s assert the opposite and say denying God the power and compassion to take forms and attributes is limiting God as god is omnipotent hence there is nothing God cannot do and finally God is compassionate so he/she should surely want to help devotees when required (even if that means taking a form an attributes to help strengthen the faith of devotees and set their minds on a higher ideal).
Having many names for something is not necessarily a sign of ignorance of its real nature. On the contrary, it may indicate an intimate knowledge of it. For example, Eskimos have forty-eight different names for snow in their language because they know snow intimately in its different variations, not because they are ignorant of the fact that all snow is one. The many different deities of Hinduism reflect such intimate realizations of the Divine on various levels. Just as the Eskimos know snow in great and intimate detail because they lived with it closely, Hindu civilisation knows God and the secrets of the Spiritual life in intimate and unparalleled detail.
So while Hindu’s may seem to have many Gods and Goddesses, the reality is that Brahman alone is, nothing but Brahman exists (including ourselves), everything is Brahman alone.