Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti—"that which exists is One: sages call it by various names
"The preceding brief survey of the varying conceptions of God in the Samhitas quite naturally raise two questions. The first is this: Why is it that now one god, now another, is lifted to the loftiest position and celebrated as the supreme divinity? Professor Max Muller has observed this phenomenon, and named it henotheism, but has done little to fathom its mystery. Its true explanation is to be found in the hymns themselves; 'and it is a grand explanation,' declares Swami Vivekananda, 'one that has given the theme to all subsequent thought in India and one that will be the theme of the whole world of religions: Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti—"that which exists is One: sages call it by various names."
"In the following famous hymn, the Purusa Sukta, the Supreme Being, or God, is
represented as at once concrete ('infinite heads', 'unnumbered eyes') and in the
highest degree abstract—'beyond all predicates'. He both is and is not the
created universe, for while the created universe is a part of his being it is
not the whole of it:
The Universal Being has infinite heads, unnumbered eyes, and unnumbered feet. Enveloping the universe on every side, he exists transcending it. All this is he—what has been and what shall be. He is the lord of immortality. Though he has become all this, in reality he is not all this. For verily he is transcendental. The whole series of universes—past, present, and future—express his glory and power; but he transcends his own glory. All beings of the universe form, as it were, a fraction of his being; the rest of it is self-luminous, and unchangeable. He who is beyond all predicates exists as the relative universe. That part of him which is the relative universe appears as sentient and insentient beings. From a part of him was born the body of the universe, and out of this body were born the gods, the earth, and men.1
In the passage, it may be observed in passing, there is a definite rejection of pantheism: 'Though he has become all this, in reality he is not all this.' The words are characteristic of all Indian thought, and will be echoed and re-echoed in later pages of this book. There is, properly speaking, whatever appearances may sometimes suggest to the contrary, no pantheism in India. The Hindu sees God as the ultimate energy in and behind all creation, but never, either in ancient or in modern times, as identical with it.
It is a far cry from the rain-god Indra, with his golden armour, to a Universal Being who envelops and transcend the world; but a step still remained to be taken, and this also the Samhitas took. Indra and the Universal being had one thing in common: they were both personal gods. It is true that the Universal being was said to be 'beyond all predicates', but also, in almost the same breath, he was said to posses heads, and eyes, and feet, and to transcend 'his own glory'.
'Who has seen the first-born, when he that had no bones bore him that had bones? Where is the life, the blood, the self of the universe? Who went to ask of any who knew?2 Thus from the conception of God as a personal being the Vedic seers passed on to almost their final conception of him as utterly impersonal, so remote indeed from resemblance to anything human that no longer will they refer to him as 'he' or 'him', but only as TAD EKAM—in English, THAT. It is under this designation that he appears in the hymn of creation, called the Nasadiya hymn:
Existence was not, nor its opposite,
Nor earth, nor heaven's blue vault, nor aught beyond,
The subtle elements that are the veil
Of this so insubstantial world, where then
Might they find out a place? By whom be known?
The deep abyss of waters—where was that?
Death was not yet, nor deathlessness; the day
Was night, night day, for neither day nor night
Had come to birth. Then THAT, the primal font
Of life—breathless—to its own maya joined—
Brooded eternally, Itself beside,
In the wide universe there nothing was.
In the beginning gloom—gloom hidden in gloom!
From its cause undistinguished stood the world:
But lo, thereafter, from its darkling state—
Yet undistinguished from its cause—it rose,
By the pure will of THAT made manifest.
Whence came this will? From out a seed it came
Asleep within the heart of THAT—the seed
Of vanished worlds that have in order wheeled
Their silent courses from eternity:
The manifest in the unmanifest they found—
The sages, searching deep within themselves....
Ah, what are words, and what are mortal thought!
Who is there truly knows, and who can say,
Whence this unfathomed world, and from what cause?
Nay, even the gods were not! Who then can know?
The source from which this universe hath sprung,
That source, and that alone, which bears it up—
None else: THAT, THAT alone, lord of the worlds,
In its own self contained, immaculate
As are the heavens, above, THAT alone knows
The truth of what itself hath made—none else!3
The famous hymn has provided the basis for a great deal of philosophic speculation. For in it God is represented (it may be observed) as both the material and the efficient cause of the universe—both that out of which it was made and that by which it was made. In it also is that extraordinary conception of the universe, alluded to in the preceding chapter, as continually alternating between the phase of expression and the phase of potentiality; birth, existence, destruction—then a state of quiescence—then again birth, existence, destruction; and so on forever.
The preceding brief survey of the varying conceptions of God in the Samhitas quite naturally raise two questions. The first is this: Why is it that now one god, now another, is lifted to the loftiest position and celebrated as the supreme divinity? Professor Max Muller has observed this phenomenon, and named it henotheism, but has done little to fathom its mystery. Its true explanation is to be found in the hymns themselves; 'and it is a grand explanation,' declares Swami Vivekananda, 'one that has given the theme to all subsequent thought in India and one that will be the theme of the whole world of religions: Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti4—"that which exists is One: sages call it by various names."'5
The subject is worth pausing with, for in the quoted words lies the secret not only of an aspect of the Vedic hymns but also—as Swami Vivekananda suggest—of an aspect of the religious life of India throughout her long history. Casual visitors to this ancient land carry away with them the impressions of an elaborate polytheism. True it is that India has always many gods—but in appearance only. In reality she has had but one god, though with prodigal inventiveness she has called him 'by various names'. Indra, Varuna, Hiranyagarbha—Rama, Krsna, Siva: What does it matter? Whichever of these or of many others the Hindu chooses for his adoration, that one becomes for him God himself, in whom exists all things, including, for the time being, all other gods. It is because India has been so permeated with the spirit of Ekam sat vipra bahuda vedanti that she has known relatively little of religious fanaticism, of religious persecution, of religious wars. Characteristically she has sought the truth in every faith—even in faiths not her own.
But there was a second question: Why is it that in the Vedic hymns we find elementary ideas of God as well as the most advanced? To the Western scholar there is no mystery, for he is accustomed to think of all things in terms of evolution, as he conceives evolution, and in the simpler anthropomorphic notions he sees the first stages of growth which slowly ripens to abstraction. But not so the orthodox Hindu. What he sees in the graduated scale of Vedic conceptions is a beneficent correspondence to varied stages of religious attainment. Some men are but barbarians in spiritual things; others are seers and sages. The Vedas (and this, say the orthodox, was a clear purpose of the exalted rsis) minister to all according to their needs. Some they teach to fly; some they must first teach to walk. To those at a low stage they offer polytheism, even at times materialism; to those at a higher stage monotheism; and to those at the top of the scale a notion of God so utterly impersonal, so devoid of anything describable in human terms, as to be suited only to the greatest saints, and to these only in their most strenuous moments.
For it would appear, in general, that even the greatest of Hindu saints have found the conception of God an abstract reality too rarefied for constant use. Occasionally they rise to it, but not for long. Like more ordinary mortals they too have yearned for a notion of divinity close to their minds and hearts, something they could readily love, and meditate upon, and worship."
Swami Prabhavananda, The Spiritual Heritage Of India: A Clear Summary of Indian Philosophy and Religion
Vedanta Press (June 1979) pp. 32-5
1. Rg-Veda., x. 90. 1-5;
2. Rg-Veda, 1. 4. 164. Quoted by S. Radhakrishna, Indian Philosophy, vol. 1, p. 93 (London, Allen & Unwin, 1923).
3. Rg-Veda, x. 129. 1-7, Swami Prabhavananda and Frederick Manchester (trans.), Voice of India, vol. III, no. 1.
4. Ibid., i. 164
5. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, vol. 1, p. 347.
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