Sunday, February 23, 2014

Hinduism – on Names, Forms and Beyond!

Hinduism has many paths to reach the same truth. The Supreme reality can be called by many names. The Rig Veda verse 1.164.46 says, “The truth is one; the wise call it by different names.” [1] Many Vedic hymns and philosophical works such as Upanishads, discuss that the Supreme is beyond names and forms. However, for individual seekers, names and forms are modes of connection.  

The ancient Vedic seers revered and celebrated both creator (God) and creations (nature) with magnificent names and hymns as personification of God. For instance, they glorified the Sun - for the Sun was the biggest and brightest celestial object on the sky. They even called the Sun as Mitra (meaning "Friend") as the Sun rises up with us and accompanies us in the day. The Kena Upanishad further asks,  "What makes the fire burn?", "What makes the wind blow?", and “What gives the Sun its brilliance?" - What is the source of all this? The seekers who asked these questions called the underlying reality behind all this as "Brahman" (meaning that which expands). They realized that Brahman is the life-force behind all this and the spirit behind the phenomenal world.  The common underlying theme is, "One became many" and that creation is an expansion of or outpouring from the supreme! This creation theme is described in detail in works such as the Purushasuktham. [5]

The Bhagavad-Gita sums it up beautifully. [1]
He who sees me everywhere and sees everything in me, I am never lost to him nor is he ever lost to me.” (6.30)
“All that is endowed with glory, grace, and grandeur, has sprung from a mere flare of my radiance” (10.41)
“Just remember that I stand holding the entire cosmos with a fraction of my divine splendor” (10.42-cd)
The radiance of the sun which lights up the world, the radiance in the moon and in fire – I am the source of all that radiance” (15.12)
“Entering the earth, I support all creatures with my energy; becoming the life-giving sap, I nourish all plants and herbs” (15.13).
“In whatever form one chooses to worship god in good faith, I strengthen his faith further” (7.21)

Having personified it as well by many names and many forms – they never lost sight that the source of all this is one and only one underlying supreme reality. Brahman is all pervading as in existing inside and outside of our perception. It is conscious as in being our deepest awareness and is blissful. In Sanskrit the term used is Sat-Chit-AnandA - as in Truth (Reality) – Sentient (Conscious) – Bliss! Our very core is this bliss and one can find this within one's self here and now!

Hinduism provides individual seekers freedom to follow a path to their own journey of self illumination. For those who like to analyze and ask questions, the path of knowledge is the recommended path while the paths of devotion (which include chanting divine names), surrender, selfless work and control of body-mind are all also available paths for seekers.
There are spiritual and philosophical works in many Indian languages; the most voluminous ones found are  in the Sanskrit language. In Sanskrit, nouns have roots; in other words most nouns can also be treated as adjectives as they have root meanings. This is important to understand as this means that one could find personal ways to describe and hence relate to the Supreme! 

It is also important to pause and use an analogy first on the concept of forms. One could ask, "What gives shape to a room?" and an obvious answer is that the walls of the room give it the shape. A deeper introspection shows that space inside gives shape to the room. For, if there was no space the entire room would collapse to a point! (And so will the Universe!). What can be different between the space in one room and another room? The space inside a car, inside a cat, inside a palace and inside a hut... all these are "Space". Space is beyond form, but in a paradoxical way nothing can have form but for space! With this analogy, Hindu works realize that God is beyond form and hence can be worshiped with form or no form! Hindu concepts also talk about "Avatara" where the Supreme manifests under any sky to solve a great problem. History has also shown that in times of great crisis someone takes leadership and helps be the agent of change for the greater good.

The most sacred mantra (prayer) in Hinduism is the AUM (OM) mantra. The way to learn to chant this mantra is to take a deep breath and then to open your mouth wide and start saying ‘aah’ then slowly close it - you will go from ‘aah’ to ‘uuh’ to ‘mmm’. “As we hit ‘m’, we can feel the resonance in our brain; we will have exhausted our breath so fully that silence becomes inevitable. The chant runs through every part of our vocal cord. All the primary vowel sounds including silence (no sound) are contained within the single syllable om.” [6]. Silence in this context represents the Supreme and our own immortality. Another verse reflects “… Beyond words or thoughts” to show that this state is a state beyond anything we can articulate or even conceive (beyond speech, thought and mind!) [7] In fact, one of the verses in the Upanishads even goes on to say: "He who thinks he knows, does not; he who thinks he does not know, knows" (Kena Upanishad 2.3), which implies the truth, that there are some aspects which we can never fathom with absolute certainty!  [8]  Also that intuition is also an important aspect of our journey and that one has to be humble to realize there are many ways to seek this and it is really up to the individual. 

The Upanishads in many places refer to Brahman in Neuter gender. Note that the use of Neuter gender is not to be construed as lack of respect but really in order to emphasize that the human limitations of gender do not apply to the Supreme ; while understanding that one could relate to this personally and hence address this with any gender.

The Bhagavad-Gita verses 13. 12-17 describes this eloquently. [1]

“Next, I shall explain about that which ought to be known. Once you know it, you will be immortal. It is the supreme Brahman that is without beginning; it is spoken of as neither real nor unreal. With heads, hands, legs, eyes, ears, and mouths everywhere, Brahman abides in the universe encompassing everything. It is free from the influence of the senses and yet is fully aware of all sensations. It supports everything but remains unattached. It is free from gunas and yet enjoys them all. It is outside, yet within all beings; motionless, yet always moving; far away, yet nearby; it is too subtle to grasp. It is the undivided whole yet it appears divided among beings. It supports all the creatures, consuming them as well as creating them. It is the knowledge, it is the knowable subject, it is the purpose of knowledge; it is seated in the heart of all beings. It is the light of lights, beyond all darkness.”

Note: “gunas” represent inherent aptitudes and attitudes. 
~ “Neither real nor unreal” is perhaps a reference to the observation that it cannot be completely comprehended.

Another popular hymn shows the various ways a devotee can relate to the Supreme. " Only you are father, mother, relative, and friend. Only you are knowledge and wealth. You are really everything, oh God of gods!"

An adherent can invoke the divinity within via many names. For e.g. one of the Hindu works lists a thousand and eight names for Vishnu (Vishnu means “All Pervading”), also known as NarayanA, “the resting place of all”. NarayanA is often symbolized in a four-armed form. There are many names for SivA (meaning "auspicious" as seen in the hymns of Rudram) and GaneshA (meaning one who is the chief commander). Another work lists a thousand and eight names for LalitA (a female personification of the divine, meaning "One who plays"). In fact, you can make your own names to connect, if you so choose! Perhaps the seekers came up with a 1008 names in order to show that names to connect are innumerable!

The names woven in the form of rhythmic poetry reciting which itself evokes very positive vibrations in our mind! For e.g. here is one of the invocations before the 1008 names of Vishnu are chanted.

yasya smaraNa-mAtreNa
vimuchyate namas-tasmai
vishNave prabhavishNave
Om namo vishNave prabhavishNave

My salutations to that superior deity vishNu, by mere thought of Whose name all beings are freed from the bonds of birth and death. Salutations to that All-powerful vishNu, Who is signified by the single syllable Om. [9]

Listed below are a few of the names from the Vishnu Sahasra Nama  (A thousand names of Vishnu) [2]. Another good source is the book called "Thousand Names of Vishnu: A Selection with Commentary" by Eknath Eashwaran. In each piece, Eknath selects one of India's traditional thousand names of God and shows its universal significance: that these are not only names of God, but also aspects of the spark of divinity within us. [3]

vishvam / Universe or Cause of Universe
Vishnu: - One who permeates everything
vashatkara / One who controls and directs (not merely pervades).
bhuta-bhavya-bhavat-prabhu: The Master of all things past, future, and present
bhuta-krit / The creator of all beings (Hindu creation themes describe creation as a gushing forth or expansion, where one became many as seen in the text called “Purusha Suktham” [5])
bhuta-bhrt / The supporter of all beings
bhavah / He who exists always
bhutatma / The AtmA or soul of all beings
bhuta-bhavanah / One who nourishes and nurtures all beings.
Putatma / The Pure Self
paramatma / The Supreme Soul  
muktanam parama gatih / One who is the ultimate goal for all Released or Liberated Souls.
avyayah / Indestructible
purushah / The spirit within
sakshi / Witness
kshetrajnah / Knower of the field (of action)
akshara / unbreakable
yogah / Means to salvation/with whose help the goal is attained. The word yoga is derived from the word yujyate which means “to yoke” or “to connect”.
yogavitam neta / One who leads those who practice yoga until they reach their Goal.
pradhana purusha Isvarah / One who is the Lord of Primordial Matter as well as the Individuals
krshnah / One who is always in a state of Bliss, One who is of dark blue complexion
isvarah / The Ruler
ajah / Unborn

Another source of names attributed to the female form of divinity is called Lalita Sahasranamam [4]. Some well known female deities are Lakshmi (Wealth), Saraswati (Knowledge) and Shakthi (Valor). Here are some names from the Lalitha Sahasranam.

ShrimAtA: Salutations to the Divine Mother, who is the Mother of all
Shri-mahararagni: Great Empress of the whole Universe
Shrimat-simhasaneshvari: Great Sovereign, enthroned on the lion’s back
Chidagni kundasambhuta: Who came out of the fire of Pure Consciousness
Devakarya samudyata: Who promotes the cause of Divine forces
Udyadbhanu sahasrabha: Who is radiant as a thousand suns rising together
Chaturbahu samanvita: Four-armed Divinity
Ragasvarupa pashadhya: Who holds in her lower left hand a noose representing the power of love
Krodha karankushojjvala: Holding the flashing goad of anger for restraining the forces of evil
Manorupekshu kodanda: Who wields a Sugarcane bow that stands for the mind
Panchatanmatra sayaka: Who holds five arrows representing the five subtle elements
Nijaruna prabhapura majjadbrahmanda mandala: In the rosy splendor of whose form the whole universe is bathed

- Narayan Srinivasan, Flower Mound, TX

Special thanks to Koti Shreekrishna Tatachar for reviewing the article, supplying comments and translations of some key Bhagavad-Gita and Upanishad verses.

[1] “The New Bhagavad Gita” by Koti and Hari -
[2] Vishnu Sahasra Nama: with some adaptations/ modifications
[3] "Thousand Names of Vishnu: A Selection with Commentary" by Eknath Eashwaran:
[4] Lalitha Sahasra Nama:
[5] Hymn to The Cosmic Person by Koti Sreekrishna:
[6] Article on AUM (OM):
[7] Translation courtesy of Koti Shreekrishna Tatachar of verse from Taittiriya Upanishad:
yato vAcho nivartante. AprrApya manasA sah (Taittiriya Upanishad 2.4 and repeated in 2.9)
[8] Translation courtesy of Koti Shreekrishna Tatachar of verse from Kena Upanishad

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