Defining the Divine, East and West
From Back to Godhead
By Satyaraja Dasa
Conceptions of God in the Bhagavad-gita encompass those of other traditions and give full picture of the Absolute Truth.
“The Bhagavad-gita teaches a pantheistic view of God,” he said, his confidence and years of learning clear from his authoritative tone. “The massive vishvarupa—Krishna’s universal form, which encompasses all material phenomena, including time—tells us much about God in the Gita.”
His friend, another scholar of some renown, seemed to disagree.
“The Gita goes beyond pantheism. It shows us how to perceive God in all things. The Tenth Chapter, especially, shows us how Krishna is the superlative exemplar in seventy categories, how He exists in the perceivable world.”
A third colleague gave his considered opinion as well: “The Gita ultimately teaches bhakti, devotion to Krishna, the supreme personal Deity. In this sense, it is not unlike the great monotheistic traditions of the West. I think you’ve both missed the point.”
I was attending a panel discussion at a conference of the American Academy of Religion, and as I sat back and listened, I noted that all three scholars were correct, each in his own way. I considered deeply their individual perspectives, and I realized something: The Gita has it all!
In the West, theologians tend to speak of God in three ways, using the terms pantheism, panentheism, and monotheism, with a few variations in between. That is to say, Western theology speaks of God (1) as impersonal, diffused throughout all we see and beyond, or as nature itself, (2) as existing both within and outside everything, or (3) as the Supreme Being, omnipotent, omniscient, and all the rest.
Those familiar with Srila Prabhupada’s Bhagavad-gita As It Is will immediately recognize the correlation between these conceptions of God and Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan, the three levels of Godhead expressed most succinctly in the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.11): “Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this nondual substance Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan.”
Pantheism and Brahman
Pantheism is understood in several related ways. First of all, pantheism equates God with nature, saying that He exists as everything and that everything is God. In Greek, pan = all, and theos = God. According to this view, the universe, including all matter and energy, is a metaphysical entity that is more than what we perceive. The pantheistic “God”—both impersonal and nontheistic (if we consider the usual sense of theism)—is entirely immanent, or close by, if only we had the eyes to see it.
The doctrine of pantheism often goes further, espousing “a belief that every existing entity is only one Being, and that all other forms of reality are either modes (or appearances) of it or identical with it.” [Footnote 1] This is clearly a Western articulation of God as Brahman. The Vedas describe Brahman as a transcendent impersonal divinity. The Rig Veda, in particular, tells us in a prayer known as the Purusha-sukta (10.90.4) that Brahman, here in a more personalized form, expanded a portion of Himself as the created world, where He exists, without personality or form, as its essence. This is perhaps the earliest reference to pantheism—even if it doesn’t use that word—in any religious literature, East or West.
In the Gita, one can find hints of pantheism (specifically God’s oneness with the universe) in the Seventh Chapter, where Krishna identifies Himself with various material phenomena: He is the taste of water, the light of the sun and the moon, the sound in ether, the ability in man, and so on. A closer look, however, shows that these are manifestations of His energy and He stands quite apart from them. Still, He does say that He is, in a sense, everything that exists (vasudevah sarvam iti), and the Gita’s Ninth Chapter tends to confirm this fact. (See texts 4, 5, 6, 16–18.)
The Lord elucidates His all-pervasive nature again in Chapter Ten, identifying Himself with the best of everything: He is Shiva, the ocean, the lion, Garuda, the Himalayas, the letter A, inexhaustible time, Brahma, truth itself, victory, adventure, and so on. But clearly, again, this is not all there is to Krishna, and He says so Himself by describing all of the above, and more, as a “mere indication” of His glory (esha tuddeshatah proktah, 10.40) and but a spark of His splendor (mama tejo ’msha-sambhavam, 10.41).
A pantheistic view seems somewhat more apparent in the Gita’s Eleventh Chapter, wherein the Lord reveals His Universal Form (vishvarupa). Details of this form appear in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Second Canto, particularly in chapters one and six. Here we learn that “the gigantic manifestation of the phenomenal material world as a whole is the personal body of the Absolute Truth . . .” (2.1.24), and that, “the sphere of outer space constitutes His eye pits, and the eyeball is the sun as the power of seeing. His eyelids are both the day and night, and in the movements of His eyebrows, Lord Brahma and similar personalities reside.” (2.1.31) In this way the Bhagavatam goes on to deliver an elaborate meditation on the Absolute, allowing practitioners to virtually “see” Him in the material world.
However, the Bhagavatam (1.3.30) is clear: “The conception of the virat universal form of the Lord, as appearing in the material world, is imaginary. It is to enable the less intelligent [and neophytes] to adjust to the idea of the Lord’s having form. But factually the Lord has no material form.” Thus, the universal manifestation of the Supreme is meant to take practitioners from an impersonal understanding of the Absolute to a more developed, personal conception of Lord, and to help them realize that while He has no material form, He does have a spiritual form.
Because this universal vision of the Lord equates God with the phenomenal world—that is, as being wholly amalgamated with, or inseparable from, visible nature—it is a form of pantheism, and one needs to go further to understand God’s spiritual nature. A pantheist who fails to look beyond the complex, majestic manifestations of matter may even be regarded as atheistic, having overlooked their all-attractive, transcendent, personal source.
That being said, a more liberal view of pantheism can also be found in the teachings of the Gita. Srila Prabhupada writes:
Pantheism in its higher status does not permit the student to form an impersonal conception of the Absolute Truth, but it extends the conception of the Absolute Truth into the field of the so-called material energy. Everything created by the material energy can be dovetailed with the Absolute by an attitude of service, which is the essential part of the living energy. The pure devotee of the Lord knows the art of converting everything into its spiritual existence by this service attitude, and only in that devotional way can the theory of pantheism be perfected.
(Srimad-Bhagavatam 2.1.20, Purport)
Here Prabhupada suggests that the pantheistic perspective may be an imperfect preliminary stage that can lead to a more mature or complete realization of the Absolute Truth as something far greater than can be found in material nature. This correlates with the Vaishnava view of Brahman realization as a low-rung, impersonal conception of God.
Panentheism and Paramatma
While the Gita views pantheism as immature or incomplete, it more readily embraces a panentheistic view, seeing all things as imbued with God’s presence and all things as being in God as well. As opposed to pantheism, which sees God as everything, panentheism sees God in everything (pan = all, en = in, and theos = God) or everything in God. The word is used in both ways. [Footnote 2]
The term panentheism is attributed to German philosopher Karl Christian Friedrich Krause (1781–1832), who wanted to reconcile monotheism and pantheism. From a Vaishnava point of view, panentheism has some redeeming features. For example, Krishna says in the Bhagavatam (11.15.35–36), “I exist within everything as the Supersoul and outside of everything in My all-pervading feature.” The Gita (6.30) encourages us to see everything in Krishna and Krishna in everything: yo mam pashyati sarvatra sarvam ca mayi pashyati. And the Brahma-samhita (5.35) tells us, “All universes exist in Him [Krishna], and He is present in His fullness in every atom.” Clearly these are all panentheistic statements.
Now, for God to fit within everything He would have to be smaller than the smallest, and for everything to fit within Him, He would have to be larger than the largest. He would have to simultaneously be both, inconceivably. In fact, this is precisely how He is described in numerous scriptural passages. The Svetashvatara Upanishad (3.9), for example, tells us that God is smaller than the smallest and larger than the largest (anor aniyan mahato mahiyan). The Gita tells us that God is both the smallest (anor aniyamsam, 8.9) and the greatest (vibhum, 10.12), and it also reveals that all beings are in Krishna (mat-sthani-sarva-bhutani, 9.4).
The alternate side of the same concept, that God is within everything, brings us to the subject of Paramatma. Panentheism, in this case, might be considered a Western equivalent for Paramatma realization, wherein one views Krishna (or His expansion Vishnu) as all-pervading—existing within every human heart and, indeed, within every atom. This is a more localized, personal feature of the Lord, as compared with the pantheistic Brahman conception. But all is not so easy.
There are differences between panentheism, as commonly understood, and the Vaishnava conception of Paramatma. While the similarity of “God in all” exists in both, Paramatma goes much further, putting a “face” on panentheism’s God. The critical factor here is form. Both the Gita and the Bhagavatam (2.2.9–11), especially, are quite specific about Vishnu as He appears in every atom: “He has four hands carrying a lotus, a wheel of a chariot, a conch shell, and a club, respectively. His mouth expresses His happiness. His eyes spread like the petals of a lotus, and His garments, yellowish like the saffron of a kadamba flower, are bedecked with valuable jewels, and He wears a glowing headdress and earrings.”
Moreover, while the panentheistic view holds that everything is in God and sometimes that God is in everything, it is never quite clear about the relationship between God perceived in nature and the transcendent being who is the source of all we see. [Footnote 3] The Bhagavatam and the Gita give us a much more developed, or shall we say sophisticated, idea about this source. Those Vaishnava texts tell us that Krishna is the root of all divine manifestations and that Paramatma is an emanation from that original source, partaking fully of His transcendent nature. The omnipotent Supreme Person can reproduce His essential being by appearing in “an extended personal form of Himself,” as Prabhupada describes Paramatma. Thus, if we may offer new terminology to the Western theological tradition, let us call the theology of Paramatma “Personal Extensionism.” This differs both from the view that God is in one sense identical with all that is (pantheism) and that He is impersonally within all things we see (panentheism). But this is still not monotheism proper.
Monotheism and Bhagavan
When scholars talk about “the three great monotheistic traditions,” they are usually not talking about Vaishnavism or the tradition of the Bhagavad-gita. Rather, they are talking about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But if they would look just a little beneath the surface, they would perhaps find the earliest monotheistic tradition.
True, one should be cautious when applying the terms of one set of religious traditions to another with its own history, insights, and ways of thinking about spirituality. People who identify with the Judeo-Christian tradition have very particular ideas in mind when they refer to monotheism, and that should be respected. The same might be said about the terms pantheism and panentheism. But given that caveat, the God of the Gita is clearly a Supreme Being and the recipient of monotheistic worship: Krishna is described as God of gods (10.14), the origin of all other gods (10.12), the primeval person (11.38), the Lord of the worlds (5.29), the creator and sustainer of everything (8.9), and on and on. As Krishna says, no one is equal to or greater than Him (11.43).
Krishna’s supremacy is so blatant, in fact, that one wonders why there would be any question at all. Perhaps it is because He is contrasted with other gods—demigods, or specially empowered beings—who serve as universal administrators. Indeed, this is why various forms of Indian religion are often described as polytheistic, or endorsing the worship of many gods. But, at least in terms of the Gita, such charges cannot stand. Though other gods may exist, Krishna is clearly supreme.
Biblical scholars might want to stop us here, claiming that, since other gods are even acknowledged, the Gita’s religion is not really monotheism in the traditional sense of the word. It should be remembered, however, that early Israelite tribes practiced “monolatry” as opposed to strict monotheism: they worshiped one Supreme God among many. And besides, as already stated, we use the term monotheism with caution.
It should also be noted that the Gita’s monotheism is distinct, deserving terminology of its own. Apropos of this, Graham M. Schweig, associate professor of religious studies at Christopher Newport University, Virginia, calls the Gita’s Vaishnavism “polymorphic monotheism,” that is, a theology that recognizes many forms (ananta-rupa) of the one, single, unitary divinity. [Footnote 4] Since it is here stated that God has many forms, one could superficially accuse the tradition of polytheism. But those who understand the tradition well know that it hereby merely acknowledges God’s capacity to be in many places and forms at the same time. This is not to say that all forms are God’s. The Vedic literature is quite clear about what constitutes a form of the Supreme Lord, and only those are to be worshiped.
The Gita promotes the worship of one Supreme Personality of Godhead, also known as Bhagavan. [Footnote 5] But the monotheistic worship of Bhagavan, lovingly adored as Krishna or Vishnu, is unique in the history of religions, for here we actually get to see, or visualize, the Lord of our prayers. If the scriptures place a face on Paramatma, as He exists within every atom, they do so much more for Sri Krishna. Devotees become privy to His numerous ecstatic features and His day-to-day activities with eternal associates in the spiritual world.
Three Aspects of the Same Truth
I would agree with the three scholars mentioned in the beginning of this article, accepting their diverse views. Like the first of these well-meaning men, I acknowledge that the Gita promotes a type of pantheism, God’s presence as a metaphysical dimension of nature. But I would hasten to add that the Gita’s pantheism goes beyond the kind we usually hear about in the West. It shows us that there is a person behind the divinity perceivable in the natural world. I agree, too, that the Gita shows us a form of panentheism, sharing with its readers God’s immanence and how we might perceive that immanence in our day-to-day lives. And finally, of course, I agree with the third scholar most of all—that the Gita’s ultimate teaching is bhakti, or devotion to a Supreme Personal Godhead. This is the Gita’s crowning glory.
What I disagree with is how the three scholars address the Gita’s diversity. The Gita gives us several views of God, all legitimate and each revealing different aspects of the divine. It’s not that if one of these aspects is correct then the others must be wrong. Rather, the Gita revels in multi-faceted reality, taking its readers from fundamental conceptions of the Absolute Truth to Krishna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead.
Brahman, Paramatma, and Bhagavan are three aspects of that same Truth, manifesting variously according to the realization and wisdom of the practitioner. Those who approach God through knowledge tend to realize His eternality aspect, and in perfection this is Brahman realization. Yogis and mystics meditate on the Lord in the heart, and the highest point of such meditation is called Paramatma realization. This is where one realizes not only eternality but the ultimate end of all knowledge as well. Finally, the highest and most inclusive theistic pursuits culminate in devotion to God. Those who adopt this process focus on Bhagavan, the worship of whom leads to divine love. Here one reaps the benefit of all other processes, affording the practitioner the zenith of not only eternity and knowledge, but bliss as well. This is the best that pantheism, panentheism, and monotheism have to offer.
1. H. P. Owen. 1971. Concepts of Deity (London: Macmillan).
2. Philip Clayton and Arthur Peacocke, eds. 2004. In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being: Panentheistic Reflections on God’s Presence in a Scientific World (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans).
3. One who sees “God as all” (pantheism) could easily make the common mistake of identifying oneself with God, since every individual is clearly part of “all.” Similarly, one who sees “God in all” (panentheism) might just as easily see the divine in oneself and mistakenly identify with God. But one who has these realizations along with Bhagavan realization, worshiping God in a spirit of monotheism, is less likely to fall prey to this misconception.
4. Graham M. Schweig, “Krishna, the Intimate Divinity,” in Edwin F. Bryant and Maria L. Ekstrand, eds., 2004. The Hare Krishna Movement: The Postcharismatic Fate of a Religious Transplant (New York: Columbia University Press), p. 18.
5. Ultimately, as Dr. Schweig points out, the tradition can be seen as polymorphic bi-monotheism, since it acknowledges a dual-gendered divinity whose ultimate manifestation is Sri Sri Radha-Krishna. See ibid. p. 19.