I.J.Singh | Opinion | 8 July 2015 | Asia Samachar |
By I.J. Singh
The Creator – God, as usually described; His nature and existence!
Not new questions for humanity but baffling, nevertheless. What do historians and linguists tell us about the word god and its origin.
I am not a theologian so let me lay the matter to rest with the brief note that the English word god may have come to us from the German gott or the Norse gud. It antedates Christianity and may or may not relate to good in the Indo-European languages. Keep in mind that the English language exhibits a fascinating but chaotic structural and developmental history.
God – being inscrutable and infinite – defies definitional parameters. Sikhi, along with other major religions, is quite adamant about that, yet in their practice if not in theory they continue to box God in a small space with impenetrable walls around it.
In an odd aside a few years ago I sat through a brief exposition of the term god rendered via an ironic comparison to dog – achieved by trans-positioning of the first and last letters. The speaker was the local gurduara secretary who fancied himself as the leading intellectual light of Sikhi. His mishmash of ideas baffled me and was also tasteless – to me more like an intellectual blight.
In some religions, we encounter God as a three-letter complex in which each letter speaks of a single principle; respectively: generative, organizational, and destructive, the three fundamentals of life.
Hinduism and its mythological antecedents carry this parallel much further. Their very large pantheon is headed by the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh (also known as Shiva), with Brahma being the pre-eminent deity.
In this system, each god has a clearly defined terrain. Brahma is the sole Creator of all life; Vishnu is the caretaker of life’s myriad needs, while death that must come at the end of all life is the bailiwick of Mahesh aka Shiva.
Hinduism thus gives us a unique organizational model with precise delegation of authority and duty for each god to exercise. Its study should appeal to modern management theorists. But I think this too comes with a string attached.
Today, my take on this trinity goes forward from a discourse on gurbani by the late Gyani Sant Singh Maskeen, an iconic teacher of Sikhi — its history and doctrines. Maskeen made a pungent and insightful observation that cut to the heart of the chase.
He noted that, across the world but particularly in India, zillions of Hindu temples exist that are dedicated to Vishnu, the caretaker of life. And just as many different temples focus exclusively on the worship of Shiva, the god of death.
Then he wryly noted that in his travels all over India he had come across only a handful – perhaps less than half a dozen temples dedicated exclusively to Brahma who created life and without whom there would be no reason or call for either Vishnu or Shiva.
Keep in mind that this is in India, the land of a billion Hindus and God alone knows how many thousands upon thousands of Hindu temples.
Maskeen, in his remarks, also noted in passing, that a rung lower than the Gods that make up the Hindu trinity are countless lesser gods and goddesses and they, too, show a noticeable paucity and variation in the number of temples dedicated to their worship. For instance, Lakshmi, whose domain is the boon of worldly riches, has many, many temples to her name. On the other hand, Saraswati, whose gifts are knowledge and learning has far fewer.
Interesting, isn’t it? I believe this discrepancy emerges as a human existential imperative. It stems from and emphasizes critical fundamentals of human nature.
It is a given that all that is born will die. Death remains a constant, the great unknown, a veil through which we may not see. Death and the hereafter remain a mystery.
That’s why different religions posit markedly diverse but superbly imaginative, and extremely elaborate, models of the unknown hereafter.
Many speak of an afterlife with detailed and endless descriptions of the divine court of a Creator, including an honored place for their favorite prophet, where delectables reward or tempt the true believer. Keep also in mind the wonderfully exotic, imaginatively satirical, model by Mark Twain of a tediously tiresome heaven. The opposite end of that road leads to a gruesome hell that should shame Man and God equally. And Man is the authority on that as Dante tells us.
Sikhi clearly refuses to consign God or Creator into a three-decker box (universe) with a heaven above, a hell beneath, and with us suffering in the middle.
In Sikhi the preferred honorific in English is Creator, the term God is inaccurate. But more of this another time!
What caught my eye here was the disconnect between the popularity and fate of the Hindu Trinity of gods as seen by the number of places of worship dedicated to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
The answer seems to emerge from the human existential imperative of self-interest and self-preservation.
We can’t afford to neglect Vishnu because he provides our daily sustenance whatever the length of life may be. He needs to be worshipped, cajoled and bribed, if possible, so as to guarantee us a better, more comfortable, lifestyle in this world. The lottery in life is in his hands. Our quality of life here on Earth depends upon him. What better than to consecrate temples in his name; the more the better.
Whether a heartfelt simple prayer or an elaborate service, our unspoken prayer and demand for Vishnu always is: So what will you do for me today?
But where there is life can death be far behind? Shiva (Mahesh) becomes important because death is inevitable, unknown as well as fearsome; so he, too, has to be propitiated, flattered and pleased, if only to assure a better, kinder afterlife. Hence the many temples for him!
Poor Brahma, the theoretical chief of the trinity, can be safely ignored and set aside. In creating us he did what he had to do. At creation his job is done. At birth the responsibility for our care shifts totally to Vishnu. Brahma is of no further use to us, no matter how long or short our life is. The length of our life is not his domain, nor is its travails or pleasures; it is over when Vishnu quits on us and Shiva grabs us. What use then is further worship of Brahma? What good or harm can he possibly do?
Does love have any place in this equation … for the love of God or His mortal dread?
I am not a Hindu; I am a Sikh. And I don’t mean to pick on the Hindu worldview. I aim to include all religions in this conversation, including Sikh practices. I am really talking of the quiet desperation of our very human lives, no matter the religious label.
Sikhi starts with the alphanumeric Ik Oankar devised by Guru Nanak, the founder of the faith. It does not speak of a multitude of gods but of a single Creator common to all creation leaving no room for divisions of caste, creed, color, gender, national origin or religious label. The idea is not to fragment the actions of the one Creator of us all into hermetically sealed compartments as implied in the Hindu world view.
Sikhi does not endorse this Hindu model of the trinity that I focused on earlier but keep in mind that Sikhi arose and thrived in India as a small drop in the vast ocean of Hindu mythology. Ergo, many of the Sikh teachings are couched in the context and the language of Hindu practices and mythology. Even though contradicted by Sikh doctrine, the Hindu model of trinity continues to shape many Sikh cultural habits as well.
Hence this column today!
In practice, specific Hindu temples seem to be widely connected to specific boons that can be accessed or hoped for from specific gods or goddesses. How about Sikh gurduaras? Technically, our local gurduaras across the world are just that – community centers with no magical or unique boon doctrinally connected with any. Historical gurduaras derive their importance from the associated historical nuggets – a battle site or a place often associated with some “miraculous” event during a Guru’s visit.
Miraculous events in the life of the Gurus? And therein is the hooker.
So, there are a few sites across India and Pakistan that are visited by thousands of Sikhs for a specific boon or prayer and are seen as a site of pilgrimage, even though that goes against Sikh principles and dicta. Such beliefs seep into our practices from the sea of Hindu mythology and practices around us.
But let’s not blame others for our own myopia.
Forget not that in Sikh doctrine the Founder-Gurus repeatedly speak of the Creator as Sachha Patshah … or Sajjan, in other words as the King of Kings or as soul mate in contemporary American English. And Sikhi does not tempt and seduce us with promises of an imaginative heaven’s never-ending delights or terrify us with the idea of an everlasting hell.
Today, this is not an exercise on deconstructing God or is it? Surely God is in his heaven and all’s right with the world.
In our lives of quiet desperation, I guess no matter how we humans see the Creator — as Infinite and merciful or capricious and unforgiving — in the final analysis, we seem to rate God(s) by their direct usefulness to us, as in a commercial transaction. And that’s as human as humans get.
The moral: What often move us humans are either need and greed (Vishnu and Lakshmi) or fear (Shiva) and not necessarily an intimate heartfelt connection with the Creator (Brahma). – July 7, 2015
[I.J. Singh is a New York based writer and speaker on Sikhism in the Diaspora, and a Professor of Anatomy. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]
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