Sunday, October 28, 2007

Reflections in Sanskrit

Ishvara (Sanskrit Īśvara ईश्वर "lord, master", from an adjective īśvara "capable") is a philosophical concept in Hinduism, meaning controller or the Supreme controller (i.e. 'God') in a monotheistic sense or as an Ishta-Devata of monistic thought. Ishvara is also used to denote a "lord" in a temporal sense, as any master or king (a dual usage also found in English).


Advaitism [a school of Hindu philosophy] holds that when human beings think of Brahman, the Supreme Cosmic Spirit is projected upon the limited, finite human mind and appears as Ishvara. Therefore, the mind projects human attributes, such as personality, motherhood, and fatherhood on the Supreme Being. An interesting metaphor is that when the "reflection" of the Cosmic Spirit falls upon the mirror of Maya (Māyā; the principle of illusion, which binds the mind), it appears as the Supreme Lord. God (as in Brahman) is not thought to have such attributes in the true sense. However it may be helpful to project such attributes onto God — the myriad names and forms of God one finds in Hinduism are all human-constructed ways for approaching the divine.


Compare with this:

[W]e may promote certain conceptions about God that are valid in the sense of the lessons they teach without actually being technically true. Where fundamentalists fail is by essentially fetishizing the lessons by branding them as literal truth. The truth of the matter is that we know very little about the nature of the ultimate reality and so even while you might consider such an admission an evasion, it remains a key fact to understand.

On a personal note, another key realization is to understand that a skeptic's approach to religion need not always be a matter of confrontation.

What I conceive about God is hard to put in words. I have conflicting notions and ideas that are not yet fully developed - assuming they may one day be. But, fundamentally, I consider God to be the ground of being of existence - the source for existence itself. God is the source of order which makes rational existence as we know it possible.

But does God 'think'? Does God have 'knowledge'? Is God 'good'? These things sound like anthropomorphizations to me. Nevertheless, they may be useful approaches to the transcendent, even though they are flawed. We are limited beings, but just because we haven't figured out what's going on 'up there' doesn't mean that we can ignore it.

It's nice to see one's own ideas reflected in the wisdom of others'.


B. Spinoza said...

This isn't unique to Hinduism, of course. Non-dualistic concepts of God can be found in all the major religious traditions. Zen in Buddhism, Sufi in Islam, and Kabbalah in Judaism.

The problem I find myself running into is that historically speaking dualistic concepts of God have been at Judaism's core. In Judaism the non-dualistic ideas have either not been understood or, in later times, been kept secret due to fear of how it will affect the masses. This has caused the prayers to more or less reflect a dualistic idea of God

Orthoprax said...


Monism is one issue, but I specifically appreciated the Adaitistic view that while God's true form is transcendent, we can still use our flawed human conceptions as useful mechanisms for approaching God.

Therefore we can understand our own liturgy's ideas as simply a given kind of human conception with flaws. Anim Zemirot is a prayer that exemplifies this point.

B. Spinoza said...

>while God's true form is transcendent, we can still use our flawed human conceptions as useful mechanisms for approaching God.

But is it really the best way to approach the divine or are we just doing it because it's tradition? Maybe the best way to approach the divine is to meditate opposite a blank wall like some Zen monks do in order not to have any false images in our mind? Which would fit into the general trend of Jewish thought which has been moving from a anthropomorphic idea of God to a God that transcends all thought and conceptions. I'm not actually suggesting this replace the traditional liturgy, because I don't think it would work. It would be too big of a break for tradition. Perhaps new prayers should be introduced along the old ones? Maybe a separate practice of meditation could also be introduced, like the chasidic master's of old used to do.

Anonymous said...

For Marcus Aurelius (and maybe the other Stoics, I'm not sure), attributing to God a consciousness is no different than attributing a member or shape. But at the same time he defined 'good' (in human behavior) in accordance with God's nature. God is 'just' because no man can outlive his enemy. God is 'merciful' because he hides the truth of non-existence with the illusion of reality. And so on. So again, it's not just Hindus...

elf said...

I think I've seen a similar idea attributed to Rav Kook, actually. Could it have been here? Or on XGH's old blog?

Orthoprax said...


"But is it really the best way to approach the divine or are we just doing it because it's tradition?"

The point is that there may be no "best" way. It depends on the individual. In many cases, those Eastern religions have the advantage of being focused on individual progress and therefore each service can be tailored to the individual. Contrarily, Judaism concerns itself more with the congregation with communal prayer services and therefore requires litergy that is more broadly approachable. I don't think everyone is capable of a monk's wall staring or that they would get anything productive out of it.


I didn't mean to limit the perspective only to Hinduism, but I just found the parallels there interesting.


Probably not here.