God in Vaishnavism from a Jewish perspective

What is the Hindu view of God from a Jewish perspective? Social media is filled with those who speak with minimum knowledge of modern Hinduism. They might have once read a survey book on world religions that described the Vedic religion of ancient India 3000BCE and 200BCE and considered that minuscule amount of information about an ancient civilization as enough to address a modern religion.  And they certainly do not consider how much that textbook reflects Protestant or Orientalist perspectives that make ritual less Protestantism as the pinnacle of religion.

I will state clearly and unambiguously that modern Hinduism from a Jewish perspective has a concept of One single God and has since approached this position since the Upanishads were written ~200BCE. In the Mahabharata Narayana is the highest personal God, is the Supreme Being. All the deities are said to have been created by Him and all other deities are, therefore, parts (angas) of that one great Being. Another verse of the Mahabharata offers the same explanation of Lord Vishnu. Thus it states: “Vishnu is the unique and unparalleled Deity; He is the Supreme Being (mahabhuta); He pervades all the three worlds and controls them but He Himself is untouched by their defects. “Their medieval scholastic thinkers refined the notion to One God with philosophic rigor. And modern movements have further presented the notion of One God in contemporary terms.

So the TL:DR of this post is that Jews should recognize that the Hindu religion is about one God.

This issue should have been settled years ago. Twenty-seven years ago, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz wrote

Under the Noahide laws, it is possible to assume that Hinduism and Buddhism are sufficiently monotheistic in principle for moral Hindus and Buddhists to enter the gentiles’ gate in heaven. Jewish law regards the compromises made or tolerated by the world’s great religions as ways of rendering essentially monotheistic theologies easier in practice for large populations of adherents.

A similar conclusion was reached whenever Jews encountered modern Hinduism. Rabbi Menashe ben Israel, Moses Mendelssohn, Chief Rabbi JH Hertz, and others have all written similar sentiments.  But the idea that Hindu conceptions of God are not AZ does not take hold even with repeated exposure and 40K Israelis traveling to India each year.

This post works with the assumptions of Rabbi Herzog about Christianity in which contemporary Christians are not AZ, it is just extending his reasoning to Hinduism. If you do not accept this, then this post is not for you. It also assumes that Jews cannot use images, statues, murti, stars, planets, or trees even if intended to serve one God. The golden calves of Jeroboam were monotheistic but still AZ.

In my book on a Jewish -Hindu encounter, I minimized direct normative statements. I was specifically waiting for Rabbi Prof Daniel Sperber to publish his book on Hinduism and AZ, which he finished in 2012. I have a draft copy of his manuscript. But at this point, it does not seem to be coming out even with years of direct prodding.

Therefore, I was going to start working on a full statement. However, this past week there was a wonderful four-day academic conference broadcast n Zoom on God in Vaishnavism, which is the main Hindu denomination of more than half of Indian Hindus. Vaishnavism is the version with many manifestations of God in different forms and with thousands, if not millions, of gods to worship. This contrasts with second-largest denomination Shaivism with its singular focus on a unique high God. Vaishnavism is known for its devotionalism, its arts, and its temple rituals. In later posts, I will deal as needed with Shaivism, Smartism, Yoga, Tantra and Advaita Vedanta. Here I limit myself to Vaishnavism.

This four-day conference was so rich in analysis that it led me to this blog post to jump-start my larger statement. My writing allows me to turn observations into prose before I forget. In addition, it allows me to post it in sections and receive feedback. Nothing in this post is final and I will return and edit the page as I gain more feedback.

The important thing is that all the speakers and listeners assumed that Vaishnavism has a single supreme being that can be translated as God. The main question is how to relate the monotheistic and theistic formulations to the monistic formulation. But notice how the various answers fall into a range of God formulations, rather than questioning the premise that Vaishnava worship one God. 40 years ago, world religion textbooks presented a dichotomy, in which, Protestant Christianity had a transcendent theist God and Hinduism as a panentheism God. Today, the mystical and panentheistic is celebrated in Western religions- think of Hasidism, Neo-Hasidism, and Kabbalah. We see the personal and transcendent aspects of God in Hinduism and see the panentheistic in Judaism.

I write this post as a scholar of Jewish studies without any claim to philological or scholarly claims to knowledge of Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindu, or Malayalam.  I will base this post on what I took from the lectures for my purposes. It will not summarize everything said at the conference or the content of any given paper. It is just my picking out various points useful to me. I may have missed many historic and philosophical subtleties. But it still proves my point.

Forthcoming book by one of the conference presenters

Here are eight forms of Vaishnavism from the conference and one from my book.

(1) The Tamil devotional poets the Alvars, of the 5th to the 10th century have one single God Vishnu as a personal God with qualities and attributes. But at the same time, they say he has 1000 forms, which are all ultimately Vishnu. They are, according to the presenter monotheistic but use many forms to worship God. These forms are not just an expression of the Oneness behind them but have value unto themselves. The worshipper creates or craves these forms. The specifics of the forms are the means to serve the One monotheistic God. This is similar to the way Rabbi Nachum Rabinowitz ZL saw Christianity, in that Christians do not think a cross, crucifix, or icon is a separate deity, rather they are thinking of one God.

(2) The Madhvacharya or Madhva was based on the 13th-century interpretation of the Vedanta into a dualistic interpretation of a chasm between the only true reality, the infinite God, and the human. This approach is still followed in India and in my own 21st century NJ. God is the one true ruler of the universe external from the subordinate material world of humans and matter. All names of the divine point to the one God. As in Kabbalah, every word, breath, and speech points to God. In addition, God is the immanent essence in all things. A person can call God any name since it all points to the infinite God..  God is the creator God in taking pre-existing microforms to create macro forms. The millions of devas are not God or gods but spiritual beings who are not God. The principle of each and every good quality in the world is God. (God is pure love, pure justice, pure compassion)

(3) The God in Puṣṭimārga is a God of giving grace. This approach founded by Vallabhacharya (1479–1531 CE), also known as Vallabha is a devotion path directed towards  Kṛṣṇa’s early life and ‘divine play’ (līlā) among the gopīs in Vṛndāvana. Everything is grounded on the grace (puṣṭi) of Kṛṣṇa, as is eventual liberation. The Lord is accessible only through His own grace. God is visualized via descriptions in texts.  The Lord cannot be attained by a given formula or ritual done by humans. He is attainable only if He wants to be attained. (Think of George Harrisons’ song My Sweet Lord where he appeals to a personal God to show )

This approach is more panentheistic and less Biblical theism because god is everywhere and manifests everywhere and everything can be used to serve God. This approach combines God as celestial, God as monotheistic Lord, and Divine as the spark in all things. The higher primordial aspect of the divine, Brahman is the monistic source and cause of all that is in the Universe, Everything is imbibed with the spirit of the Lord and as the Lord is eternally perfect, everything is perfect just the way it is.

(4) In the Bhagavad Gita, the classic analysis is that it contains two views of God. As a transcendent Lord, infinite God over all  and also God as immanent in the cosmos. A tension between immanence and transcendence and a tension within the immanence of God pervaded by God or cosmos identified with God.

(5) In the Pancaratra  texts, there is an emanation from an unknown divine to supernal manifestations to manifestations in this world. In one example, Jayakhya Samhita God is Lord as a person. He is also the cause of the cosmos. He is also revealed in hierarchical decent forms as avatars.

(6) The presenter on the Bhagavata Purana discussed the tension between the theist God and the non-dualism in the book.  But most of all, he stressed the need for God to become manifest in which the hidden truth reveals itself in beauty. God must be beautiful and God must be a form. Therefore, one creates one’s personal image of God in one’s mind. Statutes and images are the mind’s form of God.

As a side point, it came up that Vaishnava rarely cite the Rig Veda, the text of ancient India (written 1500-1000BCE), which is the most taught in Western textbooks.

(7) The Nimbarka Sampradaya , is the text of one of the four major Vaiṣṇava subdivisions, which was founded by Nimbarka in the 12th-13th centuries. It is a dualistic non-dualism-  humans are both different and non-different from Isvara, God or Supreme Being. Specifically, this Sampradaya is a part of Krishnaism—Krishna-centric traditions.

This was a popular break away from the more Orthodox rule-centered Mimamsa approach to Hinduism. Here, meditation on self without symbols of God can reach liberation Under Mimamsa – only some can study Vedanta, for example, women are excluded. Here it is open to all.

It this approach Brahman as – non-creator, without beginning or end. But Krsna is identified with Brahman. Brahma is theistic but can also not be non-theistic because people have different tastes in spiritual life  Worshiping without symbols is non-theistic, with symbols is theistic.  It is only by surrender to Radha-Krishna (not through one’s own efforts) could they attain the grace necessary for liberation from rebirth; then, at death, the physical body would drop away. Thus Nimbarka stressed bhakti yoga, the yoga of devotion, self-surrender, and faith. 

(8) The Concept of God in the Caitanya Vaiṣṇava Tradition is more complex than the others presented.  This tradition is the tradition of devotional attachment to Krsna, most associate this approach with one of its offshoots Iskcon. For them, God is polyvalent as three perspectives-Brahman, paramatma and bhagwan, they are attributes on some level. Brahman is the transcendent, paamatma is God in action who converts potential to actual, the transcendent acts in the world via paramatra. And Bhagwan is the local personal deity. These three aspects of God can contradict each other in action.

As an aside in the conference, someone brought up the use of images to worship God. One person said they were only a reminder, a symbol to serve as a reminder of God, another person said they have an actual spark of God, another person said that the entire infinity of the Lord is in the image, and the fourth answer was that everything points to the Lord but under different names, in a way similar to Frege’s explanation of the morning and evening star as bother referring o Venus

(9) From my book- Swaminarayan Hinduism, also known as the Swaminarayan or BAPS sect, is a modern Vaishnava spiritual tradition, worships a form of Supreme deity Para-brahman. For many Americans, this is the Hinduism that they will encounter in a visit to their new marble Temples. Even among rabbis, this becomes one of the reference points. In 2007, the Chief Rabbi of Israel visited the vast temple complex of the Akshardem Temple in New Delhi, which, unlike traditional temples, this temple has a museum on the history of the movement, a theater showing movies about Hinduism, and even a Disney- style boat ride through Hindu themes., It also has a large restaurant and a park for the family.

In BAPS, most deities are accepted but they are not given statues rather they are included among the hundreds of gods and devas carved into the decorations of the building and its pillars. Even home worship (puja), central to Hindu life, has been reworked for decorum. They perform it as a visualization of offering rather than an actual offering of fruit and flowers. The traditional offering of flowers and foods is only in one’s mind.

Is this image of a young Krishna any different than the many images and statues of Jesus?

Modern Monotheism

These modern temples are as monotheistic as other Americans are. Yet, those who belong to these modern temples are told in the press by non-Hindus that they are polytheists and their children are told in school textbooks that they are polytheists. The vast historical phenomena of Hinduism has many conceptions of God from theist, monist, panentheist, polytheist, henotheist, and others. However, they do not want Westerners deciding for them what they believe and how to label it.

The correct term for the monotheism of these groups in Hindu terms is Para Brahman (Supreme Being) or Suayam Bhagwan (Lord Himself), but if they translate it as monotheism, it is not for the outsider to reject it. Para Brahman is the Highest Brahman; that is beyond all descriptions and conceptualizations. “He is the prime eternal among all eternals. He is the supreme living entity of all living entities, and He alone is maintaining all life.” (Katha Upanishad 2.2.13.). In the Bhagavad Gita, the Suayam Bhagwan (Lord Himself) intones: “There is no truth superior to Me. Everything rests upon Me, as pearls are strung on a thread” (Bhagavad Gita 7.7)

Yet, often Westerners reject these self-understandings as apologetic, cliché, and only said for show. Westerners, including Jews who have visited India, are willing to declare as definitive that any elementary school Jewish child knows that Hinduism presents the same Biblical idols.

Many Hindus that I met assumed that Judaism is still the ancient book of Leviticus and commented that they thought our synagogues without sacrificial altars are not true Judaism. If you heard this, you would want to correct them. So too here. My advice is to talk to Hindus themselves and trust their own explanations.

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