Concepts of God in Christianity and Vaishnavism

Question: I’ve undertaken a discussion with Christian theologians. Their understanding of a Personal God, specifically their resistance to a God with form, which is cogent and well-argued by their scholars based on their śāstra, has forced me to think carefully about our own theological claims. Please share your thoughts on a few points.

We say Bhagavān and everything in Goloka is made of sat-cit-ānanda. They would say these are qualities, not the substance of God. From these three, sat is just a temporal statement—present active participle—that God’s Being is eternal. Ānanda also seems to be an experience rather than a substance. We are left with cit as the actual composition of Bhagavān’s form. I seem to recall Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī saying that Bhagavān’s form is constituted of ghana cetana. What do you think he intends by this? How can consciousness be condensed or densified?

The Christians do not understand how consciousness can be a substance from which form is composed; they see it as a state. But this seems to be our position—Bhagavān’s rupa is “made” of cetana, yes? If this is so and consciousness can somehow densify into form, does it have a viśeṣa that contains it, such that it does not melt or dissolve, as Nyāya would hold?

This would seem like a limitation, although we would say that this delimited form is an act of God’s will, and He can manifest any form and infinite forms. But if we say this, we start to sound like those who say form is secondary to the will of a Brahman higher than form, which then takes a form secondarily for līlā or as an avatāra.

What we call manuṣya-rūpa in prakṛti is really a set of instruments, indriyas, allowing the ātman to experience prakṛti in delimited ways of seeing, smelling, etc., bound by karma. We also say that rāgātmikā bhaktas likewise need instruments in Goloka to experience and serve Bhagavān. Bhagavān’s form also consists of senses. It is hard to argue that senses are not limitations—why would an omnipotent Being need any sort of instrument at all? Needing instruments suggests being incomplete in one’s own resources.

Perhaps we might say that for Brahman not to be static, impersonal, or undifferentiated, but ecstatic and infinite variegatedness, there must be a way for consciousness to experience different aspects of variegatedness. If there was just consciousness without differentiated instrumentation, wouldn’t this be a monistic Advaita experience?

Additionally, Bhagavān’s senses are all interchangeable—any one sense can perform the function of any other. What then is the use of five senses if they can all do the work of each other?

These are the types of questions raised when dialoguing with other theists; do you have any thoughts to share?

Answer: First of all, I would like to say that according to modern science, matter is nothing but energy. That means energy can have form. We know from quantum mechanics that the solid matter which we see with our eyes is really a bunch of space with quantum particles moving around in it. In fact, it is even wrong to say that they are particles. They may be called “waves.” I read that if all the matter in a human body is compressed, leaving no space between particles, then it would be reduced to a dot on the end of a needle. Yet, from our experience, we see a solid body several feet tall with a certain amount of weight. Indeed, science proposes that the whole universe came from the big bang, which started from a concentrated point of energy. At least we know that the sun is nothing but energy and that the earth formed from the sun. If it is possible that material energy can have a material form, it is surely possible that consciousness can have an immaterial form. It may be difficult to understand how consciousness can be a substance, but everything you see around you is a product of consciousness.

Yes, Bhagavān’s form is made of consciousness, but this consciousness is not what you think or have experience of. This consciousness is a substance. This duality of substance, and its quality of being different from other substances, exists only at the material level. At the spiritual level, there is no such duality. That is why it is called bheda and abheda, one and different simultaneously. At the spiritual level, even emotions have form.

We do not accept the principle of viśeṣa, either of the Nyāya or Madhva school.

There is no difference between God’s form and His will. It is not that God wills and then a form is manifest. His forms are eternal. That is the meaning of sat.

Similarly, the senses which are instruments of God are not like our senses which are distinct from us. He is one composite unit, Akhaṇḍa Tattva. Any part of His body is complete in itself. It is not that His one sense can perform the function of any other sense, but any part of His body can perform any function. Why does He have these parts? That is how He is. The question “why” comes from assuming that He became like this one day. Why does this not apply to Absolute Reality? Absolute Reality has to be studied the way it is. He has a human form and associates who are humans; He walks on His feet, although He can fly also. That is His human līlā. He has mādhurya-līlā and aiśvaryalīlā. In mādhurya-līlā, He acts as a human being, although He has all aiśvarya.

The real answer is that if you want to understand who God is, which means His form, qualities, activities, and nature, then logic is an imperfect means. He is beyond logic. Therefore, mere logic can never give you a proper understanding of God. The only process to know God as He is, when He speaks about Himself, is through śāstra. The human mind and senses have no ability to know Him by their own effort. And the proof is that science has not and will never figure Him out.

You write that your Christian friends base their concept of God on their śāstra. Do they test it with logic? Our concept of God is based on śāstra, not logic. You may think their arguments against a God with form are cogent, but I find holes in their concept of God. What they are doing to our concept, I can easily do to their concept. This does not make them better than us. Why do you think our concept is weaker than theirs? As far as logic is concerned, they have the same problems as we have, possibly more. Their Bible says that God made man in His own image. How does God have an image if He doesn’t have a form? Either we speak on the basis of logic or on the basis of śāstra. It is not that you speak on the basis of your śāstra and then you attack on the basis of logic. As far as logic is concerned, I have shown you how, according to modern science, energy can have a form, so why God cannot have a form, even if He is just consciousness?

In fact, our concept of God is superior to theirs because it is inclusive of their concept. No matter what concept they have, our God has that and much more. Their God is limited because He cannot walk, talk, or have fun. Our God can do anything. He can appear limited and remain unlimited.

Question: What do you think Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī intends by describing Bhagavān’s form as ghana cetana?

Answer: Ghana simply means form.

Question: In its normal usage, ghana means the compacting of something (√han). So, if its semantics extend to form, then surely this would be because “form” in its normal usage is a compacting of matter. I assumed Śrī Jīva had chosen that specific word to indicate this quality of form as some sort of compacting of consciousness. I see no reason why cetana cannot be “compacted,” especially since Bhagavān’s natures of cit and ānanda are infinitely more than that of other entities, and this reading of Śrī Jīva would be śabda pramāṇa for that.

Answer: Yes, you are right; ghana carries the sense of compactness even when used for form.

Question: I accept that we cannot understand all this with logic and philosophy, but we need to push logic as far as we can in support of śāstra in those areas beyond other pramāṇas, as this is the Vedanta position in the beginning of Vedanta Sūtra. Such logic is especially required if we wish to commune with other traditions rather than take a position that one tradition’s śāstra says “xyz” and bas.

Answer: Yes, logic is very important—that is why I wrote from a logical point of view in the first part of my reply.

Your Christian friends must accept that God is the creator of the world. A creator must have knowledge, will, and the ability to create. You can make a logical argument that knowledge, will, and the ability to create do not exist in anything formless, and can exist only in a person having form. So, God must have a form; otherwise, He cannot create. Next, by logic you can prove that His form cannot be material. In this way, we can logically argue our case.

Question: Yes. A straightforward anumāna for an Īśvara as creator would be: 

Īśvara has a form. 

Because He has intelligence and will.

Wherever intelligence and will are found, they are found in a form.

Īśvara has intelligence and will.

Therefore, Īśvara has a form.

Answer: Yes, this is the five-step syllogism. You need to add an example.

Question: But wouldn’t this also apply to the individual jīva by the same logic? Yet no one other than Vaiṣṇavas accept a svarūpa of the ātman with a form in moḳsa. 

Answer: But in the case of Advaitavāda moḳsa, the ātman is not a creator. In case of Vaiṣṇava moḳsa, the ātman has a body.

Question: What is surprising is that the Vaiṣṇavas never seem to argue for a form as a bhaga of Bhagavān. Why are we not able to find any substantial arguments in Rāmānuja, Madhva, or Śrī Jīva defending the logic of God’s form? Why was that not seen as a necessary siddhānta to defend—given no one in their time accepted this principal aspect of their siddhānta?

Answer: We miss the basic premise of Rāmānuja, Madhva, Śrī Jīva, et al. They work hard to establish śabda as pramāṇa. Once they have done that, they do not need to argue for form.

Question: What do you think of this argument: For God to be infinite, active, and nonstatic, He must be infinitely variegated. If God were just infinite consciousness, albeit Personal and distinct from souls, then He would experience one infinite, omniscient state of consciousness of everything at once, hence static. Variegatedness of experience requires senses, each one suited for appreciating and experiencing one aspect of variegatedness. Hence God has senses, to experience the infinitely expanding nature of His own Being and svarūpa-śakti. These are not limitations, but attributes to enhance the variegatedness of bliss. Would something like that work?

Answer: Yes, you can use such a line of argument. Only thing is that it is stronger when you formulate the five-step syllogism used by Nyāya—proposition, reason, principle with an example, application, and conclusion. Once you do that, the opponent must work hard to refute your argument. When you state your position in a descriptive form, then the opponent can pick up some tangential point and drag the argument in the wrong direction.



3 thoughts on “Concepts of God in Christianity and Vaishnavism”

  1. “What is surprising is that the Vaiṣṇavas never seem to argue for a form as a bhaga of Bhagavān.”

    Doesn’t “Śrī” imply Rūpa?

  2. I am a little surprised at your idea that Christians regard God as formless. Having grown up as a Christian, I was always taught that God made man in His own image i.e. God has a form similar to human beings with arms, legs, torso etc. (Genesis 1:27 “ So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God he created them.” Although the Biblical narratives speak of God in a rather vague way, still I think He is understood by most Christians to have form. His human-like form is also reflected in the human form of His Son, Jesus. This was my layman’s understanding as a Christian of 40 years. Maybe it varies according to sect?

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