Nature of God in Hinduism

An all-powerful (omnipotent) God, who is also benevolent, raises major questions. These include the following:
1. Why does a benevolent God allow evil or apparent injustice to exist?
2. Why did a perfect God create flawed beings?
3. If such a God controls everything do we have free will and, if so, why are humans allowed to make wrong choices?

I will explain how Hinduism overcomes some of the above issues.

The main Vedic gods include Agni, Indra, and Varuna. These Gods represented different aspects of nature and none of them were omnipotent. Each God had a role to play and their powers were limited to their domain. Agni represented fire, Indra was the God of rain, thunder, while Varuna was the God of the oceans. However, none of them could control the others. For instance, Indra could control neither Agni nor Varuna. These Gods were also counter-balanced by negative forces such as Asuras. The fact that the Asuras could often defeat these Vedic Gods provide further evidence that the Vedic Gods were not omnipotent.

These days the Vedic Gods are not directly worshipped. They make their appearance only in the original Vedic rituals. This is perhaps because with the improvement in understanding of natural forces, the need for these Gods to explain natural events diminished. Hence other Gods became popular. While Shiva, as Rudra, was a popular Vedic God, other Gods like Vishnu, and Ganesha came into vogue later. To show that Vishnu was more powerful than the Vedic Gods, stories about how Indra had to go to Vishnu for protection were created. However, neither Shiva or Vishnu were all powerful. For instance, none of them could give boons of immortality.

The next point I address is free will. If God plays an active role in everyone’s life, should God take the blame for any sinful actions? If not, why did God give man free will? If there is free will what is the role of God? Hindu Dharma talks about Adhyatmika or personal responsibility. This implies that God allows life to continue but within limits. The consequences of one’s actions (good or bad) are defined by the laws of Karma. In this context, God is not all controlling but does influence behaviour. God can decide how to apportion parts of one’s past Karma (Sanchita Karma) into the experiences in one’s current life (Prarabhdha Karma). One could also ask, is God subject to the law of Karma? From our Puranas that is indeed the case. For instance, Vishnu was cursed by Bhrigu because Vishnu killed Brighu’s wife. So even the Gods can be made to suffer for violating a higher principle.

If we move away from the notion of a personal God to the Vedantic notion of the Supreme (i.e., Brahman), the nature of the Supreme changes drastically. In Advaita, Nirguna Brahman has no characteristics and does not play an active role in anyone’s life. While everything exists because of Brahman, there are no prayers to Brahman asking for anything. The prayers are to recognise and respect Brahman. Because worship of a Nirguna Brahman was difficult for the masses to understand, the worship of God in various forms continued.

In summary, the nature of Gods in Hindu Dharma is diverse and is not formally prescribed. The lack of a single omnipotent and benevolent God helps avoid many obvious contradictions. Every entity, human or God, is subject to the principle of Karma. In this context, an active God can be seen as a powerful judge who enforces the rules. The Advaitic God (Brahman) is more abstract. Brahman is the source of everything but does not meddle with anyone’s lives. Thus Hinduism has a mixture of a polytheistic (can follow multiple Gods) and henotheistic (following one God like monotheism but unlike monotheism permits the existence of other Gods) ideas.

References:
Ganesha: A Relatively Modern God
Vishnu: From Indra’s bother to a Dominant God
Free Will and The Role of God
Reincarnation in Hindu Dharma
Jurisprudence and Hindu Scriptures
The Shvetashvatara Upanishad: Attempt at a Compromise or Unification

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