How Can the Unlimited Have a Form?

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A systematic logical and scriptural analysis resolves the paradox underlying the apparently self-contradictory phrase "unlimited form."

Whether or not God has a form is a perennial philosophical question with arguments on both sides. The way we pray to God, and the way the saints address God in their devotional prayers, suggests that God is a person we are calling. But is personhood compatible with the idea that God must have no limits?

Would a Form Limit God?

To reconcile these two concepts—personhood and unlimitedness—we need to first understand the definition of God. The Vedanta-sutras (1.1.2) define God, or the Absolute Truth (brahman), as the source of everything: janmady asya yatah. Another ancient text, the Brahma-samhita (5.1), defines God similarly as the cause of all causes: sarva-karana-karanam. This concise definition of God is essentially in agreement with the understanding of God given by all the theistic traditions of the world. So, if God is the source of everything, then He must possess the essential attributes of everything, or else He would be less than His creation. In this world, both personal beings and impersonal forces exist, so both these aspects must be present in God. If God were not a person, then He, by definition the Complete Being, would be incomplete. Another, simpler way of putting this: If we as the children of God are persons, how can our father, God, not be a person? So, those who say that God is not a person are actually limiting Him, by divesting Him of what His creation has.

Now let's consider the question "Do personality and form not limit God?" Vedic wisdom helps us understand that what causes limitation is not form, but matter. Due to the very nature of matter, all material objects are limited, whether they have form or not. We subconsciously project our conceptions of matter on the form of God and so think that a form would limit God. But God is not material; He is entirely spiritual. Spirit has characteristics different from matter; that which is spiritual has the potential to be unlimited, whether it has form or not. God's spiritual form does not limit Him.

Is Man Made in the Image of God?

This brings us to the next objection: "Even if I accept that God has a form, why should He have a humanlike form? Isn't that another example of assigning human attributes to God?"

Factually, the opposite is true. Anthropomorphism—the idea that we have ascribed a humanlike form to God—seems sensible initially, but only because of our self-centered thinking. We think that because we have a humanlike form we have conceived of God as humanlike. But could not the reverse be true? What if God's form is the original and our human form is modeled after His?

Logically both ideas are possible. How do we know which is the reality? When we want knowledge about physics, we refer to authorized physics textbooks. Similarly, when we want knowledge about God, we should we refer to the authorized textbooks about God—the scriptures. The scriptures of the great religions of the world repeatedly refer to God in a personal, humanlike way. For example, the Bible talks about "under His feet" (Exodus 24:10); "inscribed with the finger of God" (Exodus 31:18); "the hand of the Lord" (Exodus 9:3); "the eyes of the Lord" (Genesis 38:7); "the ears of the Lord" (Numbers 11:1). Ezekiel (1:26) describes God as having "the semblance of a human form." Such phrases permeate the biblical literature. Similarly, in the Quran there are references to "the face of your Lord" (055:027), "under My eye" (020:039), "under our eyes" (052:048) & (054:014), and "the hand of Allah" (048:010), (038:075) & (039:067).

Some people say we should take these references metaphorically. But wouldn’t that be a human projection on the word of God? Wouldn’t we be imposing our interpretation on the self-evident statements of the scriptures, which repeatedly and consistently present God as having a humanlike form? Instead of audaciously claiming that the scriptures are presenting a misleading metaphor, it is humbler, safer, and more logical to infer that it is our preconceptions that are misleading and need to be corrected by the words of the scriptures. Further, there is the classic and clear statement in the Bible (Genesis 1:27): "Man is made in the image of God." In which scripture is it said that God is made in the image of man? Nowhere. So the correct understanding is not that God is anthropomorphic (having a humanlike form), but that man is theomorphic (having a form modeled on God's form).

Vedic Insights

Like the scriptures of the Abrahamic religions, the Vedic scriptures assert that God has a form. But they go further by giving vivid descriptions of His form. For example, the scripture glorified as "the ripened fruit of the Vedic literature"—the Srimad-Bhagavatam—offers this enchanting description of the Lord's form:

syamam hiranya-paridhim vanamalya-barha-
dhatu-pravala-nata-vesham anavratamse
vinyasta-hastam itarena dhunanam abjam
karnotpalalaka-kapola-mukhabja-hasam

"His complexion was dark blue and His garment golden. Wearing a peacock feather, colored minerals, sprigs of flower buds, and a garland of forest flowers and leaves, He was dressed just like a dramatic dancer. He rested one hand upon the shoulder of a friend and with the other twirled a lotus. Lilies graced His ears, His hair hung down over His cheeks, and His lotuslike face was smiling." (10.23.22)

Similarly the Brahma-samhita (5.30) offers an enthralling glimpse of God's beautiful divine form:

venum kvanantam aravinda-dalayataksham
barhavatamsam asitambuda-sundarangam
kandarpa-koti-kamaniya-vishesha-shobham
govindam adi-purusham tam aham bhajami

"I worship Govinda, the primeval Lord, who is adept at playing on His flute, who has blooming eyes like lotus petals, whose head is bedecked with a peacock feather, whose figure of beauty is tinged with the hue of blue clouds, and whose unique loveliness charms millions of Cupids."

Vedic Impersonalism?

Despite the Vedic scriptures' containing such vivid descriptions of God's form, a common notion is that they say that God is nirguna (without qualities) and nirakara (without form). While the Vedic scriptures do say those things, that is not all they say. Often the very same scriptures that say that God is nirguna also say that He is saguna (with qualities). Consider this verse from the Srimad-Bhagavatam (8.3.9):

tasmai namah pareshaya
brahmane ’nanta-shaktaye
arupayoru-rupaya
nama ashcharya-karmane

This verse describes the Lord as both arupaya (without form) and uru-rupaya (having many forms). To quote only the word arupaya and declare that the verse says that God is formless, as some commentators do, is disingenuous.

Are such Vedic descriptions of God self-contradictory? Not at all. In fact, the Vedic tradition teaches a higher principle that harmonizes such contradictions.

Let's consider a verse from the Svetashvatara Upanishad (3.19): apani-pado javano grahita/ pashyaty achakshuh sa shrinoty akarnah. This verse contains an apparent contradiction: pashyaty acakshuh—"God has no eyes, but He sees." How is this contradiction to be reconciled?

The Vedic tradition contains a special pramana (method of acquiring knowledge) called arthapatti (postulation) used for reconciling contradictory statements by postulating a third statement. (In addition to the standard three methods of acquiring knowledge—pratyaksha [direct perception], anumana [hypothesis], and shabda [hearing, especially from the Vedic literature]—Jiva Goswami in his Sarva-samvadini gives seven other ways. Arthapatti is one of them.) To see how arthapatti works, consider these two contradictory statements:

1. Ravi does not eat food during the day.
2. Ravi is growing fat.

The arthapatti to reconcile these two statements would be: Ravi eats at night.

Similarly, the arthapatti to reconcile the statements about God having and not having a form is: God has no material form, but has a spiritual form.

The same principle applies to the descriptions of God as both nirguna and saguna. The nirguna description implies that He has no material qualities, and the saguna description conveys that He has spiritual qualities.

At this point we may wonder: "Why do the Vedic scriptures contain contradictory statements at all? Wouldn't it be much better if they gave truths clearly and unambiguously?"

Seemingly contradictory descriptions serve the vital purpose of challenging our preconceptions and stimulating us to rise to a higher understanding.

Consider the following Ishopanishad verse (Mantra 8): sa paryagach chukram akayam avranam/ asnaviram shuddham apapa-viddham. This verse describes God as akayam (having no body) and then as asnaviram (having no veins). If God has no body, why is there a need to say that He has no veins? Isn't it obvious that someone who has no body has no veins? The Ishopanishad wants us to rise to the higher understanding that God has a special kind of body that has no veins.

Describing God as akayam conveys the special nature of God's body because the word kaya (body) has several connotations that do not apply to God. A body:

* Is separate from the real person, the soul.
* Is a product of the past karma of the soul.
* Tends to degrade the soul by stimulating bodily desires.
* Has to be given up.

None of these applies to God, whose body and soul are identical, who has no karmic past, who is never degraded, and whose body is eternal. Because we tend to superimpose our material conceptions on God, the scriptures sometimes use negative words like akayam to emphasize that God does not have a body like ours. Why is it important to understand the difference between our material form and God's spiritual form? Material forms are temporary, so attraction to them leads only to eventual frustration. But God's form is eternal, so attraction to His form leads to ultimate fulfillment. The negative scriptural statements that God doesn't have a form (like ours) save us from frustration, and the positive scriptural statements lead us to fulfillment.

Formless Person?

Some people concede that God is a person, but insist that He doesn't have a form. Let's examine this proposition. We are all children or servants or parts or emanations from God; whatever words different religions use to describe our relationship with Him, the essential point is that we are dependent on Him and subordinate to Him. We are persons and have forms; if God were a formless person, then He would be less than us. Can the whole be less than the part? Obviously not. Moreover, the scriptural references we discussed earlier talked not only about God's personality, but also about His form: His eyes, hands, legs, and so on. So the argument for a formless person is both illogical and non-scriptural.

People may come up with many such fallacious arguments. Instead of bothering to refute all of them, it's better to understand that such arguments originate because the human mind cannot grasp how God can have a form and still be unlimited. But if to preserve God's all-pervading nature we argue that God doesn't have any form whatsoever, then we are confronted with another perplexity: Without a form, how would He be located anywhere at all?

People try to imagine God as all-pervading and then try to figure out how a form can be imposed on that all-pervasive being. But form is not a quality imposed on God, as red paint is a quality imposed on an artificial rose made from white paper. Rather, form is an inherent quality of God, as red is an inherent quality of a natural rose.

God As the Three-in-One Composite

Srila Jiva Goswami compiled the classic philosophical treatise Íat-sandarbha, based on the teachings of Srimad-Bhagavatam as explained by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. In Sat-sandarbha Jiva Goswami elaborately analyzes a succinct verse from the Srimad-Bhagavatam (1.2.11): "Learned transcendentalists who know the Absolute Truth call this nondual substance Brahman, Paramatma, or Bhagavan." This verse reveals a profound three-part ontology of the Absolute Truth that can reconcile contradictory attributes of God.

The various divine conceptions in the world's wisdom traditions can be classed under three broad categories:

1. The all-pervading energy (Brahman): What quantum physicists call the one energy sea that underlies everything in the universe, what the mystics refer to as the impersonal oneness of all things and beings, the Vedic scriptures explain to be Brahman, the all-pervading light.

2. The inner guide (Paramatma): Many spiritual traditions talk about an aspect of God immanent within us. What the Christian tradition refers to as the empowering Holy Spirit, the Vedic scriptures call the Paramatma, the inner guide who, among other things, mediates the interactions between the soul and the material body.

3. The supreme person (Bhagavan): Saints throughout history have lovingly connected with God as the Supreme Person. That Lord whom Moses called Jehovah, whom Jesus referred to as his father in heaven, whom Mohammed praised as Allah, the Vedic scriptures reveal as Krishna, God as the all-attractive transcendental Supreme Person.

Here's an analogy to illustrate this unity-in-diversity of the Absolute Truth.

Three rural students arrive one night at a railway platform with their teacher, eager to have their first sight of a train. After a long wait, when they see a bright light in the distance, the first villager asks their teacher, "Is that the train?" When the teacher nods, the student departs, convinced he has seen the train. When the train comes closer, the second student notices the engine—the form behind the light—and asks, "Is that the train?" When the teacher nods again, the second student leaves, confident of having seen the train. When the train finally comes into the station, the third student sees the train in its fullness with its driver and multiple compartments and passengers and, with the encouragement of his teacher, even meets and befriends the driver.

The train's bright headlight represents the effulgent spiritual substratum, or Brahman, and the engine with its concrete shape represents God's localized feature, Paramatma. The third student's experience is akin to meeting the Supreme Person, Bhagavan, and developing a personal relationship with Him. The teacher represents the wisdom traditions, which give an answer commensurate with the seeker's level of patient commitment.

Thus, a close-up holistic vision reveals a three-in-one Absolute Truth that integrates both the immanent and transcendent aspects as well as the personal and impersonal features.

Fulfilling the Heart's Longing

This discussion is just a small sample of the rigorous logical and scriptural analysis through which the acharyas (exemplary devotee-scholars) like Ramanujacharya, Madhvacharya, Jiva Goswami, Baladeva Vidyabhushana, and Srila Prabhupada have established unequivocally that God is a person with a transcendental form. Once this truth becomes unquestionably established in our heart, we can wholeheartedly aspire to love and serve the Supreme Personality of Godhead, Sri Krishna, and gradually achieve prema, divine love, which alone will eternally and completely satisfy our heart's longing for happiness.

About the Author: 

Chaitanya Charana Dasa

Chaitanya Charana Dasa is a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami. He holds a degree in electronic and telecommunications engineering and serves full time at ISKCON Mumbai. He is the author of eighteen books. To read his other articles or to receive his daily reflection on the Bhagavad-gita, "Gita-daily," visit thespiritualscientist.com.