Happy Onam and Happy Raksha Bandhan, dear readers. With such big festivals this week, it’s hard not to wonder as many do, about what God is really all about, besides wanting us to be honest and kind.
For example, the Bhagavad Gita 9:26 says “Patram pushpam phalam toyam”, meaning “a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water”. Sri Krishna says, “If someone offers me with love a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water, I will accept it.” These small, symbolic offerings are merely vehicles to convey a far greater thing—the devotee’s love. It’s the love that God says he’s after, not things, and what we in turn are meant to aspire to is the anubhuti, the experience or sensation of God-love. So, when we dress up images of Lord Vishnu in silks and jewels, and celebrate festivals with new clothes and special food, we do it for ourselves, to satisfy our own cultural need for aesthetics in worship, and to say “Thank you for this beautiful Creation”. Indeed, going by a small glance at the history of thought in religion, what God is said to like best is appreciation.
For instance, although the Jews do not have “graven images” like us, there is a charming Jewish saying that justifies the human need to celebrate holy events. It goes, “Whenever the Israelites rejoice in their festivals, praise the Lord, adorn the table with food and don fine clothes, the angels above enquire: ‘Why do the Israelites indulge themselves so much?’ God replies, ‘They have an important guest with them today’.”
Regarding this, I love the appreciation for Creation in this verse by Guru Nanak Dev (1469–1539). He says, “Gagan mein thaal, rav-chand deepak/Baney taarika mandal moti/Dhoop malyanlo pavan chavro kare/Sagal banraye phoolat jyoti—kaisi aarti hoye?” It means, “The sky is your salver, the sun and moon your lamps/the stars of the firmament your pearls/All earth’s sandalwood is your incense, the winds are your whisks/The flowers of all Creation are yours—what shall I worship you with?”
This spirit of appreciation goes way back to the Rig Veda: “Madhu vata rutaayate madhu ksharanti saindhava” (Rig Veda 1:90:6-8). A tidbit in passing—it was chanted at Indira Gandhi’s wedding. It says: “Sweet blow the winds, sweet flow the rivers/May the herbs be sweet to us/May the nights and days bring happiness/May the dust of the Earth yield us happiness/May Heaven, our Father, send us happiness/May the trees gladden us with fruit/May the Sun bestow joy on us/May every direction bring us happiness”. Its sparkling good energy about Creation transcends formal religion.
To remind us that God is the Giver, the ninth Sikh guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur (1621–1675), poignantly says in his Vairagmai Bani, “Jagat bhikhari firat hai, sab ko data Ram/Kahu Nanak man simar tih puran hove kaam”, meaning “The world wanders as a beggar, it is God who gives to all. O heart, remember this, says Nanak, that your hopes may come to be.”
In this spirit, I like a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889), an English poet and a Jesuit priest. It begins, “Glory be to God for dappled things—For skies of couple colour as a brindled cow/For rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swim…” and ends, “All things counter, original, spare and strange/Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how)/With swift, slow, sweet, sour; adazzle, dim/He fathers forth whose beauty is past change/Praise Him.”
So, given these facets as an exuberant, generous Creator, what else could God be like? There are many poetic descriptions in each faith, all so heartfelt. I particularly like the interesting picture painted by Guru Arjan Dev (1563–1606), the fifth Sikh Guru and the first Guru to be martyred. He is said to have written 2,218 hymns, which form the largest single contribution to the Adi Granth. The verse about the Creator begins, “Bajigar jaise baji paye…” This was translated by the late writer and historian Khushwant Singh: “As a performing juggler/Acts many parts, wears many disguises/And takes off his mask when the show is done/So is our Creator one, the only One.”
This evocative portrait of God as One also tallies with my impression of Lord Shiva, who plays so many games with those who love him. There is even a book in the Tamil canon called Thiruvilayadal or ‘Sacred Games’, describing 64 such shivlilas or incidents. In fact, the Indian view of existence is that Creation itself is a divine lila or game. This sets us mentally free to rejoice in everything we can honestly rejoice about. It makes us a singing, dancing nation, which allows us to see God himself as the cosmic dancer.
Here, I would like to share some translated lines from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu—since there is so much Eastern wisdom that we can’t access as we are trapped in the English language. He lived in the 5th century BCE and is best known as the author of the Tao Te Ching or ‘The Way of Virtue’. He says about the mystery of “God”, “There is a thing haphazardly formed/Born before heaven and earth/Silent and void/It stands alone and alters not/It moves but does not tire/It could be the Mother of the Universe/I know not its name/So I call it The Way”. This is deeply interesting since we call God-love the ‘Margam’ or The Way.
Is the path endless? We are taught that it ultimately leads to God’s feet, to the light. These verses by the Victorian poet A C Swinburne, who also contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica in his day, say it more somberly:
“From too much love of living/From hope and fear set free/We thank with brief thanksgiving/Whatever gods there be.
That no man lives forever/That dead men rise up never/That even the weariest river/Winds somewhere safe to sea.”
Nevertheless, a rather lovely impression of ‘God’ emerges, of an intriguing personality who is generous, playful and artistic—who is not interested in gold and silver but in love and gratitude for the many blessings.