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I have been studying Hindu scriptures for few years out of curiosity to know the concept of God. The more I study the more confused I am about the identity of God according to Hindu scriptures. I am seeing atheistic philosophies which are denying the existence of God (like samkhya which basically claims there are only two realities - prakriti and purusha ie souls); then I come across mystical philosophies that define God as the spirit in all living beings - nirguna (attributeless), nirakara (formless), sudha chaitanya (pure consciousness); then I come across opposite conclusions that say God is saguna (having atributes), sakara (having form) and saying he is Vishnu; Some saying he is Shiva ..

Its really confusing. I will be thankful if any one can explain in simple terms how to understand all these contradicting concepts. Saying that everything is ok and referring to same God is not convincing.

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    Very good! You have now arrived at the right conclusion. Hinduism is not a single religion, it is actually a collection of various religions. Hinduism is a name given to these collection of philosophies. Different philosophies within Hinduism reconcile these seemingly conflicting statements about the nature of God in various ways. :)! Even they disagree on which texts are considered as valid scripture! All the best
    – Sai
    Apr 18, 2016 at 15:06
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    Geeta is very vivid in mentioning that Krishna is God. His author sage VedVyas always refer to Krishna as God in Geeta; and, Krishna declars himself as God to Arjuna.
    – user5375
    Apr 19, 2016 at 3:41
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    I went through the answers, Sorry to say that once again I have confusing explanation about God - Some saying Krishna is God, some saying he is the elements in nature; some saying God is both saguna, nirguna; formless and having form etc., (Adi sankara strictly defined him as nirguna, nirakara suddha chaitanya) Pls dont say everything is ok, if all these are theories only then how can we claim that everything is ok? Sri Ramakrishna's "Brahma is our own consciousness" is Advaita philosophy. The issue is there are counter philosophies. So I feel my question is yet to be answered Apr 19, 2016 at 11:57
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    @AbdurRahman: Also, Who is God is not the correct word usage. The right one is What is God? Apr 19, 2016 at 12:48
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    @AbdurRahman No human can answer this. Indian history has been very complicated. There was no single person who laid rules of Hinduism. Every stanza of its story was added by different person. Everyone had his own perceptions for god. So, you cannot define god with a single sentence. Each definition was given by different person, with its own reasons. Apr 19, 2016 at 14:36

2 Answers 2

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I have expanded my answer after seeing the comments. Hindus have many schools of thought like Sankhya, Yoga, Vedanta etc. with different concepts of God. Originally Sankhya darsana was atheist. Later on it became theist. Yoga school introduces God by hand by claiming that one of the Purushas of Sankhya is not affected by the theory of Karma. A non-Hindu might indeed become confused if he enters the dense forest of Hindu thought without the guidance of a knowledgeable person. It is better to avoid all schools apart from the Vedanta school at least at the start of one's journey. The most popular school is Vedanta and I have given below ideas about God in the Vedanta school.

The word god does not quite represent the Hindu concept of the Divine. It is better to think in terms of the Ultimate Reality which is called Brahman.

Unknowability of Brahman

Reason is strongly stressed in Hindu dharma. Hindu dharma admits, however, that Brahman is beyond reason. For example, the Upanishads say poetically,

  1. "The eye does not go thither, nor speech, nor the mind. We do not know It; we do not understand how anyone can teach It. It is different from the known; It is above the unknown. Thus we have heard from the preceptors of old who taught It to us."

(Kena Upanishad I.3-4)

  1. "That which cannot be comprehended by the mind but by which the mind is cognized know that alone to be Brahman, and not this that people worship here."

(Kena Upanishad I.6)

  1. "That from which all speech with the mind turns away, not having reached it, knowing the bliss of that Brahman, man fears nothing."

(Taittirya Upanishad II.9)

  1. "He is never seen, but is the Seer; He is never heard, but is the Hearer; He is never thought of, but is the Thinker; He is never known, but is the knower. There is no other seer than He, there is no other hearer than He, there is no other thinker than He, there is no other knower than He. He is the Inner Controller - your own Self and immortal. All else but He is perishable."

(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad III.7.23)

Brahman described!

After saying that Brahman is not knowable, beyond the reach of our minds, the Upanishads describe Brahman,

  1. "This Self has entered into these bodies up to the very tips of the nails, as a razor lies hidden in its case, or as fire which sustains the world lies hidden in its source...."

(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.IV.7)

  1. "It has hands and feet everywhere, and eyes, heads and faces everywhere, and It is possessed of ears everywhere. It exists among all the creatures, pervading all. "

(Svetasvatara Upanishad 3.16)

  1. "He is without hands and feet, (and yet) moves and grasps; He sees, (though) without eyes; He hears (though) without ears. He knows whatever is to be known, and of Him there is no knower. They speak of Him as the first, the Supreme Person (Purusham mahantam). "

(Svetasvatara Upanishad 3.19)

  1. "You are the woman, You are the man, You are the boy, (and) You are the girl too. You are the old man tottering with a stick. Taking birth, You have Your faces everywhere. "

(Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.3)

  1. "You, indeed, are the blue bee; You indeed are the green parrot having red eyes; You indeed are possessed of lightning in Your womb. You indeed are the seasons and the seas. You indeed are without beginning; You exist as the Omnipresent, from whom have sprung all the worlds. "

(Svetasvatara Upanishad 4.4)

  1. "As from a fire kindled with wet fuel various [kinds of] smoke issue forth, even so, my dear, the Rig Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama Veda, the Atharvangirasa, itihasa, purana, vidya (arts), Upanishads, slokas, sutras, anuvyakhyanas (elucidations), vyakhyanas (explanations), sacrfices, oblations in the fire, food, drink, this world, and all beings are all like the breath of the Infinite Reality. From this Supreme Self are all these, indeed, breathed forth."

(Brihadaranyaka Upanishad IV.V.11)

Brahman known through meditation

Verses 1 to 4 suggest that Brahman is unknowable to the ordinary human mind. Then how is it possible for Upanishads to describe Brahman (verses 5 to 10)? The answer is given in the following verses,

"His form does not stand within the range of the senses. No one perceives Him with the eye. Those who know Him through the faculty of intuition as thus seated in their heart, become immortal."

(Svetasvatara Upanishad Iv.20)

"The wise man relinquishes both joy and sorrow having realized, by means of meditation on the inner Self, that ancient effulgent One, hard to be seen, subtle, immanent, seated in the heart and residing within the body."

(Katha Upanishad I.2.12)

Human analogy and Brahman

It is clear that reason can not explain Brahman nor take us there. Then can the models of Brahman as advocated by systems like Advaita Vedanta explain Brahman? Some people say that Brahman is like a principle. If Brahman is a principle then it is hard to see how Brahman projects Itself in the human mental plane to show up as forms (Saguna Brahman). Can a mere principle project? Sometimes Brahman is also thought of as an ocean of Consciousness. This idea is baffling too. Our everyday experiences are of conscious beings. So what does an ocean of Consciousness mean?Thinking of Brahman as a principle or ocean of Consciousness is simply using analogy to our normal experience. Actually nothing whatsoever can be said about Brahman except that It exists. Let me quote Sri Ramakrishna on the nature of Brahman,

"No one can say with finality that God is only 'this' and nothing else. He is formless and again He has forms. For the bhakta He assumes forms. But He is formless for the jnani, that is, for him who looks on the world as a mere dream. The bhakta feels that he is one entity and the world as another. Therefore God reveals Himself to him as a Person. But the jnani – the Vedantist, for instance - always reasons, applying the process of 'Not this, not this'. Through this discrimination he realizes, by his inner perception, that the ego and the universe are both illusory, like a dream. Then the jnani realizes Brahman in his own consciousness. He can not describe what Brahman is."

"Do you know what I mean? Think of Brahman, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute, as a shore-less ocean. Through the cooling influence as it were, of the bhakta's love, the water has frozen at places into blocks of ice. In other words, God now and then assumes various forms for His lovers and reveals Himself to them as a Person. But with the rising of the sun of knowledge, the blocks of ice melt. Then one doesn't feel any more that God is a Person, nor does one see God's forms. What He is can not be described. Who will describe Him? He who would do so disappears. He cannot find his 'I' anymore."

[The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, October 28, 1882, p 148]

"What Brahman is cannot be described. All things in the world - the Vedas, the Puranas, the Tantras, the six systems of philosophy - have been defiled, like food that has been touched by the tongue. Only one thing has not been defiled in this way, and that is Brahman. No one has ever been able to say what Brahman is."

[The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, August 5, 1882, p 102]

"Brahman is beyond word and thought. It is said in the Vedas that Brahman is of the nature of Bliss. It is Satchidananda. ..... In Samadhi one attains the knowledge of Brahman - one realizes Brahman. In that state reasoning stops altogether, and man becomes mute. He has no power to describe the nature of Brahman."

[The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, August 5, 1882, p 102-103]

Sri Ramakrishna also says,

" Brahman is without comparison. It is impossible to explain Brahman by analogy. It is between light and darkness. It is light, but not the light we perceive, not material light."

[The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, October 16, 1883, p 307]

Then again Brahman has also been compared to a chameleon by Sri Ramakrishna:

"Listen to a story. Once a man entered a wood and saw a small animal on a tree. He came back and told another man that he had seen a creature of a beautiful red color on a certain tree. The second man replied:'When I went into the wood, I also saw that animal. But why do you call it red? It is green.' Another man who was present contradicted them both and insisted that it was yellow. Presently others arrived and contended that it was grey, violet, blue and so forth and so on. At last they started quarreling among themselves. To settle the dispute they all went to the tree. They saw a man sitting under it. On being asked, he replied,'Yes, I live under this tree and I know the animal very well. All your descriptions are true. Sometimes it appears red, sometimes yellow, and at other times blue, violet, grey, and so forth. It is a chameleon. And sometimes it has no color at all. Now it has a color and now it has none.'

In like manner, one who constantly thinks of God can know His real nature; he alone knows that God reveals Himself to seekers in various forms and aspects. God has attributes; then again He has none. Only the man who lives under the tree knows that the chameleon can appear in various colors, and he knows, further, that the animal at times has no colors at all. It is the others who suffer from the agony of futile arguments........ God reveals Himself in the form which His devotee loves most."

[The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, October 28, 1882, p 149]

I am adding this to clear up confusion. Although I am afraid that it might increase it!

Nirguna Brahman does not exist. It is Satchidananda. Here Sat means existence itself, chid means consciousness itself and ananda means bliss itself. It is impossible to say anything about Brahman.

The Upanishad also says that Brahman is pure consciousness, devoid of other aspects contrary to this, and without any distinguishing features, as in, “As a lump of salt is without interior or exterior, entire, and purely saline in taste, even so is the Self without interior or exterior, entire, and pure Intelligence alone” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad IV.v.13), which means that the Self has no internal or external aspect apart from pure consciousness, Its nature being mere impartite consciousness without any interstices. Just as a lump of salt has the saline taste alone both inside and outside, and no other taste, so also is this Self.

Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Sri Sankaracharya III.ii.16

Nirguna Brahman can only be expressed in negation.

Moreover, the Vedas reveal through a negation of other aspects that Brahman has no distinguishing feature, as for instance in, “Now therefore the description (of Brahman): ‘Not this, not this’” (Brhadaranyaka Upanishad II.iii.6), “That (Brahman) is surely different from the known; and, again, It is above the unknown” (Kena Upanishad I.4), “That Bliss of Brahman, failing to reach which, words turn back along with the mind” (Taittiriya Upanishad II.ix.1), and so on. And it is also known from the Vedic texts that Badhva being asked by Baskali, replied merely by not uttering a word, as stated in, “He (Baskali) said, ‘Teach me Brahman, sir.’ He (Badhva) became silent. When the question was repeated a second and a third time he said, ‘I have already spoken, but you cannot comprehend. That Self is Quiescence’ “. Similarly in the Smritis, the instruction is given through a negation of other things, as in, “I shall tell you of that which is to be known and by knowing which one attains immortality. The supreme Brahman is without any beginning. It can neither be called gross (visible) nor fine (invisible)” (Gita XIII.12), and so on. Similarly the Smriti mentions how Narayana in His cosmic form said to Narada, “O Narada, that you see me as possessed of all the (five divine) qualities of all elements, is only because of My Maya, called up by Myself. For else you should not understand Me thus.”

Brahma Sutra Bhasya of Sri Sankaracharya III.ii.17

Brahman according to Yajnavalkya

Yajnavalkya said: O Gargi, it is the supreme being that the non-yogins call gross but, in fact, that is eternal and wonderful lord; one that is not long, not red, that has no head, that has no setting, hence that has a lasting taste, that has no contact, no smell, no juice, no eyes, no ears, neither speech nor mind, no brilliance, no proof [or magnitude], no (worldly) happiness, no name, no race, no death, no age, no ailment; that is nectarine, that is expressed by the word Om, that is immortal, that has neither a predecessor nor a successor, that is endless and non-external. It eats something. It does not eat anything. ..

Linga Purana II.9.53–54

Brahman does not exist but is the source of all existence. Brahman, however, cannot be described in any manner.

Where does Shiva, Vishnu come in?

Special Forms

Brahman also maintains special forms for helping human seekers. The various deities like Siva, Vishnu, Devi, Ganesha etc are different names and forms of Brahman. In spite of these Devatas Hinduism is not polytheistic as is clear from the following passages:

"Know that this entire universe is under the control of one divine Being. The Veda that is in the soul.......regards the unity of various creatures. When a living creature realizes this unity in consequence of true knowledge, he is then said to attain to Brahman".

Mahabharata Santi Parva Section CCLXXX

" The Supreme Spirit hath three condition, In the form of Brahma, he is the Creator, and in the form of Vishnu he is the Preserver, and in his form as Rudra, he is the Destroyer of the Universe".

Mahabharata Vana Parva Section CCLXX

This one divine being is called Isvara and the multiple Deities are His forms. Brahman is called Isvara when thought of as relative to the universe.

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    You can add specific page and link from here
    – The Destroyer
    Apr 19, 2016 at 15:42
  • So is Ramakrishna saying that God is how you imagine it/him to be? So if someone imagines there is no God or no need for God, that's also a possibility? May 19, 2017 at 1:31
  • The answer to your first question is that God will appear to you as a person if that is what you want and as an Impersonal Reality if that is your wish. God is kalpataru (wish fulfilling tree). God will not appear to any person who thinks there is no God or no need for God. God's existence does not depend on what any person imagines. May 19, 2017 at 11:34
  • You are telling the story from a person, what Hindu scriptures says? Are you trying to confuse, he is light but not light, person but not a person, can be explain but cannot be explain
    – Ali Adravi
    Apr 29, 2019 at 14:30
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    More study, more confusion: because there is no concept of God in Hinduism or you can say confusion is the God!
    – Ali Adravi
    Apr 26 at 17:55
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"Its really confusing. I will be thankful if any one can explain in simple terms how to understand all these contradicting concepts." ... :) It is not at all surprising that you're completely confused by these, and this is because Hinduism is conglomeration of many different concepts about God in their many traditions and different explanations.
I suggest you to learn by yourself what God is, and that by studying one of the most widely read Hindu scriptures called the Bhagavad gita. Many people will tell you God is this and that ..., but if you see by yourself how God is explained there you'll see what is the most convincing to you, and that is the most important thing, and not that what others may tell you about God. After all we are all individuals and our own realization, experience and conviction (belief) is the most important to us, and not what others say.
But even the study of the Gita will not be quite simple because there are different interpretations, monistic (Advaita), and also dualistic (Vaishnava). Here again my advice is the same, we are all individuals and our own realization and conviction (belief) is the most important to us, and not what others say, so you can study the Gita with explanations by a few different traditions and see by yourself what you are convinced the true representation of the text is.
If I may suggest, here is one Vaishnava translation with an elaborate commentary of the text of the Gita as it is understood in that particular tradition: http://www.vedabase.com/en/bg

But all that would be just a first step in knowing God. Practically speaking to know God does not depend on the study of scriptures only, but is something much more than that. This should be complemented with the development of our relationship with Him, through reverence to Him, meditation (remembrance) of Him, our devotion to Him, etc, all that you can learn from the Bhagavad gita, and then He will help you from within your heart to understand Him even more than by just some theoretical reading of scripture, as the Lord himself says in the Gita 10.8-11:

"engage in My devotional service and worship Me", "The thoughts of My pure devotees dwell in Me, their lives are fully devoted to My service"

and then if they did so what will happen? It will happen this:

"To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me.

To show them special mercy, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance."

Bhagavad gita 9.34:

"Engage your mind always in thinking of Me, become My devotee, offer obeisances to Me and worship Me. Being completely absorbed in Me, surely you will come to Me."

That is the point. This is the essence of Hindu Dharma. If you turn to the Lord, He will help you from within the heart because He is within everyone's heart, and He can help you to understand Him.
Sometimes people do not understand this simple point. So it is not just about reading and studying the scriptures and trying to fathom what is God on the mental level, but the secret of knowing God is stated in the above verses.

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  • This doesn't answer OP's question, this sounds like commentary on the question. The answer to 'What is God?' cannot be 'Go read the Gita, you'll figure out on your own.' May 10, 2017 at 20:34
  • @sv. Actually I have answered the question by stating that God is Lord Krishna who is dwelling in everyone's heart, and if we are a surrendered soul to Him he will help us from within our heart. In my answer I have focused on this part of the question: Its really confusing. I will be thankful if any one can explain in simple terms how to understand all these contradicting concepts. May 18, 2017 at 22:08

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