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Articles > God: Personal or Impersonal?

God Personal or Impersonal? (Hindi)

Is God best understood as personal or as impersonal?  Hinduism has debated this question for millennia.  In a sense it is an artificial question because those who hold to the priority of an impersonal understanding do not deny that God expresses himself in personal attributes, and those who see the personal as preferable do not deny that God’s attributes exceed ordinary personhood.  Thus the question is not one of either-or, but one of primacy. 
If we look at the history of Hinduism, the early Vedic period stressed the vision of God as personal.  The 33 Vedic devas, led by Indra, the King of Heaven, are all personal in nature.  It was not until later that the idea of a supreme transpersonal cosmic spiritual reality was celebrated in the Upanishads. 

Now, as we stated above, the beginnings of Vedantic monism did not suddenly eliminate the personalistic vision.  As the sages paid homage to Brahman, they did not forget that Brahman manifests Itself in all of reality, including, of course, the devas.  Brahman is beyond all human conceptions; It is eternal, immutable, beyond all spatial localization, and yet It is none of those attributes because it also transcends all rational categories.  The Upanishads made use of this insight with the notion that this same Brahman, which is above all thought and restrictions, is identical to the deepest core of the human soul, the Atman.  “Tat tvam asi” is the slogan; God is not some distinct being outside of you, but God, at His highest reality, is inside of you. 

It is easy, perhaps too easy, to interpret the Upanishads from the vantage point of their master commentator, Shankara, who lived more than a millennium after their composition.  But Shankara provides for us a great illustration of the piety nourished by the Brahman-Atman understanding.  God is never merely an abstraction for Shankara[1]; whether understood as Ishvara, the personal Creator, or as the Atman of his soul, Shankara gives himself to Brahman, the supreme Reality, in all-absorbing devotion. 

This monistic understanding of God has continued to be an abiding presence in the story of Hinduism.  Today groups such as the Ramakrishna order have based themselves on this conception—but always with the proviso that the transpersonal God reveals Himself in personal manifestations.  In fact, it is probably not an overstatement to say that, by and large, when educated people think of Hinduism, they think of pantheistic monism first. 

Nevertheless, there is another side to the Hindu tradition.  The time period during which Shankara wrote, is also roughly the era when Bhakti piety became popular.  An approximate contemporary of Shankara was Ramanuja, who championed the personalistic view of God.  Ramanuja identified with the Vaishnavite school which worshiped Vishnu as supreme, while the Shaivites recognized Shiva as the highest form of God.  For many Hindus today these two deities are simply referred to as “God” (in their respective languages, of course).  God is not seen as simply a “person” in the sense of a human being, but as someone supreme, yet whose essence is that of a being with the properties of personhood. 

A well-known Hindu group that stresses God as personal is ISKCON, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, popularly known as “Hare Krishna.”  When this group had its time of greatest popularity in the United States in the 1970’s, few people realized that it is not a manufactured contemporary cult, but a bona fide form of Hinduism going back at least to Catanya in the sixteenth century.  Long before coming to the United States, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada published the magazine Back to Godhead in India, and the magazine’s central message was that the “Godhead” is none other than Krishna, proclaimed as “the highest form of personal Godhead.”  In fact, Prabhupada[2] had little patience with the impersonalistic, monistic conceptions, which he considered erroneous. 

So, who is right?  Is God primarily personal or impersonal?  Here are some thoughts to help one decide. 

1.  It would be wrong to consider “personhood” a limitation on God.  This contention is based on the more general premise that it is a misconception to consider any attribute when applied to God as a limitation.  No right-thinking person should deny that God in His essence is beyond human conception and language.  Of course, He is; God is infinite.  But that realization does not make God property-less.  It means that whatever properties God has, He has in an unlimited capacity.  So, when we say that God is powerful, we know what our word “powerful” means from within the limited environment of our humanity, but we realize that our human concept applies to God without our limitations.  Similarly, if we say that God is loving, we know that God’s love transcend all of our puny human notions of love.  And yet, in both of these cases we know at least that, when we apply these properties—power or love—to God, he is truly what they signify, just more so than we can ever imagine. 

In the same way, when someone says that God has personhood, he or she is attributing something to God which we learn about in our finite context, but which God possess in greater ways than we can conceive of.  Furthermore, if God is personal in His essence, then He cannot also be impersonal at core.  In classical philosophical terms, this is the doctrine of analogy.  When we give an analogy for an idea, we provide an image that is both similar and different from that idea.  So, the concept of divine personhood is similar to human personhood in that God is personal, but it is also different in that God is supremely personal, just as He is supremely endowed with all of His other attributes. 

2.  The earliest conceptions of God by human beings were of a personal deity.  A topic that is not as popular today as it was a hundred years ago is the question of how religion originated.  There was a time when scholars seemed to agree on an evolutionary approach with the veneration of many spirits and the practice of magic close to the very beginnings of human religion.  However, this approach did not stand up to the research of anthropologists and historians of religion.  The German writer Wilhelm Schmidt[3] brought together the records of multitudinous anthropologists and came to the following conclusions:

a.  the least developed peoples of the world—certain pygmies, Australian aborigines, north Californian Indians, etc.—reflect some of the least contaminated strands of original religion;

b.  in these cultures, we find a clear recognition of a single God, and a relatively small amount of magic or other rituals;

c.  the memory of a worship of the original God is still carried in the history of many further developed religions, e.g. Zeus, Jupiter, Tiu, or Dyaus Pitar among Indo-European cultures, El in Semitic cultures, and Shangdi in China. 

Thus if we base our conclusion on the research that was done in the first half of the twentieth century (alas, most of the cultures analyzed by Schmidt are now assimilated), there is good reason to believe that religion originated with a monotheistic understanding of God. 

For our purposes, the most important aspect of this conclusion is that God in these early cultures is uniformly personal.  The fact is that in all of these instances the people believe that God has virtually all of the same attributes as are ascribed to Him in other contexts; viz. He is seen as everlasting, unchangeable, all-powerful, etc.  And among them is the property of having personhood. 

3.  God would be less than God if He did not have personhood.  It would make no sense to worship someone as God Who is less perfect than His creatures.  To be sure, God does not have to have all of the properties that His creatures have.  He is not green or short or an accomplished horseback rider.  These properties are not intrinsically positive; whether they are good or not depends on circumstances.  To be green is good for frogs and bad for teeth; shortness is a virtue for jockeys, but a drawback for giraffes; and whether one can ride a horse well may be good, bad, or indifferent depending on whether one needs to ride a horse or not.  But there are some properties that we consider to be intrinsically good, such as beauty, strength, or wisdom.  A creature is inherently improved by these qualities. 

Surely we must also reckon personhood among the number of intrinsically positive properties.  Having personhood is what distinguishes us from inanimate objects, such as rocks or computers.  Nowadays people often debate whether animals are persons in the same sense as humans; they do so because they recognize that there is an essential enhancement in having this quality.  To be a person means to have greater dignity and rights.  But then, insofar as God has all of the highest qualities, He must also have personhood (all the while keeping in mind what we said above, viz. that with this attribute, too, God’s personhood is greater than that of any creature). Another way of supporting this same idea is by pointing out that any intrinsically positive properties in the universe must first of all belong to the One Who created the universe. 

4.  God shows that He is personal through His actions.  Ultimately no human being can know more about God than is knowable, or, for that matter, say more about Him than is speakable.  A primary way of finding out what we can know or say about God is by analyzing how we relate to Him, and how He relates to us rather than relying only on abstract speculations.  It is interesting to note in this context that by and large people wind up basing their understanding of God more on stories than on abstract discussions.  Thus, in Hinduism many devotees know the stories of the epics and the puranas, but have little (if any) idea of the philosophy of the Upanishads.  More than anywhere else, it is in narratives that we discover that God is personal and that there is a two-way relationship between Him and His creatures.  And when the narratives come with historical credentials, they become all the more trustworthy.  Among all of the religious scriptures in the world, historical trustworthiness is preeminently true for the Bible. 

What makes a person different from inanimate objects?  Undoubtedly we can come up with many traits: self-consciousness, intelligence, awareness of others as fellow-persons, and many others.  But there is a particular trait that is perhaps the most powerful expression of personhood, namely the willingness to forego one’s own advantage for the sake of someone else.  When someone sacrifices his own wealth, health, or even his life, we see that he has reached the highest level of what it means to be a real person, distinguishing himself categorically from the lower orders of being. 

Thus when we say that God is personal, there are different level on which we can understand this notion.  God is personal insofar as He reveals Himself, listens to our prayers, guides us, or provides us with salvation.  But is God also personal in the supreme sense of manifesting self-giving, sacrificial love?  As we look at the portraits of deities in different religions we see God doing good, helping people, even loving them from time to time, but often with a love that is more the love of desire than the love of renunciation.  It is in the view of God as provided for us in the New Testament of the Bible that we find this highest indication of personhood, for here we find the God Who was willing to sacrifice His own Son on the cross for the sake of redeeming the human race. 

Is God primarily personal or impersonal?  God’s own actions leave no doubt that He is the ultimate Person. 

Professor of Philosophy and Religion
Taylor University, Indiana

[1] Otto, Rudolph  Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism, trans. Bertha L. Bracey and Richenda C. Payne (New York: Collier Books, 1932).

[2] Stasavarupa Dasa Goswami, Prabhupada: He Built a House in Which the Whole World Can Live (Los Angeles: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 1983), pp.11-12.

 [3] Wilhelm Schmidt, The Origin and Growth of Religion: Facts and Theories, trans. H. J. Rose (London: Methuen, 1935).

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