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Articles > Hindu Theology and the Attributes of God

A.    “I believe in God”

1.    “I believe in God”- Propositional Truth Statements

There are few statements more familiar to Christians than the opening words of the Apostles’ Creed which begins with this powerful, affirming statement, “I believe in God.”  The statement, “I believe” reflects our confidence that God has revealed certain objective truths to us which can be known, formulated and spoken by the confessing church.  The expression “I believe” opens the confessional door to an entire range of theological truth statements, stated in clear propositions to reflect the content of Christian revelation.

a.   Apophatic Theology- “neti-neti”

            Traditionally, Hindu theologians (as with many theologians among Eastern religions, including Eastern Christianity) are uncomfortable with positively expressed propositional truth statements.  Instead, ultimate truth statements are spoken of indirectly or apophatically.  That is, rather than make precise statements and clear affirmations about the nature of God, they speak by way of negation.  In the Hindu tradition, one of the most well known phrases regarding the Ultimate Reality (known in Hinduism as Brahman) is found in the Upanishads.  It is the expression, “neti, neti” which means “not this- not this”.[1]  The expression  is meant to communicate that one cannot speak of Brahman directly - any positive statement is met with the refrain, “neti, neti”, not this, not this.  Likewise, all of their subsequent theologizing is more metaphorical and less precise than Western  systematic theologizing and propositional truth statements.  Clear examples of this can be found throughout the philosophical and theological writings of both Sankara and Ramanuja.  Both these writers, who are widely regarded as the greatest theologians of the Upanishads, known in the Indian tradition as Vedantists (end of the Vedas), speak apophatically  about God, not in any positive propositional affirmations.

            Of course, the lack of precision, at least from their viewpoint, is not because of theological sloppiness, but because of a desire to preserve mystery - propositional truths are set over against the “mysterium tremendum” - the great mystery of God’s nature.  In this regard, the theologizing from the Gangetic plains of north India sometimes sounds similar to the theologizing which arises from the hot sands of North Africa by the Desert Fathers.  Revelation is never exact and precise, only approximate and general. Revelation does not make statements of facts, it only points to mysteries.

b.   Arundhati Interpretation Principle - “pointing to the star”

            The apophatic quality of Hindu writings is accompanied by another related principle of Indian interpretative principles known as Arundhati.  Arundhata  is an interpretative principle which allows them to make what seems like direct – even propositional - statements about God and the world - while still clinging to their commitment to “neti neti” when it comes to truth statements about God.  This principle , known as Arundhati, is more popularly referred to as  simply, “pointing to the star.”  Arundhati  is actually the Indian name of a very dim star in The Great Bear (Big Dipper) constellation.  A normal observer finds it very difficult, indeed, nearly impossible to see the star because it is so dim.  So, traditionally, an Indian will help you to locate a dim star by first showing you a brighter star in the vicinity of Arundhati.  Bright stars in the near, but not precise, vicinity of the obscure star can be used as “pointers” to the correct star.[2]  This has become a paradigm of Indian theologizing.  Statements by Indian theologians such as Sankara and Ramanuja are often taken in the West as exact statements reflecting doctrinal precision when in fact, they are only pointing to various indicators (laksana) of a mystery which cannot be fully articulated.  This has led to some significant misunderstandings regarding the actual teachings of Hinduism regarding theism by many Western writers.

            Thus, when an Indian theologian appears to say, “I believe,” he or she does not actually mean by that  a propositional truth statement which contains absolute truth, but merely an indicator of a truth or pointer in the direction of a truth which, by definition, remains shrouded in mystery.  This observation should be remembered in the context of any theistic affirmations in the Hindu context.

2.    “in God”

a.   Theism and theisms in the Indian Context:

            the “One” and the “Many”

            There is a well known tale in India about a Hindu man who spent his entire life traveling throughout India as a kind of theistic census taker.  He went from village to village, house to house, occupation to occupation, caste to caste inquiring at every location which gods were worshipped at that place and by those people.  In India, in addition to the great national deities worshipped throughout the country like Visnu or Shiva, every clan, every occupation, every caste sub-grouping (known as jati), all have their own particular gods who are worshipped and feared.  So this man traveled throughout India and recorded the names of all the deities who were worshipped.  Eventually, tradition states that he chronicled a list in a great book, the number is generally believed to have been 330 million. When the weary traveler finally returned to his own home village, exhausted and in his 93rd year, he was asked to count how many gods were in his book. He spent 7 years counting the gods and at the end of the book he wrote the grand total at the end of the book: One.  There is “One God worshipped in India.”[3]

            This story, in a nutshell, symbolizes the classic problem in Hindu Theism.  On one hand, the major philosophical traditions clearly posit that there is one ultimate reality.[4]  On the other hand, on the ground, popular Hinduism seems to have no end to the number of gods who are worshipped and adored.[5]  From 500 BCE until 1000 CE several powerful movements emerged which emphasized various sectarian deities which gave birth to devotionalism, or bhaktism as it is known, whereby the worshipper enters into relationship with a personal God (Bhagavan) or personal goddess (Bhagavati).  The Vaisnava tradition emphasizes the many incarnations or avatars and attributes of Visnu  and of  Krishna.  This explosion of the new and the many theisms emerges primarily from the two great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and from a collection of 18 major writings known as the Puranas (lit. stories of the ancient past).  Any casual trip along a street in India, one will encounter such popular Puranic gods as Ganesh (the elephant headed son of the god Shiva) or Hanuman, the monkey god.  What Indian is not familiar with the Bhagavad Gita and therefore the god Krishna and his many naughty exploits recorded in the Puranas?  Indeed, this is theism as it is actually encountered in India: gods with many attributes and many qualities.  How does one reconcile this dizzying array of theisms with the sublime writings of Sankara and Ramanuja which allow for only one Ultimate Being?  Indeed, this is certainly the great issue which consumes the writings of the great philosophical theologians Sankara and Ramanuja.  The answer to this dilemma are complex, but we will explore some of the major ways this problem of the “one” and the “many” is dealt with in the context of Hindu theism.

b.     Duplex Veritas in Hindu theologizing

            Much of Hindu theologizing concerning theism presupposes the concept of Duplex Veritas, i.e. that there are two levels of truth.[6]  In the West, we have debated in our own Christian history about whether something might be true theologically and false philosophically and so forth.  However, in the Indian context the whole of theology is expressed on two levels in such a way that one can affirm belief in a ‘good’ or ‘righteous’ God or even faith in “God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” while acknowledging that such an affirmation is only true at a lower level of truth.  Indeed, on the higher level such statements are patently false because the lower level is illusory or, to be more accurate, the lower level is a false way of looking at reality.  It may express what is experientially true on the phenomenological level, but it is never to be confused with what is objectively true on the ontological  level.  This applies to all theologizing, but is particularly important in the Hindu doctrine of God.

B.    Attributes of Deity in Hindu Theology

1.     Nirguna (without qualities) and Saguna (with qualities) in Hindu theism

Sankara, in particular, goes to great length to apply the  duplex veritas perspective to the way we speak of God in India and particularly the way we speak of God’s attributes. Since Sankara is the most important and dominant of all of India’s philosophers, it is important to understand his teaching concerning the attributes of deity in Indian thought.  Sankara’s basic theological problem in interpreting the Upanishads is trying to reconcile the monistic passages which speak of an impersonal  Absolute with the more personal, theistic statements in the Upanishads.  Sankara himself sums up the problem when he writes that in the Upanishads one meets Brahman who, on the one hand, “is qualified by limiting conditions owing to the multiformity of evolutions of name and form, and the opposite of this, i.e. One which is free from all limiting conditions whatsoever,”[7]  Sankara reconciles these two theological extremes by insisting that God is being spoken of on two levels. On the highest level Brahman cannot be spoken of as having any qualities or any relationships.  Brahman is, to use Sankara’s language, “non-connected with the world and is devoid of all qualities.”[8]  When Hindus speak of Brahman in this way they are speaking of Brahman as nirguna Brahman, i.e. Brahman without “nir” qualities “guna.”  Sankara’s interpretation draws further support from the Upanishads own declaration that “there are two forms of Brahman, the formed and the formless, the mortal and the immortal, the unmoving and the moving, the actual (existent) and the true (being).[9]  Sankara expands on the interpretative principle to the entire Upanishads, including passages which do not utilize the nirguna-saguna distinction.  For Sankara, any passage which refers to Brahman anthropomorphically or with qualities is not intended to communicate with theological precision the nature of Brahman any more than Old Testament passages which speak of Yahweh’s ‘hands’ or ‘nostrils’ are meant to be taken as statements of his true nature.  All statements concerning God’s attributes are merely ‘pointers’ to a mystery which ultimately defies such descriptions.

Let us take a moment to apply Sankara’s reasonings to our declaration that “God is just.”  For Sankara, one cannot say “God is just,” because our only knowledge of justice are human expressions of it.  All affirmations of attributes are referenced in light of our human experience of them which, for Sankara, is entirely unwarranted.  For example, Sankara argues that if one compares a blue lotus flower with a red lotus flower it makes perfect sense because the two things are of the same class, they both share lotus-ness, i.e. their essence is identical, even though the manifest qualities or attributes of “redness” and “blueness” are different.  To fall back on Scholastic terminology which made the same distinction in our tradition, the Scholastics would say that “lotus-ness” is an essential or necessary quality of a lotus, whereas blue-ness or red-ness is only accidental to its nature.  If a lotus flower loses its lotus-ness, it is no longer a lotus, whereas a lotus could easily not have blue-ness and still be a lotus.  In short, the accidental attribute does not touch The essential nature.  For Sankara, to speak of God’s attributes is an unwarranted attempt to compare an accidental attribute of a human to reference the essential nature of God.  God is a class all of his own and therefore no quality or attribute can properly be spoken of God at the highest, ontological level.  We can only speak of our experience of God at the observed, experienced, phenomenological level.[10]  For Sankara God’s self-subsisting completeness, God’s absolute independence and self-sufficiency which defies all description was the “pearl of great price” for which he was prepared to sacrifice everything, even the reality of the world and the knowability of God.

Indeed, this is ultimately where Sankara’s denial of God’s attributes leads us—to the unknowability of God.  All attributes imply relationship and connectedness which, for Sankara, is an impossibility since it implies that God may be subject to change or modification.  It is blasphemous, in advaitic thought, to speak of God being moved with compassion or arising to judge, as all of this implies modification of  God’s essence. Sankara’s theism simply cannot permit God to be the subject and ourselves the object since he denies both the epistemological distinction between subject and object as well as the ontological distinction between finite being and Being itself.  In short, nothing can be known about the absolute God of  advaitism and revelation is not objective and trustworthy, but is subjective and illusory.

2.     The Foundation of Hindu Pluralism is rooted in Hindu views of theism

It is clear that once the doctrine of the two levels of Brahman is accepted then it puts all theistic statements concerning God’s attributes into a relative flux with no real meaning. Indeed, all kinds of competing and even conflicting claims about God can be accepted as equally true, because they are all but the variegated expressions of the human understandings of a very subjective experience with God that has no objective basis.  God is certainly experienced phenomenologically, but one can never be certain if it has any relationship to ontological truths.  The reason Hindus regard Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, and Jewish claims as equivalent, and all equally true despite dramatic contradictions propositionally (e.g. Muslims say Jesus cannot be the Son of God- God has ‘no partners’ whereas Christians claim that Jesus is the very incarnation of God) is that they are all “true” at the level of saguna Brahman. By definition everything at that level has no ultimate reality, but is illusory  and only reflective of a greater truth which transcends all of these statements.  Since, from their perspective, we live on the level of saguna it is now more obvious why Eastern religions are so pluralistic without seeming to feel the pinch of the enormous contradictions.

            The challenge of seeking to communicate the attributes of God to a Hindu can perhaps be best summed up by the famous Buddhist parable found in the Undana of the five blind men of Savatthi who are all describing an elephant.  The problem is that one grabs the tail, the other a leg, the other the side, the other an ear and the fifth, the tusk.  Each, remaining blindfolded, seeks to articulate the attributes of an elephant.  The one who grabbed the tail insisted that the elephant was like a rope.  The one who grabbed the leg was as certain that an elephant was not like a rope, but a tree.  The one who was feeling the side of the elephant was convinced that an elephant was like a mud baked wall.  The fourth blind man, feeling the ear, was shocked that the others could not understand that the elephant was like a banana leaf.  The fifth  denounced them all as he held to the tusk, insisting that an elephant was most like a brandished sword. The Hindu insists that these attributes were all true at a certain level and, though contradictory, point to a truth that transcends any description at all.  But revelation for the Christian brings a certainty of knowledge, even if incomplete.  Without revelation perhaps the human race is blindfolded when it comes to knowing God.  But, in Christ, the “veil is lifted” (2 Corinthians 3:13) and we are no longer as blind men groping in the dark, but we enjoy the confidence of a trustworthy revelation which yields reliable knowledge about God.



by Dr. Timothy Tennent



[1] Brihad-Aranyaka  II.3.6.  An Accessible translation of the Upanishads is, S. Radhakrishnan’s The Principal Upanishads (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 1994).

[2] G.A. Jacob, Handbook of Popular Maxims (Bombay: Tukaram Javaji, 1907): 5,6.

[3] L. J. Biallas, World Religions: A Story Approach (Twenty-Third Publications: Mystic, CT, 1991): 158.

[4] I am aware that of the sic orthodox (astika darsanas) schools of Hindu philosophy the Samkhya school affirms two ultimate realities: nature (prakriti) and Self (Purusa).  But, theistically speaking, it is still only an attempt to link the existence of the one Ultimate Reality to a doctrine of the eternality  of matter, a position that even Thomas Aquinas allowed was compatible with monotheism and reason, if Scripture had been silent about the origin of matter.   For an exposition of Samkhya philosophy see, An Introduction to Indian Philosophy 8th edition, by S. Chatterjee and D. Datta (University of Calcutta: 1984): 253-288.

[5] B. Kumarappa.  The Hindu Conception of Deity. London : Luzac and Co., 1934 and N. Macnicol’s Indian Theism (Oxford University Press, 1915) and his “Some Hindrances to Theism in India,”  The Indian Interpreter 7,2 (July, 1912): 81-88.

[6] See, for example, Moti Lal Pandit’s “Sankara’s Concepts of Reality,” Indian Theological Studies 17, 4 (Dec., 1980): 8-16.  Se also, J. Lipner’s “The Christian and Vedantic Theories of Originative Causality: A Study in Transcendence and Immanence.”  Philosophy East and West 28 (1978): 1-16.

[7] E. Deutsch, and J.A. B. van Buitenen, ed., 160.

[8] Ibid.,  197, 162, quoting Sankara’s Brahmasutrabhasya.  Sankara vigorously attacks any of his opponents who claim that nirguna Brahman is tantamount to the Buddhist Sunyata.  In Sankara, Brahman’s a prior existence is the ground of all Being.  Sankara writes, “Whenever we deny something unreal, we do so with reference to something real; the unreal snake, e.g. is negatived with reference to the real rope. But this is possible only if some entity is left.  If everything is denied, no entity is left, and if no entity is left, the denial of some other entity which we may wish to undertake becomes impossible, i.e. that latter entity becomes real and as such cannot be negatived.” (Deutsch and van Buitenen eds., 199).

[9] Brhad-Aranyaka 2.3.1.  See also Svetasvatara 6:11 which declares Brahman as “devoid of qualities” and gives verses later in 6:16 declares that “He is…possessor of qualities.”  It is the genius of Sankara who brings these various strands of the Upanishadic teaching into a consistent monistic system.

[10] When advaitic doctrine declares that our atman is Brahman, it must be remembered that this doctrine tat twam asi affirms  that our essence is one with the Absolute, not that our phenomenological nature with all of its qualities is one with God.  Our own attributes are part of the entrapment of maya and is a false way of looking at reality.

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