For many spiritual seekers in the West God is a difficult issue; it is often one of the reasons, why they have turned Eastwards for spiritual inspiration.
Why is the idea of God such a problem? Primarily due to the history of Christianity and other Western religions. Their concept of God is dualistic – man and God are forever different from each other. Moreover there is no concept of reincarnation. In one single short life man is supposed to prove to God that he is good and worthy to be with him in heaven after death. In addition the God known to the Western seeker often hands out archaic laws that contradict today's values. And no matter how merciful God may be – concerning the observance of his laws he seems to be quite humourless, because whoever does not obey them runs the risk, after death to rot in hell for good (!). The latter aspect is largely played down in Christian’s discussion today – which does not mean that Christianity has abolished hell. Given the choice many would rather keep away from such ideas.
The concept of God in Advaita Vedanta
In contrast to the (generally known) forms of Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta has a place for God. Indeed, God is defined completely differently from what we are used to. According to Advaita Vedanta God is the totality of all natural laws and the perfect interplay inherent in them. Natural laws neither mean those created by man nor enacted by an external God. This means that natural laws cannot be made but only discovered. Most of them have not been discovered yet. But we are subject to them, everything is subject to them, always and without exception – to physical, psychological, biological, social, economic, geologic laws etc. etc.
The network of all seamlessly interlocking natural laws forms an order that functions completely by itself. We are not only subject to it, we are part of it. It is that what forms the very basis of our body-mind system. Without it, there would neither be us nor anything else in the world. Advaita Vedanta calls this natural order Ishvara and Ishvara is God.
The concept of Ishvara has been mentioned in connection with one component of karma yoga in the June essay:
‘No matter what action is performed, the karma yogi takes the following decisive stance: I do what I can do and know that the result of my action does not lie in my hands (see the last essay). This means that although I stand behind my actions I am not identified with them.
For this Vedanta inevitably includes ‚the divine’. The divine is nothing but the totality of all natural law and order and their seamless interlocking. It is called Ishvara. Karma yoga means: I act in the best of my knowledge and leave the result to Ishvara.’
In the May essay I have described how this integration into the network of natural laws (i.e. Ishvara) manifests:
‘I alone am responsible for what happens in my life.“ Doesn’t this sound perfectly mature and grown up? There is only one flaw: it is absolutely illogical. It is logical that I am responsible for my actions; but what results from them definitely does not fall within my remit. Nobody is in charge of what happens in his life.
If it rains and I take an umbrella with me, this certainly does not mean that I will remain dry. Maybe there is a storm which renders the umbrella useless - because it constantly folds down or because it flies away or because the rain sweeps crosswise under it. Maybe I slip somewhere, sprain my ankle and lie helplessly on the sidewalk while the rain drums down on me. Or I forget the umbrella in the streetcar. Or, well protected under my umbrella, waiting at the traffic light, a car shoots right through the puddle in front of me.
"I have to change my personality in order to succeed.“ Now, this may be so. Or not. Arguments can be found for both; the mind is tremendously inventive at producing causal connections. It is worthwhile to check from time to time whether the accepted causality really does exist.
I only met this person because I went to the place where I met him.“ Sure? No way. „If I had not dared to speak my mind openly, everything would have been swept under the carpet.“ Sure? No, even this is not certain. „If I had not invested the money, I would be a poor man now.“ Certainly? Who knows? „If I hadn’t done all that work on my personality, I would be a psychological wreck by now and my life would be a disaster.“ None of these statements necessarily apply. Again here the imponderability of life comes into play. To make a causal connection between my personality and the events of my life is impossible on account of the amount of required data alone.
The fact is that people are decidedly helpless. There is such a lot that one cannot influence that the little one can influence hardly seems worth mentioning.’
Conclusion: I am responsible for my action – period. For everything else I am not responsible. Who or what is responsible? Ishvara or God. What does this mean? Above all it means that I recognise my basic helplessness, which consists in the fact that I do not know everything and am not able to do everything. At the same time it indicates the recognition that there is something that embodies all-knowledge and all-power, something called Ishvara.
An invisible God, separate from me, located in heaven, requires belief as much as I have to believe in the features attributed to him. On the other hand, believing in Ishvara does not make sense: Ishvara, the totality of all natural laws being in force in the universe, is, one does not need to believe in them. As always in Vedanta, even with the subject God it is not about belief but about understanding.
I also need not believe that Ishvara is omniscient and omnipotent because he is not a person. He rather is the sum total of all knowledge and all power, and it is only logical that the totality of all natural laws being in force in the universe, is is omniscient and omnipotent.
The monotheistic God ordinarily commands a system of commands and accordingly of reward and punishment. The natural laws, on the other hand, unfold their effect not as expression of reward or punishment but simply because they are the way they are. If, drying up a glass, it falls on the tiled floor, it will break. This is not a punishment but law. If, drying up a fork, it falls on the tiled floor, it remains intact. This is not a reward, but also expression of a natural law.
Even natural laws do not require belief, they reveal themselves. But because we do not always like what reveals itself, we try to get wise to them and to manipulate those that we do not like. Quite a lot of the time this seems to work. However, just as often it does not work, particularly if one looks at the results long term or wide scale. The more natural laws are manipulated, the more complicated the laws that reveal themselves as a result of the manipulation. This is quite evident if we look at the technical developments of the last 30 years with its implications for planetary and human health.
A simple example from everyday life: you have an appointment and are late. To trick the law of the time, you take a shortcut. Maybe this helps you to be on time regardless. But countless unpredictable circumstances all based on natural laws as well can ruin your intention.
We can try to get to the bottom of all natural laws but to believe that one day we can know the totality of them, all the more gain control of all of them, is an illusion. What remains is marvelling and bowing to the natural order in its magnificent complexity.