The question "What is God?" has baffled humankind for eons and will continue to defy logical understanding as long as we live with the concept that there is a heaven up above, where God sits judging all of humanity and punishing those who misbehave. Eminent thinkers throughout history have tried to find a logical answer to this vexing question, with little success. On the other hand His Holiness Gautama, the Buddha, did tapasya (Sanskrit for asceticism) under a banyan tree and, like some others, found that God exists within every human heart in the form of love, compassion, understanding, and other positive attributes humankind is capable of but often chooses to suppress. It seems that instead of trying to assert strict logic or put a solid image to our concept of God, we ought to follow their example and devote greater energy to intuitively understanding the meaning of God.
This book, God Without Religion: Questioning Centuries of Accepted Truths by Sankara Saranam, helps us do just that. It offers a refreshing attempt to provide humankind with a modernized spiritual road-map for use in our eternal quest to comprehend God.
Since the identity of God is so inscrutable (if not the best-kept secret in the world) and the philosophy surrounding this power so impenetrable, religious leaders of various faiths have defined God in ways that raise more questions than they answer. The easiest and most accepted explanation is to see God in the shape of those who are considered God's messengers-among Jews, Moses and the Hebrew Prophets; among Christians, Jesus; among Muslims, Muhammad; among Hindus, Krishna; and among Buddhists, Gautama.
The common thread running through the lives of God's many messengers is love, compassion, understanding, commitment, and respect for all living creatures. It might therefore be assumed that by exhibiting these qualities they were demonstrating to the rest of humanity the way our Creator expects us to live. Although I do not attribute saintly qualities to my grandfather, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, what he said about a week before his assassination on January 30, 1948, is pertinent in this regard: "They [the Indian people] will follow me in life, worship me in death, but not make my cause their cause." These prophetic words could have been said by Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, or the Buddha-beings whose life stories and lessons were enshrined into scriptures we generally read with little intention of making them a part of our lives. Bypassing divine go-betweens, Sankara Saranam's book attempts to give us a more direct and immediate perspective of God. Like Sankara, I hesitate to say its perspective is absolutely right, because as mere mortals, irrespective of our profound scholarship, experience, knowledge, training, or vision, we cannot fathom the depths of spirituality enough to presume we have the right way.
I recall the wisdom my grandfather imparted to our family when I was living with him as a young teenager. He said human beings can only hope to understand God and aspire to reach "salvation," which he defined as living a life of service, sacrifice, and satisfaction. He believed the greatest religion was to ensure that we wipe the tears from every eye and bring hope and decency to every life. If performed with utmost humility, he said, this service would grant us the magnanimity to recognize and accept the many ways we are called to see God in humanity.
I am convinced that at the root of the spiritual problem we face today is the intense competitiveness we have injected into religion. Each of us believes our religion is the best and it is incumbent upon us to save the world by converting everyone else to our mode of worship.
I recall a painfully sad episode that took place a few years ago when I was invited to explain the Hindu way of life to Christian students of comparative religion. Also invited were Muslim and Jewish clergymen. After my talk one of the clergymen prefaced his presentation with remarks that were obviously addressed to me, stating: "We Christians, Muslims, and Jews have a few things in common. We not only have a common source but we are a 'book religion,' unlike you who are pagan." The implication was clear. He believed that the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish word of God came in the form of a book whereas the Hindu scriptures were transmitted orally and therefore inferior. He concluded that Hindus believe in 50,000 Gods while followers of the Western family of religions believe in only one.
The perceived superiority of book-based religions, I explained, is a common misconception in the West. In fact, an ancient philosopher once said the easiest way to kill a philosophy is by writing a book, for then it becomes a dogma and ceases to be a vibrant, living philosophy. As for believing in 50,000 or more Gods, I added, the Hindu belief is not that there are so many Gods (or, according to some, as many Gods as human beings) but that there are many possible images of God.
The admission that no one really knows the true God behind all these images leads to an understanding that human beings can only pursue the truth and not "possess" it, as many religious zealots claim to do. Pursuit implies humility, acceptance, openness, and appreciation, while possession suggests arrogance, close mindedness, and lack of appreciation. Herein lies the rub: if we persist in competing to possess the truth instead of working in unity to pursue it, we are going to face untold grief-and worse, violence.
When asked what he thought of the meaning of God, Grandfather said: "There is an indefinable mysterious power that pervades everything. I feel it, though I do not see it. It is this unseen power which makes itself felt and yet defies all proof, because it is so unlike all that I perceive through my senses. It transcends the senses. But it is possible to reason out the existence of God to a limited extent.
"I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever-changing, ever-dying, there is underlying all that change a living power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and re-creates. That informing power or spirit is God. . . . For I can see that in the midst of death, life persists; in the midst of untruth, truth persists; in the midst of darkness, light persists. Hence I gather that God is life, truth, light."
Sometimes Grandfather referred to God as love, or the supreme good, or other attributes reflecting his belief that God lives within us as well as outside of us. He also implied we have a hotline to God, an instant connection enabling us to invoke God when necessary. In humankind's eternal quest for a tangible answer to the elusive meaning of God, God Without Religion adds an ancient dimension-the idea of self-in a radically new way that I hope will bring the reader a few steps closer to unraveling this divine mystery.
Cofounder of The M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence