Evolution of Religious Belief from Brahma to Personal God

Categories : Spirituality

By the end of the Vedic period i.e., (about 600 BCE) the concept of unmanifest, attributeless, omnipresent, omniscient Brahma had crystallized. Brahma was treated as the supreme power and Atma was just a small part of the Brahma. Therefore, there was little difference between the Brahma and the Atma.

An example of this relationship is available in Chhandogya Upanishad as a dialogue between Uddalaka (father) and Shvetaketu (son). Shvetaketu became a student at 12 and came back after receiving all education at the age of 24 years. However, he could not explain the minute knowledge of Atman. The dialogue begins with the command of Uddalaka (father).

‘Bring a banyan fruit’.

‘Here it is, sir’.

‘Cut it up’.

‘I’ve cut it up, sir’.

‘What do you see there?’

‘These quite tiny seeds, sir’.

‘Now, take one of them and cut it up’.

‘I’ve cut one up, sir’.

‘What do you see there?’

‘Nothing, sir.’

Then he told him:

‘This is the finest essence here, son, that you can’t even see – look on account of that finest essence, this huge banyan tree stands here. Believe, my son; the finest essence here – that constitutes the self of this whole world; that is the self (atman). And that’s how you are, Shvetaketu’. Tat Twam Asi (you are That) was the father’s teaching to the son.

This concept was taken up by Adi Shankaracharya (788-820 CE) for the development of his view of Advaita Vedanta. Born in Kaladi (Kerala) he was trained by Gobind yogi who was the disciple of Gaudapad. He completed his training on the banks of Narmada, travelled extensively, won in every debate and went to the Himalayas. He established mathas at Kedarnath (North), Sringeri (South), Puri (East) and Dwarka (West) but his doctrine could not become popular.

He asserted that only the Brahma is real and this world is just an illusion (Maya). His views came to be known as “Mayavad”. He saw no difference between Brahma and Atma and his statements like “Aham Brahasmi” (I am Brahm). “Brahm Satyam Jagat Mithya” (the absolute Brahm is the reality and the world of appearance is Maya) and “Ekameva Adviteeyam Brahma” (the absolute is one alone, not two) became well known.

However, for a common man, it was very very difficult to concentrate on a God who was formless, attributeless (Nirgun) and without any symbol. The statement “Aham Brahmashmi” became more confusing. It was very difficult to believe that the Brahma and the Atma were the same. In this condition, self-worship was the only alternative for those who were not well-versed in Vedic Knowledge.

In this confusing situation, the Buddha and Jain Dharmas had gained ground. Hinduism had lost space. The Vedic scriptures were in Sanskrit and Brahmins had a vice-like grip on scriptures and sacrificial knowledge. The caste system was also proving detrimental to Vedic religion. On the other hand, Buddha and Mahavir had made their beliefs open to all castes and were preaching in local languages which the masses understood and followed. It was therefore necessary to correct the course of decline. The first step in this direction was taken by Ved Vyas during the composition of Mahabharat. The Bhagwat Gita which provided the foundations of personal God is a part of Bhishma Parva of Mahabharat in which we find the dialogues between Sri Krishna and Arjun on Karma and Devotion.

The foundation provided by Bhagwat Gita for devotion to Personal God:

A number of verses are found in Bhagwat Gita in which Karma yoga and Bhakti yoga have been explained. Vishnu was not a frequently mentioned God in Rigveda and was remotely connected with Surya dev. However, about 200 years before the birth of Christ he became the leading God followed by a religious group known as Bhagavats. Rudra of the Vedic age also transformed into Shiva. Brahma was added. The trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh (Shiva) thus became complete. Krishna of Mahabharat, one of the incarnations of Vishnu, was Arjun’s mentor. The shlokas which were related to personal devotion to God are many. Some selected examples are given below: –

संन्यासस्तु महाबाहो दु:खमाप्तुमयोगत: |

योगयुक्तो मुनिर्ब्रह्म नचिरेणाधिगच्छति || 6||

sannyāsas tu mahā-bāho duḥkham āptum ayogataḥ

yoga-yukto munir brahma na chireṇādhigachchhati


Perfect renunciation is difficult to attain without performing work in devotion, O mighty-armed Arjun, but the sage who is adept in karma yoga quickly attains the Supreme.

यो मां पश्यति सर्वत्र सर्वं मयि पश्यति |

तस्याहं प्रणश्यामि मे प्रणश्यति || 30||

yo māṁ paśhyati sarvatra sarvaṁ cha mayi paśhyati

tasyāhaṁ na praṇaśhyāmi sa cha me na praṇaśhyati


For those who see Me everywhere and see all things in Me, I am never lost, nor are they ever lost to Me.

पत्रं पुष्पं फलं तोयं यो मे भक्त्या प्रयच्छति |

तदहं भक्त्युपहृतमश्नामि प्रयतात्मन: || 26||

patraṁ puṣhpaṁ phalaṁ toyaṁ yo me bhaktyā prayachchhati

tadahaṁ bhaktyupahṛitam aśhnāmi prayatātmanaḥ


If one offers to Me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or even water, I delightfully partake of that item offered with love by My devotee in pure consciousness.

यत्करोषि यदश्नासि यज्जुहोषि ददासि यत् |

यत्तपस्यसि कौन्तेय तत्कुरुष्व मदर्पणम् || 27||

yat karoṣhi yad aśhnāsi yaj juhoṣhi dadāsi yat

yat tapasyasi kaunteya tat kuruṣhva mad-arpaṇam


Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer as oblation to the sacred fire, whatever you bestow as a gift, and whatever austerities you perform, O son of Kunti, do them as an offering to Me.

समोऽहं सर्वभूतेषु मे द्वेष्योऽस्ति प्रिय: |

ये भजन्ति तु मां भक्त्या मयि ते तेषु चाप्यहम् || 29||

samo ’haṁ sarva-bhūteṣhu na me dveṣhyo ’sti na priyaḥ

ye bhajanti tu māṁ bhaktyā mayi te teṣhu chāpyaham


I am equally disposed to all living beings; I am neither inimical nor partial to anyone. But the devotees who worship Me with love reside in Me and I reside in them.

सम: शत्रौ मित्रे तथा मानापमानयो: |

शीतोष्णसुखदु:खेषु सम: सङ्गविवर्जित: || 18||

samaḥ śhatrau cha mitre cha tathā mānāpamānayoḥ

śhītoṣhṇa-sukha-duḥkheṣhu samaḥ saṅga-vivarjitaḥ


He who behaves alike to foe and friend, also to good and evil repute and who is alike in cold and heat, pleasure and pain and who is free from attachment.

तुल्यनिन्दास्तुतिर्मौनी सन्तुष्टो येन केनचित् |

अनिकेत: स्थिरमतिर्भक्तिमान्मे प्रियो नर: || 19||

tulya-nindā-stutir maunī santuṣhṭo yena kenachit

aniketaḥ sthira-matir bhaktimān me priyo naraḥ


He who holds equal blame and praise, who is silent (restrained in speech), content with anything (that comes), who has no fixed abode and is firm in mind, that man who is devoted is dear to Me.

सर्वधर्मान्परित्यज्य मामेकं शरणं व्रज |

अहं त्वां सर्वपापेभ्यो मोक्षयिष्यामि मा शुच: || 66||

sarva-dharmān parityajya mām ekaṁ śharaṇaṁ vraja

ahaṁ tvāṁ sarva-pāpebhyo mokṣhayiṣhyāmi mā śhuchaḥ


Abandon all varieties of dharmas and simply surrender unto Me alone. I shall liberate you from all sinful reactions; do not fear.

However, both Mahabharat and Bhagwat Gita were in Sanskrit. A number of Puranas (old divine stories) in Sanskrit were written which could not find immediate mass following. Buddha and Jain Dharmas had spread far and wide. The Maurya emperors Chandragupta and Ajatshatru were Jains. Asoka adopted Buddhism. Hinduism began reviving from the fourth century C.E. under the Guptas. A large number of temples devoted to Shiva and Vishnu were constructed and idol worship began on a mass scale. Buddha and Jain temples already existed in large numbers in which images of Buddha and Mahavira were being worshipped. Days of personal worship to personal gods had already arrived.

In South India, the Chalukyas, Cholas, Pallavas, Pandyas and Rastrakutas were responsible for spreading the Shiva and Vaishnava cults. They built beautiful and expensive temples including the Kailashnath temple of Ellora which is a wonderful carving from a massive basalt hill.