Thinking About Religion
Volume 3 (2004)

[ Home ] [ Officers ] [Membership] [ Meetings ] Journal ] Bylaws ]

Its True Name We Do Not Know:
Revisiting the Concept of the Absolute

Rama Datta
Fayetteville State University
rdatta@uncfsu.edu 

Then Vidaghda Sakalya asked, “How many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

Yajnavalkya, ascertaining the number through a group of mantras known as the Nivid (Hymns of praise to the Vishva-Devas) replied, “As many as are mentioned in the Nivid of the gods: three hundred and three, and three thousand and three.”

“Very good,” said the son of Shaklya, “and how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Thirty-three.”

“Very good, and how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Six.”

“Very good, and how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Three.”

“Very good, and how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Two.”

“Very good, and how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“One and a half.”

“Very good, and how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“One.”

--Brihadaranyaka Upanishad III 9:1

The concept of the Ultimate Reality as a personal God is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition, Islam, and some theistic traditions of Hinduism. The same ultimate Reality is conceived to be an impersonal Being called the “BRAHMAN” (Sanskrit; lit. an expansion, swelling or growth, brh- to grow, to burst forth, to become great, Holy power; the Supreme Spirit) in the Upanishads as well as in the Yoruba, Ashanti, and other traditional African religions (OLORUN, Ol- Orun or the sky: “The Lord of the Sky).”

This paper revisits the concept of the Absolute or the High God as conceived by the traditional African Religions and Hinduism.

In the earlier texts of the Vedas, the word “Brahman” refers to the inherent potency of sacrifice and prayer. We see a comparable religious potency in the deadly holiness of Yahweh on Mount Sinai (Exodus 19). Prajapati, the Lord of creatures,

first created the sacrifice; and after creating the sacrifice, he created Brahman.
--The Aitareya Brahmana VII:9

The Brahman, the Absolute God had the holy power with which the lesser mortal Gods eventually became immortal. Though amorphous in itself, the Brahman is present in the sacrifice, the fire, the altar, the sacrificial animal, and the priest. In the Rig-Veda, Prajapati assumes the name Hiranya-garbha, the golden germ, and in the Atharva Veda and later literature, Hiranya-garva himself becomes the supreme deity with Prajapati’s attributes (the opposites of form and formless, temporal and eternal, determinate and indeterminate).

In the early Upanishads (800-500 B.C.E.), a unique concept formation takes place, and the magical Brahman gets transformed into an abstract Supreme Spirit. Hinduism enters into a unique era of philosophical mysticism with a climate of profound metaphysical abstractions.

Verily, there are two forms of Brahman, the formed and the formless, the mortal and the immortal, the unmoving and the moving, the actual (the existent) and the true (Being). --The Brihad-aranyaka Upanisad, II 3:1

Focusing on this Supreme Brahman, the spiritual elites of Hinduism make a truly philosophical effort to make a transition from karmic rituals to pure knowledge. Now there is a strong evidence of gradual increase in the use of Yogic techniques and meditation (Maitreyi Upanisad, iv 4), but with a special goal – to grasp the psychological meaning and purpose of the religious rituals. Orthodox Hinduism initiates a rather unique quest for the knowledge of the Brahman through the experience of the Atman (the universal spiritual essence of man) believed to act as a direct gateway to the knowledge of Brahman. This is the age of a new epistemology, a new search for the truth. The Upanishads not only act as a forum for dialogues on the most essential ontological truths regarding the concept of the Absolute God or Brahman but also declare an unquestionable supremacy of knowledge (Jnana) over action (Karma) and devotion (Bhakti). Salvation or liberation is attainable only by knowledge of the relationship between the Brahman and the atman. The Chandogya Upanishad stresses the need for this knowledge:

If without knowing this, one offers the fire sacrifice, that would be just as if he were to remove the live coals and pour the offering on (dead) ashes.—V 24:1

Also, a remarkable socio-religious change takes place in India, and the whole system of caste and untouchability becomes secondary to the perception of the indwelling self in all. True knowledge of the Atman is described as that by which the

unhearable becomes heard, the unperceivable becomes perceived, the unknowable becomes known.--Chandogya Upanishad VI, 1:3.

The Brahman is knowledge, and the atman is the knower. The Brahman is inexplicable or anirvachaniyam and can only be described as pure existence, consciousness, and bliss (Sat, Chit, and Anandam).

Some scholars claim that the Upanishads are the philosophical expression of the Vedas, the basic sacred scriptures of Hinduism. Others disagree and point out that the Upanishads presuppose monotheism, whereas the hymns, the chants, and the rituals in the Vedas are undoubtedly polytheistic – here a pantheon of Gods were introduced for the first time into a religious scenario dominated and almost completely monopolized by the Mother Goddess of the ancient civilization of the Indus valley. The Vedas were compiled as the Aryans came into India, even though they were first composed and transmitted orally for many generations before they were formally written. Starting with the Vedic era, the classical Hinduism built the foundation for later Hinduism; the religion of the classical age was much like that of the Greco-Roman world. Innumerable Gods were worshiped and the priests performed the sacrificial rituals. After the close of the classical era, certain subtle changes took place and a few major Gods along with their consorts came into the limelight. Temples were built for them and special hymns were composed revering them. Brahman, the ultimate Reality remained the central figure of Hindu thought and yet postclassical Hinduism perceived him in terms of a unique Trinity with three dimensions: Brahma--the creator, Shiva--the destroyer, and Vishnu--the preserver.

The philosophical speculation surrounding the ultimate Reality or Brahman culminated in a doctrinal delineation of the concept in the Vedantasutra of Vadrayana, which awaited its final completion in the commentaries on the sutras by Samkara (788-820 A.D.). Samkara introduced the philosophical distinction between the Nirguna Brahman (without any attributes- the impersonal, infinite Absolute) and the Saguna Brahman (with attributes, the finite personal God). The Saguna Brahman is a pseudo-real form of divinity, an entity with the anthropomorphic qualities of MAYA and AVIDYA (ignorance). Samkara, in his philosophy of Advaita Vedanta (Monistic, as distinguished from Vishistadvaita or dualistic Vedanta of Ramanuja), argued that there is an absolute identity between the absolute Brahman and the atman or the individual self. He perceived salvation or liberation (Moksa) as the merging of the jiva or the finite self in the Brahman or the infinite self; it is the realization that the Brahman, the ultimate Reality or the cosmic principle of creation and the atman are identical. Thus, Samkara brought back the Upanisads to the limelight and changed the spiritual direction of his age by formulating a philosophy and religion, which could satisfy the ethical and spiritual needs of the common people better than the systems of Buddhism, Mimamsa, and Bhakti. It is strictly by personal effort that one could reach the ultimate truth. Thus, Advaita Vedanta was in perfect tune with the Upanishadic truth that by knowing one’s inner self, one knows Brahman and by knowing Brahman one becomes Brahman (That Thou Art or Tat Tvam Asi). This is a concept difficult to grasp since it tries to define the indeterminate “anirvacaniyam.” The absolute pervades the whole cosmos and yet transcends it. The absolute is the whole external world as well as the whole inner world of the atman, the individual self. The innermost unseen force of the individual is called the atman. And this inner self or atman is Brahman. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad expresses it beautifully:

Verily, in the beginning there was Brahman; that Brahman knew its Atman only saying “I am Brahman” and “one who knows that he is Brahman becomes all this.
--Brihadaranyaka Upanisad, IV. 1

But the philosophical abstraction of the Upanishads was, in a way, beyond the grasp of the common Hindus who could relate better with a personal God who is close to them and takes interest in their daily affairs. Brahman does not have shrines or temples dedicated to him but Gods and their consorts represent his unique identity. Today, the Hindus worship these divinities during different lunar cycles of the year and offer “puja.” The puja (worship) starts with an invocation of the divine essence into an idol or image. This is a symbolic human action by which the devotee seeks to establish a bond with divinity.

In a similar way, the traditional African religions invoke the spirits of their ancestors or lesser deities or orishas through rituals and ceremonies. Traditional African religions are characterized by a vast plurality of spirits or powers and in this sense they are polytheistic. The Ashanti of Ghana worship a pantheon of “Abosoms” who are guardians of people acting as intermediaries; they represent war, weather, clans and tribes, health and healing. The Yoruba has over seventeen thousand divine beings or orishas. The Ibo considers “Chukwu” as the creator or father, whose female counterpart is “Ala,” the earth mother who is the spirit of fertility (of soil as well as human beings). A prominent divinity “Dang” is considered the son of heaven and earth and ancestor of the Dinka people. He is also associated with the storm and the rain. The Nuer word for “spirit” is “kwoth” – God is “kwothnhial” – or a spirit dwelling in the sky. Thus divinity is known in these traditional belief systems by many names and in many ways. However, behind and beyond all these forms and ways, there is a Supreme God or “High God.” He is often conceived as dwelling in the sky. He is “Olorun” or “Oludomere” – the African counterpart of the Hindu concept of the Absolute God, Brahman. The absolute pervades the whole cosmos and yet transcends it. E. B. Idowu and other anthropologists called it monotheism lapsed into polytheism. The earlier European scholars perceived it as polytheistic. The African high God is a deistic God who transcends the human world. He is too distant and is beyond our reach. In the beginning, African myths tell us, Olorun, the high God was with human beings. Later, he retired to the heavens. Myths are the only ways the humans can reach and touch the divine. In the Yoruba cosmos, there is heaven on the top end and there is the earth at the bottom. Between the two is the ritual space, which connects the two. The myths of the Ivory Coast tell us that the high God was so near to human beings that they became too familiar and the High God decided to withdraw himself. And from then on, he became an impersonal transcendent God.

Myths have no chronology- they are not historical events- they have this enormous power to celebrate truths – truths of a different kind – truths that take place “elsewhere else when, ” revering the joy of life. They represent timeless traditions constantly revised and handed down from generation to generation, through oral transmission, over a period of several thousand years. Myths are not confined to any particular individual phenomenon; they represent universal ideas and thoughts of human minds that arise in the course of centuries and their sanctity evolves spontaneously owing to their eternal nature and value of contents. And now it is time for a myth that has been told and retold at many places and times weaving the unique motif of a mysterious and distant God called Nyambi. Nyambi’s story has all the familiar elements - human actions, freedom and responsibility, the evil and its punishment, and last of all, God’s immanence and transcendence.

In the beginning Nyambi made all things. He made animals, birds. At that time he lived on earth with his wife, Nasilele. One of Nyambi’s creatures was different from all others. His name was Kamonu. Kamonu imitated Nyambi in everything Nyambi did. When Nyambi worked in wood, Kamonu worked in wood; when Nyambi forged iron, Kamonu forged iron. After a while Nyambi began to fear Kamonu. Then one day Kamonu forged a spear and killed a male antelope, and he went on killing. Nyambi grew very angry at this. “Man, you are acting badly,” he said to Kamonu. “These are your brothers. Do not kill them.” Nyambi drove Kamonu out into another land. But after a while Kamonu returned. Nyambi allowed him to stay and gave him a garden to cultivate. It happened that at night buffaloes wandered into Kamonu’s garden and he speared them; after that some elands, and he killed one. After some time Kamonu’s dog died; then his pot broke; his son died. When kamonu went to Nyambi’s to tell him what happened he found his dog and his pot and his child at Nyambi’s. Then Kamonu said to Nyambi, “Give me medicine so that I may keep my things.” But Nyambi refused to give him medicine. After this Nyambi met with his two counselors and said, “How shall we live since Kamonu knows too well the road hither?” Nyambi tried various means to flee Kamonu. He removed himself and his court to an island across the river. But Kamonu made a raft of reeds and crossed over to Nyambi’s island. Then Nyambi piled up a huge mountain and went to live on its peak. Still Nyambi could not get away from man. Kamonu found his way to him. In the meantime men were multiplying and spreading all over the earth. Finally Nyambi sent birds to look for a place for Limoma, God’s town. But the birds failed to find a place. Nyambi sought counsel from a diviner. The diviner said, “Your life depends on Spider.” And Spider went and found an abode for Nyambi and his court in the sky. Then Spider spun a thread from earth to the sky and Nyambi climbed up on the thread. Then the diviner advised Nyambi to put out Spider’s eyes so that he could never see the way to heaven again and Nyambi did so. After Nyambi disappeared into the sky Kamonu gathered some men around him and said, “Let’s build a high tower and climb up to Nyambi.” They cut down trees and put log on log, higher and higher toward the sky. But the weight was too great and the tower collapsed. So that Kamonu never found his way to Nyambi’s home. But every morning when the sun appeared, Kamonu greeted it saying, “Here is our king. He has come.” And all other people greeted him shouting and clapping. At the time of the new moon men call on Nasilele, Nyambi’s wife. --A myth from Mozambique, in Feldman, pp. 36-37.

References

  • Feldman, Susan, ed. African Myths and Tales (New York: Dell, 1963).
  • Griffith, Ralph, trans., The Hymns of the Rig-Veda, Vol. 1 (Banaras: E. J. Lazarus, 1920).
  • Idowu, E.Bolaji. African Traditional Religion (New York: Orbis Books, 1963).
  • Radhakrishnan, S. , Trans. The Upanishads (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 1994).
  • Thibaut, George, Commentary on Vedanta Sutra, Vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1890).
  • Zaehner, R. C., Hinduism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).

Thinking About Religion, Volume 3
Copyright © 2004
Posted 05/22/04

Site Contact: Dr. John Brooks
Site Designer: Cassaundra Mason
Last Updated: 05/22/04 11:32 AM