It is essential to agree upon the meaning of words before getting into a discussion. In this article, we’ll deep-dive into the meaning of the word God and finally understand what God looks like. This article is based on the Mandukya Upanishad which was compiled thousands of years ago in the Indian subcontinent. The Mandukya Upanishad is the shortest of Upanishads and is regarded as a sufficient one to understand the nature of God.
How is God described?
The earliest descriptions of God are from India, and the texts refer to God as consciousness. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s keep aside the Abrahamic notions of God and indulge in a purely Vedantic perspective. If you are new to Vedanta, it must be sufficient for now to understand God to be the consciousness that’s present in every being. When the human mind, instead of dissipating its energy going outward through the bodily organs, channelizes and focuses its energies inward it ceases to be mind any further and becomes a self-conscious singularity, which the Upanishads hail as Prajnanam, which is nothing but a Sanskrit term for self-consciousness. This, according to Upanishads, is God. Why is this God? Because it’s a singularity. And it cuts through all limitations of space and time. This is the reason why God in most religions have attributes like omniscience, omnipresence etc. Anyone who’s able to bring his mind to this state of singularity is technically God. There are countless examples of such people across the world, cutting across faiths and civilizations. And the key takeaway for people like you and me is that every being has the potential to realize this state- the state in which there’s only existence, consciousness, and bliss.
Let me give you another analogy here for the sake of better understanding, although this has no proof. Like how a star that is too large self-implodes and becomes a black hole singularity, which is essentially a spot where space and time are no more relevant, an expanding sphere of consciousness (Brahman means the ever expanding in Sanskrit) becomes very dense at one stage (prajnana ghana) and eventually results in a singularity.
One who reaches that exalted level of consciousness is called a Jnani. This is also why such people are able to demonstrate miracles, which although is completely normal to them, looks surprising to others. Time and space are relative. This is why Yogis who are in intense meditation feel time dilation. In fact, the Lalita Sahasranama has a name for the Goddess as ‘DeshaKaala Aparichchinnaa’, meaning the one who has transcended the continuum of space-time.
Anyway, let’s get back to the topic at hand. Now that we have understood the meaning of the term God from a Vedantic perspective, let’s proceed further to understand what it looks like. To know how something looks, there are only two options:
- Experience (see) it yourself, and
- Learn from the descriptions of those who have experienced (seen) it.
The first option is ruled out- if it were true you won’t be here reading this article and more importantly I wouldn’t be here in the first place writing this article. Well, with regards to the second statement, there are numerous scriptures that are compilations of verses sung by seers of yore. These hymns are called Sruti, that which is heard and is regarded parahuman. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you why it’s parahuman- because a person who is able to reach the aforementioned state of singularity surpasses all human limitations.
What is God’s appearance?
One hymn from the Mandukya Upanishad tells us what God looks like. The Upanishad perhaps derived its name from the sage who composed it called Manduka (meaning frog in Sanskrit) or because it’s a cryptic clue to seekers like us to tell us this hymn helps us leapfrog from our current state of consciousness to that singularity.
It begins by stating that Aum is the sound of God. This word is sacred to almost all religions in the world. The syllables Amen and Ameen must be variants of this primordial sound that’s considered sacred by ancient Indians. This Upanishad starts by declaring that everything around us is nothing but Aum; nothing but consciousness. The Upanishad, then goes on to explain consciousness in 4 parts:
- The first quarter, whose field is the waking state of the mind, is outward-turned, enjoys gross objects and is represented by the first letter, A, because this encompasses all, and because it is the first (in Sanskrit alphabet, and coincidentally in most other languages including English).
- The second quarter, whose field is the dream state, is inward-turned. It enjoys subtle objects. It’s represented by the second letter, U.
- The third quarter, whose field is deep sleep is a realm of dreamless sleep, in which one becomes undivided, an undifferentiated mass of consciousness, consisting of bliss and feeding on bliss. This is represented by the third letter, M.
- Beyond the three quarters mentioned above is the fourth and final one. This is self, the nature of all beings that needs to be realized. It is soundless, unutterable, a quieting down of all relative manifestations, blissful, peaceful, non-dual. Thus, Aum is the self (read as God), verily. He who knows thus, merges his self.
That said, the question at hand now is whether God is a state of being or a being itself. Let me answer this question with a small example. Suppose you have three objects with you: a biscuit, a necklace and a bangle all made of pure gold. If I melt all three of them, they lose their form and distinction. We call them just gold and one can’t be distinguished or separated from the other. But it doesn’t mean that something that was a necklace earlier now turned into gold. The three objects were always gold. But the difference lies in the fact that we used to give more importance to the name and form of the objects earlier as opposed to the importance we now give to the substance these are made of. Likewise, every being is essentially a limited manifestation of that singular consciousness. It takes effort to make ourselves shed the name and form (our identity, body, ego, etc.). Thus, someone who realizes the singularity, becomes one with it. In other words, someone who saw God becomes God himself, just like how the bangle became gold. Because, it was always gold.
Is there a picture of God?
Yes, many seers have seen God. But when it comes to seeing God, we come one level below the abstract idea of God as pure consciousness. At this level, it becomes, Isvara, one’s personal God. It could be Krishna, Jesus, or anyone. For one to see it, one must find a Guru, and practise the spiritual teaching instructed, following which anyone can see God. Now let’s ask ourselves another question- why are the scriptures talking about the sound of God rather than the visual form?
The very first verse of the Mandukya Upanishad states that the sound Aum is verily everything in this Universe.
ॐ इत्येतदक्षरमिदꣳ सर्वं तस्योपव्याख्यानं
भूतं भवद् भविष्यदिति सर्वमोङ्कार एव
यच्चान्यत् त्रिकालातीतं तदप्योङ्कार एव ॥ १॥Verse 1, Mandukya Upanishad
Paramahansa Yogananda writes in his autobiography that God manifests in creation as the Cosmic Vibration, which expresses itself as Cosmic Sound and Cosmic Light. The Cosmic Sound or Aum is the synthesis of all the sounds of the highly vibrating life forces. He goes on to compare how various faiths have dealt with this concept. The Christian Bible describes the Cosmic Sound as follows: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[John 1:1]
He then goes on to cite the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, in which Aum is spoken of as the symbol or God. “This great authority on yoga refers to Aum as a Cosmic Sound continuously flowing in the ether, unutterable by any human voice, and fully known only to the illuminated. Further, Patanjali says that deep concentration on Aum is a means of liberation.” Sri Yogananda writes.
There are innumerable references in the Indian scriptures to the holy syllable of Aum.
“Of this universe, I am the Father; I am also the Mother, the Sustainer, and the Grandsire. I am the purifier, the goal of knowledge, the sacred syllable Om. I am the Ṛig Veda, Sāma Veda, and the Yajur Veda.”— Krishna to Arjuna, Bhagavad Gita 9.17
The syllable is also considered sacred in Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism.
It still remains a puzzle why most religions attach a lot of importance to this sound. The best we could do is to try and realize it ourselves. Let me conclude this article by leaving you with the findings of a modern scientific study on the benefits of Aum meditation that concluded that the mental repetition of Aum results in physiological alertness, and increased sensitivity to sensory transmission. Are the benefits limited to these? God knows!
Do you want to learn more about Mandukya Upanishad? Here’s an amazing lecture by Swami Sarvapriyananda. Do take a look!