There are different ways of understanding the panoply of Hindu gods and goddesses. Millions believe that each divinity has an independent, objective existence, that their physical appearance is as depicted in Indian devotional art, and that everything the Puranas say about the gods is literally true.
Ramanuja and the other Bhakti-Vedanta teachers, on the other hand, insisted that the personal God was not a stop-gap and was never to be dispensed with.[i] “For them the Supreme Being is Person with attributes and there is no Absolute beyond Him.”[ii]
The “false gods” of the Hebrew Bible were local and tribal divinities, whose devotees were caught up in an ongoing game of “My deity can kick your deity’s ass.” At the time that the Torah was written, no other near-eastern people but the Jews could even conceive of a single, universal god. So the way I see it, the “gods of the nations” were false because of their limitedness and particularity, not because they spoke other languages than Hebrew and went by other names than “I AM.”
(If you want to see the real “idols” of American life, look no further than reality TV, a showcase of the hunger for fame, greed for money and wanton sexual indulgence–“the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life”[i], in Biblical terms–that stand between human beings and God more effectively than any golden calf ever could.)
Moreover, the various names of the deities have literal meanings that can serve as descriptors as well as proper names. For instance, I found a listing of “108 Names of the Lord Jesus Christ in Sanskrit,” and was startled to see that one of them was “Mahavishnu”–“Great Vishnu,” one of the so-called “Hindu trinity” of Shiva, Bramha and Vishnu. When I learned that “Vishnu” literally means “all-seeing,” it made sense.
Similarly, I love to chant Om namo Bhagavate Vasudevaya because, in addition to being one of the names of Krishna, “Vasudeva” also means “shining one who dwells in all beings”–which reminds me of the Prayerbook baptismal vow to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.”
It is for these reasons that I am able to chant mantras addressed to Shiva and Kali without feeling that I am betraying the Judeo-Christian conception of God with which I was reared. But the question that plagued me was: what does it mean to invoke a deity with no independent personal existence?
For a long time, my Christian scruples prompted me to compose music only for chant texts addressed to nirguna Brahman–the impersonal, non-specific Ground of Being: literally, “God without personal attributes.” Sachidananda, or “Being-Knowledge-Bliss,” is one such nirguna designation. Only when I began to see the various deities as different aspects of God, as “father,” “husband,” “teacher,” “writer” and “musician” are different aspects of myself, did I feel freed to chant to Krishna, Durga and Ganesha–that is, to saguna Brahman, or “God with personal attributes.” After all, you cannot even see all of a human being at once, let alone all of God.
In fact, as I discovered once I stopped trying to impose an idea on my inner landscape and began to attend to my real responses, it is Kali, with her necklace of severed heads and her skirt of lopped-off arms, who really speaks to me. Devourer of the ego, destroyer of pretension, Kali is the one who calls bullshit on my habitual patterns of thought and action. In Jungian terms, she is the Dark One, the bearer of the “shadow” wherein creativity and power lie ready to be tapped into. Finally, in Kali is an image of a God to be meaningfully feared.