Do Hindus see God as personal or impersonal

Shiva as Ishvara the personal God

Shiva as Ishvara the personal God

A lot of people seem to think that all Hindus see God as ultimately impersonal.  Most Hindus see God as primarily personal, though possibly having transcendent or impersonal aspects.

I am currently studying with the Himalayan Academy, who believe that Shiva has both personal and impersonal aspects, but is primarily our personal God

As Absolute Reality, Siva is unmanifest, unchanging and transcendent, the Self God, timeless, formless and spaceless. As Pure Consciousness, Siva is the manifest primal substance, pure love and light flowing through all form, existing everywhere in time and space as infinite intelligence and power. As Primal Soul, Siva is the five-fold manifestation: Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the preserver; Rudra, the destroyer; Maheshvara, the veiling Lord, and Sadashiva, the revealer. He is our personal Lord, source of all three worlds.
Dancing With Shiva, Chapter 4

It seems that in the West many people have heard the impersonalist view, that God is an impersonal force and Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma are just another level of illusion. Some are  convinced that this is “Hindu belief”, and that belief in a personal God must be a minority view.

I decided to try to find some figures to show how common each belief is. Figures with credible references are difficult to find, but one  that has  credible references is Adherents.com. They reference, “The World Almanac and Book of Facts 1997(K-111 Reference Corp.: Mahwah, NJ), [Source: 1996 Encyc. Britannica Book of the Year]; pg. 646, and give the following figures for the number of followers of each branch of Hinduism:

70% Vaishnavites, 25% Shaivites, 2% new-Hindus and reform Hindus.

Vishnava are not impersonalists. Shaivas may be personalist or impersonalist; I believe the vast majority are personalist but have not been able to find any figures. The new Hindus may be. The unaccounted for percentage are Shaktis (not impersonalists) and Smarta (who generally are impersonalists).

The figures show that at least 70% of Hindus see God as personal. I would say that the figure is probably nearer 90%, but I don’t have the figures to prove it.

13 responses to “Do Hindus see God as personal or impersonal

  1. The personal and impersonal nature of God is fascinating and it is a question that many religions are interested in.

    This is an excellent analysis of the position within Hinduism. Other religions will also find common ground with your thinking on this.

  2. Tejasinha Sivalingam

    I appreciate this discussion Chris. I believe knowing God as personable opens up possibilities for the peaceful and healthful resolution of the soul’s karma. I often ask the question even farther is God the Lover of each soul. I believe Siva is the Personable Intimate Lover of each soul, but I am conflicted in my reading of the master course. God is spoken about as Father/ Mother, but who in the life knows us deeper than our husband/ wife. My father and mother don’t know me now as an adult and never took much interest in knowing me as a child either. So the deepest love i have known is from my former wife. Being single and having taken Brahmacharya vow until marriage I find it extremely helpful to dedicate my energy and love to Siva as my personable intimate lover. The Vaishnavites speak of God as lover.
    The conclusion I have come to is that my need and interest in viewing Siva as my personable intimate lover may not be my ultimate relationship with Siva, but that in the time being His mercy permits it.

    • Tejasinha,
      Thank you for the comment, and sorry that I have taken so long to reply. I think that Shiva accepts love and devotion in whatever way that people can offer it best. As the Vishnavites say, God can be loved as a lover, father, mother, master, teacher, friend, or even a child by us. Whatever way we see God we should aim to put as much energy into loving God as a passionate lover, a mother protecting a child or as a pupil who sees that a teacher can show great things
      Chris

  3. OH my, you know what, its funny how Shiva my friend allways kinda tells me stuff thru all this sycnorisation. I mean I was thinking about wheter I should tell the world about Shiva.

    He has allways been a friend for me, yeah the blue one. LOL. have you met him yet ? lol, you will go thru the stages and all this stages will bring you into him.

    I dont know why am I telling you this, and I dont know how I end up on this page as well. Oh well its one of his plays i suppose.

    Hey shiva says he is there with you. lol, when you find him all those words of seperation no longer bothers you, know what I mean ? but in some ways he finds you, he he he

    he is not even bound by the word Shiva.LOL, he wonders around collecting things to complete you, know what I mean ?

    Still its amazing how i end up here, its like a magnet, I was thinking to write something about it, I googled and end up at your page and you wrote things which confirms things for me, amazing huh ?

    Om to the formless Shiva
    Om to everyone`s beleifs
    Om to every religion
    Om to the universe

  4. Hindus might see God as personal or impersonal, but what is the proper doctrine or theology? What is orthodoxy?

  5. Well what I don’t understand is how can a pantheist God be personal? If we are all part of God, including all creation, then how can he be personal? And if personal, can we pray for something and he grants it?

  6. Okay fine panenteism. But can you change the course of your karma or is it independent of external action?
    What if I become a tree in the next life? What must I do to get a better life since I am incapable of independent thought or action or moral decisions?
    Also, is Hinduism divinely revealed or is it a system of theology and philosophy that humans came up with to explain reality?
    What evidence does Hinduism have for being true?

    Just curious, don’t really find these questions answered anywhere. It seems like Hinduism is inclusive and is a mixture of Aryan and ancient Indian beliefs.

    • Hi UltraMontane
      Sorry that it took so long to get back to you.

      Okay fine panenteism. But can you change the course of your karma or is it independent of external action?

      You certainly can change and reduce your own karma, in fact this is one of the aims of Hinduism.

      What if I become a tree in the next life? What must I do to get a better life since I am incapable of independent thought or action or moral decisions?

      Very few Hindus would think that you could be reincarnated as a tree. Some Hindus believe that people can only be reincarnated in this physical world as other people, wheras others believe that people could also be reincarnated as higher animals. The point of reincarnation is to exhast karma and it is difficult to see how you could do this as a tree. My Sampradaya teaches that people are almost always reincarnated as humans, though exceptionally animal reincarnation can occur.

      Also, is Hinduism divinely revealed or is it a system of theology and philosophy that humans came up with to explain reality?

      Hinduism has both! The Vedas and agamas are revealed scriptures, but there are also many upanishads which are mostly philosophical discussions on the vedas but also contain some mathematics and science.

      What evidence does Hinduism have for being true?

      It depends on what you call evidence! First of all Hinduism is highly consistant and does not require you to believe anything that is contrary to science (like young earth creationism). In other words there is no evidence that it is not true. Evidence is largely personal. The results of prayer, meditation revealing as predicted, feeling the presence of God and the devas (demigods), and so on. The closest I can get to what a rational materialist would call proof is that it gives repeatable processes of meditation, prayer, and dharma that will improve your life and character and have predictable results.
      I cannot give a complete rational materialistic proof for Hinduism, but then again I could not a give complete rational materialistic proof for love or compassion.

  7. Yes, I understand that one can change one’s own karma through different ways of purification which one does themself, but what I mean is can an intervention of a Divine Being change the course of your Karma. For example, can praying for forgiveness get rid of your Karma?

    I am referring to REASON in the proper classical sense, that is pre-Kantian and pre-Enlightenment, the way the Scholastics and Socratics used it before it deviated into materialism. Reason in this sense is not used purely scientifically like the materialists, but is used logically and is thus used in theology and philosophy to determine truth. This is how we differentiate between different religions and see who is claiming truth. They all cannot be true because they teach contradictory things. For example, if one is Muslim, it is impossible to say that Hinduism is also true, since they have completely contradictory beliefs. Now religion can have things that are beyond reason (that are not capable of being understood completely, mystery that is) , but not things that contradict reason (young earth creationism). So for example, I can eliminate any branch of Christianity that teaches young earth creationism, since it contradicts science. Of course science is not gospel truth, it can and does change its opinions through time, but this seems quite safe to say that the earth is not the literal age of the Bible. So, since that is not logically consistent, I can erase those religions from claiming to be the truth. That is when religion becomes superstition.

    Now, if Hinduism has both divine revelation and human contribution, I say that the human contribution be viewed critically, unless they were divinely inspired from making any errors. If there is no divine intervention, there is no reason to believe that it is true. Now the part that claims divine intervention, what proof do you have that it is divine intervention? Any miracles? Any prophecies? On what basis should we believe it is divinely inspired? For example, Muslims claim that the Koran is divinely inspired since it is a miracle in itself and Mohammed was illiterate and various other things. Why should we believe that Hinduism is divinely inspired as opposed to believing other religions are divinely inspired? Is there more proof for this divine inspiration? Since there are others who claim divine inspiration who say completely contradictory things to Hinduism.

    Also, anything that improves my life cannot be true whether it is through prayer, meditation. Improving your life and well-being is not necessarily a criteria for truth. I can start a religion right now and have people who say they are improved in their lives because they follow my system, but that does not make it true.

    Also, if I am reincarnated as an animal as well, I cannot change my Karma since animals are not sentient beings who think but rather go by instinct. So I would have to be born as a human. Now, If I am born as a Human, and have no real recollection of my past life (which most people don’t), why should I care about my karma for my next life. It seems like its a completely different person anyway. So do you believe that all humans are equal in value, or caste system? (and not because it is politically incorrect now). If all humans are equal in value, how is karma change your life?

  8. Hi UltraMontane

    Yes, I understand that one can change one’s own karma through different ways of purification which one does themself, but what I mean is can an intervention of a Divine Being change the course of your Karma. For example, can praying for forgiveness get rid of your Karma?

    Absolutely. Bhakti, or devotion to God is rewarded by kripa, grace, the removal of karma.

    Now, if Hinduism has both divine revelation and human contribution, I say that the human contribution be viewed critically, unless they were divinely inspired from making any errors. If there is no divine intervention, there is no reason to believe that it is true. Now the part that claims divine intervention, what proof do you have that it is divine intervention? Any miracles? Any prophecies?

    Yes there are prophecies and miracles, though of course you will be faced with the question of whether they are genuine, whether they happened because of Hindu beliefs, etc. I am not going to be able to convince you objectively that Hinduism is true and other religions are false. In fact, even though other religions have different beliefs some of them may be different ways of seeing the same thing. One of the best things about Hinduism is being in a temple worshiping Shiva next to others worshiping Krishna, Rama, or Durga but all with complete faith and believing that ultimately all are worshiping God. The only absolute proof that Hinduism can offer is confirmation by the effects of following the tradition.

    If you are looking for a faith that will give you irrevocable proof of its correctness in absolute terms that can be seen to be true by people who don’t follow the practice you are not going to find one.

    Also, if I am reincarnated as an animal as well, I cannot change my Karma since animals are not sentient beings who think but rather go by instinct. So I would have to be born as a human. Now, If I am born as a Human, and have no real recollection of my past life (which most people don’t), why should I care about my karma for my next life.

    Think of the last time you went on Holiday. Chances are you did not remember it for a while, but it is still part of you. Would it have made any difference if something meant you could not have recalled that holiday for the last week? You probably only remember a small portion of your life. You probably won’t remember much about what you are doing now in years to come. Should you care about what happens to you in years to come?

    So do you believe that all humans are equal in value, or caste system? (and not because it is politically incorrect now). If all humans are equal in value, how is karma change your life?

    I believe everyone is of equal value, but of course only a fool would say that everyone is in equal circumstances. I oppose the hereditary caste system, but just a look around the world will see different people in different situations. Believing everyone is of equal value does not mean that karma cannot change your life any more than it means that education cannot change your life.

  9. Tejasinha – vaisnavas do not only see Lord Krishna as a lover but in fact in 4 aspects – as a friend, also in reverence as a king (when he ruled in Dwaraka), lover, and parental (yasoda Nandan). It depends on one’s constitution as to what kind of relationship you will have, but vainavism encourages getting away from too much reverence and developing a more heart to heart personal relationship with the Lord.

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