of conquest and migration adding new and often conflicting elements. Like a snowball rolling down hill, over time religions hide their internal contradictions beneath layers of apparent coherence. But closer inspection melts the façade revealing the depths.
Beneath the brash polytheism of Hinduism lies a quiet philosophy of non-duality—the metaphysical claim that all is one. So which is it? Is divinity to be found in hundreds of diverse gods and goddesses, or is divinity a singularity, the very ground of being, a boundless, formless field in which all energy, consciousness, and matter takes form? The answer, I’m afraid, is yes.
Nowhere is this contradiction more powerfully exposed than in the Kena Upanishad, composed around 3,000 years ago. In this playful parable the gods Agni, Vayu, and Indra have just defeated some demons and restored order. As they proudly pat each other on the back a mysterious being appears. It is Brahman, the formless One from whom all the gods draw their power. But they don’t recognize their visitor.
Agni approached the being saying, “I am Agni, god of fire. I can burn anything.”
“Burn this,” said the being, tossing down a piece of straw. Agni tried to burn it but it would not burn. He slunk back to Vayu and Indra defeated.
Vayu approached the mysterious being.
“Who are you?” the being asked.
“I am Vayu, god of air. I can blow anything around.”
“Let’s see if you can move this,” the being said, pointing to the piece of straw.
Vayu tried and tried but could not move the straw an inch. He too slunk back to his friends defeated.
Agni and Vayu turned to Indra, their leader, and said, “You have got to find out who this mysterious being is!”
As Indra approached the being it vanished and in its place stood Uma, the Goddess of Wisdom.
“Who was that being?” Indra asked.
“That was Brahman,” she said, “from whom comes all your power and glory.”
It was up to the Great Goddess to bring these proud boys back down to the ground by reminding them that they are not the source of ultimate power—they are merely its instruments. The deeper wisdom is clear. All of our powers and abilities come from a deeper source. Our consciousness is an aspect of the one consciousness. Our creativity is an aspect of the one creativity. Our loving is an expression of the one love coursing through all energy, matter, and manifestation. Each of us is the embodied presence of the formless sacred source of the universe. But it’s ok if we forget sometimes—even the gods forget.
Now comes the final realization—that our idea of God is just that, an idea. What the idea re-presents is beyond concepts, forms, and words. All god-portraits are foregrounds of a depth that goes down and down and down. The idea of God is an empty chair—there’s no one or nothing sitting there. Our concepts are helpful until we forget that they are empty, and that the reality to which they refer forever eludes our conceptual grasp. But we experience this ultimate reality here and now in the gaps between our thoughts, in our loving kindness, and in the beauty of the field out of which our lives arise like poppies in the summer sun.
[This piece was originally published in my A to Zen column in the May/June 2023 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]