Note an expansion of this article in the book of David Frawley: Inner Tantric Yoga: Working with the Universal Shakti (Lotus Press, July 2008)
The Hindu Gods and Goddesses, more properly called Devatas or Divine principles, are usually treated by modern scholars in a superficial senses as distinct powers of nature or worse as just various imaginary spirits of the primitive mind.
At a more sophisticated level, for those who have an inner vision and real devotion, they are regarded as aspects, forms or manifestations of God or Ishvara, the Cosmic Lord and Creator, representing his powers, qualities or various ways of imagining him. They are the principles of Bhakti Yoga.
Yet at what may be a yet higher level, the Hindu Gods and Goddesses are forms or aspects of Brahman, the impersonal Godhead behind and beyond the manifest universe. They are powers of Jnana Yoga or the Yoga of knowledge.
How can Gods and Goddesses, which are usually formulated as having personalities, be a manifestation of Impersonal Being, Power and Existence? If we look deeply, we see that their forms and personalities are but symbols of something beyond form and personality. That is why their forms and personalities are extraordinary, supernatural and multifaceted.
Seeing the Devatas as Brahman is perhaps easier to do with the Vedic Gods and Goddesses, rather than the later Hindu and Puranic. This is because the Vedic Devatas are more clearly forces of nature and light, while the Puranic Devatas are more anthropomorphic in form and appearance.
The four main Vedic Devatas are Agni, Vayu or Indra, Surya and Soma. As light forms in nature these are fire, wind, sun and moon. Brahman or the supreme Godhead in the Upanishads is compared to a great fire, of which the worlds and creatures are but the sparks. Brahman is similarly compared to Wind or Vayu, a formless force that when it blows creates and moves everything. Brahman is also like the Sun, the supreme source of light, life and consciousness. It is also like the Moon, granting peace, delight and beauty to all things.
One could argue that the Vedic Devatas are more forms of Brahman than they are forms of Ishvara or God in the personal sense. Yet of these it is mostly Indra, whose name like Ishvara means ‘the Lord’ that is the closed to God. However, Indra is also Brahman as the supreme power of consciousness, knowledge and perception. Indra is the Purusha as the seer and the knower as theAitareya Upanishad proclaims.
Puranic Devatas and Shiva
The Puranic (later Hindu) Devatas, like the great trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, are the three forms of Ishvara, God or Saguna Brahman, Brahman with qualities. The three are the Creator (Brahma), Perserver (Vishnu) and Destroyer (Shiva) or the three aspects of Ishvara relative to the gunas of rajas, Sattva and tamas.
Yet of the three, it is Shiva that is the closest to Brahman. In this regard, Shiva is Nirguna Brahman or pure existence, Vishnu is Ishvara, God or Saguna Brahman, and Brahma is Mahat Tattva or cosmic mind.
Shiva is the personification of the supreme Brahman and also is impersonal. He is the formless, transcendent, pure consciousness, pure existence, and peace – not at all concerned with anything in the realm of time and space, birth and death. He is beyond good and evil and can embrace all suffering as well as all joy. He is unpredictable and paradoxical, and does not conform to the expectations of his devotees. He works to take us beyond any limitation that we would put upon him or upon ourselves. He demands that we surrender our limited mind and ego to the Absolute.
Similarly, of the three great Goddesses and consorts of the three great Gods, Sarasvati of Brahma, Lakshmi of Vishnu and Kali of Shiva, it is Kali that is the closest to Brahman and a personification of it. Kali is Brahman’s supreme power or unlimited Shakti. It is this pure power of existence which as the infinite and eternal exist behind space and time. Kali’s often terrible appearance signifies this transcendence that breaks down all the appearances and limitations that we are attached to. Her garland of skulls shows her ruling over and transcending of suffering, time and death.
Kali is also the calming and silencing of the mind (nirodha in the Yoga Sutra sense, nirvana in the sense of Buddhism and the Gita). She is the prana merged into itself, the ending of death in the ending of birth! She is the breath of Brahman that occurs without wind or any external changes.
Shiva and Kali are, as it were, only vaguely defined personalities. They represent the impersonal in its first manifestation towards personality. They exist before and beyond the manner and rules of personal expression. They break down the personality into the infinite. That is why their forms do not conform to any rules, order or stereotyped patterns. They represent the transcendent, which from the standpoint of the manifest or phenomenal world must be paradoxical, beyond all dualities, cataclysmic and transformational.
Vishnu and Lakshmi represent more the Divine in its orderly manifestation, but they can keep us confined within the manifest world and its highest Sattva guna, if we don’t look beyond their forms. Shiva and Kali take us beyond Sattva guna to pure existence, pure Sat itself. To do this they have to violate (show the limitations) of all the rules of the cosmic order. Even the beautiful personal forms of God are limitations that we must go beyond to reach the supreme Brahman.
Shiva and Kali take us back to Brahman and themselves merge and disappear back into it. They are light and energy as the most primal forces, the peace and power of the infinite.
To see the Devatas (Gods and Goddesses) as forms of Brahman is to really see the Devatas. Each Devata is a doorway on the infinite which is Brahman. Each indicates a path beyond form and personality through reflecting a primal form, power or personality.
The Devata works to take us to Brahman by expanding our personality into the impersonal. They do this through their own personality which is a personification of the infinite. The Devatas work on all levels of existence in order to lead us to that Being which is everywhere.
In that Brahman, the Self, the Devata, God, the Guru and the world, all merge. The waves fall into the sea. The rays return to that one light. That Brahman is present as the Being in everything from the dust to the star. Then we see that each thing becomes a Devata or deity and we understand the Devatas or Divine currents working in the forces of nature, of light, time, space and the yearnings of the human heart.