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Concepts of God with a Form
Hindu Philosophy Questions & Answers

Concepts of God with a Form

Vishnu, Narayana

Question: Ramanuja invests so much energy in his SB 1.1.1 commentary in countering Sankara’s notion of avidyā, yet he includes nothing about an eternal form. The Śruti says nothing about form. No one else—not Yoga, Mīmāṁsā, Vaiśeṣika, Tantra, Bauddha, Jaina, Śaiva, not even Nyāya—accept an eternal form. The entire premise and practice of bhakti rests upon śravaṇa-kīrtana-manana on an eternal form. Surely the ācāryas would have needed to defend form, a major tenant of their siddhānta, as a part of their dharma. I don’t understand this.

I can recall only one verse in our canonical śāstra, the Bhāgavata, explicitly saying that Kṛṣṇa’s actual form is Brahman—viśuddha-sattva. Even this is not a helpful choice of words, as the opponent can just say that the formless Bhagavān takes on a form of the highest prakṛti, sattva, as Vācaspati and other Advaitins do.

Answer: I am giving certain references which may be helpful: Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad (Pūrva 33): tam ekam govindam sac-cid-ananda-vigraham. Also, Viṣṇu Purāṇa 1.9.44: sattvādyo na santīśe

I went through SB canto by canto up to the Third Canto and found the following references:

1.7.23; 1.8.18; 1.9.42; 1.10.21; 1.11.6; 1.11.37–39; 2.4.13; 2.6.39; 2.7.48–49; 2.9.10; 2.9.16; 3.2.12; 3.8.3; 3.9.1–3; 3.15.15; 3.15.47; 3.21.9; 3.24.33. 

We can find many verses in other SB cantos: 10.2.34–36; 10.3.24; 10.12.11; 10.12.39; 10.13.54; the Prayers of Brahmā in 10.14; 10.88.5; 11.29.49. 

Question: So, the Vaiṣṇava position counters the entire Indic intellectual tradition (as well as the Western one) on the nature of God’s form, and yet they offer no argument in support of it! Is that not puzzling?

Answer: This is not puzzling because the main contenders of the Vaiṣṇavas are the Advaitavādīs, who accept God with form. The main contention is about the ultimate reality being Bhagavān or Brahman. Most dialectics are around that and not form. Naiyāyikas have their main opponents in Buddhism. They have no problem with God’s form. They accept Īśvara without form because they argue against Buddhists who do not accept the Vedas. So, it is logically convenient to argue against a formless god. Other schools like Sāṅkhya and Yoga were not mainstream schools followed by masses.

Question: Just as I thought, these verses do not specifically state that Īśvara’s form—vapu or śarīra—is made of sat-cit-ānanda, but make general statements about Īśvara acceptable to any Īśvara tradition (even Christian). I examine the first few below:

SB: 1.7.23. This does not speak of form, but that Īśvara is cit-śakti.

Answer: What makes you think so? Arjuna is speaking directly to Kṛṣṇa. Please read the verse prior to this, in which Arjuna addresses Kṛṣṇa: “You are the original puruṣa, beyond prakrti.” He is describing Kṛṣṇa as a person and not some impersonal Īśvara. If I speak to you directly and say that you are the original person, I’m referring to you as a person having form, not an impersonal being.

Question: All agree that Brahman/Īśvara is this. Nyāya would accept this version of Īśvara.

Answer: They may agree that Brahman or Īśvara is beyond prakrti but they do not agree that Brahman/Īśvara is a puruṣa.

Question: SB 1.8.18. This states that Īśvara is beyond prakrti. Even Patañjali can accept this. There is nothing about form.

Answer: Same explanation as above. You are completely disregarding the word puruṣa. We also need to take into consideration the context. Kuntī is speaking to Kṛṣṇa directly and not to some impersonal Īśvara. Her whole prayer is to a personal God with form. 

Why do you think that Patañjali’s Īśvara is formless? He does not say this anywhere. How can an Īśvara without form be sarvajña and pūrveṣām-api-guruḥ (Yoga Sūtra 1.25–26)? Why has Patañjali used the pronoun saḥ and not tat for Īśvara if he thinks that Īśvara has no form? Can you give some logic to support your conclusion?

Question: SB 1.9.42. This speaks of śarīra, but nothing about sat-cit-ānanda śarīra. Māyāvādīs would accept this in their own way—that Īśvara’s form is sattva.

Answer: Such verses do not use the words sat-cit-ānanda directly but that is the implied meaning if you study the context. In SB 2.10.2, Śukadeva says that the Bhāgavata describes the āśraya tattva in three ways—directly, by indication, and by implied meaning. Bhīṣma prays in SB 1.9.38—sa bhavatu me bhagavān gatir mukundaḥ—“May Kṛṣṇa be my gatiḥ.” That gatiḥ cannot be something material. Bhīṣma specifically uses the words “Bhagavān Mukunda”—that implies form. In the next verse, he says that those killed seeing Kṛṣṇa at Kurukṣetra attained His sva-rūpa. If that sva-rūpa is material, it has no importance. Everyone who dies gets a material form in the next life. So that form must be spiritual; otherwise, Bhīṣma would not speak of this as something praiseworthy. This is further supported by the subsequent verse 1.9.42.

Question: SB 1.10.21. This simply states that the supreme puruṣa existed before the guṇas. This is no problem for the Īśvara of Yoga or Nyāya.

Answer: First of all, you need to establish that Yoga’s puruṣa is impersonal. Nyāya does not use the word puruṣa anywhere for Īśvara. In this verse, the words ayam, puruṣa, and purātana have sāmānādhikaraṇyam. All three refer to form. Ayam refers to the form directly in front of one’s eyes and that very form is purātana. You cannot separate the two and say that purātana refers to an impersonal Īśvara because that will result in the defect of vākya-bheda.

Question: SB 1.11.6; Īśvara is beyond Time—just as Patañjali says. There is nothing about a divine form.

Answer: Who is beyond time if not the very person with form who is the subject of the description? If the form is beyond time or the guṇas, then what it is? Does it have to be said every time that it is sat-cit-ānanda? Can you explain this verse and prove that His form is not nonmaterial?

Question: My only explanation for this nonspecificity is that Bhagavān’s form is only for the devotees, and so He allows for multiple readings of these verses—we have ours, Vācaspati and Udayana will have theirs.

Answer: That is debatable. We have to study the book as a whole and not take verses out of context.

Take SB 10.3.24. Devakī clearly says “Your form, rūpam, is nirguṇaṁ nirvikāram etc.” She is speaking about the form present before her eyes and not about some impersonal being.

Take SB 10.13.54—it clearly uses the word mūrtayaḥ and describes them as satya, jñāna, and ānanda-mātra. This is not about some impersonal Īśvara.

See SB 10.14.22—nitya-sukha-bodha-tanau. Here, sukha=ānanda; bodha=cit.

Similarly, see SB 10.14.32—Brahma is describing Kṛṣṇa. If sanātana and ānanda are being used, then cit is naturally understood because acit is not without transformation.

Even Kṛṣṇa’s abode is described as satya, janan, ananta, brahma, jyoti, and sanātana. Then He also must have these qualities. If He is impersonal, then “abode” has no meaning. He showed the abode to the Vrajavāsīs. An impersonal thing cannot be seen. They also saw Kṛṣṇa there. There is nothing impersonal here.

Question: This is just like one’s interpretation of the Vedānta Sūtras. Mattah smrtir jnanam apohanam ca—Bhagavān facilitates the appropriate saṁskāric lens for one to read śāstra according to one’s karma and devotion (or lack of it).

Answer: It is true that one interprets according to one’s saṁskāra. But what is important to know is the intention of the author. Vyāsa wrote the Bhāgavata after having experienced samādhi. His experience was of a personal God and not impersonal reality. Please see SB 1.7.4–8 and the explanation in Tattva Sandarbha. I also suggest reading Bhagavat Sandarbha, Anuccedas 51–58. This may be helpful.

Question: I do not think there are too many clear-cut verses. The Gopāla-tāpanī Upaniṣad verse is very explicit. Brahma-saṁhitā may not be acceptable.

Answer: Śāstra is written in a way that it is liable to be interpreted. Saṅkārites would interpret even the most explicit verses. There are so many techniques that are used in SB to establish Bhagavān as the Supreme. Just to give an example—in his prayers, Gajendra describes Bhagavān in negative terms, nirguṇa, nirākāra, avyaya. All these terms are applicable to Brahman and can also be applied to Bhagavān by giving a meaning such nirguṇa=no material qualities. But who appears as an outcome of his prayers is Bhagavān with a form. So, these terms must refer to Him.

Without hermeneutics, it is not possible to establish anything as Brahman or Bhagavān. But Śrī Jīva Gosvāmī’s analysis makes more sense because His Bhagavān includes Brahman. All he says is that Brahman is not the most complete manifestation of tattva. He does not deny Brahman or sāyujya-mukti. Ultimately, it all depends on one’s śraddhā.


  • Vraja Kishor das January 15, 2024

    I would really like to ask the persona asking these questions: “Please define ‘form’.”

    I suspect s/he does not understand what it is.

  • Hari January 15, 2024

    Radhe Radhe
    Two more references I’d like to bring to your notice are:

    1. ardha-mātrātmako rāmo brahmānandaika-vigrahaḥ (Rāmottara-tāpanī Upaniṣad, 2.2)

    2. Hari-vaṁśa (Bhaviṣya-parva, 111.39-41), Durvāsā speaks the following words to Lord Kṛṣṇa:
    vedānte prathitaṁ tejas tava cedaṁ vibhāvyate, yena vijñāna-tṛptās tu yogino vīta-kalmaṣāḥ, paśyanti hṛt-saroje hi tad evedaṁ vapuḥ prabho, vede yat kīrtyate tejo brahmeti pravibhajya vai, tad evedaṁ vijāne’haṁ rūpam aiśvaram īśvara

    “O Lord, the spiritual power declared in the Upaniṣads is considered to be Your very body, which the sinless yogīs contemplate in the lotus of their hearts, and by which they become satisfied by spiritual knowledge. O Supreme Lord, I know that Your divine form is the spiritual power described in the Vedas, where it is classified as Brahman itself.”

    • Harikumar Lakshmi Narayanan January 23, 2024

      Prabhu Is Rama tapani upanishad accepted by all schools?

    • Babaji January 25, 2024

      To my knowledge, yes.

  • Harikumar Lakshmi Narayanan January 23, 2024

    There are many verses in the upanishads explicitly stating God has a form. A few are given below.
    1. Isopanishad states rupam kalyana tamam, hiranmayena pAtrena satyasya aphitam mukham.
    2. Chandogya upanishad says hiranmaya smashru(golden whiskers), hiranmaya kesha(golden hair) apranakhat(gold up to the tip of the nail) sarva eve suvarnah. Also in the same upanishad it states hiranya dahsmtra. (golden teeth)
    3. Mundaka upanishad states rukma varnam kartaram . Same upanishad says tasya esha vivirunute tanum svAm.
    4. sahasra sirsha purusha sahasraksha sahasra pAd.
    There are many other verses.

    Bhagavatam also states jnAna murtaye, ananda murtim. Pancharatra texts explicitly state that He has a form of bliss and knowledge.

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