Monotheism or Polytheism?


This article has been transcribed from the September 2001 issue of "The Theosophical Movement," a publication of Theosophy Company (India).

No subject in the entire range of philosophic thought has provoked as much discussion, both sublime and ridiculous, as the subject of God. Religion has always claimed the privilege of possessing knowledge of Deity. But, while some of the lines of philosophic thought have been helpful in clearing human speculation and conjecture, theology in the East as in the West has only made confusion worse confounded. We must distinguish at the outset between theology and philosophy. One is sectarian, the other is universal. Theologians make poor philosophers because they are partial to their own religious creed, and instead of seeking truth, are only eager to prove a dogma already asserted. Take Christian theology, or Islamic theology, or Hindu theology, and one will not only not see daylight in the befogged atmosphere; one is also likely to become a partisan, a dogmatic asserter, and to develop into a fanatic.

So in the study of our subject we shall avoid theology and go to philosophy. The religious confusion prevalent everywhere today may be traced to the blunder of the theologian and the priest. When the priest abandoned the way of the philosopher and followed the theologian, his knowledge became belief. In the olden days, priests were philosophers; and more, occultists or yogis, who knew the truths and facts about God, Spirit, Atman. Universality was the keynote of the teachings of the ancient world. Take India, for example: philosophers studied fundamental problems from different points of view; therefore the six schools of Indian philosophy are called Darshamas. That was in the days of old.

In our study we must reject dogma and belief and seek the truth. It does not mean that we should reject religion; it means that we must study religion. We must demand from religion what we demand from science—reasonable arguments that convince the mind without revolting the heart; we must also demand from religion what we demand from applied science. "The proof of the pudding is in the eating," as the adage goes; and if the teachings of religion, any religion, are true, they must prove their usefulness.

It is in that spirit of vigorous search and inquiry, to satisfy our reason, to gain practical knowledge as to how to live and how to labor and to love, that we must go to the study of our subject.

Is there one God or are there many gods? That is a general question we have to consider in the spirit of philosophic inquiry. Generally speaking people do not wait to inquire what monotheism and polytheism actually mean. If they did, they would first have to define the word "theism." Words have become tombs instead of what they should be—shrines; words are now graves of dead ideas, while they ought to be living temples conveying the truth of the ideas they contain. Theologians quarrel over mono (one) and poly (many) gods; philosophers see the interrelationship because of the word Theos (god). One God or many gods? But what is God?

Theologians and priests of all religions confuse the mind and bring to birth sectarians. The Christian goes to church to pray, but he is rarely able to define to whom or to what he prays; let him examine the foundations of his church, the soul of his church-ceremonials, and he cannot escape belief in a personal god. The ordinary Christian does not directly believe in an old, bearded person beyond the sky, but indirectly, in a thousand ways, the influence of that nefarious idea works its evil.

Similarly, the ordinary Hindu holds to his own caste or subcaste god. Worshippers of Shiva are pitted against worshippers of Vishnu; nay more, one kind of Vishnu-worshipper abhors another type of Vishnu-worshipper. Wrong polytheism among Hindus, wrong monotheism among Christians, is all too common. Religious customs and habits have their meaning, their influence, good or bad, and it is not our place as students of Theosophy to ridicule or to attack the faith of any person. But what Theosophy does require and does say is this: seek the meaning of religious customs and teachings, and discriminate between grain and chaff, between the light and the shadows that are cast.

So let us examine these two concepts, monotheism and polytheism, away from the atmosphere of religious theologies. Let us study them by the help of modern science, to begin with. Science is said to be godless; it is, but in two senses only. It is godless because it rejects the degrading god—carnal, anthropomorphic, a god separate and distinct from his universe, who creates the souls of men and plunges them here on earth to suffer. Science is godless in another sense; it says, "From knowledge so far acquired we do not see any reason to posit any force or power independent of matter, and all that can be said is that we do not yet know the final basis of that which we call Matter." That, too, Theosophy understands and accepts; but Theosophical philosophy goes further. The Occultist, the real Yogi, is the scientist par excellence, and he says, "Observation and experimentation carried on for millennia by my predecessors teach the truth about the One Reality and its myriad powers and aspects. They have solved the problem of the One in the many, and the many in the One."

In chemistry, in physics, in biology, modern knowledge has gone far enough to assert that the universe has as its foundation a single homogeneous something—call it matter, call it substance, call it form, or call it life. The physicist and the chemist are searching for that homogeneous substance. They are pursuing that which the old Indian scientific philosophers called Mulaprakriti, root of Matter, or Pradhana, primordial undifferentiated Substance. The modern scientist may be called a Svabhavika, belonging to that Buddhist school of thought which taught that nothing else exists in the universe save and except Svabhavat. So modern science is distinctly monotheistic—pursuing the One Substance-Principle, the One material basis, Upadhi. If the chemist and the physicist are seeking that One in the shape of Substance, the biologist is seeking that One under the name of Life. The biologist also says that all forms of life, organic, inorganic, human or sub-human, are but transformations, permutations and combinations of the One Life, and what that is, admit the biologists, they do not know. So the biologist is also a monotheist.

Turn to the other aspect: Chemistry and physics teach that while it is true that the basis of the manifested universe is a homogeneity, the evolutionary process brings into existence forms of matter, with differing intelligences. Chemists classify the contents of the universe in one way, physicists in another way, biologists in a third way, and so on; but all agree that substance, force, life, divides, and sub-divides itself—the one becomes the many. If one studies ancient science as explained in Theosophy, one finds that the range of the area examined is vaster: Science of Yoga or Occultism covers the visible and the invisible, material and energic and spiritual universe, while modern science confines itself to the visible and the material, looking upon everything else as resulting from that visible and material.

How did ancient science or Theosophy explain the problem of God or Deity? It of course rejects any personal god outside of the universe, but it teaches God as an infinite and invisible Presence. Theosophy calls upon us not to believe or to accept blindly, but to study and meditate with a view to learning the truth. The Yogis, the true Occultists, learned of this infinite and invisible Presence by scientific experimentation. The difference between the Yogi and the modern scientist is that the former develops his instruments of observation and experimentation within himself and thus acquires knowledge by experience, which knowledge is verifiable by repetition of the same experience.

Theosophy teaches both monotheism and polytheism combined. Three propositions simply put are advanced in Theosophy: (1) There is One Life, omnipresent, eternal, boundless, omnipotent. (2) There is One Law inherent in that One Life, which is the Law of Progression, of Becoming. (3) There are myriads of forms of life resulting from the interplay of the One Life and the One Law. Life ever is, therefore it is named Be-ness. Law is ever at work, therefore it is named Becoming. Forms of life resulting from these two are many, millions upon millions, and they are named Beings. Be-ness, Becoming, Being—in these three words Theosophy offers its teaching about God or Deity.

Each one of us is a being; but moment by moment, through the hours and the months and the years, we change, we are always and ever becoming something different from what we have been or are. But within us, even in the process of becoming, is a Presence—call it Soul, call it Spirit, call it Self, call it Atman, call it by any name you please, but it is a Presence. For, it is by that Presence of the deepest Self in us that we are able to cognize, to appreciate and serve the Great Presence in the universe.

We forget the One Presence in enjoying its multifarious expressions. We forget that we understand the universe because we have a mind. What use is the universe of discourse and reason, of wonderful pattern and harmony, to an insane person? So also if we do not get at the spiritual aspect of the universe it is because we do not look to the Soul within, the Divine Presence in the Heart. He alone is a monotheist who sees that the Light of the Heart is the Light of the Universe; all others are polytheists—admirers and worshippers of many secondary lights; they are not wrong in their view and their action, save that they forget the source of the One Light.

The function of religion in the old days was to teach the technique of seeing that One Light and the many lights and their interrelationship; the One Soul and many souls and their kinship which we call Brotherhood, not ordinary brotherhood, but Universal Brotherhood. That holy and important function of religion is now absent and abandoned. True benefactors of humanity have always attempted to bring about religious harmony and soul-attunement among people.

God is the One Life and the One Law, and its knowledge can be obtained if we purify our senses, control our mind and use the Light of the Soul in the Heart. The infinite and invisible Presence is like abstract Light behind the suns and the stars, behind the light of the eyes, behind the light of the mind. As the Mundaka Upanishad puts it: "Within the deepest sheath of the heart is the Light of lights, which only the Knowers of Atma perceive." The human heart contains the Divine Light which is at the Heart of the Universe; so each human being is a god, immortal as Light, ever growing, ever becoming by the power of the Law of that Light; and controlling that Law, he becomes more than the Law. The Enlightened Ones, the Buddhas, are Great Lights, are like the Sun, in whom is focused the Light of the Universe. With confidence but with humility let us live, day by day, the Religion of Light, seeking knowledge and discarding belief, practicing purity and serving our fellow beings, till we too become enlightened, we too show forth the splendor of True Religion.

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