Who is God, really?

‘All your life you long to meet God, but you have no concept of God. What type of God will you meet? Everyone says, “I want to see God, I want to see God.” Someone is doing chanting, someone is meditating, someone is talking of Gita, someone is talking of Upanishads. Nobody sees God, it’s all mere talk. Why? Because you don’t have a clear concept.’ — Swami Rama


On the spiritual path, many of us claim to be on the ‘search for God’. We want to connect with the Divine, be one with God, attain God – but what does that actually mean in real terms? I’ve been pondering this question for a while now, especially lately since many outer forms of worship have been falling away for me. The more my worship internalizes and the more I connect with my own truth, the less I realize I actually know. So the question I want to pose in this article is: who or what is God to us? And how do we know?

There is a lovely story about the young Swami Rama. After performing sadhana for some years, he told his Master, a great yogi and sage from Bengal, that he finally wanted to see God, since he hadn’t yet been able to. And so his Master responded that he’d show him God the next morning. That whole night Swami Rama was restless and couldn’t sleep with excitement – tomorrow he’d finally meet God! So, when Swami Rama appeared all groomed and devout in front of his Master the next morning, he was asked, ‘Tell me, what kind of God do you want to see?’ Swami Rama was taken aback and replied, ‘Are there many kinds of God?’ The Master said, ‘No. I want to know what is the concept of God in your mind?’ Swami Rama wasn’t able to answer that question – he didn’t know. And he also realized that because of that, he might not recognize it if God actually appeared to him – his Master could have shown him anything.

And so it is with most of us. We grow up with certain concepts and we are told by our parents that this is what God is. For some, it’s Jesus, for others Allah, for yet others Shiva or Krishna or the Divine Mother. Some believe in God with form, for others God is formless, for some God is within and for some, without. Some people see God in nature or indeed in everything. And according to certain scriptures, everything, absolutely everything is pure consciousness and therefore God. But do we actually have a direct experience of all these concepts and/or deities or are we simply repeating what we have been told?

Divine Mother

I started thinking more about this subject when I studied the Upanishads. In these most illuminating Vedic scriptures, the rishis of olden times speak of ‘the thumb-sized being in the cave of the heart.’ For those sages who spent their lives meditating on the ultimate Reality, God is within; God lives inside our hearts. God, or the Self as they call it, is beyond the mind and thus beyond mind-created concepts, which makes it so hard to grasp. Meditation as well as the presence of an illumined Master, they say, will help us remove the veils that cover this reality. And yet, to those of us who are not enlightened, this is still just a concept. We hear the sages’ reports that sound like travel logs into extra-ordinary realms and we think, ‘how wonderful. If only I could travel there and experience all this.’ It’s like they have given us a road map, though of course, not everybody agrees or resonates with what is being said in the Upanishads.

I am not an illumined sage and so can’t say with authority who or what God is. I can only go with what resonates with me at this stage of my spiritual journey. And to me, the reports of the sages make sense, in particular because there is a tried and tested method of realizing the Self on this path. I’m encouraged by the belief that anyone can reach the goal of Self (or God)-Realization through a combination of hard work and grace. In many religions, this self-responsibility is not encouraged.

My Master Sri Prem Baba, alongside many other Masters, keeps saying that God is love, and that this love can be found in the depths of silence. And indeed, one thing that strikes me is that realized Masters all seem to have one thing in common: they are overflowing with love, joy and compassion. I think because they are always connected with the ultimate Reality and because life as we see it is an optical illusion for them, there is only joy left. For who is hurting whom if everything is one vibrating Self? Would we get angry with our own leg if we broke it? When we no longer see a difference between our Self and other Selves, then the veil of separation has disappeared and that unity, I believe, is God. I remember once seeing a video of Amma in which she licked out the putrid wounds of a leper with joy and thus cured him. She could only do this because she did not see a difference between this man and herself – his Self was her Self and thus only love remained.

Along those lines, yesterday I was talking to my dear friend Swami Ramaswarupananda about the Bhagavad Gita. We were speaking about the incident in which Krishna shows Arjuna his true form, and that awesome form overwhelms Arjuna so much that he begs Krishna to assume his previous form as Arjuna’s friend. And so Swamiji said that life is like this: ‘when you sit in front of me, I see your human form and I completely forget that you are the Divine Mother. I look at the walls and they are just stone, but really they are pure consciousness and thus God.’ If we could always stay connected to this reality that everything is actually consciousness, we’d act completely differently in the world.

Lord Krishna

I’ve also been thinking about worshipping God in the form of a deity. In Hinduism, it’s a really big thing to worship idols representing God with offerings of flowers, incense, light and food. It is said that worshipping a form is necessary for many people, because it’s so hard to connect with a formless God or Reality. The devotee prays to have a vision of this deity, and sometimes, if devotion and longing are strong enough, this happens and this in itself can bring liberation. Adi Shankaracharya, for example, has had such magnificent visions of the Divine Mother that it turned him from a rational Vedantic scholar into an ecstatic devotee. Perhaps this type of transformation happens because the energy of love is so strong that it burns through all the veils of separation. The form of the deity catalyses the love that is inside of us all along, just like a lover has the ability to ignite the passionate love in our hearts that is really the essence of who we are.

Ultimately, we will only know what or who God really is when we reach the stage of Realization. Until then we have to connect with the philosophy that rings true to our inner Being and walk in the footsteps of the mystics who have had this direct experience. For me personally, I love these words by Adi Shankaracharya, which validate the importance of outer worship alongside the notion that everything is ultimately on the inside:

‘Forgive me, o Lord, for three mistakes. First, I know and feel that You are all pervading and omnipresent, and yet I have walked all the way here to worship You within the confines of this temple. Second, I know there is only one non-dual truth, and thus there is no difference between You and me, yet I worship You as though You are different from me and outside of me. Finally, I know that this ‘mistake’ is simply my own mind-created concept – and yet I’m asking You to forgive me.’

My book ‘Meeting Shiva – Falling and Rising in Love in the Indian Himalayas’ is out now on Changemakers Books and BPI India



Living your purpose: reflections on the meaning of karma yoga in modern times


‘The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God. Therefore you must perform every action sacramentally, and be free from all attachment of results.’ – Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita

I have to admit that during my yogic journey, I’ve wrestled with the concept of karma yoga for a good while. The first time I came across karma yoga was in India. A few years ago, I’d landed in an ashram in Rishikesh where I wanted to study yoga. To my surprise, all residents were asked to clean the ashram, serve food or help with building work in their free time. This was called karma yoga, Sanskrit for ‘selfless service’. We were told that altruistic work, carried out without attachment to the fruits of one’s deeds generates good karma, purifies the mind and ultimately leads to moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.

Interesting idea, I thought then. My resistance kicked in almost instantly. Karma yoga?! Surely that’s just a clever way devised to get cheap labour. It was evident that karma yogis worked hard. They cleaned, cooked and built and didn’t receive compensation of any kind, other than the promise of karmic benefits somewhere down the line. Moreover, in many modern ashrams karma yogis were expected to pay for room and board in addition to working all day long. It seemed a bit absurd to me, and I resolved that I wouldn’t fall for this.

A few years and a few ashram living experiences on, my views and understanding of karma yoga have changed considerably. I understand now that in traditional ashrams, the practice is used to generate an attitude of equanimity, surrender and non-attachment to likes and dislikes. It’s actually a valuable tool that helps us to work through our resistances and to observe our minds. Do we always want to do well? Do we expect praise? Do we always want to do what we enjoy, or can we generate the same joy while cleaning the bathrooms?

I think one of the problems is that many ashrams nowadays are commercial enterprises, and this can overshadow the purity of karma yoga how it was intended. If you can clearly see that an ashram is not a non-profit organization and that the owners are doing very well from running it, then the question of karma yoga becomes redundant. Volunteering there can still be a valuable experience, but this volunteering shouldn’t be called ‘selfless service for God’.

But there’s still something that puzzles me. In the Gita, it says that actions must be free from all attachment of results. ‘Do your duty, always; but without attachment. That is how a man reaches the ultimate truth; by working without anxiety about results.’ That, in my opinion, is a very interesting point. Karma yoga in ashrams aside, how does this apply to the modern world? A good friend of mine, the writer Tony Crisp, always used to laugh at me when I went to ashrams to clean and cook. He spends his days writing books and articles and answering people’s queries about dreams and the inner life – for free. ‘That’s my karma yoga’, he used to say. He writes because this is what is natural to him; he uses this innate gift to share it with the world and as a tool for transformation. He doesn’t care whether he earns money from it or not; he does it because he loves it. Sometimes he earns money and that’s fine; at other times he doesn’t and he lives frugally, that’s fine, too. He trusts that his needs are taken care of as long as he is sharing his gifts with the world freely.

I have yet another friend who takes this attitude to an even higher level. Beth Forster of Mosaic Magazine in the UK not only publishes the magazine because of her love of spirituality, she actually pays for all of the printing costs herself and doesn’t use advertising to make up for them. For a long time, the magazine was available for free; now she sells it at a very low price and has the shops who sell it keep 100% of the sale price. Crazy, a commercial-minded person would think. And Beth is not a millionaire: she has used her own savings, and just when they ran out and she wasn’t sure whether she could afford printing any more, she inherited some money that secured the future of the magazine. Recently, people have come forward voluntarily and offered donations to pay for further printing. Such is the extent of her trust – producing the magazine is Beth’s gift to the world, and she believes that she will be supported for as long as she is meant to do so.

Maybe this is the modern interpretation of karma yoga. As you may know from reading this blog, I am very fond of Sri Prem Baba, a Brazilian Saint, who fuses the wisdom of East and West and puts it into a contemporary context. In his book ‘From Suffering to Joy’, he says: ‘Each person brings certain gifts and talents to this world. You have to give what you came here to give. You brought the gifts – are you going to hide them away in the closet? Karma yoga, the path of service, means giving your gifts away with love and tenderness. In this way you fulfil the purpose of your birth. This love takes you to God.’

This – the knowledge that I had certain gifts to share – has always been my struggle with the karma yoga of the ashrams. I thought – if I already know what my gifts and talents are, then why should I spend all of my time cleaning and gardening? What happens to these talents if I am too busy to share them? Of course, these thoughts came to me when I was considering living in ashrams for a long period of time, not just a visit of several weeks or months. And I am aware that cleaning and gardening have to be done, but there should be a balance between the tasks that are necessary and the task that we came here to do.

I truly believe that we all have a purpose in life and certain gifts to share. Many of us don’t become aware of those gifts until later in life, unless we are very lucky. And many of us, though we may know what our gifts are, can’t live them out fully because we have a family to support and are dependent on a steady wage. But for those of us on the spiritual path, for those of us whose human self has submitted to the will of a deeper truth, of a calling, nothing else can work. We have no choice but to share our gifts with the world, no matter what, because that’s the truth of our existence. And I also believe that in cases of such surrender, the Universe will create ways for us to have abundance as well. Prem Baba says that ‘the spiritually mature person knows that their actions are governed by the heart’s intent, and that money is a natural consequence of their actions. Work, often perceived as a burden, now is transformed into service and becomes a precious gift given to others from the depths of one’s being.’

There’s yet another aspect to ‘fruit of one’s labour’ – and that is success and recognition. For many people, money may even be secondary as long as they are recognized and admired for their work. Maybe this is even more seductive than money. In the yoga world, there are suddenly so many ‘stars’ – affluent, beautiful, famous people with a large following. I find this to be an interesting phenomenon. In the old days, the yogic teaching tradition was mostly 1:1. An accomplished yogi did his or her best to stay anonymous, and the students had a hard time finding him/her, and an even harder time to get accepted as a student. The yogi didn’t really care about having students or fame. This way of teacher-student relationship has always appealed to me, both as a student and as a teacher. The teaching carries much more depth in this way, and if I can transform just one student’s life with my teaching, isn’t my purpose fulfilled? But this type of teaching is hard to sustain in our reward-driven society, and requires a huge amount of surrender.

Of course, everything ultimately depends on what your goal is. I once read an interesting story in a book about Amma. It talked about a filmmaker who wanted to make a documentary about Amma. Amma in turn had him do all sorts of tasks – cleaning, milking the cows, chopping vegetables and so on – until he was completely transformed. He arrived at a stage where he wasn’t attached to filmmaking any longer: he enjoyed all tasks equally. And that is liberation, of course. If we think that our desires and thus our talents are karmas, then it is liberation if we are released from those karmas. But I do remember thinking upon reading this story: ‘oh, what a pity about the filmmaking talent. He could have enriched a lot of people’s lives with his films.’ Yes – he can also enrich people’s lives through cleaning, but I’d say that the main result from his interaction with Amma was the loosening of his attachments and karmas.

So, it’s all good and valid. For me, until I am enlightened, Prem Baba’s view currently makes the most sense. Share your gifts and talents generously without attachment to rewards and results. Do your work dutifully, to the best of your ability, and surrender everything else – financial gain, success, recognition – to the will of the Divine.  What matters is that the love flows through you. When you live your truth and are centered in your heart, the lives of those around you are enriched and transformed automatically.