It may be a simplification to say, “There are two kinds of people in the world,” but often this seems to be true. Certainly it is with men and woman (leaving aside a few hermaphrodites) and I’m coming to believe that such is the case concerning our conceptions about God.
Some people are attracted to the idea that God is beyond being, formless, inconceivable, pure mystery, unfathomable through our usual organs of cognition and perception. nirguna, to use a Hindu term.
Others find this vision of God too distant, too detached, too abstract. They are drawn to a saguna divinity that has a form, attributes, personality, and can be related to as a father, mother, friend, spouse, or other familiar human connection.
Of course, no one is 100% nirguna or saguna, just as no one is 100% masculine or feminine. However, my experience is that this distinction between God as formless or with form is central to how a person looks upon religion and spiritual practice. Put two nirgunas in a room and likely they’ll get along great, even if one is a Christian and one is a Muslim.
For if you can’t say anything about the nature of God, there’s nothing to argue about. But two sagunas who belong to different religions are apt to disagree vociferously about whether God is best worshipped through the form, say, of Jesus or of Krishna. They will also debate what form of worship or ritual is most pleasing to their personalized deity.
I’ve always been much more of a formless guy. I tilt strongly in the nirguna direction. My attempts to be a loving, obedient, faithful devotee of a personal divinity (alive or dead, human or ethereal) always felt strained to me. Outwardly I could fold my hands and prostrate myself as the genuine spiritual bhaktis (lovers) did, but rarely did this feel authentic.
Quite often I’ve been told that I live too much in my head, that my spirituality is overly intellectual, that I should stop thinking so much. I respond with the thought, “Thanks for the advice. I am who I am, though.” It’s difficult to understand another person. Our natural tendency is to assume that our way is the only way.
Love is wonderful. However, there are an infinity of ways to love. It is possible to love the formless just as ardently as some form. It is equally possible to passionately love impersonal universal truth, this being much of the motivation for the sacrifices scientists make in their efforts to lay bare the laws of nature.
Yesterday I talked by phone with a friend. We spoke, as we always do, about both worldly and spiritual matters. He said that the older he gets, the more he’s struck by how grace lies at the heart of his vision of spirituality.
Grace, to him, means an undeserved gift. Genuinely humble, my friend doesn’t feel that his own efforts are capable of leading him closer to divinity. “I’m waiting for God’s grace,” he said. “Or the guru’s grace, which perhaps amounts to the same thing.”
I was moved by his evident sincerity. I could tell by the tone of his voice that he was speaking of matters that can barely be spoken of, even to oneself.
After our conversation was over I got to thinking about my own conception of grace. I don’t believe that there is a personal being out there (or in here) who turns on the Grace Dispensary when a deserving soul comes to his or her attention. That may be the case, but it strikes me as an anthropomorphic saguna conception.
Being so nirgunish, I consider that existence itself is grace, for it is utterly undeserved. Existence simply is and I’m grateful for it, since otherwise neither I, nor anything else, would be. Everything that exists in existence similarly is grace.
The laws of nature and all that the laws produce: energy, matter, consciousness. All grace. Our ability to experience existence in all of its marvelous diversity. More grace. As is the possibility that we can go beyond mere awareness of materiality and tune into higher spiritual realities.
My conception of grace is decidedly impersonal, but it fills me with as much awe and thankfulness as my friend’s personal vision. One of us is largely nirguna and the other is largely saguna, but what we share is more important than our differences: we’re both trying to swim to the other shore.
Here’s what Huston Smith has to say about spiritual swimming in his book, The World’s Religions:
The personalist [saguna] will see little religious availability in this idea of a God who is so far removed from our predicaments as to be unaware of our very existence. Is it not religion’s death to despoil the human heart of its final treasure, the diamond of God’s love?
The answer is that God serves an entirely different function for the transpersonalist [nirguna], one that is equally religious., but different all the same. If one is struggling against a current it is comforting to have a master swimmer by one’s side.
It is equally important that there be a shore, solid and serene, that lies beyond the struggle as the terminus of all one’s splashings. The transpersonalist has become so obsessed by the goal as to forget all else, even the encouragement of supporting companions.
(Here is how a thoughtful Hindu bridges nirguna and saguna.)