‘Signs of Christ’ – Nicholas Roerich, 1924 – WikiArt
“The knowing of ‘I am’
is the apparition of God’s being
in our human experience.
It is the being of all beings,
the self of all selves.”
~ Rupert Spira
יהוה الله ईश्वर
There is something that is very hard to understand about God. A survey of the names that have been given to god makes it unequivocally clear, but we keep missing the target: ‘Being’, ‘Mighty Being’, ‘I Am’, and so many others, refer to the fundamental equation of god with ‘being’, with our very everyday experience of plain, simple, pure being. And yet, we keep projecting the presence of god in an hypothetical outside, another ‘being’ that our very ‘being’. So it seems that a study of the different names of god will help focusing on the fundamental nature of god’s being, this mighty Being whose being rests unseen, unnoticed in our own being.
Etymologically, the word ‘god’ (Proto-Germanic ‘gudan’) finds its root meaning in the ancient ritual of sacrifice, as in ‘libation’, or ‘to pour’, or in the Sanskrit ‘hutá’, meaning ‘having been sacrificed’. So god is ‘the one to whom sacrifices are made’, which extends to the sense of calling, invoking. To whom or what do I give the primary attention in myself? Do I indulge in, or fall to any objective appearance as thoughts, sensations, perceptions? Or do I sacrifice these appearances and find rest in the stillness of the one that is aware of these, which is pure being? To whom does my pouring, my libation go?
This sense of ‘invoking’, ‘giving attention to’ can be observed in many other old languages like in Greek, where the word for god ‘theos’ is connected with ‘to look at’, ‘to observe’. The French word ‘dieu’, from the Latin ‘deus’, comes from an Indo-European root (‘dei’) meaning ‘to shine’, ‘to be bright’, as in ‘day’ — denoting the ‘brightness of the day’ — or in words like ‘deva’ in India, or the English ‘deity’. What part of our self do we give importance to? Where is this bright, shining part of our self? Does it repose in the known, the objects of experience, or in the knowing, this part inside us that is aware, that illumines every thing known? Even the Slavic word ‘bog’, which means ‘well-being’, ‘fortune’, ‘the dispenser of wealth’, refers indirectly to this knowing, luminous place in ourself. For where does peace or happiness itself reside, but in the stillness present in simply ‘being’? We all know how the attempt of securing happiness in objective experience can be a deceitful enterprise.
So a quick survey of the etymologies of the words used to convey ‘god’ is making it already irrevocably clear, for they are covering the famous and encompassing Hindu concept of ‘sat chit ananda’, which refers to both the knowing and inherently peaceful nature contained in simply ‘being’. Let us now move to the names that have been given to God in the various spiritual traditions of the world, and see if they tell us a different story.
In the ancient religion of Judaism, the name for god is a four-letter Hebrew word spelled ‘YHWH’ — the Tetragrammaton or tetragram, which in Greek means ‘[consisting of] four letters’. This name has an interesting story which its strange spelling tells us. No vowels were used in the ancient Hebrew writing, and the word’s original vocalisation has been forgotten. Because of this loss, the name of god is called the unpronounceable name. Orthodox Jews are not allowed to pronounce it aloud. The warning is clear: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exodus 20:7), states the third of the Ten Commandments. This interdiction and the quote from the Bible are both heavy with meaning. It says something like: it is vain to invoke god in a place other than in your heart. God is not a concept, or an ‘other than yourself’. It is a mistake to name it, objectify it. God is the felt presence that is our very being, and pervades experience. We borrow our being to the being of god itself, which is pure consciousness. God is without substance, empty, silent, ‘thin air’, which is why the Greek word for god is related to the Indo-European root ‘dhu̯es’, meaning ‘smoke’, ‘spirit’. Moreover, the word YHWH is derived from a root which means ‘to be’, ‘the one who is — or is revealed’. But this word shows even more magic, for in its causative form, its meaning is transformed into ‘the one who makes things be — who creates’. But the implications of this new meaning will be explored later.
‘She who holds the world’ – Nicholas Roerich, 1933 – WikiArt
“All that God is is being.
God knows nothing but being,
he is conscious of nothing but being;
being is his ring.”
~ Meister Eckhart (Sermon 82)
The Christians were not implicated by the ban, and have pronounced the Tetragrammaton as ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Jehovah’. But many other names for god have been used in the Bible, like for example ‘Abba’, which means ‘father’. It conveys to us the idea of being a descendant. Are we not a descendant, or a progeny of god, when we derive our being from god’s being? By realising our true identity as consciousness or being, rather than a collection of thoughts and feelings as a ‘person’, we are like the prodigal son who turns his back on his journey outwards and returns to the father, who is no other than our intimate being. ‘Adonai’, which denotes respect, majesty, authority, is another such name of god used in the Bible. Who could invite more respect than the one intimate sense of being that is the origin and substance of all experience? What could be more majestic than the infinite presence of god’s being which pervades the being of all beings and of all things, as the universe? Why do you think did one begin to kneel before god? Do we not find in god’s being, as in our very own being, the eternal giver of love, beauty, and peace?
And what of god’s name ‘El Elyon’, whose root meaning is ‘to ascend’, ‘to go up’, and is often translated as ‘the Most High’? We have always had the intuition of the lower nature of objective experience. Inversely, the experience of god — this simple ‘being’ at the core of ourself — is something to look up to. God as our foremost, innermost being is higher for it transcends everything, and contains or is knowing — is the substance of — all beings and things. In comparison to our suffering, the peace of being appears to be remote, aloof; its beauty unattainable. And the love that is experienced in being truly only ‘being’, in being only with ‘being’, is the ultimate gift of intimacy, the mariage of our being with god’s being, which is why, in some traditions, god is often called the ‘beloved’.
‘El Olam’ is another name for god found in the Bible. Its meaning is ‘eternal’, ‘unchanging’. Presence indeed never changes. It stays in the background as pure being, never fading, or failing, or disappearing, or diminishing. In being we are being eternally, not in the objective appearances which we experience as fleeting and time bound, like thoughts, feelings, perceptions. The meaning of ‘El Roi’, another name attributed to god, is ‘all-seeing’. Absolutely everything in our life that appears, exists, pops up like a thought, stays and lingers like a feeling, imposes itself through the senses like a vision, or a sound, has the capacity to be seen, heard, felt, experienced, known by a presence that is always here quietly in the background, and that we have named by the simple word ‘I’ or the sense ‘I am’. This presence, this feeling of just ‘being’, has an all-seeing, all-powerful, all-transcendant nature that needs to be fully revealed. That’s where the name ‘Elohim’ comes in, that insists on the creative power of god. “In the beginning, Elohim [god] created the heavens and the earth”, can we read in Genesis (1:1). ‘Elohim’, although used as singular, is written in a plural form. Since it simply means ‘god’, it could therefore be translated as the ‘god-gods’. Could this be a hint for the all-inclusive nature of ‘being’, which turns out to be the very fabric of all things? For every thing or appearance is made of, or borrows its reality from, pure consciousness. This is how god creates. This is how god’s face can be seen everywhere. This is how every thing is ultimately the name of god.
Most of the time in our lives, the inner sense ‘I am’ is concealed by the pervasive and exclusive attention given to objective experience. And that is really an unfortunate thing. For this simple sense of ‘being’ is in the Bible clearly stated as being the name of god. In Exodus 3:13-14, god was asked by Moses to reveal his true name so that the children of Israel could be informed. And god said to him: “I Am that I Am: […] Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you.” ‘I Am that I Am’, this is the name of god. This statement has the power to silence anyone. “I AM can be spoken by no creature, but by God alone.” said Meister Eckhart.
‘Mohammed the Prophet’ – Nicholas Roerich, 1925 – WikiArt
“He is God — One and Indivisible;
God — the Sustainer ‘needed by all’.
He has never had offspring, nor was He born.
And there is none comparable to Him.”
~ The Quran (Chapter 112)
Islam is the religion of surrender. This is what ‘Islam’ means: ‘submission [to God]’. We are indeed already totally surrendered to ‘being’, which is a presence unquestionable, undefiable, in contrast to all objective appearances for which we always feel some kind of resistance. We have a constant defiance towards our thoughts, feelings and perceptions. We question them, find them cumbersome, are unfaithful to them, in conflict with them, uncertain about them. Being provokes no such thing. It is natural, easy, obvious. It is the very breath of life, contrary to everything that is ‘other’, that is objective, at a distance, and seem to make us slightly short of breath.
Islam is also the religion of praise, especially in the Sufi tradition, where exists the practice of the ‘remembrance of god’, or ‘dhikr Allah’. By contemplating some of the names of god, one invites the very same qualities that the word invokes to be felt in and as one’s very own being. This is union, or communion (‘visal’), whereby we discover, or rather uncover, within the experience of our self, that ultimate being which is in truth god’s being. Or this is annihilation (‘fana’), whereby we are led to dissolve our separate sense of self, born of everything objective and fleeting, into our only true identity, which is pure being. In this we die before we die.
Amongst the 99 names attributed to god in Islam, ‘Allāh’ is the most used and revered. It simply means ‘the god’ (‘al-ilāh’), with the second part ‘ilāh’ coming from a root which means ‘lofty’, ‘hidden’. In the Quran 2:255, it is said: “Allah! There is no deity but Him, the Alive, the Eternal. Neither slumber nor sleep overtaketh Him.” In this tradition, god is wholly transcendent and is never attributed a human form. All the various names for god describe some of the qualities found in only ‘being’. God is for example ‘The Watchful’, for pure being is never even for an instant not knowing, not awaring. God is also ‘The One, Indivisible’, ‘The Source of Peace’, ‘The Shaper of Beauty’, ‘The Compassionate’, ‘The Friendly’, ‘The Truth’, ‘The Praiseworthy’, ‘The Eternal’, all names by now self-explanatory, considering our now close acquaintance with the qualities found in pure being.
While performing ‘dhikr’ or remembrance, one can choose to utter any such sacred names. Look inside yourself how pure being is running in the background as the ‘Absolute Breath or Soul of Life’. It supports and pervades all objective appearance, and without it, nothing could ever exist or find its ground. It is therefore the ‘Giver of Life’. But be careful here. Being is all there is, and the appearances as thoughts, feelings, perceptions, do not have a life of their own. They are only ‘being’ dancing within itself, creating new shapes, but staying always only being. You, as a separate, self-existing person, are not truly there. Therefore being is the ‘Bringer of Death’. Being has itself no name or identity, no substance, but can give name, identity, substance, to a whole array of beings and things. Feel how being is thus the ‘Omnipotent, Selfless, Absolute Soul and Holy Spirit’.
In the Islamic tradition, many of these sacred utterances are commonly used in life, punctuating a phrase when beginning a new venture, or hoping for a future event, or in praise for the good life. ‘If God wills’ (‘in shā’a llāh’); ‘In the name of God’ (‘bi-smi llāh’); ‘Praise be to God’ (‘al-ḥamdu li-llāh’) are all such kinds of remembrance of god, praise or prayer, little internal ‘dhikr’ performed during the day, amongst daily living. There is one utterance that has a particularly sacred flavour and meaning, and this is the one saying, ‘There is no God but God’ (‘lā ilāha illā llāh’). Its meaning is something like: Observe how the content of any of your experience does not have a reality of its own, but is in fact made of the only being there is, which is god’s being showing itself as your own true and only being. In other words, being is all there ever is. Or I Am that I Am. ‘There is no God but God’.
‘Bhagavan’ – Nicholas Roerich, 1943 – WikiArt
“The light by which you see the world, which is God,
is the tiny little spark: ‘I am,’ apparently so small,
yet the first and the last in every act of knowing and loving.”
~ Nisargadatta Maharaj
In India, there is a profusion of gods, among which many have a human form. But let’s for the moment concentrate on the few terms that are used to define god in Hinduism. One of them is ‘Ishvara’, which means ‘Supreme Lord, or King’, ‘Supreme Being’. Etymologically, ‘īś-‘ means ‘ruler’, ‘capable of’, and ‘vara’ ‘best’, ‘beautiful’, or ‘blessing’. So Ishwara literally means, the ‘owner of the best and beautiful’, as is pure being when it stands free of all objective appearances that seem to conceal it, and make it appear secondary. In the Yoga Sutras I.24, Ishvara is “that special Self which is unaffected by one’s obstacles and hardships, one’s circumstances created by past or one’s current actions, one’s life fruits, and one’s psychological dispositions or intentions.” To which is added in Isha Upanishad (I.5-7): “When to a man who understands, the Self has become all things, what sorrow, what trouble can there be to him who once beheld that unity?”
‘Bhagavān’ is another such word used for god. It is related to the root ‘bhaj’ meaning ‘to revere’, ‘to adore’, and is used for a being that is ‘glorious’, ‘divine’, ‘blessed’. See how it cognates with the Slavic word for god ‘bog’ that we have seen and also means ‘fortune’, ‘wealth’. Here is how pure being, or god, is defined in the Vishnu Purana (VI.5): “The word Bhagavat is a convenient form to be used in the adoration of that supreme being, to whom no term is applicable; and therefore Bhagavat expresses that supreme spirit, which is individual, almighty, and the cause of causes of all things.” We find even traces of the term in Buddhist Pali literature where Bhagavan is described in this elegant manner: “Thus is the Buddha, deserving homage, perfectly awakened, perfect in true knowledge and conduct, well gone to Nirvana, knower of the worlds, incomparable leader (lit. charioteer) of persons to be tamed, teacher of gods and humans, awakened one and Blessed One.”
But of all the words that have been used to define god, ‘Brahman’ is the one that contains the less objectivity, and seems to have been designed to prevent god being personified. Brahman is the formless, pervading reality that contains everything, but eludes description or conceptualisation. In Sanskrit, that word simply means ‘highest’, ‘supreme’. It is the highest self, this part of ourself that is foremost, original, and is therefore not limited by thoughts, feelings, or perceptions. It is the supreme sense of being, the only one that can truly say ‘I Am’. It is described in the Mundaka Upanishad as: “the one which cannot be seen, nor seized, which has no origin, no qualities, no hips, nor ears, no hands, nor feet, one that is the eternal, all-pervading, infinitesimal, imperishable.” The tradition hosts many ‘great sayings’ (‘mahā-vākyas’) borrowed from the Upanishads that asserts the fundamental nature of that supreme ‘being’: ‘I Am Brahman’ or ‘The Self is Brahman’ (found in Brihadaranyaka Upanishad), and ‘That [Brahman] is One, without a second’ or ‘Thou art That’ (found in Chandogya Upanishad).
What more can be said, other than we find the trace of an identity with ‘being’ even in the names of the main personified gods of Hinduism? Should we say, for example, that the name ‘Krishna’ means both ‘dark’ and ‘all attractive’, just as the nature of ‘being’ is both the light of knowing and the darkness of the unformed? Should we say that ‘Brahma’ is of a neuter gender and means ‘to be or make strong, or solid’, just as ‘being’ is the rock solid ground where reality rests and finds its being? Should we say that ‘Vishnu’ means ‘all pervasive’ or the ‘one who is everything and inside everything’, just like ‘being’ pervades intimately all beings and all things? Should we say that ‘Shiva’ is the one ‘in whom all things lie’, who is ‘auspicious’, ‘benevolent’, which refers to both the knowing and peaceful nature of ‘being’? Should we say that the name ‘Ganesha’ means ‘the lord of the multitude’, and is also the remover of obstacles, just like the nature of ‘being’ is to host every single appearance without being limited by them? It has therefore the keys for a smooth and easy life. Should we also say that in the ‘Lalita Sahasranama’, the book of ‘The Thousand Names of The Divine Mother’, one reads: “She is in the form of inner Self of all living beings. When someone says ‘I’, it actually means Her, as She is the Self.”?
So… How more clear does this need to be? On what ground did we race outside to search for God’s presence? If I need to call God, to name God, I have to say ‘I Am’. God says ‘I am that I am’. God is ‘I am’. How objective is that? If I feel in myself the sense ‘I am’, I am in conversation with God. I am calling God’s essence to show Itself into my essence. All that God is, is here, in ‘I am’, in ‘being’. And all creation is also the product or expression of that unique being, of that ‘I am’. That’s why god has been named the creator, has been said to be behind all creation. ‘I am’ is the essence, the ultimate name of all that which seemingly is, or exists. ‘I am’ is the origin and the created, the creator and the creation. Everything that exists, that ‘stands out’, is contained in the very being that I am now. Amen. ‘Let it be so’.
“This Being (neuter) entered all beings, he became the overlord of all beings.
That is the Atman (Soul, Self) within and without – yea, within and without!”
~ Maitri Upanishad (5.2)
Text by Alain Joly
Paintings by Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947)
– ‘Being Myself’ – by Rupert Spira – (New Harbinger Publications)
– ‘Meister Eckhart, Selected Writings’ – Translated by Oliver Davies – (Penguin Classics)
– ‘I Am That’ – by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj – (Chetana Pvt.Ltd)
– ‘99 Names of God: An Illustrated Guide for Young & Old’ – by Daniel Thomas Dyer – (Chickpea Press Ltd)
– Other ‘Essays’ from the blog…
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