A few weeks ago, a pastor-friend shared a question that her four-year-old-son had asked on Facebook: In the beginning, when it was all darkness, did God have all the colors inside?
This question was posed in response to the Christian story of Creation coming into being out of darkness. As God spoke the names of various aspects of Creation (according to one version), they came into being. Light. Color. Time. Dimensions. Matter. Water. Trees. The Christian story begins with creation occurring in a “formless and desolate” field, making no mention of where the new creation came from, what was there before, or why this differentiation of unbounded energy into moving, time-bound matter was performed.
Although posed in a Christian context, to my Hindu ears this question evoked the relationship of form and formlessness that is so integral to our theology. While Abrahamic theology holds an ontological division between Creator and Creation,* in most Hindu traditions the division does not exist. All of existence is one unified whole, whose essence is essential truth, complete knowledge, and pure joy, which is simultaneously unified and still, and complex and variegated. Every moment of life, no matter how mundane or how dark, is literally Divine. A famous (and favorite) shloka, the invocation to the Sri Isa Upanishad, states:
Om purnamadah purnamidam
Purnat purnam udachyate
Purnam eva vashishyate
Both Spirit and Matter are whole, perfect, and infinite.
From the Divine wholeness, this material wholeness comes.
Anything taken from that Spirit leaves it full and whole
Wholeness/Infinity remains whole/infinite.
As a person prone to judgment and to self-judgment, I find this shloka a balm. It soothes me and helps me shift from a judging perspective to feeling the integral harmony, perfection, and peace of the world as it is now. In addition to affirming the perfection of existence now, this shloka also speaks to the relationship between the variegated, colorful, ever-changing material existence and the Divine source from which it emanates. Yes, Eli, God did have all the colors inside.
At the time my friend shared her son’s question, I was immersed in the Devi Mahatmya, a set of three stories told by a sage to two seekers about the manifestation and activities of the Divine Feminine. In the early part of the text, the Divine personality Brahma offers prayers to the Goddess, seeking to attract Her attention and benevolence. Among his many prayers is the laudation:
‘You are the triple-matra of AUM as well as the half-matra in the form of a dot which cannot be pronounced.’ (1:74)
This esoteric grammatical reference caught my eye. It is common in prayers such as these for the form of the Divine being addressed to be described in opposite extremes, such as the largest of mountains and the smallest of plants. These contrasting prayers silence the mind’s constant wrestlings to “figure out” what God is about and melt the heart with God’s aesthetic range. What struck me about this prayer, beyond the aesthetically pleasing contrast, was the theological message it carries. The mantra AUM invokes the universe: creation, formless Brahman, all sounds, all knowledge, consciousness, the cycle of waking, dream, and deep sleep. The dot (the bindu, or mark indicating the nasal sound) represents the point from which all this creation emanates. The Goddess is both of these. In a way, this prayer adds a layer to Eli’s question: The creation, the source of creation, and the creator are all one!
O Goddess! by you is this world nurtured and by you it is always brought to dissolution. You are the form of this creation when it is in the process of being created and you are the form of its sustenance when it is sustained. And since, O Pervasive Power of the Universe (Jaganmayi), this world is composed of you, you are the form of annihilation at its end. You are knowledge, illusion, intelligence, and memory.
*Mystical traditions rooted in the Abrahamic traditions often challenge this division, and I do not discount them; but the everyday theology is dualistic.