Using ‘Mother’ for God and Nature

In Song 9 I call nature as ‘Mother’. For us in India, the ‘mother’ figure is an all-inclusive term — reverence, respect, love, care, concern, compassion, discipline, sacrifice etc. The order of importance is known commonly as: matha, pitha, guru and daivam (mother, father, guru and God).

Being a bhakta of the Lord, how does this perception about a mother figure need to be approached? I call God ‘mother’ in other songs, so how can I use ‘mother’ for nature too? As I said earlier, some of my thoughts are not endorsed by the Muktiveda. At the same time they are not completely un-muktivedic (unbiblical), as I try to explain that it comments about them.

I cannot quote from the Muktiveda to endorse my view for nature as a ‘mother’. However I find no objection to call nature as ‘mother’ as she continues to give birth to so many creatures, plants, and resources. I am taking care of my mother, and for her needs I even moved out from the ashram. But her place in my life never replaces God’s place in any way. One of the great saying in Tamil is: ‘No temple is greater than mother and no mantra is greater than the word of father.’ (தாயிற் சிறந்த கோயிலும் இல்லை; தந்தை சொல் மிக்க மந்திரமில்லை)  But if we begin to read any theology into such statements we will miss the cultural/social worldview of India. (You can read my further thoughts on a Dogmatic Approach here.)

In India/Hinduism, life is not put into water-tight compartments. Several things overlap with each other and we cannot divide it with any straight line. But if we approach it only with a theological framework then we will miss the inclusive ‘value’ which it tries to promote.

Here I would like to quote one such ‘theological’ approach from McClaren:

…Chesterton wisely noted how a Franciscan view of creation avoids both the profaning of creation so common in the West and the divinization of creation so common in the East:

The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother…The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister…Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi for George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved. [G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (originally published in 1908 and now available from Shaw (1994). P. 120].— Brian McClaren. A Generous Or+thodoxy, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2004. p. 236

The ‘Pantheism of the East’, particularly that of Hinduism viewed from a Christian theological point of view, will never convey its meaning for a common Hindu. First of all, I am not sure whether we Hindus ever call Hinduism ‘Pantheism’. It is a term coined by the outsiders (like the word Hinduism).1 But ‘pan + theism’ for us is acknowledging the ‘sacredness’ of God’s presence in many place in many forms. This is rightly endorsed (perhaps?) by McClaren,

For much of Western Christianity, the doctrine of creation (a biblical term) has been eaten alive by the doctrine of the fall (not a biblical term). In other words, creation’s downfall resulting from human sin has eclipsed its original glow as God’s handiwork, radiant with God’s glory. Make no mistake: Human sin is awful and reprehensible beyond words, and the whole earthly creation suffers because of it. But if, due to an exaggerated doctrine of the fall, God’s creation loses its sacredness as God’s beloved artwork, we have magnified human sin beyond sane bounds—and in fact added to its sad effects….—ibid. p. 234

When one so careful to not lose the enduring glory and continuity of creation, when one takes human sin seriously enough but no more seriously than one should, later elements in the biblical narrative (election, redemption, revelation, salvation, eschaton) are themselves understood and integrated as glorious new unfoldings of continuing creation. Creation may have been swallowed alive by a runaway, exaggerated understanding of “the fall” but, like Jonah, it’s crawling back up the beach.—ibid. p. 235

So my mother shares the same destiny with me as the consequence of Manu’s (Adam) fall, yet because of her ‘role’ in my life I see the ‘sacredness’ of God in her ‘motherhood’. For loving her, serving her and enjoying her seva is also a form of ‘thanksgiving’ and not ‘theology’ for me.

Similarly nature as a sacred work of God can be addressed as ‘Mother Nature’. Polytheism can be dangerous, but not pantheism. These terms ‘polytheism, pantheism, monotheism and monism’ deserve a separate study comparing their meaning in the Muktiveda and neither space nor competence will allow me to do it here. However some scholarly views can help us begin for those who are interested and in the notes I have given some.

My understanding of God’s sacred work in nature is from a bhakti point of view and not theological one. Bhakti to a personal God never divinizes creation but it won’t hesitate to experience the presence of God in it.

‘Every thing is God’ could lead to polytheism. God is in everything could come closer to the Vaishnava doctrine of creation as the body of Vishnu as it emanated from Him. In this doctrine, God is both an ‘efficient and material cause’. This contradicts with the Muktivedic theory of creation, as God created everything out of nothing — ex nihilo. But nature revealing the Glory of God is how my bhakti tries to read His presence in nature.

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Endnotes

1. … ‘pantheism’—a term coined by an English writer, John Toland (1670-1722) to express the idea that all is in God….— Geoffrey A. Oddie.  British Protestant Missionary Constructions of Hinduism, 1793-1900.  New Delhi, SAGE Publications, 2006, p.196.

…pantheism—the deification of the universe as a single vast metadeity or “everything-god” (pantheos).— Thomas McEvilley, Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, (2002), First Indian Edition, 2008. p. 24

…pantheism—the deification of the universe as a single vast metadeity or “everything-god” (pantheos). This preoccupation was in part a by-product of political amalgamations. When power shifted, the priests of the newly dominant group would compose a theology which elevated their god over those of the dominated groups. At such a moment, a Mesopotamian priesthood would imitate the model of the state, declaring that its god was king of the other gods; by contrast, the more metaphysically inclined Egyptians were apt to declare that the newly dominant deity had absorbed the other gods into himself or become them….—ibid. p. 24

The concept of the simultaneously immanent and transcendent pantheos is a transitional concept between mythology, which it compacts beyond recognition, and philosophy, which will unfold from it….—ibid. p.28

…The growing trend towards the impersonalization of God in modern European philosophy had (p.299) posed a serious threat to Christianity which could be counteracted only through a reiteration of faith in the Biblical God, who was personal in nature, and was different from the God of the philosophers.  As a consequence of this, religion and philosophy, which had gone hand in hand till then even in the Western world, were disentangled and rendered apart.  This separation of religion and philosophy was accompanied by the growth of a new mode of theology which was the result of intensive Christian intellectual activity. The Christian theologians now made it explicit, as never before, that religion was a matter of faith and emotion, and not of knowledge and reason.  Acceptance of the philosophical abstractions regarding God was not to be confused with the true belief in God. Theism, therefore, was technically defined as belief in God.  The differentiation between monotheism and monism was an outcome of this definition of theism, and the principle of division between religion and philosophy.  Monotheism was defined as belief in One Personal God; and the philosophical explanations of the oneness of God in impersonal terms, as either pantheism or monism.— Krishna Sharma, ‘Towards a New Perspective’ in  David N. Lorenzen. Religious Movements in South Asia 600-1800. New Delhi, Oxford, 2004, pp. 299-300

…Hinduism in which religion and philosophy have always remained interconnected and wherein ‘theism’ does not necessarily imply belief in a personal God.  Besides, the Hindu thinkers never thought of making any distinction between what is understood by monotheism and monism.  In other words, the impersonal concept of God (as Brahman or Atman) has been as much a part of Hindu religious tradition as the worship of numerous personal deities.  Disregarding these factors, when the Western scholars applied alien criteria in the analysis of Hinduism, it resulted in a number of misconceptions, including those connected with the bhakti theme.— Krishna Sharma, ‘Towards a New Perspective’ in ibid.  p. 300

…Taking into account the Hindu pantheon and the seeming Hindu polytheism, in what way can the existence and nature of Hindu monotheism be correctly determined?  Is it justifiable to connect Hindu monotheism with the worship of any one personal deity of the Hindu pantheon, like Vishnu, as suggested in the Bhakti theories? Should it not be sought in the realm of Hindu speculations about the oneness of God?  My inquiry into the nature of Hindu theism and monotheism is an attempt to answer these questions.  Such an inquiry is very necessary to rectify the long standing errors that the modern definition of bhakti entails.— Krishna Sharma, ‘Towards a New Perspective’ in ibid.  p. 302

The Christian thinkers rejected all explanations of God offered by the philosophers and proclaimed that religion and philosophy were two separate realms.  They evolved a new form of Christian theology, through modern modes of reasoning, to establish the validity of the personal concept of God.  Sharpening the difference between religion and philosophy, they defined religion strictly in terms of faith in a personal God.  The conceptual categories of theism, monotheism, pantheism, and monism, as they are understood today, were evolved in accordance with the pattern of Christian theology which took shape after the emergence of modern European philosophy, to serve the Christian purpose.  Subsequently, they were commonly used by the Western scholars in studies of other religions as well.  No doubt, these categories could be applied with equal justification in the study of revealed religions similar to Christianity.  But not to Hinduism.  To the extent the Bhakti theories were conceived with the aid of these categories based on alien norms and non-Hindu criteria, they were artificial and contrived.— Krishna Sharma, ‘Towards a New Perspective’ in ibid.  p. 307