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One God, Many Voices
“Some would deny any legitimate use of the word God because it has been misused so much. Certainly it is the most burdened of all human words. Precisely for that reason it is the most imperishable and unavoidable."
— Martin Buber, Jewish philosopher
“In all theistic religions, whether they are polytheistic or monotheistic, God stands for the highest value, the most desirable good. Hence, the specific meaning of God depends on what is the most desirable good for a person."
— Erich Fromm, social psychologist and philosopher
For many of us, when we think of Religion, the first thing that comes to mind is “God.” The two terms are almost used synonymously. The questions surrounding the concept of God are true human universals: we have always wondered who or what created us, who or what created the Earth and the Heavens, and who or what is the cause of the laws of nature, natural disasters, and so on.
Because of how universal the questions surrounding God are, we tend to assume that there is a consensus about the concept of “God” — that we all mean the same thing when we use this word. But although the questions are virtually universal, the answers and descriptions of God differ quite widely, not just across religious traditions but within them as well. God, YHWH, Allah, the One, Brahman, the Tao — absolute reality is spoken of with many names by many voices. Whether we hear concordance or discord in these many names has important consequences for the future of our species.
It is fascinating that the concept of God has existed throughout history in all major civilizations across the planet Earth in spite of the fact that there might not have been any contact between these civilizations for long periods of time. Thinking about God, then, clearly represents an innate human need and capacity.
The description of God, however, has a rich anthropology reflecting the diversity of human beings and their contexts across time and geographies. Still, one aspect of God that remains constant across religions is that there can only be one God, although this may not always be a conscious assumption and that’s why it is important to explain further.
You might be somewhat skeptical of this assertion and maybe find it a bit strange, especially coming from a Hindu such as myself. “Isn’t Hinduism polytheistic?”, you might ask. “And what about other polytheistic religions like those of ancient Greece, or even older tribal religions that are animistic? Don’t all of these religious traditions believe in many gods?” Isn’t all the fighting between religions about “your god versus my god?” In this chapter we will answer these questions, and explain why the various concepts of God across religions need not and should not be seen as at odds with each other.
I don’t think anyone who has deeply pondered the concept of God will say that there can be more than one God. I learned this from an early age during my upbringing in India and now I can see it being reinforced by the examples we have collected in this book. Initially it came from the teachings of my parents and a scriptural passage from the Rig Veda:
“Ekam sat vipra bahuda vadanti” (truth is one, but called differently by many).
This is echoed in the Qur’an, which affirms that the same truth is being spoken in “monasteries, churches, synagogues, and mosques in which Allah’s Name is often mentioned” (22:40).
People following various religions love the same God, though in different manners and methods. Our conceptions of God look different because the contexts of our lives have been diverse and changing over time. But that does not mean that each religion is describing a different God. There are nearly 7000 different languages still spoken in the world today, all of which use different words to describe the same universal human experiences and feelings, like love. The letters and words may look and sound different, but love is love, just as truth is truth and God is God.
We have one sun as the source of all energy. We all have the same anatomy, the same internal systems—the digestive, circulatory, endocrinal, excretory, respiratory and immune systems are all the same across the human species. The structure of our brains and nervous system is the same. We are born the same way, in our mother’s womb as a result of the union between the egg of our mother and the sperm of our father, and 99% of our genes are identical. The chemical composition that runs through our veins is within the same expected range for all skin colors, ethnicities, etc. If there was more than one God, we would expect to see more than one structure of life.
All societies have music, dance, jokes, and storytelling in their social interactions. We have the same deep emotions—joy, anger, sadness, curiosity, fear, etc.—and the same facial expressions expressing those emotions. The instinctive love a mother feels for her child has always been the same across all human civilizations and is seen across religions as a model upon which to base our love for one another.
We are told that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are the major monotheisms in the world, and this means that followers of these religions believe there is only one God. And there is certainly a lot of truth to this. Affirming the oneness of God is the most central component of the Muslim faith, known as “Tawhid,” and can be summed up by the phrase “La illaha illallah” (no god but Allah). It is also expressed in various passages throughout the Qur’an, like the following: “Your God is the one God: there is no god except Him, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy." (2:163) The Christian formulation of God’s oneness is essentially that, “there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.” (Timothy 2:5) And the most important Jewish prayer is the “Shema Yisrael,” which can be found in the book of Deuteronomy: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)
Meanwhile, we are taught that Indian religions like Hinduism are polytheistic, meaning that Hindus believe in many gods. But Hindus also believe that all are reaching the same inner space and that the particular conception of god they are choosing to implement in pursuing this shared goal is no different than one liking the color yellow or the other liking green. Devdatt Patnaik, an Indian mythologist and author, sums this up well:
“The idea of 330 million Hindu deities is a metaphor for the countless forms by which the divine makes itself accessible to the human mind […] For Hindus, all of creation is divine. Everything in nature is therefore worthy of worship. There is no discomfort visualizing God in plants, animals, rivers, mountains, rocks and in man-made objects such as pots, pans, pestles and mortars […] God creates the world as Brahma, sustains it as Vishnu and destroys it as Shiva.”
Other religions of the East — Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism — are seen as atheistic, having no gods at all, though this is of course only partially true as well. As with Hinduism, these religions focus on seeing God in a more diffuse way, as embodied through all of creation. The Daoist sage Chuang Tzu makes this clear:
“Master Tung Kuo asked Chuang Tzu, ‘That which is calledthe Tao, where is it?’
Chuang Tzu replied, ‘There is nowhere where it is not.’
‘But give me a specific example.’
‘In this ant,’ said Chuang Tzu.
‘Is that its lowest point?’
‘In this panic grass,’ said Chuang Tzu.
‘Can you give me a lower example?’
‘In this common earthenware tile,’ said Chuang Tzu.
‘This must be its lowest point!’
‘It’s in [feces] and [urine] too,’ said Chuang Tzu.”
Therefore, the simplified narrative of the major world religions that many of us are familiar with tells only part of the truth. Concepts like “monotheism” and “polytheism” are more complicated than they may first appear. Concepts like “monotheism” and “polytheism” are more complicated than they may first appear. On the one hand, arguments have been made that challenge the true monotheistic nature of Judaism and Christianity. There are some Jewish texts and schools of thought which posit that the God of the Hebrew Bible is in fact a lesser creator god, and not the true ultimate God. And the concept of the Trinity in many sects of Christianity, which sees God as having three natures — The Father (God), the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Ghost — has been described as a theology that compromises a truly monotheistic picture of God.
On the flip side, polytheistic religions almost always have one God that reigns supreme over the lesser gods. For the Greeks, it was Zeus, and for Hindus it is Brahman. We see this in the Bhagavad Gita: “My highest nature, the imperishable Brahman, gives every creature its existence and lives in every creature as the adhyatma. My action is creation and the bringing forth of creatures." (8:3) Brahman is the source not only of all earthly creatures, but of the gods as well. Perhaps it makes sense, then, across all religions, to draw a distinction between “gods” on the one hand and “God” on the other.
Even the so-called “atheistic” religions believe in God. In Confucianism and Daoism, God is known as Di (an anthropomorphic God) or Tian (Heaven, a more abstract God). Tian is described in the passage below from the Daoist sage Chuang Tzu:
“Heaven and Earth are vast,
and their diversity comes from one source.
Although there are ten thousand forms of life,
they are one in their order.
Human beings are multitudinous,
but they are governed by one ruler.
The ruler is rooted in Virtue and perfected by Heaven.
It is said that long ago
the rulers of everything below Heaven
ruled through actionless action,
through Heavenly Virtue and nothing else.”
Daoist texts also speak simply of a supreme and primordial One, which is not far off from Buddhism which, while generally not believing in any anthropomorphic gods, still maintains a concept of the Oneness of life, which is similar to Hinduism’s Brahman.
The perceived difference between “monotheisms” and “polytheisms” stems largely from a difference in emphasis. For the Western monotheisms, the supreme God matters much more than the various lesser deities, though these others still exist. The Old Testament, New Testament, and Qur’an are all considered to be the word of God and large portions of each are essentially narrated by God. The prayers and rituals of these religions are thus naturally centered all around God.
For the East Asian religions, it is the individual anthropomorphic gods, spirits, and deities that matter more on a day-to-day basis of prayer and ritual, which are thought to be more expedient in helping us reach the inner contemplative spaces from which deep intuitive truths spring forth. But the concept of one supreme God still exists within those systems. This is true of the religious traditions of tribal and indigenous communities as well.
In the case of ancient China during the emergence of Daoism and Confucianism, scholar Ruth H. Ching describes the phenomenon of focusing attention on local gods rather than the One God.
While the official religion focused on a supreme Heaven, people outside the ruling court, however, mainly worshipped local cults and deities. They were more concerned with the practical abilities of divinity, and their conception of gods and spirits concentrated on things that affected people’s welfare. Making propitiation was of greater importance than understanding where the powers came from, or why the powers even existed at all.
Early pre-scientific humans had much less control over the forces around them than we have today. Take farming as an example of something that affected people’s welfare at the most basic level. Crop yields depended on seasonal and daily weather fluctuations, as well as things like natural disasters, disease, and pestilence. Each of these was thought to be the domain of a particular god, and thus there were many gods which had to be appeased through various rituals. Though the one God was still theologically and cosmologically superior, the lesser gods were practically more important for the common villager. This focus on lesser gods and spirits was cemented into the cultural and religious fabric of East Asia, where it persists today. But as Zen master Shunryu Suzuki puts it, “Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water.” In worshipping the “gods,” you are still worshiping “God” as well.
The polytheisms of places like India and ancient Greece constitutes something of a middle ground between this focus on God versus focus on gods. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, the second President of India, notes that “The anthropomorphic conception of the divine is relative to our needs. The bewildering polytheism of the masses and the uncompromising monotheism of the classes are for the Hindu the expressions of one and the same force at different levels." Each village or local area typically has one god among the pantheon that becomes the focus of devotion and worship, though the existence of all the other gods is still recognized. These local gods are paradoxically worshipped as though they are the God, though it is clear that all gods were born from Brahman (or Zeus). The very name of “Athens,” for instance, is derived from the name of “Athena,” the Greek goddess who was the central figure of worship for that particular city. Likewise, three of the major strains of Hindu worship — Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism — involve preferential focus on the gods Vishnu and Shiva, and the goddess Shakti.
And even in Judaism, we see some Talmudic texts suggesting a reconciliation between understanding God as One and seeing God in many forms.
“[T]he Holy One said: Because you see Me in many guises, do not imagine that there are many gods — for I am He who was with you at the Red Sea, I am He who was with you at Sinai, I am the same everywhere. ‘I am the Lord thy God.’”
“When Moses said, ‘Make known to me Your Glory’ (Exod. 33:18), he was requesting to know the First Created Being. Moses did not wish to know and see the essence of the Creator, since he knew this could not be grasped.”
Echoing this theological nuance, anthropologist Pascal Boyer writes that, “In each person there is both an ‘official’ concept — what they can report if you ask them — and an ‘implicit’ concept that they use without being really aware of it.” Even if we intellectually do not believe in a personal God, our brains seem inclined to imagine God in such a way, which accounts for why God is described in anthropomorphic terms in the scriptures and stories of most religions.
As the art historian Ernst Gombrich notes in reference to the paintings of Jan van Eyck,
“God is not a man with a beard, but that among all sensible things of which man can have an experience on earth, a beautiful and dignified fatherly ruler of infinite splendor is the most fitting metaphor our mind can grasp.”
Even today, this is essentially the way we teach our children about God. Looking back on our own childhoods, many of us likely once thought of God as a great man in the sky with a big grey beard, an image that has been reinforced through a long history of artistic depictions of God.
Albert Einstein, when asked about his religious beliefs, replied, “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns Himself with fates and actions of human beings.” So too did a contemporary of Spinoza, mathematician and Catholic theologian Blaise Pascal, expressed a somewhat agnostic view of God:
“If there is a God, he is infinitely beyond our comprehension, since, having neither parts nor limits, he bears no relation to ourselves. We are therefore incapable of knowing either what he is, or if he is. That being so, who will dare to undertake a resolution of this question? It cannot be us, who bear no relationship to him.”
This agnostic view of a mysterious God entirely beyond human comprehension was also echoed more recently by the late great Stephen Hawking:
“I thought I had left the question of the existence of a supreme being completely open in my article. It would be perfectly consistent with all we know to say that there was a being who was responsible for the laws of physics. However I think it would be misleading to call such a being ‘God,’ because this term is normally understood to have personal connotation which are not present in the laws of physics.”
In popular imagination, we often assume top scientists to be complete atheists, but the above three examples stand as evidence to the contrary.
The point is that it is perfectly valid to see God as one thing that is described and worshipped in a myriad of ways since God is, by definition, both ungraspable and all-encompassing. Here is how sociologist Georg Simmel puts it:
“The essence of the notion of God is that all diversities and contradictions in the world achieve a unity in him, that he is — according to a beautiful formulation of Nicolas de Cusa — the coincidentia oppositorum. Out of this idea, that in him all estrangements and all irreconcilables of existence find their unity and equalization, there arises the peace, the security, the all-embracing wealth of feeling that reverberate with the notion of God which we hold.”
If the concept of God is all about reconciling contradictions, then there should be no “my God is better than your God” conflict between religions. Rather, we should frame it as “my God and your God are both different aspects of the same reality.”
Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu philosopher, expresses this unified vision of a shared reality in one of his famous discourses:
“The essence of Vedanta is that there is but one Being and that every soul is that Being in full, not a part of that Being. All the sun is reflected in each dew-drop. Appearing in time, space and causality, this Being is man, as we know him, but behind all appearance is the one Reality.”.
This insight is important because we will never be rid of interpersonal and interreligious conflict in the world so long as we think of ourselves as all subscribing to different versions of reality rather than simply seeing our differences as different expressions of the same one reality. Radhakrishnan explains that, “Each religious genius spells out the mystery of God according to his own endowment, personal, racial, and historical. The variety of the pictures of god is easily intelligible when we realize that religious experience is psychologically mediated."
One way to look at God, then, is as a conceptual reminder to us of our fundamental unity and interconnectedness. As Baha’i leader ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reasons,
“Inasmuch as our God is one God and the Creator of all mankind, He provides for and protects all. We acknowledge Him as a God of kindness, justice and mercy. Why then should we, His children and followers, war and fight, bringing sorrow and grief into the hearts of each other? God is loving and merciful. His intention in religion has ever been the bond of unity and affinity between humankind.”
This reasoning is consistent with most versions of God, who — though taking on different visual and theological forms across religions — always is said to be characterized by universal love. There is mention of this all throughout the Bible, for instance. In the Book of John we are told that, “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12) and that “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.” (1 John 4:16)
If there is only one God—a God that represents love and unity—then why have so many people been killed in the name of religion? Why there is so much antagonism between people of different religions? We do not have the same problem when it comes to the speaking of different languages. But there is something about the way we have been taught to think about God that triggers deeply emotional attachments to our own particular version, such that so many of us have come to perceive different expressions of God as assaults on our very conception of reality itself.
In our innocence as children, we have no problems integrating the gods of different religions into our lives. I remember when my classmate from Stanford Business School, who lives in Atherton California, visited me in India with his family of three children. The two girls, 7 and 9 years old, were fascinated by Hindu Mythology. They carried home small figurines of Lakshmi (the goddess of wealth), Saraswati (the goddess of knowledge), and Ganesha (the god of good luck). One day when one of the daughters, Ellen, was going to school, her mom anxiously wished her good luck as she was going to have a test. Ellen said, “Mom, nothing to worry about—I’ve got Ganesha in one pocket and Saraswati in the other pocket so I’m completely taken care of!”
Having settled and brought into full awareness that there can be only one universal God whose children we all are, let us live like one big family, no longer divided by race, rank, region, or religion. Family members support one another and learn from one another. They still have arguments and disagreements, but they always find a way to handle their issues peacefully and cooperatively.
To get a glimpse of all 50+ common threads across religions that we have identified, please visit us at: https://www.uef.org/religious-threads.
Akhil Gupta is the founder director of Universal Enlightenment Forum. He spent five years at Harvard University as a Senior fellow/Guest. He was the chairman of Blackstone India from 2005 to 2014. He is on the Advisory Board of Stanford Business School, the Leadership Council of Harvard Divinity School, and the Advisory Board of Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Initiative. Among other UEF projects, he is at work on two books: one on human flourishing, and another on common threads across religions.
Allen Simon provided research and editing support for this article.