The belief in a higher power existed long before we formalized religions and the idea of God. Even in our earlier state as hunter-gatherers, we observed nature and recognized the forces beyond our control. Our fears and anxieties, as well as our sense of wonder, led us to worship. We sacralized aspects of the natural world like animals or rocks or stars in systems of worship.
Over time, as human societies became more complex and organized, many of the world’s major structured religions–including Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–have emerged. Each religion has its unique teachings, practices, and convictions. However, the common thread among religions is the belief that there is a higher power that governs the universe and provides a moral and spiritual compass for humanity.
What is it that makes the planets and stars move with such mind-boggling precision? Or makes the cells in our body regenerate seamlessly? What is it that stays on, when our thoughts end, or when the breath leaves the body? Regardless of one’s religion or spiritual inclination or even the absence thereof, no one can deny that there are forces beyond our comprehension that hold together the cosmos, which directly or indirectly impact each one of us. Some argue that the complexity, order, and beauty of the universe suggest the existence of a higher intelligence or purpose, while others point to personal experiences of transcendence or spiritual insight as evidence of a higher power.
The true nature of that higher power or ultimate reality remains a matter of faith and personal belief. The world’s religions have adopted different approaches to the higher power. The Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Christianity surrender to the omnipotent and omnipresent Biblical God, which is known as Allah in Islam and in the Qur’an. Buddhism has the Buddha Nature and believes in the ‘Bodhichitta’ or enlightened mind; Confucianism and Taoism have the destiny-determining force of Heaven, or ‘Tiān.’
Hindu philosophy speaks of ‘Brahman’, that ‘awareness’ that abides beyond birth and death, and between two thoughts. The idea is that everything outside is a projection of what is within, and once you understand your internal world, you will relate far better to the external world. The higher power in this case is the Consciousness that governs every aspect of the universe. You are actually a part of the higher power: ’Tat Tvam Asi’–You are That (infinite reality).
The belief in a higher power springs from the same impulse that has always existed in all of us, despite our dizzying diversity across time and geography. One might argue that the earlier the realization of a higher power happens, the more fortunate. For, the delusion of control—one of humankind’s most enduring myths—will then evaporate and give way to humility. The belief in a higher power can provide a sense of purpose, comfort, hope, and a more lucid and compassionate understanding of life around us.
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
— Psalm (19:1)
“For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”
— Colossians (1:16)
“He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him.”
— Quran, Surah Al-Ikhlas (112:1-4)
“Every entity regards itself as exalted over another entity. Darkness regards itself as exalted over the deep, because it is above it. Air, as exalted over water, because it is above it. Fire, as exalted over air, because it is above it. The heavens, as exalted over fire, because they are above it. But the Holy One, blessed be He, is truly exalted over them all.”
— Sefer Ha-Aggadah, A collection of Jewish writings
“All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think, we become.”
— The Buddha
“All other virtues, like the plantain tree,
Produce their fruit, but then their force is spent.
Alone the marvelous tree of bodhicitta
Constantly bears fruit and grows unceasingly.”
— The Way of the Bodhisattva, A Buddhist text
“Those who see all creatures in themselves and themselves in all creatures know no fear.”
— Upanishads, Hindu text
“As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take, through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee.”
— Srimad Bhagavatam, (11.14.26), A Hindu text
“The world of existence may be likened to the expression of God’s Will. The reality of things is the will of God, and this reality is one, although its outpourings are many and varied.”
— Abdu’l-Bahá, a central figure in the Bahá’í Faith
“Tzu-hsia said, ‘I have heard it said: life and death are a matter of Destiny; wealth and honor depend on Heaven.’”
— The Analects, Confucian text
“I just compare myself with Heaven and Earth and my life-breath I receive from yin and yang. I am just a little stone or a little tree set on a great hill, in comparison to Heaven and Earth. As I perceive my own inferiority, how could I ever be proud?”
— The Book of Chuang Tzu, Daoist text
“Imagine a nebulous thing
Here before Heaven and Earth
Subtle and elusive
Dwelling apart and unconstrained
It could be the mother of us all
Not knowing its name
I call it the Tao
Forced to describe it
I describe it as great
Great means ever-flowing
Ever-flowing means far-reaching
Far-reaching means returning.”
— Tao Te Ching, Daoist text
Modern Psychology and Philosophy
“[Religion refers to] The feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.”
— William James, philosopher, and psychologist