By Hazrat Inayat Khan
The pursuit of the impossible is inherent in man's nature. What man has he does not care for; what he has not he wishes to obtain. Certain things may have a greater or a lesser value, but man attaches most value to something which he cannot get. And of what he can get, however valuable it may be, the value becomes less. Since that is the nature of man, the wise have called the ideal of his pursuit, which can never be attained, God, by which they meant the Source.
Everything is naturally attracted to its source: earth to earth, water to water, fire to fire, and air to air: and thus man's soul is attracted to its source. While the body is in pursuit of all that belongs to it and of everything that attracts its physical nature, the soul is continually in pursuit of its own origin. Rumi, in a lovely poem, tells us that when a person who has left his homeland and been away a long time, awakens, then even though he is absorbed in his new life, a yearning begins to make itself felt. He longs for his origin, the home from whence he came. And so it is with human nature. The earth supplies all the things that man's nature demands except one, and that is his source; and therefore man remains dissatisfied all through life in spite of everything that he may obtain in answer to his desires: pleasure, comfort, rank, or wealth. He may obtain them all, but still the longing of his soul will remain because it is for home. Home is the source, which the wise have called God.
There is another simile: that of a man who went into a dark room to search for some object that he had lost. While he was searching he began to feel that he was melting in some way or other, and the moment he found the object he melted completely. He could no longer find anything of himself; the only thing he saw was that object. To his great sorrow and disappointment, though he found the object he did not find himself.
That is the condition of man on earth. The innermost being of man is that which may be called the source itself, and the outer being of man is what we call 'man.' Being absorbed in things of the world he loses, so to speak, the sense of the inner being. What he knows of himself is only that yearning and searching. He may have found what he was searching for, and yet he has lost himself. He can only be pleased with what he has found for a certain time, and then his longing will be to find himself.
In answer to this continual yearning of every soul, the wise have given to humanity the God-ideal. And when we consider the past and present attitudes towards the God-ideal, we see a great difference. The former was that man believed in God; and if one among twenty thousand persons did not believe in the God-ideal, he dared not say so before others, as everyone else believed in God. So he could not help saying that he believed in God also. Today it is quite the contrary. Unbelief has become the pride of modern man. He thinks that it is intellectual to disbelieve and that it is simple to believe; that the believers in God are simple people. And if they are intellectual and believe, they do not admit it fearing that other intellectual friends will laugh at them. Very few know what a loss it is to humanity that the education which in the past made it easier for a man to reach the fulfillment of his life's purpose has now been taken away from him.
There have always been many different conceptions of God. It is for this reason that there are so many different religions and sects, each sect having its own idea of God. There were people who believed in offering their worship to the sun. There were others who offered prayers to fire or water or earth, and some to trees. Others considered animals sacred or looked upon certain birds as sacred. Some made different forms and characters in marble or stone or metal, perhaps with the head of an animal, the wings of a bird, or the body of a fish. And these they have called their particular God.
The reason why animal worship was taught in the ancient religions was to point out to humanity some traits in certain animals, which it would be beneficial for man to notice. Take for instance the cow-worship of the Hindus. The nature of the cow is harmlessness, usefulness; the cowherd takes her into the fields, she lives on the grass and herbs and comes home, recognizing the place where she belongs. In spite of her two horns she is harmless; harmless to man although he takes the larger share of her milk which was meant for her calf, without ever thinking about it, without ever appreciating it. He has many delicious dishes made from the milk, but he never thinks of her. She gives him the essence of her life without any bitterness, enmity, or selfishness. She returns after a whole day in the forest, coming back in the evening to the place where the best of her life is taken from her.
There are morals one can learn by looking at a tree, by looking at an animal, by looking at a bird. In ancient times, when there was no printing press or any other means of giving philosophy or morals in the form of books, the teachers gave them in this way; and by it one can see God. Indeed, one sees God in all forms, especially in the things which teach lessons, which can inspire man and help him in his life; things that are pointed out by teachers to be looked at and worshipped. In fact they did not say, 'Worship the cow.' They said, 'To learn how to worship, look at the cow.' Those who only see the surface say that they are worshipping the cow, but in reality they are worshipping God.
[W]hen man comes to the real essence of truth, when he touches the ultimate truth, he realizes that there is nothing which is not in man. There is the animal kingdom in him, the mineral kingdom, the angelic kingdom, and the divine kingdom. All that is low, all that is high, all that is exists in man. Every man is a miniature of God, and God's constituents are all there, both in and outside his being.
How did idolatry come about? There were communities, people who could not understand the incomprehensible and were not even ready to accept something which was within their reach. And therefore the wise teacher said, 'Here is God. Here is a stone image and this is a certain god.' They thought, 'This is better: a god what does not move, that does not run away; when we long for Him at night, in the morning we can open the shrine and bow before him.' It was a lesson for them. Some came to the wise men and said they wanted to seek for God. 'Yes,' said the wise ones, 'come to the temple; but first walk fifty or a hundred times round it, and then you may come in.' Man does not value that for which he has not worked. That which is nearest he does not want.
Zarathushtra taught men to see the beauty of God, and to worship Him by looking at the water, at the sky, at nature. It was wise advice. When we look at the immensity of nature our mind naturally becomes keen, our heart larger, and we begin to see the signs of God there more than in the midst of worldly activity. Everyone who has had any experience of being surrounded by nature will accept this, whether he believes in God or not, and he will notice that nature is whispering, exalting, uplifting. Being face to face with nature gives a feeling of expansion of the heart, and nature causes the soul to awaken.
One might ask where then is unity, if different teachers and wise men have given different ideas of God, which means dividing the God-ideal; but the answer is that as many souls as there are, so many different conceptions of God are there. And it cannot be otherwise. God apart, we individual beings have some who look upon us as friends and others as enemies. Some look upon us favorably and some unfavorably. Some praise us; others blame us. Some love us; others hate us. Therefore each individual is either a friend or an enemy, foolish or wise, great or small; to every person each one is different. The mother of the thief does not look upon him as a thief, but as her wonderful son who toils to serve and help her.
And what is God? God is a conception; and we each make a conception according to our capacity, according to what we have heard and what we think. One says, 'I do not wish to imagine God as the Beloved, as the Lover, as the Lord of Compassion.' Another says, 'I wish to imagine God as full of power, without whose command nothing can move, or as the wisest Being who weighs the action of everyone as the Lord of Justice.' A third says, 'I look upon God as the perfection of Beauty; all the beauty and harmony there is, is in God.' And again another says, 'I wish to imagine God to be the Friend, the friend in need and trouble and difficulty.' Everyone imagines God in his own way, and as not everyone in the world has the same idea of his friend, so it is natural that every person in the world has his particular idea of God, his own conception of what is his God at that time. Therefore one need not be surprised at the Chinese, the ancient Greeks, and the Egyptians who had thousands of Gods. I should say that is few; there should be millions of Gods, for one cannot have a God without a personal conception. But the source is the same, the source is one, and therefore God is One.
One might ask if God realized His oneness before man appeared on earth. But who can say how many times man appeared on earth and disappeared again? We know only of one history of our planet, but how many planets existed, how many millions of years? How many creatures were created, and how many withdrawn? We cannot speak of God's past, present, and future; we can only give an idea of this by saying that God is the only Being, who existed, who exists, and who will exist. All else that we see is His phenomenon.
God realizes His oneness as His own nature. Since God is one, He always realizes His oneness through all things, but through man He realizes it fully. On a tree there are many leaves, and though they differ from one another the difference is not very great. Worms and birds and animals differ more, but one finds the greatest variety in man. There are numberless human forms, and yet there are none exactly alike; this itself is a living proof of the oneness of God. God's unity keeps itself intact even in this world of variety.
There have been missions of prophets who came time after time to give man this conception in order to lift him up to the idea of the incomprehensible God, while at the same time they have tried to give him the idea of one God. They gave to humanity whatever was the best conception that could be given at the time. When we read the Quran, the picture of God is different from the picture of God that the Hindus have made. A Buddhist statue in India is Indian, in China it is Chinese, and in Japan it is Japanese. This is natural. When man pictures angels he draws them like human beings; he only adds wings to them. Man cannot imagine God's personality as being different from man's personality; that is why he attaches to God his ideal of the perfect man. These different conceptions of God very often caused disputes and differences, and different sects were formed, each fighting for their God.
This is also the reason why it was necessary for the prophets to teach humanity the ideal of one God; yet it was most difficult for them to do so. Man is born with two eyes. He sees everything in twos; he is accustomed to see twos. Once when I was speaking of an Indian musical instrument I was asked, 'What does it look alike? Does it look like a banjo?' Man cannot conceive of anything that is not like something else. If someone hears that a person has a notion of religious philosophy, he asks if it is something like New Thought or Theosophy or Christian Science. Man wants to compare, to see with two eyes; but that which is without comparison cannot be shown in the same way as things of this world are shown. That is why the prophets who came to teach the one God, told their followers to think of Him as Lord or Master or Friend or Beloved, in order to give them a certain conception of God. But when someone does not see the beauty of another person's conception he makes a great mistake, for the other also has a conception, and perhaps an even better conception than his own.
Man always has a tendency to give his conception to others or to force his belief on them as being the only right belief; he thinks the other person is an unbeliever or that his belief is wrong. But we do not know. Sometimes those who do not seem to have a proper belief, have a belief that is better than our own. Perhaps that person is more spiritual than we ourselves. We do not know.
We do not know the depth of people's devotion to God. We judge people from their outward appearance; whether they seem more religious from the outside, more orthodox, or whether they seem far removed from religion. But we do not know. Perhaps there is a person who does not show one sign of religion, yet in him there may be a spark of devotion, a perpetual fire of the love of God. There may be another person who in his outside actions appears to be narrow and inordinately fond of ceremonies; but perhaps the outside is quite different from what is hidden within him. But those who judge others: their beliefs, their conception of God, are very much mistaken. Their manner may be an outside appearance, a cover; one does not know what is hidden behind it.
[Extracted from the section titled “The God-Ideal” in Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Unity of Religious Ideals (The Sufi Message Vol IX)]
URL of Part 15: http://www.newageislam.com/books-and-documents/the-sufi-message--excerpts-from-hazrat-inayat-khan’s-discourses-on-the-unity-of-religious-ideals--more-on-the-multiple-views-of-the-god-ideal-–-15/d/12001