By Hazrat Inayat Khan
Different conceptions of God have existed in various periods and among different people. Seeking for the deity, people in all ages have pictured Him in some form or other. This is natural with man. If he is told about someone he has never seen or known, he forms a conception of that person, and he takes this conception for knowledge of that person until he sees him. There are some who make a conception in their mind of somebody whom they have never seen that is almost as real as the actual person.
The human heart is an accommodation, which conceives the idea of God and pictures Him according to man's own mentality. The Buddha of China has Chinese features, and that of Japan has the eyes of Japan; the Buddha of India resembles an Indian. Man cannot conceive of an angel being different from a human being, except that he attaches two wings to the angel in order to make it a little different. If the angel were not pictured as a man, it would not attract a human being; therefore it is natural that in every period people have conceived of the Personality of God as a human personality. They could have had no better conception, for there is nothing in the world which is a more finished personality than the human personality.
People have called God He, recognizing the might and power of the deity. Other people have called God She, recognizing in the deity the mother-principle and beauty. It is from the differences of conception that the many gods and goddesses have come. For, it is true that there are as many gods as there are conceptions. At the same time many gods mean many conceptions of the one and only God. Ignoring this truth, many have fought over their different gods; and yet the wise man in every period of the world has understood God to be the one and only Being.
For the ordinary mind it is not sufficient to feel that something exists as an idea. It is too vague. Man wishes to feel its existence with his own hands; then only can he acknowledge something to exist. The wise, therefore, have given different objects to such people, and have pointed them out to the people as gods. Some said, 'See God in the sun', and the people understood this. They were not satisfied with thinking God was an idea; they were much more pleased to know that God could be seen by them, God who is incomparable even with the sun, and who is unattainable.
Some wise men have said, 'He is in the fire'. Some said to a simple man, who asked to see God, 'Go into the forest and find a certain tree: that tree is God.' The search for that tree gave that man something to do, which was essential, and the patience with which he sought for the tree also did something to his soul. There was joy, too, in finding a rare tree, and in the end he found what he was looking for, for God is everywhere.
Some have made images of different ideas, such as love, justice, knowledge and power and called them goddesses moulding them into different forms and they have given them to man to worship. Some wise men have said the cow is sacred. Certainly it is sacred for a farmer whose farming depends upon the cow. His life's sustenance, in every form, comes from the cow; it is indeed sacred.
The wise have pointed out different objects to man which will hold his attention and become objects of concentration for him to still his mind; for in the mind which is still, God manifests. Then, again, the wise have presented the God-ideal to the people in the form of symbols. To simple beings a symbol was God; and to awakened minds the same symbol of God was a revealing factor of the secret of the deity. If one could only see how marvelously wisdom has played its part in the diversity of the conceptions of the divine ideal, guiding the souls of all grades of evolution towards the same goal, which in the end becomes spiritual attainment!
The conception of many gods came from two sources. One is the idea of the wise to personify every kind of power and attribute, and to call it a certain god. This was done in order to give the ordinary mind the thought that was most needed: that God is in everything and that God is all power. Later this idea was misunderstood and the wisdom behind it became obscured; and so some wise men fought against the ideas of other wise men. Yet they did not fight the idea; they fought the misconceptions of it. But in the west at the present time, when no such idea of many gods exists, a great number of people have lost their faith […] They said, 'If God is all goodness, all justice, all power why has such a dreadful thing as war been allowed to take place?' If these same people had been accustomed to the idea of many gods and had recognized Kali, who has been worshipped by the Hindus for generations as the goddess of war, then it would not have been such a strange idea to them that if all is from God, then not only peace but even war is from Him.
The mystics of all ages have therefore given God many names. The Sufi schools of esotericism have distinguished many different names of God all with their own nature and secret, and they have used them in their meditations upon the path of spiritual attainment. Therefore the Sufis do not have many gods, but they have many names of God, each expressive of a certain attribute. Suppose these names which the Sufis have used were not the Names of God, if they had only held in thought words such as mercy, compassion, patience, they would have worshipped a merit, not a personality. A merit is not creative; a merit is only something which is possessed. The attribute is not important; it is the possessor of the attribute who is important. Therefore instead of thinking of success the Sufi calls upon the God of success. For him the God of success is not a different God; there is only one God; only, by calling upon that name of God which is expressive of success, he attaches his soul to that spirit of success.
The idea of many gods has also come from the deep thinkers and philosophers who have seen God in every soul, and every soul making a God of its own according to its stage of evolution. There is a saying among Hindus, 'There are as many gods as there are strains of music,' in other words, there are countless imaginations and numberless gods. Whenever this idea was taught to the people, it was to break the ignorance of those who tried to confine God to heaven, and deprived the earth of His divine presence; they waited for death to come, that they might be taken into the presence of God, who was sitting on the throne of justice in the hereafter. By this the sages tried to show people that God is in every soul, and that there are as many gods as there are souls: some advanced, some not advanced, some further advanced, yet all gods. If there is a struggle, it is a conflict between gods; if there is harmony, it is friendship between gods. By these means they tried to make man realize the most essential truth that God is all. No doubt those who misunderstand will always misunderstand.
This idea also became corrupted, and made people who believed in many gods interested only in the legends of the past, which narrated the wars and battles that took place among the gods. Therefore the wise had to come to their rescue again, and to teach them the one God, in order that they might again come to the realization of the oneness of life, which is best realized in the God-ideal.
[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 16: http://www.newageislam.com/books-and-documents/the-sufi-message--excerpts-from-hazrat-inayat-khan’s-discourses-on-the-unity-of-religious-ideals--on-god-and-the-longing-of-the-soul-–-16/d/12073