Is Monotheism a Description of God or of Religion?

Contrary to common belief, “monotheism” is not a comprehensible word and every translation of this word given by monotheists (i.e., the followers of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) results in self-contradiction. In this post, I will discuss the contradictions resulting from translating monotheism as “one God” or “God is one”, by successively applying first-order logic, second-order logic, set theory, operator theory, and arithmetic to show how each of these interpretations of monotheism results in a self-contradiction. I will then show how each of the above interpretations of monotheism is free from the above-noted contradictions in Vedic philosophy. Finally, we will discuss the meanings of terms such as “first God” and “one God” and show how they are not contradictory to “second God” and “two Gods” in Vedic philosophy. Therefore, Vedic traditionalists can talk about monotheism in a completely different way than monotheistic religions.

Epistemological vs. Ontological Monotheism

In an earlier post, I talked about the polytheistic origins of monotheism, and how the rejection of many demigods led to the word “monotheism”. Subsequently, the antagonism between what people call “monotheism” and “polytheism” played a key role in shaping the history of the last millennia. This antagonism would not exist if monotheism was applied to religion. It exists only because the world monotheism is applied to God.

Under the application of monotheism to religion, we could say that some religion wants to worship God as one transcendent being and ignore (a) the vision of the immanent form of God in nature and every person, and (b) alternative transcendent conceptions of God. By restricting monotheism to the description of religion, rather than of God, other religions that prefer to worship God (a) in many transcendent but not in immanent forms, (b) in both immanent and transcendent forms, and (c) only in immanent but not in transcendent forms, would be a personal choice of God’s worship and the conflict between monotheism and polytheism would not exist.

However, under the application of monotheism to God, an antagonism between monotheism and polytheism is created to deny the truth of religions that prefer to worship God (a) in many transcendent forms but not in immanent forms, (b) in both transcendent and immanent forms, and (c) only in immanent but not transcendent forms.

Thereby, we can advance two definitions of monotheism—(a) epistemological one, in which I choose to see, define, or describe God as one transcendent being, ignoring other transcendent and/or immanent visions, definitions, or descriptions of God, and (b) ontological one, in which other visions, descriptions, or definitions of God besides the one that I have chosen are necessarily false. The epistemological definition of monotheism applies to religion. The ontological definition of monotheism applies to God. The epistemological use of monotheism is inclusive whereas the ontological use of monotheism is exclusive. In the epistemological use of one, we can say: I see God in this way, but others may see God in other ways, and both visions can be valid. Under the ontological use of one, we must say that the vision of God the way I see it is the only correct vision of God and everything else is false.

Problems of Ontological Monotheism

Monotheism is generally defined as “God is one” or as “one God” both of which are problematic.

  • In first-order logic, “God is one” is like “a bachelor is an unmarried man”, namely synonymous words or terms. Under this treatment, the meaning of the word “God” would be “one” and both would be synonymous. We can then substitute the word “one” with “God” everywhere. For instance, the sentence “two is greater than one” can be rewritten as “two is greater than God”, or “three is greater than God”, thereby making infinite natural numbers greater than God.
  • In second-order logic, “God is one” is like “man is two-legged”, such that “two legs” are attributes of man that do not completely define a man. A man could also be intelligent, which will allow us to say that “man is intelligent”, and we won’t have to equate intelligence to two-leggedness. Thus, we could say that “God is one”, “God is two”, and “God is three” without creating a contradiction because one, two, and three, are attributes of God akin to legs.
  • In set theory, “one God” is like “one house”, such that “God” is a class of things that can include infinite members, and “one God” is any one of the infinite members of the class called “God”. If I pick one of those members different from your pick, then they will both be “one God”, and yet not the same, just as there can be a set of houses, each person can pick one house from the set, and their choices will be called “one house” although they have chosen different houses.
  • In operator theory, “one God” can be treated like the non-relativistic quantum mechanical equation Hψ = Eψ, where “one” is the operator acting on God (like H acts on ψ) to produce a vision of God (like the observable E is produced by H acting on ψ, without changing ψ). The observable or vision is produced by an operator but it is not identical to the reality prior to observation. Other operators can also produce alternative visions of the same reality.
  • In arithmetic, we could treat “one God” just like “one four” equaling fourteen, or “one-fourth” equaling a quarter. In the former case, “one God” will be bigger than God, and in the latter case, “one God” will be smaller than God. But if we treat “one God” as the multiplication of God by one, then we would be talking about one instance of God, just like “one house” noted above, where “one God” simply means one of the many individual members of the set called “God”.

My point is simple—Nobody can give a universalist definition of monotheism because every definition is problematic. We could give a contextualized definition of “one God” as the opposite of “many Gods”, which, as I have shown earlier, is what happened as a polytheistic system of many Gods was reduced to a system of one God by eliminating all but one God. Likewise, one can say that “one God” means “one Supreme Being”, but the definition of “supreme” is highly individualistic. I might say that a God that is both immanent and transcendent is superior to a God who is merely transcendent. I can say that a God who has infinite transcendent forms—although one of each form—is superior to a God who has only one transcendent form. Likewise, I can say that a God who is both the greatest and the smallest is superior to a God who is only the greatest. By adding numerous attributes to God—including mutually contradictory attributes such as greatest and smallest, I can redefine supremacy in many ways.

Thus, every universalistic definition of monotheism contradicts itself. A contextualized definition of monotheism is a fact about how monotheism came about, but not necessarily true in a universal sense, because elevating the contextualized definition to the universal definition leads to the same problems as with a universalist definition. In this case, it will require us to define “many” before we define “one”, and we cannot define “many” unless we define “one”. An individualized definition of monotheism is also a fact about different religions and people who carry different conceptions of a Supreme Being based on their personal idea of what supremacy is but it also contradicts monotheism. Thus, contextualized and individualized definitions of monotheism are facts, but cannot be called the universal truth. The universalist definition is deeply problematic.

Varied Meanings of Supremacy

If we have to transcend these problems, then we have to define what supremacy means, such that some conception of supremacy can be superior to another conception, and we can collect all those concepts of supremacy and establish that one concept is factually superior to another. Does that mean that God under an inferior notion of supremacy must not exist? No. There can be a worst house, a worse house, a bad house, a good house, a better house, and a best house. The thing that is a “bad house” is not absent or non-existent. It also exists. But it is not as good as the best house. Thereby, we are okay to treat “God” as a class like houses. There can be many forms of God, just like good, better, and best houses.

For instance, we can say that a God who punishes evil-doers is the worst form of God. A God that gives transactional rewards to good people is a better form of God. A God who emphasizes duty without a desire for reward or punishment is an even better form of God. A God that remains nonchalant and independent is an even better form of God. A God who is an artist, musician, dancer, poet, scientist, and philosopher is an even better form of God than one who just remains independent. Finally, a God that engages in loving pastimes—with both sides devoted to each other—is the best form of God.

The Hierarchical Forms of God

All these conceptions of God are like good, better, and best houses. Since the word “God” denotes a class like a house, therefore, “God” is not a proper noun. The word is strictly a common noun. However, in a given context, when no other houses are referenced, we can use the word “house” to refer to a specific house. Likewise, in some contexts, where other forms of God are not referenced, we can use “God” to refer to one form. If we are speaking about God outside of all contexts—i.e., in a general way—then the term “Supreme Being” is undefined unless we provide a precise definition of supremacy. Based on our definition of supremacy, we can have many alternative descriptions of God, some that are factually superior to others, and yet, without denying the existence of other non-supreme forms of God.

We cannot say that the non-supreme person is not-God, just as we cannot equate a “bad house” to not-house because the moment we invoke this equality, bad houses must cease to exist. This is due to the fact that we cannot equate a bad house to a car, wardrobe, tree, or anything else because every such equivalence will also result in terms such as “bad car”, “bad wardrobe”, “bad tree”, and by the previous principle that we equate all “bad houses” to not-houses, we must equate “bad car” to not-car, “bad wardrobe” to not-wardrobe, “bad tree” to not-tree, and so on. Ultimately, a “bad house” cannot be called anything, as it cannot be a house, car, wardrobe, tree, and so on. It can never be described or known as anything. The sole remaining option is that the “bad house” ceases to exist, and we are left with one “best house”.

Similarly, equating God to a “Supreme Being” is only partially true. The problem with this equality is revealed the moment we talk about non-supreme beings. According to the above equivalence, a non-supreme being must not be God, which will deny the existence of all less supreme forms of God. Now, “God” must be the name of a specific individual and not a class of entities, which will then make the term monotheism as problematic as calling me “one Ashish” or “Ashish is one” due to meaningless repetition. Likewise, if “God” is a name of an individual then polytheism is “many Ashish” or “Ashish is many”, which is also self-contradictory. Therefore, neither monotheism nor polytheism exists if “God” is a name. The term “God” becomes a name of an individual when we make non-supreme forms not-God.

If this principle is extended to everything, then “bad men” are not-men, and bad men cannot be called cars and houses, therefore, all except one man should cease to exist. Likewise, all except one house must cease to exist. Ultimately, we will only have one man, one house, one tree, and so on, because the mere existence of something inferior is equated to not-that-thing, thereby eliminating its existence.

Causes and Solutions of the Above Problems

Ontological Monotheism is the selective application of “one” and “supreme” to God—eliminating all other forms of God—while not applying the same notions of “one” and “supreme” to cars, houses, and trees to eliminate them from existence. This selective application creates double standards where a “bad house” is also a house, but a less-supreme form of God is not-God. When these double standards are adopted, then monotheism becomes self-contradictory, incomprehensible, and undefinable.

These problems do not arise in Epistemological Monotheism, where I look at only one of the many forms of God, and consider that to be supreme, and I am neither totally right nor totally wrong because a “bad house” is still a house, although not equivalent to the “best house”. Epistemological Monotheism can exist as a religion in which different people conceive God in many ways—some of which are better than others—just like a “good house” and a “best house” are both houses and yet not equivalent. Then we can say that God is a class of individuals like the class house, and a “good house” is neither not-house nor the “best house”. A non-binary logical system is introduced when we talk about good, better, and best houses. The same logical system must be used to talk about good, better, and best forms of God.

The Vedic Non-Binary Notion of God

Vedic texts spend a considerable effort in defining the meaning of “supreme”. In some places, that supremacy is described as the most knowledgeable, beautiful, renounced, powerful, famous, and wealthy person. In some other places, that supremacy is described as the fullness of 64 qualities. In yet other places, that supremacy is described as the fullness of three traits called sat-chit-ānanda.

Then, somewhat lower forms of God are described with a reduced number of qualities. For instance, Shiva is a form of God with 54 instead of 64 qualities, which are fully possessed only by Kṛṣṇa. If we go lower than 54, we may sometimes call a person “God” because he possesses some—although not all—qualities of Kṛṣṇa, quite like we can identify best, better, and good houses by reducing their qualities. Thereby, even demigods can sometimes be called “God” although that doesn’t mean they are equal to Shiva with 54 qualities or to Kṛṣṇa with 64 qualities. They are just “God” relative to people with even fewer qualities. Thus, we can have a relativized and contextualized definition of “God” as one who has more qualities. We can have an individualized definition of “God” as someone with more qualities than me. And we can have a universal definition of “Supreme Being” as one who has the 64 qualities fully.

The fact is that even Brahma and Indra are sometimes called “Bhagavān” in the Vedic texts because the word “Bhagavān” means “one who is imbued with the qualities of greatness”. Likewise, there are many great realms in which there is a Supreme Person who is the greatest for that specific realm, and He is also called Bhagavān. Finally, there is one Supreme Person—called Kṛṣṇa—with His own abode, who is the greatest in the greatest realm. Kṛṣṇa is called Kṛṣṇa because He attracts even those in lower realms, including the Supreme Persons of the lower realms, then what to speak of Brahma or Indra, because He possesses even more attractive qualities of greatness completely than possessed by anyone else.

Thus, the word “supreme” is contextualized—it can mean the supreme person in a lower realm. The word “supreme” is individualized—we can choose a different supreme person in another realm. And the world “supreme” is universalized—it can mean the greatest person across all the realms, i.e., Kṛṣṇa. The word “supreme” doesn’t mean one thing. Hence, Bhagavān also doesn’t mean one thing. That doesn’t entail that there is no supreme person. It means that there is a Supreme Person, Whose aspects can also be considered supreme by different people, and hence, they can be contextually called supreme by such people unambiguously because both the speaker and listener have the same idea of supremacy.

Vedic Epistemological Monotheism

Since the Vedic tradition allows the use of Bhagavān in many ways, it permits many progressive types of religions. We can walk on this progressive ladder. The ladder that goes up also goes down. It depends on us, whether we want to climb or descend this ladder. Those higher up on the ladder are objectively superior, and they try to lift those objectively lower on the ladder, provided the person lower on the ladder is so willing. If they are unwilling, those higher on the ladder leave them alone. Likewise, those lower on the ladder may want to rise on the ladder by consulting those at a higher level in the ladder. But they cannot equalize multiple levels nor can they make the lower-level superior to the higher level.

Since each person on the ladder has only one conception of God, therefore, they are all monotheists. However, that is epistemological rather than ontological monotheism. Those in the Vedic tradition know that there are higher levels, but they prefer to stay at some level because they know that to rise to a higher level requires a greater sacrifice, a bigger price, and a higher commitment. Not everyone is ready for that sacrifice, price, or commitment. So, they like to stay at a lower level, until they can muster the courage to make a higher sacrifice, pay a bigger price, or show a greater commitment. Epistemological monotheism results in an egalitarian attitude where people have the choice for better or worse. But that choice is not free because it requires a higher sacrifice, a bigger price, and a greater commitment.

By giving the choice between better and worse, we don’t equate better to worse. We don’t make worse better than better. We don’t deny the existence of better because the worse can be chosen, nor do we deny the existence of worse because the better can be chosen. Thus, three things are forbidden—(a) equality of levels in the ladder, (b) inversion of the order of steps in the ladder, and (c) rejection of the higher and lower steps in the ladder. The ladder is accepted. But the equality of all steps, inversion in the order of steps, or the rejection of some steps—either lower or higher—is forbidden. We can talk about good, better, and best, but not equalize them, invert the priority order, or deny one or other steps.

Indra can be worshipped as “Bhagavān” because he has some of the 64 qualities of Kṛṣṇa far greater than Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Elon Musk. Worshipping Indra is better than worshipping technocrats, and those who worship Indra are therefore better than those following the “monotheism” of worshipping either one of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Elon Musk. But progressively better “monotheisms” are based on the worship of Śakti, Shiva, Viṣṇu, and Kṛṣṇa. All these are epistemological monotheisms where a person chooses to worship a superior personality, but (a) doesn’t deny the existence of the other forms of “monotheism”, and (b) doesn’t deny the possibility of the supreme form of monotheism of Kṛṣṇa.

Thus, these monotheists will not deny (a) one transcendent and one immanent, (b) many immanent and many transcendent, (c) many transcendent without any immanent, (d) many immanent without any transcendent, (e) one transcendent and many immanent, or (f) many transcendent and one immanent forms of God. As long as they restrict their monotheism to their conception of God, different kinds of monotheists can coexist and progress on the ladder toward the highest form of monotheism, if they like. This is not Ontological Monotheism, which is exclusivist, and frankly so limited that it rejects (a) many immanent forms of God, (b) many transcendent forms of God, (c) deems a lower form of God—engaged in rewards and punishments—as the highest form of God, and (d) rejects every other form of God.

What Great Teachers Accept and Reject

Acharyas sometimes accept the entire ladder as one thing, quite like we can call good, better, and best houses just “houses”. They recognize the freedom of different people to choose their form of God, quite like one may only be able to afford a good, better, or best house. They try to elevate a person to a higher step on the ladder, quite like one may want to move a person from a good house to a better house. Finally, they tell everyone about the Supreme Person, quite like one may talk about the best house.

Thus, their “monotheism” takes many forms—one ladder, one step, a higher step than the previous step, and the highest step in the ladder. This is how they can give numerous meanings to “monotheism”:

  • We transform “God is one” into “God is first” rather than “one”. We can say that the Supreme Person is the first person. We might also say that He is first among equals, because the first person doesn’t deny the existence of other persons, nor does He want to subjugate them. All these persons are aspects of the Supreme Person with 64 qualities, as they have fewer qualities. Thereby, we don’t run into the paradox of “two is greater than one” because second is not greater than first. First is greatest, second is slightly lower in greatness, and so on, ad infinitum, because second is a part or aspect of the first, third is a part or aspect of second or first, etc.
  • We can accept “God is one” but that is not precluding “God is two” or “God is three” because one, two, and three are attributes of God. For instance, we can see God in a temple deity alone, and then, God is just one. But we can also see God in the table and chair, and then God is two and three. Since we can see God in everything, therefore, God is infinite. Thus, we do not need to restrict God to one, because God is also infinite. “God is one” is the limited vision of the person who sees God only in the deity. “God is infinite” is the vision of a person who sees God in everything. “God is one” is not false. It is just a limited truth compared to “God is infinite”.
  • We can say that Kṛṣṇa is “one God” just like “one house”, because “God” is a class of things like houses. Some houses can be better than other houses. Similarly, there can be good, better, and best forms of God. The term “one God” can refer to the best form of God—like the best house—without rejecting the existence of other forms of God, like the non-best houses. If someone picks the non-best house, we don’t fall prey to the problem of saying that the non-best house is not a house. They are all houses, and if we pick one of those houses, it can be good, better, or the best house. Two houses are neither identical to each other, nor is one of those things not-house.
  • We can treat “one God” as the operator “one” acting on the Supreme Person to produce a vision of God in which God is seen only in one place and in a specific way defined by the person choosing to see the Supreme Person as a child, or as a father, or as a ruler, or as a husband, or as a brother, or as a sister, or as a friend, or as a lover, or as a concerned neighbor and citizen. Each of these is a different vision of the same person, which constitute different forms of God. These forms are observables that may be closer or farther to the full truth, but they are not false.
  • We can treat “one God” as “one four” equaling fourteen or “one fourth” equaling a quarter. In the former case, a higher form of God would be greater than a lower form of God, and in the latter case, a lower form of God would be lesser than a higher form of God. There is no conflict between God being lesser and greater than “other Gods” because they are all distinct forms of God, just like good, better, and best houses are houses, and yet, not equal to each other.

My point is simple—We can use monotheism in all the ways when we adopt the Vedic conception of God when we could not use monotheism in any of the ways when we adopted the conception of God found in present-day monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Of course, when the terms “one God” and “God is one” are used in different ways (i.e., first-order logic, second-order logic, set theory, operator theory, and arithmetic), then the meaning of monotheism changes in each case. And yet, the word “monotheism” remains meaningful in all the above ways with the Vedic conception of God, while it remains self-contradictory and ultimately meaningless in the monotheistic religion’s contexts.

We can use it in a universalist sense as the one Supreme Person. We could give a contextualized definition, ranging from Indra to Brahma to Śakti, Shiva, Viṣṇu, and Kṛṣṇa. Monotheism can be defined individualistically to mean the preferred form out of many forms, including the Supreme Form. We can say that the Supreme Person is both immanent and transcendent because these are simply aspects of the Supreme Person with the number of attributes in the immanent form slightly reduced. We can speak about God as one who has infinite transcendent forms, although there are only one of each of these forms.

Non-Exclusivist Idea of Monotheism

Thus, every universalized, contextualized, and individualized definition of God works without excluding any other definition. Monotheism as “one God” or “God is one” is perfectly meaningful in the Vedic tradition, and hence they are used by Acharyas occasionally who mean something quite different by the word than everyone who factually identifies himself as a monotheist. The difference is that their definition of monotheism doesn’t exclude polytheism (because there are many forms of God), monism (because there is a first person), henotheism (because contextually a different form can be called supreme), pantheism (because God is also immanent), panentheism (because all that emanated from God was originally in God, and continues to exist in an unmanifest form in God after emanation), unitarianism (because the Supreme Person establishes unity in all the diversity), and many others.

The problem is not the word “monotheism”. The problem is that the way it is defined, and commonly used by everyone, means the exclusion of polytheism, henotheism, monism, pantheism, panentheism, unitarianism, and so on. A monotheist has serious problems with being called by other names, but the Acharyas don’t have that problem, because they can look at the same thing from a different perspective, and say—Yes, that is also true, although from a different perspective, not the previous perspective.

Therefore, the fact that Acharyas use monotheism to mean (a) a ladder, (b) higher and lower rungs, and (c) the topmost rung in different contexts, doesn’t mean that we should also use the same word with people who understand monotheism to mean (a) just one rung, (b) exclude higher rungs, (c) exclude the ladder, (d) exclude the topmost rung in the ladder, and (e) equate a lower rung to the highest rung.

Monotheism in Vedic Philosophy

In the Vedic texts, there are first, second, third, all the way to infinitieth forms of God. There is an original form of God, that expands into infinite other forms of God. All these forms of God are present in different planets eternally. If we look in one planet, we can say God is one. If we look in two planets, we can say God is two. If we look in three planets, we can say God is three. Therefore, when we talk about monotheism, we are either (a) referring to the first form of God, disregarding infinite other forms, or (b) referring to the vision of God in one planet, disregarding God’s presence in infinite other planets.

The advanced devotee focuses on the first or original form of God, Kṛṣṇa, and He says: God is first, and there is one God because he is looking at the first form found only in one planet. That is Epistemological Monotheism, not Ontological Monotheism. The devotee has made the choice to look at the first form of God found in one place. The same devotee will say that one is not contradictory to infinity and first is not opposed to infinitieth. Epistemological Monotheism is when we choose one among the infinite planets to see one form of God. Ontological Monotheism is when infinite planets and forms of God are reduced to one planet and one God. Epistemological Monotheism is true, and Ontological Monotheism is false.

A religious system can adopt a specific epistemological theism without excluding other religions from their epistemological theisms. All these religions are choosing to perceive and know God in a different way. Some of these theisms are better than others. The choice of one theism is a personal choice, not a logical necessity. But if a religion is exclusive, then it must be excluded from the realm of truths. I have shown that abundantly with the varied meanings of “monotheism” in exclusivist religions and how each meaning negates itself.

This is the egalitarian vision in which impersonalism, voidism, and monotheism are simply aspects of the truth. Everyone can choose their epistemological method to get their desired results, without excluding the truth of other methods and results. Those who recognize all these paths and methods know how to rank them from top to bottom to construct a ladder. Inclusivists accept this ladder to remain united. They also progress from one step on the ladder to another. Exclusivists, on the other hand, abandon the ladder to stay divided. They don’t progress on the ladder and may be destroyed by religious conflict. The words they use—like “monotheism”—forever remain incomprehensible and self-contradictory.