When all was liquid and formless, God was clothed in emptiness. When did we decide to give them a face?

Raghubir Kintisch

8/9/2022 5 min read

The great sages of Hinduism and the Rig Veda, a large collection of hymns in praise of the gods, have this to say about the creation of the universe:

"In the beginning there was neither existence nor non-existence; there was no atmosphere, no sky, and no realm beyond the sky. What power was there? Where was that power? Who was that power? Was it finite or infinite? There was neither death nor immortality. There was nothing to distinguish night from day. There was no wind or breath. God alone breathed by his own energy. Other than God there was nothing. In the beginning darkness was swathed in darkness. All was liquid and formless. God was clothed in emptiness. Then fire arose within God; and in the fire arose love. This was the seed of the soul. Sages have found this seed within their hearts; they have discovered that it is the bond between existence and non-existence. Who really knows what happened? Who can describe it? How were things produced? Where was creation born? When the universe was created, the one became many. Who knows how this occurred? Did creation happen at God’s command, or did it happen without their command? They look down upon creation from the highest heaven. Only they knows the answer – or perhaps they do not know". - Rig Veda 10:29, 1-7

In Hinduism, as with many religions and traditions, there is no physical representation of the indescribable God but one might ask “why then, in a religion that believes in one Supreme unfathomable God, are there are so many representations of gods and goddesses in the temples, books, and art?” That is because the Supreme God possesses uncountable divine powers which are represented by thousands of dieties; popular and obscure. For example, a popular diety like Ganesha - the elephant-headed man-is worshipped as “the remover of obstacles,” and Shiva is revered as “the Bestower of Grace and Compassion.” Each Hindu deity represents an aspect of God and these aspects along with their mythology changes from town to town.

In these works, I tackle the lesser-known goddesses, sometimes gods, who are patron saints of the disenfranchised, downtrodden, and forlorn. They offer us hope, liberation, transformation, and an altar on which we can place our devotion. I threw in some all-time favorites "with a twist" as well as my own interpretations of personal shifts of perspective or perception. Everything for me has meaning; even the most mundane and commonplace.

In Persian miniatures you can find excellent examples of aniconism, the practice of banning the visual depiction of divine or god- like human beings. For example, Allah’s face is obscured by either the halo/aura or the veil. In Islamic art, one is forbidden to depict the face of Allah so artists have gotten around this by either creating an orb of light in place of their face or covering it with a curtain-like veil. Most devotional art that deals with enlightened beings, such as avatars, gurus and the like, the halo is used as an identifying symbol of divinity - the manifestation of the subject’s universal expanded consciousness. Since idolotry is considered a sin in most religions, symbols or icons were created to stand in for the holiest of holies.

Each one of these paintings is based on a story, lesson, test, or experience concerning divinity in action — in other words, the experience of God in the material world. They are like retablos in Mexican tradition which allows us to call upon the generosity of the Gods, in particular the Virgin of Guadalupe or the icons of the many facets of The Church. Both deeply personal and universal, they should be experienced as transmissions because like most devotional art, that is what they were/are.

Historically, there has been a tradition of calling the supreme force or being by many names; “God,” of course, being the most popular throughout history and across the globe. In Hinduism, they say that there are thirty-three million names for God. If you pray to any of the celebrated gods or goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, you will probably end up reciting 108 different names for each. Many attributes come up again and again for these stand-ins for God: nameless, formless, unfathomable, all-knowing omnipresent, and so on.

In Sikhism, Wahe Guru, Ek Ong Kar, and Akal Purakh are just a few of the multitude of names one could use in place of the word “God.” In the daily Sikh prayer Jaap Sahib, Guru Gobind Singh (the poet and 10th Sikh Guru) has listed God’s attributes, excellences and glories in this rhythmic hymm. By chanting the 199 verses daily, the devotee is reminded to address Wahe Guru with reverence and regularity. Translated into English, these chants and mantras revolve around the many aspects of God, some of which are: metaphysical, beyond time, eternal, unborn, uncreated, without form, feature, color or contour. This is why it would be nearly impossible to render or depict God with face and form.

In Judaism, there is but one God, but there are seventy-two different names for them; El, Elohim, Adonai, YHWH, Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, Shaddai, and Tzevaot being the seven the require the scribe’s special care. Of all the names of God in the Old Testament, the name that occurs most frequently (6,823 times) is the ( יהוה) so-called Tetragrammaton, YHWH, the distinctive personal name of the God of Israel. It should be noted that the name YHWH is forbidden to be spoken except by the high priests in the temples. In Christianity, many of God’s names come from the Old Testament so there is quite a bit of Jewish overlap, however Jehovah, Yaweh, King of Kings, JAH, are a handful of popular ones.

At the bottom of the hands, two letters on each hand combine to form YHVH, the name of God.

Muslims call God “Allah,” however they believe that there are ninety-nine different names for him, each expressing a particular characteristic. They call these names “Asmaa al-Husna: The Most Beautiful Names.” Some of these exquisite descriptions are The Entirely Merciful, The Bestower of Mercy, The King and Owner of Dominion, The Giver of Peace, TheAll-Seeing, The All-Hearing, The Sustainer, The Most Kind, and The All Mighty.“I can’t wrap my mind around it” is something one would say about something that is unfathomable. It means bottomless, inconceivable, indescribible, boundless, endless, horizonless, immeasurable, infinite, limitless, and vast. It describes something that is mysterious and obvious at the same time; everything and nothing. And just like the experience of godliness in human form, it is a paradox in perfect balance, a form without definition for which the laws of nature and reason do not apply.