Is God vengeful?
There are many instances, from ancient history to recent events, where a certain kind of individual, when angered by someone’s behavior, will invoke the wrath of God to descend on his/her enemy’s head. Or when something negative or disastrous happens to someone s/he knows, the individual will claim that this “punishment” is a result of God’s anger. The question then arises: Is God vengeful? Or, in other words, is God the same in His (or Her, depending on our beliefs) behaviour towards humans as certain mean-spirited humans are towards each other?
My answer is a resounding no.
Time and again, philosophers have lamented the fact that we as humans create God in our own warped image. In other words, we can only imagine God (or whatever name we give to that Supreme, Subtlest Reality) in a certain way, depending on how subtle our own intellects are. Throughout history, religious texts and leaders have referred to a vengeful God and warned against His terrible anger. They have even created stories about it. I believe the main motive for this is that they wanted their followers to live virtuous lives. Fear of consequences, after all, is a great and immediate deterrent to evil action. (It is, perhaps, not so different from mothers invoking the bogey man to keep their
children from being naughty.)
Deepak Chopra has an excellent book on this subject, How to Know God: The Soul’s Journey into the Mystery of Mysteries, where he explains that, depending on how evolved a human being is, s/he will see God as one of the following:
a God who can save us from
a rule-giving God — punishing the evil and rewarding the good
a God who brings tranquility out of chaos
a good and forgiving God
God as creator
God as exalted
God as the blissful source of everything, and inseparable from us
And indeed, when we look at the writings of the most spiritually evolved beings, the saints and mystics of all religions, when we examine what the Realised Masters say about the nature of God (or Brahman, or Reality, or the Universe, or Tao — whatever term they use to evoke that Which is Ultimately Beyond Words), we see over and over that their relationship with this being is one of love, joy, surrender and complete faith. Never is there fear or grief or worry that God will turn capricious or vengeful. Shankaracharya in his many stotras defines God over and over as “karunavatar”, the very form of mercy. St. Teresa of Avila’s entire life is based around her belief that “God is Love.” The Quran states that God’s rahmah (grace) encompasses all things. Jesus’ dying words shine with compassion: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The poems of the Sufi mystic-poet Rumi refer continually to God as the Beloved, the playful, the ocean of kindness and joy. Modern-age saints such as Sri Ramakrishna revelled in God’s love, in complete surrender to the Divine, in spite of severe bodily ills. And not only the great saints. Any one of us, if we cleanse our mind and make it silent and experience the deep, all-encompassing peace within ourselves, we can gain at least a glimpse of the joyful nature of Reality, in itself the greatest blessing of all, which the Upanishads have called Sat-Chit-Ananda.
Why then, people might ask, if God is so compassionate, do disasters befall us — sometimes deservedly, but often for no reason that we can see? There are many mysteries in the universe, great patterns beyond our limited capacities to understand. I think of it (speaking from my own limited understanding) as perhaps similar to putting our hand in the fire. If we touch fire, it will burn us. This does not mean that the fire is angry or vengeful. It is following a natural law. If we indulge in certain acts, they will have certain results. According to the doctrine of karma, which many religions and cultures follow in one form or another, these results may be immediate; they may occur after some time; or they can even occur after lifetimes. They could be external and physical, or perhaps these results will leave a mark on our psyche.
The issue of “punishment” is further complicated by the fact that what we often consider negative in our lives may have blessings folded inside it, or, at the very least, may lead us to growth and wisdom. The lives of saints are filled with stories of disasters that turned them towards God.
Ultimately, I believe, God is infinite and mysterious, beyond our limited human understanding. But this much I do understand: to reduce Him to the low, low level of a vengeful mortal is to do Him great injustice. I will end with the words of Shankaracharya, who said it best in his hymn in praise of the Divine Mother: “Kuputro Jayate Kwaichidapi, Kumata Na Bhavati (Children may do wrong, but a mother can never be hateful in her actions).”
The writer is the author of The Palace of Illusions and One Amazing Thing