How do you depict a perfect being? The Jewish and Islamic answer is pretty clear: you can’t. From Exodus onward, idolatry is considered a sin. In the Ten Commandments the God of Exodus tells his subjects not to bow down before idols of anything on heaven or earth, for he is a jealous God – and, the implication is, all these things in his creation are different from him. Muslim tradition becomes much more explicit on the point. Islam’s cardinal sin is widely considered to be shirk: the association of any partners with God, saying that anything worldly – such as a drawing or statue of God – shares God’s attributes. Protestants have tended to follow the Jewish and Muslim lead. Catholics have been a bit more slack about it, but still accept the basic principle through fine distinctions, saying they don’t worship images, but merely venerate them; even for them, it’s understood that there’s a fine line they’re walking, something a little suspicious about depicting God that needs to be defended.
No such suspicion is found in India. I was struck recently by the climax of the Bhagavad Gītā. The god Krishna explains to the hero Arjuna what he needs to do, and explains his own divine nature as lord of the universe. Then, Arjuna asks to see Krishna’s true form – and Krishna agrees to show him. Arjuna can’t see it with mere human eyes; but Krishna grants him a “divine eye,” which has no such problems.
The form Arjuna sees is clearly divine – not like the God of a Renaissance painting, who could be mistaken for a bearded old human if you didn’t know the context. But when Arjuna sees that form, he really sees it – he sees God just as God is. I think this represents a very different conception of divinity in India – divinity as divinity can be seen.
Krishna’s divine form is infinite, extending in all the directions – but with infinite numbers of eyes seeing everything, infinite numbers of mouths swallowing the dead as they go to their fates, infinite crowns on his infinite heads. This divinity is physical, visible, even tangible.
What does this mean for thoughts of a God as structuring the universe, a First Explanation with metaphysical significance for the way we understand the rest of the world? YHWH precedes the physical world, stands in some sense outside it, describing himself only as “I am that I am.” Krishna, on the other hand, seems a much more physical God, a part of the world itself, a creator of standing in some sense equal with his creation. I haven’t quite figured out what the implications are of all this. But I suspect they’re important.