These are all important questions. I will try to answer them one at a time in brief. However, to truly clear all your doubts, it will require a much deeper understanding than I can provide in this forum. Thus, I would very strongly recommend that you read the book “Prem Ras Siddhant” by Jagadguru Shree Kripalu Ji Maharaj, which will answer all of your questions at the deepest level. It can be ordered at this link . Additionally, the series of speeches by Shree Kripalu Ji Maharaj called “Brahm, Jeev, Maya” and “Main Kaun Mera Kaun?”, which are available at http://www.JKPVedic.org, will give you a solid foundation and a thorough understanding of all these topics.
Let me start with your first question, “Who is God?”
There are 3 eternal entities (tattva) described in our scriptures. They are God (brahm), souls (jeev), and the material energy (maya). Maya is the original cosmic power, which has taken the form of the universe. Everything in the universe is made of maya. The individual souls are infinite in number, spot-existent, and have their own free will to perform actions. Both maya and the souls are powers of God, and exist dependent on God.
God activates maya – only then does it take the form of the universe. When God withdraws his power, the universe dissolves back into a subtle form of the mayic energy, which remains absolutely dormant and invisible until the next creation. This is an eternal cycle of creation and dissolution of the universe, which is controlled by God.
The souls are alive because God resides within each individual soul and gives life to them. Thus, He is the supreme Soul of every soul (Paramatma). During the creation phase of the universe (srishti), God sends the souls forth to take birth in the world, and during the dissolution phase (pralay), the souls remain alive, but are dormant within God.
Thus, although has not created maya (because it is an eternally existing power of His), He is the ruler of maya. And although He has not created the souls (because they have eternally existed, just like Him), He is the Lord of all the souls.
God Himself is independent from both maya and the souls. He is beyond maya, is unaffected by mayic qualities, and exists in His own Divine dimension. This dimension is beyond material time and space, is stable, permanent, and is unaffected by the creation and dissolution of the universe. This dimension is the expansion of God Himself, and is also known as His abode.
God is sat, chit, anand. Anand means He is Divine bliss which is unlimited, everlasting, and perfect in every way. Chit means that He is a sentient being, who is alive and has a mind. Sat means that He is eternally existing and indestructible.
He is sarvagya (all-knowing), sarva drashta (all-seeing), sarvashaktiman (all-powerful), sarvavypak (omnipresent), all-merciful, all-forgiving, all-kind, and all loving. He is the friend of humble souls (Deenbandhu) and the purifier of fallen souls (Patit Pavan). He is subservient to the love of His fully surrendered devotees (Bhakti Vashya), and is the kind-hearted guardian and caretaker of His devotees (Bhakt Vatsal).
God is both with form (sakar brahm) and without form (nirakar brahm), and both aspects are omnipresent. In His nirakar aspect, all the above mentioned powers and qualities lie dormant and inactive. As sakar brahm, the same powers and qualities are manifested, either in part or in full. Depending on the extent of the manifestation of these Divine powers and qualities, one single God takes many forms (Krishna, Ram, Vishnu, Shiv, Durga, etc.). All forms of God are internally one the same and equal.
God is absolute Divinity and is unlimited in every way. There is nothing that is apart from Him, as He pervades everything. He is larger than the largest, because the entire universe and all its beings reside within Him. He is smaller than the smallest, because He pervades even the smallest particle. He is beyond the understanding of even the greatest material mind, because a material mind can only understand in limitations.
No matter how much I describe about God, I cannot reach Him with my words, nor can my words make another understand who God is. Thus, we cannot know God through our own effort. However, when someone surrenders his heart and mind to Him, God Graces that soul. Through His Grace, that soul knows God.
The rest, I will explain in my next answer.
Note: For answer to Part 2 of this question, please click on the square box on top-right of this question that says ‘2 comments’.
Here is the answer to the next part (Part 2) of your question: “What does God want from us? What are we supposed to do here?”
In order to answer this essential question, I will review a some important philosophical points. First, God has not created us. We are one of the three eternal existences (God, the souls, and maya). All three are without beginning. They were never created, and they can never be destroyed. Thus, we are as old as God. Always remember this point that God never created or will create any soul – we have always just been here.
Second, God has not created maya. Maya is an eternal but lifeless energy which goes through an endless cycle of manifestation (the creation phase of the universe) and dissolution (the dormant phase of the universe). God is responsible for activating maya, and thus manifesting the universe, and He is responsible for deactivating maya, and thus dissolving the universe. But He never created maya. It is just an eternal cycle of creation and dissolution of the mayic energy, which has always existed.
Third, during the dormant phase of the universe (maha pralay), the souls lie dormant within God in a state of complete unconsciousness. The body, mind and senses of a soul, which allow it to perceive, experience and be self-aware, are all dissolved into the mayic energy. Thus, during pralay the souls have no means of thinking, doing, or experiencing anything.
Fourth, the Divine world is beyond maya and is unaffected by the creation and dissolution of the universe. Those souls who have surrendered to God have gained entrance to this Divine abode with His grace. They have received a Divine mind, body and senses and enjoy unlimited Divine bliss all the time in God’s personal association. This is the ultimate goal of all souls.
Fifth, the only time a soul has a chance to attain this ultimate goal is during the creation phase of the universe (srishti). During pralay, all the souls under maya are inactive and unaware. Only during srishti do they receive a body (take birth) and does their mind become active. Then, when a soul receives a human birth, he has a chance to perform actions (karm). This is the soul’s only chance to attain God.
Knowing this, God feels compassion during pralay on all the souls who are lying in a state of pending within Him. He decides to create the universe so that they can once again become active, get a human birth, get the knowledge about Him and His path, follow that path, and attain Him (come to His Divine abode).
Let’s return to the question, “What does God want from us?” He wants us to use this human life for its ultimate purpose: to attain Him so that we can receive absolute bliss and knowledge. That is why He created this universe, that is why He gave us a human birth, and that is why He produced His knowledge on earth in the form of the Vedas and other Divine scriptures. “What are we supposed to do here?” We are supposed to gain correct spiritual knowledge, follow the path to God, and attain Him. This is the meaning of life, and the only goal of all the souls.
Keep in mind that all the souls under maya have been under mayic bondage since eternity. This bondage never began. For as long as we have existed, we have existed in this state of bondage. We have never been in the Divine world, because the state of God realization is not a reversable state – once you reach God, you are free from maya forever. Thus, never think that God has enforced this mayic bondage upon us – on the contrary, the bondage is eternal and natural. However, it can be ended through His grace, which we will receive the moment we surrender to Him.
Never think that at some point we were “with” God, and then He made us leave Him and come under maya, taking birth in this world. On the contrary, we were never “with” God, because that is a permanent state, which can never be interrupted by mayic bondage. So if we are under maya today, it means we have been forever. If we are separated from God today, it means we have been separated from Him forever.
But He is waiting for us with open arms to grace us and welcome us into His Divine abode. All we have to do is surrender to Him, and He will grace us instantly.
The rest, I will explain in subsequent answers.
Continuing to address the string of questions you had asked, I will now answer the question, “Where do I get all this knowledge?” (Please note: in this answer I will explain that Ved is the source of authoritative spiritual knowledge. However, Ved is not meant to be studied on one’s own. Please read all the way to the bottom where I explain that it must be studied with the help of a qualified teacher.)
When we want to know things like, “Who is God?” and “Why am I here?”, we have to find an authoritative and dependable source to answer our questions. These subjects are beyond our intellect, so on our own, we could only speculate. Thankfully, God makes this knowledge available to us.
Why would He not? He has produced this world for the singular purpose of giving us the chance to attain Him, so why would He not use His power to make the required knowledge available as well? Just like there is milk produced in the bosom of the mother even before the baby is born, similarily, before human population begins on earth, God produces the knowledge in the form of the Ved (which includes the Upnishads). That way, we are not left to wander aimlessly, but rather, we can acquire correct spiritual knowledge from the Ved, and proceed on the genuine path of God realization.
How is Ved produced on earth? It is not a book which was written by someone, or a collection of speculations by different scholars. Ved is said to be both ‘paurusheya’ and ‘apaurusheya’. ‘Paurusheya’ means produced by God. ‘Apaurusheya’ means not made by anyone, even God. You see, like God, souls, and maya, Ved is also eternal. It is Divine knowledge which resides eternally within God. In fact, Ved is considered to be God Himself (vedo narayanah sakshat [Bhagwatam]). Since souls are eternal, and have eternally been under the bondage of maya, they have eternally been in need of knowledge to guide them. Thus, the knowledge must also be eternal. And it is: that is the Ved. Since Ved is eternal, it means that it was never made by anyone, including God (thus it is ‘Apaurusheya’).
However, Ved disappears within God during pralaya, so it must be manifested by Him and made available again in the world during srishti. Since God manifests Ved in the world, Ved is also called ‘paurusheya’, which means produced by God. But it is not composed by God, it is manifested by Him in the exact same way it existed before pralaya, in the previous srishti (for this reason it is also called ‘vinirgat’).
One might wonder whether the words or sounds of the Vedic mantras are eternal. Actually, there are 4 levels of ‘vani’ or vocalization: para vani, pashyanti vani, madhyama vani, and vaikhari vani. Each one is progressively less subtle. The sounds of the Ved reside within God in the most subtle form during pralay (para vani). Then they are transmitted by God to Brahma through pashyanti vani and madhyama vani. Pashyanti and madhyama vani cannot be heard by the ears – they are perceived directly by the mind, or can even be received on a more subtle level. Then Brahma transmits the Ved to the first rishis of the earth planet through pashyanti and madhyama vani. After which, those rishis produce it in vaikhari vani, which can be heard by the ears. Vaikhari vani is also of two types: upanshu (whispered in the ear) and ucchayi (spoken out loud). For many generations, Ved is taught only orally, because the rishis in their Divine minds have the capacity to retain the entire 100,000 mantras of the Ved after only hearing it once (this is also why Ved is known as ‘Shruti’). Later, for the benefit of ordinary souls, the Vedic mantras are recorded in a written form, which is available in part today.
Unlike this world, it is the nature of Divine powers to be personified. Thus, the mantras of the Vedas, which are Divine powers, also exist in a personal form, known as a ‘richa’. In order to receive the knowledge of the Ved, the rishis entered into samadhi (a Divine state of absorption) and perceived or saw the personified form of each mantra. Thus, these rishis are called ‘mantra drashta’ or the ‘seers’ of the Vedic mantras. It was through the grace of God that they were able to research, discover, and experience the Vedic mantras, and then reveal them in the world for us.
Thereafter, other Divine scriptures are produced by God realized Saints and by various avatars of God. These are all based on the philosophy of the Ved, and perfectly coordinate with it. These scriptures further elucidate, compliment, and clarify the teachings of the Ved. These scriptures include the 4 Upved, 6 Vedang, 6 Darshan Shastra (Poorv Mimansa, Nyay Darshan, Vaisheshik Darshan, Sankhya Darshan, Yog Darshan, & Brahm Sutra), the Gita, the 18 Puran (including the Bhagwatam), the Mahabharat, and the Ramayan. These are our source of knowledge on spiritual matters, and the foudation of all of it is the Ved (and Upnishad).
Once the Ved has been revealed as vaikhari vani and also produced in a written form, inevitably, the books get destroyed over time. The other scriptures may also become unavailable. So as to insure the continuous availability of this Vedic knowledge to guide the souls, God descends on earth (takes avatar) in the form of Ved Vyas. As Ved Vyas, He reproduces all the aforementioned scriptures in a written form, and teaches them to His disciples. Ved Vyas appears at regular intervals, at the end of every dwapar yug. His most recent appearance was 5,000 years ago.
Thus you see that there is a well defined system for producing and maintaining the necessary knowledge in the world. This priceless treasure of knowledge is the guiding light for all those who wish to accomplish the goal of their existence. The system of pious living and spiritual enlightenment based on this knowledge is called Sanatan Dharm.
One must keep in mind that the Ved or any scripture is not for self-study. These are Divine scriptures which can only be understood with a Divine mind, and that too, only with God’s grace. Even Brahma was unable to understand the meaning of the Ved initially. Only once he surrendered to Shree Krishna and received His grace, did the meaning of the mantras become apparent to him. If we hope to correctly understand the vast philosophy of these Vedic scriptures, then we need the guidance of a God realized Saint (‘Guru binu hoi ki gyan’ [Ramayan]). Otherwise, if we try to study them on our own, we will end up increasing our confusion (‘Shruti Puran bahu kaheu upayi, choote na adhik adhik arujhaee’ [Ramayan]). It is only with the help of a qualified teacher that true knowledge can be gained. The best recommendation I can provide to help you get started is to read ‘Prem Ras Siddhant’ by Jagadguru Shree Kripalu Ji Maharaj. This book summarizes all the Vedic philosophy, while giving thousands of quotations from all the main scriptures. It distills the knowledge into a practical form that can be implemented in our daily life. This way, there is no doubt about what we have to do to fulfill the aim of our existence. Alternatively, you may like to watch a series of 103 one-hour lectures entitled ‘Main Kaun? Mera Kaun?’ which were delivered by Shree Kripalu Ji Maharaj, and cover the same topics and information as the book Prem Ras Siddhant.
I will now adress the remaining part of your question, which is related to worldly happiness. Based on my previous answers, you must have understood that souls were not put here by God, but rather all souls are eternal. You would have also understood that the ultimate aim of every soul is to attain God, and that to attain God, we have to surrender our mind to Him to receive His Grace.
However, while following the path of bhakti to surrender our mind to God, we must still live in this material world. Thus, we must make use of the material world to support our body. God has manifested the universe so that the souls could become active, receive a human birth, and follow the path to God to receive perfect happiness for ever. Thus, the world is a means to an end, it is not an end in and of itself.
In other words, the world was never meant to be the source of happiness for the souls. God is the source of happiness, and the world is the means of reaching God. As Shree Kripalu Ji Maharaj said, “Yah sansar hamare upyog ke liye hai, hamare upbhog ke liye nahin.” (This world is for our use, not for our indulgence.) God is for our soul, and the world is for our body. God is the happiness our soul desires, and the world is required to maintain our body, but it is not possible for the soul to find perfect happiness in the world.
This is because the soul is Divine, so only God’s Divine happiness can satisfy the soul. The body is material, so it requires the material world in order to survive. But the material world cannot give Divine happiness. It can only give temporary pleasure which is enjoyed through the senses, but doesn’t reach the soul. You have your own experience every day which tells you that the worldly pleasures fail to satisfy you.
Yet, you must also have undertood from my previous answers that it is natural to desire happiness (since God is happiness and we are His ansh). So it is not wrong to desire happiness, it is correct. Our mistake is that we look in the wrong place for that happiness – we look to the world instead of to God. All we have to do is turn our desires towards God. All 5 types of desires (related to our 5 senses) can be turned towards God. In other words, don’t stop desiring happiness, but desire it from the right place – from God. Don’t stop desiring enjoyments, but desire to get that enjoyment by seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling God. Shree Krishna can be experienced with all of our senses.
As regards the relationships we have in this world, it is important to fulfill our societal and family duties. It is important to treat everyone with respect and to avoid doing harm to anyone. But no person can make another person happy. When we ourselves are not in possession of happiness, how will we give it to another? It is like one beggar begging from another beggar. Only God is in possession of true happiness. All the souls are eternally related to God and can get true happiness from God. On the other hand, souls are only incidentaly related to each other during one life time, and after that, form all new relationships in the next life, which means that no souls get to remain together forever. And even if they could, no other soul could give another perfect happiness.
This does not mean that our worldly relations are not to be honored and respected. It does not mean that they are wrong. However, we should understand their limitations. They are short-lived and unable to provide us the perfect love and happiness we seak. The more deeply we understand this, the more forgiving and compassionate we are towards others, because we no longer expect people to be perfect, nor to provide us with perfect love and happiness.
Therefore, while continuing to respect and honor our worldly relations, we should attach our mind to Shree Krishna, feeling that He is mine forever. He is the form of Divine bliss, and only by meeting Him can I get perfect happiness. Only He can love me perfectly.
God doesn’t require you to be a sanyasi to follow the path of bhakti. You can be a grihasthi, as long as your mind is attached to God and you understand only He is true happiness. Physical renunciation from the world is not required – mental attachment in God is. So live in the world and physically perform your karm, while your mind remains fixed on your ultimate goal of God realization.
Regarding the forms of God you mentioned who have a Divine consort, you should know that Vishnu & Lakshmi and Shiv & Parvati are not 2 separate personalities. They are one. So it could be understood this way, that God is keeping Himself company. He does not get lonely or require companionship the way we do. But He exists eternally in both the male and female forms. The male form is know as shaktiman (the base of the power) and the female form is known as shakti (the power). They are two forms of the same thing, and can never be separated, because a power cannot exist outside of its base, and the base is nothing without its power.
Whatever Divine leelas we hear about -like Parvati doing austerities because She wanted to marry Shiv – should not be analyzed from a material perspective nor understood through material motivations. God’s actions cannot be understood with a limited material mind. But one thing is for sure: God is not doing such actions (like getting married) because of any desire for getting happiness from another.