Saturday, 28 March 2009

The meaning of 'God'

We use the word 'God' so freely across religious traditions - but does it really mean the same thing? What would be the proper equivalent of the Christian word 'God' in India? There is a range of choices: deva, bhagavan, isvara, paramesvara, brahman, parabrahman.

When someone in India is called Bhagavan, what might that mean? Bhagavan Sri Rajneesh, Sri Swami Samarth, Sri Swami Suryanarayan... or even Sai Baba and Satya Sai Baba...

The whole area of translation is so fascinating - and so influential in the inevitable cross-cultural forays today.

What would have happened if Christ had been born in India? Would he have been able to reveal his identity as Son?

Which brings us once again to the question of the transition from description to explanation: it is not enough to use words; one has to determine the set of terms and relations of which it forms a part, and within which alone its proper meaning is fixed.

Against the background of his learning, Richard De Smet used to say that Brahman is perhaps a better word for translating God than Isvara. It is the Parabrahman, the nirguna Brahman of the Advaitic tradition, that might give us a proper equivalent finally.

But when I mentioned it in class some years ago, a girl pointed out to me that this kind of choice would unnecessarily privilege 'a particular community.' She happened to be a Christian girl of Dalit origin, and she brought to my notice this angle which I (and De Smet) had quite ignored. The many ramifications of translation besides the strictly metaphysical!


  1. dearest father Ivo, your insights always fascinate me. do continue in the same spirit to enlighten minds towards paths that reach the light.

    god bless,
    yours in Don Bosco,

  2. Leon, sorry, I have not been following up comments on this blog. Thanks. And all the best for PT! Be good and be gentle. Let go of performance anxiety, and let God work!