Approaching God through paradox and wonder: adbhuta rasa

I just listened to a fascinating lecture given by Vasudha Narayanan, an eminent scholar of Hinduism and professor at the University of Florida. Simply looking at the title of her talk, “Paradoxology: The Art of Praising the Deity,” my head started to spin a little, but Prof. Narayanan’s speaking style was so engaging that I was able to keep up (mostly).

The phrase “down-to-earth” definitely doesn’t apply to her topic, however. The subject of Prof. Narayanan’s lecture was the idea of paradox, and how paradox is a fundamental way in which Hindu traditions conceptualize and experience God.

The title of the lecture was actually a sort of esoteric religious studies pun. In Christianity, a doxology is “a liturgical formula of praise to God”. Paradoxology, therefore, would imply looking at how paradox is involved in doxologies, (of course, Prof. Narayanan explores this in a Hindu context). Just to be clear, I’m going to provide a couple definitions of “paradox”, because it’s a really tricky word (please let me know if I’m not using it properly…):

  • a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.
  • a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.
  • a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.

Paradoxes can be found in devotional poetry and mythological stories from many different Hindu traditions. Off the top of my head, I realized that paradox is a big part of Rudram, a selection of verses from the Yajur Veda that describe the god Rudra (precursor/an aspect of Shiva) through an astonishing variety of epithets, basically saying that Rudra is present throughout the universe, in nature, in all beings, etc. So, there are verses like “Salutations to Him who is elder and to Him who is younger; Salutations to Him who is born before and to Him who is born after” (6.1.1-2). I’m actually currently working on a post about the poetry of Rudram, so stay tuned for that.

In Prof. Narayanan’s lecture, however, she was talking about the Sri Vaishnava tradition in South India, which worships Vishnu and his incarnations, especially Krishna. In many Sri Vaishnava poems, for example, paradoxical statements are used to describe Vishnu: “You are nectar and poison; death and immortality.” There are countless popular mythological stories about the life of Krishna that are also quite paradoxical and mind-boggling.

One story that Prof. Narayanan relates is one that I remember hearing as a little kid; it’s one of the more popular stories about the young Krishna. In fact, it’s so popular that Yann Martel wrote about it in Life of Pi (one of my favorite books):

There is the story of baby Krishna, wrongly accused by his friends of eating a bit of dirt. His foster mother, Yashoda, comes up to him with a wagging finger. “You shouldn’t eat dirt, you naughty boy,” she scolds him. “But I haven’t,” says the unchallenged lord of all and everything, in sport disguised as a frightened human child. “Tut! Tut! Open your mouth,” orders Yashoda. Krishna does as he is told. He opens his mouth.

Yashoda gasps. She sees in Krishna’s mouth the whole complete entire timeless universe, all the stars and planets of space and the distance between them, all the lands and seas of the earth and the life in them; she sees all the days of yesterday and all the days of tomorrow; she sees all ideas and all emotions, all pity and all hope, and the three strands of matter; not a pebble, candle, creature, village or galaxy is missing, including herself and every bit of dirt in its truthful place. “My Lord, you can close your mouth,” she says reverently.

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In Prof. Narayanan’s retelling of the story, Yashoda looks into Krishna’s mouth and, to her surprise, sees herself looking into Krishna’s mouth, in a kind of awe-inspiring infinite progression. It is these types of paradoxical stories that she describes in her lecture. According to Prof. Narayanan, these stories induce what is described in classical Sanskrit texts as adbhuta rasa: the emotion of pure wonder and astonishment. These stories, poems, songs, and images leave us in a state where words fail us. They give us a sense of the all-encompassing nature of God, and it is through adbhuta that we come closest to understanding God.

In another lecture of hers, on Hindu goddesses, Prof. Narayanan happened to touch on a similar idea. Here, she shows how even the most basic iconography associated with Hindu deities can give a sense of adbhuta:

“Vishnu … means ‘all-pervasive,’ immanent in everything. All-pervasive in everything. But what does Vishnu recline on? On Ananta, the serpent, a symbol of infinity. The serpent is called Ananta: anta means ‘end,’ ananta is ‘without end.’ So, the all-pervasive–he who is pervasive over all space–extends over all time. It’s a sense of infinity that we’re getting. And that’s the paradox we’re getting into.”

In this same lecture, she also talks about how adbhuta isn’t just limited to devotional poetry and iconography; one could also say it’s present, in a slightly different form, in the Vedas and the Upanishads:

“There’s a conversation in the Upanishads, books composed around 600 BCE, in which, during the conversation they ask,

‘So how many gods are there?’

‘Three hundred and thirty million.’


‘Three hundred and thirty.’

‘Are you sure?’




‘Are you sure?’

‘One and a half.’

‘One and a half?’

‘No, one. But there are also three hundred and thirty million.’

[This is from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, chapter 3.]

Prof. Narayanan explains, “Notice how they bring it to an irrational number at points … God is infinite. God could be male, God could be female, God could be one, God could be 330 million … God could be pi! And in fact God is pi. If God is infinite, why can’t God be anything? Right? Why should God be one or 330 million?”

“In fact, this notion, the infinity of the supreme, was hinted at as early as the Purusha Sukta, the hymn to the cosmic man, in the Rig Veda. Sahasraśīrṣā puruṣaḥ, it starts. ‘Thousand-headed is the cosmic man.’ So you’re waiting–thousand headed, that means two thousand eyes, two thousand feet? Nope. Sahasrākṣaḥ sahasrapāt. ‘A thousand eyes, and a thousand feet.’ ‘Thousand’ is like saying a bazillion.”

“And then it says ‘he spreads over the past, the present, the future, all that will be.’ He spreads over all space, and then it says, atya-tiṣṭhad-daśāṇgulam. [He is] spread over the entire universe, and then extends ‘ten finger-lengths beyond.’ So it’s everything you can think of in infinity, and ten finger-lengths beyond that–it’s infinity plus.”

So, going back to our first lecture, what’s the point of all of this infinity and paradox and adbhuta?

Prof. Narayan offers an explanation: “The stories of Yashoda looking into Krishna’s mouth, of Markandeya swimming in the waters of dissolution, make us conscious of mind-boggling notions of space and time, and our own place in the universe.”

“The stories of Yashoda and Markandeya put it all in different perspectives. It’s all about location, location, location. And by zooming in and zooming out, we get multiple perspectives of a situation, of being both a subject and an object. Yashoda is outside, looking into Krishna’s mouth at herself looking into Krishna’s mouth, in an infinite progression. Markandeya sees the entire universe within a baby lying in the waters of dissolution and then seems to go through this wormhole into an alternate reality, and is gazing at himself looking at the universe which contains him.”

“The different visions, the different darshanas, enable us, empower us, to have the flexibility to think through multiple issues–literally think outside the mouth or the body of God. Our problems and egos are important, but the vision that Markandeya had can put them into perspective, just as encountering the images sent by the Hubble telescope … a look at where we are in this stupendously large universe, is so humbling.”

“But this enormity does not, ought not, to paralyze us into [inaction], and we go back to the Bhagavad Gita here. Just as Yashoda slides back quickly into the role of the mother, and Arjuna gets back to being the warrior even after the vishwaroopa darshana, our paths of action are also cut out [for us].”

Prof. Narayanan’s final point is this: paradoxes provide a kind of mental freedom. She points out that the very existence of the purusharthas, the four Hindu aims of life, is rather paradoxical. The four aims are dharma, kama (desire), artha (prosperity and succes), and moksha (liberation from the cycle of rebirth). Many Hindus are more than happy to pursue kama and artha, but at the end of the day they want moksha too. She remarks that “like bifocal glasses, we hold multiple visions simultaneously, moving from one to another seamlessly. We see our place in the universe, and then [place] ourselves right in the center; we desire the money, the wealth, and the power, and we want the spirituality.”

How can we get fulfill our worldly desires and find space for spirituality in our lives? That, according to Prof. Narayanan, is where dharma comes in and helps us make sense of it all. At least, ideally.

She talks about how “this area of paradox, perhaps, has offered a liminal space for Hindus to constructively engage with our traditions; to choose and emphasize some aspects while holding on to the multiple parts. When it comes to conjunctions, we Hindus have, in general, preferred ‘and’ to ‘or.'”

In the meantime, however, our stories, our songs, and our scriptures sing of the wonderful multiplicity of the divine, and of life in general. Yashoda sees the entire universe in Krishna’s mouth; the Upanishads speak of God as simultaneously being one and three hundred and thirty million. Life is complicated. God is complicated. I guess sometimes, it’s better not to worry too much, and just let the adbhuta rasa wash over you.

Side note: Prof. Narayanan also remarks, “Seeing Vishnu as a baby who is to be disciplined, who can be tied up, makes him a personal deity one can question and one can challenge. There’s a whole genre of songs called ninda stuti, in which devotees decry God, or show their displeasure, all the while knowing paradoxically that he is supreme.” Coincidentally, my previous post was all about ninda stutis!


Image sources: Yashoda and Krishna comic, Krishna gif, 1870 depiction of Vishnu on Ananta



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