Meaning and Definition of Bhagavan

Hinduism Concepts

by Jayaram V

It is customary nowadays to address some babas, yogis and spiritual gurus as Bhagavan, making it sound like an exalted and distinguishing title. In a general sense, Bhagavan means God. In Hindu tradition, people address saintly persons and spiritual masters as Bhagavan, as a mark of honor and out of profound respect.

Some people believe it is wrong to address a human being as God or treat him as one. Acharya Rajneesh was addressed by his devoted followers as Bhagavan. Several journalists and reporters made it an issue and wrote about it and against it. On the one hand they were unhappy that the master taught an ancient form of tantric vidya, which permitted the use of sex in spiritual practices. On the other, they were unhappy about him being called Bhagavan. They were wrong on both fronts, because they had no knowledge of the esoteric Hinduism and they had no faith in the one who taught it.

It may be wrong or blasphemy in western religions to address someone as God, but it is perfectly normal in Hindu tradition. Treating a guru or even one's own father as God is a very ancient Hindu tradition. It is permitted by the Vedas. In most of the Upanishads we notice that it was customary for a student to address his teacher or seer who had the knowledge of Brahman as Bhagavan only. Even in the conversation between Uddalaka Aruni and his son Svetaketu, the latter addressed his father as Bhagavan only instead of as father. The same tradition was followed in the Bhagavadgita also, even though Lord Krishna was a close friend and relation of Arjuna. Addressing an enlightened teacher, father or relation thus is a mark of respect. Just as it is customary in the modern world to address a President, a Prime Minister or even a Dictator as His Excellency (whether they have any excellence in them or not), it is customary in our religious tradition to address our spiritual gurus, who are enlightened, as Bhagavan.

A disciple has every right to call his guru God or Bhagavan and treat him so. Others do not have to do that. Therefore, if the follower of a spiritual teacher addresses him as Bhagavan, it is not wrong. However, if a journalist or a reporter calls him or writes about him referring to him as Bhagavan in a derogatory sense, without faith in him or respect for him, it is totally wrong. It is understandable if western reporters felt it appalling when they heard Rajaneesh being addressed as Bhagavan. But it was equally appalling to notice that Indian reporters fell in line and joined the chorus. Obviously they were not familiar with the Hindu tradition and its ethos. And many do not know that even today. To them my advise, please read the Upanishads.

Bhagavan is the right word to denote God or anyone who possesses divine qualities or who has realized the inner Self. To consider God and you as one is knowledge. To look upon both as different and separate is duality and ignorance. This is what we learn from our scriptures. Is it not better to follow the footsteps of God or God like person and feel oneness with him rather than following a role model such as a singer or an actor or a politician who lacks virtue or represents the opposite of Him?

In Hinduism, we accept the divine nature of creation. We acknowledge that the whole world is permeated with God and enveloped by Him. We are His many faces, hands and feet. Through us He enjoys the things of the world. We all have the mark of God in us in the form of the eternal soul or Atman. So when we are in the presence of someone who has realized God and become one with him, we are in the presence of God himself. Strictly speaking each unrealized being on earth is a Bhagavan in a state of ignorance and delusion.

The word Bhagavan truly represents the essential nature of God or Brahman as the sole inhabitant and pervader of the manifested creation. For it is what Bhagavan actually means. Bhagavan (bhaga + van) means occupant or lord of bhaga. One of the meanings of bhaga is female sexual organ. From this perspective, Bhagavan represents the union between Purusha and Prakriti as symbolized in case of a Sivalingam.

However, bhaga has any or all the following meanings: one of the twelve forms of Aditya or Sun god, the moon god, a form of Siva, the divine enjoyer within, wealth, affluence, prosperity and fortune, happiness, dignity, distinction, love and affection, pleasure, pure bliss, marital bliss, female genital organ, virtue, morality, religious merit and so on."Van" means resident, owner or occupant.

Bhagavan therefore means He who resides or abides in Nature or in the things and qualities mentioned above. In simple terms Bhagavan is God united with His creation. In symbolic terms Bhagavan is represented by many objects and forms, famous being "salagrama" and "sivalingam". According to traditional interpretation, Bhagavan is the possessor of six primary abundances or qualities:

  1. Strength
  2. Fame
  3. Wealth
  4. Knowledge
  5. Beauty
  6. Detachment

These qualities manifest in the vibhutis or glories of God as enumerated in the tenth chapter of the Bhagavadgita as God's opulence and mystic powers. God represents the best in creation, while He pervades all. For those who want to attain liberation, these qualities represent the ideals, which they should pursue to cultivate purity and express divinity.

God is omnipresent. It is therefore incorrect to say that He resides only in particular things or qualities. If He is truly omnipresent, He must be everywhere and in everything. He cannot be just this side or that side but on all sides and everywhere. But human mind cannot conceptualize an omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent God in absolute terms without some reference to terms and objects we are familiar with. We have therefore this word Bhagavan, which describes briefly the relative and positive attributes of God for our understanding, appreciation, contemplation and emulation.

Having affirmed the fact that God is all and exists in all, our scriptures continue to declare God as the possessor of all the worldly virtues, qualities, merits and energies and thereby remind us that to attain immortal life we have to stay on the positive side of life, reflect upon the virtues of the Immanent God and cultivate them to the extent possible to radiate the light within us.

Ideally, for all the worldly people Bhagavan should be the goal because He represents the most desirable qualities in creation, namely strength, fame, wealth, knowledge, beauty and detachment.The nature of Samsara is such that people will worship anyone who has these qualities, whether they call him Bhagavan or not.

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