Preliminary thoughts on divine omnipresence

Within the paradigm of rational theology (in my jargon, God-as-Lord or Īśvara), can God have a form and a body?… Do They need one?

Possible arguments in favour of Their having a body: 

—Yes! They need it to exercise Their will on matter (and, as Kumārila explained, matter does not obey abstract will)

—Yes! They need it so that we can revere Them.

The second argument does not count (it’s part of the God-as-Thou level), but the first seems powerful enough. If God did not have a body, They would have no influence on the world. Do They need a body in order to be omnipresent? And which kind of body? Surely not a limited one (as a deity could have it), since this would limit Their action (They could act only where the body is). Instead, They need to be omnipresent.

Which kind of body could be omnipresent? What would this entail?

In fact, most rational theologians I am aware of speak of God as being omnipresent, in a non-material way, but still as being able to interact with matter at will (so Udayana). Thus, as typical of the God-as-Lord, God is more-than-human, but very close to humans.

However, time and again theologians came to a different solution to God’s body, one which brings them close to the third concept of God, the impersonal Absolute. These theologians think of God’s body as omnipresent and yet material, because it is all that exists.

This all brings me to a more general question: Can there be omnipresence without a (limited) body?

This seems to demand from us a category jump. Because we need to put together presence in space (usually connected with extended bodies) and absence of a body (if conceived as extended in a limited space). 

I can think of at least three solutions:

1. space does not exist for God and is just a category conscious beings superimpose on the word (e.g., Kant, I am not aware of this solution prior to Kant)

2. pantheist version (God is the world) (e.g., Spinoza, Bruno, Rāmānuja)

3. God has something akin to a subtle body, which is omni-pervasive (vibhū) (Nyāya) 

The third case is often said to be a characteristic shared by God and souls (Augustine, Nyāya).

Yet, the souls’ omnipresence seems to be very different from God’s one (possibly because of some additional limitations due to their embodiment, the original sin etc.) 

What else can we say about Their omnipresence? It needs to be complete in each instance. God cannot be present for, e.g., 1/ in the tree in front of my window, since this would entail the risk of Them exercising only a small amount of power on the tree. Moreover, They would be “more” present in bigger objects and less present in small ones! Thus, God needs to be completely present in each atom though being at the same time distributively present in the whole sum of all atoms. This again, calls for a category jump and not just a more-than-human body, since even a subtle matter extending all over the space will not be at the same time completely present in each atom. 

Thoughts and comments are welcome. (Please bear with me if I am late in reading comments after the term starts again, on Monday.) Cross-posted on my personal blog.

About elisa freschi

My long-term program is to make "Indian Philosophy" part of "Philosophy". You can follow me also on my personal blog:, on Academia, on Amazon, etc.

19 Replies to “Preliminary thoughts on divine omnipresence”

  1. Pascal at one point considers how it could be possible for God to be both infinite and indivisible. Infinity here is presumably infinity in extent, and anything is extended would be divisible. So it would seem impossible for something to be both infinite and indivisible.

    I remember Pascal’s answer because it’s brilliant: an infinitesimally small point moving everywhere at infinite speed would be both indivisible, and present everywhere at once.

    (And because a point does not take up any space, I presume there is nothing that could get in its way by taking up space and obstructing its path.)

    • Thank you, Boram! In a Sanskrit context, this seems the case of manas (which is atomic in size, but can move throughout the body at infinite speed, so that we can sense anything without feeling the time lag of the manas having to move from the top of our head to the last toe).

      • Yes, that is exactly right.

        But it also seems to me that the manas concept in the Nyaya system also explains how we can only attend to one thing at a time, and this accounts for selective attention. However, that would suggest that manas in human beings cannot move at infinite speed after all. (On the other hand, if God is capable of selective attention, then a different mechanism must account for it.)

        • Hi Boram,
          I don’t think that the mechanism of selective attention means that manas does not move at infinite speed. Rather, it moves at infinite speed, but can only be in one place at a time. Hence, I can move instantaneously from seeing the screen I am typing in to listening to the radio in the background, so quickly that I am deluded and think the two perception occur simultaneously.
          As for God having selective attention, that’s a nice question. I am inclined to think that a rational theologian should say that They can simultaneously perceive everything. However, possibly They are *able* to direct their attention to only one thing, if They want. A supporter of the God-as-Thou paradigm could think of the idea of Kṛṣṇa in the Gītāgovinda, simultaneously dancing with each gopī, but with each one of them exclusively and wholly. What do you think?

          • Hi Elisa, thanks for taking my musings seriously. It looks like there are varying positions on the size of atman and manas in the Indian philosophical literature. Focusing on the atman as individual souls, let’s ignore the position that they are middle size (madhyama-parimana), and imagine that they are either all-pervasive (vibhu) or of atomic size (anu-parimana), because only these can be eternal.

            If all souls are vibhu, including the soul of Isvara, then there is a sense in which Isvara is wholly present to each individual soul. And then I am guessing that Ishvara should be capable of focusing its attention and will to a proper subset of the individual souls. But then we need an explanation of how this focused attention and will can be directed wholly and simultaneously to each member of the subset. Atomic-sized manas cannot get this job done because it is used to account for successive (and therefore nonsimultaneous) attention. So, I think, the focused attention and will can only be explained as attributes (guna-s) of Isvara’s atman. Because all atmans are vibhu, they are wholly present to each other, and Paramatman can direct its attention and will to a proper subset of them, making the dance possible. I wonder if this can get the job done!

            If all atman-s are of atomic size, and they can move at infinite speed, then they could be wholly present everywhere in the sense indicated by Pascal. But “infinite speed” is a poorly defined term, and it is probably nonsensical in terms of modern physics. (If space is a continuum, then an omnipresent atom must move everywhere at an uncountably infinite speed not just during a finite span of time, but at a single instant in time… I have no idea whether such a hypertask is even mathematically possible.)

          • Thanks again, Boram. Yes, Īśvara, afaik, does not need the mediation of manas and *could* therefore cognise many things simultaneously. However, again afaik, They do not know several things simultaneously, just because Their cognition is changeless and does not increase (which is boring for them, by the way).

          • Elisa,

            The Nyaya view of Ishvarapratyaksha is extremely difficult for me to understand. How can cognition be unchanging and eternal? In my own case, I cannot act without the arising of cognitions indexed to me at certain times and places, such as “Now is the time for me to write a blog response.”

            Perhaps Ishvara’s cognition of the world is like an infinitely huge scrolled-up painting of the entire world. From Ishvara’s perspective, it is one and eternal, just like space and time (on the Nyaya view). From our perspective however, we can only unscroll and view bits of the painting over time.

            I suggested earlier that Ishvara can be fully present for different jiva-s and vice versa because each aatman is all-pervading. But omnipresence in this sense is the bare minimal sense in which time and space are also all-pervading. The problem is that on the Nyaya view, no further relationship can obtain between Ishvara and individual jivas.

            Consider contact, for instance. There cannot be contact between Ishvara and individual jivas, because they are all vibhu or all-pervading, and there cannot be contact between any two all-pervading substances. Or inherence. Because they are separate substances, individual jivas cannot inhere in Ishvara, nor can qualities inhering individual jivas inhere in Ishvara.

            If these two relationships do not obtain between Ishvara and individual jivas, I cannot think of any other way that they can relate according to the Nyaya system.

            Also, Ishvara knows the world without the mediation of any instruments like the external sense organs and the internal sense of the mind. So, there is no indriya-artha-sannikarsha. But, still, I think we can suppose that there is direct self-object connection. The only two basic ways in which this connection can be established is via contact or inherence, and we have ruled this out for Ishvara and individual jivas. This suggests that Ishvara cannot perceive individual jivas!

  2. A ”Body”.

    Here a Human is similar to ”Body”.
    Here an Animal is similar to ”Body”.
    Is a ”box of paper” similar to ”Body”?

    Which is the size , dimension and other details of ”Body”?
    How will you explain what/how/where ”Body” is?
    Who needs ”Body”?
    Who is having ”Body”?

    Mustn’t these questions be cleared out before we come to questions such as ”the need of God” and the ”dimension of God” etc.?
    It is said that First is First and Second is Second.
    Then, who is First and who is Second? The God… Animal…Human…. ”Body”…. or the box?

    Also, it is written:
    1. ”space does not exist for God and is just a category conscious beings superimpose on the word.”

    If that is so (if space is not required) can you please define what ”space” is?

    In which form is God?

    Looking forward to a clarifying answer.

    // Maria

    • Yes, Maria, a lot should be explained, but this is only a blogpost and not a book. As for body, the most common Sanskrit definition I am aware of is bhogāyatana ‘support of experience’, i.e., something enabling an (otherwise disembodied) soul to have experiences. Typically, a body is also extended in space and material, but several texts discuss also ‘subtle bodies’, possibly immaterial.
      As for space in the quote you mention, I was thinking of it as with Kant and in parallel to time (“extensio animi”) in Augustine.


      • …Elisa,
        In continuation…of ”reflection” or “critical investigation”…Mīmāṃsā:

        1: Samkhya karika is like a ”black hole” in philosophy, here anybody can be attracted to the ”black hole” with the
        aim to criticize and disapprove with its originality. Another way to spend the time and energy is to ask:
        Is ISHWAR without JNA possible?

        2: How does this JNA principle (in Samkhya karika) work to (be) ”Free from Dukha”?

        3: How is Dukha and Dukha´s causing factors influencing our decision making process and actions?

        4: How is this JNA Principle working as a Redeemer and Rescuer from Dukha
        to those who are suffering Dukha and waiting for others to help from outside?

        5: According to Sankhya karika out source/outsourcing is the cause of Dukha and suffering
        OR the source from within can reduce the Dukha.
        Therefore the question comes: Where should the focus of attention should be?
        Inside or outside?

        6: What is more dominant and prominent today – Energy, Shakti, Prakriti, OR ITS OPPOSITE???
        Why did this happened?

        7: Sankhya karika is more ”Individualized” rather than ”Universalized” and abstract.
        Which one is the Real Cause? The Individual or Universal ?
        Where is the mistake made and where to do correction?
        At Universal level ?
        At abstract level?
        OR from where to start (and from where it has started) to repeat the mistake?

        8: Is Energy, Shakti, Prakriti…..always perfect, best and right?
        Not even today is ”Sometimes” the same as ”Always”,
        however ”Always” ”sometimes” is possible,
        and that majority is converted, from the minority, in relation to ALWAYS.


  3. The contrast of unlimited eternity and limited cycles of earthly existence is fundamental to Mazdean (Zoroastrian) doctrine. Now we see all matter and bodies in terms of orbits and other cycles or frequencies, beyond which is just the thermal background, which we assume to be random. That still allows for individual events of extreme improbability, which might be seen as miracles. as CS Perirce argued ( he was of Brahmin extraction).

    I’m seeing a curious extent of continuity with the Brahma of the Atharvaveda, and also Saivism, and Sakta,. some of which relates to the doctrine of manas. There’s even a thread of archeological continuity, through Helmand province in Afghanistan. Kot Diji in Harappa, and the Punjab. Kot Diji burned out about when Akkad collapsed, dried out and salted. The Curse of Akkad legend is then matched by the legend of Kapila. and his ascetic teaching now stands as the way to avoid such a climate disaster!

    This gives you God as the subtle regulator of ecologies, a law which we should observe, or risk extinction! And much physicotheology follows in that way. also in Greece and Germanic lands.

    With that said, I append some notes on the relevant higher mathematics, known as measure theory. and related points in neurology. As a measure. a class of extension. infinity is indivisible! You can divide counting numbers into odds and evens. but both are still infinite!

    Nerve impulses, as examined by the US Airforce for radiation hazzard control. allow an infinite series of pulses converging at a maximum speed, which is finite, but still infinitely scaled above the common pulses. So your switching in an instant is possible, for our finite experience (Kant again, with the neuro in the Gap left in his Opus Pistuum).

  4. On the two arguments in favor of God’s having a body:

    – Having a body merely defers the question of how (and if at all) a disembodied atman can causally influence matter, namely in the form of one’s own body.

    – There is a poignant tale in the Zhuangzi about piglets backing away from their mother’s cold dead body. What they loved was not the mother’s body, but the animating presence in the body. A similar idea is found with respect to atman in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (2.4), I think. Scholastics believed that God was a spiritual substance without a body, but God was nonetheless revered on account of Their attributes, namely, infinite goodness, wisdom, etc.

    • Hi Boram and apologies to you and all other readers and commentators for the delay in answering (blame it on my term-related duties!),
      I am not sure that having a body “merely defers the question”. I agree, if you are imagining soul+matter, then you run into the “homunculus” paradox all the time (see Descartes’ pineal gland). But if you take the embodiment requirement strongly, you can even imagine that the ātman does not exist without some form of body (sūkṣma after one’s death). I am inclined to think that this is what Rāmānuja thought of God as well, who is therefore consequently called as śarīrin. What do you think?

      • Hi Elisa, thanks for your reply, despite your busy schedule.

        As for Ramanuja’s conception of God’s body, I don’t know much about Vishishtadvaita, but I think God here is distinct from the world, i.e., God’s body, even though inseparable with it, in the sense that the substrate is distinct from its modes. I also doubt that God needs a body as an instrument through which God can act on other bodies. Instead, God acts directly on the world, i.e., on God’s own body, without the mediation of any instrument, simply by willing this or that. Is this right, or have I got it hopelessly wrong?

        Anyway, allow me to phrase the deferred question in this way: the act of willing requires a soul to act on a body. But how can a soul, which cannot move in space, move a limb or body from one place to another?

        I can think of two ways of answering this question. One answer is simply to accept it as a brute fact that the soul is a nonmoving mover of bodies. The other is to deny that the soul cannot move in space.

        The question arises in different ways in the West and in Indian philosophy. In Cartesian dualism, the soul is a substance that does not occupy space, unlike bodily matter which does. Thus they cannot come into spatial contact with one another. In the Nyaya system, the soul as an an all-pervasive substance is in contact with all the bodies, which are defined as things with limited size that are capable of motion. However, because the soul is unlimited in size and occupies all of space, it is incapable of moving from one place to another.

        So, for different reasons, both Cartesian dualism and the Nyaya system must accept as a brute fact that a soul which is incapable of motion is capable of producing motion in bodies. On the Nyaya view, desiring and willing are qualities of the soul, and somehow the occurrence of these qualities serves as an efficient cause of motion in bodies. This seems to be accepted as a brute fact.

        Suppose we now deny that the soul (atman) cannot move in space. Perhaps we deny it because we think the soul has limited size, or because we think the self (atman) is just the body or parts thereof arranged in a special way. For instance, I’ve read somewhere that according to Vishishtadvaita, jiva-atman is atomic in size. If the soul has limited size, then it seems like the it can move from one part of space to another, and would qualify as corporeal (muurta) on the Nyaya view. But contact in the sense of mere spatial colocation would not be enough to move something else by displacing it from its location. The soul must have additional physical properties to be able to move bits of physical matter. So we come to the materialist view that the soul is just a corporeal thing with physical properties.

        • Thank you, Boram. I agree with you that in Nyāya all-pervasiveness is needed because otherwise the Lord could not extend Their power to all locations in space, since Nyāya does not take up the Aquinas’ idea that the Lord can act on matter via a power, without being present in that spatial location. Omnipresence is therefore needed in Nyāya by the assumption of the Lord’s omnipotence. Noteworthy here is that the alternative view that the Lord can act on the world without being present in it is not taken into account, possibly because it had already been attacked by Kumārila Bhaṭṭa when he was mocking offerings to the deities?
          Thus, where Descartes has the pineal gland, Nyāya has copresence in space in order to justify the influence of the ātman of the Lord on matter.
          This is different than the VV paradigm where, as you rightly point out, ātmans are atomic (but not material) and govern their bodies as a svāmin.

  5. ,,@Boram,Lee

    Your distinction between madhyama-parinama and anuparinama is very instructive: the Scholastics in the West never distinguished them properly, and left a legacy of corpuscular metaphysics which confuses organic cells and chemical elements. Pascal showed the way out of that impasse.

    On the theme of sequence and guna-s, Yoga-sutra 4.32-33 addresses the question directly, moving from krama and guna to krama and ksana, moment, which is how the physicists talk about movement. But the wider context is not clear: like Larson and Battacharya, I don’t think we have the Yoga-sutra as Patanjali composed it, most of all towards the end of the fourth pada.

    For what it’s worth, physics now measures moments by energy, making the speed of light an infinite limit – but continuous fields and wave-trains in them can actually propagate faster, by interaction (called group velocity). The degrees of freedom involved are greater than any simple infinity, so there’s an horizon beyond even the simply infinite limits of our finite capacities. In that light your parallel dance seems perfectly possible, in the way of subtle bodies, as elisa put it. The Natya Yoga tradition has Patanjali as Lord of the Dance, pointing us again to his enigmatic sutra.

    • Hi Orwin,

      I think your approach, considering what is possible in light of contemporary physics, instead of what is barely or mathematically or logically possible, is sound. In fact, I believe it is the only viable approach. In this light, what seemed to me possible following Pascal (omnipresence as an infinitesimal point moving everywhere at infinite speed) is actually not possible. Even the idea of simultaneity throughout all of space makes no sense, and needs to be reinterpreted if it is to make sense.

      As for vibhu, madhyama, anu, etc… I meant to refer to parimana (size) and not parinama (transformation). Both the distinction of dravya-s into these sizes, and the position that vibhu- and anu-parimana dravya-s are eternal, are derived from Indian philosophers (though I cannot locate the exact source). But what you write certainly sounds interesting, it is a pity that I don’t know much about the Yoga Sutra or contemporary physics to fully appreciate your points.

  6. Hi Boram,

    Please excuse my typos – that’s your parimana, not parinama – and my old learning disability, which returns now at the end of the cure, as in homeopathy. (Also Kant’s Opus Postuum.)

    Yes, the infinitesimal point at infinite speed is a classical fiction that gives way in modern physics, and some very old metaphors of consciousness as a ray of light, like the breaking dawn, need to be reinterpreted. Euclid’s Optics has the same problem!
    Vedanta allows for that, bracketing our familiar images as Maya.

    As for the Yoga-sutra, it’s frankly not much use in its current form, proving impossible to parse or translate without imposing a whole metsphysic. But following your lead, I can now offer a workable reconstruction of the teaching of Patanjali the astronomer, who noticed reflected light colouring the atmosphere, and is credited for that in the Vaisesika Sutra. That would be the way in for people like you, to a remarkable teaching that moves on to consider meaning as a subtle reality that we pass between us, through the medium of sound. And by grasping conversation as simultaneous consciousness, he came to diplomatic speech, of great value to conflict-ridden humanity, truely a Royal Science! That brings us back again to elisa’s point.

  7. elisa,

    I see the notion of vibhu was used by GJ Larson to place Patanjali responding to Buddhist polemics, which is strange since he does not use the term or concept. Larson takes it for granted that Patanjali’s suksma/subtle body must be vibhu, and a vehicle of reincarnation.

    With that distraction now out of the way, I find one can reorder the Yoga-sutras to give four books properly sealed with iti, starting from Patanjali’s astronomy, and reaching to the “teaching of Vishnu.” That comes with four extra verses published in the Theosophical magazine Hermes (1987-9), in the tradition investigated by Karl Baier at Vienna.

    In the manner of Saiva Agamas (in four padas) looking simply for evidences of the divine, Patanjali finds the soul of the world speaking through the darma-cloud, giving signs and omens as noted in the Babylonian astrological diaries from even the second millennium BCE. By his astronomy Patanjali then comes to the microcosm, the psychical Astrum as in Paracelsus.

    That is also matter for book, but vibhu has been a logjam, a conceptual knot, for the past fifty years. Perhaps you could ask Karl Baier to respond, or any of his students following these trails.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *