Why are there so many gods in Hinduism? What do the Hindu scriptures say about God? Read on to learn more.
Do you remember the story of the six blind men and the elephant? One man described the elephant as a pillar after touching its leg. Another man, on feeling the elephant's ear, described it as a fan, and so on. When it comes to God, we are similar to the men in the story. We describe or perceive God by using attributes such as compassionate or just, fair or dark, male or female, and so on. No matter how sophisticated our conception of God, it is still limited to the imagination of our minds.
Most religions speak of one god (monotheism). However, only Hinduism has a concept of 'only god' (monism). Everything that exists is said to spring from a single entity called Brahman (not to be confused with the Brahmin caste or with the creator god Brahma), and everything ultimately returns to this original state.
God, as stated by the Hindu scriptures, is not a matter of intellectual understanding, but the ultimate goal of every individual. Hinduism recognises that each individual is at a different stage of spiritual advancement, and hence, the path to God widely differs. The ancients proclaimed "Sarva Dharma Sambhava" (all paths are equal), meaning that ultimately a seeker with true devotion will find his way to God, irrespective of his approach.
Nature of Brahman
The great sage Yajnavalkya was once asked by his disciples to describe Brahman. "Neti neti," he replied which means 'not this, not that'.
If we imagine God as a man with a white beard sitting on a throne in heaven, we are ascribing qualities such as age (old), gender (man), form (white beard) and location (in heaven) to God. However, the scriptures describe Brahman as nirguna, or without qualities.
An attempt to use our minds to understand Brahman is said to be futile, as it is beyond the reach of the senses or the mind. Describing Brahman can be likened to describing the colour red to someone who has never seen it. You know what it looks like, but you cannot describe it.
Though Brahman cannot be described, the scriptures say it is the very essence of truth, consciousness, and bliss.
One or Two?
One of the ongoing debates in Hinduism centres on the relationship between the soul (Atman) and Brahman.
The Advaita (meaning 'not two') school believes there is no difference between the two. It insists that 'Brahman Sat, Jagat Mithya' or that God is the only truth, and the world is an illusion.
If you stand between two mirrors, an infinite series of reflections of yourself can be seen, though there is only one 'you'. Similarly, Advaita believes that owing to illusion or Maya, the singular Brahman appears as different souls. The ultimate goal of every individual soul is to use knowledge as a weapon to pierce this veil of ignorance and return to one's original nature.
Another school of thought called Dvaita (literally 'two') insists that the distinction between the individual soul and God is real and eternal.
One of the greatest saints of the last century, Ramana Maharishi once remarked that both Advaita and Dvaita are simply concepts but the ultimate reality goes beyond concepts.
Ishwara — the Personal God
Hinduism postulates the existence of a supreme being called Ishvara with qualities such as infinity, compassion, and bliss. How is Ishvara different from Brahman? Far from the abstract nature of Brahman, Ishvara is a personal, loving being that can be considered a reflection of Brahman as seen through the veil of Maya.
Why so Many Gods?
The scriptures recognise that knowledge of a formless Brahman is far beyond the understanding of the average person who needs a solid form to visualise. God, being infinitely compassionate, can be worshipped in any form that the devotee likes. True devotion is all that is required to transcend the cycle of birth and death.
For example, God can be imagined as a mother, father, child, or friend. In addition, the seeker is encouraged to choose any form that is most suited to his nature. Such a chosen form is known as Ishta-deva or 'favourite god'. Hinduism provides a large variety of forms that can be used for visualisation and meditation.
Male or Female?
God, in Hinduism, is neither male nor female and neither is the individual soul. However, the static aspect of God is considered male or Purusha. The female aspect, or Prakriti (nature), is the active aspect of God. Every individual is urged to unite the male and female aspects of his personality, or the Purusha and Prakriti, and finally reach a stage of self-realisation that goes beyond gender. Such a union is celebrated in the deity called Ardhnarishwara (literally the god that is half-female).
The worship of the sacred feminine or Prakriti is popular in India, which includes several forms that include Lakshmi, Saraswati, Durga, and Kali.
God on Earth?
In popular Hinduism, an enlightened human being is worshipped as God himself, and may be given epithets such as 'Bhagwan' (god), 'Maharaj' (great king), or 'Rishi' (great sage). The concept of avatar (incarnation) is predominant in Hinduism, where God as preserver (Vishnu) descends on Earth to destroy evil. The most famous avatars of Vishnu include Ram and Krishna. Many Hindus worship other deities such as Ganesha, Karthikeya, Hanuman, the sun, moon, and various planets. In addition, millions of people all over India often worship saints as symbols of divinity.
Ultimately, when the seeker perfects the worship of a deity, he is encouraged to go beyond the physical form and seek oneness, to reach a stage where there is no difference between the worshipper and the worshipped. In marked contrast, a few adherents of the Bhakti (devotion) tradition do not seek oneness with God, and continue to enjoy the play of duality between the individual and the Supreme.