Deciphering the Deities of Hinduism
There are no ancient civilizations that have not practiced some kind of religion. When we study the history of the oldest and the earliest civilizations, we do not find exact dates or traces of events with much accuracy. With the help of preserved manuscripts, stone inscriptions, artifacts, and archaeological findings, we find many traces of civilization and its religions. When we explore the origin of Hinduism, it appears very different from other religions.
In Hinduism, we do not find a specific founder or events as might be recognized in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism. The sacred texts of Hinduism were not discovered in written form, such as carved stones or recorded on papyrus. What we discover about Hinduism is a vast amount of scriptures and texts that were preserved by great seers for many centuries over millennia. These seers safeguarded the sacred heritage and comprehensive knowledge from century to century in their memories. This knowledge was transferred over the ages by the teachers and their disciples, without ever writing them down, and was later organized by the sage Veda Vyasa as “Vedas”.
Hinduism has survived for thousands of years despite many invasions and influences. Dating back more than 5000 years, Hinduism has embraced ideas from all parts of the globe. One of the oldest sacred scriptures of Hinduism, known as Rigveda says: "Let the noble thoughts come to us from all the directions".
How Many Gods?
Present day Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world. A survey reveals that 95% of Hindus believe in god, however, the number of gods worshiped in Hinduism is a complicated theology. Hinduism has many traditions, philosophies, heritage, saints, and scriptures. In Hinduism, idols are worshiped everywhere. Idols can be found all over India made of stone, wood, and metal and can be found in all sizes. Each idol is bright, gleaming, and mostly covered with red vermilion. Hindus worship many gods, deities, demigods, and legends.
Lord Ganesha, Mumbai, India (Public Domain)
Hinduism views worship as anything to do with the nine planets, mother earth, gods, goddesses, family ancestors, saints, legends, the cow, the monkey, the river Ganga, and many, many more. The roots of Hindu gods are embraced and closely knit to its source of ancient Vedas and Upanishads. Together, they create a complex structure. When we try to understand and segregate the deities of Hinduism, one of the most obvious divisions might be:
● The Vedic Deities
● The Puranic Deities
● The Inferior Deities and Demigods.
Vedas is one of the oldest sacred scriptures available in Hinduism, and the most authoritative. Many of the Rigveda manuscripts are included in the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. It is noted for being among the first literary documents in the history of humankind. Vedas are also known as Shruti literature, one “which is heard and should be remembered”. Vedas are represented as Anaadi in Sanskrit, as something which has no beginning or end and hence, are eternal. The Vedic gods are the principal foundation of Hinduism. The primary objective of human life during the Vedic period was the fulfilment of four duties, including Dharma, Karma, Artha, and Moksha. The sacrifices (Yajna) and worships mentioned in Vedas are directed towards these duties. Vedic hymns mostly speak about Nature Gods.
Due to the limited number of Vedic scriptures available today, we do not know the exact number of ancient gods worshiped during this period. There are approximately 33 major deities identified in Vedas today, each with their own unique story and symbolism. Vedas generally refers to them as Devas (devatas) and are not meant to represent supreme gods. Some Devas manifest the glory of the supreme god and are divided into eight Vasus, 11 Rudras, and 12 Aditya, including Indra and Prajapati. The Vedic Deities can be further divided into major and minor Deities.
Shatapatha Brahmana, Shukla Yajurveda, Sanskrit (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Major Deities worshiped were Indra (god of thunder and storm), Surya (sun god), Agni (god of fire), Varuna (god of sky), Yama (god of death), and Soma (god of drink). Some of the Minor Deities focused on were Ushas (goddess of dawn), Ashvins (twin Vedic god), Vishwakarma (god of architecture), and Dyaus (god of father sky).
While some of the gods from the Vedic period have lost their popularity or become forgotten, some are still worshiped in modern Hinduism. The gods still worshiped in Hinduism are Surya (sun god), Agni (god of fire), and Yama, along with a few others. Yajna is an important ritual described more than 1184 times in Vedas and remains a common practice to this day. There is no major ceremony in Hinduism that is completed without inviting the Agni or god of fire for the offering.
In the later or post-Vedic period, most of the gods mentioned in Vedas were set to inferior positions, as compared to the god of Puranas. One such example is Indra, the most prominent deity of the early Vedic period and also the king of heaven. Indra is the god of thunder, rain, and storms. He resides in the celestial city of Amravati in his palace. Indra is similar to Zeus, the king of the ancient Greek god. Indra is also mentioned for governing the eastern quarter of the world and often found with many Apsaras, the celestial girls. Lord Indra rides the Airavata elephant, which evolved during the churning of the ocean.
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Indra on his elephant attacked by demons (Public Domain)
The Puranas are anonymous texts and were utilized by many seers and authors over the centuries. There are 18 Maha Puranas (including main Puranas) and 14 Upa Puranas (the minor Puranas) and include more than 400,000 verses. The Puranas did not enjoy the authority of scripture in Hinduism. They are considered Smritis. Puranic gods are currently known as Hindu gods and goddesses, which are very popular in modern society. Most of the present-day gods and goddesses of Hinduism come from the stories of Puranas, along with a description of their significance during the Puranic period. Another important source of gods in modern Hinduism are the two great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Mahabharata, which contains 220,000 verses, states that "what is not in the Mahabharata is not in Bharata (India)”. Similarly, Ramayana contains more than 50,000 verses which are the narrative by the seer Valmiki and greatly admired. The Puranic period in India evolved soon after the Vedic period.
The Puranas narrate most of the stories of Vishnu, Siva, and Lord Brahma. Lord Vishnu was the minor Vedic deity who was identified with Vasudeva in Vedas. Later on in the Puranic period, Lord Vishnu is mentioned as having ten incarnations (avatars). Lord Krishna and Lord Rama emerged as the most powerful incarnations of Lord Vishnu. Lord Shiva is another Puranic god who was an ancient minor Vedic god. In Puranas, Lord Shiva is one of the main gods of Trinity and is worshiped in various forms, such as Nataraja, Lingam, and the five headed Ardhanarishvara.
Madurai Meenakshi Temple (CC BY-SA 4.0)
The female ensemble of Siva, Shakti, and Durga are also regarded to be among the Puranic deities, as is Lord Ganesh. Altogether, there are eighteen Puranas, two great epics, and many tantras that are the main source of knowledge of the gods of modern Hinduism.
The most powerful gods of the Hindu Trinity include Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwara, which stands for Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer from the Puranas period. The most powerful goddesses are the consorts of Hindu Trimurtis; goddess Saraswathi, goddess Lakshmi, goddess Parvati, or Shakti, and the goddess known as Trivedi.
Puranic stories are illustrated as Indra (major god of Vedas), seen riding the white elephant and worshiping Siva, Parvati, and Lord Ganesh (son of Lord Shiva), on the sacred bull Nandi. It is noticed that these gods of Vedas are degraded in the Brahmanas (a part of Vedas) and further up the lower levels in Puranas.
Ardhanarishvara Sculpture, Khajuraho (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Hindu dharma is further divided into more sects based on the gods of Puranas. Sects include Vaishnavism (Vishnu), Shaivism (Shiva), Shaktism (Devi), and Smartism (five deities treated as the same) in Hinduism today.
The Inferior Gods and Demigods
There is a third classification of deities in Hinduism, including demigods, which are mostly worshiped by local or specific communities. Gods from this period are similar to inferior gods, which are worshiped by fewer people from specific sects or villages or a particular region. Sometimes, evil demigods were also added to the lists of deities and mostly worshiped in small villages in India.
Generally, these gods have a specific purpose and serve a specific object with a cause, such as the Goddess of Cholera, still worshiped in many villages of India. Another example is the worship of sage Naarad, who is the messenger of the gods and has a reputation as a gossiping and meddling person. As Hinduism has always been close to nature, many of these minor gods originate directly or indirectly from nature, and result in the worshiping of trees, rivers, and mountains.
Worship of some of the planets or heavenly bodies can also be added to the list of inferior gods. Two of these planets are mentioned in Vedas as Vedic God, Surya the Sun, and the Moon, as Soma. The other five planets are Mercury (Budha), Venus (Sukra), Mars (Mangala), Jupiter (Brihaspati), and Saturn (Sani). Even in modern Hinduism, during all great festivals, a small offering is presented to the planets. Some of the planets are not worshiped together and some are always worshiped in groups. Even the planets are assigned names to align with the days of the week and have a great influence on Hindu life. Two additional connections include Rahu and Ketu, the eclipse demons, who are also worshiped in Hinduism. In Vishnu Purana, there are stories in which Rahu and Ketu cover the sun and moon with their hands and swallow them.
Ganga Aarti, Varanasi (CC BY-SA 4.0)
All three categories of god play an important part in strengthening the great Hindu society and give inspiration to millions of Hindu devotees across the world.
It would be not wrong to consider Hinduism as polytheistic in its worshiping of many deities. At the same time, Hinduism also supports the monotheistic belief of one supreme god called Brahman, also referred to as Parmataman. The supreme god has three forms; Brahma-the creator, Vishnu-the sustainer, and Shiva-the destroyer. The Hindu concept also supports the henotheistic belief, which suggests the worship of a single god while not denying the existence or possible existence of other deities and demigods. Henotheism was first used by western scholar, Max Müller, to describe the theology of Vedic religion during pre-ancient Aryan culture. Collectively, the complex structure of gods in Hinduism indicate a liberal and committed religious freedom for its devotees.
Nothing is more wonderful in today's world than the sight of the countless crowds at the Banaras Ghat, swarming into the sacred river of Ganga for cleansing the soul or watching vibrant Aarti with the serene beauty of the calm sacred river, at one of the 4000-year-old ancient heritages mentioned in Vedas and Puranas.
The author, Manhar Sharma has written a book on Hinduism, "Beyond the Credence" which was published by one of India's leading publishers, and is available from Amazon. His website is https://manharsharma.com
Top image: Hinduism Today Celebrates its Past with Dolls and other Idols. Source: (CC BY-SAY 4.0)
Saugat Adhikari, 2019. Top 10 Hindu Gods. [Online] Available at: https://www.ancienthistorylists.com/india-history/top-10-hindu-gods-praised-hindus-around-world/
Goddesses and Gods in the Early Puranas 300 to 600 CE. [Online] Available at: https://erenow.net/common/thehindusanalternativehistory/15.php
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