Hinduism and Multiplicity in the Divine
Often a point of contention in religious debates, the idea of God manifesting in various forms is greatly misunderstood. There are some who believe that Hindus worship “330 million different gods” with Hindu verses taken out of context and misconstrued. It needs to be emphasized that the main point of this piece is not whether religions are polytheistic (belief in more than one god) or monotheistic (belief in one god). This is irrelevant – the objective is to show that multiple forms of the Creator are written about in the sacred texts of ALL major religions, not just in Hinduism. The essence is the same. The conflict is merely an issue of language/semantics. Before detailing what exactly Hinduism says on this subject it’s important to first examine the three religions which are usually labeled monotheistic.
What Abrahamic faiths say
Genesis 1:26 of the Torah narrates “”Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” The words “us” and “our” imply that more than one creator constructed humanity. In Genesis, one Supreme Force assigns the task of creating Adam to a team of divine servants. The Old Testament calls this team “angels”; Hindu scriptures use the Sanskrit term devas (demigods) instead to describe those who serve Brahman. The Hebrew word El-ohim which is used numerous times in the Torah can be translated to mean one single God or multiple entities. At the end of every angel’s name is “el” (Gabri-el, Rapha-el, Immanu-el, etc.), each representing a different aspect or characteristic of the larger Creator El.
Catholicism references not one but three divinities – God the Father, Jesus his son, and the Holy Spirit. Catholics are also known to pray to various saints who handle specific issues. Protestant faiths revolve around the worship of two distinct beings, God the Father and his son Jesus. The New Testament 23:33 even contains a conversation where Jesus says “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In monotheism would this be considered a monologue or a dialogue?
Islam continues in the lineage of the Hebrew prophet Abraham. Just as in the Torah, the Quran also uses the plural “we”: “And We did certainly create the heavens and earth ” (50:38) and “O people, we created you from the same male and female.” (49:13)
What Hinduism says
It’s clear that there’s an inconsistency when defining religions as polytheistic or monotheistic. When a person worships Ganesh the son and his Father Shiva they’re said to believe in more than one God. The same thing isn’t said about someone who worships Jesus the son and his Father Jehovah. The Catholic Trinity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit is considered monotheist, but the Hindu Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva is not. When the Vedas say that Brahman manifested as various entities then the conclusion is that Hindus believe in many gods. But when the book of Genesis and Surat Qaf describe a legion of creators that designed Man this is somehow not the same thing.
And what do religions say about how their sacred texts were delivered to prophets? Exodus 3:3 states “The angel of the Lord appeared to him as flames in the fire from a bush.” Here, commentators refer to this fire as “the presence of God.” But when this story is presented to the public, Moses is instead talking directly with God, not an angel as the scriptures specify. Muslims also believe that the angel Gabriel revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad. Yet the Quran is referred to as “the word of God.” Even though God did not directly transmit the Quran to Muhammad, it’s accepted that Gabriel is a representation of God delivering the word.
Yet critics of Hinduism will not allow this same logic to be applied to its scriptures. The Mahabharata was penned by sage Vyasa and dictated by Ganesh, yet it’s not considered a divine text because it wasn’t revealed by directly by Bhagavan. The Bhagavad Gita was sung by Krishna, but since he’s an avatar (manifestation) of Vishnu in the form of an Earthly being, it’s not considered the word of God. And even though it was not heavenly beings but men who penned the New Testament the same way the Vedas where were revealed to rishis, the Vedas cannot be considered divinely inspired.
The common argument is Biblical and Quranic verses do not promote polytheism, but that God merely materialized as separate representations at the same time. This is exactly what Hindu scriptures having been saying all along – that the Creator can manifest, act, and reveal on this plane in an infinite number of ways.
First let’s address the misconception that Hindus worship “330 million gods” (or some similar outlandish number) by looking directly into their scriptures. Rig Veda 1:164:46 says “the One Being is called by many names.” This point is elaborated in the Upanisads, a sub-text which is presented as conversations between a teacher and his pupils. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1:9:1 contains one such dialogue:
Student: How many gods are there?
Guru: Three hundred and three and three thousand and three.
Student: How many gods are there?
Guru: Thirty three.
Student: How many gods are there?
This dialogue goes on until finally the Guru reaches the answer One. He continues by saying that there is one Being who pervades the entire universe and manifests in infinite forms. There is no Hindu text that lists a million names, let alone thirty three million. In a daily Vedic ceremony priests/brahmins are required to chant the many titles of God. If priests had to speak such high a number in one ritual they’d probably be chanting their whole lives without a break. And imagine the overwhelming task if each Hindu had to individually worship 330 million gods every time they prayed or visited a temple!
The Katha Upanishad expands on the idea of infinite manifestations: There is one Ruler, the Spirit that is in all things, who transforms his own form into many.
Indian saint Namdev of the Sikh tradition also wrote in agreement with Hinduism:
He is the One in many, countless are His shapes and forms. He pervades all that exists; wherever I look, He is there.
The Bhagavad Gita also details the idea of devas and One Supreme Deity. Avatar narrator Krishna explains that devotees
have permission to devote their heart to the form of God they desire:
I am in everyone’s heart. As soon as one desires to worship a deva, I make their faith steady so that he/she can devote himself to that particular deity. Endowed with such a faith, they execute worship of a particular deity and obtains their desires. But in reality these benefits are given by Me. (7:21-23)
This verse also gives a glimpse as to why there are no Hindu missionaries around the world working to convert people. The Gita states that whichever form of the Creator a person is attracted to whether it be Brahman, Allah, Raba, Yahweh, or anything else, they are encouraged to worship that form so long as the devotion is sincere and they obey God’s basic tenets. The viewpoint that the Supreme has created the Earth to be a battleground for religious fighting or competition is rejected.
Gita 17:23 says that the chanting of priests in Vedic ceremonies performed specifically for God’s agents are directly pleasing to Brahman:
From the beginning of creation, the three words OM TAT SAT were used to symbolize God. These three representations were used by brahmins chanting Vedic hymns for the satisfaction of the Supreme.
In Chapter 11 of the Gita, Krishna reveals his infinite forms to Arjun, showing that the Divine is able to manifest in an infinite number of ways, both beautiful and terrible. Arjun is so terrified of the sight that he asks Krishna to revert back to the comforting single, personal form understood by him. This is something mirrored by religious devotees, as most people attach themselves to the religion that makes them feel comfortable in their form of worship.
In all religions various attributes and qualities are assigned to the Creator. But the reality is most people choose to worship a form of the Creator they feel mirrors their personal viewpoints. Some view God as vengeful and angry, while others see a loving and merciful God. Some see God as encompassing of all these qualities, while others say God is incapable of having attributes since attributes are human-like. We see these differences in the various sects of religions, some causing rifts within communities that supposedly worship the same Supreme Being. Likewise in Hinduism, Hindus are attracted to the form of deity which is pleasing to their outlook on religion. Which form of God or deva appeals to a Hindu devotee’s heart and mind is the one they will choose to worship. Instead of being hung up on terms like “polytheism” or “monotheism” Hindus instead must focus on steadying their devotion, purifying their heart, and focusing their intellect on loving worship of the Infinite.
Brahman exists everywhere. Prophets and Incarnations are born to show benighted humanity their way. They give different instructions to suit different temperaments. There are many ways to realize truth. So all these instructions have their relative value. For instance, many birds are perched on the branches of a tree. They are of different colors: white, black, red, yellow, and so on. Their sounds, too, are different. But when they sing we say that the sounds are made by the birds. We do not designate one particular sound only as the sound of the birds, and refuse to acknowledge the other sounds as such.
– Mother Sarada Devi