by Jayaram V
It is difficult to characterize Hinduism as a polytheistic
religion because Hindus not only worship
multiple divinities but also Brahman, the Highest and Supreme
Universal Self, as the creator, sustainer and the Lord of all.
The one Supreme God is believed to manifest Himself in the form
of many gods and goddesses, such as Brahma, Vishnu, Siva,
Lakshmi, Parvathi, Saraswathi, Indra, Varuna, Mitra and so on.
At the same time the divinities are perceived and worshipped as
Brahman only in their ultimate essence. They are looked upon as
His innumerable forms and functional aspects, who along with
Prakriti or Nature carry out the different tasks of God's
creative plan and execute His blue print of the universe.
Brahman is described in the Hindu scriptures as both immanent
and transcendental. In His transcendental aspect He is
described as the known and the unknown and also as one with
qualities (saguna Brahman) and without qualities (nirguna
Brahman). In His unified and absolute aspect He is Parameswara
(the Highest Lord) and in His creative and functional aspect He
is Iswara (the universal Lord).
In addition to gods and goddesses, in Hinduism we also come
across the worship of many objects such as trees, plants,
rivers, lakes, snakes, hills, the various planets, some stars,
constellations, the sun, the moon and so on. Many saints, babas
and sages also are objects of their veneration. In the
Vaishnava tradition, the images of God are also considered
divine and aspects of God only having various levels of His
The Hindus worship the gods and goddesses variously adding
further complexity to the manner of worship in Hinduism. They
may worship them all or only some of them at a time, or
venerate each of them separately as the Supreme God himself.
Generally, the present trend is that most of the Hindus
believe and worship many gods simultaneously in the hope of
receiving blessings from many of them. Some times this may even
create confusion in their minds as to whom to worship in a
given situation. But most of them resolve these problems in
their own individual ways.
There are traditions according to which each Hindu god is to
be worshipped on a particular day in a week, month or year and
many follow these traditions. There are certain specific rules
and regulations to be observed by the devout Hindus while
worshipping them, which involve performance of specific
rites, rituals and chanting. Many observe these rules with
Polytheism is an integral part of Hinduism, despite of
opposition from certain intellectual quarters over the
centuries. After contacts with Islam and the Christianity of
the British, attempts were made by some educated Hindus like
Raja Rammohan Roy and Keshab Chandrasen to discourage
The reformist movements like Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj
were products of such a reaction. But their impact did not last
long as is evident from the way present day Hindus visit the
temples and worship various gods, observe the festivals and
celebrate the glory of gods and goddesses, perform pujas and
vratas whenever the occasion demands.
They may listen to numerous discourses delivered by
enlightened persons, go through numerous books on religion, but
they hold their gods and goddesses to their chests dearly and
worship them with deep devotion and sublime faith. There is a
certain purity of approach and innocence of faith in this
practice that is rarely seen else where.
The average modern Hindu, who is devoted to his religion is
very clear in his mind as to his approach in this matter. He
worships the gods and goddesses because he believes in them and
is sure of their existence in the higher worlds of God's
He conducts himself in tune with the supposed expectations
of his beloved gods. For him life without them is simply a
sacrilege, which he is sure he cannot afford. It is not the for
the sake of society or family, though that is not entirely
absent, but for himself and his own welfare he worships them
and holds them with highest regard in his mind.
On a given day a devout Hindu, may worship his gods or
goddesses in the morning, noon or in the evening or whenever he
chooses to, even while his mind is busy with worldly matters.
He may worship them in the comforts of his own house or visit
the near by temple or shrine.
In the past there were violent clashes and heated debates
among groups of devotees worshipping different gods as was the
case between Vaishanavites and Shivites. But presently there
seems to be a total reconciliation and integration of these
divergent beliefs into one acceptable whole. Today a majority
of the Hindus accept different gods whole heartedly as a part
of one large Divine family without any sense of conflict or
rancor in their minds.
The gods belong to different worlds and planes of existence
and assist the mankind in various ways. At the highest level
are the Trinity, namely Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesa, each ruling
a particular divine kingdom.
Brahma is the creator, who rules Brahmalok, (the world of
Brahma), and engages Himself in the process of creating forms
and breathing life force into them. For various reasons Brahma
is not worshipped the way the other two gods of trinity are
worshipped. There are in fact very few temples built in his
But his consort Saraswathi, who is the goddess of learning
is worshipped by many, especially the students or the
brahmacharis of the Vedic schools. She is frequently found in
the company of Ganesha and Sri Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth
and the consort of Lord Vishnu, and receives honors and prayers
along with them.
Vishnu is entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining
the worlds and looking after their welfare. He rules Vaikunth.
He has a number of followers all over the world who venerate
Him as the Supreme Lord. A number of temples have also been
built in His honor right from the post Mary period.
Though He was a minor deity in the early Vedic period, He
became very popular with the rise of Vaishnavism during the
subsequent periods. Some of His incarnations are also
worshipped in many parts of India and they attract wider
following among people than Himself as Vishnu.
Most famous among his incarnations are Lord Rama and Lord
Krishna, the heroes of the epics, the Ramayana and the
Bhagawatha. They have millions of devotees all over the world.
Lord Balaji, is also equally famous. His temple at Tirumala in
Andhra Pradesh is reckoned to be the richest in the world and
attracts huge number of devotees throughout the year.
Lord Vishnu is also worshipped as Dhananjaya, Narayana,
Anantasayana, Kapila, Narasimha, Varadaraja,
Srinivasa and Jagannatha (of Puri temple).
His consort Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth is equally
popular. She is worshipped in many households regularly,
especially by the seekers of artha or material wealth. She is
also worshipped variously as Padma, Kamala, Sita, Narasimhi,
Lord Siva is the destroyer of the worlds. He is the supreme
yogi who is easy to be pleased. He is as popular as Lord Vishnu
and He is the chief deity of Saivism which also became popular
in the same period as Vaishnavism.
In fact a long rivalry existed between the two, each side
claiming their supreme deity to be the Supreme Lord of the
universe. While Vaishnavism caught the imagination of the
householders and seekers of material comforts, Saivism caught
the imagination of the renunciates and seekers of knowledge.
Today both these gods are extremely popular across the length
and breadth of Hindu society.
References to Siva can be found in the Rigveda where in He
is referred as Rudra, the god of anger. According to some Siva
is not the same as the Rudra of the Vedas. Whatever may be the
truth, Siva is also known as Rudra because of His nature to
show bouts of occasional temper.
His anger is the anger of righteousness, not to be confused
with the petty anger of the human beings. It is born of out of
a specific divine purpose, to destroy something in order to
create something new. It is the manifestation of an energy
whose intent is to create purity of purpose and harmony of
structure in the object of destruction, but not to destroy some
thing for the sake of destruction only. He is the destroyer of
negativism and egoism and purifier of the consciousness with
His abundant grace.
He resides in kailash atop an icy mountain. The ice
signifies the ignorance of a frozen and static consciousness
(the waters of Hindu scriptures). The word "Si" means cool
(sheetal) and the word " va " to live (vasa). The word "Siva"
therefore means, He who lives on the top of cool mountains ( of
He is not worshipped generally in his original physical form
(as a mula murthi), but mainly as Sivlinga, the phallic symbol
signifying creation as the combination of Purusha and Prakriti.
He is also worshipped variously as Nataraja, Dakshinamurthi,
Ardhanarishwara, Virabhadra, Chandeswara, Pataleswara etc,.
Many Hindus worship the navagrahas or the nine planets
mainly to ward off adversity and evil influences. Generally
they are not worshipped in homes but in temples. These planet
gods play a key role in Hindu astrology.
The navagrahas are : 1. Surya (the sun), 2. Soma or the
moon, 3. Managala, Kuja or Angaraka, (mars), 4. Budha
(Mercury), 5. Brihaspati (Jupiter), 6. Sukra (Venus), 7. Sani
(Saturn), 8. Rahu and 9. Ketu. People generally worship these
planet gods to appease them and ward off evil and negative
The Ashtadikpalas or rulers of the eight directions also
need special mention. They are not generally worshipped as
individual deities but addressed in many invocations, as a part
of some important rituals and Vedic ceremonies.
They also play a vital role in Vasthu Shastra (the science
of construction). East is ruled by Indra, west by Varuna, North
by Kubera and South by Yama. Among the intermediate directions,
north east is ruled by Iswara, north west by Niruthi, south
east by Agni and south west by Vayu.
The description would be incomplete without the mention of
three deities who have become very popular in modern times,
namely 1. Vignesha, the son of Siva and Parvathi, the leader of
the devas, 2. Hanuman, of the
Ramayana fame who is known for his devotion and love for Rama
and 3. Karthikeya or Swami Ayyappa or Kumaraswami who is the
second son of Shiva and Parvathi and has a wide following in
many parts of India especially in the south.
Worship of Divine Mother is equally popular in India. As the
ruler and creator of the worlds she attracts a large following
across the length and breadth of the country. She is worshipped
both in her peaceful forms and her fierce forms. On the
positive side, she is the personification of love and peace,
providing solace to Her devotees.
Though She was known originally for her fierce form and
association with esoteric rituals of tantricism, Shri Adi
Shankaracharya brought her into the public glare through his
famous work "Saundarya Lahari" and his travels to various parts
of the country and made her acceptable to a majority of Hindus
in Her most benign form as the Mother of unbound love.
Shri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, one of the greatest saints ever
born on earth, proved through his own personal experience that
any one with true devotion and purity of their hearts and minds
can seek her blessings and guidance.
She is worshipped as Lakshmi, Saraswathi and Uma or
Parvathi. In her fierce forms she is worshipped as Kali,
Karali, Bhairavi, Bhavani, Chandi, Durga etc. The many schools
of tantrism regard Her as the Supreme Deity and worship Her in
She is most popular as Goddess Durga in eastern India and
else where also. During the Durga Festival She is worshipped
continuously on a grand scale for nine continuous days during
which many devotees observe complete fasting, taking nothing
but water during the whole period.
The Hindu gods are real and true manifestation of the
Supreme Self. They are a part of Hindu consciousness. They
impart beauty, variety and charm to the very practice of
religion. It is difficult to conceive of Hinduism without their
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