By Jayaram V
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Hindu pantheon is very complex, organized and hierarchical.
Without proper introduction into Hinduism, it is very difficult
to understand the complexity surrounding the Hindu gods and goddesses
and make sense of their numerous names, aspects, emanations and
manifestations. The gods and goddesses belong to one large family
of gods, headed by Supreme Brahman on one side as Purusha or Isvara
and Para Shakti or Mother Goddess as His dependent or independent
aspect on the other.
Overtime, the pantheon of gods and goddesses underwent many changes,
additions and deletions, resulting in further complexity. In the
early Vedic period, the Vedic gods occupied a place of prominence,
with Agni, Indra, Vayu, Soma, Varuna, Adityas, Maruts, Visvadevas,
Brahma, Prajapati, Pusan, Asvins etc. playing a central role in
the sacrificial rituals.
The Brahmanas, Kshatriya, Vaisyas, who formed the original divisions
of Vedic society, worshipped their own classes of gods. Individually,
when the Brahmanas performed sacrifices for themselves in the domestic
rites etc. they made offerings to their own gods. But when they
officiated for the sacrifices where the Kshatriyas and Vaisyas were
patrons or hosts of sacrifices (yajamanas) they made offerings to
the gods their patrons worshipped. Thus in the Vedas you find invocations
to numerous deities.
The Kshatriyas worshipped gods of kshatra power, namely Indra,
Varuna, Soma, Rudra, Parjanya, Yama, and Isana. The Brahmanas worshipped
gods of Sattvic nature, namely Agni and Surya and later Adityas,
or aspects of the Sun, chief among whom were Savitr and later Vishnu.
The Vaisyas worshipped the gods of vis or commonality, namely
Vasus, Rudras, Visvadevas and Maruts. The sudras worshipped, Pusan,
an Aditya, and several local and village deities some of whom were
outside the pale of Vedic tradition.
These divisions of gods are stated in the Chandogya Upanishad
(1.4.11-13). With the decline of the original Kshatriya clans,
probably due to wars and internal squabbles, the worship of
their gods declined and were replaced by the deities worshipped
by a new class of rulers such as the Nandas, Mauryas, Sakas,
Kushanas, Pahlavas, Barashivas, Kanvas etc. They hailed from
different social and caste backgrounds, and worshipped different
gods, some of whom were unknown to the early Vedic people and
never mentioned in the early Vedic literature.
Presently we have many gods and goddesses in Hinduism. Although
numerically they were said to be hundreds and thousands, Hindus
worship chiefly a few gods namely Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, Sarasvathi,
Lakshmi, Parvathi, their manifestations, incarnations and emanations.
Chief among the incarnations of Vishnu are Rama, Krishna, and Narasimha.
His prominent image formations (arcavataras) are Lord Venkateswara, Ranganatha, Pandarinatha,
Vittalnatha and Jagannatha. Prominent manifestations of Siva are
Dakshinamurthy and nine Jyotirlingas. The goddesses also have various
Prominent among the attendant deities are Lord Ganesha, Kumara,
Nandi, Hanuman, Garuda. Apart from them, Hindus also worship many
saintly persons such as Dattatreya, Chaitanya, Mantralaya Raghavendra
Swami and Shirid Baba.
Although Hindus worship many gods and goddess, strictly speaking
Hinduism is not a polytheistic religion. Hinduism has elements of
both monotheism, polytheism and sometimes classified as "henotheism
or kathenotheism - a belief in single gods, each in turn standing
out as the highest."1
This is well illustrated in a conversation between Yajnavalkya
and Vidagdha Sakalya as quoted in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3:9).
When Sakalya asks how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya begins the
conversation saying, "as many as mentioned in the offerings made
to the gods of the universe, namely three hundred and three, three
thousand and three." When Sakalya keeps on asking the same question,
Yajnavalkya reduces the number to thirty three, then to six, then
to three, then to two, then to one and half and finally to one.
When asked who is the one, he replies that he is the immortal person
(Self) who is in the body. Thus, in Hinduism the concept of one
God acting as many or manifesting as many dates back to early Vedic
period. One God manifests as many. He is the sum total of all things
in the universe.
That highest God of Hinduism is known as Brahman who is extolled
in the Vedas as the Supreme Universal Self. He is both manifested
and unmanifested, Being and Non-Being, Existence (sat) and non-existence
According to the Paingala Upanishad, His reflection in the quality
of sattva is considered Isvara, in Rajas Hiranyagarbha and in tamas
Viraj. These three aspects, Isvara, Hiranyagarbha and Viraj are
also identified with Vishnu, Brahma and Siva respectively in their
roles as the preserver, creator and destroyer respectively. In the
early Upanishads, such as Chandogya, Viraj is often described Death,
for whom the entire creation is food.
All the numerous gods and goddesses are the eyes, ears, hands
and feet of Brahman only. In their individual aspects they represent
diversity and His numerous duties (dharmas); but in their unified
and highest aspect they represent Brahman, the Supreme Self.
Thus Hinduism is neither monotheistic nor polytheistic, but represents
elements of both. The following is a brief description of the numerous
gods and goddesses of Hinduism, followed by a list of internal links
that point to numerous articles explaining their significance and
symbolism in Hinduism.
Atman and Brahman
Atman and Brahman represent two eternal realities ever present
in existence. Their relationships is the subject matter of discussions
in numerous schools of Hinduism. Following is a brief description
of the two.
Brahman: As stated already, Brahman is the highest
God of Hinduism. He is supreme, universal Self who is eternal, indestructible
and infinite, who is described in the Vedas as both manifested and
unmanifested, and Being and Non-Being. He has numerous aspects.
In the early Vedic descriptions He is often symbolized as the Sun.
Those who attain liberation reach His world and become immortal
by the northern path (Uttarayana). For more information on Brahman
please check the links to Brahman found in the
section on Brahman. For further
information, you may also read my book
Brahman. Brahman is not worshipped
in temples or public places, but only internally.
Atman: Atman is the individual Self. He is the
lord of the microcosm (body). He is described in the Upanishads
as the immortal, transcendental, imperishable Self, who cannot be
reached through senses or the mind, but only in a non-dual state
of self-absorption. Like Brahman, Atman is not worshipped in temples
or public places, but only internally through concentration and
The highest gods of Hinduism
Brahman, Vishnu and Shiva are the highest gods of Hinduism. These
gods do not form part of the early Vedic pantheon. They rose to
prominence subsequently, during the eastern and southern expansion
of the Vedic religion in the Indian subcontinent. A brief description
of the three deities is presented below.
Brahma: Brahma is the creator god. He is originally
known as Prajapati. He is the first born, father of the gods, humans
and demons. He is also their teacher, who taught them about the
nature of Self and the importance of virtue. He is also the revealer
of the Vedas to the mankind. He has several mind born sons. In the
early Upanishads and Vedic hymns he is credited with incarnations
and described as the Cosmic Person (Purusha) as well as Isvara,
Hiranyagarbha and Viraj. In some verses, he is also described as
Prakriti or Nature. Brahma enjoyed an exalted position in ancient
times, when the original Kshatriyas ruled the land. With their decline,
his popularity declined. He is presently worshipped only in a few
temples, mostly located in the areas, adjoining or forming part
of the ancient Sindhu Saraswathi region, where the Kshatriyas ruled
in ancient times. His abode is called Brahmaloka.
Vishnu: He is currently the most popular god
of Hinduism. Vaishnavism is also currently the most popular and
dominant sect of Hinduism, with several sub sects and independent
teacher traditions. Devotees of Vishnu worship Him as the highest
supreme Brahman. In popular Hinduism he is considered the preserver
responsible for the preservation and maintenance of creation. He
goes by several names, such as Narayana, Adita, Padmanabha, Ananatasayana
etc. He has also manifested upon earth as incarnations (avataras),
manifestations (vyuhas), partial incarnations (amsavataras) and
aspects such as Jagannatha, Panduranga, Ranganatha, Varadaraja,
Venkateswara etc. India is dotted with numerous temples of Vishnu
and His numerous aspects and incarnations. His abode is known as
Shiva: In ancient times, Shiva was the most
popular deity of Hinduism, worshipped in numerous form and diverse
communities throughout the Indian subcontinent and even outside.
While Saivism lost ground to Vaishnavism in the last century, it
is still a very popular sect of Hinduism with dedicated followers.
As in case of Vaishnavism, Saivism has several sects and sub sects.
Followers of Siva worship Him as the Supreme Brahman who is responsible
for the creation, preservation, and destruction of the worlds, besides
delusion and liberation of the beings. In popular Hinduism he is
considered the destroyer. He goes by several names such as Rudra,
Ardhanariswara, Mahadev, Mahesvara, Isvara etc. He has also several
aspects, manifestations, emanations and attendant deities. His abode
is called Kailās. He is worshipped in the temples and households
in his anthromorphic form and in the form of Sivalinga. In Tantra,
he is also worshipped in the form of symbols. For more information
on Shiva, please check our section on
Shiva or visit
our website Saivism.net as well as Allsaivism.com.
Trimurthis: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are considered
the Trimurthis, often translated into English as the Trinity of
Hindu gods. In reality, they represent the triple functions of Brahman
in creation. In their highest aspect, they are said to be the same,
but different in their functional aspect, each ruling over a particular
sphere and participating in creation along with their attendant
deities. They are often compared to the Isvara, Hiranyagarbha and
Viraj aspects of Brahman. Brahma is the reflection of Brahman in
rajas, Vishnu in sattva and Siva in tamas. To know about their symbolism
please check the links below.
The main goddesses of Hinduism
Shakti: The practice of worshipping Mother Goddess
was in vogue in Indian since the Indus valley civilization. Shakti
means energy. Hindus worship Shakti, also known as Mother Goddess,
Divine Mother, Prakriti, Maya and various other names. In creation
she represents the materiality and objectivity. Hence she is also
known as the Field (kshetra). In the beings, she represents the
mind and body. If Brahman is the instrumental cause of creation,
Shakti is the material cause. If Brahman represents the will and
consciousness, Shakti represents the numerous objects, worlds and
beings in which the will and consciousness of Brahman remains hidden.
In the Tantra tradition, Shakti is considered the highest supreme
reality itself, with Brahman remaining in the background as the
passive witness consciousness. In Vedic tradition she is a dependent
reality, but in tantra she is independent. As the companion of Shiva,
Shakti is worshipped in numerous temples across India.
Saraswathi: Saraswathi is the goddess
of knowledge and learning. She symbolizes our knowledge, virtue
and creative intelligence. She is the consort of Brahma. As the
source of knowledge, she is also the cause of knowledge, wisdom
and liberation among the intelligent beings. She is responsible
for refinement in speech, all artistic expressions and civilized
behavior. Saraswathi means the flowing one. A river which flowed
in the ancient past in the northwestern India is extolled frequently
as Saraswathi. The civilization that thrived on the banks of the
river and adjoining areas is known as Sindhu-Saraswathi civilization.
The goddess is responsible for many crafts and skills. Some descriptions
suggest hamsa or swan as her vehicle, while some mention peacock.
She is usually depicted carrying a vina, an Indian musical instrument.
Lakshmi: Lakshmi is the goddess of abundance
who is responsible for health, wealth, luck and happiness. She is
the consort of Vishnu. She was born in milky oceans during the churning
of the oceans and gifted to Vishnu. She is usually depicted with
four or two hands, either alone or in the company of Vishnu. When
alone she is shown either seated in a lotus or standing in it, with
elephants in the background. She goes by many names, the most popular
being Sri. She incarnated several times upon earth along with Vishnu
and participated in his duties as the preserver. Owl is described
as her vehicle. She has numerous forms. Worship of eight forms of
Lakshmi, known as ashta-lakshmis is a very popular Hindu tradition.
Parvathi: Parvathi is the consort of Shiva and
goddess of love, devotion, and destruction. She personifies numerous
aspects of Mother Goddess and even equated with her in her role
as the Mother of the Universe. She also figures prominently as Uma
Haimavathi in the Kena Upanishad. She is also considered the second
incarnation of Mother Goddess after the self-immolation of her first
incarnation as Dakshayani or Sati. There are numerous shakti pithas
installed in various parts of India to worship Sati. She goes by
several names such as Haimavathi, Girija, Uma, Lalitha, Durga, Rudrani.
She has both pleasant and fierce aspects. In some Puranas, she is
described as the sister of Vishnu. In the images, she is depicted
either alone or in the company of Shiva. In the Arthanariswra form,
as Prakriti she is represented as one half of Siva, the Purusha.
Vedic gods and goddesses
The Samhita portion of the Vedas contain hymns addressed to various
gods, which are described below.
Indra: Indra is the leader of gods, the lord
of the heaven and the chief deity who figures prominently in the
Vedas, with a quarter of the Rig-Veda Samhita devoted to his praise.
The hymns extol him as a great warrior who slew his enemies including
the demon Vrata and clipped the wings of mountains with his
mighty weapon the thunderbolt. He is depicted
in the Upanishads as the student of Brahma and teacher of Prataradana
son of Divodasa. The white elephant Airavat is his vehicle and Indrani
is his consort. By the time the Puranas were composed, this mighty
god of the early Vedic period lost his prominence and was relegated
to an inferior position.
Agni: Agni figures prominently in the Rig-Veda,
with the highest number of hymns addressed to him. They describe
him as the highest god, priest, messenger, master of wealth, minister
of sacrifice, dispeller of night and provider of wealth and progeny
to the worshippers, who brings the gods to the sacrificial place.
He manifests are fire upon earth, lightning in the mid-region and
the sun in the highest realm. In the images he is depicted as an
old man with two heads, three legs, a red body, pot belly, seven
tongues, four horns and seven arms, each holding different objects
with his consorts Svaha and Svadha on either side. The ram is his
vehicle. In the body he personifies the digestive power.
Vayu: Vayu is the wind god who is described
in the Vedas as the lord of the mid-region and a great absorber.
In the body he represents the breath. He rides upon a chariot drawn
by a large number of horses, depending the upon and the intensity
with which he blows. As an invisible deity he forms part of the
subtle realm. He figures prominently in the hymns regarding Soma
sacrifice. They describe him as a drinker of Soma and friend of
Indra. In the images he is depicted as a blue colored god with four
Surya: Surya is the sun god, and one of the
solar deities (Adityas). He is described in the Vedic hymns as the
foreseeing one, a flying bird, a jewel in the sky, and the giver
of light, with radiant hair who knows all that lives and who traverses
the sky and the mid-region seeing all things that have birth, riding
on a chariot driven by seven horses. He is also praised as a healer
who cures the diseases of the heart and takes away the yellow hue.
Savitr, to whom the Gayatri mantra is addressed, is an aspect of
the sun before sunrise. In some hymns he is also addressed as Pusan.
Varuna: Varuna is described in the Vedas as
the god of rains, clouds, water, rivers and oceans. Some hymns beseech
him for protection and forgiveness since he is the king and guardian
of moral laws who keeps a close watch on the people and their actions
with a thousand eyes. He knows the ways of men as well as the ways
of gods. Some hymns also elevate him as the highest God who sustains
the Asvattha tree whose roots are in heaven and branches below and
who created a wide pathway for the sun to traverse the sky. In some
hymns he is associated with Indra as Indra-Varuna, the guardian
of men and in some with Mitra as Varuna-Mitra. In the images he
is depicted as riding a crocodile or seven swans with four hands
holding a conch, a vessel of precious stones, lotus and noose.
Soma: Soma or Soma Pavamana is an important
Vedic deity who is extolled in several hymns. The entire ninth mandala
of Rig-Veda is dedicated to him. He is associated with Soma juice,
which was extracted by the Vedic priests ritually during Soma sacrifices
from an unknown plant. It was evidently an intoxicating drink used
in the rituals to enter into communion with gods and ancestors.
The hymns describe him as wise, king, lord of heroes, lord of speech,
pure energy, lord of plants, leader who leads the ancestors along
a straight path and who makes mortal wise sages. He was instrumental
in the slaying of vrata by Indra
Asvins: Asvins are twin gods who are well known
for their healing ability and who are invariably invoked during
sacrificial ceremonies since they always strive to do good to others.
They are described in the hymns as divine physicians and surgeons
well versed in the art of healing, surgery and even organ transplantation.
They are rich in treasure, lords of splendor, having nimble hands,
heroes, wonder workers and full of pleasantness, who bestow boons
upon those who worship them and seek their protection.
Aditi: Aditi is the prima mother of gods, especially
the twelve solar deities known as Adityas, of whom Vishnu is one.
She is a prototype of Mother Goddess or Prakriti, who is often compared
in the Vedas to the sky and the space. The hymns suggest that she
was born to Daksha and Daksha in turn was born to her. Although
no specific hymns is addressed to her in the Vedas, she is mentioned
in several hymns along with other gods as the might Aditi having
the ability to grant the grace of Rudra. One hymn in particular
describes Aditi as the heaven, the mid-region, the mother, the sons,
all gods, five divisions of men and all that was born and shall
be born. The Puranas describe her as the wife of sage Kashyapa and
the mother of the Aditya, Indra and Vamana.
Adityas: The Adityas are solar deities and sons
of Aditi who figure in the hymns addressed to Visvadevas, Rhbus,
Agni etc., and mentioned along with Maruts, Vasus, Rudras and other
gods of commonality. They are described in the Rig-Veda as pure
gods, lords of liberal gifts, free from blemish, who help the worshippers
in prosperity, providing shelter, showing the way and in defeating
their enemies. Surya is an Aditya but he does not figure in the
list of Adityas. The Adityas were most likely aspects of the same
sun, or the different suns who appear in the sky during the different
hours of the day and given different names or identified with different
deities. Many hymns of the Rig-Veda mention them collectively
as Aditya without specifying their names. Some hymns even distinguish
them from Indra, Vayu, Brihaspati, Mitra, Agni, Surya, Vishnu, Pusan,
and Bhaga. In the Puranas their number went up from eight to twelve
probably due to the division of time into twelve hours instead of
seven or eight. The Vishnu Puranas lists the following 12 Aditya:
Amsa, Aryaman, Bhaga, Dhuti, Mitra, Pusan, Sakra, Savitr, Tvstr,
Varuna, Vishnu, Vivsvat.
Usha: Usha is described in the Rig-Veda as the
goddess of dawn, daughter of the sky, heaven's radiant daughter,
auspicious goddess, opulent, and lady of the light with resplendent
rays, who dawns upon people with prosperity and who graciously answers
to the prayers with abundance and with brilliant light. Such descriptions
suggest she may be even a precursor to Lakshmi, who also rises from
the ocean like Usha. The Rig-Veda also describes her as the brightest
and fairest, the sister of Savitr who wakes up people with sounds
of joy and sends them great riches, who brings forth all the gods
from the heaven so that they may drink the Soma.
Yama: Yama means restraining one. According
to the legends, he was the first to die and depart to the heaven.
Subsequently, he became the lord of the underworld, Yamaloka. He
is assisted in his duties by two fierce dogs with four eyes and
wide nostrils who guard the path that lead the departed to his world.
The Puranas describe him as the god death, and the ruler of southern
quarter, who is known for his knowledge, judgment and fairness in
punishing the sinners. They also describe the different kinds of
punishments meted out to the sinner in his world according to the
list of sins recorded by his assistant and record-keeper Chitragupta.
Pusan: The Chandogya Upanishad describes Pusan
as the god of the Sudras. In the Rig-Veda he is portrayed as a solar
deity and a guardian of the world, who shines brightly in the sky,
showing the way to people on earth as well as to the departing souls
who are on their way to the other world. He is the wonder worker,
who has goats for his steeds, who drives away from the path wolves,
robbers, the wicked and the like, the lord of all prosperity and
wielder of golden sword, who leads people to meadows rich in grass.
Pusan is also associated with livestock as the vigorous one, who
invigorates them by leading them to green pastures and protects
them by helping men to find their lost cattle. In the Puranas he
is described as one of the Adityas.
Visvadevas: The Visvadevas are gods of commonality.
According to the Chandogya Upanishad (1.24.1), the evening extractions
of the Soma juice are offered to Adityas and Visvadevas. Adityas
dwell in the heaven and Visvadevas in our world. As the name suggests
they are guardian deities of the world. Several hymns are addressed
to them in the Rig-Veda, in which they are addressed variously as
Indra, Vayu, Brihaspati, Mitra, Agni, Pusan, Bhaga, Adityas and
Maruts. Most likely Visvadevas is a generic name given to all the
gods of heaven when they are invoked collectively rather than individually
and their blessings and help are sought jointly for the common good.
However, the Puranas list ten Visvadevas, namely Vasu, Satya, Kratu,
Daksa, Kala, Kama, Dhriti, Kuru, Pururavas, and Madravas
Rudras: Rudra is the god of storms, who howls
and roars, with shining body and braided hair, and wields the thunderbolt,
bow and arrow. Although fearsome to look and wrathful, he is a benevolent
god, repels the anger of gods and helps the worshippers. The Rig-Veda
describes him as strong, bounteous, most excellent, and wise, with
braided hair, who is the lord of heroes and ruler of valiant men,
and who shines in splendor like the sun. He is an excellent physician
and healer with thousands of medicines with which he cures the sickness
of humans. He is often equated with Agni and later with Shiva. The
Rudras are his attendant deities, whose number is mentioned as eleven
in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. In the body, they are equated to
the breaths and the mind. The Puranas mention eight Rudras, namely
Bhava, Sarva, Isana, Pasupati, Bhima, Ugra, Mahadeva and Rudra.
Maruts: Like the Rudras, the Maruts are also
storm or wind deities of the mid-region who are often invoked along
with Agni in the sacrifices to come together. They are described
as the sons of Rudra and attendants and companions of Indra, who
sit as deities in heaven above the mid-region's luminous sphere,
and scatter the clouds. The Rig-Veda describes them as violent and
aggressive with golden weapons, sons of Prisni, self-luminous, born
together, bearers of spears, swords and glittering ornaments, fiercely
vigorous and strong, who shake the heaven and earth like a garment.
Their number vary fro 27 to 60. It appears that they were also invoked
during war times to create unfavorable weather conditions and discourage
the enemies from moving forward.
Brihaspati: Brihaspati is the teacher
of gods and a planetary deity equated with Jupiter among the planets.
In the Vedas the role of teacher is originally ascribed to Prajapati,
who is the teacher of not only gods, but also humans and demons.
Hence, more likely Brihaspati may be an aspect of Prajapati in his
role as a teacher. He is also often equated with Ganapati and Brahmanaspati.
He is described in the Rig-Veda as the son of Angiras, sweet-tongued,
mighty, leader of Samans, resplendent, whom both God and mortal
listen and whose Samans pervade the earth and heaven. According
to the Puranas, he was appointed as the teacher of gods by Shiva.
He has rivalry with Shukracarya, the teacher of demons. He has three
brothers and three wives. The three wives bore him nine daughters
and nine sons.
Vasus: According to the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad,
the Vasus are eight in number. They are fire, earth, air, the mid-region,
the sun, heaven, the moon and stars. They are so called because
they the dwelling places for practically everything in creation.
The Mahabharata mention the eight Vasus with their specific names:
Dhara (the earth), Anala (fire), Apa (water), Anila (wind), Dhruva
(the polestar), Soma (moon), Prabhasa (dawn) and Pratyusha (light).
According to the Mahabharata due to a curse delivered by sage Vashista,
the Vasus were born as the sons of Ganga. Of them due to the same
curse, seven died instantly, while the last one survived and became
renowned as Bhishma.
Other gods: The other deities mentioned in the
Vedas include Rtu, Savitr, Apris, Svanaya, Rbhus, Mitra, Bhavyaya,
Aryaman, Indri, Saraswathi, and Brahmanaspati. Of them Saraswathi
is the most important deity, who is mentioned frequently in the
Rig-Veda and whom we have already described under the Shaktis as
the consort of Brahma.
Attendant deities of Vishnu
Two gods figure prominently in Hindu pantheon as attendant deities
of Vishnu, Garuda, Adisesha. To them we may also add Hanuman who
played a prominent role in during the incarnation of Rama. Their
importance is described below.
Garuda: The Eagle shaped god, Garuda or Garutmanta,
is the vehicle of Vishnu, whose images are found in Vaishnava temples
as an associate deity of Vishnu or his aspects near or opposite
the sanctum sanctorum. According to the Puranas, he is described
as the son of Kashyapa and Vinata and brother of Aruna, the charioteer
of Surya. Vishnu accepted him as his vehicle, impressed by his act
of bringing the pot of nectar from Indra's heaven. In the images
he is show part human and part bird with feature of both. He has
a human body with wings and the head of an eagle. Garuda personifies
humility, devotion and knowledge.
Adishesha: Adishesha, is the serpent king who
is also known as Shesha and Anantashesa. He is generally described
as many thousand hooded serpent with a mass of coils floating in
the waters of creation, upon which rests Vishnu and Lakshmi. In
some images, he is also found with five or seven heads. Symbolically,
he represents the materiality of creation. Since Vishnu rests upon
him before, during and after creation, he is considered indestructible.
According to the Mahabharata he was born to Kashyapa and his wife
Kadri. He performed penances and earned the right to stay in the
underworld (Patala) perennially to provide support to the earth.
However, it is possible that this Shesha described in the Mahabharata,
may be an aspect of the eternal Adisesha who carries Vishnu all
Hanuman: Hanuman is one of the most popular
gods of Hinduism today. He is the son of Vayu, born with the powers
and blessings of Shiva. He played a vital role in the Ramayana,
assisting Rama in finding Sita and fighting on his behalf with the
demons of Ravana. He has the features of a monkey, with a strong
human body and heart of gold. He is known for his exemplary devotion
to Rama and Sita. He also served as an emblem for the Pandavas during
the Mahabharata war. He is worshipped in numerous temples across
India and elsewhere. Hanuman Chalisa is the most popular prayer
of Hanuman which are sung in millions of Hindu households and temples
to invoke Hanuman and seek his blessings.
Incarnations of Vishnu
One of the important beliefs of Hinduism is the incarnation of
God in a mortal form upon earth from time to time to restore order
and regularity. The duty of such incarnations falls upon Vishnu,
who is the preserver. According to the Puranas, he has so far incarnated
upon earth nine times and this tenth incarnation is yet to happen.
The list of the nine incarnations vary. The following is the widely
accepted list of Vishnu's incarnations upon earth. Each of these
gods have different forms, characteristic features and temples and
followers of them. Of them Rama and Krishna are the most popular
and the incarnation of Buddha is a negative
Matsya. This is the
incarnation of Vishnu as a mighty fish (matsya), in the Satya
Yuga or the Age of Truth to save Manu, the father of mankind, the
sages and the knowledge of the Vedas for the renewal of life upon
earth, following a great flood.
Kurma. This is the incarnation of Vishnu as
a tortoise (kurma), in the Satya Yuga to support the mountain
Mandhara and prevent it from sinking, when it was used by gods and
demons to churn the oceans to obtain Amrita or the elixir of life.
Varaha. This is the incarnation Vishnu as a
boar, again in the Satya Yuga to save the earth from destruction
when the demon Hiranyaksha submerged it under an ocean. Assuming
the form of a boar, Vishnu lifted the earth and saved the mankind.
Narasimha. In this incarnation, which also happened
in the Satya Yuga, Vishnu assumed the fierce form of a man-lion
with a human body but the head of a lion, to save Prahlada, his
devotee, from the oppression of his father Hiranyakasipu who was
displeased with son's devotion for Vishnu.
Vamana. In this incarnation which happened in
the Treta Yuga, Vishnu assumed the form of a dwarfish Brahman boy
to slay Bali, a noble but demonic king, who defeated Indra and occupied
the heaven. After obtaining permission from Bali to secure a space
equal to three steps for himself, with two strides he covered the
whole universe and with the third he pushed Bali into the underworld.
Parashurama. In this incarnation during Treta
Yuga, Vishnu was born as the son of Brahmana couple, Jamadagni and
Renuka, but assumed the duties of a warrior to destroy the entire
Kshatriya race as they had become tyrannical and fallen into sinful
ways. This incident probably alludes to a conflict between
Kshatriya and Brahmanas, and the subsequent decline of the Kshatriyas,
which was discussed before.
Rama: In this incarnation again during Treta
Yuga, which is well described in the epic Ramayana, Vishnu was born
as the warrior prince Rama with a specific purpose to slay the ten-headed
demon king Ravana, who had become invincible due to a boon obtained
by him from Shiva. In this incarnation he was assisted by his brother
Lakshmana, who is considered an incarnation of Adisesha, and by
Hanuman, the son of Vayu.
Krishna. In this incarnation which happened
in Dwapara Yuga, Vishnu was born as the younger brother of Balarama,
who is also described in some accounts as an incarnation of Vishnu
to restore order as the earth was troubled by numerous demons and
evil beings. He played a key role in the Mahabharata war and because
a household name for his exploits and his teaching of the Bhagavadgita,
which he delivered to Arjuna in the middle of the battlefield.
Buddha. The incarnation of Buddha figures only
in certain accounts. In others it is ascribed to Balarama. Where
it is included, it is described in negative terms. According to
one version, in this incarnation which happened during Kali Yuga,
Vishnu was born as Buddha, with a specific mission to mislead the
demons who were born as atheists and non-believers and cause their
downfall and destruction by preaching them the philosophy of no-soul
and no God.
Kalki. In this incarnation, which is expected
to happen at the end of Kali Yuga or the Age of Darkness, Vishnu
will incarnate as a fierce warrior. Riding upon the back of a white
horse and carrying a sword, he will destroy the sinners and the
wicked ones to restore Dharma and herald the dawn of a new golden
Minor incarnation of Vishnu
The minor or partial incarnations of Vishnu are known as amsavataras,
meaning only specific aspects of Vishnu manifest in the deities
who appear upon earth to perform certain specific tasks as part
of preservation and continuation of creation and dharma. Sometimes,
going by the definition, the incarnations of Balarama and even Rama
are included in this list. The most notable among the partial incarnations
of Vishnu are Dattatreya, Dhanvantari, Hayagriva, Kapila, Mohini,
Nara-Narayana, Vyasa and Yajna. A brief description of each is provided
Dattatreya: Born to Atri and his wife Anasuya,
Dattatrreya is regarded as a human manifestation of the combined
power of the trinity, teacher of non-Vedic people and originator
of certain magical rites and Soma rituals. He is always accompanied
by four dogs, which represent the four Vedas.
Dhanvantari: Dhanvantari manifested from the
waters during the churning of the oceans, holding the pot of Amrita.
He is credited with the knowledge of the medical sciences and healing
among the gods. Subsequently, he was born as a king of Kasi and
reintroduced the same knowledge to the people of the earth.
Hayagriva. He is associated with the knowledge
of Yajurveda, which he received rom Surya, after performing a severe
penance. The knowledge he gained thus forms part of the Vajasaneyi
Samhita. According to some version, Lord Vishnu was born as Hayagriva
to rescue the Vedas from two demons, Madhu and Kaitabha when they
stole them. In the images, he is shown with the head of a horse,
having four or eight arms, holding several weapons and objects in
Kapila: He is credited with the authorship of
Kapila Sutras and the founding of the Samkhya school of philosophy.
According to the Puranas, he was instrumental in the coming down
of the Ganga from heaven to the earth, since it was he reduced the
children of Sagara to ashes, where upon Bhagiratha performed a great
penance to bring them back to life. He is said to be the son of
Kardama and Devahuti. In the images he is depicted as an ascetic
with knotted hair, long beard and four arms.
Mohini: During the churning of the oceans, when
the pot of elixir finally manifested, it became necessary for Vishnu,
at the behest of gods, to appear as a beautiful maiden and delude
the demons to prevent them from partaking the elixir and instead
opt for an intoxicating drink. So beautiful was the form of Mohini
that even Shiva was overcame with feelings of love and infatuation.
Nara-Narayana: Nara and Narayana are described
as two sages who were born to Dharma and Ahimsa. They performed
a great penance to destroy Sahasrakavaca, the demon of a thousand
armors. Later they said to have taken birth as Arjuna and Krishna
respectively. According to another version, at the end of the incarnation
of Narasihma, his body was split into two. The human part became
Nara and the lion part became Narayana. Then they performed a great
penance, during which Indra sent celestial nymphs to tempt them.
Narayana then produced Urvasi from his thigh, who was much more
beautiful than all of them. Symbolically, Nara-Narayana represent
the relationship between man and God.
Vyasa: Sage Vyasa, also known as Krishna-Dvaipayana,
is credited with the authorship of several scriptures, which include
the Vedas, the Mahabharata, all the Puranas and the Brahmasutras.
He is also credited with the composition of the Bhagavadgita since
it forms part of the Mahabharata. He was said to be the son of sage
Parasara. In the images he is depicted as a sage with long hair
knotted into a crown and long beard with his four disciples by his
Yajnesa: Yajna, Yajnesa or Yajnesvara is the
lord of the sacrifice. The whole manifestation happened because
of a sacrifice and Vishnu is its sacrificer, sacrificed and object
of sacrifice. Hence, the various limbs of the deity are compared
to various parts of a sacrifice. According to the Puranas, Yajnesa
was born to Ruci and Akuti. In his images he is shown with two heads,
seven hands, three legs and four horns, suggesting his affinity
with Agni. His hands hold various objects used in a sacrifice.
Vyuhas - Emanations of Vishnu
According to Vaishnava tradition, five classes of manifestations
are attributed to Vishnu, namely transcendental (para), emanating
(vyuha), incarnating (vibhava), the hidden (antaryami) and image
Of these we have already discussed the transcendental and incarnating
aspects of Vishnu. Of the remaining, the hidden aspect is considered
the Supreme Self who resides in the heart of a being, apart from
the individual Self, as its eternal companion.
Arca constitute the living and breathing images and sacred symbols
which embody of Vishnu and which are used in human worship.
Finally, the Vyuhas are the emanations of Vishnu, which are four.
Together they are called caturvyuhas or caturmurthis. They are usually
associated with Krishna who is also known as Vasudeva.
Of the four, the first one emanates from the transcendental
Vishnu. The second one from the first, the third one from second
and so on. The four deities also undergo change from epoch (yuga)
to epoch as indicated by the changes in their colors.
Symbolically the four emanations represent the internal organ.
Vasudeva represents the consciousness (citta). Samkarshana stands
for ego. Pradyumna for intelligence, and
Aniruddha for the mind (manas). They also represent the fours state
of consciousness, wakefulness, dream state, deep sleep state and
In some accounts, Vasudeva is equated with Vishnu or Para Vasudeva,
since both possess six qualities, and the Vyuhas are counted as
three. The four Vyuhas are described below.
Vasudeva: He is identified with Sri Krishna,
endowed with six supreme qualities, namely knowledge (jnana), power
(Shakti), strength (bala), lordship (aisvarya), virility (virya)
and light (tejas). Those who attain liberation are able to enter
into his presence and experience supreme bliss at the mere sight
Samkarshana: He emnates from Vasudeva and is
endowed with knowledge and strength. He introduces the knowledge
of the scriptures and destroys the universe in the end. He is also
identified with Balarama.
Pradyumna: He represents strength and lordship.
He is the creator who manifests the universe and the Dharma.
Aniruddha: He represents virility and light.
He is protector of the world and exponent of dharma.
Vyuhantaras: The four emanations later manifest
as 12 further emanations called Vyuhantaras, three from each Vyuha.
They are: Kesava, Madhava and Narayana from Vasudeva; Govindha,
Vishnu and Madhusudhana from Samkarshana; Trivikrama, Vamana and
Sridhara from Pradymna; and Hrisikesa, Padmanabha and Damodara from
Aniruddha. Each of these deities, just as the Vyuhas are used in
meditation by the devotees of Vasudeva.
Arcavataras or Vishnu in Image form
According to Vaishnava tradition, Vishnu also manifested in the
mortal world in the form of images and symbols called Arcavataras.
They are the living images of God. Unlike the incarnations, which
happened once and the Vyuhas which are abstract and beyond the reach
of the perceptual world, the Arcas are the permanent incarnations
of Vishnu which are within the reach of the senses and part of our
existence. Since the transcendental power of God manifests in these
objects of Nature, they carry a powerful presence of God having
the ability to fulfill the wishes of His devotees. The Arcavataras
are divided into four kinds: self-manifested (svayamvyakta), established
by divine beings (divya), installed by seers and sages (arsha),
and installed by human beings (manusa). Of them the first category
are the most potent. The images installed in the temples at
Srirangam, Tirupathi, Puri, Kanci etc. come under the first category.
In the last category are the images installed in households and
numerous local temples. These images gain mystic powers to the extent
they are worshipped and made offerings. Worship of the images is
considered equal to the worship of God since they embody the presence
of God and are considered the living and breathing images of God.
Hence, in the temples they are served with utmost devotions with
honors due to a king or a person of great importance.
Aspects of Shiva
Although in popular Hinduism, Shiva is considered the destroyer
and part of the Trimurthis, in Saiva tradition he is considered
the highest Supreme Self and Brahman Himself. As the lord of the
universe (Isvara) He assumes numerous forms. He also goes by numerous
names, some representing Shiva himself and some his manifestations.
Although, in Saivism there is no concept of incarnation, Saivaites
recognize numerous aspects of Siva, some of which are his functional
aspects and some represent his independent manifestations. As the
lord of the universe, Siva carries out five different functions:
creation, preservation, concealment, revelation and destruction.
Each of these are represented as a deity. Apart from them there
are several other aspects of Shiva which are principally categorized
into pleasant, (saumya), fierce (ugra), dancing (nrtta or tandava)
etc., which will be discussed below. The following are important
aspects of Shiva.
Pancanana: As stated before, Siva carries
out five specific functions in creation. Each of his functional
aspects manifests as an independent deity. The five gods associated
with his five functions are Sadyojata, Vamadeva, Tatpurusha, Aghora
and Isana. Sadyojata is the creator who brings forth the world and
beings. He is comparable to Brahma. Vamadeva is the upholder and
preserver of the worlds whose functions are similar to that of Vishnu.
Tatpurusha is the lord of concealment who obscures the reality of
existence. He is responsible for the darkness, ignorance and delusion
of beings. Aghora represents the destructive nature of Shiva. He
participates in the destruction and renewal of objects and worlds.
Isana is also known as Sadasiva. He is the liberator. in the images
the pancanana Shivas are depicted together, each deity facing a
particular direction. Thus Sadyojata faces west, Vamadeva north,
Tatpurusha east, Aghora south and Isana, either sky or northeast.
Saumya murthi: Shiva has several pleasant aspects,
in which he showers grace upon his devotees and grants them boons.
They include those forms in which he offered protection (abhaya)
or fulfilled the wishes of his devotees in the past, such as Ravana,
Candesa, Amba, Nandisvara and Vighneswara. He is usually found in
these forms in the presence of his consort Parvathi, Ganesha, Kumara,
and Nandi and when he appears before his closest and dearest devotees
who perform penances for him and show exemplary devotion.
Ugra murthi : Usually, Shiva assumes terrible
forms to slay the troublesome demons or restore order. The demons
he slew in the past include those to whom he might have granted
boons in his pleasant mood. Since, he cannot slew his own devotees
in a pleasant form, he assumes fierce forms to accomplish the duty.
His fierce forms include Bhairava, Veerabhadra, Gajasuravadha-murthi,
Tripurantaka-murthi, Sarabha, Kalari-murthi, Kamantaka-murthi etc.
Nritta-murthi: Shiva is a master of dance and
originator of 108 dance forms. He dances
in order to relieve the beings from suffering and to ensure the
order and regularity of the world. Through his dance he sets in
motion numerous vibrations which are vital to the continuation of
the worlds. The dance also symbolizes his role as the destroyer
of the world. Among his dance forms, Nataraja is the most well known.
with great symbolic significance. His other dancing aspects mentioned
in the Agamas are Ananda Tandava Murthi which he manifests when
he dances with ecstasy, Uma Tandava Murthi which appears when dances
with his consort and Tripura Tandava Murthi which appeared when
he was engaged in fierce battle with Tripurasura.
Other aspects: Shiva is also revered as the
master of yoga (Yogisvara), Hari-Hara also known as Haryardhamurthi,
Ardhanarisvara, universal teacher (Dakshinamurthy), wandering ascetic
(Bhikshatanamurthi), and he who manifested from the linga (lingodvhavamurthi)
to prove his superiority in a contest with Brahma and Vishnu. Of
these Ardhanariswara (half man and half woman) represent Purusha
(Shiva) and Prakriti (Parvathi) as the dualities or twin realities
of Shiva in his role as the lord of the universe. In the images,
Parvathi appears on the left side and Shiva on the right side.
Attendant gods of Shiva
Ganesha: He is the son of Shiva and lord of
obstacles, who goes by several names such as Ganapati, Vinayaka,
Gajanana, Vighnaraja, Vakratunda etc. He is one of the most popular
gods of the Hindu pantheon, who is invariably worshipped in all
rituals before offerings are made to other deities. He enjoys this
exalted position because he is considered the leader of the gods
and the first among them. He has a rather unusual forms due to the
circumstances related to his origin. He has an elephant head with
a rather oversized human body, with four or more hands. He is considered
god of knowledge and wisdom and often equated with Brihaspati or
Bahmanspati, the teacher of gods, mentioned in the Vedas. There
is a sect of Hinduism, called Ganapatya sect, in which he is worshipped
as Brahman himself. He has numerous aspects, some pleasant and some
fierce. Sometimes, he is shown in the company of his consorts, Riddhi
and Siddhi and sometime in the company of Lakshmi as Lakshmi Ganapati.
There are numerous temples built in his honor in various parts of
Kumara: He is the eldest son of Shiva, who goes
by different names as Kumara Swamy, Mallikarjuna, Kartikeya, Shaktidhari,
and Muruga. He is much older deity than Ganesha and depicted in
some of the ancient coins of the Kushanas. He was born with a specific
purpose to slay the demon Tarakasura. A number of legends are associated
with his birth and early exploits. He was brought up by six
mothers. When he grew up, he became the commander-in-chief of the
Siva ganas. Peacock is his vehicle and sword is his weapon with
which he slew Tarakasura. Valli and Devasena, the daughter of Indra,
are his consorts. He is also a god of virtue, who practices celibacy,
likes the company of Brahmanas and helps people grow spiritually.
In the images he is depicted in the company of his vehicle peacock
usually with one head and two arms and at times with six heads and
Ayyappa: He is also known as Sasta, Arya and
Hariharaputra and in some versions considered Kumaraswamy or an
aspect of him. According to one legend, he was born to Shiva and
Hari, when the latter assumed the form of Mohini and Shiva became
infatuated with her. According to another version, after the death
of Mahisasura, his wife Mahisi obtained a boon from Brahma which
made her invincible. Shiva and Vishnu then came together to create
her destroyer in the form of a baby. He was brought up a king named
Rajasekhara in Kerala, who named him Manikanthan. When he attained
the age of 12, he killed Mahisi. Later he said to have disappeared
after advising his father to build, which subsequently became renowned
as Sabarimalai temple. It is currently one of the popular pilgrim
places of Hindus. Devotees who want to visit the temple on a ritual
pilgrimage observe 41 days of penance before paying him a visit.
Nandi: Nandi serves as the vehicle of Shiva
and occupies an important place in the Saiva Pantheon, next only
to Ganesha and Kumara. Although he has the form of a bull, he is
a god of knowledge and wisdom, born by the grace of Shiva to Silada,
who later gifted him to Shiva. He served as the teacher of 18 adepts
(siddhas) including Patanjali and Thirumular. He also participated
in several wars along with Shiva or on his own, mostly to
help the gods and save them from demons. The images of Nandi are
invariably found in all Shiva temples. His anthromorphic forms are
also found in some temples. There are several temples, which are
solely built for him. Large Nandi statues are found at several places
in India such as Lepakshi in Andhra Pradesh and the one on Chamundi
Hill near Mysore, in Karnataka. He is worshipped in some places
as a fertility god. In Saiva temples, his images are usually installed
in front of sanctum sanctorum within the visual range so that deities
can see Shiva directly by looking over his head just as he would
appear to him.
Bhringi: He is a sage who is described as one
of the most ardent devotees of Shiva, who upon achieving liberation
became a part of Shiva's retinue. He is so single-minded in
his devotion to Shiva that once when he saw Shiva and Parvathi together
in the form of Arthanariswara, he became a bee and tried to circle
around Shiva only by trying to bore through the middle of their
joint form, much to the annoyance of Parvathi who cursed him to
become deprived of flesh and blood whereby he became a mere skeleton
without flesh and blood and unable to stand. Shiva took pity on
him and gave him a third leg. Bhringi then realized his mistake
and decided to worship them both. In the images, Bhringi is shown
as having three legs usually in the company of Shiva or Parvathi.
His images are found only in a few temples. He and Nandi are often
shown as doorkeepers (dwarapalakas) in Shiva temples.
Chandesvara: He is another important devotee
of Shiva who invariably appears in the north eastern corner of Shiva
temples as an attendant deity. Since he is considered a messenger
and mediator who can plead with Shiva on behalf the devotees who
approach him, devotees go to him with their prayers and supplications.
Unlike Bhringi, he is a fierce deity, who holds various weapons
in his hands suggestive of his warrior background.
Aspects of Devi or Shakti
As stated already, Shakti is the materiality of the universe.
She is the Isvari principle, which is eternal, independent and dynamic.
In some traditions she is depicted as a dependent reality. Symbolically,
she represents the field of experience, objectivity, Nature and
its aspects, and manifestation itself. She has both gross and subtle
aspects. She is inseparable from Purusha and well represented in
the Ardhanariswara as an equal and supreme aspect of existence.
Like Brahman, she has both manifested and unmanifested aspects.
Even modern science acknowledges that the universe can be boiled
down to eternal and indestructible principles, space and energy.
In Hinduism pure consciousness objectified as space represents Purusha
and energy objectified as matter and materiality represents Shakti.
Their combination is Brahman, existence itself.
Just as the highest gods of Hinduism manifest variously and just
as they are worshipped numerously, Shakti or Mother Goddess has
also numerous aspects and is worshipped in various ways. One of
the earliest references to energy manifesting itself variously is
be found in the Mundaka Upanishad which distinguishes seven kinds
of flaming fire and refers to them as "Kali, Karali, Manojava, Sulohita,
Sudhumravarna, Sphulingini, and Visvaruci." Some of these names
later appear as manifestation of Shakti.
In the mortal world, the primal Mother manifests as Maha Shakti.
She in turn manifests as three distinct functional deities, Maha
Saraswathi, Maha Lakshmi and Maha Devi. The names I have used to
identify them are not universal. People use different names to identify
them. What is important is to know that these four aspects exist,
just as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva represent the functional aspects
of Isvara. Each of these deities in turn manifest numerously. Collectively,
these goddesses are not only responsible for the modifications in
the Field of our experience and the resultant bondage to the cycle
of births and deaths, but also for our self-transformation and liberation.
Following are some of the important aspects of Shakti
Aspects of Saraswathi: Although Saraswathi is
one of the oldest deities of Hinduism, we do not have much information
about her aspect. In the Rigveda she was worshipped as a river goddess.
But she became more popular as the goddess of learning. She has
numerous names, such as Sarada, Bharati, Brahmi, Vidyadhari, Vedavathi
and in all these her association with various branches and aspect
of learning is self-evident. We may symbolically say that just as
there are numerous branches of knowledge and forms of learning,
Saraswathi also has numersou aspects. However we have no information
that she was worshipped in all those forms. As the Mother of all
knowledge and as an aspect of Maya, she has three basic forms. As
the reflection in tamas, she manifests as Avidya (ignorance). As
the reflection in rajas, she manifests as Vidya (lower knowledge
of worldly knowledge), and as the reflection in sattva, she manifests
in us as Paravidya (transcendental knowledge).
Aspects of Maha Lakshmi: Just as abundance has
various forms, Maha Lakshmi has several names and aspects. As the
Mother of all abundance and consort of Vishnu, she also manifests
variously in creation, sometimes as part of Vishnu's duties as preserver
and sometimes on her own. Of her numerous forms eight are the most
prominent, known as Ashta Lakshmis, namely Adi Lakshmi, Dhanya Lakshmi,
Dhairya Lakshmi or Sahasa Lakshmi, Gaja Lakshmi, Santana Lakshm,
Vijaya Lakshmi, Vidya Lakshmi, and Dhana Lakshmi. Apart from these,
Lakshmi also manifests in either other forms as the corresponding
eight aspects of Vishnu. They are: Sridevi, Bhudevi, Sarasvathi,
Priti, Kirti, Santi, Tusti and Pusti. They represent the eight supreme
abundancew of Vishnu as Bhagavan. Lakshmi also has an opposite aspect
or a negative aspect, called Alakshmi, who is sometimes mentioned
as Bhudevi or Jyesthadevi, the goddess of suffering, adversity and
forbearance. While Alakhmi may not give you wealth, if you pray
to her, she gives you the fortitude to bear with pain and suffering.
In addition to these, Lakshmi also has incarnated upon earth in
the past as part of Vishnu's incarnations. Of them Varahi, Narasimhi,
Sita and Rukmini are the most popular.
Aspects of Maha Devi: Parvathi, the consort
of Shiva, also has numerous aspects both as Maha Devi (or Parvathi)
and as Isvari, or the Divine Mother. Just as the seven forms of
fire mentioned before, the Devi appears in creation as seven mothers
(sapta matrikas), namely Brahmi, Mahesvari, Kaumari, Vaisnavi, Varahi,
Narasimhi (or Chamundesvari) and Aindri. As the names suggest these
deities are the corresponding energies of Brahma, Shiva, Kumara,
Vishnu, Varaha, Narasimha and Indra. Just as theri names, in the
images they bear the same distiguishing features as their male counterparts,
carrying similar weapons and objects in their hands and using the
same vehicles. They also have a symbolic significance in the spiritual
realm, since each of them represents a particular spiritual aspect
of the Devi and facilitates the self-transformation and spiritual
growth of a devotee in different stages.
The Tantras mention ten aspects of Devi, called Dasamavidyas.
Vidya means knowledge. Hence, as the name suggests, they represent
ten different types of liberating knowledge and the power that acts
as their source. They are, Kali, Tara, Sodasi, Bhuvanesvari, Bhairavi,
Cinnamasta, Dhumavathi, Bagala, Matangi, and Kamala. Of these some
are pleasant forms and some very fierce and destructive. Some have
altenate names and are identified with other goddesses. For example,
Dhuma is identified with Alakshmi and Kamala with Lakshmi.
Apart from Parvathi manifests in other forms, namely Durga, Mahisasura-Mardini,
Mahakali and Lalitha. Foremost among them is Durga, who is prominently
described in the Devibhagavatam and who goes by different names
as Chandi, Devi, Yogini, Vindhyavasini, Bhramari etc. She rides
a lion or a tiger as her vehicle and has both pleasant and fierce
forms. In Hindu pantheon, she is as popular as the main aspects
of Shakti. Mahisasura-Mardini manifested from the combined power
of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to slay the demon Mahisasura. She personifies
numerous perfections. The same Devi manifested again as Kausiki
Durga who became popular as Kali or Mahakali. She is the embodiment
of Parvathi in Tamas. She slew several demons and restored order.
She is of fierce form and worshipped in numerous temples according
to both Vedic and Agamic traditions. Lalita or Lalita Tripurasundari
is another famous aspect of Parvathi, who is worshipped in several
parts of India, especially south. Devotee worship her extolling
her virtues and chanting her numerous names, using prayers such
as Lalita-Sahasra- Namam, Khadga-Mala-Stotram, Lalita-Tristari-Naman,
Panca-Dasa-Akshari, Lalita-Pratastavam etc. They also worship her
using her graphic representation (yantra) called Sricakra.
The Devi has too many aspects to specify in this general presentation.
There are numerous temples, sacred places, and village deities in
India who are identified and worshipped as aspects of Devi. We will
end this section by naming a few of her remaining aspects, which
may be categorized as minor aspects. They are Annapurna, Aparajita,
Aparna, Bala, Bhadrakali, Brahmini, Bhutamata, Camunda, Gayatri,
Indrakshi, Jagadhatri, Kamesvari, Kanaka Paramesvari, Katyayani,
Manonmani, Rajarajesvari, Sivaduti, Tripuresvari, Yogini etc.
Other gods of Hindusim
Hindus also worship planetary gods called Grahas and rules of
directions called Dikpalas. Their details are mentioned below.
Navagrahas: Hinduism believes in both free will
and fate. While the individuals are responsible and accountable
for their actions, they are also subject to chance, the actions
of others, Nature and God. One of the beliefs in Hinduism, which
is central to Vedic astrology is the belief in the influence of
planets, according to which the arrangement of planets and their
position at the time of birth and also during the course of one's
life carry a great influence in shaping that person's life. Hinduism
recognizes nine planetary gods, called Navagrahas, namely Surya,
Soma or Chandra, Mangala, Budha, Guru, Sukra, Sani, Rahu and Ketu.
Of them the first seven are gods, while last two are demons, who
along with Sani cast a negative influence upon people when the planetary
gods are not properly aligned. The seven days in a week in the Hindu
calendar. are also named after the seven gods. Although these gods
not exactly the same as the planets in the Solar systems, they are
identified with some planets. Thus Surya is the Sun, Soma is the
Moon, Mangala is Mercury, Budha is Mars, Guru is Jupiter, Sukra
is Vensu, Sani is Saturn. Each of these gods have their own distinguishing
features, vehicles, weapons and significance in Hindu pantheon.
The images and statues of the nine gods are installed together in
most of the Hindu temples on raised platforms, which people circle
while praying to them. There are also some temples exclusively dedicated
Ashta Dikpalas: The Dikpalas are rulers of directions
(dik). Directions play a prominent role in Vedic tradition, since
they denote the infinity and extent of the Cosmic Self, Purusha
who is spread in all directions. In the body the legs personify
direction. The eight directions of the Cosmic being, who is usually
described as four footed are mentioned in several hymns and verses
of the Upanishads. For example one verse in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
(1.2.3) compares the head of four footed Brahman in the form of
a hores with the eastern direction, arms with northeast and south
east, tail with western direction, two legs with southwest and northwest,
sides with southern and norther directions, with the sky as his
back, the mid region as his belly and the earth as his chest. The
directions also play a vital role in the journey of the departed
souls after they die. The directions assumed greater importance
in the later Vedic period with the emergence of temple building
and Vastu sastra. It was believed that each direction in the space
was ruled by a particular Vedic deity, who was originally identified
as a god of Kshatra power. Thus in Hinduism, eight rulers of space
or directions are identified, four for the main directions and four
for the intermediary directions. Indra, Varuna, Kubera and Yama
are the rulers of the four main directions, namely east, west, north
and south respectively. Agni, Niruthi, Isana and Vayu are the rulers
of intermediary directions, namely south-east, south-west, north-east
and north-west respectively. The importance of these deities has
already been explained under the section Vedic deities except for
Kubera, who is an Yaksha and god of wealth and Niruthi, the chief
of demons, with certain divine qualities.
Apart from the main deities and minor deities, Hindus also
worship several local deities, village deities, serpents, trees,
rivers, mountains, animals, spirits, ancestors.
Serpent worship: Serpent worship is very
common in various parts of India. Images of serpents are found
in most Hindu temples. Women worship both live serpents located
in their natural habitats in sacred places or under sacred trees
or they worship images and status of serpents in temple
premises, seeking boons, to ward off evil or for children.
Tree worship: Among the trees Hindus
consider Banyan tree, Pipal tree and Bulrush tree worthy of
worship. The older the tree the greater the faith. Their
location is also important. Trees that are located on the banks
of sacred rivers and streams or located in temples or near the
images of imporant deities attract wider attention.
River worship: Hindus also worship many
rives. Rivers such as Saraswathi, Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada,
Kshipra, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Krishna and Kavery are
considered sacred and worshipped on auspicious occasions. It is
also customary for people take a dip in these rives and make
offerings to gods and ancestors using the river water either
standing in the river or on the banks of the such rivers.
Mountain worship: Worshipping mountains and
hills is a very ancient practice in Hinduism. Many Hindu temples
are located on the hill tops and in the mountain ranges. Most
well known among them are the Tirumala hills, Arunacala Hill,
Chamundi Hill, Mount Kailash etc. People worship them either by
making a parikrama (circumambulation) around them, offering
prayers to their presiding deities or by visiting the temples
located on them.
Worship of ancestors: Currently
ancestral worship is practiced only on a limited scale in
certain communities located in parts of Kerala, Tamilnadu and
Bali in Indonesia. However, Hindus make offerings ritually as
per tradition on memorial days to their ancestors to ensure
their continuity and wellbeing in the ancestral world. It was
customary in the past for the Rajput princely families in
central and western India to build temples for their ancestors
and worship them. Some of these temples can still be found
in places like Indore and Jaipur.
Worship of saints and seers: In Hinduism a
liberated person (jivanmukta) is equal to a god or divinity. An
enlightened person is God in human form and worthy of worship.
Since ancient times, Hindus have been worshipped saints and
seers who achieve liberation or spent their lives in the service
of God. Most prominent among them are Alvars and Nayanars,
several teachers such as Valmiki, Patanjali, Vyasa, Agastya,
Sankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, Gorakshanatha, Basavanna, Mirabai
and Sri Raghavendra of Mantralayam. Mention may also made of
Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Ramana Maharshi, Shirdi Saibaba,
Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Sivananda Saraswathi and Bhagavan
Nityananda (of Siddha Yoga Tradition). These gurus may not be
worshipped by everyone, but their close followers and those who
believe in them worship them with great faith.
Worship of symbols and sacred objects:
Several Hindu gods are not only worshipped in their
anthropomorphic form but also as objects and symbols. We have
already explained the importance of image as a living symbol of
God in Hinduism. Some of the important symbols and objects
worshipped by Hindus on specific occasions or part of their
rituals offerings include, Poorna Kalasa which symbolizes
fertility, auspiciousness and Divine Mother, Shivalinga which
symbolizes Shiva and Parvathi in close embrace, Salagrama which
symbolizes Vishnu, images of footprints attributed to deities or
saintly persons, ornaments adorning the deities in temples,
vehicles of gods and goddesses, domestic animals, chariots used
in the temple rituals, elephants associated with temples, sacred
diagrams (yantras) drawn on the temples walls or on the ground,
conches, and objects temporarily made of sandal paste, clay or
balls of rice.
Thus one can see that Hindus worship literally everything,
from heaven to earth, the sun, moon, stars, the five elements,
the human body, the sacred Self and practically the entire
universe. Hindus venerate the entire creation as one and many.
They acknowledge not only its diversity and duality but also its
unity. The numerous divinites worshipped in Hinduism are the
manifestations of one Supreme Self. The same God finds Himself
in the numerous forms and modifications of Prakriti. Every deity
worshipped in Hinduism is an aspect of Brahman and represent
Brahman only in its ultimate aspect. The same approach justifies
the fundamental belief of Hinduism that one can reach God
through any deity and any path one may chose, as long as the
goal is to reach Brahman only or the highest supreme,
indivisible and indestructible reality.
The following internal links provide information on various popular
gods and goddess of Hinduism. The articles on Vishnu and avataras
explain the significance of reincarnation of gods and why gods reincarnates
upon earth from time to time.
The article on Vedic pantheon provide brief descriptions of popular
Vedic gods and goddesses such as Indra, Varuna, Agni, mitra and
In the Hindu pantheon FAQ you will find the reasons why Hindus
worship popular gods and goddesses, how they are worshipped and
whether idol worship, which a popular practice among the Hindus,
1. An Advanced History of India, by R.C.Majumdar,
H.C.RayChaudhuri, Kalikinkar Datta.
Gratitude: The information for this
article has been collected from various sources. However, I would
like to acknowledge one important source, which proved very valuable
to me in presenting this exhaustive information: Hindu Gods and
Goddesses by Swami Harshananda, Published by Sri Ramakrishna Math.
If you are a Hindu, this book is worth buying and reading to know
your gods and goddesses and their significance in your life and