Deities, gods, goddesses and God(dess)
Not all, but probably most, Hindus are theists though the meaning of theism is different in Hinduism from that found in Abrahamic religions since to believe that ultimate reality is a God or Goddess does not entail a denial of the existence of other gods and goddesses. These secondary deities have some relationship to the supreme deity as assistants responsible for specific areas of activity such as Shri Lakshmi, goddess of fortune and prosperity, whose blessings are sought for financial success, associates such as Krishna’s elder brother, Balarama, who is renowned for his strength, and allies such as Hanuman, intermediary between Rama and his kidnapped wife Sita, who exemplifies loyalty and devotion. The statement that God is one and the reference to 330 million gods can thus be combined without contradiction though, of course, God/gods here include female deities as well as male, and both can transcend gender.
This is why the labels of polytheism and monotheism do not seem to apply. Hinduism is often described as polytheistic which it is insofar as there are many deities. However, some Hindus insist that they are monotheists. Part of the problem is that the one becomes the many and the many become the one. Perhaps the best known instance of the one becoming the many is Vishnu and his avatars (descent forms). The now standard list of ten avatars features Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Varaha (boar), Narasimha (man-lion), Vamana (dwarf), Parashurama (Rama with the axe), Buddha, Rama, Krishna and Kalki (the future avatar). Of these, Krishna, counsellor to the Pandavas and Arjuna’s charioteer who in the Bhagavad-Gita (4.8) declares the purpose of these manifestations as being to uphold dharma (duty, righteousness), and Rama, the divine king and moral paragon repeatedly hailed in the Ramayana as ‘the best of upholders of dharma’, are the most important and can be identified with Vishnu as full rather than partial manifestations. Indeed, Vishnu can be seen as a form of Krishna rather than the reverse. Another instance is the continuity between female deities as forms of Mahadevi (the Great Goddess). The warrior goddess Durga, created by the gods from their own female energies and bestowed by them with their own weapons in order to defeat the demon Mahisha invulnerable to attacks from males, manifests other yet fiercer goddesses in the heat of battle. Among these goddesses, Kali is the most prominent embodiment of Durga’s wrath, fighting with her to defeat demons, famously Raktabija whose ability to reproduce himself from every drop of blood shed renders Durga’s efforts counterproductive so that she requires Kali’s help to destroy him by sucking him dry of blood.
The one also becomes the many in a variety of ways, for example, in families of deities that unify a number of gods and goddesses, including marital relationships in which the goddess is the shakti (power) of the god. Shiva, despite being an ascetic and renouncer, is married to Parvati who won him as her husband through her own practice of austerities, their closeness represented in the Ardhanarishvara image of a figure that is male (Shiva) on the right and female (Parvati) on the left. The divine couple are the parents of the gods Ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles to whom prayers are offered before embarking on a new undertaking, and Skanda/Kartikkeya, the god of war who in the South is elevated to supremacy as Murukan/Subramanya. Parvati can be thought of as a consort goddess, Mrs Shiva, just as Shri Lakshmi is Mrs Vishnu and Sarasvati, goddess of learning and the arts, is Mrs Brahma.
The concept of the trimurti (three forms) of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as creator, preserver and destroyer respectively, often seen either as all three being expressions of the impersonal Brahman or illustrating how Vishnu or Shiva as supreme Deity takes the form of the other gods, may be the most familiar. However, its importance may have been exaggerated for a modern or Western audience by a supposed similarity with the Christian Trinity. Arguably more important is the orthodox category of the pancadevatas (five deities) who are Shiva, Vishnu, Mahadevi, Surya (the sun god of the Vedic pantheon) and Ganesh. In the final analysis, the distinction between the one becoming the many and the many becoming the one dissolves as is evident in the relationship between major all-India deities and local gods and goddesses which can be understood as the major deity taking numerous local forms or alternatively as those local forms coalescing into the major deity.
Possibly, then, whether there are many deities or only one (and whether the divine is best understood in personal or impersonal terms) is a matter of perspective. In ancient Vedic times there was a pantheon of deities, often personifications of natural forces such as sun, moon, wind, storm, fire, dawn, and with names which suggest some connection with other ancient Indo-European pantheons, including Greek and Roman. However, by the time of the Upanishads this was being questioned as being in one sense too many and in another sense too few. Some early scholars of Hinduism used terms such as ‘kathenotheism’, the worship of one god at a time, or ‘henotheism’, the worship of one god while not denying the existence of others (and also possibly seeing them as lesser gods, or alternative expressions of the same reality).
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (3.9.1-9) records a dialogue in which the sage Yajnavalkya gives different answers to the question ‘how many gods are there?’. These range from 3306 to one, each of which is explained with, for example, 3306 related to the powers of the gods whereas ‘one’ is identified with Prana (Breath) and Brahman (ultimate reality). Other answers given, for instance, that there are 33, six or three gods reflect the membership of the Vedic pantheon and the Vedic cosmology that preceded those of classical Hinduism. Among the 33 gods, Yajnavalkya mentions Indra and Prajapati, the king of the gods associated with storms and the lord of creatures associated with sacrifice respectively, thereby highlighting two major themes which are the deification of natural forces and the significance of Vedic ritual. The six gods Yajnavalkya lists are features of nature and the universe, including Agni (Fire) and Prithivi (Earth), the former also closely connected to sacrifice as the priest who conveys offerings upwards to the gods and blessing downwards in return. The three gods are identified by Yajnavalkya as the three worlds of earth, sky or atmosphere and heaven, on the grounds that all the gods exist in them, notionally 11 aligned with each of the three worlds.
The gods of the ancient Vedic pantheon have not disappeared altogether but still feature in myths and stories told today, though their roles and importance have changed over time. For example, whereas Indra the god of thunder was originally king of the gods, one story from the Puranas demonstrates that Krishna is more powerful by telling how Krishna used a mountain as an umbrella to protect people from a rainstorm sent by Indra, angry at their worshipping Krishna instead of him.
Deities feature in the lives of Hindus in different capacities. Some deities are associated with the ancestors (kuladevatas) and some with a locality (gramadevatas) while an individual can choose their own deity (ishtadevata) to be the main focus of their worship. New deities may emerge in response to new situations, often new manifestations of existing ones. A popular goddess who features in the Puranas is Shitala, traditionally the smallpox goddess, who is also able to help with other infectious diseases, especially since the eradication of smallpox. In 2020, there are reports of people praying to the goddess Coronadevi, said to be a creation of Shitala, for protection from the Covid-19 virus. In any case, deities are only some of the supernatural beings that are believed to exist in a universe pervaded by the divine where the sacred is also revealed in animals, plants and other features of the natural world. Further, the human and the divine are located on a continuum that allows exceptional characters, be they teachers, saints or others who excel in qualities like wisdom and devotion, to acquire divine status. Accordingly, Shankara who was the most influential exponent of Advaita Vedanta (see Hindu Philosophies) has also been regarded as a form of Shiva, and Chaitanya who preached a message of devotion to Krishna has also been revered as a form of Krishna. This claim is less shocking than it might seem to a monotheist from an Abrahamic tradition when made against a background where the divine is honoured as dwelling in all people and all things – just more obviously in some than others.
If the complexity of deities is confusing, one simple way of making sense of how Hindus can simultaneously worship many gods and one God, often heard on school visits to Hindu temples, is to compare God to a diamond with many facets – each deity represents an aspect of God. Whereas this is something of an oversimplification in emphasising the one rather than the many, and is maybe aimed at audiences presumed to come from Abrahamic faiths, it does have the advantage of leaving open whether the one is best understood as personal or impersonal. Another analogy is that of many lamps but one light. A less fixed and more fluid (!) analogy might be that of water which can be contained in many different pots. These and other such may or may not help, but perhaps provide a place to start.
Hindu deities are also found beyond ‘Hinduism’, particularly in Buddhism and the countries to which Buddhism spread. For example, the Pali Canon tells us that after the Buddha’s enlightenment, the god Brahma persuaded the Buddha that it was worth trying to teach others, in spite of the difficulties of communicating his experience. The devaraja (god-king) cult was established in Cambodia forming part of a Hindu legacy in the royal courts of Southeast Asia. More generally, the story of Rama has been transmitted across Asia in various forms such as dance dramas and shadow puppet plays. As far away from India as Japan, the goddess Sarasvati has become Benzaiten, the goddess associated with rivers, music and knowledge.