Understanding the Many Gods in Hinduism

by Pulkit Mathur, The Spiritual Bee

“Ekam sat vipra bahudha vadanti” – “God is One, whom the sages call by various names.” – A Sanskrit verse from the Rig Veda that beautifully captures the idea behind the many Gods in Hinduism.

“Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti” – “God is One, whom the sages call by various names.”
– A Sanskrit verse from the Rig Veda that explains the idea behind the many Gods in Hinduism.

Why do Hindus worship so many Gods? Is Hinduism a polytheistic religion? Why is the cow sacred? Why is the river Ganges considered so holy? Why is the sun worshiped?

These are some of the questions that naturally arise in most people’s minds when they look at Hinduism from the outside.

For those of us who have grown up in the rich Hindu tradition of India, when someone asks us these questions, often we too are puzzled, because these form such an integral part of our daily existence that we have never really stopped to think about it.

So here is a beautiful and profound explanation, for those of us on the inside, as well as the outside, gathered from the spiritual works of the great modern-day gurus of India.

The Worship of Many Gods in Hinduism, Has its Genesis in the Discovery of the Ultimate Reality, the Source of all Creation, by the Ancient Sages of the Vedas

The religion of the Hindus has its roots in the Vedas, the sacred books whose philosophy forms the firm foundation upon which it rests. Of the 4 Vedas, the oldest is the Rig Veda, whose hymns date to at least 4500 BC or earlier.

Besides detailing ceremonies and worships aimed at refining a person’s inner character, the Vedas contain records of stupendous truths concerning the nature of our Universe, as witnessed by the ancient rishis (sages) in the super-conscious states of meditation.

The sections of the Vedas that detail these transcendental truths are called the Upanishads, and the philosophy that they propound is called Vedanta.

Apart from chronicling facts about our world that are strikingly congruent with the discoveries of modern science, such as evolution, the theory of space, time and causation, as well as the atomic structure of matter; the sages of the Vedas speak in tremendous detail, of the presence of an Ultimate Reality, which is the source of all Creation.

They call this Reality, Brahman or God and describe it to be an extremely subtle, all pervading and infinite ocean of consciousness.

It is From This Ocean of Consciousness, That Both Matter and Living Beings Originate

According to Vedanta, just as waves rise up in the sea, so too the entire phenomenal Universe comprising living-beings (Sanskrit: chetan), and matter (Sanskrit: jad), emanates from one ocean of consciousness. (For more on this, visit the earlier sub-sections: God is Not a Person Residing in Heaven, instead He is the Infinite Ocean of Consciousness)

“The whole of this universe is a peculiar form; The Absolute (God) is that ocean while you and I, and suns and stars, and everything else are various waves of that ocean.”
– Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 2: The Absolute and Manifestation

God - An Infinite Ocean of Consciousness, the Source of all Life and Matter. Just as the ocean pervades all waves, so too the Divinity of God pervades all things living and non-living. This is why plants, animals, rivers and mountains are all ascribed a divinity in the Hindu religion.

Even matter and the forces that govern matter, are a manifestation, or a mode of vibration, of this ultimate “substance” of consciousness.

“There is no such thing as dead matter. You may call this table dead matter but there is life in it. Everything is alive and the prana or life-force is all pervading. It is the cause of molecular activity; it is the cause of the movements of the electrons. When the latent life force leaves the table it will disintegrate into electrons and vanish into the ocean of eternal energy.”
– Complete Works of Swami Abhedananda, Volume 6: Sanatana Dharma page 165 + Universal Religion page 179. Swami Abhedananda was one of the 16 direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, in whose able care Swami Vivekananda had entrusted the New York Vedanta Society.

“There (in the causal body) one perceives all created things – solids, liquids, gases, electricity, energy, all beings, gods, men, animals, plants, bacteria – as forms of consciousness.”
– Autobiography of a Yogi, Chapter: Resurrection of Sri Yukteswar. (World, India)

Thus the divinity of God resides everywhere and in all things. “Just as the ocean pervades all waves, just as clay pervades all pots, just as gold pervades all ornaments, so too God permeates all things.”(Swami Chinmayananda in this video)

It is This Truth That Finds a Beautiful Expression in the Many Deities of the Hindus

The ancient rishis of the Vedas were poets, artists and creative personalities at their very core.

“Whenever they saw beauty in nature, strength in nature, power of nature, even through them all, they saw the mighty Source of all beauty, all strength and all power – the (One) Lord expressing Himself.”

“The vastness of the sky, the majesty of the ocean, the grandeur of the mountains, the rumbling rivers, everything that they saw around, even the shapeless stones were to them, a rhythm, a happiness, a presence everywhere of the divine infinite Lord.”
– Swami Chinmayananda in a talk on the Kaivalyopanishad (15.05 minutes)

They sought to inculcate this sublime idea, that God is present in all forms of creation, into the minds of the ordinary person, by ascribing a divinity and a sacredness to the various elements of nature – especially those that are beneficial to mankind.

Thus they taught that: God is present in air, water, fire and electricity (lightening) as Vayu, Varuna, Agni and Indra. He is present as the spiritual light, which shines behind the physical light of the sun. He is present in the life giving waters of the Ganges, which have nurtured the Indian civilization since its infancy. He is present in the cow, who nourishes children with her milk and butter. He is present everywhere, even in you and I, and therefore comes the salutation, Namaste –”I bow to the divinity within you.”

Through it all, the rishis of the Vedas emphasized the profound truth that Nature is not an element separate from us, to be conquered and exploited; instead, it is one with us – an extension of our very own Self, and thus must be loved, nurtured and protected.

Apart from Worshiping the Various Elements of Nature, there is a Second Aspect from which Arise the Numerous Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism

Vedanta being an extremely rational and scientific philosophy, does not demand the blind acceptance of religious doctrines as God-given and true; instead it encourages each person to seek and realize the truth and God for themselves.

“What is the proof of God? Direct perception, Pratyaksha. The proof of this wall is that I perceive it. God has been perceived by all who want to perceive Him. But this perception is no sense perception at all; it is super-sensuous, super-conscious.”
– Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Volume 1: Steps to Realization

One of the ways to attain God-perception is through prayer, contemplation and meditation. The goal being to focus our minds on certain specific attributes of the Supreme, such as truth, love, and purity; and make these qualities manifest in our inner nature.

In this way, the hard shell of the ego, which confines our consciousness into a wave, is gradually chipped away, and our spirit is freed to unite with the ocean of God. (For more, visit: Why should we be good, when being selfish is more rewarding?)

Now in trying to get ordinary people to mediate, the rishis of the Vedas faced a dilemma. The inexperienced minds of most people are unable to focus on the qualitative attributes of a formless, infinite God. For example, it is very hard to meditate on goodness, by imagining a blank space or a void.

“This is because the mind can focus only on those properties which it can perceive through the five senses of sight, smell, sound, taste and touch. Even amongst these, the sense of sight (for example, a picture which signifies goodness) is the most effective tool with which the mind’s attention can be fixed for long periods of time.”
– A translation from Pandit Shriram Sharma’s Hindi essay, The Many Gods in Hinduism are a Symbolic Representation of the Various Powers of One Supreme God.

Keeping this psychological truth in view, the rishis contemplated images for the various attributes of God. Here it is important to note that God is not just an infinite mass of consciousness. Being conscious alone is not sufficient to create anything. For that you need power (shakti), intelligence and capabilities, and the Supreme is full of these.

Thus the sages, took the countless attributes of the Universal Lord, and creatively depicted each of them in the forms of the various Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism:

For example, as the creator of the universe, the Supreme is symbolically represented as Brahma; as the sustainer and nourisher of the world, He is depicted as Vishnu; and as the power which keeps creation in balance, He is represented as Shiva.

Similarly, that aspect of the Supreme which guides our intellect on the path of righteousness is called Mother Gayatri; the power which enhances our creativity is Goddess Saraswati and the courage that helps us leap across oceans, is Lord Hanuman.

In this way arise the multitudinous deities of the Hindus. The purpose of these idols being, to aid the mind of the devotee during prayer and meditation.

“The various Hindu Gods all exist, but not independently. Just as the seven colors exist within one ray of light, so too these various Hindu Gods exist within the Supreme, as names of his different qualities.”
“It is for this reason that the Vedas declare, “Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti” – God is One, whom the sages call by various names.”
– A translation from Pandit Shriram Sharma’s Hindi essay, A Look at the Controversy Over Many Gods in the Hindu Religion.

Thus in conclusion, Hinduism is a monotheistic religion. The many Gods of the Hindus are simply a creative acknowledgement of the numerous powers and manifestations of the One Supreme Lord. His manifestations are worshiped as the various elements of nature (jad), while His conscious powers (chetan) are worshiped in the form of different Gods and Goddesses.

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If You Liked this Post, I Also Recommend Reading:
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Why Has Science Not Found God?
What is the Difference between a Human Being and God?
Amazing God Quotes – Rational Answers to Your Deepest Questions!
Wise Religious Quotes – Real Religion is in Realization, not in Blind Faith or Dogma

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Join the Discussion | Share Your Thoughts

  • Hello Rohit,
    I am not familiar with Sita Ram Goel’s ideas but the one point I would like emphasize is that the truths of Vedanta must be experienced and realized directly. Vedantic Verses are to be realized “pratyaksha” – in front of one’s eyes. Mere scholarly interpretations and translations are not enough. Hinduism as we all know is the path of realization of TRUTH.

    When Swami Vivekananda or Sri Ramakrishna explained the Vedic verse “ekam sadvipra bahudha vadanti” they gave an explanation based not on any hidden internal biases or feelings of inferiority, or desire to appease other religious figures. All these feelings and emotions belong to the plane of the mind.
    But when a sage attains to Samadhi (as both Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda had done) they transcend this lower plane of the mind, they rise above it to the zone of the pure consciousness of Brahman. And it is from this TRUTH consciousness, that they experienced and thus conveyed the REAL meaning of “ekam sadvipra bahudha vadanti, for our times,…that God is One and the SAME for all.

    So Swamiji and Sri Ramakrishna’s explanations are grounded in TRUTH, based on direct realization (“Pratyaksha”) and therefore they differ vastly from the teachings of professors and scholars who have not advanced to that same state of spiritual consciousness. These scholars focussing on providing literal translations of Vedic texts, have a tendency to get lost in their own biases, in their own hatred, in their own ideas of superiority, inferiority etc., because they work from the lower plane of the mind. They have not been able to disassociate their (Atman) consciousness from their mind. So whatever they say is their own view – but it is not the spiritual reality because they do not yet have any higher spiritual realization.

    For this reason in Hinduism, we don’t have a class of scholars upon whom we rely upon to intellectually understand our texts. We always sit at the feet of those who have ACTUAL experience, and not mere scholarly understanding. The word Upanishad itself means to sit at the feet of a God-realized sage.

    A God-realized Rishi speaks from the consciousness of Brahman. In that consciousness the whole of the teachings of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas make complete sense..such as Atmavat Sarvabhutesu – The Soul is Omnipresent, present in every living being…hindu or Muslim or Christian. Ayam Atma Brahma (This Self is Brahman), Prajnanam Brahma (Consciousness is Brahman), Tat Tvam Asi (That thou art) etc.

    Sri Ramakrishna was a Knower of Truth. He like a true scientist wanted to find out whether there is truth in other religions. And so he followed the path of Hinduism, of Islam and of Christianity and experienced that all practices led him to the doors of Bhav Samadhi.

    Now one may contest Sri Ramakrishna experience…and that’s all right. But mere intellectually posturing will not do. One must instead be a genuine skeptic and say – let me realize Brahman myself and then see if Sri Ramakrishna spoke the truth or not. Only then can I really be qualified to dispute his teachings. Until them I am just subjecting myself to the same biases and hatred that the leaders of other religions propagate. These persons in their fanatical zeal too are operating from the lower plane of the mind and have not yet been able to raise their consciousness to the stature of their founders (Christ or Muhammad).

    If others are devolving to a lower consciousness, and spreading religious hatred why must we Hindus too? Can’t we boldly stand up and proclaim the truth of Vasudeva Kutumbakam – the whole world is my own family, because at the level of consciousness we are all ONE. The same Atman that is in me is also in a Christian, in a Muslim, in a Sikh, even in an atheist. This Atman being ONE with Brahman (God), we are all parts of the SAME God.
    Best Wishes

    • Rohit

      you are repeating an incomplete 1/4th of the verse, despite i showing you the complete verse above. the complete verse is in front of you, yet you dont seems to see it. like many people you are so fixated on just 1 line and what you have learned about it that you dont wish to unlearn and learn the correct one. other hindus are doing same, but dont expect somone who is running a website to be repeating such mistakes.

    • Rohit

      you are repeating an incomplete 1/4th of the verse, despite i showing you the complete verse above. the complete verse is in front of you, yet you dont seems to see it. like many people you are so fixated on just 1 line and what you have learned about it that you dont wish to unlearn and learn the correct one. other hindus are doing same, but dont expect someone who is running a website to be repeating such mistakes.

      the english God has its roots in abrahmic tradition and has no equivalent in hindu tradition, in abrahmic religion God means the creator, there is no creator in hinduism as you know already. in hinduism the words deva and devis are used. which doesnt translate to “God”

      Brahman is not ‘God’ search for this article on about dot com written by Dr. Frank Morales

      translating Brahman as god is very flawed. mostly these mistake happen when we try to translate sanskrit words to english which doesnt have the similir words or concept.

      in simpler words. its like this.

      Hinduism : Brahman > Deva & Devi > Humans
      Abrahmic religion: God > Humans

  • niranjan patel

    But why consciousness take form of matter and mind what is the need for it? Can’t consciousness be only consciousness and enjoy being itself?

  • Subodh Timalsina

    Meditation.Prayer.Contemplation..OR Survival,Health,family,Society… Stick to what? and Up to what age of our life?Does thinking of all these stuffs make me deviated from the real (for which i have spent many years of my life now) goal what I have to achieve in nearest for my survival, my education, my degrees?I may not want a solution for now still ….

  • MNS

    What is there to comment when a man himself is a god? Vedas speak about One God,whereas, the priests say all men are gods! Likewise, Bible speaks about One God,but the Priests say Three gods- the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. If we accept Hindu philosophy then a rapist is god, a murderer is a god, and all evil men are gods. i don’t know the logic behind this. But i can assuredly say, that the ONE which is behind these priests of both the religions is ” one and the same”, and was/is/will be relatively very successful in deceiving and deflecting the large portion of the mankind away from Truth and True God. Refer Qur’an chapter 4 verse 118-120, to know the truth and to identify the culprit who is behind damnation.

    • Hello, your confusing can be solved by understanding that even though at the soul level we are all the same, the difference comes because the mind and body intervene. According to Vedanta we are each a composite of 3 things: soul + mind + body. It is the senses of the body and the mind that are the real mischief makers and which mask the true divinity of the soul within. It is the mind that makes the difference between a rapist and a sage. Thus the whole goal of Vedanta and of all Yoga is to bring the mind under control so that the full divinity of the soul can be realized and also manifested in ordinary human nature. For that Vedanta has the 4 yogas of Karma Yoga, Gyan Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Raja Yoga.

      • Dewanand Sahu

        But why consciousness take form of matter and mind what is the need for
        it? Can’t consciousness be only consciousness and enjoy being itself?

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