Contrary to common misconceptions, Hinduism is neither polytheistic nor monotheistic in the way that is generally understood in Abrahamic religions. For most people who are accustomed to think of divinity as an entity of faith and worship, the tendency would be to define religions as having one God, many Gods or none at all. However this simplistic generalisation would overlook and fail to understand the true nature of divinity in Hinduism, as is the case with Dharmic religions overall.
BACKGROUND: Hinduism encompasses spiritual-philosophical traditions rooted in the collective teachings of ancient Rishis, codified as the Vedas. The Rishis are Vedic seers; the enlightened men and women from the earliest period of civilisation. The fundamental characteristics common to all Hindu traditions are: epistemic centrality of the Vedas, way of life based on Dharma and practical spirituality systematised into various Yoga disciplines. Hinduism, Vaidhika Dharma (Vedic Dharma), Sanathana Dharma (Eternal Dharma) and Vedic spirituality are all synonymous terms.
The main principles of divinity in Hinduism are Brahman, Ishvara and Devas.
In the Advaita Vedanta tradition, the principles of divinity are ontological realities that yogis seek to understand through knowledge and experience. Hindu philosophers recognise existence at three levels of reality, viz. Pāramārthika Satta (Absolute Reality), Vyāvahārika Satta (Empirical Reality) and Prātibhāsika Satta (Apparent Reality).
Apparent reality is the perception of imaginative construct of the individual mind such as dream. Empirical reality is the perception of the world through cognitive senses and mind. Both of these realities are ephemeral and sublatable. There is no form found to exist in its finality, neither in the outer world nor in the imagination of the mind, that cannot be further divided, changed or negated. No object exist independently and not in relation to something else. Therefore our perception of the apparent and empirical world is only a relative reality to what it is fundamentally.
Hinduism posits that there is existence that is not merely relative but truly real, fundamental and absolute. That permanent reality which is different in nature from the empirical and the apparent is represented by the principle of Brahman. Brahman is the Absolute Reality. Brahman is the highest principle in Hinduism. Hindu philosophy says Brahman is transcendent as well as immanent in this world because something (the world) cannot simply appear out of nothing and the source that has to be both the material and efficient cause cannot itself be a subject of change and impermanence.
Brahman is the noumenon basis of all things. It is the adhishtanam, ‘substratum’ of the universe. A classic metaphor used in Advaita Vedanta to explain this is ‘the rope and the snake’. In the semidarkness of the room, a coil of rope seems to appear as a frightening snake to an unaware man. Although the snake is a mere appearance that the man’s mind superimposes on a real rope, yet the snake could not have appeared in the absence of a substratum such as the rope. The apparent and empirical reality cannot appear without an underlying changeless universal substratum, Brahman.
Brahman is the Ultimate Truth, Knowledge, Infinity.
Yajur Veda, Taittiriya Upanishad 2.1.1
The term ‘Brahman’ is derived from the Sanskrit verbal root bṛh that connotes the meaning ‘expansive’ or ‘vast’. As such the term would translate as the ‘Vast’ or the ‘Absolute’. It is not referring to a quality of a thing like the ‘vast ocean’ or ‘vast sky’. Brahman cannot be grasped like a thing. A thing known through our senses and mind is always finite. Vedanta defines ‘finite’ as that which can be demarcated and described by desha, ‘space-wise’, kala, ‘time-wise’ and vastu, ‘object-wise’. The Absolute Reality transcends the parameters of the finitude. Brahman is Anantam, ‘Infinity’. The Infinite is essentially limitless, changeless and permanent; it is therefore the truth that cannot be negated. Brahman is Satyam ‘Ultimate Truth’.
The Hindu syllable Om (AUM) represents Brahman.
Nothing exists independent of Brahman. The entire world of perception appears within our consciousness only. Although the contents of consciousness keep changing, consciousness itself or the knowing-principle remains unchanging. Brahman is Jnanam ‘Absolute Knowledge’. Just as universal space is one and the same with the space in many different cups, so too Brahman is the underlying Pure Awareness is one and the same with awareness in all beings. It is the basis within which the empirical knower and known appears. Brahman is Advaitam, ‘non-dual’. It is the principle of singularity of Consciousness. The aim of yoga practices is to realise one’s true Self as being fundamentally the same as Brahman, the Absolute Reality as the Vedas declare, ayam atma brahma, ‘This Self is Brahman’.
prajñā pratiṣṭhā prajñānaṃ brahma
Pure Consciousness is the basis of all; Pure Consciousness is Brahman.
Rig Veda, Aitareya Upanishad III-i-3
The monistic principle of the eternal, infinite and immutable Brahman is not compatible to the ‘One God’ concept propagated in anthropomorphic monotheism of the Abrahamic religions that believe in a ‘person’ God like ‘Jehovah’ and ‘Allah’, who resides in a faraway place and separated from all beings. A person who is located in particular place and works in linear time is not infinite. Brahman is not a person. It is not a ‘he’ or ‘she’. The etymology of the word ‘Brahman’ itself, being a neuter noun already implies non-gender and non-person subject. It is impersonal.
According to the Abrahamic views, the highest principle of divinity is the Creator-God while people are created entities. The Creator-God demands people to believe in His existence, to remain faithful to Him by not worshipping others and to submit to His religion and laws. Those who do otherwise will be judged and punished by Him with a life of eternal suffering. Brahman is not a Creator God and your true Self is not a created product. Brahman does not desire and demand your belief, obedience and loyalty. Brahman does not judge and punish you. In the Advaita Vedanta tradition, there is little value for beliefs and dogmas. In fact there has never been any temple built to worship the impersonal Brahman. The highest principle in Hinduism is not an object of belief and faith; it is the subject of your own Self-awareness that you can realise with the guidance and process of yoga spirituality.
The Hindu principle of Brahman is more appropriately compared to the Sunyata of Mahayana Buddhism, the Tao of Taoism and the Kami of Shintoism.
Thus far, we’ve discussed the Absolute Reality, Brahman. The Universe is the reality that is perceived through the conditionings of the cognitive senses and mind. This is the empirical reality. Everything in it, appear and disappear, bound to the warp and weft of time, space and causation. The principle that represents the Totality of the multifold empirical Universe is Ishvara.
sarvam khalvidam brahma tajjalāniti shānta upāsita
All this (universe) is verily Brahman. All things originate, dissolve and sustain in That.
On That should one meditate in tranquillity.
Sama Veda, Chandogya Upanishad III.14.1
Hinduism views the universe as a continuous flux of energy. The Vedas says, pūrṇāt pūrṇamudacyate, from the Whole (Brahman), this Whole (infinite Universe) becomes manifest’. The Absolute Consciousness is the field within which creative energy vibrates, evolves and dissolves countless universes. Just as the whirlpool appears in the lake, so too, the universe appears in Brahman. We see and call it ‘whirlpool’ but it is really the lake only. In the same way, this universe of multiplicity that we see is fundamentally Brahman only.
In fact, while Ishvara is Brahman cognised from the perspective of the individual observer, the latter is included within the former. The individual is the microcosm and Ishvara is the Macrocosm. Ishvara is experienced as the Matrix of time, space and causation with infinite potencies and possibilities. Hence Ishvara is also called Saguna Brahman (the Absolute with attributes). This is the God-principle of Vedic spirituality.
īśāvāsyamidagṃ sarvaṃ yatkiñca jagatyāṃ jagat
All this, whatsoever moves in this universe, including the universe, itself moving,
is pervaded by Isha (the all-pervading Supreme Intelligence).
Yajur Veda, Ishavasya Upanishad 1
Ishvara is the universal, impersonal and all-pervading God. It is the Presence that is here and now. It is the Oneness that connects all. It is the multifold universe and everyone and everything that exist in it, from the massive galaxies to the minute microorganisms. It is the sum total of all energy and mind.
Ishvara is also the intelligent laws of the universe. It is itself the Cosmic Principle of Dharma. Ishvara is the Infinite Cosmic Intelligence governing, operating and sustaining the rhythm and balance of all universal phenomena. God is the vast space, the soothing winds, the mighty oceans, the brilliant sun, the majestic mountains – God is ether, air, water, fire, and earth. God is prana, the vital energy, the knowledge, the will and the motion of mind. God is the intelligent ecosystem of the forest, the rhythm of life – God is the presence everywhere. God is love that unites all. Therefore instead of proclaiming that ‘there is one God’, the yogis proclaim, ‘there is only God’. Instead of saying ‘I believe there is God’, the yogis say, ‘I see nothing but God’.
Swami Vivekananda explains, “Where it begins, there it ends. What is the end of this universe? Intelligence, is it not? The last to come in the order of creation, according to the evolutionists, was intelligence. That being so, it must be the cause, the beginning of creation also. At the beginning that intelligence remains involved, and in the end it gets evolved. The sum total of the intelligence displayed in the universe must therefore be the involved universal intelligence unfolding itself, and this universal intelligence is what we call God, from whom we come and to whom we return, as the scriptures say. Call it by any other name, you cannot deny that in the beginning there is that infinite cosmic intelligence.”
The term ‘Ishvara’ is synonymous to other terms such as Isha, Hiranyagarbha, Paramatma, Virat, Shiva, Narayana, Shakti and Jagat (The Universe). In the Hindu worldview, Nature is not different from God. When Hindus honour and express gratitude to the Universe or Nature, they are doing so to God only. Admittedly it is NOT a person God who is not visible in this world and who you can only meet after your death because He resides in a faraway heaven; instead Hindus are connecting with God that is an immediate all-pervading Presence that is everywhere including within us as our inner Self, here and now, and beyond.
In Shaiva Hinduism, the principles of Brahman and Ishvara is identified as two aspects of a single reality that is Shiva; the highest aspect of Shiva is Parama Shiva that is Pure Consciousness and Absolute Reality, and Shiva also manifest as the Universe through His creative power, Shakti. Shiva appears as the all-pervading Presence and Supreme Being, referred to as Parameshvara. Therefore Shiva is both immanent and transcendent as well as the inner Self in all beings. Shiva is that Ultimate Reality that yogis endeavour to realise.
Vaishnava Hinduism places the greatest importance on the Ishvara-principle which is conceived as Vishnu or Narayana. For the Vaishnavas, the highest reality is always endowed with infinite qualities and potencies; therefore the highest aspect of Vishnu is synonymous with Saguna Brahman (Brahman with attributes). The Universe forms the body of Ishvara or Vishnu. Vishnu is both immanent and transcendent and also the Paramatma ‘Supreme Self’ in all beings. Vishnu is the all-pervading Supreme Being and Personal Lord or Bhagavan to His devotees whose aim of yoga practice is to live in Vishnu Consciousness or Krishna Consciousness.
In Shakta Hinduism, Shakti or Energy embodies the universe. It is also the force that animates everything. Shakti is worshipped through Feminine Divinities – Devis or Goddesses. In the static state, She is the Ultimate Reality, Brahman or Shiva. In the active state, She is Adi Parashakti (Primordial Supreme Energy), who is synonymous with Ishvara.
We have already discussed the philosophy underlying both Brahman and Ishvara based on the teachings of the Advaita tradition earlier on at great length. In Advaita Hinduism, you may choose to relate to Ishvara, with your own choice of istha devata ‘favourite Deity’. While the Universe is an impersonal manifestation, Hindus also connect to Ishvara in a personal way and form a relationship that becomes part and parcel of their daily life.
Ishvara, the Infinite Cosmic Intelligence, the Macrocosmic God, expands and expresses as the Devas; the Cosmic Forces. The Devas are Cosmic Divinities, also referred to as the Deities. The word Deva is derived from the root verbal div, which means ‘to illumine’. Devi is the feminine equivalent to the term Deva. The Devas and Devis are the universal powers that manifest and animate the movement and processes of the cosmos physically and psychologically. The Devas are forces of energy and intelligence in motion.
If Ishvara, the Impersonal God is Infinite Existence and Omnipresent; if God is that which is everywhere and everything then the powers God manifest are not separate from God. For example, the creative power in nature is not a separate ‘thing’ owned by some supernatural person, instead, it is God (the Total Universe) itself is the universal creativity.
At the macrocosmic level the interplay of the three prime collective universal forces of creativity and inspiration, preservation and evolution, and dissolution and transformation, are the Divine Trinity of Hinduism; Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva. The three Great Deities are emanation of Ishvara, manifesting as the all-pervading Supreme Intelligence, operating the ever-flowing universal phenomena. In their active form, they are the Supreme Energy personified as the Feminine Divinities of Goddess Saraswati, Goddess Lakhsmi and Goddess Durga.
sa brahmaa sa shivah sendrah sah aksharah paramah svaraat; sah eva vishnuh sa praanah, sah kaala agnih sa chandramaah | sah eva sarvam yad bhootam, yat cha bhavyam sanaatanam; jnaatvaa tam mrityum atyeti, na anyah panthaah vimuktaye
He is Brahma; He is Shiva; He is Indra: He is the Imperishable; He is the Supreme; He is the Self-luminous. He alone is Vishnu; He is the Vitality (Prana); He is Time; He is Fire; He is the Moon. He alone is all that was, and all that will be, the Eternal. Having knowing Him, one transcends death. There is no other way to reach complete freedom.
Atharva Veda, Kaivalya Upanishad 7-8
The Devas and Devis are integral to yoga practices from the physical postures to mantra chanting and worship as well as meditation. The Deities are not only outer forces but also the forces of our physiological, cognitive and psychological processes within our body and mind. They maintain the order and balance of nature and promote its evolution as well as help in the unfolding of our individual consciousness to reach our true potential of happiness and wholeness. The ancient Vedic sages observe the Devas in their cosmic functioning as well as in meditation as personal manifestations. They can appear in a personalised form or in an abstract form like a geometrical diagram.
In some Vedic literature, the Deities are classified into 33 classes based on the primary domains of nature. Although it is not a Hindu perspective, in modern times, we often hear certain people using this classification as a ruse to drum up the idea that Hindus need to please and worship 330 million polytheistic gods. Firstly no Hindu is required to worship any god (one or more) by enforcement of religious dogma as in Abrahamic religions. Secondly the Sanskrit term koti ‘ten million’ is often used as a poetic expression to imply the ‘uncountable’ or ‘numerous’. When the term is appended to the 33 classes of Deities, it does not need to mean 330 million Deities. As Ishvara consist of many dimensions and realms of universes, therefore the Cosmic Manifestations too, will be in countless numbers.
It really does not matter to Hindus how many Devas are there, whether it is one, three, thirty-three, three hundred thirty million or much more. Hindus understand the underlying principle. Many people have wrongly portrayed the Deva-principle to be a polytheistic idea of many gods. This is not true. In the same way, spirituality of many ancient cultures has also been wrongly misrepresented. If you stop imagining and imposing, an invisible supernatural man on the idea of God, then you will understand that all the grouses about monotheism versus polytheism have no relevance to Vedic philosophy.
The Hindu concept of the Gods and Goddesses is more suitably reflected in the idea of the ‘Many in One, One in Many’. The Devas in the universe are many yet they do not exist as complete separate entities in themselves and at the same time, the Devas are not just a symbolic representation of one God; they are direct manifestations of the Infinite. If we were to visualise Ishvara as the Matrix of time, space and causation, then the Devas would be the inseparable nodes within the Matrix. When you connect to the node, you connect to the entire Matrix. We live and interact with the Gods and Goddesses in our practical daily life at all levels of existence, viz. environmental, biological, energetic, mental and intellectual. Suppose you point your finger to touch the sea. Although your finger merely touches a tiny spot of the large sea, still you are touching the sea because every part of the sea is the sea!
While it is difficult for the human mind to contemplate on the abstract, impersonal and infinite Ishvara, yet it is easy to do so when we reach out to Ishvara through the Devas. The Devas are real tangible forces that can be experienced through our senses and mind. Just as, the sun may be out of reach yet it is possible to touch the sunray, which is really the sun coming in contact with us. Worship in Hinduism is not some kind of an oath-taking ceremony to pledge loyalty and submission to a Heavenly King. For Hindus, worship is yoga; a process to bring the body and mind in resonance with the higher forces to release the lower tendencies of the ego and reconnect our awareness to the Whole.
Interestingly, many Hindu Gods and Goddesses are commonly recognised and worshipped universally across the world from Asia to Europe and the Americas – indicating a shared spiritual vision across the ancient civilisations.
Rakesh Nair (Yogi Rakesh) is a life mentor and teacher of Vedic philosophy and yoga. A lifelong practitioner since childhood, he studied and trained for many years in the authentic Vedic tradition, primarily in the lineage of Advaita teachers. He holds a Masters degree in Sanskrit studies. He also has a degree in Computer Science majoring in Software Engineering. He founded yogirakesh.com to help bridge the knowledge in ancient scriptures to modern life.