Within Hinduism a
large number of personal
gods are worshipped
as murtis. These
beings are either aspects of the supreme Brahman, avatars of
the supreme being, or
significantly powerful entities known as devas.
The exact nature of belief in regards to each deity varies
between differing Hindu
denominations and philosophies.
Often these beings are depicted in humanoid, or partially
humanoid forms, complete with a set of unique and complex iconography in
each case. In total, there are 33 million of these supernatural
beings in various Hindu traditions.
Within Hinduism, an Ishta-deva or Ishta
devata (Sanskrit iṣṭa-deva(tā),
literally "cherished divinity"
liked, cherished" and devatā "godhead,
deity" or deva "deity")
is a term denoting a worshipper's favorite deity.
It is especially significant to both the Smarta and Bhakti schools
wherein practitioners choose to worship the form of God which
inspires them the most. Within Smartism,
one of five chief
deities are selected.
Even in denominations that focus on a singular concept of God,
such as Vaishnavism,
the istha deva concept exists. For example, inVaishnavism,
special focus is given to a particular form of Vishnu or
one of his avatars (i.e. Krishna or Rama),
and similarly within Shaktism,
focus is given to a particular form of the Goddess such as Parvati or Lakshmi.
The Swaminarayan sect
of Vaishnavism has a similar concept, but notably differ from
practically all Vaishnavite schools in holding that Vishnu and
Shiva are varied aspects of the same God.
Maheshwara and Parameshwara
The word-meaning of the name Shiva is "the supreme one". Adi
Sankara, in his interpretation of the name Shiva, the 27th and
600th name of Vishnu sahasranama, interprets Shiva to mean
either "The Pure One", "the One who is not affected by three
Gunas of Prakrti, Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas" or "the One who
purifies everyone by the very utterance of His name." Swami
Chinmayananda, in his translation of Vishnu sahasranama, further
elaborates on that verse: Shiva means "the One who is eternally
pure" or "the One who can never have any contamination of the
imperfection of Rajas and Tamas".
Avatars as incarnations of God
Main article: Avatar
Many denominations of Hinduism, such as Vaishnavism and
some schools of Saivism,
teach that occasionally, God comes to Earth as a human being to
help humans in their struggle toward enlightenment and salvation
(moksha). Such an incarnation of God is called an avatar, or
avatāra. In some respects, the Hindu concept of avatar is
similar to the belief found in Christianity that
God came to the earth incarnated in
the form of Jesus.
However, whereas most Christians believe that God has assumed a
human body only once for a specific purpose, Hinduism teaches
that there have been multiple avatars throughout history and
that there will be more. Thus Lord
Krishna, who is not only viewed as an incarnation but also
source of all incarnations, says:
Whenever righteousness declines (Yada yada hi dharmasya,
glanir bhavati bharata)
And unrighteousness increases, (Abhyuth-thanam adharmasya)
I incarnate myself as a human; (Tadat-manam srijamyaham)
I come into being from age to age (Sambhawami yugay yugay)
Main article: Dasavatara
The most famous of the divine incarnations are Rama,
whose life is depicted in the Ramayana,
and Krishna, whose life is depicted in the Mahābhārata and
the Bhagavata Purana.
The Bhagavad Gita,
which contains the spiritual teachings of Krishna,
is one of the most widely read scriptures in Hinduism.
- Matsya, the fish,
appeared in the Satya Yuga. Represents beginning of life.
- Kurma, the tortoise,
appeared in the Satya Yuga. Represents a human embryo just
growing tiny legs, with a huge belly.
- Varaha, the boar,appeared
in the Satya Yuga. Represents a human embryo which is almost
ready. Its features are visible.
- Narasimha, the Man-Lion
(Nara = man, simha = lion), appeared in the Satya Yuga.
Represents a newborn baby, hairy and cranky, bawling and
full of blood.
- Vamana, the Dwarf,
appeared in the Treta Yuga. Represents a young child.
- Parashurama, Rama with
the axe, appeared in the Treta Yuga. Represents both an
angry young man and a grumpy old man simultaneously.
- Rama, Sri Ramachandra,
the prince and king of Ayodhya, appeared in the Treta Yuga.
Represents a married man with children in a very ideological
- Krishna (meaning who
attracts). This word is used in sense of 'black' also.
But Lord Krishna should be taken with the good synonym only.
He was the real God in the form of human, as he was the
greatest yogi ever with all miraculous powers, knowing the
highest spiritual truth of 'Brahma' and 'Aatmaa', had the
sense of practical life as well.
- Buddha is Buddha
from the Hindu perspective who
put forward his knowledge born of sorrowful feelings about
- Kalki ("Eternity",
or "time", or "The Destroyer of foulness"), who is expected
to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, the time period in which
we currently exist, though it has not happened yet.
There is also a "hidden avatar" mentioned in 11th canto of the Bhagavata
Some consider Balarama,
brother of Krishna to be the ninth avatar of
Vishnu, and delete Buddha. The Buddha avatar, which occurs in
different versions in various Puranas, may represent an attempt
by orthodox Brahminism to slander the Buddhists by identifying
them with the demons. Helmuth
von Glasenapp attributed these developments to a Hindu desire to
absorb Buddhism in a peaceful manner, both to win Buddhists to Vaishnavism and
also to account for the fact that such a significant heresy
could exist in India.
The pantheon in Śrauta consists
of many deities. Gods are called devas (or
devatās) and goddesses are called devis.
The various devas and devis are personifications of different
aspects of one and the same God. For
instance, when a Hindu thinks of Ishvara as the giver of
knowledge and learning, that aspect of Ishvara is personified as
the deity Saraswati.
In the same manner, the deity Lakshmipersonifies
Ishvara as the giver of wealth and prosperity. This
does not imply that Ishvara is a kind ofsupreme god or
lord of all the other deities; Ishvara is just the name used to
refer to God in general, when no particular deity is being
referred to. Devas represent certain forces. For instance, Agni has
one aspect as the flame, but this flame symbolises the
psychological power associated with Agni—namely, the power of
will. Agni can be called God-will. Similarly Indra is
the God-mind; Sarasvati is
the power of inspiration, not merely of learning.
The devas constitute an integral part of the colorful Hindu
culture. These various forms of God are depicted in innumerable
paintings, statues, murals, and scriptural stories that can be
found in temples, homes, businesses, and other places. In
Hinduism, the scriptures recommend that for the satisfaction of
a particular material desire a person may worship a particular
deity. For example,
shopkeepers frequently keep a statue or picture of the devi
Lakshmi in their shops for financial prosperity. The
elephant-headed deva known as Ganesha is
worshiped before commencing any important undertaking, as he
represents God's aspect as the remover of obstacles. Students
and scholars may propitiate Saraswati, the devi of learning,
before taking an exam or giving a lecture.
The most ancient Vedic devas included Indra, Agni, Soma, Varuna, Mitra, Savitri, Rudra, Prajapati,Vishnu, Aryaman,
and the ashvins.
Important devis were Sarasvati, Ushas,
and Prithvi. Later
scriptures called the Puranas recount
traditional stories about each individual deity, such as Ganesha
and Hanuman, and
avatars such as Rama and Krishna.
Shiva and Vishnu are not regarded as ordinary devas but as
Mahādevas ("great gods" ) due to their central positions in
worship and scriptures. These
two along with Brahma are
considered the Trimurti—the
three aspects of the universal supreme God. These three aspects
symbolize the entire circle of samsara in
Hinduism: Brahma as creator, Vishnu as preserver or protector,
and Shiva as destroyer or judge.
in the Vedas
The main devas are (vide 6th anuvaka of Chamakam):
The main devis are:
- Durga or Parvati
- Lakshmi or Shri
- Sarasvati or Vaak
Brahma The Creator, Vishnu The Protector or Preserver, and Shiva
The Destroyer are the main gods in hindu Religion. In their
personal religious practices, Hindus may worship primarily one
or another of these deities, known as their "Ishta Devata", or
chosen deity. The
particular form of God worshiped as one's chosen ideal is a
matter of individual preference, although
regional and family traditions can play a large part in
influencing this choice. Hindus
may also take guidance about this choice from scriptures.
Although Hindus do worship deities other than their chosen deity
from time to time, depending on the occasion and their personal
inclinations, it is not expected that they will worship, or even
know about, every form of God. Hindus generally choose one
concept of God (popular choices include Krishna, Rama, Shiva, or
Kali), and cultivate devotion to that chosen form, while at the
same time respecting the chosen ideals of other people.
Some popular Hindu deities include Durga, Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, Hanuman, Kali,Murugan, Venkateshwara, Nataraja, Rama,
Denominations of Hinduism
Main article: Hindu
Contemporary Hinduism has four major divisions: Saivism, Shaktism, Smartism,
Hinduism is a very rich and complex religion. Each of its four
denominations shares rituals, beliefs,
traditions and personal gods with one another, but each sect has
a unique philosophy on how to achieve life's ultimate goal
(moksa, liberation). For example a person can be a devotee to
Shiva and a Vishnu devotee but one can practice the Advaita
which believes there is no difference between Brahman and a
soul. Conversely, a Hindu may follow the Dvaita philosophy which
stresses that Brahman and the soul are not the same. But each
denomination fundamentally believes in different methods of
self-realization and in different aspects of the one supreme
God. However, each denomination respects and accepts all others,
and conflict of any kind is rare.
Vaishnavism, Saivism, and Shaktism, respectively believe in a
monotheistic ideal of Lord
Vishnu (often as Lord
Krishna), Lord Shiva,
or Devi; this view
does not exclude other personal gods, as they are understood to
be aspects of the chosen ideal. For instance, to many devotees
of Krishna, Shiva is seen as having sprung from Krishna's
creative force. Ganesha worshippers would connect themselves
with Shiva as Shiva is the father of Ganesha, making him a Shaiv
deity. Often, the monad Brahman is seen as the one source, with
all other gods emanating from there. Thus, with all Hindus,
there is a strong belief in all paths being true religions that
lead to one God or source, whatever one chooses to call the
ultimate truth. As the Vedas -
the most important Hindu scriptures state: "Truth is one; the
wise call it by various names" (transliterated from Sanskrit:
Ekam Sat Viprah Bahuda Vadanti.)
Smartism, is monist as
well as a monotheist and
understands different deities as representing various aspects
and principles of one supreme entity, Brahman or parabrahman.
Teachers such as Swami
Vivekananda, who brought Hinduism to
the West, held
beliefs like those found in Smartism, although he usually
referred to his religion as Vedanta.
Other denominations of Hinduism do not strictly hold this
A Smartist would have no problem worshiping Shiva or Vishnu
together as he views the different aspects of God as leading to
the same One God. It is the Smarta view that dominates the view
of Hinduism in the West. By contrast, a Vaishnavite considers
Vishnu as the one true God, worthy of worship and other forms as
subordinate. See for example, an illustration of the Vaishnavite
view of Vishnu as the one true God. Accordingly, many
Vaishnavites, for example, believe that only Vishnu can grant moksha..
Similarly, many Shaivites also hold similar beliefs for Shiva.
There are some Hindus who consider the various deities not as
forms of the one Ishvara, but as independently existing
entities, and may thus be properly considered polytheists.
Although the panentheistic tendency
in Hinduism allowed only a subordinate rank to the old
polytheistic gods, they continued to occupy an important place
in the affections of individual Hindus and were still
represented as exercising considerable influence on the
destinies of man. The most prominent of them were regarded as
the appointed "loka palas", or guardians of the world; and as
such they were made to preside over the four
(according to some authorities) the intermediate points of the
Thus Indra, the chief
of the devas, was regarded as the regent of the east; Agni, the fire,
was in the same way associated with the southeast;Yama, lord of
death and justice with the south; Surya,
the sun, with the
originally the representative of the all-embracingheaven (atmosphere),
now the god of the ocean,
with the west; Vayu (or
Pavana), the wind,
with the northwest; Kubera,
the god of wealth,
with the north; and Soma with
the northeast. In some traditions, Ishana—an
aspect of Shiva—is
regarded as the regent of the northeast andNirrti the
regent of the southwest.
In the institutes of Manu the
loka palas are represented as standing in close relation to the
ruling king, who is said to be composed of particles of these
his tutelary deities. The retinue of Indra consists chiefly of
the Devas, gandharvas,
a class of genii,
considered in the epics as the celestial musicians;
and apsaras, lovely nymphs,
who are frequently employed by the gods to make the pious
devotee desist from carrying his austere practices to an extent
that might render him dangerous to their power. Narada,
an ancient sage (probably a personification of the cloud, the
water-giver), is considered as the messenger between the gods
and men, and as having sprung from the forehead of Brahma. The
interesting office of the god of love is held by Kamadeva,
also called Ananga, the bodyless, because, as the scriptures
relate, having once tried by the power of his mischievous arrow
to make Siva fall in love with Parvati, whilst he was engaged in
devotional practices, the urchin was reduced to ashes by a
glance of the angry god. Two other divine figures of some
importance are considered as sons of Siva and Parvati, viz.
Karttikeya or Skanda, the leader of the heavenly armies, who was
supposed to have been fostered by the six Knittikas or Pleiades;
and Ganesha (lord of troops), the elephant-headed god of wisdom,
and at the same time the leader of the dii minorum gentium.
Goddesses are worshiped when God is thought of as the Universal
Mother. Particular forms of the Universal Mother include
Lakshmi,Sarasvati, Parvati, Durga,
and Kali. Shaktism
recognizes Shakti as
the supreme goddess. The concept of Mahadevi as
the supreme goddess emerged in historical religious literature
as a term to define the powerful and influential nature of
female deities in India. Throughout history, goddesses have been
portrayed as the mother of the universe, through whose powers
the universe is created and destroyed. The gradual changes in
belief through time shape the concept of Mahadevi and express
how the different Goddesses, though very different in
personality, all carry the power of the universe on their
shoulders. Jagaddhatri and Mariamman are
other significant female deities.