Hinduism, religion that originated in India and is still practiced by most of its inhabitants, as well as by those whose families have migrated from India to other parts of the world (chiefly East Africa, South Africa, Southeast Asia, the East Indies, and England). The word Hindu is derived from the Sanskrit word sindhu (“river”—more specifically, the Indus); the Persians in the 5th century BC called the Hindus by that name, identifying them as the people of the land of the Indus. The Hindus define their community as “those who believe in the Vedas” (see Veda) or “those who follow the way (dharma) of the four classes (varnas) and stages of life (ashramas).”
Hinduism is a major world religion, not merely by virtue of its many followers (estimated at more than 700 million) but also because of its profound influence on many other religions during its long, unbroken history, which dates from about 1500 BC. The corresponding influence of these various religions on Hinduism (it has an extraordinary tendency to absorb foreign elements) has greatly contributed to the religion's syncretism—the wide variety of beliefs and practices that it encompasses. Moreover, the geographic, rather than ideological, basis of the religion (the fact that it comprises whatever all the people of India have believed and done) has given Hinduism the character of a social and doctrinal system that extends to every aspect of human life.
II. Fundamental Principles
The canon of Hinduism is basically defined by what people do rather than what they think. Consequently, far more uniformity of behavior than of belief is found among Hindus, although very few practices or beliefs are shared by all. A few usages are observed by almost all Hindus: reverence for Brahmans and cows; abstention from meat (especially beef); and marriage within the caste (jati), in the hope of producing male heirs. Most Hindus chant the gayatri hymn to the sun at dawn, but little agreement exists as to what other prayers should be chanted. Most Hindus worship Shiva, Vishnu, or the Goddess (Devi), but they also worship hundreds of additional minor deities peculiar to a particular village or even to a particular family. Although Hindus believe and do many apparently contradictory things—contradictory not merely from one Hindu to the next, but also within the daily religious life of a single Hindu—each individual perceives an orderly pattern that gives form and meaning to his or her own life. No doctrinal or ecclesiastical hierarchy exists in Hinduism, but the intricate hierarchy of the social system (which is inseparable from the religion) gives each person a sense of place within the whole.
The ultimate canonical authority for all Hindus is the Vedas. The oldest of the four Vedas is the Rig-Veda, which was composed in an ancient form of the Sanskrit language in northwest India. This text, probably composed between about 1500 and 1000 BC and consisting of 1028 hymns to a pantheon of gods, has been memorized syllable by syllable and preserved orally to the present day. The Rig-Veda was supplemented by two other Vedas, the Yajur-Veda (the textbook for sacrifice) and the Sama-Veda (the hymnal). A fourth book, the Atharva-Veda (a collection of magic spells), was probably added about 900 BC. At this time, too, the Brahmanas—lengthy Sanskrit texts expounding priestly ritual and the myths behind it—were composed. Between the 8th century BC and the 5th century BC, the Upanishads were composed; these are mystical-philosophical meditations on the meaning of existence and the nature of the universe.
The Vedas, including the Brahmanas and the Upanishads, are regarded as revealed canon (shruti,”what has been heard [from the gods]”), and no syllable can be changed. The actual content of this canon, however, is unknown to most Hindus. The practical compendium of Hinduism is contained in the Smriti, or “what is remembered,” which is also orally preserved. No prohibition is made against improvising variations on, rewording, or challenging the Smriti. The Smriti includes the two great Sanskrit epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana; the many Sanskrit Puranas, including 18 great Puranas and several dozen more subordinate Puranas; and the many Dharmashastras and Dharmasutras (textbooks on sacred law), of which the one attributed to the sage Manu is the most frequently cited.
The two epics are built around central narratives. The Mahabharata tells of the war between the Pandava brothers, led by their cousin Krishna, and their cousins the Kauravas. The Ramayana tells of the journey of Rama to recover his wife Sita after she is stolen by the demon Ravana. But these stories are embedded in a rich corpus of other tales and discourses on philosophy, law, geography, political science, and astronomy, so that the Mahabharata (about 200,000 lines long) constitutes a kind of encyclopedia or even a literature, and the Ramayana (more than 50,000 lines long) is comparable. Although it is therefore impossible to fix their dates, the main bodies of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were probably composed between 400 BC and AD 400. Both, however, continued to grow even after they were translated into the vernacular languages of India (such as Tamil and Hindi) in the succeeding centuries.
The Puranas were composed after the epics, and several of them develop themes found in the epics (for instance, the Bhagavata-Purana describes the childhood of Krishna, a topic not elaborated in the Mahabharata). The Puranas also include subsidiary myths, hymns of praise, philosophies, iconography, and rituals. Most of the Puranas are predominantly sectarian in nature; the great Puranas (and some subordinate Puranas) are dedicated to the worship of Shiva or Vishnu or the Goddess, and several subordinate Puranas are devoted to Ganesha or Skanda or the sun. In addition, they all contain a great deal of nonsectarian material, probably of earlier origin, such as the “five marks,” or topics (panchalakshana), of the Puranas: the creation of the universe, the destruction and re-creation of the universe, the dynasties of the solar and lunar gods, the genealogy of the gods and holy sages, and the ages of the founding fathers of humankind (the Manus).
Incorporated in this rich literature is a complex cosmology. Hindus believe that the universe is a great, enclosed sphere, a cosmic egg, within which are numerous concentric heavens, hells, oceans, and continents, with India at the center. They believe that time is both degenerative—going from the golden age, or Krita Yuga, through two intermediate periods of decreasing goodness, to the present age, or Kali Yuga—and cyclic: At the end of each Kali Yuga, the universe is destroyed by fire and flood, and a new golden age begins. Human life, too, is cyclic: After death, the soul leaves the body and is reborn in the body of another person, animal, vegetable, or mineral. This condition of endless entanglement in activity and rebirth is called samsara (see Transmigration). The precise quality of the new birth is determined by the accumulated merit and demerit that result from all the actions, or karma, that the soul has committed in its past life or lives. All Hindus believe that karma accrues in this way; they also believe, however, that it can be counteracted by expiations and rituals, by “working out” through punishment or reward, and by achieving release (moksha) from the entire process of samsara through the renunciation of all worldly desires.
Hindus may thus be divided into two groups: those who seek the sacred and profane rewards of this world (health, wealth, children, and a good rebirth), and those who seek release from the world. The principles of the first way of life were drawn from the Vedas and are represented today in temple Hinduism and in the religion of Brahmans and the caste system. The second way, which is prescribed in the Upanishads, is represented not only in the cults of renunciation (sannyasa) but also in the ideological ideals of most Hindus.
The worldly aspect of Hinduism originally had three Vedas, three classes of society (varnas), three stages of life (ashramas), and three “goals of a man” (purusharthas), the goals or needs of women being seldom discussed in the ancient texts. To the first three Vedas was added the Atharva-Veda. The first three classes (Brahman, or priestly; Kshatriya, or warrior; and Vaisya, or general populace) were derived from the tripartite division of ancient Indo-European society, traces of which can be detected in certain social and religious institutions of ancient Greece and Rome. To the three classes were added the Shudras, or servants, after the Indo-Aryans settled into the Punjab and began to move down into the Ganges Valley. The three original ashramas were the chaste student (brahmachari), the householder (grihastha), and the forest-dweller (vanaprastha). They were said to owe three debts: study of the Vedas (owed to the sages); a son (to the ancestors); and sacrifice (to the gods). The three goals were artha (material success), dharma (righteous social behavior), and kama (sensual pleasures). Shortly after the composition of the first Upanishads, during the rise of Buddhism (6th century BC), a fourth ashrama and a corresponding fourth goal were added: the renouncer (sannyasi), whose goal is release (moksha) from the other stages, goals, and debts.
Each of these two ways of being Hindu developed its own complementary metaphysical and social systems. The caste system and its supporting philosophy of svadharma (“one's own dharma”) developed within the worldly way. Svadharma comprises the beliefs that each person is born to perform a specific job, marry a specific person, eat certain food, and beget children to do likewise and that it is better to fulfill one's own dharma than that of anyone else (even if one's own is low or reprehensible, such as that of the Harijan caste, the Untouchables, whose mere presence was once considered polluting to other castes). The primary goal of the worldly Hindu is to produce and raise a son who will make offerings to the ancestors (the shraddha ceremony). The second, renunciatory way of Hinduism, on the other hand, is based on the Upanishadic philosophy of the unity of the individual soul, or atman, with Brahman, the universal world soul, or godhead. The full realization of this is believed to be sufficient to release the worshiper from rebirth; in this view, nothing could be more detrimental to salvation than the birth of a child. Many of the goals and ideals of renunciatory Hinduism have been incorporated into worldly Hinduism, particularly the eternal dharma (sanatana dharma), an absolute and general ethical code that purports to transcend and embrace all subsidiary, relative, specific dharmas. The most important tenet of sanatana dharma for all Hindus is ahimsa, the absence of a desire to injure, which is used to justify vegetarianism (although it does not preclude physical violence toward animals or humans, or blood sacrifices in temples).
In addition to sanatana dharma, numerous attempts have been made to reconcile the two Hinduisms. The Bhagavad-Gita describes three paths to religious realization. To the path of works, or karma (here designating sacrificial and ritual acts), and the path of knowledge, or jnana (the Upanishadic meditation on the godhead), was added a mediating third path, the passionate devotion to God, or bhakti, a religious ideal that came to combine and transcend the other two paths. Bhakti in a general form can be traced in the epics and even in some of the Upanishads, but its fullest statement appears only after the Bhagavad-Gita. It gained momentum from the vernacular poems and songs to local deities, particularly those of the Alvars, Nayanars, and Virashaivas of southern India and the Bengali worshipers of Krishna (see below).
In this way Hindus have been able to reconcile their Vedantic monism (see Vedanta) with their Vedic polytheism: All the individual Hindu gods (who are said to be saguna,”with attributes”) are subsumed under the godhead (nirguna,”without attributes”), from which they all emanate. Therefore, most Hindus are devoted (through bhakti) to gods whom they worship in rituals (through karma) and whom they understand (through jnana) as aspects of ultimate reality, the material reflection of which is all an illusion (maya) wrought by God in a spirit of play (lila).
Although all Hindus acknowledge the existence and importance of a number of gods and demigods, most individual worshipers are primarily devoted to a single god or goddess, of whom Shiva, Vishnu, and the Goddess are the most popular.
Shiva embodies the apparently contradictory aspects of a god of ascetics and a god of the phallus. He is the deity of renouncers, particularly of the many Shaiva sects that imitate him: Kapalikas, who carry skulls to reenact the myth in which Shiva beheaded his father, the incestuous Brahma, and was condemned to carry the skull until he found release in Benares; Pashupatas, worshipers of Shiva Pashupati, “Lord of Beasts”; and Aghoris, “to whom nothing is horrible,” yogis who eat ordure or flesh in order to demonstrate their complete indifference to pleasure or pain. Shiva is also the deity whose phallus (linga) is the central shrine of all Shaiva temples and the personal shrine of all Shaiva householders; his priapism is said to have resulted in his castration and the subsequent worship of his severed member. In addition, Shiva is said to have appeared on earth in various human, animal, and vegetable forms, establishing his many local shrines.
To his worshipers, Vishnu is all-pervasive and supreme; he is the god from whose navel a lotus sprang, giving birth to the creator (Brahma). Vishnu created the universe by separating heaven and earth, and he rescued it on a number of subsequent occasions. He is also worshiped in the form of a number of “descents”—avatars (see Avatar), or, roughly, incarnations. Several of these are animals that recur in iconography: the fish, the tortoise, and the boar. Others are the dwarf (Vamana, who became a giant in order to trick the demon Bali out of the entire universe); the man-lion (Narasimha, who disemboweled the demon Hiranyakashipu); the Buddha (who became incarnate in order to teach a false doctrine to the pious demons); Rama-with-an-Axe (Parashurama, who beheaded his unchaste mother and destroyed the entire class of Kshatriyas to avenge his father); and Kalki (the rider on the white horse, who will come to destroy the universe at the end of the age of Kali). Most popular by far are Rama (hero of the Ramayana) and Krishna (hero of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata-Purana), both of whom are said to be avatars of Vishnu, although they were originally human heroes.
Along with these two great male gods, several goddesses are the object of primary devotion. They are sometimes said to be various aspects of the Goddess, Devi. In some myths Devi is the prime mover, who commands the male gods to do the work of creation and destruction. As Durga, the Unapproachable, she kills the buffalo demon Mahisha in a great battle; as Kali, the Black, she dances in a mad frenzy on the corpses of those she has slain and eaten, adorned with the still-dripping skulls and severed hands of her victims. The Goddess is also worshiped by the Shaktas, devotees of Shakti, the female power. This sect arose in the medieval period along with the Tantrists, whose esoteric ceremonies involved a black mass in which such forbidden substances as meat, fish, and wine were eaten and forbidden sexual acts were performed ritually. In many Tantric cults the Goddess is identified as Krishna's consort Radha.
More peaceful manifestations of the Goddess are seen in wives of the great gods: Lakshmi, the meek, docile wife of Vishnu and a fertility goddess in her own right; and Parvati, the wife of Shiva and the daughter of the Himalayas. The great river goddess Ganga (the Ganges), also worshiped alone, is said to be a wife of Shiva; a goddess of music and literature, Sarasvati, associated with the Saraswati River, is the wife of Brahma. Many of the local goddesses of India—Manasha, the goddess of snakes, in Bengal, and Minakshi in Madurai—are married to Hindu gods, while others, such as Shitala, goddess of smallpox, are worshiped alone. These unmarried goddesses are feared for their untamed powers and angry, unpredictable outbursts.
Many minor gods are assimilated into the central pantheon by being identified with the great gods or with their children and friends. Hanuman, the monkey god, appears in the Ramayana as the cunning assistant of Rama in the siege of Lanka. Skanda, the general of the army of the gods, is the son of Shiva and Parvati, as is Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of scribes and merchants, the remover of obstacles, and the object of worship at the beginning of any important enterprise.
D. Worship and Ritual
The great and lesser Hindu gods are worshiped in a number of concentric circles of public and private devotion. Because of the social basis of Hinduism, the most fundamental ceremonies for every Hindu are those that involve the rites of passage (samskaras). These begin with birth and the first time the child eats solid food (rice). Later rites include the first haircutting (for a young boy) and the purification after the first menstruation (for a girl); marriage; and the blessings upon a pregnancy, to produce a male child and to ensure a successful delivery and the child's survival of the first six dangerous days after birth (the concern of Shashti, goddess of Six). Last are the funeral ceremonies (cremation and, if possible, the sprinkling of ashes in a holy river such as the Ganges) and the yearly offerings to dead ancestors. The most notable of the latter is the pinda, a ball of rice and sesame seeds given by the eldest male child so that the ghost of his father may pass from limbo into rebirth. In daily ritual, a Hindu (generally the wife, who is thought to have more power to intercede with the gods) makes offerings (puja) of fruit or flowers before a small shrine in the house. She also makes offerings to local snakes or trees or obscure spirits (benevolent and malevolent) dwelling in her own garden or at crossroads or other magical places in the village.
Many villages, and all sizable towns, have temples where priests perform ceremonies throughout the day: sunrise prayers and noises to awaken the god within the holy of holies (the garbagriha, or “womb-house”); bathing, clothing, and fanning the god; feeding the god and distributing the remains of the food (prasada) to worshipers. The temple is also a cultural center where songs are sung, holy texts read aloud (in Sanskrit and vernaculars), and sunset rituals performed; devout laity may be present at most of these ceremonies. In many temples, particularly those sacred to goddesses (such as the Kalighat temple to Kali, in Kolkata), goats are sacrificed on special occasions. The sacrifice is often carried out by a special low-caste priest outside the bounds of the temple itself. Thousands of simple local temples exist; each may be nothing more than a small stone box enclosing a formless effigy swathed in cloth, or a slightly more imposing edifice with a small tank in which to bathe. In addition, India has many temples of great size as well as complex temple cities, some hewn out of caves (such as Elephanta and Ellora), some formed of great monolithic slabs (such as those at Mahabalipuram), and some built of imported and elaborately carved stone slabs (such as the temples at Khajuraho, Bhubaneshwar, Madurai, and Kanjeevaram). On special days, usually once a year, the image of the god is taken from its central shrine and paraded around the temple complex on a magnificently carved wooden chariot (ratha).
Many holy places or shrines (tirthas, literally “fords”), such as Rishikesh in the Himalayas or Benares on the Ganges, are the objects of pilgrimages from all over India; others are essentially local shrines. Certain shrines are most frequently visited at special yearly festivals. For example, Prayaga, where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers join at Allahabad, is always sacred, but it is crowded with pilgrims during the Kumbha Mela festival each January and overwhelmed by the millions who come to the special ceremony held every 12 years. In Bengal, the goddess Durga's visit to her family and return to her husband Shiva are celebrated every year at Durgapuja, when images of the goddess are created out of papier-mâché, worshiped for ten days, and then cast into the Ganges in a dramatic midnight ceremony ringing with drums and glowing with candles. Some festivals are celebrated throughout India: Diwali, the festival of lights in early winter; and Holi, the spring carnival, when members of all castes mingle and let down their hair, sprinkling one another with cascades of red powder and liquid, symbolic of the blood that was probably used in past centuries.
The basic beliefs and practices of Hinduism cannot be understood outside their historical context. Although the early texts and events are impossible to date with precision, the general chronological development is clear.
A. Vedic Civilization
About 2000 BC, a highly developed civilization flourished in the Indus Valley, around the sites of Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro. By about 1500 BC, when the Indo-Aryan tribes invaded India, this civilization was in a serious decline. It is therefore impossible to know, on present evidence, whether or not the two civilizations had any significant contact. Many elements of Hinduism that were not present in Vedic civilization (such as worship of the phallus and of goddesses, bathing in temple tanks, and the postures of yoga) may have been derived from the Indus civilization, however. See Indus Valley Civilization.
By about 1500 BC, the Indo-Aryans had settled in the Punjab, bringing with them their predominantly male Indo-European pantheon of gods and a simple warrior ethic that was vigorous and worldly, yet also profoundly religious. Gods of the Vedic pantheon survive in later Hinduism, but no longer as objects of worship: Indra, king of the gods and god of the storm and of fertility; Agni, god of fire; and Soma, god of the sacred, intoxicating Soma plant and the drink made from it. By 900 BC the use of iron allowed the Indo-Aryans to move down into the lush Ganges Valley, where they developed a far more elaborate civilization and social system. By the 6th century BC, Buddhism had begun to make its mark on India and what was to be more than a millennium of fruitful interaction with Hinduism.
B. Classical Hindu Civilization
From about 200 BC to AD 500 India was invaded by many northern powers, of which the Shakas (Scythians) and Kushanas had the greatest impact. This was a time of great flux, growth, syncretism, and definition for Hinduism and is the period in which the epics, the Dharmashastras, and the Dharmasutras took final form. Under the Gupta Empire (320-550?), when most of northern India was under a single power, classical Hinduism found its most consistent expression: the sacred laws were codified, the great temples began to be built, and myths and rituals were preserved in the Puranas.
C. Rise of Devotional Movements
In the post-Gupta period, a less rigid and more eclectic form of Hinduism emerged, with more dissident sects and vernacular movements. At this time, too, the great devotional movements arose. Many of the sects that emerged during the period from 800 to 1800 are still active in India today.
Most of the bhakti movements are said to have been founded by saints—the gurus by whom the tradition has been handed down in unbroken lineage, from guru to disciple (chela). This lineage, in addition to a written canon, is the basis for the authority of the bhakti sect. Other traditions are based on the teachings of such philosophers as Shankara and Ramanuja. Shankara was the exponent of pure monism, or nondualism (Advaita Vedanta), and of the doctrine that all that appears to be real is merely illusion. Ramanuja espoused the philosophy of qualified nondualism (Vishishta-Advaita), an attempt to reconcile belief in a godhead without attributes (nirguna) with devotion to a god with attributes (saguna), and to solve the paradox of loving a god with whom one is identical.
The philosophies of Shankara and Ramanuja were developed in the context of the six great classical philosophies (darshanas) of India: the Karma Mimamsa (“action investigation”); the Vedanta (“end of the Vedas”), in which tradition the work of Shankara and Ramanuja should be placed; the Sankhya system, which describes the opposition between an inert male spiritual principle (purusha) and an active female principle of matter or nature (prakriti), subdivided into the three qualities (gunas) of goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and darkness (tamas); the Yoga system; and the highly metaphysical systems of Vaisheshika (a kind of atomic realism) and Nyaya (logic, but of an extremely theistic nature).
D. Medieval Hinduism
Parallel with these complex Sanskrit philosophical investigations, vernacular songs were composed, transmitted orally, and preserved locally throughout India. They were composed during the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries in Tamil and Kannada by the Alvars, Nayanars, and Virashaivas and during the 15th century by the Rajasthani poet Mira Bai, in the Braj dialect. In the 16th century in Bengal, Chaitanya founded a sect of erotic mysticism, celebrating the union of Krishna and Radha in a Tantric theology heavily influenced by Tantric Buddhism. Chaitanya believed that both Krishna and Radha were incarnate within him, and he believed that the village of Vrindaban, where Krishna grew up, had become manifest once again in Bengal. The school of the Gosvamins, who were disciples of Chaitanya, developed an elegant theology of aesthetic participation in the ritual enactment of Krishna's life.
These ritual dramas also developed around the village of Vrindaban itself during the 16th century, and they were celebrated by Hindi poets. The first great Hindi mystic poet was Kabir, who was said to be the child of a Muslim and was strongly influenced by Islam, particularly by Sufism. His poems challenge the canonical dogmas of both Hinduism and Islam, praising Rama and promising salvation by the chanting of the holy name of Rama. He was followed by Tulsidas, who wrote a beloved Hindi version of the Ramayana. A contemporary of Tulsidas was Surdas, whose poems on Krishna's life in Vrindaban formed the basis of the ras lilas, local dramatizations of myths of the childhood of Krishna, which still play an important part in the worship of Krishna in northern India.
E. 19th and 20th Centuries
In the 19th century, important reforms took place under the auspices of Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, and the sects of the Arya Samaj and the Brahmo Samaj. These movements attempted to reconcile traditional Hinduism with the social reforms and political ideals of the day. So, too, the nationalist leaders Sri Aurobindo Ghose and Mohandas Gandhi attempted to draw from Hinduism those elements that would best serve their political and social aims. Gandhi, for example, used his own brand of ahimsa, transformed into passive resistance, to obtain reforms for the Untouchables and to remove the British from India. Similarly, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar revived the myth of the Brahmans who fell from their caste and the tradition that Buddhism and Hinduism were once one, in order to enable Untouchables to gain self-respect by “reconverting” to Buddhism.
In more recent times, numerous self-proclaimed Indian religious teachers have migrated to Europe and the United States, where they have inspired large followings. Some, such as the Hare Krishna sect founded by Bhaktivedanta, claim to base themselves on classical Hindu practices. In India, Hinduism thrives despite numerous reforms and shortcuts necessitated by the gradual modernization and urbanization of Indian life. The myths endure in the Hindi cinema, and the rituals survive not only in the temples but also in the rites of passage. Thus, Hinduism, which sustained India through centuries of foreign occupation and internal disruption, continues to serve a vital function by giving passionate meaning and supportive form to the lives of Hindus today. For information on religious violence in India, See India.
This article is about deities in Hinduism. For the Hindu concept of God, see Ishvara, Bhagavan, and God in Hinduism.
Hindu deities are the gods and goddesses in Hinduism. The terms and epithets for deity within the diverse traditions of Hinduism vary, and include Deva, Devi, Ishvara, Bhagavān and Bhagavati.[note 1]
The deities of Hinduism have evolved from the Vedic era (2nd millennium BCE) through the medieval era (1st millennium CE), regionally within Nepal, India and in southeast Asia, and across Hinduism's diverse traditions. The Hindu deity concept varies from a personal god as in Yoga school of Hindu philosophy, to 33 Vedic deities, to hundreds of Puranics of Hinduism. Illustrations of major deities include Vishnu, Sri (Lakshmi), Shiva, Sati, Brahma and Saraswati. These deities have distinct and complex personalities, yet are often viewed as aspects of the same Ultimate Reality called Brahman.[note 2] From ancient times, the idea of equivalence has been cherished for all Hindus, in its texts and in early 1st millennium sculpture with concepts such as Harihara (half Shiva, half Vishnu),Ardhanārīshvara (half Shiva, half Parvati), with myths and temples that feature them together, declaring they are the same. Major deities have inspired their own Hindu traditions, such as Vaishnavism, Shaivism and Shaktism, but with shared mythology, ritual grammar, theosophy, axiology and polycentrism. Some Hindu traditions such as Smartism from mid 1st millennium CE, have included multiple major deities as henotheistic manifestations of Saguna Brahman, and as a means to realizing Nirguna Brahman.
Hindu deities are represented with various icons and anicons, in paintings and sculptures, called Murtis and Pratimas. Some Hindu traditions, such as ancient Charvakas rejected all deities and concept of god or goddess, while 19th-century British colonial era movements such as the Arya Samaj and Brahmo Samaj rejected deities and adopted monotheistic concepts similar to Abrahamic religions. Hindu deities have been adopted in other religions such as Jainism, and in regions outside India such as predominantly Buddhist Thailand and Japan where they continue to be revered in regional temples or arts.
In ancient and medieval era texts of Hinduism, the human body is described as a temple, and deities are described to be parts residing within it, while the Brahman (Absolute Reality, God) is described to be the same, or of similar nature, as the Atman (self, soul), which Hindus believe is eternal and within every living being. Deities in Hinduism are as diverse as its traditions, and a Hindu can choose to be polytheistic, pantheistic, monotheistic, monistic, agnostic, atheistic or humanist.
Devas and devis
Main articles: Deva (Hinduism) and Devi
Deities in Hinduism are referred to as Deva (masculine) and Devi (feminine). The root of these terms mean "heavenly, divine, anything of excellence". According to Douglas Harper, the etymological roots of Deva mean "a shining one," from *div- "to shine," and it is a cognate with Greek dios "divine" and Zeus, and Latin deus (Old Latin deivos).
In the earliest Vedic literature, all supernatural beings are called Asuras. By the late Vedic period (~500 BCE), benevolent supernatural beings are referred to as Deva-Asuras. In post-Vedic texts, such as the Puranas and the Itihasas of Hinduism, the Devas represent the good, and the Asuras the bad. In some medieval Indian literature, Devas are also referred to as Suras and contrasted with their equally powerful, but malevolent half-brothers referred to as the Asuras.
Hindu deities are part of Indian mythology, both Devas and Devis feature in one of many cosmological theories in Hinduism.
Characteristics of Vedic era deities
In Vedic literature, Devas and Devis represent the forces of nature and some represent moral values (such as the Adityas, Varuna, and Mitra), each symbolizing the epitome of a specialized knowledge, creative energy, exalted and magical powers (Siddhis).
The most referred to Devas in the Rig Veda are Indra, Agni (fire) and Soma, with "fire deity" called the friend of all humanity, it and Soma being the two celebrated in a yajna fire ritual that marks major Hindu ceremonies. Savitr, Vishnu, Rudra (later given the exclusive epithet of Shiva), and Prajapati (later Brahma) are gods and hence Devas.
The Vedas describes a number of significant Devis such as Ushas (dawn), Prithvi (earth), Aditi (cosmic moral order), Saraswati (river, knowledge), Vāc (sound), Nirṛti (destruction), Ratri (night), Aranyani (forest), and bounty goddesses such as Dinsana, Raka, Puramdhi, Parendi, Bharati, Mahi among others are mentioned in the Rigveda. Sri, also called Lakshmi, appears in late Vedic texts dated to be pre-Buddhist, but verses dedicated to her do not suggest that her characteristics were fully developed in the Vedic era. All gods and goddesses are distinguished in the Vedic times, but in the post-Vedic texts (~500 BCE to 200 CE), and particularly in the early medieval era literature, they are ultimately seen as aspects or manifestations of one Brahman, the Supreme power.
Ananda Coomaraswamy states that Devas and Asuras in the Vedic lore are similar to Angels-Theoi-Gods and Titans of Greek mythology, both are powerful but have different orientations and inclinations, the Devas representing the powers of Light and the Asuras representing the powers of Darkness in Hindu mythology. According to Coomaraswamy's interpretation of Devas and Asuras, both these natures exist in each human being, the tyrant and the angel is within each being, the best and the worst within each person struggles before choices and one's own nature, and the Hindu formulation of Devas and Asuras is an eternal dance between these within each person.
The Devas and Asuras, Angels and Titans, powers of Light and powers of Darkness in Rigveda, although distinct and opposite in operation, are in essence consubstantial, their distinction being a matter not of essence but of orientation, revolution or transformation. In this case, the Titan is potentially an Angel, the Angel still by nature a Titan; the Darkness in actu is Light, the Light in potentia Darkness; whence the designations Asura and Deva may be applied to one and the same Person according to the mode of operation, as in Rigveda 1.163.3, "Trita art thou (Agni) by interior operation".
— Ananda Coomaraswamy, Journal of the American Oriental Society
Characteristics of medieval era deities
In the Puranas and the Itihasas with the embedded Bhagavad Gita, the Devas represent the good, and the Asuras the bad. According to the Bhagavad Gita (16.6-16.7), all beings in the universe have both the divine qualities (daivi sampad) and the demonic qualities (asuri sampad) within each. The sixteenth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita states that pure god-like saints are rare and pure demon-like evil are rare among human beings, and the bulk of humanity is multi-charactered with a few or many faults. According to Jeaneane Fowler, the Gita states that desires, aversions, greed, needs, emotions in various forms "are facets of ordinary lives", and it is only when they turn to lust, hate, cravings, arrogance, conceit, anger, harshness, hypocrisy, violence, cruelty and such negativity- and destruction-inclined that natural human inclinations metamorphose into something demonic (Asura).
The Epics and medieval era texts, particularly the Puranas, developed extensive and richly varying mythologies associated with Hindu deities, including their genealogies. Several of the Purana texts are named after major Hindu deities such as Vishnu, Shiva and Devi. Other texts and commentators such as Adi Shankara explain that Hindu deities live or rule over the cosmic body as well in the temple of human body. They remark that the Sun deity is the eyes, the Vāyu the nose, the Prajapati the sexual organs, the Lokapalas the ears, Chandra the mind, Mitra the inward breath, Varuna the outward breath, Indra the arms, Bṛhaspati the speech, Vishnu, whose stride is great, is the feet, and Māyā is the smile.
Edelmann states that gods and anti-gods of Hinduism are symbolism for spiritual concepts. For example, god Indra (a Deva) and the antigod Virocana (an Asura) question a sage for insights into the knowledge of the self. Virocana leaves with the first given answer, believing now he can use the knowledge as a weapon. In contrast, Indra keeps pressing the sage, churning the ideas, and learning about means to inner happiness and power. Edelmann suggests that the Deva-Asura dichotomies in Hindu mythology may be seen as "narrative depictions of tendencies within our selves". Hindu deities in Vedic era, states Mahoney, are those artists with "powerfully inward transformative, effective and creative mental powers".
In Hindu mythology, everyone starts as an Asura, born of the same father. "Asuras who remain Asura" share the character of powerful beings craving for more power, more wealth, ego, anger, unprincipled nature, force and violence. The "Asuras who become Devas" in contrast are driven by an inner voice, seek understanding and meaning, prefer moderation, principled behavior, aligned with Ṛta and Dharma, knowledge and harmony.
The god (Deva) and antigod (Asura), states Edelmann, are also symbolically the contradictory forces that motivate each individual and people, and thus Deva-Asura dichotomy is a spiritual concept rather than mere genealogical category or species of being. In the Bhāgavata Purana, saints and gods are born in families of Asuras, such as Mahabali and Prahlada, conveying the symbolism that motivations, beliefs and actions rather than one's birth and family circumstances define whether one is Deva-like or Asura-like.
Main article: Ishvara
Another Hindu term that is sometimes translated as deity is Ishvara, or alternatively various deities are described, state Sorajjakool et al., as "the personifications of various aspects of one and the same Ishvara". The term Ishvara has a wide range of meanings that depend on the era and the school of Hinduism. In ancient texts of Indian philosophy, Ishvara means supreme soul, Brahman (Highest Reality), ruler, king or husband depending on the context. In medieval era texts, Ishvara means God, Supreme Being, personal god, or special Self depending on the school of Hinduism.
Among the six systems of Hindu philosophy, Samkhya and Mimamsa do not consider the concept of Ishvara, i.e., a supreme being, relevant. Yoga, Vaisheshika, Vedanta and Nyaya schools of Hinduism discuss Ishvara, but assign different meanings.
Early Nyaya school scholars considered the hypothesis of a deity as a creator God with the power to grant blessings, boons and fruits; but these early Nyaya scholars then rejected this hypothesis, and were non-theistic or atheists. Later scholars of Nyaya school reconsidered this question and offered counter arguments for what is Ishvara and various arguments to prove the existence of omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent deity (God).
Vaisheshika school of Hinduism, as founded by Kanada in 1st millennium BC, neither required nor relied on creator deity. Later Vaisheshika school adopted the concept of Ishvara, states Klaus Klostermaier, but as an eternal God who co-exists in the universe with eternal substances and atoms, but He "winds up the clock, and lets it run its course".
Ancient Mimamsa scholars of Hinduism questioned what is Ishvara (deity, God)? They considered deity concept unnecessary for a consistent philosophy and moksha (soteriology).
In Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy, Isvara is neither a creator-God, nor a savior-God. This is called one of the several major atheistic schools of Hinduism by some scholars. Others, such as Jacobsen, state that Samkhya is more accurately described as non-theistic. Deity is considered an irrelevant concept, neither defined nor denied, in Samkhya school of Hindu philosophy.
In Yoga school of Hinduism, it is any "personal deity" (Ishta Deva or Ishta Devata) or "spiritual inspiration", but not a creator God. Whicher explains that while Patanjali's terse verses in the Yogasutras can be interpreted both as theistic or non-theistic, Patanjali's concept of Isvara in Yoga philosophy functions as a "transformative catalyst or guide for aiding the yogin on the path to spiritual emancipation".
The Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism asserted that there is no dualistic existence of deity (or deities). There is no otherness nor distinction between Jiva and Ishvara. God (Ishvara, Brahman) is identical with the Atman (soul) within each human being in Advaita Vedanta school, and there is a monistic Universal Absolute Oneness that connects everyone and everything, states this school of Hinduism. This school, states Anantanand Rambachan, has "perhaps exerted the most widespread influence".
The Dvaita sub-school of Vedanta Hinduism, founded in medieval era, Ishvara is defined as a creator God that is distinct from Jiva (individual souls in living beings). In this school, God creates individual souls, but the individual soul never was and never will become one with God; the best it can do is to experience bliss by getting infinitely close to God.
Number of deities
Yāska, the earliest known language scholar of India (~ 500 BCE), notes Wilkins, mentions that there are three deities (Devas) according to the Vedas, "Agni (fire), whose place is on the earth; Vayu (wind), whose place is the air; and Surya (sun), whose place is in the sky". This principle of three worlds (or zones), and its multiples is found thereafter in many ancient texts. The Samhitas, which are the oldest layer of text in Vedas enumerate 33 devas,[note 3] either 11 each for the three worlds, or as 12 Adityas, 11 Rudras, 8 Vasus and 2 Ashvins in the Brahmanas layer of Vedic texts.
The Rigveda states in hymn 1.139.11,
ये देवासो दिव्येकादश स्थ पृथिव्यामध्येकादश स्थ ।
अप्सुक्षितो महिनैकादश स्थ ते देवासो यज्ञमिमं जुषध्वम् ॥११॥
O ye eleven gods whose home is heaven, O ye eleven who make earth your dwelling,
Ye who with might, eleven, live in waters, accept this sacrifice, O gods, with pleasure.
– Translated by Ralph T. H. Griffith
Gods who are eleven in heaven; who are eleven on earth;
and who are eleven dwelling with glory in mid-air; may ye be pleased with this our sacrifice.
– Translated by HH Wilson
— Rigveda 1.139.11
Millions, one or one-ness
Thirty-three divinities are mentioned in other ancient texts, such as the Yajurveda, however, there is no fixed "number of deities" in Hinduism any more than a standard representation of "deity". There is, however, a popular perception stating that there are 330 million (or "33 crore") deities in Hinduism. Most, by far, are goddesses, state Foulston and Abbott, suggesting "how important and popular goddesses are" in Hindu culture. No one has a list of the 330 million goddesses and gods, but scholars state all deities are typically viewed in Hinduism as "emanations or manifestation of genderless principle called Brahman, representing the many facets of Ultimate Reality".
This concept of Brahman is not the same as the monotheistic separate God found in Abrahamic religions, where God is considered, states Brodd, as "creator of the world, above and independent of human existence", while in Hinduism "God, the universe, human beings and all else is essentially one thing" and everything is connected oneness, the same god is in every human being as Atman, the eternal Self.
Iconography and practices
Main article: Murti
Oh Tree! you have been selected for the worship of a deity,
Salutations to you!
I worship you per rules, kindly accept it.
May all who live in this tree, find residence elsewhere,
May they forgive us now, we bow to them.
Hinduism has an ancient and extensive iconography tradition, particularly in the form of Murti (Sanskrit: मूर्ति, IAST: Mūrti), or Vigraha or Pratima. A Murti is itself not the god in Hinduism, but it is an image of god and represents emotional and religious value. A literal translation of Murti as idol is incorrect, states Jeaneane Fowler, when idol is understood as superstitious end in itself. Just like the photograph of a person is not the real person, a Murti is an image in Hinduism but not the real thing, but in both cases the image reminds of something of emotional and real value to the viewer. When a person worships a Murti, it is assumed to be a manifestation of the essence or spirit of the deity, the worshipper's spiritual ideas and needs are meditated through it, yet the idea of ultimate reality or Brahman is not confined in it.
A Murti of a Hindu deity is typically made by carving stone, wood working, metal casting or through pottery. Medieval era texts describing their proper proportions, positions and gestures include the Puranas, Agamas and Samhitas particularly the Shilpa Shastras. The expressions in a Murti vary in diverse Hindu traditions, ranging from Ugra symbolism to express destruction, fear and violence (Durga, Kali), as well as Saumya symbolism to express joy, knowledge and harmony (Saraswati, Lakshmi). Saumya images are most common in Hindu temples. Other Murti forms found in Hinduism include the Linga.
A Murti is an embodiment of the divine, the Ultimate Reality or Brahman to some Hindus. In religious context, they are found in Hindu temples or homes, where they may be treated as a beloved guest and serve as a participant of Puja rituals in Hinduism. A murti is installed by priests, in Hindu temples, through the Prana Pratishtha ceremony, whereby state Harold Coward and David Goa, the "divine vital energy of the cosmos is infused into the sculpture" and then the divine is welcomed as one would welcome a friend. In other occasions, it serves as the center of attention in annual festive processions and these are called Utsava Murti.
Temple and worship
Main articles: Hindu temple and Puja (Hinduism)
In Hinduism, deities and their icons may be hosted in a Hindu temple, within a home or as an amulet. The worship performed by Hindus is known by a number of regional names, such as Puja. This practice in front of a murti may be elaborate in large temples, or be a simple song or mantra muttered in home, or offering made to sunrise or river or symbolic anicon of a deity. Archaeological evidence of deity worship in Hindu temples trace Puja rituals to Gupta Empire era (~4th century CE). In Hindu temples, various pujas may be performed daily at various times of the day; in other temples, it may be occasional.
The Puja practice is structured as an act of welcoming, hosting, honoring the deity of one's choice as one's honored guest, and remembering the spiritual and emotional significance the deity represents the devotee.Jan Gonda, as well as
Vedic era deities evolved over time. Rudra (left) is represented in Vedic literature, is shown as Shiva-Rudra 2nd-century sculpture (middle), and as Shiva (meaning kind) in 13th-century art work (right). The iconography evolved, retaining some symbolic elements such as trident, axe or antelope.
Proper Murti design is described in ancient and medieval Indian texts. They describe proportions, posture, expressions among other details, often referencing to nature.
Along with Murti, Hindus use nature and aniconic symbols for deities. Linga-Yoni (left) symbolizes Shiva-Parvati,Tulsi plant in a square base (center) is symbolism for Vishnu, and sunrise (or rivers) are revered as aspects of the spiritual everywhere.