Lakshima According to Hindu scriptures there are 330 million devas (Hindu Gods). These gods come in many forms and types. Some well-known ones are featured in well-known Hindu myths. Some local ones are worshiped in only a few villages or even by a few villagers. Some are associated with animals, plants (all living things are regarded as divine) as well as natural objects and forces. Others are deified ancestors or historical figures. Many deities are associated with particular places or specialized powers or seasons.
The pantheon of gods is as complex as it is vast. Identifying which god is which is often very difficult because they are usually depicted as eternally young and have the same serene expressions. Identification is often made from certain features or certain object they are holding or the animal they are riding on. Making matters even more complex is the fact that the names of gods, their stories, ancestry and links with other god often varies quite a bit from place to place. Many gods have been created over the years through the amalgamation of different gods and cults.
Individual Hindus generally recognize a multiplicity of gods but are only devoted to one or a few of them. In Hinduism there is no real hierarchy of gods. Each god and goddess in Hinduism occupies its own heaven and is worshiped with a different set of doctrines and beliefs. Each gets its turn receiving darśan from Hindu followers.
Many Hindu rituals are oriented towards specific deities. Most of the practices are based on sacred treatises of relatively recent origin. Devout Hindus invoke the names of deities at the beginning of business and religious ceremonies. After winning a big case some Hindu lawyers thank the mother goddess Kali with a sacrificed goat.
Hindu gods and deities are often described in terms of light. See Creation Story and Story in the Mahabharta
Websites and Resources on Hinduism: heart of Hinduism hinduism.iskcon.com/index ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Hindu Universe hindunet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hinduism Home Page uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/religionet/er/hinduism ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/wih/image-library ; India Divine Pictures of Hinduism indiadivine.org/pictures
Monotheism Versus Polytheism
Ganesh and his his mount, a rat Hindus find the notion of one God unnecessarily restrictive. They are “dazzled by the wondrous variety of the creation...For so multiplex a world, the more gods the better! How could one god account for so varied a creation?”
Even so Hinduism is basically monotheistic religion at heart in that all gods are images of the Supreme Being, Brahma (See Below). To explain the multiplicity and plurality of gods, Hindus view the Brahma as a diamond with a multitude of facets, each representing a god, with some individual facets having more of a hold on individual people than others Whereas Christians, Jews and Muslim ascribe the powers of the cosmos to one god. Hindus ascribe different aspects of the cosmos to different gods. Interaction with these gods brings people closer to the cosmos.
Hindus believe that God is everywhere; that all human beings are sons of God; and that the Hindu, Jewish and Christian gods are the same, for no label can be attached to god. Hinduism easily absorbs figures from other religions such Buddha and even Jesus.
Uneducated Hindus, it has been said, are more likely to view Hindu gods in a polytheistic way while educated Hindus are likely to have a monotheistic perspective and perceive the pantheon of gods as the equivalent of saints and angels in other religions.
Hindu Avatars, Consorts, Mounts and Body Language
Vishnu Avatars Hindu gods are often coupled in male and female pairs. All the important male gods have a shakti (female consort). These gods also have various avatars (incarnations) and vahana (mounts or creature they ride on) and are linked to other gods by marriage and birth and kinship. The mounts of Hindu Gods, which include tigers, swans, and bulls, transports the gods between earth and heaven. Many Hindu gods take the shape of horses when they die.
Avatars are often other gods. Krishna, for example, is an avatar of Vishnu and Kali is an avatar of Shakti. Many of these incarnations are believed to have occurred over time as different gods from different places, or with different duties, were merged.
Many Hindu gods have good and evil sides and even change into gods that are quite different from each other. Shiva, for example, is both the god of destruction and the enforcer of divine law and creation. He is both a god and a goddess named Shakti. Incarnations sometimes mirror the phases and experiences that humans go through in their lives.
Images of the gods often have multiple arms, with each hand holding a symbolic object or making a certain gesture ( mudra ) that have a specific meaning. A palm facing downward, for example, means that worshiper is safe and can take refuge. An open palm facing the viewer indicates protection and favor and tells the worshiper to have no fear. An open palm facing the viewer with the two middle fingers bent can also indicate fearlessness. A raised foot indicates liberation. Hands almost palm to palm near the chest symbolize teaching and turning the Wheel of Dharma. Kneeling or offering water are expressions of respect and humility.
Important Hindu Gods
The Hindu trinity consists of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the Supreme Being and Creator. Vishnu is the Preserver and Shiva in the Destroyer. Together they represent the Hindu cosmological cycle. The great goddess Devi, or Shakti, is also very important.
Hindus are generally divided into as Shaivas or Shaivites (devotees of Shiva), Vaishnavas (devotees of Vishnu) and Shaktas (devotees of Shakti). There are sophisticated philosophical schools and exotic cults associated with these groups. See Sects.
Followers of other gods often worship their favorite gods in conjunction with one, two or all three of the deities mentioned above and their different manifestations and mounts. Most of the lesser gods that are worshiped have some connection with Shiva.
Lakshima and Other Hindu Goddesses
Shiva and Parvati Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, good fortune and beauty. She is Vishnu's wife. She has two or four arms and is often shown seated on a lotus flower between two elephants with their trunks raised above her, sprinkling water on her. She is often depicted holding a lotus blossom, conch, disc and mace of Vishnu. Many people worship her because she brings good fortune.
Lakshima was born in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. She descended to earth as one of Vishnu’s avatars. She is sometimes depicted as Sita, the wife of Rama, or Rukmini, the consort of Krishna. She appears with each of Vishnu’s incarnations. When Vishnu came to earth as Vamana, the dwarf, Lakshmi appeared as a lotus.
Annapurna, the goddess of nourishment and abundance, is an aspect of the goddess Parvati and is often depicted with a pot overflowing with rice and a vessel filled to the brim with milk. She is the deity that beggars often prey to.
The Ganges is named after Ganga, a river goddess who descended from heaven and had her fall broken by Shiva’s hair. She is the second wife of Shiva. Her sisters are Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri. Prayers honoring all these holy relatives are recited in the holy river when the bathers submerge themselves to be purified. Ganga represents fertility because she provides water for land. She is often depicted with a bowl of water in one hand and lotus flower in another, sitting on a makara , a legendary sea monster.
Garelaisama. is a female deity associated with edible plants and good luck in hunting as is said to have the power to keep drunk people from quarreling. Whenever an animal is caught a piece of meat is cut off and immediately offered to Garelaisama. In the past hunters often tried to kill only male animals so as not upset the female deity. If one was accidently killed the hunter prayed for forgiveness.
Other Hindu goddesses: 1) Savitri, goddess of movement; 2) Usha, daughter of the sky and her sister night; and 3) Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and knowledge (See Brahma);
Skanda, Indra and Yama
Yama Skanda is the God of War and the son of Shiva and Pravati (See Above). He wears a tiara or has hair divided into three locks and knotted at the top of his head. . He is often shown holding a double thunderbolt, a sword, a spear and/or a trident, symbols of his prowess as a fighter. He was created to defeat the powers of evil as represented by the demon Takara. His mount is a peacock.
Skanda is a complex god with many different, often conflicting, stories about his origins. He is also known as Kartikehha, the Boy God, Kataragama, Kumara and Subrahmanian. In some stories his father is Agni or his mother is Ganga or the six stars of the Pleiades. He is depicted with both six heads and five heads and as many as 12 arms. According to one story he was originally six children that his mother Parvati hugged so hard they became one child with six heads. Skanda is associated with war, pain and suffering. Acts of penance such as placing spikes through ones cheeks are sometimes done in his honor.
Yama is the God of Justice and the Underworld. Also known as the Lord of Law and Supreme Judge, he decides who will go to heaven and hell, what place they will occupy there based on their performance on earth and then determines how they will be reincarnated. Yama was the first person in the world to die. He has multiple arms (usually eight) and holds the weapons of justice (clubs) necessary for judging the dead and determining their fate. His mount is a buffalo.
Indra is the Vedic God of Storms. Once a king of all gods, he became popular in the post Vedic period. He lives in a golden palace on the summit of Mt. Meru and wears a high tiara or turban and is dressed in fancy clothes and jewelry. He holds a disc, an elephant goad, an axe to make rivers flow, and a thunderbolt, his main weapon. He often rides on the central head elephant with three heads. Many stories about him revolve around his legendary anger. Once after members of his cult decided to follow Krishna instead, Indra conjured up a fierce storm to punished them and Krishna had to hold up a mountain to protect them.
Other Hindu Gods
Kama is the God of Love. He carries a bow adorned with flowers and a case of floral arrows made of lotus, limes, mace, jasmine and gold mango tree flowers. He usually has two to eight arms. His consort is Rati; his mount is a parrot. Rati is the Goddess of Desire and Sexual Lust.
Surya is the Sun God. A prominent god in the Vedic era who is less important now, he wears a long tunic and high boots and often appears with the moon. He sometimes holds a lotus and rides a chariot drawn by seven horses. The wheel depicted in many Hindu temple is the wheel of happiness from his chariot.
Other Hindu deities include: 1) Vayu, the wind god; 2) Sitala, the small pox god, who remains revered as a protector of children even though small pox has been eradicated; 3) Kunera, the God of Wealth, a dwarf, often depicted with a lemon or pomegranate in one hand and a mongoose or jewels in the other. Many Hindus pay homage to Buddha as if he were one of their gods.
Hindu Mythical Beings
Ravana Garuda is a giant mythical bird with wings, a human body, a thick, curved , bird-like beak and bulging eyes. The mount of Vishnu and the enemy of the nagas, it has claws like an eagle and wears a diadem and jewelry. The bottom part of the body is covered with feathers.
The Kala is a mask-like creature whose image is often found above the doorways of temples. Regarded as a protector, he has round, bulbous eyes, a human or lion nose, a big grin, two horns and claw-like hands. According to legend, he was once a full-bodied monster with a ravenous appetite. One day he asked Shiva for a victim to consume. Angered by the request, Shiva told the Kala to devour himself. The Kala did as he was asked but was unable to devour his head. Moved by the act, Shiva ordered that his image be placed at the doorways of temples as a reminder of his “terrible and beneficent powers.”
Asparas are celestial nymphs who live in Indra’s heaven and are often depicted as beautiful dancers or courtesans of the sky. In South Asian art asparas are commonly shown carrying flowers, which they toss on kings and heros. They also appear in Southeast Asian art.
Other major mythical figures include: 1) 1 Bali, a demon king who was dethroned from his position as king of the world by Vishnu; 2) Bana, a demon who has multiple arms and rides a chariot pulled by lions; 3) Ravana, the demon king featured in the the Ramayana; and 4) Vyala, a lion beast that symbolizes untamed instincts.
Hindu mythical beings include: 1) Ananta , a celestial snake that Vishnu rests on while in deep cosmic sleep; 2) asuras , demons that represent the forces of evil; 3) dvarapalas , club-bearing protectors of temples often found at the entrance gate of temples; 4) makara , a large sea creature with the body of a reptile and a trunk-like jaw and snout, sometimes with another creature emanating from his mouth; and 5) yakshas , male and female spirits, with bulging eyes and fangs, associated with fertility and trees.
Nagas and Cobras
Nagas are mythical semi-divine serpent-gods that live in the water or the underworld beneath the earth. They are ruled by Vasuki and are enemies of Garuda. They can marry humans and bring rain and prosperity to a region and are closely associated with Vishnu and Vaishnavote Hinduism. They are often depicted as cobras with multiple heads (often five) that spread out like a fan and are regarded as protectors of sacred places.
Cobras are worshiped throughout India. Unlike Christians who equate snakes with the devil and the temptation of Eve, Hindus view cobras as a positive symbol. According to legends they have shielded kings, tribal heroes and Hindu gods such as Krishna with their hoods. Villagers honor them for their ability to bring rain, fear them for their ability to bring disasters and regard them as reincarnations of important chiefs.
Nagas on a Cambodian temple Especially among Tamils, cobras are associated with the Shiva, one the three most important gods in Hinduism, and lingams, symbols of Shiva that represent rebirth and fertility and the creative forces of the universe. Shiva is sometimes painted with a cobra around his head. Phallic-shaped stone lingams are often protected by nagas.
Termite mounds are also associated with Shiva and a cobra found living in one is cause for celebration. Sometimes when one os found Tamil women build a wall around a snake-occupied mound and turn it into a shrine. If the snake stays in the mound priests visit and offerings of camphor and flowers are made. After years a temple may grow up around the mound.
Sometimes a crowd of will gather around a cobra. Usually the snake will make a hasty retreat to the nearest underbrush, but sometimes it will rear up in the middle of the crowd open it hood and make no attempt to strike those watching or to get away. When this happens women will sometimes roll their eyes and go into a trance, swaying back and forth within inches of the snake. This will go on for hours sometimes, with the snake just as entranced as the women and they are of the snake. When Miller asked a women about the experience she said, "Of course the Good Snake wouldn't bite us. To us Nulla Pambu is a manifestation of Lord Shiva. The god himself was there, and naturally we worshiped without fear.”
The town of Shirala in west-central India hosts the Great Serpent Festival in July. Before it begins men spend weeks digging up the earth around their town looking for snakes. When a snake is caught it is handled reverently and placed in a large earthen pot. On the day of the festival the snake handlers parade the snake pots through the streets, followed by boys with red-washed monitor lizards carried high in the air tied to poles. According to Miller the lizards look as if they have been crucified. But apparently the ritual is not cruel; the lizards are regularly given water.
When the procession ends the snakes are let out of the their jars while handlers hold on to their tails. Parch rice is thrown in the the direction of the snakes and offerings are made. Bamboo sticks are used to control their movements and boys sit in front rolling pebble-filled pots back and forth. Miller said all of the snakes he examined had fangs "yet never throughout the day, did we see any of these hundreds of cobras attempt to strike their handlers."
Local Hindu Gods
In rural areas little-know local gods are often considered more important than the famous Hindu gods. The religious scholar A. L. Bashan wrote: “Local divinities and demigods, whose total is enormous...play a great part in the life of the peasant and the ordinary man. While the great gods are thought to be busied with important affairs and chiefly accessible in temples, these often nameless godlings are always available to help the village with its troubles.”
Local mountains, rivers, large strange-shaped rocks, forests and other natural objects are often regarded as divine and honored in the same way that animist tribal people revere natural objects and spirits. Hindus often believe that village deities are benevolent if they properly appeased but can cause illness if they are not. No doubts in ancient times Hinduism absorbed local deities, sometimes as incarnations of relatives of existing gods.
There are also beliefs in spirits and ghosts. The souls of the dead who have not been properly buried are thought to live outside the World of Fathers and torment their relatives as ghost until they are properly buried. There is also a belief that ghosts of people who died unfortunate deaths can cause harm.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011