Hinduism is polytheistic. It incorporates many gods and goddesses with different functions and powers; but in the most important and widely held doctrine, the Vedanta (end of the Vedas), gods and goddesses are considered merely different manifestations or aspects of a single underlying divinity. This single divinity is expressed as a Hindu triad comprising the religion's three major gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, personifying creation, preservation, and destruction, respectively. Vishnu and Shiva, or some of their numerous avatars (incarnations), are most widely followed. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1991 *]

God is called Ishvara, Bhagavan, Parameshwara, Deva or Devi by Hindus. These terms have different meanings in different schools of Hinduism. Hindu scriptures refer to celestial entities called Devas (or Devi in the feminine form), which can be translated into English as gods or heavenly beings. These deities are an essential part of Hindu culture and are depicted in a number of different mediums such as art, architecture, and even on television. Stories about them are told in the scriptures, particularly in Indian epic poetry and the Puranas. Devas and devis are often distinguished from Ishvara, personal gods. Many Hindus worship Ishvara in one of its particular manifestations. The choice is a matter of individual preference, regional and family traditions. Devas are considered manifestations of Brahman. Hindu texts accept a polytheistic framework, but this is generally conceptualized as the divine essence or luminosity that gives vitality and animation to the inanimate natural substances. [Source: Wikipedia]

Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is regarded as the ninth avatar of Vishnu. Some Hindus identify Christ as the tenth avatar; others regard Kalki as the final avatar who is yet to come. These avatars are believed to descend upon earth to restore peace, order, and justice, or to save humanity from injustice. The Mahabharata (compiled by the sage Vyasa, probably before 400), describes the great civil war between the Pandavas (the good) and the Kauravas (the bad) — two factions of the same clan. It is believed that the war was created by Krishna. Perhaps the flashiest and craftiest avatar of Vishnu, Krishna, as a part of his lila (sport or act), is believed motivated to restore justice — the good over the bad. *

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.

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/hindu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), .wikisource.org ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs

Hindu Belief in God

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Oxford Professor Gavin Flood wrote: “Most Hindus believe in God but what this means varies in different traditions. The Sanskrit words Bhagavan and Ishvara mean 'Lord' or 'God' and indicate an absolute reality who creates, sustains and destroys the universe over and over again. It is too simplistic to define Hinduism as belief in many gods or 'polytheism'. Most Hindus believe in a Supreme God, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him. God, being unlimited, can have unlimited forms and expressions. [Source: Prof. Gavin Flood, BBC]

According to the Pew Research Center: The vast majority of India’s Hindus believe in God (98 percent), including eight-in-ten who say they believe in God with absolute certainty. Even though Hinduism is sometimes referred to as a polytheistic religion, very few Hindus (7 percent) take the position that there are multiple gods, according to the Center’s 2019-2020 survey. The prevailing view, held by 61 percent of Hindus, is that there is one God “with many manifestations.” About three-in-ten Indian Hindus (29 percent) say simply: “There is only one God.”[Source: Jonathan Evans, Pew Research Center, October 26, 2022]

The survey asked Hindus who say they believe in God which god(s) they feel closest to, seeking to measure the concept of ishta devata (“personal god”). The vast majority of Hindus selected more than one god or indicated that they have many personal gods. Hindus most commonly feel close to Shiva (44 percent). Roughly three-in-ten Hindus say they feel closest to Ganesha (32 percent) and Lakshmi (28 percent), and 17 percent of Indian Hindus feel closest to Lord Ram — three deities commonly honored during Diwali.

Hindu Concept of God

Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with a wide variety of beliefs. Its concept of God is complex and depends on each individual, as well as the tradition and philosophy followed. It is sometimes referred to as henotheistic, meaning it involves devotion to a single god while accepting the existence of others. However, it is important to note that any such term is an overgeneralization.

The Hindu concept of God is complex and can be different for each person, but it revolves around a single God or supreme spirit. Most Hindus believe in a Supreme God, whose qualities and forms are represented by the multitude of deities which emanate from him. Different Hindu practices allow for various representations of God, but each representation (deva) is in itself a depiction of God. Hindus believe that the one supreme God cannot be fully understood, so the Earthly representations (Shiva, Vishnu, etc.) are merely symbolic of a supreme God that cannot be understood. Each Hindu is able to decide on whichever representation of God they prefer at any given time, and different cultures over the millennia have produced millions of representations to choose from. [Source: Jonathan H. Kantor, Listverse, July 31, 2016] [Source: Wikipedia]

Professor Flood wrote: ““God can be approached in a number of ways and a devoted person can relate to God as a majestic king, as a parent figure, as a friend, as a child, as a beautiful woman, or even as a ferocious Goddess. Each person can relate to God in a particular form, the ishta devata or desired form of God. Thus, one person might be drawn towards Shiva, another towards Krishna, and another towards Kali. Many Hindus believe that all the different deities are aspects of a single, transcendent power. [Source: Prof. Gavin Flood, BBC |::|]

Vishnu and his avatars

“In the history of Hinduism, God is conceptualised in different ways, as an all knowing and all pervading spirit, as the creator and force within all beings, their 'inner controller' (antaryamin) and as wholly transcendent. There are two main ideas about Bhagavan or Ishvara: Bhagavan is an impersonal energy. Ultimately God is beyond language and anything that can be said about God cannot capture the reality. Followers of the Advaita Vedanta tradition (based on the teachings of Adi Shankara) maintain that the soul and God are ultimately identical and liberation is achieved once this has been realised. This teaching is called non-dualism or advaita because it claims there is no distinction between the soul and the ultimate reality. |::|

“Bhagavan is a person. God can be understood as a supreme person with qualities of love and compassion towards creatures. On this theistic view the soul remains distinct from the Lord even in liberation. The supreme Lord expresses himself through the many gods and goddesses. The theologian Ramanuja (also in the wider Vedanta tradition as Shankara) makes a distinction between the essence of God and his energies. We can know the energies of God but not his essence. Devotion (bhakti) is the best way to understand God in this teaching.” |::|

Monotheism Versus Polytheism

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. 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.

Views About God and Creation in the Rig Veda

The Nasadiya Sukta (Creation Hymn) of the Rig Veda is one of the earliest texts that delves into metaphysical speculation about the creation of the universe, the concept of gods, and The One (which could be described as the primary god) , and whether even The One knows how the universe came into being. By some estimates the Rig Veda dates back to 1500 B.C..


The Rig Veda praises various deities in a henotheistic manner, with none considered superior or inferior. The hymns repeatedly refer to One Truth and One Ultimate Reality. In modern scholarship, the 'One Truth' of Vedic literature has been interpreted as monotheism, monism, or as a deification of the hidden principles behind the great happenings and processes of nature. [Source: Wikipedia]

On the origin of the universe, the Nasadiya Sukta (Rigveda, 10:129–6) reads:
Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

“Bhagavan is a person. God can be understood as a supreme person with qualities of love and compassion towards creatures. On this theistic view the soul remains distinct from the Lord even in liberation. The supreme Lord expresses himself through the many gods and goddesses. The theologian Ramanuja (also in the wider Vedanta tradition as Shankara) makes a distinction between the essence of God and his energies. We can know the energies of God but not his essence. Devotion (bhakti) is the best way to understand God in this teaching.” |::|

Hindus Views on God, The Self and Things

Hindus believe that all living creatures have a Self. This true "Self", or atman, is is believed to be eternal and is indistinguishable from Brahman, the supreme god, (Ultimate Reality) of Hindusim. The goal of life, according to the Advaita traditional of Hinduism, is to realise that one's Self is identical to supreme Self and that the supreme Self is present in everything and everyone, all life is interconnected and there is oneness in all life. Dualistic schools (Dvaita and Bhakti) regard Brahman as a Supreme Being separate from individual Selfs. They worship the Supreme Being variously as Vishnu, Brahma, Shiva, or Shakti, depending upon the sect. [Source: Wikipedia]

The belief is that divinity exists in everything, including human beings, animals, trees, and rivers is very strong in Hinduism. This is view is pronounced in the practice of making offerings to rivers, trees, animals, birds, tools, the rising sun, guests, teachers, friends and parents. Therefore, each thing is considered sacred and worthy of reverence because of its divine nature, rather than being inherently sacred. The Vedic foundations of Hinduism are distinct from animism, which holds that all things are inherently divine.

In contrast, Hinduism perceives divinity as manifested in all things, according to Buttimer and Wallin. This perspective differs from animism, which sees multiplicity and an equality of ability to compete for power among humans, animals, and nature. The Vedic view does not emphasize competition, equality between man and nature, or multiplicity. Instead, it emphasizes an overwhelming and interconnecting single divinity that unifies everyone and everything.


20120501-Vishnu_Avatars 2.jpg
Vishnu Avatars
In Hinduism, an avatar is the incarnation of a deity in human or animal form, often taken to counteract an evil in the world. It usually refers to 10 appearances of Vishnu. 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.

The term 'avatar' is not found in Vedic literature, but is present in verb forms in post-Vedic literature and as a noun, particularly in Puranic literature after the 6th century A.D. The concept of reincarnation is most commonly associated with the avatars of the Hindu god Vishnu, although it has been applied to other deities. Various lists of avatars of Vishnu appear in Hindu scriptures, including the ten Dashavatara of the Garuda Purana. In the goddess-based Shaktism tradition, avatars of the Devi are found, and all goddesses are considered to be different aspects of the same metaphysical Brahman and Shakti (energy). Although medieval Hindu texts mention avatars of other deities, such as Ganesha and Shiva, this is infrequent and of lesser importance compared to the mention of Vishnu's avatars. [Source: Wikipedia]

Vinay Lal, professor of history at UCLA, writes: “The idea of an avatar was distinct to Hinduism before a variation of it was introduced into Mahayana Buddhism, and it retains a pivotal role in Hindu theology and mythology. The idea of an avatar is predicated on the notion that from time to time, whenever evil or ignorance is on the increase, the Supreme Being must incarnate itself in some form, or descend to earth, so that the forces that stand for good might be reinforced. [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA ==]

Though the word avatar is usually translated into English as "incarnation", and less often as "descent", an avatar can also be understood as an exemplar, as in the case of Rama, or as a vehicle for transmitting ideas to human beings; an avatar might also be viewed as an expression of God’s playfulness, wrath, or mere concern for human welfare – and as a warning. The Supreme Being (as Vishnu) might choose to incarnate itself in forms lower than humans, so that what the Greeks called the hubris or pride of man is checked; it might choose to manifest itself in forms – such as half man, half lion – that are incomprehensible from the standpoint of ordinary rationality, but that point to the animal tendencies within us, just as they suggest both that the enterprise of being human is always fraught with the most hazardous consequences, and that those forms of life which we habitually consider below us might have in them the intimations of divinity.” ==

Worship of Personal Gods

For the vast majority of Hindus, the most important religious path is bhakti (devotion) to personal gods. There are a wide variety of gods to choose from, and although sectarian adherence to particular deities is often strong, there is a widespread acceptance of choice in the desired god (ishta devata ) as the most appropriate focus for any particular person. Most devotees are therefore polytheists, worshiping all or part of the vast pantheon of deities, some of whom have come down from Vedic times. In practice, a worshiper tends to concentrate prayers on one deity or on a small group of deities with whom there is a close personal relationship. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Durga puja

Puja (worship) of the gods consists of a range of ritual offerings and prayers typically performed either daily or on special days before an image of the deity, which may be in the form of a person or a symbol of the sacred presence. In its more developed forms, puja consists of a series of ritual stages beginning with personal purification and invocation of the god, followed by offerings of flowers, food, or other objects such as clothing, accompanied by fervent prayers. Some dedicated worshipers perform these ceremonies daily at their home shrines; others travel to one or more temples to perform puja , alone or with the aid of temple priests who receive offerings and present these offerings to the gods. The gifts given to the gods become sacred through contact with their images or with their shrines, and may be received and used by worshipers as the grace (prasada ) of the divine. Sacred ash or saffron powder, for example, is often distributed after puja and smeared on the foreheads of devotees. In the absence of any of these ritual objects, however, puja may take the form of a simple prayer sent toward the image of the divine, and it is common to see people stop for a moment before roadside shrines to fold their hands and offer short invocations to the gods. *

Since at least the seventh century A.D., the devotional path has spread from the south throughout India through the literary and musical activities of saints who have been some of the most important representatives of regional languages and traditions. The hymns of these saints and their successors, mostly in vernacular forms, are memorized and performed at all levels of society. Every state in India has its own bhakti tradition and poets who are studied and revered. In Tamil Nadu, groups called Nayanmars (devotees of Shiva) and Alvars (devotees of Vishnu) were composing beautiful poetry in the Tamil language as early as the sixth century. In Bengal one of the greatest poets was Chaitanya (1485-1536), who spent much of his life in a state of mystical ecstasy. One of the greatest North Indian saints was Kabir (ca. 1440-1518), a common leatherworker who stressed faith in God without devotion to images, rituals, or scriptures. Among female poets, Princess Mirabai (ca. 1498-1546) from Rajasthan stands out as one whose love for Krishna was so intense that she suffered persecution for her public singing and dancing for the lord. *

A recurring motif that emerges from the poetry and the hagiographies of these saints is the equality of all men and women before God and the ability of people from all castes and occupations to find their way to union with God if they have enough faith and devotion. In this sense, the bhakti tradition serves as one of the equalizing forces in Indian society and culture. *

Paramparas (Hindu God Sects)

many sadhu (holy men), like the Shiva Ratri here smoking a chillum, are Shaivites

Hindus are generally divided into schools or sects such 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. 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. See Sects.

Hindus are often classified into the three most popular Hindu denominations, called paramparas in Sanskrit. These paramparas are defined by their attraction to a particular form of God (called ishta or devata). They are: 1) Vishnu's worshippers, usually called Vaishnava; 2) Shiva worshippers, usually called Shaivas; and 3) Shaktas, who worship the main Hindu Goddess in her gentle forms such as Lakshmi, Parvati, and Sarasvati, or in her ferocious forms such as Durga and Kali.

Vaishnava consider Vishnu to be the greatest god. They regard the other gods as lesser or demi gods. Vaishnava worship only Vishnu. This is considered to be the most popular Hindu denomination. Vishnu monotheism is called Vaishnavism.

Professor Gavin Flood of Oxford University wrote: “Vaishnavas focus on Vishnu and his incarnations (avatara, avatars). The Vaishanavas believe that God incarnates into the world in different forms such as Krishna and Rama in order to restore dharma. Shaivas focus on Shiva, particularly in his form of the linga although other forms such as the dancing Shiva are also worshipped. The Shaiva Siddhanta tradition believes that Shiva performs five acts of creation, maintenance, destruction, concealing himself, revealing himself through grace.”

Vinay Lal, a professor of history at UCLA writes: “Shiva is represented as the Destroyer... Vishnu holds the universe in balance, acting as the Preserver.... Indian sectarian history and conflict resolves itself largely, though by no means exclusively, into a struggle between the adherents of Shiva, called Saivites, and the followers of Vishnu or Vaishnavites. The rival claims of the followers of Shiva and Vishnu are found in most Indian texts, stretching as far back as the Mahabharata, but there are also attempts to reconcile these claims with the argument that Shiva and Vishnu are in reality one. Thus, according to the Harivamsa, there is "no difference between Shiva who exists in the form of Vishnu, and Vishnu who exists in the form of Shiva." [Source: Vinay Lal, professor of history, UCLA]

Different Ideas About God in Different Hindu Schools

Different Hindu sects, schools and denominations have different ideas about god that are are sometimes atheistic. The Nyaya school, for example, was initially non-theist-atheist. However, later scholars from the school argued for the existence of God and provided proofs using their theory of logic. This view was not shared by all schools of Hinduism. The Samkhya, Mimamsa, and Carvaka schools of Hinduism were non-theistic/atheist, arguing that the concept of God was an unnecessary metaphysical assumption. [Source: Wikipedia]

Vaishnava musical group, identifiable by the tilaks on their foreheads

The Vaisheshika school started as another non-theistic tradition relying on naturalism and positing that all matter is eternal, but it later introduced the concept of a non-creator God. The Yoga school of Hinduism accepted the concept of a 'personal god' and left it to the individual Hindu to define their god. Advaita Vedanta teaches a monistic and abstract concept of the Self and Oneness in everything, without any room for gods or deities. This perspective is considered spiritual rather than religious, according to Mohanty. On the other hand, Bhakti sub-schools of Vedanta teach about a creator God that is distinct from each human being.

In Hinduism, God is often represented as having both feminine and masculine aspects. This is exemplified in the pairings of Shiva with Parvati (Ardhanarishvara), Vishnu with Lakshmi, Radha with Krishna, and Sita with Rama. The feminine aspect of deity is particularly pronounced in these pairings. Graham Schweig has argued that Hinduism has the most prominent representation of the divine feminine in world religion, from ancient times to the present. The goddess is considered the core of the most esoteric Saiva traditions.

Animated Hindu Gods on Indian Television and Film

In the early 2000s, animated television shows featuring Hindu gods and goddesses began to appear as an alternative Tom and Jerry, Spider-Man and Mickey Mouse. Rama Lakshmi wrote in the Washington Post: To many parents the "mytho-cartoons" are more than a novelty; they are a way to introduce the ancient tales to a generation that seems to be losing touch with its 5,000-year heritage. "We grew up hearing these stories from our grandparents. But my son is learning the epics from animation films," said Tejas's mother, Madhu Vohra, 36. "I am happy that he's imbibing our cultural values in a fun way. He can relate to the tales better this way. And I don't need to monitor him closely when he watches Indian mythology."[Source: Rama Lakshmi, Washington Post, January 9, 2008]

Like many parents in New Delhi, Vohra recently barred Tejas from watching "Crayon Shin-Chan," an animated Japanese TV series featuring a foul-mouthed 5-year-old boy. The new cartoon films address this parental angst by presenting Indian mythology and folklore as cool and trendy. Besides Hanuman, deities featured on animated TV series and movies have included the elephant-headed Ganesha and the blue-bodied, mischievous Krishna. Indian jungle stories and princely tales are also being produced for television and the home video market.

The new shows have their roots in the explosion of private television channels in India more than a decade ago. It was then that marketers began to search for an opportunity to put uniquely Indian stories in cartoon format. In 2001, the Cartoon Network broadcast the first Indian mythology show, "Pandavas," a version of a tale from the classical Hindu epic "Mahabharata" about the travails of five princely brothers. Since then, the channel, which reaches more than 27 million homes, has shown 15 more Indian animation series, along with international programs.

The latest, "Krishna," was rated the most popular series shown on any children's channel in India last year, topping a series based on the Harry Potter books, according to Anshuman Misra, the managing director of Turner International India, which owns the Cartoon Network and Pogo channels. Misra said it's clear why the myth-based cartoons have become so popular. "They are successful because there is an element of familiarity with these mythological characters, the stories are timeless, and Indian parents actively encourage the children to watch them," he said. A big box office hit in 2007, "My Friend Ganesha," blended animation and live-action scenes to show the little elephant-headed god snowboarding and being taught to speak English by a nerdy schoolboy.

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.

Last updated December 2023

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