The gods of Hinduism have successfully created enough confusion in the minds of the followers of alien faiths who have chanced to come across them. Even more successfully have they created enough conflicts among the Hindus themselves! It is ignorance that causes confusion and creates conflicts. Hence, discovering this ignorance and dispelling it should automatically lead to clearing the confusions and resolving the conflicts.
There is the story of the atheist who vehemently preached throughout his life that neither God nor soul existed, praying at the last moment of his life thus: '0 God, if there is a God, save my soul, if there is one!' This story may sound funny, but, nevertheless, it poignantly reveals man's psychological necessity for God.
Belief in God has sustained mankind for millennia. Faith in and adoration of gods and goddesses has fulfilled a practical necessity in the lives of millions of the ordinary Hindus. It is naive to suggest that the Hindus did not or could not conceive of one God, the Supreme. Philosophical thinking in Hinduism has risen to sublime heights in the Upanisads, the Bhagavad Gita and the Brahma Sutras. However, these great works, and the thinkers following in their footsteps, recognized the limitation of the average human mind and its emotional needs. That is why they wisely provided for various kinds of Up as an as (meditations and modes of worship) to suit the different tastes and needs of the votaries.
While deriving the concept of God, it is but natural for man to start from the world in which he lives and moves. So, the God of Hinduism, when looked at from this angle, is the Creator. However, He creates the entire world, not out of nothing which is illogical, but out of Himself. After creation, He sustains it with His power, rules over it like an all-powerful emperor, meting out justice, as reward and punishment, in accordance with the deeds of the individual beings. At the end of one cycle of creation-Hinduism advocates the cyclic theory of creation-He withdraws the entire world order into Himself.
The Hindu scriptures wax eloquent while describing the qualities of God. He is all-knowing and all-powerful. He is the very personification of justice, love and beauty. In fact, He is the personification of all the blessed qualities that man can ever conceive of. He is ever ready to shower His grace, mercy and blessings on His creation. Really speaking, the very purpose of His creating this world is to shower His blessings on the creatures, to lead them gradually from less perfect states to more perfect ones. He is easily pleased by the prayers and supplication of His devotees. However His response to these prayers is guided by the principle, that it should not be in conflict with the cosmic law concerning the general welfare of the world, and the law of Karma concerning the welfare of the particular individual.
The Hindu concept of God has two special features. Depending upon the needs and tastes of his votaries" He can appear to them in any form they like to worship, and respond through that form. He can also incarnate Himself amongst human beings in order to lead them to His own kingdom. And this incarnating is a continuing process, taking place whenever and wherever He deems it necessary.
Then, there is the other aspect of God, as the Absolute. 'Brahman' is the name usually given to this aspect. It means what is infinitely big. It is the Infinite itself. It transcends everything that is created. Yet, it is immanent too, immanent in all that is created. It is so unlike anything we know that it defies all description. It has been stated that the only way by which it can be predicated, is the negative way: 'Not this! Not this!'
In its own essential nature, it is defined as 'Sat-cit-ananda,' 'Existence-consciousness-bliss'. It is the basis or substratum of all existence, consciousness and joy.
Metaphysics points towards Brahman, the Absolute. A thinking mind and a feeling heart-that is what a human being is-can accept only God, the Creator and the Ruler (Isvara), since the world is very much a reality to it. The correlation between the Brahman and this Isvara, though instinctively felt by the feeling heart, will ever remain an enigma to the thinking mind! Could this be due to the mysterious power of Maya?
A GENERAL NOTE ON THE GODS OF HINDUISM
The polytheism of the Hindus, though apparent, has remained a mysterious riddle. It will continue to remain so until it is viewed in the right perspective.
There are three aspects to this polytheism. The three main cult deities-the Trinity consisting of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva along with their consorts, form the first aspect. Here all the cult deities are considered to be different facets of God, the Supreme (Isvara). The minor deities like Ganesa and Kumara, form the second aspect. Though these deities also are sometimes described as the facets of God the Supreme, their position is usually inferior to that of the Trinity. They represent limited manifestations of the Supreme God. The Lokapalas (protectors of the world), also called as Dikpalas (protectors of the cardinal direc?tions) like Indra, Varuna).and Agni and others, comprise the third aspect. They are actually offices of power in the cosmic scheme of creation and human beings who have acquired extraordinary religious merit necessary for getting those places, will occupy them in each cycle of creation. Then there are many number of village deities and demigods who can be regarded either as very limited manifestations of the Supreme God or as forces of nature deified or as human beings who by virtue of some special merit and power are elevated to godhood in course of time, after their death.
The statement of Lord Sri Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita (4.11; 7.21) that He, the Supreme Lord, will respond to the devotees in whichever form they worship Him and in whichever way they approach Him, can form the philosophical basis, typical to Hinduism, for this polytheism. So God can be all things to all men, and human beings can supplicate Him for anything-from the sublime to the ridiculous! However, the Vedic gods form a class by themselves and so need separate treatment.
THE VEDIC GODS
The Rig veda Samhita forms the basic scripture of Hinduism and tradition accords it the highest place. This great book is full of hymns, Suktas as they are called, which attain supreme heights of poetical beauty and philosophical acumen, a rare combination indeed!
A major part of this work is devoted to prayers to gods like Indra, Agni, Varuna and others. These Vedic gods are usually enumerated as thirty three: eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas, Indra and Prajapati. These gods are assigned to the three regions of the earth (PrthvI), the heavens (Dyaus) and the intermediary space, (Antariksa). Apart from these gods, we also find many inanimate objects like grinding stone, qualities like faith, emotions like anger, aspects of nature like dawn, deified and described. There are several female deities also, though they are not as prominent as the male deities.
Who are these gods? Are they different aspects of the One Supreme God? Or, are they different deities competing and conflicting with one another like the Greek gods? Or, are they just animals and totems masquerading as gods?! Since the main purpose of this small book is to acquaint the average reader with a general idea of gods and goddesses in Hinduism, we cannot embark upon a research into this aspect of the question. Suffice it to say that the famous statement in the RgVeda itself viz., 'ekam sat viprah bahudha vadanti,' 'Truth is One; sages call It by various names' (1.164.46) sets the tone for the philosophy of the Vedas which is amplified later on by the Upanisads. Hence, though these deities appear to be different and independent, they are really facets of the same Brahman, the Supreme God.
Let us now consider briefly the more important of these deities. For the sake of convenience they are arranged and dealt with in alphabetical order:
Adityas: The Adityas represent a group of deities. They are six in the Rgveda, eight in most of the Brahmanas, but become twelve in the Satapatha Brahmana. In the later mythological literate, they are always twelve.
The Adityas can be described as the personifications of laws that rule the universe and the human society. They regulate the relationships of human beings among themselves and with the forces of nature.
Aditya is one of the names of the sun. Hence the Adityas can be taken as the imperishable eternal beings, the gods of light, by whom all manner of luminous life is manifested and sustained in this universe.
The twelve Adityas are: Mitra (the friend), Varuna (one who encompasses and binds), Aryaman (the destroyer of foes), Daksa (the skilful), Bhaga (the giver), Amsa (the liberal), Tvastr (the shaper), Savitr (the vivifier), Pusan (the nourisher), Sakra (the mighty), Vivasvat (the resplendent) and Visnu (the pervader).
Sometimes, the twelve Adityas are linked with the twelve aspects of the sun spread over the twelve months and hence described as the twelve spokes of the wheel of time.