A majority of Indians are Hindus (nearly 80 percent). Hinduism originates from the Indian subcontinent and is considered the oldest and the 3rdlargest religion in the world in terms of adherents.
Hinduism has about 1 billion followers, with more than 905 million of them being Indians. Many of its practitioners refer to it as the “eternal law.”
The Hindu name comes from “Sindhu,” which refers to the Indus river through Pakistan. History says that the name was used for people who had settled on the Indus river banks.
The religion comprises a variety of systems of beliefs, philosophies, rituals, traditions, and obligations. Another factor that defines the path of Hinduism is the knowledge of its sacred texts and scriptures.
These ideas and beliefs go above and beyond to prove that Hinduism is not just but a system of beliefs- it’s a way of life.
The 3 main traditions are Shaivism, Vaishnavism, and Shaktism; their adherents are referred to as Shiva, Vishnu, and Shakti, respectively. The roots of the religion can be traced back to the 1stmillennium BCE to the female terra-cotta figurines found ubiquitously in excavations of sites found along the Indus valley.
The general nature of the religion
What makes Hinduism strikingly different from other religions is its pluralistic nature; it accepts different realities from different sources. This expansiveness is brought about because the truth cannot be encapsulated in any creedal formulation and, therefore, has to be sought from multiple sources.
According to Hinduism, one’s view of the truth is basically determined by the specifics of time, gender, state of mind, attainment, and state of consciousness.
All these factors function to expand a view of religious truth rather than minimize it. As a result, you will find that most Hindus believe intolerance as the foremost religious virtue.
Another way in which Hinduism differs from other religions is that it has no founder and no prophets. Although Hindus believe in a universal God called Brahman, who is the cause and foundation of all that is in existence.
They also believe that he takes many different forms that may be worshiped as Indian gods. Some of the common Hindu gods’ names are Vishnu, Shiva, Lakshmi, and Saraswathi.
Indians refer to their gods as “deva” and “Devi.” The former is masculine (gods), while the later is feminine (goddesses). All Hindus believe in the concept of the sacred Trimurti; Lord Brahma is the creator; Lord Vishnu is the sustainer; Lord Shiva is the destroyer. The four distinctive sects in Hinduism are:
The followers of this sect are referred to as Shaivas. They worship Lord Shiva together with all his incarnations. The Shaivas believe that Shiva is the creator, sustainer, revealer, concealer, and destroyer of the entire universe.
There are several sub-sects under Shaivism.
The followers of this sect are referred to as Vaishnavas. They worship Lord Vishnu, all his ten incarnations, as well as the Vishvaroopa. The Vaishnavas believe that Lord Vishnu is the creator, destroyer, sustainer, revealer, and concealer of the universe.
Similar to Shaivism, Vaishnavism also has several sub-sects.
3. The Shakti
The followers of this sect are known as Saktas; they believe in the divine feminine energy. Saktas literally translates to worshippers of the mother goddess. The Saktas believe that Shakti is the consort of Lord Shiva, and they control the universe together.
The Shakti sect believes that masculinity is incomplete without femininity, and the two are needed for the completeness of the universe.
4. Smarta Sampradaya
This orthodox sect has followers from the Hindu Brahmin families that consider the Hindu scriptures to be the most authoritative texts of Hinduism. Since they believe in the Smrtis (the scriptures), the followers are referred to as the Smartas.
The Smartaz only worship 5 divinities that they believe to be Brahman's animated forms: Shiva, Vishnu, Devi, Ganesh, and Surya- the Sun god.
The goals of human life
In Hinduism, there are 4 goals for human life that a believer can attain through his actions while they are alive. A person is expected to fulfill all these goals to lead a fruitful life and to get free from the cycle of reincarnation
These goals make up the Hindus way of life. The 4 goals are collectively referred to as the purusarthas, and they include:
Dharma relates to a person’s religious duties. This goal refers to the life code that involves respecting one’s elders and marriage.
Artha relates to a person’s prosperity. This second goal represents the pursuit of wealth and material gains by lawful means.
This goal gives a person the chance to reincarnate to a higher level through good and pure acts. Karma relates to the pleasures we give ourselves and how they affect our afterlife.
Moksa translates to spiritual liberation. This refers to the final release of the soul from the cycle of reincarnation.
Hindus believe that the soul is an eternal entity and exists through multiple lifetimes. The soul gets into a new creature after the previous body dies; it may be reborn as a person, an animal, or sprout as a plant. They do believe that everything that is living has a soul.
Reincarnation goes on and on until all the soul’s beliefs are realized. Afterward, the soul achieves some form of “freedom” that Indians refer to as Moksha.
To achieve this freedom, there are 4 different paths to take. They are:
- The path of knowledge
- The path of devotion
- The path of meditation
- The path of good works
Also, Hindus believe that how the soul comes back is dependent on karma. They argue that any challenges that you experience in your current life result from how you acted in your previous life. Therefore, they live their lives cautiously to earn a better life after their soul is reborn.
Worship and Pilgrimage
Daily worship is a mandatory part of Hinduism. They often at home, to a shrine which can literally be anything such as statues, a special altar, a special room, and even pictures.
Believers gather on the weekends at the temples (Mandirs) to worship together.
Hinduism facts also tell us that pilgrimage is also an important part of the religion. The most important one being the Chaar Dhaam; this should be done at least once during a person’s lifetime.
Other major Hindu pilgrimages are the Barah Jyotirlinga Yatra and Kumbh Mela. The later is held after every three years and is a mass pilgrimage whereby the believers meet at a sacred river and bathe.
The holy scriptures
The Hindu Holy Scriptures comprise of multiple works that are divided into Sruti and Smrti. In general, the scriptures talk about theology, mythology, and religious philosophies.
The Sruti (revealed) scriptures describe Hindu rituals and practices and are made up of the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Aranyakas, and the Brahmanas. On the other hand, the Smrti (remembered) scriptures define sacred thoughts and are made up of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
As we saw earlier, Brahman is the Hindu Supreme Being. Some other Indian gods and goddesses represent Brahman’s different aspects. The foremost among them is the Indian gods' Shiva and the Indian gods Ganesh. All these gods are special to Indians in their own special way.
It’s about time we have a look at the different Hindu deities and what they represent. Below is a list of the major Indian gods and goddesses that everyone should familiarize themselves with before making a pilgrimage trip to India. We have narrowed down the list to make it easy for you to wrap your head around the deities. L
1. Lord Shiva
Shiva is one of the principal Hindu deities worshipped as the creator, maintainer, and destroyer; he represents death and dissolution.
Other names used to refer to Lord Shiva are Mahadeva, Nataraja, Pashupati, Vishwanath, and Bhole Nath. He is the Supreme Being that protects and maintains the universe;
Shiva maintains balance by death and destroying worlds so that Brahma can bring rebirth and recreate them. He is also said to offer protection for his followers from anger, greed, ignorance, lust, and other traits that stand in the way of divine enlightenment.
Shiva is usually being depicted as a phallic symbol referred to as the Shiva Lingam.
According to the Shaivism sect, the highest form of Shiva is a formless and limitless soul of the universe. Shiva means “nothingness,” translating to omnipresent; this means that he is present in the form of one’s consciousness.
In addition to that, Shiva is also considered the master of dance and regeneration. He is one of the most complex Indian gods. He’s the benevolent herdsman of souls and the wrathful avenger, one who can kill or injure the forces of darkness.
Shiva often wears a crown of skulls and a snake around his upper arms and neck. This symbolizes that he has power over the most deadly of creatures. The skull represents the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. As a destroyer, he is dark and terrible.
Lastly, Shiva is often depicted with a third eye, which symbolizes higher consciousness. Whenever necessary, the eye can be used to destroy his enemies with fire.
Vishnu is the second deity of the Hindu trinity and is known to be the preserver and sustainer of life, representing the principles of truth, order, and righteousness.
He is also referred to as Jagannath, Vithoba, Narayana, and Hari. Hindus, who pray faithfully to Lord Vishnu, are referred to as Vaishnavas. They believe Vishnu will come to their rescue to restore peace in times of disorder.
Vishnu is believed to preserve life through his adherence to truth, order, righteousness, and order. He is known to encourage his followers always to be kind and compassionate to all creatures.
He is commonly depicted with four arms that represent his omnipotence and omnipresence. It’s not uncommon to see Vishnu seated upon a coiled snake. This represents the ability to stay calm in the face of adversity, chaos, and destructive forces.
Vishnu is worshipped in the forms of incarnations that are also referred to as avatars. The 10 incarnations (collectively known as Dashavatara) are:
1. Matsya: The Fish
This first avatar is said to have rescued man and other creatures from great floods. It gave humanity a warning about the coming floods and asked him to carry grains and other living creatures in a boat. Matsya then held onto the boat through the turbulent waters all night until the storm ended. Afterward, Brahma created the present world.
It’s often depicted as a giant golden fish or a human torso connected to the tail of a fish.
2. Kurma: The Tortoise
The Kurma avatar is the incarnation that relates to the myth of churning the ocean to obtain the treasures dissolved in the ocean of milk.
In this myth, the giant tortoise was sent to help support the world on his back to prevent it from sinking in the ocean. Kurma supported the land until the nectar of immorality emerged.
3. Varaha: The Boar
Varaha saved the earth by raising it from the bottom of the sea, where it had been dragged by the demon Hiranyaksha during a battle that had taken 1,000 years. He dived into the ocean and dragged the world out, using his tusks and his massive snout.
This avatar is depicted as a full boar and sometimes takes a boar’s head on top of a human body.
4. Narashima: The Man-Lion
The legend tells of a tyrant demon that had become extremely arrogant because it could not be harmed or killed by any means.
As a result, he started causing trouble both on earth and in heaven. Vishnu took the form of a man-lion to slay the demon that had turned against his own son Prahlada.
5. Vamana: The Dwarf
To destroy the demon king Bali, Vishnu took the form of a dwarf. Once he had already taken the form of a dwarf, he visited Bali, who had already taken over the universe and caused other gods to lose their power. Vamana asked Bali to give him just three feet of land.
After his wish was granted, he transformed from a dwarf into a giant and took the whole earth with the first foot. With the second step, he took over the heavens, and with the third, he pushed down Bali’s head to the underworld.
6. Parashurama: The Angry Man
Parasurama appeared to protect humanity and restore social order, corrupted by an arrogant warrior, Kshatriya. He is depicted as an angry man carrying an ax. For this reason, he is sometimes referred to as Rama with an ax.
This avatar destroyed the bad kings of the earth who had become autocratic and started to harm and harass the people.
7. Rama: The Perfect Man
Lord Rama is often depicted with blue skies, in an upright position with a bow and arrows. He is considered to be a compassionate man who is the perfect embodiment of humanity. He represents reason, courage, devotion, and adherence to dharma.
Rama came to earth to fight Ravana, the demon with multiple heads. The bow and arrow that he carries are a symbol of his readiness to fight and destroy even for the sake of protecting righteousness.
Hindus celebrate him as Ramayana during Diwali.
8. Krishna: The Divine Statesman
The eighth avatar of Vishnu is Lord Krishna, one of the most widely revered deities in Hinduism and is kept close to the believers’ hearts. He is also the most powerful incarnation. Hindus view Lord Krishna as a hero and a leader and as a teacher and a friend.
This beloved Hindu god is the destroyer of sins and an embodiment of joy, happiness, and love. Krishna is commonly depicted as a statesman who changes the rules shrewdly. He also takes a variety of other forms due to the many stories surrounding him.
He’s portrayed as having blue skin wearing a crown of peacock feathers with a yellow loincloth in pictures. Krishna is often drawn with a flute that he uses for his seductive powers.
9. Balarama: Krishna’s Elder Brother
Balarama is often portrayed as having pale skin in contrast to that of Krishna, which is blue. He said to have engaged in many adventures together with his brother.
In several versions of myths, Balarama is not commonly worshipped as an independent entity. The stories usually focus on his prodigious strength.
10. Kalki: The Mighty Warrior
Kalki is the last incarnation of Vishnu. His name also translates to “eternity.” He is expected to come in the very end and come carrying a fiery sword and riding on top of a white horse. Kalki comes to do away with the world of oppression by unrighteous rulers.
Ganesh — The Remover of Obstacles
Ganesh, also known as Ganapati, Binayak, Vinayaka, or Pillaiyar, is a chubby pot-bellied god with an elephant head and is said to be the son of Shiva and Parvati. His features make him very easy to identify.
All Hindu sects worship Ganesha; they believe that he’s the god of wealth, success, and knowledge. This makes him a significant god, perhaps the most important of them all.
Lord Ganesh is portrayed as riding a rat that assists him in removing any barriers that hinder one’s success. The rat is capable of gnawing through any obstacles on the way. Ganesh also bestows the wisdom on how to acquire fortunes.
Hindus pray to Ganesh before a big venture or ceremony such as a wedding or investment in a business. Authors and poets also invoke him as patron of letters at the start of their books.
The statues of Ganesh are a common sight in most towns. Indians place the image of Ganesh in locations where they plan on building a house.
Ganesh is depicted as a red being with four arms, a single task, and playing a musical instrument. He has one broken tusk attributes to his previous name, “Ekadanta,” which translated to “one-tusked.”
At times, he may be holding a noose, a pot of rice, an elephant goad, or laddus, which are his favorite sweets.
In images, his characteristic belly is usually bound by a cobra that acts as a reminder that Ganesh is Shiva’s son.
Hanuman — The Monkey God
Hanuman is yet another Indian god that is easily distinguishable. He is the son of Anjana and Kesari and the son of Vayu, the wind god.
The monkey-faced deity symbolizes courage, power, devotion, physical strength, perseverance, and selfless service. Hanuman is also a symbol of resistance to persecution, inner self-control, faith in a cause, and the ideal combination of heroic initiative and assertive excellence.
Worshippers often call upon Hanuman in trying times and in times of trouble as he teaches them the unlimited power within them.
Hanuman helped Lord Rama when he battled against evil forces, as described in Ramayana. Hanuman’s powers include his ability to become big at will. He could easily fight the elephant by assuming a much larger form.
Kali — The Dark Goddess
Kali, also referred to as Kalika, Shyama, or the dark mother is perhaps the fiercest deity. She is Shiva’s other wife and appears as a four-armed woman with a protruding blood-soaked tongue, blue or black skin, a skirt of bones, and a garland of skulls.
These features symbolize the ego's death and remind people that their bodies are only in a temporary state.
The goddess image portrays her standing atop her husband, Shiva, who remains calm under her feet. Kali’s eyes are red in absolute rage and filled with intoxication from Raktabija’s blood. She also has fangs in between which the tongue rolls.
In her most popular legend, when Durga and her assistants injured Raktabija in an attempt to destroy him, they noticed that they had only made the situation worse.
Every one of his blood droplets produced a clone of Raktabija. Kali was summoned to handle the situation of the multiplying demon. She consumed Raktabija and all his duplicates; she spread her tongue across the battlefield and licked all the blood falling from the demon before it hit the ground.
To celebrate, Kali performed a wild dance on the battlefield and bedecked herself with several heads' garland.
Devi is the Hindu goddess of existence; the masculine version is Deva. Generally, she is the sum of all the mother forms, including Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, and Jaganmata.
While in some forms, she is gentle, in others, she is ferocious. In short, she is the one, and at the same time, she is the many. Under several other aspects, Devi is also viewed as a cosmic force, a gracious donor of wealth, a heroine, a protector, and as a semi-divine force that manifests through fertility spirits.
In most legends, Devi is depicted as an ideal wife and a mother. She is a divine feminine figure with a strong presence in Hinduism. Devi is the central and supreme being in the Shakta and Saiva Hindu traditions. In Smarta, Devi is among the 5 primary forms of Brahman.
Saiva Hindu traditions. In Smarta, Devi is among the 5 primary forms of Brahman.
In Hinduism, Devi is symbolized as a cow because cows nourish us and give us endless resources.
Kamadhenu, the sacred and divine cow, is a deity of Devi and is often regarded as a pure mother who sustains human life and grants us our wishes.
It is in her that all the other gods are said to reside; she represents Dharma itself. Hindus love, protect, and respect cows because they sustain the life of many other species. This is contrary to popular belief that they worship cows.
For the longest time, eating beef was considered a sin in India. Cows were kept for milk and other dairy products and for their dung that was used as a fuel and as manure. Hinduism encourages eating vegetarian food. However, civilization has changed the man-bovine relationship in India. There are several slaughterhouses around the country where cattle are slaughtered and sold for consumption.
Lakshmi is the goddess of fortune, wealth, and both material and spiritual prosperity. She’s also known as Shri or Laxmi and is the wife of Vishnu. The name Lakshmi is derived from Laksya, which translates to the goal.
This beautiful goddess is depicted as a golden complexion woman with four-arms and wearing a red silk dress.
She’s either seated or standing upon a massive dew-drenched lotus blossom while holding a lotus bud. Lakshmi symbolizes purity, beauty, and domesticity.
Her image adorns most homes and business establishments of the faithful. Each one of her four arms represents the four goals of human life. People must appreciate and respect all the laws of life and the wonders of existence to realize her.
Although she’s at times described as restless, Lakshmi is maternal and has her hands raised, ready to bless.
Today Lakshmi is worshipped as the goddess of wealth and luxury who holds the promise of contentment and material fulfillment. Festivals such as Diwali and Sharad Purnima are celebrated in her honor.
Durga — The Invincible
This goddess is the ultimate representation of the Divine Mother. She symbolizes the fiery powers of the gods. Durga is the protector of humanity and the destroyer of evils such as jealousy, ego, and hatred.
The Hindu goddess Durga is portrayed with 8 arms holding onto a myriad of weapons and riding a lion. The weapons show that Durga is always protecting humankind from all directions.
Durga is sublime and contains within her a combination of the power of all Hindu gods. She’s immune to the weapons of all those who seek to subjugate her- she always triumphs. In her most ferocious form (when she is furious), Durga Metamorphoses into Kali.
Parvati — Daughter of the Mountain
Parvati is also referred to as the Divine Homemaker- the goddess of marriage, motherhood, and family. She caused Shiva to become a family man who still stuck to his old ways as a hermit.
After the death of his first love, Shiva isolated himself from the world and went to live in a dark cave in the Himalayas. Later on, Parvati was born. She would visit Shiva’s cave to clean and decorate it with flowers. She also brought him fruits. After a while, Shiva took Parvati as his wife, for she melted his heart with affection.
Parvati had a son by herself without the aid of her husband. His name was Ganesh.
Saraswati is the goddess of art, music, learning, and knowledge. She is the daughter of Shiva and Durga, who represents the free flow of consciousness. Saraswati endows human beings with the powers of speech and understanding.
She is mostly depicted as a beautiful woman seated on a white lotus playing the lute. Saraswati is portrayed in images dressed in pure white.
The color white symbolizes her purity; she neither wears jewelry nor paints herself with bright colors. She has 4 arms that hold different items: a water pot, a Pustaka, which is a script, a musical instrument, and a mala, which is a rosary.
The water pot represents the ability to differentiate between right and wrong. The Pustaka represents all forms of learning that bring divine knowledge. The musical instrument, which is a lute, represents all the creative arts and sciences. Lastly, mala represents the power of meditation.
Some Indians celebrate the festival of Vasant Panchami in her honor. They commemorate this day (the 5thday of spring) by teaching children to write the alphabet.
Indian Gods Conclusion
Because Hinduism has so many divinities and is full of different sects and spiritual practices, many people think that Hinduism is polytheistic in nature.
This, however, could not be further from the truth. Even though Indians believe in multiple gods and follow different paths, it’s clear that their main goal is to reach the Supreme Being, Brahman. To Hindus, all the other gods are just but manifestations of eternal power.
Hindus refer to their religion as “Sanatana Dharma,” a term that translates to a law that does not have a beginning or an end.
It is this aspect that gives Hinduism its own unique identity. A Hindu can worship any one of the 300 million gods, depending on his/her choice.
Originally published at https://east-asian-cultures.com/hindu-gods/ on January 10, 2019.