Hinduism, the world's third largest religion, is often considered a polytheistic faith, as the religion does not advocate the worship of one particular deity. However, the Hindu belief system includes a complex structure of deities that is not easily categorized.
The full list of Hindu gods and goddesses includes thousands of deities, each one representing a certain aspect of the Supreme Absolute, which is known as Brahman. Because they are all manifestations of the same divine spirit, these forms of Brahman are different in essence from the gods of ancient Greek and Roman religion, two of the more famous examples of polytheism. Therefore, Hinduism is consistent with a variety of different belief systems, including monotheism, polytheism, and pantheism.
Who Is Brahman?
In Hinduism, the impersonal Absolute, the underlying reality of all things, is also known as Brahman. Everything in existence, living or non-living, from rocks to plants to people, is believed to come from it. For this reason, Hindus regard all things as sacred. Brahman, unlike any particular god, is formless or nirakara, beyond anything that can be conceived of. However, this ultimate reality can manifest itself in myriad forms, including the forms of various gods and goddesses, the sakara forms of the Brahman.
“The relationship between the many manifest deities and the unmanifest Brahman is rather like that between the sun and its rays. We cannot experience the sun itself but we can experience its rays and the qualities, which those rays have. And, although the sun’s rays are many, ultimately, there is only one source, one sun. So the Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism amount to thousands, all representing the many aspects of Brahman."
Hindu Gods and Goddesses
Although Hinduism includes thousands of deities, a few are more significant than others. The primary deities include:
- Brahma: Also known as the Creator, Brahma is a member of the Trimurti, or the Hindu Trinity, which also includes Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma has four faces, each of which corresponds to one of the four Vedas, the oldest Hindu scriptures.
- Vishnu: Also known as the Protector, Vishnu is often depicted with blue skin and four arms. He is responsible for preserving the earth in times of trouble. In the Rig Veda, he is associated with light and the Sun.
- Shiva: The final member of the Trimurti, Shiva is also known as the Destroyer. He is responsible for change and transformation and is depicted in a variety of forms, both benevolent and malevolent. Shiva is often depicted with a third eye, a symbol of mysticism and higher consciousness.
- Saraswati: The goddess of knowledge, art, and wisdom, Saraswati is the first of the three goddesses of the Tridevi, a feminine version of the Trimurti. She is often depicted sitting on a white lotus, a symbol of purity and truth.
- Lakshmi: The second member of the Tridevi, Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and fortune. Her four hands symbolize the four aims of human life: dharma (a complex concept with a range of meanings), kāma (desire, passion), artha (meaning, purpose), and moksha (freedom, self-knowledge).
- Kali: A fearful goddess associated with violence and sexual energy, Kali is the final member of the Tridevi. She is often depicted holding a sword and a severed head, which together signify the destruction of the human ego. Kali also represents the force of time or kāla.
Hindu gods and goddesses, when they descend to Earth, take the form of avatars ("incarnations" or "manifestations"). Avatars are most often mentioned in connection with Vishnu, who, according to the Bhagavad Gita, took on different forms to perform certain tasks on earth. Some of Vishnu's avatars include:
- Matsya: A fish avatar, Matsya is said to have rescued the ancient king Shraddhadeva by warning him about the coming of a great flood.
- Varaha: Vishnu took the form of a boar, according to legend, to rescue the earth goddess Bhudevi from an attack by the demon Hiranyaksha.
- Parashurama: A warrior avatar, Parashurama helped restore the balance of good and evil on earth by defeating a group of dangerous warriors.
- Rama: As Rama, a human avatar, Vishnu led the life of a virtuous hero. Rama became the subject of the Sanskrit epic the Ramayana, composed in the fifth century B.C. and still widely studied today.
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