the pantheon of gods
The Many Gods & Goddesses of Hinduism
There is a massive pantheon of multiple gods in the Hindu religion. But what do they stand for, and why do they exist?
33 million. That’s the number of gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. Hinduism is known for its multiple deities, with a divine being presiding over each and every facet and activity of humankind. Historians and theorists have compared (and therefore tried to explain) this large number to the workings of a large organisation with each god responsible for a particular department. Per this explanation, these gods are responsible for doling out boons and punishment based on the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ deeds of each human being and need to be appeased accordingly. Like any other organisation, the Hindu system of divinity has a hierarchy. And it is this hierarchy that extends to Indian philosophy, blurring the lines between religious dogmatism and philosophy that attempt to explain humankind’s reason for existence and their meaning of life. Given such transcendent goals, however, it is important to clarify here that the hierarchy of divinity pertains less to power and more towards spiritual meaning.
The Overarching Hindu Trinity
This is where the Hindu trinity comes in—the trio of gods who oversee the divine pantheon at the highest spiritual level, in charge of the cycle of life and beyond: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. At the simplest level, Brahma creates the universe, Vishnu preserves it, and Shiva destroys it. Together, these three divinities are the embodiment of the most primal yet more critical physical and spiritual functions and hence represent knowledge at the highest and purest forms. Considering one concrete depiction of such concepts can be sisyphean, the trinity is often depicted as a series of cosmic emanations across art and culture in order to serve as representations of higher knowledge. For instance, a well-known emanation of Vishnu is Narayana, who is often depicted in yogic slumber under the hood of a multi-headed cobra. Rather than a singular representation of a concept or a moral, Narayana symbolizes eternal preservation–more akin to the colloquial image of God.
As you can imagine, focusing on such versions of divinity can be quite abstract. In fact, one could argue that an extremely high level of mental focus and discipline is a logical prerequisite for deeper explorations of spirituality and life. To remedy this, the trinity often takes on the form of various deities and avatars. Thus, the complex landscape of Hindu mythology and the vast pantheon of deities, legends, and schools of thought are in effect extensions of creation, preservation, and destruction.
The canon of Hindu mythology is filled with elaborate and colourful deities and avatars, each with a unique story and purpose to represent the various facets of physical and spiritual life. These avatars ultimately reconcile with the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva in the form of different manifestations. The various forms in which the ideas of creation, preservation, and destruction can manifest themselves in speak towards the complexity of life itself. Put simply, living is not straightforward! In some instances, the manifestations of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva can be negative, while in other instances these manifestations can be positive. While this may seem complex at first, practically, the avatars actually help the practitioner understand and navigate the many challenges of life. Take for instance Vishnu, who is famous for descending to mortal earth in ten different avatars known as the Dashavatra over time. Each avatar serves a unique purpose–the altruistic Rama is a representation of truth and willpower, while the ferocious half-lion half-man Narsimha is a representation of justice.
By assigning different attributes and characteristics to different avatars instead of a single divinity, a practitioner can in-effect separate virtues from higher knowledge. Put differently, rather than create one all-encompassing image of divinity, Hinduism, through its vast pantheon of avatars and deities, separates moral or mortal virtues from loftier concepts such as existence. As a result, this branch of spirituality serves to span multiple lifetimes and cycles of time when viewed from different levels of knowledge.
Trinity and Duality
Interestingly enough, the Hindu Pantheon of Gods and Goddesses offers an additional complexity through gender. Shiva and Vishnu, for instance, are generally depicted as masculine and both have feminine consorts. Gender in the Pantheon however, serves a more abstract concept than on Earth. The role of the masculine and feminine with respect to spiritual interpretations of existence and purpose is more representative of the act itself and the underlying inspiration of action. This abstraction leads to an important revelation that neither is complete without the other–i.e. Without an inspiration to create, once cannot create. This concept serves to illustrate unity between the spiritual and the physical, the mind and the body. This is often why in iconography, the Gods and Goddesses of Hinduism are depicted in dual form with masculine and feminine features.
Vishnu’s consort is Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth and good fortune or the materialization of preservation. She also appears reincarnated along with Vishnu’s avatars appearing as his wife—as Sita (Rama’s wife) and Rukmini (Krishna’s wife). Shiva has Shakti (power) and can be represented as Kali in the form of violence, Parvati in the form of gentleness, and Durga who represents power. In addition to these three consorts can also appear as one great goddess, Mahadevi, embodying the characteristics of all the consort goddesses, while also representing female energy—fertility and agricultural prosperity. She is said to contrast the male energy portrayed by Shiva—neither can exist without the other. Naturally, the humanized characteristics of these Deities are illustrative and help a practitioner grasp a certain concept or seek the relevant inspiration to overcome a certain challenge.
The Reality is always more complex
All these points towards a complex religion. For example, despite the massive pantheon of gods and goddesses, core Hindu philosophy believes in unmeasurable reality, an unprejudiced divine world beyond the world we experience with our limited five senses. Hinduism believes humankind can transcend and go beyond this material and the measurable world, and move into the world beyond to become one with the ultimate creator, Brahma. Meanwhile, while we are on earth, the pantheon keeps a check on our morality, helping us move closer and closer to Brahma.
This complex understanding of life and beyond has found itself in several branches of thought in Hindu or ancient Indian philosophy. The Dvaita Vedanta school looks at the dualism between God and the universe through two realities—one of Shiva/Shakti or Vishnu or Brahman; and the second reality is that our soul, matter and our immediate physical world. The first reality represents the absolute truth of the universe. The second one is the everyday life we live in. It’s a reflection of the divine world, therefore we, and our actions, are all reflections and shadows of the divine world.
These concepts were only written down many centuries after they were composed. They were originally passed from teacher to student orally. Eventually, once they were written down, they came to comprise the Vedas, and a series of mega texts that provide a detailed explanation of the philosophies behind Hinduism (through speculative discussions), as well as detailed instructions on how to apply these abstract concepts into everyday life—through rituals, mantras etc.
Beyond the four main Vedas, it is the secondary lot of religious texts that give us an idea of the pantheon and their meaning in Hinduism. These are categorised as smrti texts (remembered texts), all based on the learning from the original Vedas. The Vedas were meant for higher castes, while the smrti texts were for the masses. The smrti texts comprise the great epics Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita, the Puranas, and the Dharamasastra. Of these, it is the mega epics, the Gita and the Puranas that list and explains the origins and stories behind the massive Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. Add to this, the complexities in modes of practice in the form of Orthodox versus Tantric, and you are left with a system that gives you an equal share of flexibility and complication!
Hinduism is considered the oldest practising religion in the world—some form of it has existed since millennia. It’s also an incredibly complex line of philosophy, forming the basis of the core thought of Indian philosophy. On the surface, the pantheon of the many gods and goddesses seems great fodder for stories, parables and entertainment. In fact, it was through these stories that people in ancient times were entertained and taught moral values. Eventually, these simpler concepts gave way to loftier ones, to try and understand why we exist and what we can do to make better human beings of ourselves.