Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Why are there so many 'gods' in Hinduism

One of the most commonly asked question about Hinduism is "Why are there so many 'gods' in Hinduism". There are many answers to this questions, each of which is as speculative, and as enigmatic, as the other. There are numerous differences and agreements on the number of 'gods'. The following statement is one such from Wikipedia (which appears authentic given the Sanskrit reference from shatapatha-brahmaNa: 
"A popular but unfounded belief has been spread that Hindus have 33 crore (330,00,000) gods. It is a misunderstanding of the Vedic concept of the State, and hence a misinterpretation of the word koti. Thirty-three divinities are mentioned in the Yajur-veda, Atharva-... Tibetan masters who translated Sanskrit texts into Tibetan, rendered koti by rnam which means 'class, kind, category'. The thirty-three supreme deities are specified in the Satapatha-brahmana as: 8 Vasus + 11 Rudras + 12 Adityas, Prajapati, and Indra")

aṣṭau vásavaḥ ékādaśa rudrā dvā́daśādityā́ imé eva dyā́vāpr̥tʰivī́ trayastriṃśyaù tráyastriṃśadvaí devā́ḥprajā́patiścatustriṃśastádenam prajā́patiṃ karotyetadvā́ astyetaddʰyámr̥taṃ yaddʰyámŕ̥taṃ taddʰyástyetádutadyanmártyaṃ  eṣá prajā́patiḥ sárvaṃ vaí prajā́patistádenam prajā́patiṃ karoti tásmādetāścátustriṃśadvyā̀hr̥tayobʰavanti prā́yaścittayo nā́ma 

  • Twelve Ādityas (personified deities) – MitraAryamanBhagaVaruṇaDakṣaAṃśaTvāṣṭṛPūṣanVivasvatSavitṛŚakraViṣṇu
  • Eleven Rudras, consisting of: 
    • Five abstractions – Ānanda "bliss", Vijñāna "knowledge", Manas "thought", Prāṇa "breath" or "life", Vāc "speech",
    • Five names of Śiva – Īśāna "ruler", Tatpuruṣa "that person", Aghora "not terrible", Vāmadeva "pleasant god", Sadyojāta "born at once"
    • Ātmā "self"
  • Eight Vasus (deities of material elements) – Pṛthivī "Earth", Agni "Fire", Antarikṣa "Atmosphere", Vāyu "Wind", Dyauṣ "Sky", Sūrya "Sun", Nakṣatra "Stars", Soma "Moon"
  • Other sources similar to the Vedas include the two Aśvins (or Nāsatyas), twin solar deities. 
    • Indra also called Śakra, lord of the gods, is the First of the 33 followed by Agni
    • Prajāpati "Master of creatures", a creator deity.

I have my own take on the 'gods' of the vedic system. Following is a conversation that I had with my four and half year old son - Shambhu, who keeps me engaged through his curiosity. One of his recent doubts and inquiry was “Why are there so many ‘maami’s (gods or God) appa?”, a question that could have waited a few years. I believe it is relevant here because Dr. Zakir raises this question too. 

Setting the context of the conversation: In India, or may be in South India, or may be in Karnataka, or may be South Karnataka, or may be in our communities, we have the habit of tagging a ‘maami’ (deity or 'god') to most aspects of life; for example, book (maami), food (maami), fire (maami), sun (maami), Indra (maami), Krishna (maami). So, it is but natural that my curious son got curious about what the concept of maami and why so many! This also is sometimes a criticism of Hinduism by those who know very little about it, or is not even interested in knowing about it.
Now, before I could answered his inquiry, I thought it was worth helping him explore the answer instead of providing him with one. I thought I will start with what we meant by ‘maami’ in the first place. I hoped that in this attempt to understand the idea or concept of maami, he may find the answer himself.
Me: “What do you think is ‘maami’ (God or god)?”.
Shambhu: “I do not know”
Me: “OK. hmmmm now … can you live without water?”
Shambhu: “No”
Me: “Can you live without air?”
Shambhu: “No”
Me: “Can you live without fire or earth or sun or moon”
Shambhu: “No, we cannot”
Me: “Ok. Now, what about ‘KNOWLEDGE’”? (there was a discussion about what ‘Knowledge’ was, what I meant, and what he understood)
Shambhu: “No”
Me: “Where do we gain ‘knowledge’ from”?
Shambhu:”Books, school, teachers, you, amma, akka everyone”
Me: “Right. Now, should we respect them because without them we cannot live or we cannot exist?”
Shambhu: “yes, we should”
Me: “So, there are things without which we cannot exist! how should we, how can we, show our respects to such”?
Shambhu: “I dont know. May be by doing "namaskaara” to them?”
Me: “Good. May be yes. We do ‘namaskaara’ to something that we respect. Right?”
Shambhu: “Yes”
Me: “Now, what should we call them?”
Shambhu: “I dont know, may be ‘maami’ (god)?”
Me: “hehe Yeah. You are right. We have a word to describe those without who we cannot exist. We call them maami (‘god’s). So, now, do you understand why there are so many maamis”?
Shambhu: “Yes”
Me: “Now, who is that maami from who all these different maamis come from”?
Shambhu: “Krishna”
Me: “Yes. If everything comes from Krishna, can we live without Krishna?”
Shambhu: “No. So, Krishna is the maami of all the maamis”?
Me: “hahaha  Yeah. Krishna is the maaami of allllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll......l the maamis, of everything – including us”.
Shambhu smiles and goes back to work and I get back to my work. In the process I realized some key lessons in having a conversation with my four year old. 
The reason I share this here is, it does not matter how maamis (deities) we worship, but we need to realize the ultimate truth - there is Only One God from who everything manifests. There is no doubt about this conclusion in the Vedic texts or the Gita or the commentaries of the 'aachAraAyas'. 
"aakaaShAt patitam tOyam yatha gacchati sAgaraM sarva dEva namaskAraH kEShavam prati gacchati" (just as a drop of rain water eventually reaches the ocean, all prostrations to all the deities eventually reach the Supreme Lord, Sri Krishna). Sri Krishna confirms this in Bhagawad Gita. This is also why all auspicious events end with Sarvam Sri KrishNarpaNam. So, there is only one supreme Lord from who everything manifests. This is one thing that most religions have in common.
Sri KrishNArpaNam :)  


  1. Nice conversation with your Son :)

    I can think of another nice conversation which happens on a similar topic between Father Varuni and Son Brugu. This is part of Taitteriya Upanishad. - Udaya

  2. Very interesting and very thoughtful way to explain to a kid with his own attempts at finding an answer. I like your patience and effort in sharing your knowledge. Keep sharing its priceless.

    1. Thanks Raghav, it is my son who has taught me how to teach him. Once he asked me something and I told him that he may not be able to understand. He replied saying "Do not tell them I cannot understand, tell that you do not know how to say in a way that I can understand". That was a whacker, and since then I have adopted a QnA style, which has been working till now :)

  3. Just as "Puja" is not worship similarly "Devta" is not God/god of Abrahamic religion. U must be aware of something called non-translatable as introduced by Rajiv Malhotra in his book "Being Different:An Indian challenge to Western Universalism". Your problem is self inflicted due to your acceptance of western frame work as universal frame work and then trying to fit yourself into that. Get yourself cured for colonial consciousness and you won't have such artificial problems.

    One God vs many Gods is problem of theology not spirituality.

  4. Dear Mr. Somesh Bhargava, thanks for the comments. It is through such discussions and debates that we learn and grow. I think I will not comment here but post a response to your comment as a separate blog.

    All I would say here is, please note the context of this entry:
    1) This was one of a series of posts in response to an Abrahamic argument, of Dr. Zakir Naik, if that helps :)
    2) This was a conversation with my 4 year old son, written as a blog entry :)

    I would love to read your opinion and understanding, because making such sweeping statements and judgments help neither of us :)

    I have posted the rest as a blog entry, and here it is:

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  6. "All I would say here is, please note the context of this entry:
    1) This was one of a series of posts in response to an Abrahamic argument, of Dr. Zakir Naik, if that helps :) "

    Exactly!. Your approach is a script for loss. Clue lies in challenging and questioning truth claims of monotheistic creeds, not in accepting them and than try to interpret our scriptures accordingly.

    Our scriptures stands on their own and their approach is markedly different from the path of monotheism.

    1. Dear Dr. Someshwara Bhargava,

      I am not sure if you have seen Dr. Naik's lectures. He MISQUOTES Hindu scriptures to support his argument that Hindu scriptures talk about Islam.

      If you look at my other posts (and I kindly request you to), I have shown WHY DR. NAIK IS COMPLETELY MISPLACED. I am NOT trying to interpret out scripture accordingly, I am doing the exact opposite if you see the other posts of mine.

      Contrary to what you say here, I have responded to Dr. Naik's false claims, where he refers to Vedic texts left and right, and all of them inappropriately, illogically, ridiculously, and intentionally.

      Our scriptures stand on their own, and are markedly different, but definitely not mutually exclusive :) I do not need other references to understand this, Bhagawag Gita itself is enough to answer most such doubts.

      This particular post is more about My Son's exchange with me, and is more for fun than serious discussion, but I thank you for your time :)