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Within Hinduism a large number of personal gods (Ishvaras) are worshipped as murtis. These beings are significantly powerful entities known as devas. The exact nature of belief in regards to each deity varies between differing Hindu denominations and philosophies. Often these beings are depicted in humanoid or partially humanoid forms, complete with a set of unique and complex iconography in each case. The devas are expansions of Brahman into various forms, each with a certain quality. In the Rigveda 33 devas are described, which are personifications of phenomena in nature.
Origin and historical development
Many of the names of the Indo-Aryan deities (e.g. Agni, Indra, Varuna) are almost synonymous with deities in Persian, Greek and Roman religion (see Proto-Indo-European religion). It has been speculated that this is due to the several waves of Aryan immigration that are believed to have taken place in north west India around 1500 BC. Through a slow process of hybridisation the Indo-Aryan deities are believed to have merged into the many local cults, a process that spread from the north west to the east and south of the subcontinent through the movement of "fortune-seekers, traders or teachers", and still continues today in some parts of India. Hindu gods are one god in lots of different forms.
Adi Shankara has said that there is only one Supreme Para-Brahman and all the other deities are the forms and expansions of this Para-Brahman. It is believed that all Vaishnava and other schools attribute Personhood to this concept, as in Svayam bhagavan. Under terms of some schools of Vedanta, It has three modal aspects with a highest as Para Brahman or Lord Vishnu. ParaBrahman means Supreme Brahman, or Supreme Cosmic Spirit, or Godhead. Although an ineffable entity, it could be said to be that which contains and pervades the universe. ParaBrahman, from beyond, encompasses the transcendent and immanent ultimate reality, Brahman. The Absolute Truth is both subject and object, so there is no qualitative difference. Terms like Parameshvara, Ishvara, Bhagavan, Brahman, Paramatma are held to be synonymous with ParaBrahman. Shaktas consider Adi parashakti considered as power of ParaBrahman. Hindu sects like Shaivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism have concept of ParaBrahman. However, in contrast with Vaishnavism where ParaBrahman denotes Saguna Brahman as Hari or Vishnu, either Saguna Brahman or the impersonal Nirguna Brahman may be connotated by other sects.
Adi Shakti is the concept, or personification, of divine feminine creative power, sometimes referred to as 'The Great Divine Mother' in Hinduism. She is regarded as the one who remote controls trinity, Devas, planets and other heavenly bodies. Scriptures refers her as the originator of all. Adi(Never Ending) Para(Beyond) shakti(Energy) is Divine Energy beyond universe. She took many forms. Srimad Bhagwat Purana and Shiva Purana associate shakti as "ChinMai" and there is concept of only Shakti (energy to destroy and preserve) but Srimad Devi Bhagwat purana is talking about energy beyond universes, hence associating herself as Param Brahman or ultimate GOD. There is difference between Shakti and Adi Parashakti. Shakti can referred as power of any deity typically known as Parvati or Sati or Durga but Adi Shakti is not associated with any god including Trimurti. She is power of Param Brahman. Shaktas call Adishakti as dynamic ParamBrahman and on the other hand Param Brahman is Static Adi Parashakti.
Trimurti and Tridevi
Shiva and Vishnu are regarded as Mahādevas ("great gods" ) due to their central positions in worship and scriptures. These two along with Brahma are considered the Trimurti—the three aspects of the universal supreme God. These three aspects symbolize the entire circle of samsara in Hinduism: Brahma as creator, Vishnu as preserver or protector, and Shiva as destroyer or judge.
The Tridevi or triplet goddesses of Hinduism have equal importance as the trimurti. Brahma is creator, so he needs knowledge or goddess Saraswati (Vaak) to create. Vishnu is observer, so he needs the goddess of wealth and prosperity, goddess Lakshmi (Shri). Finally, Shiva is destroyer and re-creator, so he needs goddess Parvati, Durga, or Kali for power. They are the various manifestations of Goddess, Shakti.
Devas and devis
The pantheon in Śrauta consists of many deities. Gods are called devas (or devatās) and goddesses are called devis. The most ancient Vedic devas included Indra, Agni, Soma, Varuna, Mitra, Savitr, Rudra, Prajapati, Vishnu, Aryaman, and the ashvins. Important devis were Sarasvati, Ushas, and Prithvi. Later scriptures called the Puranas recount traditional stories about each individual deity, such as Ganesha and Hanuman, and avatars such as Rama and Krishna.
Devas in the Vedas
The main devas are (vide 6th anuvaka of Chamakam): Aditya, Agni, Antariksha, Ashwinis, Brahma, Brihaspati, Dishas, Dyaus, Indra, Ganesha, Marutas, Mitra, Mitravaruna, Moordha, Prajapati, Prithvi, Pusha, Rudra, Savitr, Shiva, Soma, Varuna, Vayu, Vishnu, and Vishvedavas.
Popular Goddesses worshiped in Hinduism are Lakshmi, Saraswati, Parvati, Durga, and Kali. Shaktism recognizes Shakti as the supreme goddess. The concept of Mahadevi as the supreme goddess emerged in historical religious literature as a term to define the powerful and influential nature of female deities in India. Throughout history, goddesses have been portrayed as the mother of the universe, through whose powers the universe is created and destroyed. The gradual changes in belief through time shape the concept of Mahadevi and express how the different Goddesses, though very different in personality, all carry the power of the universe on their shoulders. Jagaddhatri and Mariamman are other significant female deities. Aagneya or Agneya (also Agnayi) is the Hindu Goddess of Fire, and worshiped throughout different parts of India as the daughter or consort of Agni - The Fire God.
Avatars as incarnations of Gods
Many denominations of Hinduism, such as Vaishnavism and some schools of Saivism, teach that occasionally, a god comes to Earth as a human being to help humans in their struggle toward enlightenment and salvation (moksha). Such an incarnation of a god is called an avatar, or avatāra. Hinduism teaches that there have been multiple avatars throughout history and that there will be more.
Ten avatars of Vishnu
The most famous of the divine incarnations are Rama, whose life is depicted in the Ramayana, and Krishna, whose life is depicted in the Mahābhārata and the Bhagavata Purana. The Bhagavad Gita, which contains the spiritual teachings of Krishna, is one of the most widely read scriptures in Hinduism.
- Matsya, the fish, appeared in the Satya Yuga. Represents the beginning of life.
- Kurma, the tortoise, appeared in the Satya Yuga. Represents a human embryo just growing tiny legs, with a huge belly.
- Varaha, the boar,appeared in the Satya Yuga. Represents a human embryo which is almost ready. Its features are visible.
- Narasimha, the Man-Lion (Nara = man, simha = lion), appeared in the Satya Yuga. Represents a newborn baby, hairy and cranky, bawling and full of blood.Regarded as the greatest and most powerful avatar.
- Vamana, the Dwarf, appeared in the Treta Yuga. Represents a young child.
- Parashurama, Rama with the axe, appeared in the Treta Yuga. Represents both an angry young man and a grumpy old man simultaneously.
- Rama, Sri Ramachandra, the prince and king of Ayodhya, appeared in the Treta Yuga. Represents a married man with children. Lord Rama is considered Purna avatar, which means full incarnation of Vishnu.
- Krishna (meaning black), Lord Krishna is considered Purna avatar, which means full incarnation of Vishnu.
- Kalki ("Eternity", or "time", or "The Destroyer of foulness"), who is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, the time period in which we currently exist, though it has not happened yet. However, over the centuries many sects have believed their spiritual leader to be Kalki. For example, Ismaili Khojas, a Muslim group from Gujarat and Sindh who are followers of Aga khan, believe in the 10 incarnations of Vishnu. According to their tradition Imam Ali, the son-in-law of prophet Muhamad was Kalki.
There is also a "hidden avatar" mentioned in 11th canto of the Bhagavata Purana.
Some consider Balarama, brother of Krishna, to be the eighth Avatar of Vishnu. They make Krishna the ninth avatar and delete Buddha. Helmuth von Glasenapp attributed these developments to a Hindu desire to absorb Buddhism in a peaceful manner, both to win Buddhists to Vaishnavism and also to account for the fact that such a significant heresy could exist in India. But other legend states that Balarama was an incarnation of Shesh Naag and hence Buddha is the ninth avatar of Vishnu and Kalki the tenth one who is yet to come at the end of Kaliyuga.
In most Hindu philosophies there is only one ultimate reality. Also known as Brahman (the infinite manifestation the universe - not to be confused with Atman, the manifestation of god within a body; somewhat comparable to a soul), all others are considered his aspects, or avatars, - Vishnu, the protector or preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer, are the main examples of this, due to them being more popular aspects of the Ultimate Reality. In their personal religious practices, Hindus may worship primarily one or another of these aspects, known as their "Ishta Devata" or "Ishvara" (chosen deity). The particular Gods worshipped are a matter of individual preference, although regional and family traditions can play a large part in influencing this choice. Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and the Ganapatya sects of Hinduism states that Vishnu, Shiva, Devi, and Ganesha respectively equate to Brahman, and that all other deities are aspects of their chosen deity. Some popular Hindu deities and avatars include Vishnu and his form as Jagannath, Vithoba, Venkateshwara and his Avatars: Narasimha, Krishna, Rama and others, Shiva (Hanuman worshipped as his aspect), Shakti, the feminine principle (and her aspects Durga, Kali, Saraswati, Lakshmi and others), Ganesha, Murugan.
330 million Deities
There is a general perception among other religions that Hindus believe in 330 million Devas and Devis so Hinduism is essentially a pluralistic religion based on Dharma. This is a wrong perception because the 330 million figure refers to "Deities" which are the manifestations of One Supreme Being-Ishwar of Parambrahamn. In the Vedas, Thirty-three Deities are listed. This is followed by the Sanskrit word koti, which is used for "class" but can also be used for a number equal to 10 million. According to one view, some scholars misinterpreted the word koti - which is meant to mean "class", claiming that there are 330 million gods within Hinduism. Another view contends that 330 million is a figure symbolizing infinity, indicating infinite forms of God.
There are some Hindus who consider the various deities not as forms of the one Brahman, but as independently existing entities, and may thus be properly considered polytheists.
In fact according to Umesh M Chauhan a lecturer in Sociology and human communications the number 330 million was mentioned during the formation of Vedas and corresponds to Pluralism in Hinduism. By scriptures the 330 million number actually corresponds to the assumed population of the world at that time between 1200 BC to 800 BC and would mean to each individual his own God. In other words it advocates the concept of God being a very personal experience and with every person's own perception of God different from that of other people one can actually fathom the thought of 330 million Gods of 330 million people at that time.
Although the panentheistic tendency in Hinduism allowed only a subordinate rank to the old polytheistic gods, they continued to occupy an important place in the affections of individual Hindus and were still represented as exercising considerable influence on the destinies of man. The most prominent of them were regarded as the appointed "loka palas", or guardians of the world; and as such they were made to preside over the four cardinal and (according to some authorities) the intermediate points of the compass.
Thus Indra, the chief of the devas, was regarded as the regent of the east; Agni, the fire, was in the same way associated with the southeast; Yama, lord of death and justice with the south; Surya, the sun, with the southwest; Varuna, originally the representative of the all-embracing heaven (atmosphere), now the god of the ocean, with the west; Vayu (or Pavana), the wind, with the northwest; Kubera, the god of wealth, with the north; and Soma with the northeast. In some traditions, Ishana—an aspect of Shiva—is regarded as the regent of the northeast and Nirrti the regent of the southwest.
In the institutes of Manu the loka palas are represented as standing in close relation to the ruling king, who is said to be composed of particles of these his tutelary deities. The retinue of Indra consists chiefly of the Devas, gandharvas, considered in the epics as the celestial musicians; and apsaras, lovely nymphs, who are frequently employed by the gods to make the pious devotee desist from carrying his austere practices to an extent that might render him dangerous to their power. Narada, an ancient sage (probably a personification of the cloud, the water-giver), is considered as the messenger between the gods and men, and as having sprung from the forehead of Brahma. The interesting office of the god of love is held by Kamadeva, also called Ananga, the bodyless, because, as the scriptures relate, having once tried by the power of his mischievous arrow to make Siva fall in love with Parvati, whilst he was engaged in devotional practices, the urchin was reduced to ashes by a glance of the angry god. Two other divine figures of some importance are considered as sons of Siva and Parvati, viz. Karttikeya or Skanda, the leader of the heavenly armies, who was supposed to have been fostered by the six Knittikas or Pleiades; and Ganesha (lord of troops), the elephant-headed god of wisdom, and at the same time the leader of the dii minorum gentium.
Denominations of Hinduism
Hinduism is a very rich and complex religion. Each of its four denominations shares rituals, beliefs, traditions and personal gods with one another, but each sect has a unique philosophy on how to achieve life's ultimate goal (moksa, liberation). For example a person can be a devotee to Shiva and a Vishnu devotee but one can practice the Advaita Vedanta philosophy which believes there is no difference between Brahman and a person's individual soul. Conversely, a Hindu may follow the Dvaita philosophy which stresses that Brahman and the soul are not the same. But each denomination fundamentally believes in different methods of self-realization and in different aspects of the one supreme God. However, each denomination respects and accepts all others, and conflict of any kind is rare.
Vaishnavism, Saivism, and Shaktism, respectively believe in a monotheistic ideal of Vishnu (often as Krishna), Shiva, or Devi; this view does not exclude other personal gods, as they are understood to be aspects of the chosen ideal. For instance, to many devotees of Krishna, Shiva is seen as having sprung from Krishna's creative force. Ganesha worshippers would connect themselves with Shiva as Shiva is the father of Ganesha, making him a Shaiv deity. Often, the monad Brahman is seen as the one source, with all other gods emanating from there. Thus, with all Hindus, there is a strong belief in all paths being true religions that lead to one God or source, whatever one chooses to call the ultimate truth. As the Vedas – the most important Hindu scriptures state: "Truth is one; the wise call it by various names" (transliterated from Sanskrit: Ekam Sat Viprah Bahuda Vadanti.)
Smartism, is monist as well as a monotheist and understands different deities as representing various aspects and principles of one supreme entity, Brahman or parabrahman. Teachers such as Swami Vivekananda, who brought Hinduism to the West, held beliefs like those found in Smartism, although he usually referred to his religion as Vedanta. Other denominations of Hinduism do not strictly hold this belief.
A Smartist would have no problem worshiping Shiva or Vishnu together as he views the different aspects of God as leading to the same One God. It is the Smarta view that dominates the view of Hinduism in the West. By contrast, a Vaishnavite considers Vishnu as the one true God, worthy of worship and other forms as subordinate. See for example, an illustration of the Vaishnavite view of Vishnu as the one true God. Accordingly, many Vaishnavites, for example, believe that only Vishnu can grant moksha. Similarly, many Shaivites also hold similar beliefs for Shiva.
Hindu mythology versus Greek mythology
Similarities between Kama and Cupid, Vishwakarma and Hephaestus and Indra and Zeus do lead many to hastily conclude that Hindu mythology is similar to Greek mythology. But Greek mythology is quite different from Hindu mythology; the two peoples' attitudes to cosmology and the nature of the gods themselves were too different to allow too close a comparison. The Greeks did not believe in only one god – they had gods and goddesses. The gods of Greek mythology became masters of the universe by overthrowing the Titans, an earlier pantheon of powerful deities, who in turn had become powerful by overcoming Uranus. Such a theme of repeat succession is missing in Vedic literature. Like Greek gods, the Devas (Hindu gods) have also feared the Manavas (humans) would overthrow them. This has been depicted in Ramayan, Bhagavatam in the mythologies of Trishanku and Satya Harischandra. In Ramayana there are depictions that explains Indra god creating obstacles for Aswamedha yaga conducted by noble kings of Raghu Dynasty, the ancestors of Rama.
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- A chart of the main Hindu deities (with pictures)