Do Hindus Worship Many Gods?

Sethu Raju & Surinder Sharma (PH)

Do Hindus worship many gods? Undoubtedly, the answer is yes. There is ample evidence to show that Hindus, in general, did worship in the past many gods (deities, idols or icons), do worship similarly now, and will also worship the same in the future. Let us try to trace how this trend might have originated and developed in the past, and how this trait got firmly tied up, as a multi-idol-worshipping ritual, with the Hindus.

About 5 million years ago, the ancestors of human-like species appeared in a favorable environment on this planet, and after a period of three more million years of evolution and diversification, the present human-like species appeared. They gradually migrated, as nomadic peoples, to many new places.

During this period of their intense migration, they were, no doubt, exposed to the ever-changing environment. Guided by their genetic potential and their own spirit of adventure, these already diversified nomadic peoples developed primitive technologies to adapt themselves to the imminent environmental changes. Following the instinctive leads of their ancestors, they were able to identify and domesticate plants and animals around them for their use and survival. These abilities together with their instinctive potentials made them less nomadic and settle themselves with some sort of ‘togetherness’ or primitive societies or communities in selected niches. One of the most fundamental traits of these semi-nomadic peoples was to develop gradually a means of communication, which perhaps included gestures and primitive phonetics.

They also noticed the influence of the forces of nature, such as wind, light (day) and dark (night), water, fire, etc. These natural influences were so great on them that they were inevitably led to inexplicable beliefs and/or miracles around them. As such miracles were beyond their understanding or creative ability, these semi-nomadic peoples believed in the existence of some other being (s) greater than their own human kind, the Supreme Being or ‘God’, indicating the beginning of religion and faith. Thus, these peoples with faith in miracles were impelled to personify the forces of nature, such as the sun God (Surya), wind God (Vayu), fire God (Agni), etc.
Exploring the nature and extolling its wonders, they continued to create more personified iconic gods. Such peoples, who believed in the existence of some Supreme Being(s), diverged and adapted to different environments. Endowed with their own traditional beliefs, they infrequently converged back in time (after one or more generations) and mingled with their ancestral groups bringing about a more diverse ‘culture and tradition’, firmly retaining their own. Some groups, large and small, with such social characteristics of their own, were also perhaps geographically isolated. The population of each of such disjunct human social groups enlarged in number and settled by shedding many of their semi-nomadic traits. They also developed their own culture and tradition, which may together be called ‘human civilization’. Thus, many such parallel civilizations, basically heterogeneous in nature, including peoples of different cultures and beliefs and possibly also different ‘ethnicity’, occurred in different geographical locations on the planet. One such great civilization was the ‘Hindu or Harappan civilization’ or ‘Indo-Dravidian or most familiarly called ‘Indus valley civilization’ which presumably became well established and flourished about 4-5 millennia ago. The people, at the time, were probably sophisticated with a good knowledge of many aspects of life, including perhaps beliefs or faith which together may be identified as ‘religion and god’. Some semblance of what we now call religion and philosophy was also developed among these peoples. With their inability to conceptualize the god’s physical nature or form, the peoples of Indus valley civilization or ‘Hindus’ probably realized that there was ‘something’ more powerful than their own human form.

The early peoples perhaps also believed that the human form as fundamental, and that the addition of extended physical and emotional features to it would be superhuman and divine. Accordingly, they created many godly icons, such as the Creator (Brahma with four heads and many hands, the Preserver (Vishnu with four hands lying on a serpent), the Destroyer (Shiva with many hands and elegantly dancing with ferocity on a human dwarf’s back or riding on a bull) and a host of such others. Thus, they created a wide variety of iconic idols and worshipped them as gods with utmost devotion. This was probably the beginning of multi-god worshipping (polytheism). They placed their preferred gods or idols for worshipping in their own dwellings, such as homes in ‘cities’ and caves in forests and mountains. (Temples of gods for public worshipping developed much later).

Hindus do worship many such personified iconic gods, which ritual is, no doubt, ingenious and provides religious flexibility, tolerance and respect for all life. This ritual of multi-god worshipping documents the view that the religion of Hindus or Hinduism is basically polyphyletic in origin. In other words, Hinduism was not developed in the past by a single person or a belief, but it is rather a product of a successive evolutionary commingling of beliefs and traditions developed by many individuals or groups of individuals. In its long evolutionary history, Hinduism has shown a great capacity for absorbing new ideas or seeking revisions and adapting them to new conditions. It is the Hindu genius for synthesis that has kept the seemingly rigid Hindu way of life alive and growing for more than five millennia while other contemporary civilizations under pressure crumbled. When Buddha in 600 BC challenged the over-ritualized, priestly Hindu religion, the Hindus of the time simply recognized Buddha as one of the gods of their Pantheon after his death and accepted important Buddhist concepts – such as nonviolence and nonritualistic meditation – and consequently, Buddhism lost its virtual prominence in India.

The multi-god worshiping is as old a ritual as the human species itself on the planet. Early peoples created many iconic gods and worshipped them of their choice. Later some religiously knowledgeable peoples (theologians) classified the iconic gods into different categories. Some, such as Brahma (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver) and Shiva (the destroyer), were placed at the highest level. On a level lower than the above icons are the Ashvinis, Ushas, Surya, Agni, Indra, Chandra, Vayu, Maruts and many more. Many supernatural beings on a still lower level are Yakshinis, Yakshas and so on. The Hindus do worship one or many of the above iconic gods as they did in the past.

Many religious thinkers and philosophers (or theologians) of 800-1000 AD, without rejecting the innumerable personified gods created by the Hindu ancestors, introduced the doctrine of ‘Trinity’, which proclaims the oneness of god, indicating the three different manifestations of one god. It is rather interesting to find that the Hindus, in theory, believe in the oneness of god (monotheism) and in practice they worship many iconic gods (polytheism). Also, our ancestors must have pondered deeply to describe the true nature (form) of god, but failed to find one. Instead, they uniquely believed that the human form was fundamental (or ultimate creation of nature), and that any extra specific attributes added to it would be superhuman and divine. Thus, the Universal Form of God, which is ordinarily defined by three epithets omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing) and omnipresent (all pervading), is still as enigmatic as it was then!