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In Hinduism we have the "main" three gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. We also have many, many, more devas, each with his or her own dominion.

Of course, the devas may appear in various avatars, in which case many entities are actually one.

However, in general, is there any way to perceive the entire array of devas as a single entity? I've seen some other Hindus with philosophies like this, and am wondering if there is any basis in the scriptures for this.

For example, is the Trimurti really one, single-willed entity, or is it a triumvirate-like conglomerate?

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    As a side note, the present batch of devas are sons of Aditi. I say present batch because a dev is a post held by somebody. Indra is not a person but a post held by Purshottam. Thats why we have vayu dev, agni dev, pavan dev and all. We don't know their names... – user3459110 Jun 19 '14 at 8:31
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    @AwalGarg yeah, that's sort of my question. Do we consider the Trimurti to be one entity or a triumvirate-like conglomerate? – Manishearth Jun 19 '14 at 8:34
  • Thats a very nice question then. I'll write up an answer. Although, I would recommend you add that comment to the question to make it clear. – user3459110 Jun 19 '14 at 8:36
  • @AwalGarg Indra is a position, but the rest aren't. The god of fire is always the same individual, for instance. – Keshav Srinivasan Jun 19 '14 at 9:00
  • @KeshavSrinivasan Can you cite a reference for that? – user3459110 Jun 19 '14 at 9:02

11 Answers 11

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Hinduism is neither strictly polytheistic nor strictly monotheistic. The concept of God has been differently defined for people of different nature and qualities. We know that there are three primary nature or qualities sattva (goodness), rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance). Hence, there are three different gods representing the same God in His three different temperaments.

Brahmā - The rajas mode of God in which He manifests the creation:

yo ha khalu vāvāsya rājasoṃ'śo'sau sa yo'yaṃ brahmātha [Mait. Up. - 4.5]
- Now that part of Him which is characterized by Passion is known as Brahma.

Vishnu - The sattwa mode of God in which He preserves the creation:

yo ha khalu vāvāsya sātvikoṃ'śo'sau sa evaṃ viṣṇuḥ [Mait. Up. - 4.5]
- Now that part of Him which is characterized by Purity is known as Vishnu

Shiva - The tamas mode of God in which He annihilates the creation:

yo ha khalu vāvāsya tāmasoṃ'śo'sau sa yo'yaṃ rudro'tha [Mait. Up. - 4.5]
- Now that part of Him which is characterized by ignorance or darkness is known as Rudra/Shiva

Hence, Vishnu Purana explicitly mentions that even if there are these three definitions of God for three different activities (creation, preservation, annihilation), God is one and only one:

sruṣṭisthityantakarṇī brhmāviṣuśivātmikām
sa saṃjñāṃ yāti bhagabāneka eva janārdanaḥ
[VP - 1.2.66]

Meaning
God (Janārdanaḥ) is one only. For the purpose of creation, preservation and annihilation He takes up three definitions as Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.

Basically it's the same God but with different personas, just like the same person takes up different modes and qualities depending upon what he is doing. In office, his mood is something; while worshipping, his mood is something; while playing, his mood is something else. So at the core, it's only one God that exists but sages tell and describe it differently:

brahmaitad advitīyaḿ vai gīyate bahudharṣibhiḥ [SB - 11.9.31]
- This Brahman is one without a second. But sages sing (talk) about Him in multiple ways.

Now you may ask why they describe the same God diffently. The answer is personal taste and preference:

śreyo vadanty anekāntam yathā-karma yathā-ruci [SB - 11.14.9]
- People talk about the Supreme God in multiple ways as per their actions and likeness.

Now we all know that due to the threefold material nature of sattva, rajas and tamas the personal liking and preference of people vary:

bikārāṃśca guṇāṃścaiva biddhi prakṛtisambhavān [BG -13.20]
- Know that vikaras and the qualities (satva, rajas, tamas) are the product of the material nature.

Hence, keeping in the eye the people of different natures, sages have authored scriptures of the threefold qualities. So Puranas of various gods and goddesses have been classified as sattvic, rajasic or tamasic that attract people of different nature. So some say Shiva is God, some say Vishnu is God and so on. But at the core, there is only one single entity without a second commonly refereed as Brahma in the Vedas:

ekam advitiyam brahma [Chg. Up - 6.2.1]
- Brahma is one without a second

So as per scriptures, the answer to your question "Is the Trimurti really one?" is Yes.

  • can you add translations to those references. – Tejesh Alimilli Jul 9 '14 at 10:27
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    I read somewhere that it is Brahma who was earlier considered the God of Sattva but later Vaishnavas claimed that Vishnu is the God of Sattva. – Chinmay Sarupria Dec 18 '15 at 12:43
  • What is "SB" here quoted by @behappy "SB - 11.14.9".? – radbrawler Jan 14 '18 at 17:05
  • @radbrawler Srimad Bhagavatam – Surya Kanta Bose Chowdhury Sep 12 '18 at 18:36
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It is difficult categorize Hinduism as either Pantheistic or Polytheistic. Rather Hinduism started out as a way of life with various philosophical ideas that finally amalgamated as Hinduism - the religion what we call today. Hinduism has various schools of thought.

The question of categorizing Hinduism in to one of the "eistic" ideas arised because of Western minds who were trying to understand what Hinduism is.

Monotheism simply means the acknowledgment of one god. It prohibits the worship of the divine in any form other than the ‘official’ version. It is rooted in the idea of ‘only one’. Polytheism is the view that there are many gods. In Pantheism, God is inseparably united with nature.

Once we get this distinction clear, it becomes clear that Hinduism does not worship ‘One God’. Instead, Hinduism worships the oneness of all gods and indeed, the oneness of everything in existence.

To answer your question,

Both pantheism and polytheism co-exist in Hinduism . This idea can be best expressed as parts of a wheel. The many deities are like the spokes, all of which emanate from the hub and each playing an important role. The Divine is formally referred to as Brahman (not Brahmin). It is said to be the source, the hub, from which all deities are manifest.

For a clearer picture lets understand how both co-exist.

Pantheistic view believes in more philosophical God. God is in all things, and all things are in God. God is seen as a supreme being and not a person. God is someone beyond knowledge.

Following is an excerpt from Atharva Veda. However many of the Upanishads and later Vedic writings support this view of God.

"na dvitIyo na tR^itIyashchaturtho nApyuchyate

na pa.nchamo na ShaShThaH saptamo nApyuchyate

nAShTamo na navamo dashamo nApyuchyate

ya etaM devamekavR^itaM veda"


There is none second to It, neither third not even fourth.

There is none fifth to It, neither sixth not even seventh.

There is none eighth to It, neither ninth not even tenth.

It is the only Supreme. This is to be known.

An interesting conversation in brihadaranyaka upanishad supports this view.

Philosopher Sankara , formulated a philosophic system known as Advaita Vedanta. According to this philosophy there is an absolute unity between Brahman and atman. Our perception that we are separate beings from Brahman and from one another is in fact an illusion.

In analogy, God can be seen as a vast ocean , and all living beings "jiva" as drops of water, when drops of water meet the ocean all are a part of the ocean.


As we have seen earlier that Hinduism was a way of life, there was a need in people to connect to a personal God having some form rather than a Supreme God with no form. This eventually led to polytheism with God taking shape in the form of various deities.

Hinduism allows people to believe in and pray to their own conceptualizations of the divine in whatever form they choose, while at the same time elevating all of them to their ultimate reality, which is the singular omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient divinity, who demands no allegiance, punishes no one for lack of belief, yet provides wisdom, comfort, compassion, and freedom to those who seek it.

Hinduism mentions that God is one , only the ways to reach God are many. In this way many even consider Gautama, Mahavira, Jesus and Mohammed are ways to reach the Supreme God.

It is for this reason that has given rise various schools of thought.

  • Saivism:Saivite Hindus worship the Supreme God as Siva, the Compassionate One.

  • Shaktism:Shaktas worship the Supreme as the Divine Mother, Shakti or Devi. She has many forms. Some are gentle, some are fierce.

  • Vaishnavism: Vaishnavites worship the Supreme as Lord Vishnu and His incarnations, especially Krishna and Rama.

  • Smartism:Smartas worship the Supreme in one of six forms: Ganesha, Siva, Sakti, Vishnu, Surya and Skanda. Because they accept all the major Hindu Gods, they are known as liberal or nonsectarian.

More details on ways to communicate with God are described in this link.

Edit:

Henotheism is the most appropriate word to describe Hinduism.

  • From your own link :- Henotheism "is the belief in and worship of a single God while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities that may also be worshipped." But doesn't this suggest that these "other deities" are seperate from the single God, hence contradicting your statement that "Hinduism mentions that God is one , only the ways to reach God are many"? Otherwise I think this is perfect answer, without showing bias to any particular school of thought. – Aditya K May 11 '15 at 16:00
  • If you read further- "Henotheism was coined to describe the theology of Rigvedic religion.The Rigveda was the basis for Max Müller's description of henotheism in the sense of a polytheistic tradition striving towards a formulation of The One (ekam) Divinity aimed at by the worship of different cosmic principles" – Pratik Bhat May 11 '15 at 16:07
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    Yes, interesting...I didn't see that part. I think it's the wording used in his definition that I'm not sure I agree with. The "other deities" are described as "existing", whereas I don't think that's the intended meaning in Rigvedic philosophy. To use your wheel analogy: Only the hub exists, the spokes are mere viewpoints or "world views" as to the nature of hub. Whichever spoke is chosen is irrelevant, they all lead to the hub. – Aditya K May 11 '15 at 18:23
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In Hinduism, there's a single undivided entity Brahman.

Even though there are alternate interpretation in various schools of Hinduism like Advaita and Dwaita schools about the possible relationship between Brahman and men.

Advaita proclaims that everything, including you, me and the Devas and Brahman itself is one and the same thing. Brahman manifest itself as the universe. Quoting from the Wikipedia article on Advaita Vedanta (specific revision),

Shankara's synthesis of Advaita Vedanta is summarised in this quote from the Vivekacūḍāmaṇi, one of his Prakaraṇa graṃthas (philosophical treatises):

In half a couplet I state, what has been stated by crores of texts;

that is Brahman alone is real, the world is mithyā (not independently existent), and the individual self is nondifferent from Brahman.

According to Sringeri Math, Shankara's message can be summarised even shorter:

The eternal, impersonal, consciousness Absolute is the Brahman, the one without a second.

On the other hand, the Dvaita school advocates that Brahman and the material world have separate existences and that this world is different from Brahman. Again quoting from the Wikipedia article on Dvaita Vedanta (specific revision):

Dvaita Vedanta (dualistic conclusions of the Vedas) espouses dualism by theorizing the existence of two separate realities. The first and the more important reality is that of Vishnu or Brahman. Vishnu is the supreme Self, God, the absolute truth of the universe, the independent reality. The second reality is that of dependent but equally real universe that exists with its own separate essence. Everything that is composed of the second reality, such as individual soul (Jiva), matter, etc. exist with their own separate reality. The distinguishing factor of this philosophy as opposed to Advaita Vedanta (monistic conclusion of Vedas) is that God takes on a personal role and is seen as a real eternal entity that governs and controls the universe.

  • in addition to a plain downvote, reason for doing so would be more appropriate. – Vineet Menon Jun 19 '14 at 12:35
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Your question leads to another core belief of Hinduism - Parabrahma, Paramãtmã, Parameshwar, One Supreme Bhagwan, or God who is unparalleled and the highest entity.

Very well known mantra from the Hindu scripture

Gurur Brahmaa Gurur Vishnu Gurur Devo Maheshwarah

Guru Saakshaata Parabrahma Tasmai Shri Guruve Namah

Parabrahma manifests in various forms, but He is one and supreme. The Rig Veda proclaims,

“Ekam sat viprãhã bahudã vadanti,”

meaning

“Truth is one, but the wise describe it in many ways.”

Hinduism is strictly monotheistic, worshiping one but with respect for all Gods and spirituality. To be more precise, it is henotheistic, meaning the belief in and worship of one Supreme God without denying the existence of other ‘gods’ or forms of the Supreme God.

Parabrahma is ****sat-chit-ãnanda****, that is, eternal, consciousness, and bliss.

'sarvopari', supreme and all-powerful;

'sãkãr', possessing a divine and personal form;

'sarva kartã', the all-doer;

'antaryami', the all-knower;

'pragat', ever-present on Earth through a gunatit guru.

Parabrahma is independent, and His divine power prevails over all.

  • He is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer.
  • He is the only controller of infinite universes.
  • He is above maya and controls it with His power.

Through His association, jivas and ishwars can become divine.

(ishwars - all deities including brahma, vishnu, mahesh)

Now the question would be who's Parabrahma then? Different sects have their own explanation of this question. I'll refrain from going into those details as question is limited to whether Hinduism is polytheistic.

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At the very outset, I may tell you that there is no polytheism in India. In every temple, if one stands by and listens, one will find the worshippers applying all the attributes of God, including omnipresence, to the images. It is not polytheism, nor would the name henotheism explain the situation. "The rose called by any other name would smell as sweet." Names are not explanations.

  • Vivekananda (Complete Works I p 15)

Mahabharata Vana Parva Section CCLXX says:

The Supreme Spirit has three conditions. In the form of Brahma, he is the Creator, and in the form of Vishnu he is the Preserver, and in his form as Rudra, he is the Destroyer of the Universe!

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@AwalGarg yeah, that's sort of my question. Do we consider the Trimurti to be one entity or a triumvirate-like conglomerate?

Comment made by OP on the question... This answer is followed by that comment.

First, lets look at the history of the Trimurtis. There are a few variations, lets pick a general one.

One of the Trimutis come into existence (don't ask me how). From the Nabhi of him, is born a Lotus/egg out of which come one of the other trimurtis and from the eye of the original trimurti is born the third Trimurti.

It can be inferred from this, that basically, there is only one original God who divided himself into 3 parts each with a specific business. So originally, Trimurti was The God, who divided himself into the trimurtis.

If you ask me now that are the trimurtis single or not, then they are one when you put them together. They are not single in a sense that they different parts of the same thing (The God).

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    Do you have a source for Shiva coming from the eye of Vishnu? Shiva is usually considered to be the son of Brahma. – Keshav Srinivasan Jun 19 '14 at 9:03
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    @KeshavSrinivasan Thats what I am saying. There are many variations as to who came first. So I took a general form without particularizing. The Shiva puran says Shiva came first, Brahma puran says Brahma came first, and Vishnu puran says Vishnu came first. – user3459110 Jun 19 '14 at 9:06
  • I'm just asking you where you got the idea about someone coming from someone's eye. – Keshav Srinivasan Jun 19 '14 at 9:13
  • @KeshavSrinivasan I think I saw it in some TV serial :P If you think it is incorrect, please edit it accordingly. Thanks :) – user3459110 Jun 19 '14 at 9:17
  • And in any case, it is simply not true that the Brahma Purana claims that Brahma is an ancestor of Vishnu, or that the Shiva Purana claims that Shiva is an ancestor of Vishnu. To the extent that genealogy is discussed at all, the order is always Vishnu then Brahma then Shiva. – Keshav Srinivasan Jun 19 '14 at 9:20
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The best modern answer I can find for this most classic question against Hindu religion is given interestingly by an American called David Frawley.

Having many names for something is not necessarily a sign of ignorance of its real nature. On the contrary, it may indicate an intimate knowledge of it. For example, eskimos have forty-eight different names for snow in their language because they know snow intimately in its different variations, not because they are ignorant of the fact that all snow is only one. The many different deities of Hinduism reflect such an intimate realization of the Divine on various levels - which non-experiential belief-oriented religions seldom even approach. It is hardly a crude polytheism.

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Hinduism does not have a strict code of conduct on who is authorised to describe God. By the very token , that if one person described God and religion, then every other person, also has the right to describe God.

It is the very basis of science. Science is a pursuit of truth. Not a documentation of truth itself. Every person, starting from Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, and Hubble, have all changed the way we describe the universe, and the processes around us.

In the same way, the same creativity holds good for defining God itself. So, we define God, and then we redefine it and then we redefine it, till we get a better picture of who God is.

Polytheism represents that continuous effort, and imagination of thousands of people on how they see or describe God.

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Hinduism could be regarded as both Atheistic and Animistic / Pantheistic, depending on how one defines the word "God".

An Atheistic perspective on Consciousness

We know from evolutionary biology that multi-celled organisms evolved from single-celled organisms. It is unclear to what degree single-celled organisms gave up their autonomy to be able to act as a single organism and it is reasonable to suggest that our individual cells have maintained some degree of autonomy (consciousness) that we are totally unaware of.

A lot of human behavior is associated with subconscious processes in the prefrontal cortex that psycho-analysts refer to as the super-ego. This super-ego reflects the internalization of cultural rules in the form of memes. Such memes often influence human behavior in ways individuals barely realize and can be considered a form of collective consciousness.

A group of humans that is connected by means of memes can act as a single conscious organism, much like a cell of our body can act as a single conscious organism. This and many other factoids directly imply that consciousness is not so much a product of our brains but rather a product of complexity and connectivity.

From that perspective, the concept of consciousness can both be reduced to the molecular level and expanded to the universe as a whole, with the universe as a very complex holographic quantum computer

The relationship with Hinduism and Animism

In Hinduism, death is understood as the collapse of the Ātman (individual consciousness) and its dissolution into many different other components that make up the Brahman (universal consciousness).

If you look consider the Trimurti (the Hindu triniti), one can clearly see them as anthropomorphic representations of nature (Vishnu) and its two fundamental opposite forces: emergence (Brahma) and entropy (Vishnu). Similarly, many other Devas (Gods) are mere anthropomorphic representations of lesser natural phenomena.

The same applies to the Kami of Shinto religion or equivalents in other "polytheistic" religions. One could easily argue that all "polytheistic" religions are really Animistic religions, which are perfectly compatible with the Atheistic framework depending on how one defines concepts like "Consciousness" or "Soul".

Pantheism and Shamanism as forms of Animism

Pantheism is a simplified version of animism, which removes all "Gods" from the picture except Vishnu (nature). Advaita Vedanta is a form of Hinduism that belongs to this category. Many other religions (eg. Germanic paganism) have a Pantheistic variation, although these advanced forms of religion are rarely known beyond a small esoteric circle of initiates. The Traditionalist School is a school of philosophers from the early 20th century that attempted to explore these esoteric religions and discover a perennial philosophy running throughout all religions. Like Animism, Pantheism is also perfectly compatible with Atheism, again depending on how one defines concepts like "Consciousness" or "Soul".

Shamanism is a variation of animism that involves the notion that the chemical modification of one's consciousness provides access to higher knowledge that is otherwise filtered from our perception. Shamanic practices do not require a belief in any "Gods" and are not uncommon among Atheist intellectuals, especially since the popularization of LSD and Mescaline in the '60s. Aldous HuxleyErnst JüngerAlexander ShulginTimothy Leary  and Terence McKenna are among the more prominent shamans in Western culture, although not all of them would use the term "shamanism" in reference to their chemically induced self-exploratory consciousness expanding sessions.

The link between Shamanism and Hinduism

Much of Hindu belief and practice grew out of the use of Soma, a god, plant, and drink which is the focus of the Rigveda.

The continued entheogenic use of drugs such as Cannabis is not uncommon among various Hindu sects. Cannabis is connected with the god Shiva who is said to have rested in the shade of the Cannabis plant on a particularly hot day. In gratitude Shiva gave the plant to mankind. 

Often the drink Bhang is drunk in Shiva's honor, it is a tea typically cooked with milk, spices, cannabis leaves and flowers. The leaves of the Kratom tree have also been used traditionally as an ingredient in a tea with mild stimulant and opioid properties. 

The Pantheistic "God" concept from the Atheist's perspective

The Atheistic naturalistic position of the universe as a very complex quantum computer is pretty much the same as the Pantheistic position of the universe as one highly advanced mind. The differences between Atheist naturalism and Pantheism are really more a matter of different semantics and different cultural bias than a difference in concept.

If one considers the notion that the clock ticks of a computer and awareness are basicly of the same nature (which is a perfectly reasonable consideration), the following statements would mean the exact same thing :

  • The universe is God. By being a part of God, all matter and living beings are essentially divine. Time is our perception of his thinking process. God's thinking processes comprise of all our thinking processes and all other processes of the universe combined. Our awareness is a tiny fraction of divine awareness.

  • The universe is a giant computer. By being operating systems somewhat autonomicly operating a part of that computer, all living beings are components of the same computer. Time is our perception of the giant computer sequentially processing information. The computer's sequential processing comprises of all our thinking processes and all other processes in the universe combined. Our awareness is but a tiny fraction of the universe's operating system.

So if time = awareness = clock ticks, I can't distinguish between those two statements. Conceptually they mean exactly the same.

The disconnect between Atheists and Theists largely stems from using very different semantical contexts to really describe the same perspective. If we were to adjust our semantics more to each other, many of us might see more similarities than they ever held possible.

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The basis of forms is to let you relate to God. You are free to create your own God; that's what sub-cultures in India have done. Each village has its own deity, designed to let its people relate to it - for protection, morality or strength. Over a period, the deities have been accepted by larger communities and the ways of worship had also changed to accomodate larger diverse group of people.

For a practicing Hindu, the theory on three forms is immaterial. A Hindu sees all as different forms of one God.

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    Please provide source for your claims. – Mr_Green Aug 18 '14 at 11:40
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    Hindus do not follow books as religion is considered personal. There is this concept of Ishta Devta that simply means favorite god. You need to know more about India to understand what I mentioned. – User 1565623 Aug 18 '14 at 13:52
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    How then can you expect this answer to ever be accepted if there's no way to back it up with something? Should we just take your word or the word of any other user that has answered this question? – pgpb.padilla Jan 20 '15 at 5:02
  • It is based on personal experience. There is no need for a book of reference. Most Hindus do not follow any scriptures, but may adopt to their local tradition.That's the difference with other religions. – User 1565623 May 1 '16 at 12:39
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There seems to be a continuum from polytheism to monotheism. Different cultures stand at different stages at different times but it's clear that the trend has been unidirectional from poly to mono-theism, see this answer.

As explained here the term Henotheism was used to describe a stage in which the culture is predominantly monotheistic but still incorporates certain aspects of polytheism.

The term was specifically coined to describe the practices of the predecessor of modern Hinduism, the Rigvedic religion.

As the Indian culture evolves I think it's pretty likely that they will converge to monotheism, a more sophisticated form of religious belief.

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