Without a doubt, Hinduism has the unique distinction of worshipping the most gods of any religion. The credit for this goes to our ancient sages, the Rishis, who adored and glorified these gods in an ingenious manner. Not only is each god grand and divine, but he also has his own unique personality and attributes. In the Hindu pantheon, the gods are like the icons with which the ordinary devotee may identify the Divine more easily. Ancient scriptures portray the gods by using a story telling method, making the theme more important than the event.50
In the epic scriptures, with the historical tales of Lord Rama and Lord Krishna, the concept of God incarnate became established in Hinduism. Both Lord Rama and Lord Krishna are considered as Vishnu incarnates in the Hindu pantheon. Lord Rama is known for his sense of propriety, or maryada. He would never do anything that was inappropriate. Lord Krishna is complete in all respects—the puran avtara—but he is also the god of love, or Prema. He has a bewitching smile and a handsome face, and he holds a melodious flute to his lips. He would never utter words of anger or hatred. Every Hindu has a choice to choose his own God. He may also choose many gods, instead of just one. By thinking of a god and meditating on him, a person would imbibe the divine virtues and attributes within his or her own self. This was indeed the grand plan of our learned sages, which has worked wonderfully well throughout millennia.
God is an evolutionary concept in Hinduism. As a person ascends gradually on the path of spirituality, through eons of birth cycles, his/her divinity shines more and more. Some of the most important ones, apart from the primary trinity of gods, are presented:
Lord Ganpati, who is also called Lord Ganesh, has always been one of the most favorite gods. In the Hindu mythology, he is the son of Lord Shiva and the goddess Parvati. He has an elephant head, signifying great wisdom. Lord Ganpati is adored as the god who can remove any obstruction. He is, therefore, also called Vighna-harta (one who removes obstacle) Whenever a Hindu embarks on any auspicious or major venture, such as a wedding or a new home or business, the first invocation is to Lord Ganpati. Lord Ganpati is also regarded as the embodiment of Shabda Brahman; guiding and blessing all our spiritual knowledge.
Lord Subramanya is the other son of Lord Shiva. He is the six-faced god, signifying his multifaceted personality. He is much venerated, especially in South India, as the god of valor. He is regarded as the master guru of Kundalini yoga, born of Lord Shiva’s mind, to awaken and propel the soul onward in its spiritual journey. He is also known by many other names, such as Muruga, Murkan, Kartikeya, Skanda, Shanmuga, and Kumara.
Hanuman Bhagwan is a revered god of the Ramayana epic. He is the leader of the monkey army, who helped Lord Rama in searching for and finally rescuing the goddess Sri Sita. He was the epitome of service and sincerity. He remained celibate throughout his life and, in accordance with Hindu philosophy, conserved all his energy. Many sing the popular “Hanuman Chalisa”, the long prayer in verse, in honor of Lord Hanuman. He is even considered as the incarnation of Lord Shiva and the son of the god of winds, Vayu, thus establishing a pattern in the Hindu pantheon of creating relationships between the different gods.
Satya-Narayan Bhagwan is the god of boons. Hindus worship this god frequently to express their gratitude for favors received and for a good life. Many worship Shri Satya Narayan as the combined form of three gods: Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu, and Lord Maheshwara.
Lord Dattatreya is the god in whom all three forms of the primary gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—also manifest together.
Narad Bhagwan is the popular mythological god who works as a messenger between the sages and the Supreme Divine and is hence named as Deva Rishi (God’s sage). In ancient scriptures there are many tales of this deity, who skillfully and with a great sense of humor, navigates complicated and difficult situations.
There are innumerable other gods, such as Kubera, god of wealth; Garuda, god of birds; Himavan, god of mountains; Anathan, god of snakes; and many more.
Of the three primary Hindu gods, Lord Vishnu took repeated incarnations in different times. Even as Lord Krishna, he manifested again and again, subsequently as Lord Tirupati in South India, Lord Shree Nath in Rajasthan, Jagan Nath in Puri Orissa, and Lord Swaminarayan in Gujarat.
Along with the male gods, the female goddesses also proliferated in Hindu religion, either alone or as the consorts of the male gods. Thus, innumerable goddesses appeared on the Hindu stage. Some of the most important goddesses, apart from those mentioned earlier, are Sri Sita as the consort of Lord Rama and also as the earth goddess; Sri Radha as the consort of Lord Krishna; Sri Ganga as goddess of the River Ganges; Cow as the earth goddess; and Kali, Uma, and Sati as the consorts of Shiva.
Hindu philosophy recognizes that spirituality is manifested more prominently in certain individuals and is then called vibhuti. Satyavadi Raja Harishchandra, Shravan Kumar, Bhagat Prahalada, Bhagat Dhruva, Ahilya Devi, Jatayu, Raja Janak, Rishi Visvamitra, Savitri and Satyavan, Gargi and Maitreyi, Maharathi Karana, Sri Radha, Sri Yashoda and many others are mentioned in the Hindu tradition. Parents often read these stories to their small children to instill good behavior.
There has been much speculation regarding the phenomenon of so many gods in Hinduism, but this need not be disturbing. According to Hindu philosophy, behind the façade of so many manifestations, there is but one, universal, eternal, omnipotent, formless, and transcendental Divine.
There has been some criticism regarding idol worship, known as murti puja, in Hinduism. Originally, in the Vedic period, there was no idol worship. This practice may have been adapted from the Dravidian culture of temple worship. The description of God in the Upanishads as Neti-Neti (Not This-Not This) points to the transcendental and formless aspect of the Divine. The idol worship or Murti Puja, however, has been securely accepted as an icon or symbol to represent the Divine.
Robert Arnett, the internationally known author of India Unveiled, has very aptly said:
“Hinduism is greatly misunderstood in the West. Most Occidentals do not realize that Hinduism is a monotheistic belief only in one God, who, as creator, is beyond time, space, and physical form. The entire pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses are merely symbolic representations of different attributes of the One Un-manifested Spirit.”
The concept of many gods evolved from the very beginning. First, it was the “nature gods” like the sun-suray, moon-chandrama, fire-agni etc. As and when the early people observed different manifestations of the superior nature elements, they considered them as different gods-the powers beyond their imaginations. As Hinduism was not founded by one single person, various interpretations and opinions were assimilated without protest and dispute. In fact, this also laid the foundation of absorbing the concept of many in place of one in almost all philosophical perceptions and beliefs. As time passed, different ethnic communities presented their own viewpoints about the forms of gods as they perceived. God was projected with different attributes and potentials. He was conceived as an infinite power of knowledge, and virtue. Soon it was realized that behind so many, there is but one formless, transcendental, and eternal God, as described in the Upanishads. On the other hand, this model of many gods also has persisted in Hindu theology, with even more new gods being presented periodically. Occasionally living persons with highest spiritual virtues too have been deemed and worshipped as gods.