In the Aryan Vedic period, the deities of nature became the gods in all worship and rituals. But soon the idea of one Supreme God became established. In the Creation Hymn, the Nasadiya Hymn of the Rig Veda, the single primordial principle tat or that has been described. This Vedic Hymn points to the abstract, formless, transcendental, and all-pervading principle of pure consciousness.
Common man then, however, as perhaps now, was not yet ready to understand the abstract God so easily. Hindu seers came forth with the idea of the Trinity of Gods, the Trimurti. Three Gods, with different faces, were projected, and each was mythological in origin. The three Gods were each given a human face for easy acceptance.
The Trinity of Hindu Gods consists of Lord of Creation, Brahma; Lord of Preservation, Vishnu; and Lord of Dissolution, Shiva, who is also called Mahesh. In Hindu philosophy, however, this envisages one continuous chain of events. For example, the destruction of the morning is the creation of the evening, and the destruction of the evening is the creation of the night, and so on. Even death in Hindu thought is merely an interlude from one event to another. Destruction or death is the dissolution, which is again followed by creation.
Lord Brahma, the Lord of Creation, is also called the Lord of Progeny (Prajapati). He has four faces and four arms. The four faces represent the four Vedas. The four arms of Lord Brahma are symbolic of the four aspects of his inner personality: the mind (mana), the intellect (buddhi), the ego (ahamkara), and the divine consciousness (chitta). He is wedded to Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge.
Lord Vishnu is the Lord of Preservation. Literally, Vishnu means “all-pervading.” Thus, the symbolic significance of the Divine as formless and transcendent is emphasized. He is portrayed as a dark-blue youth, upright in position. He, too, is a god with four arms, representing omnipresence and omnipotence. One hand holds the conch (sankha), signifying creation; the second hand holds the discus (sudarshan chakra) to signify the universal mind; the third hand carries the mace (gada) to signify life force; and the fourth hand carries the lotus (padma) to signify the universe.
Lord Vishnu’s consort is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity.42 Lord Vishnu is also identified as Narayana, possibly originating from the pre-Vedic culture.43 Lord Vishnu in the Hindu pantheon is emblematic of complete evolution. He has been presented as taking ten incarnations. In each incarnation, he has acted as a savior of the world. The ten incarnations of Vishnu present an amazing account of the evolutionary phases in the Creation. The first incarnation of Vishnu is in the form of Matsya, a fish; he protected the sacred Vedas from being lost in the great deluge. In the second incarnation as Kurma, a tortoise, he held the universe in balance when the gods and demons began to churn the ocean to extract the nectar of immortality (amruta). In the third incarnation as Varaha, the boar, he killed the demon Hiranyaksha and saved the Earth from drowning in the ocean. In the fourth incarnation, Lord Vishnu came as the half-lion/half-man Narasimha and destroyed Hiranyakasipu to save the demon’s own son Prahlada, who believed in eternal god Narayana. In the fifth incarnation as the dwarf Vamana, he helped the gods, who were treated unjustly by king Bali. In the sixth incarnation as Lord Parshurama, he fought with the kings to save the Rishis. In the seventh incarnation as Lord Rama, he destroyed wicked Ravana, as described in the epic of Ramayana. In the eighth incarnation as Lord Krishna, he killed the evil and atrocious Kamsa and also guided the truthful Pandavas against unjust Kauravas in the battle of Mahabharata. In the ninth incarnation, he appeared as gentle and non-violent human being, full of wisdom, as Lord Buddha. He taught the technique of meditation and inner transformation of the mind to overcome the sorrow and evil of life. In the tenth incarnation, which is yet to come, he would be called Kalki and would again become the savior of the just and the righteous. He would ride on a white horse, representative of the indestructible hidden nature of things.44 The Kalki legend is familiar and has repeated in one form or another in most cultures, such as Persian, Jewish, Christian, Tibetan, and many Central Asian cultures. Even Native Americans had their version in the legend of Kukulkan.45
Lord Shiva is described in the next chapter.
After the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, much of the divine power and glory were bestowed from the earlier Vedic gods of nature to these Divine entities. However in Hindu pantheon, the old was never completely discarded. Some of the Vedic gods have persisted till today; Indra, Yama. Varuna, Agni, Suray, Vayu, and Soma together are known as “world-guardians”. Many other new gods apart from the Trinity appeared on the scene; Ganesha, Skanda, goddesses who became consorts of the Primary gods of Trinity, animal gods, river gods etc came to the forefront. In the epic scriptures, God was presented in the real human form as God-incarnate. In Hindu theology, God-hood essentially is a symbolic phenomenon, signifying the highest spiritual and virtuous attainment.46
Such has been the universal approach of Hindus that they even called the gods of the other religions the Vishnu incarnations. Lord Buddha and Lord Christ have been considered to be Vishnu incarnates. This is really not so surprising, as Hindu philosophy teaches, Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadant—“One alone exists; sages call it by various names.”
Hindu theology has often been labelled as one that harbors multiple gods. However, the concept of One Supreme God was clearly mentioned in the earliest of Hindu scriptures-the Rig Veda:
Ekam sad vipra bahudha vadanti.
(One alone exists; sages call it by various names.)
In the later scriptures, the Upanishads, this ancient philosophical thought came to the forefront, overshadowing the idea of multiple gods, who were then considered simply as the manifestations of the One transcendental Supreme Divine.
In modern times, this concept of God has been adopted more vigorously, given the existence of many religions and sects around the world. It is interesting to note that the Supreme Court of the United States recommended using the term “Supreme Being” in place of “God” in the Constitution of the United States, after hearing the plea in which the aforementioned quotation of the Rig Veda was presented.
In contemporary times, the thought of different gods for different religions and communities, competing and often quarrelling over the names of gods, is gradually being disfavored. More understanding people around the globe believe that God is but one, but names can be many!