For those struggling with their Hindu identities, it is a disaster to encounter the definitions and justifications for Hindu principles by those hardly informed to describe them. One of the prominent confusions perpetuated by the new Hindu scholarship is regarding the question of the apparent polytheism of Hinduism. The question simply put is “why are there so many gods in Hinduism?” The popular answers to this question are extremely naïve and over-simplistic. They end up confusing the individual than clarifying the doubt.
The popular answer
The most popular answer to the question as to why there are several gods is to say that all gods are forms of the same truth. All gods are equal and same. Humans can take the device of one of these gods according to one’s convenience and liking for one’s spiritual progress. The god of convenience or liking is called the ishta devata.
Problems with this answer
First, there is no scriptural basis to claim that all gods are same or that they are different forms of the same truth. The ill-informed utilize the verses in the Vedas such as “ekaṃ sat; viprā bahudhā vadanti” (There is one true being; the learned speak of it variously) to force their point that all gods are equivalent representations of the same truth. The Vedic passage seeks to imply nothing of that sort. It merely says that the Sat or the Essential Being has numerous auspicious attributes. These auspicious attributes are called kalyāṇa guṇas in Sanskrit. Different seers experience different attributes of the Brahman and speak variously. The experience of Hanuman is different from that of Vidhura. They employ different words to describe their experience. But, the Brahman, whose auspicious attributes are experienced, is one. There are not several Brahmans. There are not several Essential Beings. This is the import of the Vedic hymn.
This interpretation is reinforced by other utterances from the Vedic scripture. The Aitareya Brahmana says “agnir vai devānām avamo; viṣṇuḥ paramaḥ; tadantareṇa sarvā anyā devatā”. [Agni is the lowest among the gods and Vishnu is the highest. All other gods occupy positions between them.] The text intends to determine the position of gods based on their greatness when they are worshipped. The Mahopanishad says, “eko havai nārāyaṇa āsīt; na brahma, neśānaḥ” [In the beginning, there was only one, Narayana; there was no Brahma; there was no Isana]. Such verses put paid to the “all gods are same”, “all gods are manifestations of the same truth” theories. The Vedas clearly do not speak in the spirit of these theories. They also do not support that view that the word Vishnu only implies omnipresence of the Brahman. Instead, they use words such as “Vishnu” and “Narayana” as ways to identify a specific entity among the numerous gods mentioned in the Vedic scripture. They reject their equality and sameness by distinguishing them from Agni, Siva and Brahma.
Also, there is no evidence in the Vedic scripture that these gods are man-made devices constructed for the sake of meditation or worship. Instead, they speak of gods as real entities that are worshipped and meditated upon for various benefits. Modern teachers make gods appear like mental devices and nurture atheism. The gods of the Vedas, to them, are bereft of any real validity, and are only devices to be used by humans for some purpose. In other words, they admit that their gods are an illusion invented to protect themselves from their mental weakness. None of the Vedic gods would be gladdened by such an opinion, and however hard one meditates on these gods whom one considers “fictitious”, no good would come out of it.
Mental weakness has become a core issue in the modern world and people struggle with unprecedented stress levels. Some self-proclaimed godmen have decided to take advantage of this situation by making the Vedic scriptures appear as a manual for stress relief. Such levels of stress were hardly present in the days the scriptures were revealed by the sages. It is true that meditation and other spiritual practices have mental benefits. None of these benefits is the primary benefit intended by the Vedas. The goal of the Vedas transcends stress-busting. It is, of course, good to practice mental hygiene using one of several methods. Claiming that this alone is the end of the Vedas is utterly incorrect.
There are also logical hurdles to the “all gods are equal” and “all gods are similar” theories.
If all gods are equal, which one takes precedence in the case of conflict? Who performs the arbitration? If all of them are independent and powerful equally, why will anyone’s arbitration be binding upon the others?
If all gods are same, do we limit ourselves to the Vedic gods? Why not include gods from Tibetan Buddhism? Why not include Jain icons, Jesus, Yahweh and Allah? What about the Sumerian and Roman gods?
No real Hindu would say that all of these gods are equal and that they must all be worshipped. If one makes such a claim, then there is nothing sacrosanct about Hinduism or Vedas. Gods in other faiths declare themselves to be the only true God. If all of these gods are the same, they are speaking in different voices. To add to the headache, one might worship godmen of today as gods too. If god is only a mental device, one might worship a fellow human being too. What will this lead to? It will lead to the conclusion that Hindus have no unique position and that they have loosely defined “as you like it” principles. Even a cursory study of the Vedas and the Gita reveals that this is not the case.
Hindus must come out of this mindset of constantly trying to look good in front of others. Even those who claim to be “open-minded” about the nature of god, do not pray in every shrine of every faith for the sake of “respecting” these gods and preserving the lofty principles of Hinduism. One does not worship every guru and godman because their formulations are vastly different and mutually contradictory. Therefore, all this nonsense of equality and sameness among all gods and preceptors is a mental illusion perpetuated by the intellectually lazy whose only intention in life is to appear good in front of others. Attaining real spiritual advancement is not their aim. The wishy-washy preachers want to derive maximum revenue by appeasing the largest number of people. This cannot be achieved if they stick one god. They have to appeal to the worshippers of all gods and hence teach wild illusions unfounded in the Vedic scripture.
Dealing with Monotheism
The fact that Abrahamic faiths have a hard time with their monotheistic views is a major mental block for Hindus. As a way of differentiation, they seek to run to the other extreme of avoiding intellectual positions on the nature of god. Abrahamic faiths have a well documented history of war, violence, bloodshed, hatred and religious intervention in public life – all in the name of One God.
Hindus in the past have had fewer issues with monotheism. Many Hindu kings have been secular in their administrative positions and have been kinder than Buddhist kings in their law making and treatment of members of other faiths. There is no need to run like headless chicken when presented with monotheism. There have been several Bhagavata/Vaishnava Kings who believed that Vishnu is the Highest and Only God. Likewise, Saivites and Saktas have held similar positions about Siva and Sakti. And these faiths have co-existed with few problems.
The greatest strength of Hinduism and Vedic thought is its commitment to non-violence and tolerance. Even the Bhagavad Gita that is staged in a battlefield and appears to encourage Arjuna to fight at first glance, preaches non-violence, compassion, equanimity, tolerance and love – not in a few places here and there, but as its core message. The war and battlefield are used an excuse to teach higher principles. The idea of Karma and rebirth teaches that people have several opportunities for spiritual progress. There is no eternal damnation or eternal reward promised just for believing the presence of a particular god in any denomination of Hinduism. All rewards of thoughts and actions are temporary and proportional to their cause. The fruit depends on the seed. Liberation is eternal but personal. As a result, there is no need to drag everyone to one’s viewpoint by hook or crook, though one may offer spiritual advice and guidance.
Vaishnavism takes a strong position that Vishnu is identical to the Highest Brahman. It makes no compromise on the point that Vishnu also is the savior of the universe. At the same time, it thinks that other people are justified in seeking other gods due their mental disposition as long as they do not cause harm to others. It holds that the Vaishnava discipline is the easiest, the surest and the only way to liberation. But it also understands that people will come around once they glimpse a fragment of Vaishnava truth. Even if they do not come around in this birth, they would come around in future births. But, there is benefit to all in speaking of the Vaishnava way, where there is no room for violence or extreme positions, where there is no need to appease God through extreme rituals. Vishnu is beautiful, blissful, simple and perfect, and the way to Vishnu should stay that way.
It is no moral, intellectual or spiritual victory to have no position on god, to accept all gods as equal or same, without carefully studying the relevant scriptures and then claim that one is open minded or tolerant. Such a victory can be claimed only by those who have a real and concrete position on God based on scriptures and are still tolerant towards other views.
Much of the wishy-washy character of Hinduism today and much of the science versus religion obsession in the west is much ado about nothing. In the latter case, for atheism, if the universe is without purpose, one can choose any purpose to one’s liking and this would have absolutely no consequence beyond death. Then, one can freely choose any form of religion without worry as long as others are not harmed. There is no absolute rule to have it only one way. There will always be a few costs to our environment, but that is true not only of religion but of every human enterprise; it is true of the very existence of man which is a significant cost to nature. For religion in the same debate, any extreme view or dogmatic truth claim is unsustainable. Unethical, coerced and motivated evangelism or violence defeats the core values of any useful religion. Any religion must stay personal to be useful, for it is personal reform that is its primary intent.
The need of the hour for Hindus is neither the unfounded dream of atheism nor religious resignation. Both of these are signs of defeat. It is to rightly understand the underlying spiritual goal from their scriptures and show the world that definite and different positions on religion can co-exist, that such positions can cause personal well-being and can help us live meaningful lives.
Today, modern Hindus stand like Arjuna, well-educated and noble but mentally defeated and easily contented by appeasing language, ready to run away from the challenges of being human. It is time that they woke up and did dharma unto themselves. Else, the Vedic traditions of the earliest progressive civilization on the planet would go waste. It is possible to be tolerant and have positions. In fact, only one with a real position can be tolerant. Hindu unity is not disturbed by having clear positions. It is disturbed by intolerance and by outdated social norms that have become mixed with the core values of Hinduism. Even in this case, monotheistic Vaishnavism and Saivism have countered the constraints posed by the varna system through their religious values in a much better way than Buddhism, Advaita or today’s intellectually lazy moderners. (A cursory look at Indian history would suffice.) Vaishnavism and Saivism have traditionally boasted of several non-Brahman, non-Kshatriya preceptors, devotees, guides and enlightened saints in sharp contrast with other reformist systems, who despite their “open” views have largely accepted guides only from the “upper” social classes. Srivaishnavism and Gaudiya Vaishnavism have spread all over the world today accepting followers from every background, in many cases spontaneously without any preaching and without ado.
Intellectual laziness? Open mindedness? Hypocrisy?
It is delusional to think that accepting several equal gods or having all gods to be the same is open-mindedness. After all, what are we being open-minded about? Different scriptures preach different systems, different ideas of God, different means and different ends. Teachers of these systems teach different methods. One would have to be deeply confused to think that everyone of this is true, and simultaneously believe in every idea. Even if one claims to respect all gods and gurus, that respect would be hollow because one cannot positively appreciate every position and remain intellectually consistent. In short, this lazy position is nothing short of hypocrisy. One merely pretends to accept and celebrate every view, though one cannot really accept mutually conflicting paths. In a subtle way, one disrespects all gods and gurus. This is because the person strips the religion and its teachers of their core values, and makes some lazy assumptions with respect to them. Therefore, these open minded men end up devaluing the real intent of scriptures and their teachers, and effectively disrespect their systems.
Also, an open minded person must be open to monotheism also, which clearly is not the case. Several open minded Hindus are openly hostile to monotheism, especially to Vaishnavism. Their egos find sustenance only in making condescending statements about Vaishnavism. If Vaishnavism did not exist, these men may find no way to feel good about themselves. The broad mindset clearly has arbitrary limits – for some to certain gods of Vedas, for some to all gods and gurus claiming allegiance to Hinduism, for some to all religions and all teachers. This so-called open minded behavior is not so open, after all. The open minded acceptance is only achieved by distorting the views of saints and teachers, or by ignoring them completely (by choosing never to open the book and stay in one’s own favorite illusions supported by self-fashioned and ill-informed godmen).
[In the following part, we will see how the teaching of Sri Adi Sankaracharya is misappropriated today to support this misrepresentation of Hinduism.]