The Devotionalistic
Gods in Hinduism

Hare Rāma

Mohandas Gandhi, his last words, 1948

While the old gods of the Vedas (Indra, Agni, Dyaus, Mitra, Varuna, etc. [note]) eventually were demoted by Hinduism to a position inferior to the Vedas themselves, in the Upaniṣads Brahman () came to be conceived as the Supreme Being, or just Being -- the One. According to the Dvaita Vedānta interpretation of the Upaniṣads, Brahman is a personal God, distinct from individual souls (atmans) and from matter [note]. Such a personal Brahman, whether formulated philosophically or not, comes to be identified in popular religion with either Viṣṇu or Śiva. Since different gods are thus proposed as the One God, Hinduism is an unusual kind of monotheism:  it contains virtual sub-religions consisting of the devotees of Viṣṇu, the Vaishnavites, and the devotees of Śiva, the Shaivites. It is best to see this as an instance of the "multiplicity of explanations." There is no doctrinal authority in Hinduism to straighten this out, and the Sects generally get along with each other, acknowledging, after a fashion, each other's Gods; so the status quo seems acceptable to all.

On the other hand, the earlier (and perhaps more faithful) interpretation of the Upaniṣads is found in the Advaita Vedānta of Shankara [note], where Brahman is identical with the Âtman and is an impersonal Absolute beyond any devotionalistic Gods [note]. Since the personal Gods could all be seen on the same footing in relation to an impersonal Brahman, an attempt was made, we know not by whom, to tidy up things through the doctrine of the Trimūrti:

Brahmā (, the masculine form of Brahman), was a creator God in the Vedas (more or less identifiable with Prajapati), but he is actually not an important devotionalistic God. One story about Viṣṇu is that as he sleeps, dreaming the universe, a lotus grows from his navel and opens to reveal Brahmā, who then creates worlds as he blinks his eyes. Brahmā is awake for a kalpa, or a Day of Brahmā, which is either 12 million years or 4 billion years. He then sleeps for another kalpa, a Night of Brahmā, while all karma sleeps within him. After 36,000 Days and Nights, called the Life of Brahmā (859 billion or 309 trillion years), Brahmā dies, and all karma is annihilated. But then a new lotus grows from Viṣṇu's navel, and another Brahmā is born [note].

The most important feature of the cult of Viṣṇu () is the belief that he periodically causes himself to be born as a being in the world. He does this out of compassion, and this is probably responsible for his epithet as the "Preserver." As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita (Chapter 4, Juan Mascaró translation, Penguin, 1962):

[7] Although I am unborn, everlasting, and I am the Lord of all, I come to my realm of nature and through my wondrous power I am born.

[8] When righteousness is weak and faints and unrighteousness exults in pride, then my Spirit arises on earth.

[9] For the salvation of those who are good, for the destruction of evil in men, for the fulfillment of the kingdom of righteousness, I come to this world in the ages that pass.

In the cycle of time within which we live, called a Mahāyuga (either 12 thousand or 4.3 million years), there are supposed to be ten Incarnations (or Avatars) of Viṣṇu. Nine have come already:  1) as the Fish, 2) the Tortoise, 3) the Boar, 4) the Man-Lion, 5) the Dwarf, 6) Parashurāma, 7) Rāma (of the Rāmāyāna), 8) Kṛṣṇa (Krishna, of the Mahābhārata), and 9) the Buddha. As the Buddha, however, Viṣṇu is supposed to have taught a deliberately false doctrine (which is how Hinduism always sees Buddhism), to destroy demons. The tenth Avatar, Kalkin, will usher in the end of the world (or the end of the Mahāyuga).

The most unusual Avatar may be Paraśurāma, who is immortal and thus lives into subsequent ages, interacting with both Rāma and Kṛṣṇa in their respective epics. Part of the mythology of Paraśurāma is that he killed Kṣatriyas who have gotten out of control, sometimes all of them. Because of this he refused to teach Kṣatriyas;. Those he does teach include Bhīṣma, Droṇa, and Karṇa of the Mahābhārata. Droṇa was himself a Brahmin. Karṇa was a Kṣatriya but did not know it. When Karṇa demonstrated an unusual ability endure pain, Paraśurāma saw that he was a Kṣatriya, and cursed him, that he would forget his knowledge when he most needed it. Thus, in the great battle with Arjuna, Karṇa forgot how to call on his divine weapons. As it happens, Bhīṣma was a Kṣatriya, and I have not seen why Paraśurāma made an exception for him. However, at the time Bhīṣma was being raised by his mother, Gaṅgā, the goddess of the Ganges. Gaṅgā entrusted Bhīṣma to Paraśurāma, who perhaps could not refuse.

The most important feature of the cult of Śiva () is perhaps his sexual complexity. This may come in answer to a difficulty that the chart of the Trimūrti may suggest. Each of the Gods is married, but the presence of a wife is a little awkward if the deity is to be considered the Supreme Being -- there is no Mrs. God in the Old Testament. The solution is that the goddesses are really the female aspect of the God, not separate beings. Thus Śiva as a whole may be divided into male and female sides. This can be artistically represented either by showing Śiva as half male and half female, or by showing Śiva and Pārvatī () locked together in intercourse. Much the same thing is shown through the union of the Shaivite fetish objects, the linga cone and the yoni ring or table.

This sets off a chain reaction of belief. The male side of the God is contrasted, as remote and detached, with the female side, which comes to be seen as the Śakti (), the active power and energy of the God. Then all goddesses are seen as active, powerful, and creative, and finally assimilated, more or less, into a sense of One Goddess, Shakti, who contains all power. This effectively eliminates the need for a creator Brahmā, and gives rise to, virtually, a third sub-religion:  Shākta, or Tantrism (named after its texts, the Tantras). The Trimūrti thus might be refigured this way (though, evidently, it hasn't been so far):

On the other hand, there are goddesses and there are goddesses. Some goddesses, like Pārvatī herself, are basically positive, protective, and reassuring; others and basically destructive, terrifying, and spooky. Kālī () is the most famous in that respect (thanks in part to the Hollywood exaggerations in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Śiva as a whole might be divided, not just into male and female sides, but with the female side divided into peaceful and terrible sides:

The most fearful manifestation of the cult of Kālī was the murderous secret society of her followers, the Thugs (pronounce the "th" like a "t"; there is no "th" sound, as in "thin," in Indian languages). Thugee was the practice of murder and robbery by the Thugs, who strangled travelers in their sleep. They saw these murders as offerings to Kālī. The British decided this should not be tolerated, so they actually infiltrated the society and stamped it out.

As with Viṣṇu, we get some organization with the goddesses. There is a set of ten Mahāvidyās (), which literally means "great knowledge," who are all supposed to be manifestations of Pārvatī, if not Śiva. These are Kālī (), Tārā (), Tripura Sundarī (), Bhuvaneśvarī (), Tripura Bhairavī (), Chhinnamastā, Dhūmāvatī (), Bagalāmukhī (), Mātaṅgī (); and Kamalā (). This group does not contain all the goddesses I have already mentioned. It is also a little difficult to divide them in peaceful and wrathful versions, although depictions of violence, and the trampling of demons, usually indicate a wrathful form.

The most alarming of these goddesses may be Chhinnamastā (), who has beheaded herself and is spewing blood that shoots into the mouths of her own head and those of her two attendants. She corresponds to a similar Buddhist Tantric deity. She and her female attendants are all naked, and she stands, not on a trampled demon but on a couple engaged in copulation. The attendants also hold freshly severed heads, although we do not see who has lost their heads. While Chhinnamastā is properly portrayed with a red skin, the attendants are often distinguished as otherwise of dark and white colors, as we see in the bank of ten above and in the image at left -- where we also see Chhinnamastā with anomalously blue skin.

This is the sort of iconography that would have appalled good Victorian gentlemen, while being carefully concealed from good Victorian ladies and children. Since the couple are not being interrupted in their activity, and Chhinnamastā can restore her own head, the whole seems to symbolize the cycle of sacrifice, life, and death, controlled by the goddess. It does make for an arresting image.

A very nice statement of the complex of the devotionalistic Gods can be found by George Michell, in The Hindu Temple, An Introduction to its Meaning and Forms [University of Chicago Press, 1977, 1988]:

Innumerable gods and goddesses are found throughout the mythology and art of Hinduism, but the history of this religion at its highest devotional level is mostly bound up with the simultaneous development of two major cults -- those of the male gods Śiva and Vishnu. A third cult is also of importance -- that of the Mother or the Goddess -- but is rarely seen in isolation, as the Goddess is essentially the consort of Śiva. These cults are synthetic in character owing to their evolution as amalgamations of many different minor deities. Śiva, Vishnu, and the Goddess are compound creations with a wide range of divine powers and richly paradoxical personalities. The majority of Hindus ally their beliefs with one or other of these cults, worshipping Śiva, Vishnu, or the Goddess as the highest principle. In devoting themselves to one of these three deities Hindus do not deny the existence of the other two, who are regarded as minor expressions of the divine power. Thus in the cult of Śiva, Vishnu is considered an unimportant aspect, whereas in the cult of Vishnu, Śiva is reduced to a secondary emanation. To the worshipper of the Goddess, the male gods are mostly passive and shadowy figures.

In general, the cults of Hinduism developed peacefully together and only rarely is there any evidence of friction or religious persecution. The reason for this mutual co-existence is to be found in the belief that the ultimate godhead lies beyond the divisions of cult and that the worship of Śiva, Vishnu or the Goddess leads inevitably to the same same goal. [p.23]

As I have noted, however, this latter is not quite right, only holding true for the School of "unqualified" Advaita Vedānta, not for "qualified" Advaita Vedānta or Dvaita Vedānta, where the "ultimate godhead," Brahman, is a personal Deity identified with a devotionalistic God. Michell may have gotten the wrong impression because the "unqualified" doctrine is both more intriguing to Western investigators (already familiar with personal Monotheism) and more to the taste of most recent Indian philosophers. The real reason for the co-existence of the cults may just be that they identify each other's Gods with aspects of their own. Or, it may simply be that Hindus are aware that there are many gods in their religion, and they do not regard the status of other devotionalistic Gods as different from the surviving gods of the Vedas.

Excerpt from the Bhaviṣya Purāṇa

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The Devotionalistic Gods in Hinduism, Note 1

The 33 Gods of the Vedas

Traditionally, there are thirty-three gods in the Vedas. There are really many more, however, and the list of the thirty-three can vary. There is also the problem that the gods come in groups, and what the groups are even varies. According to the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upaniṣad, there are eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Âdityas, Indra, and Prajāpati [Upaniṣads, translated by Patrick Olivelle, Oxford, 1996, p.46]. Instead of Indra and Prajāpati, however, we may find the two Ashvins, or an extra Vasu or Âditya, or the Creator Brahmā (for the Creator Prajāpati). There are also the Maruts, which may mean the Rudras, or may be different.

The Vasus represent different natural elements:  (1) Dhava or Dharā for earth, (2) Aha for space (or Ap for water), (3) Dyaus (or Prabhāsa, dawn) or for the sky, (4) Dhruva for the polestar or constellations, (5) Agni (or Anala or Pāvaka) for fire, (6) Vāyu (or Anila) for wind, (7) Sūrya (or Pratyūṣa) for the sun, (8) and Soma for the moon. Also taken as Vasus can be Indra, Viṣṇu, Śiva (and/or Rudra), Kubera, an even the Ashvins and Âdityas. Dawn can also be the goddess Uṣas. In the Mahābhārata, Bhiṣma is supposed to be the incarnation of a Vasu, perhaps Dyaus. With the Pāṇḍavas, Bhīma is supposed to have been fathered by Vāyu, Arjuna by Indra, Nakula and Sahadeva by the Ashvins, and their half-brother Karṇa by Sūrya.

The Âdityas were at first Mitra, Varuṇa, Aryaman, Bhaga, Amshu, Indra, Dakṣa, and Vivasvat, then to be joined by Tvaṣṭṛ, Pūṣan, Savitṛ, Shakra, and Viṣṇu. These thirteen can be limited to the canonical twelve by leaving out Indra.

The Rudras were at first eight, Bhava, Sharva, Pashupati, Ugra, Mahādeva, Rudra, Ishāna, and Ashani, later a rather different eleven, Mahan, Mahātman, Matiman, Bhīṣaṇa, Bhayamkara, R.tudhvanja, Ûrdhvakesha, Pingalākṣa, Ruci, Shuci, and Rudra.

The Maruts, when they are not just the Rudras, can be seven storm gods, named after winds, Vāyuvega, Vāyubala, Vāyuhā, Vāyumaṇḍala, Vāyujvāla, Vāyuretas, Vāyucakra. Or we can have eleven Maruts, Mṛgavyādha, Sarapa, Nirṛti, Ajaikapāda, Ahirbudhnya, Pinākin, Dahana, Îshvara, Kapālin, Sthāṇu, and Bhaga.

The Pāṇḍava Yudhiṣṭhira is fathered by Dharma, Law or Duty, but not a god who otherwise fits into the traditional thirty-three. The Ashvins, "horsemen," are the physicians of the gods, and sound very much like the Dioskuroi (Latin Dioscuri or Gemini) in Greek mythology.

Many of these gods are not from the oldest parts of the Vedas, but from personifications and systematizations in the Brāhmaṇas and later. All these many gods I refer to as "gods" with a small "g." They are not unique or ultimate beings. However, the devotionalistic Deities, like Viṣṇu and Śiva, I call "Gods" with a capital "g" because in their cults and in philosophical schools they may be considered the unique and ultimate Supreme Being, the equivalent of a personal Brahman.

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The Devotionalistic Gods in Hinduism, Note 2

In Indian philosophy, the doctrine of a personal God who is distinct from matter and souls is usally associated with Madhva, who lived in the 13th century AD. Madhva was a Vaishnavite.

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The Devotionalistic Gods in Hinduism, Note 3

7th century AD. This is about as early as Vedānta occurs, and some speculate that its development was occasioned by the advent of Islām.

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The Devotionalistic Gods in Hinduism, Note 4

In the 11th century a personal Advaita Vedānta was proposed by Rāmānuja, who denied that Māyā was illusion and made it, with multiple ātmans, part of Brahman, whom he identified with Viṣṇu (ontologically, this is essentially the docrine of the Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, although his God is still impersonal).

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The Devotionalistic Gods in Hinduism, Note 5

Cycles of Time in Hinduism and Buddhism

Cosmic time is infinite and cyclical in India.
12,000 years
4800 years

3600 years

2400 years

1200 years

The world we are familiar with is that of our Mahāyuga, or æon. This is divided into the Kṛtayuga of 4800 years, the Tretāyuga, of 3600 years, the Dvāparayuga, of 2400 years, and the Kaliyuga, of 1200 years. These decline in quality as well as in length, and can be characterized as the golden, the silver, the bronze, and the iron ages, respectively. We are in the Kaliyuga, which is supposed to have begun around 900 BC, at the time of the climactic battle in the
Mahābhārata. However, it has now obviously been much more than 1200 years since then, so the reckoning now is that the 12,000 years of the Mahāyuga are not ordinary human years, but "years of the gods," which are 360 human years. Thus, the Mahāyuga is 4,320,000 years long, and the Kaliyuga 432,000. In those terms, the Kaliyuga is supposed to have begun, still with the battle in the Mahābhārata, on 18 February 3102 BC (identified by the Arab historian al-Bīrūnī [973-1048]). However, the original Mahāyuga, at 12,000, is already about as long as the Holocene Epoch. The larger numbers go way beyond identifiable events in recorded history, human history, or geological time.

The Kaliyuga is an age of decline and decadence, with the Pāṇḍavas preserving as much good as they could from the previous yuga. This is rather like Tolkien's sense, in The Lord of the Rings, that great things are passing away (like the Elves), but as much good is preserved as possible. At the end of the Mahāyuga will be some sort of Apocalypse, either destroying the world or renewing it in some less catastrophic sense.

Divisionyearsyears of the gods
12,000 years4,320,000 years
Manvantara71 Mahāyurgas852,000 years306,720,000 years
Kalpa14 Manvantaras11,928,000 years4,294,080,000 years
Day & Night of Brahmā2 Kalpas23,856,000 years8,588,160,000 years
Year of Brahmā360 Days of Brahmā8,588,160,000 years3,091,737,600,000 years
Life of Brahmā100 Years of Brahmā858,816,000,000 years309,173,760,000,000 years
Seventy-one mahāyugas make a manvantara. This will be either 852,000 years or, with the years of the gods, 306,720,000 years. Fourteen manvantaras make a kalpa. The kalpa, as described in the text, is thus 11,928,000 or, with the years of the gods, 4,294,080,000 years. A Day and a Night of Brahmā, each a kalpa, are multiplied by 360 to give a Year of Brahmā (8,588,160,000 or 3,091,737,600,000 years); and 100 years of Brahmā make the Life of Brahmā (858,816,000,000 or 309,173,760,000,000 years). During the Night of Brahmā, Brahmā sleeps and there is no world. All karma sleeps with Brahmā. When Brahmā awakes, the world is created as he opens his eyes. The other cycles, as worlds are created and destroyed, are when Brahmā blinks. After a Life of Brahmā, all karma is annihilated. But Brahmā is reborn, born from a lotus that grows from the navel of the sleeping Vishnu.

The kalpa is also a basic unit of Buddhist cosmology, although there are different versions of it. Thus a Buddhist kalpa can be 15,998,000 years long, comparable to the shorter version of the Hindu kalpa, or it can be "incalculable" in length. Eighty such kalpas make a mahākalpa, "Great Kalpa," but even this is a fraction of the asaṁkhya kalpa, which is a multiple of 1059 kalpas (of one kind or another). Three asaṁkhya kalpas are necessary for someone to become a Buddha. This is discussed in detail by Akira Sadakata in Buddhist Cosmology [Kôsei Publishing Co., Tokyo, 1997, pp.96-97]. The Hindu periods are explained by A.L. Basham, in The Wonder That Was India [Rupa & Co., Calcutta, Allahabad, Bombay, Delhi, 1954, 1967, 1981, 1989, p.323].

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Excerpt from the Bhaviṣya Purāṇa

This story is an example of how ordinary human beings can be morally and spiritually superior to the gods, even the great Sectarian Gods of Hinduism, and how the philosophical side of the Hindu tradition can regard devotionalistic religion, and the Gods themselves, with contempt. This is a characteristic of Indian religion, absolutely dominant in Jainism and Buddhism, but co-existing with devotionalistic theism in Hinduism. It is a characteristic of the philosophical side of Hinduism but is also to be found in non-philosophical literature, such as this Purāṇa.

The text is based on the translation by Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty in Hindu Myths [Penguin Books, 1975, pp.53-55]. Doniger uses it as an example of the "Degradation of Brahmā," but all three devotionalistic Gods are degraded in the same way.

One day, the lord Atri was practicing asceticism

i.e. fasting, meditating, etc.

on the banks of the Ganges, together with his wife Anasūyā, and he was meditating intently upon Brahman. The eternal ones, Brahmā, Hari

Alternative name for Viṣṇu. Another name used here for him is Vāsudeva.

and Shambhu,

Alternative name for Śiva. Other names used for him here are Rudra and Hara.

approached him, each mounted on his own vehicle,

The sacred animals of the Gods:  the bull Nandi for Śiva, the eagle Garuḍa for Viṣṇu, and a goose (!) for Brahmā. There is a more dignified vehicle for Brahmā, however, the lotus. Note that the national airline of predominately Muslim Indonesia is named "Garuda." This is probably because much of Indonesian tourism goes to the Island of Bali, which is still Hindu in religion.

and told him to choose a boon.

The Gods are respectful and reverential towards Atri for his spiritual attainments. Also, the fact that all three Gods show up indicates that this is not a Shaivite or Vaiṣṇavite devotionalistic document, for in that case there would only be one God.

The sage, who was the son of the Self-created Prajāpti,

A Creator who sometimes is even identified with Brahmā.

heard their speech but did not say anything in reply, for he was firmly immersed in the highest Self.

i.e. the ātman.

Observing his emotion, the three eternal Gods went to his wife Anasūyā and spoke to her. Rudra himself had a linga

The linga or lingam is the sacred phallus of Śiva, usually a stone cone found on a table that represents the yoni or female organ of his wife Pārvatī. Here, however, what Śiva is holding may be more personal.

in his hand; Viṣṇu was exhilarated with desire for her; Brahmā's godhead was annulled by lust, and he was entirely in the power of Kāma.

Pleasure, here personified as a goddess, or The Goddess (Mahādevī), to whom there is reference later.

He said, "Grant me sexual pleasure, or I will abandon my life's breath, for you have caused me to whirl about drunk with passion." When Anasūyā, who was true to her vow to her husband, heard their improper speech she did not say anything in reply, for she feared the anger of the Gods. But the Gods, out of their minds, grabbed her by force and prepared to rape her, for they were deluded by the Goddess's magic power.

Then the sage's beloved and faithful wife became angry and cursed them, saying, "You will be my sons, for you have been infatuated by desire. The linga of the great god, the great head of Brahmā here,

Brahmā's head has faces on front, back, and sides.

and the two feet of Vāsudeva

Viṣṇu, in his fifth incarnation as the Dwarf, paced off the size of the world in three strides, rendering his feet holy.

will always be worshipped by men, and so the supreme Gods will be the supreme laughing-stock." When they heard this terrible speech, they bowed to the sage's beloved wife, bent low with reverence, and praised her with Vedic verses as recited by the gods. Then Anasūyā said, "When you are my little sons, you will be freed from my curse and you will be content." Then Brahmā became Candramas, Hari became Dattātreya, and the lord Hara became incarnate as Durvāsas. And they all became yogis in order to dispel that evil.

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