Why do Hindus pray to so many gods?

Top actor Julia Roberts is enchanted by Hindu festivals, especially Deepavali or Diwali. She once said it should be celebrated throughout the world as a gesture of goodwill as it is universal in nature.

“Ever since I developed my liking and fondness for Hinduism, I have been attracted and deeply fascinated by many facets of multi-dimensional Hinduism,” she said.

One aspect of Hinduism that both fascinates and bewilders many people, especially non-Hindus, is the concept of God in Hinduism and the seeming existence of many gods or deities.

It continues to be a source of confusion, even for some Hindus.

With Deepavali coming up on Nov 2, this might be a good time to explore the concept of God in Hinduism and look at some of the main ways in which Hindus worship God.

Hinduism is perhaps the most difficult religion to grasp because it encompasses multiple layers of philosophy, theology, psychology, symbology, ritual, folk wisdom, and practical living – all entwined into a fluid whole.

An understanding of the nature of God would make it easier to grasp the existence of the multiplicity of forms of God in Hinduism.

To the Hindu, God is a concept, an archetype, a symbol, a living presence, all of these combined, and more; God is both tangible and intangible.

God cannot be fully comprehended by the limited human mind and, therefore, Hindus refer to God as He and She and It. The Hindu sages asked themselves this question: with his limited mind, how can man give God a specific gender? And wouldn’t we be limiting the Unlimited by giving the Supreme Being only one gender, or even only one name?

That is the reason for gods and goddesses in Hinduism and that is the reason why Hinduism says God is both male and female, and also beyond gender. Hinduism addresses God in various forms and names.

God is both with form and without form, for who is man with a limited mind to say that God has a form or that God has no form? Hindu sages ask: If we say that only a certain form or concept or word is God, aren’t we limiting God? If God is almighty as we claim, cannot God take any form God so wishes?

God is equated with energy (Shakti) in Hinduism. Science tells us that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; it can only be transformed from one thing to another.

All the forms of God in Hinduism, all its rituals and all its festivals, such as Deepavali, are to aid us in transforming our energy, and therefore ourselves, from bad to good or good to better or better to best.

The forms of God that are worshipped – what is mistakenly seen as idol worship by those who do not understand the Hindu concept of God – are ways of purifying ourselves; ways of accessing God.

In Malaysia, for instance, many Hindus worship God in the form of Muruga. Muruga is both a living presence and a symbol for Hindus. Those who call Muruga sincerely, feel His presence. Muruga’s vel (spear-like weapon) symbolises knowledge and wisdom; as a Hindu prays, he is reminded to keep his mind sharp like the Vel, for only with knowledge and wisdom can he succeed in life.

Muruga has two Shaktis, often referred to as wives. One is Iccha Shakti (desire or goal) and the other is Kriya Shakti (action or implementation). Those who can read the symbology can understand the message: In order to achieve anything, one must first have a goal or a dream; but that alone is not enough -- one must also take action. And this action should be guided by knowledge and wisdom.

Shakti, the female aspect of the Absolute, is pictured in many forms. However, the main forms are Sri Durga, Sri Laksmi and Sri Saraswati.

By giving God the form of a female, Hinduism elevates women. Male devotees, through this, are reminded to respect women.

Goddess Durga embodies courage and strength, Goddess Laksmi embodies wealth and beauty and Goddess Saraswati embodies wisdom, compassion and the arts.

Here again, the three forms of the God encourage the devotee to inculcate virtues and values such as courage, strength, wealth, beauty (in thought, word and deed), wisdom, and compassion for all God’s creations; and also to take an interest in the fine arts so that one can become a cultured person.

The Almighty is also seen as Shiva. Shiva, too, has various names and forms. This, again, is to tell the devotee that God the Supreme cannot be easily comprehended by man’s limited mind and that man should not circumscribe the powers of the Supreme Self.

Shiva is often depicted in a shape – the Shiva Linga ­- that western interpreters call a phallus. Hinduism sees God in three main ways – with form, without form and with-and-without form.

The anthropomorphic statues that we see in temples depict God with form; the light (from oil lamps) in temples and the empty space in the sanctum sanctorum of some temples, depict God without form; and the Shiva Linga depicts God with-and-without form.

The devotee is free to choose to pray to God in any way he likes: with form, without form and the formless-form. Hinduism, knowing that humans are not uniform in character and are at different levels of development, offers a range of clothes from which devotees can select to cover themselves.

One can choose to pray to God as Shiva Nataraja (Shiva the Cosmic Dancer) or Shiva Linga or Dakshinamurthy or in any of His other forms. One can also choose to worship Shiva as just the sound “Om”. Or one can choose to worship Shiva without sound or form or even thought – in meditation.

The Supreme is also called Vishnu and there are several different forms or Avatars of Vishnu. One of the most popular Avatars is that of Sri Krishna. Vishnu is also popular as Sri Vengkateshwara.

Every temple is sure to have an image of Lord Ganesha, also known by a host of other names such as Pillaiyar, Vinayagar and Gajamugha.

Popularly known as the Elephant God, Lord Ganesha has the face of an elephant and the body of a human. He sits on a tiny mouse.

It may look a little weird to the uninitiated but to those who understand the symbology it holds tremendous meaning. In brief, it means that everything, from the largest creature (here depicted as the elephant) to the smallest (here depicted as the mouse) and in-between (the human) is a creation of God. Man must learn, therefore, to respect all life and live harmoniously with Nature.

There are, in fact, many layers of meanings in the forms and names of God in Hinduism.

One of Hinduisms main pillars, the Rig-Veda, talks of the Almighty as One Being who is described in various ways by the wise. The Rig-Veda probably contains the earliest ever mention of God.

Hinduism says that since God is Almighty, the whole universe is pervaded by God. A Hindu, therefore, is called upon to see God in everyone and everything; which means he must respect everyone and live in harmony with all of life.

The rituals, prayers and pujas help refine the person. For, if one can see God in, and through, a piece of sculptured stone, surely it would not be too difficult to see the divine in man?

NOTE: This is the first in a series on Hindu culture leading up to Deepavali celebrations on Nov 2. It is to help readers have a better grasp of Hinduism and Deepavali, with the hope that this will serve to promote better understanding and tolerance among all people.

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