Hinduism is not just a religion. It is known as ‘Sanatana Dharma‘ a righteous way of life. Hinduism has multiple facets, multiple schools of philosophies and multiple sub-sects but all ultimately leading to one highest truth. Hinduism is not a religion of multiple Gods as some non-Hindus wrongly believe. Hinduism actually accepts worshiping and adoring varying forms of the One God – called Brahman,Parabrahman or Paramatman. Hinduism recognizes the fact that different people have different tastes, temperaments and capacity of intake in the matter of religion. Hence it offers ‘different strokes for different folks’.
In real life, a woman found distasteful to one man can be the soul stirring sweet-heart of another man. When such a difference is taste can exist, why not allow different tastes in worshiping the God? This is precisely the logic behind the idea of multiple God forms in Hinduism.
Thus, Hinduism permits you to choose a specific God form most appealing and lovable to you; it encourages you to believe wholeheartedly that that particular God form indeed is the one supreme God. A chaste woman considers her husband alone to be the most handsome and most wonderful person; likewise, at the lower steps of religion, a believer’s conviction that his personal God alone to be the most powerful and the “only true God” is also encouraged.
One essential feature of Hinduism is Yoga – meaning Union. The purpose of human birth is to attain this yoga – union of the individual soul with the supreme soul. One of the path for this Yoga is the emotion-laden – the path of Love towards God which is Known as Bhakthi Yoga (path of devotion). It is the most suited path for the majority. The other approach is intellectual – the Path of inquiry – known as Gnyana Yoga (Path of knowledge). Only in the path of Bhakti, worship of Gods in various forms are involved. In the later path (Gyana), God is perceived as formless and the ultimate goal is to realize by experience that the Individual soul and the Supreme soul are one and the same.
Both the paths are not strictly compartmentalized; They can co exist in an earnest aspirant and one path can lead to another. One can be more predominant than the other.
Now let us know more about the popular forms of Hindu Gods worshiped by the followers of Bhakti – devotees of God. Some of these Gods have their origin in Veda (The Supreme Holy Book of Hinduism) and also are found elaborated in Puranas and Itihas (Holy Mythological stories).
The holy trinity: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva
In Hinduism, God is the omnipresent and the omnipotent who creates, protects and destroys the worlds and the beings. The ‘Creation’ function of God is worshiped as Brahma; The ‘Protection/sustenance’ aspect of God is worshiped as Vishnu and the ‘Destruction’ aspect of God is worshiped as Siva. These 3 are male Gods. They are endowed with human form conducive for loving worship.
Brahma, the creator
He is described as four headed. Worship of Brahma as a popular deity is not widely in practice. Worshipers of Vishnu treat Brahma as one who was created by Vishnu out from his Navel. The Female aspect of Brahma (his wife) is Saraswati and she is the Goddess of learning and Art. Seeking the blessings of Saraswati is normally practiced for getting success in Education and fine arts.
Traditionally, Brahma, the creator, is never worshiped as a deity in temples. However, Saraswati is worshiped as a deity, though there are virtually no temples dedicated to Saraswati, except the one in Koothanoor, near Mayiladuthurai, Tamil Nadu.
Vishnu, the protector
Worshiping of Vishnu as Prime God is very widely practiced in Hinduism. Followers of this sect are known as Vaishnavas. Vaishnav believers will consider Brahma and Siva either as “part of the Whole” or as “Gods of lesser significance”. Vishnu, the protector is worshiped along with his divine female counterpart (wife) Lakshmi or Sri. Vishnu’s abode is Vaikunta. Vishnu the dark skinned and handsome God, with 6 hands and carries Sangu Chakra and Gatha (Conch, Wheel and a Maze) and he lies in the bed of a 5-headed snake.
Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, prosperity and she is the holy mother who is very compassionate. She is the one who recommends to Vishnu to bless his devotees irrespective of their limitations and sins. Goddess Laksmi resides in the lotus heart of Vishnu. Vishnu in association with Lakshmi is called Sriman Narayana. Vaishanavaite temples have a separate Sannadhi (Sanctum Sanctorum) for Goddess Lakshmi. Worshiping Goddess Lakshmi alone as a stand-alone deity’ is not generally very prevalent (except in some specific holy places and occasions). Vishnu is a God of thousand names and every name of him is holy.
Avatars of Vishnu too are worshiped as gods
A fundamental belief in Hinduism is that God descends to earth to take birth as human (or other) forms whenever the good and piety suffer and the evil ones have an upper hand. God protects the good, destroy the evil and restore dharma (righteousness). Such a person is known as an avatar. Lord Vishnu is attributed with taking 10 such avatars. Rama, Krishna, Narasimha and other such divine personalities are Vishnu’s Avatars and they are worshiped as varying forms Vishnu. All forms of Vishnu or his Avatars can be worshiped in Idols and each of the idol is treated as Archavatar – God’s descended form for the purpose of worship.
Shiva, the destroyer
Everything in the universe is subject to birth/evolution, growth, decay and finally destruction and these keep repeating in cycles. The destruction too is part of divine play and the Lord Shiva is the one attributed to it. Lord Shiva is associated with the profoundest religious knowledge –Gnyana. Worship of Siva as the prime deity is also very widely prevalent. Worshipers of Siva are known as saivas. Shiva is a God with the color of flame, wears a tiger skin, has smeared his body with ash and he carries a TriSul (3 pronged weapon). The holy river Ganges flows from his head.
Shiva’s divine consort is Shakti (also known as Parvati, Maya, Kali, Jagadamba and so on). She occupies the left-half body of Siva. Shiva and Shakti are like Matter and Energy. Shiva is the unfathomable, all pervading, passive representation of God while Shakti is associated with the prime-ordinal power without which no activity can ever take place. Puranas and hymns associated with Shiva declare that he is the prime God, the one above Vishnu and Brahma who has delegated the powers of creation and protection them.
Shakthi is worshiped as separate identity
Unlike Vaishnavism where Lakshmi is mostly worshiped as associated with Vishnu, Shiva’s divine consort on the other hand is also worshiped as a separate deity as Para Sakthi, the Universal Mother. Worshipers of Shakthi are known as Shaktas. Worship of Shakti as Divine Mother in innumerable names and forms (like the Kali, Parvati, Bhavani, Bhavatarini, Kamakshi and so on) is very widely prevalent all over India. Puranas and Hymns associated with Shakti will hail her as the Supreme God for whom all other gods like Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma are subservient.
Worship of Shakti as Univeral Mother is the sect of Saktam.
Sons of shiva-shakti viz. Ganesha and Subramanya are also worshiped
According to Puranas, Ganapathi (or Ganesha) and Lord Subramanya (or Muruga) are the sons of Shiva-Shakthi. Ganesha is a God with the head of an Elephant; He represents ‘Om‘ – the prime-ordinal Sound. He is hailed as the lord who removes obstacles in our endeavors. Subramanya is the knower of the supreme spiritual knowledge hidden behind Om. The sect worshiping Ganapathi as the prime God is known as Ganapatyam. The sect worshiping Subramanya as the Prime God is known as Koumaram. Worship of Ganapathi in the beginning of any new venture seeking his blessings is very common across believers of other God forms too. Worship of Ganapathi is very popular in Maharashtra region in India. Worship of Muruga (Subramanya) is quite popular in Tamil Nadu region of India.
Ganesha or Vinayaga. The first son of Shiva. He is elephant headed. He is symbolizes Om, the secret symbol of Hinduism.
Muruga or Subrahmanya, the younger son of Shiva. He is the knower of the knowledge behind Om.
Lord Subrahmanya is worshipped as Muruga in South India (Tamil Nadu) and He is one of the most popular God of Tamils. For more on Lord Muruga, please read : Murugan, the God of the Tamils
Lord Aiyappa (Harihara Putra) is another popular God of South India
Aiyappa according to some Purana story is born by the union of Shiva and Vishnu (when Vishnu once took a female form as Mohini) and he is a popular godhead in Kerala and Tamil Nadu of South India. He is an extremely benevolent God who fulfills wishes of his followers who are willing to undertake take a physically taxing journey to his abode in hills after practicing austerities in a prescribed manner.
Anjaneya, the servant of lord Rama is another popular godhead
Anjaneya, (or Hanuman) according to Ramayana (the Holy life history of Lord Rama) is a monkey (or a monkey faced native clan) who is extremely powerful yet very wise and humble, is fully devoted to Rama and ever ready in serving his Lord. He is a Nitya-suri (a deathless person), who loves all the devotees of his lord dearly and melts in emotion hearing the name Rama. He is a combination of power, knowledge, humility and devotion. Though he is not a God per se, he is one of the widely worshiped divine-personality in India cutting across the various followers of Gods.
Anjaneya or Hanuman, the humble sevant of Lord Rama. Wherever the name of Rama is chanted he will be there with eyes overflowing with tears of joy, to bless the devotees of Rama.
There are other Avatara Purushas worshipped, not limited to the ten of lord Vishnu
Any human being, extremely endowed with divine qualities, who has realized God or attained the supreme knowledge of the Brahman, who has transcended birth and death, who continues to live in Human body a Jivan Mukta, who has the power to guide or initiate his followers to the attainment of the supreme bliss is treated as Avatara Purusha or a Sat Guru (Religious guide of the Supreme Order). Hinduism permits worship of these great souls as though Gods by the respective believers. Hinduism abounds with such great masters – Chaitanya Deva, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Ramana Maharshi, Saibaba, Ramanuja, Shankara, Madhva, Shivananda, Mata Amritanandamayi and so on.
With so many gods around, where to start?
Every Hindu family invariably worships a ‘Family Deity’, based on their tradition and the sect they normally belong to. Thus a Vaishnavaite family traditionally worships the form of Vishnu or any of his Avatars and a Saivaite family member worships Shiva. There is again scope for finer focusing – the idea of ‘Ishta Devata’ – the divine form most attractive and adorable to one’s heart. If you are lured by Rama, you can worship Rama with all your focus on him without really bothering about Krishna, Vamana or Narasimha who are none other than the supreme Lord Vishnu! Likewise, a Saivaite can chose the form of Nataraja (Siva the cosmic Dancer) for worship. A saivaite can also worship Linga which symbolically represents the form as well as formless aspect of Shiva. Though elders generally expect their off springs to follow their traditional God, there is really no bar for a Saivaite to worship Vishnu or any other God of his choice or vice versa.
What if one is not sure?
If an earnest seeker is not sure about his path or if he is not charmed by a particular path of Hinduism that his family practices, the prescribed way is that he should go and surrender to a Satguru of his liking and seek guidance. The Satguru will guide him appropriately. A true Satguru will use his inner vision to judge the capacity of the seeker and put him on a path most suited to him. A satguru may even recommend a person who seeks Bhakthi to follow the path of knowledge; he may divert a person most keen in the path of knowledge, to go and worship a specific God form.
Hinduism basically is built on the fact that name and form can not be dispensed with for the vast majority of people in the worship of God. Every form of God is only a representation of the one ultimate truth. The more a seeker progresses in his path, the better he grasps this fact. But those who are at the lower levels of spirituality are the ones who get sentimentally attached to their chosen Idol and argue or fight with believers of other forms of God.