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Hindu Deities

Santoshi Mata
India has the most extensive pantheon of any country in the history of mankind, and in comparison with which the polytheism of ancient Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome was insignificant, so far as numbers are concerned. Among this multitudinous host of Hindu divinities, that even exceeds their vast population, there is the greatest variety of character and grade as well as distinctive sphere of action and special service, that each one is supposed to render to the one who seeks its favor, for as celestial bodies in the planetary system are not all of the same magnitude so there are greater and lesser gods in the diversified system of Hinduism to attend to the varied interests of the people.

Resemblances have been distinctly traced between many of the mythological beings of India and Europe. Indra, who always sends the rain and wields the thunderbolt, and Siva, the god of destruction, resemble Zeus, or Jupiter; Durga, or Parvati, is like to Juno ; Krishna to Apollo, Rati to Venus; Lakshmi, or Sri, to Ceres; Varuna to Neptune, Sarasvati to Minerva, Kartikeya to Mars, Yama to Pluto, Ganesha to Janus, Kama to Cupid, and Kailasa and Meru, the abodes of the gods to Ida and Olympus.

The great majority of the Hindus have a firm belief in One Supreme God, and that this faith involved a clear idea of a single personal God, and is not limited to the more intelligent, but is also distinctly characteristic of Hindus as a whole. This does not prevent their belief in other divinities; the Devata or godlings as distinguished from the Deva or Gods, and in the minds of the people who believe in them there is no more conflict than there is between an official and his orderlies. They hold that their Supreme God is responsible for the existence of everybody and everything, but is too exalted to be troubled about ordinary, every-day affairs, and which are committed to the countless tutelary gods or godlings.

Hinduism has not only one word for God and knows different deities. Hinduism knows three classical deities in the trimurti (“Hindu triad” or “great trinity”), Vishnu is, in the view of Hinduism, the preserver, while Brahma is the creator and Shiva is the destroyer. In addition to this trimurti, Hinduism knows Ganesa, the observer, and Surya, the sun, as deities. They all form the group of pancayanata. Besides these main deities, Hinduism has thirty-three other deities which live in the earth, the water or in heaven.

Philosophical musings as far back as the Rig Veda contemplated the universe as the result of an interplay between the male principle (purusha ), the prime source of generative power but quiescent, and a female principle that came to be known as prakriti , an active principle that manifests reality, or power (shakti ), at work in the world. On a philosophical level, this female principle ultimately rests in the oneness of the male, but on a practical level it is the female that is most significant in the world. The vast array of iconography and mythology that surround the gods such as Vishnu and Shiva is a backdrop for the worship of their female consorts, and the male deities fade into the background. Thus it is that the divine is often female in India.

In South India, where gigantic temples are the physical and social centers of town life, the shrines and their annual festivals are often known by the names of their goddesses. One of the more famous is the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Minakshi Temple in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The temple is named after the "fish-eyed goddess" Minakshi, described in myths as a dark queen born with three breasts, who set out to conquer the universe. After overrunning the world and vanquishing the gods, Minakshi finally met Shiva and, when her third breast disappeared, accepted him as her lord. This motif of physical power and energy appears in many stories where the goddess is a warrior or conqueror of demons who in the end joins with Shiva.

Alternative visions, however, portray a goddess on the loose, with the potential for causing havoc in the world unless appeased. The goddess Durga is a great warrior who carries swords and a shield, rides a tiger, and destroys demons when the gods prove incapable; in this incarnation, she never submits, but remains capable of terrible deeds of war. The goddess Kali often appears as an even more horrific vision of the divine, with garlands of human skulls around her neck and a severed head in her hand; her bloody tongue hangs from her mouth, and the weapons in her arms drip gore. This image attempts to capture the destructive capacity of the divine, the suffering in the world, and the ultimate return of all things to the goddess at death.

In many small shrines throughout India, in marked contrast to the large and ornate temples dominated by Brahmanical principles and the philosophy of nonviolence, the female divinity receives regular gifts of blood sacrifices, usually chickens and goats. In addition, the goddess may manifest herself as the bearer of a number of diseases. The goddess of smallpox, known as Shitala in North India and Mariamman in South India, remains a feared and worshiped figure even after the official elimination of the disease, for she is still capable of afflicting people with a number of fevers and poxes. Many more localized forms of goddesses, known by different names in different regions, are the focus for prayers and vows that lead worshipers to undertake acts of austerity and pilgrimages in return for favors.

It has not scrupled to encourage the adoration of the fish, the boar, the serpent, trees, plants, stones and devils: it has permitted a descent to the most degrading cults of the Dravidians, while at the same time it has ventured to rise from the most groveling practices to the loftiest heights of philosophical speculation; it has not hesitated to drink in thoughts from the very fountain of Truth. Strangest of all, it has dissipated the formidable organization which for a long period confronted Brahmanism, and introduced doctrines subversive of sacerdotalism. It has artfully appropriated Buddhism, and gradually superseded that competing system by drawing its adherents within the pale of its own communion.

The sects like their gods are legion, owing to ethnic differences, and there are abundant traces of animistic usages in Hinduism. These are the survivals of the infiltrations from the Dravidian races as well as from the Vedic Aryans. In the gradual development from the confused spirit of animism to anthropomorphic gods there was a great advance, even though their functions may not always have been clearly defined, and their ethical character at times may have been questionable. In some cases the gods were personified abstractions of certain well recognized virtues that later became embodied in the person of gods and goddesses, just as we have many monumental or objective examples of the divine beings upon the ancient coinage of Greece and Home. As spirits were supposed to make the grain grow these " vaguely envisaged spirits " became gods of the corn or other grains, and as such are frequently represented upon the medallic monuments.

Many of the religious cults in India had their counterpart in ancient Greece where the people worshipped unhewn stones and anointed them with oil for the sake of the spirit or numen that was supposed to be resident in it. In India such stones exist everywhere, whether hewn or in formless state and they are generally conspicuous by being covered with the sacred vermilion, and the tulsi plant; and the pilgrim performs his act of devotion by pouring over it a bowl of water, and if it has been obtained from the Ganges the merit is greatly increased.

Ancestor worship has played an important part in the religious history of India, for the extensive pantheon has been largely recruited from the common ranks of human beings, and some of them displayed propensities that were inhuman, though invested with superhuman powers. It was a comparatively easy process to transform heroic men into gods and elevate them to seats among the mighty in those primitive times of superstition when the people lacked scientific knowledge, and that historical and critical faculty for investigating facts, but possessed a remarkable capacity for assimilating whatever seemed marvelous.

Even to-day demonphobia characterizes the mental state and feelings of a large proportion of the people of India, especially of the southern portion of the country, who believe that they are surrounded by malignant spirits who afflict them with all the misfortunes of life. Though invisible, they are no less real and aggressive in their diabolical methods to bring disease, especially fevers, cholera, smallpox, and the common bodily afflictions to which they are heir; and these demons destroy the cattle and crops, and thwart their daily efforts. Hence they implore the aid and worship the local guardian deities of the particular village, for whilst the demons have superhuman power, the gods are endowed with superior might and are more than a match for the malicious spirits that dwell in lonely places, in trees and by the riverside. Inasmuch as these demons cause all the manifold ills of life they are of far greater concern to the people than the gods, and they must be propitiated or placated by sacrifices to buy them off so as to escape the dreaded calamities that they would otherwise inflict upon them.

The idealized and transcendental religion that some of the representatives of the recent cults have brought to the attention of those who have become interested in theosophy and the Vedantic philosophy would not be recognized in India among the rank and file of the priests and the tens of millions of the Hindus.

Between the extremes of practical magic at the one end and transcendental metaphysics at the other, there is room for every form of belief and practice that is possible for the human imagination to conceive. Worship of elements, of natural features and forces, of deified men, ascetics, animals, of powers of life, organs of sex, weapons, primitive implements, modern machinery; sects which enjoin the sternest forms of asceticism; sects which revel in promiscuous debauchery; sects which devote themselves to hypnotic meditation; sects which practice the most revolting form of cannibalism—all of these are included in Hinduism and each finds some order of intellect or sentiment to which it appeals. And through all this bewildering variety of creeds there is traceable the influence of a pervading pessimism, of the conviction that life, and more especially the prospect of a series of lives, is the heaviest of all burdens that can be laid upon man.

The countless idols among the Hindus are regarded as idols and not as gods, for they know that the image of stone or wood or mud fashioned by hand is not a divinity; and yet, after a priest has consecrated that image by a special ceremonial, the spirit of the divinity is supposed to become inherent or resident in that image, and hence the priest in presenting the offerings of the family to their particular god treats the image in a sense as though it were really a living thing; but it is owing to the indwelling divine essence with which the consecration invested it, and with the ignorant class it becomes a fetish.

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