This is a contribution from one of our guest writers.
“Why are there so many Gods?”
I remember the first time I had this question. I couldn’t have been more than a meager 9 years of age. I was sitting cross-legged next to my mother at some pooja at our local Hindu temple. I looked around examining all the elaborately decorated deities in their own individualized mandirs and wondered why there were so many of them? Ganesha, Lakshmi, Venkateshwara, and of course, my favorite, the almighty, Shiva. I always loved hearing stories about them: stories of mischievous Krishna stealing butter as a child or heroic Rama saving Sita from Ravana. But I never really understood why there were so many. I had always heard people address God as this supreme being. He was always depicted as this figure in the sky reigning over everyone, “The man upstairs.” So, how could there be more than one Supreme Being?
I turned to my mom and innocently asked, “Which one is God?” “Who is Supreme?”
“They’re all God; they’re all aspects of God.”
This didn’t make much sense to me. Who was I praying to when I prayed? All of them?
Now, let me stop for a moment and say I’m writing on my experience, on my questions, and the answers that I received. I’m not saying that this is THE answer and that there aren’t other answers out there. In fact, there are probably many other answers and they can also be correct. But this was THE answer for me because it not only resonated with my being, but made sense to me logically, maybe it can be THE answer for you as well.
Before I tell you about the answer, let’s look at the question itself.
“Why are there so many Gods?”
Why did I even have this question to begin with? When I really looked into why I had this question, I realized it was because of society. Society? Yes, society, primarily American society. I grew up in a society in which the members of it were primarily from one of the monotheistic religions, much like most Western societies. They believed in one God. One Supreme being. One name. I was always being told that my religion was “polytheistic,” as if it was a lesser belief system because of it. I was always being questioned for believing in so many Gods. It left me with this dichotomy between the culture in which I was raised and the society in which I lived. Constantly, it forced me to define myself and my religion based on the standards others set. As a result, the way in which I was trying to analyze and understand Hinduism was inherently incorrect.
As Hindus, we cannot look at this vast religion, this way of life, with the same context as that of the Abrahamic religions. We cannot define our religion based on the context that western society has for its religions. It just wouldn’t make sense. We have to look at it from a completely different context, one that is unique to Hinduism. The context is like a key to unlocking a door, and up until now I had been using the key of other religions and trying to open the door of Hinduism. Naturally, I wasn’t getting the right answers. Even to get answers, we have to ask the right questions, and I was questioning Hinduism from the context of duality instead of Advaita (more on this later). So, let’s set a new context and get to the answer.
Why so many Gods?
I remember when Swamiji (Parmahamsa Sri Nithyananda Swami) addressed this question. It was during my second Inner Awakening program (a spiritual retreat — in its most basic definition). He was taking questions about Hinduism and someone stood up to ask Him why we have so many Gods. He let out a small chuckle and began to explain. Hindus don’t have a concept of duality. We follow the idea of non-duality, or Advaita, the concept that there is no separation between anything in the universe.
“Advaita does not mean one, Advaita does not mean monism, it means there is no two, there is no one… but infinite, everything is infinitely powerful”
Basically, everything is interconnected: animals, trees, humans, and everything else in the cosmos are intertwined. We’re all a part of this intricate web. So, when we say God, God is not a person, a place, or a thing. God is in people, places, and things. God is in you. God is in me. God is in everything. Now this blew my mind, this was the first time I had ever heard anything like this. Until now, I had the idea that God was separate from me and that I pray to God for things that I require in my life. This new concept of Advaita went against everything I had been taught to believe for my entire life. Though it was shocking, it made sense. If God did in fact exist, why would He be confined to one thing? God would be omnipresent. God would exist in everything in the universe.
In reality, monotheism and polytheism, are both too small of words to define Hinduism. The context is totally different for Hinduism. As Swamiji says “Some believe that there is one God. We believe that there is ONLY God.” Monotheism is defined as belief in one God. Polytheism is defined as belief in many Gods. We, as Hindus, see God in everything. There is ONLY God, not one or many. In the end, God is the all pervasive consciousness. This was an answer that spoke to the depths of my being.
But wait why are there so many Gods then? The answer I got was simple enough. Because there are so many of us. Though we are all connected, each of us is unique. We come from different backgrounds. We differ in age, sex, and orientation. We have different skin colors, perspectives, and goals in life. How would it be possible for all of us to relate to one form of God? We need God to appear in different forms in order for us to be able to connect to the divine. We each need our own ishta devata, our own favourite God, our own connection to the cosmos. While our ishta devatas might change as we grow and evolve, we always have a deity through which we can worship our highest consciousness. Because God is all-pervasive and exists in everything, we, as people, need to relate with God in different forms.
I finally got my answer.
As always, please comment below if you have any questions or a different perspective than the one we presented here!