Which are the most important Hindu gods? First, how do Hindus define the word god? There are about twenty Sanskrit words for the English word god. The most commonly used word is deiva. A deiva is a divine being or a supernatural power but not necessarily an omniscient and omnipotent being. Deivas are not moral exemplar nor law givers like Yahweh or Allah in the Western monotheistic traditions.
According to Hinduism’s cretion story, they were created after the world’s creation and they are subject to its laws. By tradition, the Veda is said to mention the existence of 33 different deivas. These deivas dwell in different parts of three levels of the world and most of them have specific divine functions associated with the fundamental concerns of the Aryan civilization.
Major gods, for example, address anxieties concerning floods and agriculture. War gods respond to threats from outside the community. Other gods help preserve internal communal stability by enforcing compliance with the order of Rita (the cosmic order).
Some devas have more than one function, such as Agni, who is the god of fire and the mediator between human and the gods. It is not necessary to talk about each one of the gods of the Hindu pantheon, as some are more important than anothers. To give you a flavor of the range of Vedic theology, let me acquaint you with some of the more interesting primary devas.
In terms of the sheer number of hymns addressed to him, Indra is the most important deva in the Rigveda. One quarter of the over one thousand songs are composed in his honor. His popularity probably reflects his importance to the Aryan community.
Indra is a god of war, similar in some respects to Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible. Indra, like Yahweh was the god who gave success in battle, and he was believed to lead the Aryans in war.
He he is also the god who controls the monsoon rains. One of the Vedic myths tells how the heroic Indra slew Vritra, the demonic dragon that controlled the primordial waters; and how he released the waters to create the world.
Next to Indra in popularity is the deva Agni, the divine fire. Nearly one fifth of the songs in Rigveda are addressed to Agni. The word Agni is quite easy to remember when one recognizes the English cognate, ignite, is also associated with fire.
Agni was unique among the devas in that he dwelled in all three levels of the world: heaven, the midspace and the earth. Because of this mobility, Agni served as the mediator between the gods and humans. Through the ritual fire he carries sacrifices to gods and through the fires of cremation he transports the dead.
The deva Varuna was the guardian of Rita, the principle of cosmic, moral and ritual order. Varuna enforces Rita, but he did not create it. The gods are subject to Rita just as humans are. The Aryans imagined Varuna sited in a large palace in heaven from where he watched the world and punished those who violated Rita. He was thought of as all-seeing and is described as the thousand-eyed one.
Because of his role as custodian of Rita, sinners sought to appease Varuna through pleasing ritual sacrifices.
Like Agni and Varuna, the Deva Soma had an empirical manifestation. Soma appeared to the Aryans as a particular plant whose juices were used in ritual. Drinking Soma induces ecstatic experiences. Through Soma one was able to see the gods, to feel a sense of immortality, courage and even sexual virility.
Rudra was known as the “Howler”. Rudra had no friends among the gods and he dwelled in wild and terrifying places. He despised human beings and often afflicted them with sickness and misfortune. Aryans often left their offerings to Rudra outside the village and they implored him to stay away.
Paradoxically, Rudra was also a hero. This kind of paradox we shall encounter frequently as we study the gods of classical of Hinduism, specially the god Shiva. In fact, scholars believe that the vedic deva provided a prototype for the later god known as Shiva.
Although there were many gods the Aryans worshipped, they often treated one god or goddess as the supreme deity. Max Muller, the 19th century scholar of the Veda coined the term henotheism to describe this practice. Henotheism is a sort of synthesis of polytheism and monotheism in which one god is worshipped without denying the existence of the other gods. This approach to divine worship continues throughout much of Hinduism today.