How Many Gods do Hindus Believe In?

The American philosopher William James once remarked that he thought that the issue of the “one” and the “many” was one of the most difficult and yet one of the most important philosophical problems. Most Westerners probably have little idea of what James is talking about or why it is important, but the issue may be quite familiar for Hindus, who have struggled with it for thousands of years.

For James, the question was whether it is philosophically better to conceive reality as a whole or as a collection of various events, experiences and things. In other words: Is reality one or is it many?

The same concern applies to our conceptions of god or ultimate reality. To Hindu ways of thinking, James’ dichotomy is a false dilemma. Reality can be both, one and many. It depends all upon how you look at it.

A famous story from the Upanishads relates how a great sage was questioned about the number of devas or gods. The sage answered by providing his interlocutor with a conventional pious answer: 3306. The interlocutor was not satisfied and pressed for another answer. The sage offered another answer: 33. This is the traditional number of Vedic gods. Once again the questioner was not satisfied. He asked again. The sage offered the number 6, then 3, 2, 1 and a half, and finally 1.

How many gods are there according to Hinduism? Although a Hindu tradition puts the figure at 330000000, perhaps a better answer would be simply: as many as you like. Although the questioner stops with the number one, the passage does not say that the other answers are wrong. Indeed, the sage continues to explain rationally each of his previous answers. By this account they are all true.

The many devas are just different expressions of the one reality: Brahman. At this level, the devas are said to represent ultimate reality as it is known or as it is revealed to human beings. Brahman is ultimate reality as it is unknown and unknowable.

The many gods of Hinduism are ways to enrich the understanding of the divine. To Hindu ways of thinking, ultimate reality is so far beyond our imagination that a single image, or even a handful of images would not do. If it must be portrayed, then many images and symbols succeed better than just one or a few.

Alain Daniélou once commented that 330 million is closer to infinity than 1.

The very number of gods and their complex manifestations serve to astound and overwhelm the human mind. That reminds us of ultimate reality’s unspeakable nature. With just a few images the human mind may be more likely to come to believe that they are not merely symbols but the reality.

Even though the Hindu pantheon is immense, individual Hindus do not give worship to all the gods equally. Those who wish to worship god usually have an Ishta Devata, a personal deity of choice. Often this personal god is the deva worshipped by one’s family or one’s village. It is certainly not uncommon for family members to be devoted to different gods. One’s decision to worship a specific god is uniquely one’s own and may be based on a special affinity that one feels for the deva. It might also be suggested by one’s astrological horoscope.

Devotees worship their particular deity as the supreme god, but they do not feel compelled to deny the reality of the other gods or even their supremacy for their followers. In this manner, both the one and the many are preserved.

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