Question: I am interested to know why Hinduism has more than 1,000 gods. I have been given the answer that different people pray to god in different forms, one as Shiva, another as Vishnu, but this is not convincing.
What you say is correct. Such arguments are not at all convincing. The very minimal definition of God must include “supreme”. In sanskrit God is described as “asamaurdhva” which means “none equal and none above”. There can never be the existence of two supremes, as they would mutually contradict each other’s supremacy.
To understand the actual position of the Absolute Truth we must take guidance from the divine words of the shastras. In the ancient text known as Brahma Samhita we find the following definition of God:
ishvarah paramah krishnah
anadir adir govinda
“The Supreme Controller is Krishna. He possesses a spiritual body composed of eternality, knowledge and bliss. He has no beginning, yet He is the first. He is the cause of all causes.”
The first line, ishvarah paramah krishnah, establish who is the ultimate controller. At present do not be stuck on the name Krishna, as it will only divert your mind from the answer. First understand the system of control, and then everything will become clear. The Vedic texts describe 330 million devatas, or universal controllers, but we should not confuse these beings with God. God is beyond the purview of the material universe. The devatas are controllers of various aspects of nature within the material realm. For example, the scriptures describe a personality named Agni who is in charge of the element of fire. Likewise, there is the description of the personality named Indra who controls the rain. And finally there is the greatest personality Siva (Maha-deva) who is in charge of material destruction. All of these controllers (ishvaras) belong to God’s natural system of material administration. Within the material realm God has arranged a hierarchy of control for automatic administration of nature. Each of these personalities (numbering 330 million) can be called a controller (ishvara) as they are each in charge of a particular aspect of nature. They are actually secondary controllers. It is exactly like a government that has many levels of control, such as Prime Minister (national controller), Chief Minister (state controller) and District Magistrate (district controller). To an uneducated person, the District Magistrate is supreme. If one gets his blessings, any governmental work one needs to get done will be accomplished. But he is only supreme within his district. Above him there is a higher controller, who controls the entire state. If one surrenders to the state controller and receives his blessings, one need not fear the district controller. Thus one may think the Chief Minister of a state is actually supreme. But above him is the Prime Minister, who controls the entire country. According to one’s level of knowledge, one will identify a particular level of supremacy. But factually there is only one supreme authority situated above all others. Thus this verse begins with the words ishvarah paramah krishnah – “The supreme controller among all controllers is Sri Krishna.” This is confirmed in the Bhagavad Gita as follows:
mattah paratamam nanyat
kincid asti dhananjaya
mayi sarvam idam protam
sutre mani-gana iva
“There is no truth superior to Me. Everything rests upon Me, as pearls are strung on a thread.”
na me viduh sura-ganah
prabhavam na maharshayah
aham adir hi devanam
maharshinam ca sarvasah
“Neither the hosts of devatas nor the great sages know My origin or opulences, for, in every respect, I am the source of the devatas and the great sages.”
We must understand when we use the word Krishna, it refers not only to the personality present before Arjuna, but to the entire category of God known as Vishnu-tattva. God, being absolute, has unlimited names, the chief most of which is Krishna. The name Krishna means “One who attracts everyone.” This is the supreme quality of God. Similarly the name Rama means “the supreme enjoyer”, and the name Vishnu means “One who has entered everywhere.” As the Paramatma, God is present within every atom, within the heart of all living entities, and between. This category of Vishnu-tattva includes all of the incarnations of Narayana, the various Vishnu expansions (Maha Vishnu, Garbhodakashayi Vishnu, and Kshirodakashayi Vishnu), and the Lords eternal forms in the spiritual realm. These various Vishnu forms are one and the same supreme personality.
The second line of this verse, sac-cid-ananda vigrahah, further defines what differentiates Krishna from the other devatas. Krishna has a spiritual body composed of sat (eternality), cit (complete knowledge), and ananda (spiritual bliss). Within this material world everyone takes birth according to one’s karma. When we take birth within matter, we are conditioned and bound within a body composed of material elements (earth, water, fire, air, ether, mind, intelligence, and false identification). By combination of these elements we have a body of skin, blood, bones, vital organs, etc. Our true identity is as a spirit soul, completely independent from the material body. The nature of this body is actually opposite from the qualities of the soul. The soul’s nature is sat (eternality), cit (complete knowledge) and ananda (bliss), but the qualities of the material body are asat (temporary), acit (full of ignorance), and nirananda (full of suffering). Krishna, or God, possesses a spiritual body, beyond material influence. He is neither born, nor does He die. There is no separate body and self for Krishna, as He is not conditioned by the material coverings. This is what separates Krishna from the 330 million devatas within this material world. The devatas, though very powerful entities, are ultimately embodied beings just as we are. The various devatas are actually posts of control, and not individual eternal entities. According to one’s karma, one is situated within the universe either in higher or lower planetary realms. Those who are highly qualified with goodness (sattva guna) take birth in the higher realms of existence as devatas. They attain a post as controller within the material realm. But that post, being within the purview of the material energy, must ultimately come to an end. Just as we are an eternal spirit soul, covered by a human body due to illusion, in a similar way, even Indra, Ganesha and Brahma are eternal spirit souls covered by a devata body due to illusion. The only difference is the quality of illusion that is conditioning us. We are conditioned more by the lower gunas of rajas (passion) and tamas (ignorance) whereas they are conditioned by the higher quality of sattva guna (goodness). Everyone within this material world (including the devatas), up to the topmost planet of Brahma Loka must ultimately face death. In the Gita this is described as follows:
punar avartino ‘rjuna
mam upetya tu kaunteya
punar janma na vidyate
“From the highest planet in the material world, Brahma Loka, down to the lowest, all are places of misery wherein repeated birth and death take place. But one who attains My abode never takes birth again.”
This is the definition of God. He must be situated beyond time. The higher controlling devatas (Agni, Ganesha, Subrahmanya, etc.) have a life span of one kalpa (4,320,000,000 years). Brahma, the topmost material entity, has a life span equal to the life of the universe. When the universe is destroyed by Lord Shiva, even Brahma must face death and his karma, as all living entities do. Despite their tremendously long lives, still, having taken birth, they must also face death. Lord Krishna is “ajah” or unborn: ajo ‘pi sann avyayatma. Whereas the devatas possess material bodies composed of subtle elements, Krishna’s body is completely spiritual and not different from His self. Thus He is situated beyond birth and death. Lord Krishna’s body is eternality (sat), knowledge (cit) and bliss (ananda).
The final two lines of this verse further describe the qualities of God:
anadir adir govinda
He is anadih, without beginning. Krishna is situated beyond the limitations of time and space. Yet he is also adih, the source of everything. In the Vedanta-sutras, the absolute truth, Brahman, is defined as janmadyasya yathah – “From whom everything emanates.” In the Gita Krishna also confirms this as follows:
aham sarvasya prabhavo
mattah sarvam pravartate
iti matva bhajante mam
“I am the source of all spiritual and material worlds. Everything emanates from Me. The wise who perfectly know this engage in My devotional service and worship Me with all their hearts.”
Thus Krishna is the cause of all causes, sarva karana-karanam. Within a government each level of administration is providing facilities to the citizens, but ultimately all of the facilities are coming from the central government. The state administrator may be providing roads and other facilities, but the funds have been allocated from the central government. The ultimate cause is the central government, and the immediate cause is the state government. Lord Krishna is the ultimate cause of all causes, and the devatas are the immediate causes. This is described in more detail in the Narayana Upanishad.
Those who have a very limited vision think the immediate cause to be supreme, and thus they create a cult of devotion around a particular deity and proclaim them to be the supreme absolute truth. Krishna describes such people in the Bhagavad Gita as follows:
antavat tu phalam tesam
tad bhavaty alpa-medhasam
devan deva-yajo yanti
mad-bhakta yanti mam api
“Men of small intelligence worship the devatas, for their fruits are limited and temporary. Those who worship the devatas go to the planets of the devatas, but My devotees ultimately reach My supreme abode.”
Why these people are described as alpa-medhasam (of small intelligence) is because the fruits they attain are temporary. The devatas whom they are worshiping are themselves temporary, what to speak of their benedictions and blessings.
Why they take to this worship is also explained by Lord Krishna:
kamais tais tair hrita-jnanah
“Because their intelligence has been stolen by material desires they surrender unto various devatas.”
One can test this statement of Lord Krishna’s. Go to a temple, any temple, and ask the visitors why they have come to worship. You will receive an assortment of answers, but they will all revolve around one principle – expectation. Someone wants a seat in a college, someone has taken an IAS exam, someone wants a nice wife, someone wants money, someone else wants his difficulties removed. Everyone is approaching “God” simply to gratify their senses. We are so foolish that we offer 5 paisa worth of incense to Ganesha and expect him to make us win the lottery! Such blind ritual benefits no one. We are enjoying and suffering according to our karma built up over many lives, yet we believe by offering a stick of incense, all of the reactions we have built up will simply be brushed aside and we will be given a special area within the material nature for unlimited enjoyment. The fact is Ganesha has no interest whether we become an IAS officer or not. And the “devotees” actually do not believe there is a personality named Ganesha. They will say it is only an image imagined to focus our concentration. Then why ask it for blessings? Will an imagined entity who does not factually exist be able to help us?
The truth is these personalities are as real as you and I. Ganesha is living in his abode of Kailasha just as I am living in this ashram in Mysore. The Vedas describe 64 dimensional planes of existence, of which we can experience only three. On the higher realms of existence, higher entities live, less limited by the matter – but still limited. The scriptures describe 400,000 species of human life, both higher and lower than our own. Species such as the vanara, gandharva, apsara, kimpurusha, kinnara, yaksha, rakshasa, etc., up to the topmost material species of Brahma – whose species contains only one entity.
On the higher planes of existence these entities live. Sometimes species from the fourth or fifth dimension will interact with our third dimension. Thus all of the cultures of the world have stories of unknown beings such as ghosts, goblins, and alien life. These are nothing more than yakshas, pishachas, bhutas, and even lower entities. Just as they exist, so too do the higher devatas. But such powerful exalted personalities have little interest to interact with the degraded people of this age.
Through meditation one can perceive these higher entities – the gandharvas, apsaras, yakshas, and devatas. By purifying our consciousness we can enter these higher dimensional planes through our sukshma-sarira (subtle body composed of mind, intelligence, and identification) and see these beings face to face, just as I can see you if you are standing before me. Ultimately such experiences serve no spiritual purpose. We have simply raised our consciousness to a higher material plane. Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita: yanti deva-vratan deva. “Those who worship the devatas attain to the abode of their object of worship.” This worship is not the common worship we see in temples, where a person simply tells, “Give me this, give me that.” Deva-vrata must be with full surrender to the particular devata. If one surrenders unto Lord Shiva or Ganesha, one will attain to the abode of Kailasha in the next life. In that abode the enjoyment and opulences are thousands of times greater than on this earthly plane. But from there one will again return to this earthly planet by the destructive influence of eternal time. Thus one would have simply succeeded in wasting his valuable time, while neglecting the actual goal of human life – self realization.
True religion or spirituality must be selfless and without material motive. We must actually dedicate ourself to God, and not to external rituals. In the Gita Krishna says:
kascid yatati siddhaye
“Out of many thousands of men, hardly one will endeavour for perfection.”
We must become like Arjuna, who became the topmost yogi and bhakta while fighting a war on the battlefield of Kurukshetra. How can one engaged in killing his enemies be absorbed in complete meditation on God? If such a feat is possible, then it is certainly possible for us to elevate ourselves while working within this world. Only we must cultivate the spiritual knowledge of Bhagavad Gita and be fixed in the understanding of the tattvas.
Just as you have brought forth this question about the devatas, your mind should be trained to think and churn forth thousands of questions about reality. Through internal meditation and self study the Paramatma will reveal answers within your heart and you will advance on the spiritual path.