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Hinduism Share This Page
Hindu, Hinduism and Hindustan: Part LXVII
by Dr. Jaipal Singh Bookmark and Share

It's Polytheism or Monotheism!

Continued from Part LXVI

Currently, the Hinduism is third major religion in the world in terms of the number of followers after the Christianity and Islam, which are the most dominant and widespread in the same order globally. The two Abrahamic religions viz. Christianity was evolved in the 1st century and Islam came up in the 7th century; both the stated religions are monotheistic and highly dogmatic based on the tenets of the holy books Bible and Quran, respectively. As against these religions, the Hinduism is the oldest surviving religion in the world which endorses one God that finds mention as Brahman in the Hindu scriptures but it allows worship of multiple deities which are believed to be the manifested forms of the same Brahman. Some of these deities are from the Vedic age while more deities were added in the post-Vedic period. More significant development in the post-Vedic period was the embodiment of Trimurti or Tridev (three forms of Brahman) i.e., Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as creator, sustainer and destroyer gods, respectively, and their worship traditions.

If we have a close look at the ancient civilizations of the world such as Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Sumerian, Persian, and so on, we find they believed in polytheism and were highly materialistic in their glorious days. As against this, the Vedic Indians believed in one God, maintained a balance in their materialistic and spiritual life, and worshipped thirty-three deities whom they considered as the manifested forms of the same Brahman (God). While all other ancient civilizations fizzled out with time owing to unfavourable developments following the advent of Christianity and Islam, the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism) has survived till date despite constant onslaught of the Islamic and colonial rulers for nearly a thousand years. For the stated multiplicity of deities and idol worship, Hinduism is often criticized and opposed by the followers of the Abrahamic religions citing it as a polytheistic religion.

Concepts of Polytheism and Monotheism

Basically, polytheism is the belief and worship of multiple deities in a society, which is comprised of its own set of gods and goddesses assembled into the pantheon. As such, a pantheon is recognized as a particular religious group or tradition represented by the common set of multiple gods and goddesses with specific attributes and supernatural powers. The classic examples representing polytheistic societies from the ancient past are Sumerian, Egyptian, Roman and Greek civilizations. Usually, in such assembly of gods and goddesses, one god is considered as the most powerful and supreme deity or the God of gods. As against this, the monotheism is the belief and worship of one god, who has created the world and is omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent.

Until the advent and spread of the Abrahamic religions Christianity and Islam, almost all Western civilizations believed in polytheism. However, ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian, etc., civilizations were gradually replaced by the aforesaid two Abrahamic religions, the followers of which rigidly enforced monotheistic order in various regions with usual modus oprandi of conversion, killing or migration of people to other parts of the world. The classic case is the fall and destruction of the ancient Persian civilization where the Persian prophet Zoroaster had already introduced religious reforms from polytheism to monotheism much before the advent of Jesus Christ and, in fact, the Zoroastrianism also served as a precursor religion for the later Abrahamic religions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the West.

At its peak, the Persian Empire represented one of the most glorious, developed and progressive civilizations and sort of the first superpower in the Western world. However, its downfall started after the Islamic forces led by Umar, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s close associates, invaded the country in 633 CE. During the next few decades, the Islamic conquest of Persia marked the end of the Persian (Sassanid) Empire and subsequent constant persecution ensured the eventual decline and end of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia. Over a period, most of the Persian people were either converted to Islam or killed declared as kafirs. According to the Qissa-i Sanjan, only few Persians (Zoroastrians) were able to migrate to the Indian coastal state of Gujarat, where they were given asylum between the 8th to 10th centuries CE to escape persecution from the Islamic tyranny.

The Sanatana Dharma in the Indian sub-continent had evolved during the Vedic age. As for its chronology is concerned, the Western historians, Indologists and leftist Indian historians restrict its age between 3,500 – 4,000 years largely linking it to the Indus Valley Civilization in the North India while the traditional Indian historians reckon it over ten thousand years citing various available evidences and record. Ironically, these foreign sources agree that developed agrarian settlers and societies existed in Greece by the Neolithic age (10,000-4,500 BCE) but are highly skeptical about the age of the Indian civilization on the same analogy. This discrimination against India is not new and is reflected in almost all spheres. For instance, the ancient Greek epics, namely Iliad and Odyssey by Homer are so often reckoned as the oldest all-time great world classics undermining the ancient Indian epics Mahabharata by Vedavyasa and Ramayana by Valmiki. The fact is that the aforesaid Greek classics are a mythical narratives of the rivalry and war among the gods, demi-gods and mortals, while the two Indian classics represent the history of Solar and Lunar dynasties laden with the ancient Hindu knowledge and wisdom on philosophy, spirituality, duties of king and citizens, socio-economics, science, and so on. Even as size and volume wise, Iliad comprises of about 15,700 lines while Mahabharata 1,00,000 verses.

Needless to mention, the Sanatana Dharma is based on the ancient Hindu scriptures Vedas and Upanishads which talk about the existence of the unmanifested Brahman (God) i.e. the concept of one God, thousands years before the advent of two Abrahamic religions, which now propagate the concept of monotheism. In the Rigveda, the oldest Hindu scripture, we find references of thirty-three devas or deities that included eight Vasus, eleven Rudras, twelve Adityas, Indra and Prajapathi Brahma. The Vedic people worshipped these devas (natural deities) mainly through sacrificial rituals and practice of austerities and meditation. The ancient Indian rishis and even modern saints and scholars view aforesaid deities as manifestations or emanations of the formless and genderless Brahman, representing many aspects of the same Ultimate Reality. The ultimate concept of the God in Hinduism is based on the premise that the God, physical and abstract universe, human and all other living beings are essentially parts of the same oneness. In other words, the same godly subtle element exists in every human being as Atman or the eternal Self.

Polytheism vis-à-vis Sanatana Dharma

In the Western and Islamic worldview, the Hinduism is generally considered as a polytheistic religion due to multiplicity of deities, although they need a closer examination and deeper insight to uncover the truth. In regard to the worship of deities with different forms, attributes and functions, the aware and enlightened Hindus maintain that these divinities are different manifestations of the same Supreme Soul or Universal Consciousness referred to as Brahman in ancient Hindu scriptures. According to the Hindu Darshana (philosophy}, Brahman has both Nirguna (unmanifested) and Saguna (manifested) aspects: While the unmanifested form exists as Universal Consciousness, the principal manifested forms exist as Trimurti (or Tridev) of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva representing chief cosmic functions of creation, sustenance and destruction. Thus this unity of diversity actually represents monotheism which many people erroneously consider as polytheism.

The Vedas and ancient rishis too held that every divine entity is some aspect of Brahman Who is the God of gods. According to many Hindu texts, the three chief functions of the universal existence are the creation, preservation (or sustenance) and destruction (or withdrawal). The last function is also considered necessary to recreate, repeat and continue the cycle of existence. As mentioned in the earlier paragraph, these functions are represented by three divine manifestations, namely Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, respectively. According to the Hindu philosophy, although metaphorically different deities appear to perform these functions but in effect they are aspects of the same Brahman in their highest respective attribute. In fact, the Vedic people had a culture of reverence and worship by personifying almost every natural object or phenomenon that is some way associated with the primary functions of the universe. In Hinduism, this culture has existed till date, in sharp contrast to which the Abrahamic religions consider that every other thing has been created by God for the consumption of the faithful human beings.

Due to the aforesaid reasons, Hindus not only worship multiple Vedic and post-Vedic gods and goddesses in various aspects, manifestations, emanations, incarnations and projections as associated and attendant deities but also have deified other natural objects like rivers, animals and plants, etc., personifying them as deities. For instance, the Sun, Agni and Varuna are worshipped as deities because they provide light and warmth, fire and water, respectively so much vital and necessary for life. The culture of reverence and worship of the natural objects suggests a diversified faith among the Hindus but the fact that the Hindu philosophy finds the imprints of Brahman in every living and non-living object in the universe implying the unity of faith. This flexible and liberal approach of Hinduism too has its origin in the Vedas and Upanishads which talk about only one Supreme Reality as Brahman but provide for the sacrificial worship of natural deities. Perhaps this is also the reason why some scholars maintain that Hinduism is actually a voyage of polytheism to monism via monotheism.

While the Vedic deities (recognized as devas and devis) received significant offerings and recognition mainly through sacrificial offerings, the post-Vedic era heralded the evolution of four principal traditions or sects viz. Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism and Smaraism, and some sub-traditions too. These traditions are principally based on the manifested forms and functions of the same Vedic Supreme Reality addressedas Brahman. While evolving in different forms and modes of worship according to the respective traditions, many practices of the Vedic culture and religion have survived till date as the priestly traditions and practices along with the same core philosophical base. Such unity in diversity has been possible because Hinduism accepts and encourages the spirit of inquiry, reasoning, debate and tolerance to explore truth. Their combined strength makes Hinduism unique and significantly different from the dogmatic and regimented religions of the world.

In the post-Vedic era, the evolution of four principal religious traditions was marked with the emergence and emphasis on the worship of Saguna Brahman simultaneously giving rise to idol worship among the Hindus. The above point could be well illustrated through the theological conception of the Trimurti or Tridev. While the Vedic Brahman was considered the only Nirguna God, His Saguna counterpart assumed three key manifestations commensurate with relevant functions: Brahma, the creator who is responsible for all worldly creation; Vishnu, the preserver and protector who is responsible for the preservation and continuance; and Shiva, the destroyer who is responsible for the destruction and withdrawal in the universe. Notwithstanding the fact that different Hindu traditions have conceptualized their own chief deity but, at the same time, the Hindu texts have also maintained that these deities are the different manifestations of Brahman only. Thus metaphorically the three deities appear to be different but in reality each of them is Brahman only in their highest respective aspect.

In addition to Trimurti, post-Vedic Hindus worshipped many other gods and goddesses. For instance, Goddess Durga is the chief deity in Shaktism where she represents the feminine aspect of Brahman. Her nomenclature as Adi Parashakti symbolizes that she was present even before the creation and destruction of the universe. Ganesha, Kartikeya, Surya and Hanuman are other significant deities of the post-Vedic era. These deities along with some Vedic deities such as Indra, Varuna, Agni, Surya, Vayu, Yama, etc., have continued to get reverence of the Hindu devotees till date. Indra is continued to be recognized as the king of devas but people remember him more as the god of thunder and rains. Agni is still the chief source of all sacrifice through yajna and for many Hindu devotees the first thing in the morning is to worship the rising Sun (Surya). Yama is remembered as usual the god of dead. Many post-Vedic deities in Hinduism are actually extension and evolution of the Vedic deities.

This multitude of divinities gives an impression as if Hinduism is indeed a polytheistic religion and this is how the Western scholars and two dominant Abrahamic religions interpret it. A large number of Hindus themselves are ignorant about the true nature of God in own religion due to almost a thousand years of the Islamic and colonial dominance and oppression of the community. This ignorance has only further grown with time because of the post-independence resolve of the successive political dispensations not to allow Hindu cultural and religious education in school curriculum in the name of secularism. However, a deeper study of Hindu scriptures and philosophy indeed reveal the existence of Brahman as the only God and the multiple deities worshipped in Hinduism, in fact, being various manifested forms of the same Brahman as Supreme reality or Universal God. This God is all pervasive, omnipotent and omniscient in the true Vedic sense. According to Hindu philosophy, this all-pervasive God is the creator of all living and non-living as also everything thus created represents a part of Him. The same holds good in the case of the idol worship as well which serves as only a medium or channel to concentrate during the prayers and meditation. This aspect has been well explained in earlier parts of this series through the concepts of Sadhya (Godhead), Sadhak (devotee), Sadhan (medium) and Sadhna (devotion).

 

The Concepts of Monotheism and Monism

As mentioned earlier, the monotheism is belief in one God Who is accredited with the creation of world, with the attributes of being omnipresent, omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient. Two dominant Abrahamic religions of the present world order observe strict monotheism, criticize and attack other religions of the world, including Hinduism, which do not strictly fall within their definition of God so much so that they even declare them Kafirs or sinners. The philosophy of monism goes one step further to suggest the unity of origin of everything in the universe as also that all existing things ultimately return to the same origin (source). The Advaita Vedanta philosophy of the Sanatana Dharma complies with this definition and if its philosophy is gone by, the Hinduism falls in the category of the absolute monism.

At the outset, this needs to be pointed out that unlike the Abrahamic and other faiths of the world which are mainly based on the tenets of one holy book taken by the adherents as the words of God, the Hinduism has traditionally a rich and wide range of literature i.e. scriptures and text, at times even with contrary views on certain aspects, since the ancient times. This is because Hinduism, besides being the oldest surviving culture and religion, is neither based on one particular dogma/doctrine nor dictate of one prophet or messenger of God. In fact, the spirit of reasoning, questioning, exploration and debate in the quest of finding absolute truth exists and constantly allowed in this religion since the Vedic era. This intellectual freedom has led to the evolution of several philosophies and consequent constant enrichment of literature on this metaphysical subject describing different paths to achieve the same goal.

Besides, Hinduism remains the only religion with a rich literature of the ancient scriptures and texts which stand further expanded and enriched with constant commentaries and interpretations by the knowledgeable saints and scholars. Although four Vedas and ten Principal Upanishads constitute core Vedic scriptures, they are further supplemented with a large number of minor Upanishads, Darshana Shastras, Agama Shastras, other Shastras and Sutras, Puranas and Epics, etc. At the outset, it needs to be clarified that the more popular and well known Puranas and Epics among the common people are though loosely categorized as scriptures but they are actually historical texts evolved in the post-Vedic period narrating the tales of ancient solar and lunar dynasties, important sages and contemporary societies with respective socio-religious and philosophical narratives and overtones. We all know that the history can be distorted by the interested elements but knowledge is universal and eternal, and this is what the Hindu Vedas and Upanishads represent unchanged over the thousands of years.

Thus the Vedas and Upanishads are the most original and oldest scriptures that define the true nature and attributes of the Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism). During the Vedic period, 33 Devas (deities) were conceptualized as mundane manifestations of the only God known as Brahman. The concept of Brahman finds a mention in numerous hymns of the Vedas as also in different layers of the Vedic literature such as Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Samhitas. According to Rigveda, Brahman is omnipresent managing the entire universe, and He alone provides for our sustenance and bliss, victory and eternal cause, and all souls should look at Him in same manner as children look up to their Father. He alone is creator that enlightens the world and all souls should seek bliss by seeking knowledge and acting there upon. (Rig Veda 10.48.1 & 5). Yajur Veda says that there is one and only one creator and maintainer of the world, Who sustains the earth, sky and other heavenly bodies. He is bliss Himself and He alone deserves to be worshipped by all (Yajur Veda 13.4 and 32.11).

Aforesaid are only illustrative hymns/verses, there are umpteen hymns (mantras) in the Vedas suggesting oneness of God. The following verses of Atharva Veda emphatically make the case for only one God.

Na dvitiyo na tritiyaschaturtho napyuchyate, ya etam devmekvritam.
Na panchamo na shasthah saptamo napyuchyate, ya etam devmekvritam.
Nashtamo na navamo dashamo ni pyuchyate, ya etam devmekvritam.

(Not second, not third, also not fourth is he called. Not fifth, not sixth, also not seventh is he called. Not eighth, not ninth, also not tenth is he called. In this universe and for all beings, there is only one and no other God) (Atharva Veda 13.4(2).16,17,18)

Apart from the Vedas, Brahman is extensively discussed at many places in the Principal Upanishads and other Hindu texts too. In Upanishads, Brahman is mentioned as indescribable, inexhaustible, incorporeal, omniscient, omnipresent, original, eternal, both transcendent and immanent, absolute, infinite existence, and the ultimate entity Who is without a beginning and end, Who is hidden in all and Who is the cause, source, material and effect of all creation known, unknown and yet to happen in the entire universe. He is both creator and created, known and unknown, with form and formless, and hidden in all. Brahman could only be perceived or realized through self-realization and those who thus realize Him are said to have attained Moksha (salvation).

Those who tend to criticize Hinduism for the sake of monotheism citing it a polytheistic religion, do not understand the Sanatana Dharma and do not know how Brahman is visualized as the Supreme Authority since Vedic age. In Hindu Vedas and Upanishads, Brahman represents one God and He is what we also know as the Supreme Consciousness, Supreme Soul, Universal Consciousness or Supreme Self. In various other Hindu texts, He is also known as Bhagwan, Ishvara, Parameshvara, Asat, Sat, Hiranyagarbha, Sachchidananda, Viraj, Purusha, Kala, Trimurti, Om, and so on; each term representing some aspect or attribute of the almighty Brahman. As Hindus worship multiple forms in multiple names of the same almighty God, the Western and Islamic world tend to describe Hinduism as a polytheistic religion by sheer ignorance while, in essence, the religion is monotheistic with predominantly monistic characteristics.

In Hinduism, Srimad Bhagavad Gita is considered an epitome of all scriptures embodying the essence of all Vedas and the supreme spiritual mystery of the universe. This scripture is well known worldwide and had been translated nearly in all major languages across the globe, which also explicitly illustrates the Brahman and Atman as eternal and real entities of the similar nature and attributes. The following two verses on Brahman are relevant:

Sri-bhagavan uvaca:
Aksaram brahma paramam svabhavo’dhyatmam ucyate,
Bhuta-bhavodbhava-karo visargah karma-samjnitah.

(Sri-Bhagavan said: The indestructible, transcendental living entity is called Brahman, and his eternal nature is called adhyatma, the self. Action pertaining to the development of the material bodies of the living entities is called karma.) (BG: Chapter 8, Verse 3)

Kavim puranamanusasitara manoraniyamasamanusmareedyah,
Sarvasya dhataramacintyarupa madityavarnam tamasah parastat.

(God is Omniscient, the most ancient and ageless being, the Ruler of all, subtler than the subtlest, the Support of all, and the possessor of an inconceivable divine form; He is brighter than the sun, and beyond all darkness of ignorance.) (BG: Chapter 8, Verse 9)

As mentioned earlier, in the quest of finding the absolute cosmic truth, the Hinduism has constantly endorsed the right to reasoning, questioning, exploration, tolerance and debate. Accordingly, Hindus are free to follow any concept, doctrines or rules according to their faith or conviction. This is the reason why some followers seek unmanifested God (Nirguna Brahman), others follow different forms of the manifested God (Saguna Brahman), and some even remain atheist. Also the Hinduism has no belief in conversion or imposing own wisdom or doctrines on the followers of the other faith in a spirit of being “holier than thou”. Instead, it emphasizes on the concepts like Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti (That which exists is one God, sages call it by different names), Sarva Dharmah Sambhav (All religions lead to same destination), Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The whole world is one family), and so on so forth.

For the aforesaid reasons, Hinduism has also experienced the evolution of several Darshanas (philosophies) and sub-philosophies: The main philosophies being Samkhya,Y oga, Vaishesika, Nyaya, Mimamsa and Vedanta; of these, the last one, the Vedanta and its sub-tradition Advaita has found the maximum acceptance among the adherents. The Vedanta philosophy has developed into various sub-traditions as a synthesis and essence of all philosophies with the centrality of the core elements and themes revolving around the Brahman as the Supreme Consciousness and Ultimate Reality, Atman as individual soul or Self, and Maya representing empirical universe or existence in terms of the physical world, body and matter. The first two represent the metaphysical reality while the third the empirical reality of existence. All Vedanta sub-traditions accept Brahman as the supreme authority but with varying nuances revolving around the non-dualism and dualism; the basic difference between the non-dualism and dualism being that the former believes in the unity of Brahman and Atman i.e. the nature and attributes of both is same while the latter holds Brahman (Vishnu) and Atman as two distinct metaphysical realities.

The Advaita philosophy holds Brahman as the highest Reality, Who is the root source, origin and end of everything - material and spiritual. Brahman remains the sole unchanging reality with no duality, no limited individual or unlimited cosmic soul; instead all souls across all space and time are its limitless expansion. In other words, the universe and the soul inside each being is Brahman, and the universe and the soul outside each being is also Brahman. Thus the Atman (soul) as self-existent awareness is limitless and non-dual, and that all souls across all space and time are one and the same. To put it in a different and simpler way: the Atman is Brahman - the Brahman is Atman. The Atman is overshadowed or corrupted by Avidya (ignorance and false-identification) under the influence of Maya. Once Avidya is removed, the Atman is realized as identical with Brahman, and is said to achieve Moksha. This is precisely what as we say that Hinduism is actually monotheistic faith with monism.

The modern and universal interpretation of the Advaita Vedanta could be observed from the 20th century Hindu monk, Swami Vivekananda’s following summation:

“Each soul is potentially divine. The goal is to manifest this Divinity within by controlling nature, external and internal. Do this either by work, or worship, or mental discipline, or philosophy - by one, or more, or all of these - and be free.”

Epilogue

The theology of the attributes and nature of God has been a subject of human curiosity and debate in all open cultures and societies since the early days of human civilization. While many ancient civilizations were essentially based on polytheism and materialistic culture, the Sanatana Dharma in the Indian sub-continent evolved with a subtle blend of materialism and spiritualism with the belief in one God (Brahman) and its many manifestations even during the ancient age. In the modern age, many cultures and religions including two dominant Abrahamic religions visualize God, in a monotheistic sense, as the supreme power, creator of universe and principal object of faith with the attributes of omnipresence (all-present), omniscience (all-knowing) and omnipotence (all-powerful). Hinduism, third largest religion in the context of the number of followers, too essentially holds that the God is one with the aforesaid and many other attributes. However, this is not a new development in Hinduism because Hindu Vedas and Upanishads had already said this thousands of years ago.

None theless, for the reasons given in the foregoing sections and paragraphs, many people particularly the followers of the two Abrahamic religions erroneously interpret Hinduism as a polytheistic religion. In fact, despite the inherent clarity and mention of one God (Brahman) in Hindu scriptures, the diverse traditions and concepts of worship in Hinduism have led to different scholars and Indologists worldwide variously describing it as polytheism, henotheism, panentheism, pantheism, pandeism, agnosticism, monotheism, monism, atheism, and so on. However, this situation is essentially the product of the existing two sets of belief systems world over. On one hand, we have dogmatic, doctrinal or cult-based religions like Christianity and Islam, which prescribe, or rather impose, on their subjects a set of doctrines contained in a holy book or dictates of a certain prophet or divine messenger citing it as the word of God. Their followers are strictly forbidden to raise any questions, doubts, debates or criticism which is dictated by the clergy as blasphemy. On the other hand, there is Hinduism that endorses new thoughts and grants the right of adherents to reasoning, questioning, exploration, tolerance and debate in their quest for the realization of the ultimate cosmic reality or truth.

To be continued...

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23-Oct-2021
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