Is Hinduism – Monotheistic or Polytheistic in nature?
Monotheism simply means belief in the existence of one God. Monotheists view God as the sole creator of the world, who oversees and intervenes in human events. They view Him as a beneficent and holy being, the source of the highest good. Some may strictly believe in one, eternal, unbegotten, and unequaled God. This understanding may be called as strict monotheism. For them the concept of Monotheism or God’s oneness is unquestionable and there is no room for the plurality of God. It is logically true that there cannot be two Supremes. Also, it is said in various scriptures that there should have no other gods before me. Its true meaning is, there is no God higher than Him. The Supreme God is all transcendental to everything else. There was no creation before God or in other words the creation was not there before God. The existence of God is before the creation – before the existence of everything else. Meaning the creator is the Supreme God. This separates the Supreme God and other demigods or godly powers. Hinduism clearly believes in the Supreme God. Other gods or godly superpowers (superhuman powers) are collectively grouped under the category of ishwars or purushas and are allowed to be worshiped as deities.
Unfortunately, the monotheistic belief in the single object of worship goes so much so far (religious exclusivism) that it tends to create possessiveness and bossism which ultimately extends even to the rejection of the monotheistic god or polytheistic gods of other tribes and nations with or without denying their existence. Extending still further, the rejection sometimes takes the form of violence and attack on taking away of others rights or freedom of worshiping. The end result, the monotheistic universal Supreme God becomes the monopoly of a few groups. The politics enters into the religion and ultimately everybody – all the children of the same Supreme God suffers. Hinduism does not believe in religious exclusivism. Anybody can follow or practice Hinduism and any Hindu is allowed to believe in any faith of his or her choice. Unlike relative exclusivism, Hinduism does not believe in religious conversion (dharma parivartan), it believes in spiritual conversion (rhiday parivartan). Because of its non-belief in religious conversion, Hinduism sometimes is erroneously categorized under absolute exclusivism. Hinduism is an open religious system.
Some ostensibly monotheistic religions may still include concepts of a plurality of the divine. They may believe in more than one forms, reflections, or dimensions of one single Supreme entity creating more than one figure of worshiping, thus creating an impression of polytheism. Hinduism, in general, believes in timely and purposeful incarnations (Avatars) or personal manifestations of one single Supreme Being for reestablishing Sanatan, Bhagwat, or Ekantik Dharma and to root out the evil forces or powers, whenever there is decline in the religious vows or practices and increase in the activities of the evil powers. According to Hinduism, occasional and periodical manifestations of God occur to realign religion and its practices in accordance with the time. The incarnations of one Supreme Being create more than one form or figure for worshiping according to the individual preferences, but for the worshipers all incarnations are worshiped as different forms of one and the same Supreme Being maintaining its monotheistic nature. There is never a breach or break in the supremacy of God. The supremacy of the Supreme Being is well maintained in Hinduism. Some may allow belief in God of one group at the same time accepting the belief in God of other groups to establish religious harmony, which is called syncretism. Some may even allow the belief in a separate god for every people and country, called monolatry, meaning, the worship of a single god or deity (upāsya murti) but without claiming that it is the only god.
Within Hinduism, worshiping a single god while accepting the existence or possible existence of other deities, known as henotheism, and the recognition of the existence of many gods, but with the consistent worship of only one deity, known as monolatrism, both exists. But, the Hindu philosophy clearly differentiates, which almost all Hindus know, between the single, one and only, Supreme God, called Purushottam Narayan and other deities like ishwars and demigods.
Some Hindus believe in strict monolatry, who worship in a strictly one deity or a pair of deities called “yugal (jugal) upasana” or conjugal worshiping in which God is worshiped with His chicest devotee (Bhakta), whereas, some Hindus believe in relative monolatry, who worship one main deity along with other companion or side deities, such as Hanuman, Ganapati, etc. showing utmost respect to them for their best devotion to God and as being the role model for others. They are partly like henotheists, who worship one god without at the same time denying that others can, with equal truth, worship different gods and partly like polytheists who worship many Gods. The most important thing that would differentiate them from being polytheists is that they still maintain the belief in one Supreme God in the form of their main deity and other deities they worship are understood as subordinate deities, demigods, or devotees of God. Polytheism simply means the belief in existence and the worship of many gods. Hinduism does not believe in polytheism. What Hindus worship many gods are in fact not gods but god-like divine figures or demigods (devas). In Vedic period devas were given the same status as Nārāyan or God has, for example, Surya Narayan and Agni Narayan. Later on Vishnu Narayan, Virāt Narayan, or Shesh Narayan were considered as Narayan or God. Since its origin Hinduism used to see God in every single entity. When one concentrates on that essence of God the entity is not visualized, instead God is visualized. It is like when one watches a game and concentrates on a player, one only sees the player and the field becomes secondary. When Gopis worshiped Krishna with utmost love, even milk, yogurt, or butter looked like Krishna to them.
There are two aspects of the understanding of monotheism. First aspect is that, the universe and all things in it owe their existence to one God, the creator of it. The one Ultimate Being is a personal God who is close to each individual and is the Lord of History, that is, He is involved in the world that He created. Second aspect is that, since one God is the Creator of all mankind, all men and women in the world are ideally brothers and sisters in relation to one other.
Hinduism believes in both the aspects of monotheism. Hinduism believes that the universe and all things in it owe their existence to the one God, the creator. The creator of not only heaven and earth but also of many universes called brahmands. (Anant Koti Brahmands) Hinduism also believes that the one Ultimate Being is a personal God who is very close to each individual and who is involved in the world that He created. Hinduism believes that the same Supreme God enters in the form of Purush in every little things created by Him. Secondly, since the one single God is the Creator of all mankind, all men and women in the world are ideally brothers and sisters in relation to one other. Thus, the belief in monotheism establishes not only that there is one God but also that mankind as a single unit in a unified world. Hinduism is at the top in giving this message of universal brotherhood. Not only that, Hinduism goes one step further to include all-living beings, such as, animals, plants, birds, even insects and the whole nature in one family by giving message of “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,” meaning the whole world is one family. In other words Hinduism is since long, long time environmental friendly, nature friendly, and animal friendly. Hinduism considers God as the Creator of all creatures, plants and animals too. Hinduism considers God as the Creator of all living and non-living entities in the creation.
Hinduism clearly advocates the supremacy of one God (Bhagwan) known by the title or name Parabrahm, Purushottam, Narayan, Parameshwar, or Paramatma. In Hinduism these are the few common of thousands of self-descriptive Sanskrit names of One Supreme Being. Using different names does not constitute polytheism or pantheism. Sometimes some religious groups or subgroups, under the umbrella of monotheism, may promote the omnipotence or superiority of one particular god within the pantheon of many gods.
A question may arise here that if Hinduism is Monotheist, how come there are many gods in Hinduism?
The answer is inherent in its basic philosophy. Monotheism in Hinduism is since Vedas’ period. It is mentioned in the oldest Veda – the Rigved, Verse: 1.164.46, as a part of a hymn to the Vishvadevas (gods of the universe):
“Indram, Mitram, Varunam, Agnim, āhur, atho divyaha sa suparno garudmān |
Ekam sadviprā bahudhā vadanti, Agnim Yamam Mātarishvānam āhuha ||”
Meaning, “They call Him Indra, Mitra, Varun, Agni; and He is divinely seated on nobly-winged Garud (in His abode); there is only one truth (sat), the scholars (vipras) call it by many names; they call Him Agni, Yama, Matarishvan.”
Hinduism never condemns previous god, previous belief, or previous system. Because Vedas are considered the sacred words of God, no Hindu can deny that. Hinduism always accommodates previous belief in its present version of understanding. Hinduism, from very beginning, believes also in religious freedom. When Surya (Sun god) was, at the beginning, considered as Nārāyan, Hinduism did not condemn Agni (fire god) as being Narayan. When Virāt (Vairāt or Vairāj) was, later on, considered as Narayan, it never condemned Surya (Sun-god) as Narayan. When Shiva or the supreme entity of the universe was considered as Brahm, it never condemned Vishnu as Narayan, simply because, Brahmā, Vishnu, and Shiva are considered as the three functional forms of Lord Vishnu for the construction or birth, maintenance or sustenance, and destruction or dissolution of the universe. There is no room in Hinduism for condemnation or disapproval of the content of the scriptures. When Rāma was considered as God, He never condemned Shiva to be his supreme. Rama worshiped Shiva at Rameshwaram. When Krishna was considered as Purushottam Narayan, He never condemned Rama and other Avatārs as God. The understanding of Hinduism, not the Hinduism itself, was developed or improved over a long period of time keeping God’s words in the form of Vedas and Prasthantrayi as its center or base, rather than remaining stagnant forever.
Hinduism clearly differentiates between one Supreme God and other gods. Ishwars – the Incarnations or Avatars are also gods, having not equaled but the similar godly title and power, and are all subordinate to the original form of one Supreme god Purushottam Narayan. Demigods, Devatas, or Devas make a totally different group. Devas or demigods are categorized subordinate in power than ishwars like Virat-Purush, Pradhan-Purush, or Prakruti-Purush but superior in power than the topmost of devas. Indra, Varun, Vayu, etc. are considered Devas or Demigods. They are not gods but because of their super powers they are worshiped as gods in place of ishwars or the Supreme God Purushottam Narayan. Hindu tendency is not to displease any spiritual entities, may it be devas, ishwars, or any godly figure. It may be inner sense of respect for them or fear of curse. Since Vedic period Surya and Agni are worshiped as Narayan, for example Surya Narayan and Agni Narayan and currently also the same tradition is maintained keeping Hinduism alive. Surya is one of the five highly regarded and respected holy, divine, and sacred deities, called Panchdev, namely, Vishnu, Shiv, Ganapati, Pārvati, and Surya.
Hinduism believes in forever divine personified (sadā divya sākār) form of God in His abode. At the same time manifests on this earth and in different brahmands in many different forms for different purposes and all are worshipable considering and never forgetting the one in His abode as the original form. Some Hindus may not share this view. They reserves worshiping the divine form only, whereas most others consider no difference between worshipping the divine form of God and the human form of God. Most Hindus venerate the God-realized sadhus or Sants as human beings who had remarkable qualities, have lived their faith in God to the extreme and continue to assist in the process of salvation for others. They work as messengers of God. One has to find the best of them before considering as the preceptor or Guru. In Hinduism not all renunciants are same. There are different meanings of different kinds of renunciants such as Vairāgis, Bāwās, Sādhus, Sanyasis, Aghoris, etc.
Additionally, Hindus also believe in dual form of Devas or supernatural powers (worldly and divine personified), each possessing the full attributes of non-divine and divine nature. For example, fire and Agni Narayan, Surya and Surya Narayan, Wind and Vayu dev, Water and Varun dev, etc., respectively. Karna, one of the central characters of Mahābhārat, was the son of Surya (the Sun god) born to mother Kunti. When Kunti invoked the mantra and called Surya, he appeared before her personally in the human form and granted her a son.
No matter how the scholars and non-Hindus translate it in different languages using the same word “god” for every spiritual entity, no matter how Hindus themselves interpret in different ways, or preachers of many different faiths try to convince or picture Hinduism in different fashions or modes, Hinduism is purely specialized monotheistic religion of its own kind. It is for sure a universally acceptable religious philosophy.
In India, there were also materialistic and atheistic movements in around 484 BCE. An atheist movement of Goshal Mashkariputra (also known as Makkhali Goshal) was known as Ājivik movement. Ajiviks believed in fate or destiny (Niyati) instead of Karma or free will. Atheist simply believed in non-existence of God. Sometimes, in some partly atheistic belief ethical values surpass God or Godly figures. Chārvāk or Lokāyat system of Indian philosophy similar to Nāstik (heterodox) or atheist system also existed in India around 600-500 BCE. The “Barhaspatya or Brihaspatya Sutras” are thought to be composed in Mauryan times, predating 150 BC, based on a reference in the Mahābhāshya of Pātanjali.
Now let’s talk about Monism and Dualism in a few words.
Monism or Non-dualism (Advait) in Hinduism is totally different type of understanding than that of Western type. Monism or Non-dualism means unity, oneness or non-differentiation between the universal spiritual entity like Brahm or God and the individual spiritual entity such as soul, spirit or Atma.
It also means the unity, oneness, or non-differentiation between the physical entity like the world, universe, or cosmos (Brahmand) and the spiritual entity such as higher or universal spirit or God (Brahm). In both types of understanding there is acceptance of basically more than one (two or three) realities and union among them is discussed. In the second type of understanding, physical entity like Brahmand is mortal and decayable whereas spiritual entity like God or Brahm is immortal and non-destructible. So the second type of understanding, that is, unity between two dissimilar things doesn’t make sense. In Shankaracharya’s non-dualism world is not-real and Brahm is abstract, formless and impersonal (nirākār), whereas, in Vallabhacharya’s non-dualism world is real and God is personal or having a form (sākār). Monism has different kind of meaning, especially in western society. Monism means the existence of only one reality, denying the existence of God.
Similarly, in Dualism, eastern and western beliefs differ. In Hinduism, the dualism (Dvait) is between the two realities – the creation or cosmos and God, as in Madhvacharya’s philosophy. In western philosophy, the dualism is between the two entities – mind (consciousness) and body, two forces – good and evil, two functions – mind and matter, and two basic natures – the spiritual and physical.
In theology or the theory of God, one can find many different variations or varieties of theism just as mentioned above. No theologian or theologist can deny the existence of one eternal authority of the universe or the Supreme Being, called the Truth.