Although little known, Agni is truly one of the most important Hindu Gods, and is invoked whenever an offering is burnt.
An Introduction To Hindu Gods and Goddesses, And Their Meanings
There are said to be over 300 million different Gods and Goddesses in the Hindu pantheon, and this page presents information on some of the most well known deities, including the Gods Shiva, Vishnu, Kali, Durga, Brahma, Saraswati and others. Despite having so many different celestial beings, most Hindus consider their religion to be monotheistic (having a singular Universal God), as opposed to being polytheistic (having different gods). The majority of Hindus adopt a chosen deity (known as an Ishtadevata) which they worship as an anthropomorphic (human like) form of the one Universal God (known as Brahman).
In short, because God is so magnificent, and because we mortals have such a limited capacity to understand the true nature of God, we can only conceive of one aspect of God at a time. This is illustrated in the Bhaghavad Gita where the heroic warrior Arjuna begs to see the glory of Krishna. Knowing that his majesty is too deep for Arjuna to comprehend, Krishna temporarily grants Arjuna the ability to "see" Lord Krishna in all his magnificence.
Another school of thought believes that Brahman is the Supreme Reality, operating at a plane that we humans cannot reach, nor can we comprehend. The other reality is the one in which our world exists, and evolves under an anthropomorphic god (Ishwara). Note that It is important not to confuse Brahman (Supreme Reality) with Brahma (God of Creation), nor with Brahmin (priest caste in Indian society).
In general, Hindus believe in the phrase, "many paths, one truth." One family may worship the God Shiva, while their neighbor may worship Lord Krishna. The people across the street might worship the Goddess Kali. But they do not think that their neighbors are heretics; instead, they each feel the other is following their own "path" to salvation by worshiping their predestined god or goddess. Because of this, Hindus also consider Buddhists and Jainists to be Hindus as well, although the followers of those two religions do not believe themselves to be Hindus.
Below are the most well known gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon. Many of these gods will be called a different name in different parts of India, or in the world. An example would be the Elephant headed god known in the West as Ganesh, but who is better known in India as Ganapati, although it is said that he has 108 different names. Please note that this list also includes demigods, who are villains of the Hindu deities.
The Asuras are generally considered divine beings, who are primarily known for doing evil, but not always. It might be better to say that the Asuras are powerful beings who often are opposed to the gods. By the end of the Vedic period, however, the asuras had attained their more demonic role.
Sure, Brahma created the universe and delivered the Vedas to mankind, but Brahma has a Dark Side that many Westerners don’t really know about.
While Devi is a nurturing, Mother Goddess, she has many wrathful forms as well. How can such a caring goddess be so cruel?
Duga combines the energies of all the male Hindu Gods into one wrathful Goddess.
Ganesh is the elephant Headed God of success, and is one of the most beloved Hindu deities in the world.
While Ganga may have fallen from heaven and been relegated to earth, her role in the life of Hindus should not be underestimated.
Hanuman is so heroic and brave that this Monkey God has won the hearts of many Hindu devotees.
Kali is one of the most ferocious goddesses in Hinduism, but she is also crucial to the birth cycle of man.
Despite HIS complexity, Krishna is one of the most loved and well known deities in all of India.
Lakshmi is loved and admired, for her grace, and the gifts she bestows upon here devotees.
Parvati might have been a disappointment to her parents, but she is often considered a role model for the ideal woman.
Meet Sri Saraswati – the goddess so refined that she was able to tame the wild cravings of Lord Brahma.
Shiva is a contradiction in terms; at once a fearsome destroyer and yet also a calm, meditating spiritual seeker. And when he stops dancing, the universe collapses.
Vishnu and His Avatars are the most widely worshiped deities in the Hindu world, as Vishnu’s many forms are credited with tremendous achievements.
Other Hindu Deities and Divinities
There are many less known Hindu Gods and Goddesses that are still important, although they may have been eclipsed by the more important deities. Several of these gods and goddesses had a more significant role during the early statues of Hinduism, and were mentioned frequently in the Vedas, which are the earliest Hindu religious texts. Of course, religions evolve, and much the way that the power structure of the Ancient Greek and Roman pantheon changed, the ancient Indian divine order also transformed over the centuries. And while these might be considered “lesser gods,” to be honest, sometimes their stories are even more romantic than those of the better known deities.
The Apsaras: Alluring Spirits
The Apsaras are female spirits of nature. They are usually water nymphs or forest spirits. Apsaras are considered very talented artistically, and all of them are described as being very beautiful.
Apsaras love to dance and they often performed for gods. While serving as inspiration for lovers, they were often sent by Ravana to tempt rishis or Brahmans who were retreating into the forest.
Chandra: Hindu God Of The Moon
Chandra was the original Indian God of the Moon who was later merged with the Hindu God Soma. Chandra drove the moon chariot across the sky with ten white horses. He was also considered a fertility god, since the dew which falls on the plants overnight and gives them life was seen as coming from the moon. Hence, Chandra was also prayed to when a couple wanted to have a child.
Chandra is said to have been created out of the cosmic ocean of milk, which when it was stirred up by the gods and demons during a battle, Chandra floated to the surface and kept on rising. The other gods decided that Chandra should find a place amongst the sky instead of dwelling in the realm of the other deities.
Chandra is believed to be the father of the planet Mercury, and in Hinduism is considered to be a male god. In the West, it is interesting to note that the name Chandra is usually given to girls. (Either way, we still think Chandra is a beautiful name.)
The Gandharvas were the mates of the Apsaras, and are considered spirits of the air, forests, and mountains. They are male, and have been described in different ways. Sometimes they were seen as dirty creatures who were part man and part animal; other times they were men with birds’ legs and wings.
They could be half man and half horse, or sometimes were seen as fair men who had effeminate features. They were known for their musical skills, their power to cast illusions, and their skill with horses.
Indra: King Of The Early Vedic Gods
Indra was the supreme ruler of the gods in the early Hindu religious books, particularly the Rig Veda. Indra was the leader of the gods, the god of war, the god of thunder and storms, and the greatest warrior. He defended both gods and mankind against the forces of evil. His main celestial weapon is the Vajra, considered the lightening bolt (or a diamond).
In later times, Lord Indra slowly lost much of his grandeur, and eventually he became regarded as a god of the weather, or the king of lesser gods.
Kama: Hindu God Of Love
Kama is the god of love in Hinduism. He is a son of Lakshmi. Kama is represented as a winged youth bearing bow and arrows (similar to Cupid). Kama uses the cane of sugarcane as the shaft of his bow and a line of buzzing bees as his bowstring. He rides a parrot across the three worlds shooting his five flower-tipped arrows that arouse the five senses and enchants the mind with visions of beauty. But Kama is not worshiped. Kama has been identified with the principle of desire that entraps the soul in samsara. In fact, in Buddhism, he is called Mara, the demon, and enemy of all enlightened beings. Kama is often confused with Karma, but they are two different things, as the former is a Hindu God, while the latter is the concept of action. There is a story about the God Shiva where Kama, at the behest of his future wife Parvati, fired a love missile at the meditating Shiva. When Shiva realized the arrow was on the way, Shiva opened His third eye (in the middle of the forehead), and the energy released from the third eye of wisdom incinerated the arrow – along with Kama as well.
Nagas: Divine Serpents
In Hinduism, Nagas are a primeval race of divine serpent-people that play an important part in religion. They are half-human and half snake, and are still worshiped as the bringers of fertility, especially in southern India. They are the guardians of rain, and thus fertility, but are also thought to bring disasters such as floods and drought. They are the protectors of springs, wells and rivers. As the guardians of rain, you can see statues of the Buddha meditating where a seven-headed serpent has spread its hood over the Buddha’s head to protect him from the rain. Their ruler is the seven-hooded Sesha, and Vishnu is often seen sleeping on Sesha as they float along the cosmic ocean. It is believed that our universe exists in Vishnu’s dream, and will end when Vishnu awakes from this dream.
According to legend, the great eagle Garuda stole Amrita, the elixir of immortality, out of heaven. Indra stole it back, but a few drops fell on to the grass below before he could return it. The serpents slithered on it, and hence snakes are able to shed their skins. Because of this ability to regenerate by shedding their skins, they are closely associated with Shiva, the god of regeneration from destruction. You can often find depictions of Nagas adorning temple walls and stairways. Since temple ceilings are made of wood and thus susceptible to fire, these gods of rain are often depicted lining the ornate roofs of temples.
Pisachas: Evil Ghost Spirits
Pisachas are also known as vetala, and they take the form of ghosts, goblins and vampires that haunt cemeteries and ruins. They are hostile spirits of the dead whose children did not perform funerary rites in their memory. As a result they are trapped in the twilight zone between life and after-life. They make their displeasure known by troubling humans. They can drive people mad, kill children and cause miscarriages.
These creatures can be appeased with gifts or frightened them away with spells. One can free them from their ghostly existence by performing their funerary rites.
Being spirits, unfettered by the laws of space and time, they have an uncanny knowledge about the past, present and future and a deep insight into human nature. Hence, many sorcerers seek to capture them and turn them into slaves.
A sorcerer once asked King Vikramaditya to capture a vetala who lived in a tree that stood in the middle of a crematorium. The only way to do that was by keeping silent.
However, every time Vikramaditya caught the ghost, the ghost would enchant the king with a story that would end with a question. No matter how hard he tried, Vikramaditya would not be able to resist answering the question. This would enable the vetala to escape and return to his tree. The stories of the vetala have been compiled in the book “Vetala-pachisi”.
Rahu: Eater of the Moon
Rahu: In Hindu legend, Rahu is a demon that causes eclipses. He rides a chariot pulled by eight black horses, with his mouth wide open, ready to devour the sun or moon. If he succeeds, a solar or lunar eclipse will follow. Rahu is usually portrayed as a dragon’s head, without a body. In Tibet he is the Buddhist lord of the nine planets, and one of the Krodhadevatas (terror-inspiring gods). There he is portrayed with nine heads and the body of a snake.
The Rakshas: Enemies of Rama
The Rakshas are led by Ravana, their king, and are the eternal enemies of Vishnu, one of the foremost divinities of the Hindu pantheon. They usually appear in the shape of a dog or a bird with a fat body, or as a skeleton. The Rakshasas eventually ruled the forests and hated sages and seers who sought to bring the order of civilization into their realm. They would attack those seers and yogis who entered the forest to meditate and look for knowledge. Tired of being persecuted by the Rakshasas, the sage Vishwamitra, sought the help of Dasharatha, king of Ayodhya, who sent his son Prince Rama to defend the sages.
As told in the Ramayana, Rama killed the Rakshasas and was praised by the sages. Later, Ravana abducted Rama’s beautiful wife Sita. In a great war, with the help of monkeys and bears of the forest, Rama defeated the Rakshasas, killed Ravana and brought peace to the forests.
Rama: Divine Heroic Prince
In Hinduism, Rama is the seventh incarnation (or avatar) of Vishnu, and he is one of the most loved deities in India. Hindu families tell their sons that they should grow up to be like Rama. Prince Rama is the hero of the Indian epic the Ramayan. In this story, he is the son of the King of Ayodhya, and heir to the throne. However, his stepmother wants him banished from the kingdom so that her natural son can become heir to the throne. Regretfully, the king asks that Rama leave the kingdom. Seeing his father’s predicament, Rama gladly leaves the kingdom for the forest.
Rama goes to live in the forest with his brother and with his enchanting wife, Sita. While there, Rama drives off some Rakshas from the forest. Their demonic leader, Ravana, seeks revenge on Rama by abducting Sita.
Rama, his brother, and Hanuman, the Monkey King, set off to free Sita from the island of Lanka, where Ravana is holding her. Hanuman uses his powers to build a bridge using the bodies of his monkey army for Rama to cross, and flying in on Hanuman’s shoulders, Rama shoots an arrow into Ravana. He has succeeded in killing the demon and liberating his wife.
Rudra The Howler: God of Storms
Rudra first appears in early Hinduism, in particular in the Vedas, Rudra was the malignant god of storm and wind, and is also considered to have been the god of death. Rudra’s name means “The Howler,” possibly because of the shrieking storms Rudra was thought to have caused. He was believed to fire arrows of sickness at gods, men and animals. But as Hinduism evolved in the later texts, Rudra’s appearance and significance changed. Rudra became a beneficent and beautiful god, the lord of the animals and the patron of hunters, and he eventually evolved into the god Shiva, one of the most prominent deities of Hinduism.
Surya The Sun God
Surya is also known as Savita and is a special god who dwelt in the body of the sun. Surya is described as the husband of dawn, and for thousands of years, millions of dvotees have recited prayers to him when they start their day. Surya is also the guardian of the southwest quadrant. His father is the sky god Dyaush or Indra. One Hindu story tells how he arose from the eye of the world-giant Purusa. Surya has golden hair and golden arms. He drives in a chariot drawn by a team of 4 or 7 white horses, which is drawn by the Arjuna, hero of the Mahabharata. In India, he corresponds to the Greek Helios.
Traditionally, the role of Surya was similar to that of Lord Brahma; they were both credited with creating the universe. He also is believed to have a role similar to that of Vishnu as preserver of the world, as his warmth and light help to nourish the universe. Surya can be depicted either with two arms, both holding Lotus blossoms (a symbol of divine creation and purity), or with four arms. When shown with four, Surya will be depicted holding a single lotus blossom, a conch shell, and a discus (known as a chakra), which is both a weapon and a symbol for the circle of the universe.
In modern day India, Surya plays an important part in Hindu astrology, and thus it is believed that he has an impact on the daily lives of believers. So while despite being a lesser deity in the Hindu pantheon, he still is believed to have a presence in the every day existence of Hindus.
Varuna: God Of The Seas
Varuna was a very important god in early Vedic Indian religion. Though only about a dozen hymns address him in the Rig Veda, he had a position of stature among the deities. He was viewed as a lord of the cosmos, keeper of divine order and bringer of rain. He was also believed to be the enforcer of contracts, and was omnipotent.
Varuna is seen as a white man in golden armor riding a Makara (a sea monster), holding a noose or lasso made from a snake. He was worshiped with veneration and a healthy amount of fear, for as an Asura Varuna did have his sinister aspects and was known to punish mortals who did not keep their word.
He was the cosmic hangman and his usual method of punishment was to capture the offender with his noose. He was also a lord of the dead, a position he shared with Yama, and could confer immortality if he so chose.
In late Vedic times, the worship of Varuna fell off and Indra replaced him as king of the gods. Varuna became god of the oceans and rivers, which was still quite important. The souls of those who drowned went to him, and he was attended by the Nagas. Eventually Varuna faded away with the ascendancy of Shiva and Vishnu.
Yakshas Hindu Gods of Wealth
Yakshas are considered semi-divine, being both half-god and half-demon. They live under the earth in the Himalayas where they guard the wealth of the earth, and are ruled by Kubera, the god of wealth. Yakshas are pot-bellied, squat creatures and are considered to be keepers of water holes. They are very fond of riddles – those who answer their riddles are richly rewarded, while those who don’t risk death.
In the Mahabharata, the Pandava brothers came upon a lake that was guarded by a Yaksha. He demanded that they answer his riddle before drinking the water. Only the eldest brother Yudhistira, paid heed to the Yaksha’s demand.
Enraged, the Yaksha killed all the Pandavas, except Yudhistira. He then asked Yudhistira, “What is the greatest wonder of life?” To which Yudhishtira replied, “That every man must one day die, yet every man lives as if they were immortal.”
Pleased with the reply, the Yaksha blessed Yudhishtira, revived his brothers and gave him rich gifts. Yakshas have been worshiped in India long before the Vedic tradition took root. Such was their popularity that even Buddhists and Jains were forced to include these mysterious spirits in their pantheon. The images of Buddha and the Jains are often shown flanked by images of Yaksha and his consort, the Yakshi. Hindu temple walls are adorned by images of Yakshas.