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Hindu Gods and Goddesses Information
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 Krishna temporarily grants the great warrior Arjuna the ability to "see" Lord Krishna in all his majesty.
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 worshipping 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.
General Information About the Major Deities
Most of the Hindu gods are seen as forms of one of a few of the major Hindu Gods Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi, who are known and worshipped extensively throughout India. However, there are differences in how the different forms of the deities are derived from the main gods. For example, the forms of Shiva are from his offspring and are part of his family life with his consort, Parvati. Namely, Skanda and Ganesh are both Children of Shiva. Vishnu, on the other hand, is often worshipped through Avatars; human forms of the God who have come to protect the earth from demons and immorality. The two most well known are Lord Krishna and Prince Rama. And the female divine goddess Devi not only appears as Parvati, but also takes on an anthropomorphic form created when the collection of gods focus their shakti (energy), and it is embodied in the wrathful goddesses Kali and Durga.
There are still smaller groups that worship the earlier gods that were prominent in the Vedas, such as Indra and Varuna, while Brahma, the God of Creation, has little following at all as an individual deity, since he is associated with uncontrolled lust. However, Brahma is worshiped as part of a trio of gods (trimurti) along with Vishnu and Shiva, making a holy triumvirate.
Evolution of Deities
In Hinduism, the significance of the deities evolved from the earliest time, when Hinduism it was based on the Vedas (the earliest Hindu religious texts), to the present day. In fact, some scholars classify Hinduism as a separate religion from that prescribed in the Vedas, since major changes in the gods that are worshipped, the understanding of a Universal God, and the relationship between man and deity all begin to change around the time of the Upanishads (a collection of literary works composed between 800 and 300 BCE). In fact, the popularity and spread of Buddhism and Jainism appears to have forced a change upon the religion, as there was a flurry of new writing on Hinduism that was concurrent of the spreading of those two faiths.
For example, Agni, the God of Fire, and Indra, the God of Heaven, are two of the main gods mentioned throughout the Vedas, yet their importance is diminished significantly in comparison to the deities that are written about in the Puranas, namely those gods in the lineage of Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi.
A Change In Worship
The method of worshipping deities has changed since the time of the Vedas. In earliest times, ritualistic sacrifices (karmamarga) were made by the priestly caste, known as Brahmins. Such sacrifices usually consisted of food, but in some cases, animal were also sacrificed. In the first millennium of the common era, a new form of devotional worship known as Bhakti began to appear in Southern India and spread gradually over the rest of India. This form of worship resulted in people forming a closer personal relationship with their chosen deity, and that period began to see more public temples dedicated to the various gods. The bhakti movement encouraged people to form an emotional attachment to the deity, as well as perform daily rituals known as Pooja (used with Shiva lineage deities) or Seva (used with Vishnu lineage gods). In short, a more direct connection was made between the devotee and the deity, where in the past, a devotee would be more reliant upon a member of the priest caste to perform rituals on their behalf.