As I was preparing for Sunday Hinduism classes, I came across a wealth of information on the topic of God, and when I shared this with the students, many of them found it as fascinating as I did when I first started studying Hinduism. So I have decided to consolidate a few drops of the vast ocean that is Sanatana Dharma and present it here on my blog occasionally.
One of the most commonly asked questions about Hinduism is about the various deities that we have. Some articles place the number at a staggering 330 million. Do we really have that many deities? If we do, how do we keep track of all of them? Which of these deities do we pray to? And most importantly, why do all of them look so different, and perhaps even complicated?
When I first started learning Hinduism, my teacher shared with us that the clue to answering some of these questions lies in the Gopuram itself, and it was such a beautiful explanation, that I remember it to this day.
This gesture is the Tarjani, and implies a warning. It is a warning that as we enter the temple, we will see various deities, and that we ought not to get confused, for there is only ONE.
Although Hinduism is classified as a polytheistic religion due to the apparent worship of many Gods, it is fundamentally a monotheistic religion, where we believe in God (Ishwara).
The various deities that we worship are essentially the different manifestations of Ishvara, and as such, He can be worshipped in countless forms.
Here is a simple analogy that I always use to explain the reason why we have so many deities to represent Ishwara.
In the course of her life, a woman takes on various roles. She is a daughter to her parents, a sister to her siblings, a friend to her friends, a wife to her husband, and a mother to her children. While her essence remains the same, she is looked upon differently by the different people in her life based on their needs, and their relationship with her.
Likewise, Ishwara might be One, but he is worshipped differently based on the inclinations and needs of the devotee. Which then brings me to the next most common question. Why do the deities look the way they do?
In Hinduism, it is often said that images speak. Just as how we see an image of God as a direct symbol of Ishwara, and worship the images, the various depictions of Him communicate important messages to us.
Simply put, we worship not just the Idols, but the Ideals represented by these Idols. All the different aspects of a deity have a significance and awareness of this ‘language of the Gods’ contributes to meaningful worship.
Let me illustrate this with the example of Ganesha.
1) The elephant head represents the fact that all of the qualities of an elephant are contained in his form. Elephants have always been known to be very strong and intelligent creatures and the use of an elephant head highlights the importance of wisdom and seeking knowledge in Hinduism. Elephants are extremely loyal and loving to their keepers, and likewise, Ganesha is moved by the love and devotion extended to him by his devotees. However, the strength of an elephant is extremely destructive when provoked, and Ganesha is as destructive and ruthless in the face of evil.
2) Ganesha’s large ears assure us that he is always listening to the worries of his devotees.
3) An elephant’s trunk is one of the most important tools it has in survival. The trunk allows it to gather scent particles and channel it to an organ known as the Jacobson’s organ. This organ analyses the molecules and allows the elephant to locate water sources and collect information about the environment. The trunk also has the ability to not just lift large logs, but break a small coconut. The trunk therefore stands as a testament to the elephant’s ability to carry out the most massive, or minute of tasks and thus reminding us of the need to be able to discriminate between good and bad and be discerning.
4) The Goad that Ganesha holds in his top right hand is typically used to give commands to elephants. It signifies that the worship of Ganesha will guide us in the right direction and also shows his ability to remove any obstacles in our path.
5) The mouse at his feet is one of my most favourite symbols of Ganesha. A typical mouse is often scurrying around and never still. Likewise, the human mind is often all over the place, and susceptible to negative tendencies. The mouse represented as being subservient to Ganesha shows his ability to tame the mind. The mothaka that the mouse has in his hands shows the fruits of worshipping Ganesha with single-minded focus.
When I was much younger, I only prayed because I was asked to, or perhaps because it had become a habit. Over time, it became a very meaningless endeavour for me, because I had so many questions in my mind about many of the things I encountered in temples, none of which I found satisfactory answers to. It was only when I started to make a conscious effort to start studying the religion, did prayer become a very meaningful experience. Praying to Ganesha now is one of my favourite ways to start my day, for I always look up to him as a remover of obstacles, as a symbol of the intelligence and knowledge that I seek, and as a representation of the elephant, an animal I love for its many characteristics. And I hope that this bit of information has reached out to you the same way it did to me. 🙂