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10 Big Questions About Hinduism, Answered

10

Do Hindus Believe in God or Gods?

Lord Ganesha festival
Indian devotees move a statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god Lord Ganesha, to be immersed in the Arabian Sea, on the last day of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival in Mumbai. PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP via Getty Images

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There are so many Hindu gods and goddesses — Vishnu, Shiva, Indra, Lakshmi and many more — that it may seem obvious that Hinduism is polytheistic. But that's not really true.

Hinduism teaches that there is a single "Divine" that many Hindus call Brahman that is manifested in a multitude of forms, including gods and goddesses. Brahman itself is formless and unknowable, beyond words and human attributes like gender. It is the ultimate reality that exists beyond matter, thought, life and death.

Lucky for us humans, elements of Brahman are made knowable and accessible to us through various manifestations. One of those manifestations is the material world — everything in the universe from the largest galaxies to the smallest insect. In that sense, all of existence is imbued with the Divine.

Hindus also believe that Brahman manifests through gods and goddesses and their many "avatars" or divine earthly forms. Each of these powerful beings represents certain aspects of the Divine that become knowable by reading and retelling the stories of the gods and goddesses found in Hindu scriptures.

But just because Hindus believe in the existence of many gods doesn't mean that they are polytheistic. Shukla says that the Western idea of polytheism better suits the Greek gods and goddesses, who each served their individual desires, not that of a unified Divine.

"Think of clay as an analogy for Brahman," says Shukla. "Clay can take the form of a pot or of a dish, but the underlying reality of all of those different utensils is clay. Without clay, those forms can't exist."

The Hindu belief in one ultimate reality with diverse manifestations is better described as "monism" or "one-ness." Different schools of Hinduism also qualify as pantheistic ("all existence is Divine") or panentheistic ("all existence is within the Divine").

There's a Sanskrit hymn found in the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu holy text, that reads:

Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.

And just as Hindus believe that Truth is one, called by many names, so too is the Ultimate Reality called by many names.

So, to answer the question: Do Hindus believe in God or gods? The answer is Yes.

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