Monday, September 18, 2006


Is Hinduism polytheist, theistic, deist, monotheist, monist, pantheist, panentheist? Answer: A case might be made for saying, "'Yes. All of them."

However, I would like to focus mainly on two -- the extremes: polytheism and monism?

Many Hindus conduct puja (worship) before the images of several gods. However, most Hindus have a central divine image on their altar. For example, they might have Krishna as the central deity, but also have images or statues of Ganesh, Hanuman, Lakshmi, etc. present. There are many traditional deities; however, these are not innumerable.

Most Hindus have a ishta devata, or a chosen deity, one that is their main, personal deity and holds a special place for them in the pantheon of deities.

Regardless, the vast majority of Hindus consider all of these deities as aspects of Brahman. The Absolute or Brahman is beyond form and conception. This is the reason for having a personal deity, an interface with Ultimate Reality. Moving from the polytheistic to the monist aspects of Hinduism -- from the monist view, there is only one Reality, usually called Brahman. Nothing else. People, animals, mountains, rivers are forms of Brahman. They are "relatively real" not "absolutely real."

Monists, strict monists known as followers of Advaita Vedanta consider what we might call "creation" as "maya" almost an illusion because all of it is Brahman. What happens in the world is referred to as "lila" or the "play" of Brahman. Christians speak of the God's plan for the world.
Many Hindus speak of "God's" play. The role of each person and, for that matter, everything in "creation" is to play their parts in God's game or "play".

I studied for a short time with a teacher of Vedanta. She gave me a poem written by one of her other students. The poem presents our lives as playing our parts in the drama or theatrical production of God (Brahman). We cannot understand this play, its purpose or meaning because we cannot comprehend the mind of God. So, in a sense, this is the theater of the absurd. Our task in life is simply to play our role as well as we can. Our life's task is referred to as our dharma. Here dharma, which has a number of different means, can be translated as fulfilling our duty in life, playing the role which has fallen to us---not the one chosen by us.

In the Bhagavad Gita, the most widely read and quoted Hindu scripture, it is stated that it is better for a person to fulfill his/her dharma imperfectly --- than to perform another person's dharma -- perfectly.

This Absolute/Brahman within Vedanta, the monist category of Hinduism, is the recipient indirectly of all the puja performed before the image of any deity ---
is the most perfect formulation of the Divine. In most religions "God" is viewed through the eyes of man resulting in a somewhat anthropomorphic Absolute, i.e. God is father, son, lover, friend, etc. The Hindus also regard the intermediary images of The Absolute this way: father, son, etc., but they in their depths know that behind all this -- is Brahman. Creation, then, is the manifestation of Brahman in various forms which are relatively real, but in their absolute nature --- Brahman.

Sometimes Brahman is depicted as a circle. Within this circle there is a smaller one. The smaller one is the phenomenal universe. Brahman is greater than the "world" but also within the world. Transcendent and yet immanent.

Some quotes on Brahman: "The Vedas compare creation to a spider's web, that the spider creates and then lies within. God is both the container of the universe and what is contained in it." --- Ramakrishna

"The moon is one, but on agitated water it produces many reflections. Similarly ultimate reality is one yet it appears to be many in a mind agitated by thoughts."
--- Maharamayana

"My mind fell like a hailstone into the vast expanse of Brahman's ocean. Touching one drop of it --- I melted away and became one with Brahman. This is wonderful indeed! Here is the ocean of Brahman, full of endless joy. How can I accept or reject anything? Is there anything apart or distinct from Brahman?" --- Sankara