In this section, we will periodically post short articles on interesting topics, addressing questions that many of us - young and young at heart - have or are eager to know about.
One God? or Many Gods?
Monotheism is defined in Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the doctrine or belief that there is but one God” and polytheism is defined as “belief in or worship of more than one god”. However, this bipolar categorization of faiths is simplistic and ignores the relationship of the individual with the divine. In this article, we will discuss about the ‘theism’ in Sanatana Dharma, also called Hinduism.
Sanatana Dharma does tell us that there is only ONE supreme being - Parabrahmam. This Parabrahmam is neither masculine nor feminine, and is referred to in a gender neutral way. This omnipresent Parabrahmam pervades the entire universe and is integral to everything within.
Giving Familiar Form to the Parabrahmam
Visualizing this ethereal Parabrahmam in its abstract form is difficult for most of us. Not all of us have the spiritual maturity or perception to connect with this ethereal form. We want to bestow a familiar form to this Parabrahmam, so that it is in harmony with how we perceive the world around us.
We see an example of this in an incident described in Bhagavad Gita, in Chapter 11, about the physical manifestation of this Parabrahmam. Arjuna, having seen the Supreme Form (virAt purusha) of the Parabrahmam (Krishna), then begs Krishna to come back to His gentle human form. Arjuna, on seeing Krishna in the human form as before, feels his composure restored.
दृष्ट्वेदं मानुषं रूपं तव सौम्यं जनार्दन।
इदानीमस्मि संवृत्त: सचेता: प्रकृतिं गत:॥11.51॥
Giving Many Forms to the Parabrahmam
To understand this concept of seeing many forms in one, let us delve a little deeper. A person can be seen as a son, a friend, a teacher, a husband, a father or a hero by different people in his life. Each persona is true and real to everybody relating to this individual person. Existence of a specific type of relationship between that person and another - for example, father-son relationship, does not negate the existence or falsify the relationship between the same person and another individual, say as friends. Though he is a single person, different people see him differently and have different relationships with him, without denying the different associations that this person has with others.
Similarly, we see the ONE Parabrahmam as different Gods and Goddesses, with different attributes. As a student, we see Parabrahmam as Goddess Sarasvati, the beautiful lady dressed in pure white robes, with knowledge giving books and japa mala (prayer beads) in Her hand, with a waxing crescent moon adorning Her head (symbolizing that just as the waxing phase of the moon always grows, knowledge always grows). As a soldier fighting for his or her motherland, we see Parabrahmam as Goddess Durga, the majestic lady seated on a ferocious lion, with very many weapons in Her hand. She blesses us with strength and victory. At different points in life, when our situation changes, along with the expectations and our personal relationship with the divine, we seek different characteristics from the Parabrahmam. When we are wronged, we beseech the Parabrahmam to uphold justice and punish the wrongdoer. When we are in the wrong and we are aware of it, we pray to the compassionate Parabrahmam for forgiveness.
Implicit in the description above is the assumption that the Parabrahmam is external to the devotee. However there is yet another tradition in Sanatana Dharma, where the boundary between the devotee and the Parabrahmam is diffused. This philosophy is the monist or Advaita philosophy, wherein we believe that there is one Parabrahmam and all creations are but a manifestation of this Parabrahmam. It is ignorance that makes the devotee think that he is distinct from the Parabrahmam. When the devotee removes this veil of ignorance and realizes that he is part of the Parabrahmam, he understands the essence of Advaita.
So, in conclusion
All of these philosophical delineations are of little consequence when it comes to matters of personal faith. What really matters the most is the individual’s relationship with the Parabrahmam. This relationship should be rooted within the philosophical frameworks of Sanatana Dharma, so that our faith propels humanity of all peoples forward and not harm humanity in the name of ‘isms’.
In a discussion about faith and identity, some words are so central that we must know not just the word’s meaning, but its etymology as well. The term ‘hindu’ is one such word. We sometimes encounter well-meaning but ignorant questions such as “are you Hindi?” or “do you speak Hindu?”. Unfortunately, these simple questions often serve to reveal our own ignorance about something so central to our identity, yet blindly accepted without introspection or further study. Despite the term ‘hindu’ not being mentioned even once in the Vedas, the puranas or other holy texts, it is now the label put on those who follow our faith. In order to understand why, let us explore the root of the term 'hindu'.
The term ‘hindu’ comes from the Sindhu river, a major waterway in the western reaches of Bharat. When the armies of the Persian Achaemenid emperor Darius reached the banks of the Sindhu, they decided to call the inhabitants of that land after this river. Sindhu then became ‘hindu’ in Persian. Soon ‘hindu’ came to refer to not only the people who lived in the Sindhu valley, but also referred to all the other peoples from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, who shared a similar set of beliefs and customs. The Arabs then borrowed from the Persians and called the inhabitants of the subcontinent Hindus; the land where they lived Hindustan; and the language many of them spoke Hindi. The English, in turn, borrowed this label from the Arabs and they coined an additional word - Hinduism, which referred to the religion of the majority of the inhabitants of Hindustan.
Even though the terms ‘hindu’ and ‘Hinduism’ are foreign in origin, that does not mean the inhabitants of the subcontinent didn’t have a name for themselves and their beliefs. According to the Vishnu Purana, the land between the Himalayas and the Indian ocean is called Bharat and those who live there are called Bharati. The beliefs of the Bharati - the culmination of many thousands of years of knowledge - is called Sanatana Dharma or the Eternal Path.
उत्तरं यत्समुद्रस्य हिमाद्रेश्चैव दक्षिणम्।
वर्षं तद् भारतं नाम भारती यत्र संततिः।।
Reference: Sharma, Arvind. (2002). On Hindu, Hindustān, Hinduism and Hindutva. Numen: International Review for the History of Religions, 49(1), 1-36.