There is a remarkable variety of gods and goddesses in the pantheon of Vedic Indians, allowing everyone to practice at will on their road towards bliss. This also explains the tolerance towards worship of different Hindu gods and goddesses by members of the same family. This aspect, rarely found in other religions (except perhaps in Greek polytheism), is commonplace in India. You can take the opportunity to ask the Hindus around you what their favourite god or goddess. You will have many and varied answers, some of the common ones being Ganesh, Shiva, Hanuman, Durga, Lakshmi and others. If you then ask them what is the connection between their favourite gods and other gods and goddesses, the almost universal answer will obviously be that all the gods and goddesses of Hindus come from the same divine principle, an energy, in form and without name, that is either the Ishta God Devta or Goddess Devi.
Hinduism is the religion of 82% of the population of India. The remaining 18% is shared between Muslims (12.12%), Christians (2.34%), Sikhs (1.94%), Buddhists (0.76%), Jains (0.40% ), other religions (0.39%), and unspecified (0.5%). The 1991 census figures were drawn from a total population of 838,568,000 people. Presumably, the current distribution would not be very different. The 2001 census counted the total population of India at 1,027,015,247 people.
The word Hinduism is not of Indian origin but has been forged by the Europeans. It derives from the word Sindhu, i.e. the western part of the Indian peninsula. Hinduism is called the great pantheon in India - the Sanathama Dharma, the Eternal Law of Nature, the natural order of the world. The notion of divinity is not necessarily included in this definition.
The place and role of man in the world are supposed to have to comply with this natural order. So everyone should follow his own dharma (Swadharma). Deviation from this policy leads to disorder and social chaos.
Another concept that governs the lives of all Hindus is of karma. This term is derived from the Sanskrit word meaning action. In the manifested world that we live in, any action (cause) generates a result (effect). It’s a mechanical law, without any notion of good or evil. But at the human level, it is clear that a good deed is a deed consistent with the dharma (the natural order of the world, the universe, is a carrier for the karma. Aspects of Dharma cover all areas: Religious, social, moral, political, philosophical). In ancient times, it is not clear whether men believed in reincarnation. It is perceived that the plurality of lives was perfectly in sync with the distributive justice of karma. Everyone is accountable for their actions. Only one’s own responsibility is involved. For example, an incurable disease is not a coincidence, or bad luck, or an external responsibility, but the result of one’s past karma.
The Indian mythology dates back to over 7200 years BC, when the first songs and hymns were written by the Aryans to worship the deities representing the natural forces. How divine representations evolved is difficult to trace. In the sacred texts of Hinduism there appears the abstract concept of a Supreme God, impersonal, referred to as Brahman. But the God of the Sages and meditators is not the one of the common man. He requires closer deities, those to which he may address his prayers and present offerings.
Nowadays, it is customary to say that Hinduism has three Devas (principal Gods) called the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The enemies are the Asura antigods. The gods are frequently shown accompanied by a specific animal-vehicle (vāhana). The vāhana is an animal serving as the symbolic mount of God.
Brahma, the Creator (not to be confused with Brahman)
He is the cause of the birth of the world. For various reasons, his cult has weakened, with only 2 known 2 temples dedicated to him in India.
Brahma is considered the Creator God or, more precisely, the energy of creation that allows the world to reach the manifested state. Brahma is the Lord of all that lives. Every living being proceeds from Him.
Physical characteristics: 4 faces turned in the 4 directions, including 4 visible arms.
Attributes and symbols: a rosary, a pitcher of water, a book, a lotus flower.
Responsibilities: Creating the World.
Companions: Saraswati, Savitri
Mount: Hamsa - a wild goose (representing knowledge)
Vishnu, the Preserver (pronounced Vishnu)
The incarnations (avatars) of Vishnu are born in the human world when Dharma is seriously threatened. He is best known through the many myths that revolve around the exploits of His avatars. There are nine major avatars, the 10th still to come at the end of our current earthly cycle, the Kali Yuga or Age of conflict, marked by the total moral degradation of men.
Physical characteristics: human face with blue skin, 4 or more arms, dressed in yellow.
Attributes and symbols: preservation, conservation, continuity, permanence, fidelity.
Mount: Garuda (mythical bird, a sort of eagle; half man, half bird)
Shiva, the destroyer or regenerator
He is the one who makes the necessary transformations and changes in the world. He is the god worshipped by the yogis as part of a spiritual discipline followed by the truth seekers in pursuance of their profound transformation. Shiva temples are many and are dedicated to the lingam, a phallic symbol representing the creative capacity of God: indicating that indeed, it is the destruction that proceeds creation.
Physical characteristics: dark skin, 2 or 4 arms, long matted hair, clothed with a tiger-skin loincloth.
Attributes and symbols: the trident (trishul), a small hourglass-shaped drum (damaru), the moon, the Ganges coming out of his abundant hair.
Responsibilities: Destruction, Austerity.
Mount: Nandi (a bull).
Trivia: He cut off the head of his son and replaced it by that of an elephant, thus making Him the popular god Ganesh! He controls the waters of the Ganges in his long hair, because it is believed they would destroy the land without his intervention.
Apart from the three major gods and their wives, Hinduism cults are dedicated to many other deities, the foremost of which include:
Elephant-headed god, Ganesh is the son of Shiva and goddess Parvati. He is the most familiar god, and one that is invoked before conducting any business. He is the protector of the home and the symbol of luck in everything. He should be prayed to before worshipping any other god.
Physical characteristics: elephant head, four arms.
Attributes and symbols: an axe, a goad, a bowl of offerings, a lotus.
Responsibilities: good luck, removal of obstacles and ending of feuds.
Mount: a mouse.
Commander of the army of monkeys, He was an ally of King Rama in his fight against the demon king Ravana. The perfect model of a servile devotee, Hanuman is a subject of great devotion in India. He is frequently represented in temples, especially in Tamil Nadu.
To prove his loyalty to Rama, Hanuman is said to have opened up his chest, revealing the presence of Rama and Sita in his heart.
Physical characteristics: Monkey God. 1 head, 2 arms, ability to change his size at will.
Attributes and symbols: a mass.
Responsibilities: Loyalty, faithfulness, strength, destruction of evil.
Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, is one of the four sons of Dasaratha, the king of the city of Ayodhya and the founder of the solar dynasty.
Physical characteristics: human face.
Attributes and symbols: a bow and arrow.
Responsibilities: loyalty, fidelity, strength, destruction of evil.
Trivia: He is the hero of the Ramayana, accompanied by his brother Lakshmana, and Hanuman. He destroyed the demon king, Ravana, thus saving his beloved Sita, whom the devil had taken away to his kingdom of Sri Lanka.
He is the eighth major incarnation of Vishnu. Krishna is for the Hindus the model of divine love in human form; it is for this reason that He is highly revered. His cult is centered on devotion and love towards a boundless benevolent deity.
Physical characteristics: human face, bluish skin.
Attributes and symbols: a flute.
Responsibilities: lightness, power.
Trivia: Often depicted as a greedy child in his childhood, He is a seductive flute player in his teens and a powerful warrior in his maturity.
Temples are the abodes of the gods. In the most sacred inner sanctum is installed, often for centuries at a stretch, a statue or image of God (murti). For a Hindu, this image is life-like and holds the Consciousness of the God it represents.
Going to the temple is not a part of Hindu religious obligations but Hindus still go there regularly, some every day, to get the darshan of the deity. Darshan can be translated as "blessing vision". The faithful is seen by the mūrti before which he stands. The offerings and prayers strengthen the relationship established between deity and devotee. The priests, almost always from the caste of Brahmins, provide service to the deity throughout the day. Early in the morning, it is awakened, washed, anointed, dressed, and fed. At various times of the day are performed rituals (puja) with different offerings according to a precise ritual: food, fire, incense, etc. In the evening, the deity is symbolically resting. During the day, some of these pujas are held publically and the faithful attend.
Some temples are particularly famous for being very sacred, and thus they attract huge crowds of pilgrims. Indians love to quote the temple of Sri Venkateshvar (a form of Vishnu) in Tirupati Tirumalai (Andhra Pradesh), which would be the second richest religious site in the world after the Vatican. Tens of millions of people go there every year.
These great temples feed thousands of needy people daily and create various charities, such as hospitals, schools, etc.
To make a pilgrimage (yatra) to a holy place is a part of the life plans of any Hindu, whether poor or rich. The discomfort and physical difficulty involved in some pilgrimages are considered normal, for that is how they take on their full meaning: to outperform one’s daily needs by performing a religious act. India is constantly crossed by millions of people who travel on foot, by bus or by train to a sacred site.
In the Hindu world, many places are sacred, especially the seven major rivers: the Ganges (Ganga), Yamuna, Indus, the Sarasvati (mythical underground river), the Narmada, Godavari and Kaveri. The Ganges is the most sacred of them, born of the hair of God Shiva, and along its course lie the three main Hindu shrines of Haridwar, Allahabad and Varanasi (Benares). The confluence of the Ganges (Ganga), the Yamuna and Saraswati is at a place in Allahabad called Prayag, which is inevitably a big site of pilgrimage. People make pilgrimages to the sacred rivers to immerse in the holy waters and ritually purify themselves, to get the darshan of sadhus (wandering monks) present there who come from across the country, or to immerse the ashes of a dead relative in the water or perform an annual ritual (shraddhha) in their memory.
Every twelve years, in turn, the huge Kumbh Mela is held in the four holy cities, where unimaginable crowds gather. Pilgrims flock by the millions to the banks of the Ganga (Haridwar) or the Yamuna (Allahabad) every six years. The next Kumbh Mela is set to be held in August-September 2015.
The daily pujas are conducted several times a day in all temples in honour of the gods.
Generally, foreigners visiting temples have a feeling of noise and restlessness, but that isn’t always so. People settle down in every corner, sitting quietly on the ground or going about their business.
Once a puja begins, announced by bells or gongs, everyone gathers at the entrance of the shrine for darshan (vision) of the divine image (murti) honoured there. The puja is a long series of submission of the flame of lamps before the deity, with mantras chanted at a rapid pace, and sprinklings of water, coconut water, and milk on the divine form, accompanied by bells, gongs and other instruments. It seems that the goal is to make as much noise as possible to awaken the divinity and ensure its watchful eye on the people gathered.