Are Indic Traditions Polytheistic?
A Position Paper by David Gray, PhD
Copyright – The Educational Council on Indic Traditions, 2000
All Rights Reserved
It has often been claimed that Indic religious traditions in general, and Hinduism in particular, are polytheistic. At first glance this claim appears to be correct; Indian temples are typically richly adorned with numerous sacred images, and there is little doubt that the pantheons of some Indic traditions are vast. First glances, however, do not necessarily tell the whole story. It is true that the majority of Indic traditions are iconic, meaning that they employ anthropomorphic religious imagery in their art, architecture and worship, but this does not necessarily imply polytheism; many Christian denominations, for example, employ a rich and varied iconography involving a wide array of terrestrial and celestial beings, yet they all claim to be monotheistic, a claim which is not usually challenged.
In the study of Indian religion, it is important that we distinguish the use of icons from the issue of monotheism versus polytheism; multiplicity of icons does not necessarily imply polytheism, which is simply (and ambiguously) defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the doctrine or belief that there is more than one god; worship of several gods” (Brown 1993:2283); it is derived from the Greek polus, “many” and theos, “god”. Clearly, the presence of complex iconography does not necessarily imply such a belief. Diana Eck, in her seminal study on the use of sacred imagery in Hinduism, wrote that “The Latin icon or the Greek eikon means ‘likeness’ or ‘image’ and calls to mind the icons of Orthodox Christianity which show a likeness of Christ or Mary. By contrast, aniconic images are those symbolic forms which, although they refer to a deity, do not attempt any anthropomorphic form or any representational likeness.” (1981:32)
A crucial issue, which has rarely been addressed in even the academic discussions of this issue, is how do you define a deity? This is an important issue in the context of theism. The biblical religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all have a wide array of celestial beings such as angels, archangels, etc. in their “pantheons”; they consider, however, that one of these beings is supreme, the creator of all the others, and on this basis lay claim to the status of monotheism, despite the fact that some of these “lesser” beings are or have been worshipped by at least some members of their fold of believers. The mere presence of multiple divine beings in mythology, art or even worship thus does not constitute polytheism according to the common usage of the term in these traditions, whence the term originated. If we wish to employ terminology deriving from the biblical religions in the study of Indic traditions, it is essential that we afford them the same degree of sophisticated usage as the source traditions themselves employ; failure to do so at best renders the use of these terms vague and imprecise, at worst involves us in a culturally chauvinistic double standard.
At this point, it seems advisable to explore the issues of iconism and theism within the context of each of the major Indic religious traditions. In so doing, we will find that the uninformed claim that Indic religions are “idolatrous” is simply wrong, the product of Muslim and Christian missionary propaganda. Likewise, we will see that the somewhat more informed claim that Hinduism, in particular, is polytheistic, is of limited use and should therefore be abandoned.
Buddhism and Jainism are both currently iconic religions, insofar as they employ images in their architecture, art and worship. Neither religion is, however, theistic; while they do not deny the existence of deities per se, they definitely deny them ultimate ontological status. The majority of icons in Buddhist and Jain temples do not, in fact, represent deities, but rather Awakened beings such as the Buddhas or, for the Jains, Tirthankaras, both of whom represent humans who have achieved the represent the pinnacle of human evolution. The state of these beings exceeds that of the gods (deva), who are conditioned beings who enjoy a relatively long and pleasant existence, but one which is, like human existence, impermanent and thus ultimately unsatisfactory. They represent instead the spiritual ideal of complete liberation from cyclic existence, rather the creator of it, in the case of the biblical religions. While the status achieved by these beings is the highest recognized by these traditions, this does not make them “deities,” at least in the biblical sense, as they are conceived as existing in fashion quite different than that conceived for the biblical gods; they represent not a state that is ontologically closed or separate in the sense that the biblical gods are, but rather a state which is, theoretically at least, achievable by all beings. And while these beings are often worshipped by adherents to these traditions, this too does not make them deities; the saints of some of the biblical traditions are likewise worshipped on a popular level, yet this does not make these traditions polytheistic.
Sikhism is a tradition that developed under the influence of both Hinduism and Islam, combining elements of both traditions to form a unique new tradition. Probably due to Muslim influence it is aniconic; their worship centers on their scripture, the Adigranth. Sikhism should be considered monotheistic, in that they recognize and revere one God only. One might be tempted to conclude that this orientation is purely due to Muslim influence. As we shall see, however, the Sikhs drew as well from a strong tradition of monism, stressing the ultimate unity of all reality, in Hinduism, which is similar to but not identical with the monotheism of the biblical traditions.
Hinduism is an generally an iconic religion, but there are in fact two general tendencies of Hindu thought, (1) that which recognizes a god to which can be attributed qualities (saguNa) and iconically represented, and (2) that which denies that god has qualities (nirguNa), undermining the claim that it can be iconically represented. In popular worship, however, the former tendency predominates. Hinduism, taken as a whole, accepts a very large number of deities, a number which, according to some texts, is as high as thirty-three million, as Eck pointed out. (1982: 146)
It is clearly wrong, however, to conclude that Hindus worship idols or icons per se. Eck has argued that “In the Hindu tradition, however, there has never been the confusion of ‘image’ with ‘idol’;” (1981:5) visual contact with an image has long been considered a profound way to gain access to the divine; one could perhaps say, as Gavin Flood does, that for Hindus “deities as icons in temples mediate between the human world and a divine or sacred reality and that the icon as deity might be seen as a ‘spiritualization’ of matter.” (1996:14) It is not safe to assume that a plurality of symbols necessarily imply a plurality of referents. As we shall see, many Hindu traditions understand the divine to be unitary yet capable of multiple manifestations, any of which are potentially objects of worship as icons. Yet such worship is not necessarily directed to the icons per se, but to the absolute reality symbolized by it.
A casual observer might thus consider Hinduism “polytheistic,” but this is a superficial view. A casual observer in Europe might likewise conclude that Christianity is functionally polytheistic upon viewing the numerous icons of god, his son, his mother, and the vast pantheons of angels and saints, many of which are the objects of worship and festival. Of course, one might object that in spite of such iconography and worship Christian theologians invariably insist upon monotheism. But Hindu theologians as well typically insist upon the unity of the divine; a more universal and applicable distinction that might be made here is that between popular and elite religiosity.
Technically speaking, it is not at all clear that Hinduism can be considered polytheistic. According to the Encyclopedia of Religion’s description of “polytheism”, “to understand polytheism, we must look at the base component, theism, meaning the belief in ‘god’ as distinct from other types of powerful or supernatural beings.” (Eliade 1987:436) Since we are dealing with a term deriving from the Greek, it would be advisable here to explore the Greek conception of theos. “One of the most distinctive characteristics of gods, as compared to human beings, is their immortality.” (Eliade 1987, p. 437) This contrasts to the Indic traditions, in which the so-called “gods” (deva) were not viewed as being immortal. Indra, the “king of the gods,” owed his position to his merit, and was always plagued by fears that his position would be lost once he is superceded in this area. Thus there is the frequent mythological theme of Indra trying to tempt the sages, the power of whose austerities threatened his continued existence as king of the gods. Even Brahma, the creator deity, had a definite lifespan of 100 divine years, measured on a time scale in which one day in the life of Brahma equals 4,320,000 human years. His total life span is vast from our perspective, lasting over three hundred trillion years. This is only relative, however; a commentator on the Bhagavad Giita, pointed out that “this incredible longevity, for us infinite, represents no more than zero in the stream of eternity.” (See Ifrah 2000, p. 422) The theological position of early the Hindu or Vedic tradition was thus not too far from that of the Buddhists and Jains. Greater emphasis in the Vedic tradition was placed on the efficacy of the sacrifice and the power of the sacrificers, rather than the objects of the sacrifice, the gods.
This is not to say that Hinduism is not theistic, however. There was a tendency, going back to the Rg Veda, to posit an eternal unity amidst the plurality of transient deities. A well known example occurs as follows “They call it Indra, Mitra, VaruNa, Agni, and it is the heavenly bird that flies. The wise speak of what is One in many ways; they call it Agni, Yama, Maatarizvan. (1.164.46; O’Flaherty 1981, p. 80) For many Hindu traditions, the object of Hindu worship is not simply the plurality of “gods” but the divine unity that underlies them; to ignore the latter is to miss the point, so to speak, of Hindu theology.
This idea, which appears in the Vedas, is elaborated in later Hindu traditions. Each member of the so-called Hindu “trinity,” ViSNu, Ziva and Devii, are in fact considered to be the absolute, eternal supreme deity of the VaiSNava, Zaiva and Zakta traditions, respectively. The VaiSNavas hold that ViSHNu is the supreme god who has manifested in the world in multiple forms (avataara) and who is thus, in theory at least, a personal god whose grace is accessible to his devotees. While a VaiSNava temple might contain many images of different deities, ViSNu is, at the very least, considered the preeminent among them, if not their ontological basis. That the term “polytheism” ill-fits the VaiSNava traditions, is suggested by their best known scripture, the Bhagavad Giita. Therein Arjuna tells KriSNa, an avatar of ViSNu, that “You are supreme, the infinite spirit, the highest abode, the sublime purifier, man’s spirit, eternal, divine, the primordial god, unborn, omnipotent.” (10.12; Miller 1986:90) The text continues with KriSNa declaring that He, qua ViSNu, is the self and source of all beings, including the other “gods” (See 10.19-42, Miller 1986, pp. 91-95)
Followers of the Zaiva tradition likewise consider Ziva to be the supreme of all gods, the unity underlying all diversity. Philosophically Ziva is sometimes considered in an impersonal, abstract (nirguNa) absolute, but for his followers he can also fulfill the role of a personal god. The twelfth century bhakti poet Mahaadeviyakka wrote of Ziva as a young women regarding a suitor, as follows: “I love the Handsome One: he has no death / decay nor form / no place or side / no end nor birthmarks. / I love him O mother. Listen.” (Ramanujan 1973:134)
A text written by a contemporary Zaiva practitioner describes him thus:
“God Ziva is all and in all, one without a second, the Supreme Being and only Absolute Reality. He is Pati, our Lord, immanent and transcendent.” (Subramuniyaswami 1993:49) Zaiva practitioners likewise accept a plurality of the divine on the worldly level while insisting upon unity at the absolute level. The text continues “Our adoration of the one great God Ziva is directed toward diverse images and icons,” (Subramuniyaswami 1993:49); this is followed by a list of some of Ziva’s most common manifestations.
In the same way, the devotees of the goddess consider her to be supreme, the mother of all existence, both mundane and divine. This is exhibited in one of the most famous works centering around Her, the Devii Maahaatmya. (See especially the devii-suukta, trans. in Coburn 1991, pp. 184-85)
It is in fact the case that in Hinduism the issue of monotheism versus polytheism never arose as a meaningful category of religious discourse. It is true that different traditions disagreed about which god is the supreme one; in so doing they typically did not deny the existence of the other’s deity outright, but simply subordinated it within the cosmic hierarchy presided over by their own deity. The fact that different sub-traditions claimed different gods as supreme should not be taken as a marker of polytheism; one must keep in mind that the term “Hinduism” encompasses a vast array of diverse religious traditions which are at least as distinct from one another as the biblical traditions are from one another, and which, like those traditions, are also linked by a common scriptural basis, the Vedas for the former and the Old Testament for the latter.
A very important defining factor of the Hindu traditions is not so much their belief in one or many gods, but the way in which they articulate the ontological relationship between the divine on the one hand, conceived either as a personal god (izvara) or an impersonal absolute (brahman), and the phenomenal world on the other. Hindu theologians debated whether these exist in a non-dualistic (advaita) or dualistic (dvaita) fashion, or in some manner falling between these two views, i.e., Raamaanuja’s modified non-dualism (viziSTaadvaita). This theological debate was at least as important and defining for Hindu traditions as the theism debate was in the West. These two positions, however, are not equivalent; for the non-dualist, the issue of monotheism versus polytheism is irrelevant, while the dualist traditions of theologians such as Madhva adhered to a view of a personal god which is not dissimilar from biblical montheism.
India as a civilization tends toward pluralism, toward tolerance of diversity, and this pluralism extends to the divine. While it is true that Hindu theologians have tended toward either a singular absolute, “popular” temple-based worship has produced a rich proliferation of iconography based upon an even richer pantheon as divine beings. As noted above, Hindu theological traditions argued for a unity of the divine which is incompatible with polytheism, defined as a simple and naïve belief in multiple, ontologically distinct gods. A single temple may be adorned with many deities, and one’s body, conceived as a temple, can likewise be seen as an abode of the divine. It is the unity of the divine, however, which makes possible the connection between the macrocosm and microcosm which is a defining feature of Hinduism. This theological tradition go back to the Vedas, which distinguished two perspectives in relation to the divine, which can be viewed “with reference to god/the gods” (adhidaivata) and “with reference to the self” (adhyaatma); these were seen as two complementary perspectives. That is, the divine could be viewed either as external or internal, and for many traditions of Hinduism these two perspectives were seen as inseparable. For this reason, it was completely logical within this system of thought to equate the macrocosmic impersonal absolute (brahman) with the microcosmic self. This idea is summed up with the famous expression in the Chaandogya UpaniSad (6.12), “That Thou Art” (tat tvam asi).
This idea in fact frequently found in the scriptures of Hinduism. In another famous passage, BrhadaaraNyaka (3.9), the sage Yaajnavalkya is asked how many gods are there; he first answers that there are 3306. Further questioned, he reduces the number to thirty-three, and the, eventually, to one. He equates the thirty-three gods to the inner components that make up the self such as the elements and breath (praNa). He goes on to say that the final goal of a person, himself or herself divinely composed, is Brahman, which he identifies with the singular god. (See Olivelle 1996, pp. 46-47)
These examples should make it clear that Hinduism cannot be facilely pigeonholed as either monotheistic or polytheistic. The “either-or” logic so prevalent in the biblical religions is simply inapplicable to the Indian context, where the logic of “both-and” predominates. As Eck noted, “the unity of India…is in its cultural genius for embracing diversity, so that diversity unites, rather than divides.” (1981:24) For example, in the influential non-dualistic perspective eloquently described by Zankara, the world can be viewed from two perspectives, the phenomenal level of existence, characterized by illusion (maayaa), in which one can speak of a plurality of beings, and the ultimate level, characterized by the unity of the supreme being, brahman. In short, from the perspective of the Advaita Vedaanta tradition at least, polytheism may be superficially accepted as a worldly convention but is denied as ultimately valid.
Why then even use the term polytheism? Eck calls Hinduism polytheistic, but qualifies this by noting that many Indian traditions affirm the oneness of god. She wrote: “The point here is that India’s affirmation of Oneness is made in a context that affirms with equal vehemence the multitude of ways in which human beings have seen that Oneness and expressed their vision.” (1981, p. 24) One might ask, if the notion of polytheism requires this much qualification, might it not be best to abandon the concept altogether in the context of Indic religious traditions?
Is Hinduism polytheistic? There really is no appropriate answer to the question, as the question itself is inadequate. Hinduism simply lacks the categories of polytheism versus monotheism; use of these categories without consulting the very sophisticated theological views of the Hindu traditions represents a failure of understanding, a culturally chauvinistic insistence on applying cultural specific categories to an inappropriate context. It is, in short, a form of what Edward Said called “orientalism,” and hearkens back to the colonial paradigm. He defines orientalism as a type of discourse characterized by “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (1978:3); the uncritical use of terms such as “polytheism” in describing Indic traditions appears to be exactly this sort of discourse, a discourse more conducive to misunderstanding than understanding.
Finally, we might ask, why is this important? The definition of Hinduism is not merely as a scholarly matter. It is a matter connected to the self-esteem of the roughly one billion Hindus, who have historically suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous orientalist misrepresentations, misrepresentations which are not simply the decaying relics of the Raj but which persists, if not in the academic portrayals of Hinduism, then in the less sophisticated portrayals which continue to be disseminated in the media and in many textbooks. Dispelling such stereotypes then is not merely an academic exercise, but one done for the benefit of the growing Hindu presence of America in particular, and for the sake of multi-cultural understanding in general.
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Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Random House.
Subramuniyaswami, Satguru Sivaya. 1993. Dancing with Ziva: Hinduism’s Contemporary Catechism. Kapaa, HI: Himalayan Academy.
Copyright – The Educational Council on Indic Traditions, 2000
All Rights Reserved