Saturday, February 11, 2006

Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism

Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism

The Gods and Goddesses in Hindu dharma has always been a subject of curiosity and for much time a thing to ridicule for abrahamic religions. The sheer number of them i.e. 330 million is just baffling. Among Hindus themselves, beyond the dreary statement of “all gods are representation of same Ishwara (supreme God) you will not get much explanation or understanding about it. Here I will attempt to give a simple view of Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism, their divine powers and functions, hierarchical setup, correct terminology and how common men are influenced from them.

The Hindu system of Gods can be easily understood with a simple comparative study with administrative body of any country. I have drawn parallel between hierarchical setup of Gods and administrative body to drive this point home. To start with I have put a simple sketch of administration of a country in Figure 1. It consists of multiple tiers beginning with lowest one being home and highest one being head of the nation.

An individual is always associated with three important entities, parents, family and friends who form essential characteristics of his identity. This combination forms an envelope or sphere through which he interacts with the outside world. The character and knowledge of an individual is heavily influenced by this sphere. Hence the interactions of an individual in outside world and his success greatly depend on the knowledge he has gained from these three entities of sphere.
Outside this sphere comes the society or the world whatever you call it. It consists of neighbors, wards, villages, towns, districts, states, nations and beyond. These entities have been organized in the form of a multi tiered administrative body in order to ensure smooth functioning of all the elements of society and ensure prosperity, freedom and protection. This body is built in such a way so as to help an individual in day today life to function better and achieve his desired goal and at the same time help society/nation to develop further. Each of the constituents of society have a distinct place and function in the multi tiered administrative system. Each tier of this administrative body is under the control of higher tier but functions independently within the set guidelines. So to say, the higher tiers hold an indirect control without interfering in the day today affairs of local bodies. The relationship of person with this body is of give and take. Individuals pay tax towards administrative services and in return expect to get security and good atmosphere for socio economic progress. The place of person in society is decided by his reach towards the higher tiers. As an individuals reach extend further from first tier to second and higher, he carries more weight in society and gets better privileges and often exerts influence over the lower tiers. The entities of the first tier (village/town) form the fundamental unit of multi tier system. Hundreds of such tiers form a second tier (state), in turn many second tiers clubbed together constitutes the third tier (nation).
The first tier consists of various elements of society with whom an individual interacts in day to day life. This includes neighbors, civil servants, doctors, engineers, laborers, farmers, vendors, police, domestic animals, etc. Various antisocial elements like, robbers, thieves, terrorist, etc also form a part of his life. This tier is generally known as Village/Town/County and forms the first pillar of multi tiered administrative body. Common men have the maximum interactions within this tier, and probably more than 99% never make it beyond this tier. Since most of the people are well aware about actual functioning of this tier and those above it, namely second tier (state) and third tier (nation) I will not discuss more on it.
Now with this background to administrative body, we’ll have look at the Hindu system of Gods and Goddesses. Using a similar approach as above, I have given a multi tiered pictorial representation of Hindu system of Gods below.

With the creation of universe, variety of species and forces came into existence. In order to facilitate smooth functioning of universe, maintain order and guide the highest evolved souls, the Human beings towards their ultimate goal of mokshya, the creator formed an extensive system of divine administrators called Devatas (Gods and Goddesses). Since the Atman has entered the material life in the form of human being, it represents a fallen state from eternal Brahman, and the individual has to overcome the balance of karma in order to return back to the higher state. Here Devatas play a vital role in guiding an individual to live life according to the four principles of sanatan dharma (namely Dharma, Artha, Kama and Moksya) and also help an individual to achieve things beyond his personal capacity, facilitate material and spiritual progress and provide protection, guidance in day to day life. The human beings would worship different devatas by means of prayers and offerings and in turn devatas would fulfill their wishes using their variety of supernatural powers or siddhis.. These Devatas were organized in form of different tiers or levels based on their power, function and have wide ranging authority over day today functioning of individual’s life and the universe. This multi tiered system is discussed below in detail.

Like in the case of material world, an individual in spiritual world too have an intimate sphere or envelope through which he interacts (or should) with outer spiritual world. This sphere is formed by, the Kuladevata (family deity), Gramadevata (village deity) and his peetres (ancestors).

The peetres are the deceased ancestors of a family, though they don’t come under the category of devatas, they are at a higher level than human beings and are capable of guiding their decedents towards right path and means. They have the strongest bonding towards their family and hence would do everything possible for better of their offspring’s, though they don’t have much supernatural powers. Also they are dependent of their offspring’s for getting proper position in peetrulok, hence if offspring’s fail to honor their duties, peetres feel pained and will bring bad fortune for the decedents. Most of the Hindu families have means to interact with peetres through a spiritual guru’s and get to know their inclination.

The next and the most important figure within the sphere is Kula-devata. Every hindu family has specific family deity and is common to a kula (lineage). Kuladevata can be superficially compared to a family doctor. Just like family doctor knows health of each family member, their ailments and hereditary diseases to which they are prone, Kuladevata knows the full karma of the family, the bad and good that has gone over the generations, and their likely repercussions. Kuladevata’s main purpose is to protect the family and guide members towards overall prosperity. After peetres, Kuladevata is the next most attached entity towards the family, since the devata doesn’t have much function beyond their own kula. Most of the interactions with Kuladevata are via the Kuladevata temple priest, and deity can offer solution to almost any problem associated with persons life or sometime refer to a higher level devatas. Good rapport between a person and his Kuladevata results in enormous benefits in material and spiritual world. In troubled times, Kuladevata is the main solace for man, and throughout Indian history there are enough examples of kings and queens obtaining help from the deity. Just like kids who are in embrace of parents are protected, families under the embrace of Kuladevata are always under divine protection. It is the beauty of the Hindu system of Gods and Goddesses that every family has a devata to attend to day today material and spiritual needs exclusively.

The Gramadevata or the village deity also constitutes important part of a person’s intimate sphere. The Gramadevata is the care taker of complete village/town. This devata controls most of the super human spirits within the first tier and protects the community from evil forces. The deity provides protection or warns about impending danger to the community from any natural or supernatural forces. For an individual, Gramadevata can offer precious advice towards his interactions with higher tiers

Outside this sphere comes the vast range of super-human spirits and devatas, the Gods and Goddesses. They are well organized in the form of multi tiered body similar to the administrative body of a nation. Each devatas have well defined role in this system, lower level devatas who interacts extensively with individuals to higher level devatas, who exert an indirect influence. We will deal with them in from of different tiers

The first tier is the most extensive one and common men have the maximum interactions with it. This sphere includes vast number of super-human spirits and devatas, such as Yakshya, Yakshini, Dakini, Bhoota, Vetala, Naga, Jaladevata, Sati, Bhairava, Krutya etc. Sometimes they are spirits of the place (the crossroads, the boundary line), spirits of those who die a violent or untimely death, and serpent spirits. They are worshiped in the form of earthenware icons or shapeless stones, established in simple shrines or on platforms set up under a village tree, and only occasionally in more imposing buildings. All over India you will find n number small temples below tree, near river, roadside, entrance of village devoted to these lower level spirits and devatas. These are actually under the command of higher tier Gods or are local representatives of them, but most of the times act independently unless there is direct command from superior. Since these are lowest level of devatas, they will do anything possible for someone who worships them, irrespective of good or bad. Along with usual offering used during puja, they are often worshipped using lower level offering like, meat, alcohol, etc. They bring prosperity to people who worship them and trouble their enemies even if they are innocent. However they can’t harm any individual who are under protection from their superior devatas. Village mantric and tantrics generally worship these spirits and hold sway over common people. Individuals who solely worship these deities never ever are able to rise higher in spiritual level, and after death become companions of these deities. They wield enough powers to affect the day today life of individuals and can become a great nuisance if they are against someone, or someone directs them against you. They are easy to be won over using simple offerings and worships. The moral conduct of worshippers of these deities is seldom worth of a look, and this alone is self explanatory. However just like in administrative body, the local contacts in village/town deserves respect/attention to get things done, as they are the ones who finally execute orders received from superiors, local deities in village/town needs to be given enough respect to get immediate protection/help when need be.

The two devatas mentioned earlier, namely kuladevata and gramadevta has an immense role to play in this system. Since they have powers almost equal or more than Tier-I deities, they can provide protection against any harm from Tier-I deities. Here comes the importance of good rapport with kula and grama devata, in absence of which individual can go through lot of hardship (even if they worship much higher tier devatas, explained later)

The second tier consists of much superior deities compared to Tier – I. They include King of Gods (devas), Indra along with other devas like, Agni, Yama, Varuna, Vayu, Kubera, Ishan, Naitruti, Navagraha and their companions like, Gandhrva, Kinnara, Apsara etc. They ensure smooth functioning of the universe. It is duty of the human beings to worship these gods and give them offerings, and in return these gods will bring prosperity to the worshippers. Worship of these gods needs much higher standing of moral values and conduct. These gods upon worship can fulfill almost any material wishes of the devotee and help in spiritual progress.
Just like Tier-I devatas, these are also dependent on offering from the human being and failure to do so can provoke anger from them. During most of Hindu ceremonies and rituals, most of these devatas are invoked and offerings are made in order to obtain their blessings. often attends to their devotees through Tier-II devatas. The dependence of devatas on human being ends here. The higher tier devatas or more correctly Deva/Devi are complete in themselves, and function only to provide supreme rewards to the worshippers without much interfering in day to day life. All the lower tier devatas follow the orders from them, and most of the time wishes of devotees are fulfilled through them.

In Hindu system of Gods and Goddesses, for every aspect of individuals needs there are various devas/devatas, like Kubera/Lakshmi for wealth, Ganapati/Saraswati for knowledge, Ashwinikumar for health/medicines, Vishwakarma for construction Navagrahas for past life doshas. Individual desiring excellence/boon in a particular area can attain so by worshiping a particular devata/deva.

The third tier consists of three most important devas/devi’s responsible for the existence of universe along with their companions. They are Brahama-Sarasvati, Vishnu-Kamala (Lakshmi), Shiva-Parvati, with their companions, Ganapati, Kartikeya, Narada, Garuda, Dashaavatara (like Nrusinha, Varaha - Rama, Krishna), Dattatreya, etc. Worship of the higher order devas/devis like, Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, Hanumana, Gayatri, Kartikeya, Lakshmi, Ganapati, Dattatreya, is generally practiced for overall material/spiritual boons beyond the reach of lower tier devatas. The common practice of worship include, daily puja, reading of 1000 names or specific text- Strothra (like Shree Suktha, Saptashati, Ramcharitamanas, Rudradhyaya, etc), Havan/Yagnya, vrata (keeping fast) etc.

One need to be very careful with regards to the worship of higher tier devatas and expected result out of it. Though these devatas are very powerful equipped with all mahasiddis capable of bestowing almost anything to the worshipper it takes lot of time and effort for an individual to develop a connection with them. The worshipper needs to follow yama and niyama as best as possible and raise his/her spiritual level. The results of years of worship depend on the moral/social conduct of the worshipper. An ordinary worshipper hardly makes any progress or sees any visible benefits even after decades of (sincere?) worship. So in case of emergency people often find that they are deserted and blame the devas/devatas for not helping them in times of need. Finally he blames god and gives up worship all together and becomes atheist. Here comes the importance of kula and grama devatas who can provide emergency help on time. To say it in simple way, people try to develop good rapport with chief minister/governors (which doesn’t work out for >99% of public throughout their lifetime) ignoring the local administrators who are exclusively posted to serve them. So in times of need neither local administrator have good connection with you nor do the higher authorities know you, so you feel deserted and loose faith. Best is to know where you stand, whether it is material world or spiritual world, don’t have any illusions or false pride!

Considering this particular problem a special arrangement is made in order to have direct interaction of the worshipper with higher tier devatas, and this is called Temple. The Temples has the maximum deva/devata presence possible compared to any other place. Along with the presiding devata of the temple, many other lower tier devatas will also be associated with the temple who acts on the orders of presiding devata. All ordinary people with no spiritual ability to barge into the higher tiers of devatas can have the best possible interaction and give offering to their favorite devatas. The temples can be considered like government emergency aid centers for impoverished public. Finally, to whatever extent one worships the Gods and Goddesses, you need to know what maximum can be expected. More on this will be in my next post (Upasana – Our Worship)Another important aspect of Hinduism is the presence of numerous “God realized souls or Saints’ and “Avatari Purusha (incarnations of God)”. They constitute an important part in the dialogue between human beings and devatas. Almost in every village or district in India there will be or would have been some such Saint and general public will get immense guidance in their pursuit of material and spiritual progress.

Above all these tiers comes the last one, which is of the supreme creator Ishwara along with his companion Maha-maya. Only with the blessings of Ishwara, can a soul reach to a stage of self realization and ultimate mokshya. Maha-maya puts an invisible barrier in between dnyan and adnyan which keeps the ordinary individuals in the cycle of birth and death. With the help of lower tier Gods and Goddesses, an individual can slowly raise himself higher in spiritual level and finally come close to Ishwara. All other tiers can be bypassed if someone is out of material world and have direct interactions with Ishwara through Omkar meditation.

With this I will conclude my description on Gods and Goddesses in Hinduism. I will update it once more if need be for some of the points that might have been missed out. Feel free to post your comments or mail me : dgporob at gmail dot com.


At 6:09 PM, Blogger Ravi said...

This sphere is formed by, the Kuladevata (family deity), Gramadevata (village deity) and his peetres (ancestors).

this is a great stuff and interesting.

in my understanding, kuladevata means 'deavata' for a particular jaathi or community and not for family.

for a family or extended family there is one called 'mane devaru'.

clarifications please!

At 12:45 AM, Blogger Vinod said...

Interesting stuff!

Can you please elaborate on which scripture or scriptures mention these?

At 12:12 AM, Blogger a_silent_tear said...

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I Praise ur efforts!!!!!!!

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At 12:23 AM, Blogger La ku uma said...

Tantra sastras define Shakthi as Kula, and Shiva as Akula. Manifest reality is Kula while the unifying factor is Akula. Sakti is Kula because she has a family. Siva is Akula because he is Swayambhu-self-born.
Dasa-Mahavidyas are divided in to Sri-kula (South Indian)and Kali-kula(north Indian). Learn more about Kula system from Kashmiri Shaivism which had its influence on South Indian religious practices.


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