Many types of ritual purifications are required during the day and especially before worship. Orthodox Hindus believe that impure thoughts lead to the formation of evil vapors in the mouth, leaving the mouth and its saliva unclean; uttering Vishnu’s name three times before sipping water helps. Food left over from a meal is ritually impure, as is food that has been touched or smelled by another human being.

Animal Deities


Since there is no clear human/animal divide, Hindus also have animal deities. Airavat is the four-tusked king-god of elephants, who emerged out of water when gods churned the ocean. The bird-god Garuda has the head and wings of an eagle, often on a man’s body. Garuda is often depicted as carrying Vishnu on its back and is worshipped as a remover of obstacles. Shesh Neg, the serpent god, is the king over Patal, infernal regions. During intervals of creation Vishnu is said to sleep on its coils. Kamdhenu, the sacred cow god, also emerged from ocean-churning and is said to grant all wishes and desires; she is the mother of all cows. And so on.


Hindus have sacred cows for many reasons. Cow’s milk is revered as akin to mother’s milk, so Hindus compare the slaughter of a cow to matricide. Curds and ghee (clarified butter) are traditionally used in sacrifices, so ghee (and the cow from which it comes) is seen as the root of sacrifice. Gods like sacrifices, so cows are essential. Cows are seen as the “greatest givers on this earth today,” and they are a “complete ecology, a gentle creature and a symbol of abundance.” Many Hindus say that cows are sanctifying creatures who represent the highest energy in the universe and that a person who kills a cow or eats beef is said to rot in some form of hell for as many years as there are hairs on a cow.


Just as Hindus do not have a clear human-animal divide, so a lack of clear lines makes it difficult to define the extent of Hindu denominations. The largest one is probably Vaishnavism, with Vishnu regarded as the ultimate hero-god who comes to earth in one of his ten incarnations whenever dharma (eternal order and righteousness) is threatened. Followers of Shaivism, the second most popular belief, see Shiva as the leading manifestation of God: some call him the destroyer of evil, some just the destroyer, and some are particularly moved by the eroticism that is part of Shiva’s edgy charm.


Shiva has 1,008 names in all, as does his wife, Shakti. When the emphasis is on her tender kindness, Shakti goes by Parvati or Sati. When the emphasis is on terror and destruction, she goes by Durga or Kali (referred to in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). But whatever her name, Shaktas—those who worship Shakti as the supreme mother and creator/defender of the world—form the third largest group of Hindus. Other Hindus, as individuals or in clans, choose a particular god or goddess as their ishta-devata (personal deity) and offer it special prayers and worship, much as the ancient Greeks did.


This variety may leave individuals adrift; historically in Indian village life, individuals have worshipped whatever their subcaste and community put before them, but as India urbanizes and Hindus outside India have more choice of where to go and what to affirm, individual Hindus worry that they have chosen poorly. And yet the word individual itself suggests a sub-Hindu pattern of thought: the theological goal of many Hindus, if they think about their beliefs, is to lose their individuality and flow into the monistic ocean.

The Issue of Life