Relax, Hindus say, when a monotheist wonders about their apparently polytheistic penchant for worshipping numerous gods and goddesses. Hindus say that when they are worshipping those small gods they are actually bowing to Brahman, the supreme god, the impersonal ultimate reality, the world soul. They say the many gods merely represent various incarnations and manifestations of the supreme god and function in a way analogous to clothes: people wear different ones in different situations. Hindus argue that their numerous names for god signify not confusion but an intimate knowledge of divinity. A favorite analogy: Eskimos have forty-eight names for snow because they know snow intimately in its variations but still understand that all snow is essentially the same.

 

Hindus say the existence of multiple forms of god is a tribute to god’s kindness. Here’s the logic: The supreme being, they say, manifests himself in different ways constantly, and those manifestations are without starting point or end. To meditate on the supreme being, man has to use his finite capabilities to absorb infinite manifestations, which is impossible. Therefore, that which is infinite appears in billions of ways to help mankind visualize it. Think of billions of photos of the same person in different poses rather than billions of different people.

 

Since Hindus worship multiple forms of god, they can choose the form that works best in specific instances. For example, Hindus looking for tenderness and forgiveness worship a mother form of god—Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, etc.—and say that in doing so they can more easily attribute those sentiments to the deity they envision.

 

Moreover, variety is the spice of Hinduism. Urban temples in India typically have many objects of worship. Loudspeaker-blaring music, drums, food and merchandise sellers, and a variety of booths provide the backdrop for making fruit and vegetable sacrifices to major gods, popular local deities, and even dancing cobras.

 

Hinduism can also be optimistic because if rituals are performed correctly, gods turn into genies, ready to help their devotees. Hindus often depict subgods such as Vishnu with multiple arms or heads that allow them more opportunity to protect people. Multiple arms indicate omnipotence, dominance in all directions; multiple heads suggest omniscience. Vishnu in particular is often said to have often come to earth in avatars—various forms—so as to save humans from tyranny or natural disasters. For instance, he came in the form of a boar to destroy one demon, in a half-man, half-lion form to defeat another, and as a dwarf to beat a demon king.

 

The subgods are also available to help humans in other ways. Vishnu’s avatars include the great hero Rama and the great dharma-establisher Krishna. Vishnu’s wife Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and is a favorite among businessmen. Brahma’s wife Saraswati is the goddess of learning and often the favorite deity of students in schools and colleges. Some Hindus also worship god families, such as Rama with his brother Lakshamana and wife Sita. Some Hindus worship the most powerful goddess, Gayatri, through recitation of the Gayatri Mantra, a chant about the light of the universe.