I have often heard Hinduism described as a polytheistic religion. A religion of many gods, demi-gods and goddesses. 330 million of them! Some of us worship Shiva, others Vishnu, some Krishna and others Durga or Kali etc, etc. But do we, really?
The Vedas speak of the one Ultimate Reality, Braham; the Paramatma or the Supreme Soul who is nameless and without any form. The Ultimate Reality or God cannot be seen or described but only experienced.
And it’s not just what the scriptures say or what the intellectuals think. It is an idea embedded in the very psyche of every Hindu. Take folklore and songs in any language from any part of India and you will often hear the same theme run through it. Saints and bhakti poets across centuries have spoken of it.
Why then all these gods and goddesses with their many splendid forms? Well, they are just varied interpretations of the same Ultimate Reality, Brahman. As by definition, there cannot be more than one Ultimate Reality.
So, contrary to common belief, Hinduism does not have many Gods. It has many ways of looking at the same God. It is pluralistic, not polytheistic.
The ancient scholars, seers understood that as humans we can only relate to what we know. We can only interpret something in ways that our minds can comprehend. And every mind, every individual, is different. So, it is only natural that we should understand and relate to God in our own way.
And all the different ways are OK. To some God is a father figure in heaven, to some God is a loving, compassionate mother, for some he is their child and for some their lover. And if you didn’t believe in any of these forms or even God but only yourself, that’s fine too.
Which is why Hindus find no conflict with other religions and other ‘Gods’ or even atheists. They are all equally valid. According to Hinduism, the spiritual journey is a personal one. And all journeys lead to the same Ultimate Reality.
In essence, you could worship the whole pantheon or nothing and still believe in the Ultimate Reality. Or not.
God realisation or Moksha, which a spiritual Hindu aspires to, is not an eternal life in Heaven but to experience or merge with the Oneness that is the entire Universe and beyond.
Polytheistic. Pluralistic. What does it matter? You might ask.
Well, the first gives the impression of a primitive religion with an almost naïve idea of God while the second shows a mature and inclusive religion. A religion that understands both the indescribable magnificence of the Infinite as also the human condition with its limitations. A religion that has never been about dogma or rules or organisation but simply about the personal quest for God.