There was a question in an earlier post of mine on Hinduism. Why the many Gods in Hinduism? If God is one why does He(or It?) consent to confound us with many forms. And why do we consent to cast Him into form anyway? This is my attempt at an answer to this important question.
Of all religions Hinduism is unique in its personifications of the One Divine. A hundred thousand Gods they say. The heavens of the Hindus must be crowded, even suffocating perhaps!
This is perhaps best understood with an analogy. Think about how scientists study an atom. Historically the atoms were considered to be the fundamental unit of matter. Everything was a composition of a cluster of atoms. This view persisted for long. And then came the discovery of the Electron. Read this quote from Wikipedia
The concept of an indivisible amount of electrical charge was theorized to explain the chemical properties of atoms, beginning in 1838 by British natural philosopher Richard Laming;the name electron was introduced for this charge in 1894 by Irish physicist George Johnstone Stoney. The electron was identified as a particle in 1897 by J. J. Thomson and his team of British physicists.
Methods of Modern Knowledge
The idea I want to highlight is this – First is the theoretical conception. A model that explains observed behavior. There is also the naming of the phenomena. And then someone comes along who conclusively provides proof and confirms the theoretical model. Or in some cases disproves the existence of said phenomena, and in doing so refines the conceptual model.
And so it goes. This cycle of unveiling never ends. The Atom has been broken down into as many as hundred sub-atomic particles. Check the Standard Model, as it is called, for the currently favored theoretical framework to consistently explain behaviors in the sub-atomic realm. And this is without accounting for gravitation!
Elect of Science and Soothsayers
And remember that commoners never get to see all these exotic beasts, they are reserved for the physicists and the elect of science. They come with their colliders and accelerators and study the remains of atomic accidents.
Not very different from soothsayers, who in ages long past, studied the entrails of sacrificed animals to divine the intent of the Gods.
Methods of the Rishi
The Rishi of the Vedic tradition too tried to understand and learn of things. Only he did not choose to study one element of reality, like the modern particle physicist does. He views upon the vast of existence as his laboratory, of which even he as an observer is an essential component.
The earliest Rishis, the seekers of the Answer, hunted down the cause and origin of this manifest existence. But the path was not easy, there was no written method. Or body of practice to stand upon and seek.
All he had was himself, the powers of his observation, his ability to think and this manifest existence.
Answer that hunts its Questions
But they had intimations. They had seen glimpses of it. The Powers often left traces of their workings. The flash of intuition, the rush of aspiration, the dawn of understanding. And the dreams, that subversive reality that crept upon him in sleep. Dreams that spoke another language.
The answer sought out the questions. The Rishi it seems was not without help.
And the Rishi named these powers. Named so he could identify it when it came again. And to talk about it to others like him.
Phenomena and Powers were laid bare to his acute observation. Each was seen to have a characteristic, each power had a character. And so the Rishi clothed and crowned these powers within his mind.
Lexicon of the Rishis
From this perceptual factory issued the Gods. Indra as Lord of Mind, Usha as heralder of Dawn, Hiranyagarbha as the Golden Womb that issued creation. These forms were not restricted to the benign aspects. The Rishi saw in destruction too the hand of God. This he called Shiva. Or even Rudra, the only Deity the Rishis were said to be actually afraid of. There was Kali, the mighty Mother. Kartikeya, Lord of the Armies of Light. There was too the wooer of the Soul, Sri Krishna. He who dallied with the human soul by the moonlight. And so it grew, the lexicon of the Rishis and thus of Hinduism.
The tools of this exploration are of the mind and often abstract. The subjects of these experiments are not often seen, just as those of the atomic scientist. But the methods and exactness of these experiments with the mind and soul are not very different from that of the modern scientist with his tools or in anyway less rigorous and serious.
And this is the reason for a hundred thousand Gods within the Hindu religion.
To The Skeptics
Skeptics abound, who view this excess as a waste, as an indication of a primitive and barbarian culture. To them I would say it is a question of acuteness of perception. Some choose to restrain their exploration of reality at the level of atoms. Some choose to dig further until reaching the foundation of creation. Each level of abstraction has its place and utility.
The formula of the scientist and the mantra of the Rishi are counterparts. Each explains an aspect of reality, lays bare a secret of existence.
What We All Are
Eventually, all of us are journeymen. Whether we choose to name and pray every milestone on the way or head straight to the destination is a question of method or even a personal and a cultural preference.