The hymns of the Riga Veda demonstrate the gradual transition from polytheism to monotheism in the Vedic society
The Pagan Origins of Hinduism explained how the early Vedic society deified the many forces of nature, thereby creating a religious system of polytheism. The Riga Veda is a testimony to the many hymns sung in worship of these deities. But the Riga Veda is a compilation of hymns composed over a period of few thousand years. And it also shows a perceptible transition from polytheism to monotheism.
Dr. S. Radhakrishnan explains the process of this deification of the forces of nature. In moments of awe of nature, or of deliverance from natural peril or realization of utter dependence on nature the ancients felt the presence of God. (Radhakrishnan,2006,p74) And there were so many aspects to nature each different from the rest. The earth was supportive whereas the sea was unfathomable. The sun was fiery whereas the moon was calm. This led to the creation of a multitude of deities.
Polytheism eventually gave rise to some inevitable but uncomfortable questions. Who is the most powerful of the deities? Which one of them came first? Who created the others? After initial jostling Varun, who was then considered as the deity of the heavens, became the leader. In a sense this was natural because the sky is all encompassing and oversees the movements of the heavenly bodies. Varun was also given moral attributes – the power to judge and to forgive as can be seen in Hymn 87 of Book VII of the Riga Veda.
“Before this Varun may we be sinless, him who shows mercy even to the sinner”
Later because the warring society needed a more aggressive leader Indra displaced Varun. This process of henotheism could not have lasted forever. Only one can be supreme. Each one cannot be supreme in turn. Another factor that must have started the shift towards monotheism was the understanding of the cosmic harmony. The flow of the tides, the coming of the seasons, the movements of the heavenly bodies all were interconnected. There came a realization that there was “a single creative cause of the universe, itself uncreated and imperishable.” (Radhakrishnan,2006,p92) These words describe the quest for a single supreme being some thousand years before the birth of Christ, but they have a resonance with Einstein’s quest for a unified field theory.
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Monotheism and Polytheism Reconciled
Sri Swami Chidananda
Hinduism is the most ancient religion among all the great living religions in the world today. The origin of Hinduism is shrouded in antiquity of the distant past far beyond the times of known history. Hinduism has for its basis and source the timeless spiritual vision and revealed knowledge of the sacred Vedas and the lofty teachings and deep wisdom of the Saiva Siddhanta of the hoary Dravidian tradition.
Just as the holy rivers Ganga (Ganges) and Yamuna (Yamuna) join each other in the sacred confluence at Prayaga (Allahabad, U.P., India) and unite to form together one of the mightiest and longest rivers in the whole of India, even so our ancients’ twin-cultures of the ancient Aryan and Dravidian peoples with their sublime philosophy and beautiful tradition united and together formed the fabric of this great living faith that is followed by millions of Hindus of varied denominations. They are unified by their common belief in the one Supreme Almighty BEING, the Supreme Universal SPIRIT and their common ideal of Dharma governing earthly life.
The sublime philosophy of the Hindus declares that God is one. God is the ultimate divine Reality. The ancient sages of Hinduism clearly stated, “The Reality is One, the wise ones refer to It variously (by various terms).” We have the significant announcement, “Ekam sat, vipraha bahudha vadanti.” This truth they declared when they spiritually discovered It through their direct personal experiences granted by Divine Grace. Therefore, a real follower of true Hinduism knows and therefore firmly believes that the Divine Reality or God is one and non-dual. Even though Hinduism is mistakenly regarded by many as a religion having many gods namely, polytheism, yet truly speaking Hinduism is a monotheistic religion. It is a religion that long long ago, before any other religion had appeared in this world, had discovered that there is only ONE GOD. Later on our spiritual ancestors, the sages of God-experience and illumined vision, attained also the knowledge that the various religions of man are like so many different ways and paths that finally lead to this ONE God who is behind and beyond all religions including Hinduism. The Supreme Almighty Being (God) does not belong to any religion. Because, God existed even before this universe and mankind were created, even before any religions have come into existence. All religions belong to God. Because, He is the source as well as the final destination of all religions that exist.
Wise Hindus who rightly and properly understand their religion will firmly hold on to this basic truth of Hinduism, God is one and non-dual. You may call this Supreme Being as Paramatman, Parama Sivam, Param Pita or Para Brahman. No matter in what way you have been taught to call Him from your childhood, the God worshipped in Hinduism is one and the same. That is the same universal Spirit whom the Saivites, Vaishnavites, Shaktas, Muruga Bhaktas, the Vedantins, the Arya Samajists, the Vinayaka worshippers etc. all adore. This one Supreme Being alone is the one God of the entire Hindu Society all over the world. What is more wonderful is that the Hindu sages and God-realised Spiritual Masters saw that even the different other religions besides Hinduism were all worshippers of one and the same God who was the Creator of countless universes and the Father of all mankind. This is the glory of Hinduism that discovered and declared the oneness of God or the ultimate universal Spirit.
They may call Him by various names. But the Being that is called is one and the same. The various religions can be considered as so many different paths to suit different types of people, all taking them finally to that one universal divine Spirit or God.
Here, our young readers may ask, “Who are these different deities that our elders have worshipped? For example Vinayaka, Muruga, Hanuman, Mariyamma, Kali, Vishnu, Siva, Parvati, Sarasvati, Lakshmi, Ayyappa, Dattatreya, Rama, Krishna etc. Also, why are you having so many different temples having these different deities in them? We are puzzled as to what connection there is between these deities. We are not able to understand who they are and why so many when Swamiji writes there is only One God.”
These questions are quite proper and young people being puzzled on this point is also understandable. Now, I shall explain to you what this situation means and also why such a situation has come about and why it has been allowed to remain in our society as part of our Hindu belief and worship. Now it is your turn as readers to carefully mark my words and to read with careful attention the matter I am explaining and try and understand it properly in an intelligent way.
First and foremost, the central truth that you must now grasp at the very outset is that all these seemingly different deities are actually varied manifestations of that One Supreme Godhead. The glory, the grandeur and the power of the One Supreme Being are limitless and indescribable. The different divine forms whose names have been mentioned above are all varied expressions of this glory, power, grandeur and a mysterious divine nature of the Supreme Being. Their distinctive forms have been so revealed as to bring out and express best that particular aspect of the Divine Reality which they are meant to convey. Thus even though appearing to be many and different, they are actually so many personified expressions of the One and the same Supreme Reality. They reveal aspects of His power and glory. When you have caught this point you will now see that though they seem to be distinct yet they are not different. In this marvellous universe and the mysterious forces, we behold in it the power of the Supreme Being functions in a variety of ways as required by His divine plan and purpose which is being worked out through these Cosmic processes going on in this universe. While fulfilling a certain cosmic function, the Supreme Being became referred to by a specific name. As our limited human mind cannot easily visualise or think about a purely intangible and abstract idea or principle, the ancients personified that specific aspect of the Divine nature attributing to it certain forms and features that could best signify and symbolise that particular aspect of cosmic functioning. They were able to expound and describe these distinct personifications of One Reality. Because, they were clearly revealed to their inner spiritual eyes during their times of high meditations and deepest mystical contemplations in which they are constantly engaged. Thus having obtained this inner Darshan of the meaningful manifestation of the One Divine Reality, they declared it for the benefit of all mankind in general. Each deity is, therefore, a personified expression of the One Supreme Divine Being. Due to them the earnest Hindu devotee is able to easily fix his mind and focus the devotion of his heart upon God. These manifest forms are thus a great help in enabling you to dwell upon God in a tangible manner. They effectively serve the purpose of presenting to you a well-defined focussing centre for you to think upon and to concentrate your mind and to meditate.
My dear young friends, you know that there is one substance we call cotton. It has no particular form or shape. Yet you recognise that it is one substance only that you see in one place as a colourful curtain, in another as a bed sheet, then as a table cloth, towel, Kurta, shirt, pyjama, turban, sari etc. They all have different shapes and functions but yet you know that they are only different forms taken by cotton only. The one element water is sometimes present as a well in the back garden or a lake or a river or sea or ocean. Also, it is sometimes seen as mist and fog. Elsewhere it is seen as fast flowing stream of water or as hard solid ice. The same water also becomes cold snow and sleet. It can manifest as cool dew or freezing frost. Elsewhere it appears formless yet very powerful and hot steam through a boiler. In a small way you must have seen pressure cooker in your house. What intense heat and instant cooking power this aspect of water has got! Before the advent of electricity and diesel engines it was the power of steam that made railway trains run in all countries of the world. You perceive that behind all these different manifestations mentioned above there is only one thing namely water.
A jeweller makes numerous ornaments like ear rings, necklace, watch chain, bracelet, ring etc. having different outer shapes and names. But it is seen that the one precious metal gold alone has assumed these distinct forms to fulfil different functions or serve different purposes of the wearer.
Take another example. A father of a family, he may be a professor in a college where he is also the Vice-Principal. When he goes to the college he wears a distinct formal style of dress as required by his status and position as a college professor and an official in his administration, while at home he is relaxed in informal type of dress. Moreover, he is no longer regarded as a professor or treated as a Vice-Principal. He is now Daddy to his children. He is husband to the mother of the children. If his old father and mother are living with them, he is a son to them. He is regarded as a brother if his parents have other children besides him. He is Mr. George Moodly, the neighbour to those who are living in the neighbourhood. He may be a member of the local Rotary Club. He may also be a councillor in the town Municipal Committee. He may also be serving on the Jury at court. Now, do you have one person here or do you have ten different and separate persons? Think about this. When he is at home his little daughter might wish to sit upon his lap. The youngest child might demand to be carried upon his shoulder and given a ride. But when he is participating in a town council Committee Meeting such things are out of question. When the same person is in the court acting upon the Jury with ten other colleagues, a college student has no access to him to ask an academic question regarding his lessons. For, he is quite a different person in court. Yet, in the midst of it all there is only one and the same person whose personality partakes and participates in various functions and roles. This is called a case of unity in diversity, a case of variety upon the basis of oneness.
Hence, my young friends, learn to recognise that in and through these various Divine Forms, you are really worshipping only the One Supreme God or the One Almighty Universal Soul (Param Atman). You are not worshipping many different gods. No matter by what names you call and address the Supreme Being, these names do not affect His eternal, non-dual nature. Adoration offered to any of these forms of the Hindu Divinities (Devatas) is directed really towards the one eternal Reality. Even when ignorant worshipper does not know this and thinks otherwise, nevertheless, he is worshipping the One non-dual Supreme Divine Spirit which is the same Para Brahman of the Vedas or Parama Sivam of the Saiva Siddhanta or Bhagavan or Kadavul of the Bhaktas.
Just as when you take a sea bath at the beach, no matter whether you bathed in Tongaat beach or Durban beach or the beach in East London or in Port Elizabeth, what you have done is that you have bathed in Indian Ocean. He who does not understand this requires to be instructed and taught.
Hindus who say that Siva is different from Vishnu or the Supreme Parama Sivam is different from the Supreme Para Brahman of Vedanta do not have a full knowledge of their own religion. They are demonstrating a narrow and bigoted view which is contrary to the spirit of real Hinduism which is broad-hearted and tolerant. They do a disservice to Hindu religious unity by their emphasising superficial diversity in appearance instead of emphasising the essential unity of the Reality. Let me assure you that Goddesses Sarasvati, Parvati, Lakshmi, Durga, Kali, Bhavani and Lord Siva, Narayana, Brahman, Rama, Krishna, Dattatreya, Hanuman, Garuda, Kartikeya are all Divine forms that are in reality the One and the same Universal Spirit. They are all one. There is neither difference nor antagonism between them. It is not only childish but also foolish to deny this truth. You must be wise and recognise the fact that as a Hindu you know that there is only one God.
If you are a Muslim, you may call Him Allah. If you are Christian you call Him Almighty Father in Heaven, in the Synagogue the Jews give Him another name. But know this without doubt, the Supreme Reality is One and the same. If we are wise and use our commonsense then you will not argue and debate and fight and quarrel. We will know and clearly understand that all Divine forms are symbolic and signify one God who has manifested multifariously in order to help human beings in various stages of Spiritual evolution and of different tastes and temperaments and capacities to find a suitable expression of the Divine that appeals to their temperament and attracts their devotion and thus enables them to focus their mind.