Are Hindus Polytheists?

Study time: 25 minutes.


Does Hinduism teach Polytheism (multiple Gods), Monotheism (one God) or something else? Let’s first understand what Hinduism is.

What’s Hinduism?

Hinduism is a set of eternal (Sanātana) spiritual principles/practices (Dharma), cradled in and currently practiced largely in the Indian Subcontinent in recent millennia, but practiced in a much larger area in really old times. It is thus known technically as Sanātana Dharma (Eternal Truth/Principles/Practice).

What’s its foundation?

Vedānta (the end portions of the Veda, eternal knowledge, that discourses on spirituality) is the preeminent foundation of Hindu religious/spiritual thought. Vedānta refers to three entities: Chit (souls, sentient beings), Achit (matter, which is non-sentient) and Brahman/Īśvara (God/Owner/Controller of Chit and Achit). Vedānta texts explain the below:

  1. The existence of one absolute entity called Brahman (God), which when taken by itself (i.e., in isolation) or with exclusive importance, would result in an understanding of Advaita (Monism).
  2. The existence of Chit (sentient beings, eternal souls) and Achit (matter) as different from and owned/controlled by Brahman (God), which understanding when taken by itself (i.e., in isolation) or with exclusive importance, would result in an understanding of Dvaita (Dualism).
  3. The existence of the one Brahman (God) with Chit (sentient beings, souls) and Achit (matter) forming Its inseparable but distinct body/modes/attributes, thus reconciling the previous 2 explanations. This syncretic/comprehensive understanding of Vedānta has been called Vishistādvaita (Monotheism or specifically a kind of Panentheism, not to be confused with Pantheism).

The above texts of Vedānta are briefly discussed in the article Monism or Monotheism?.

The most recent exponent of Advaita (Absolute Monism) was Śankara of the 8th century. Śankara’s propagation of Monism which closely resembled Buddhism is credited with re-establishing the preeminence of Veda/Hinduism which had waned when Buddhism took hold in India. Śankara’s efforts resulted in the near extinction of Buddhism in India.

The most recent exponent of Dvaita (Dualism) was Madhva of the 13th century.

The most recent exponent of Vishistādvaita (Monotheism/Panentheism) is Rāmānuja of the 11th century.

Swami Vivekananda who was the first preacher of Hinduism in the West and who ultimately subscribed to the Advaita (Monism) aspect of Vedānta conceded that the “highest Advaitism cannot be brought down to practical life. Advaitism made practical works from the plane of Vishishtadvaitism” (C.W. VI-122).

Swami Vivekananda  answered the following when he was asked about the relationship between Advaita (Monism) and Dvaita (Dualism), (from Volume 5).[11]

Q.—Is the Advaita antagonistic to dualism?

A. —The Upanishads [Vedānta] not being in a systematised form, it was easy for philosophers to take up texts when they liked to form a system. The Upanishads had always to be taken, else there would be no basis. Yet we find all the different schools of thought in the Upanishads. Our solution is that the Advaita is not antagonistic to the Dvaita (dualism). We say the latter is only one of three steps. Religion always takes three steps. The first is dualism. Then man gets to a higher state, partial non-dualism [Vishishtadvaita]. And at last he finds he is one with the universe. Therefore the three do not contradict but fulfil.

In reality, “he finds he is one with the universe” is an impossibility because if he were really absolutely one with the universe, there wouldn’t be ever a time, like now or in the past nor in the future, when he would feel different from the Universe, and further the he itself (and the statement “he finds he is one with the universe“) would be redundant/non-existent eternally as well. In other words, only Vishishtadvaita (Monotheism/Panentheism) is practical as well as true and complete realization now as well as from/into eternity (past and present).

Note: Some of the Sanskrit Vedic terms in the below might be intimidating to foreigners but the notes at the beginning of each section should aid in understanding the general gist of what is being conveyed. These texts have traditionally been studied under a Guru (Spiritual Preceptor).

Nārāyaṇa, the Universal Godhead

Vedānta refers to Brahman with other nomenclature such as Sat, etc., to point out the several characteristics of Brahman, but the proper noun mentioned is Nārāyaṇa (meaning the Ayana/abode of all the Naras/souls/matter, the All-Comprising/Containing/Including God) as pointed out by all the 3 exponents mentioned above, viz., Śankara, Rāmānuja and Madhva.[17]

Nārāyaṇa = the Eternal Lord of Bliss, —in Whom all the nārāḥ or eternal hosts of psychical and material entities ever live, move and have their being, and who, consequently, is designated their Ayana or Sustainer, Mover and Final Goal (according to the threefold etymology of the word Ayana).[18]

It is Nārāyaṇa that teaches the same eternal Veda to Brahma, the first being (soul in the Chit category) that is endowed with a body, whenever the material universe is emanated by Nārāyaṇa after a period of immanence. This emanation, sustentation and dissolution/immanation cycle for the material universe is eternal. Thus Veda is eternal and NOT man-made, thus free from sense-errors (errors of perception) and contrarieties (i.e., opposing elements, such as intrinsic, extrinsic and commonsense contradictions). [5] The same eternal Vedanta comes to mankind via a succession of ancient Sages.

All names are of God

With the Universe of Chit (sentient/souls) and Achit (matter) constituting Nārāyaṇa’s body/modes/attributes, all names used to denote individual souls or matter or God in the world, ultimately denote Nārāyaṇa. This is similar to how a name, say, John, refers to both the human body and the soul inside of that body, but which ultimately refers to the Super-soul (Brahman/God) inside the soul.

Universal (non-exclusivist/non-sectarian)

The idea of Godhead owning/controlling this universe of Matter and Spirit Souls is the foundation of many religions and spiritual traditions, all over the world, regardless of what Godhead is called. Godhead with innumerable glorious and auspicious qualities can have innumerable names in different languages.

Thus Vedānta explains a universal Godhead, as opposed to a sectarian understanding.

It also follows from the above that all living entities in the universe are equal as spirit souls (sarvatra-sama-darśana) and belong to the one Godhead and thus constitute one family in accordance with the Vedic maxim Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“the world is one family”).

The following poem from Tattva-traya best captures the non-exclusivist all-encompassing spirit of Vedānta:

Yogi Sri Pārthasārathy Aiyangār (1900)

The Catholics shut heaven against all
Who follow not the Pope.
Most Protestants say – “None who isn’t
Of Christ, for heaven need hope”.
Some others send to hell, all who
their Prophet do not own.
The man of God opens heaven to all
Who do not God disown.
His doctrine is :- “In God we live
And move and have our being.
Grown ripe by God’s free grace, gains heaven,
In time each living thing, –
To lead, in blessedness which hath no bounds,
A God-communing life that never ends.
The name – Nārāyaṇ’s* hence to God is given,
By saints Inspired, who foretaste bliss of heaven,
Seeing the Divinity that ever shapes our (a) course and (b) our aim,
However much we free will feel in us and credit claim.
As life is short and art is long,
Let’s choose the best all truths among“.

*Nārāyaṇa = the Eternal Lord of Bliss, —in Whom all the nārāḥ or eternal hosts of psychical [i.e., spirit souls] and material entities ever live, move and have their being, and who, consequently, is designated their Ayana or Sustainer, Mover and Final Goal (according to the threefold etymology of the word Ayana).[8]

God is All good

And that all good comes from God, is what Vedānta explains. Neither the manner of a creature’s prayer/relation to its creator nor the content of that prayer matter; rather what matters is what’s in the creature’s heart.

Immanency of God in the Universe

Another aspect Vedānta explains is the all-pervasiveness of Godhead. Vishnu (meaning the all-pervader) is thus another obvious name for Nārāyaṇa in His all-pervasive character. The practice of the highest Vedic wisdom, Vishishtadvaita,  is called Śrī Vaishnavam. Sri Alkondavilli Govindāchārya explains Vaishṇavism in Artha Panchaka:

Vaishṇavism is simply the faith which acknowledges the All-Pervader (Viṣṇu) as God. To all theists, God, we guess, has by this time become an all-pervading spiritual Essence, involving what is connoted by the term “immanency”. To Vaiṣṇavism, therefore, every theist can belong, regardless of caste, creed, or race. In this simple sense it is universal and cosmopolitan.

Further, Śrī Vaishnava is explained by Sri Alkondavilli Govindāchārya in Artha Panchaka:

The designation “Śrī-Vaiṣṇava” comes from Śrī and Viṣṇu, which two terms, divested of all anthropomorphism and allegory, mean, considered in their etymons, the Mother and the Father of the Universe. Śrī is charis, grace, the universal mediatrix, the reconciler, or peacemaker, between God [of Justice] and Soul. Śrī-Vaiṣṇavas are thus radically those who are believers in the Father-and-Mother principle of the Kosmos. Whether we study Nature without or from within, or the great Supreme lying behind both, it is governed by the two principles of Justice and Mercy, which in metaphor become Father and Mother, and in symbol Viṣṇu and Śrī. In this universal sense, who is not a Śrī-Vaiṣṇava?

Nārāyaṇa being Brahman was categorically/unequivocally accepted and propagated by all the 3 Acharyas (Gurus) mentioned above, Śrī Ādi Śankara, Śrī Madhva and Śrī Rāmānuja. There’s a brief mention of His glories in Śrī Bhagavad Gīta 10th Chapter.

This brings us to the main question of this article, which is that if there’s only one Brahman (God) known as Nārāyaṇa, how come Hindus are perceived as Polytheists?

Before we answer this, we need to understand a couple of concepts.


Vedic wisdom (the eternal knowledge that is the preeminent foundation for Hinduism) teaches us that we are NOT these physical bodies, but rather spirit souls (ātmas, specifically Jīvātmas or Jīvas for short, which are collectively referenced as Chit) that reside in physical bodies made of matter (material nature, Achit), and that we, the spirit souls, transmigrate from one body to the next (in plant, animal, human, and super-human species, etc.) in a birth/death cycle called samsāra, until we are liberated from this cycle (i.e., attain moksha/mukti) to the spiritual universe called Vaikuntha. There’s no beginning to this cycle; it is anādi (beginning-less).

Law of Karma

The reason for the transmigration of souls is the souls’ Karma (good and bad) accumulated over previous lifetimes resulting in births that allow for the past Karma (good and bad) to be enjoyed and suffered respectively. While in the birth/death cycle, souls are provided with various means/paths to achieve their various goals (be they material or spiritual) as conforming to their individual natures/interests.

Polytheism answered

Hinduism is commonly misunderstood as Polytheistic for the reasons mentioned in the subsections below.

Materialistic Ends

Hinduism recognizes that most Jīvas/ātmās (souls, i.e., living entities that comprise Chit) have various materialistic ends as their goals and that not every living entity has Moksha/Mukti (liberation to Spiritual Universe) as the goal. Thus the first part of the Veda called Karma-kanda defines various sacrifices/rituals for various material ends/fruits. These sacrifices involve praying to Devas (minor functionaries/divinities) such as Indra, Varuna, etc., who themselves are Jīvās (Chit category) placed in those positions to reciprocate with the supplicants as tasked. Lord Krishna (Nārāyaṇa Himself that appeared on earth over 5000 years ago) resolves this seeming “Polytheism” very clearly in Sri Bhagavad Gita verses 7.20 through 7.23 while explaining about the rare Jñāni (devotee) that’s exclusively devoted to Him in the immediately preceding verse 7.19.

Note: Śrī Bhagavad Gīta literally means “Song of God” wherein Lord Krishna (Nārayaṇa Himself that appeared over 5000 years ago) instructs His disciple Arjuna in the essence of Vedānta.

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 7.20:

kāmais tais tair hṛta-jñānāḥ
prapadyante ’nya-devatāḥ
taṁ taṁ niyamam āsthāya
prakṛtyā niyatāḥ svayā

‘Deprived of knowledge by various desires, and impelled by nature,1 men take to worship other divinities (devatās), imposing on themselves appropriate obligations therefor.’2

All worldly people indeed are impelled by their material inclinations. They are environed by such influences, it is meant. The material inclinations or impulses are the tendencies or instincts of old sins, in relation to guṇa-impregnate objects. These tendencies give birth to fresh longings for guṇa-sated things. And these desires rob people of their knowledge (or understanding) concerning Me. In order to gain their (material) desires, they resort to other lower deities different from Me, like the ordinary deity Indra etc. And observing such ritualistic rules and regulations as are laid down (in Śāstras [scripture]), in order to propitiate such lower divinities, they place faith in them, and worship them.

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 7.21:

yo yo yāṁ yāṁ tanuṁ bhaktaḥ
śraddhayārcitum icchati
tasya tasyācalāṁ śraddhāṁ
tām eva vidadhāmy aham

‘Whatsoever body (form) a devotee wisheth, in faith, to worship, that very faith in him do I render firm.’

Even those other deities (Indra) constitute My body.1 Though ignorant of this truth as enounced in such Sruti texts:—

‘Who is seated in the sun, (but) Whom the sun knoweth not, of Whom the sun is body’ etc.,2 yet, whoso wishes to worship Indra etc., who form My body, I grant him unwavering faith for that very worship he desires, knowing as I do that his faith is pinned to that which in fact constitutes My own body.3

Unwavering or firm faith = unhindered or undisturbed faith.

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 7.22:

sa tayā śraddhayā yuktas
tasyārādhanam īhate
labhate ca tataḥ kāmān
mayaiva vihitān hi tān

‘Possessed with that faith, whoso devotes himself to that worship, obtains thence his wishes, but they are verily granted by Myself’

Whoso, then, with such unhampered faith (granted by Me) lovingly worships Indra etc., he obtains from such worship of Indra and other lower deities, who but form My body, his several desires. But these desires are decreed and granted by Myself.

When the votary is engaged in his worship of Indra etc., he is, indeed, ignorant that they constitute My body, and that worship rendered to My body is worship to Myself. And yet I consider the worship, forsooth, as My worship, and it is Myself Who grant the desires longed for by the worshipper.1

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 7.23:

antavat tu phalaṁ teṣāṁ
tad bhavaty alpa-medhasām
devān deva-yajo yānti
mad-bhaktā yānti mām api

‘But to those of small understanding, (all) fruit has an ending. The votaries of the deities join the deities; My votaries join Myself.’

The fruits or rewards which the witless men who worship lower deities like Indra etc., obtain, are trivial and transient. Why?

Because the worshippers of Indra etc., go to those very divinities whom they worship. The blessed state of Indra etc., is indeed restricted, and lasts, besides, for a time only. The worshippers achieve but that blessed state as is on a par with that of Indra etc., but when Indra and other deities reach the end of their happy state, they fall; with them do their worshippers necessarily also fall.

As for My worshippers, they also perform the very same acts of worship as those men, but they do them with the knowledge that they are acts of My worship; and do them without regard for their appropriate fruits; do them as acts having for their reward nothing else than the pleasure they afford Me. My devotees, thus, attain to Myself, and they do not return (or fall, as the others do). Verily so, it is declared:—

(Mām upetya etc.,) ‘But, by joining Me, Kaunteya! there is no re-birth.’ (Gita viii-16).

In the following verse, the Lord says: there are people who disregard even My Avatars among men undertaken for the express purpose that they may have easy access to Me.

After having become tired of tasting matter over innumerable lifetimes (i.e., birth/death cycles), one will start inquiring into the spiritual aspects of life and eventually become a Jñāni/Bhakta (God-lover) exclusively devoted to Him (Nārāyaṇa/Krishna). Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 7.19:

bahūnāṁ janmanām ante
jñānavān māṁ prapadyate
vāsudevaḥ sarvam iti
sa mahātmā su-durlabhaḥ

‘Become wise at the end of many births, one worships Me. That high-souled saint (mahātma) is very rare, to whom Vāsudeva1 is all.2.’

It takes not a few births of meritorious works, for one to ripen into that consummate wisdom that the soul is by nature the servant of the Lord. It takes many births of a meritorious kind, at the end of which one will know: ‘I am essentially liege (Śesha) to Vāsudeva; my doings, my (nature) and my very being, dependent on Him. As for Him, He is most Superior by His countless Glorious Attributes.’ Then is he jñānavān, the sage or the wise or illuminated person. This is how he reflects: ‘Vāsudeva is My Highest Goal, Vāsudeva is My Way; whatsoever my heart longeth, all that is Vāsudeva to me,’3. Such is the high-souled one who is very rare to be found in the world.

‘Vāsudeva is All to me,’ means that which was declared to be the nature of the jñāni in:

(Priyo hi etc.,) ‘Very dear indeed am I to the jñāni,’ (vii-17) and,

(Āsthitas etc.,) ‘Is not he My sole-devoted, dependent on Me as the only Unsurpassable Goal?’ (vii-18).

And the jñānavān, or the wisdom-ripe is he who is of the kind described in these verses. (a real God lover=the Bhaktā).

The knowledge or wisdom of this jñāni is such as is declared in:—

(Bhūmir āpo etc.) ‘Earth, water etc’,…and egotism is the eight-fold division of My Nature’ (vii-4)

(Apareyam etc.,) ‘But this is inferior. Know My other Nature superior than that, the living Nature’ (vii-5); where the essentially dependent (or allegiant) nature of the two Categories of Matter and Soul, on the Supreme Spirit, is pointed out. Again is his wisdom such as is declared in:—

(Aham kṛitsnasya etc.,) I am the Origin and the End of all the Kosmos. (vii-6).

(Mattaḥ parataram etc.) ‘Naught whatever higher than I exists, Dhanañjaya!’ (vii-7).

(Ye-ch-aiva etc.,) ‘Those things that are sātvika, and those rājasā and tāmasa know, they all deduce from Me alone. But I am not in them, in Me are they.’ (vii-12);

It is evident from these (verses) that both the two Natures (Matter and Soul), in both their conditions of cause and effect, are dependent on the Supreme Spirit for their very existence, character and impulses, and that the Supreme Spirit is in every way Superior to all.4

Hence, he who possesses this wisdom, is the jñāni.

That such a jñāni is most rare is further dwelt on [in the above mentioned verses 7.20 through 7.23].

Lord Krishna reiterates the same elsewhere in Sri Bhagavad Gīta in the below verses.

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 4.12:

kāṅkṣantaḥ karmaṇāṁ siddhiṁ
yajanta iha devatāḥ
kṣipraṁ hi mānuṣe loke
siddhir bhavati karma-jā

‘Those who wish for the fulfilment of works, worship the devatas (lower gods) here. In mortal realms, work-born fruit is speedily realized.’

Generally all men, who long for the fruit of their works, worship Indra1, and other devatas(material celestials). It is seldom that one takes to My worship —Me, Who am the Soul of Indra and other gods,— and Who am the actual Recipient of all Sacrifices (Yajñās).

Why is this the case? Because the workers readily find the fulfilment of their works in the mortal regions alone, such as obtaining progeny, cattle, food etc., (all, —material prosperity).

Manushya-loka=mortal world: implies all material spheres, svarga etc., (included in the material globe, the brahmānḍa, the mundane egg).

People of the world, witless by reason of the vast past accumulation of sins not having exhausted itself, desire for immediate fruit, to secure which, therefore, they readily resort to the worship of Indra and other minor deities. The fruit is either prosperity in this world, such as offspring, food, cattle etc., or prosperity in higher spheres, such as obtaining svarga [material heaven].

He is rare, who dreading samsāra2 [i.e., birth/death cycle] in his heart, aspires for moksha [i.e., liberation from the birth-death cycle]; who would therefore engage in karma-yoga, as a duty, —as worship rendered to Me.

And also in verses 9.21 through 9.27.

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 9.21:

te taṁ bhuktvā svarga-lokaṁ viśālaṁ
kṣīṇe puṇye martya-lokaṁ viśanti
evaṁ trayī-dharmam anuprapannā
gatāgataṁ kāma-kāmā labhante

‘They, after enjoying that spacious world of Svarga, merit (puṇya)-exhausted, enter into the world of mortals. Thus do the addictors to the ways of the three (Vedas), —pursuers of desires,— obtain the transitory (states).’1

The Three Vidyas or Lower Spiritual Sciences are the three Vedas, Rik, Yajus and Sāma. The followers of these are called the Trai-vidyāḥ. They are mere followers of these, and not the devotees of the Ends of the Vedas, or the Vedāntas (= Upanaishads=Theosophy=Divine Wisdom =The Highest Spiritual Science). The latter, the followers of the Vedāntas are indeed the Mahātmas (High Souls). And it is they who, as beforementioned, know Myself, as the Object, taught by all the Vedas to be known, and by ‘chanting My hymns’ etc., (verse 14) and intellectually contemplating Me by the ‘Sacrifice of Knowledge’ etc., (verse 15,) —both stimulated by their intense love for Me— worship Myself as their sole Acme of ambition.

Whereas, those who are addicted to the three Vedas pray for Svarga [material heaven] as their chief end, by partaking of the Soma2 after offering it to Indra and other ordinary divinities in Sacrifices, in the manner prescribed by those Vedas. The barriers of sin which obstruct the passage to Svarga are thus removed; and they adore Me as Indra etc., to whom the sacrifices relate, not knowing that behind the forms represented by Indra etc., it is I that am.

Rid of affliction, they enter the world of Indra —the Lord of the Suras— and there taste the exquisite delights of the celestials (devas).

Thus do they abandon themselves to the delectations provided in the vast regions of Svarga [material heaven]; but when the merit which secured them all this fruit gets exhausted, they again enter the world of the mortals.

They thus forego the advantages of the ripe wisdom enshrined in the Trayyantas (=Vedāntas), but merely hunger after the material delights of Svarga etc., thus devoting themselves to the behests contained in the three Vedas, and only obtain states involving elevations and reversions (=gat-āgatam=transitory states): meaning that their enjoyments in Svarga etc., are of a trivial and transient nature, involving a turning back.3

Whereas, the Mahātmas (God-wise Saints) give themselves up to ardent loving reflections of Myself, and achieve Myself, Who am the inexpressible measureless Bliss Itself, and never return. The other features distinguishing these Mahātmas are further dwelt on:—

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 9.22:

ananyāś cintayanto māṁ
ye janāḥ paryupāsate
teṣāṁ nityābhiyuktānāṁ
yoga-kṣemaṁ vahāmy aham

‘Whoso, personages, devoutly meditate on Myself, precluded from all else, for such, —the ambitious of eternal unionship with Me,— I undertake to secure that unionship (yoga), and perpetuate it (kshema).’

An-anyāḥ= Who have excluded themselves from all other desires, or whose Centre of Hope and Joy is exclusively Myself and no other. They ever ruminate on My thoughts, for a deprivation of such thinking would, in their case, be cessation of their very being itself. Hence, incessant pondering over Me is to them an end in itself. Whoso Mahātmas of this description, devoutly contemplate Me i.e., wholly contemplate Me, i.e., contemplate Me in My fullness and entirety (paritaḥ upāsate) as possessed of all the glorious (Divine) attributes, and in My relation to all Kosmic glories, —whoso, Mahātmas, contemplate Me thus— and who aspire for eternal fellowship with Me, I Myself accomplish that end (yoga) for them, —from which there is no returning,— and I do (further) preserve that relationship in perpetuity (kshema).’

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 9.23:

ye ’py anya-devatā-bhaktā
yajante śraddhayānvitāḥ
te ’pi mām eva kaunteya
yajanty avidhi-pūrvakam

‘Even those who worship other divinities, in love and faith, worship Myself, Kaunteya!, but (they do so) in an informal manner.’1

Those also, who are worshippers of Indra and other lesser divinities —being followers of the Tri-Veda lines,— and who perform sacrifices directed to Indra etc., are in reality directing them to Myself. For, for reasons stated previously, all (Indra etc)., form My body, of which I am the Soul. And every term, Indra etc., finds its ultimate significance in referring to Myself.

They however perform sacrifices, ignorant of this form, or law. They do not worship Indra and other divinities in the manner that Vedānta passages such as :

‘Where (in Paramātma) the Four-Hotri-rituals, obtain their fulfilment through the devas’2 etc., inform how ceremonial worship applies to those divinities. For such Vedānta passages, while directly enjoining worship of Indra etc., as constituting the body of Paramapurusha [God], indirectly enjoin the worship of Paramapurusha [God] Himself, as the Spirit ensouling that body.

(The meaning of the Vedānta passage quoted is this):

‘The Four-Hotri-service of rituals: Agnihotra3, Darśa4, Pūrṇamāsa5, etc., find their fulfilment through Indra etc., constituting the body of Paramātma, by means of Paramātma Himself, Who is their Soul. That, of such (Paramātma-ensouled) Indra etc., these rituals being the worship, they (the rituals) obtain their fulfilment from Him. (sampat=fulfilment=fruition)

Hence, the votaries of the Traividya (or the Karma-Kāṇda of the Vedas) do not understand that rituals are but worship-services of Paramapurusha [God] Himself having Indra etc., as His body, and that Paramapurusha Himself is the real Object of that worship.

Hence they are entitled to limited recompense, and possess the character to fall (from the place or state, gained).

NOTE: With reference to this verse, Annie Besant said in her address before the Theosophical Society in December 1895:— “The Christian writer said he envied Hinduism that phrase in its Scriptures, and he wished he was able to quote it from his own Bible instead of finding it in the language of another faith.”

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 9.24:

ahaṁ hi sarva-yajñānāṁ
bhoktā ca prabhur eva ca
na tu mām abhijānanti
tattvenātaś cyavanti te

‘Verily am I the Enjoyer of all sacrifices, and the sole Lord. But they know Me not rightfully. Hence do they fall.’

Prabhur-eva cha=I am the sole Lord, means: I everywhere am the Granter of fruit.

Stupendously strange it is, indeed, that by the self-same karma (sacrificial ceremonies etc)., engaged in (by men) with the simple difference of motive (with which it is performed) some merit poor fruit, and lose it again; but others come to possess the unlimited and transcendentally blissful fruit, —Paramātma [The Lord] Himself,— and not losing it for ever. This is explained:—

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 9.25:

yānti deva-vratā devān
pitṝn yānti pitṛ-vratāḥ
bhūtāni yānti bhūtejyā
yānti mad-yājino ’pi mām

‘To the Devas1 go the devotees of the Devas2; to the Pitṛis3 go the devotees of the Pitṛis4; to the Bhūtas go the worshippers of the Bhūtas, and My worshippers indeed to Myself (go).’5

Vrata=devotion, holy resolve or willing. Those who will thus: ‘By the ceremonies, Darśa-pūrṇamāsa etc., let us, worship Indra’, go to Indra etc. Those who determine: ‘By these Pitṛi-yajñās etc., let us worship the Pitṛis’, go to the Pitṛis. Those who resolve: ‘We shall worship with sacrifices the Yakshas6, Rakshas7, Piśāchas8 etc., go to the respective Bhūtas [elemental spirits]. But those who will: ‘We shall sacrifice to Paramātma, Who is the Lord Vāsudeva, Whose body are those Devas, Pitṛis etc.,’ attain to Me alone.

The votaries of the Devas etc., go to them, share with them measured enjoyment, and when the time comes for its finale, the votaries also share the same fate; but those who direct sacrifices to Me, attain to Myself, the Beginningless and Endless, the Omniscient, the Infallible-Willed, the vast Ocean of the multitudinous and infinite glorious Attributes, and the Measureless Bliss Itself; and from Whom there is no return.

Brahma Loka is temporary also

In reality, even Lord Brahma (one of the so-called Trinity of Hinduism and the father of Lord Siva, also of the so-called Trinity), the position tasked with specialized creation within the Material Universe generally created (emanated) by Nārāyaṇa, is occupied by a Jīva (soul) and his abode is in the material universe that is subject to dissolution (by Lord Siva, the destroyer position) after a period of existence sustained by Nārāyaṇa/Vishnu directly. Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 8.16:

ā-brahma-bhuvanāl lokāḥ
punar āvartino ’rjuna
mām upetya tu kaunteya
punar janma na vidyate

‘All regions, Arjuna! from Brahmā’s home downward, are of the nature, from which there is return. Whereas attaining Me, Kaunteya! precludes re-birth evermore.’

All worlds poised in the bosom of the Brahmāṇda, (or the Great Sphere under Brahma’s control, —the Mundane Egg— up to the world of Brahmā (Demiurge) himself, are appointed mansions for the tasting of material happiness, wealth, power etc. But these material regions are perishable and impermanent.

Inasmuch therefore as the very seats of enjoyment are unstable, subject to decay, the joys themselves that are experienced there must terminate. This is inevitable.

On the other hand, in the case of those that attain to Me, —Me, the Omniscient, —Me, the True-resolved, or True-willed, —Me, to Whom, Kosmic manifestations, progressions and dissolutions are mere sport,1 —Me, the Most Merciful, —Me, the Enduring (or Unchanging),— there can be no talk of destruction; and hence they have no re-incarnation [i.e., no re-birth in the material realm].

A dissertation is now entered into as regards the time-periods, appointed by Will of Paramapurusha [God], regulating the appearances and disappearances of all regions, beginning from the sphere of Brahmā and all things embosomed therein.

Further, in Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 11.15, is seen Lord Narayana as the source of all the functionaries in the universe (including Lord Brahma) in the below when Lord Krishna (Nārāyaṇa) displayed His Universal Form (or Cosmic Vision) to Arjuna:

Arjuna uvāca
paśyāmi devāṁs tava deva dehe
sarvāṁs tathā bhūta-viśeṣa-saṅghān
brahmāṇam īśaṁ kamalāsana-stham
ṛṣīṁś ca sarvān uragāṁś ca divyān

‘I see, Lord! all the Gods in Thy [Your] Frame, and likewise all the diverse hosts of beings; Brahmā, and Īśa [Śiva] who is seated in Brahmā; all the Rishis and all the shining races of serpents.’

O Deva! In Thy [Your] Body, I do see all the gods; and similarly the several classes of creatures; similarly Brahmā, the four-faced ruler of the mundane egg (Brahmāṇḍa) similarly Īśa or Śiva who is seated in Kamalāsana1, (lotus-seated) or Brahmā, …; similarly all the Devarshis and other Rishis, and all the shining races of serpents, Vāsuki, Takshaka etc.

Back to the Lord

There is, further, another distinguishing characteristic of My worshippers :—

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 9.26:

patraṁ puṣpaṁ phalaṁ toyaṁ
yo me bhaktyā prayacchati
tad ahaṁ bhakty-upahṛtam
aśnāmi prayatātmanaḥ

‘Whoso, in love, proffers Me a leaf, a flower, a fruit, water; —what is so lovingly dedicated in purity of heart,— I do enjoy.’

‘Whoso offers Me a leaf, or a flower, or a fruit or (a little) water —the most easily obtainable articles— in love.’ Love is loving Me so ardently as that without dedicating for My acceptance something, the devotee finds himself unable to tolerate his very existence, and so impassionately doth he love Me as to feel that the very act of paying Me homage of leaf etc., is in itself a fulfilment of his grand aim, (prayojana).

Prayat-ātma is the pure-minded devotee, purity consisting in the attitude of the mind in dedicating the offering with motives of pure devotion and love, which per se is his highest ambition fulfilled. Leaf etc., are offerings brought by such a person.

‘I’=The Lord of all; He to Whom all the Universe’s coming into existence, its marvellous show and its disappearance are like sport; He Whose will is unalterable; He Who is all-satisfied; He, Whose glorious attributes are illimitable and transcendent;

Though I, as such, am naturally in the enjoyment of supreme felicity, yet do I enjoy the offering brought Me (in the manner aforesaid), as if I came (anew) in possession of a treat so rare as to be beyond the most distant expectations of a desiring heart. It is thus declared in the Moksha-Dharma:—

‘Whatsoever acts are consecrated to the Deva (God) with single-pointed devotion, the Deva Himself, forsooth, accepts them all on His head.’1

Inasmuch as such is the special character of the noble-souled jñānīs (God-saints), beyond measure of speech or thought, do thou also therefore become such a jñāni; do thou, thyself and thine, bend under the load of such God-love (bhakti) as has been described; do thou ever be singing My praises, doing My services, worshipping Me, and prostrating before Me; and do thou perform thy secular, and religious duties, —daily and casual,— in the manner stated in:—

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 9.27:

yat karoṣi yad aśnāsi
yaj juhoṣi dadāsi yat
yat tapasyasi kaunteya
tat kuruṣva mad-arpaṇam

‘Whatsoever thou dost do, dost eat, dost oblate, dost give, dost do of tapas, Kaunteya!, do thou that, as dedication (to Me).’

Whatsoever mundane calling thou mayst be engaged in, out of necessity to live; whatsoever thou mayst be eating as thy food, whatsoever daily and occasional Veda-enjoined duties thou mayst be fulfilling, such as homa (fire-sacrifices), dāna=gifts, tapas=austerities, deliver them all unto Me.

That which is dedicated, delivered, or offered up is arpaṇa. That is to say, do all acts as if the doer, the enjoyer, and the worshipped were all offered up in Me.

The import is this: ‘In all acts constituting yāgas (sacrifices) and dānas (gifts), the devas (or lesser gods) are resorted to as objects of worship; and thou art the performer of the act and the enjoyer. But both the devas and thyself are Mine; and depend on Me alone as your Prop, and for all your impulses and very being. In Me, therefore, Who am the Absolute Lord (śeshi), the Paramount Agent or Actor, offer up (1) thyself, the actor, the enjoyer, the worshipper, (2) the hosts of devas, the worshipped; and (3) the sum of acts constituting worship. Let thy mode of contemplation united with rapt love be of the manner that thou art My ruled, deriving thy chief characteristic of liegeship (or vassalage) relatively to such (God-)rule, and that the worshipped devas are of similar nature.

And in Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 18.46:

yataḥ pravṛttir bhūtānāṁ
yena sarvam idaṁ tatam
sva-karmaṇā tam abhyarcya
siddhiṁ vindati mānavaḥ

Whence all beings evolve,1 by Whom all this is pervaded. Him doth man, worshipping by his acts, attain.’

Man attains perfection, i.e., attains Myself by My grace granted, when he worships Me as the Inner Soul abiding in Indra etc., —Me, from whom all beings originate, move etc., and by Whom all this is pervaded. That everything originates from Me alone, and that by Me is all pervaded, has already been declared in such Stanzas as:

‘I am the Origin as well as the End of all the Kosmos’: (Gi: VII-6); ‘There is naught else higher than I, Dhanañjaya!’ (Gi: VII-7); ‘By Me is all this Kosmos filled —by My subtle form’: (Gi: IX-41); ‘By Me the Supervisor, matter begets all mutables and immutables’ (Gi: IX-10); ‘I am the Source of all, from Me all operates’: (Gi: X-8), and so on.

And in Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 18.57:

cetasā sarva-karmāṇi
mayi sannyasya mat-paraḥ
buddhi-yogam upāśritya
mac-cittaḥ satataṁ bhava

‘In thought, dedicating all works to Me, be ever thoughtful of Me, wedded to Buddhi-Yoga.’

In thought = In the thought that ātma (soul) is Mine and under My guidance. In this wise was the sense of the term (chetasā) glossed in the Stanza:—

‘With mind, ātma-absorbed, rest all works in Me’ (Gi: III-30).

Dedicating works = Offering up to Me everything in relation to works, whether it be the Authorship (of the works) or the worshipped objects (of the works, viz; Indra etc.)

Thoughtful of Me (mat-paraḥ)=Considering Myself thy Goal and as thy Fruit, and doing all works from this point of view. This constitutes Buddhi-Yoga or the Religion of Wisdom, in which [you] ever do rest.

Minor Functionaries

There are 33 Koti (types/groups, also translated by some as crore/ten-million) agents-of-God (souls in Super-human bodies) mentioned such as Vasus, Rudras, Adityas, etc., but they are actually minor functionaries, i.e., spirit souls (Chit category) empowered by God (Nārāyaṇa) to execute the several functions in the material universe. This is commonly misunderstood to mean there are 33 (or 330 Million when Koti is translated as 10 Million) “Gods” in Hinduism.

All these minor functionaries were shown as such by Lord Krishna (Nārāyaṇa Himself descended) over 5000 years ago, when He displayed His Universal Form (or Cosmic Vision) to Arjuna.

Lord Krishna to Arjuna in Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 11.6:

paśyādityān vasūn rudrān
aśvinau marutas tathā
bahūny adṛṣṭa-pūrvāṇi
paśyāścaryāṇi bhārata

‘Behold the Ādityas, the Vasus, the Rudras, the Aśvins, and the Maruts. Behold wonders, Bhārata!, many, and never before seen.1

In My One Form, find the Ādityas, twelve; the Vasus, eight; the Rudras, eleven; the Aśvins, two; the Maruts, forty-nine-etc., for example. Find in it the many marvels, those directly perceived (or sensed) in this world, and those related in the Śāstras, even all those that are to be found in all the other worlds, —all that may be mentioned in all the Śāstras;— all that has never been seen before.

and Arjuna was able to see them all looking in astonishment at Lord Krishna as he relates in Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 11.22:

rudrādityā vasavo ye ca sādhyā
viśve ’śvinau marutaś coṣmapāś ca
vīkṣante tvāṁ vismitāś caiva sarve

‘In astonishment, look on Thee (You) all the Rudras, the Ādityas, Vasus, and those Sādhyas, the Viśvas, and the Aśvins, Maruts and Ushmapas, the hosts of Gandharvas, Yakshas, Asuras and Siddhas.’

The Ushmapas belong to the Pitṛis, as the Śruti says:

‘Verily are the Ushmabhāgas, Pitṛis’.1

All these, struck with astonishment, stare at Thee (You).

Sri Alkondavilli Govindāchārya mentions in Artha Panchaka:

As to many gods, or Hinduism smacking of Polytheism, Friedrich Max Müller justified the hidden significance of this by the term “henotheism”; but the true significance has after all been been discovered by only one scholar that we know, Dr. George A. Grierson, in his paper on “The Monotheistic Religion of Ancient India, etc.”, read at the Oxford Congress of the History of Religions. I only quote this:-

“Other ‘Gods’ are spoken of …, great and small- but in spite of this a Bhāgavata [the highest practitioner of Vedic wisdom] is no more a polytheist than was the Jew who used the word ‘Elohim‘ both for the Supreme and for His ministers. Just so does the modern Hindu use the word deva both for the Adorable and for His ministering creatures, …, divine but finite, whom He called into temporary being to fulfil His will. We translate ‘Elohim‘ by ‘God’ or by ‘angel’, according to its sense. If we translate deva uniformly by ‘God’, no matter what idea it is meant to express in the original, it does not prove that the Bhāgavatas were polytheists, but it does prove that we are bad, and -what is worse- unfair translators.”

Wheel of Life (lived in Gratitude)

Some of the minor functionaries (devas) such as Indra are involved in facilitating Yajñās (sacrifices) by Jīvas in a wheel of bodies-actions-Yajñās(sacrifices in gratitude to devas)-rain (in return gratitude by devas)-food described in Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 3.9 through Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 3.16. The Supreme Lord Nārāyaṇa/Vishnu accepts these sacrifices by the Jīvās (souls) as the indweller of those devas (minor functionaries) such as Indra, etc.

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 3.9:

yajñārthāt karmaṇo ’nyatra
loko ’yaṁ karma-bandhanaḥ
tad-arthaṁ karma kaunteya
mukta-saṅgaḥ samācara

‘Outside Yajña1-intended work, the world becomes work-bound. With that object, Kaunteya!, do work, void of attachment.’

Instead of work, such as that of acquiring money required to enable one to perform the śāstra-bid Yajñas2, works for selfish ends are inaugurated. It is the latter by which the world (men) becomes bound. Hence engage in works, such as getting money, for the sake of the Yajñas3.

Sanga or attachment comes, when work is undertaken for self-service (ātma-prayojana). Free from such motive, go to work.

All labor, when solely spent in the service of the Yajñas4, becomes consecrated, through the Yajñas5, as acts of Worship done to please the Supreme Spirit (Parama-purusha). He (God) will then efface all the deeds (sin and merit) of the immemorial past, binding the man, and point out the way how, with little trouble, one can achieve ātmā-cognition.

It is now shown that all persons of every ambition, without exception, must support existence by yajña-consecrated food only; and that sin is incurred by those who do not do so.

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 3.10:

saha-yajñāḥ prajāḥ sṛṣṭvā
purovāca prajāpatiḥ
anena prasaviṣyadhvam
eṣa vo ’stv iṣṭa-kāma-dhuk

‘Creating beings along with Yajñas1, Prajāpati2 spoke (thus) in the past:- “With this, multiply; verily it is all-desire-giver (kāmadhuk).”‘

As declared in the Śruti:-

‘The Lord of the Universe’ (Patim viśvasya)3 etc., the term Prajāpati is an unrestricted designation of Nārāyaṇa4, the Lord of all, the Creator of the Universe, the Soul of the Universe (viśvātmā5), and the Supreme Resource (Parāyaṇa6).

In the past, this Prajāpati, -the Bhagavān7,-intently reflected, at the time of creation, on the entities (chit), entangled in matter (a-chit) from an immemorial past. They were destitute of a name, of a form and of a distinction (one from the other), and embosomed in Him. They were fit for fulfilling great aims, but were lying latent like inert or unintelligent substances.

Prajāpati, out of infinite mercy, looked on them, and wishing to work out their deliverance, created them (or projected them into manifestation). With them he inaugurated the institution of Yajñas, so that they may worship Him thereby. And he spake thus:-

‘By this (yajña), multiply yourselves (ātmās)’ (iii-10). And ‘let it grant you or fulfil for you, your highest ambition, viz., moksha, and all the rest of lower ambitions, helpful to moksha.’

How does this happen? (It is explained):-

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 3.11:

devān bhāvayatānena
te devā bhāvayantu vaḥ
parasparaṁ bhāvayantaḥ
śreyaḥ param avāpsyatha

‘By this (yajña), serve the devas1; let the devas serve you. Reciprocating services (thus), you will attain the highest good.’

By this yajña, worship the devas (minor divine functionaries) who constitute My body, and whose Ātmā [Soul], I am. For, it is declared further on;-

‘(Aham hi etc.,) i.e., I indeed am the Enjoyer of all the Yajñās, and the Lord etc.’ (ix-24)

Let the devas, -of whom I am Ātmā [Soul]-,  worshipped by you, grant you your prayers for food, water etc., (i.e., general prosperity and abundance).

Mutually exchanging services thus, you shall reap the highest good, moksha2.

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 3.12:

iṣṭān bhogān hi vo devā
dāsyante yajña-bhāvitāḥ
tair dattān apradāyaibhyo
yo bhuṅkte stena eva saḥ

‘The devas, propitiated by sacrifice (yajña) will surely grant you all wished-for enjoyments. He is verily the thief who eats what is given by them without offering it to them.’

Yajña-bhāvitāḥ=Honored or recognized by yajñas, i.e., worshipped. ‘The devas, of whom I am the soul, shall confer on you whatever enjoyments you may pray for.’ This means that whatever good you receive from them shall be such as would enable you to worship the devas again and again.

If one should enjoy the gifts granted by them with the view that they may be worshipped by you in return, without offering to them beforehand, he is a thief indeed.

Chaurya is larceny. Its definition is thus: ‘It is the intention one forms that property which belongs to others, and for the use of which they have the right, is his own; and (by depriving them of the same, unlawfully) appropriates it to himself and lives by it.’

Hence to an individual of this description, there is not only the forfeiture of the highest aspiration of man (moksha) but he will deserve a journey to the Infernum (niraya).

The same subject is continued:-

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 3.13:

yajña-śiṣṭāśinaḥ santo
mucyante sarva-kilbiṣaiḥ
bhuñjate te tv aghaṁ pāpā
ye pacanty ātma-kāraṇāt

‘The partakers of Yajña-consecrated food are delivered from all evils. But those who cook for self-enjoyment, -sinners, -incur sin.’

Those who prepare food from money earned, with the sole object of worshipping the Supreme Spirit, -Who ensouls Indra1 etc., (the lower gods), -and who only partake of such consecrated residual food, become absolved from the aeonic accumulation of iniquity, impeding the fulfillment, viz., of the cognition of true ātmā-nature.

But they, the sinful souls, who fancy that what the Supreme Spirit, as the Indwelling Spirit in Indra etc., grants, with the view that it may be used for His worship, is for themselves, and prepare and eat of food with this notion, eat of sin itself.

Agha=sin: is here used to denote the consequences or fruits of sin.

Adverse to achieving ātmā-perception, such people prepare food, eat, etc., paving for them the way to infernal regions.

Again it is shown that everything is traceable to Yajña whether it be viewed from the standpoint of the world, or from the standpoint of Śāstra2; and it is shown that the observance of Yajña is a necessity, and that its omission is attended with evil consequences:-

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 3.14:

annād bhavanti bhūtāni
parjanyād anna-sambhavaḥ
yajñād bhavati parjanyo
yajñaḥ karma-samudbhavaḥ

‘From food come all beings; by rain1 is produced food; Yajña causes rain; and result of actions is Yajña.’

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 3.15:

karma brahmodbhavaṁ viddhi
tasmāt sarva-gataṁ brahma
nityaṁ yajñe pratiṣṭhitam

‘Know that body (brahma) gives forth action; from akshara (the Imperishable=ātmā) comes body. Hence the all-obtaining body is necessary for Yajña.’

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 3.16:

evaṁ pravartitaṁ cakraṁ
nānuvartayatīha yaḥ
aghāyur indriyārāmo
moghaṁ pārtha sa jīvati

‘Thus is the wheel made to revolve. Whoso, here, doth not follow it, his is a life of sin, -he is a reveller in the garden of the senses,- he liveth a vain life, O Pārtha.’

From food, all creatures spring, and from rain, of course, comes food. That it is so, the world is witness to.

As for Yajña causing rain, we know it so from the authority of the Śāstras, for it is therein declared:-

‘Oblations well delivered into the fire, mount up to the sun. From the sun is born rain etc.’1

And actions, such as the earning of money etc., by an agent, result in Yajña. And actions proceed from the body (brahma).

The term brahma (here) denotes the body, an aggregate of material particles. That such denotation is sanctioned, may be seen from the Veda-passage:-

‘From Him, this brahma (matter=the extended stuff=body) name, form, as well as food are born.’2

This use of the term is also found in the Gita:-

‘My womb is the extensive brahma’ (xiv-3). Hence our interpretation of the passage ‘karma brahmodbhavam’ meaning ‘that actions proceed from the body’ -a compound of matter- is correct.

Brahm-ākshara sam-udbhavam; the term akshara (the imperishable) refers to jīvātma, the individual soul, for it is jīvātma, who informs the body and obtains gratification from food, water, etc., and so fortified, is able to engage in action. Hence the body which serves as the instrument of jīvātma for work, is said to spring from it (akshara)3. Thus ‘the all-prevalent body’, i.e., the body that every votary of Yajña must own, is the inevitable requisite for Yajña.

(From Yajña, rain; from rain, food and so on, again), is the wheel set in motion by the Supreme Spirit.

‘From food comes all beings:’ Bhūtas are beings or creatures, meaning embodied entities (souls=ātmas) or souls clothed in bodies.

Thus:- food from rain; rain from yajña; yajña from works, performed by a doer; works from a living body; living bodies again from food; is the wheel of ceaseless antecedents and sequences.

Whoso that is born here, -be he karma-yogi or jñāna-yogi-, follows not this wheel, leads a sinful life by the reason that he omits to nourish or support his embodied existence by the leavings of Yajña-dedicated food.

Aghāyuḥ= He whose is a life of sin: means either he whose life is devoted to commission of sin, or he whose life is born of sin. It may mean both.

Therefore he becomes an indriyārāmaḥ: or he who has the senses for his pleasure-garden, meaning he who indulges in the delights of the senses.

And therefore he is no ātmārāmaḥ: or he who would revel in the delights of the garden of ātmā (or spiritual transports of bliss). In other words, the person (aghāyuḥ) is one who is exclusively addicted to sensuous enjoyments.

Food, not consecrated to yajña before-hand, nourishing the body and the mind, provokes rajas (passions) and tamas (darkness of intellect etc). A man in whom these dispositions are uppermost, becomes hostile to achieving ātmā-illumination, and finds all his pleasures in the gratifications of the senses alone.

(With a necessary body then, which is to be used as an instrument for Divine Worship, and which has therefore to be served with food, let one act and fulfil this object. He who does not do so, albeit his attempt to practice jñāna-yoga, is destined to fail.)

‘He, therefore, Pārtha! lives a useless life.’

Avatārs (Incarnations of God)

God incarnates on Earth at His will as seen in the below verses, taking various different forms, including human, non-human, etc. These are called Vibhava manifestations of God. The Deity forms (called Archa avatārs) in Hindu Temples are of either these Vibhava or Vyūha forms, and thus appear varied (such as the four-handed, two-handed, Man-lion, etc.), but it’s the same one God Nārāyaṇa in all those forms nevertheless. So, this is NOT polytheistic. Please see the article Idolatry or Deity? for more information on God as the Deity in Hindu Temples.

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 4.5:

śrī-bhagavān uvāca
bahūni me vyatītāni
janmāni tava cārjuna
tāny ahaṁ veda sarvāṇi
na tvaṁ vettha paran-tapa

Śrī Bhagavān (Lord Kṛishṇa) replied:-

‘Many births have past for Me; for thee (you) also, Arjuna! I remember them all, but not thou (you) Parantapa!’

This statement: ‘Many births have past for Me’ is an affirmation of the reality of Incarnations, (and therefore it is no illusion or magic). The example (or analogy) of Arjuna intended by the phrase, ‘tavacha‘ (for thee also), is as a proof of that reality. (That is to say, My Incarnation now is as real as your present birth is real, and so the past Incarnations of both of us are real).

The manner the Avatāras take place, the essential nature of the bodies assumed, and the purpose fulfilled by the Avatāras are now explained:—

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 4.6:

ajo ’pi sann avyayātmā
bhūtānām īśvaro ’pi san
prakṛtiṁ svām adhiṣṭhāya
sambhavāmy ātma-māyayā

‘Birthless, and of nature Imperishable, and Lord of all beings, yet do I establish Myself in my own Prakṛiti (matter), and will (māyā) Myself to be born.’

Never divesting Myself of My essential attributes of Suzerainty, that of being Birthless, of being Exhaustless (avyaya), of being the Lord of all, et cetera, I go into birth, of My own free choice, by planting Myself in My own native (material) nature.

Prakṛiti=substance literally, or the material part of My nature, or nature itself.

‘I enter into My own nature, take on My own form, and with My own free-choice, I take on births.’ This is the purport.

The forms or shapes in which I make Myself visible are such as are described in such Śruti passages as:—

‘Him, Who is of Sun-color, Who is beyond tamas (darkness).’1

‘Him, Who dwells beyond rajas (matter)’2

‘He, the Spirit in the interior of the sun, of golden hue.’3

‘That Spirit in it (the heart), Who is mind-pervaded (i.e., Whom a cleansed mind perceives), the Immortal, the Golden.’4

‘All the unwinking (devas), (or the winking=man etc.,) sprang from the lightning-like Spirit.’5

‘He of resplendent Form, the Firm-resolved, and Subtile-souled like space (ākāśa).’6

‘He is All-act, All-desire, All-odour, All-taste.’7

‘Whose raiment is gold-colored.’8 etc., etc.

Ātma-māyā=Ātmiyayā māyayā=By My own native Māyā or will (or will-power).9

Māyā meaning will, knowledge, consciousness, intelligence or understanding is from the authority:— ‘Māyā vayunam jñānam’ (nighant).

Famous authors have used māyā in the above sense, as for example:—

‘By His intelligence (or omniscience=māyā), He knows the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ of His creatures.’10

‘By My intelligence’ or ‘by My knowledge’, means : ‘by My will (sankalpa=resolve).

By My (free)-will, thus, I am born, but not laying aside My essential (godly) attributes of, viz; the being evil-Opposed, the being the Abode of Glorious Perfections, the being the Lord of all, etc.

I take on forms as pertain to the devas (celestial beings), man (terrestrial creatures), and so on and manifest Myself as if I were of their nature, by My own free choice. It is this that is voiced in the Śruti:—

‘Being Unborn, He is (yet) born Multiform.,’11 etc., meaning that Isvara incarnates in manifold ways as like the devas, like man etc., —only so far is He in common with His creatures. As for taking birth it is, in His case, by free-will, whereas in the case of the creatures, it is impelled by karma.

In declaring this sense, the previous verse, viz; ‘ Many births have past for Me; for thee also, Arjuna!. I remember them all etc.’ (iv-5), and the following verses viz:

‘Then do I create Myself.’ (iv-7);

‘Whoso understandeth rightly, thus, My births and Works etc.’ (iv-9),—are one in agreement.

The times of the Avatāras are now indicated:-

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 4.7:

yadā yadā hi dharmasya
glānir bhavati bhārata
abhyutthānam adharmasya
tadātmānaṁ sṛjāmy aham

‘Whensoever and wheresoever, Bhārata1!, virtue wanes and vice waxes, then (and there) do I create Myself.’

No fixed periods are appointed for My Avatāras. Whensoever dharma (righteousness etc.,) as is ordained to be practised by the four varṇas2 and the four āśramās3 decline, and wheresoever its opposite adharma increases, then do I manifest Myself in Incarnations, of My own free will, in the manner explained already (verse 7, ante).

The purpose of the Avatāras is now stated:—

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 4.8:

paritrāṇāya sādhūnāṁ
vināśāya ca duṣkṛtām
sambhavāmi yuge yuge

‘For protecting the virtuous and destroying (punishing) the wicked, and for firmly re-installing dharma, am I born from yuga to yuga1(age to age).’

Sādhus: are the good and virtuous, the godly, the eminent Vaishṇavas (or worshippers of the All-Pervading Spirit=Vishṇu2), who are seeking Me out as their Shelter. They are those who feel that without seeing Me —Whose names and wonderful works transcend the powers of speech and mind— they cannot live and move, cannot support their very being. They are those to whom a single moment of My absence from their memory, is as it were a kalpa.

For the protection of these holy men, —lest they, in their agony at not seeing Me, pine away—, I grant them the privilege (or right) to be able to see Me and My doings, and hold converse with Me, and so on.

For this purpose, viz., (1) protecting the good, (2) destroying the wicked (the doers of heinous things, —sinners), who stand in contrast to the good, and (3) for re-instating the Vaidik or Veda-forms of dharma, which had suffered decay, I take Incarnations. Dharma is, in fact Modes of My Worship, (in order to attain salvation, or other minor objects which men may aspire for through Me), and My manifestations as Avatāras serve as Objects of that worship. And (hence), I become like the devas, like men etc., from age to age:

‘Age to age (yuga to yuga)3’: is to imply that I should incarnate whenever I chose, not that My Incarnations should be confined to any particular yuga such as the kṛta, tretā etc.4

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 4.9:

janma karma ca me divyam
evaṁ yo vetti tattvataḥ
tyaktvā dehaṁ punar janma
naiti mām eti so ’rjuna

‘Whoso understandeth in their true nature, My Divine Incarnations and Doings, he, Arjuna! doth not come to re-birth after quitting the body, but goeth to Me.’

Whoso, in verity, comprehends the divine, immaterial and unique nature of My Incarnations, and My Acts (connected therewith) which are solely designed for the benefit of those who seek Me as their Rest; and which are intended for the protection of the good (sādhu); —whoso understands the real nature of Incarnate-manifestations (viz; Vibhava1 manifestation’, No. 3 from Para) —and Works thereof,— as different from the compulsory births which come to beings as a consequence of their past deeds (karma), arising from the union between pure ātmā (spirit) and the triple-natured impure prakṛiti(matter); —whoso knows the Incarnations to be of Him, Who is possessed of such Glorious Attributes, such as Lordship over all, Omniscience, Firm-will etc.,— such a man does not return to re-birth after departing from his present body. He reaches Me alone.

That is, by accurate discriminative knowledge which he may possess regarding My divine Avatāras and Divine Acts, one becomes rid of all sin which may stand as a barrier against his coming to Me.

In his present birth alone, he will gain Me, by placing implicit reliance on Me (in the aforesaid manner), by making himself exclusively dear to Me, by making Me the absorbing Occupation for all his thoughts.

The same (the superb godly character of these sādhus etc.,) is described:—

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 4.10:

man-mayā mām upāśritāḥ
bahavo jñāna-tapasā
pūtā mad-bhāvam āgatāḥ

‘Weaned are they from desire, dread and passion; full of Me, are they; entirely reliant on Me, are they; many1 are they, who, purified by wisdom-meditation (jñāna-tapas), have come to My state (mad-bhāva).’

Legion are the souls [a distinct declaration of the plurality of souls], who have become purified by contemplation on the wisdom (or knowledge) of My Avatārās and Acts. Śruti declares likewise:—

‘The wise (dhīrāh) know the rationale or secret (yonim) of Him’2. Only the dhīras or the most eminent amongst the spiritually enlightened (the wise), understand the nature, mode etc., of His Incarnations.

He’s available for worship in Deity form in Temples, Homes, etc.

Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 4.11:

ye yathā māṁ prapadyante
tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham
mama vartmānuvartante
manuṣyāḥ pārtha sarvaśaḥ

‘In the way they resort to Me (prapadyante1) in that way do I serve to them. All men (of My ways) Pārtha2! go after Me in every way.’

Not only, by the method of Incarnations, in the forms of devas, men etc., I am saviour to those who seek Me as their Refuge, but any other method or form3 which it may be their pleasing option to select4. Whatever that is, to that I adapt Myself. By whatever conception5 they choose to seek Me, I manifest Myself to them in that mode6.

Bhajāmi is literally ‘I serve (in love).’ Here it means, ‘I appear to them’ (darśayāmi).

In short, albeit My nature is such as even Yogis (exclusively God-devoted men) find it to be transcending thought and speech, yet to all who are of My ways, I suit Myself in a manner that I am, to them, not only a Visible Demonstration, but they may enjoy Me by every one of their sense-faculties, and in all diverse ways.

Note: This verse is a wonderful proof of the catholicity of the religion of Gita. It affords freedom of worship to all in any manner. As such, the verse is an authority for image-worship (Read, Bh: GI: VII-21, IX-23 and 25., also Bhāgavata, XI-3-52.

Worship of Great Devotees (Hanuman, etc.)

Worship of great devotees of Ṇārāyaṇa, who are bereft of all notions of being deities/gods themselves, is even more pleasing to Nārāyaṇa than worship to Him direct. Thus we see temples for Hanuman (the so-called Monkey God who is a great devotee of Lord Rāma, an incarnation of Ṇārāyaṇa) and other such great devotees. But to the uninformed, this would appear to be Polytheistic.

Panchāyatana Pūja and Shanmatha

Śrī Ādi Śankara who propagated Advaita (Absolute Monism) also supposedly allowed (per this and this) a type of Polytheism supposedly already in existence (based on lesser non-Satvic Purāṇa texts) in his times, called Panchayatana puja (and also Shanmata), which is worship of 5 or 6 illusory representations (illusory in Advaita understanding) of the one Brahman (ultimately formless in Advaita understanding, with all forms being illusory) as a lower-level means (way/path) to ultimately realize Monism. This also has caused Hinduism to be misunderstood as Polytheistic.

Note: The article Monism or Monotheism? might be of interest here.

Śaivam, Śāktam, etc.

In contrast to Panchayatana/Shanmatha mentioned earlier which entail worshipping illusory forms of Brahmam (God), Saivam, Saktam, etc., entail worshipping Lord Śiva, Mother Śakthi/Durga/Kāḷi, respectively, as real (i.e., not illusory) Supreme deities. Even in these cases, Nārāyaṇa will ultimately receive worship as their indweller [16] and reciprocate appropriately/affectionately, especially considering Lord Śiva is also considered to be the greatest devotee of Nārāyaṇa (vaiṣṇavānāṁ yathā śambhuḥ) as mentioned in Śrimad Bhāgavata Purāṇa, and as is evident from Śrī Vishnu Sahasra Nāma and other texts. And Mother Śakthi appeared in Nārāyaṇa‘s pastimes as Lord Krishṇa, as His sister, so the Lord is bound to consider her worship with a merciful eye.

The above holds true for all other Vedic sub-deities of the above such as Gaṇapati (Vinayaka) and Kārtikeya (also known as Murugan, Skanda, Kumāraswāmi, and Subrahmanya), sons of Lord Śiva.

Those wedded to exclusive worship of Nārāyaṇa directly (which comes about when one realizes oneself to be an exclusive belonging of Nārāyaṇa) will continue to do so, but all others are afforded choice of worship as their heart inclines, in this Leela Vibhūti (Material Universe) of Nārāyaṇa.

Uninformed Worship

God-men and God-women

Aside from all of the above, many uninformed Hindus worship even humans that may have displayed some miracles (real or fake) or may have falsely styled themselves as incarnations of God, etc., such as many “God-men” and “God-women” found in India and elsewhere. But these are not at all sanctioned by Vedic scripture.

All the incarnations of God on Earth recorded in Vedic Scripture (Bhagāvata Purāṇa, for example) performed tremendous out-of-this-world feats that only God can unquestionably perform. But gullible people will take to worship of self-styled “God-men” and “God-women” without demanding similar feats. Mere performance of miracles is also not proof of Godhood because a spirit soul can acquire the ability to perform miracles and such by acquiring what are called siddhis by practicing relevant Vedic rituals/sacrifices.

Universal Worship

Vedānta asserts that God is Omnipresent (which He is, as the indweller of the entire Universe of Chit and Achit) and so can manifest anywhere as anything. Thus, a jīva (spirit soul, a living entity) anywhere in the Universe can call upon the one God without any exclusivist ideas that their idea of God alone is the one God and not others’, with whatever name (or no name, i.e., simply as “God”), with whatever form that comes to their mind and Nārāyaṇa will reciprocate as He might will, regardless of the manner or content of the prayer being sophisticated or not. What matters is what’s in the heart.

As mentioned earlier, the catholicity/universality of the Vedānta creed is mentioned explicitly in Sri Bhagavad Gita verse 4.11:

ye yathā māṁ prapadyante
tāṁs tathaiva bhajāmy aham
mama vartmānuvartante
manuṣyāḥ pārtha sarvaśaḥ

‘In the way they resort to Me (prapadyante1) in that way do I serve to them. All men (of My ways) Pārtha2! go after Me in every way.’

Not only, by the method of Incarnations, in the forms of devas, men etc., I am saviour to those who seek Me as their Refuge, but any other method or form3 which it may be their pleasing option to select4. Whatever that is, to that I adapt Myself. By whatever conception5 they choose to seek Me, I manifest Myself to them in that mode6.

Bhajāmi is literally ‘I serve (in love).’ Here it means, ‘I appear to them’ (darśayāmi).

In short, albeit My nature is such as even Yogis (exclusively God-devoted men) find it to be transcending thought and speech, yet to all who are of My ways, I suit Myself in a manner that I am, to them, not only a Visible Demonstration, but they may enjoy Me by every one of their sense-faculties, and in all diverse ways.

Note: This verse is a wonderful proof of the catholicity of the religion of Gita. It affords freedom of worship to all in any manner. As such, the verse is an authority for image-worship (Read, Bh: GI: VII-21, IX-23 and 25., also Bhāgavata, XI-3-52.

God being an independent entity on which both spirit souls and matter are dependent, can grant liberation (to the spiritual universe) to any soul He wishes to liberate, regardless of the soul being a “Hindu” or not. Thus Hinduism is non-sectarian. As mentioned earlier, all living entities in the universe are equal as spirit souls (sarvatra-sama-darśana) and belong to the one Godhead and thus constitute one family in accordance with the Vedic maxim Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (“the world is one family”).

Hinduism affords choice of worship to everyone to worship whomever or whatever they want to, even while acknowledging the one Brahman as underlying all, and thus is most tolerant.

Exclusivist Worship

Some religions and spiritual traditions/faiths such as the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, for example) advocate a narrow exclusivist understanding of God, i.e., salvation lies only through our God/Savior and/or our God is true and your God is false and/or our God is greater than your God. These stand in stark contrast to the Universal Worship mentioned in the above section. It should also be noted that these faiths don’t have information that addresses the Probem of Evil, which Vedānta explains in the Law of Karma and transmigration of souls, as explained in the beginning of this article. And they hold that animals don’t have souls, whereas Vedānta explains that souls can get plant and animal bodies to expend their bad karma. As such these religions can’t claim to have the broader ultimate word of God.

Vedānta explains Nārāyaṇa as God of innumerable auspicious qualities/attributes, of love, mercy, etc., as well as justice. Each individual jīvā (soul) has a relationship of loving service with God in the spiritual universe. And one reaches the spiritual universe also by His freegrace (kripa) as explained in the below final instruction by Lord Krishna over 5000 years ago in Sri Bhagavad Gītha verse 18.66:

‘Renouncing all Dharmas [i.e., self-driven efforts to reach Me], hold Me as your Sole Refuge. I will deliver you from all sins [into My presence in the spiritual universe]. Grieve not.’1

Thus the idea of God as the saviour is very much a part of, in fact the highest message of, Vedānta.

Hinduism is misunderstood as idolatrous. The article on this site “Idolatry or Deity?” clears this misconception.

Another misunderstood element of Hinduism is the Caste system, which is addressed in the article “Caste in Hinduism” on this site.


Hinduism is Monotheistic (specifically a kind of Panentheism not to be confused with Pantheism) in its ultimate understanding as systematized and propagated most recently by Śrī Rāmānuja. Even the other 2 Vedānta schools are Monistic and Dualistic respectively, but absolutely NOT Polytheistic.

As contrasted with the Monotheism of Abrahamic faiths (such as Christianity), we saw in the above that Hinduism allows worship of lower divinities (minor functionaries in the material universe) by the less-informed to satisfy lower material-ends/goals, allows gradations of understandings (that suit one’s nature/preferences/proclivities) that get refined over innumerable lifetimes (by the transmigration of spirit souls through various bodies) ultimately leading to Monotheistic/Panentheistic realization leading to Moksha/Mukti (liberation into the Spiritual Universe called Vaikunta).

Since Nārāyaṇa (God) is all-pervasive and is in the heart of every single living entity and knows what’s in it, He ultimately guides the spiritual progress of every single living entity, as has been done over innumerable birth/death cycles, all culminating one day in Moksha/Mukthi (liberation into His service in the Spiritual realm). This is in stark contrast to Abrahamic faiths (such as Christianity) where each living entity has exactly one life to make a choice between eternal heaven or eternal hell. Would God be so heartless as to subject a living entity to eternal hell for an apparent wrong choice on the part of a weakling of a living entity in one life?

It is also worth mentioning here that Hinduism (i.e., Vedic texts) mentions a material heaven (svarga) for good Karma and a material hell (naraka) for bad Karma, but these are for temporary periods and thus transitory and absolutely NOT eternal, unlike in the Abrahamic faiths.

The article Monism or Monotheism? briefly discusses the Vedānta texts referred to in the beginning of the article (such as Aham Brahmāsmi, Tat tvam asi, etc.) to establish the fact that Vedānta teaches Monotheism (specifically a kind of Panentheism not to be confused with Pantheism) as the highest and comprehensive understanding of Vedānta, while also tackling various misconceptions such as this world being an illusion, etc.

Of particular interest to the readers of this article might be these other articles on this site:


  1. Sri Bhagavad-gītā (1898) (available in web-format at by Sri Alkondavilli Govindacharya
  2. MUST SEE: Vishistadvaita: Discourse by Sri Velukkudi Krishnan Swami
  3. Chapter XXI: The Viśishtadvaita Philosophy (pdf page 295) in The Life and Teachings of Sri Ramanujacharya (1908) by Sri C.R. Srinivasa Aiyengar, B.A.
  4. The Vade Mecum of Vedanta or a Compendium of Vedic Philosophy (1909)
  5. Yatindra-mata-dipikā; or The light of the school of Srī Rāmānuja (1912)
  6. The Vedanta Sutras with the Sri Bhashya of Sri Ramanujacharya Vol-1 (1899) translated into English by Sri M. Rangacharya and Sri M.B.Varadaraja Aiyangar.
  7. The Vedanta Sutras with the Commentary of Ramanuja (1904) by Sri George Thibaut. Also available in web-format here.
  8. Note 958 in Vol III of Sri Bhashya translation by Sri M. Rangacharya and Sri M.B.Varadaraja Aiyangar.
  9. Page 87 in Tattva Traya or Aphorisms on The Three Verities, Soul, Matter and God, by Sri Pillai Lokacharya, translated by Śrī Pārthasārathy Aiyangār (1900).
  10. Narayanastra – Defending Vaishnavism as the supreme Vedic position.
  11. Swami Vivekananda says that Dvaita, Vishistadvaita and Advaita are all correct.
  12. 33 types of deities.
  13. periya thiruvandhAdhi – 10 – iru nAlvar
  14. mudhal thiruvandhAdhi – 98 pon thigazhum mEni
  15. Thiruvaimozhi: 5-6-8, 4-10-8, 7-5-7
  16. Thiruvāymozhi.
  17. Per (1) Taittiriya Upanishat: Nārāyaṇam VI. (2) Atharva-Śikha, Nārāyaṇam; (3) Mahopanishat-I; (4) Subāl-opanishat 6, and many other Upanishats. Sample: Brihadāranyaka Upanishat: V-7-22 + Subalopanishat: VI. (Yasya pṛithivī śarīram …… Divyo Deva Eko Nārāyaṇah). Tait: Up: Nārā. 11. ‘Nārāyaṇa Param-brahma, tatvam Nārāyaṇaḥ paraḥ, Nārāyaṇa paro-jyotir ātmā Nārāyaṇah parah’. Subālopanishat: vii. ‘Esha sarva-bhūt-āntar-ātma Divyo Deva Eko Nārāyaṇaḥ.
  18. P: 87. Engl; Tran: Tatva-traya.

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