Written by Derek Cooper
Friday, 12 April 2013 00:00
In my recently published book, Christianity and World Religions: An Introduction to the World’s Major Faiths, I discuss the six major non-Christian “stories” or religions of the world. As I teach these religions in classrooms and churches and discuss them with friends and neighbors, I have consistently uncovered several myths many Christians believe about each of these religions.
In the first blog, I wrote about the false notion that Christianity is the only religion with a Savior. We saw how Hinduism and Buddhism, among others, demonstrate this to be a myth.
In this blog, I will discuss another myth many people believe about world religions: Hindus believe in many gods. According to many calculations I have seen, there are 330 million Hindu gods. This clearly gives the impression that Hinduism affirms many deities! Yet the truth is that Hindus are more monistic (believing that all existence comes from one God) than they are polytheistic (believing that there are many gods).
A few years ago, I distinctly remember having a conversation with a group of Hindu believers at a Hindu temple when I asked how many gods there are. Without blinking, they responded in unity: “We believe in one God!”
“Then how,” I rejoined, “are there so many different gods in Hinduism?”
Again in unity, they replied: “There is one supreme God that cannot be fully known or understood. The gods we talk about on earth and give devotion to are simply manifestations of that one supreme God.”
This gets to the core of a common misconception about Hinduism. Although there are countless “gods”—whether Shiva or Vishnu or Ganesha or Parvati or Hanuman—they are commonly understood by Hindus to be representations of (the) God, whom or which we cannot fathom. This is why one Hindu can worship Shiva, while another worships Kali or Ganesha. Although each person seems to be worshiping different gods, the person is really only worshiping the one God who is manifest through Shiva or Kali or whomever.
How do you decide which “god” to worship? It depends. Some people worship specific gods due to the town or village in which they live or due to their family background or place within society.
More pragmatically, some worship a particular god because of that gods’ association with something. I once had a conversation with a Hindu priest about this very topic. He said that perhaps the most popular deity in his temple was the goddess Lakshmi. I asked him why, and he was quick to reply: “Because most of the people in our temple would like more money, so it’s natural to worship her, who has cascades of gold coins rushing down from her hands!” In the temple he presided over, he said, it is not that some people prefer Shiva or some people prefer Vishnu—two of the most common gods in the Hindu pantheon. Instead, people worship this or that manifestation of god based on present circumstance. Are you about to go on a business trip? Then ask Ganesha for guidance, the divine incarnation of venture and journey. Are you in need of money? Then ask Lakshmi!
Although Hinduism thinks very differently than Christianity in many ways, the two religions align in their common conviction that only one God exists who has been manifested in different ways. While for Christians this means that God has revealed himself most fully through Jesus Christ, for Hindus God reveals himself (or itself) in countless ways through divine incarnations and other living things.
So, the next time you see a picture or statue of a Hindu god, it’s best to begin thinking of this or that as one representation of (the) God, commonly called Brahman, rather than a distinct entity that is separate from other Hindu gods. For, according to Hindu thought, the actual picture or statue is the equivalent of a drop of water coming from the one eternal ocean (God).
In the final blog (which will be published here on May 22, 2013), I will discuss one common myth about Islam. You will not want to miss it!
Dr. Derek Cooper is assistant professor of World Christian History at Biblical, where he also serves as the associate director of the Doctor of Ministry program. Derek’s most recent book, which was written for classroom use, church groups, and for lay readers, is titled Christianity and World Religions: An Introduction to the World’s Major Faiths. His faculty page can be found here.