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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.

Comments 

 
+2 #2 matteroverearth 2013-08-30 19:37
well u don't understand what Hinduism is! Idol worship is not suppose to be part of Hinduism, but people have made it that way, if you look at the Hindu texts, you will find that idol worship was never part of the religion, but that people have now made it that way. Secondly, there is only One God in Hinduism, but that God can take many different forms in which humans of the region can understand. Think about it? Some religions believe only in One God, but they have many different names for God. It is a similar concept in Hinduism. Hindus believe that there is one God but that worshipping different entities of the God for specific purposes. Personally speaking, it seems ridiculous but actually most Hindus today do not even know their own religion. Also, Hinduism is one of the few religions where women and men have equal rights. Caste system is a different story, people have evolved the caste system into something which totally differs from the caste system which used to exist back in the era during which Hinduism came into existence. Cast system was originally a very fair and organized structure in which everyone born was a Shudra (a low caste), but as people got educated they became a Brahmin (a teacher). Anyone of any skin color or race or ethnicity or whatever could be a Brahmin or a Shudra depending on their knowledge of the universe. And this is not meant to be some sort of preaching, just some clarification about the religion since many people nowadays including most Hindus have misconceptions about Hinduism. If you really want to learn about Hinduism, don't reach to the people, read the original texts but don't take every word literally.
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-2 #1 Devdutt 2013-05-06 18:09
Actually Hindus do believe in many Gods (though not 330 milion) - may be just 15 main ones. There are indeed these many individual Gods in Time and Space. However once the Universe disolves into nothingness, only Brahmn remains (even the Gods disolve into Brahmn). Here is an equivalence between Hindu and Christian Gods:

Shiva - the Father

Vishnu - the Son

Brahma - the Holy Spirit

Goddesses are creations (daughters) of Brahma, so they are actually forms of the Holy Spirit. You may want to visit http://www.sentforlife.com/hindugods.html for an information/analysis of Hindu gods.
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