Polytheism ala Hinduism

Hindu practices have an exquisite concept of polytheism. They believe in local, nature gods, as it were – and please note that I’m not translating this exactly perfectly. These are gods of a local area, maybe nature spirits, with varying degrees of power and dominance. They have shrines in local towns, which are cared for by the people who lives there. Visitors get to see the shrines, and perhaps join in annual celebrations that have to do with the history of the devis, avatars, sacred persons, or greater divine beings that are associated with it.

Separately, they believe in a holy trinity, but not like what we’re used to seeing. Brahma is the creator, who brought all things into being. Vishnu is the sustainer, who allows every moment to exist while things simply exist. Shiva is the destroyer, although he has his own following that often gives him credit for the whole process. The thinking behind this trinity is that creation and destruction are both vital parts of being, but in between is its own miracle as well.

There is also a sustained belief in one overarching being, a universal entity stretching the whole length of the cosmos. Long before Western Europe had discovered the concept of the Milky Way, Indians had understood that the stars stretched on and on into the being that is Brahman. While local spirits and saints, as it were, were believed to be able to answer your prayers and take your offerings, Braman was considered to be so far beyond our comprehension that to communicate with him… It would be like trying to speak with the ocean. Meanwhile, the trinity was believed to care for humans, but they would send down their avatars to live among us as a means of answering our prayers, wishes, and needs. Meanwhile, aspects of their being in those local shrines might be more attentive, and there was always Ganesha to fill that gap. The elephant-headed god, who has a really interesting story I’m not going into right now, was created explicitly to help humans. It was a much-needed fix, which is surprising with so many deities in the mix.

When people ask about pagan views on polytheism, I often reference the above explanation. Because, you see, Brahman is everything! He is one God. But they believe in a trinity, that is all of creation. And yet, they still believe in local spirits, deities, walking embodiments of god…all at the same time! You don’t need to draw a division between polytheism, animism, monotheism… It’s just all a matter of how you think about it.

A quick note: I used the past-tense above when talking about Hindu practices deliberately. While I have studied how people used to practice their Hindu religion, I haven’t studied modern evolution in it, and I know that it has changed dramatically in recent decades. I look forward to learning more about that in the future, though!

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