Religious Beliefs

Do Hindus really believe in and worship many gods?

Hindu tradition uses language and symbolism that seems at first glance to suggest what is called polytheism, worship of many deities. Most Hindus, however, will tell you they believe in God, one transcendent spiritual reality. Since human beings are incapable of grasping the fullness of divine truth in anything like a comprehensive and definitive way, believers are left with a basic choice: Either they keep quiet about matters of faith and belief altogether, since the realities will forever elude ordinary language and symbolism, or they indulge in ordinary forms of expression, ever aware that those forms will never be adequate.

Hindu tradition has become a monument to the second option and the world of religious belief is all the richer for that. But why not opt for mute adoration? Why choose to complicate matters by multiplying hopelessly inadequate attempts at capturing divinity? Because that is an important part of being human. People need to talk about the sources of greatest wonderment as well as about their hopes and fears and suffering. At the risk of being accused of idolatry, a charge non-Hindus often level at them, Hindus acknowledge a fundamental need for imagery. All religious traditions finally do something similar. Even the traditions that sound the loudest alarm about the dangers of idolatry, Judaism and Islam, for example, use extensive and vivid verbal imagery to say the ineffable. Most Hindus, like certain Christian and Buddhist communities, for example, include a wide array of visual expression side by side with the verbal. Words can become idols, too.


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