What are some of the principal “names and forms” of God?
One of the first questions non-Hindus ask about the imagery of Hinduism’s deities is: “Why the multiple limbs and nonhuman features?” Hindu tradition answers: “Why not?” Since no one can know definitively and in detail what God looks like or how God operates, God sees fit to allow human beings to describe the indescribable. God is by definition beyond anything in human experience, so Hindu tradition often depicts the deity in clearly nonhuman form.
Names of the deities always have some symbolic meaning. For example, Vishnu comes from a root that means “to pervade,” alluding to the divine omnipresence. Shiva means “auspicious.” Traditional sources often pun on the name, suggesting that without the “i” in Shakti (Shiva’s feminine side) Shiva would be Shava, “corpse.” Ganesha’s name is a compound meaning “Lord of the [attendant Vedic deities called] ganas.” Shiva’s terrifying feminine side is called Kali, “Dark.”
As for their multiple forms, Hindu images of deity remind believers of the infinite variety that makes God God. As a reminder of the perfect balance of energies, most male deities have a female counterpart. A popular image of Shiva in both painting and sculpture depicts the deity as “half-woman lord,” one side of the body male and the other displaying the features of Shiva’s consort Parvati. As a reminder of God’s complete dominion over all forces and conditions, including those most of us would rather not have to deal with, Hindu deities appear in shocking and even terrible forms as well as in attractive and approachable aspects. There is a hierarchy among divine beings, a ranking that naturally develops within each denomination or sect. Among Shaivas, Shiva is the supreme deity to whom all the others defer. For Vaishnavas, Vishnu or one of the Avatars heads the list.