Hindu views of God can seem complex and confounding on first encounter. Here we explore the most important and popular.
HINDU TEMPLES TYPICALLY OFFER DESCRIPTIONS of their enshrined Deities, known as murtis, on their websites or in publications as an educative aid. Studying these descriptions, I found a variety of approaches conveying distinctly different perspectives on the Hindu understanding of God. These differing views can be perplexing to Hindus and non-Hindus alike, especially when a temple, ashram or swami speaks of one of the views as though it were the official, or singular, Hindu understanding. To give clarity, we explore here four distinct ways of describing God and His/Her representations, or murtis. The intent is not to suggest that all Hindus adopt the same interpretation, rather it is to look at the most common presentations, reflect on the traditions they may represent and place them in a larger context.
God as a Divine Trinity
The first type of presentation is based on the popular idea, thought to originate in the Puranas, that a trinity of separate Gods—Brahma, Vishnu and Siva—perform the basic functions of creation, preservation and destruction, respectively. The Puranas are Hindu folk narratives containing ethical and cosmological teachings about God, Gods, mankind and the world. A multiplicity of Gods and Goddesses are described and their exploits told in symbolically rich stories. The 18 major Puranas are classified as secondary scripture, known as smriti.
Temples that have prominent shrines to both Siva and Vishnu often adopt the trinity perspective to explain what otherwise might appear to be two supreme Gods under one roof. This view asserts that God Siva, represented by the Sivalingam, is the Lord of Destruction. Sri Vishnu, represented by the Venkateshwara murti, is the Lord of Preservation. This is presented, for example, on the website of the Shiva-Vishnu Temple of Livermore, California.
A serious problem arises from this description, for it wrongly depicts Hinduism as polytheistic—believing in multiple Gods without any of them being supreme. In reality, the temple’s Saivites look to Siva as supreme, while the Vaishnavites regard Vishnu as ultimate. It also generates more questions than answers. Why is Lord Brahma, the third part of this trinity, so rarely enshrined? Why do we find Shakti as the main Deity in so many temples, when She is not part of the trinity? There are other ways to interpret the trinity. In Bali, while temples are built separately for Brahma, Vishnu and Rudra, the belief is that this three-fold Divinity is a one Divine Being called Sanghyang Widhi.
Viewing All Deities as the One Absolute Reality
Now to a second type of presentation, which arises from the Smarta tradition, one of Hinduism’s four primary denominations (along with Saivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism). Generally, Smartas do not regard the Deities as real, conscious spiritual beings, but as symbols of a one spiritual reality. Consider the teachings of Swami Tejomayananda, head of Chinmaya Mission: “The Truth pointed out in all the Puranas is that there is only one Absolute Reality, Brahman, from which everything has emerged. In the Ganesha Purana, that Reality will be indicated by the word Ganesha while in the Siva Purana the name Siva will be used to refer to that Reality. Although all Deities have a second ‘identity,’ in charge of particular cosmic functions, and are also known in their various incarnations on Earth (that is Vishnu as Rama and Krishna), their absolute identity is the same. As it is said, ‘Truth is One, sages call It by many names.’ When we realize this, we will not become confused.”
This perspective emphasizes the belief of the Advaita Vedanta philosophy of the Smarta denomination that the One Reality, Paramatma, manifests through the various Deities; when we worship any of the murtis—Siva, Vishnu, etc.—it is actually Paramatma that we are worshiping.
Temples that have a wide array of Deities may tend to be inclusive by emphasizing Hinduism’s diversity in descriptions of their temple murtis. Some may cite the same Vedic verse that Swami Tejomayananda refers to: “Ekam Sat Vipra Bahuda Vadanti,” often translated as “Truth is one, sages express it variously.” In other words, Hindus all believe in a Supreme Being, but unlike in other religions, they do not have a single concept regarding the name and nature of the Supreme Being. Dr. S. Radhakrishnan affirms this perspective in his book The Hindu View of Life: “The Hindu recognizes one Supreme Spirit, though different names are given to it.”
Murti as Mystic Body of the Divine: A Saivite priest sits before the Sivalinga. His purifications and puja have drawn God Siva in His body of light, to bless the world. For some, the murti is a symbol, for others it is a channel for God’s grace.
The above Smarta view is behind many and varied presentations. An important counter-perspective declares that God, the Supreme Being, and the Gods (His/Her helpers) are real and conscious beings, not symbols of cosmic powers, not human constructs. The murti is the earthly representative of a real Divinity in the highest plane of reality, serving as a channel for His/Her blessings. When worshiped by a qualified priest in a properly consecrated temple, the murti becomes the very body of God on the physical plane. This perspective is represented in the next three descriptions.
The Agamic Perspective
Another interpretation emphasizes the theological perceptions appearing in a body of Hindu scripture called the Agamas. The Agamas are revelations on sacred living, worship, yoga and philosophy. Saivas, Shaktas and Vaishnavas regard these sacred texts as divinely revealed, shruti—on par with the Vedas—and each denomination has its distinct collection. In the Vaishnava Agamas, Narayana (Vishnu) is the Supreme Being. Siva is extolled in the Saiva Agamas as the Supreme Being. All the Agamas look at creation, preservation and destruction as three powers wielded by the one Supreme Being and not by a trinity of separate Gods. Most priests serving in North American temples have been trained in either the Vaishnava or Saiva Agamas, and some in both.
In 2014 I attended a grand consecration of the Hindu Temple of Greater Fort Worth in Texas. One of the priests explained that the Sivalinga murti was being installed according to the traditions of the Saiva Agamas, and the murti of Venkateshwara (Vishnu) was being installed according to the traditions of the Vaishnava Agamas. For the benefit of visitors, when a temple’s murti is described according to the Agamic perspective, it is helpful to identify the denomination.
For example, to Vaishnava Hindus, the image of Sri Venkateshwara is considered the Supreme Being, God Vishnu. The temple priests are performing worship of Him according to the texts of the Pancharatra Agama. Likewise, to Hindus of the Saivite denomination, the murti of the Sri Sivalingam represents the Supreme Being God Siva. His worship is conducted according to the traditions found in the Saiva Agamas. The website of the S.V. Temple at Pittsburgh offers: “Hindu devotees believe that divine power has manifested itself in the murti (icon/idol). Major religious events like kumbhabhishekam are performed to re-energize the murti with divine power, which can either be diluted or lost due to transgressions committed unknowingly by the priests or the worshipers.”
Introducing the Gods as Divine Helpers
A fifth style of presentation, from our Kadavul Hindu Temple website, depicts a Supreme God and other Gods (Mahadevas or Divinities) who are subordinate to the Deity. “Kadavul Hindu Temple follows the Saivite tradition, the oldest of the four main denominations of Hinduism. In the Tamil language of South India, our religion is known as Saiva Samayam, or simply Saivam. We worship the one Supreme Being as God Siva, and Lords Ganesha and Murugan, whom God Siva created to assist Him in the care of His great creation. In Saivism, Shakti is God Siva’s manifest power and is not separate from Him. This is depicted most clearly in the image of God Siva as Ardhanarishvara, whose left side is female and right side is male. In Kadavul there is no separate Deity representing Shakti, for in our tradition the Supreme Being is neither male nor female, but encompasses both.”
A Shakta Presentation
At the Sri Kailash Ashrama in Bengaluru, the Ultimate Divine is worshiped as the Goddess: “In Srividya tradition She is known as Rajarajeshwari (Lalita or Tripura Sundari). She is visualized as an exceedingly charming lady, three-eyed and four-armed.…In this form She symbolizes the Supreme Reality (para-tattva), known in Vedanta as Brahman, and in Tantra as transcendental consciousness (para-samvit). She presides over Sri Chakra, the mystical diagram, either linear (rekha) or iconic (meru), bestowing liberating insight into the nature of the world and into the nature of reality.”
Our informal study certainly reveals the rich variety of Hindu perspectives on the Divine. This article is not suggesting that all temples adopt the same view of God and the murtis. Rather, it is meant as a catalyst for temple administrators to give full attention to how they describe the Deities, to clearly and deliberately reflect, especially for visitors, the temple’s tradition and philosophy.