Hinduism believes there is an order and purpose to the universe; happiness is obtained by accepting this and living by its dictates. The universe ultimately is controlled by Brahman, the absolute reality. Brahman can be expressed in various ways, including individual gods. The result is that Hinduism is both monotheistic (one ultimate reality) and polytheistic (a reality expressed by means of multiple gods and goddesses).
I am writing this blog from an area in which a range of religious faiths are represented. My own family in various respects took advantage of community centers of each of the three primary monotheistic faiths (Christian, Jewish, and Islam).
Other faiths are also represented in various ways. Hinduism is less so than others. Nonetheless, Hinduism is the third largest religion in the world. It is sometimes labeled the oldest religion in the world. In 2021, about fifteen percent of the world’s population (over a billion people) are Hindu, with over two million in the United States. And, the second most populous nation in the world (India) is about 80% Hindu.
Now, mere numbers is not the only reason to learn about things, surely, but over a billion people is pretty darn big. And, it is rather helpful to understand their beliefs, including the nature of their religious faith. We talked about Hindu elsewhere on this website.
We will focus on a basic question here: is Hinduism monotheistic or polytheistic?
One final bit of introduction, mixed with warning. A religion as ancient (thousands of years before Jesus) as Hinduism and held by over a billion people is quite a diverse collection of beliefs. People will understand its “true” nature in a variety of ways.
Theism: A Two Part Approach
“A belief” is having trust and confidence that something is true. You might believe what a parent or friend says without immediate proof that it is true.
Theism is a belief system, a way of looking at the world, based on the understanding of the existence of some sort of supernatural being. This supernatural being is often called “god.”
A basic way of looking at theism is to divide it into two parts. Monotheism believes there is only one god (“God” if you wish) while polytheism believes there are many.
Hinduism: The Basics
Hinduism has various gods. However, Brahman is the supreme god, the source of all creation.
Hinduism believes there is an order and purpose to the universe; happiness is obtained by accepting this and living by its dictates. This is the concept of “dharma,” rightful living.
Hinduism is the system of practices, beliefs, and scriptures (holy writings) that developed to answer the questions posed by the nature of existence and the individual’s place in the universe.
Hinduism is often classified as “polythetisic” and it was discussed here in a blog about polytheistic religions. But, there is some dispute over that, and it warrants a closer look. One that might require a more nuanced view of theism.
Some people consider Hinduism an example of henotheism.
Henotheism (literally “of one God”) is the worship of a single god as supreme, but not necessarily denying the existence of others.
This seems to many a strange concept. Nonetheless, it was well represented in ancient times, including among the people who later believed in Judaism.
The Ten Commandments, for instance, speaks of “no gods before me.” Today, many understand that to mean that there are no other gods but the one supreme God.
But, originally it was much more likely that it was a statement of allegiance to one particular god without denying that others existed. The god, eventually named “Yahweh,” was the Jews’ personal god. Non-Jews? They could worship other gods. Who many Jews did believe existed. At the very least, it was not a problem for others to worship such beings.
So, if monotheism is the belief in one supreme being, Hinduism can be monotheistic.
A traditional view considers god or gods as special divine creatures, who still are in some basic way like human beings. So, for instance, there are myths about the Greek god Zeus engaging with humans, at times even having children with mortal women.
Hinduism has a more complex understanding of the nature of the divine. Hindus believe in Brahman, but Brahman is not simply a divine being like Zeus or Thor.
“Brahman” is the ultimate reality, the supreme power of the universe. Brahman in some fashion interacts with all of creation. Brahman is a sort of “divine stuff.”
This “all in God” belief (panentheism) is comparable to many who believe “God is in all of us” or “in all of creation.” God possibly comes in various forms (such as the concept of the Christian trinity), but there still is only one universal being.
Hinduism here might be considered a form of monotheism, since Hindus believe there is one overall absolute reality (God). They do not think the universe itself as a whole is a sort of living being, which is known as pantheism.
Hindus believe some absolute reality, Brahman, exists in some way separately from creation. There is one supreme God even if present in different forms. As one person phrased it:
Supreme God has uncountable divine powers. When God is formless, He is referred to by the term Brahman. When God has form, He is referred to by the term Paramatma. This is almighty God, whose three main forms are Brahma; the creator, Vishnu, the sustainer and Shiva, the destroyer.
Ultimately, again, this is a form of monotheism.
Or Maybe Polytheistic After All?
A basic dictionary definition of “polytheism” is belief in or worship of more than one god.
There is pushback from defining Hinduism as polytheistic because there is a general understanding that all gods are ultimately a form of Brahman. Or, some other “rule” of polytheism such as believers of polytheism supposedly need to believe in gods equally.
But, a common understanding of polytheism is again the worship of many gods and goddesses. As David Miller noted in his book The New Polytheism, polytheism is “a system of symbolizing reality in a plural way in order to account for all experience.” Polytheistic cultures might worship one god or goddess in some form, but many gods still are used to express the universe.
Consider the Smarta community. This is a Hindu community which worships five deities: Vishnu, Shiva, Devi, Ganesh, and Surya. These gods are each equal beings, all attributes of the supreme Brahman. It is logical to consider this a “polytheistic” approach in some fashion.
Multiple gods are being worshiped. The gods might be but part of a greater divine force of some sort. Nonetheless, the way Hinduism is recognizing reality is the use of multiple gods.
Muslims firmly believe in one God, Allah, but also speak of Allah having ninety-nine names.
Hindus believe in a supreme reality, Brahman, and try to find the proper path of living under its terms. But, unlike some, Hindus often believe this absolute reality takes many forms which include various gods. The proper path can include worshiping different gods, even if Hindus believe the gods are in some form but aspects of Brahman.
Now, some will disagree with me, but this sounds like Hinduism is BOTH monotheistic and polytheistic. It ultimately depends on how you classify things. The important thing to me is to understand the basic beliefs of Hinduism. Specific labels might be less important.
You can make the call. Me? My answer would be: