Is Hinduism Polytheistic? Prof. Arvind Sharma, McGill University MONTREAL, CANADA, July 15, 2007: (HPI note: Dr. Sharma submitted this article in response to the outburst of Christian fundamentalists in the US Senate protesting the Hindu prayer as polytheistic.)
One distinct and very visible feature of Hinduism is the presence of numerous deities and divinities within it. These are both male and female and can be angelic as well as theriomorphic (of the form of an animal). Even natural objects come to enjoy a divine status. It is thus easy to see how the casual observer may form such an impression about Hinduism.
However, the fact that Hindus worship God in many forms does not mean that the Hindu thinks that there are many Gods, no more than one would think, on seeing many photographs of an individual, that there are as many individuals as the number of his or her photographs. Just as it is the photographs that are many, not the person; it is the forms of God that are multiple, not God itself.
The c onclusion that there is only one God underlying the many forms was reached quite early in Hinduism. The following passage from the Brhadaranyaki Upanishad (III.9.1), assigned by modern scholars to circa 800 bce, makes the point clearly.
"Then Vidagha Sakalay asked him, 'How many gods are there Yajnavalkya?' He answered, in accord with the following nivid (invocation of the gods). 'As many are mentioned in the nivid of the hymn of praise to the visve-devas, namely three hundred and three, and three thousand and three.' 'Yes,' he said, 'but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?' "Six.' 'Yes,' said he, 'but how many gods are there Yajnavalkya? 'Three.' 'Yes,' said he, but how many gods are there Yajnavalkya?' 'Two. ' 'Yes,' he said, 'but how many gods are there, Yanjavalkya?' 'One and a half.' 'Yes, said he, but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?' 'One.' "
Another later but well-known Upanishad, the Svetasvatara Upanishad states (VI.13.11): "The one God hidden in all beings, all-pervading, the inner self of all being, the ordainer of all deeds, who dwells in all beings, the witness, the knower, the only one..."
Thus Hindu ploymorphisms should not be confused with polytheism.