People often make fun of the multitude of gods that the Hindu religion has. Even Indians among themselves make fun of this aspect.
There is this joke:
Once a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim were crossing a river in a boat. In the middle of the stream, the boat developed a hole and the water started coming in. When there was no chance of the boat surviving, all the three travellers started praying. The Christian prayed to Jesus, and he was saved. The Muslim prayed to Allah and he was saved. The Hindu drowned.
Then the narrator of the joke explains: the Hindu started praying to Lord Shiva. Shiva was just about to come to his aid when the Hindu started praying to Rama. Shiva abandoned his plan and Rama started coming towards the drowning Hindu man. Too desperate to wait, the Hindu man then started praying to Krishna. So by the time the Gods could decide between them who should come to save the man, the Hindu man drowned.
Well, according to the joke, this is the calamitous outcome of having too many gods.
I am pretty sure most of you have been told this joke.
So, why do Hindus have so many gods?
By the way, there is a misconception about there being 33 crore gods and goddesses in the Hindu religion.
This misconception originates from the mention of “33 koti” devi-devta in the Vedas. “Koti” here does not mean “crore”, it means type. So what it really means is, there are 33 types of gods and goddesses, or deities for various purposes.
Anyway, this is a digression.
I will come back to the question of why Hindus have so many gods.
Ancient Hindus were nature loving. They knew that to survive, it was very important to nurture the environment, the elements, and everything around you that gives you life. So, everything in the world that gave life, needed to be respected.
For example, if the forest gave you food, you had a forest god. If river gave you water, you had a river god. If the clouds give you the rain, you had the rain god. If the cow gave you milk, you revered cow. And so on.
I’m a member of an indic group and in one of the threads, they were talking about how our ancient scriptures instruct us to respect and nurture the nature that nurtures us. In one of the messages, I came across the following Sanskrit lines from Gita:
सहयज्ञाः प्रजाः सृष्ट्वा पुरोवाच प्रजापतिः ।
अनेन प्रसविष्यध्वमेष वोऽस्त्विष्टकामधुक् ॥ ३-१०॥
देवान्भावयतानेन ते देवा भावयन्तु वः ।
परस्परं भावयन्तः श्रेयः परमवाप्स्यथ ॥ ३-११॥
इष्टान्भोगान्हि वो देवा दास्यन्ते यज्ञभाविताः ।
तैर्दत्तानप्रदायैभ्यो यो भुङ्क्ते स्तेन एव सः ॥ ३-१२॥
I took permission from Shri Nagraj Paturiji if I could use these Sanskrit verses from Gita along with his interpretation. This is how he has explained the meaning of these lines:
“Creator , in the beginning created human beings along with the eco-friendly/nature nourishing/sacrificial rituals and said through these rituals get what you want; these fulfil whatever you want
Through these nourish and nurture the devas (nature forces) and they nourish and nurture you back. Thus ‘treating’ each other both you humans and the nature forces , may you achieve the best of the welfare
Luxuries and pleasures that you want/like are provided by the devas (nature forces) who get treated by your eco-friendly/nature nourishing/sacrificial organised actions; thus enjoy all the luxuries provided by them.”
What this basically means is, when you enjoy the bounties of nature then you must also respect nature and you should show your appreciation.
This appreciation was shown, at least in the beginning of the classical ancient period, by performing actions that would help natural surroundings rejuvenate themselves.
So, there were actions to allow the plants to grow back if those plants were used. There were actions to preserve water bodies. There were actions to show gratitude to the Sun who gives life to pretty much everything on earth.
Later on, as religion evolved, all these natural resources began to be venerated as gods, goddesses and deities. We have rain gods, water gods, mountain gods, earth gods, tree gods, animal gods, wind gods and gods for even those natural phenomena that cannot be explained but their implications can be felt in real-time.
Even villages have local deities because a village is also a protector.
By attributing godly qualities to natural resources that nourish us, we prevented ourselves from violating them or polluting them.
This is why Hindus are not as ruthless with animals, plants and natural resources as people from other faiths.
Yes, they have allowed their rivers to get polluted and forests and mountains to get denuded but that’s an attitudinal problem. There spirits have been crushed due to prolonged occupation and subjugation. But philosophically and religiously, they don’t think animals, plants, rivers, forests and mountains are subservient to humans and hence, their only purpose is to be consumed and exploited by humans. They still believe they need to be thankful of these natural resources, and respect them. This is why no matter how dirty our rivers are, you constantly see people offering them oblations to them in the form of flowers and fruits.
Ganga is called “Gangaji” and Yamuna is called “Yamunaji” — appending “ji” to someone’s name means showing respect.
Later, all the natural manifestations began to have human forms. The rain god, the wind god, the tree god, the river goddess, all of them assumed human forms so that it was better to relate to them.
Of course lots of distortions got introduced into these otherwise well-meaning rituals and eventually, people began to focus more on the rituals and less on the meaning of them. But that’s another issue.
The reason why Hindus have so many gods is because in the old days people believed that God manifests in everything that nurtures life, and even that destroys life. There is no Supreme god that occasionally sends prophets on earth and you are bound to obey his orders or otherwise you are to burn in hell for perpetuity. No such concept exists in the Hindu religion because gods are derived from nature and since the nature is bountiful, so is the variety of gods.