Hindu Gods, one or many? This is one of the big questions people have about Hinduism and it relates to the question of whether Hinduism is one religion or an umbrella term for many religions.
In his course, Introduction to Hindu Texts, History, and Philosophy, Dr Sutton provides this succinct summary of the question.
This is an interesting question though perhaps a little complex. It is clear that Hinduism does speak of many gods and goddesses, and that Hindus worship these deities: Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Durga, Krishna, Hanuman, etc. And at a village level in India many other minor deities and spirits are worshipped.
However, some Hindus argue that all these deities are simply representations created by the human mind that needs a concrete form of God to focus upon. This might be the Advaita view; Brahman is one but human beings call it by different names and conceive of it in different forms.
However, we must be aware that many who worship the Hindu gods do not have this sophisticated philosophical background. And there are also devotees of Vishnu and Shiva who are monotheists. They believe in a single Supreme Deity who creates and controls the world; however, he also creates devas or gods who are not supreme but stand above humanity and can also be worshipped. Is this a form of monotheistic polytheism?Introduction to Hindu Texts, History, and Philosophy, (Coursebook p.4)
As with many questions in Hinduism, it depends on who you ask. As a student of Hinduism it is wise to get an idea of the different approaches.
Over the centuries, Hindu philosophers have not only struggled with the identity of God, but with the idea of the nature of God. This gets really deep, but here’s the discussion in a nutshell – taken from the same course.
Here one needs to consider the teachings of Shankara, Ramanuja, and Madhva and to explain the different ideas they present concerning the nature of God.
Shankara emphasises the notion of Advaita in which ‘God’ is revealed not as a monotheistic Deity but as the ultimate reality with which everything is identical.
Ramanuja accepts the notion of identity but insists that the identity is not absolute for there is still a distinction between the individual soul and God, and between God and the manifest world.
Finally, Madhva is anxious to establish the absolute distinction between God and the individual beings in order to reinforce his emphasis on devotion and worship.
In constructing an answer to this question it might be a good idea to present a comparative analysis pointing out areas of agreement and dissonance between them.
So, how do we make sense of all these competing viewpoints?
I think the main point we should note is the scale and diversity of Hindu notions of God. Hence the question, “What do Hindus believe?” can never be answered simply. The Hindu identity is not a single thing, and hence we should perhaps properly speak of Hindu “identities”. Many people, Hindus and non-Hindus alike, find it difficult to appreciate this diversity and hence find Hinduism very confusing, but it is only when diversity, distinction, and difference are accepted and appreciated that the Hindu identity begins to make any sense at all.Introduction to Hindu Texts, History, and Philosophy, (Coursebook p.122)