Is Hinduism Monotheistic or Polytheistic?
There is no simple answer to the question of whether Hinduism is monotheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic, or something else entirely. The term “Hinduism” embraces a wide array of philosophies and practices, and while certain Hindus may think and worship in an essentially monotheistic way, the practices of others may be more readily labeled polytheistic or pantheistic. This page will discuss elements of monotheism, polytheism, monism, pantheism, and panentheism within the Hindu tradition.
An important Hindu scripture, the Bradaranyaka Upanisad (or “Upanishad”), contains the following conversation--edited here for brevity--between a student and sage:
Student: “How many Gods are there?”
Sage: “Three and three hundred, and three and three thousand.”
Student: “Yes, of course. But really, how many gods are there?”
Student: “But really, how many gods are there?”
Student: “Yes, of course. But how many gods are there?”
This line of questioning continues until the sage finally replies that there is one god. A bit further on in the conversation, the student asks, “Who is the one God?” The sage replies, “Breath. He is called Brahman…” (taken from Upanisads: A new translation by Patrick Olivelle)
The conception of God and gods in the Upanishads is that the many different “gods” are in fact just the One God. This one God is also known as the Absolute or Brahman. Each seemingly separate god is, therefore, a different manifestation or quality of the One God.
While this concept may seem alien to many westerners, it is not without a western analogy. The Christian concept of the “trinity” conceptualizes the One God in a similar way, dividing Him into three different manifestations which each act within different capacities, but nonetheless share the same divine nature.
Theory Vs. Practice
Although, in theory, all the Hindu gods are actually the same God, in practice, perhaps most Hindus are polytheists. According to Hillary Rodrigues, most Hindus perceive “different divine beings, each with distinctive names, abodes, characteristics, and spheres of influence” and so it is “oversimplification to subsume all the diversity of Hindu polytheism under [a] . . . monotheistic configuration." (Introducing Hinduism, p214).
Monism and Pantheism
One important line of thought in Hinduism (popularized by the philosopher Shankara), called radical non-dualism or “Advaita Vedanta”, is a monistic philosophy. As such, it bears striking similarities to other monistic philosophies, such as that of the Greek philosopher Parmenides. Advaita Vedanta states that Absolute Reality (that is, “Brahman”) is the only thing that exists, and is utterly indivisible into parts or qualities. Thus, all things, including the individual Self (Atman) are Brahman, and the only reason we perceive there to be many things is because of ignorance (Maya), which ultimately, is also Brahman.
In this system, Absolute Brahman is perfectly whole, inseparable (advaita) and “unqualified” (nirguna), that is, without any distinct parts or even distinct qualities. Any conception we have of Brahman, such as “God”, or any quality that we apply to it, such as “being” or “consciousness” can not be a conception of Absolute Brahman, as this is inconceivable. Any such conceptions fall under the category of Saguna Brahman (Brahman with qualities), and are generated by Maya.
There is also a philosophy of “qualified non-dualism” within Hinduism, which posits that although Brahman is One, it is meaningless to speak of a Brahman without qualities or attributes. Thus, there are different things/beings/qualities, but they are all different aspects of the one Brahman.
What does monism have to do with pantheism? According to H.P. Owen, "Pantheists are ‘monists’...they believe that there is only one Being, and that all other forms of reality are either modes (or appearances) of it or identical with it." In this sense, and in others, the practice and beliefs of many Hindus can be described as pantheistic.
All in All—Panentheism in the Hindu and Christian Traditions
Another extremely widespread line of thought within Hinduism is panentheistic (not to be confused with “pantheistic”). Panentheism posits that, while God is within all things, He/She/It simultaneously transcends all these various forms. Thus, although God is as close (immanent) as our own thoughts, God is also distinct enough from our own selves and the material universe so as to allow for us to have a relationship with Him/Her/It (as one can not really have a relationship with oneself).
Panentheism is certainly not unique to Hinduism. In fact, it is the conception of God given by the Christian New Testament. Describing God, Romans 8:36 says that “from him and through him and to him are all things”. Ephesians 1:23 refers to Christ as he “who fills everything in every way”, and 1 Corinthians 15:28 states that even Christ “will be made subject to Him (God) who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all”. The word “panentheism” comes from the Greek roots “pan-” (all) “en-” (in) and “theos” (god), so it means exactly what 1 Corinthians says: “God in all”. So the New Testament seems to teach a sort of panentheism. God is within everything and everyone, closer than our own heartbeats or the air we breathe.
So if one thing is clear from this brief introduction to the Hindu conception of the divine, it should be that there is no simple formula or label to affix to said conception. Hinduism is incredibly diverse and complex. And with such diversity comes a great deal of beauty which this author hopes you will explore and appreciate.
© 2011 Justin Aptaker