In most Western textbooks Hinduism is defined as a polytheistic religion. This is promoted by a narrow perspective on world religion based on Eurocentric standards. Many ideas in Hinduism–such as circular rather than linear thought, rejection of formalism, pervasive contradictions between unity and multiplicity, multiple seemingly conflicting relative representations of absolute truth, intricate symbolism, and the individualized practice of religion–aren’t too familiar to Western culture. In the age of British Imperialism in India, colonial interests largely shaped the definition of Hinduism. But even today, as other religions are beginning to be portrayed more accurately in Western literature, Hindus do a poor job fighting for themselves. As a result, Hinduism remains mostly dismissed or at least hopelessly misrepresented in discussions of culture and theology. This is a multifaceted topic that could take volumes to address, but this post will focus on two aspects of Hindu portrayal: Hinduism as a religion, and Hinduism as polytheistic.
First, I will address the notion of Hinduism referred to as a religion. In our encompassing modern sense of the word, Hinduism may function as a religion, but whether Hinduism could be called a religion is debatable, seeing that it doesn’t have many of the attributes of religion. Does Hinduism have a single leader or founder? No. A system of authority? No. A single holy text? No. A common, central doctrine? Not really. Even a God? Most would say yes, but there are atheist, agnostic, and humanist Hindus.
Does Hinduism even have a name? Actually, it doesn’t. Ancient practitioners didn’t have a name for the vast system of philosophy and spiritual science they subscribed to, and only came to be known as “Hindu,” a term of Persian origin, by association with the Sindhu (Indus) River. If any label would be appropriate at all, it is not “religion” but dharma, which has an elastic definition but generally means truth, righteousness, or the right way of living, unique to people and scaling from the individual to the cosmos. This dharma is sanatana, or eternal–so the authentic name for Hinduism would be sanatan dharma, a term that can actually be found in the Vedas, a major source of Hindu literature.
What is this sanatan dharma? What does it entail? Hinduism in its basic doctrine applies science to spirituality in a detailed, methodical system. It could be considered a spiritual extension of material science, explaining why the two are so compatible: Hinduism describes the purpose and context of what material science details. As a practice, Hinduism doesn’t prescribe what to do as much as describe how to do it–that is, with what mindset, intention, and ultimate result. This includes teachings of peace, philanthropy, devotion, mindfulness, disinterest, and acceptance that can be applied by all humans to all aspects of life–not only Indians in a certain time period, as textbooks would denote. We all want to call our religion a “way of life,” but Hinduism truly did exist as a way of life long before it had any formalities.
What about Hinduism as polytheistic? Is Hinduism polytheistic? You may ask, Hindus worship multiple gods, so what makes Hinduism not polytheistic? There are two main reasons that one would mistake Hinduism to be polytheistic. The first is the confusion of divinity with the Devatas, symbolized by a pantheon of gods who preside over various aspects of nature. These Devatas, even if considered to be live forces and divine powers of God, are not worshipped as or considered to be God.
The other reason that Hinduism might take the semblance of polytheism by Western standards is that even within the realm of divinity, there are many deities for Hindus to worship. In reality, however, there is only one God in Hindu doctrine. Since God is infinite, He (not a masculine but a generic “He”) cannot be limited to one name and form or even gender. God can be both nirguna (formless, nameless, without qualities) as the abstract Brahman and saguna (with form and qualities) as a more relatable, perhaps anthropomorphic deity. Just as the same wheat can yield bread, cereal, or chapati, the same Brahman can manifest as Rama, Krshna, Shiva, or Durga. The main three branches of embodied worship are Vaishnavism, Shaivism, and Shaktism, none of which are mutually exclusive; any Hindu can worship any deity. In fact, some Hindus would go so far as to accept non-Hindu deities, such as Jesus Christ, as equal forms of God suitable for worship. Gandhi himself said, “Yes I am, I am also a Muslim, a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Jew.” Ultimately, the ideology is that God assumes forms for the sake of human bhakti (devotion), so with more deities, Hindus have more divine attributes to be inspired by and more opportunity to find deities that best resonate with them. But to say that Hinduism is polytheistic would be to say that a golden ring, golden bracelet, and golden necklace all have different compositions.