India Feature


Hindu Gods and Goddesses

The vast pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses originates in ancient Hindu mythology but plays an important role in modern life.

Most of the Hindu deities are represented in the two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and in the ancient books of the Hindu religion known as the Vedas. The mythology surrounding the various gods and goddesses is steeped with lore of demons vanquished in the ongoing battle of good versus evil. The deities are richly portrayed, and each of their physical features is deeply symbolic. Many gods and goddesses are also characterized by their vahana, or vehicle, the traditional animal mount they ride.

A central concept is that of the Trimurti, which encapsulates the three basic cosmic actions: creation, maintenance, and destruction. These are, in turn, personified by Brahma the creator, Vishnu the maintainer or preserver, and Shiva the destroyer or transformer.

One of the key things to look for when you visit a Hindu temple is the intricate carvings and sculptures, which illustrate the gods and goddesses and provide interpretations of Hindu mythology.


The tradition of daily puja, or prayer, is a central part of Hindu life. Paintings and sculptures of various deities are found in temples and home shrines, where lamps are lit and offerings of food are made to invoke the blessings of the gods. Specific gods or goddesses are often worshipped to deal with specific situations—anything from healing an ailment to doing well on a math test or having success in a business venture.


The God of Creation, Brahma is the first god in the Hindu triumvirate, or Trimurti, and is associated with the daily coming and going of light and dark. He is said to have grown out of the navel of the sleeping Vishnu. Brahma is traditionally depicted with four heads (representing the four Vedas, the four holy books of the Hindu religion), sitting on a lotus. The legends tell that he once had a fifth head but it was lost after he lied to Vishnu and made Shiva angry. In his four arms he holds the Vedas, a kamandalam (water pot), a suruva (sacrificial spoon), and an akshamala (string of beads), which he uses to count time. Brahma has a swan as his vahana. Although Brahma is one of the three major gods in Hinduism, there are few temples dedicated to him, the most famous being the Brahma temple at Pushkar in Rajasthan.


Vishnu is the god of protection and maintenance, and the second entity in the Trimurti. He is commonly recognized by the blue color of his skin (the color of water) and with four arms that hold the chakra (a sharp spinning-discus-like weapon), a conch that produces the mantric Om representing the sound of creation, a lotus representing spiritual liberation, and a gadha, or mace. Vishnu is often shown reclining on the ocean, atop Adisesha (a serpent with 1,000 heads) and alongside his consort Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. As the divine protector, he is believed to have assumed avatars and descended to Earth to rescue populations from evil rulers and forces, or to restore the balance between good and evil in the world. Thus far, he's come to Earth in nine different avatars, including one as Krishna, and Hindus believe that he will be reincarnated one last time, right before the end of this world. His wife Parvati represents his domestic and peaceful side. Mohini is the female form of Vishnu, and usually described as a supremely enchanting maiden.


Krishna is an avatar, or incarnation, of Vishnu and is often depicted as a young boy or prince, usually with dark or black skin. He is said to be the embodiment of love and divine joy that destroys all pain and sin. He takes on many different personas, including prankster, lover, divine hero, and Supreme Being. Common representations show him lying back in a relaxed pose, playing the flute, though he is also represented as the divine herdsman, accompanied by cows or gopis (milkmaids). Some paintings show him with Radha, his gopi consort.


Shiva, the third of the Trimurti, is the god of destruction, and is generally worshipped in the form of the phallus (lingam) fixed on a pedestal. He is vested with the power to destroy the universe in order to re-create it—that is, he can destroy the imperfections that can transform the universe. His twin abilities to both create and destroy give an intimidating aura to his austere, meditative demeanor. He is usually portrayed residing high up in the Himalayas with an ash-smeared forehead, his body covered simply in animal skin, and a king cobra draped around his neck. He has a third eye, in the middle of his forehead, believed to be his source of knowledge and wisdom and also the source of his untamed energy, when it is unleashed. He is also often depicted as the Lord of Dance, a metaphor for his ability to masterfully maintain the balance in the universe.


The goddess of wealth and prosperity and the consort to Vishnu, Lakshmi is commonly depicted as a beautiful woman standing or sitting on a lotus. She has four arms representing the four ends of human life: dharma or righteousness, kama or desires, artha or wealth, and moksha or liberation from the cycle of birth and death. Her portrayal as the goddess of wealth is evident from the cascades of gold coins flowing from her hands. A representation of her can be found even now in nearly every household because of her power to bestow prosperity, and she is celebrated with much veneration during the festival of Diwali.


Perhaps the most easily recognized of the Hindu gods, and certainly among the most endearing, Ganesh has an elephant head, large belly, and four arms, one of which holds a laddu, a ball-shaped popular Indian sweet. He is worshipped at the start of any new venture, and before exams, because he is considered to be the god who removes obstacles (vignam). He is variously depicted in seated, standing, and dancing postures, and is most often worshipped in people's homes for removing day-to-day challenges. His vahana is a tiny mouse, and he has several other names, including Ganapati, Gajanana, Vigneshwara, Pilliar, and Vinayagar.


Also known as Subramanya or Kartikeya, Murugan is the second son of Shiva and Parvati. He is widely worshipped in southern India, especially in the state of Tamil Nadu. He is the God of War. Legend has it that he was so upset with his father, Lord Shiva, whom he believed showed preferential treatment to Ganesh, Shiva's other son, that Murugan left the Himalayas for a hill in the state of Tamil Nadu, in South India. It's there that the six most important shrines devoted to him are found; collectively they are known as Arupadai Veedu (literally "six battle camps"), and each is connected to one of the six stages of his life.


The monkey god, Hanuman, is an ardent devotee of Lord Rama (one of the avatars of Vishnu) and he is among the key characters in the beloved Hindu epic, the Ramayana. The story goes that Lord Rama was banished from his father's kingdom for 14 years, during which time his wife Sita is abducted by the evil king Ravana and taken across the seas to Lanka. Hanuman, who belongs to the varanas, an apelike race of forest dwellers, joins Lord Rama in his mission to rescue Sita. Hanuman is revered and worshipped for his courage and valor in inspiring and leading Rama's army and for being steadfast in his devotion and loyalty to Rama. He is often depicted in temples with a mace in his right hand or kneeling before Lord Rama and Sita.


As the goddess of knowledge, literature, music, and the arts, Saraswati is said to be the mother of the Vedas, the four holy books of Hinduism. She is also associated with intelligence, creativity, education, and enlightenment. Saraswati is usually pictured dressed in white, sometimes holding a palm-leaf scroll. Her vahana is a swan or a peacock. She is the consort of Brahma.


Shakti is the divine Hindu mother goddess, a creative feminine force. The goddess Durga is the embodiment of her warrior side. Durga is often shown as the mother of Ganesha, Kartikeya, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. The female equivalent of the Trimurti concept is Tridevi (devi means goddess in Sanskrit), and can be represented as the conjoined forms of Lakshmi, Parvati, and Saraswati—essentially, the Shaktis of the Trimurti—Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma, respectively.


Kali is the goddess of time and change, which come together as death. She has a dual nature of fierceness and motherliness. Although she represents death, she is also seen as a positive force because she is a destroyer of ego and therefore a granter of liberation and freedom of the soul. Kali is represented as the consort of Shiva, whose body she is often seen standing upon. Her vahana is a jackal.

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