A traditional number quoted for the number of gods and goddesses in the ancient Hindu scriptures is 330 million. As there is no record of any cosmic census, it must be assumed that is such an extraordinary figure is aimed at making a philosophical point – that the number of gods that man can create is infinite. For those who have little familiarity with the Indian philosophy, this might be interpreted as an extreme form of polytheism. But in reality, all the Hindu gods are manifestations of the one divine godhead – the Brahman.
Hinduism is the collaborative end product of thousands of years of assimilated wisdom, derived from multiple sub cultures. The Scriptures range from simple poems of the earliest pastoral Aryans to the most complex forms of metaphysics. A study of the complex ethnography of the Indian subcontinent from prehistoric times gives us a good clue about the genesis of an infinite pantheon of Gods. Wave after wave of immigrants mingled in with the pre-existing cultures, and in the process of assimilation, with their theological beliefs somehow had to be incorporated into a framework that would allow coexistence. Does this overwhelming plethora of gods and goddesses reflect upon a process of theological democratisation ? Perhaps, but it must be remembered that in ancient India, atheists ( like the Cārvāka school) too had a place in the mainstream philosophy. Even a historical figure like the Buddha,has gone down in the Scriptures as a Hindu god.
The process of creation of new Gods has continued perhaps to this present-day, and Gods have been in no way limited to humanoid forms. In India’s financial capital Mumbai, one of the most popular Gods, publicly worshipped, is the elephant headed god Ganesha. Ganesha is worshipped in the stock exchange, a the trading desks of Mumbai’s rich and powerful, carried in public processions and decorated as statues in millions of households. No one questions in India whether Ganesha exists or not, like Santa Claus, he is everywhere. He is also found ubiquitously as trademark symbol on items as diverse as cooking oil and underwear, and is and extremely popular figure in the contemporary art and culture whose popularity seems to be perpetually upwards. The name of Ganesha is invoked before major events, including the start of Bollywood movies and very likely in satellite launches too ! There is little reason in contemporary Indian culture to doubt the efficacy of the measure of good luck that invoking the name of Ganesha brings before the start of any project. And the elephant-deity is by no means limited to Hinduism as practised in the Indian subcontinent, he has spread to China, Japan, the Tibetan pantheon, Thailand and is even to be found on currency notes in circulation in predominantly Islamic modern Indonesia !
The success of Gods in Hinduism and, even amongst those with a distinctly modern scientific mindset, prompts us to look towards deeper sociobiological reasons why God’s continue to thrive as cultural icons, in an unbroken tradition stretching back thousands of years. Viewed as blind faith, Gods often make no sense at all in today’s science dominated intellectual landscape. But such a view is perhaps based on a reluctance in some quarters to understand the evolution of cultural dynamics of ancient civilisations into the modern era. In particular, the how ancient theological beliefs have been replaced by powerful symbols of social coherence amongst people over vast geographical regions who are connected to each other through a common ideological ancestry.
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