How Many Gods do we Have?
We often face a flippant question – ‘how many gods do the Hindus have?’ We also do at times listen to Hindu speakers on TV saying that there are 33 crore (330 million) gods. Some others chuckle and assert that all these gods reside in the body of a cow. Sometimes we also hear about three crore gods. The modern young man is at a loss whether to accept it or leave it.
A conversation on this subject (not in the same vein) took place between sage Yajnavalkya and another scholar Shakalya in the court of the sage-king Janaka. This is the well known Shakalya Brahmana in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. Yajnavalkya has a series of discussions on the nature of Brahman with several scholars and Sakalya was one such.
Shakalya, has another name, Vidagdha. As this name indicates, his nature is to seethe with anger and also to have a divisive (?akala means a broken part) view of things. He questions Yajnavalkya – how many gods are there? Yajnavalkya refers to the Rigvedic passage named Vaishvadeva, which explains the number of gods and says that the gods are 3306 in number. Shakalya agrees to that but again asks whether he can tell more exactly. Yajnavalkya says that there are 33. Shakalya asks him whether he can further explain. Yajnavalkya says that there are six. Shakalya again asks whether he can tell further. Yajnavalkya then says two and on a further question he says one and half and finally says it is only one. Shakalya then asks Yajnavalkya whether he could explain the numbers he had given.
Yajnavalkya gives the above numbers from different perspectives.
The intention of the scripture here is to say that there is only one Hiranyagarbha, who appears in diverse forms. All other forms are merely different cosmic functions which enable the j?va-s to reap the fruit of their karma. There is need for an agency to give the j?va-s their bodies, there is another agency which makes them perform actions and some other agency which measures out the fruit of karma. From this angle, Sri Shankaracharya says that the one Hiranyagarbha appears as many, by sa?koca and vik?sa, contraction and expansion.
In the Upanishad, Yajnavalkya says that the basic number is only 33 and the 3306 divine forms are different expressions of the same 33 gods. He calls them mahim?na?, their own expanded selves. These are the same as vibh?ti-s we see in the Vibhuthi yoga of Bhagavad Gita.
Who then are the 33? These are 31 deities called group gods (ga?a-devat??) plus Indra and Prajapati. One group called vasus are 8 in number, another group called Rudras are 11 in number and the last group known as Adityas are 12 in number.
Such classification is from the perspective of the functions of the three groups. The earth, fire, air, the sky, the sun, heaven, the moon and the stars form the first group called Vasus. They are called so because they are the ones who become manifest in the form of the body mind complex of all beings. They enable all beings to live and hence they are called vasu (‘vasu’ means to live). The existence of all beings is dependent on the above eight divine beings. Shankaracharya adds that they enable all the beings to reap the fruit of their actions.
The deities in the second group, known as Rudras, are the five sense organs, the five motor organs and the mind. These enable the beings to interact with the universe in the process of reaping their karma-phala. At the time of fall of the body, these eleven cease to function and make the people around cry for the loss of their loved one. The name Rudra is due to that (‘rud’ means to cry).
The third group known as Adityas, are the twelve months in a year which take the year along with them and also gradually take all the beings along with them. It means that the longevity of the beings is gradually taken by these. Because of this act of taking away (?d?nam) they are called Adityas.
Indra and Prajapati are not group gods but they are added to the above three groups in order to make total of 33. Indra represents thunder, which means valor, vigor and strength. Prajapati represents yajña. In the Vedic scheme of things yajña is an important interaction between the humans and gods.
From another point of view the number is only six. They are the fire, earth, air, space, sun and heaven (the six which are already included in the list of Vasus). The Upanishad says that the 33 are in fact the manifestations of these six deities only. We may see that the 11 organs of the body are but products of the above six and the twelve months in a year are also caused by sun and earth.
Restricting the number further, Yajnavalkya had told about three. The three are earth (including fire), heaven (including sun) and the space (including air). These are the three categories of deities which are commonly known as the deities of earth, the deities of antarik?a (the space) and the deities of dyuloka (heavenly deities).
More primarily there are only two. The two gods mentioned by Yajnavalkya referred to matter and the vital force (annam and pr??am). One is the eaten and the other is eater. They are also known as agni and soma in other contexts and commonly known in the agni??oma sacrifice. These two include all the manifestations described above.
The one and half deity refers to air which includes the entire living world. The living world cannot exists without air and hence Yajnavalkya calls it one and a half. Lastly the one god is vital force itself known as Hiranyagarbha, the very first manifestation from the unmanifest. Shri Shankaracharya often refers to Hiranyagarbha as ‘sarva-dev?tmaka’, the one from whom all god forms manifest or in whom all divine functions or forms are visualized.
We may now return to our primary question of 33 crore deities. We have seen the Upanishad saying that these 33 are categories or classes which manifest as multitudinous deities. The Sanskrit word koti has several meanings, one of the meanings being ’10 million’. In the present context it refers to a class or category as in the words ‘j?va-koti’, ‘pr??i-koti’ etc. It is by a grossly mistaken notion (which has arisen in the recent times) that the 33 koti (which has to mean the 33 classes of deities) is used as referring to the existence of 33 crore deities in the Hindu pantheon. The word koti is used in the Indian languages too, as it is a word from the Upanishad.
Yajnavalkya’s division is clear. The Vasus are those forces in nature which are responsible for life, the Rudras (the organs) are those which enable interaction with universe, and the Adityas are the time component.
Another popular fallacy is to refer to 3 crore deities. It is actually 3 koti, referring to the deities of the earth, space and the heaven.
From the perspective of the eater and the eaten, annam and pr??am are the primary divine entities.
In fact the idea of divine as we see in the Upanishad is altogether different from the present day person’s idea of god as Rama, Krishna, Siva, Vishnu or some such. Annam and pr??am are part of human body itself and they are viewed as deities. Similarly earth, fire, air etc are the constituents of living beings and hence treated as divine. We often refer to the living being as the microcosm, which is the replica of the macrocosm and hence the constituents of the macrocosm are treated as divine beings, based on the etymological meaning of ‘diva’, which means ‘to shine’, ‘to illumine’. The sense organs too are called deva-s, divine, because through them we know the world.
After all the above discussion Yajnavalkya makes the famous statement – ‘neti, neti’ – not this, not this. The Supreme Reality is something beyond the above noted 33 classes and the Hiranyagarbha too.