In various Hindu traditions, it is believed that there are 330 million or 33 crore Gods, Goddesses and supernatural beings. A large number of personalities, or ‘forms’, are worshipped as murtis or idols. The exact nature of belief in regards to each deity varies between differing Hindu denominations and philosophies. Often these beings are depicted in humanoid or partially-humanoid forms, complete with a set of unique and complex iconography in each case. Each God again has several names. For example, Lord Shiva is also called Maheshwara and Parameshwara.
Contrary to popular belief, Hindus believe in many gods, but one supreme God as well. Bhagavan is a word used to refer to the personal aspect of God in general, and not specific to a particular deity. People worship god through an image or a picture, or simply thinking of God as a personal being. Ishvara is a name or title used to emphasize God’s role and function as controller of the universe.
Ishwar is the ultimate Supreme Being and similar to the way society functions, Ishwar had taken many forms to function the universe. Different names and, frequently, different images of God are used, depending on which aspect of Bhagavan is being discussed. For instance, when God is talked about in the aspect as the creator, God is called Brahma. If one is emphasizing God’s capacity as preserver of the world, the name Vishnu is used. When referred to in the capacity as destroyer of the world, God is called Shiva.
Many of these individual aspects of God also have other names and images. For example, Krishna and Rama are considered forms of Vishnu. In fact, they are part of the ten incarnations or avatars of God. According to belief, occasionally, God comes to Earth as a human being to help humans in their struggle toward enlightenment and salvation (, moksha). Such an incarnation of God is called an avatar, or avatar.
The ten incarnations or dasavatara of Lord Vishnu are:
i) Matsya, the fish, appeared in the Satya Yuga. It represents beginning of life.
ii) Kurma, the tortoise, appeared in the Satya Yuga. It represents a human embryo just growing tiny legs, with a huge belly,
iii) Varaha, the boar, appeared in the Satya Yuga. He represents a human embryo which is almost ready and with visible features,
iv) Narasimha, the Man-Lion, appeared in the Satya Yuga. He represents a newborn baby, hairy and cranky, bawling and full of blood,
v) Vamana, the Dwarf, appeared in the Treta Yuga. He represents a young child.
vi) Parashurama, Rama with the axe, appeared in the Treta Yuga. He represents both an angry young man and a grumpy old man simultaneously.
vii) Rama, Sri Ramachandra, the prince and king of Ayodhya, appeared in the Treta Yuga. He represents a married man with children in a very ideological society, viii). Krishna, meaning dark or black, appeared in the Ehvapara Yuga. He represents a person in more practical society, where there is one good or bad depending on society you live in.
ix) Gautama Buddha is considered an avatar that returned pure dharma to the world.
x) Kalki (“Eternity”, or “time”, or “The Destroyer of foulness”) who is expected to appear at the end of Kali Yuga, the time period in which we currently exist.
Of the above divine incarnations, Rama, whose life is depicted in the Ramayana, and Krishna, whose life is depicted in the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata Purana, are the most famous. The Bhagavad Gita, which contains the spiritual teachings of Krishna, is one of the most widely-read scriptures in Hinduism. There is also a “hidden avatar” mentioned in 11th canto of the Bhagavata Purana. Some consider Balarama, brother of Krishna to be the ninth avatar of Vishnu, and delete Buddha.
Various devas (gods) and devis (goddesses) also represent certain forces. For instance, Agni has one aspect as the flame, but this flame symbolizes the psychological power associated with Agni—namely, the power of will. Agni can be called God-will. Similarly Indra is the God- mind; Saraswati is the power of inspiration, and not merely of learning.
In Hinduism, the scriptures recommend that for the satisfaction of a particular material desire a person may worship a particular deity. For example, shopkeepers frequently keep a statue or picture of the devi Lakshmi in their shops for financial prosperity. The elephant-headed deva known as Ganesha is worshiped before commencing any important undertaking, as he represents God’s aspect as the remover of obstacles. Students and scholars may propitiate Saraswati, the devi of learning, before taking an exam or giving a lecture.
Shiva and Vishnu are not regarded as ordinary devas but as Mah&devas (great gods) because of their central positions in worship and scriptures. These two along with Brahma are considered the Trimurti the three aspects of the universal supreme God. Some other devas are: Aditya, Antariksha. Brihaspati, Ganesha, Indra, Hanuman, Prithvi, and Vayu. Besides, Lakshmi and Saraswati, Durga or Parvati is the main devi. Among the popular deities, Lord Ganesha is widely worshiped across India as the remover of obstacles. Hanuman, Kali, Murugan, Venkateshwara and Nataraja are also popular.
One or other of these and many other deities, known as Ishta Devata or chosen deity is primarily worshipped by people depending on individual preference. However, regional and family traditions can play a large part in influencing this choice. Sometimes, guidance about this choice is also taken from scriptures. Though deities other than their chosen deity are also worshipped from time to time, depending on the occasion and their personal inclinations, it is not expected that people will worship, or even know about, every form of God. While choosing one form of God (popular choices include Krishna, Rama, Shiva, or Kali), and cultivating devotion to that chosen form, respect is given to the chosen idols of other people as well.
There are some other gods who continue to occupy an important place in the affections of individuals and are represented as exercising considerable influence on the destinies of man. Ganga is the deity of the river Ganges and is respectfully referred to as ‘Gangaji’ or ‘Ganga Maiya’ (Mother Ganga). Goddess Durga is also worshipped as Navadurga or the nine manifestations of Goddess Durga.
They are Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmaanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kaalratri, Maha Gauri and Siddhidatri. Lord Vishwakarma is the presiding deity of all architects. He is the official builder of all the gods’ palaces, and the designer of all celestial vehicles and weapons. Shani Dev is one of the most popular deities that the Hindus pray to ward off evil and remove obstacles. Kartikeya, the second son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati, is a war god. The symbolism of Kartikeya points to the ways and means of reaching perfection in life.