“Truth is one,” says the Rig Veda, one of the canonical sacred texts of Hinduism, “but the paths to it are many.” This idea that many paths can lead to a single truth finds expression in the democratic riot of local gods and goddesses within Hinduism—and the unity of Being that draws them together.
As founding members of an expressly progressive Hindu activist organization, we look deep within Hinduism’s philosophical and religious traditions to inform our understanding of God.
In the scriptures of the Vedas and Upanishads, the line between philosophy and religion has always been faint. Four of the six schools of Hindu philosophy are materialistic (if not outright agnostic) systems, in that they do not strictly require the existence of an omniscient godhead standing over and above creation to validate their arguments. Hindu religious texts share their constellation of Vedic and Upanishadic concepts with the philosophers. In deeply spiritual language, these ancient systems of thought examine the contextual nature of human perception, the limitations of language, and the humbling eternity of the universe. We live in an infinite and eternal universe, they say—and we inhabit it with always provisional knowledge and always feeble tools.
Another oft-quoted line from the Rig Veda says: “Whence all creation had its origin … only He knows. Or, perhaps even He does not know. Who can say?” In this way, it leads us toward a spiritual system that acknowledges human limitations and allows for doubt, rather than a system that offers absolute certainty. Becoming able to imagine a spiritual system that allows for doubt in turn enables us to imagine a universe and a God who can allow for diversity and dialogue.
Within the Hindu system, this takes the shape of a nonhierarchical riot of local gods and goddesses who supplement each other’s blessings. There is rarely a zero-sum game of spiritual authority in the Hindu universe of thought and practice. Ganesha is the remover of obstacles; Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge; Laxmi is the goddess of wealth; Hanuman is Rama’s loyal companion who embodies selflessness; and so on. Each deity has something to teach and a domain to rule. The vibrant and complementary stories of these gods and goddesses, we are taught, can shape us into wholesome, well-rounded people.
The unity of Being—God, if you will—remains the same, our philosophers say, but each Hindu deity represents its local and diverse manifestations. As the Bhagavad Gita says, “When a man sees all the variety of things as existing in one, and all as emanating from that, then he achieves harmony with Brahman.”
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