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53: A bountiful of gods

The Sanskrit word "Koti" popularly means a "crore" (this is a very Indian measure for 10 million or 10,000,000). And it is common to say that Hinduism has 33 koti devas - which gets unfortunately and wrongly translated to 330 million gods. It is this literal translation that has befuddled many till now, including the 16th century Mughal emperor Akbar, who believing the term to be literal, launched the impossible task of cataloging all the Hindu gods and goddesses.

Had he had a Hindu wife in his harem, like most historians wrongly believe, and had she been his most beloved, like more than most of them hope to be, and had he been open and forward-thinking enough to let her practice her own religion in his palaces (so that he could 'learn' and understand the natives of the country), which a whole bunch of them argue vehemently  - he would have simply discussed this project with her (Jodha Bai, if she ever lived).

And she, as the popular portrait suggests, being the feisty and smart and independent minded woman she was supposed to be, would have simply turned him away from his folly. But that was not so. Attempts to evaluate a man from the middle ages with the values of modern ages always creates such inconsistencies. Great as he was, even Akbar was, like all of us, a product of his own time and should be studied in the context of that time and social structure.

Anyway - it was a folly for two reasons  - one is that the phrase "33 koti devas" is used more for the effect, and not literally. This is just a popular perception, even with practicing Hindus not knowing where this one has come from. There aren't exactly 330 million gods in Hinduism, so it is setting oneself for failure if someone says they will list them and catalog them. And the second reason is 33 koti did not actually mean 330 million, it only meant 33, that's all. So, there are different interpretations of this "330 million gods" business, two of which I would like to present here.

The Simple Explanation

In one rather simplistic way, this "33 koti" phrase talks about the belief that everything is divine. For the spiritually inclined, this means that there is god in every living and non-living thing. People are gods (Rama, Buddha), animals are gods (Hanuman, Garuda), animal-people are gods (Ganesha), mountains are gods (Meru, Mandara), trees are gods, rivers are gods (Ganga). This is devbhoomi  - lit. the land of gods. This is a nice belief, and provides an opportunity to Hindus to celebrate many, many festivals and enjoy holidays  - especially during this time of the year.

Academically, to make matters more complex though, even when one speaks about the types of gods, there are several classifications. Consider just one of these, which is a typical concept of  - ishta devata, kula devata, grama devata.

* Ishta devata इष्ट देवता - the deity that one worships, prays to, calls upon as protector and considers one's 'favorite'

* Kula devata कुल देवता  - the deity that blesses one's family and lineage, over generations (tutelary deity)

* Grama devata  ग्राम  देवता  - this protects the community or village or town, for that matter the country

And this is just one classification. So you see, what all this lead to is that it is easy for someone with Hindu beliefs to be relaxed about multiplicity of gods (called "polytheism"). However, the 330 million number has been going around as one of the most common misinterpretations about Hinduism.

Yes, the Hindus have a lot of gods, but that is just one perspective. Here are some more competing perspectives:

  • According to Adi Shankaracharya, there is just one God or Supreme Being.
  • Acoording to Vedanta, there is the popular Trinity  - Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. And then there is Shakti, the Goddess with her 3 forms. So that is either 3 or 6.
  • The Avadhoota sampradaya considers Datta guru as one person with all three aspects of Trinity brought back into one person. So from 3 we are back to 1.
  • In Hinduism, the three popular sects for worship are Shaivites, Vishnava and Shakti. The Ishta devatas across the Hindu populace range widely  -- from Shiva's family (e.g. his sons Ganesha and Kartikeya) to Vishnu's 10 maha-avatars (e.g. Rama, Krishna). For Shaivite, therefore, there will at least be 4 gods (Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha and Kartikeya). For Vaishnavaits, there could be 1 or 2 or 10.
  • The Smarta tradition, which is more modern, tries to marry the two Shaivite and Vaishnava traditions and considers the following 5 gods  - Shiva, Vishnu, Shakti, Ganesha, and Surya. Sometimes they include Skanda (Kartikeya), so that makes it 6. But they finally consider to be manifestations of one Supreme God.

In fact, Pluralism actually means that each individual is his/her own God, not just that there are many gods. This agrees with the original Vedic concept that god and spirituality is a very personal concept  - hence there are as many gods as there are people. (And if the world's population was around 330 million at the time this concept took root  - maybe around 1000 BC, it is not hard to imagine the reason to propagate this belief that each individual is a god himself / herself!)

So now, with that, we agree on two things  - not only is the Hindu belief cool about multiple gods, it is also considerate about the actual number of gods. Different people, different perspectives. What a nice way to sort things out. You would think this makes people with these beliefs more considerate
and liberal, but only if the world was that simple, we would not have the word "Hindu Hardliner" in our dictionary!

Now that we agreed that the Hindu belief is rather relaxed about the notion of having multiple perspectives on the 'number of gods', the question still remains  - where did the "33 koti" number come from?

According to the Vedas

So the other, more scholarly explanation about "33 koti" is about the misinterpretation and mis-translation of the word 'koti'.

The term "trayastrimsati koti"  त्रयस्त्रिंसति कोटि  is mentioned in different sources, most notably in Atharva Veda, Yajur Veda and Brihadaranyak Upanishad. Some sources suggest that this one also appears in Rigveda and in Satapatha Brahmana, but my study in this matter is limited.

The term "koti" in Sanskrit is used for numbers to indicate 'huge' or 'large' or 'great' - as that is its literal meaning. Even when the word is used to say 10 million, it was originally just that - meant 'great number'. In the context of gods, it could simply be 'great' or 'supreme'. Scholars today agree that this is what the verse originally meant  - 33 great gods, but somewhere down the ages and generations, this meaning got changed.

And it supported the world view of having many, many gods any way, which was my first explanation. Due to the nature of Hinduism to worship anything and everything, people kept seeing thousands and thousands of gods. They naturally assumed that gods were limitless in number, and the interpretation that there are "330 million" gods stuck rather than only "33 gods".

Note that "koti" does not mean "types", as it is wrongly propagated in some of the online discussions. Although that can be used in this context and would have made sense, Hindus do not have 33 "types" of gods, but there are 33 gods, of 5 different types.

The 33 gods according to the Vedas

Again, different sources differ in the names and classifications, but broadly I think this is a general consensus  - the 33 gods are actually 8 Vasus, 11 Rudras, 12 Adityas, 1 Prajapati and 1 Supreme Ruler. This list is as per Brihadaranyak Upanishad, and I found it in Prof. Wilkin's book on Hindu Mythology. There could be other sources, as it always is with anything to do with Hindu Mythology.

8 Vasus:

Also called Ashtavasus. Vasu is derived from "vas" (lit: dvelve or contain). The eight vasus are the elements that contain the universe and are generally agreed to be (1) Agni the Fire, (2) Prithvi the Earth, (3) Vayu the Air or the Wind, (4) Dyaus the Sky, (5) Surya the Sun, (6) Soma the Moon, (7) Antariksha the Heaven and (8) Nakshatra the Stars or the 27 stellar constellations. In them the universe dvelves, hence 'vasus'.

Note that the first four are part of the panch-maha-bhootas (the great 5 material elements), except Jal or Aap  - Water. Sometimes the list includes Water instead of the Heaven. These Ashtavasus were the ones who took the form of Ganga's children as part of a curse to them since they stole Sage Vashishtha's cow, and one of whom remained on Earth as Bhishma (see Devavrata become Bhishma).

11 Rudras:

The Rudras are a strange set of gods. Their name suggest that they roar and weep (lit: "rud" is to weep). Like the Vasus are related to elements, the Rudras seem to be related to "being" or "consciousness". One explanation for the etymology of the word "Rudra" is that these make you conscious and so you 'weep'. The 11 Rudras are given differently in different sources, and this could be because the text is trying to put names to non-physical entities or abstractions. Broadly, in these 11 names:

  • There are 5 names of Shiva in here - (1) Ishana, (2) Tatpurusha, (3) Aghora, (4) Vamadeva, and (5) Sadyojata

  • There are 5 abstractions or feelings - (1) Ananda or bliss (2) Vigyana or knowlegde (3) Manas or thought (4) Prana or breath / life and (5) Vac or speech

  • There is the 'Atman' or self

In some sources, Hanuman is considered the 11th Rudra.

There is a whole lot of confusion about the names of Rudras. For example:

  • In Vishnu Purana: Manyu, Manu, Mahmasa, Mahan, Siva, Rtudhvaja, Ugraretas, Bhava, Kama, Vamadeva and Dhrtavrata
  • In Matsya Purana:  Kapali, Pingala, Bhima, Virupaksa, Vilohita, Ajesha, Shasana, Shasta, Shambhu, Chanda and Dhruva
  • In Mahabharata: Mrgavadha, Sarpa, Nirriti, Ajaikapad, Ahi Budhnya, Pinakin, Dahana, Ishvara, Kapalin, Sthanu and Bhaga
  • In Mahabharata again: Vishvarupa, Ajaikapad, Ahi Budhnya, Virupaksa, Raivata, Hara, Bahurupa, Tryambaka, Savitra, Jayanta and Pinakin
  • Other minor puranas: Aja, Ekapada (Ekapat), Ahirbudhnya, Tvasta, Rudra, Hara, Sambhu, Tryambaka, Aparajita, Isana and Tribhuvana
  • Other references: Ajaikapad, Ahi Budhnya, Pinakin, Rta, Pitrrupa, Tryamabaka, Maheshvara, Vrsakapi, Sambhu, Havana and Ishvara

What is interesting is that they are always 11, and are almost always names or epithets of Shiva. The general consensus seems to be they being gods related to human consciousness and related to Shiva.

12 Adityas:

The Adityas are children of Sage Kashyapa and Aditi, one of his 12 wives. These are personified deities and are usually the following:

(1) Indra (Skara the king of these gods), (2) Varuna, (3) Mitra, (4) Aryaman, (5) Bhaga, (6) Amsa, (7) Tvastri, (8) Pusan, (9) Vivasvat, (10) Savitr, (11) Dhuti, and (12) Vidhata.

Why this is confusing is because in some lists Indra is considered here as well as the Supreme Being at the end of this count of 33, and in some cases that happens with Vishnu.

In some lists, the last 2 Adityas are replaced by Daksha and Vishnu. But that creates confusion as Daksha is not an Aditya. He is one of the first 10 mind-born sons of Brahma. There are only 11 Adityas. So adding him here gets it a bit confusing, as Aditi is supposed to be Daksha's daughter. Also, having him or Vishnu here as well as at the end of the count of 33 makes it a bit convoluted. So let's stick to these 12.

For more about the lineage of Adityas, see my earlier post: "Saptarishis - the progenitors".

So far, this brings the count to 31. Now for the remaining 2 out of the 33 gods.

1 Prajapati:

Prajapati was perhaps Daksha, for surely he was a creator god. Daksha was one of the first mind-born sons of Brahma, along with the Saptarishis, the 7 celestial priests, Narada and Bhrigu. He was born in the early epochs of time. He, along with his wife Prasooti (lit: child-birth), gave birth to 13 daughters - who then went on to produce most of the known species on Earth.

1 Supreme Ruler:

This is the main "God" with a capital G. Now who this is depends on your choice and temperament. Different people put different names here, depending on what they believe strongly in. In some sources, it is Indra (but that would be double counting). In some cases it would be Shiva (but then Rudras are supposed to be forms of Shiva anyway, so again double counting). In most cases, however, it would be Vishnu the preserver God, and maybe we can agree to go with that one.

So, in summary we have the 8 Vasus or element gods, 11 Rudras or human consciousness related gods, 12 Adityas or personified deities, 1 Prajapati or creator god and 1 Supreme Being or preserver god. That pretty much sums up this "33 koti" business - more detailed and thoughtful than considering just one god, and less arbitrary than considering millions and millions of god.

Here is a summary of the discussion:

Sr. 8 Vasus 11 Rudras 12 Adityas 1 Prajapati 1 Supreme Being
1 Agni Ishana Indra Daksha Vishnu
2 Prithvi Tatpurusha Varuna
3 Vayu Aghora Mitra
4 Dyaus Vamadeva Aryaman
5 Surya Sadyojata Bhaga
6 Soma Ananda Amsa
7 Antariksha Vijnana Tvastr
8 Nakshatra Manas Pusan
9 Prana Vivasvat
10 Vac Savitr
11 Atman Dhuti
12 Vidhata

- Peace,
27 Sep 2015