Do The Hindus Have 33 Crore Gods?

Quite often we discuss among ourselves, with a slight tone of self-mockery, that we Hindus…

Quite often we discuss among ourselves, with a slight tone of self-mockery, that we Hindus have thirty-three crore (330 million) gods. We think we have such a surfeit of gods that we do not mind accepting anything and everything. This opinion is shared by several scholars and writers. Who are all these gods?

Let us try to figure out. We can list out all the names we know – Vishnu, Shiva, Surya, Venkateswara, etc, etc. We may associate our friends from all parts of the country, count all the local deities and we may come to a figure which may be in thousands. What, in fact, is the truth?

Vedanta categorically states that the Supreme Reality is the infinitely pervading consciousness. It is not a personal god whom we see in religion. It is not denoted as ‘he’ or ‘she’ but as ‘It’, an impersonal entity. The name given to this impersonal entity is Brahman. The creative power which is associated with this Brahman is called as prakriti or maaya. In order to facilitate our understanding Vedanta compares this entity to an ocean. An ocean is a huge mass of water. When a huge wave emerges from it, we distinguish it from the ocean and call it a wave. Similarly in the ocean of consciousness the creative power creates a notion of ‘I’ or ‘self’. This first appearance of ego is given a name – Hiranyagarbha. The Upanishads say that this is the source of all creation. The Taittiriya Upanishad gives a graphic description of such creation. The space emerged first, it says. From the space came air. From air the fire emerged. The fire became fluid and later it became a hard mass called earth. The whole plant kingdom originated from earth and became food for all beings. The purpose of this narration, we are told, is to say that there is nothing apart from Brahman and what all we see is a manifestation in Brahman.

This idea pervades the whole philosophy of Upanishads. The greatest spiritual exercise is to see that the seeker is an integral part of the organic whole which is the universe. Our sense organs and mind have evolved from the five elements – earth, water, fire, air and space. The flesh, blood and bones too are derived from the five elements.  In short, the microcosm is not different from the macrocosm. The enlightened person achieves a vision of oneness in which he sees one with every other being in the universe and loves all beings unconditionally.

Veda patha

 

This being so, who are the thirty-three crore gods? There is a chapter in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad dealing with this question. There used to be philosophical debates in the courts of kings in olden days. Several wise men and women used to gather, debate and sometimes argue about the nature of things. One such debate is between the questioner named Sakalya and Yajnavalkya, who probably was the greatest philosopher of that time. Sakalya questions – ‘how many are the gods?’. Yajnavalkya says – ‘three-thousand-three-hundred and six’. What a precise number? Sakalya puts the same question again. This time Yajnavalkya says – thirty-three gods. On further questioning, Yajnavalkya says that they are six, and then three and then two and then one and a half and finally one. This indeed is a strange reply and hence Sakalya demands explanation.

Yajnavalkya says that in fact there are only thirty-three gods. They are the eight Vasus, the eleven Rudras, the twelve Adityas plus Indra and Prajapati. All put together it comes to thirty-three. The three-thousand-three-hundred and six are merely different manifestations of the same 33 types of deities. The Upanishad explains the nature of the above types.

The human being sees birth and death every day. The texts call it creation, sustenance and dissolution. It means that from the man’s point of view there are certain factors in the cosmos which help him grow, some which make him feel unhappy and some others which are associated with his karma and the fruit of that karma, leading to ultimate dissolution. Those eight factors in the universe which nourish him and help him grow are the Vasus (the Sanskrit root ‘vas’ means ‘to live’). Those eleven factors which make him unhappy and cry are the Rudras (the Sanskrit root ‘rudir’ means ‘to cry’). Those twelve factors which are associated with a person’s karma and its fruits and gradually take away his life span are the Adityas (from the Sanskrit root ‘aadaana’ which means ‘to take away’). We need not go into the details of these factors, which are described in detail in the above text.

Gods of the above three types added up to thirty-one. The remaining two are Indra, symbolizing valour and Prajapati, symbolizing yajna. Thus we have the number thirty-three.

What about the word ‘crore’? The Sanskrit word for crore is ‘koti’. This word has several meanings such as the curved end of a bow, the edge or point in general, the point of a weapon, the peak of a hill, a category or class (used in expressions like jiva koti, prani koti etc.,), ten million and so on. In the present context it is used to mean a category or class of deities. The thirty-three (koti) types of deities manifest in several forms. The wind or fire manifest sometimes as a helpful agency and sometimes as a harmful agency. The three-thousand-three-hundred and six are but different forms of the same thirty-three deities.

From a different point of view, Yajnavalkya explains, the thirty-three can be reduced and seen as six. In other words, the thirty-three are included in these six. On further reduction, these six can be seen as three. This is from the point of view of deities connected with bhū (earth), bhuva (the intermediate space) and suva (heaven). “The earth and the fire taken together make one god, the sky and air make another and heaven and the sun make a third” (Swami Madhavananda tr. p: 373).

From yet another point of view the deities are only two (of two types). The whole universe can be classified as the prāa (vital force) and the matter (food) consumed by the vital force. On further reduction it is one and a half because it is the air which moves along and enlivens all that is covering. Finally, the one is the Hiranyagarbha, the first manifestation in the Supreme Consciousness. Thus all these names and forms, seen as thirty-three or more are merely different forms of the same Hiranyagarbha.

Curiously and mercifully we do not find the names such as Vishnu, Indra, Shiva, Ganesa and so on. Otherwise, there would have been a clamour among the devotees. The Vedic vision was not to count the different gods but to see different cosmic functions as due to one entity.

Surprisingly we find some of the teachers postulating that the thirty-three crore deities are located in the body of a cow. This is not the Vedic vision but the vision of someone who has authored a story in a purana (mythology). In fact the nourishing aspects, the troubling aspects and the depleting aspects are found in all beings including you and me and not only in the cow. You and I have the thirty-three deities as per the Vedic vision. We are a part and parcel of the macrocosm from a gross point of view, but on more subtle enquiry, we are not different from Brahman, says Vedanta.

The author is the former DGP of Andhra Pradesh and is a practitioner and teacher of Vedanta.
  • Subramanian Thirumalai

    Thank you sir.humbled by the knowledge expounded.i get how finally it boils down to the consciousness of the self and how we all live in ignorance and maya!

  • Insightful. But I would recommend not using the term “god” at all. If the texts are referring to them as devas, use devas. Do “devas” and “gods” mean the same thing? “god” is a term with Christian baggage that contrasts “false gods” with the “One True God.” How have you established this term is the same as devas?

    • Anfauglir

      Since the word “God” is a heathen Germanic word for something (divine beings, in this case) known only to heathens.
      There is no “God” of any kind in christianity. Only a fictional entity, for which the christians encroached on the heathen Germanic word “God”.

      In Latin, the christians encroached on the heathen word Deus.

      In China, christians have been encroaching on the name “ShangDi” for the non-existent biblical “god” entity. But ShangDi is actually the name of the High God of Taoist heaven–hence it is the epithet and personal name of the Jade Emperor–and ShangDi is also a direct reference to a class of high Gods in Taoism and in fact refers to the whole host of Taoist Gods of Taoist Heaven too (“Shangdi” and “Taoist Heaven” mean the same thing).

      In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, christians have long encroached on the word deva for the fictional entity “jesus” (referring to the equally fictional “mary” as “devamAta” in calendars). You know, the way christians in Kerala have encroached on the word Swarga for the non-existent christian heaven–e.g. Yesudas had released a christian album with some track mentioning Swarga in this inculturated and re-interpreted christian sense.

      God (meaning one among the pantheon of Gods) is no more a christian word than Deus or Deva or Swarga. Actually, islam pulled the same trick as christianity: allah was an epithet for a pre-islamic high deity in the ancient pantheon of Arabians. Then, with the invention of christianity, Arabian christians started encroaching on the epithet Allah for the invented mono-entity of the bible, and eventually islam was invented too and muslims followed suit.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allah

      The name [Allah] was previously used by pagan pre-Islamic Arabs as a reference to a creator deity, possibly the supreme deity in pre-Islamic Arabia.[5][19]

      In pre-Islamic Arabia, including Mecca, Allah was probably used by polytheistic Arabs as a reference to possibly a creator god or a supreme deity of their pantheon.[25][26] In pre-Islamic Arabia, Allah was not used to refer to the sole divinity as it is in Islam. The notion of the term may have been vague in the Meccan religion.[25][27] Muhammad’s father’s name was ʿAbd-Allāh meaning “the slave of Allāh”.[27] Pre-Islamic Christians, Jews and the monotheistic Arabs called Hanifs used the name Allah and the terms ‘Bismillah’, ‘in the name of Allah’ to refer to their supreme deity in Arabic stone inscriptions centuries before Islam.[28]

      (Of course, Allah is a specific epithet of a specific heathen Arabian God and thus can’t be used for all pantheons. God is not an epithet of a specific deity in that way. And at least “Deva” is both a specific epithet–of Rudra in shvetAshvatara upaniShad–and of a general class of divine beings in Hinduism.)

      Yet apparently Sikhism does use Allah in the late monotheist sense, from obvious late influence (rather than from original heathen influence):

      In the Sikh scripture of Guru Granth Sahib, the term Allah (Punjabi: ਅਲਹੁ) is used 37 times.[18]

      Pre-Judaism, Yahweh was the name or title of a particular deity in the pantheon of the locals of that region, and not even the most prominent deity at that. The locals’ general word for Gods (pantheon) was Elohim.
      (Other sources say that Yahweh itself just meant “deity” and became “The deity” with the rise of the specific monotheism.)

      In any case, if “Gods” is offensive to heathens for the word “God” having been encroached on by christians, then so is “Deva” for having been encroached upon by christians too. Christians have already inculturated on Brahmaa/Prajaapati/Hiranyagarbha by re-interpreting these as the non-existent biblical uncreative “creator” entity.

      And as seen in the evangelical spam left by inculturating christian trolls on this site, christians are encroaching on not only Prajaapati, but on Shiva, Bhagavaan, Purusha Sooktam among other things. (And mokSha, nirvAna, etc.)

      Should Hindus gift those to christians as well?

      The biblical entity does not exist. The Gods do.

      The only argument that heathens may make, then, is one that involves nitpicking, which may or may not be considered important: that Devas may not be the same ‘type’ of entities as the Gods of the northwestern heathens of Europe; that perhaps the latter define something slightly or significantly different from the Taoist Shen, the Shinto Kami, the Korean Shin, the Hindu DevaaH, the Olympic Dei, etc., with each class of divine entities being different as specifically defined by their respective heathenisms (religions). In that case, it would make sense for heathens to say that Devas (and other pantheons) are not the same as Gods.

      But there’s no doubt that “Gods”–when used as a plain vanilla transpose in English (assuming that doing so is not considered offensive by the native heathens of northwest Europe)–is more apt a term for the Hindu devas than the word “God” ever was or ever shall be for invented mono-entities of biblical religions.

  • Sharan Sharma

    1. The article asks “Do The Hindus Have 33 Crore Gods?”. It then:
    a) Invokes (advaita) vedAnta
    b) Side-steps the vast vedic corpus which deals exclusively with invoking specific gods for specific purposes
    c) Brushes away purANa (e.g. “this is not the vedic vision”)

    2. But then curiously, the article itself says:
    >The Vedic vision was not to count the different gods but to see different cosmic functions as due to one entity.

    In which case, there should be no reason to reject the figure of 330 Mn. gods as being representative of different cosmic functions anyway, right? Everyone, of course, understands that this is a metaphorical number.
    For many of us, these gods are as real as you or I – to be invoked and engaged with – and not in the vedantic sense.

    3. It is more appropriate to entitle this piece as “Do advaita vedantists have 33 crore Gods?”. Everything will fall more in place. The cardinal error, IMHO, that this article makes is equate ‘vedic vision’ with ‘vedantic vision’, and all Hindus as vedantists.

    In fact, even advaita vedantists, on the vyavahAra plane will happily go with a multitude of gods, revere purāṇa etc.
    ( including worshipping the cow as repository of all devatās e.g the great jivanmukta HH sri candrasekhara bharati worshipped a cow in front of the saradamba temple and simply said ‘the puja is over’).

    4. Side note on the figure of 33 gods. These are only the somapā gods (soma-drinking gods). Aiteraya Brahmana (II.7.8) identifies another set of 33 gods (the asomapā gods). One would really have to strain to explain this using vedanta.

    • Anfauglir

      Excellent response. I wish I could upvote you several times. (I had to try just now: it didn’t work.)

      Next to the specific tridasha set (rounding off 33), the vAlmIki rAmAyaNam defines another subset of 17 named devas that RiShi agastya worshipped with individually appointed sannidhis in his Ashrama’s pooja area:

      http://valmikiramayan.net/utf8/aranya/sarga12/aranyasans12.htm#Verse17

      There’s 64 koTi yOginIs as per shrIvidyA, where the koTi is a literal crore as actual lalitopAsakas uphold.
      A figure of 33 crore devas may not be so hard to reach even when considering just Hinduism.

      As an aside, there are orders of magnitude more than 33 crore stars (and planets and clusters and constellations). This last becomes relevant when taking into account that, in religions that are not unlike Hinduism, every star–and planet and constellation–is a God.

      I noticed that the relation between “monism” and “polytheism” (and “monism” and “dvaita”) is more transparent or straightforward in Taoism, where each pair is not turned on itself as is easily done by modern interpreters in Hinduism.

      ( including worship the cow as repository of all devatās e.g the great jivanmukta HH sri candrasekhara bharati worshipped a cow in front of the saradamba temple and simply said ‘the puja is over’).

      Yes.
      But that’s the difference between an actual advaita vedAntin and the recently invented pseudo-vedAnta which universalises vedAnta to sell it to the laity as a replacement for their established tradition, such as concerning the perception of the Gods.

      A large class of the nationalist would-be Hindus in India are increasingly de-heathenising: the proper perception of the Gods ceased to compute to them and therefore they readily lap up pseudo-Vedanta or reconstructionism of Classical Samkhya (neo-classical samkhya) etc–none of which are the traditions transmitted to them by their direct ancestors–and to whom appeal any interpretative efforts that turn Gods into “psychic” or otherwise subjective states or else rationalise them away. Post-heathenism.

      Chandrashekharendra Saraswati Swamigal of Kanchi provided a description of pseudo-Vedanta and why it does not achieve any realisation of Vedaanta:

      kamakoti.org/hindudharma/part5/chap32.htm

      Nowadays, people are averse to ritual to start with itself. “What? ” they exclaim. “Who wants to perform sacrifices? Why should we chant the Vedas? Let us go directly to the Upanisads. ” Some of them can speak eloquently about the Upanisads from a mere intellectual understanding of them. But none has the inward experience of the truths propounded in them and we do not see them emerging as men of detachment with a true awareness of the Self. The reason for this is that they have not prepared themselves for this higher state of perception through the performance of rituals.

      If one has to qualify for the B. A. degree one has to begin at the beginning – one has to progress from the first standard all the way to the degree course. One cannot naturally join the B. A. class without qualifying for it.

      If he [gItAchArya shrI kRiShNa] were to descend to earth again to teach us, he would turn against those who plunge into a study of the Upanisads, spurning Vedic rites. It seems to me that he would be more severe in his criticism of these people that he was against those who were obsessed with karma.

      Graduating to the Upanisads without being prepared for them through the performance of Vedic rites is a greater offence than failure to go along the path of jnana from that of karma. After all, to repeat what I said before, on[e] has to go through the primary and secondary stages of education before qualifying for admission to college. The man who insists on being admitted to the B. A. class without qualifying for it is not amenable to any suggestion. The one who wants to remain in the first standard learns at least something; the other type is incapable of learning anything.

      While the Shankaracharya seems to be admonishing modern ‘brahmanas’ for trying to skip past the karmakaandam into vedaanta, one can extrapolate this to a larger and more severe criticism of the pseudo-Vedaanta that many are increasingly trying to sell to/foist on Hindu laity. Ironically, the still-heathen among the laity already imbibe all the necessary essentials of Vedaanta from the itihaasas, puraaNas and other established stotra material (alongside retaining the traditional perception of the Gods, who are inextricably linked to all these), where it is present in the exact form as can be digested by the everyday Hindu.

      Those to whom pseudo-Vedaanta appeals and who use it to replace their direct ancestors’ perceptions of the Gods (that is, tradition) lose access to the attainments possible from traditional views and do not attain anything via their new-agey Vedaanta Lite either. They should have stuck to tradition, but de-heathenisation is a one-way street, as loss of proper perception of the Gods is something that just can’t be undone, and it’s all downhill for the individual’s heathenism from there.

      • Sharan Sharma

        Thank you for your kind words as also the rAmAyaNa reference!

        Lovely comment and I agree with your points in full. As you point out, this business of jumping to vedAnta without having the requisite qualifications is creating a mess. Not only for the individual but also for our society in terms of losing dharmic vigour. Much of the confusion is just Abrahamism in disguise.

  • Ashutosh Kulkarni
  • Subramanian Venkatraman

    I am humbled when I read this article and comments. My heart goes out to those among us who, in their ‘agyan’ (I don’t this means foolishness, but only the absence of gyan.) take pleasure in condemning our heritage and cannot stop praising the ‘gyan’ of modern science. For me ‘gyan’ is NOT ‘knowledge’ as we know it, which can be acquired by anyone. Gyan is realisation of truth. How do you attain it? I do not know. I am not a learned person.

  • Ananth Sethuraman

    The article should have talked about nama-rupa as well, e.g.,
    “Abrahamic God has qualities (like Saguna Brahman), but no form accessible to us (i.e. no concept of Sakar or nama-rupa). Hence images banned” ( Rajiv Malhotra twitter 3 Dec 2014 )

    Also read together with
    http://swarajyamag.com/culture/am-i-a-hindu/
    Because that article is long, just search for the sentence “In our culture, gods continue to be created.” Then go up one or two paragraphs and start reading.

  • JVG

    The Vedas does not refer to millions of deities but 33 supreme deities. 33 divinities are mentioned in the Yajur-veda, Atharva-veda, Satapatha-brahmana, and in several other Vedic and later texts. The number thirty-three occurs with reference to divinities in the Parsi scriptures of Avesta as well. The word ‘koti’ in Trayastrimsati koti does not mean the number ‘thirty-three crore’. Here koti means ‘supreme’, pre-eminent, excellent, that is, the 33 ‘supreme’ divinities. The word koti has the same meaning as ‘Uchha koti’.

    It was a problem even in AD 725 when Subhakarasimha and his Chinese colleague I-hsing translated the Mahavairocana-sutra into Chinese. They rendered the compound Sapta-Koti-Buddha as Shichi (sapta) Kotei (koti) Butsu (buddha) in which they did not translate the word koti that transliterated its pronunciation as kotei. The Buddhas were not ‘seven crore’, but only ‘Seven Supreme Buddhas’: six predecessors and the historic Buddha. Tibetan masters who translated Sanskrit texts into Tibetan, rendered koti by rnam which means ‘class, kind, category’.

    In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, chapter 3, Yajnavalkya has said that in reality there are only 33 supreme deities. Of these 8 are Vasus, 11 Rudras, 12 Adityas, and Indra and Prajapati. 8 Vasus + 11 Rudras + 12 Adityas + 2 Heaven and Earth ( 8+ 11 + 12 + 2 = 33).

  • Rama

    Thank you sir
    Great article. In my humble opinion, Puranas are not myths. I do not think there is an equivalent term in English.

    • Adityapuram S Mahadevan

      “Purana” can be translated as “antiquities” instead of mythology