A discussion of bhakti and the worship of deities leads to a consideration of the gods and goddesses in Hinduism. In practice, Hinduism acknowledges and honors literally thousands of gods and goddess. Some say that the number of deities in Hinduism is 300 million! It is impossible to say if this number is to be taken literally or whether it is just a figurative way of saying there are more than can be numbered. Keep in mind, however, that some would say that no matter how many deities there are in Hinduism, they all reflect the same divine reality. (It may be similar to Christians maintaining that there is one God manifest in three persons).
We noted previously that the earliest Vedas focus on gods such as Indra, Agni, and Soma. Today, these gods are acknowledged, but most HIndus devote themselves to the goddesses Durga or Kali, or to the gods Vishnu or Shiva. The key point here is the notion of devoting oneself to the deity. These gods are the object of the intense love and devotion known as bhakti.
Millions of Hindus worship some one of the goddesses. Although there are many different goddesses, some have concluded that they all represent a manifestation of the same feminine divine power (sakti). According to this theory, the feminine divine power may take the form of objects and forces of nature (for example, the Ganges river is a manifestation of the goddess Mother Ganga), local goddesses, or one of the great goddesses. In short, the feminine divine power can take on an infinite number of forms: some are fierce and warlike, others are beautiful and peaceful.
Support for this theory comes from the fact that in some cases, different goddesses seem to share the same history and have identical deeds attributed to them. On the other hand, however, goddesses are generally distinct in terms of personality, areas of responsibility and association with a male deity. Vishnu's wife is Lakshmi while both Parvati and Kali are the considered to be the consort of Shiva. In these cases, the feminine divine power that balances and completes the power of the god. In fact, the power of the goddess spurs the the passive god into action. Even when paired with a male deity, goddesses are also considered an independent power in her own right. Indeed, devotees consider their goddess to be the manifestation of the totality of the divine.
Two goddesses that are widely worshipped are Durga and Kali. Durga is usually represented as a beautiful woman whose ten arms hold weapons to destroy evil. Durga's great power is demonstrated by the fact that she alone was able to destroy the demon Mahisha when he invaded the realm of the gods. She is commonly portrayed riding a lion, with the vanquished demon underfoot. Kali is also depicted as a fearsome destroyer. She is typically wears a necklace of 50 skulls, each of which represents a specific evil. She is also known as the slayer of two demons, Chanda and Munda.
Online Video Clip: The Worship of Kali
Shiva is one of the most prominent and popular of Hindu deities. To his followers, Shiva is the manifestation of the fullness of God: "he is creator, preserver, destroyer, personal Lord, friend, primal Soul." Siva's power to destroy is often emphasized. This destruction, however, is also creative since the destruction of the old prepares the way for the new. Moreover, Shiva is considered the destroyer of evil, ignorance, bad habits and obstacles to spiritual growth. Shiva is the god of the ascetics and is often shown in meditation. The snake around his neck symbolizes his conquest of the ego. Shiva's weapon is the trident. Siva is often depicted as Siva Nataraja - Siva dancing. The elaborate symbolism of this common image reveals not only the importance of the visual in Hinduism, but also many attributes of the god Shiva.
In addition to the many images of Siva, he is also represented in by the symbol of the lingam. The lingam represents a phallus and thus creativity and reproduction. It should be noted that many followers of Siva object to this interpretation and see the lingam as the undifferentiated (aniconic) form of Siva.
Vishnu is revered as a deity filled with compassion and mercy. Traditionally, Vishnu's role has been to incarnate himself in order to intervene at critical moments when humanity was in need of help and guidance. In fact, there have been at least ten avatars (incarnations) of Vishnu - some in animal form. The most popular and influential of his incarnations have been Rama and Krishna. Although devotion to Krishna takes many forms, it is safe to say that this devotion is usually characterized by an intense, tender love for Krishna - whether it is love for an infant, friend or lover.