Bhakti means intense devotion. The concept of devotion is more or less the same in all religions. But in Hinduism there are certain extra subtleties which make the concept comparatively more complicated. These are four in number: viz.,

1. the One Reality versus many ‘Gods’ of worship;

2. deity  worship through ‘ idols’;

3. the freedom to choose one’s own ‘favourite deity’, at the same time not being exclusive;  and 4. the interactive ramifications of God’s grace, fate and free will.  

An integrated but brief presentation of all these will be attempted here in the context of bhakti.


Morality and ethics are only the first steps in the religious life of a man. Man’s mental anguish very often takes him to situations wherein he needs the solace of a more superior power than himself. In his first stages of such introspection he ends up discovering the superiority of Nature over him. This makes him analyse the powers of Nature and in doing so for a length of time he discovers that however deep he penetrates into the complexity of nature there is something deeper than what he knows to be true.  This is actually the progress of the scientific spirit. But man actually took several centuries of his civilised life to arrive at this stage. Long before he arrived at this stage he had already postulated a Supreme Cosmic Power as the motive force behind every expression of Nature. In the early history of Man’s ascent this perhaps gave him the motivation to invent the concept of God.

But the concept of God in Hinduism is more complex than this naive conception of a Cosmic Power. The Upanishads take pains to explain how every physical expression amenable to sense perception is nothing but an expression of the divine. Since everything is God, you should not delineate it by one name and form and circumscribe it by the limitations of worldly expressions and imagery. In fact, anything that has name and form is a creation of the human mind. So we have to transcend the concept of name and form to get to the true nature of God. The Upanishads declare that there is a substratum of existence behind all the manifest presentations to the mind. This is just like gold being the substratum of existence in all gold ornaments, plastic being the substratum of existence in all articles of plastic or the movie screen being the base of all the presentations on the screen.

This substratum – named brahman, by the Upanishads – permeates everything in the world. It is the common content of all that has a name and/or form. For that very reason, it has no name or form for itself. It is spoken of as ‘THAT’ in the neuter gender by the Upanishads. This is the unique Godhead of Hinduism.  There is no other. There is no second. It is the source of all energy, of all power, either in nature or in living beings.  But the difficulty with this concept is this: there is no subject-object relationship in this context, brahman cannot be the object of cognition, since brahman has no second. In fact nothing can be predicated about brahman without delimiting the infiniteness of brahman. So Hindu Vedanta, with a mathematical precision, has postulated that the moment one wants to think of brahman as an object of thought, one has already delimited brahman and is only thinking of Iswara, otherwise called saguna brahman, brahman with attributes.

Iswara is the all-powerful Almighty which is the subject of all religions. It has all the supreme qualities of brahman – if brahman could be said to have qualities or attributes – and, in addition, it could be the object of our thought process. By its very nature all names and forms suit it. The Vedic logic here is really very subtle, interesting and should be enjoyed as such. It has no name or form and therefore it could be called by any name and could be given any form. The concept of idol worship is the practical implementation of this unique logic of Hinduism.  Hinduism has the daring to carry the rationale of this to its logical conclusion and hence it is we find a plethora of ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ in the Hindu framework.


Since no single name or form of God can fully describe the infinite grandeur that is God, since each name or form is only a symbol that points to something that is beyond this visual representation and since each is only a representation  of some aspect or manifestation of the supreme Divinity, it is the entire array of all names and forms of God that will approximate to the fullness that is God.


In spite of all this, knowing the weakness of Man, Hinduism recommends that each person may choose his deity of worship. This is called the principle of ishTa-devatA, which is another distinguishing feature of Hinduism. If the grossest manifestation is the only thing that suits your taste, or mood, or psychological make-up or intellect, you are free to worship God in that form.   Even the same person may worship an idol at one time and at another time may meditate and attempt to merge in the transcendental para brahman which is the basic divine chip that we are all made of, if we care to look within ourselves. One may choose an ishTa devatA  as per one’s taste and worship that as the Ultimate.

It is this train of thought in the Hindu mind which lives with different purANas extolling different deities. The Siva Purana may say that Siva is the greatest God, every other God is subordinate to it and the Vishnu purANa may say the same thing of Vishnu. There is no contradiction meant, implied or slurred over. This is the remarkable beauty of Hinduism. When they say that all Gods are nothing but names and forms of the same Ultimate para brahman, they mean it. If we understand it the wrong way, we are the ones to blame, not Hinduism. This is why when we explain Hinduism to a non-Hindu or to a novice we have to start from the philosophical end. Naive explanations of Hinduism without touching the basic philosophy inherent in everything in Hinduism not only do not give the truth but they misrepresent the religion. These naive explanations would crumble even in the understanding of the Ramayana serial on the TV network, because it is shown (rightly) there that on one side  Rama worships Siva and on the other side Siva worships Rama. 


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Copyright © V. Krishnamurthy  June 25, 2002