Here’s an interesting article on polytheism from a Hindu perspective by Ramdas Lamb, a Professor of Religion at the University of Hawaii. There has been a fair amount of Pagan-Hindu dialogue recently (including several panels at February’s Pantheacon) and I think it’s helpful to see how our views compare and contrast.
Professor Lamb begins with the proposition that “No human has demonstrable or irrefutable proof for or against a belief in a divinity or a lack thereof.” Therefore “we should focus … on the ramifications and practical usefulness of the various theological conceptualizations on the people who hold them as well as on the rest of the world.” In other words, is our concept of the Divine meaningful and helpful?
Lamb says “each divinity or spirit being has a specific function.” Deities are frequently associated with natural forces or with ideals such as love or justice. This is very similar to John Michael Greer’s observation in A World Full of Gods that the world as we experience it is better explained by many limited gods and goddesses rather than by one all-powerful God.
He goes on to say that polytheism “mirrors the human experience of family, village, and state.” Both the religious and the social models involve a series of roles, responsibilities, relationships, duties and obligations. But the philosophical structure underlying polytheism differs greatly from that of monotheism. In polytheism, power is distributed among many individuals and many levels based on function. In monotheism, power is concentrated in one all-powerful supreme being and distributed based on hierarchy.
Lamb says that Hinduism has a form of monotheism: “the many deities are like spokes, all of which emanate from the hub [of a wheel].” This concept, I think, is likely the source of the popular but problematic saying “all gods are aspects of one God.”
As a polytheistic Unitarian (how’s that for a religious paradox?) I prefer to say that all gods and goddesses – and humans and all other living things – exist within one God/dess.
I’ve read elsewhere that “Hinduism” is a term created by British colonialists that combines a wide variety of Indian beliefs and practices that aren’t the same from region to region. In any case, Hinduism is of particular interest to modern Pagans. Although it has been influenced by neighboring and invading religions (Buddhism and Islam, plus Christianity since the colonial period), at its core it is the modern incarnation of an indigenous religion. If you want to know what Western religion would look like today had Christianity never expanded beyond the Middle East, take a look at India.