How many water are there?
This is the question I think of when people discuss how many gods there are. One? Many? Many who are all aspects of one? Many who are distinctly separate?
In school we’re taught to divide things up into charts and graphs, expecting definite answers one way or the other. If you apply this method to studying Hindu gods, you’ll often be frustrated by the lack of ability to pin things down.
Inevitably when I’m taking a class from the Devi Mandir, someone will ask this question, “Swamiji, I thought you said this was a mantra to Durga but then it starts listing the avatars like it’s a mantra to Vishnu.”
Then he’ll answer, “Yes. This is a mantra to Durga, who is Mahalakshmi, who is the Shakti of Vishnu.”
When you’re worshiping a Hindu deity, the others are aspects of the one you’re worshiping. For example, as you recite the 1000 names of Devi, you call her “She who appears as Krishna.” But you thought it was Vishnu who appears as Krishna? You learn that Ganesh is the son of Devi and Shiva (or sometimes Devi without Shiva) but in the Ganesh Gita he says that any worship centered on himself or Shiva or Devi or Vishnu counts as worship of him because He alone is Shiva, is Devi, is Vishnu. Then the Western brain melts.
I’ve come to use water as a metaphor for deity. So, how many water are there?
There’s just one thing we call water. It has two hydrogens per oxygen. When a deity claims to be The Deity, it’s like declaring water to be Water. It just is.
We have rivers and lakes and oceans and streams and bathtubs and swimming pools and sippy cups. We can say of the water in a bottle, “This is Water” but we can’t rightly say, “This is Lake Eerie” in any sense but symbolic even if it does contain water from Lake Eerie. A jacuzzi is not the Amazon River, but both are the same Water.Sometimes people are skeptical that there can even be a God at all because they look at differences in various religions. It’s like saying, “But these people say the ocean is Water, while these other people say their local creek is Water. They can’t even agree on whether water is salty or not. They can’t all be true, so they must all be false!” The fact that you can’t see how something is true doesn’t make it false.
Other times people say that humans created God. If you look at the swimming pool at a resort, you can tell humans planned and designed it. In fact, they designed the entire resort to meet their own personal needs! Therefore, it must be false. Except this: humans don’t create water. You can prepare a container to hold water, but you cannot create water.
All the water on earth is the same water. Sometimes people think that different religions can’t possibly worship the same God because there are qualities that cultures have added that aren’t compatible. There is some water that I wouldn’t personally drink or wash my face with, and there are definitely some religious ideologies I stay far away from. Some are downright deadly. If someone puts their water into a bottle of arsenic instead of purifying their container, that doesn’t mean the rest of us should give up water. It means we should avoid their container.
Is there one God? Yes.
Are there many gods? Yes.
Are the many gods different aspects of the one God? Sure.
Is each god a unique and noninterchangeable individual? Of course.
Am I monotheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic, panentheistic? Yes.
When people get frustrated and wonder how Hindus can claim to believe all these disparate things about God, I just ask, “How many water are there?”