Hindus acknowledge that, at the most fundamental level God is absolute, formless, truth, reality, the universe and everything in it. This is Brahman, the Supreme, Universal Soul.
This element of Hindu belief equates God with the universe (pantheism). Yet Hindu belief is also polytheistic: the Hindu pantheon is populated with many gods and goddesses who personify aspects of the one true God. This allows individuals an infinite number of ways to worship based on family tradition, community and regional practices, and personal choice.
Within the pantheon, there is a key trinity of gods (the Trimurti) who Hindus see as the personifications of the cyclical nature of all existence: Brahma the Creator; Vishnu the preserver; Shiva the destroyer.
Brahma the Creator
(Not to be confused with the Supreme Universal Soul known as Brahman, which is genderless) According to the Brahma Purana, he is the father of Manu, and from Manu all Hindus are descended. In the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, he is often referred to as the progenitor or great grandsire of all human beings. Brahma is the first member of the Hindu Trimurti and is “the Creator” because he periodically creates everything in the universe. Hindus believe that time is cyclical and everything in the universe — except for Brahman and the Vedas — is created, maintained for a certain amount of time, and then destroyed in order to be renewed in ideal form again.
Brahma is traditionally depicted with four heads, four faces, and four arms. With each head, He continually recites one of the four Vedas. Saraswati, goddess of learning, is his wife. Unlike most other Hindu Gods, Brahma holds no weapons. One of His hands holds a scepter in the form of a spoon, which is associated with the pouring of holy ghee or oil onto a sacrificial pyre. Another of His hands holds a 'kamandalu'- a jar made of metal or even coconut shell, containing water. Brahma also holds a string of prayer beads called the 'akshamala' which He uses to keep track of the Universe's time. He is also shown holding the Vedas and, sometimes, a lotus flower.
Vishnu the Preserver
Vishnu is the second member of the Hindu Trimurti. He maintains the order and harmony of the universe, which is periodically created by Brahma and periodically destroyed by Shiva to prepare for the next creation.
Vishnu, whose name means "All-Pervading," is the protector of the world and the restorer of moral order (dharma). He is peaceful, merciful, and compassionate. To Vaisnavites, Vishnu is the Supreme Lord.
"The world rests as the lotus in the palm of my hand, the cosmos revolves around my finger like a discus. I blow the music of life through my conch and wield my mace to protect all creatures." Vishnu in the Krishna Upanishad
Vishnu is often pictured with his consort, Lakshmi (also called Sri), and usually has four arms. Each hand holds an emblem of his divinity: the conch, discus, club, and lotus. A curl of hair on his chest signifies his immortality, and he wears the jewel Kaustubha around his neck. He is usually depicted with a dark complexion, as are his incarnations. Vishnu is often shown reclining or asleep as he awaits the next annihilation and renewal of the world, as in the picture above which also shows Brahma in the lotus flower issuing from Vishnu's navel.
Vishnu is best known through his ten avatars (incarnations), which appear on earth to restore order in times of severe imbalance. Rama and Krishna, whose stories are told in the Epics and the Puranas, are the most popular incarnations of Vishnu by far:
• Rama is one of the most beloved Hindu gods and is the hero of the Hindu epic called the Ramayana. He is portrayed as an ideal son, brother, husband, and king and as a strict adherent to dharma. Millions of Hindus derive satisfaction from reading and recalling Rama’s trials and tribulations as a young prince who was exiled from his kingdom for 14 years.
• If one Hindu god’s name is known and recognized throughout the world, it is Krishna. Hindus identify Krishna as the teacher of the sacred scripture called the Bhagavad Gita and as the friend and mentor of prince Arjuna in the epic the Mahabharata.
For his devotees, Krishna is a delight, full of playful pranks. But most of all, Lord Krishna’s promise to humanity that he will manifest himself and descend to earth whenever dharma declines has sustained Hindu belief in the Supreme Being.
Shiva the Destroyer
Shiva is the third member of the Hindu Trimurti, tasked with destroying the universe in order to prepare for its renewal at the end of each cycle of time. Shiva’s destructive power is regenerative and it is the necessary step that makes renewal possible.
Hindus will customarily invoke Shiva before the beginning of any religious or spiritual endeavor because they believe that any bad vibrations in the immediate vicinity of worship are eliminated by the mere utterance of his praise or name. To Saivites, Shiva is the Supreme Lord.
A common depiction of Shiva is the Nataraj, the cosmic dancer who performs his divine dance to destroy a weary universe and make preparations for the god Brahma to start the process of creation.
The symbolism in each image of Shiva is so dense, click here if you want to read more about the specific items and their meanings.
Shiva is married to Parvati, goddess of love, and has two sons, Ganesha and Kartikeya. Just as Shiva is at once the presiding deity of destruction and regeneration, the couple jointly symbolise at once both the power of renunciation and asceticism and the blessings of marital felicity. As all the other goddesses are incarnations of Parvati, she is also known as the goddess of power, and some of her various aspects are mentioned on the next page (Kali, Durga, Tara).
Saraswati is the Hindu Goddess of rivers and knowledge. Her name means “the one who flows”, and she is the wife of Brahma. Saraswati is usually depicted sitting on a white lotus, symbolizing truth and purity. She has four arms, and she holds in her hands a book (symbolic of written knowledge and her mastery of science and learning), a string of crystals or prayer beads (symbolic of spiritual knowledge), a pot of water (symbolic of creativity and purification), and a musical instrument called a veena (symbolic of knowledge of the fine arts).
In the Rigveda, Saraswati is a river as well as its personification as a goddess. In the post-Vedic age, she began to lose her status as a river goddess and became increasingly associated with literature, arts, music, etc.
Hindus worship her not only for "academic knowledge", but for "divine knowledge" essential to achieve moksha. Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and arts, represents the free flow of wisdom and consciousness, and it is only with her help that Brahma became capable of creating the world. There are many stories about Saraswati and you can read more here.
Lakshmi is the goddess of good fortune, wealth, and well-being. As the wife of Vishnu, she plays a role in every incarnation. (She is Sita, wife of Rama; Rukmini, wife of Krishna; and Dharani, wife of Parashu Rama, another avatar of Vishnu.)
Lakshmi is worshipped daily in Hindu homes and commercial establishments as the goddess of wealth, and is the household goddess of most Hindu families, as well as a favorite of women. She also enjoys worship as the consort of Vishnu in many temples, and Diwali (festival of lights) is the most well-known festival in her honour.
Cascades of gold coins are seen flowing from her hands, suggesting that those who worship her gain wealth. Two elephants are often shown standing next to the goddess and spraying water. This denotes that ceaseless effort, in accordance with one's dharma and governed by wisdom and purity, leads to both material and spiritual prosperity.
Durga is a powerful, even frightening goddess who fights fiercely in order to restore dharma (moral order). Yet, while Durga is terrifying to her adversaries, she is full of compassion and love for her devotees.
Durga is an incarnation of Devi or the Mother Goddess, a unified symbol of all divine forces. For Shaivas Durga is the wife of Shiva For Vaishnavas and Shaktas Durga is another form of Parvati.
The Hindu Goddess Durga manifested when evil forces threatened the very existence of the Gods. To destroy these demons, all gods offered their radiance to her creation and each formed part of Durga's body. Durga also obtained very powerful weapons, such as the chakra (discus) from Vishnu and a trident from Shiva. The name Durga in Sanskrit means invincible.
Durga killed the powerful demon Mahish and all his great commanders. When demonic forces create imbalance, all gods unite, becoming one divine force called Shakti or Durga.
Kali is the ferocious aspect of Durga perfectly personified. According to the Purana, this image of Durga as Kali, so widely worshipped in eastern parts of India, owes its origin to the battle of Durga with the demons Shumbha and Nishumbha. Kali was so overjoyed after her victory over these demons that she started the dance of death. In her great ecstasy Kali continued the destruction, and as the prayers of the other gods could not calm her, Shiva had to intervene. Seeing no other way of dissuading her, Shiva threw himself amongst the bodies of the slain demons. When Kali saw that she was dancing over the body of her husband, she put her tongue out of her mouth in sorrow and surprise. She remained stunned in this posture and this is how Kali is shown in almost all images with the red tongue protruding from her mouth.
Kali is not always thought of as a Dark Goddess; rather, she is also referred to as a great and loving primordial Mother Goddess in the Hindu tantric tradition. In this aspect, as Mother Goddess, she is referred to as Kali Ma, meaning Kali Mother, and millions of Hindus revere her as such. There is both life and death in this form of the Divine Mother, who is also considered another form of Parvati.
Tara is the Hindu goddess of liberation. She is one of the Mahavidyas, the Wisdom Goddesses. The Hindu Tara is usually depicted as fierce and horrifying, in contrast to the beautiful and compassionate Tara of Buddhism. She holds a knife or a pair of scissors, a skull, a sword, and blue lotus. Her complexion is often shows as blue, and she has three red eyes. Tara wears snakes and a tiger skin, and is seated on the heart of a corpse. Her depiction is very often like that of Kali and she shares many names with Kali.
The Hindu Tara is also associated with cremation. She sits or stands on a corpse, which is often shown being cremated or there are cremation fires in the background. In this context, cremation represents the transition from life to death and the soul’s liberation from the body. The sword and scissors that she carries symbolize the cutting of ties that bind one to ignorance and prevent freedom.
Tara is also seen as another incarnation of Parvati.
Although he is known by many other attributes, Ganesha's elephant head makes him particularly easy to identify. Ganesha is widely revered as the Remover of Obstacles and more generally as the Lord of Beginnings and the Lord of Obstacles.
Ganesha (also known as Ganapati or Vinayaka) is Shiva & Parvati's first son. Most Hindu households have a picture or statue of this godhead, and it’s not uncommon to see small replicas of Ganapati hanging from rearview mirrors of cars and trucks!
Unlike those of some deities, representations of Ganesha show wide variations and distinct patterns changing over time. He may be portrayed standing, dancing, heroically taking action against demons, playing with his family as a boy, sitting down or on an elevated seat, or engaging in a range of contemporary situations.
While some texts say that Ganesha was born with an elephant head, he acquires the head later in most stories . The most recurrent motif in these stories is that Ganesha was created by Parvati using clay to protect her and Shiva beheaded him when Ganesha came between Shiva and Parvati. Shiva then replaced Ganesha's original head with that of an elephant. Details of the battle and where the replacement head came from vary from source to source and by region of India.
Hanuman, the mighty ape that aided Lord Rama in his expedition against evil forces, is one of the most popular gods in the Hindu pantheon. Believed to be an avatar of Lord Shiva, Hanuman is worshiped as a symbol of physical strength, perseverance and devotion. Hanuman's tale in the epic Ramayana - where he is assigned the responsibility to locate Rama's wife Sita who had been abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka — is known for his performing feats of strength, devotion, and courage while helping Rama in countless exciting incidents.
On Tuesdays and in some cases, Saturdays, many people keep fast in honour of Hanuman and give special offerings to him. In times of trouble, it is common among Hindus to chant the name of Hanuman or sing his hymn ("Hanuman Chalisa") and proclaim "Bajrangbali Ki Jai" — "victory to thy thunderbolt strength". Once every year — on the full-moon day of the Hindu month of Chaitra (April) at sunrise — Hanuman Jayanti is celebrated to commemorate the birth of Hanuman. Hanuman temples are among the most common public shrines found in India.