During a Durga festival, a statue of the goddess is carried through the streets.
During a Durga festival, a statue of the goddess is carried through the streets.

The ancient Vedic scriptures mention 33 gods and goddesses by name, but there are said to be as many deities in Hinduism as there are stars in the sky. Each divine being has devotees who worship and importune their favorite -- from Ganesh to Garuda -- for blessings and benefits. But there are maha-deities in the Hindu religion -- the greater gods and goddesses who transcend local preferences and occupy supreme status in the pantheon.

One from the Many

Hinduism arose from cultures in the Indus Valley more than 2,000 years before the Christian Era, and some archaeologists think the influences are even older. The religion absorbed gods, goddesses and rituals from many tribes, which accounts for its rich array of divinities and variety of colorful devotions. But, while personal divinities are dear to the hearts of their followers, the Vedas and later scriptures and sacred books began to define a hierarchy of deities. The impulse to identify a god-force or architect of creation, as well as the need to characterize universal attributes of divinity in representative beings, resulted in an elite subset of widely-accepted Hindu gods and goddesses and avatars who exemplify their most important qualities. The apparent hierarchy reflects the Hindu belief that all manifestations of God are essentially one sacred principle.

The Trinity

A religious trinity represents qualities of a single divine presence and such is the case in Hinduism. Brahman is the overarching spirit, the divine infusion of all things sacred. But the tripartite manifestation of supreme divinity is the triad of Brahma, the creative mind of the universe; Vishnu, the powerful preserver; and Shiva, the destroyer and re-creator of the universe. Each member of the trinity has a goddess-consort, who is an aspect of the divinity. Brahma's consort is Saraswati, goddess of poetry, music, the arts and knowledge. Vishnu is paired with Lakshmi, goddess of beauty and abundance. Shiva, a complex manifestation of divinity, has an equally complex consort. Parvati is the benign aspect of the goddess, a dispenser of grace and marital harmony. But her alternate personalities are the fiercely protective Durga and Kali, formidable destroyers of evil.

Lord of the Dance and Lingams

Shiva Nataraja is the "dancing Shiva," depicted dancing ecstatically in a circle of flames. The image captures the story of Shiva's exultation upon his defeat of demons and false sages who lead people off the path of virtue. The figure is a favorite portrayal of the god, the raised leg and four graceful arms instantly recognizable as the lord of destruction in his creative form. Another iconic Shiva is the lingam, a phallus-shaped sculpture or stone that also represents the fertility of the creative aspect of Shiva and the formless nature of divinity. The higher up in the pantheon the god, the more likely it is that features of that god's personality or power will be translated into original and enduring images for worship.

Stories and Avatars

Hindu scriptures known as the Vedas, ancient stories written in vedic Sanskrit, tell of the earliest gods. Much later, during the millennium from 500 B.C. to A.D. 500, the great Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were written down in Sanskrit, along with the Dharma Sutras and Puranas. These are teachings and stories that feature avatars, or incarnations, of the primary gods. Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu from the Mahabharata, is a beloved and widely worshiped deity in his own right as the playful blue Krishna of the Bhagavata Purana. Hanuman, the popular monkey god from the Ramayana, is an avatar of Shiva. Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, is the son of Shiva and Parvati, from the tales of the Ganesha Purana, and has his own avatars. Each of the avatars is venerated, in temple pujas or rituals and at home altars, as the embodiment of a significant aspect of a senior god in the Hindu hierarchy.