This section will be all about hierarchy and who is who in Hinduism.
With millions of gods around, there must be a clear hierarchy that puts everyone to their place. Usually every creature is satisfied with this order, except some of the demons and the occasional deluded human, but other than this negligible threat the order of things is quite fixed.
Let’s start from the top:
The Trimurti consists of Bramha, Vishnu and Shiva: the Creator, the Preserver and the Destroyer. They are the Hindu version of the Holy Trinity and you could view them as the parents or bosses of all the lesser gods (the deva). They don’t actively influence mundane things unless and until they have to; it usually happens when things get so out of control that they must put a foot down and get “the kids” to stop misbehaving – this means us humans too. Each god has his female counterpart and consort: Brahma has Saraswati, Goddess of culture. Vishnu has Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth and fortune, and Shiva has Shakti, Goddess of Power. Together they control the universe and make sure cosmic balance is held up.
They are your general gods just like in any other polytheistic religion. They are the ones who control the smaller details of the universe that are related to humans: the weather, the elements, rivers, planets and stars; the oldest of the vedas, the Rigveda mentions 33 of them. That number swelled to millions since the last few millennia, but don’t worry, most are local deities of a specific village, who is not known anywhere else.
Devas are beneficial beings and most of them are descendants of Brahma. As well as being majestic gods, they can display very human treats such as jealousy, lust, fear, vice; you name it.
Hindus worship specific gods for specific purposes. You go to Indra for rain, to Lakshmi or Kuber for wealth, to Hanuman for strength… and each one of them have their preferred prasadam (offerings). Favourite fruit, flower, colour… Hindu gods are very individualistic!
The most important devas are:
Indra, king of the devas and god of Lightning and Rain.
Surya, the Sun god
Chandra, the Moon god
Kuber, god of Wealth
Ganesha, remover of obstacles, god of knowledge
Kartikey, god of war
Hanuman, god of devotion
Bhumi, goddess of Earth
Ganga, goddess of the river Ganges
Vayu, god of air and wind
Varuna, god of water
Agni, god of fire
Kama, god of love and lust
Mangala, the god of Mars
Budh, the god of Mercury,
Brihaspati, the god of Jupiter and teacher of the deva
Shukra, the god of Venus and teacher of the demons
Shani, the god of Saturn and karma
Rahu, the god of Neptune*
Ketu, the god of Uranus,
Yama, the god of Pluto and death
*note that the planets beyond Saturn were assigned to their gods relatively recently after the discovery of those planets. In traditional vedic astrology there are only nine heavenly bodies (navagraha), counting the Sun and the nodes of the Moon as well as all the planets until Saturn. Rahu and Ketu are in fact the North and South Lunar Nodes, respectively. In good time I will try and explain these gods one by one in their own posts. Now let’s move on to the next group.
Asuras and Rakshasas/rakshasi
Parallel to the gods there are the demons who are equally powerful- sometimes even more powerful than the gods. In Pre-Puranic Hinduism the word asura meant nature spirits like the god of air or fire. But by Post-Puranic times this evolved into the idea of anti-gods who are lusting for power and want to overthrow the deva.
Famous asurs are: Maheshasur, Bhasmasur, Andhak, Jalandhar, Tarkasur, Tarkaksh, Vidyunmali and Viryavana.
Rakshasas are said to have been born from Brahma’s breath when he was sleeping. They were bloodthirsty demons; right after their creation, they started eating Brahma, who woke up and shouted for help – the word rakshas derives from his cry for help, Sanskrit: “Rakshama!” Vishnu came to the rescue and exiled them to Earth. Famous rakshas are: Ravana, Vibhishan, Kumbakarna, Ghatotkacha, Hiranyaksha and Hiranyakashipu.
Although both asuras and rakshasas display mean characteristics, both of the groups have positive, benevolent representatives as well as demon like. The main difference between the two groups is that while Asuras have their own world (lok) to live in, the Rakshas are living on Earth with us humans. An interesting fact-snippet is that some Buddhist traditions regard the Buddha a rakshas descendant, while there are groups of brahmans who trace their lineage back to Ravan.
Rishi and rishika
Rishis(male) and rishikas(female) are great sages who have dedicated their lives to the gods and meditation and composing hymns, especially those of the Rig Veda. They are not devas but not quite humans either: they have reached a special status through their austerities or by birth – many of them are the mind-born sons of Brahma. They are regarded with great respect by all, even the devas. The most well known rishis are:
Kashyapa, Atri, Vasistha, Vishvamitra, Gautama Maharishi, Jamadagni and Bharadvaja – they are associated with the stars of Ursa Major.
Marichi, Agastya, Dadichi, Atharva, the four Kumaras and Vashistha are also famous rishis.
Notable rishikas are: Yami, Indrani, Savitri, Devyani, Romasha, Lopamudra, Apala, Kadru, Visvavara, Ghosha, Juhu, Vagambhrini, Paulomi, Nodha, Akrishtabhasha, Sikatanivavari and Gaupayana.
Munis are rishis who seek the knowledge of existence through self realisation. There are two types of munis; one who spends his/her life in meditation and another who is liberated from rebirth in his/her lifetime. They are equal to the rishis.
Guru means teacher. Gurus are humans but are treated with great respect – next to gods – by people who have accepted them as their teachers. Gurus are not like simple school teachers but they help form one’s spirituality, share their experiences and thoughts on spirituality and also act as counsellors. Even today, people treat great gurus like they are incarnations of gods. Famous gurus are:
Shri Prabhupada, Asaram Bapu, Baba Ramdev, Shri Shri Ravi Shankar, Swaminarayan, Shirdi Sai Baba
Sadhus or sanyasis (female: sadhvi) are religious ascetics or monks who seek enlightenment and devote their lives to worship. They are treated with respect just like a monk or a nun would be.
Humans in general
Well, that’s us! We are below all of the above categories but we do have the chance to reach all of the above (preferrably not the rakshas though), through hard work on ourselves!
Better get cracking!
©Katalin Patnaik 2019