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  Hinduism is NOT “monotheism in disguise”  


By: B Shantanu
March 13, 2007
iews expressed here are author’s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer is at the bottom.


A few weeks ago, I came across a provocative comment by Richard Dawkins which mentioned that polytheism in Hinduism is essentially “monotheism in disguise”.

The comment prompted this post “Is Hinduism Monotheism in Disguise?” and my research (summarized below) on this topic.

I came to the conclusion that while Hinduism may display some monotheistic characteristics (or traces of monotheism), it is decidely not monotheistic. In reality, to call Hinduism either monotheistic or polytheistic is too simplistic, not to say erroneous.

The best way to characterize Hinduism is to describe it as an umbrella for a broad range of beliefs including monotheism, monism, pantheism and pane theism.

As the website Fast Facts on Hinduism states

“Hinduism is a decidedly theistic religion; the difficulty lies in determining whether it is a polytheistic, pantheistic, or perhaps even monotheistic religion.

It should be noted at the outset, however, that this is chiefly a western difficulty: the Indian mind is much more inclined to regard divergent views as complementary rather than competing…and Hindus are not nearly as concerned as are western thinkers with such labels and categories.”

The confusion about Hinduism at least partly stems from the fact that the most popular and well known view of Hinduism in the West is the “Smarta” view with its pantheon of Gods and Goddesses including Devi, Vishnu, Ganesh, and Siva.”

The “Smarta” view is also the dominant form of thought in India today and underpins the renowned liberalism (very rare in other belief systems) in Hinduism.

Please read on for a fuller explanation of what these various terms (monotheism, pantheism, pane theism, atheism) mean and how Hinduism has elements of all of them.

Richard Dawkins was not just being simplistic in his comment, he was also plain wrong.

Hinduism is NOT monotheism in disguise and we should strongly challenge simplistic statements (such as the one above) whenever we come across them to avoid misrepresentation of Hinduism’s core philosophy and beliefs.

Below are excerpts from various sources and references. They outline how you find the various “–isms” in Hinduism (for a good list of definitions, read this article, “Thank the Mahadevas, Hinduism is not a monotheistic religion”.

PANTHEISM and HINDUISM From Pantheism in Hinduism:

“It is generally asserted that Hindu religious texts were the oldest known literature that contained the ideas of Pantheistic doctorine[1]. In Hindu theology, Brahman is the unchanging, infinite, immanent, and transcendent reality which is the Divine Ground of all things in this universe, and is also the sum total of all that ever is, was, or ever shall be. This pantheistic doctrine is traceable from some of the more ancient Upanishads to later Advaita philosophy. All Mahāvākyas(Great Sayings) of the Upanishads, in one way or another, seem to indicate the unity of the world with the Brahman.

Pantheism is a key component of Advaita philosophy. Other subdivisions of Vedanta do not strictly hold this tenet. For example, Dvaita school of Madhva holds Brahman to be external personal God Vishnu, whereas the theistic school of Ramanuja espouses Pane theism.”

in Hinduism:

“Some interpretations of Hinduism can be seen as pane theistic…(Unlike) pantheism, which identifies God with the total reality…pane theism holds that God pervades the world, but is also beyond it. He is immanent and transcendent, relative and Absolute.

Certain interpretations of the Gita and the Shri Rudram support this view. For example, Lord Krishna's saying to Arjuna: "I continually support the entire universe by a very small fraction of My divine power," has been interpreted to support pane theism. (Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 10, verse 42.)

The pane theistic view of Hinduism has been termed by some scholars as monistic theism.
"From: “Thank the Mahadevas, Hinduism is not a monotheistic religion”

This Spiritual-Reality obviously cannot have just one (mono) form (theism). Therefore rather that a one dimensional or mono experience of Spiritual-Reality, the spiritual/religious tradition (Dharma) of Hinduism offers a full stereo range of expression of the eternal (Sanatana) flowing (Sindhu/Hindu) grandeur of Spiritual-Reality.
In other words, Sanatana Dharma/Hinduism truly believes that Spiritual-Reality flows through all things. Interesting to deny this animism (which is often deemed "primitive"), is to deny the very meaning of anima (soul).


From “Monotheism and Hindu Polytheism” by Aaron Schwartz

“…for a Hindu it is extremely difficult to realize the possibility of existence of the only God whom he/she could worship or prayed to. It is beyond his/her understanding because the Hindu perceives other gods, which are not ‘his’/‘her’, as various aspects of the god he/she worships.

As a result, and it is necessary to underline this fact, polytheists, such as adepts of Hinduism, are more tolerant in relation to other religions or gods and they won’t proclaim Jihad (a sacred war) as Muslims sometimes do.

Consequently, prosecution or proselytization of adepts of other religions can never exist in such a polytheistic environment as Hindu.”

From Hindu Views on Monotheism:

The “Smartha philosophy (that) defines the mainstream of Hinduism… allows for the veneration of numberless deities, but on the understanding that all of them are but manifestation of the ONE divine power.
That ultimate power is termed Brahman or Atman, and is believed to have no specific form, name or attribute.

MONOTHEISM and HINDUISM From Are Hindus Monotheists?

“This question should perhaps be rephrased as "Are some Hindus monotheists?", for certainly some are not. It has been claimed that some sects within Hinduism are essentially monotheistic. There are two objections to this view: the first, that Hindu monotheism, so-called, is, on inspection, usually pantheism; the second objection is that when the Hindu pantheist takes one of the Hindu gods as the origin of all other beings, he is including other gods, both objections being illustrated in this example:

"Arjuna saw the entire universe, divided in many ways, but standing as (all in) One (and One in all) in the body of Krishna, the God of gods. (11.13) Then Arjuna, filled with wonder and his hairs standing on end, bowed his head to the Lord and prayed with folded hands. (11.14) Arjuna said: O Lord, I see in Your body all the gods and multitude of beings, all sages, celestial serpents, Lord Shiva as well as Lord Brahma seated on the lotus. (11.15)" (Bhagavad Gita [1])

It might be argued that this is monotheism, and it might also be argued that this is pantheism and polytheism.

From Hindu Views on Monotheism:

…Monotheism can be divided into different types on the basis of its attitude towards polytheism: inclusive monotheism claims that all polytheistic deities are just different names for the single monotheistic God; Smartism, a denomination of Hinduism, follows this belief and holds that God is one but has different aspects and can be called by different names; …exclusive monotheism, on the other hand, claims that these deities are false and distinct from the one God, either invented, demonic, or simply incorrect, as Vaishnavism, a denomination of Hinduism, regards the worship of anyone other than Vishnu. Exclusive monotheism is a well-known tenet in the beliefs of the Abrahamic religions.

…However, even Vaisnavites, like other Hindus, have tolerance for other beliefs because Lord Krishna, avatar of Vishnu, said so in the Gita. Few views illustrate this view of tolerance: Krishna said: "Whatever deity or form a devotee worships, I make his faith steady. However, their wishes are only granted by Me." (Gita: 7:21-22)

Even the famous Rig-Vedic verse ("-ekam sad vipraa bahudhaa vadantya” i.e. Truth is One, but sages call it by many names) illustrates this theme of tolerance. This is in contrast with some beliefs of other religious traditions, where one must believe in God being one aspect and to totally reject or disdain other beliefs.”

ATHEISM and HINDUISM From: “Thank the Mahadevas, Hinduism is not a monotheistic religion”

“…Hinduism are the religious actions or acts (ism) of the Hindus. The Hindu religion is vast in its spiritual/religious philosophy (darsanas), mythology (puranas), doctrines (samhitas & shastras), rituals/practices (sadhanas), ceremonies (samskaras) and Spirit Beings (MahaDevas).
From the perspective of Hinduism in discussing the various theological isms, it is important to keep in mind that "Theism" denotes "God," and very literally, there is no "God" in Hinduism.
Literally, in Hinduism, there is no "theology." In this sense, Hinduism is atheistic…”

Here is a list (non-exhaustive) of some of the REFERENCES I used:
http://www.answers.com /topic/monotheism
http://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Monotheism
http://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Pantheism
http://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Panentheism#Panentheism_in_Hinduism

Below are some DEFINITIONS (excerpted from various sources)

From http://www.answers.com /topic/monotheism
monotheism (mŏn"əthēĭzəm) [Gr.,=belief in one God], in religion, a belief in one personal god. In practice, monotheistic religion tends to stress the existence of one personal god that unifies the universe. The term is applied particularly to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as well as Zoroastrianism.

From http://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Monotheism
In theology, monotheism (Greek μόνος(monos) = single and θεός(theos) = God) is the belief in the existence of one deity or God, or in the oneness of God. In Western context, the concept of "monotheism" tends to be dominated by the concept of the God of the Abrahamic religions …

Monism is the metaphysical and theological view that all is of one essence, principle, substance or energy and that there is one, universal, unified set of laws underlying nature. (this is very similar to the fundamental tenet of Sanatan Dharma – B Shantanu).

Note that Monism is often erroneously confused for pantheism or pane theism

From http://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Pantheism
Pantheism (Greek: πάν ( "pan" ) = all and θεός ( "theos" ) = God) literally means "God is All" and "All is God". It is the view that everything is of an all-encompassing immanent God;

From: http://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Panentheism#Panentheism_in_Hinduism
Pane theism (from Greek: πάν (‘pan’ ) = all, en = in, and theos = God; "all-in-God") is the theological position that God is immanent within the Universe, but also transcends it. It is distinguished from pantheism, which holds that God is synonymous with the material universe. In pane theism, God is viewed as creator and/or animating force behind the universe, and the source of universal morality. The term is closely associated with the Logos of Greek philosophy in the works of Herakleitos, which pervades the cosmos and whereby all things were made.

B Shantanu

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