By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
At a canine festival in Nepal, Hindus paid tribute to their dogs with gifts. Pups were offered special baths and garlands by their owners, from civilians to the police force. In Hinduism, dogs are messengers for the god of death.
Every dog truly had its day in Nepal on November 3, the second day of the five-day Tihar festival for the Hindu population. Owners brought their furry friends to the festival and offered them treats, special baths, and garlands to appease Yama, or Yamaraja, the Hindu god of death. Competitions and obstacle courses even featured the dogs so that their owners could show off their pups’ skills to the crowd.
Hinduism embraces both polytheism and monotheism, presenting the idea that reality is both one and many. In his video series Great World Religions: Hinduism, Dr. Mark W. Muesse, W. J. Millard Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, detailed how Hinduism’s characteristic features mediate divine reality without slipping into the misconception of the religion as idolatrous.
Brahman and Polytheism
“Brahman is the name for the absolute, ultimate reality in Hinduism,” Dr. Muesse said. “It is so far beyond our human capacities to conceive that all efforts to think and speak about it are, in the final analysis, futile. It simply cannot adequately be conceptualized and described; it can only be realized.”
India celebrates divine images everywhere. According to Dr. Muesse, there are pictures and statues of members of the Hindu pantheon in public buildings, on buses, in taxis and rickshaws, at tea stalls, and in shops. That’s in addition to the images in temples and homes. Hindus worship many gods. American philosopher William James said that balancing the idea of “the one and the many” could be one of the most difficult but important questions of philosophy.
Maybe it isn’t.
“To Hindu ways of thinking, James’ dichotomy is a false dilemma. Reality can be both one and many; it all depends on how you look at it,” said Dr. Muesse.
Yajñavalkya Helps to Explain
Citing a story from the Upanishads, treatises on Brahman-knowledge, Dr. Muesse said the famous sage Yajñavalkya was questioned about the number of Hindu gods. Upon repeated questioning, he responded with the answer 3,306, then 33—the traditional number of Vedic gods—followed by six, then three, then two, then one and a half, and finally one. And though Yajñavalkya’s final answer is “one,” he never says the others are wrong, and over time he successfully explains each of his other answers.
“By his account, they are all true,” Dr. Muesse said. “The many devas then are just so many different expressions of the one reality, Brahman. At this level, the devas are said to represent ultimate reality as it is known or as it is revealed to human beings.”
In other words, Brahman is ultimate reality as it is unknown and unknowable. The many gods of Hindu simply help express Brahman in one way or another. For example, in one of the Upanishads, Yama—the god of death whose canine messengers enjoyed a festival last week—details the worship of the Supreme Brahman through fire sacrifice and explains its procedure.
“The many gods of Hinduism are ways to enrich the understanding of the divine while militating against confusing image and reality,” Dr. Muesse said. “If [the ultimate reality] must be portrayed, then many, many images and symbols succeed better than just one or a few.”