Very often Hindus get asked -

“Do you folks believe in multiple gods”?

Other external observers, who have studied Hinduism more closely, ask -

“Do Hindus believe in God at all? Are they atheists? Or at best Monists? Definitely not strong theists like us Christians/Muslims”
These observations are not invalid or without basis. Many HIndus themselves would gladly agree that their way of life is not particularly theistic in orientation. The Political Hindu types among the younger generation would actually embrace this characterization.
And to be honest there is great support within the HIndu tradition for a non-theistic or at best monistic philosophical outlook
This thread is an attempt to first place the “Purvapaksha” (prima facie) view that Hinduism is for the most part not contingent on strong theistic ideas, but a way of life grounded in certain notions of “Dharma”.
This Purvapaksha view is bolstered by Advaita philosophy as well as Karma theory - which we will touch upon

Then the thread will counter the Purvapaksha view and make a case for a very strong theistic tradition within Hinduism right from the days of the Rg Veda to the modern day
While Monism as well as Karma theory are very much part of the Hindu banyan tree, there is an equally vigorous tradition of very strong full fledged theism throughout Indian history, with a strong basis in scriptures and which enjoys mass support of the Hindu majority
First let’s discuss the “Purvapaksha view” that Hinduism is a monistic way of life. There are clearly very important statements in the Upanishads that back this. Let’s pick the four widely cited ones (also known as “Mahavakyas” in the Advaitin tradition)
1. prajñānam brahma (Brahman is consciousness/intelligence) (Aitareya Upanisad, RV)

2. ayam ātmā brahma (The Self is Brahman) (Mandukya Upanisad, AV)

3. tat tvam asi (Thou art That) (Chandogya Upanisad, SV)

4. aham brahmāsmi (I am Brahman) (Brhadaranyaka Upanisad, YV)
Adi Sankara, the great non dualist philosopher of 8th century commented extensively on the Mukhya Upanisads cited above, and leverages these mahavakyas to posit a monistic view of the world where the whole world we perceive around us is an Illusion
In his view these monistic passages in the Upanisads indicate that we are one with Brahman - a truth that eludes us thanks to the grip of ignorance (avidya)
While one wouldn’t call Adi Sankara’s views atheistic, given that he recognizes the existence of Atman as well as Brahman and the unity of the two, at the same time his view is not a strongly theistic one which conceives of a creator God with a personal form
On top of the monistic sentiments voiced in the Upanisads (which later Advaitins picked on), there is also the Karma theory of the Mahabharata, particularly in the Shanti Parva where it is categorically stated that outcomes are determined by the worth of one’s actions (Contd..)
Good and virtuous acts beget good outcomes, and bad acts beget bad outcomes. The world runs on the basis of Karma

In a world where Karmic retribution works to perfection, the need for theism would be lower. The eternal law of Karma is what matters. Not so much a personal God.
So the monistic passages of the Mukhya Upanisads and the Karma theory together in my view, give Hinduism a flavor that is not particularly theistic, but one that is a tad distant from devotional theism.
Sure there is accommodation of Bhakti and worship in the Advaitin scheme of things, but it is viewed usually as Level 1 of religion - things that are useful to eventually realize unity with Brahman, but not representing the highest form of truth by themselves
While what we have discussed so far is by no means false, this is NOT an accurate representation of Hinduism as a whole, but a partial picture.

There is another part of Hinduism (probably a bigger part) that is extremely theistic and very very strongly interested in theology
Right from its inception, there has been a current of theism in the Hindu tradition. These theistic impulses view

1. the world as real
2. devotion as the highest form of human endeavor, and not merely “useful”
3. God’s grace as being just as important if not more so, than Karma
To understand the Theistic impulses in Hinduism, we need to move past Mukhya Upanisads, and look at other textual sources discussed in the next tweet
a.) The portions of the Veda that are not consistent with monistic ideals (Eg: Purusha Sukta)

b.) Parts of Mahabharata like Bhagavad Gita which bring up the point of God’s grace

c.) Pancharatra literature - a part of Agama corpus and helped kickstart the whole Bhagavata cult
d. The Bhakti literature inspired by Bhagavata traditions

e. The Samanya Upanisads of later years (post 300BCE) (which are more theistic in orientation than the older Mukhya Upanisads) (Eg : Mudgala Upanisad, Sabaala Upanisad)
We will also discuss the ideas of Yamunacharya and Ramanuja - the great Vedantins of 10th-11th c who leveraged all the texts above to counter Sankara’s view of things. These ideas were also taken forward in different directions by later Vedantins - Madhwa and Vedanta Desika
First let’s start with the Purusha Sukta. This is an important Hymn that is a part of Mandala 10 of the Rig Veda Samhita. This Sukta is particularly important to Vaishnavites because it is seen as the foundation of Vaishnava thought and Bhagavata theology
The Purusha Sukta does not posit a dualistic scheme of things. But it is nevertheless a decidedly theistic verse. It presents the nature of Purusha - the cosmic being.
This cosmic being is unambiguously identified as the creative will which causes the projection of universe in space and time. So to put it shortly the Purusha is the source of all creation

Let’s take some verses from Purusha Sukta to illustrate the theism inherent in it -
“sahasra SIrshA purusha: | sahasrAksha: sahasrapAt |
sa bhUmim vishvato vRtvA | atyatishTad daSAngulam”

Translation: Thousands of heads has the great being. Thousands of eyes has he,
and thousands of legs. He manifests the world. He stands beyond the count of ten fingers
So how do we interpret this Sukta? Clearly the Sukta is conceiving the world itself as being contained in the supreme Brahman. That Brahman has a personal dimension (not quite Nirguna) but nevertheless is beyond the comprehension of the ordinary mind
Now let’s look at another verse from the Suktam -

tasmAt virAd ajAyata | virAjo adhipUrusha : |
sa jAto atyaricyata | pashcAd bhUmimatho pura: || 5 ||
Translation -

(tasmAt) from that great purusha (virAt) did the shining
universe come forth. (virAjo adhi) From that
virAt, came forth Brahma, to care for it. (sa) He was born
(ati aricyata) and grew very large, extending (pascAt)
in front (bhUmim) of the earth and then behind
So here the creator God Brahma is a “secondary” creator. The source of creation is Purusha, with his Viraata Roopa, who himself gave rise to Brahma / universe. Brahma here is synonymous with the universe (which is often referred to as BrahmAnda - the egg / sphere of Brahma)
So what are our takeaways from this very very ancient Sukta? It is not dualistic. We are not distinct from Brahman. But it is not quite “Thou art That” either. The universe itself is viewed as a product of Purusha. And that Purusha while being immense, has a personal dimension
This is an important Sukta which later became the foundation of Vaishnava thought, which identified “Purusha” with Narayana / Visnu. It was also highly influential on Visishtadvaita school of Vedanta as well as Pancharatra traditions
The linkage of the Cosmic being with Narayana is a very old idea, with its roots in Mahabharata. where there are verses in Gita where Krishna does reveal his “Viraata Roopa” - consistent with later Vaishnavite ideas of God as containing the universe within him
But is Theism then primarily a Vaishnavite pre-occupation? No. If we take an Upanisad like Shwethaswatara Upanisad, it is clearly an Upanisad that talks of the creative will residing in every soul, but nevertheless identifies this creative will with Rudra / Shiva
Shwetaswatara lends itself to both monistic and pantheistic interpretations, but one still leans towards interpreting it as a primarily theistic text
So far we have seen how there are clearly many parts in the Vedic literature (be it in Samhitas or in the Upanisads) which have a strong theistic outlook and are at odds with the more impersonal view of Brahman that emerges from the Advaitin mahavakyas we discussed originally
But Theistic thought doesn’t quite stop there. Let’s now move to Agama literature. A body of work that may not be a very direct descendant of Vedic literature but is nevertheless influenced by it and which wields an even greater influence on modern Hinduism than the Shruti texts
The most problematic and controversial of Agamas are the great PancharAtra texts - a textual tradition that emerged as per scholars in the centuries immediately preceding the start of the Christian era
The Pancharatra was a major religious movement centered around the idea of Narayana as the source of all things. Literally the term “Pancharatra” refers to 5 nights. As per some accounts there was a sage Narayana who conducted a sacrifice over 5 nights and became one with Brahman
The Pancharatra tradition was obviously influenced by ideas that already existed in Shruti - which we have discussed in the context of Purusha Sukta as well as Gita. This tradition gave a huge impetus to Bhagavata tradition and the worship of Vasudeva/Narayana across the country
One aspect of Pancharatra tradition is its emphasis on “practice” and “austerity” and a certain regimen. It forms the basis for much of modern temple ritual worship. The tradition talks of Panchakala (5 observances).
These are -

a. Abhigamna (ablutions / morning prayers to God)
b. Upadana (collecting worship materials)
c. Ijya (worship of God with offerings)
d. Svadhyaya (daily self-study)
e. Yoga (meditation)
This is a far cry from the spirit of monism we encountered in Mahavakyas and Advaitin philosophy where devotion / bhakti is a means to realization, not an end in itself
Adi Sankara was very vocal in his criticism of Pancharatra. He called it non-vedic, an allegation denied by Pancharatra-adherents throughout the ages. As per Sankara, the theistic approaches in Pancharatra interfered with monastic and spiritual pursuits which are more important
To him icons / temple worship were useful means. Not an end to be pursued for its own sake.

So for much of the first millennium CE, Pancharatra was on the defensive, though rising in popularity
The philosophical rebuttal to Sankara came from two important theologians in the Tamil country circa 10th -11th century- these were Yamunacharya (also known as Alavandar) and Ramanuja
Yamunacharya was one of the great defenders of Pancharatra. And is best known for his work “Agama Pramanyam” in Sanskrit. This is a work dedicated to defending the authority of the Pancharatra texts, and declaring them to be consistent with Shruti.
One of Sankara’s main problems with Pancharatra was voiced by leveraging a statement from Badarayana’s Brahma sutras - “Utpattyasambhavat”

i.e “On account of the impossibility of origination”
The soul cannot originate. But since Pancharatra makes statements like “Vasudeva gives rise to Jivas - Eg: Sankarshana”, it is unacceptable and non-Vedic. Given that soul has no origination
Yamunacharya defended Pancharatra by saying the system does not challenge the Vedic view that soul has no “origination”

Narayana contains the world in him, and the Pancharatra statements merely mean Narayana is letting souls lead an independent existence out of His Own Free Will
In Yamuna’s view the Pancharatra system is a strongly monotheistic system, and perfectly consistent with the Shruti.
These ideas of Yamuna were taken forward in a more rigorous way by Ramanuja - a more celebrated philosopher, who formalized Visishtadvaita philosophy - the first philosophy to integrate the theistic traditions like Pancharatra with the monistic impulses in Upanisadic literature
The social context behind these men ought not to be overlooked. Both Yamuna and Ramanuja grew up in the Tamil country which was in the grip of a very intense devotional movement headed by Azhwars and Nayanars - poet saints who authored devotional hymns circa 500-900CE
Post 12th century, Bhakti now was intellectually legitimized, not merely as a useful means for self-realization, but as an end in itself.

The purpose of life was to devote to Narayana and become a part of him though we are born as autonomous souls which have lost their way
The other great contribution to Theism in these centuries was Ramanuja’s defense of a Personal God (Savisesha Brahman). He was a proto-empiricist of sorts, some 7 centuries before David Hume!
In his view, one can gain knowledge only through “experience”. Knowledge (Jnana) can arise only from the direct perception of an object. “Reason” alone is insufficient to discover Brahman or to dispel ignorance
Rather the individual self (Jivas) are capable of having a direct vision of the transcendental entity like Brahman. And this state is reached through devotion. And this devotion is achieved with the object of Sharanagati (complete surrender)
Bhakti through the worship of deities is very much essential to this goal.

Abstract meditation and monasticism is viewed with a certain degree of skepticism in this philosophy, given its “empiricism” and focus on “direct perception”.
Ramanuja was an important figure in Indian history. As he legitimized popular religion and gave it respectability and made it fully consistent with the Shruti
His ideas were taken forward by Madhwa, but unlike Ramanuja, Madhwa took the path of strict Dualism. Ramanuja did not quite venture as far!
Another interesting theologian is Vedanta Desika who emerged a couple centuries after Ramanuja, and subscribed to the latter’s philosophy. Desika was a more talented theologian than a philosopher. (Contd..)
While his contributions to literature and religion are immense, I pick his valorization of “Hayagriva” as his greatest contribution

Hayagriva - is the horse shaped form of Vishnu. A minor avatar for most.

But for Desika ,Hayagriva was major.
He positioned Hayagriva as the source of wisdom and more importantly the source of the Vedas themselves. In his view the Vedas emerge from the “horse’s mouth” so to speak. From the “Hala hala” neighing sound of Lord Hayagriva himself!
THis is a contrast to ancient Shruti sources where Vedas are anaadi (without a beginning) and apaurusheya.

While Desika is not challenging that, he asks - how do humans like us possess the Vedas. We have them thanks to Narayana who has given it to us, through his Hayagriva form
This in my view was revolutionary.

Theism grew far and wide in the centuries following Ramanuja and Desika. Many great names followed in the centuries to come. Ramananda. Tulsidas. Chaitanya. Each of them a veritable giant strongly moored in a highly theistic view of the world
The final twist in this rise and spread of Bhakti came during the 15th century when the religious movement founded by Ramanuja split into two parts - Vadakalai and Thenkalai
The Thenkalai wing took the ideas of Bhakti to a different level by emphasizing that the Grace of Bhagavan is absolute. Human Will is practically helpless, and that everything is a result of God’s mercy. (Sab unki Kripa hai)
This school is arguably the most strongly theistic of all Indian traditions, and amounts to a very strong counter to the theory of Karma we discussed earlier in the context of Shanti Parva. It is very much a denial of Free Will
Modern Hinduism of common men and women remains grounded in these theistic notions. It is clearly a religion that believes in God.
So yes, while there is a tendency among neo-Advaitins to downplay this reality (which is perfectly understandable), one must not fall into the trap of thinking of Hinduism purely as a “way of life” sustained by Karma and with a monistic perspective
While that view is very much valid in its own way,there is also an equally vigorous tradition of very unambiguous Theism in the Hindu religion, right from Purusha Sukta to this day!

So yes, Hindus do believe in God!
Thought I would add a concluding tweet with an image of the temple at Srirangam.

Which is appropriate because many of the ideas / debates discussed on this thread - be it those of Yamuna, Ramanuja, Desika, Thenkalais - all these debates happened in this temple or in its vicinity
Wanted to add a tweet with references for yesterday's thread. (esp given that the odd line or expression may have subconsciously crept in from something I read, and may not be exactly my words) -……
It was pointed out that my tweet on Sankara's criticism of Pancharatra had this line: "As per Sankara, the theistic approaches in Pancharatra interfered with monastic and spiritual pursuits"

This was picked from wiki as I felt it summed up Sankara's views on the subject (Contd.)
For those who would rather read what Sankara himself had to say about Pancharatra, they can refer to his Bhashya on Brahma Sutra # 2.2.42, 2.2.43, 2.2.44, 2.2.45. The link to the same is here -…
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