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It is necessary to warn the beginning reader about Hindu religion, thought and practice, that it is very common in Hindu scriptures to glorify different divinities in different contexts. Each time a divinity is glorified they talk about it as the highest Transcendental Supreme; not only that, the other divinities without exception are said to be subservient to the divinity under consideration. It is difficult for a newcomer to Hindu thought to subscribe to this because he thinks of it as a confused hierarchy. Naturally he may misunderstand the whole presentation and think it is partisan. There is only one hypothesis by which one can save oneself from this misunderstanding. And that is the hypothesis which Hinduism declares from the mountain tops every time it has an opportunity. There is only one Godhead whatsoever. There is no hierarchy in the worldly sense of the word. Each manifestation or presentation of that Godhead, as per the context, is to be considered supreme, for the period of that context. It may be vinAyaka who is considered supreme or it may be subrahmaNya in another purANa or Upanishad, and in another, Mother Goddess may be considered the supreme Godhead. Mother Goddess as the gAyatrI is the parA-Sakti, non-different from the absolute brahman. She is the umA of Kenopanishad. She is the devAtma-Sakti of Svetasvatara-upanishad. She is the parA-prakRti of bhagavad-gItA. In another context, say the Ramayana, Lord Rama may be considered as the Absolute brahman. The right understanding would be to consider all divinities to be so many presentations of the same one Godhead about which the entire gamut of scriptures talk in so many varied ways.

For several centuries there has existed an internal dissension (which is happily disappearing now amidst the modern onslaught of anti-religious attitudes) within Hinduism, particularly among the orthodox wing, about which name or what God is ultimate - Siva or VishNu. The vedic literature does not distinguish between the worship of Siva or VishNu. If we carefully go through the rituals which are totally veda-based, the names Vishnu and Siva would occur almost indiscriminately without any connotation of the differences we attribute to the forms denoted by the two names today. Whether it is Siva or VishNu it refers only to the Supreme God -- this is the intent of the vedas. 'He is BrahmA, He is Siva, He is VishNu, He is Indra, He is the Imperishable, He is the Transcendental Supreme', says the nArAyaNopanishad part of the yajur-veda.This teaching of non-difference is important for the proper understanding of Hinduism. It is the same principle as in idol worship. So long as you think it is an idol, you have not got it. So long as you think it is Siva or VishNu and not the Transcendental Supreme you have not got the purport of the vedas. References to this identity among the literature composed by devotees of Siva are innumerable; but this is not surprising since most of the devotees of Siva also appreciate the non-dualist philosophy. But references to the identity of all names of God are also available in Vaishnava literature; here is a sample. NammALvAr, the Tamil Saint-poet, who is the foremost of the twelve AlvArs and whose contribution of 1352 poems to the four thousand prabandhams of Vaishnava tradition is considered as the Tamil Veda, writes: There are persons and persons, each has a different god according to one's intelligence, and the god of none is inferior; and each reaches salvation as per the dictates of their own god:

 avar avar tamadamadu aRivu aRivagaivagai avar iRaiyavar ena aDi aDaivargaL

avar avar iRaiyavar kuRaivu ilar iRaiyavar avar vidi vazhi adaiya ninRanare //

                                                                                    Tamil: tiruvAymozhi 1-1-5

Even if we scrutinise hard and discuss it further, the concepts of BrahmA, VishNu and Siva -- after all the verbal exchanges, tantamount to only one God of which these three are the names:

uNarndu uNarndu uraittu ari aran ennum ivarai

uNarndu uNarndu uraittu uraittu irainjumin manappaTTadu onRe //

                                                                                                                  Tamil: tiruvAymozhi 1-1-5

Thus God is One, inspite of His many names and forms. Many youngsters who have been influenced by the organized religions of the western world constantly express doubts about the rationale of the multiplicity of gods and goddesses in the Hindu religious ethos. In this connection there is a poetic riddle posed to Kalidasa by King Bhoja, which has a great relevance to this concept of Plurality being secondary, wheras one-ness is primary. If the Sanskrit language had only one word for 'ocean' the tantalising riddle of King Bhoja and the enchanting solution of the poet Kalidasa would both have been non-existent. It is only when there is multiplicity, diversity and variety there is life, there is challenge, there is employment. The challenge may be demanding but Hinduism has not only learnt to live with it but also enjoys it as is evident from the endless festivals and colourful celebrations with a convenient mixture of devotion and extravagance, connected with the temples all over India. The many names and forms of God suit the multifarious tastes of people and their different levels of spiritual evolution. Multiplicity is for enjoyment and the one-ness at the back, at the base, at the bottom, is for Peace. Though different manifestations are being talked about all the time, the names and characteristics which pertain to these names and forms contribute only to the multiplicty that the One Ultimate Godhead seems to delight in expressing itself. When a Hindu worships the Sun as the Sun-God, what he is worshipping is the Absolute supreme in its manifestation as the sun. A purANa dedicated to Siva may extol Siva as the highest God, the transcendental Supreme and a vishNu purANa may say the same thing about vishNu. There is no contradiction meant, implied or slurred over. When Hinduism says that all names and forms are those of God it means it. The external multiplicity is only an expression of the underlying truth of unity.

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