In the epic era, the Hindu religion shifts to kathenotheism (the worship of one god at a time) and icons emerge as a crucial component of worship. There are multiple names and forms of the divine, but the significance of each is not diminished by the existence of the others (Eck, 26). The path of devotion empowers all disciplined people to attain spiritual liberation who are willing to be absolutely loyal. The deities direct people on a course of action, and reincarnate themselves in human form to restore order. The divine characters in mythical epics serve as models that guide people to live purposefully and maintain order. The identification with qualities that are ubiquitous to the human condition makes multiple deities appealing to a wide variety of people.
The Ramayana illustrates universal qualities contained by characters committed to following their dharma (duty) outlined by the divine. The deity Rama is embodied in human form to serve as a model for men to follow. The author describes Rama as a warrior with “compassion, a sense of justice, and courage” (34). The author conveys the principle of obeying authority engraved in the social order saying, “it’s my duty as his son to keep my father’s word” (54). Furthermore, Rama encourages the Hindu followers to prioritize their dharma above all. The ruler models the ideals by fulfilling his duty to maintain a sense of order. Even though Rama loves his wife Sita, the king’s words and actions show that his main concern is the citizens of the kingdom (class discussion). When Sita gets in the way of fulfilling his dharma, Rama’s harshness towards his wife is considered acceptable. In this story, Rama embodies strength and commitment to purpose. Hindus may turn to this deity for support when thrown into the role of a caregiver in an emergency circumstance. The courage that Rama exhibits to fulfill his dharma is a quality that followers work to develop into their own character.
In contrast, The Mahabharata illustrates a situation when a king’s failure to follow his dharma, due to attachment, causes the divine to intervene and restore order. The king feels conflicted because he wants to renounce and abandon his dharma but can’t because the citizens of the kingdom depend on him. The king Dhritarashatra “could not act on his judgment. He had no mind of his own, and was in perpetual conflict with his better instincts” (42). As king, Dhritarashatra needed to stay firm to his duty, but his ignorance to not act caused him to suffer. The epic reveals that inner passion is dangerous because it veers individuals off the path of dharma. Not performing action creates disorder in society, which prompts Krishna to intervene. The reasons Krishna use to convince Dhritarashatra to fight- immortality (the inability for a spirit to be killed because it’ll die and be born again), dharma and discipline- represent the roots of the Hindu tradition. This story conveys the necessity to understand key Hindu values in order for people to fulfill their dharma.
In contrast to the warriors discussed thus far, in The Ramayana, the basis of Sita’s stridharma (duty for woman) is staying loyal to her husband. The total dependency on Rama would be viewed as weak and dishonorable in the western tradition, but makes her an admirable character in terms of Hindu ideals. People identify Sita as flawless because she fulfilled her dharma with dignity. The devotion that Sita expresses to Rama is evidently unconditional, as she is willing to walk through fire to prove purity. The epic conveys the idea that if women properly fulfill their dharma then they will be protected from harm. Throughout the epic, Sita is willing to endure severe suffering in order to stay true to dharma. Sita is so respectable because her life is all focused on staying beautiful and supportive to Rama and she sticks by that purpose. Women who need motivation to stay resilient while experiencing marital issues can turn to Sita for support.
The deities show that acting on values that maintain societal order is essential because the divine is the most powerful source of support. In The Bhadgavad-Gita, the character is faced with conflicting sacred duties, ksatriya (warrior dharma) and kula (family dharma), and turns to Krishna for guidance saying, “teach me what I seek” (32). In the poetry work In Praise of Krishna, Radha says, “O Madhava, how shall I tell you of my terror? I could not see the path. When the sound of your flute reaches my ears, it compels me to leave my home and draws me into the dark toward you” (21). In The Bhadgavad-Gita, Krishna’s duty is to “create [himself] as Arjuna” when “sacred duty decays and chaos prevails” (52) and essentially restore dharma. The all-powerful deity shows the interconnectedness between dharma and devotion saying, “by [his] grace you will transcend all dangers; but if you are deafened by individuality, you will be lost.” (143). The true devotee recognizes the unity of all life in Krishna, understanding that “the disciplined man devoted to [the gods] grasps the oneness of life” and Krishna is essential in order for the world to stay in order (139). The divine is universally accessible to anyone willing to be absolutely devoted to the deities.
In the introduction to In Praise of Krishna, the author Edward Dimock defines bhakti (devotion) as “a means of release from the racking world of rebirth and the chain of cause and effect through a wholly devoted heart” (xxii). All people can build an intimate relationship with the gods through devotion if they maintain a disciplined mindset. The poets of the bhakti movement articulate, “the path to salvation lay in devotion to God” (xv). In Praise of Krishna illustrates that, though there are moments of frustration in the midst of worship, the willingness to give up everything for the sake of the divine is worth it (xiii). The support that people feel who are unified with the divine allows them to feel capable in the ability to overcome obstacles. The guidance that the deities offer is a universal need among human beings who all experience some sort of weakness and suffering during life on earth.
The multiple names and forms of the deities suggest that people address different aspects of the divine in particular circumstances that they want to bring into consciousness. Eck describes the creation of icons as “the earliest form of human symbolization” (12). In Grace and Mercy in her Wild Hair, Andrew Schelling explains in the forward, “multiple representations- for example of a single deity- suggest that, there is no single simple way of perceiving the mystery of reality” (xxvi). All people can gravitate towards certain forms based on qualities of deities that are personally relatable. We try to organize our complex multi-faceted sense of self into a cohesive self with all of its various parts, but the Hindu tradition “is most distinctive for its refusal to make the one and many into opposites. For most, the manyness of the divine is not superseded by oneness. Rather, the two are held simultaneously and are inextricably related” (Eck, 28). Psychologist James Hillman explains that monotheism encourages a restrictive habit of thought and that modern society needs to recognize that the univocal personality is not healthy. Humans appeal to the Hindu tradition because they want to devote themselves to a system that will guide their multi-dimensional existence.
The element of puja (ritual) in Hinduism allows people to worship specific Gods who represent cosmic energy in different physical entities. According to Eck, “the divine is visible not only in temple and shrine, but also in the whole continuum of life- in nature and in people” (10). These forms compliment each other, as opposed to posing a problem of interference and contradiction. As conveyed by Eck, ““it combines the intimacy and familiarity of English four o’clock tea with the dazzling foreignness of elephants or vast crowds bathing in the Ganga during an eclipse” (10). The coexistence of opposites in the descriptions of deities expresses the ambiguity of reality that spiritual orientations are created to address. Deities are models that were crafted to make the paradoxical nature of Hinduism less abstract and more manageable. The religion is appealing to so many people because it brings a sense of clarity to people who are struggling with inner confusion on earth.
The dedication to the deities that Hinduism demands makes the religious tradition such a key component of daily life for all the people in India. Tourism involves visiting sacred temples and observing beautifully intricate artwork all over the villages. For most festival occasions, images of the gods are displayed under the sponsorship of a civic or educational institution to bring people together (Eck 57). For a community that otherwise feels so large, pursuit of connection to the deities is an experience that all Hindus can relate to. There is an understood appreciation of difference, as diversity unites people rather than divides them.