In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Deities

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • The Gods in Indian Art

Hinduism Deities
Danielle Feller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0017


Traditionally, the Hindu pantheon is supposed to consist of thirty-three gods (most commonly termed devas in Sanskrit): “the thirty-three” (trāyas-triṃśa) is even synonymous with “the gods.” In fact, their exact number is practically impossible to determine. The number thirty-three is expanded as early as the Rig Veda to three hundred and thirty, and later Hindu texts then add zeros to this number as the vision of many deities increases. Besides, the Hindu pantheon has always been a shifting and changing composition, from the earliest Vedic times up to early-21st-century Hinduism. Some Vedic gods such as Pūṣan already appear on the decline in the Vedas and practically disappear later on; other extremely important Vedic gods such as Indra subsequently lose their preeminence; yet others such as Viṣṇu, who are rather negligible in Vedic times, rise to enormous prominence in classical and modern Hinduism. And some gods who are simply nonexistent in the Veda are born subsequently: Skanda or Gaṇeśa are good examples. In modern Hinduism we are directly witnessing an extraordinary proliferation of local gods and goddesses, often perceived as avatāras or manifestations of one of the great gods. The hierarchical organization of the pantheon has also changed over time: from a polytheism in the Vedic period, where each divinity was in charge of his/her own realm, it became a henotheism in classical Hinduism, with one supreme god(dess) (not always the same) and a plethora of other divinities, perceived either as subordinate to the supreme god(dess) or manifestations of the same. Not only has the Hindu pantheon undergone deep transformations in the dramatis personae over time, but the attitude toward (and perception of) the gods also underwent a sea change during different phases of the religious development. Perceived with awe in the hymns of the Rig Veda, the gods were not the object of love, but part of a quasi-“commercial” exchange: sacrificial offerings were tendered in exchange for (expected) riches, cattle, favors, offspring, and various services. As the sacrifice gained in power and importance over time, the gods were thought to be to a great extent coerced by the sacrificial performance. Yet later, in the devotional Bhakti movement, an entirely new type of relationship developed between the Supreme Lord (bhagavat) and his devotee (bhakta), in which the devotee’s loving devotion (bhakti) is reciprocated with the Lord’s grace (prasāda). The manner of worshipping the gods also changed considerably over time: from the Vedic, aniconic sacrifice, to the temple-pūjā offered to statues believed to be invested with the divinities’ power. This article is oriented primarily toward pan-Indian classical gods and goddesses, with less attention to popular and regional deities.

General Overviews

The works listed in this section provide vast panoramas of Indian Brahmanical religion and mythology. Given these books’ broad scope, the deities form only a part of their concerns, yet they provide detailed and indispensable information. Many of them are pioneering studies, yet they are still relevant to modern research, as their constant reprintings show. Bergaigne 1963, Oldenberg 1988, and Keith 1998 deal with Vedic religion. Hillebrandt 1980–1981 and Macdonell 1974 deal with Vedic mythology. Gonda 1979 looks at the gods of both Vedism and classical Hinduism. Hopkins 1974 deals with epic mythology, and Dimmitt and van Buitenen 1978 with purāṇic mythology.

  • Bergaigne, Abel. La Religion védique d’après les hymnes du Rig Veda. 4 vols. Paris: Librairie Honoré Champion, 1963.

    Presents a masterful survey of Vedic religion. Volume 4 contains an index of Rig-Vedic references by Maurice Bloomfield.

  • Dimmitt, Cornelia, and J. A. B. van Buitenen, eds. and trans. Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.

    Presents the English translation of some of the most famous purāṇic legends surrounding all the major divinities of classical Hinduism.

  • Gonda, Jan. Les religions de l‘Inde: I. Védisme et Hindouisme ancien. Traduit de l‘allemand par L. Jospin. Paris: Payot, 1979.

    Originally published in German (Die Religionen Indiens: I. Veda und älterer Hinduismus. W. Kohlhammer Verlag, Stuttgart), chapter 2 of this French translation deals with the Vedic divinities, and chapter 5 with the gods of classical Hinduism.

  • Hillebrandt, Alfred. Vedic Mythology. 2 vols. Translated by Sreeramula Rajeswara Sarma. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1980–1981.

    First published in German (Breslau, 1891–1902), Hillebrand’s work is an interesting though somewhat incomplete description of Vedic deities and their mythology; its first volume is almost entirely dedicated to soma in all its manifestations.

  • Hopkins, Edward Washburn. Epic Mythology. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1974.

    Hopkins’s survey remains one of the principal reference works in the field. Densely written, with a plethora of references (though obviously not to the critical editions of the epics), Hopkins’s classification of divine beings follows a peculiar logic; but his detailed table of contents helps circumvent the problem.

  • Keith, Arthur Berriedale. The Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanishads. 2 vols. Harvard Oriental Series 31–32. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1998.

    The chapters dedicated to the gods are found in Part 2, in which the gods are classified as “celestial,” “aerial,” “terrestrial,” “gods of nature,” “abstract deities,” and “groups of deities.”

  • Macdonell, Arthur Anthony. Vedic Mythology. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1974.

    Remains the main reference on Vedic mythology and is invaluable for its exhaustive and precise textual references. Mostly concerns the gods (including here Apsarases and Gandharvas), subdivided as “celestial,” “atmospheric,” “terrestrial,” and “abstract.”

  • Oldenberg, Hermann. The Religion of the Veda. Translated by Shridhar B. Shrotri. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1988.

    Oldenberg’s work contains a full exposition of the Vedic religion, including its cult and rituals. Chapters 1 and 2 are dedicated to the various classes of divine or demonic beings and to individual representatives of these.

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