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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Multiplicity vs. Polytheism

One of the common things we tend to do today is interchange multiplicity with polytheism. Especially when dealing with Hinduism, we tend to think of the 330 billion deities as a form of polytheism. However, upon taking a course on Hinduism, I learned a new term that explains for a vast array of deities ranging from male to female, elephant-headed to six headed, and destroyer to preserver: multiplicity. Dictionary.com does a fairly decent job at defining the term; the state of being multiple. How does this vary from polytheism? How does this apply to Christianity?

Kali
 A wide approach to address Hinduism's use of the term multiplicity is to look at the Six Aspects of Our World. In short they are: We live in 1) A multiple world that includes galaxies, tiers, and cylces, 2) a moral world in which karma is inexorable, 3) a middling world that will never replace paradise as the spirit's destination, 4) a world in which maya exists, 5) a gymnasium for developing spiritual capacities i.e. "a vale for soul-making", and finally 6) a world in which lila, the play of the divine in its cosmic dance, exists. (Huston Smith, Illustrated World's Religions.) The immediate reason for displaying these six aspects is to point out that the fundamental message of Hinduism's perception of our world, while it was founded in the East well before Abram and Sarai were renamed as Abraham and Sarah, holds many of Christianity's similar perceptions. But simply put by Professor Jeaneane Fowler of the University of Wales College: “The relationship between the many manifest deities and the unmanifest Brahman is rather like that between the sun and its rays. We cannot experience the sun itself but we can experience its rays and the qualities, which those rays have." Brahman would be the equivalent of the Trinity complete, all Three in One would compose Brahman. However, broken down into three parts, equivalent to the Trinity's Three Persons, Brahma is the deity associated as Creator, Vishnu as Preserver, and Shiva as Destroyer. I would personally argue that within these three deities, the remaining 330 billion (minus three) deities originate. How is that possible? And why isn't this referred to as polytheism?
Devi
The term avatar explains how the number of deities is capable of jumping to a whopping 330 billion. Vishnu alone has ten avatars in which the Eighth Avatar is Krishna (from which Krishnaism branches off from,) and the Ninth Avatar is commonly believed to be the Buddha. With each deity springs up a female consort, wife, or counterpart that ultimately pertains to an aspect or characteristic of the primal deity. Why do these deities exist? Certain aspects are portrayed through a womanly figure rather than a male deity. This can't be argued because how should a male deity embody maternal characterstics that figures like Durga, who I consider to be a midway point between Kali and Parvati in certain aspects. While those three names are indeed inclusive of three separate persons, they all fall under Devi, the ultimate goddess mother, loosely identified with being the female counterpart of Brahma.
Trinity
But immediately, I feel like my train of thought has been lost while trying to correlate the similarities between gods and goddesses. Hindu art especially helps to depict the aspects among deities. To use Kali, Durga, and Parvati again, Kali is always depicted as the embodiment of "tough maternal love" in which she chops off the heads of ignorance from her devotees. Durga is a more balanced figure that is powerful and stern at times, but is not associated with violence, but does not have a soft side like Parvati. Parvati retains qualities that which a newborn child would be treated with instead of bloody acts like Kali. While Durga falls somewhere in between, these three goddesses depict just a few aspects that which Brahman retains.
I find this similar to Christianity embracing their God as omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. Brahma, the Creator deity consequently is omnipotent. Vishnu, omniscient, and Shiva as omnipresent because where does death not reach? This isn't to ignore the differences between 330 billion versus 3. However, both 330 billion and 3 boil into one. The means by which each religion explains how this is possible relates through multiplicity, rather than polytheism because many gods would deny the fact that each deity or person (of the Trinity) is not absorbed by Brahman or the Trinity, that each god is a separate outlier. Catholicism is quick to define the Trinity as the Christian Mystery: "In the Symbol of the faith the Church confesses the mystery of the Holy Trinity and of the plan of God's "good pleasure" for all creation: the Father accomplishes the "mystery of his will" by giving his beloved Son and his Holy Spirit for the salvation of the world and for the glory of his name." (CCC 1066, Ephesians 1:9.) This echoes Hinduism's simple structure of Creator, Preserver, and Destroyer. What both religions share is what fills the spaces in between.

I hope to get a Part 2 for this...Please comment on anything that isn't clear or if it seems like I'm smashing two religions crudely together.