Deities in India
Hinduism is a varied cult, but its originality lies in ‘Sanatana Dharm’
There are in India innumerable deities of purely local significance alongside the great Gods. Often they are closely identified with a specific tract of land, its soil and the life it sustains. Sometimes they are worshipped only in a particular village, or even by a section only of the village, or as domestic Gods. The priests of these village deities are commonly non-Brahmins, and they may prepare for their priestly role not by purification or scriptural learning but by trance or possession, thus harking back to the intoxication sought by early Aryan priests from soma. Their function may often be to cast out evil spirits causing sickness or misfortune from the sufferer and transfer them to the deity. Needless to say, myths may have grown up about such local deities cannot be covered in a general work. But in fact, since the position of these local deities is unchallenged by the status of the great Gods of the Hindu Pantheon, there has not been the spur to the elaboration of the mythology to defend them against rival claims of other deities or to adapt to a changing social order, which is often the background to developed myths about the major Gods.
As for the major Gods, the people came to accept new introductions by identifying them with old Gods, and thus reconciling all beliefs. This trend was helped by the evolving ideas of the Brahmins. The idea of reincarnation, which was unknown to the Aryan invaders and is never mentioned in the Vedas, appeared about the year 700 B.C. and was developed to the point where any deity, hero, spirit or human being might be an incarnation of any other. By applying this principle to the old and the new Gods it became possible to claim that the priests were really worshipping the same deity as the common people under another name and in another incarnation or avtar. Alternately the Brahmins might contrive that resurgent old tradition or new practices be justified on the basis of their supposed proclamation in the past, preferably by one of the major Gods. Thus, the pre-Aryan worship of cobras is incorporated into the Shiva cult in the Shivala festival of Maharashtra because Shiva is said to have told the people to worship cobras in order to make them safe. A mythological family relationship is also introduced: Shiva is said to be the father of the snake-mother Manasa.
Despite this apparent confusion and variety, one of the remarkable features of India’s mythology is precisely its homogeneity over the whole country, with the exception of myths current among the few isolated hill tribes still existing. And because of the various factors outlined above, the complexity of the pantheon is common to all. However, strictly attached sectarian Hindus may be to one particular deity, they have always felt the need and ability to fit the others in their own system.