Hindu Deities: Meaning, Mythology & Symbolism
The names of Hindu deities may be consciously created formulas for freedom on the physical, mental and spiritual levels. For thousands of years the rishis of India (Hindu sages) experimented with the effects of chanting. Mantras focused on the names of the gods and goddesses in the Hindu pantheon appear to be coded compilations of sound designed to produce elevated states and to stimulate health and longevity.
The stories and mythology of these Hindu deities help to illuminate their qualities and the benefits that may be derived from understanding and devotion to the principles and ideas that they personify. Mantras may be keys to connecting with and embodying the aspect of God’s consciousness exemplified by a particular deity. The meaning and symbolism of selected Hindu deities and their associated mantras are outlined below.
HINDU DEITIES ARTICLE CONTENTS
Each of the Hindu deities included in the discussions in this article are accompanied by an example of a mantra focused on the qualities of God that they represent. Some of these Hindu deities overlap with the Ancient Deities covered in a separate article. The longevity of Hinduism in some form means that some of these deities are indeed the equivalent of ancient deities that exist in pagan cultures, for example. In addition, many of the deities are associated with forces in nature, also a common theme among ancient deities in other traditions.
- Agni Deva: Hindu God of Fire
- Gange Mata: Goddess of the Ganges
- Surya: God of the Sun
- Ganesha, Overcomer of Obstacles
- Govinda: Childhood Form of Krishna
- Hanuman: Eastern Superhero
- Krishna: Avatar of Vishnu
- Nataraja: Cosmic Dancer
- Ram: Incarnation of Vishnu
- Shiva Ra: He Who is Like the Sun
- Devaki: Mother of Gopala (Krishna)
- Durga the Warrior Goddess
- Jagadambe Ma: Universal Mother
- Kali: Goddess of Time & Death
- Lakshmi: Hindu Goddess of Wealth
- Lalita, the One Who Plays
- Mataji, the Immortal Yogi
- Parvati: Goddess of Motherhood
- Radha: Beloved of Krishna
- Saraswati: Goddess of Music
- Sita and Ram: Eternal Lovers
Hindu Deities: Forces in Nature
There are gods and goddesses in Hinduism are created or inspired by forces in nature including fire, wind, mountains, rivers and so forth. These fundamental forces shape our lives. Stories and mantras dedicated to them celebrate their blessings, attempt to harness their power or seek to mitigate their impact on human lives. Included below are Agni Deva (God of Fire), Gange Mata (Goddess of the Ganges River) and Surya (God of the Sun).
Agni Deva: Hindu God of the Fire Element
Symbolic and physical fire have been associated with religious traditions around the world for ages. Agni Deva is the masculine deity meaning holy fire or spiritual fire in the Hindu tradition.
Fire is the perfect metaphor for release and the transformation of unwanted patterns, situations, and personal characteristics. Fire is an expression of both light and heat—two fundamentals for the sustenance of life.
“Agni” is the Sanskrit word for “fire.” Fire can take many forms in the universe including lightning, the rays of the sun, physical fire and divine radiation.
Read article about Agni, Lord of the Fire Element.
Gange Mata, Embodiment of the Ganges River
Gange Mata is a Hindu goddess personifying the Ganges River. She is a deity associated with forgiveness and purification. Water is a symbol of purity in many spiritual traditions, used for cleansing and baptism.
Ganga is often depicted riding on a Makara, an animal with the head of a crocodile and the tail of a dolphin. The crocodile represents the lower self or the reptilian mind over which Ganga has gained mastery.
The Ganges river is viewed as a gateway to heaven. The ashes of the deceased are thrown into the river to be carried peacefully from this world to the next. Bathing in the Ganges river is also viewed as a spiritual ritual. The Vedas and Puranas, Hindu scriptures, view the Ganges as the most sacred river on earth.
Surya, God of the Sun
Surya is a Hindu deity who is the source of light or life. Surya is a sun god with a golden chariot driven by Aruna, a personification of the dawn. The chariot is pulled by seven horses representing the seven chakras or energy centers.
The sun is usually associated with the masculine; the moon with the feminine. In ancient Egypt, the sun is associated with Horus, Ra and Osiris. Horus represents the rising sun, Osiris the setting sun, and Ra represents the sun’s zenith. Astrologically speaking, the sun is an expression of the outward self, the self that “shines” towards others.
Additional names for the Hindu sun god include Bhaskaraya (the illuminator) and Mitraya (friend of all).
Hindu Deities: Gods and Superheroes
Many of the Hindu deities have superpowers similar to the superheroes of the West such as Spiderman, Batman and Catwoman. These superheroes are featured in Hindu mythology as examples of strength, loyalty, devotion and other desirables qualities. Stories of their lives may be historical in some cases or serve to teach moral or ethical values. These deities include Ganesha, Govinda, Hanuman, Krishna, Nataraja, Rama and Shiva.
Ganesha, Overcomer of Obstacles
Ganesha, also known as Ganapati or Lord Ganesh, is the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati in the Hindu tradition. He is a deity known for assisting devotees in the overcoming of obstacles. Therefore, Ganesha is often invoked at the beginning of an activity, journey or other undertaking.
Ganesha is one of the most well-known and popular deities in the Hindu pantheon. Ganesha is a joyful being associated with extensive symbolism. He is the foremost deity associated with the root chakra. The sheer weight of an elephant makes Ganesha a natural choice for the chakra that connects us to the earth and the earth element.
Read full article about the origin of Ganesha.
Govinda: Childhood Form of Krishna
Govinda and Gopala are both childhood names of Krishna. Some scholars say that “go” means both “cow” and “light.” These names literally mean the protector of the cows. Symbolically, they mean the protector of the sacred truth.
Shortly after Krishna was born, he was sent to live in the country to protect him from the evil king Kamsa. Kamsa believed that Krishna would overthrow him and intended to kill him. For this reason, Krishna (Govinda, Gopala) grew up living an idyllic rural life as a cow herder.
This is a traditional mantra with a beautiful, haunting melody. Other names for Krishna in this chant are Vasudeva (the name of his father also attributed to Krishna) and Nityananda. More about Krishna below.
Hanuman, Eastern Superhero
Hanuman is the monkey-god, hero of epics and stories in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In Hinduism, Hanuman is the ardent devotee of Lord Rama, and central to the epic poem Ramayana. Hanuman is sometimes depicted as the patron of martial arts, wrestling, and acrobatics. He is also the patron of meditation and scholarship. Hanuman possesses many superhuman powers. For example, he cannot be killed with lightning or drowned or harmed by fire.
The name “Hanuman” combines the Sanskrit words “han” meaning killed or destroyed and “maana” meaning pride. According to this interpretation, Hanuman’s name means “one whose pride was destroyed.”
Article about the symbolism of the Hanuman Yantra.
Krishna, Avatar of Vishnu
Krishna is one of the most significant deities in Hinduism. He is the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, widely revered among devotees around the world. Krishna is known for the qualities of compassion, tenderness, protection and love.
The story of Krishna’s early life has many parallels with that of Jesus. Shortly after Krishna was born, he was sent to live in the country to protect him from the evil king Kamsa. Kamsa believed that Krishna would overthrow him and intended to kill him. For this reason, Krishna grew up living an idyllic rural life as a cow herder, known by the names of Govinda and Gopala.
See more information above (Govinda and Gopala).
Nataraja, Cosmic Dancer
Nataraja is a form of Shiva, a central deity in the Hindu tradition. The name Nataraja means Lord of the Dance. He is a whirling, joyous form of Shiva, often shown with a drum and musical shakers.
Nataraja is the ultimate cosmic dancer. Many illustrations and paintings show the cosmos whirling in the background behind depictions of Nataraja. Nataraja is associated with the crown chakra and with the joy of enlightenment.
Nataraja holds fire in one hand and a rhythmic shaker in another. There are snakes coiled around his arm and foot, indicating his mastery over the most deadly of creatures.
Full article and mantras to Nataraja, Lord of the Dance.
Ram, Incarnation of Vishnu
Ram is one of the most widely known and revered of the Hindu gods. Ram is a form of the deity meaning or symbolizing sacrifice and brotherhood. Ram is an incarnation of Vishnu and the central figure in the Hindu epic Ramayana.
The name or Ram or Rama means pleasing or charming in Sanskrit. Ram is also greatly respected for his loyalty to his wife Sita. He resisted any temptation that could come between him and his beloved.
The name “Ram” is also the seed syllable for the solar plexus chakra. This sound activates and balances the solar plexus.
Learn more about the sound RAM in Chakra Sounds.
Shiva Ra: He Who is Like the Sun
Shiva is a Hindu deity associated with breath or space. He is a powerful Hindu god manifesting throughout the cosmos. Shiva expresses freedom, liberation and joy.
Shiva has many forms and names as well as many consorts. He is associated with the third eye chakra between the eyebrows at the bridge of the nose. This sacred spot is sometimes marked on the forehead by the red dot known as the bindu.
The third eye is the door to prophesy. Shiva is alternately depicted both as benevolent and fearsome. In terms of symbolism, he is often shown with a serpent around his neck, a crescent moon as an adornment, the river Ganges flowing from his hair, the trishula as his weapon, and a damaru drum nearby.
Lyrics: Hari Om, Hari Om, Shiva Ra Namo
“Ra” means “sun.” This chant honors “Shiva who is like the sun.”
Hindu Deities: Forms of the Goddess
There are thousands of forms of the Divine Mother, Goddess or Divine Feminine in Hinduism. In fact, each individual goddess may have a thousand forms and names. The goddesses are celebrated in a way that is not present in the religious and spiritual traditions in the Western world. Devotion to a particular deity may be an individual choice or may be connected to local or regional areas. The following goddesses are included below: Devaki, Durga, Jagadambe Ma, Kali, Lakshmi, Lalita, Mataji, Parvati, Radha and Saraswati.
Devaki: Mother of Krishna
Devaki is the Hindu goddess of childbirth. She is also the mother of Krishna. Devaki and her husband Vasudeva were imprisoned by Kamsa, an evil king who feared a prediction that their eight child would overthrow him.
Kamsa kills each of their male children after birth. The eighth (Krishna) is smuggled out to live in the country with surrogate parents. This is the origin of Krishna’s childhood names: Gopala and Govinda mean “the one who protects the cows.”
Symbolically, Krishna is the one who protects what is sacred or the sacred truth. This chant means “Gopala is the bliss of his mother Devaki.”
Durga the Warrior Goddess
Durga is a goddess of protection, a demon-slayer. She is a Hindu goddess known by many names including Bhagini (sister), Devi, Shakti and more. Durga is an embodiment of the Divine Mother, an expression of the Divine Feminine.
Durga is a warrior goddess. She overthrows the forces that threaten peace, prosperity and all that is good. The name Durga means a fort or a place that is difficult to overrun.
Durga is a goddess who saves her devotees from difficulties whenever possible. She personifies the vibration of the fierce mother, only moving into battle to protect her own and never for the sake of violence. Durga leads a divine army and rides a lion.
Read full article about Durga the Warrior Goddess.
Jagadambe Ma, Mother of the Universe
Jagadambe Ma means “mother of the world” or “mother of the universe.” This term is used for many goddesses including Adi Shakti, Parvati, Saraswati, Lakshmi, Sita and Radha. There are temples in India dedicated specifically to Jagadambe including the Devi Jagadambe Temple in Madhya Pradesh and the Shree Jagadamba Devi Temple in Kerala.
The Divine Mother plays a huge role in Hinduism, sometimes receiving even more attention and devotion than God in masculine form. Each goddess has multiple attributes. Goddesses are often known by dozens, hundreds or even thousands of names. Each name emphasize a particular quality of the goddess. “Shakti” is a general term for the energy that pervades the universe and gives rise to all form and action.
Kali, Goddess of Time
Kali is a Hindu deity symbolizing mastery over time and death. Kali battles the forces of evil on behalf of her children. She is an intimidating figure, brandishing multiple weapons with her four arms.
Kali wears a skirt of severed arms and a gruesome garland of heads. These grisly body parts are symbolic of the demonic forces that she slays to protect her devotees.
Kali goes by many names including Mahakali (the Great Mother), Dipta (the One who is illuminated or brilliant), and Uma (lady of the mountains). Kali and Durga are sometimes seen as interchangeable. However, Kali is believed to love battle while Durga slay demons only when absolutely necessary, remaining placide and peaceful at all times.
Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth
Lakshmi is the Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity. The name Lakshmi is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “goal, aim or sign.” Lakshmi is usually shown seated or standing on a lotus. The lotus symbolizes creation, beauty, harmony, diversity, stability, and support.
Lakshmi is also associated with gold coins as well as rice and basil. Lola is another name for Lakshmi meaning one who is moving or flowing. Lakshmi is a presiding deity for the solar plexus chakra, along with her consort Vishnu.
Lakshmi is endowed with six auspicious or divine qualities known as gunas. Lakshmi’s gifts include imperial authority, martial energy, priestly authority, dominion, splendor and nourishment.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES: SHRIM Wealth Mantras
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Lakshmi, Goddess of Wealth
Lalita, The One Who Plays
Lalita is a Hindu deity whose name means “she who plays.” The goddess Lalita is famously independent, announcing to all, “Whatever I say or do is according to my will alone. Whichever man accepts me as his with must also accept my complete independence.”
Lalita is portrayed as a young woman holding five arrows, a bow, a noose, and a goad. The arrows are our five senses and the bow is our mind. When we find ourselves pausing on the spiritual path, Lalita gently prods us along with her goad. If we resist her, she lassos us with her noose and drags us back to her lap.
Lalita is one of the many forms of the Divine Mother. She is a pink goddess, expressing love and motherly concern to all.
Mataji, The Immortal Yogi
Mataji is venerated as a yogic master representing the Divine Mother. Mataji is the sister of Babaji, an ancient Indian yogi known as the eternal youth. Although Mataji is the spiritual equal of Babaji, she has chosen the role of disciple to her brother.
Mataji and Babaji are an example of the Hindu tradition of saints and deities appearing in both masculine and feminine form, in this case some view them as siblings rather than as romantic partners.
In the tradition of paired deities, the male aspect worships the feminine principle of energy and the female aspect worships the male principle of consciousness. Mataji is the embodiment of compassion.
Read full article on Mataji and Babaji.
Parvati, Goddess of Motherhood
Parvati, also known as Uma, is the Hindu deity of fertility, love and devotion as well as divine strength and power. She is the gentle and nurturing aspect of the goddess energy.
Parvati is part of a trinity of Hindu goddesses that also includes Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, and Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and learning.
Parvati is the consort of Shiva and the mother of Ganesha and Kartikeya. She is the daughter of Himavan (the god and personification of the Himalayas) and Queen Mena. Parvati’s name is derived from the Sanskrit words for “mountain.” Her name can be translated as “daughter of the mountains.”
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Parvati, Hindu Goddess
Radha, Beloved Consort of Krishna
Radha is the beloved consort of Krishna. In Hindu mythology, Radha was Krishna’s childhood playmate. She is an embodiment of the divine feminine. During Krishna’s childhood as a cow herder, Radha was a milkmaid.
Radha is a form of the deity meaning love, tenderness, compassion and devotion. She is sometimes viewed as a metaphor for the spiritual longing for the divine. Radha is the perfect lover, longing only for Krishna as the focus of her devotion.
There are Hindu festivals that include the celebration of Radha including Radhashtami, Holi and Sharad Purnima.
Saraswati, Goddess of Music and the Arts
Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of wisdom, music and the arts. Here is a beautiful legend about Saraswati: A famous Brahmin scholar had a son who was good-hearted but a failure as a scholar. As a result, he was set to tasks of manual labor: cleaning, carrying water and so forth.
One day he saw a beautiful young woman in distress by the river. He thought perhaps she had been robbed or abandoned by her family. He rescued her and took her home to give her water and food.
As she left the home in deep gratitude, she turned and touched her finger to his tongue. He began to recite complex and subtle poetry in Sanskrit and became a famous orator. The young maiden was Saraswati.
Hindu Deities: Eternal Lovers
A significant characteristic of Hinduism is the emphasis on the personification of god in both masculine and feminine form. This polarity carries through every form of the deity. Every god has a consort, sometimes many. The ideal of devoted lovers is exemplified by many pairs of divine partners in the pantheon. One of these pairs is Sita and Ram, heroine and hero of the epic scripture known as the Ramayana.
Sita and Ram, Eternal Lovers
Sita is a Hindu goddess known for good character and happiness. She represents courage, dedication and purity. Sita goes through many trials together with her consort Ram, including exile and the kidnapping of Sita. They are sometimes viewed as symbolizing the unmanifest and the manifest minds or the pineal and pituitary glands.
On the physical level, reciting these names is believed to balance both sides of the brain. They represent the yin and the yang or the masculine and the feminine. Sita and Ram are viewed as ideal, devoted spouses. The name Ram is also the seed syllable for the solar plexus chakra.
Learn more about the sound RAM in Chakra Sounds.
Understanding Hindu Deities
For me, the Hindu deities represent aspects of consciousness. Ultimately it seems that we will reach a state where we experience ourselves as part of everything that is in existence and part of every possible mental, emotional and psychological state.
For this reason, my personal view is that the multiplicity of deities in Hinduism is not in conflict with monotheism. In fact, the pantheon of Hindu gods is reminiscent of the many Catholic saints of my childhood.
When I was being confirmed in the Catholic church as a young teenager, I took the choice of a confirmation name very seriously. I borrowed books from the parish library and read the lives of the saints to find one I wanted to emulate.
Each saint had unique characteristics and a particular aspect of God that was their specialty. Many of the lives of the saints were quite dramatic, sometimes even bizarre. The feats they performed and the miracles associated with them made them feel superhuman to me.
These stories of saints were similar to the mythologies associated with Hindu deities. In addition, sometimes the Hindu deities are an intense mix of godlike qualities and seemingly very human attributes including jealousy, envy, revenge and so forth.
Perhaps this is even closer to classical mythology and the heroes and heroines of the Greeks and Romans rather than Catholic saints. In any case, I don’t mind that the gods and goddesses sometimes seem less than holy.
Sometimes imperfection is the price of being are passionately alive. Perhaps they are sometimes mistaken but they are never lukewarm. I appreciate that. Living with confidence and fearlessness is worth a misstep now and then.
Self-Transformation and the Hindu Deities
My experience has been that the most empowering approach is to ask myself what qualities I need to develop to be a more complete human being. Do I need to be ruthless in separating myself from a victim mentality? Do I need to care less what others think and pursue my own path with more power and directness? Do I need to clarify my goals and be a better example of adventurous living for my children? Do I need to soften and treat others with greater patience?
Which Hindu deities best exemplify the qualities that I need to embody? What are the qualities associated with Kali or Parvati or Hanuman or any of the other deities? My chants are really a way to develop those qualities within myself rather than worship them in an external being. I like to know the meaning of the chants I sing and to be conscious of my intent. My hope is that if I become more clear, more compassionate, more powerful, more loving and more whole as a human being, then becoming more godlike will take care of itself.
Author Kathleen Karlsen
Vocal Medicine reveals Kathleen Karlsen’s personal journey and years of research into mantras, chanting and kirtan. Learn more about using mantras and singing to invigorate your life! Explore the chakras and the impact of sound in every area of your life.
Flower Symbols by Kathleen Karlsen features fascinating information about the folklore of the world’s most beloved flowers. Flowers accompany us in nearly every major event in life. This book is a perfect gift for every flower lover in your life!
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Hindu Deities Article Summary
This article includes a selection of Hindu deities based on forces of nature as well as gods and goddesses. A brief description is given for each and an example of a mantra or devotional song. The stories of these Hindu deities serve as an inspirational mythology teaching moral and ethical values as well as cultural norms. Listen to a mantra and explore the colorful deities of the East!
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