The Hindu View of God (Brahman/Ishvara)
People often call Hindu religion a polytheistic religion, but in fact that is not the case. All the multitudinous Hindu deities are believed to be different aspects of the same truth and reality, called Brahman or Ishvara. Ishvara, to Hindus, is not a being with superpowers located apart from the physical universe. Rather, Ishvara can be found within the physical universe and its natural laws and phenomena.
In many Indian stories, the “gods and goddesses” of Hindu religion are often depicted like separate entities, with human-like feuds and jealousies and quarrels. These are stories, to make a point and should not be confused with the actual Hindu philosophy.
Brahma is traditionally accepted as the creator of the universe, and symbolizes the power of creation. He is usually depicted with four heads (symbolizing different aspects of the personality, wisdom, the four directions and the four Vedas), sitting on a swan or a lotus flower. He has four hands in which he holds a water pot, a manuscript of the Vedas, a mala (rosary) and an instrument often used in sacrifices. His consort is Saraswati, goddess of knowledge, symbolizing the necessity of knowledge to a creator.
Vishnu is the maintainer of the universe. He represents the power of sustenance and preservation. His name is derived from the root "Vish", which means "to pervade", as the work of preservation and sustenance pervades the whole universe. He is also called Narayana, which literally translates to "where the water dwells", as water sustains all life. He is usually represented as a four-armed man, either reclining on a large serpent floating in the middle of the ocean or simply standing on the waves. His four hands usually hold a conch-shell, a discus, a mace and a lotus flower. His skin is blue (which in Indian mythos represents the infinite) and his clothes are yellow (symbolizing the earthly), which together represent the bringing of immeasurable and transcendental truths into mundane life. Popular Indian epics and stories describe Vishnu coming down to earth to resolve crises and defend righteousness. Rama and Krishna, heroes of the Indian epics the Ramayana and the Mahabharata respectively, are considered to be two of Vishnu's avataras (incarnations). Vishnu's consort is Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and prosperity, which symbolizes the necessity of resources to preservation and sustenance.
As Brahma represents creation and Vishnu preservation, Shiva is the god of dissolution. All three of these powers are perpetually ongoing and inseparable from each other. Shiva is usually depicted as an ascetic, with long matted hair and half-closed eyes, sitting cross-legged in a position of meditation. He often has a snake coiled around his neck and carries a three-pronged spear called a trishula. His appearance is supposed to be both austere and fearsome. His consort is Parvati (Shakti, or Uma) who is the goddess of strength, symbolizing the necessity of strength and power for the purposes of dissolution
Rama, the main character of the Indian epic the Ramayana, is considered the seventh incarnation of Vishnu. His major accomplishment was upholding Dharma (righteousness) by defeating Ravana, the demon-king of Lanka, who kidnapped his wife Sita. Rama is usually depicted alongside Sita and his brother Lakshmana.
Lord Krishna is an embodiment of fairness. Krishna, the character in the Indian epic the Mahabharata who delivers the Bhagavad-Gita (a major scripture for Hindus), is considered an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He spent his youth as a cowherd, playing pranks and playing the flute, and is usually portrayed with Radha (his childhood playmate whom he loved). There are many popular stories about his exploits, especially his role as a major player in the great war of the Mahabharata.
Ganesha (literally translating to "lord of all things") is worshipped as the remover of obstacles, and is also known as Ganapati. In Hindu folklore he is considered the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is represented with the head of an elephant. Many stories say that Parvati created him to guard her bedchamber and prevent anyone, including Shiva, from entering. Shiva became angry when stopped by Ganesha, so he chopped Ganesha's head off. This infuriated Parvati, and Shiva made amends by resurrecting Ganesha and giving him an elephant's head to replace his own. Elephant is an animal with the largest head and head is that which contains the intellect. It is also credited with having good memory. Therefore Lord Ganesha can be said to be the Lord of wisdom, memory and intelligence. The trunk is very special. In as much as it can lift heavy object with the trunk, it is said that it can also pick tiny object such a needle just as easily. This ability to pick up smaller than the smallest and larger than largest stands for the capacity of the intellect to discriminate between that which is very subtle as well that which is very large. So the Lord is attributed to discrimination and wisdom.
Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge and the intellect. Her name literally translates to "one who gives the essence of the self." She is depicted sitting on a lotus, holding the scriptures in one hand and a lotus in the other, and playing a veena (an Indian musical instrument) with her other two hands to represent the importance of the fine arts. She is usually dressed in white, to represent purity and discipline. Her consort is Brahma, god of creation, which illustrates how knowledge is necessary for any successful creation. She is commonly worshipped during the last three days of the Navaratri festival and by those engaged in intellectual pursuits.
Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and prosperity. "Wealth" does not refer merely to money and material goods but to all kinds of flourishing, from the intellectual to the emotional to the moral. Lakshmi is depicted dressed in red or pink, standing or sitting on a lotus, with two hands holding lotus blossoms and the other two giving blessings. Her consort is Vishnu, god of preservation, which represents the necessity of wealth for sustenance. She is commonly worshipped during the middle three days of Navaratri, and throughout the year by businessmen and those seeking wealth.
Parvati, also known as Uma and Shakti, is the goddess of strength and raw power. Her consort is Shiva, god of dissolution, because strength is necessary to destroy. She is most commonly depicted in the forms of Kali and Durga.
Kali is a martial form of Parvati, and is meant to be terrifying and disturbing, even more frightening than Durga (another form of Parvati). She represents the destruction of evil and is worshipped by those seeking justice, protection and the strength and fierceness to confront their troubles. She is usually portrayed with a necklace of skulls and her tongue hanging out. She carries weapons and is frequently depicted dancing on a dead body, said to be a demon that symbolizes ignorance.
Durga is a martial form of Parvati, meant to be impressive and fearsome. She is portrayed as fair-skinned, riding a lion, with multiple arms carrying weapons. Like Kali, another form of Parvati, she represents the fight against evil and ignorance.