How many gods are there?
Brihadaranyaka upanishad [3.9] gives a beautiful story in answer to this question. I found it immensely informative and interesting. Hope you do too. Here is a brief summary of this story.
The scene is the assembly hall of King Janaka. A grand yajna had just been concluded. Several accomplished scholars had gathered. Yajnavalkya and Saakalya were among them.
The king had just announced that he would offer grand prizes to anyone who could explain Self-knowledge (Brahmavidya) to him. No one came forward for fear of failure till Yajnavalkya did. Scholars from the assembly asked a variety of questions to Yajnavalkya, to test and ascertain his knowledge and scholarship. Yajnavalkya fielded their questions brilliantly with clarity, precision and authority. The assembly, fully satisfied with Yajnavalkya’s claim, then moved a motion to end the session when Saakalya rose up from his seat and asked a question.
Sakkalya: “How many gods [devaah] are there, Yajnavalkya?”
Yajnavalkya provided answers to this question in a fantastic manner with tongue-in-cheek humor.
Yajnavalkya: “303 gods are there”. Then, he continued. “There are 3003 gods. 33 gods. 6 gods. 3 gods. 2 gods. 1 ½ gods are there.”
Finally Yajnavalkya said: “One God, eka iti”.
Saakalya was confused. He could not understand Yajnavalkya’s replies.
He asked: “How so?”
Deva, god, means effulgence. Not the effulgence of light that the eye sees, but the effulgence that makes the eye see, the ear hear, the mind think. The effulgence that activates and de-activates the corpse called the body. The effulgence that gives and receives love and happiness. This effulgence that shines in infinite ways. Each is a deva.
Yajnavalkya continued: “All these three thousand and all that I mentioned – they are not really gods. They are only manifestations of the 33. The 33 are the principal manifestations. Others are only their radiances.”
Saakalya: “What are those 33?”
Yajnavalkya: “These are the 8 vasus, 11 rudras and 12 adityas, Indra and Prajapati. These 33 are immanent in us.”
Saakalya: “What are the 8 vasus?”
Yajnavalkya: “Vasu means “resident of”. All physical objects including our bodies are made of eight aspects – the effulgences of the elements of the earth, water, wind, fire and space. These are held together in a lump so to speak by the three forces exerted by the sun, the moon and the stars. Hence, 8 vasus.”
Saakalya: “What are the 11 rudras?”
Yajnavalkya: “ Rudra is the aspect that gives and removes pain. For example, the hurt from a wound causes pain. The healing of the wound removes the pain. Both the hurting and healing aspects are rudras.We relate to the external world and experience the cause and removal of pain through 11 aspects of effulgence present in us . These are the five senses of perception (eye, ear, nose, tongue and skin), five senses of action (hands, legs, speech, procreation and excretion) and the mind. These are the 11 rudras.”
Saakalya: “And the 12 adityas?”
Yajnavalkya: “ We experience the sun’s energy levels differently during the twelve months in a year. These twelve aspects of the sun are the 12 adityas.”
Saakalya: “Who is Indra?”
The effulgence hope is Indra [Source]
Yajnavalkya: “Indra is the effulgence of the strength of hope in us. It overpowers the obstructive forces in our lives.”
Saakalya: “Who is Prajapati?”
Yajnavalkya: “Prajapati is our conscience. It is the effulgence of sacrifice in our lives”
Saakalya: “Who are the 6 gods you mentioned, Yajnavalkya?”
Yajnavalkya: “They are the eight I mentioned already minus two. I excluded two from the list of eight. The six are fire, earth, air, space, heaven and the sun.”
Saakalya: “Who are the 3 gods?”
Yajnavalkya: “The three levels of awareness we live in. They are not separate from us. We live in the levels of body, mind and conscience; we live in the wakeful, dreaming and deep-sleep states; we live in the past, the present and the future; we live in demonic, human and divine impulses. All these awarenesses are devas only.”
Saakalya: “Who are the 2 gods?”
Yajnavalkya: “Food and life-force. Energy and matter. The whole universe consists of these two only – energy and matter, nothing else. Outwardly it is matter. Inwardly it is energy.”
Saakalya: “You said there are 1 ½ gods. What do you mean by that? Explain.”
Yajnavalkya: “There is One God that makes all these various gods flourish. One Effulgence that shines in myriad ways. This Effulgence, while shining as all other effulgences, is also beyond them. It plays the game of hide and seek, making you think it is far away somewhere outside when in fact It is the closest to you, present in you, above you, beside you in all places, at all times. Because It appears different from yourself, I said 1 ½ gods. There is only one God.”
Rg veda [1.164.46] declares
Truth is One. Elders who know It speak of It in different ways.
Ekam sat viprah bahudhaa vadanti .
This Truth is
Love only, priyam eva.
[Taitreeya upanishad Brahmananda valli 5.3]
Its form is Love. Its food is Bliss. But It says, there was no one around to share Love with, no one to share Bliss with. So,it says it created the many.
I am one, I willed to become many.
Ekoham bahusyam. [Chandogya upanishad]
God in any form, or sans a form, is Love only.
Worshipping this Love in a form that appeals to me, I must share this Love. I must give only love and happiness to others. I must become a loving person at all times, in all places, in all ways.