Why ferocious Gods and smiling faces Gods in Hinduism?

Many argue whether Hinduism is polytheist or monotheist- wheteher there is a single God or many Gods. ‘He is One only without a second’, read the Chandogya Upaishad. The Svetasvara Upanishad explains, ‘Of Him there are neither parents nor Lord.’ It further states, ‘There is no likeness of Him.’ All agree that God is only One.

We expose love and devotion to Lord Shiva, Vishnu and others because they are our chosendeity. They are our Ishta Devata. In Sanskrit, the term Ishta Devata means ‘chosen God’ by devotees and anyone is free to chose their own. In Hindu mythology, the most popular form of Ishta Devatas are indeed Shiva, Vishnu (and his avataras), Ganesha, Kartikeya and few others. These Gods have sweet and polished faces.

However, our forefathers do have family God as well, which is called Kula Devata. Worshipping of Kula Devata is a way of passing the tradition of the family lineage down the generations. Hindu families often make pilgrimages to the Kula-devata temple to seek the blessing of the deity after auspicious occasion such as a new baby born, wedding etc. The Kula-devata is the guardian of the family and there is a bond between the family and the deity. For instance, Hanuman might be the Kula-Devata of the whole family lineage. An extended family would travel over distances on a special occasion to honour Him for the unique reason that the deity was honoured by their fore-fathers in a particular place and at a particular time for received blessings.

The Grama-devatais the material form of Vedic or Puranic God. In south and north Indian villages, the working class venerates Kali as a principal village deity. Kali is their grama-devata. The village deity would protect the local community from catastrophes such as epidemics, floods, drought, theft and bandits and evil. It is believed that if the grama-devata is not properly honoured the deity would send the calamities they are supposed to get protection. The grama-devata (village God) in turn demand for animal sacrifice. Examples of grama-devata are Muneshawaran, Kali, Madurai Veeren, Kalabhairava, Amman (in any form such as Kali-Amman and others). Most of the grama-devata has fierce and ferocious look because they stand for their purpose. The grama-devata is not explained in Vedas. However, very few of them are included in the Puranas.

When our ancestors from India landed in Mauritius they brought along their respective grama-devatas, i.e their village gods. In several temples, the presence of grama-devata has gained prime importance in temples and sit as the main deity next to Vedic or Puranic Gods. They sit next to Shiva, Vishnu or Devi who are also the Ishata Devatas of the devotees. Very few religious leaders bother about agamic principles with respect to the occupied position of grama-devata in relation to Ishta Devata in temples. This can be illustrated by the number of Amman temple in Mauritius. Similarly, people of north Indian origin have set up Kali temple. However, the ferocious Kali has propitiated into several parts of India but nevertheless remains a grama-devata. Several religious ceremonies of global stature organise huge celebrations for grama-devatas. In some cases ‘fire walking’ or ‘canjee’ ceremonies are organised. In the modern days, the celebrations of religious festivals for the grama-devata are being tuned to add Vedic touch, and animal sacrifice is not allowed. But this is adjusted with a view to respond to unhappy devotees. In some part of the world, the Indian diaspora still honour their grama-devata with animal sacrifice. It is believed that the act of animal sacrifice will replenish the energy of the grama-devata in exchange of the energy He will spend to protect the devotee from evil, theft and diseases, as well as loss of acquired material gain.

As a matter of principle, Brahmin priest normally do not officiate religious rituals for grama-devata. Their studies and practices are based on Vedic and Agamic principles to honour Vedic and Puranic Gods such as Surya, Indra, Rudra, Shiva, Vishnu and others. The rituals for grama-devata are usually performed by a ‘pujari’ who has his own way of invoking and pleading the village Gods. These practices are against Brahmanism. However, a village priest (pujari) will usually advise that the devotee has recourse to grama-devata to cure from diseases, protection of wealth, and destruction of unwanted evil. The devotees are more comfortable with grama-devata and believe to get quicker return following their demand and prayer.  It is also improper to compare a Brahmin priest with a Pujari.

This is in fact the beauty of pluralism in Hinduism. The worship of village God, or grama-devata, kula-devata and Ishta-devata forms an important part of the conglomerate of Hindu religious beliefs, customs, traditions and ceremonies which are generally classed together to form Hinduism. But all forms of God are equal. If belief, devotion and worship are done earnestly, then prayer to only One God is enough to liberate us from the bondage.

Nanda Narrainen

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