By Amy Underdown, London, UK
Who is the most powerful Hindu God? This is a much-asked question, but one with a multitude of answers. With many competing schools of thought, vast numbers of religious devotees and an extensive mythology, the allocation of the most powerful deity in Hinduism is no easy feat.
One answer that seems to pop up a lot is supreme God of Hinduism, Para Brahman – who should not be confused with Brahma of the Trimurti. Para Brahman is a confusing concept and does not represent an answer to the question in itself, as it is an abstract notion rather than one god. In essence, Para Brahman is a formless concept or entity that exists everywhere and always, pervading all times and places in the universe and beyond. It exists within each devotee, waiting to be discovered. Whilst this may sound immensely powerful, it is argued by different schools of religion that various Hindu deities can take the form of Para Brahman, thus each becoming the supreme God. In very basic language, Para Brahman is almost like a title that can be attributed to various Hindu gods. In more complex terms, Para Brahman is the attribute-less Absolute, who gains form through Hindu gods such as Shakti, Vishnu, or Shiva. Complicated, isn’t it?
One great way of thinking about this is through thinking about sugar. A grain of sugar has both form and essence. You can picture it, but it also carries sweetness. When we think about Para Brahman, we should think of the sweetness alone – formless but essential to the making of our object. Deities, such as Shakti, Vishnu or Shiva, can be compared to the physical grains of sugar. It is up to the denomination which deity they believe represents the true form of Para Brahman.
It is these three deities (Shakti, VIshnu and Shiva) that have a large following in Hinduism, with their denominations being called Shaktism, Vaishnavism, and Shaivism respectively. Each of these religious groups enshrines their namesake as the Para Brahman, each believing that their chosen deities are the most powerful of all. There is a fourth denomination, called Smartism, who devote themselves to the idea that all deities are reflections of one god, meaning each devotee is left with the personal choice of which form this supreme being takes.
So, there is a reason why the question ‘who is the most powerful Hindu god?’ doesn't seem to have one clear answer, and that’s because there simply isn’t one! Multiple ancient texts and their innumerable interpretations across dialects and locations have meant that one answer would be to overwrite another. Having said this, oftentimes debates over the most powerful Hindu god eventually end with two competing names: Shiva and Vishnu.
These two deities are part of the Trimurti, which is the collective name of the Hindu trinity (the third being Brahma – to find out more about the Trimurti - Who are the Three Gods of Hinduism) With Vishnu as the preserver of the universe and Shiva as the destroyer, it is easy to see why each side has a strong case for being the most powerful Hindu deity. Some argue that without Vishnu, the universe would fall into complete disarray, therefore rendering him the most powerful as the world that we know it relies on his authority. However, others claim that if Shiva is capable of destroying universal creation, then his powers ultimately override any other. Others also point out that Shiva has the power of re-creation once this age of the universe has been destroyed, demonstrating how the lifecycle of the universe is rested in his capacity.
There are many other reasons why this debate is ongoing, with the strongest being that interpretations of Hindu texts vary across time and place. For example, one argument of Shaivism is that Shiva existed before Vishnu or Brahma, therefore making him undoubtedly more important. And yet this idea is disputed by other ancient Hindu texts (Vishnu Puran and Bhagvat Puran) which claim that the Trimurti had always existed as an energy, even prior to its true form. Not to mention that time is cyclical in Hinduism, not linear, and so ideas of ‘who came first’ are considered obsolete by some, as deities keep manifesting time and time again. There is even another myth which claims the opposite, suggesting that one form of Shiva was borne from Vishnu’s eyebrows. You can see how detailed and complex this debate truly is and with so much evidence either way, it is increasingly clear that we should never expect a clear conclusion!
Another important factor to note is that often, combinations of Vishnu and Shiva, as well as Shakti in some cases, are merged to create one all-powerful being. Perhaps this is therefore the closest thing there is to an undisputed and most powerful God of Hinduism. Shankaranarayana and Harihara are two famous examples of this.
What mustn’t be thought, however, is that this interwoven debate is one of fiery opinions and negative controversy. Part of the beauty of Hinduism is the universal acceptance of others’ opinions and the collective respect for alternative viewpoints. There is an understanding within Hinduism that their supreme God, or Para Brahman, is not only everywhere but inside everyone. The religious journey is all about discovering this absolute being within each individual’s soul, whichever God devotees ultimately find that to be.