University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
collapse sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 


The Hindu conception of deity combines, or rather
comprises, two distinctive traditions, which might be
conveniently designated the “popular” and the “philo-
sophic.” The former reaches back to the Indus Valley
civilization of the third and second millennium B.C.,
and to the Aryan tribes that entered the northwestern
areas of the continent about 1400 B.C. The religion of
the Indus Valley peoples is known only by archeologi-
cal data, which is of uncertain significance; but it may
be reasonably inferred that several deities were wor-
shipped, and that some may have been prototypes of
the later Hindu deities. The religious beliefs of the
Aryans are documented by the hymns of the Rig-Veda,
which are addressed to a variety of divinities. The gods
concerned were chiefly deifications of cosmic phe-
nomena. The most prominent is Indra, a storm-god
conceived as a victorious warrior-king. Other impor-
tant gods were Varuna, a sky-god, associated with
cosmic order (rta); Agni, the fire-god, identified with
the ritual fire that consumed sacrificial victims; Rudra,
a terrible god who brought disease; Yama, the death-
god and ruler of the underworld. These deities were
often of ambivalent character: for example, Rudra not
only inflicted suffering, he also healed.

How some of the Vedic deities and those of the Indus
Valley peoples became the gods of Hinduism presents
many problems that are yet unsolved. Of the complex
multitude of Hindu gods two are of outstanding im-
portance and distinction, namely, Vishnu and Řiva.
Each has an ambivalent nature, and typifies the crea-
tive and destructive aspects of the empirical world.
Thus in the Bhagavad-Gītā, one of the foundational
documents of Hinduism, Vishnu is first revealed, in all
the multiplicity and complexity of his being, as the
creator and sustainer of the universe. Then follows
another vision. The god appears as an awful monstrous
being, with many mouths set with dreadful fangs, into
which all living things pass to their doom. The terrible
deity announces in explanation: “Know I am Time, that
makes the worlds to perish, and come to bring on them
destruction” (Bhagavad-Gītā, XI:32). This equation
with Time is significant and recalls the Iranian Time-
god Zurvān. The equation relates to the Hindu inter-
pretation of reality: that all existence in the phenom-
enal world involves an uncreasing process of life and
death; for Time governs this world and all implicated
in it, and its process is cyclic. However, despite this
revelation of the awful aspect of Vishnu, the
Bhagvad-Gītā teaches that the deity was benign to
those who worship him with a deep personal devotion

Řiva, the other great deity of Hinduism who com-
mands the allegiance of millions, similarly represents
the creative and destructive aspects of the phenomenal
world. His creative power is symbolized by the lingam
or phallus. In iconography he is portrayed as Natarāja
(“King of Dancers”), who performs the cosmic dance,


symbolizing the energy of the universe, perpetually
creating, sustaining, and destroying the forms in which
it manifests itself. As Bhairava, the terrible destroyer,
Řiva is imagined as haunting places of cremation, en-
twined by serpents and wearing a necklace of skulls.
He is also called Kāla-Rudra (all-devouring Time). By
a strange transformation of imagery, the śakti or acti-
vating energy of Řiva, has been hypostatized as a
goddess. This process has resulted in the conception
of the goddess Kālī, who personifies Time. She is often
represented as trampling on the corpse-like body of
Řiva, from whom she has emanated. Iconographically,
she portrays the unceasing cycle of life and death
manifest in the natural world.

The philosophical conception of deity, which finds
expression in the Upanishads, is difficult to define
because it is basically imprecise, being presented in
an imagery and terminology that is both subtle and
complex. “Brahman” signifies the Ultimate Reality,
with which the “Ātman” (the “Self”) is identified; in
turn the self (ātman) of the individual person is identi-
cal with the transcendent Ātman. The subtlety of the
equation is seen in this passage from the Řatapatha
(X.6.3): “One should venerate Brahman as
the True.... One should venerate the Self (ātman)
who consists of mind... greater than the sky, greater
than space, greater than this earth, greater than all
existing things. He is the self of breath (life), he is my
own self” (Zaehner [1962], p. 66). From the concept
of Brahman, the idea of a personal creator-god Brahmā
was derived, and an attempt was made to relate the
other two great deities of Hinduism, Řiva and Vishnu,
in a Trimūrti or “One God in three forms”: Brahmā
(the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Řiva (the
destroyer). However, the conception has never estab-
lished itself in popular Hinduism.

Buddhism has often been described as atheistic. Such
an evaluation, without further qualification, is mislead-
ing, since it is generally based upon some tacit assump-
tion of what constitutes deity. So far as the original
and essential nature of Buddhism can be determined,
it may be said that it was not concerned with the idea
of God as the Creator of the universe. The Buddha
sought to emancipate people from regarding this world
as reality and involving themselves in it. However,
since the Buddhist concept of Nirvāna is described as
Truth, Reality, the Good, and by such adjectives as the
“unbecome,” “deathless,” “unchanging,” it may rea-
sonably be regarded as constituting the essence of
deity. In its popular forms, Buddhism is theistic in two
ways. Thus, many of the gods of Hinduism have been
recognized as superhuman entities; though, like man-
kind, they are held to be subject to decay and death
and the laws of samsāra (“rebirth”) and karma. But
more important has been the deification of the Buddha
himself. His image in temples is treated as a holy object
and is the focus of worship. And what are conceived
to have been, or will be, other forms of the Buddha-
nature such as Adibuddha and Amitabha (Amida), and
Bodhisattvas such as Avalokitesvara, have also been
deified and worshipped. In this latter Buddhist concep-
tion of deity, however, the operative factor is soterio-
logical significance; little concern is shown about the
cosmological or metaphysical attributes that charac-
terize the conceptions of other religions.

In China, about 1000 B.C., the kings of the Chou
dynasty effected a religious change which had a long-
lasting influence. Seeking to avoid the worship of Ti,
the divine founder-ancestor of the Shang dynasty which
they had supplanted, they called this ancient deity
Shang Ti, i.e., the Ti above, or the supreme Ti, and
equated it with T'ien, the deification of Heaven. This
new deity was presented as the supreme God, who was
concerned with the prosperity and well-being of the
Chinese people. To this end it was conceived as de-
manding good government, and ready to remove rulers
who failed to provide this—as it had removed the
Shang dynasty. The worship of Shang Ti became the
state-cult, with the emperor as its charismatic high-
priest, he being the Son of Heaven. The supreme act
of national worship was the annual sacrifice to Shang
at the time of the winter solstice, offered by the
emperor at the Altar of Heaven in Pekin. Although
thus the god of the official cult, this deification of
Heaven could be the object of personal devotion, as
the teaching of the great philosopher Mo-tzŭ (fl. 400
B.C.) shows. Mo-tzŭ also spoke of the “Way” (Tao) of
Heaven as a kind of divine providential ordering of
the world. The term Tao was also used by the early
Taoists to describe the eternal principle of being, un-
derlying and sustaining the universe. According to the
important Tao-tê-ching, the Tao is “formless yet com-
plete,” it preexisted heaven and earth, it is “as the
mother of all beneath heaven,” and the sage seeks to
be in perfect harmony with it. This naturalism, which
characterized ancient Chinese thought, also found ex-
pression in the concepts of Yin and Yang, regarded as
alternating principles manifest in every aspect of life.
The tendency to monism or dualism did not, however,
rule out recognition of lesser forms of deity; and
Chinese religion included both ancestor worship and
belief in a multitudinous variety of minor gods and

The Arabic word Allah is a shortened form of alilāh
(“The God”), and it expresses the quintessence of the
Muslim conception of God. Supreme emphasis is laid
in the Koran on the unique unity of Allah, often with
reference to the Christian deification of Jesus and Mary.


Muhammad thus proclaims his deity: “Allah—there is
no god but He, the Living, the Self-subsistent.... He
is the High, the Mighty One” (Sūrah 2:256). Elsewhere
in the Koran, Allah is presented as the Creator, and
the implacable Judge of mankind at the end of the
world. In stressing the omnipotence and omniscience
of Allah, Muhammad found himself involved in the
inevitable problems of divine predestination and
human free will with which Jewish and Christian theo-
logians have wrestled. Inconsistently he represents
Allah as predestinating men severally to salvation or
damnation, while he also describes him as “the Com-
passionate One, the Merciful.” Much of this inconsis-
tency probably stemmed from his own spiritual expe-
rience, and because he was by nature a prophet, not
a thinker. In subsequent Muslim thought the concep-
tion of Allah was greatly developed. The traditional
ninety-nine names of Allah constituted a widely diver-
sified list of qualities attributed to him, and attempts
were made to explain away the anthropomorphic ideas
and terminology used in the Koran. But despite such
sophistications, the Muslim conception of Allah has
remained fundamentally that which Muhammad pro-
claimed, under the impulse of his own peculiar inspi-
ration, and in reaction to the crude polytheism of his
fellow-Arabs and his contacts with Judaism and with

It may be observed, in concluding this survey, that
in a subtle but very significant way which has not yet
been properly investigated, the idea of deity reflects
the character of the people or culture that has pro-
duced it. Whereas certain attributes such as power,
immortality, and eternity, represent commonly held
notions of what constitutes divinity, the forms in which
deities have been conceived are curiously varied. It
will suffice, for illustration, to mention only the depic-
tion of deity in ancient Egypt, in Hinduism, and in