Vedic Gods (Devas)
Are the Vedas Polytheistic?
They indeed are not. Polytheism is understood as an organised system of gods, different in power and rank, and all subordinate to a supreme God. There are numerous gods mentioned in the Vedas. The Nirukta (a treatise on the etymology of Vedic words, and respected by tradition as one of the six organs of the Vedas) takes up 151 names of gods for etymology purposes. This really can baffle the lay reader of the Vedas.
F. Max Muller does not agree with this allegation. He finds that the gods worshipped in the Vedas do not belong to a hierarchy. He points out that on top of this, there are unmistakable assertions of monotheism in the Rig Veda, viz. ‘alone God above all gods’ (X.121.8 ibid.).
What is devatā (god or divinity)?
The Nirukta school defines it quite differently from what we normally understand. First of all, the word ‘deva’ is something heavenly or someone giving gift, light, or knowledge. Examples could be king, Sun, mother, father, teacher (āchārya) or one living in heaven or celestial body (e.g. star).
Further we also find divinities of every mantra or sookta of the Vedas. How can one explain that? The Nirukta clarifies that any object celebrated in a mantra or sookta (hymn) is its divinity.
In this light, any object whether chariot or arrow when it is deemed to serve the larger purpose of Yajña (common weal/upkeep) or of Rta (Cosmic Order) or of Ātman, can become divinity of a mantra.
Here is the Nirukta declaration (based on the authority of the Vedas) that gives a decisive blow to the polytheism alleged in the Vedas, viz.:
By omnipotence of divinity, one Ātman (or Brahma) is worshipped in many ways.
They call Agni [the great Ātman] as Indra, Mitra and Varuna; even He is
Heavenly Sun graciously marching in skies, and the life and soul of universe.
Perceptive people see that one reality of Agni in many ways
And call Him as Yama and Mātrisvan (Vayu). (RV I.164.46)
That verily is Agni (fire); That is Aditya (Sun);
That is Vayu (wind); That indeed is Chandramas (delightful moon);
That alone is brilliant Sukra; That is the boundless Brahma;
Those Apas (waters or particles);
That is Prajapati (lord of creatures, or Brahmā). (YV 32.1)
One existence (reality) has many names. That alone is Agni &c. and not vice versa. Names are suggestive of nature, qualities and functions that ultimately rest in that Ātman (or Brahma, the Universal Self).
What distinguishs gods from?
Gods are not gods prior to creation. Even others did not exist except as Ātman.
Devas [gods including Brahmā] being born with the creation. (RV X.129.6)
All manifestations (including gods) come into being only during creation; otherwise they exist as immutable Ātman (Brahma) only.
Gods are explained as limbs or organs.
That is Brahma (or Brahman). He is Ātman (Self).
Other gods or deities are [only] limbs. (TU I.5)
That alone is Agni &c. and not vice versa.
This mantra has already been stated above. The same is illustrated below in the Upanishads:
Sun does not illumine Him (literally, there); nor the moon and stars;
Nor these lightnings illumine, what to speak of this fire!
All replicate Him, the Luminous.
All indeed shine in His brilliance. (Katha Upanishad V.15 ibid.)
From His fear, god of wind (Vayu) blows; from His fear, Sun rises;
From His fear, fire (Agni) and lightning (Indra) [proceed];
And so god of death, the fifth, runs around. (TU II.18)
Gods not to be meditated but only Ātman.
Ātman (Self) alone should be meditated and worshipped. He who warns someone who holds non-self objects as dear, like ‘Your dear might perish and make you cry!’ is indeed a prophet. It will happen like that. He who holds Ātman alone as dear, his dear ones will not perish or desert him. He who regards divinity as separate from himself, like animal of men, so such person is victim of gods. (Source: the Satapatha Brahmana or the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad I.iv.8-10)
Gods carry out Rta.
Under His aegis, the devas (gods) collectively and collaboratively carry out Rta (Cosmic Law & Order). They are keepers and guardians of the universe and facilitate Yajña.