Although all Hindus acknowledge the existence and importance of a number of gods and demigods, most individual worshipers are primarily devoted to a single god or goddess, of whom Shiva, Vishnu, and the Goddess are the most popular.
Shiva embodies the apparently contradictory aspects of a god of ascetics and a god of the phallus. He is the deity of renouncers, particularly of the many Shaiva sects that imitate him: Kapalikas, who carry skulls to reenact the myth in which Shiva beheaded his father, the incestuous Brahma, and was condemned to carry the skull until he found release in Benares; Pashupatas, worshipers of Shiva Pashupati, “Lord of Beasts”; and Aghoris, “to whom nothing is horrible,” yogis who eat ordure or flesh in order to demonstrate their complete indifference to pleasure or pain. Shiva is also the deity whose phallus (linga) is the central shrine of all Shaiva temples and the personal shrine of all Shaiva householders; his priapism is said to have resulted in his castration and the subsequent worship of his severed member. In addition, Shiva is said to have appeared on earth in various human, animal, and vegetable forms, establishing his many local shrines.
To his worshipers, Vishnu is all-pervasive and supreme; he is the god from whose navel a lotus sprang, giving birth to the creator (Brahma). Vishnu created the universe by separating heaven and earth, and he rescued it on a number of subsequent occasions. He is also worshiped in the form of a number of “descents”—avatars (see Avatar), or, roughly, incarnations. Several of these are animals that recur in iconography: the fish, the tortoise, and the boar. Others are the dwarf (Vamana, who became a giant in order to trick the demon Bali out of the entire universe); the man-lion (Narasimha, who disemboweled the demon Hiranyakashipu); the Buddha (who became incarnate in order to teach a false doctrine to the pious demons); Rama-with-an-Axe (Parashurama, who beheaded his unchaste mother and destroyed the entire class of Kshatriyas to avenge his father); and Kalki (the rider on the white horse, who will come to destroy the universe at the end of the age of Kali). Most popular by far are Rama (hero of the Ramayana) and Krishna (hero of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata-Purana), both of whom are said to be avatars of Vishnu, although they were originally human heroes.
Along with these two great male gods, several goddesses are the object of primary devotion. They are sometimes said to be various aspects of the Goddess, Devi. In some myths Devi is the prime mover, who commands the male gods to do the work of creation and destruction. As Durga, the Unapproachable, she kills the buffalo demon Mahisha in a great battle; as Kali, the Black, she dances in a mad frenzy on the corpses of those she has slain and eaten, adorned with the still-dripping skulls and severed hands of her victims. The Goddess is also worshiped by the Shaktas, devotees of Shakti, the female power. This sect arose in the medieval period along with the Tantrists, whose esoteric ceremonies involved a black mass in which such forbidden substances as meat, fish, and wine were eaten and forbidden sexual acts were performed ritually. In many Tantric cults the Goddess is identified as Krishna’s consort Radha.
More peaceful manifestations of the Goddess are seen in wives of the great gods: Lakshmi, the meek, docile wife of Vishnu and a fertility goddess in her own right; and Parvati, the wife of Shiva and the daughter of the Himalayas. The great river goddess Ganga (the Ganges), also worshiped alone, is said to be a wife of Shiva; a goddess of music and literature, Sarasvati, associated with the Saraswati River, is the wife of Brahma. Many of the local goddesses of India—Manasha, the goddess of snakes, in Bengal, and Minakshi in Madurai—are married to Hindu gods, while others, such as Shitala, goddess of smallpox, are worshiped alone. These unmarried goddesses are feared for their untamed powers and angry, unpredictable outbursts.
Many minor gods are assimilated into the central pantheon by being identified with the great gods or with their children and friends. Hanuman, the monkey god, appears in the Ramayana as the cunning assistant of Rama in the siege of Lanka. Skanda, the general of the army of the gods, is the son of Shiva and Parvati, as is Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of scribes and merchants, the remover of obstacles, and the object of worship at the beginning of any important enterprise.