The Hindu deity Vishnu, 300-400. India; Mathura area; Uttar Pradesh state. Sandstone. The Avery Brundage Collection, (Asian Art Museum. B73S17).The Hindu deity Vishnu, 300–400. India; Mathura area; Uttar Pradesh state. Sandstone.  Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, The Avery Brundage Collection, B73S17.

There are many Hindu deities, some with great and others with limited powers. Most Hindus focus their devotion primarily on one of these, whom they regard as supreme. The greatest deities have complex natures and are shown in art in a variety of forms and situations from narratives. They are sometimes attended by spouses or their particular animal mounts. They are often identified by physical characteristics and symbolic implements they hold or wear.

While there are many gods with myriad forms, those most popularly worshiped by Hindus in India are Vishnu, Shiva, the Goddess in her various aspects, and Shiva’s sons Ganesha and Karttikeya. According to some interpretations, all divinities are in fact a manifestation of a single godhead, divine force, or abstraction.

The Trimurti, or “triple form” explains basic beliefs about the roles of Hindu gods, but is largely a Western interpretation of the main deities that has an obvious basis in the idea of the Christian Trinity. The Hindu Trimurti consists of Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer.

Most Hindus are principally devoted to the god Vishnu, the god Shiva, or the Goddess. These categorical practices are sometimes described as, respectively, Vaishnavism (Vishnu), Shaivism (Shiva), and Shaktism (Shakti being another term for the female creative energy). The predominance of these three deities evolved over several centuries, crystallizing in the early part of the first millennium, when a renewed Hinduism centering on devotion made them increasingly popular. It is believed that each of these divinities incorporated elements of other or earlier deities that existed in the pre-Hindu context, and that express beliefs and practices existing at high and low levels of culture. Thus, mainstream Hindu deities relate to figures appearing in Vedic literature, as well as to worship practices involving nature spirits, fertility, local tutelary gods, shamanism, malevolent spirits, and ghosts.