world council of churches

The Significance of the Hindu Doctrine of Ishtadeva for Understanding Religious Pluralism
Anantand Rambachan

The World Council of Churches invited a number of guests of other faiths to participate in its Eighth Assembly which took place in Harare, Zimbabwe, in 1998. Our main participation was in the Padare (a Shona word for "meeting place"). These were workshop-like gatherings in which we addressed and discussed various themes. At one of the Padare sessions, with the intriguing title, "My God, Your God, Our God, No God," Prof. Wesley Ariarajah, during the question time, asked me about the relevance of the Hindu doctrine of the ishtadeva for our understanding of religious pluralism. I cannot recall the brief answer which I gave to his question, but I remember not feeling contented with my response and his question has remained with me ever since. It plays an important role in most Hindu discussions of religious pluralism and it is used as an interpretative lens for understanding religious differences. It may have significance, beyond the Hindu tradition, for our understanding of and response to religious pluralism. The nature and presuppositions of the doctrine of the ishtadeva are not usually critically assessed and this may be a good opportunity to do this evaluation.

Let us begin with the term itself. Ishtadeva is Sanskrit for "chosen God." Choice, of course, cannot be exercised when alternatives are absent. The ishtadeva doctrine is meaningful in the Indian context where religious pluralism has had a long history and where different Gods were available for choosing. From among these, a person chooses one which becomes her ishtadeva. The most popular ishatadevas, today, include, Shiva, Vishnu, especially in one of Vishnu's human incarnations like Rama and Krishna, and the Mother Goddess in one of her many forms such as Kali or Durga.

There is no doubt that, at various times in the history of Hinduism, the various ishtadevas were perceived as different and competing Gods and their worshippers as rival communities. Many of the myths connected with Visnhu or Shiva seek to demonstrate the superior power of one over the other and there are still particular traditions within Hinduism in which such rivalry persists and one ishtadeva is subordinated to another. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a modern Vaishnava movement, advocates the supremacy of Vishnu above all other deities. Although it may be impossible to trace the history of the ishtadeva doctrine, it appears to me that the doctrine is a response to such sectarian rivalries about the true God. While it is true that one could subscribe to the doctrine of the ishtadeva, admit some kind of reality to other Gods and make all of these subordinate to one's own, this would be contrary to the spirit which underlines the teaching about the ishtadeva.

The ishtadeva doctrine developed in a context where different religious and cultural communities existed, each with its own distinctive images, doctrines and ways of worshipping God. As these communities interacted and grew in awareness of each other, there was a movement from the more sectarian viewpoints which either accepted the reality of the other's God and hierarchically subordinated it to one's own or understood one's God as true and the other as false and non-existent. The doctrine, in fact, suggests a rejection of the real existence of many Gods and the position that the absolute is One. At the same time, the doctrine presupposes that this One God is imagined, named and worshipped in different ways and that human beings are choosing from among the many names and images of the One.

Wesley Ariarajah, in his book, The Bible and People of Other Faiths, recounts a contemporary encounter and predicament which may replicate the ancient context in which the doctrine of the ishtadeva arose.1 Ariarajah, who was at that time serving as a Christian pastor in the town of Kandy in Sri Lanka, summarizes his conversation with one of his students about her attendance at a Hindu festival on the university campus. "We usually do not go to the festival," said the student, "because we do not worship the Hindu God." "Do you mean," responded Ariarajah, "that you don't agree with the way Hindus understand God, or are you saying that there is a Hindu God, different from a Christian God?" "I don't know," confessed the student, "but don't the Hindus and Muslims worship their gods, but we worship the true God revealed to us in Jesus Christ?" Ariarajah concludes his description of the discussion with a number of questions. "But how many Gods are there in the universe and beyond it?" he asks. "Are there many gods to choose from? Is there room for a Christian god and Hindu god and a Muslim god?

The answer, from the doctrine of the ishtadeva to Ariarajah's questions is that there are not literally many Gods in the universe to choose from. The world does not have room for Christian, Hindu and Muslim gods. While affirming that God is not literally many, ishtadeva calls our attention to the plurality of names and conceptions of God. It points to a diversity of human conceptions and responses to God, while, at the same time, denying multiple divinities. The existence of these two inseparable claims in the same doctrine rules out sectarian descriptions of the God of another tradition as false as well as those that admit reality to other deities, but which arrange these in some hierarchical order. Ishtadeva helps me to think of the person in another religious tradition, not as a stranger with an alien deity, but as a fellow human being whose God is our God and through whom are united. While such an attitude may be found among some descendants and inheritors of the Abrahamic traditions, it is yet to be extended, in any significant way, to the people of the Hindu tradition.

The choice of an ishtadeva is not exclusive, since one does so with the awareness that others have chosen differently and that all choices relate to the one absolute God. The absence of exclusivity, however, does not imply a weak and lukewarm commitment to one's ishtadeva. The doctrine of the ishtadeva implies deep commitment, emotionally and intellectually, to one's choice, knowing that others have chosen the same God under different names and conceptions. This latter fact relates one's choice to the choice of others and makes for a commitment which is informed by openness and relationship with others, both within and outside one's own tradition and community.

The ishtadeva doctrine reminds us of the significance of choice in our understanding of God. We do not choose from many Gods, but from among the many names, forms, images and conceptions of God. Choices may be influenced by family and regional traditions or by individual character, outlook and temperament. In fact, one may see in the doctrine a recognition and affirmation of human diversity and the inevitable reflection of this in the plurality in our different ishtadevas. While choices are not always as intentional as they ought to be, the doctrine does draw attention to the human role in choosing a specific ishtadeva and the images which are associated with the object of our choice. Acknowledging our human choice may dispose us to see how this choice may be conditioned by cultural and historical realities and open us to considering our choices critically. It may lead to more openness to learning from the choices that others have made. We may come to understand that God exceeds everything that we can say of think about God.

Critical awareness of the exercise of choice may engender a deeper sense of respons-ibility for such choices. This may be especially important where theological choices create or buttress oppressive social and economic structures and where such structures seek to justify themselves by appealing to divine sanction or hoary tradition. The knowledge that one chooses and that alternative choices exist can help to counter dogmatic claims by awakening a self-critical attitude with respect to one's understanding of God.

Although the Hindu doctrine of the ishtadeva may contribute constructively to our understanding of religious pluralism and may even suggest certain helpful ways of thinking about and relating to each other, we must be attentive to the limitations of the doctrine as well as possible interpretations which may be unhelpful in our efforts to come to terms with religious pluralism. I will conclude by citing a few of these.

While the ishtadeva doctrine recognizes, and honors the diversity of religious choices which human beings make, it does not comment on or offer an assessment of the relative value of these choices. The tendency, as it appears to me, is to regard each ishtadeva equally. A significant part of this problem is that the emphasis, in discussions of this doctrine, is placed on the choice of a specific name for God and a form. In reality, however, one does not merely choose a name and form for the divine, but associated doctrines and beliefs which have implications for human relationships in society. Oppressive and unjust structures have been associated with all religions and the beliefs which promote these cannot be regarded as having equal worth with those beliefs that sustain dignity and justice for all human beings. While it may be quite feasible to propose that the one God may be called by different names and be represented by the multiple images of the world's religions, attributes which negate each other cannot be meaningfully posited about the nature of God. In a religiously plural world, therefore, the ishtadeva doctrine will not be helpful if it requires that we see all ishtadevas and the theological claims which are made about them as equally valid. An argument about the equal value of all ishtadevas is a presumption that does not encourage traditions to be self-critical and which makes it almost impossible for these to question and challenge each other. It will overlook and subsume differences in sweeping generalizations which makes dialogue an innocuous encounter and insulates from its challenges.

The term, ishta, in ishtadeva means "chosen," but it also suggests "favorite." The ishtadeva, therefore, may be thought of also as a person's "favorite God." While the doctrine may be seen as emphasizing the need to choose one from among the many and to be committed to that one, and while such choice is, in fact, consciously exercised by many Hindus, the ishtadeva is, in most cases, not the "chosen God," but the "favorite God." In this case, the choice of an ishtadeva is not very different from the kind of choice which we exercise over our religious affiliations. John Hick reminds us that "in the great majority of cases - say 98 or 99 percent - the religion in which a person believes and to which he adheres depends upon where he was born."2 Like religion, the choice of an ishtadeva depends on the family into which one is born and the family's choice will be influenced by the regional popularity of a particular ishatadeva. Contrary to what the doctrine may suggest, Hindus may not be exercising any more choice than others when it comes to religion and the doctrine does not necessarily promote a more critical exercise of religious choice. One of the paradoxes here is that while the Hindu tradition offers choice in matters of religious belief and practice, such choice may be exercised, for significant numbers of Hindus only within a rigid social structure of caste, which finds religious justification and sanction, and which considerably impedes freedom of choice in some many other very important ways.


  1. John Hick, God Has Many Names (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1982), p.61.
  2. Wesley Ariarajah, The Bible and People of Other Faiths (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1985, p.1.
Dr. Anantanand Rambachan is a Hindu scholar from Trinidad and Tobago and professor of religion at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, U.S.A.

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