Syncretism in Hinduism
From what has been said it might be supposed that religious forms are unimportant to Hindus. This is far from being the case. All over India they are loved and worshipped and taken with great seriousness. No one who has watched Indians passionately celebrating the birthday of Lord Krishna or Lord Ganesha could suppose that Hindus are indifferent to religious forms. And yet it remains true that behind this worship, and even among men and women of very simple background, the consciousness that the form they are worshipping represents a supra-formal principle, and that this is its true reality, is rarely altogether absent. It is not the form, but the god who is thought of as having descended into it, which is under worship. Anyone who has seen Indian villagers worshipping, let us say, the lovingly decorated image of Goddess Lakshmi on her festival day, and then, at the end of the ceremonies, placing that same image into a pond or river where it rapidly dissolves, knows that this is so. The forms of religion, indispensable as these are, are not the same thing as the truths they represent.
One important effect of this is found in the tolerance which is widely admitted to mark the Hindu outlook. Like other religions Hinduism is divided into many sects and movements. There are worshippers of Saraswati, the Goddess of music who is the wife of Lord Brahma and no one would claim that religious rivalries are unknown. Yet the worst traps of dogmatism are generally avoided. Personal choice in religion is universally respected; religious wars among Hindus are virtually unknown to history.
And the understanding of the provisional nature of religious forms extends to other creeds. Hindus see these as alternative paths leading to the same mountain summit, and so as a rule they do not feel the need to proselytize. To the eager followers of other faiths this may appear as a mark of weakness or indifference, but this is to misunderstand. It is the logical outcome of Hindu metaphysics: all forms are provisional and ultimately unreal, and this applies to the forms of religion as to everything else. Even the Vedas themselves become valueless on the attainment of moksha or liberation - of no more value than is a well in a land which is flooded, as the god Shiva puts it in the Shiva Purana.
Moreover, the truth can only be one, so that those who approach it - and all peoples do to some extent - must necessarily speak in broadly similar terms, though the colouring derived from differing cultures will vary. It is only the failure to identify clearly the core of meaning in each of the great religions, and to disentangle it from the cultural accretions and mythological imagery which often gather so thickly round it - and, let us remember, which give it vivid life and power- which gives the misleading appearance of a fundamental divergence.
In Europe, where it has sometimes gone under the name of the Perennial Philosophy, this vision of the underlying unity of religion has never been entirely lost sight of, but it is perhaps an especial glory of Hinduism that nowhere has it been more clearly and consistently seen than in India. So, far from shutting us within the closed framework of a system, Hinduism, by constantly recalling that our minds are themselves a part of the world-illusion, forces us to keep ourselves open to what lies beyond the mind and the world in which it lives.
On Hindu Gods and Goddesses
Notes on Hinduism