K1 Commentary: How Many Gods Are There?

In K1: Instinct Faith wakes in the afterlife and she hopes she’s hallucinating. She meets the Heart of the Mountain, the twenty-foot-tall bird with tentacles and human hands hidden in its robes. Faith asks the Heart of the Mountain about the Zephyrs, who seem to control reality from inside the Mountain. The Heart’s talk of Zephyrs confuses Faith more than it enlightens her.

Faith asks the Heart of the Mountain how many Zephyrs there are. The Heart says there are uncountably many. Faith presses the Heart until it admits that in a fundamental sense, there is only one Zephyr.

I mean this to mirror a story from the Vedas. Says a website called “hinduwebsite,”

In the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, when Vidadgha Sakalya asked Yajnavalkya, how many gods were there, he began the answer saying, “As many as mentioned in the offerings made to the gods of the universe, namely three hundred and three, three thousand and three.” On beings queried further, he reduced the number gradually from three thousand three to thirty three, then to six, then to three, then to two, then to one and half and finally to one.

When I first heard this story I wanted to know what would have happened if the pesky mortal asked the sage Yajnavalkya just one more time, “How many gods are there.” Could the sage say there are zero gods? Would he use another fraction? Would he start ascending back up to thousands?

As I understand it, Yajnavalkya’s answers reflect the modus operandi of Hindu deities. One singular god, Brahman, is the ultimate transcendental reality and the supreme cosmic being. Brahman never changes, yet causes all change. The three gods Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma are said to have emerged from Brahman. From these gods emerge countless subordinate deities. However many millions of gods are mentioned in texts related to Hinduism, they are manifestations of a singular identity.

Compare this to the Christian idea of a three-pronged God in the Father, Son, and Spirit—or, in fact, to any number of theoretical absolutes.

In Akayama DanJay Faith asks the Heart one more time, “How many Zephyrs are there,” and the Heart responds, “I’m done playing this game.”

Faith, who appears in the afterlife as a fox, is mischievous. She keeps asking how many Zephyrs there are because she thinks it’s funny the Heart keeps changing its answer. The Heart continues to answer until it catches on that Faith is merely playing. But the act of asking once more, even in jest, after the Heart claims there is only one Zephyr, advances Akayama DanJay‘s goal of transgressing boundaries to observe sheer absolute reality.

So whatever a Zephyr is, and whatever a god is, there seem to be exactly as many as you need at the time. The All, The Absolute, The Everything, or whatever you’d like to call it, is an infinite well-spring of diversity. In it, you will find anything you’re looking for.

In the same way, we often say there are seven continents: Africa, North and South America, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, and Europe. But there’s no single consistent definition of a continent, except to point at that list of seven of them. If continents were determined solely by contiguous landmasses, Europe and Asia would be combined. If mountain ranges separated continents, then the Rockies and Andes would define East and West Americas. If we based continents on tectonic plates, there would be thousands. A more holistic approach might call planet Earth one big continent just to get it over with.

In the next section Faith will ask the Heart of the Mountain what gender they identify as. How many genders are there? Same bucket of worms. Chromosomal abnormalities and the various mating practices of different species make any single definition of gender untenable. There are two genders, and there are ten thousand genders, because fundamentally speaking, there are zero genders. We made them up, like I made up Zephyrs.

See you next week.

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