The occasion for this paper on monotheism and its presence or absence in Hinduism is an upsurge in the Arya Samaj’s long-standing campaign to convince Hindus of the superiority and Vedic basis of monotheism.
Founded in 1875, the Ârya Samâj, in effect "Society of Vedicists", was a trail-blazer of Hindu revivalism and anti-colonial nationalism until Independence. It worked bravely for the reconversion of Indian Muslims, the only humane solution to India's communal problem. Some of its spokesmen gave their lives for speaking out on Islam, most notably Pandit Lekhram in 1897 and Swami Shraddahananda (co-founder of the Hindu Mahasabha) in 1926. The Arya Samaj also led the way in the abolition of caste discrimination and the acceptance of widow remarriage, both as a matter of Vedic principle and in order to free Hindu society of its weaknesses which its enemies were exploiting to their advantage.
Unfortunately, in its opposition to the predatory religions of Islam and Christianity, it interiorized some of their beliefs and attitudes. Foremost among these was the assumption that monotheism, the belief in a single God annex the condemnation of all worship offered to any being but Him, is the supreme form of religion. Hence, the Arya Samaj decreed that the Vedic religion had always been monotheistic, so that Islamic and Christian missionaries had nothing to teach the Vedicists about the true religion of the One God. If Hinduism now seemed like the polytheistic religion par excellence, this was partly due to post-Vedic degenerative developments and partly to textual misinterpretation of the seemingly numerous god-names in the Vedas. In reality, or so the Arya Samaj claimed, these many gods were only different faces of the One God.
Until Independence (completed by the struggle against the Nizam of Hyderabad for Hyderabad's accesion to the Indian Union in 1948, in which the later Arya Samaj president Vandematharam Ramachandra Rao took a leadership role), this monotheistic reinterpretation of the Vedas could be excused as a tactical device useful in the Arya Samaj's main struggle, viz. against the predatory monotheistic religions. Ever since, however, and especially in the recentmost decades, the Arya Samaj seems to have forgotten its original mission, and is now turning the bulk of its polemics against fellow Hindus who have not embraced this monotheistic reading of the Vedas. In effect, the Arya Samaj has become Christianity's and Islam's first line of attack against Hindu polytheism.
As an organization, the Arya Samaj is no longer very powerful or important, but its message has spread far and wide in educated Hindu society. The same is even more true of a similar movement, the Brahmo Samaj (°1825), a flagbearer of the Bengal Renaissance which tried to translate Hinduism into rational-sounding concepts acceptable to the British colonizers and the first circles of anglicized Hindus. Whereas the Arya Samaj embraced a Christian-like religious theism, the Brahmo Samaj tended more towards a modern Enlightenment-inspired deism, i.e. the philosophical acceptance of a distant cosmic intelligence rather than a personal God biddable by human imprecations and sacrifices. But like the Aryas, the Brahmos rejected Hindu polytheism as a degenerate aberration from the true Vedic spirit.
In the course of the 20th century, the Arya and Brahmo views of Hindu tradition have become mainstream among English-speaking Hindus. Many introductory textbooks on Hinduism used in India, and most of those used in NRI-PIO circles, deny Hindu polytheism and insist that the many Hindu gods are merely faces of the One God. Thus, among the textbook edits proposed by two Hindu foundations that triggered the California textbook controversy of 2005-2009, a prominent one was the replacement of “gods” with “God”.
Before entering the specifics of the monotheism argument, let us say beforehand that we don't believe the contents of this argument have been decisive in the Arya Samaj's prioritizing the struggle against polytheism nor in its abandonment of its original alertness against Islamic and Christian aggression. On both issues, the organization is simply riding with the tide. Now that Nehruvian "secularism" has become the norm, it is just not done to criticize Christianity or Islam (except by the brave) or to describe their conversion offensive as a problem. The Arya Samaj has abandoned its own raison d'être. We may not be able to counter anyone’s opportunistic reasons for being on the safe side of an existing trend; but we are in a position to refute the theological justification which the Arya Samaj proclaims for its adoption of “Vedic monotheism”.
In this article series, we will consider (1) the genesis of monotheism; (2) Christian and post-Christian attempts to discover monotheism in Zoroastrianism, Buddhism and tribal religions; (3) Hindu or Arya attempts to discover monotheism behind “apparent” Hindu polytheism; (4) the related issue of ”idolatry” and the Arya campaign to extirpate it from Hinduism; (5) the logical ways for Hindus to deal with the monotheistic challenge. We may take up questions (welcome at email@example.com or at the present forum) in a final article.