belonging to the centuries before and after the Christian era are found in
several parts of the country. The folk-cults centred on the yaksas and nagas
survived in the orthodox Brahmanical fold in the form of worship of Ganesa
(the elephant headed deity), whose hybrid figure was an amalgam of the pot-
bellied yaksa and the elephantine naga (the word naga meant both ‘snake’
and an ‘elephant’). The original importance of the folk element in religion is
also apparent in the fact that the first place was assigned to Ganesa in the list
of the five principal Puranic deities (Ganesadi Panchadevata Ganesa,
Vishnu, Siva, Sakti and Surya).
Gods
The Sanskrit term for god is deva, derived from the root word div meaning
‘to shine’ or ‘to be radiant’. It is applied to any abstract or cosmic potency
which may be manifested as human beings, or as animals with divine status,
or as incarnations (avataras).
    Every Indian village and district has its own local or tribal divinities as
well as innumerable vegetal, forest and field godlings which, when
propitiated, will both protect and bestow prosperity on the community.
    Most of the Vedic deities are deifications of the powers of nature, with
natural disasters and diseases being attributed to malevolent powers such as
Vrtra, or the goddess Nirrti, the personification of decay, destruction and
death. By the first century AD most Hindus were either Vaishnavas or Saivas.
They lived together amicably, with no feeling of exclusiveness among the
members of these cults. Such mutual tolerance led naturally to syncretistic
divine forms such as the triad (Trimurti) promulgated in Gupta times. It
consists of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Vishnu incarnates himself to save
mankind. Siva is the third member of the triad. His special function is to pre-
side over the dissolution of the world; but he too can intervene to save it
when it is endangered. A more popular syncretism than the triad was that of
Harihara (Hari is a name for Vishnu, and Hara is a name of Siva).
    The great diversity of man’s spiritual conception is explained by the
Samkhya teaching of the three gunas, the main constituents comprising
everything in the world. Thus, in the highest conception of divinity as the
embodiment of goodness, beneficence, perfection and radiance, the sattva