What is God?
Created | Updated May 4, 2012
It is terrible to see a man who has the incomprehensible in his grasp, does not know what to do with it, and sits playing with a toy called God.
Of all the questions men and women have asked of themselves and of each other, down through the ages, can there be any as complex, as difficult to answer as that which asks, 'What is God?'
God means so many different things to so many people across the world. To others, God means nothing at all. It really is such a difficult thing to grasp, never mind actually writing clearly about it. And just look at what we're trying to define here: something that we can't see; that some people claim to feel and converse with, but others do not; that may or may not have created the universe; that some say (rightly) has been the cause of terrible acts of war and human rights abuses, that others say (rightly) is a benign, good force that is a comfort for humanity and is a positive guiding influence on our morality. What is God?
Before we jump in with any kind of answers, we must look at the different types of god around the world:
There are the Polytheistic Gods that were prevalent in Norse, Egyptian, Greek and Roman cultures.
Also there are the Monotheistic Gods prevalent in the Christian and Jewish faiths.
There are also those Multi-faceted Gods. Hinduism is a remarkable example of this.
Pantheistic Gods are found in more Eastern religions like Taoism.
There are also the Earth or Nature as God which can be found in Gaia and some pagan cultures.
Then there are the Lucky Dip Deities such as Lady Luck and Eris.
The subject God is a minefield which elicits strong reactions and emotions from all those who participate in the debate. That being so, we ask you to try and be as tolerant as possible of those opinions that may greatly differ from your own. The following is an attempt to address some of the questions posed by this, the most problematic of theological issues.
The Name of God
God actually was actually given a 'proper' name - 'Jehovah' - by a particular group of semites, roughly 4,000 years ago. This name is written in the Bible and the Qur'an. 'Jehovah' is translated from the Hebrew Tetragrammaton, and is represented by four Hebrew letters; JHVH or YHWH.
It is considered by some to be the greatest name of God because it can be considered his 'personal' name, his own self-designation. Unlike other names which are titles, like 'Doctor' or 'Mr', its meaning is, literally, 'he causes to become' or 'powerful or mighty one'. It is pronounced 'yahweh'.
The word 'Jehovah' is in itself a neologism1 in the expansive history of semantics. Prior to the 16th Century it was unheard of in that form. Whenever the origin of this word appeared in its true Hebrew form in Jewish Scriptures (read from right to left as in Arabic) Yet, Huh, Wav, Huh (or YHWH) these four letters were preceded by a substitute word Adonai, to warn the reader that the following word was not to be articulated. The Jews took meticulous care in repeating this exercise 6,823 times in their Book of God interpolating the words Adonai or Elohim2 (another version of the name of God). They sincerely believed that this awesome name of God was never to be pronounced. This prohibition was no ordinary affair; it called for a penalty of death on one who dared to utter it. This combination YHWH/Elohim is consistently translated in the English Bible as 'Lord God'. There are also those who write it as 'G-d' - particularly amongst those who do not share their religion. This seems to be predominantly a Christian thing - and may originate from the commandment not to speak the name of God.
The pronunciation of the name is not known in Hebrew because it was avoided for centuries. Perhaps the only recourse is to seek the aid of Arabic, which is a sister language to Hebrew, because racially and linguistically, the Arabs and the Jews have a common origin, going back to Abraham.
An Argument for Disbelief
An agnostic believes in the possibility of God, perhaps in a concept that hasn't yet been uncovered. How do you argue a hypothesis that hasn't even been proposed? But the strongest weapon in an agnostic's arsenal is that the existence of God can never be proven... but neither can it be disproven.
There are several reasons for disbelief. First is that every concept of God to date has failed to prove itself. But then the agnostic will counter that lack of evidence does not necessarily mean evidence of lack. And they have a point.
The next point for disbelief comes from our own anthropological studies of the subject. We know that the ancients knew very little about the world and the way that it works, and so made up gods to explain it all. As we've learned more about the world, we've disproven those gods. The ones we have today are based on that same tradition. For instance, the Judeo-Christian monotheistic model is actually based on the works of worshippers of one god among a host of gods. The Bible recognises the existence of Baal and others, and Yahweh is constantly being forced to punish his people for drifting to the worship of others. His first commandment is that they should worship no other gods. Since all our concepts of God originate in this uneducated era, some say it is safe to dismiss them all as mere mythology.
In order to discuss God, we must have some sort of working definition. Of all the concepts of God, there is one fundamental thing they agree on... creation. All gods have created the universe and life. And of those creators, they come in three forms:
Polytheistic Gods: Ever since we discovered that lightning, ocean waves, and flatulence were all caused by entirely natural processes that behave in a predictable manner, we've dismissed the concepts of the likes of Thor and Poseidon.
The Monotheistic Model3: This has the most numerous and most vociferous following. But since truth is not determined by democracy or decibel level, it is necessary to expose the flaws in this concept. Its primary basis is the assumption that the universe, and more specifically life on this planet, cannot have happened merely by chance, or developed by itself. There is too much order, and that order must have come from an outside source.
However, a god who could create all this must be more complex and ordered than the thing he creates. Just as a human is more complex than the car he builds, so the god must be more complex than the universe he creates. What created him? Who created the creator's creator? Who created... the argument collapses upon itself in an infinite loop.
If the theist argues that God created himself, then he is accepting the proposition that nothing can come from nothing, and that order can come from chaos, which contradicts the basis of the whole god idea. If God has to create himself, then why can't the universe create itself? And since God would have to be so much more complex than his creation, the chances of him managing to create himself are infinitely smaller than the chances of life and the universe creating itself. God disappears in a puff of logic.
All is God: This concept has the universe itself as God, which created itself. Is this any different than what science tells us? Is it any different than the atheist belief? The only real difference is that believers of this sort of God often ascribe a consciousness to the universe. Some see it as a simple personification of natural forces, in the same way Disney cartoons humanize animals. Likewise, the extinction of the dinosaurs would not have been a conscious choice by the universe, but rather the culmination of many small events into one rather large one. Besides, if the universe really was conscious, don't you think it would have bumped us off years before? We really are a threat to the planet, the greatest threat it has ever seen. And we're also threatening to spread to other planets. One could argue that it is in the best interests of the universe to terminate us immediately.
Agnostics may take issue with certain parts of these arguments, but, taken as a whole - the anthropology, the logic, the history - the body of evidence becomes too large to ignore, and the body of evidence for the other side is nonexistent. God is a construct of the human imagination. Or is it?
A Theist Reply to the Above
For instance, the Judeo-Christian monotheistic model is actually based on the works of worshippers of one god among a host of gods. The Bible recognises the existence of Baal and others, and Yahweh is constantly being forced to punish his people for drifting to the worship of others. His first commandment is that they should worship no other gods. Since all our concepts of God originate in this uneducated era, some say it is safe to dismiss them all as mere mythology.
Ever since we discovered that lightning, ocean waves, and flatulence were all caused by entirely natural processes that behave in a predictable manner, we've dismissed the concepts of the likes of Thor and Poseidon.
The Monotheistic Model - the whole section.
All is God: This concept has the universe itself as God, which created itself. Is this any different than what science tells us? Is it any different than the atheist belief? The only real difference is that believers of this sort of God often ascribe a consciousness to the universe. Some see it as a simple personification of natural forces, in the same way Disney cartoons humanize animals.
This is for the most part true. However, The Bible does not recognise the existence of other gods such as Baal. It does state that we make gods of things (idols). The reason God commands man to worship no other god is because worshipping other gods (pleasure, TV, food etc) can only lead us to harm. Even though something comes out of an uneducated era does not disqualify it as being truth.
There does actually seem to be a resurgence of Polytheism especially in America with the revival of some pagan cults. The main argument being that if people have to work together to create something, then so should the gods.
The problem with this argument is the assumption that the Theist argues 'God created himself'. But a Christian believes that God was never created but has always been. God has no beginning and no end. This eliminates the argument that God came out of chaos because he didn't come out of anywhere. He just is.
This is mostly New Age Philosophy and this argument is one that most theists would agree with.
A View from Islam
Muslims believe that the only way we can know anything about God is through what He has chosen to reveal.
At a basic level, muslims know that He is Unique, He is their Creator and they must 'worship' Him alone. ('worship' has a particular meaning in Islam). His proper name is Allah (probably a contraction of the Arabic al-ilah, which literally means 'the God'.
The importance of a proper understanding and perspective, as much as is humanly possible, cannot be understated, and is the central theme of Islam. This is discussed under the name Tawheed (a verbal noun meaning 'to make one'). It is a subject of enormous depth. There are a number of approaches to this, but one of the most common is to discuss Tawheed in three aspects: the unique lordship of God, the worship of God, and His unique names and attributes.
The unique lordship of God is the understanding that He alone created everything, He alone sustains Creation and He alone controls all things.
The unique worship of God means that He alone should be worshipped. Worship here essentially means doing as He commands, and not following someone else or our desires in preference.
His unique Names and Attributes give us some understanding of His qualities and power. Among these are:
- Al-Rahman - the Most Merciful
- Al-Razaq - the One who provides sustenance
- Al-Khaliq - the Creator
- Al-Azeez - the All-Powerful
- Al-Aleem - the All-Knowing
- Al-Hakeem' - the Most Wise
In Islam, nothing can be compared to God. In His names the Arabic word al, meaning 'the', is vital. A person can be Hakeem - wise - but only God can be Al-Hakeem - the Most Wise. Even the English translation causes a problem, because 'Most Wise' is a comparison, whereas nothing can be compared to God; Al-Hakeem in Arabic conveys an intensity that is not easily translated into English.
Practising Muslims are very reverent when referring to God, and do not make jokes about Him.
Finally, three short quotes from the Qur'an, the Word of God, where He tells us something about him:
Say, He is Allah, (who is) One,
Allah, the Eternal Refuge,
He neither begets nor is born,
And there is none comparable to Him.
- chapter 112
Allah - there is no deity except Him,
the Sustainer of all-Existence.
Neither drowsiness overtakes him nor sleep.
To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens
and whatever is on the earth.
Who is there that can intercede with Him
except by His permission.
He knows what is (presently) before them
and what will be after them,
and they encompass not a thing of His knowledge
except for what He wills.
His Kursi extends over the heavens and the earth,
And their preservation tires him not.
And He is the Most High, the Most Great.
- chapter 2, verse 255)
He is Allah,
other than Whom there is no deity,
knower of the unseen and seen.
He is the Most Merciful, the Especially Merciful.
He is Allah,
Other than Whom there is no deity,
the Sovereign, the Pure, the Perfection,
the Bestower of Faith, the Overseer, the Exalted in Might,
the Compeller, the Supreme.
Exalted is Allah above whatever they associate with Him.
He is Allah,
the Creator, the Inventor, the Fashioner;
to Him belong the best names.
Whatever is in the heavens and the earth is exalting Him.
And He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.
St Anselm defined God as 'that than which no greater thing can be conceived', which places a lot of pressure on God. He said that the idea of such a being was in his mind. Yet if God is to be so great that nothing better can be conceived, surely something that existed in the real world would be better than one that was purely a thought. Therefore by definition, because God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived, he must exist, otherwise something that did exist could be greater. Hmmm...
He also said that God cannot be thought of as not existing. He said it was impossible for someone to deny God's existence, because to say 'that thing which cannot not exist, does not exist' would be a spoken contradiction, an absurd, synthetic statement.
Some argue, however, that for the statement to work, we must accept that God is a thing that cannot not exist. And seeing how a lot of arguments in the world are along the lines that God does not exist this cannot be true for many people. Therefore, God only exists if people think that God is the thing that than which no greater thing can be conceived.
Or, to put it another way, God only exists if people believe that Him/Her/It exists.
Not everyone agrees with Anselm's definition, but his argument was based around the assumption that most people would agree that the term 'God' refers to the most amazing thing that can be thought of. Therefore, the atheist negatively accepts the idea, therefore the idea of God exists in his mind. If it exists in his mind as Anselm's definition, then it would be possible for a God who exists both in reality and in the mind to be superior to a God that exists only as an idea; thus, if God is that than which no greater being can be conceived, he must exist in reality, otherwise another being would be superior; but then that being would be called God and would fit in with the definition anyway.
Some food for thought.
Evolution versus Creation
Many people have a longing to know where we came from. In today's society, you have two main options: creation and evolution. Now, just as there are different forms of creation among mainstream religions, there are different forms of evolution among mainstream science. It is not enough for anyone to say 'I believe in creation'. Similarly, it is not enough for someone to say 'I believe in evolution'. If you study the theory of evolution, you will see that the particulars are not agreed upon by scientists. One newer scientific theory is that evolution occurred in spurts. This theory is derived from the 'evolutionary gaps' in the fossil record. The Big Bang theory has been revised into saying that all matter in the universe was once contained in something smaller than a proton. It is very important when debating this subject to remember that science does not agree with itself over particulars. Mainstream scientists simply agree that natural processes 'created' what we see around us.
God - Prozac for the People
Many people believe that God is the product of many people in olden times who could not face the possibility that our time on Earth is all we have. They therefore began to believe in (create) a mystical, magical, superior being who made the world by 'magic' and will reward us or punish us when we die according to how we have lived our mortal lives.
Visions of God are not proof either, if you want something bad enough, even subconsciously, it will appear in your dreams. According to some these visions and holy relics were manipulated by the religions such as Christianity to control the populace, ie 'follow our rules and live in paradise when you die, burn in torment if you don't'. In fact, in medieval times, if you donated all your land and belongings to the church, you were assured a place in heaven. The Knights Templar were a group of men who were almost guaranteed a place in heaven for ridding the Holy Land of 'infidels'. Clearly this doesn't happen nowadays, everyone has forgotten the doctrines espoused centuries ago. Religion has 'evolved'.
Throughout history it appears that God served as a kind of antidepressant. He gave hope for the poor masses and control for the nobleman/clergy who ruled over the peasants ie 'keep working for me and God will reward you in the afterlife'. The idea of God, or more likely, an afterlife which is pain free and pleasant is an exceptional incentive for a largely uneducated populace living in misery.
Nowadays, many believe that God has been rendered obsolete. Many non-believers feel that God is a security blanket so that people can feel safe, get help in times of grief, to feel that God is caring for them, looking out for them.
Small Parts of A Big Puzzle
'God' is the common word for something so much larger.
Many believe 'God' is a way for us to put a name on something in human terms that is much more vast than we could ever hope to encompass within language. Theories abound that atheists, sociologists, psychologists, physicists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, Hindus, Shintoists, Wiccans, et al have pieces of the same puzzle. Every living being has a hint of the voice, a feature of the face, and a thought from the mind. This is a theory expounded in The Spiritual Tourist by Mick Brown.
A Benevolent God
Many people seem to think that God is spiteful and seems to enjoy sending people to hell if they sin. However, following certain doctrines, it appears that maybe God doesn't actually send people to hell - that's the last thing He wants. In fact he does everything he can to save us from ending up there. Would you send your son to get killed off unless there was a pretty important reason? No, people send themselves to hell. They're self destructive.
It is a widely held belief that God made us, knows everything, including what's detrimental to our happiness, and hopes we make the right decisions. However, he also respects our will if we decide otherwise. That's how millions view God's relationship to mankind. Part of what we're obliged to do is work at making this a better place, to be self-sacrificing and take care of other people's needs. This is a belief shared by many of the world's popular religions.
Below is one Researcher's list of personal beliefs that sum up their belief in a benevolent God:
God of my understanding casts the tapestry of the universe before us and sends each and every one of us out into His/Her/Its creation to witness its splendour and to spread love.
God of my understanding speaks many tongues, so as to be heard and understood by many people, not just a chosen few.
God of my understanding has many names, and answers to them all.
God of my understanding has many faces, some dark, some light, some male, some female, all filled with compassion and love.
God of my understanding has many houses, be they temples, shrines, altars, mosques, churches, quiet hillsides - wherever there is a needy soul.
My God is all-powerful, and all-knowing. Who am I to tell God who He/She/it can or cannot be? Who am I to judge another in His/Her/Its name?
Just because I believe that God created evil when He/She/It created all things does not mean that I believe that God is evil. But one must assume with an intimate hand in creation that He/She/It must also carry an intimate understanding in the aspects of that creation.
God understands the sinner. That does not mean He/She/It approves, it just means that God understands our nature because He/She/it created it. God does not approve of sin because it distances us from Him/Her/It, but He/She/It understands how it happens.
In all of God's tongues, in all of God's houses, by all of His/Her/Its names, forgiveness is given to those who seek redemption.
If it suits you to cower in fear, so be it, but do not let that fear blind you to the wonder of creation that enfolds us all, to the many faces of the Creator, and to His/Her/Its many voices, each of which speaks the same message if we have only the ears to hear.
Check out the entry Evil from a Western Perspective for an interesting look at the notion of a 'Benevolent God'.
The Deity as a Dictator
In complete contrast to the above, some people believe that if God really does exist then technically speaking He should be classified as a fascist dictator. The following is a very interesting exercise in semantics and is not intended to offend.
Here's a definition of fascism:
A political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.
Replace the word 'political' with the word 'religious'. Now replace the word 'government' with the word 'faith'. Finally, replace the word 'leader' with the word 'God'. This is what you get:
A religious philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic faith headed by a dictatorial God, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.
Some argue that this could be a dictionary definition of most of the major religions, and that God is clearly a dictator because He rules the universe without the aid of a democratic body and He is unelected.
Beyond Human Understanding
While millions believe in the existence of God, many believe that God is beyond our understanding.
From the standpoint that 'God is beyond human understanding', it makes sense that different faiths or beliefs may have different parts of 'the truth', or different perceptions of that truth. There doesn't seem to be much use in ranking them, only in the individual seeking out God in his or her own best way.
This isn't necessarily to say that all religions are 'good things', all the time. Throughout history, religion has hurt people but that doesn't necessarily make religion as a whole a bad thing, or even the individual religion in question. While religions are focused on God, they are lived and served by regular people - people who sometimes make pretty bad mistakes. Many believe it's our job to learn from those mistakes, try to keep from repeating them, and try to not make too many new ones.
Outside our Universe
Let us all assume for one instant that God exists. Having done this, we can then look at the belief that He must exist outside our universe in order to have created it. In describing his existence, we now have two basic options:
God's manner of existence is not dimensional. In this case, we have absolutely no understanding of what a non-dimensional universe might be like.
Therefore, we cannot understand God, QED.
The concept of dimensions is so fundamental that it extends into God's manner of existence. In this case, God's manner of existence must have at least one more dimension than our universe, in order for Him to exist outside of it and to have created it. God's space must be at least one degree above ours, or 4-space. In 4-space, one may turn a basketball inside-out without breaking its surface, pack oranges more closely together in a crate, and other bizarre things. If you take a thin slice of a 4-space ball, you get a sphere. If you try to imagine all of these things, you'll find that you can't, really. In this time, our brains are fundamentally unable to understand a manner of existence beyond 3-space in linear time.
Therefore, we cannot understand God, QED.
But is it actually necessary to understand God?
In Buddhism there is no real concept of 'God', as such. Buddha, the 'awakened one' is the name given to the Indian Prince Sakyamuni or Siddartha Gautama. After years of wealth, privilege and yawning spiritual dissatisfaction, he became enlightened, or 'awakened' under the famous Bohi tree. He then dedicated the rest of his life to sharing with the others the wisdom that was bestowed upon him in order that their daily sufferings may be in some way alleviated. Followers of Buddhism don't follow Buddha as such, but rather his teachings.
Some followers believe the idea of the Buddha exists separately from Gautama the man and from all of us. Yet, paradoxically, it is a part of us just waiting to be discovered. Once the 'Buddha Mind' is discovered, Enlightenment occurs. Think of a separate universal knowledge that goes beyond, outside, and yet inside all beings. That's as close as it gets.
Enlightened ones do not 'go' anywhere when they die, they are a part of the universe, just as they were in life. Paradise is here and now in each and every moment.
Other faiths have incorporated Buddhist teachings into their own framework - meditation practices, good works etc, and it seems to fit with their own concept of a god.
In Buddhism, there is no real Heaven or Hell. Nirvana, or Enlightenment can happen in your lifetime, not after you die. And it is not a paradise, as in the Western conception of Heaven, but it is nothingness. In this state of nothingness - or emptiness, if you prefer - you will find inner peace and happiness. It's not a void as we understand it, but rather the beginning of everything, where everything is possible. The Buddha is in all of us, awaiting to be released. Zen (qv) refers to it as the 'Buddha mind'.
The path to Enlightenment depends on the form of Buddhism you are an adherent of. Some believe in chanting, some in the monastic life, some in good works, some in meditation. It adapts marvelously with other religions. It shares reincarnation with Hinduism, some Catholic monks follow Zen precepts of meditation, it's combined with Taoism in Asian countries... it exists outside and within other faiths.
The nice thing about Buddhism is that you, the follower, are in charge of your progress and fate. Not some outside force or religious leader. There is no loss of self, since it is all about the self.
No, there are several realms in which one can be reborn. Some people are reborn in heaven, some are reborn in hell, some are reborn as hungry ghosts and so on. Heaven is not a place but a state of existence where one has a subtle body and where the mind experiences mainly pleasure. Some religions strive very hard to be reborn in a heavenly existence mistakenly believing it to be a permanent state. But it is not. Like all conditioned states, heaven is impermanent and when one's life span there is finished, one could well be reborn again as a human. Hell, likewise, is not a place but a state of existence where one has a subtle body and where the mind experiences mainly anxiety and distress. Being a hungry ghost, again, is a state of existence where the body is subtle and where the mind is continually plagued by longing and dissatisfaction. So heavenly beings experience mainly pleasure, hell beings and ghosts experience mainly pain and human beings experience usually a mixture of both. So the main difference between the human realm and other realms is the body type and the quality of experience.
Taken from the highly recommended Buddanet
Doubt is an important part of Buddhist philosophy. Siddhartha Gautama himself encouraged his co-followers to question established truths, and tailored his teachings, or sutras and dharmas , to the individual's beliefs and intellectual talents. Unlike say, Catholicism, the Path to Enlightenment is an individual path. You can take concepts such as 'hungry ghosts' or reincarnation or leave it.
Specifically, the concept of retribution in reincarnation which seems to have a Hindu origin. In Buddhism, all have the potential to achieve enlightenment. If you do not, whether a Buddhist or not, you are not punished in the Western sense. You are not reincarnated as a toad because you did not reach Nirvana. The toad is part of the Oneness of the Universe that is the central tenet of Buddhism, and is intrinsically good. Well, that's a misguided term as well. There is no bad or good. All are a part of the universe. To be a toad or a frog is no better or worse than a human.
Different Schools of Buddhist Thought
Zen, especially in American practice, is very accessible. Rather than emphasizing reincarnation, deification, or monasticism, it focuses on everyday living and what Zen Buddhism can bring to it. Its focus is on meditation, not just in 'zazen' (sitting meditation) but every moment of your daily routine - driving to work, washing dishes, interacting with your co-workers. It's about experiencing life fully even in our most mundane tasks.
I recommend reading Geri Larkin's 'Stumbling Toward Enlightenment' or Charlotte Joko Beck's 'Everyday Zen'. Both are called 'Dharma from the Heartland'.
An interesting thing to note is that there are differing schools of thought on Buddhism and Buddhist practice - from Zen to Mahayana - yet all of these different schools stemmed from a combination of the original teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, or at least the words now historically attributed to him.
The Mahayana School of Buddhism considers a three tier system, or Buddha state. The three tiers have Transcendent Buddhas, Earthly Buddhas and Transcendant Boddhisattvas. Here we have the Boddhisattvas, which is a somewhat nebulous concept that has different interpretations in different schools. This is in effect a deity structure with different 'powers' being given to different levels. Other schools merge their local (Hindu for example) beliefs to map the properties of the deities of their former religion onto the Boddhisattvas and Transcendant Buddhas.
Bodhisattvas are basically humans who spend their time doing good works for others, helping others achieve Nirvana. Some schools of Buddhism have elevated them to deity status, while others maintain they are/were simply enlightened beings.
Who or what god is in Hinduism is a very interesting question. There are a plethora of Hindu deities, each one dedicated to a specific occasion, activity or spiritual facet. One Researcher's particular favourite, suitable for invocation in computer workshops everywhere, is Kali, the goddess of destruction and refurbishment (more of her later). She is traditionally depicted as a beautiful Indian woman with flowers in her hair, a gold hoop through her nose and her tongue sticking out...
Originally, in the Rig Vedas, the oldest part of Hindu scripture, there were lots of gods and it was all a bit like the ancient Greek religion, but many of these gods seem to have gone out of fashion now. Indra was king of the gods, Vishnu existed, but wasn't a major figure, and there was no Shiva or Kali.
Skipping forward a few centuries, the Upanishads were written from around 600 BC. These introduced two great developments. Firstly, a few gods had been borrowed from south India, notably Shiva and Kali, and secondly a horrendously complex philosophy of the Atman (the soul) was created.
For starters, the three most important gods (Bramah, Vishnu and Shiva) are in fact all manifestations of one god (Brahman). Now, to some extent the Atman is the same as Brahman. How 'the same' it is depends on which vedanta (philosophy) you follow. According to Advita (rough translation for the concept of Advita would be 'non-dualism') Brahman is exactly the same as the Atman, and so all things are the same. If you think you live in a world in which things are different from each other, you are deluded. So, not only is there only one god, but there isn't anything else. However, in Advita there is not a contradiction in believing that Brahman is the only thing that exists and worshipping several million different gods who are all manifestations of Brahman.
If you're not confused yet. hold tight - you soon will be. There is also a god called Purusha, who is sometimes referred to as the male aspect of Brahma (Brahma is male, but has male and female aspects), and sometimes as the personification of the ground of all reality, who Brahman himself is a manifestation of. If you didn't understand any of that, spend 20 years meditating in the Himalayas... and then read it again.
In practice, most folk ignore all of that. Most people follow one out of Vishnu or Shiva, and various associated gods/manifestations of their chosen deity. Gods who got up to exciting adventures or otherwise behaved like movie heroes tend to be particularly popular (e.g. Hanuman and Krishna). The reason various animals (cows, monkeys, elephants, rats) are sacred in India is that popular gods are in the shape of that animal, so the animals are seen as personifications of that god.
There are many different depictions of Kali. Although she tends to be beautiful, she tends to have a lot of arms flailing everywhere, and wears a skirt made from human skulls. Kali seems to be the merging of two older gods, as the Kali in south India (where everyone is very vegetarian) seems a very different character to the one worshipped at places like Kalighat in Calcutta, who demands a lot of animal sacrifice. Refurbishment is a rather good translation actually; people normally use more 'theological' words like re-birth or regeneration but people tend to hang a lot of Christian images on words like that.
It's difficult to lump together the Southern and Northern Native American concepts of a deity. For instance, you can't really compare the Aztec Quetzacoatal4 (formed by the words 'quetzal', the bird and 'coatl', snake), who required human sacrifice, with the Incas, who believed their King was a god, to the Blackfeet emphasis on shamanism and nature worship or the pantheistic gods (Kachinas) of the Hopi or Zuni. There are so many different concepts of 'God' and 'religion', which are all appropriate since there are literally hundreds of different Native American cultures
Shamanism is a common feature for some North American Tribes - the concept of a deity is imbued in all creation, from a spider to a tree to a human, and the role of the shaman is to use the power inherent in the natural world (as the expression of the 'Great Spirit') to heal members of his or her tribe. There are creation myths that involve deity-like beings. The Ojibwa have a traditional tale of the world being carried on the back of turtle (a deity). Many tribes of the Rockies, like the Salish and Nez Perce, have a 'trickster figure', usually called Coyote, who creates certain parts of the universe - the stars, the rocks, the rivers, etc. He plays tricks on other beings (monsters or other animals) to form creation. Tribes of the Southwestern United States commonly have a pantheon - specific Gods for specific purposes such as for rain, fire, childbirth, hunting and so on. During religious ceremonies of the Hopi or Zuni for example, men inducted into secret societies (kivas) portray these figures (kachinas), and are believed to be the actual Gods themselves at this special time.
Central American cultures - Aztec, Maya, Olmec, etc - tend to have all-powerful gods that require acts of war or blood sacrifice to appease their tempers or grant their wishes. The most important gods for the Mexicans (or Aztecs) were Huitzilopochtli, god of war, the humming bird and Quetzalcoatl , the feathered serpent. Tlaloc was also an important god. He was the god of the rain. Quetzalcoatl sacrificed himself for the world. Hutizilopochtli led the Aztecs to where Mexico City is. Everyone knows about the altar atop the Temple of the Sun in Mexico City, for example. There, Aztec priests cut out the still-beating heart of their live victims to present it to their gods. 'God' as a concept is diffused through a pantheon, but at certain times in their history, certain gods become more important than others. At the time of Cortes' invasion Quetzacoatal was the closest thing the Aztecs had to a concept of one God.