I often heard of 33 crore deities existing in Hinduism but did not find anyone who had ever counted them all. My grandmother strongly believed they existed and I was not adept enough in mathematics to count them. Many vacation afternoons were spent in bullying her to start counting the 33 crore deities. The bearded priest who performed the annual puja at home was not spared either. He was pretty embarrassed with this question from a 10 year old and quickly belched to divert attention and possibly escape from the ordeal. Years later, I was attending a meditation class, where breath and the human spine were being discussed with respect to the 33 vertebrae (24 individual vertebrae and 9 fused vertebrae). The number struck me like lightning and I suddenly seemed to have the answer to the question that I have been seeking all the while.
Our human body is the convergence of natural elements in some form or other which are worthy of worship as deities. The spinal column supports our body enabling us to experience life in many ways. The millions of cells in our body which are connected to the spine perhaps make up for the crores of deities attached to 33 vertebrae. The term would have originated to encourage humans to be aware of their self and be grateful for the human body. However, with the passage of time it would have got distorted such that it was made to believe that 33 crore deities existed in reality. Buddhism also refers to Trayastrisma heaven (heaven of 33 gods) where Lord Buddha visited to impart Abhidharma to his mother Maya Devi who was reborn there.
It is not easy for all to sit in quiet contemplation on the 33 vertebrae and worship them with utmost devotion. The need for feel, touch and sight led to the naming of 33 Vedic Deities which can be largely seen as a composition of 12 Adityas, 11 Rudras,8 Vasus, 2 Ashwins created by Lord Brahma.
12 Adityas: The Adityas are solar deities bright, blameless and perfect as the sun and pure as streams of water. They are referred to as the 12 months of the year or 12 spokes in the wheel of time, nurturing and protecting the creatures of the world. They names of the Aditya’s vary from text to text and one such class from Vishnu Purana is below:
Sakra(Indra), Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Varuna, Dhuti, Amsa, Tvastr, Pusan, Vivasvat, Savitr, Vishnu
11 Rudras: When they depart from the human body, death is inevitable. They have the power to make people cry after death of a beloved and hence the name Rudra. They preside in us as Atma (Self); Ananda (bliss); Manas (thought); Prana (breath); Vigyan(knowledge); Vak (Speech); Ishaan (ruler) ; Tatpurush(person); Aghora(not terrible) ; Vama(Pleasantness) and Sadyojata (born at once)
However, they are popularly known by the 11 names as Mahadev, Shiva, Maha Rudra, Shankara, Neelalohita, Ishan Rudra, Vijaya Rudra, Bheem Rudra, Devadev, Bhavodbhava, Adityamaka Srirudra
8 Vasus: They are referred to as the elemental gods representing natural phenomenon and are knows as the attendant deities of Indra and later Vishnu. The word Vasu is derived from the sanskrit word Vas/ Vasi meaning dweller or dwelling. There are different versions of the 8 names in different texts and the commonly used ones seem to be
Agni (Fire); Dhara (Earth); Apa (Water); Anila (Wind); Antariksha (Atmosphere) ; Dyaus (Sky); Chandrama (Moon); Nakshatra (Stars)
2 Ashwins: They are referred to the twin horsemen in Rig Veda compared to Sunrise and Sunset. More importantly they are known as the divine helpers and lords of healing referring to the fact that the human body has the inherent power to heal and help itself. They are constantly balancing human life. They are also known as Nasatya ( Na Asatya= Not Untrue) and Dasra (enlightened giving)
In summary,as said in Advaita philosophy, “Aham Brahmasmi” ; I am a part of the universe, whatever exists in the universe is present in me.