Retold here in their colorful and dramatic splendor, the Hindu myths touch on the key narrative themes of creation, preservation, destruction, delusion, and the bestowal of grace.
India has long been regarded as the home of Hinduism, its mythology constituting the backbone of Indian culture. Hindu myths have been adapted over the centuries to incorporate new or revised characters, and they continue to play a central role in modern Indian life. Retold here in their colorful and dramatic splendor, the Hindu myths touch on the key narrative themes of creation, preservation, destruction, delusion, and the bestowal of grace. They also portray the main deities of the Hindu pantheon—Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi—and their relationships with antigods, nymphs, and ascetics. Drawn from a variety of sources, most notably the encyclopedic Puranas, the myths range from the early centuries A.D. to the sixteenth century, conveying their enduring appeal and the religious teachings derived from them.
- The ever-new beginning
- Veiling and unveiling: the divine power of delusion
- Anugraha, the bestowal of grace
- Living legacy
- Suggestions for further reading
- Picture credits
Roughly the size of Europe, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Urals, the Indian subcontinent is home to peoples of various backgrounds, speaking different languages and following their own religious and cultural traditions. To claim that almost each state of this vast country is a land in its own right is no exaggeration. The cohesive force uniting the Hindu majority is a social structure firmly grounded in shared religious beliefs and ethic principles expressed in a wealth of myths, which form the backbone of Hindu religion and culture.
Some of the earliest vestiges of religious traditions in the Indian subcontinent are cult figurines dated in the middle of the third millennium BC. These were found at Mohenjo Daro and Harappa in present day Pakistan, two of the most important sites associated with the Indus Civilization. Some scholars link these figurines of goddesses, animals, trees and sexual emblems to the beginnings of Hindu religion.
In the middle of the second millennium BC the Indus Civilization declined, probably under the brunt of the gradual penetration of the Aryans who expanded over the whole of the northern part of the subcontinent.
The lack of archaeological evidence for a distinctive Aryan civilization is compensated by an abundant literary heritage. The Aryans, credited with the introduction of Sanskrit, the sacred language of Indian scriptures, composed the four Vedas or '[books of] knowledge'. These collections of hymns celebrate a number of gods, some of whom eventually found their way into present-day Hinduism. Most of the Vedic gods personified natural phenomena such as the dawn, rain, fire or thunder. Vedic religion, also known as Brahmanism, was based on elaborate sacrificial rituals which were performed exclusively by Brahmin priests. Every word of these ceremonies had to be uttered following the appropriate intonation and every movement was charged with mystical meaning. There were no temples or images. Instead, the cult focused around the sacrificial altar, whose elaborate structure mirrored that of the universe. Sacrifices were vitally important because they reinvigorated the gods who, in turn looked after the well being of mankind.
Of pivotal importance was the social order. Through birth an individual belonged to one of the four castes (varna, colour), at whose top were the Brahmins, the only ones with access to the Vedic lore and the authority to perform rituals on behalf of the other classes: the warriors (kshatriyas), the agricultural workers and traders (vaishyas), and the menial classes (shudras). During the first millennium other important texts were composed: the Upanishads, focusing on philosophy, and the Brahmanas, commentaries to the involved Vedic rituals. The two great Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, followed. Their cores probably date from around the sixth to fourth century BC, but reached their present form much later in the early centuries AD.
The foundation of Hinduism
In time, the Vedic creed spread to a substantial part of the subcontinent and gradually came into contact with local cults of goddesses, trees, snake deities and many others. The result was a cross-fertilization of ideas and religious practices which had a lasting impact on later developments. Between the sixth and the fifth centuries BC, two movements which were extremely critical of Vedic religion, Jainism and Buddhism, attracted a considerable number of followers and evolved to become two of the major Indian religions. In the centuries immediately preceding the Christian era, two new religious traditions emerged, one focusing on the god Vishnu (Vaishnavism) and the other on Shiva (Shaivism). Although goddesses had been venerated all along, a well-defined pattern of goddess worship emerged between the eighth and ninth centuries AD. The Great Goddess was viewed as the energy permeating the totality of the universe. All these cults promoted devotion (bhakti) and an unquestioning selfsurrender to a chosen deity (ishtadevata). Contemporary Hinduism is firmly grounded on these principles. Only through devotion will one lead a meaningful life and eventually break the cycle of rebirth (samsara).
An innumerable and varied throng of characters populates Hindu mythology. Some have their origins in Vedic lore, such as the eight gods ruling over the eight cardinal directions (ashtadikpalas, the eight guardians of the sky). Among them are Indra, lord of the rain, and Agni, lord of the fire (who respectively became the guardians of the east and the south-east), Surya, the sun and Ushas, the goddess of dawn. Some developed complex characters reflecting their local origins and successive adoption into the Hindu pantheon. Others, especially goddesses, are rooted in folk religion along with spirits (bhutas), goblins (ganas) and the snake-deities (nagas) all dwelling in remote places. The main deities are surrounded by an 'extended family' and a host of minor figures including ascetics and sages (rishis), divine musicians (gandharvas), heavenly beauties and divine courtesans (apsaras) and an unspecified number of semidivine beings, all of whom happily meddle in human affairs. This varied and vibrant cast of characters inspired innumerable myths that are narrated in the Puranas, 'old [stories]'.
Pan-Indian Puranas and local Puranas
These Sanskrit texts were compiled over centuries and can be defined as an encylopaedia of Hindu lore. The oldest possibly date from the early centuries AD and the most recent texts from around the sixteenth century.
Written mainly in verse, the text usually takes the form of a dialogue between a sage and a group of disciples whose questions anticipate those of the devotees. Ideally, the contents of a Purana should emulate a template consisting of creation, destruction and recreation, genealogies of the gods, sages and kings, the cosmic cycles and the history of various dynasties. However, this is not always the case. The narratives are interspersed with all kinds of varied theological, philosophical, scientific, ritual and astrological information. Of particular relevance to current Hindu religious practice are sections such as those dealing with the merits acquired by performing various rituals and undertaking pilgrimages. Some Puranas contain lengthy sections on iconography, sculpture and temple building.
There are eighteen major and eighteen minor Puranas and their significance in the formation of Hinduism cannot be over-emphasized. Puranic lore was the only means of disseminating religious and ethical principles among the illiterate majority as well as those who were prohibited from having access to Vedic tradition, such as women and lower-class communities.
A particularly important by-product of this literary genre are the numerous sthalapuranas, accounts of the mythical origins of a sacred site (sthala) where a deity would manifest itself or some mythological incident would occur. Although most of the legends are rooted in the classic Puranas, the local tradition plays a major role in their development. One of the functions, and perhaps the most important, is that of connecting a place with a mythological incident, so that the latter arguably becomes a tangible reality. These works, written either in corrupt Sanskrit or in one of the many local languages, are of vital importance for the study and appreciation of the history and religious traditions of local temples.
Vishnu (all-pervading), also known as the 'preserver', epitomises stability, law and order, and is generally depicted as a heavenly king who periodically descends to earth under different aspects to redress the balance between good and evil powers. He is said to be present in all kings, who are thus expected to protect and uphold the sacred law (dharma). Vishnu's two wives are Bhudevi the Earth goddess and Lakshmi (good or bad sign), also known as Shri Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and abundance. His vehicle is the divine eagle Garuda (devourer). There is a second aspect to Vishnu: when he floats on his serpent couch on the primeval waters he symbolizes release (moksha). Creation emanates from him effortlessly: it is only one episode in an eternal cycle of creations without beginning or end. The world, which seems so permanent and stable is a mere bubble on the surface of the ocean. Equally, when the time comes, Vishnu becomes the destroyer of the universe. At the end of a cosmic cycle he reabsorbs the world and recycles it prior to a new creation.
One of the most paradoxical personalities among Hindu deities is Shiva (auspicious) in whom the contrasting duties of ascetic and householder come together. As the great master of yoga he renounces the world and engages in lengthy periods of meditation. With matted hair adorned with snakes, wearing necklaces of skulls and intoxicated with hemp (bhang), he frequents burning grounds in the company of his host of attendants, the ganas. He dwells at the periphery of civilization and beckons man out of the fetters of the established order to attain the ultimate goal of release. He is also the master of music, the lord of dance, the seducer of the wives of the ascetics, and the husband of Parvati (daughter of the mountain). His two sons (both born in miraculous circumstances) are the elephant-headed Ganesha (the lord of the ganas), one of the most popular Hindu gods, and the six-headed Karttikeya. Shiva's vehicle is the white bull Nandi (rejoicing).
Shiva's most popular symbol, through which he is revered in most of his temples, is the linga or phallus, which is traditionally set in a pedestal symbolizing the yoni or female generative organ. This represents the notion that Shiva is the very sap of existence. His vigour penetrates and pervades the whole of creation to bring it to life. Another popular image of Shiva is Nataraja, the 'Lord of the dance', expressing five supreme powers. He is creator, destroyer, preserver of the universe, an agent for the concealment and unveiling of truth and also a bestower of grace. Shiva, like Vishnu, is completely indifferent to the fate of his own creation. As he danced the world into being at the beginning of a creative cycle, so at the end, his dance of destruction will reduce it to ash.
The great goddess has innumerable aspects that can be divided into two main categories: the nourishing, gracious and protective, or the fierce, malevolent and destructive. Devi can be depicted as a youthful, voluptuous woman such as in her aspects of Amba (the mother), Jagaddhatri (the sustainer of the world), and Annapurna (replete with food). Alternatively she is the redoubtable warrior goddess Durga (of difficult access), whose mount is a lion or a tiger, or Kali (the black) who personifies decay, destruction and death. Her gaunt aspect, protruding ribs, lolling tongue, dishevelled hair and bulging eyes graphically express the frailty and transience of human life and the necessity of transcendence through release from the entanglements of delusion (maya). One of Devi's main activities is to preserve and protect creation from the onslaught of demonic forces.
Brahma is celebrated as the agent of creation in late Vedic texts but he changes character in Puranic mythology, losing much of his importance. Although still concerned with creation, his main function is as the stabilizing force between the centripetal power of Vishnu and the centrifugal figure of Shiva. He is generally depicted with four heads representing the four Vedas which, according to the legend, emanated from his four mouths. His wife is Sarasvati (the flowing-one), goddess of speech. His vehicle is the hamsa or goose.
Other divine beings
Ascetics and sages play a leading role in Hindu myths. Through their spiritual powers, which are acquired in years of severe austerities, they are endowed with supernatural faculties. Some are renowned for being difficult, with many gods and humans suffering the dire consequences of their wrath.
Among the most famous are Agastya (the mover of the mountain), a celebrated sage and hero of many legends. One of his greatest feats is the colonization of Southern India and the invention of the Tamil language. Another holy character is the notoriously short-tempered ascetic, Durvasas (ill-clad), reputed to be a portion of Shiva. Famous for their inquisitive minds are Markandeya (the descendant of Mrikanda) and Narada (giver of advice). Both sages were granted a glimpse into the mysteries of Vishnu's power of delusion. Narada, however, is famous for being the chief of the heavenly musicians and a gossip-monger. No less of consequence are the two rival ascetics Vasishtha (owner of wealth) and Vishvamitra (universal friend), who play a prominent role in a number of myths.
There is a continuous and unresolved conflict between the gods and their antagonists; the anti-gods (asuras), descendants of Diti (daityas) and descendants of Danu (danavas). They reside in splendid cities in the nether world and represent negative forces which are inevitably part of creation. A recurrent motif of many myths is how an antagonist is able to threaten the gods by the power of his austerities and trick them into granting some special favour which initially jeopardizes divine power. After numerous near misses, the gods are finally able to re-establish the balance of power and their rivals lose.
Sources of the myths
Paradoxically, India, the land of myths par excellence, has no equivalent in any of its numerous languages for the word myth. Myths permeate the totality of Indian culture, mementoes of mythical events dot the whole country, old myths are told anew and new myths are created. The problem faced by all who attempt the narration of select Hindu myths is which to omit. Each story is connected to many more, one more exciting than the previous; each merges in an ocean of stories.
Most of these narratives are drawn from Sanskrit literature such as the classic Puranas and the epics. Some myths, such as the life stories of the two Shaiva saints Kannappa and Karaikkal Ammaiyar, are taken from the Periya Puranam, a twelfth-century Tamil work. The stories, connected with specific temples or places, come mainly from Tamil and Kannada sources.
It should be noted that the same myth may appear in different Puranas and also in some sthalapuranas. As is to be expected, the narrative differs, emphasizing different aspects of the story according to the philosophical tradition followed by the compiler.
Organization of the book
The most famous of Indian images today, created over one thousand years ago in south India, is Shiva Nataraja, the 'Lord of the Dance'. It is a visualization of the five divine activities. It was this powerful image that inspired the division of this book into five headings: creation, preservation, destruction, the power of delusion and the bestowal of grace, the five activities shared by all Hindu deities. Within each of these chapters the myths are briefly outlined in the introductory paragraph before a fuller narration.