Hinduism, which has millions of followers in India and around the world today, is one of the world's oldest religions. For well over 3,000 years, it has been accumulating the sacred stories and heroic epics that make up the mythology of Hinduism. Nothing in this complex and colorful mythology is fixed and firm. Pulsing with creation, destruction, love, and war, it shifts and changes. Most myths occur in several different versions, and many characters have multiple roles, identities, and histories. This seeming confusion reflects the richness of a mythology that has expanded and taken on new meanings over the centuries.
Background and Themes
Around 1700 B . C ., peoples from the area to the northwest of India began migrating to India. Called Aryans or Indo-Europeans, they brought a mythic tradition that became the basis of an early form of Hinduism. Over the years, as the Aryans mingled with the peoples and cultures of the Indian subcontinent, the mythology grew increasingly complex.
Stages and Sources. Hinduism has gone through various stages, which can be linked to the most important texts surviving from each period. The earliest stage is associated with the Vedas, the oldest Indian documents. One of them, the Rig-Veda, is a collection of 1,028 hymns of praise and prayers to the gods with references to myths. The Vedas are based on ancient Aryan traditions that were long communicated only in oral form.
epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
The next group of texts, the Brahmanas, date from 900 to 700 B . C . Though concerned mainly with the rituals of Hinduism, the Brahmanas contain many myths. The Upanishads, written around 700 B . C . and after, focus on ideas but often communicate them through myths. The two great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, written down sometime between 300 B . C . and A . D . 300, contain stories about a number of major deities. After that time, the chief expression of Hindu mythology and religion was in texts called Puranas, "stories of the old days." Most of the stories are devoted to one god or another. The Puranas often retell earlier myths, sometimes in the voices of the gods themselves.
Themes. Certain key beliefs in Hinduism form the background against which the myths unfold. One of these is the idea of reincarnation, sometimes called the transmigration of souls. In Hindu belief, each soul experiences many, many lives. After the death of one body, or incarnation, the soul is born again into a new living body. Even the gods can be reincarnated in human form.
Just as the individual soul is continually reborn, the universe is continually created and destroyed. Time moves in cycles of millions of years, endlessly building up and tearing down with no beginning or end. All change and decay are part of a divinely directed cosmic dance that will eventually result in renewal. Faced with this immense pattern, each individual has the duty to follow his or her own pattern of right behavior, called the dharma.
Hindu mythology is populated by an enormous cast of deities, demons, demigods, humans, and animals. Some had a central role in one era but remain in the background in later periods, while others have risen from obscurity to prominence. The attributes and histories of many mythological characters have changed considerably over the many centuries that Hinduism has existed.
deity god or goddess
cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe
demigod one who is part human and part god
attribute quality, property, or power of a being or thing
pantheon all the gods of a particular culture
Brahma creator god
Devi wife of Shiva, goddess who takes many forms—both kind and fierce
Ganesha god of good fortune and wisdom
Indra god of storms and rain
Shiva avenging and destroying god
Varuna originally a creator god and ruler of the sky, later became god of water
Vishnu preserver god and protector of life
Vishnu, the second member of the Trimurti, is the preserver or protector of life. His attributes are mercy and goodness. Some Hindus regard Vishnu as the supreme being and Brahma and Shiva as aspects of him. Shiva, descended from the old Vedic storm god Rudra, is the third member of the Trimurti. He is the avenging and destroying god, but his destruction allows new creation to begin. Sometimes Shiva is portrayed as a dancer who directs the movements of the universe.
Devi, "the goddess," is one of the most ancient deities of the pantheon. Under her name are grouped various female deities, who represent different aspects of Devi. Among them are Parvati, the wife of Shiva; Durga, the warrior goddess and fighter of demons; and the even more ferocious Kali, "the dark one," who also fights demons but sometimes becomes intoxicated with blood and destruction.
The popular elephant-headed, four-handed god Ganesha is Parvati's son. One of the most popular gods in Hinduism today, he is associated with good luck and wisdom. Indra, god of storm and rain, was one of the most important deities of the Rig-Veda and may have represented the warrior chieftains of the ancestral Aryan peoples. Vedic hymns suggest that Indra replaced Varuna, the guardian of justice and order, as the king of the gods. As the mythology of Hinduism developed, however, Indra in turn moved to secondary status below the Trimurti. Krishna is one of the incarnations, or avatars, of Vishnu. He appears in the Mahabharata and the Puranas. Many stories about him focus on his prankish, playful nature and on his many love affairs.
Manu, sometimes described as a son of Brahma, is both a god and the first man, ancestor of the human race. According to one myth, a small fish warns Manu that the earth will soon be destroyed by a great flood. Manu takes care of the fish, which is really an incarnation of Vishnu, and when it is grown, it saves him from the flood so that he can repopulate the earth. The heroine Savitri, whose story is told in the Mahabharata, symbolizes love that defeats even death. She persuades Yama, the lord of death, to release her husband from death.
Hindu mythology includes a huge number of stories. Some have proved to be especially enduring and central to an understanding of Hinduism. Among these are the tales told in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and those described below.
Shiva and the Sacrifice
The Mahabharata tells how Daksha, Shiva's father-in-law, held a ceremony of horse sacrifice for the gods. All the gods except Shiva had been invited. Angry at being excluded, Shiva attacked the ceremony with his servants. They threw blood on the fire and ate the priests. A drop of sweat from Shiva's brow fell to earth and formed Disease, an ugly figure that terrified the gods. Brahma promised that Shiva could take part in all future sacrifices, and in return Shiva turned Disease into many small ailments to trouble animals and humans.
incarnation appearance of a god, spirit, or soul in earthly form
primal earliest; existing before other things
Creation. Hindu mythology includes several different accounts of the beginning of things, but in each version, the act of creation is really an act of arranging, producing order from chaos. Vedic texts tell of the sacrifice of a primal being called Purusha, whose cut-up body becomes all the elements of the universe. Another image of creation, that of fertilization and pregnancy, occurs in myths about Prajapati, the father of all humans and animals. Sometimes
This illustration shows the three major Hindu gods—Brahma, the creator of life; Vishnu, the protector of life; and Shiva, the god of destruction.
heaven and earth are described as parents whose mating produces the gods. Myths of Tvashtar, a minor Vedic god of carpentry or architecture, explain creation as an act of building.
As Hinduism developed and the Trimurti gained importance, a complex vision of the creation, destruction, and recreation of the universe emerged. Brahma brings the universe into being through his thoughts. The world then passes through a Maha Yuga, or great age, that lasts 4,320,000 years. The Maha Yuga contains four yugas, or ages. Each is shorter and more immoral than the one before, from the Krita Yuga—Brahma's golden age—through two intermediate ages under Vishnu's protection to the Kali Yuga—Shiva's dark age.
Each dark age in turn gives way to a new golden age, and the cycle of the Maha Yuga repeats a thousand times. Then Shiva destroys all life with scorching heat and drowning flood, and the earth remains empty while Vishnu sleeps. After a thousand Maha Yugas, a lotus flower emerges from Vishnu's navel, and it becomes Brahma, ready to perform his creative act anew.
The Avatars of Vishnu. Many myths deal with Vishnu's avatars, the incarnations of the god on earth. The most common list of the ten avatars begins with Matsya, the fish that protects Manu from the flood. The second avatar is Kurma, a tortoise that holds Mount Mandara on his back so that the gods can use it as a paddle to churn the ocean and produce a drink of eternal life.
Varaha, a boar who appears after a demon giant pulls the earth to the bottom of the ocean, is the third incarnation. Varaha defeats the demon and raises the earth on his tusks. Narasinha, the fourth avatar, is half man and half lion. He defeats a demon who cannot be killed by man or beast. The dwarf Vamana, the fifth incarnation, triumphs over Bali, a being who had gained control of the world. When Bali grants Vamana as much land as he can cover in three strides, the dwarf becomes a giant and strides over heaven and earth. The sixth avatar, ax-wielding Parashurama, frees the priests from the domination of the warriors.
This drawing illustrates a Hindu creation myth. The tortoise supports elephants that hold up the world, and everything is encircled by the world serpent.
The seventh incarnation, Rama, is the hero of the Ramayana. The eighth is the god Krishna; and the ninth is Buddha. Hindus believe that Buddha came to earth to draw people away from the proper worship of the Vedas so that the world would decline and be destroyed, as the cosmic cycle demands. The tenth avatar, Kalki, will appear at the end of the world to preside over its destruction and the creation of a new, pure world.
The Birth of Ganes ha. Shiva's wife, Parvati, produced Ganesha—and did so without any help from Shiva, according to many accounts. Some say that Shiva, being immortal, had no desire for a son, but Parvati wanted a child and produced the boy from her own body. In other versions, Shiva gave Parvati a doll that at her touch magically came to life as a baby.
According to one story, Shiva struck off the boy's head, either because Ganesha prevented him from approaching Parvati or because Shiva believed that his son was doomed to die. Parvati's grief, however, moved him to try to replace the head, and he finally succeeded in attaching an elephant's head to the boy's body.
Indra and the Serpent. Legends of the slaying of a serpent or dragon appear in many cultures. In Hindu mythology, one such story centers on the god Indra and the "footless and handless" demon Vritra, described as both snake and dragon. The tale is told in the Vedas and dates from the time when Indra was king of the gods.
immortal able to live forever
Using a divine thunderbolt, Indra struck Vritra between the shoulders, slicing open the mountain on which Vritra lay. The blow separated heaven from earth and land from water. The waters that Vritra had contained flowed forth to bring life. Indra's heroic victory made him the champion of all who struggled to overcome obstacles or resistance.
Hindu belief and mythology color every aspect of life and culture in India. They are the basis of countless works of art, from plays about Rama written in the 700s to modern Indian movies based on mythic stories. Temples and images of the deities are everywhere. Festivals—such as the ten-day autumn celebration of Rama and his wife, Sita—keep the traditional gods, heroes, and myths alive. Even place names have sacred associations. The city of Calcutta, for example, comes from Kalighat, the place where sacrifices to the goddess Kali once took place.
Besides inspiring generations of Indian artists and thinkers, Hindu mythology has appealed to many in the West as well. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American writer of the 1800s, wrote Brahma, a poem celebrating the creator god. In the same era, English-speaking readers became familiar with the legends of Savitri through Edwin Arnold's poem Savitri, or Love and Death. A poem by the German writer Goethe called The God and the Bayadere (dancing girl) deals with an appearance on earth of the god Shiva.
English composer Gustav Holst wrote a chamber opera—one meant to be sung, not acted, with a small orchestra—called Savitri Holst also translated many hymns from the Rig-Veda into English and wrote music to accompany them. These four sets of songs are grouped together under the title Choral Hymns. Bertram Shapleigh, an American composer, wrote Vedic Hymn, also based on a text from the Rig-Veda, and a piece of orchestral music called Ramayana. A 1989 film of the Mahabharata written by Jean-Claude Carrière and directed by Peter Brook has brought the ancient epic to modern movie audiences.