Indian Mythology (by ApamNapat)

Introduction

Introduction


Indian mythology is a rich source of myths, legends and heroes. It is probably the only extensive mythology that is associated with a living, breathing religion. The stories in it have evolved over many millennia into their present form. There is a wealth of ancient texts, that form the tapestry that is Indian mythology. I have heard many of these stories as a child, and references to mythological events are very common in Indian literature. As is the case with many mythologies, a single story might occur in many ancient texts, each giving a slightly different version of the incidents. This is especially true when it comes to the origin of the Gods. I had often felt the need for a resource that will help me know where a particular story originated, and alternate versions, if any.

This collection was originally started as a source for stories from Indian mythology. The ultimate goal is to make it a comprehensive resource that can be consulted for any question on this topic. At present, it is nowhere near that goal, but can still serve as a useful resource for Indian (Hindu) mythology. This site has encyclopedic descriptions of the major actors in Indian mythology. I am constantly adding to this collection, so check back periodically for updates. If you find any inaccuracies, or have additional detail that you think belongs in these stories, please drop me a line at apamnapat at cox dot net.

This collection of articles contains stories from the Vedas and the two epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The various Puranas also provide a significant number of stories for this collection. Stories from the Upanishads are also there, but to a lesser extent. Some of the stories have no single attributable source, and may be more properly said to be part of folklore. While care has been taken to identify the source of each story, it was not always possible, as I did not know them myself.

A word of caution. This collection contains stories of varying nature, and contains many stories whose themes might not be suitable for children. This resource should be considered PG-13. None of these stories have been sanitized into the popular versions. These stories have been composed in a time that is so remote from the present, that we must remember that the society was very different then, and so were their rules.

Chronology

Indian mythology as well as Hinduism has had quite a different number of phases. The principal Gods, as well as religious rituals have changed quite a bit since ancient times as can be expected of a faith that boasts of such a long, unbroken tradition. The most ancient texts of Hinduism, are the four Vedas. They are also referred to as Samhitas (collections). The oldest of them, the RigVeda Rig Veda, is thought to have been compiled in its present form before 1500 B.C. The other three Vedas are of later origin, but most scholars believe that all of them were composed not later than 1000 B.C. The religion and mythology described in them form the Vedic phase of Hinduism. These Vedas consist of many hymns, addressed to Gods that are personifications of the forces of nature. For example, the very first hymn of the Rig Veda reads,

अग्निमीळे पुरोहितं यज्ञस्य देवं ऋत्वीजम् ।
होतारं रत्नधातमम् ॥
agnimILe purohitaM yaj~nasya devaM RtvIjam |
hotAraM ratnadhAtamam ||
अग्निः पूर्वेभिरृषिभिरीड्यो नूतनैरुत ।
स देवानेह वक्षति ॥
agniH pUrvebhirRSibhirIDyo nUtanairuta |
sa devAneha vakSati ||
अग्निना रयिमश्नवत् पोषमेव दिवे-दिवे ।
यशसं वीरवत्तमम् ॥
agninA rayimashnavat poSameva dive-dive |
yashasaM vIravattamam ||
अग्ने यं यज्ञमध्वरं विश्वतः परिभूरसि ।
स इद्देवेषु गचति ॥
agne yaM yaj~namadhvaraM vishvataH paribhUrasi |
sa iddeveSu gachati ||
अग्निर्होता कविक्रतुः सत्यश्चित्रश्रवस्तमः ।
देवो देवेभिरा गमत् ॥
agnirhotA kavikratuH satyashcitrashravastamaH |
devo devebhirA gamat ||
यदङ्ग दाशुषे त्वमग्ने भद्रं करिष्यसि ।
तवेत् तत् सत्यमङ्गिरः ॥
yadaN^ga dAshuSe tvamagne bhadraM kariSyasi |
tavet tat satyamaN^giraH ||
उप त्वाग्ने दिवे-दिवे दोषावस्तर्धिया वयम् ।
नमो भरन्त एमसि ॥
upa tvAgne dive-dive doSAvastardhiyA vayam |
namo bharanta emasi ||
राजन्तमध्वराणां गोपां ऋतस्य दीदिविम् ।
वर्धमानंस्वे दमे ॥
rAjantamadhvarANAM gopAM Rtasya dIdivim |
vardhamAnaMsve dame ||
स नः पितेव सूनवेऽग्ने सूपायनो भव ।
सचस्वा नः स्वस्तये ॥
sa naH piteva sUnave.agne sUpAyano bhava |
sacasvA naH svastaye ||

which has been translated by Ralph T.H. Griffiths (in 1896) as,

I Laud Agni, the chosen Priest, God, minister of sacrifice,
The hotar, lavishest of wealth.
Worthy is Agni to be praised by living as by ancient seers.
He shall bring. hitherward the Gods.
Through Agni man obtaineth wealth, yea, plenty waxing day by day,
Most rich in heroes, glorious.
Agni, the perfect sacrifice which thou encompassest about
Verily goeth to the Gods.
May Agni, sapient-minded Priest, truthful, most gloriously great,
The God, come hither with the Gods.
Whatever blessing, Agni, thou wilt grant unto thy worshipper,
That, Angiras, is indeed thy truth.
To thee, dispeller of the night, O Agni, day by day with prayer
Bringing thee reverence, we come
Ruler of sacrifices, guard of Law eternal, radiant One,
Increasing in thine own abode.
Be to us easy of approach, even as a father to his son:
Agni, be with us for our weal.

This hymn is addressed to Agni, the personification of fire. Other hymns in the Rig Veda, refer to his various attributes (bright flame, smoke, heat etc.) and associate them with his anthropomorphic form. The deity that is most often addressed in the Vedas is Indra, the Lord of thunder and rain. He is described as the ruler of the Gods, one from whom all blessings flow. The other important Gods in the Vedas are: Varuna (the waters), Mitra (protector of oaths), Prajapati (literally, lord of men), Dyaus (the sky) and Surya (the sun, also referred to as Savitr). Indra, Mitra and Varuna form the earliest Trinity in Hindu Mythology. As we shall see later, the concept of Trinity is a recurring theme in the Hindu pantheon. The Gods, referred to as Devas were immortal, since the consume the nectar Soma. Soma is an intoxicating drink, and is also sometimes perplexingly addressed as a separate God. In later texts, the nectar of the Gods is different, it is called Amrit.

Apart from songs that extol the forces of nature, there are hymns that propound philosophical questions, and also some secular poems. Glimmers of a single, ultimate reality begin to emerge in some of the later hymns. This is not to say that Vedic religion was monotheistic, for that deduction will have to rest upon some rather creative interpretations of the hymns in the Vedas.

There are significant differences between the Vedic pantheon, and the pantheon in later texts, since the Gods who are all powerful in later times, have a relatively minor role to play in the Vedas. For example, Vishnu merely figures as a friend and ally of Indra. However, the descriptions in the Vedas do describe the attributes of many of the Devas, and are retained in the later scriptures. The Vedas do not really contain any complete stories, merely allusions to incidents. These incidents have been expounded on in detail in the Puranas and the two epics.

Some people consider Rig Veda as the only major Veda, and consider the other three to be mere extensions to it. There is some justification for this viewpoint, as many of the hymns from the older Veda are repeated in the later Vedas. However, the common tradition is to treat all the four Vedas as separate books.

In chronological order, the Brahmanas come immediately after the Vedas. They contain more details on the rituals to be observed. Each Brahmanas is associated with a particular Veda. The Panchavisma Brahmana and Jaiminiya Brahmana belong to the Sama Veda. The Satapatha Brahmana is an extension to the "white" Yajur Veda (Yajur Veda comes in two versions, a black and a white one). Subsidiary material, called the Aranyakas (forest-books) can be found at the end of some of the Brahmanass.

The last texts of the first phase of Indian Mythology are the Upanishads. They are also referred to as Vedanta (end of the Vedas), and are said to contain the knowledge in the Vedas in a condensed form. They are distinctly philosophical treatises. Their major contribution is the concept of Brahman, or the universal spirit. They are sometimes startlingly secular in their ideas. They are believed to have been composed in the period between 1000 B.C and 500 B.C, although researchers have identified material that is definitely more recent.

After the Upanishads, the Puranas (literally ancient texts), were compiled. There are many of them. Each Purana details the incidents connected with a particular God, immortal being or sage. In particular, the Vishnu Purana describes the various avatars (incarnations) of Lord Vishnu in detail. Similarly Shiva and Brahma have their own Puranas that describe events connected with them.

After the Puranas came the Ithihasas (epics). The two great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata belong to this period. These two epics are the richest sources of stories in Indian Mythology. Mahabharata is the world's longest epic, and contains references and describes events and stories that form the basis for many of the core beliefs of Hinduism. The later texts contain many of the same actors who are described in the Vedas, but there are significant differences in their roles. For instance, in the Rig Veda, Indra is depicted as all powerful. He is the principal deity, and the other deities are shown as subordinate to him. By the time of the Ithihasas, the Vedic trinity has been supplanted by the Puranic Trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma.

To summarize, the stories here can be broadly grouped into three categories: The Vedic period, The period of the Upanishads, The time of the Puranas and that of the Epics. There were further devotional works that were composed in later times, most notably during the Bakhti (devotion) movement, where rituals and philosophy were deemphasized in favor of devotional worship, usually of a single deity. The relationship between the devotee and the God was believed to be intimate. Many songs have been composed where the God-Devotee relationship was depicted as that between a mother and her child, or between a father and son. Such works, though important, are not of sufficient antiquity to properly belong to Indian Mythology. Besides, the material covered by them is invariably based on earlier sources, which are the focus of this collection.

Dramatis Personae

Although the Vedic religion is the most ancient, the Puranic pantheon has been adopted as the working basis for this collection. Wherever necessary, the differences between the Vedic pantheon and the Puranic pantheon will be highlighted, to aid in understanding the stories.

At the highest level is the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, who are the three roles of God, each representing an aspect - Creation, Protection and Destruction. In many of the Upanishads, the supreme being, the universal spirit Brahman is depicted as being the ultimate reality, the supreme God. It is said that all living beings, including the Gods are but an aspect of the universal truth of Brahman. Each member of the trinity has his consort, Brahma - Saraswati, the goddess of learning and wisdom; Vishnu - Laxmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity; Shiva - Parvati, who is also referred to as Shakti. Among the trinity, only Shiva possesses children who are also Gods. Ganapati and Skanda are his children. The entire human race is the offspring of Brahma as he is the creator, but the eight Prajapati's are specifically referred to as his children. Vishnu does not have any divine children, although in his many incarnations, he does have mortal children. Many of the stories in Indian mythology revolve around an incarnation of Vishnu, most of them relating to his avatar as Rama or Krishna.

Immediately below the Trinity, come the Devas, who form the secondary Gods (During the Vedic era, they were actually the most powerful group of Gods, with Indra, their ruler being the greatest God). They are said to be 33 crore (330 million) in number, and are the inhabitants of the Swargaloka or heavens. Their king is Indra, and Skanda is the commander in chief of their army. The other important Devas are, Surya the sun, Chandra the moon, Agni the fire and Varuna the waters. Divine nymphs called Apsaras entertain them in the court of Indra. The Devas are said to be the sons of Aditi and are sometimes referred to as the Adityas. (Aditya is also used specifically as an epithet of Surya).

The other large group of divine beings are the Gandharvas, who are immediately below the Devas in their power. They make an appearance in many stories, and are sometimes shown as inhabiting the heavens, along with the Devas. Their specialty is dance and music. They are ruled by different kings from time to time. They are half-brothers to the Devas and their mother is Arishta. Yakshas are the other supernatural beings that appear in these stories, and are frequently malignant forces. They are also half-brothers to the Devas and their mother is Khasa.

Asuras represent the forces of evil. They are the step-brothers of the Devas. The sage Kashyapa is a wish-born son of Brahma, who married thirteen sisters, including Diti and Aditi. The Devas are the sons of Aditi and the Diti gave birth to the Asuras. The Asuras are jealous of the Devas, and consequently are at war with them most of the time. Originally, both groups were mortal, but the Devas attained immortality by drinking Amrit, which they obtained by churning the ocean of milk.

Properly speaking, the sons of Diti are called the Daithyas. The sons of Danu are called Danavas. Asura was a term that originally signified God (this term is related to Ahura Mazda, the supreme God in Persian Mythology), and is an epithet used to describe Mitra in the Rig Veda. However, during the time of the Puranas, the Daithyas and Danavas were grouped under the heading of Asuras and were branded as forces of evil. This collection will simply refer to them as Asuras for most of the time.

Among mortals, seven great sages, the SaptaRishis appear in many stories. They have very long life spans and possess the power to utter curses and to grant some boons, due to their austerities and penance. (An alternate explanation is that the names do not rever to individuals, but to a line of sages. For instance, Vasishta would be the name given to an entire line of sages, the descendant of the original Vasishta.) They are also the progenitors of the Brahmanas. The race of men is divided into the four Varnas (castes), that of Kshatriyas (warriors), Brahmanas (learned men), Vaishyas (merchants) and Shudras (peasants). The first reference to the caste system is in the PurusaShukta [R.V.10.90].

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Last Modified At: Thu Apr 28 23:04:10 2005