Indian Mythology (by ApamNapat)

Basic Facts and Common Themes


For a non-Indian reader, some of the concepts that occur in the stories in Indian (Hindu) mythology may be difficult to understand. This article tries to give a brief summary of the basic facts and recurring themes. Knowing these could greatly aid in the comprehension of the stories presented on this site.

Brahman is the ultimate reality in the universe. Everything in this universe is a manifestation of this supreme force. All the gods, goddesses and mortals possess the essence of Brahman in them. There are two major schools of thought - one that considers that the soul is separate from Brahman and another that considers the soul to be a part of Brahman, but temporarily separated from it, while constantly striving to achieve unity with the source from whence it sprang. In some respects, Brahman is like the holy-spirit in Christianity.

Trinity : Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma form the Puranic Trinity who are the most powerful Gods in the Puranas. Each has a distinct responsibility, although the roles of Shiva and Vishnu are sometimes interchanged. Brahma is the creator and looks after only that task. He is also capable of granting boons to those who do penance to him. Most of the boons he grants are of the "conditional-immortality" variety, wherein the seeker obtains a boon which excludes most common ways of death. Vishnu is the protector. He protects his devotees and the Devas. He has many incarnations in which he helps the Devas by destroying a particular Asura who has become too powerful. In this aspect he is also a destroyer, which is the domain of Shiva. Shiva is the destroyer proper. He wages war against some Asuras, while some other Asuras are his devotees. If an Asura wishes to perform a penance his first choice is Brahma followed by Shiva. Shiva usually grants boons of power and also grants the use of various advanced weaponry.

The consorts of the Trinity have their own spheres of influence. Saraswati the wife of Brahma is the patroness of arts and learning. She is worshiped by scholars and artisans. She usually grants boons of knowledge and skill in the performing arts. Laxmi, the wife of Vishnu is the goddess of wealth. Merchants and other people seeking riches and prosperity pray to her. She grants boons of wealth. Parvati, the wife of Shiva is the patroness of warriors. She grants boons of strength and valor, much like her husband. She is also the only goddess who takes active part in wars. The Devi Bhagavata has many stories of how she fights with demons and kills them. She has many aspects, with Parvati being her benevolent aspect, Durga being the aspect in which she destroys demons. In her form as Kali, she is a great destructive force.

Indra is the ruler of the heavens, and is the King of the Devas. He is also capable of granting boons, most of which relate to the use of advanced weaponry. He is also a valiant warrior, but every now and then he faces an Asura who has been fortified with a strong boon from one of the Trinity and consequently has to flee from Swargaloka. In such times, it is usually Vishnu who comes to his rescue and destroys the Asura, which might require Vishnu to undergo an incarnation. Another common theme that occurs is that Indra and the Devas obtain their power from the sacrificial oblations (Havis). When mortals are prevented from performing Yagnas (Sacrifices), usually due to the intervention of the Asuras, the power of the Devas begins to wane. Indra bestows many gifts on those who perform sacrifices, but is very jealous of those who are trying to perform the Ashwamedha (horse) sacrifice. This is because, any one who manages to perform a hundred Ashwamedha sacrifices obtains the post of Indra, overthrowing the previous king. (This seems to imply that Indra is not one person but the name of the post, but there are conflicting accounts in different stories. It is easy to guess what stand a particular story takes on this question). Also Indra is always wary of sages who are performing a particularly severe penance, as he is again afraid of losing his throne. To disrupt the penance, he sends one of his Apsaras, to seduce the sage. Sometimes they succeed and after marrying the Rishi, even give birth to children. Other times they get cursed by the sages. Regardless of what happens, they ultimately return to their rightful place in Indra's court.

Anybody can perform a penance. While performing a penance, the person has to cut himself off from the world and refrain from sensual pleasures. Sometimes one might eat simple foods while performing a penance, at other times, only fruits and roots may be eaten. Particularly severe penances will require you to forgo all food, and sometimes even water is prohibited. During the penance, the person usually meditates on the deity being propitiated, and often chants the Mantras (incantations) extolling the glory of that God. A penance ends when the deity appears in person and grants the boon sought by the person who did the penance.

Boons may also be granted for particularly meritorious deeds. Sometimes even simply doing your duty well may be rewarded with a boon, although the strength of the boon might not be much. Nearly all deities can grant boons, as can the sages. Sometimes even mortal men of merit can grant a boon (as in the case of Shantanu giving the "choose-your-time-of-death" boon to his son Bhishma).

Where boons are there, can curses be far behind? Just as meritorious deeds attract boons, arrogance and bad deeds invariably attract a curse. The strength of the curse is proportional to the gravity of the offense. Almost anybody may utter a curse, however, whether it comes to pass or not depends on the power of the being uttering the curse. The curses coming from the Trinity are really powerful, although they use that power sparingly. The Devas can also curse. The most common curses however are uttered by the sages. Since the sages spend most of their time among fellow mortals, the chances of their being offended are greater. Just as anybody may utter a curse, anybody can be the target of a curse. Not even the all-powerful Trinity is exempt from them.

Usually when a curse is pronounced, the usual trend is for the target of the curse to plead for mercy. The common theme is that curses once uttered cannot be taken back, but their intensity may be mitigated, or a way for annulling the curse will be suggested. No one may escape the effect of the curse altogether, but can avoid its ill effects to a large extent if they can obtain means of moderating the curse. Many curses are pronounced in such a way that the curse will end when a certain event occurs. This event may occur far in the future or in a new birth of the victim.

Many different kinds of sacrifice (Yagna) can be performed. The most commonly occurring great sacrifices are: the Ashwamedha (horse) sacrifice, the Rajasooya sacrifice (proclaims one as a overlord of other kings) and the Putra Kameshti sacrifice (for obtaining children). Sacrifices require elaborate preparation and a great amount of time and money. A special sacrificial hall is constructed and the sacrificial altar is carefully built at the center of this hall. (The Yajur Veda and its associated Brahmanas give detailed instructions on the measurements for constructing the sacrificial hall and altar.) Sometimes multiple halls and altars may have to be built. An army of priests, headed by the chief-priest is required to complete an Yagna. After the Yagna is over, the person who commissioned the sacrifice has to bestow a large number of gifts to the priests and the visiting Brahmanas.

Most deities have advanced weaponry at their disposal. Mortals, Asuras can obtain temporary use of them by performing a penance or a sacrifice. Weaponry commonly obtained by these means are: Unerring bows, quivers that never go empty, spears and tridents that automatically strike a target etc. Sometimes the supplicant can obtained the special weapon used by the deity. Vajra and Shakti of Indra seem to be favortite weapons for seekers. The other class of weapons that are obtained are Astras (missiles). Each missile consists of both the arrow and the special invocation required to launch it. Some of the less powerful Astras can be learned with the help of a Guru, there is no need to do penance for them. However, for the more powerful missiles, penance is almost inevitable. Some of the common missiles and their presiding deities are Agneyastra (Agni) , Varuni (Varuna), Brahmastra (Brahma), Aindra (Indra), Pashupatha (Shiva), Narayanastra (Vishnu). Often missiles have counter missiles for them. For instance, a missile of fire can be counteracted by a missile of water. However, sometimes the only thing that can stop a missile is either another one of the same kind or a more powerful missile. Great warriors usually can command most of the different missile types. The Brahmastra is commonly believed to be the most potent of all Astras. The art of launching it is known to very few. Even rarer are those who can retract a Brahmastra once it has been launched.

Rebirth is a common theme in Indian Mythology. The Atman (soul) is believed to be indestructible, immutable and eternal. The soul has to undergo the cycle of birth and death, till it attains Mukti (salvation). Often people know what they were in a previous birth. This is particularly the case when this birth was in fulfillment of a curse or to accomplish a specific task. The theory of Karma applies, so that the soul continues to accumulate good and bad deeds which are carried over to the next birth. If you have a lot of good deeds in this birth, then in the next birth the chances are bright that you will be in a better position than now. The converse also applies, if you have been particularly bad, the next birth could even be a animal! Even if born as an animal, oftentimes persons are shown to be aware of the reasons why this happened to them, and are even able to recollect incidents from their past life.

Another concept that is rather nebulous is that of chastity. While in some stories women lose their chastity merely by thinking about a man, in others, they may actually consummate the relationship and have their virginity restored to them. This seems to be particularly the case when the other party in the relationship is a god or a sage of immense power. The Apsaras are a class of their own as they are eternal virgins.

There are various other mythical creatures such as the Kinnaras, the Yakshas, the Gandharvas, all of whom are more powerful than mere mortals but inferior in strength to the Devas. The nine planets (Navagrahas) are other beings who frequently appear in these stories. They wield an immense influence over the fate of men. It is commonly shown that even the Gods themselves are not exempt from the ill-effects of an unfavorable alignment of the planets. Parvati is said to be their overlord.

Hopefully you will find it easier to follow the stories after going through the above explanation of the basic facts and recurring themes in Hindu Mythology. I shall try to add more detail here as and when needed.

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Last Modified At: Sun Aug 7 11:00:43 2005