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Personalities of the Epics
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Personalities of the Epics
Hindu mythology is a large body of traditional narratives related to Hinduism as contained in Sanskrit literature (such as the epics like Mahabharata and Ramayana, the Puranas, and the Vedas), Ancient Tamil literature (such as the Sangam literature and Periya Puranam), several other works, most notably the Bhagavata Purana, claiming the status of a Fifth Veda and other religious regional literature of South Asia. As such, it is a subset of Indian and Nepali culture. Rather than one consistent, monolithic structure, it is a range of diverse traditions, developed by different sects, people and philosophical schools, in different regions and at different times, which are not necessarily held by all Hindus to be literal accounts of historical events, but are taken to have deeper, often symbolic, meaning, and which have been given a complex range of interpretations.
The roots of mythology that evolved from classical Hinduism come from the times of the Vedic civilization, from the ancient Vedic religion. The four Vedas, notably the hymns of the Rigveda, contain allusions to many themes (see Rigvedic deities, Rigvedic rivers).
The characters, philosophy and stories that make up ancient Vedic myths are indelibly linked with Hindu beliefs. The Vedas are four in number, namely RigVeda, YajurVeda, SamaVeda, and the AtharvaVeda. Some of these texts mention mythological concepts and machines very much similar to modern day scientific theories and machines.
In the period of Classical Sanskrit, much material is preserved in the Sanskrit epics. Besides mythology proper, the voluminous epics also provide a wide range of information about ancient Indian society, philosophy, culture, religion, and ways of life. The two great Hindu Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata tell the story of two specific incarnations of Vishnu (Rama and Krishna). These two works are known as Itihasa. The epics Mahabharata and Ramayana serve as both religious scriptures and a rich source of philosophy and morality. The epics are divided into chapters and contain various short stories and moral situations, where the character takes a certain course of action in accordance with Hindu laws and codes of righteousness. The most famous of these chapters is the Bhagavad Gita (Sanskrit: The Celestial Song) in the Mahabharata, in which Lord Krishna explains the concepts of duty and righteousness to the hero Arjuna before the Battle of Kurukshetra. These stories are deeply embedded in Hindu philosophy and serve as parables and sources of devotion for Hindus. The Mahabharata is the world's longest epic in verse, running to more than 2,00,000 lines.
The epics themselves are set in different Yugas, or periods of time. The Ramayana, written by the poet Valmiki, describes the life and times of Lord Rama (the seventh avatar of Lord Vishnu) and occurs in the Treta Yuga. The Mahabharata, describing the life and times of the Pandavas, occurs in the Dvapara Yuga, a period associated with Lord Krishna (the eighth avatar of Lord Vishnu). In total, there are 4 Yugas. These are the Satya or Krita Yuga, the Treta Yuga, the Dvapara Yuga, and the Kali Yuga. The avatara concept, however, belongs to the Puranic times, well after the two great epics, though they often refer to pre-epic Yugas.
The Puranas deal with stories that are old and do not appear (or fleetingly appear) in the epics. They contain legends and stories about the origins of the world, and the lives and adventures of a wide variety of gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines, and mythological creatures (asuras, danavas, daityas, yakshas, rakshasas, gandharvas, apsaras, kinnaras, kimpurusas etc.). They contain traditions related to ancient kings, seers, incarnations of God (avatara) and legends about holy places and rivers. The Bhagavata Purana is probably the most read and popular of the Puranas. It chronicles the legends of the god Vishnu and his incarnations on earth.
The act of creation was thought of in more than one manner. One of the oldest cosmogonic myth in the Rigveda (RV 10.121) had being come into existence as a cosmic egg, hiranyagarbha (a golden egg). The Purusha Sukta (RV 10.90) narrates that all things were made out of the mangled limbs of Purusha, a magnified non-natural man, who was sacrificed by the gods. In the Puranas, Vishnu, in the shape of a boar, plunged into the cosmic waters and brought forth the earth (Bhumi or Prithivi).
The Shatapatha Brahmana says that in the beginning, Prajapati, the first creator or father of all, was alone in the world. He differentiated himself into two beings, husband and wife. The wife, regarding union with her producer as incest, fled from his embraces assuming various animal disguises. The husband pursued in the form of the male of each animal, and from these unions sprang the various species of beasts (Shatapatha Brahmana, xiv. 4, 2). Prajapati was soon replaced with Brahma in the Puranas.
In the Puranas, Brahma the creator was joined in a divine triad with Vishnu and Maheshvara (Shiva), who were the preserver and destroyer, respectively. The universe was created by Brahma, preserved by Vishnu, and destroyed for the next creation by Shiva. However, the birth of Brahma was attributed to Vishnu in some myths. Brahma was often depicted as sitting on a lotus arising from the navel of Vishnu, who was resting on the cosmic serpent, Ananta (Shesha). In the very beginning Vishnu alone was there. When Vishnu thought about creation, Brahma was created from a lotus that came from his navel.
Hindu mythology defines fourteen worlds (not to be confused with planets) – seven higher worlds (heavens) and seven lower ones (underworlds). (The earth is considered the lowest of the seven higher worlds.) The higher worlds are the seven vyahrtis, viz. bhu, bhuvas, svar, mahas, janas, tapas, and satya (the world that is ruled by Brahma); and the lower ones (the "seven underworlds" or paatalas) are atala, vitala, sutala, rasaataala, talatala, mahaatala, paatala.
All the worlds except the earth are used as temporary places of stay as follows: upon one's death on earth, the god of death (officially called 'Yama Dharma Raajaa' – Yama, the lord of justice) tallies the person's good/bad deeds while on earth and decides if the soul goes to a heaven and/or a hell, for how long, and in what capacity. Some versions of the mythology state that good and bad deeds neutralize each other and the soul therefore is born in either a heaven or a hell, but not both, whereas according to another school of thought, the good and bad deeds don't cancel out each other. In either case, the soul acquires a body as appropriate to the worlds it enters. At the end of the soul's time in those worlds, it returns to the earth (is reborn as a life form on the earth). It is considered that only from the earth, and only after a human life, can the soul reach supreme salvation, the state free from the cycle of birth and death, a state of absolute and eternal bliss.
According to Hindu system, the cosmos passes through cycles within cycles for all eternity. The basic cycle is the kalpa, a “day of Brahma”, or 4,320 million earthly years. His night is of equal length. 360 such days and nights constitute a “year of Brahma” and his life is 100 such years long. The largest cycle is therefore 311, 040,000 million years long, after which the whole universe returns to the ineffable world-spirit, until another creator god is evolved.
In each cosmic day the god creates the universe and again absorbs it. During the cosmic night he sleeps, and the whole universe is gathered up into his body, where it remains as a potentiality. Within each kalpa are fourteen manvantaras, or secondary cycles, each lasting 306,720,000 years, with long intervals between them. In these periods the world is recreated, and a new Manu appears, as the progenitor of the human race. We are now in the seventh manvantara of the kalpa, of which the Manu is known as Manu Vaivasvata.
Each manvantara contains 71 Mahayugas, or aeons, of which a thousand form the kalpa. Each mahayuga is in turn divided into four yugas or ages, called Krita, Treta, Dvapara and Kali. Their lengths are respectively 4800, 3600, 2400 and 1200 “years of the gods,” each of which equals 360 human years. Each yuga represents a progressive decline in piety, morality, strength, stature, longevity and happiness. We are at present in the Kali-yuga, which began, according to tradition, in 3102 BCE, believed to be the year of the Mahabharata War.
The end of the Kali-yuga is marked by confusion of classes, the overthrow of the established standards, the cessation of all religious rites, and the rule of cruel and alien kings. Soon after this the world is destroyed by flood and fire. Most medieval texts state that the cosmic dissolution occurs only after the last cycle of the kalpa, and that the transition from one aeon to the next takes place rapidly and calmly.
The dissolution of existing beings is of three kinds: "incidental, elemental, and absolute." The dissolution which occurs at the end of each Kalpa, or day of Brahma, is called naimittika, incidental, occasional, or contingent. The naimittika, occasional, incidental, or Brahmya, is as occasioned by the intervals of Brahma's days; the destruction of creatures, though not of the substance of the world, occurring during the night. The second is the general resolution of the elements into their primitive source, or Prakriti, the Prakritika destruction, and occurs at the end of Brahma's life. The third, the absolute, or final, Atyantika, is individual annihilation, Moksha, exemption for ever from future existence.
Vishnu rose from a minor role as a solar deity in the Rigveda to one of the Hindu Triad with Brahma and Shiva to the Absolute of the universe in Vaishnavism. Vishnu’s willingness to incarnate in time of need to restore righteousness (dharma) was the inspiring theme that made him both absolute and a compassionate giver of grace (prasada). According to the Puranas, he sleeps in the primeval ocean, on the thousand-headed snake Shesha. In his sleep a lotus grows from his navel, and in the lotus is born the demiurge Brahma, who creates the world. Once the world is created Vishnu awakes, to reign in the highest heaven, Vaikuntha. As the protector of life, one of the duties of Vishnu is to appear on the earth whenever a firm hand is required to set things right. The Avataras or incarnations of Vishnu are, according to the most popular classification, ten. They are as follows: The Fish (Matsya), The Tortoise (Kurma), the Boar (Varaha), the Man-Lion (Narasimha), the Dwarf (Vamana), Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki (the incarnation yet to come).
Shiva is considered the supreme deity, the ultimate source and goal by the Saivite sect. The Pashupata, Shaiva Siddhanta and some other sects view Shiva s equal to, or even greater than the Absolute (Brahman). Shiva’s character, unlike Vishnu is ‘ambivalent,’ as he can be a moral and paternal god, or a god of outsiders, of those outside the Brahmanical mainstream, worshipped in various ways. Several Tantric cults are also associated with Shiva.
In classical Hindu mythology Shiva is the god of destruction, generally portrayed as a yogin who lives on Mount Kailasa in the Himalayas. His body is smeared with ashes, his hair piled up in matted locks. He wears an animal skin and carries a trident. A cobra often serves as his garland and the crescent moon as his hair ornament. He has a third eye, kept closed in the middle of his forehead. He may be surrounded by his beautiful wife Parvati, and their two sons, the six-faced Skanda and the elephant-headed Ganesha.
The ancient name of Shiva is Rudra, the Wild God. The Rig-Veda (10.61 & 1.71) tells that when time was about to begin he appeared as a wild hunter, aflame, his arrow directed against the Creator (Prajapati) making love with his virgin daughter, the Dawn (Usas). The Creator, terribly frightened, made Rudra Lord of Animals (Pasupati) for sparing his life.
A key theme that first appears in later Vedic literature is the god’s rather ambiguous relation to the sacrificial oblations and offerings. Originally Rudra-Shiva seems to have been at least partly excluded from orthodox Vedic sacrifices and thus has to demand his share of the offerings, sometimes described as the share that is ‘left-over’ (ucchista). In the classical mythology of Hinduism, this theme is incorporated into Shiva’s conflict with his first father-in-law, the brahman named Daksha, whose sacrifice Shiva destroys when he was not invited to it and an enraged Sati (Daksha's daughter) goes to reproach her father for the same. However Daksha insults Shiva and Sati enraged by this says that she, being born of a being as lowly as Daksha does not deserve to be Shiva's consort and immolates herself. Shiva, furious in the loss of his love, beheads Daksha and then replaces it with that of a goat, the sacrificial animal.
Many of the main episodes in the Shiva myth cycle revolve around the dynamic tension between Shiva as the god equally of asceticism and eroticism, a master of both yogic restraint and sexual prowess.
Shiva destroys Kama, the god of erotic love, with the fire from his third eye when Kama attempts to disturb his ascetic trance. Subsequently Parvati, daughter of the Himalaya, wins Shiva’s love through her own ascetic penance and persuades him to revive Kama in disembodied form.
By chopping off the fifth head of Brahma, Shiva is charged with the major sin of the murder of a brahman and must undertake the penance, or the Great Vow (mahavrata), of the Skull-Bearer (kapalin), an ascetic who wanders about with a skull as a begging bowl. This Great Vow becomes the archetypical basis of the ascetic sect of the Kapalikas or Mahavratins, who are equally noted for their indulgence in the orgiastic rites of Tantric character. The complicated myth of the birth of the six-faced Skanda, a son of Shiva, exists in a number of very different versions. In part, Skanda is the son of Shiva and Parvati, but he is at the same time the son of Agni and of the six Krittikas. His role is destroy the terrible demon Taraka.
The three sons of Taraka later establish the mighty triple city of the demons, which Shiva eventually destroys with a single arrow from his bow, Pinaka. Another demon named Andhaka, the blind son of Shiva and/or of the demon Hiranyaksha, lusts after Parvati but is defeated and reformed by Shiva. Shiva beheads his Ganesha, whom he has never met, when Ganesha tries to prevent the apparent stranger from entering the room of Parvati, Shiva’s wife and Ganesha’s mother. Shiva then replaces his son’s head with that of an elephant with one broken tusk, just as he once replaced Daksha’s head with that of a goat.
Devi is Shakti, the strength and power of her male counterpart. As one individual goddess, Devi may be seen as Parvati the wife of Shiva. Also known as Mahadevi (the “great mother goddess”), she is Shiva’s equal, or she may even be held to be the supreme deity of the universe and the ultimate source of everything that has life, consciousness, power, or activity. When regarded as a wife and mother, her “cool” (orthodox) nature manifested in beautiful, obedient wives such as Parvati for Shiva, Lakshmi or Shri for Vishnu, and Sarasvati for Brahma. In her aggressive manifestation as Durga she is a slayer of evil, personified as a buffalo demon, Mahisha. In her most fierce aspect, she is Kali or Chamunda, who drinks up the blood of the demon Raktabija ('blood seed'), whose blood when gave rise to more demons.
As well as Vishnu, Shiva and Durga, many other Devatas (Devas or gods) are worshipped. Brahma rose to importance in the late Vedic period of the Aranyakas and Upanishads. In the Brahmanas he was associated with Prajapati and later replaced him as the creator. His creations, however, came to be seen as re-creations. It was Shiva, Vishnu, or Devi who was said to be the ultimate origin of the universe. Brahma was only its current creator (or re-creator).
The Rigveda speaks of Thirty-three gods called the Tridasha ('Three times ten'). They consisted of the 12 Adityas, the 8 Vasus, the 11 Rudras and the 2 Ashvins. Indra also called Śakra, lord of the gods, is the first of the 33 followed by Agni. Some of these brother gods were invoked in pairs such as Indra-Agni, Mitra-Varuna and Soma-Rudra.
Some Devatas are associated with specific elements or functions: Indra or Shakra (the king of gods, the ruler of the lower heaven Amaravati, the wielder of the thunderbolt and the rain-god), Varuna (the god of the waters), Yama (the death-god), Kubera (the lord of precious metals, minerals, jewels and wealth), Agni (the fire-god), Surya (the sun-god), Vayu (the wind-god), and Chandra or Soma (the moon-god). Yama, Indra, Varuna and Kubera, are known as Lokapalas, or Guardians of the Universe. The sons of Shiva and Parvati are Skanda and Ganesha. The former is the war-god while the latter is the ‘Lord of the Obstacles’ and is worshipped at the beginning of all undertakings to remove hindrances. Kama is the Indian love-god who was burnt to ashes by Shiva and then revived once again.
Among the Devis, Lakshmi, the wife of Vishnu, is the goddess of good luck and temporal blessing. Sarasvati, the wife of Brahma, is the patron of art, music and letters.
As well as these gods there are an infinite number of creatures that inhabit the world of Hindu mythology. The Nagas (snake-spirits) are half-human, but with a serpent’s tail, dwell in the beautiful underground city of Bhogavati and guard great treasures. The Yakshas, associated with the god Kubera, are a sort of gnome or fairy, worshiped by country people. The Gandharvas, all male, are servants of Indra and heavenly musicians. Associated with them, are the Kinnaras, the Indian centaurs. The female counterparts of the Gandharvas are the Apsarases. They are beautiful and libidinous, and specially delighted in tempting ascetics in their meditations. A further group of demigods is that of the Vidyadharas or heavenly magicians, mysterious beings who live in magic cities in the high Himalayas and the Vindhyas.
The Rishis (sages or seers) were composers of the Vedic hymns and other legendary wise men of olden times. Chief of these were the ‘Seven Rishis’, identified with the stars of the Great Bear – Marichi, Atri, Angiras, Pulastya, Pulaha, Kratu and Vashistha. Other important rishis include Kashyapa and Daksha, the progenitors of gods and men; Narada, who invented the vina; Brihaspati and Shukra, the preceptor of the gods and the antigods, respectively; and Agastya, who propagated religion and culture in the southern part of the peninsula. The Pitrs are the “fathers” or “ancestor spirits” connected with the ritualistic offerings to the spirits of the dead.
The Asuras (‘ungodly’) are the chief evil spirits who are continually at war with the gods, whose power they sometimes shake, but never conquer. They include all the sinful demons, both the sons of Diti (called daityas) and Danu (called Danavas), and various special groups, such as the Kalakeyas and Nivatakavachas. The typical leaders of the Asuras are Vritra, Hiranyakashipu, Bali etc., demons slaughtered by Indra or Vishnu. Rakshasas (‘demons’) are the sons of Pulatsya, the chief among whom was Ravana, who was killed by Rama. Somewhat less terrible are the Pisachas, who haunt battlefields and places of violent deaths, as do a special class of demons, called Vetala or vampires, who take their abode in corpses. In addition, Preta and Bhuta (‘ghosts’) are the naked spirits of those who have died violent deaths and for whom shraddha has not been performed.
There were in all twelve ferocious battles fought between the gods and the Asuras over the control of the three worlds, viz. Varaha, Narasimha, Tarakamaya, Andhaka-vadha, Traipura, Amrtamathana, Vamana, Dhvajapata, Adibaka, Kolahala, Vritra-vadha and Halahala. Hiranyaksha was killed in fighting in the cosmic ocean by Varaha with its tusks in the first. Hiranyakashipu, the daitya was killed by Narasimha in the second. In the third battle, Taraka, the son of Vajranga was slain by Skanda. Andhaka, the foster son of Hiranyaksha was killed by Shiva in the fourth. In the fifth, as the gods could not kill the danavas led by the three sons of Taraka, Shiva killed them. Mahabali was defeated in battle by Indra in the Amrtamathana battle. In the seventh, Vamana took Mahabali captive after measuring the three worlds in one stride. In the eighth, Indra himself killed Viprachitti and his followers who became invisible by maya after the felling of the dhvaja (flag staff). In the ninth, Kakutstha, grandson of Ikshvaku helped Indra defeat Adi-Baka. Sanda and Marka, the sons of Shukra were killed in the Kolahala war. Vritra who was aided by the danavas was killed by Indra with the help of Vishnu in the eleventh. In the twelfth, Raji, the younger brother of Nahusha helped Indra defeat the Asuras.
Apart from the traditional human weapons like swords, daggers, spears, clubs, shields, bows, arrows and maces, and the weapons used by the gods (such as Indra's thunderbolt Vajra), the texts mention the utilization of various divine weapons by various heroes, each associated with a certain god or deity. These weapons are most often gifted to semi-divine beings, human beings or the rakshasas by the gods, sometimes as a result of penance.
There are several weapons which were used by the gods of Hinduism, some of which are Agneyastra, Brahmastra, Chakram, Garudastra, Kaumodaki, Narayanastra, Pashupatastra, Shiva Dhanush, Sudarshana Chakra, Trishul, Vaishnavastra, Varunastra, and Vayavastra.
Some of these weapons are explicitly classified ( for example, the Shiva Dhanush is a bow, the Sudharshan Chakra is a discus and the Trishul is a trident), but many other weapons appear to be weapons specially blessed by the gods. For example, the Brahmastra, Agneyastra (Sanskrit: Astra = weapon, especially, one thrown at an opponent. Shastra are weapons used with hand and are not thrown) and the other astras appear to be single use weapons requiring an intricate knowledge of use, often depicted in art, literature and adapted filmography as divinely blessed arrows.
Sometimes the astra is descriptive of the function, or of the force of nature which it invokes. The Mahabharata cites instances when the Nagastra (Sanskrit: Nag=snake) was used, and thousands of snakes came pouring down from the skies on unsuspecting enemies. Similarly, the Agneyastra (Agni) is used for setting the enemy ablaze, as the Varunastra (Varuna) is used for extinguishing flames, or for invoking floods. Some weapons like the Brahmastra can only be used (lethally) against a single individual.
The story of a great flood is mentioned in ancient Hindu texts, particularly the Satapatha Brahmana. It is compared to the accounts of the Deluge found in several religions and cultures. Manu was informed of the impending flood and was protected by the Matsya Avatar of Lord Vishnu, who had manifested himself in this form to rid the world of morally depraved human beings and protect the pious, as also all animals and plants.
The first king to conquer all of the world was Bharata, son of Dushyanta and Shakuntala. All of this world, Vishwa, is named Bharatavarsha, or The Land of Bharata, or The Cherished Land. The Pandavas and the Kauravas were born in this dynasty.