It is said that Hinduism is a religion of 300 million Gods, but those who say it perhaps don’t understand the symbolism of the Hindu pantheon. Truth may take 300 million forms, but there is only one Ultimate Truth and it is Brahman and the entire Hindu pantheon is needed to even begin to represent Brahman’s aspects and manifestations.

Hindu gods and goddesses are broadly classified as Vedic or Puranic. The Vedic gods and goddesses are the old gods, while the Puranic deities were created later. The Puranic epics, Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana, are well-loved by Hindus everywhere, while in south India, Sangam literature told stories of the lives and adventures of south India’s royalty, however, it is within the Puranas where the major deities have their stories told. The Puranas are perhaps the most important or commonly used scriptural texts; guidebooks for the whole of life and society. These sacred texts were in their final form by about 500 AD though orally passed down for two thousand years before that. The principal Puranas tell the stories of Vishnu the Preserver (Vishnu Purana), Shiva the Destroyer (Shiva Purana) and Devi, the Mother Goddess (Markendeya Purana). The Bhagavata Purana is important to the worshippers of Krishna, while Vayu (Vedic God of Air), Agni (Vedic God of Fire), Murugan (second son of Shiva and Uma), Kalki (last avatar of Vishnu), Linga (the anthropomorphic pillar symbolizing Shiva) each have their own Purana.

These myths and legends were more than tales of high drama and superhuman feats; they told the stories of the gods and goddesses and brought them to life. No longer seen as unapproachable statues in temples or processions, these divine beings fought demons in hand to hand combat, made love, felt pain and lost their tempers, just as humans do. These tales showed them to be wise, loyal, caring, while some even had a sense of humour. In other words, they became multi-dimensional to Hindu devotees, more real, more approachable. The stories weren’t just entertainment but allegorical lessons in dharma, the dutiful pathway. They taught Hindus, by example, how to do the right thing.

Reference Library

Reference Library

The languid gaze. The elegant gesture. The whisper of silk. The goddess serenely voluptuous. The god lithe and supple. Chola Bronzes are among the world’s finest sacred sculpture, with an undeniable vitality as though they are about to take a breath.

A first impression is over in a heartbeat, but if you take the time to look deeper perhaps you may begin to see them as their Chola creators intended – metaphors in bronze of an absolute divine beauty.

Shailja and I wrote this Reference Library to help you gain a wider understanding of the spiritual context of this extraordinary sacred art. Whether you are casually browsing or searching for something specific, if you don’t find the information you need, just ask and we’ll help you find what you need.

We don’t make any claims to scholarship for this material. It was written from our personal perspective and just as it is for the other billion or so Hindu believers, we have chosen what it is true from the almost limitless array of truths Hinduism offers. You may not agree with everything you find here, but one of Hinduism’s wonderful qualities is inclusiveness and acceptance and we hope you’ll accept our Reference Library in the spirit with which it is offered.

Reference Library2021-08-29T11:50:07-07:00

Lakshmi – Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune

Lakshmi – Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune

Lakshmi (note 1) is the Shakti aspect of Vishnu and resplendent goddess of wealth and happiness. When expressing the universal principle of beauty, Lakshmi is known as Sri (note 2). Lakshmi not only represents material wealth but also for abundance in courage, knowledge, strength, victory, children, education, etc. Wealth in all its forms is important for the preservation and happiness of life on earth and in her role as nourisher, preserver and provider, Lakshmi bestows her blessings according to the worshipper’s past karma and degree of devotion. Her worshippers are expected to adhere to a strict code of conduct and maintain utmost purity to earn her grace. In Tantric worship, she is worshipped with Mantras and yantras (mystic diagrams). 

As Vishnu’s Shakti aspect, Lakshmi provides the primal creative energy (Prakriti) to his consciousness (Purusha). He is the word, she is the meaning. He is the thought, while she is the action. Whenever Vishnu incarnates on earth in human form, Lakshmi incarnates along with him as they restore dharma to the world. She incarnated as Padma when Vishnu incarnated upon the earth as Vamana, as Dharani when he incarnated as Parasurama, as Sita when he incarnated as Rama and as Rukmini when he incarnated as Krishna.

Lakshmi is traditionally depicted sitting on an open eight petaled lotus, representing the enlightened and pure mind, as she holds lotus flowers in her two hands and holding the other two hands in Abhaya (assurance) and varada (bestowing) mudras (gestures) (note 3). Her complexion varies from pink to golden yellow or white. She is usually associated with water, illustrated by elephants standing on either side of her emptying pitchers through their raised trunks. Sometimes she is shown in the company of Vishnu and sometimes alone, showering gold coins upon her devotees. In the company of Vishnu, she is Samanya Lakshmi with lotuses in both hands with two hands and when alone, she is Varalakshmi with four arms and hands with four hands, holding a lotus, a conch, a pot of nectar and fruit respectively. As an aspect of Mari Amma (Durga), Lakshmi is also depicted with four additional hands, each carrying a bow, an arrow, a mace and a discus. 

Note 1 – translates as “She of the Hundred Thousands”.

Note 2 – Lakshmi and Sri in Vedic times were separate goddesses but amalgamated with the passage of time.

Note 3 – the lotus is Lakshmi’s primary attribute and inextricably linked as both represent immaculate purity and enlightenment. The lotus grows out of mud (samsara) but rises to the surface and opens to the sun (enlightenment). A closed lotus bud represents potential while an open flower symbolizes actualization. 

Lakshmi – Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune2019-11-19T14:12:59-08:00

Brahma – The Creator

Brahma – The Creator

Brahma (not to be confused with similar terms; Brahman and brahmin) created good and evil, night and day, and gods, demons, ancestors and humans from formless Brahman. It is said the universe was created when Brahma awoke and opened his eyes and will end when he goes back to sleep at the end of his day – a period of 4.32 million human years – the universe will end. Brahma is an abstract metaphysical ideal of a god, and lacks the earthy dramatic myths and legends of other deities, although he does feature in other god’s mythology. He is the bestower of boons upon various demons, boons which invariably create problems requiring divine intervention (and new opportunities) for other gods and goddesses to add to their legends. Brahma is thought to be aloof and unapproachable and isn’t worshipped with the devotional ardour of Shiva, Shakti or Vishnu. It is believed his work is done, and it is the various manifestations of Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti which have the power to power to affect our lives. On the next turn of the Wheel of Time, however, after the weary universe is destroyed by Shiva Nataraja, it is a reborn Brahma who will create the world anew. While his image is venerated somewhere in most major temples, only a handful of the half a million or so temples in India are dedicated solely to Brahma. 

Brahma is believed to have created The Vedas, dispersing them in the four cardinal directions from his four mouths, although most of the credit ought to go to his wife, Saraswati, Goddess of Wisdom and Knowledge. 

Brahma is typically depicted in iconography as standing, his weight evenly upon both feet (samabhanga). He has four faces whose mouths disperse The Vedas in the four cardinal directions and four arms. In one hand he holds The Vedas, in the second he holds rosary beads (mala) symbolizing time, in the third he holds a ladle (sruva or shruk) symbolizing the means to feed a sacrificial fire, and in fourth a water jug (kamandalu) symbolizing the means from where all creation originates. In paintings, he is often depicted with the white beard of a sage. His vehicle (vahana) is a swan or goose. 

Brahma – The Creator2019-11-07T16:47:08-08:00

Bhu Devi – The Earth Goddess

Bhu Devi – The Earth Goddess

While Lakshmi, The Goddess of Abundance and Good Fortune, is Vishnu’s main consort, Bhu Devi, The Goddess of Mother Earth, as sustainer, enricher and provider, is an essential aspect of Vishnu’s role as Preserver (note 1).

Bhu Devi was created from the three petals which came from the navel of Vishnu after the creation of Brahma. In early Rig Vedas, Bhu Devi is Mother Earth and consort of Dyaus, Father Sky, though over time Dyaus morphed to reflect the growing importance of Vishnu.

The best-known legend involving Bhu Devi was after she was abducted by the demon Hiranyaksha, Vishnu took the form of his boar avatar, Varaha, and plunged into the depths of the cosmic ocean to save her. After lifting Bhu Devi above the waves on his tusks, Vishnu vanquished the demon with his discus (chakra), then spread out Bhu Devi as Mother Earth, creating the seven continents and the land required for humankind to exist.

As a Chola Bronze, Bhu Devi is often shown as part of a trinity, with Vishnu in the centre and Lakshmi and Bhu Devi either side. Both are of equal beauty and both will be holding a lotus. The pair are usually differentiated by Lakshmi wearing a kuchabandha, or breast band, while the Bhu Devi is bare-breasted. When depicted with either two or four arms, Bhu Devi’s right hand may be holding a blue, or night lotus (kumuda or utpala), while the left gestures either fear not (abhayamudra) or hanging freely in lolahasta, which symbolizes nothing – it just looks right. When depicted with four arms, she may be holding a water vessel, a pomegranate, a bowl containing healing herbs or another bowl containing vegetables. Her vehicle (vahana) is the cow.

Note 1 – Bhu Devi translates as Bhu (Earth) Devi (goddess). She is also known as Prthivi.

Bhu Devi – The Earth Goddess2019-11-07T17:31:13-08:00

Ganesha – The Beloved One

Ganesha – The Beloved One

Of the entire Hindu pantheon, it is Ganesha characteristics are most human. He is a calm, pure, benevolent deity inspiring neither fear nor awe, while his kind smile, carefree manner and child-like enthusiasm for sweet rice balls (laddus), define the relaxed aura surrounding him. Ganesha is the most popular and approachable of the Hindu gods, worshipped as the Lord of new beginnings and remover of obstacles, and therefore honoured before the start of any endeavour, ritual or ceremony. Largely a secular divinity, Ganesha is associated with no fussy rituals or rigid taboos. He is loved and worshipped by everyone, and all receive his protection and royal blessing.

There are many myths surrounding Ganesha, the son of Shiva and Uma, and about how he got his elephant head. According to one legend, the Uma made her son, Ganesha, out of the dead skin she scraped off her body as she bathed. She posted Ganesha at the door of her bath and instructed him to let no one enter. Uma’s husband, Shiva, returned home after several years of meditating to find an unknown boy guarding the door to the bath. Ganesha refused to let him enter. Shiva lost his temper and cut off the boy’s head. Uma, devastated, insisted that her son be returned to life. Shiva then offered to give Ganesha the head of the next being that appeared, and when an elephant approached, Ganesha received its head and was brought back to life. To pacify Uma further, and compensate for the act of killing own son, Shiva bestowed upon Ganesha the powers of a god and blessed him that henceforth no activity will begin without invoking his name and blessing. Since then, it is said, no new venture – from a schoolchild opening a new notebook to an opening of a shop, from the foundation of a building to entering a new home – is deemed complete without puja directed to Ganesha.

As for Ganesha’s physical characteristics, just as in every Hindu icon, they symbolize an attribute. The size of his head is said to represent wisdom and learning, his large ears symbolize the ability to hear every prayer he is offered, and small eyes signify the ability to concentrate as he meditates. His defining characteristic is his trunk, and its symbology is extensive. For example, it is believed to be auspicious for a Ganesha image in the home if the trunk is bent to his left, indicating a more cooling feminine energy and ideally touching a bowl of laddus, representing material prosperity. He should be also be seated, so he doesn’t wander away from home. On the other hand, Ganesha’s temple icons ought to have his trunk to his right, a more fiery and dynamic energy, and helpful for expediting gratification of one’s prayers. Ganesha is usually shown with four arms. With his trunk he reaches for a bowl of the laddus he loves, while his hands hold; a string of prayer beads, an elephant goad, sometimes a snake, and his broken tusk; all heavily symbolic. Temple sculptures of Ganesha are usually found at the beginning of a sequence of deities on the exterior walls, placed there to eliminate obstacles faced by the worshipper on his or her spiritual path. 

A favourite hymn dedicated to Ganesha is; ‘O ye who possesseth curved trunk, huge body and brilliance of ten million suns, accomplish and accomplish always, all my errands free from obstacles’.

Ganesha is also identified with the sacred mantra, the syllable Om, and believed to be its personification. His animal-vehicle (vahana) is the rat which, though small by contrast, will gnaw through any obstacle. This comparison suggests that there are two ways to remove obstacles; like an elephant trampling everything in its path, or a rat finding its way through small openings to achieve the same goal. In the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, Rajasthan, rats are fed milk and grain and believed to be destined for reincarnation as holy men (sadhus).

Ganesha – The Beloved One2019-11-18T17:17:22-08:00

Saraswati – Goddess of Knowledge and Music

Saraswati – Goddess of Knowledge and Music

Saraswati is young, beautiful, graceful, and alongside Uma and Lakshmi, very much the Maha Devi, or Great Goddess. She fearlessly challenges the great male gods when they try to manipulate her and the only female goddess to keep her name, rank and power intact throughout the millennia. It was Saraswati who organized and transcribed The Vedas, again out of the formless Brahman. She is also responsible for all non-Vedic knowledge (note 1), music, yoga, ritual, speech, Sanskrit and the units of measurement and time (note 2). She personifies civilized behaviour, refined taste and the arts.

She is always dressed in spotless white, the colour of light, knowledge and truth, and seated either on a white lotus or swan. She may have four arms or less often just two. If four, she may hold the same attributes as Brahma or a stringed instrument (veena), representing the arts and sciences, and all emotions and feelings expressed in speech or music (anuraga). Finally, Saraswati is often depicted near water, a reference to her ancient Rig Veda history as a river goddess (note 3).

In the Vac Sutra, Saraswati boasts:

“I move among the Gods, I hold them, sustain them… whosoever breathes, sees, hears or eats does so because of me… I create powerful creators and embed them with wisdom and sight… my powers overflow the universe.”

Note 1 – On the fifth day of spring, the festival Vasant Panchami honours Saraswati by teaching young children the alphabet. It is also an Indian tradition that if you step on a book (a symbol of knowledge and therefore Saraswati), you must perform a mudra of apology with the right hand.

Note 2 – Time (Kala) is another term for Yama, the god of Death. At the time of one’s death the soul (Atman, or essence) may depart one of two ways; the Way of the Gods, which brings it through days, bright fortnights, the half-year of the northern course of the sun, to the full year and eventually to Brahman; or the Way of the Ancestors, through nights, dark fortnights, the half-year of the southern course of the sun, and, failing to reach the full year, eventually back to earth clinging to raindrops. If the soul happens to fall upon a plant and that plant is subsequently eaten by a man, the man may impregnate a woman, and thus the soul may be reborn.

Note 3 – Saraswati is also the name of a river which once flowed in the Thar Desert but lost due to a shift in monsoon patterns. It is believed to be on the banks of the Saraswati that The Vedas were composed.  

Saraswati – Goddess of Knowledge and Music2019-11-07T16:46:15-08:00

The Puranas and Epics – That Which is Remembered 

The Puranas and Epics – That Which is Remembered

The second category of Hindu sacred text is Smrti, “that which is remembered” of which the Puranas and the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are the most influential. Many scholars believe them also to be the richest collections of mythology in the world.

The Puranas There are eighteen major Puranas and several minor ones, each composed of myths and legends of the gods and goddesses, hymns, an outline of ancient Indian history, cosmology, rules of life, rituals, instructions on spiritual matters. They date from 1500 BC in oral form to 500 AD in the written and are semi-sacred remembrances and interpretations which continue to evolve through scholarly debate up to the present day.

The most important Puranas, as they relate to sacred sculpture, are the Vishnu Purana, Shiva Purana and Markendeya Purana (The Goddess) and the Bhagavata Purana (Krishna). Other Puranas are Vayu, Agni, Skanda, Kalki, Lingam, all telling stories of the interaction between gods and between gods and mortals. These are the stories that bring the gods to life and render them relevant to the ordinary worshipper.

The Epics The Bhagavad Gita and The Ramayana, remain two of the most influential writings in Hinduism. They remain hugely popular today, and their impact upon Indian culture cannot be overstated (note 1).

The Mahabharata, or Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty, is 1.8 million words divided into 18 books, or parvans, and the most substantial single work of literature in existence, and perhaps the most unstructured and chaotic (note 2). Elements of the Mahabharata may date back to pre-Vedic times around 800 BC, though it probably reached its final form about 500 AD, a time when Hinduism was moving from Vedic sacrificial ritual towards sectarianism with the growing popularity of Saivism, Vaishnavism and Shaktism. Tradition has the entire epic authored by the sage Vyasa, but it is unlikely the work of one individual (note 3).

The Bhagavad Gita or “Song of the Lord” is found in chapters 23 to 40 of Book VI of The Mahabharata. The Gita, as it is popularly known, is a priceless collection of divinely inspired metaphors with many levels of meaning. Perhaps composed around 100 BC, the Gita is relatively brief at 700 verses in 18 chapters and a little more than a fifth of the Mahabharata’s text. As to its other non-Gita content, the Mahabharata reveals early Vaisnava theology, particularly regarding Krishna, and a vast quantity of mythological and instructional material regarding dharma, the moral law supporting society and the universe, as well as svadharma, or individual dharma, which varies according to specific circumstances such as age, gender, place in society, or whether or not that person is seeking moksha or liberation from samsara and rebirth. The wisdom found within the Mahabharata is fundamental to Hindus as a guide to leading a virtuous life, which may be why it is often referred to as ‘The Fifth Veda”.

The Gita’s epic tale takes the form of a conversation between Prince Arjuna and Krishna, Vishnu’s seventh incarnation, on a battlefield before fighting commences (note 4). The battle will decide who will be the next king of Bharata (note 5), Arjuna’s brother or his paternal cousin. Arjuna is torn between his belief in non-violence (ahimsa) and his role as a warrior going into battle against his cousins, friends and teachers. He turns to his friend and charioteer, Krishna, for counsel (note 6) and as their conversation progresses, Krishna reveals himself as divine. Their discussion soon rises to a general discourse on theosophical matters with particular emphasis upon the importance of following one’s Dharma, or social duty. Krishna tells the warrior;

  •  he needs to remain faithful to his personal dharma, or svadharma,
  • Arjuna’s soul, or Atman, will not be destroyed when he dies,
  • his salvation depends upon his knowledge (jnana), work and devotion (Bhakti), and
  • Arjuna’s first loyalty is to God.

These points are expanded upon as the two friends discuss Arjuna’s ethical dilemma. Krishna tells him he must fight detached from the results of his actions and within the rules of the warriors’ dharma. Indeed, not to act according to one’s dharma is wrong. With the right understanding, one need not renounce actions but merely the desire (kama) for the fruits of actions, acting without desire (nishkama karma). Of course, Krishna isn’t speaking to only Arjuna; he is speaking to us all.

By directing Hindus to fulfil their dharma (“better one’s duty ill-done than another’s well-performed. Gita 3:35), the Bhagavadgita bridges the gap between ascetic practice as a path to liberation (Moksha), on the one hand, and life’s daily reality on the other. For those who must live in the world, the Bhagavad Gita gives a moral code and hope for final liberation (Moksha) from the endless cycle of birth, pointless life, death and rebirth. Because God is in all beings as their physical and metaphysical essence, and because God exists collectively in human society, a Hindu should see no difference between themselves and others. They should know that God’s presence in others obliges them to nurture the wellbeing of both individuals and society.

Krishna introduces the philosophy of Samkhya yoga where soul and matter are separate, therefore when the body dies, the Atman will either transmigrate through rebirth or, for those who understand The Vedas, achieve either union with God (Moksha) or extinction (Nirvana). Either way, they are liberated from the wheel of rebirth (Samsara).

Throughout their discussion, Arjuna begins to suspect his friend Krishna may be a god and asks his friend to reveal his true cosmic nature. Krishna gives Arjuna divine sight before assuming Vishvarupa, his universal form, with innumerable forms, eyes, faces, mouths and arms. He is the infinite universe, without beginning or end. Unable to bear the sight, and quaking with fear, Arjuna begs Krishna to return to his previous form, which the god consents to do, resuming his role as his friend.

With Prince Arjuna’s mind clear about what he must do, the battle commences and after culminating in a series of horrific struggles over 18 days on the field of Kurukshetra (about 100 miles northwest of present-day Delhi), only Arjuna, his four brothers and Krishna survive (note 7).

These few paragraphs are a gross oversimplification of Krishna’s contribution to Hinduism in the Gita, just as it unfairly glosses over a dramatic storyline and some very interesting participants. Here’s a link to the complete Bhagavad Gita;

The Ramayana. Tradition has the Ramayana composed by the poet Valmiki between 700 and 500 BC and consists of over 24,000 couplets divided into 500 or so chapters over seven books. The oldest copy was recently discovered and dates from the 6th century AD. Should you wish to read The Ramayana in English, The Beauty of the Valmiki Ramayana by Bibek Debroy is critically acclaimed.

The Ramayana tells the story of Rama, the 7th incarnation of Vishnu, who chose to be born into the powerful royal family of Ayodhya of north India. His stepmother, Kaikeyi, plots against him and, to settle a dispute over succession, Rama renounces his claim and accompanied by his bride, Sita, and younger brother Lakshmana, exile themselves from court, where the three live a simple life in the forest for fourteen years. One day Soorpanka, a rakshasa (demon princess), tries to seduce Rama. Lakshmana attacks her, cutting off her ears, nose and breasts. Soorpanka returns to her brother Ravana, the ten-headed ruler of Lanka and after hearing about Sita’s incomparable beauty, Ravana sends one of his demons disguised as a magical golden deer to entice her. Sita sees the deer and asks Rama to capture it for her as a pet. Rama agrees, but before he and Lakshmana leave to chase the deer, draw a protective circle around Sita and tell her, she will be safe as long as she does not step outside the circle. Rama and Lakshmana chase the deer for miles before realizing it’s a trap. After Rama and Lakshmana leave, Ravana appears as a holy man begging alms. The moment Sita steps outside the circle to give him food, Ravana grabs her and carries her off to his kingdom in Lanka. Over the next 14 months, Ravana attempts to seduce Sita but is spurned.

Naturally, Rama and Lakshmana set out to rescue Sita, and in the forests of Kikinda, meet Hanuman, the powerful general of a monkey army. Hanuman’s father is the wind which enables the monkey general to fly to Lanka and find Sita sitting in a grove. Hanuman comforts her, telling her Rama will soon come to save her. Ravana’s men capture Hanuman, and Ravana orders them to wrap Hanuman’s tail in cloth and to set it on fire. Hanuman escapes and, hopping from housetop to housetop, sets Lanka on fire before flying back to Rama with Sita’s whereabouts.

Rama, Lakshmana and Hanuman’s monkey army build a causeway from the tip of India to Lanka and cross over for an epic battle. Rama kills several of Ravana’s brothers and eventually confronts the ten-headed Ravana.

He kills Ravana and frees Sita but is concerned she has been unfaithful during her long captivity. As the dutiful wife, Sita undergoes a trial by fire to prove her chastity (note 8). Rama takes her back (note 9), and they return to rule Ayodhya.

Note 1 – In 1987-8, it is said that India came to a complete standstill whenever a TV episode of the Ramayana was aired.

Note 2 – In 1919 a project was undertaken by the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute to distill the available copies of The Mahabharata into one Critical Edition

Note 3 – One of the Mahabharata’s origin myths says the holy sage, Vyasa, dictated the Mahabharata to Ganesha, who, when his pen broke, snapped off the tip of one of his tusks to serve as a pen to keep the dictation flowing.

Note 4 – Scholars put the date of the battle at around 3000 BC, but this is conjecture as no evidence outside The Gita has been found. 

Note 5 – “Bharata” is synonymous with the term “India.” Indians will often think of themselves as a native of Bharata. 

Note 6 – Whenever demons threaten the stability of the social order, Vishnu incarnates down to earth as a mortal being. Arjuna, at this point, is unaware that his friend and charioteer is Vishnu’s seventh incarnation and therefore divine.

Note 7 – Remember, Krishna was born human and will therefore die. Which is exactly what happened 36 years after the battle when he is mistaken for a deer by a hunter. The arrow hits him in his only vulnerable spot, his heel, and if this sounds familiar, the same fate befell Achilles in Homer’s Illiad. The similarities between the two epics may not be coincidental; there was a great deal of back and forth between classical Greece and India, and it’s entirely possible a copy of The Gita was on Homer’s bookshelf. 

Note 8 – The fire sacrifice is very likely the oldest form of Vedic worship though rather than sacrificing humans, symbolic offerings were – and are – made instead. A possible exception could be the practice of suttee where a wife would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. Although never widely practiced, among the elites suttee was held to be the epitome of wifely devotion. Suttee has been linked to the myth of the goddess Sati, who burned herself to death in a fire she created through the heat of her yogic power after her father insulted her husband, Shiva. Sati was reborn as Uma/Parvati.

Note 9 – Sita’s role in the Ramayana has historically been held up as the feminine ideal; modest, chaste, innocent and dutiful. The cultural importance of this epic tale and other parables has moulded the feminine role in marriage and society at large for centuries. However, in modern India, Sita, as the wifely role model, is increasingly out of date though in the rural areas in particular there remains a very long way to go.

The Puranas and Epics – That Which is Remembered 2019-11-08T05:36:09-08:00

Krishna – The Philosopher King

Krishna – The Philosopher King

Krishna is as well-loved today as he was in the time of the Cholas. However, it is Murugan, Shiva and Uma’s second son, who fulfills the role of eternally youthful hero, protector, philosopher, teacher and friend in south India. Krishna as Supreme Being is a sect popular in the north, entirely separate from the Vaishnavite belief that Vishnu is supreme, and has spread worldwide with the Hare Krishna movement. 

Krishna is Vishnu’s eighth incarnation, unique in that he chose to be born as a mortal as a newborn. Krishna was exchanged at birth with a cowherd’s daughter to escape the clutches of an evil demon king, Kamsa (note 1). Childhood stories tell of his mischievous nature, but also illustrate the close bond between Krishna and his foster mother, Yashoda. Young Krishna spent a happy life with his foster parents playing boyish pranks (often including butter theft) (note 2), and later as a youth when he used his flute to seduce village girls (gopis) (notes 3 and 4). His favourite was Radha, his foster sister and childhood lover, although they did not marry. Theirs was a pure love and came to symbolize the unconditional love between devotee and deity; a relationship related closely to Bhakti, an intimate, personal devotion to one’s chosen deity.  

According to mythology, Krishna was not only divine but heroic as well. As a boy, he defeated the snake king, Kaliya when the serpent poisoned the Yamuna River. In the epic poem ‘Mahabharata’ he helps the Pandavas against the Kauravas, two families in a war of succession. In the poem, Krishna is depicted as divine charioteer to the troubled hero, Arjuna, as Krishna delivers his celebrated treatise ‘Bhagavad-Gita’ on life and dharma. This speech persuaded Arjuna that it was his duty, his Dharma, to fight against his kinsmen.

Krishna is depicted as the beautiful smiling youth with skin the colour of the sky, plays the flute, wearing a peacock feather in his curly black hair and a flower garland around his neck. 

Note 1 – Many respected scholars accept that Krishna was an actual person, living in the period between 3200 and 3100 BCE.

Note 2 – As a playful tot, he is known as Balakrishna.

Note 3 – In his cow herding, flute playing aspect he is known as Venugopala B-VNST21 and B-VNS28.

Note 4 – Divine playfulness (Lila) is an important concept in Hindu mythology which not only as it applies to Krishna but other gods as well. Depending on which deity is believed to be Supreme Being, the world is created simply because it is that deity’s will. It is God at play. 

Krishna – The Philosopher King2019-11-07T17:41:38-08:00


Murugan – The Warrior Prince

Murugan is the second son to Shiva and Uma after Ganesha and the most masculine and fierce of the Hindu pantheon (note 1). Murugan is often referred to as God of the Tamils and is arguably the most popular deity in south India (note 2). As revered general of Shiva’s armies, Murugan is the beautiful and eternally youthful bestower of blessings. 

Murugan’s origins are probably a composite of the north Indian warrior god, Skanda, and an ancient Tamil hero, Subrahmanya. His mythology is told in the Skanda Purana which tells mostly of his birth and youth. The following is one of many legends of his conception; 

“Once married, Shiva and Uma honeymoon at Shiva’s home atop Mount Kailash. Their lovemaking shakes the cosmos, and the gods become fearful, wondering what a child born of two such powerful deities will be like. Led by Vishnu, the entourage travels to Kailash and wait patiently for the newlyweds to emerge. Many years pass yet Shiva and Uma continue as before. Agni (God of Fire) disguises himself as a dove and enters the bedchamber. Uma reacts. Shiva withdraws. A drop of his semen falls to the floor. Agni eats the drop. Uma is enraged at the interruption and curses the gods so that all their wives would be barren. Agni, meanwhile, is unable to bear the heat of Shiva’s fiery seed and flies to the banks of the Ganges to cool off. This particular location happens to be where wives of seven sages have come to bathe (note 3). They’re feeling cold and approach the heat. Agni drops the seed, and it enters the wives, who become pregnant. When the sages find out they scold their wives, who place the embryo on a Himalayan peak. Thus is born Murugan. Shiva and Uma are delighted. Murugan’s six mothers are smitten by the newborn baby god and argue amongst themselves over who is to breastfeed him. Murugan solves the problem by creating five additional faces, one for each of his mothers.”

Murugan’s first wife is Devasena, daughter of Indra through an arranged marriage, and she represents heaven. His second wife, Valli, the gypsy huntress, he keeps hidden in the hills. She represents Earth and theirs was a love match. The characteristics of his wives complete Murugan as he spends his time equally on earth and in heaven.

In Murugan’s iconography, he is dressed as a warrior with 12 arms, each hand holding an attribute, most of them weapons, such as Vel, the lance given to him by his mother, Uma. His vehicle (vahana) is Paravani, a blue peacock, who often holds a serpent in its claws symbolizing the destruction of ego.

Note 1 – Murugan is also known in the south as Karthikeya, Subrahmanyan, Shanmughan and Swaminathan; in northern India, Skanda, Kumara, or Karttikeya.

Note 2 – Three of the six busiest and richest temples in south India are dedicated to him.

Note 3 – The seven wives are said to be the seven stars of the Pleiades cluster, also known as The Little Dipper. 


Shiva – The Destroyer

Shiva – The Destroyer

Shiva’s nature is as complex and mysterious as Hinduism itself. He is Tripurantaka, Destroyer of Cities, yet also the serene Adiyogi, Lord of Yoga, gentle, generous and benevolent, residing within everyone as pure consciousness. Perhaps it is this wild, unpredictable nature which led orthodox Vedic tradition to favour Vishnu over Shiva, but in south India it is The Auspicious One who inspires the most ardent devotion (note 1).

In addition to Tripurantaka and Adiyogi, Shiva manifests in many different forms. He is Somaskanda, loving husband to Uma and father to sons Ganesha and Murugan; Ardhnarishvara, half-male half-female, embodying the cosmic duality of male and female principles; Dhakshina, Lord of the South and Great Teacher; Veenadhara the Lord of Music; and Bhikshatana, the Enchanting Mendicant (ascetic beggar).

However it is Shiva as Nataraja, The Great Lord of Dance which is his most widely known manifestation and it is in this form he is most ardently worshipped. As Nata (dance) Raja (lord), Shiva dances the ecstatic cosmic dance during which he performs the five essential acts as creator, preserver, eradicator of ignorance, bestower of reassurance, and ultimate destroyer (note 2). 

Many of Hinduism’s most important concepts, as well as several of its spiritual, ascetic, tantric and ritual traditions, derive from early Saivite belief and practice. As a manifestation of Brahman, the Ultimate Reality, Shiva exists on a higher plane, although he graciously takes human form from time to time, enabling devotees to make darshan (a visual connection) or to facilitate Bhakti (personal devotion). Shiva is an imposing sight in his physical form. He is covered in the ashes of the cremation ground, symbolic of his outsider status in the pantheon, the dreadlocks of his ascetic role as Lord of Yoga are knotted atop his head, adorned with a crescent moon, a skull, wild cassia blossoms, and a tiny figure of the goddess Ganga (note 3). In his forehead, Shiva’s vertically placed third eye indicates fiery energy (note 4). Wrapped around his waist is a tiger skin, while serpents representing his power over death, coil around his arms. Nataraja projects immense cosmic power as he bestows a delicate abhaya of grace and reassurance; “Fear not, I am here.”  Justifiably this iconic icon has come to represent more than Shiva as Lord of Dance but Indian spirituality as a whole. Though the concept originated with the Pallavas in the fifth century, it was Chola’s artists and craftsmen under royal patronage who brought Nataraja to life in the 11th century.   

While his human form varies widely according to his manifestation, within the innermost sanctum of Saivite temples, it is the lingam, Shiva’s non-figurative pillar-like symbol, which universally represents the eternal Shiva. The lingam is often depicted with a horizontal disk encircling the base representing Shakti, the Divine Goddess, and also serves to collect the libations poured upon it in worship.

Shiva acting alone may perform his cosmic acts protecting the world from evil, but it is only in combination with divine female energy in the various forms of Shakti, the Great Goddess that He bestows grace upon the individual soul. In Hinduism, and indeed in most ancient religions, female and male energy is considered interconnected and interdependent; two halves of the divine whole. In a temple setting, sculptures of Shiva as Nataraja are always accompanied by Uma. In the metaphysical sense, she completes him.

In the Saivite holy family, Shiva and his consort, Uma, have two sons, Ganesha and Murugan and each with their ardent following. While the elephant-headed, Ganesha, is well-loved throughout India, it is Murugan who is known as the God of the Tamils.  

Note 1 – Shiva’s devotees, known as Saivites, often wear three vertical stripes upon their foreheads, symbolic of Shiva’s trident, or trishula. A red dot denotes Shakti energy. As a bindi, this red dot is often worn on a woman’s forehead for the same reason. 

Note 2 – Nataraja is popularly known as Shiva the Destroyer, though to think of Shiva as ’destroyer’ in the contemporary sense misses the essence of Nataraja’s role. Dictionaries define ‘destroy’ as ending the existence of something, yet according to Indian philosophy, nothing ceases to exist. The cosmos and everything in it exists in a circular state, transforming from one state to another in an eternal cycle of creation, existence and re-creation. Shiva’s role is of critical importance in this Cosmic Cycle, this Wheel of Time. He is its agent of transformation, without which Brahma would have nothing from which to Create and Vishnu would have nothing to Preserve. To use contemporary terms, Nataraja might better be described as Shiva the Resetter, or possibly Shiva the Cosmic Rebooter. If this concept sounds like the Big Bang Theory, you’re not alone. 

“Hundreds of years ago, Indian artists created visual images of dancing Shivas in a beautiful series of bronzes. In our time, physicists have used the most advanced technology to portray the patterns of the cosmic dance. The metaphor of the cosmic dance thus unifies ancient mythology, religious art and modern physics.”

Fritjof Capra; “The Tao of Physics

Note 3 – A figure of the goddess Ganga, the personification of the Ganges River, refers to the story of how this celestial river originally fell to earth in a torrent, but Shiva agreed to break its descent by catching it in his hair.

Note 4 – One of the many tales of Shiva and Uma tells of Uma playfully approaching Shiva from behind and covering his eyes with her hands. Suddenly darkness engulfed the entire world, and all were in fear, god and mortals. Suddenly a massive tongue of flame leapt from the forehead of Shiva, a third eye appeared, and the light was restored to the world. Another legend has the god, Kama (roughly equivalent to the Greek god Eros, or cupid) approaching Shiva as He was deep in meditation with the aim of facilitating a connection with a yearning  Uma. Startled out of his contemplation, Shiva incinerated the hapless Kama with fire from his third eye.

Shiva – The Destroyer2019-11-07T16:52:25-08:00
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