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Hindu Mythology

Hindu Mythology

Hindu Mythology is a large body of traditional narratives related to Hinduism , notably as contained in Sanskrit literature , (such as the Sanskrit epics and the Puranas ) 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.


Hindu religion is more philosophy than doctrine. There is no authoritative hierarchy of clergy; the religion is highly decentralized with multiple sects, perfectly acceptable to Hinduism (in contrast to the regrettable divisions within Christianity). The Hindu claim that there are different paths for each person.

A practical definition of Hinduism: performing the duty (dharma) of one's stage in life and social status (caste).

The essence of the Hindu vision of reality lies in the tension between dharma (social duty or righteousness) and moksha (release from the material world, final liberation from the endless cycles of rebirth). Both these perspectives, the world-supporting and the world-denying, are necessary to fulfill human destiny.

Other important terms :

  • karma = moral law of cause and effect (deeds of past lives determine present)
  • samsara = rebirth according to the nature of a person's karma; what we are now is the sum of all we have done in the past.

Dharma and caste

Dharma means fulfilling one's duty in one's station in life, which is determined by birth not merit. Each person is born into a distinct caste, depending on the karma from the past lives. There is no crossing over or intermingling from one caste to another, as this would disrupt the social order. Brahmins are the highest caste because they have faithfully executed their duty in a previous life; lower castes must have served society poorly to be born into their caste, but if they perform their duty in this life, they have hope of being reborn to a higher caste. Thus dharma focuses on maintaining social and cosmic stability.

The caste system is supported by the Rig Veda myth of the giant Purusha from whose head brahmins were created, nobles and warriors from his arms, farmers and merchants from his stomach, and servants from his feet, an example of how mythology preserves the values of a society by rooting present practice in the ancient past, but also it can be seen as a means of maintaining the status quo to the benefit of those in power.

BRAHMAN, the one true reality

BRAHMAN is the spiritual essence underlying all reality, is the only reality. All gods and the world are only aspects of BRAHMAN, only an illusion in comparison to the one reality. This is the insight of the Upanishads, recognizing an ultimate unity in the multiplicity of gods and all life.

  • note: BRAHMAN (which I write with all caps) is not the same as the creator Brahma, nor should it be confused with the highest caste of Brahmins (not all texts make these distinctions in spelling so it becomes confusing at times).

BRAHMAN is one, limitless, impersonal, indefinable, without qualities, eternal, unchanging, inactive (complete in itself thus no need to act).

BRAHMAN is present in all people in the form of the atman or soul. We must realize that BRAHMAN and atman are one, that our essential self transcends our individuality, our limitations, even our death; this realization brings release (moksha) from illusion. Seeing the world as full of particulars, individuals with egos acting in competition, life as diversity and change -- all this is maya (illusion).

Release (moksha) from the endless cycles of illusion does not mean "non-being" (a Western concept). In Hindu thought, existence in this world is characterized by the illusion of polarities (good/evil, light/dark, male/female, being/nonbeing) whereas BRAHMAN is beyond these distinctions.

Cycles of time

There are four ages (called yugas):

  • The first lasts 1,728,000 years
  • The second lasts 1,296,000 years
  • The third lasts 864,000 years
  • The fourth lasts 432,000 years (this last age is Kali yuga, our present age beginning 5000 years ago)

Each age sees a decline in virtue (dharma) from the previous. As told in one parable, in the first golden age, dharma stood on four legs like a table, but in the second age it stood only on three, in the third age on two, and now in the present age only on one, thus all but one fourth of the world's virtue has vanished in the present age.

These four ages, as lengthy as they may seem, are only a small part of the great cycle of time:

  • 4 ages = one mahayuga (great age), 4,320,000 yrs, after which creation will rest (return to a state of non-differentiation) for one mahayuga.

  • 1000 mahayugas = one day of Brahma (or one kalpa), 4,320,000,000 years, after which Brahma sleeps and creation rests for one kalpa.

  • Brahma's lifetime = 100 years of his days and nights: 4.32 billion x 365 x 2 x 100 = 311 trillion yrs, after which Shiva dances, all things including Brahma dissolve and nothing exists for an equivalent time, then it all begins again.

Against such immense scale, one single lifetime becomes insignificant.



Sources of Hindu Mythology


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 .
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.

Itihasa and Puranas

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 30,000 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.

Cosmogony and Cosmology


The cosmogonic myths of the Hindus are peculiarly interesting, as we find in the Vedas and Brahmanas and Puranas. 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 tells us 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.

The Nature of Time

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.

Hindu Pantheon


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 because he was not invited to it. Shiva 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. For his visit to the pine forest Shiva wears the guise of a naked ash-smeared ascetic, but he uses the occasion to seduce, or attempt to seduce, the wives of the forest sages. As a result, either of the sages’ curse or of his own action, Shiva is castrated and his phallus, or linga, becomes fixed in the earth. The stylized stone linga, mounted on an equally stylized vulva, or yoni, has become the central image of Saiva worship and serves as the dual symbol of the god’s creative and ascetic power.
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 the shakti, the strength and potency of her male counterpart. As one individual goddess, Devi may be seen as subordinated to Shiva as one of his wives. Or, 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 subordinated 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-Chamunda, who drinks up the blood of the demon Raktabija (bloody seed), whose blood was the seed of more demons.

Lesser Gods

As well as Vishnu, Shiva and Durga, many other 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).
Some gods 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.

Demigods and Spirits

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 taught the Southerners religion and culture. 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 (‘goblins’) 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.

Wars of Hindu mythology

Wars between the gods and the Asuras (Devasura Yuddha)

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.


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.


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