This article is a chapter from the book A Short History of Religious and Philosophic Thought in India.
The contemplation of the Absolute is the highest form any religion can take. But this enterprise of the mind requires of it an understanding of the universal situation far beyond normal human comprehension. The popular minds of the masses need a religion they can appreciate and absorb into their daily life, and they demand a religious goal which they can intelligibly plant in the soil of their feelings. The Epics and Puranas have the avowed purpose of providing the average man with a religion which he can practise with ease and confidence. It is almost impossible to visualise the transcendental Being of the Upanishads. Its manifestations in terms of Creation alone seem to be possibly accessible to the common mind. God as related to the Universe in the various phases of his revelation becomes the theme of the theological teachings and discourses in the Puranas, risen out of the subjects dealt with in the Epics, especially the Mahabharata.
The theology of the Puranas mainly centres round the Trinity,–Vishnu, Brahma and Siva,–as also the incarnations of Vishnu and the Saktis of the Trinity,–Lakshmi, Sarasvati and Durga,–and the two sons of Siva.
Though the worship of the gods and goddesses had its origin in the Epics, and the Puranas only amplify the religious aspect of this manifold adoration of God, there is some difference between the Epic concept of these divinities and its religious magnification in the Puranas. The Epics, for example, look upon the three gods as on an equal footing and the notion of superiority or inferiority among them is a development later than the time of the Epics. The Epic religion is thus more catholic and dignified and it appears to be the first movement of the religious ideology descended from the notion of the Universal Being of the Upanishads. It is likely that there have been several intereferences with the contents of the Puranas from zealots of the religious dogma which diversified itself into many cults and creeds as time advanced. In our treatment of the nature of the different gods of the Indian pantheon, we shall confine ourselves to what, in our opinion, is the genuine essence of the religious ideal behind these developments of religious thought, as prior to and different from the subsequent degradations of the purely spiritual religion of the Upanishads and the Epics into various sectarian ramifications in the form of cults of segregated and even contending gods. As it is in the case of every religion in the world, certain sections of Hinduism had their own immature and fanatical adherents who tended to bring about an ideological dissension among people, rather than unify hearts into a single whole of spiritual fervour, which is the central aim of religion.
According to the Epics, the primeval God from whom the Universe emanated through the creative will is Narayana, a term signifying, according to these texts, the divine being who reposes on the universal waters of the primordial condition of the Universe, or one who is the goal, ideal and destination of all individuals. There are references which make out that Narayana is prior to the division of the phases of God into Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, though, later on, Narayana got slowly identified with Vishnu. It is this identification that has been the source of disagreement among the Vaishnavas and Saivas as to the nomenclature of the One God, the one group asserting that it is Vishnu and the other affirming that it is Siva. It does not appear that originally the scripture had any intention of giving rise to a contention between the devotees of Vishnu and Siva, because this difference seems to be a later travesty of an initially great religious urge to name the original God. As we have noticed earlier, the Upanishads, at least the older ones, do not designate God by any name that would create a sense of partiality in the minds of the followers of religion. As it was found that the popular mind could not grasp the too lofty concept of the Upanishads, the Epics attempted to make God’s relation to man more personal, so that the human heart may yearn for him through its own limited feelings for the Creator. Though the word ‘Brahman’ is retained both in the Epics and the Puranas as an epithet of the Supreme Being, and the supermental glory of God is still sung in the spirit and tone of the Upanishads, the need for making religion a practical affair of day-to-day life was a greater concern of these later scriptures than merely an enunciation of Truth as it is. In addition to the term Brahman, God is now addressed and referred to as ‘Paramatman’, ‘Purusha’, ‘Ishvara’, ‘Bhagavan’, and the like. The name ‘Narayana’, therefore, as applied to God was not meant to be in opposition to the possibility of God being called ‘Siva’. The bigoted differences of later times in religious policies and practices were due to a gross anthropomorphism of the idea of God and a bringing down of the higher God-ideal into the lower rung of a humanised God whom ardent followers were eager to utilise as an instrument in fulfilling their own pious wishes circumscribed to a nationality, a community, or even a single family. Religion, thus, got diluted into petty, private notions and communal cults which ended many a time in battles and wars, a consequence which is far from the religious ideal, as the poles of the earth standing apart. The name Narayana may be safely taken to be an impartial reference to the Supreme Creator, as larger than and prior to the manifestations of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, and not affiliated to the specialised Vaishnava doctrine in any way. This non-dogmatic attitude is substantiated by the descriptions of God in the Srimad-Bhagavata. God may equally be called Paramasiva, in the terminology of some of the Puranas. The Supreme Being, for the sake of sustenance of the world, appears as Brahma, Vishnu and Siva,–Brahma creating, Vishnu preserving and Siva, as Rudra, destroying everything in the end. It is this Supreme Narayana who is hymned in the Purusha-Sukta and the Narayana-Sukta of the Veda.
Vishnu is hailed as having his abode in Vaikuntha, with his consort, Lakshmi. The Vishnu Purana describes Narayana and Lakshmi as an inseparable reality, the one not capable of being distinguished from the other. In a sense, Lakshmi is inherent in Narayana as his Sakti or energy. He reposes on the great serpent, Mahasesha, who is regarded as the support of the whole earth. Vaikuntha is situated in the Milk-Ocean (Kshira-Sagara). Vishnu’s weapons (Astras) are the discus or Chakra called Sudarsana, the mace called Kaumodaki, the bow called Saranga and the sword called Nandaka. His powerful conch is called Panchajanya. The weapons of the Lord, called Astras, are mystically driven forces, as different from the ordinary weapons known to the world, which are called Sastras. The Astras are not material instruments but powers that can be directed by even a thought or will. Garuda, the bird, is the vehicle of Vishnu. The Lord, as the protector of the Universe, incarnates himself now and then for the welfare of everyone, through the establishment of Dharma in the course of time. From the navel of Narayana, which is described as a huge lotus, issued forth Brahma.
According to the Pancharatra doctrine, God is manifest in five forms. These are called Para or the supreme form of his transcendent being; Vyuha or the group of his forms called Vasudeva, Sankarshana, Pradyumna and Aniruddha, who may be compared to the cosmic consciousness, the cosmic intellect, the cosmic mind, and the cosmic ego respectively; Vibhava or his glory seen through his incarnations or Avataras; Archa or his presence manifest in his idols and images worshipped by devotees; and Antaryamin or his immanent presence within the Universe.
The Avataras of Vishnu are many. In the Srimad-Bhagavata at least twenty-two are named, of which ten are the famous incarnations, called Dasavataras. As is declared in the Bhagavadgita, the Lord incarnates himself whenever there is decline of righteousness and a rise of unrighteousness, for the sake of the protection of the good and the righteous and putting down evil and wrong. For the establishment of truth and justice he reveals himself in forms suitable to the occasion. Among the Avataras, there are full revelations of Divinity called Purna-Avatara and partial revelations of it called Amsavatara or Kalavatara. Sri Krishna, according to the Bhagavata, was a Purna-Avatara or complete manifestation of God.
Among the incarnations of Vishnu, which are not included among the ten important ones, we should particularly make mention of a famous Divine manifestation in the forms of Narayana and Nara, who are said to have appeared again as Krishna and Arjuna for the benefit of the world. The spiritual power and glory of Narayana and Nara is extolled to great heights in the Epics and Puranas. The Mahabharata says that their radiance and glory overshadowed even the greatness of Brahma, the Creator. The Epic sings that their lustre fills the whole world and reaches the heavens, that they glow like fire and are invincible in all creation. They are bright like the sun, strong like the wind, lustrous like fire, and beautiful like the moon, says the Mahabharata. Their power was partly revealed when king Dambhodbhava challenged them for battle, and when Indra with his retinue tried to seduce them from their austerities. Dambhodbhava was overthrown most humiliatingly and Indra made to hang his head in shame.
The Matsya Avatara, or the incarnation as the Fish, was assumed by Vishnu for saving Manu and the seven sages from the raging flood at the end of the Manvantara and rescuing the Vedas from destruction in the cataclysm. As the Kurma Avatara, or incarnation as the Tortoise, Vishnu supported the Mount Mandara on his back when it was used as a churning rod by the gods for recovering Amrita or the celestial nectar, and many other treasures which were lost in the cosmic ocean at the time of Pralaya. In the Varaha Avatara, or the incarnation as the Boar, Vishnu slew the demon Hiranyaksha and lifted the earth sunk in the cosmic ocean. As Narasimha, or the Man-Lion, Vishnu destroyed Hiranyakasipu, in spite of the latter’s having received the protection of boons from Brahma, against death through the celestials, men and animals, both during the day and night, and from weapons of every kind. Unfortunately for Hiranyakasipu, Narasimha was neither god, man nor animal, for he bore the head of a lion and the body of man and tore the Asura with nails which were not any weapon, at dusk, which was neither day nor night. Bursting from a pillar with the sound of the thunderbolt, Vishnu, as Narasimha, proved his immanence even in material objects. The day of the revelation of Narasimha (Narasimha-Jayanti) is observed by devotees on the 14th day of the bright half of the month of Vaisakha (about the month of May). As Vamana or the Dwarf, Vishnu strode the three worlds with his three steps, covering the whole universe with his body, and overcame Bali, the Asura king, consigning him to the nether regions. As Parasurama, or Rama with the axe, Vishnu came to rid the earth of the arrogant Kshatriyas who had overstepped the limits of decency and good conduct and had become a menace to all righteous life. He raged round the world twenty-one times, like a fierce fire, and destroyed the Kshatriya race with his invincible axe. In the Rama Avatara, or incarnation as Rama, Vishnu set the great example of Dharma on earth.
It is the glorious history of Rama that is the theme of the great epic of Valmiki. Rama, the son of king Dasaratha, became an embodiment of the perfection of all virtues and an ideal of every conceivable quality of goodness. Valmiki, in his magnificent poetry, describes Rama as a repository of strength, self-restraint, fortitude, understanding, power of expression, extreme fineness of demeanour, and as a protector of all and saviour of Dharma, learned in all the scriptures and all the arts, dignified like the ocean, majestic like the Himalayas, world-destroying fire in times of anger, and the very earth itself in forgiveness. Rama is portrayed as one with raised chest, long arms, rounded head, graceful forehead, of symmetrical limbs, attractive colour, broad eyes, and most beautiful. His bow is Kodanda, and the surety of the action of his arrows is proverbial as the ‘Rama-Bana’. Under the instigation of the youngest queen of the king, the arrangements for Rama’s coronation were foiled, and to fulfil a promise made by the father to this queen, Rama repaired to the forest, as a good son, whom his brother Lakshmana and consort Sita followed. It was in the forest that Rama had to encounter the Rakshasas or demons, who were a threat to the peaceful life of the Rishis, the chief of the Rakshasas being Ravana. The occasion for a war with the Rakshasas as a whole was the recovery of Sita from the custody of Ravana, who had managed to carry away Sita stealthily from the forest, while she was alone, and with this end in view, Rama made alliance with Sugriva, the monkey king, who was in a similar predicament due to his defeat at the hands of his brother, Vali. Rama helped Sugriva in destroying Vali on the understanding that Sugriva would make necessary arrangements for a search of the lost Sita. A great hero in the Ramayana, next only to Rama, was Hanuman, the minister of Sugriva. Hanuman’s strength is a byword in every home, and his great feat of jumping over the ocean to Lanka, the capital of Ravana, expanding himself to a gigantic size, is exquisitely described in the charming poetry of Valmiki, making one’s hair stand on ends. His heroic deeds in Lanka, his valour that struck terror even to the undaunted Ravana, and his unselfishness, servicefulness, self-restraint and wisdom have made Hanuman an immortal son of India, whose glories are sung even today by thousands of devotees in the land. Hanuman is recognised as one of the Chiranjivis or those who do not die till the end of the world.
When the war with Ravana ended on his death at the hands of Rama, and Sita was recovered, Rama returned to Ayodhya and was installed king. Rama’s exemplary rule is called ‘Ramarajya’. Valmiki says that during Rama’s reign there were no widows, no fear from wild animals, no disease, no anxiety due to wicked people, no calamity of any kind, no child ever died, and all were happy because Dharma ruled the earth. There was no mutual enmity among people and everyone was free from sorrow. Everywhere people talked about Rama’s greatness. Rama’s name filled the whole country when he ruled as king. The Avatara of Vishnu as Rama was intended to set an ideal before humanity, an example of perfection that man can ever reach morally, intellectually, materially and spiritually, even when living a social life in the world. The birth of Rama is observed on the 9th day of the bright half of the month of Chaitra (March-April), as ‘Ramanavami’.
It is commonly believed that while Vishnu came as Rama to demonstrate human perfection, he came as Krishna to exhibit divine perfection. There is a marked difference between the ideal and the conduct which these two Avataras taught and revealed in the world of men. While Rama is Maryada-Purushottama, God setting forth the ideal of discipline, law, conduct and righteousness, Krishna is Lila-Purushottama, God playing the divine sport of his transcendent and supermental magnificence, glory and perfection in the world of mortals.
Narayana and Nara, the great sages who are supposed to be performing eternal penance in the holy shrine of Badrikashrama (modem Badrinath), and who are the representations of Vishnu’s presence on earth, are regarded to have taken birth as Krishna and Arjuna, respectively, for the redemption of the world from sin and evil. Krishna, who is considered to be the Purna-Avatara (full incarnation) of Vishnu or, according to some, of the Universal Narayana who transcends even Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, revealed himself in Mathura as the child of Vasudeva and Devaki. We need not go into details of the miraculous and dramatic events of his early life in Vrindavana, such as the spontaneous opening of the gates of the prison where Vasudeva and Devaki were confined; the ebbing of the river Yamuna when Vasudeva tried to cross it with the child Krishna; the destruction of Putana and other Asuras like Sakata, Trinavarta, Vatsa, Dhenuka, Baka, Agha, Pralamba, Kesi, Chanura and Kamsa at the hands of the boy Krishna; the release of the sons of Kubera from their curse due to which they were born as trees; his self-multiplication as thousands of cows, calves and cowherds in place of the real ones that were lost; the subjugation of the serpent Kaliya; the swallowing of the forest fire; the lifting of the Govardhana mountain and the humiliation of Indra; the bringing back of the dead sons of Sandipani; and several other incidents of this nature which revealed the divinity of Krishna even at an early age. The most intriguing and significant incident in the early life of Krishna is what has been called the Rasalila or his love-dance with the Gopis of Vrindavana. Commentators have tried to interpret the romantic seeking of Krishna by the Gopis and his response to their search in a dalliance that surpasses understanding as the eternal quest of objects for the Universal subject which is present in everyone of them as their Atman, the seeking of the individual for the Absolute in an ecstasy of feeling that the intellect cannot measure or estimate, a rapture of love for God in which all rationality is hushed, and the divine reaction from the Supreme Atman in a revelation of multiple immanence or a universal Self-manifestation, a state of spiritual super-consciousness in which one forgets one’s own personality and becomes conscious only of God’s existence everywhere in an emotion of love which bursts the bubble of individuality, which, indeed, was the condition of the Gopis. There was nothing of the human lust or physical passion in the immortal dance of Rasa, when especially the age of Krishna was only of a small boy who could not be expected to excite carnality in the minds of elderly women in such large numbers. Another interpretation regards this incident as an occasion when Krishna, though to physical perception he was a small boy, appeared as a charming young hero in the eyes of every Gopi, with everyone of whom he was individually present by a multitudinousness of form which he assumed in the majesty of the power of his Yoga. To a doubt expressed by Parikshit on this question, sage Suka gives an adequate answer. The Lord, Suka replies, appeared in human form to shower his grace on those who came in contact with him and to create devotion in those who listen to the greatness of his deeds and of his life. It is strange that the husbands of the Gopis never missed their wives, having had them, by the power of the Lord, always by their sides, even when the Rasa dance was going on. How then, can human judgment of values be applicable here? Further, Suka prescribes a study of the Rasa chapters of the Bhagavata as a remedy for lust and a means to acquire self-control and mastery over all desires.
While the early life of Krishna stimulates the tenderness of divine devotion and love for a spiritual union with God through Madhurya Bhakti or romantic aspiration and a silent melting of oneself in his sweetness, his later life opens an entirely new chapter in the book of human evolution, and stirs in one’s mind Aisvarya Bhakti or devotion by an irresistible attraction for the glory of his power and knowledge.
Krishna closes his sportful life as a child and an adolescent with the destruction of Kamsa, and suddenly assumes a stern outlook of life and turns his attention to the work of freeing the world from all sources of wickedness. The first serious opponent whom Krishna had to meet was Jarasandha, king of Magadha, a worshipper of Rudra and a menace to all good and Sattvika natures. He attacked Mathura repeatedly and, after being harassed several times, Krishna and his elder brother Balarama determined to rout his forces, sparing his life alone to allow him opportunities for collecting larger forces which were destined to be uprooted. It was here that Krishna assumed the weapons of Vishnu, which all descended from the heavens, together with a celestial chariot which he rode in war. With a view to the fulfilment of future purposes politically manoeuvred by him as the world’s greatest statesman and spiritually ordained as the world’s greatest Yogin, Krishna got constructed a mighty and gorgeous fortress at Dvaraka, in the Western ocean, from where he began to rule the fortunes of people. The first question that arose in his mind was to enquire into the fate of the Pandava brothers, with which errand he sent Akrura to Hastinapura. His first meeting with the Pandavas was during the marriage of Draupadi in the palace of Drupada. After the marriage, Krishna offered them costly presents as a mark of respect. When Yudhishthira expressed his desire to perform the Rajasuya sacrifice, Krishna pointed out a great obstacle to it in Jarasandha and cleverly arranged to get rid of the latter through a private deal with Bhima. The occasion of the Rajasuya sacrifice of Yudhishthira became also the scene of the death of Sisupala whose head Krishna severed with his discus, Sudarsana. This event is the theme of a famous poem of that name by the poet Magha and the incident may be regarded as the background of the bigger and more complicated scenes of the Mahabharata war. In the celebration of this sacrifice Krishna is said to have allotted more honourable duties to other kings and reserved for himself the humbler service of washing the feet of the guests who came for the function and of removing the remains after the banquet served by Yudhishthira to all those who attended the sacrifice. It is here again that the divinity of Krishna was publicly announced by Bhishma, to which Sisupala took exception and with insolent words challenged Krishna for battle. Krishna met the Pandavas now and then even while they were in exile, encouraging them with comforting words and promise of help to vanquish their foes and regain the kingdom. The incidents of Krishna’s miraculous help to Draupadi in the form of unending clothes in the court of the Kauravas and his sudden appearance before her in the forest and demanding of her a little food by the acceptance of which he filled the stomachs of sage Durvasa and his large following of disciples are too well-known to need any description. On the completion of the period of exile by the Pandavas, Krishna arranged for a conference in the court of Virata to decide the question of taking up arms against the Kauravas. As a measure of intelligent statesmanship, Krishna, however, accepted to go for a mission of peace with the Kauravas, though he knew well that the mission was not going to serve its purpose. As he himself expressed in his talk with Yudhishthira, it was more a diplomatic move than a step that was really necessary or meaningful. Sanjaya’s description of Krishna to king Dhritarashtra in his court is again a public proclamation of the divinity of Krishna. Krishna revealed his powers to the apprehensive Yudhishthira when he said that if the Kauravas attempted to do him any harm when he went to them for peace, he would not wait for the war to destroy them, but burn them down, single-handed, and relieve the burden of Yudhishthira. The mission of Krishna to the court of Dhritarashtra, his famous speech in the assembly and the stunning cosmic form which he showed before the Kauravas, mark a wondrous scene in the great drama.
The next scene is the delivery of the gospel of the Bhagavadgita at the commencement of the war, the contents of which we have briefly explained elsewhere. His going for Bhishma with the Chakra, his hypnotisation of the Kaurava forces by his looks, the confusion he caused in the minds of the opposing army by making everyone in the battlefield look like Krishna and Arjuna his dextrous moves which assisted Arjuna in vanquishing the Samsaptakas, his intelligence which destroyed the invincible Bhagadatta, his Yogic power which worked in overcoming Jayadratha, his clever stratagem, again, which foiled the Sakti of Karna while simultaneously getting rid of the demoniacal Ghatotkacha, the way in which he saved the Pandavas from the Narayana-Astra of Asvatthama and invoked the help of Rudra himself in the war for the victory of Dharma in the cause of the Pandavas, the power which he exercised in vanquishing Karna’s weapons sent against Arjuna and in the saving of the latter from being burnt while his chariot itself was reduced to ashes by the Astras of Bhishma and Drona, his common-sense in the event of the killing of Duryodhana, and the mysterious instructions of his which saved the Pandavas from being destroyed by the icy hands of Asvatthama, his succour of the child in the womb of Uttara, his great understanding which saved Bhima from being crashed at the embrace of Dhritarashtra, are all highly interesting and instructive episodes described in the Mahabharata. He showed his cosmic form four times in his life,–firstly to his mother Yasoda, secondly in the court of the Kauravas, thirdly to Arjuna on the eve of the war, and fourthly to sage Uttanka. The prayers offered by Kunti and Bhishma to Krishna, as recorded in the Bhagavata and the Mahabharata, are magnificent not merely as forms of literary force, but also as specimens of the glorification of God in his Avatara as Krishna.
There are many other incidents in the personal life of Krishna mentioned in the Harivamsa, Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata which inspire one spiritually and provide a stimulating reading in the biography of one who demonstrated to the world the character of all-round perfection. The birth of Krishna is celebrated on the eighth day of the dark half of the month of Bhadrapada (August-September) every Year.
The purpose of the Krishna-Avatara was not only to destroy unrighteousness but also to reveal to the world the glory and greatness of God. In the well-adjusted integral conduct of the life of Krishna is manifest the majesty of the Almighty.
The last two Avataras among the ten mentioned are those of Buddha and Kalki. Often the Buddha-Avatara is identified with the advent of the Sakya prince, Gautama, son of king Suddhodana, who is known to the world as Buddha. It is the opinion of many historians that Hinduism wished to absorb Buddhism into its fold by recognising Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu. But there is also an orthodox view which holds that Buddha, the incarnation of Vishnu, was a different person altogether, who came with the purpose of deluding the Asuras in order to overcome them for the establishment of righteousness. The Avatara of Kalki is yet to come and is supposed to be a corrective force of God, descending at the end of the Kali age, to root out unrighteousness when it reaches its extreme and becomes intolerable. Kalki is said to come riding on a white horse and brandishing a flaming sword, flying like the wind, judging and destroying the wicked, saving the good, the just and the divine and restoring the Krita-Yuga once again in the world.
The glories of Narayana or Vishnu are sung in the Purusha and Vishnu Suktas of the Rig-Veda, the Mahabharata, the Harivamsa, the six Vaishnava Puranas, the Tripadvibhuti-Mahanarayana Upanishad, the Vaishnava Agamas and the songs of the Vaishnava saints.
Siva or Rudra is one of the Trinity and is regarded as a great benefactor of the Universe, having his abode in Mount Kailasa, with his consort Parvati, his children Ganesa and Skanda, and his vehicle, the bull, called Nandi. Siva has three eyes representing the Sun, Moon and Fire, the third one usually closed, except at the time of the destruction of things. He wears a Jata or matted hair, supports Ganga on his head and the crescent moon on his matted lock, holds a trident in his hand, besmears himself with Bhasma or holy ash, is decorated with snakes in the head, neck and arms, and has a blue neck due to his having drunk poison during the time of the churning of the ocean by the gods. He is clothed in tiger-skin, or, sometimes, the skin of the elephant. His bow is called Ajagava and his main Astra is Pasupata. He remains mostly in a state of meditation for the good of the Universe and is called Yogisvara or the master of Yogins. His glories as the immanent Divine Presence are sung in the Namaka and Chamaka sections of the renowned hymn of the Yajurveda, called the Rudra-Adhyaya or Satarudriya. He is Mrityunjaya or Conqueror of Death, and devotees meditate on him as such to avert calamities of every kind. His final sport during the dissolution of the Universe is called Tandava, a form of terrific dance with wild rhythm, spelling death and devastation everywhere. In this form he is called Nataraja or the Lord of dancers. He is worshipped mainly in the form of Linga or a rounded stone which is often erroneously identified with the emblem of the phallus. The Linga has a deep significance in mystic psychology, representing formlessness and infinity. Siva is called Pasupati or the Lord of beasts, for, from the point of view of divine perfection, all created beings are like beasts in their nature. The main incidents that are narrated in his Lilas or sportful deeds are the destruction of Daksha’s sacrifice, the burning of Manmatha (Cupid) with the fire of his third eye when the former tried to tempt him by distracting him from meditation, the destruction of the Tripuras (three cities) in which work Brahma and Vishnu assisted him, the drinking of the poison arisen from the churning of the ocean, and the bearing of Ganga on his head. He is also said to have taken the form of Dakshinamurti, a personality he assumed to impart knowledge to the seeking Kumaras or the first-born sons of Brahma. The famous annual worship of Siva, called Sivaratri, or the Night of Siva, falls on the fourteenth day of the dark half of the month of Phalguna (February-March). He is the supreme God of the Saivas, as Vishnu is of the Vaishnavas, though, as we have observed earlier, no marked distinction between them is made in the earlier scriptures. The more informed ones continue to adore Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, not as three gods but three facets of the Supreme Being.
The Rudra-Sukta of the Rig-Veda, the Satarudriya of the Yajurveda, the Saiva Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the six Saiva Puranas, the Saiva Agamas and the songs of the Saiva saints sing of the glories of Siva.
Ganesa or Ganapati, as he is called, is the first son of Siva and is elephant-headed, pot-bellied and holds weapons like the trident, the noose, etc. He is the god who is always worshipped first in all functions, rituals, ceremonies and every auspicious undertaking, as the remover of obstacles and bestower of fortunes. Ganesa is adored as the emblem of wisdom which is indicated by the elephant’s head. His vehicle is the mouse. The mouse which is the smallest of animals and the elephant which is the biggest as embodied in his form are regarded as symbols of his mastery over everything, from the lowest to the highest. There are many legends connected with his enterprises which endear him to everyone and make him the beloved god worshipped by every cult or sect, in all good beginnings. Ganesa is worshipped annually through an all-India festival, which is as famous as either Ramanavami, Krishna-Ashtami or Sivaratri, on the fourth day of the bright half of the month of Bhadrapada (August-September).
People undertake a special observance in honour of Ganesa, called Siddhi-Vinayaka-Vrata, for the attainment of particular ends in view, usually for clearing oneself of false accusations, recovering lost objects, regaining lost status, or removing of obstacles on one’s way.
The Ganesa Purana and the Ganapatyatharva-sirsha Upanishad are devoted to the glorification of Ganesa.
Vishnu, Siva and Devi may be regarded as the chief deities universally worshipped in Hinduism. The concept of Devi, often identified with Durga, has a very ancient origin. Reference is made to the great goddess in the Rig-Veda and the Mahabharata. The hymns devoted to her in this Veda extol her as the embodiment of divine Power by which the Universe is sustained. The great Mother sung in the Veda appears as Uma of golden hue in the Kenopanishad. In the Mahabharata, she is mentioned as the sister of Krishna and thus bears a relation to Vaishnavism. She is also adored by Saivas as the consort of Siva. Yudhishthira offered prayers to Devi for relief from suffering and for protection in distress. Krishna asked Arjuna to pray to her before the commencement of the war. But the most famous scripture which sings the glories of Devi is the Devimahatmya or Saptasati, regarded almost on a par with the Bhagavadgita. The Saptasati is a part of the Markandeya Purana. Devi is referred to as Chandi, Durga, Kali, Lakshmi and Sarasvati. She is often indistinguishable from Parvati, the divine consort of Siva. The goddess is annually worshipped in a nine-day festival called the Navaratri Puja, during the first nine days of the bright half of the month of Asvayuja (September-October). The adoration of Devi grew into a philosophical and mystical worship of Sakti as the inherent power of the Absolute, which transcended the exoteric ritualism of the Veda-Samhitas and Puranas.
In the Devimahatmya, the goddess is described as having manifested herself in three significant forms, Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasarasvati. In the first form she woke up Vishnu from his cosmic sleep, to encounter the Asuras, Madhu and Kaitabha, who had risen in the cosmic ocean. In the second form she met the forces of the demon Mahishasura and slew him with his forces. In the third form she destroyed the Asuras Sumbha and Nisumbha with their forces and brought peace to the gods in heaven and to the world of men. These three forms of Devi are identified with the revelations of Divinity through the primordial qualities of Tamas, Rajas and Sattva, respectively. They are also equated with the manifestations of the Universal Powers of action (Kriya), Desire (Ichha) and Knowledge (Jnana). The hymns to Devi in the Devimahatmya are charged with a fervour of feeling and charm of expression which are rarely seen in religious literature.
Durga, Lakshmi and Sarasvati are the spouses of Siva, Vishnu and Brahma, respectively, inseparable from their Lords, as heat from fire, which hints at the truth that the manifestations of the Saktis are ultimately God himself in action. Durga rides on a lion. Sometimes she is depicted as riding on a tiger. Though her abode is Kailasa, with her Lord, Siva, she manifests herself everywhere in creation as the beloved saviour of her worshippers. She is said to have eight hands and holds the various weapons of the gods. She is the goddess of transformation, destruction, war and pestilence, of disease as well as its medicine. She is the Samhara-Sakti or the all-destroying power of God as Siva or Rudra. Lakshmi is worshipped as seated on a lotus and also holding lotuses in her hands. She is the protective and sustaining power of God as Vishnu. She is the goddess of prosperity, wealth, fortune, peace and plenty. She is the preservative power of God and, being the consort of Vishnu, is also worshipped as Sita, the wife of Rama and Rukmini, the wife of Krishna, as also Radha, the favourite of Krishna in his early life. Lakshmi is regarded as having her particular presence manifested in cattle, grains and gold. Sarasvati is the creative power of God as Brahma and is portrayed as seated on a swan and holding a lute (Vina) and a book in her hands. She is hailed as Vak, or speech, in the Rig-Veda Samhita and is the presiding deity over all fine arts, especially music and literature. She is the favourite deity of students, writers and musicians.
The Saktas, or worshippers of Sakti, adore Devi as Tripurasundari and Rajarajesvari, the great reality of the Universe.
The Devi-Sukta of the Rig-Veda, the Sakta Upanishads, the Mahabharata, the Devimahatmya, the Devi-Bhagavata, Lalitopakhyana, the Sakta Agamas and the works of Bhaskararaya glorify Devi in her various aspects.
Though Brahma is one of the Trinity of gods, he is not one of the deities commonly worshipped in religion. There is only one temple, in Pushkar, dedicated to him and, strangely, he is not the favourite god of any section of the Hindu faith. The Puranas describe his manifestation from the lotus of the navel of Vishnu, before creation. It was he who invoked Devi, Durga, as the Sakti of the Almighty, for the first time, to wake up Vishnu from his divine slumber (Yoga-Nidra) during dissolution (Pralaya). Brahma is the creator of the existing Universe in all its planes. He is, thus, called the grandfather (Pitamaha) of Creation. He is four-headed and is the revealer of the Vedas to his creation. In the scriptures, his status is stated to be very important and he is worshipped through penance by those who aspire for invincible powers, especially the Asuras, whom he blesses, unfortunately, to the woe of the Devas or celestials. Brahma is also called Hiranyagarbha, the first-born Creator of all things. He is sung in the Rig-Veda and identified with the cosmic Prana in the Brahmanas and the Upanishads. He is also identified with the Cosmic Mind or the Cosmic Intellect, regarded as the first movement of the Absolute. The mystic weapon or Astra in which he is invoked is called Brahma-Astra, the most deadly of divine missiles, used by experts in ancient warfare. He is the progenitor of the four Kumaras and the ten Prajapatis, and from his forehead arose Rudra or Siva. Brahma divided his body into Manu and Satarupa and became the source of the diversity of beings. Though six of the eighteen Puranas are supposed to be devoted to him, he is scarcely worshipped today, either in private or public.
The name, Brahma, used in the masculine gender, is to be carefully distinguished from Brahman, a designation of the Absolute, used in the neuter gender.
Skanda, the second son of Siva, and the younger brother of Ganesa, is also known as Kumara, Karttikeya, Shanmukha, Subrahmanya, and by many other names. His banner is the cock and vehicle the peacock which stands clutching a serpent in its talons. His Saktis or inseparable powers are Valli and Devasena whom he assumed in the course of the great history describing his multi-formed life of a series of exploits both in the celestial and temporal realms. The devotees of Skanda form a large part of the population especially of Southern India, and constitute one of the important sections of the religion of the country. The advent of Skanda was the background of occasion when Siva burnt Manmatha with his third eye, a penalty he inflicted on Kama or the god of love for disturbing him in his meditation. The story goes that the sparks which flashed forth from the third eye of Siva rushed through space, which Vayu and Agni carried and dropped into the river Ganga. Ganga, being unable to contain the divine energy, shoved it on to her banks, upon a shrub of reeds known as Sara. There is thus a combination of the ether, air, fire, water and earth principles in the depositing of the Tejas or energy of Siva in the world. The cumulative force which combined the forms of the five elements impregnated with the divine power of Siva (Divya-Tejas) manifested itself as a sixfold divinity with six faces (Shanmukha), including both the unmanifest and manifest elements in a single being. This is the child of Siva, of mysterious birth, mysterious bringing up, under mysterious circumstances, for a mysterious purpose which the gods alone knew. The third eye represents the principle of intelligence and Skanda, thus, as a revelation through the third eye of Siva, is said to stand for an incarnation of Divine Knowledge.
The principal weapon of Skanda is a spear (Vel), pointed at its end and tall in stature. Devotees understand by it the need for one-pointedness of mind in slaying the demon of ignorance, which is expected to be sharp and sure in its aim. The gods, under the advice of Brahma, connived the birth of Skanda through the instrumentality of Siva and his consort Parvati. The Asuras,–Surapadma, Simhamukha and Taraka,–who wrought havoc everywhere in creation, could be destroyed only by the son of Siva manifested as a special divine Power. Skanda became the General of the celestial forces (Senani) and he is worshipped as the martial god of Hinduism. The day on which he slew the Asura is celebrated on the sixth day of the bright half of the month of Karttika (October-November) according to one tradition, and the month of Margasirsha (November-December) according to another.
The Skanda Purana is devoted to the glorification of Skanda and his sportful routing out of the Asuras. The great battle between the celestial forces led by Skanda and the Asuras is an epic by itself. Kalidasa’s Kumarasambhava is a famous Sanskrit poem on the birth of the war-god. The Tamil poem, ‘Tiruppugazh’, by the saint Arunagirinathar, is held in as much esteem by the devotees of Skanda as the Vedas in Sanskrit or the ‘Divya-Prabandham’ in Tamil Vaishnavism and the ‘Tevaram’ in Tamil Saivism. His ‘Skandaranubhuti’ and ‘Skandaralankaram’ are other renowned songs on the love and experience of God as Skanda. It may be safely said that the cults of Vishnu, Siva, Sakti, Ganesa, Surya and Skanda form the six great sections in the book of the religion of the Hindus. Some would like to add the Pasupata cult, which is a minor group of the worshippers of Siva in a particular form. The Mahabharata recounts the principal deeds of Skanda. The Kumara Tantra forms an important literature on the worship of Skanda. The Skanda Purana is a sacred book devoted to Skanda, and in its Tamil recension records the mighty deeds of the god.
The sun-god is known as Surya or Aditya and his greatness is sung in the Rig-Veda in sections specially devoted to him, where it is declared that ‘Surya is the Soul, both of the moving and unmoving beings’ (Surya atma jagatas tasthushas cha). ‘This Aditya is, verily, Brahman’ (Asavadityo Brahma) says a renowned passage. It is also said that ‘Surya is the visible God’ (Suryah pratyakshadevata). It is not difficult to imagine the indebtedness of everything in the world to the existence of the Sun. The life of all creatures on earth, of men, animals and plants, is vitally influenced by the solar energy and, inasmuch as nothing can survive without it, the Sun is veritably the Soul of all things. The power that the Sun exerts on the earth is such that the religious observance of Sandhya-Vandana or the prayer to be offered during the three junctions of the day in relation to the Sun,–morning, noon and evening,–is considered obligatory on the part of every orthodox Hindu who has been invested with the sacred thread (Upanita). The solar power actuates the body, Prana and even mind, without one’s knowing it, and the health and growth of beings axe much dependent on the Sun.
The Sun, in India, is not regarded merely as a bright heating orb, packed with atomic energy that is released into a form of forceful activity. To the religious mind, Surya is the resplendent Divine Person (Hiranmaya Purusha), a representative of God in the world, manifesting himself as life-giving power and sustaining strength everywhere and bringing the message that God is the great Light of all lights (Jyotisham jyotir uttamam). The stirring prayers to the Sun in the Rig-Veda form the Mahasaura-Suktas, which identify the immanent divinity in the Sun with the One Reality (Ekam Sat). The Sun is an eye of the Virat-Purusha, and is the presiding deity over the eyes of all. The soul which reaches Krama-Mukti (gradual salvation) passes through the region of the Sun–Surya-Dvara. The Vedas are full with ecstatic declamations on the glory of the Sun, who is a divine colossus striding over the world with dazzling beauty and all-inspiring splendour. The Isavasya Upanishad has a special prayer offered to the Sun by a dying man. The Prasnopanishad identifies the Sun with Prana (vital energy) and the Chhandogya Upanishad visualises in him the face of God and makes him the centre of the mystic meditation called Madhu-Vidya. A special physical exercise called Surya-Namaskara is devoted to the worship of the Sun and is daily practised by devotees during their morning prayers (Sandhya-Vandana). The deity of the celebrated Gayatri-Mantra of the Veda is the Sun (Savita). In the Valmiki-Ramayana the sage Agastya is reported to have initiated Rama into a particular form of prayer to the Sun, called Aditya Hridaya, to enable him to bring about the destruction of Ravana. Yudhishthira prayed to the Sun, when he was in penury, and obtained a celestial vessel from the god, which supplied him inexhaustible food.
The time when the movement of the Sun towards the northern hemisphere of the earth commences is called Makara-Sankranti (the junction of the capricorn), when the Sun enters the tenth house of the Zodiac, about the middle of the month of January, which is regarded as a kind of New Year by many. Bhishma of the Mahabharata fame waited for the beginning of the Northern course of the Sun, to leave his mortal coil. The seventh day of the bright half of the month of Magha (January-February) is called Rathasaptami, and is supposed to be the day on which the Northern movement of the Sun takes definite effect, and is traditionally regarded as the day when the chariot of the Sun is diverted to the North by his charioteer, Aruna. The plant which is sacred to the Sun is called Arka, whose leaves are placed by people on their heads when they take the sacred bath on this day.
A great hero in the Ramayana is Hanuman, an unparalleled source of strength, self-control, knowledge and the spirit of service. Tradition sings of his birth as a child of the deity of the wind (Vayu) through Anjana, a celestial woman of the simian species. Hanuman was blessed by Brahma, the creator, and all the gods, with invincible powers and deathlessness as a recompense for the hurt feelings of Vayu when his son was pushed down by Indra on the former’s attempting to rise up to the orb of the Sun and catch it, in the playfulness of childhood. It is reported that Hanuman, with the matchless powers thus bestowed on him by the goodness of Brahma and the gods, ravaged the sacrificial grounds of the Rishis, in sheer mischief, and the Rishis, knowing the power of Hanuman, cursed him to a state of forgetfulness of his powers until he was reminded of them by someone. Hanuman was immediately reduced to a state of powerlessness due to this incident and he lived for long years in Kishkindha as a minister to king Sugriva, but without consciousness of his strength. The time came when he had to be sent in search of Sita, the wife of Rama, and it was here that Jambavan, the bear-chief, reminded Hanuman of his early life and the powers he possessed. Valmiki says that, on thus being reminded, Hanuman immediately grew big in size and struck his tail with force and demonstrated an awe-inspiring form which delighted everyone on the possibility of success in the mission.
Valmiki’s description of Hanuman’s jumping across the ocean, to reach Lanka, is vivid and picturesque. Hanuman shook the mountain on which he stood and carried some trees which flew with him due to his force. He entered Lanka after overcoming the obstacles that stood on his way in the form of three superhuman powers called Surasa, Chhaya and Lankini. Having discovered Sita in Lanka after great effort, Hanuman’s mind worked in a most unexpected manner, and he began to contemplate an aspect of work which was not exactly a part of the mission with which he was sent. His anger on Ravana took shape, and he determined to cause a general destruction of the beloved grove of the latter, not only to manifest his strength but also to see the fun of the Rakshasas getting devastated at his hands. He assumed a terrific form, with a gigantic size, towering like a mountain, and resplendent with the glory of the supernatural in him. He made short-work of the Asoka grove of Ravana and began to rove like a ravaging tempest. When news of this reached Ravana, he sent his armed forces, all of which Hanuman crushed in mere play. Ravana, then, sent eminent leaders, who were all pounded at the hands of Hanuman, and it looked that the whole of Lanka would be broken down if necessary steps were not taken. When Indrajit, the son of Ravana, applied the Brahma-Astra against Hanuman, the poet says, Hanuman deliberately yielded, not only with a view to give respect to the Astra of Brahma, but also to seeking opportunity for seeing Ravana, face to face. Hanuman, hound, was taken before Ravana, where he had a bold speech with the Rakshasa king, at which the enraged king ordered his tail to be set fire to with rags soaked in oil. The result was that Hanuman, with his tail in flames, expanded his size and, crushing the Rakshasas near him, jumped from one house-top to another, setting fire to the whole city, when, it is said, a powerful wind blew, increasing the fury of the flames, as if Hanuman’s father was pleased at his heroism, and Lanka was in the panic of death threatening all over.
Having seen Sita, again, to ensure that she was not burnt by the flames, Hanuman jumped back across the ocean to convey to Rama the good news of his having seen Sita. After the happy news was received, Rama rattled forth to Lanka with huge armies of monkeys to fight the forces of Ravana, in which epic battle Hanuman played parts of immortal honour. Hanuman is hailed as master of all the Vedas and all the nine grammars. He is supposed to be the candidate for the post of Brahma in the next cycle (Kalpa) of creation. Hanuman is one of the seven Chiranjivis or those fortunate ones who will not die till the end of the Universe.
The Sundara-Kanda of the Ramayana, which describes the exploits of Hanuman, is generally read to avert fear from enemies.
Sasta: A legend in the Puranas states that when, during the churning of the ocean by the Devas and Asuras, nectar rose from it, Vishnu, in the form of a charming damsel, bewitched the Asuras into a state of infatuation and, when they thus forgot themselves, she shrewdly distributed the nectar to the gods. News of this incident reached Siva who expressed a desire to see the form which Vishnu took to beguile the Asuras. When Vishnu demonstrated that form, Siva is said to have been so enchanted by it that he ran and embraced Vishnu in that feminine form. The energy of Siva which was released at that moment became the reason for the birth of Sasta or Harihara Putra (son of Vishnu and Siva), as he is called. This desire of Siva need not intrigue the minds of devotees, for it is only indicative of the intensity of the beauty into which Vishnu transformed himself. To tempt him who reduced to ashes the god of love, beauty should have assumed a form no mortal can ever imagine. The possibility of temptation transcends the resources of the Universe. The incident is both a lesson to the seekers of Truth and a peep into the richness of God’s powers.
Sasta is commonly known as Ayyappan in Southern India and his spiritual presence is believed to be concretely manifest in the great temple dedicated to him in the Sabari hills (Sabarimalai) in the state of Kerala. Devotees regard a pilgrimage to this temple as a sacred ritual and a spiritual Sadhana and this vow of pilgrimage to the temple in the Sabari hills is, in the solemnity and sacredness associated with it, akin to the Kavadi Yatra performed by the devotees of Skanda or the Varkari vow of devotees of Vitthala in Maharashtra. Though Sasta is specially worshipped in the South, the cult is now slowly spreading to the other parts of India.
The Loka-Palas: The guardian deities of the different directions are called Loka-Palas or protectors of the world. Indra is the ruler of the East, Yama of the South, Varuna of the West, Kubera of the North, Agni of the South-East, Nirriti of the South West, Vayu of the North-West, and Isana of the North-East. Dyaus is regarded as the deity of the atmosphere above and Prithivi or Bhudevi of the earth. Indra is the famous god sung in the Vedic hymns, wielding the thunderbolt, lord over the clouds and rains and king of the heavens. The weapon of Indra is Vajra and his capital is Amaravati. Yama is the god of death, the dispenser of justice to the souls of the dead, and in this capacity he is known as Dharma-Raja or the lord of righteousness. Though the function of Yama is dispensation of natural retributive justice, like that of a judge, the tendency of people is to look upon him as a fierce god of punishment to the souls after their departure from this world. He is regarded as the son of Vivasvan or the Sun, and so he is called Vaivasvata. He is also the lord of the Pitris or ancestors who have gone to the other world. The dreaded rod he wields is the Danda (known as Yamadanda). His vehicle is the buffalo and his capital is Samyamani. His clerk is Chitragupta who records the deeds of everyone for judgment by Yama on them. Varuna is the lord of waters, regarded often as the deity of the ocean. He is lord over all aquatic beings. Kubera is a sort of fairy-god and lives in Alakapuri. He is regarded as the treasurer of Siva whose abode is Kailasa. Agni is the fire-god, famous in the Veda as the carrier of oblations offered in sacrifices to those who are addressed by the Mantras. He is the all-purifier and is invoked in every sacrificial altar where oblations are offered. Nirriti is a demi-god evidently of a low cadre. Vayu is the wind-god. Isana is a special manifestation of Siva guarding a direction. Dyaus is the spirit of the atmosphere and Prithivi the spirit of the earth. Sometimes the moon-god is regarded as the presiding deity of the North.
Kama: The Indian love-god or Cupid is called Kamadeva. Though he is identified with the Kama that is mentioned in the Nasadiya-Sukta of the Rig-Veda and thus is a kind of self-born being, it is evident that the Kama of this Sukta is an epithet of the cosmic creative Will and cannot be identified with the Kamadeva of the Epics and Puranas. Kama (desire) is described as a handsome youth with a bow of sugarcane decked with a row of bees and with arrows made of flowers. His principal shafts are said to be five, perhaps referring to the senses. His wife is Rati (pleasure). He is always attended by a troupe of celestial nymphs called Apsarases, thus forming a force of erotic attraction. He is deputed to tempt sages performing Tapas, to wean them away from their purpose. This is clearly a personification of sense-desires which obstruct any attempt at the spiritual unification of the Soul. Kama tempted the Rishis, Narayana and Nara, who put him to shame by producing with their power an Apsaras more beautiful than those of his party. He tempted sages like Visvamitra and his temptation of Buddha as Mara is a famous episode in the life of the saint. In his attempt to distract Siva he got destroyed through the fire that issued from the third eye of the former, which occasion is celebrated all over India as Kamadahana, or burning of the love-god, on a day called Holi, which falls on the full-moon day of the month of Phalguna (February-March). Thenceforward, Kama had the name Ananga or the bodiless. Kama is associated with the spring season when desires are said to be more active in living beings.
Besides the Devatas or deities whose characteristics have been briefly stated above, almost every village in India has a presiding deity (Grama-Devata), most of whom are goddesses ultimately identified with Durga. These local gods and goddesses of the villages are represented by images in small shrines or even a fetish adored under a sacred tree. Apart from these, ancient cities in India had their own guardian deities. Also, some of the cities themselves were and even now are regarded as sacred, e.g., Badrikashrama (Badrinath), Kedaranath, Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar or Kanakhal, Kasi (Varanasi), Dvaraka, Avanti (Ujjayini), Puri (Jagannath), Pushkar and Manasasarovara in North India, and Kanchi (Kanjeevaram), Ramesvaram, Madurai, Tirupati, Srirangam, Tiru-Anantapuram (Trivandrum), Palani, Kanyakumari and many others in the South. Also, the confluences of sacred rivers, called Prayagas, are regarded as very sacred, the main Prayagas being Bhatta-Prayaga (Allahabad), Devaprayaga, Rudraprayaga, Karnaprayaga, Nanda-Prayaga, Vishnu-Prayaga and Kesava-Prayaga. Except the first one, all the Prayagas are in the Himalayan regions, along the lines of the rivers Ganga and Alakananda.
The Rishis are a set of superhuman beings who may be living in any plane at their will and are repositories of spiritual dignity and power. The most famous among them are the ten first-born sons of Brahma, viz., Marichi, Atri, Angiras, Pulastya, Pulaha, Kratu, Bhrigu, Vasishtha, Daksha and Narada, as well as Vyasa (Dvaipayana), Agastya, Brihaspati, Kasyapa, Bharadvaja, Gotama, Jamadagni, Suka, Dattatreya, Vamadeva, Visvamitra and Durvasa. The Rishis are worshipped on Rishi-Panchami which falls on the fifth day of the bright half of the month of Bhadrapada (August-September). The Siddhas are a class of perfected saints supposed to be residing in the heavenly regions. The Pitris or the spirits of the ancestors are regarded as residents of Pitriloka and Chandra-Loka. The Pitris are offered an annual worship on the New-Moon day of the month of Bhadrapada.
The Nagas are a group of snake-spirits, often portrayed as having a half-human form with a serpent’s tail. Their abode is Bhogavati in the nether worlds. They are the guardians of the treasures underground and may bestow some of them on human beings when propitiated. The Nagas can take human form if they so wish. As their emblem, the snake, especially the cobra, is revered and worshipped in villages. The snake has a traditions of respectful descent from such snake-deities as Sesha and Vasuki. The Nagas are specially worshipped on Naga-Panchami which falls on the fifth day of the bright half of the month of Sravana (July-August). The Yakshas have Kubera as their lord, living in Alakapuri in the Himalayas, and constitute a group of semi-celestial gnomes or fairies. The Gandharvas are the heavenly musicians who entertain Indra in his court. The Kinnaras are also a set of celestial musicians. The Apsarases are the consorts of the Gandharvas and are supposed to be excessively beautiful and tempting. It is the Apsarases whom Indra sends to obstruct the penances of the sages. The Vidyadharas live in aerial cities magically constructed in the Himalayan areas. They can fly in the air and change their forms at will. The Asuras are the great demons of popular mythology supposed to be offering perpetual opposition to the Devas. The Rakshasas are a more violent set of fierce demons who could even materialise themselves on earth. Hiranyakasipu, Hiranyaksha, Ravana and Kumbhakarna were Rakshasas. The Pisachas are low spirits of a lesser cadre still. The Pretas, Bhutas and Vetalas are the spirits of the dead ones supposed to be haunting battlefields, cremation and burial grounds and places of violent death, to whom the ritual of the Sraddha ceremony has not been performed. They are said to trouble their surviving relatives, especially if the latter are weak-willed and impure in mind.
The Vedas are the most sacred of books and they are regarded as Apaurusheya (without any individual authorship). The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says that the Vedas are the expiration of God, and their knowledge is only revealed to the Rishis whose names are attached to the different hymns of the Vedas. The Himalayas are the most sacred of mountains, apart from the legendary Mount Meru and Kailasa, the abode of Siva. The Bhagavadgita specifically refers to the Vedas, Mount Meru and the Himalayas as the manifestations of God’s glory. Ganga is the most sacred river whose greatness is sung in every scripture, right from the Vedas. It is believed that Ganga was originally in Brahmaloka, from where she was drawn down when Vishnu, during his incarnation as Vamana, kept one of his feet on the celestial regions, and Brahma washed the sacred feet with the holy waters of the Ganga. She was borne by Siva on his matted locks to prevent her descent too fast on the earth, at the request of Bhagiratha who performed great austerity to bring Ganga down to the earth. The river Ganga, thus, has the holy historical background of having been sanctified by the touch of the greatest of gods,–Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Devotees believe that a bath in this river ensures purification from sins and bestows salvation to the soul. The custom of consigning dead bodies or at least the ashes or bones of the dead ones to this river is based on the scriptural declarations that the soul whose body has been offered to Ganga shall attain spiritual salvation. Bhishma, the grandsire of the Pandavas and Kauravas, was the son of Ganga through king Santanu. Biologists are discovering these days that the waters of this river possess some incredible power to destroy disease-germs.
Next to Ganga, the other holy rivers are Alakananda, Yamuna, Sarasvati (which is said to flow underground these days as Gupta-Vahini), Narmada, Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri. All the tributaries of Ganga are also sacred. Gangottari at its source, Kasi in its middle and Ganga-Sagara at its mouth are holy places of pilgrimage. All the tributaries of Ganga above Haridwar are also regarded as different forms of Ganga.
The cow in India is an object of worship. The celestial cow ‘Kamadhenu’ is described as having risen from the ocean when it was churned by the Devas and Asuras. The daughter of Kamadhenu is the famous Surabhi who inherits the glories of her mother. The milk, curd, ghee, urine and dung of the cow, formed into a mixture, are called Pancha-Gavya, which is taken as a purifying medium by orthodox ones, in all ceremonies. The bull is adored as the emblem of Nandi, the vehicle of Siva. The image of the bull as Nandi can be seen in every Siva temple. In famous Siva temples a stud-bull is dedicated to Siva and adored as the form of Nandi. Airavata is Indra’s sacred elephant and Ucchaihsravas his sacred horse. Garuda, the divine-bird, is Vishnu’s vehicle. The sacred tree, Asvattha (peepul) is an object of worship. The Vata (banian), Nyagrodha, Asoka and Palasa are all sacred trees. The Tulasi or the holy basil is the plant sacred to Vishnu, and is grown in the courtyards of every religious community. The Bilva is the leaf sacred to Siva. The Soma plant is most sacred, as sung in the Vedas. The Kusa or Darbha is a grass regarded as sacred, made more so as it is believed that the pot of nectar brought by Garuda from the heaven was placed by him on a bush of this grass. It is universally used as a necessary item in all sacrifices (Yajnas) and especially in rituals of offerings to ancestors (Sraddha). The Durva grass is sacred to Ganesa.
Among stones, the Saligrama is sacred to Vishnu, the Siva-linga (particularly available in the Narmada river) to Siva and Sphatika to Surya. The gems connected with the planets as well as the nine famous gems like Padmaraga, are all highly valued as possessing superphysical significance.
The Indian concept of God is one of Universal Presence, and Divinity can be invoked through anything, anywhere and at any time. The Absolute is not limited by space, time and objectivity.