Hindu mythology and religion

In the Sanskrit language the myths common to the Aryan nations are presented in, perhaps, their simplest form. Hence the special value of Hindu myths in a study of Comparative Mythology. But it would be an error to suppose that the myths of the Greeks, Romans, Slavs, Norsemen, old Germans, and Celts were derived from those of the Hindus. For the myths, like the languages, of all these various races, of the Hindus included, are derived from one common source. Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, etc., are but modifications of a primitive Aryan language that was spoken by the early “Aryans” before they branched away from their original home in Central Asia, to form new nationalities in India, Greece, Northern Europe, Central Europe, etc.

The Sanskrit language is thus not the mother, but the elder sister of Greek and the kindred tongues: and Sanskrit or Hindu mythology is, in like manner, only the elder sister of the other Aryan mythologies. It is by reason of the discovery of this common origin of these languages that scholars have been enabled to treat mythology scientifically. For example, many names unintelligible in Greek are at once explained by the meaning of their Sanskrit equivalents. Thus, the name of the chief Greek god, Zeus, conveys no meaning in itself. But the Greek sky-god Zeus evidently corresponds to the Hindu sky-god Dyaus, and this word is derived from a root dyu meaning “to shine”. Zeus then, the Greek theos, and the Latin dues, meant originally “the glistening ether”. Similarly other Greek names are explained by their counterparts, or cognate words in Sanskrit. Thus the name of Zeus’s wife, Hera, belongs to a Sanskrit root svar, and originally meant the bright sky: the goddess herself being primarily the bright air. Athena is referred to Sanskrit names meaning the light of dawn, and Erinys is explained by the Sanskrit Saranyn.

In the Hindu Pantheon there are two great classes of gods — the Vedic and the Brahmanic. The Vedic gods belong to the very earliest times, appear obviously as elemental powers, and are such as would have been worshipped by a simple, uninstructed, agricultural people. The Brahmanic religion was, in great part at least, a refined development of the former; and was gradually displacing the simpler worship of Vedism as early as fifteen centuries or more before the birth of Christ. Five or six centuries before the last event, Dissent, under the name and form of Buddhism, became the chief religion of India; but in about ten centuries Brahmanism recovered its old position. Buddhism now retains but comparatively few followers in India. Its chief holds are in Burma, Siam, Japan, Thibet, Nepaul, China, and Mongolia: and its followers, in the present day, perhaps outnumber those of all other religions put together.

The Vedic Gods

DYAUS was, as we have already indicated, the god of the bright sky, his name being connected with that of Zeus through the root dyu. As such Dyaus was the Hindu rain-god, i.e., primarily, the sky from which the rain fell. That the god-name and the sky-name were thus interchangeable is evident from such classical expressions as that “Zeus rains” (i.e., the sky rains), and meaning a damp atmosphere. In such expressions there is hardly any mythological suggestion: and the meaning of the name Dyaus, — like those of the names Ouranos and Kronos in Greek, — always remained too transparent for it to become the nucleus of a myth. Dyaus, however, was occasionally spoken of as an overruling spirit. The epithet, Dyaus pitar, is simply Zeus pater — Zeus the father; or, as it is spelled in Latin, Jupiter. Another of his names, Janita, is the Sanskrit for genitor, a title of Zeus as the father or producer. Dyaus finally gave place to his son Indra.

VARUNA is also a sky-god: according to another account, a water-god. The name is derived from Var, to cover, or to overarch: and so far Varuna means “the vault of heaven”. Here, then, we seem to find a clue to the meaning of the Greek Ouranos, whom we already know to have been a sky-god: Ouranos means “the coverer”, but, as observed above, the name would have remained unintelligible apart from its reference to the Sanskrit name. The myth of Varuna is a wonderful instance of the readiness and completeness with which the Hindu genius spiritualized its sense impressions. From the conception of air (or breath), the thousand-eyed (or starred) Varuna who overlooked all men and things, the Indian Aryans passed to the loftier conception of Varuna as an all-seeing god or providence, whose spies, or angels, saw all that took place. Some of the finest passages in the Vedic hymns are those in which the all-seeing Varuna is addressed: as in the following verses — the second of which is so remarkable for its pathetic beauty — from Müller’s Rigveda:

Let me not yet, O Varuna, enter into the house of clay: have mercy, Almighty, have mercy!
If I go along trembling like a cloud driven by the wind : have mercy, Almighty, have mercy!
Through want of strength, thou strong and bright god, have I gone to the wrong shore: have mercy, Almighty, have mercy!

Thirst came upon the worshipper, tho’ he stood in the midst of the waters: have mercy, Almighty, have mercy!

Whenever we men, O Varuna, commit an offence before the heavenly host, whenever we break thy law through thoughtlessness: have mercy, Almighty, have mercy!

This complete transition from the physical to the spiritual, this abstract or contemplative bias of the Hindu mind, is curiously instanced in the name Aditi. Originally it meant the illimitable space of sky beyond the far east, whence the bright light gods sprang. Then Aditi became a name for the mother in whose lap the gods were nursed; and finally, it seems a name for the incomprehensible and Infinite and Absolute of the metaphysicians.

INDRA — The connection, or identity, between Zeus and Dyaus seems to be chiefly a philological one. There is a greater resemblance between Indra and Zeus than between Zeus and Dyaus. Indra, as the hurler of the thunderbolts, and as a “cloud compeller”, coincides with Zeus and Thor.

The myth of Indra — the favourite Vedic god — is a further instance of that transition from the physical to spiritual meaning to which we have referred; though Indra is by no means so spiritual a being as Varuna. It is also a good instance of the fact that, as the comparative mythologists express it, the further back the myths are traced the more “atmospheric” do the gods become. First, of the merely physical Indra. His name is derived from indu, “drop-sap”. He is thus the god of rain. The name parjanya means “rain-bringer”. Indra shatters the cloud with his bolt, and releases the imprisoned waters. His purely physical origin is further indicated by the mythical expression that the clouds moved in Indra as the winds in Dyaus — an expression implying that Indra was a name for the sky.

Also, the stories told of him correspond closely with some in classical mythology. Like Hermes and Herakles, he was endowed with precocious strength; like Hermes he goes in search of the cattle, the clouds which the evil powers have driven away; and like Hermes he is assisted by the breezes — though in the Hindu myth by the storms rather — the Maruts, or the crushers. His beard of lightning is the red beard of Thor. In a land with the climatic conditions of India, and among an agricultural people, it was but natural that the god whose fertilizing showers brought the corn and wine to maturity should be regarded as the greatest of all.

He who as soon as born is the first of the deities, who has done honour to the gods by his exploits; he at whose might heaven and earth are alarmed, and who is known by the greatness of his strength: he, men, is Indra.
He who fixed firm the moving earth; who tranquillized the incensed mountains; who spread the spacious firmament; who consolidated the heavens: he, men, is Indra.
He who, having destroyed Abi, set free the seven rivers: who recovered the cows detained by Bale; who generated fire in the clouds; who is invincible in battle: he, men, is Indra.

He under whose control are horses and cattle, and villages, and all chariots; who gave birth to the sun and to the dawn; and who is the leader of the waters: he, men, is Indra.

He to whom heaven and earth bow down,; he at whose might the mountains are appalled; he who is the drinker of the Soma juice, the firm of frame, the adamant armed, the wielder of the thunderbolt; he, men, is Indra.

May we envelop thee with acceptable praises as husbands are embraced by their wives!

The first verse in the preceding hymn from the Rigveda perhaps refers to Indra as a sun-god, and to the rapidity with which, in tropical climates, the newly-born sun grows in heat-giving powers. The Abi, or throttling snakes, of the third verse, is the same as the Greek Echidna, or the Hindu Vritra; and is multiplied in the Rakhshasas — or powers of darkness — against which the sky-god Indra wages deadly war. He is likewise spoken of in the same hymn in much the same kind of language that would naturally be applied to the creator and sustainer of the world. But so is almost every Hindu deity. Absolute supremacy was attributed to each and every god whenever it came to his turn to be praised or propitiated.

SURYA corresponds to the Greek Helios. That is, he was not so much the god of light as the special god who dwelt in the body of the sun. The same distinction exists between Poseidon and Nereus; the one being the god of all waters, and even a visitor at Olyrnpos, the other a dweller in the sea. Surya is described as the husband of the dawn, and also as her son.

SAVITAR is another personification of the sun. His name means the “Inspirer”, and is derived from the root sa, “to drive” or “stimulate”. As the sun-god he is spoken of as the golden-eyed, golden-tongued, and golden-handed; and if we suppose that in process of time those epithets — quite appropriate in a purely physical sense — came to lose their purely physical meaning, so that Savitar came to signify an actual person who possessed a hand made of real gold, it is evident that the priests and others must have exercised their ingenuity in trying to account for the fact. Thus the Hindu commentators say that Savitar cut off his hand at a sacrifice, and that the priests gave him a golden one instead. Savitar thus corresponds to the Teutonic god Tyr, whose hand was cat off by the wolf Fenris. Like other gods in the Hindu and Norse mythologies, Savitar is regarded as all-powerful. That Savitar is a sun-god appears from the following passages from the Rigveda:—

Shining forth he rises from the lap of the dawn, praised by singers; he, he, my god Savitar, stepped forth, who never misses the same place.
He steps forth, the splendour of the sky, the wide-seeing, the far-shining, the shining wanderer; surely enlivened by the sun do men go to their tasks and do their work.
May the golden-eyed Savitii arise hither!

May the golden-handed, life-bestowing, well guarding, exhilarating, and affluent Savitri be present at the sacrifice!

The second passage seems to identify Savitar with Odin, who was also “the wanderer” — Wegtam, and who was one-eyed, as Savitar was one-handed.

SOMA — In some respects the myth of Soma is the most curious of any. Soma, as the intoxicating juice of the Soma plant, corresponds to that mixture of honey and blood of the Qoasir [Kvasir], which, in the Norse mythology, imparts prolonged life to the gods. In the Rigveda the Soma is similarly described; as also the process by which it is converted into an intoxicating liquid. But in the same hymns Soma is also described as an all-powerful god. It is he who gives strength to Indra, and enables him to conquer his enemy Vritra, the snake of darkness. He is further, like Vishnu, Indra, and Varuna, the supporter of heaven and earth, and of gods and men; thus it would seem as if the myth of the god Soma is but an instance of that fetishistic stage in the history of the human kind during which men attributed conscious life and energy to whatever hurt or benefited them. The following passages from the Rigveda are adduced to show in what terms Soma was spoken of as a god, and as a mere plant:

Where there is eternal light, in the world where the sun is placed, in the immortal, imperishable world, place me, O Soma …
Where life is free, in the third heaven of heavens, where the worlds are radiant, there make me immortal.

And again:

In filter, which is the support of the world, thou, pure Soma, art purified for the gods. The Usijas first gathered thee. In thee all their worlds are contained.
The Soma flowed into the vessel for Indra, for Vishnu; may it be honeyed for Vayu!

AGNI is the god of fire, his name evidently being connected with the Latin ignis. He corresponds to the Greek Hephaestos. Of this god Mr. Wheeler, in his introduction to his History of India, thus writes: «To man in a primitive state of existence the presence of fire excites feelings of reverence. Its powers raise it to the rank of a deity whose operations are felt and seen. It burns and it consumes. It dispels the darkness, and with it drives away, not only the imaginary horrors which the mind associates with darkness, but also the real horrors — such as beasts of prey. … It becomes identified with the light of the sun and moon; with the lightning which shoots from the sky and shatters the loftiest trees and strikes down the strong man; with the deity who covers the field with grain and ripens the harvest; with the divine messenger who licks up the sacrifice and carries it to the gods.»

As another curious instance of the sort of fetishism to which we have referred, there is a Vedic description of Agni as being generated from the rubbing of sticks, after which he burst forth from the wood like a fleet courser. Again, when excited by the wind he rushes amongst the trees like a bull, and consumes the forest as a raja destroys his enemies. Such sentiments of course prove the purely physical origin of the god Agni; and it is hardly necessary to observe that, like Indra., Varuna, Soma, Vishnu, etc., he is an all-powerful god, and supporter of the universe.

VAYU is the god of the winds, or of the air. Allied to him are the Maruts, — the storm-gods, or “crushers”, whose name is derived from a root meaning to grind, and is obviously connected with such names as Mars and Ares. The same root appears in Miolnir, an epithet of Thor, conceived as the crashing, or crushing god. The Maruts are the Hindu counterparts of the Norse Ogres — the fierce storm-beings who toss the sea into foam, and who, in the Norse Tales, are represented as being armed with iron clubs, at every stroke of which they send the earth flying so many yards into the air. The primary meaning of the name is clear from the Vedic passages which describe the Maruts as roaring among the forest trees, and tearing up the clouds for rain.

USHAS — Of all the personifications of Hindu mythology, by far the purest and most touching and beautiful is Ushas, whose name is the same as the Greek Eos — or the Dawn. The name Ushas is derived from a root us, “to burn”. She is also the same as the Sanskrit Ahoma, or Dahana, and the Greek Athene, and Daphne. The language in which the physical Ushas was spoken of was especially capable of easy transformation into a purely spiritual meaning. The dawn-light is beautiful to all men, barbarous or civilized; and it did not require any great stretch of poetic fancy to represent Ushas as a young wife awakening her children, and giving them new strength for the toils of the new day. It happens that the word which, in Sanskrit, means “to awake”, also means “to know”; and thus, like the Greek Athene, Ushas became a goddess of wisdom. The following passages show how Ushas was regarded by the Vedic worshippers.

Ushas, daughter of heaven, dawn upon us with riches; diffuser of light, dawn upon us with abundant food; beautiful goddess, dawn upon us with wealth of cattle.
This auspicious Ushas has harnessed her vehicles from afar, above the rising of the sun, and she comes gloriously upon men with a hundred chariots.

First of all the world is she awake, trampling over transitory darkness; the mighty, the giver of light, from on high she beholds all things; ever youthful, ever reviving, she comes first to the invocation.

Had we space for discussion of so interesting a subject, it would be easy to show how naturally the language in which the Vedic gods are described must ultimately have suggested a monotheistic conception. Meantime we content ourselves with the following monotheistic hymn, translated by Dr. Max Müller:

In the beginning there rose the source of golden light. He was the only lord of all that is; he established this earth and this sky: who is the god to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?
He who gives life, he who gives strength; whose blessings all the bright gods desire; whose shadow is immortality; whose shadow is death: who is the god to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?
He who through his power is the only king of all the breathing and awakening world. He who governs all, men and beasts: who is the god to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?

He whose power these snowy mountains, whose power the sea proclaims, with the distant river. He whose these regions are as it were his two arms: who is the god to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?

He through whom the sky is bright and the earth firm. He through whom the heaven was established — nay, the highest heaven; he who measured out the light in the air: who is the god to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?

He to whom heaven and earth, standing firm by his will, look up, trembling inwardly; he over whom the rising sun shines forth: who is the god to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?

***May he not destroy us, he the creator of the earth; or he the righteous, who created heaven; he who also created the bright and mighty waters: who is the god to whom we shall offer our sacrifice?


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Bust of Trimurti
In the caves at Elephanta.
Trimurti (“having three forms”) ’s three faces on a single body represent the creative (Brahma), preservative (Vishnu) and destructive (Shiva) aspects of the Supreme Being.

Of the later Hindu religion the chief deities are Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva — forming the Hindu Trinity, or Trimurti. These gods, however, are not regarded as separate, independent gods, but merely as three manifestations or revelations or phases of the spirit or energy of the supreme incomprehensible being Brahm. That the trinity is a comparatively late formation appears from the fact that it was unknown to the commentator Yaska. Yaska’s trinity is composed of the three Vedic gods — Agni, Vayu, and Surya.

Agni, in such trinity as the Brahmanic, appears to be known in the Mahabharata, which represents Brahma, Vishnu, and Indra as being the sons of Mahadeva, or Shiva. Perhaps, however, the reason of this is to be found in the mutual jealousy of the two great sects, Vaishnavas and Saivas, into which the Hindu religion came to be divided. To Brahm as the self-existent — of whom there is no image — there existed neither temples nor altars. As signifying, among other things, impersonality, the name Brahm is of the neuter gender, and the divine essence is described as that which illumines all, delights all, whence all proceeds, that of which they live when born, and that to which all must return.

BRAHMA is that member of the triad whose name is most familiar to Englishmen, and best familiar to the Hindus themselves. Images of him are found in the temples of other gods, but he has neither temples nor altars of his own. The reason of this is that Brahma, as the creative energy, is quiescent, and will remain so until the end of the present age of the world — of the Kali Yuga, that is — only a small portion of whose 432,000 years has already passed.

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Four-headed Brahma

It appears, however, that an attempt was made to represent even the divine spirit of Brahm; for the god Narayana means the spirit moving on the waters. Narayana is figured as a graceful youth lying on a snake couch which floats on the water, and holding his toe in his mouth.

Brahma is figured as a four-headed god, bearing in one hand a copy of the Vedas, in another a spoon for pouring out the lustral water contained in a vessel which he holds in a third hand, while the fourth hand holds a rosary. The rosary was used by the Hindus to aid them in contemplation, a bead being dropped on the silent pronunciation of each name of the god, while the devotee mused on the attribute signified by the name.

Brahma, like each god, had his sacti, or wife, or female counterpart, and his vahan, or vehicle, whereon he rode. Brahma’s sacti is Saraswati, the goddess of poetry, wisdom, eloquence, and fine art. His vahan was the, goose – hanasa, in Latin, gans.

VISHNU is the personification of the preserving power of the divine spirit. The Vaishnavas allege that Vishnu is the paramount god, because there is no distinction in the sense of annihilation, but only change or preservation. But of course the argument would cut all three ways, for it might as well be said that creation, preservation, and destruction are at bottom only one and the same thing — a fact thus pointing to the unity of God. Of the two Hindu sects the Vaishnaivas are perhaps the more numerous.

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Vishnu relief
Circa A.D. 425.
Vishnu is lying atop the serpent Ananta (“Infinite”), with his wife, Lakshmi, at his feet.

Vishnu is represented as being of a blue colour; his vahan is Garuda, the winged half-man, half-bird, king of birds, and his sacti, or wife, is the goddess Lakshmi. He is said to have four hands — one holding a chank, or shell, the second a charka or quoit, the third a club, and the fourth a lotus. Vishnu is also depicted lying asleep on Ananta, the serpent of eternity. At the end of the Kali Yuga, Vishnu will rest in that position; from his navel will spring a lotus stalk, on the top of which — above the surface of the waters, which at that time will cover the world — Brahma will appear to create the earth anew.

SHIVA is the destroyer — the third phase of Brahm’s energy. He is represented as of a white colour. His sacti is Bhavani or Pracriti, the terrible Doorga or Kali, and his vahan a white bull. Sometimes Shiva is figured with a trident in one hand. and in another a rope or pasha, with which he, or his wife Kali, strangles evil-doers. His necklace is made of human skulls; serpents are his earrings; his loins are wrapped in tiger’s skin; and from his head the sacred river Ganga is represented as springing.

Among the minor deities may be mentioned Kuvera, the god of worth; Lakshmi being the goddess of wealth; Kama-deva ,the god of love, who is represented as riding on a dove, and armed with an arrow of flowers, and a bow whose string is formed of bees ; and thirdly, Ganesa, the son of Shiva and Prithivi, who is regarded as the wisest of all the gods, is especially the god of prudence and policy, and is invoked at the opening of Hindu literary works.


The word avatar means, in its evident sense, “descent” — that from the world of the gods to the world of men. In these descents, or incarnations, the purpose of Vishnu has always been a beneficent one. His first avatar is named Matsya, wherein, during the reign of King Satyavrate, Vishnu appeared in the form of a fish. For the world had been deluged by water for its wickedness, and its inhabitants, except the king and seven sages, with their families, who, together with pairs of all species of animals entered into an ark prepared for them, and of which the fish took care, by having its cable tied to its horn. In the second, or Kurma avatar, Vishnu appeared in the form of a tortoise, supporting Mount Mandara on his back, while the gods churned the sea for the divine ambrosia. In the Varaha, or third avatar, Vishnu appeared as a boar to save the earth when it had been drowsed a second time. The boar went into the sea and fished the earth out on his tusks. In the fourth he appeared as Narasingha, the man-lion, to free the world from a monarch who, for his austerities, had been endowed by the gods with universal dominion. In this shape Vishnu tore the king to pieces. Subsequently he appeared as a dwarf; then as Rama, the hero of the Ramayana, who likewise was a beneficent being. His chief incarnation appears in Krishna, the god who is most loved by the Hindus. Buddha, the founder of the Buddhist religion, was also said to be an incarnation of Vishnu. Nine of these avatars have already passed. In the tenth, or Kalki Avatara, he will appear armed with a scimitar, and riding on a white horse, when he will end the present age; after which he will sleep on the waters, produce Brahma, and so inaugurate a new world.

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