Indian Religions: Mythic Themes

views updated


India, like other civilizations, has myths that deal with themes shared by all human beingsthe great themes of life and death, of this world and the world beyondwhich she inflects with her own personal colorations and thus makes different from the myths of other civilizations. Moreover, Indians have been inspired to create myths on themes that have not appealed to other civilizations with the same intensity, or on themes that simply do not exist outside of India. One can go further in laying out this spectrum of the general and the particular, beginning with the universals and moving through large shared cultures (such as the Indo-European) down through India as a whole until one reaches the many particular, local traditions within India. This approach views myths on the analogy of languages (as F. Max Müller taught), which can be broken down into language families (again, the Indo-European), languages, dialects, and regional dialects. Indeed, if one wishes, one can go still further, until one reaches, in India, at least a single language (or dialect) that is said to be spoken by a single person. So, too, at the end of the line (and perhaps at the beginning of the line too, in illo tempore ), each myth exists in a unique version in the mind of the individual who knows it.

In attempting to present an overview of Indian mythic themes, the author of this article has chosen to begin with the great universal themes as they appear in their Indian incarnations (primarily Hindu forms, though with some passing references to the Buddhist variants of the pan-Indian themes) and to move through the narrower Indo-European functions of the myths in India to variants that are uniquely Indian. There the article shall perforce stop; it would be impossible to trace the regional subvariations in an essay of limited size and wide range, and of course the subsubvariations in the minds of all the individual myth-knowers are infinite. But it must never be forgotten that these subvariations do exist (and have been recorded in some of the books listed in the bibliography attached to this article) and that, moreover, they flow not only downstream (from the pan-Indian to the local) but upstream, from the local to the pan-Indian, in a cybernetic process that lends the great myths much of their particular flavor, texture, and vivid detail.


Although it is no longer believed, as it once was, that all mythology is somehow connected with totemism, it is certainly still true that you cannot have a mythology without animals. Animals and gods are the two communities poised on the frontiers of the human community, the two "others" by which humans define themselves. And though all animals can be mythical, certain animals tend to be more mythical than others, more archetypal, if the reader will. Birds and snakes recur throughout the mythologies of the world, both individually and as a matched pair. Individually, birds (and eggs) are symbols of creation; their wings make them part of the kingdom of heaven, where they come to function as symbols of God (in Christianity) or of the magic woman from the other world (the swan-maiden of European folklore). Snakes slough their skin to become symbols of rebirth, or bite their tails to become symbols of infinity (the Uroboros); they bring about the loss of innocence (as in the Book of Genesis ) or the loss of immortality (as in the Epic of Gilgamesh ). Together, birds and snakes symbolize the elements of air and subterranean water, spirit and matter, good and evil, or simply the principle of opposition, through the observed natural enmity of the two species.

All of this symbolism is found in Indian mythology, together with more narrowly Indo-European themes: the killing of the dragon-serpent (Indra killing Vtra, Ka subduing Kāliya); the battle between birds and snakes (the quarrel between Vinatā, the mother of snakes, and Suparā, the mother of birds, in the opening books of the Mahābhārata ). Also found in the Mahābhārata are traces of the more subtle Indo-European theme of the battle between the snake and the horse (of which is found echoes in paintings of Saint George, always mounted on his white horse, killing the dragon): In the course of the quarrel between Vinatā and Suparā, the black snakes form the hairs of the tail of the sacred horse, a trick that leads eventually to a great sacrifice in which snakes are killed in place of the usual stallion. But as might be expected in a country as snaky as India, snake symbolism is more luxuriant than it is elsewhere. The nāgas, half serpent, half deity, who inhabit the waters of the lower world, participate in many myths and adorn most temples; Viu sleeps on Ananta, the serpent of eternity, and Śiva wears snakes for his bracelets, his necklaces, his sacred thread, and (with occasionally embarrassing results) his belt. Birds of a rich mythological plumage are equally pervasive; Viu rides on the garua bird (a descendant of the Vedic sun-bird), Skanda on a peacock (an appropriate emblem for the general of the army of the gods), and Brahmā on a royal goose or swan (the hasa that is also a symbol of the transmigrating soul).

Another important Indo-European pair of animals, the horse and the cow, remain essential to the mythology of the Vedas and to that of later Hinduism. The stallion loses in India some of his ancient power as a symbol of royal, martial, and fertile functions (the Indo-European triad), although he remains an important figure on the local, village level, where one still encounters many minor horse deities and equine heroes, as well as charming terra-cotta horses, some of enormous size. The mare became in India a symbol of the voracious female who must be tamed (like the submarine fire in the form of a mare held in check by the waters of the ocean, until the moment when she will emerge at doomsday to destroy the universe). But the animal who truly usurped the stallion's place of honor is the cow, which became symbolic of all the values of the society of the newly settled Ganges Valley (in contrast with the nomadic, warring Indo-European society that was so well symbolized by the stallion); the cow represented motherhood, nourishment, chastity, and noninjury (the cow being an animal able to furnish food without having to be slaughtered). The bull plays a relatively minor role, primarily as Nandi, the vehicle of Śiva.

A more purely Indian symbol is the elephant, representing royalty, power, wisdom, fertility, longevity, and much else. The mother of the future Buddha dreamed, upon conceiving him, that a white elephant had entered her womb; Lakmī, the goddess of good fortune, is lustrated by two elephants; elephants support the earth and the quarters of the sky; the god Gaeśa, patron of scribes and of all enterprises, has the head of an elephant, the source of his cunning and of his ability to remove obstacles. At the other end of the Indian animal spectrum is the dog, already maligned in Indo-European mythology (Kerberos, the dog of Hades, appears in the gveda as the two Sārameyas, the four-eyed brindled dogs of Yama, the king of the dead). In India, the dog became a vehicle for all the negative values of the caste system; he was regarded as unclean, promiscuous both in his eating habits and in his (or, more often, her) sexual habits; dogs are said to be the food of untouchables (who are called "dog-cookers," śvapakas, in Sanskrit). Yet Yudhihira, the righteous king in the Mahābhārata, refused to enter heaven until the gods allowed to enter with him the dog that had followed him faithfully through all his trials, a dog who turned out to be none other than the god Dharma himself, incarnate.

In addition to these individual animals, Indian mythology teems with animals of a more miscellaneous sort. Every Indian god has an animal for its vehicle (vāhana ). This association means not only that the god is literally carried about on such an animal (for the elephant-headed Gaeśa is awkwardly mounted on a bandicoot, or large rat) but also (and more importantly) that the animal "carries" the god in the way that a breeze "carries" perfume, that the god is always present in that animal, in all of its manifestations (the bandicoot, for example, shares Gaeśa's nimbleness of wit and ability to get past anything, and so is indeed an appropriate vehicle for the god). This is the only sense in which animals (including cows) are sacred in India; the tendency not to kill them (which does not, unfortunately, generally extend to a tendency not to ill-treat them) arises from something else, from the concept of noninjury (ahisā ) that discourages the taking of any life in any form. In addition to these official vehicles, many gods appear in theriomorphic or semitheriomorphic forms; Viu becomes incarnate as the man-lion Narasiha, but he also is often represented with the head of a boar and the body of a man in his avatāra as the boar. When Śiva makes war on Viu the boar, he takes the form of a śarabha, a beast with eight legs, eight tusks, a mane, and a long tail.

More generally, whether or not people get the gods they deserve, they tend to get the gods that their animals deserve; the natural fauna of any country has a lot to do with the ways in which the people of that country perceive their gods. For example, two animals that play an important role in Indian mythology are the monkey and the tiger. Although neither of these animals is the vehicle of a god, the monkey is a cousin of Hanuman, the monkey ally of Rāma, the divine hero of the Rāmāyaa, and the tiger sometimes replaces the lion as the vehicle of the goddess Devī (especially in places where lions have long been extinct). But the influence of monkeys and tigers extends far beyond their recorded roles in the mythology. The ingenious mischievousness of the monkey and the uncanny cruelty and beauty of the tiger are qualities that have found their way into the images of many Hindu gods and goddesses. If Judaism has a mythology of lions, and Christianity a mythology of sheep, India has a mythology of monkeys and tigers.

The Tree and the Mountain at the Center of the Earth

Many, if not all, of the mythologies of the world have located a tree or a mountain, or both, at the center of the world. In India, the sacred mountain is Mount Meru, the golden mountain, wider at its peak than at its base. The sacred tree, too, is inverted, the banyan with its roots in the air. The particularly Indian variants of this myth begin in the gveda, where the sacred soma plant, which bestows immortality on the gods, functions as the axis mundi, or cosmic pillar, in propping apart heaven and earth. The same soma plant is said to have been stolen from heaven by Indra, mounted on an eagle, who carried the plant down to the mountains of earth. This is the Indian variant of the Indo-European myth of the theft of fire; Prometheus carried fire down to earth in a hollow fennel stalk, while Indra (who also embodies the lightning bolt) carries the fiery liquid of soma in its own hollow stalk. The association of the mountain, the sacred plant, and the theft continued to produce offshoots in later Hindu mythology. In the Rāmāyaa, Hanuman is sent to fetch a magic plant that will revive the fallen hero; he flies to the magic mountain and, unable to decide which plant it is that he wants, uproots the entire mountain and brings it to the battlefield. Elsewhere in the Rāmāyaa, and in the Mahābhārata, the gods and demons join forces to use the sacred mountain Mandara as a churn with which they churn the waters of the ocean to obtain the soma. As soon as they get it, the demons steal the soma from the gods, and the gods steal it back again.

Snakes are also associated with the mountain and the magic plant (as is the serpent in Eden) and with the cosmic waters: When the serpent Vtra has wrapped himself around a mountain, holding back the waters (which are homologous both with the soma juice that Indra loves and with the rains that he controls), Indra pierces him so that the waters flow again; it is a snake, Vasuki, who is used as the rope for the churn when the gods and demons churn the ocean for soma ; and when Viu sleeps on the serpent of eternity in the midst of the cosmic ocean, a lotus plant grows up out of his navelthe navel of the universe. This web of associations forms the framework for the many local myths about particular trees (banyan trees, coconut palms, the sacred mango tree in the temples of South India) and particular plants sacred to particular gods (the tulsi of Viu, the rudrāka s of Śiva).

Cosmogony, Theogony, and Anthropogony

Most Indian mythologies seem to agree about the way in which the universe is arranged: It has a sacred mountain in the center, and concentric oceans and continents around the center; the sacred mountain connects the earth with heaven above and the underworld below. This is the basic Indian cosmology. But there are many different explanations of how the universe came to be the way that it is; these are the Indian cosmogonies. The earliest source, the gveda, refers glancingly to many different theories of creation. Sometimes the world is seen as the result (often apparently a mere byproduct) of a cosmic battle, such as the victory of Indra over Vtra, or as the consequence of the seemingly unmotivated act of separating heaven and earth, an act that is attributed to several different gods. These aspects of creation are woven in and out of the hymns in the older parts of the gveda (books 29). But in the later, tenth book one encounters for the first time hymns that are entirely devoted to speculations on the origins of the cosmos. Some of these hymns seek the origins of the existence of existence itself, or of the creator himself, the golden womb or golden embryo (later to become the golden egg or the golden seed of fire in the cosmic waters). Other hymns speculate upon the sacrifice as the origin of the earth and the people in it, or upon the origins of the sacrifice itself. Sacrifice is central to many concepts of creation, particularly to those explicitly linked to the sacrificial gods or even sacred speech itself, but it also appears as a supplement to other forms of creation, such as sculpture or the spreading out of dirt upon the surface of the waters.

In more anthropomorphic conceptions, creation takes place through a primeval act of incest. In the Brāhmaas, the incestuous father is identified as Prajāpati, the lord of creatures; his seed, cast into the fire in place of the usual oblation of clarified butter or soma juice, was distributed into various life-forms, ritually creating the living world. Later Indian cosmogonies in the epics and Purāas continue to combine the abstract with the anthropomorphic. Sometimes the universe is said to arise out of the waters of chaos, from a flame of desire or loneliness that expresses itself in the creation of living forms as well as such abstract entities as the year, logic, grammar, and the thirty-six musical scales. Sometimes a single god (Brahmā, the creator, or Śiva or Viu, according to the sectarian bias of the text, or even an undifferentiated sort of Vedantic godhead) arises out of the primeval waters and begins to create, more precisely to emit, the world from within himself; this emission (prasarga ) is the act of projecting his mind onto formless chaos to give it the form that is its substance. In this latter case, the god usually continues to create by taking the form of an androgyne or by producing a woman out of his own body. From there creation proceeds through anthropomorphic methods, often by a combination of sexual intercourse and the generating of ascetic heat, or tapas.

The link between abstract cosmogony and highly inflected anthropogony is made explicit in the Purāas, which are traditionally expected to deal with five basic topics: the primary creation (of the universe) and the secondary creation (of gods and humans and all the other living creatures); the dynasties of the sun and of the moon (that trace their lineage back to those divine celestial bodies and forward to the rulers at the time of the recension of the text that contains the list); and the ages of the Manus or ancestors of humans, generally said to be fourteen (the present time is the seventh Manus age). A different sort of cosmogony-cum-anthropogony begins back in the gveda. This is the Indo-European theme of the dismemberment of a cosmic giant or primeval man (Purua), a theme that also appears, outside of India, as the dismemberment of the primeval androgyne. In the gveda, this man is the victim in a sacrifice that he himself performs; the moon is born from his mind, the sun from his eye, the gods from his mouth, and so forth. Moreover, from this dismemberment there arise the four classes, or varas, of ancient Indian society: the brahman s from his head, the rulers and warriors from his chest, the workers from his arms, and the servants from his feet. The Indian text thus extends the three original Indo-European functions that Georges Dumézil taught researchers to recognize (priest-kings, warriors, and producers of fertility) by adding a fourth class that is "outside" the original three, for these three alone receive the epithet "twice-born" (that is, reborn at the time of initiation) throughout Indian social history.

But the myth of the dismembered man says little about theogony, and the gveda contains no systematic narration of the birth of the gods as a whole, although the births of various gods are described in some detail: Indra, kept against his will inside his mother's womb for many years, bursts forth out of her side and kills his own father; Agni, the god of fire, is born of the waters; and so forth. One important late hymn does speak of the birth of the gods in general, from a female called Aditi (Infinity), who is more particularly the mother of the sun and who remains the mother of the solar gods or adityas (who are contrasted with the daityas, or demons, the sons of Diti) throughout later Indian mythology.

In the epics and Purāas, the creation of the gods (and, in turn, of humankind and the animals) is usually attributed to whichever god is regarded by the text in question as the supreme god; thus the Vedic tendency to worship several different gods, but to regard the god one is addressing at the moment as God (a kind of theological serial monogamy that F. Max Müller dubbed henotheism or kathenotheism, "one god at a time") continues into post-Vedic theogonies and anthropogonies.

Eschatology and Death

At the end of each aeon comes doomsday, or pralaya, when the universe is destroyed by a combination of fire and flood until at last the primeval waters of chaos close back over the ashes of the triple world. In anthropomorphic terms, this is regarded as the moment when God, whose waking moments or whose dream has been the source of the "emission" of the universe from his mind, falls into a deep, dreamless sleep inside the cosmic waters. And at the end of that sleep, at the end of the period of quiescence, the universe, and the consciousness of the god, is reborn once more out of the waters of chaos.

Thus, eschatology is necessarily the flip side of cosmogony; the wave set in motion by the act of creation is already destined to end in a certain kind of dissolution. The particular Indian twist on the Indo-European model, which added a fourth class to the original three in the anthropogony, places its stamp on the Indo-European eschatology, with its twilight of the gods. First of all, India developed, like Greece, a theory of four ages of declining goodness; where the Greeks named these ages after metals, the Indians called them after throws of the dice, the first and best being the ktayuga, which is followed by the tratā, the dvāpara, and finally the present age, or kaliyuga (the equivalent of snake-eyes in dice). The choice of the metaphor of dice, with its implication of a fortuitous, impersonal controlling mechanism (which is, moreover, a negative onethe house always wins), is not itself fortuitous; it expresses a basic Indian belief in the inevitable loss of goodness and happiness through the fault of no conscious agent, but just "through the effects of time." The Indian version of the loss of Eden (which appears in Buddhist and Jain as well as Hindu texts) further emphasizes a change in quality between the first three ages and the fourth: The first three are the mythic ages, while the last is real, happening now. And the "end" that comes after the fourth age is not the end at all; the linear decline is combined with the circular pattern of cosmogony and eschatology that has already been seen, and the end becomes the beginning. Time spirals back in on itself like a Möbius strip.

This eternal circularity of time is further developed in India within the context of the unique Indian mythology of karman, according to which there is a substance that is intrinsic to all action (karman, from the Sanskrit verb k, cognate with the Latin creo, "to do, to make") and that adheres to the transmigrating soul throughout its life and across the barrier of death, determining the nature of the next rebirth. There are many assumptions embedded in this theory: that there is a transmigrating soul; that one's positive and negative actions are tallied up and carried across the bottom of the ledger page at the end of each life. But the mythology of karman reveals a hidden ambivalence in the values expressed by the theory of karman. That is, in many myths of karman, people want to go on being reborn, in better and better conditions of life, and ultimately in the heaven of the gods. These are the myths within the Vedic and Puranic corpus that exalt pravtti, or active involvement in worldly life (sasāra ). But there are many other myths in which people want to escape from the wheel of rebirth, to cease from all activity (nivtti ), to find release (moka ); these are myths influenced by Vedānta and by Buddhism and Jainism. In this latter view, the universal eschatology is replaced by the individual eschatology (or soteriology), the ultimate dissolution of the individual soul (ātman ) in its final release from the universe itself.

A parallel development took place in the mythology of death. In the gveda, death is vaguely and uneasily alluded to as the transition to a place of light where the ancestors live, a place ruled by Yama, the primeval twin and the first mortal to die. Much of the subsequent mythology of the Brāhmaas is an attempt first to explain the origin of death and then to devise means by which death may be overcome, so that the sacrificer will be guaranteed immortality. The Upaniads then begin to speak of the terrors of re-death, and to begin to devise ways of obtaining not immortality but release from life altogether, moka. And in medieval Hinduism, bhakti, or the passionate and reciprocated devotion to a sectarian deity (Śiva, Viu, or the Goddess), was thought to procure for the worshiper a kind of combination of the Vedic heaven and the Vedantic release: release from this universe into an infinite heaven of bliss in the presence of the loving god. In this way, the mythology of bhakti resolved the conflict between the Vedic desire for eternal life and the Vedantic desire to be free of life forever.

Householder and Renouncer, Dharma and Moka

A similarly irreconcilable conflict of values is addressed in the Hindu mythology of the householder and the ascetic. Again, one can, if one wishes, see this simply as the Indian version of the widespread theme of the conflict between involvement in the world and a commitment to otherworldly, spiritual values, the conflict between God and mammon. But one can still view the development of this theme within the particular context of Indian intellectual history, more particularly as another instance of the pattern that adds a (transcendental) Indian fourth to an older, Indo-European societal triad. Originally, there were three stages of life, or āśrama s, in ancient India: student, householder, and forest dweller. That this was in fact the original triad is substantiated by the three "debts" that all Hindus owe: study (the first stage), the debt owed to the Vedic seers, or i s; the oblation (performed by all married householders) to the ancestors; and sacrifice (offered by the semirenunciatory forest dweller) to the gods. And there were three goals of life: (puruārtha s): success (artha ), social righteousness (dharma ), and pleasure (kāma ). At the time of the Upaniads and the rise of Buddhism, Jainism, and other cults of meditation and renunciation, a fourth stage of life was added, that of the renouncer (sanyāsin ), and a fourth goal, moka. Although these fourth elements were basically and essentially incompatible with the preceding triads, revolutionary negations of all that they stood for, the dauntless eclecticism of Hinduism cheerfully embraced them as supplements or complementary alternatives to the other three. (Similarly, the Atharvaveda, a text wholly incommensurate to the other three Vedas in style and purport, was tacked on as the fourth Veda during roughly the same period.) This conjunction of opposites inspired many ingenious responses in the mythology. In some myths, the covert, ancient, antiascetic bias of worldly Hinduism was expressed through tales of hypocritical, lecherous, and generally carnal renouncers; in others, the self-deceptive aspirations of otherworldly householders were dashed or ridiculed. In yet others, the uneasy compromise of the forest dwellerhalf householder, half renouncer, and the worst half of bothwas exposed as a double failure; the myths in which Śiva mocks the sanctimonious sages of the Pine Forest and their sex-starved wives, or the myths in which the impotent and jealous sage Jamadagni curses his lubricious wife, Rnukā, are important examples of this genre.

The mythology of renunciation, particularly as it interacted with the mythology of the ancient, nonrenunciatory orthodox caste system, gave rise to an important cycle of myths about kings and untouchables. Even in the Vedic period, the ritual of royal consecration included a phase in which the king had to experience symbolically a kind of reversal, renunciation, or exile before he could take full command of his kingdom. In the later mythology of the epics, this theme is crucial: Both the heroes of the Mahābhārata and Rāma in the Rāmāyaa are forced to dwell in exile for many years before returning to rule their kingdoms. In several of the early forms of this myth, the period of exile is spent in association with untouchables; thus Hariścandra, Viśvāmitra, and other great kings are "cursed" to live as untouchables among untouchables before being restored to their rightful kingship. In terms of world (or at least Indo-European) mythology, one can see this theme as the Indian variant of the motif of the true king who is kidnapped or concealed for his own protection at the time of his birth (the slaughter of the innocents) and raised among peasants before returning to claim his throne. This theme is well known through such figures as Moses, Jesus, Oedipus, Romulus, or even Odysseus, and, in India, Ka. But the particularly Indian aspect of this theme emerges from two special applications of the phenomenon of renunciation or exile.

First, this experience happens not only to kings but also to brahman s, many of whom are cursed or otherwise condemned to live as untouchables for a period before they are ultimately restored to their brahmanhood. This adventure is neither politically necessary nor psychosexually expedient (in the Freudian mode); it is simply an aspect of the initiation into suffering and otherness that is essential for the fully realized human being in Indian myths. For the king, at the top of the political scale, the experience among the untouchables is a descent from power to impotence; for the brahman, at the top of the religious scale, it is a descent from purity to defilement. The experience of impotence is regarded as just as essential for the wise execution of power as the experience of defilement is essential for the dispassionate achievement of purity.

Second, the Indian development of the myth of renunciation and exile does not always end with the resumption of political power. The most famous example of this alternative denouement is the myth of Gautama, the Buddha Śākyamuni, who dwelt among the Others not by actually leaving his palace to live as an untouchable but by seeing and empathizing with the quintessential "other" from the standpoint of a young king who had been sheltered from every form of weakness or sadness: the vision of an old man, a sick man, a dead man, and a renouncer. As a result of this vision, the Buddha left his palace, never to return again. This myth served as a paradigm not only for many Buddhist (and Buddhist-influenced) myths of renunciant kings but also for many local, sectarian myths about saints and the founders of heterodox traditions, who left the comfort of orthodoxy to dwell among the Othersnot necessarily true untouchables, but non-brahman s, even women, people who did not know Sanskrit and had no right to sacrificeand who never returned.

A final cycle within the corpus of myths of renunciation is the series of myths in which "good" demons "renounce" the canons of demonality in order to become ascetics or devotees of the sectarian gods. The myth of the demon Prāhlada, who loved Viu and was saved from the attacks of his truly demonic father by Viu in the form of the man-lion, is the most famous example of this genre. One could view these myths as covert attacks on the threat posed by the ideal of asceticism to the worldly basis of conventional Hinduism: Anyone who strove for renunciation, instead of remaining within the bourgeois, sacrificial Hindu fold, was "demonic." To this extent, the myths of good demons can with profit be related to other, non-Indian myths about conscientious devils and saintly witches, myths in which religious innovators or inspired misfits are consigned by the religious establishment to the ranks of the ungodly. But, as always, the Indian variant is peculiarly Indian; here, these myths become myths about caste, and although there are many systems that may resemble caste, there is nothing outside India that duplicates the caste system.

The myths of the good demon are myths in which the overarching, absolute, pan-Indian values of universal dharma (sanātana dharma, which includes truthfulness, generosity, and noninjury) are pitted against the specific, relative, mutually contradictory, and localized values of "one's own dharma " (svadharma ), which is peculiar to each caste. Thus, some castes may be enjoined to kill animals, to kill people in battle, to execute criminals, to carry night soil, or even to rob. As the Bhagavadgītā relates, it is better to do one's own duty well (even if it violates absolute dharma ) than to do someone else's duty (even if it does not violate absolute dharma ). The good demongood in relativistic, demonic termswould be good at killing and raping, not good at telling the truth. Thus, in the mythology of orthodox Hinduism, the gods send Viu in the form of the Buddha to corrupt the "good" demons, to persuade them (wrongly) to give up Vedic sacrifices in favor of noninjury and Buddhist meditation. Stripped of their armor of absolute goodness, the demons are destroyed by the gods, while the demons who remain safely within the fold of their relative goodness survive to contribute their necessary leaven of evil to the balance of the universe. In the later mythology of bhakti, however, which successfully challenged caste relativism, the "good" demons are not destroyed; on the contrary, they are translated out of the world entirely, forever absolved of the necessity of performing their despicable duties (despicable in absolute terms), to dwell forever with the God for whom caste has no meaning.

These myths may also express the conflict between life-affirming Vedic values (which, traditionally, have included killing one's enemies in battle as well as killing sacrificial animals) and life-renouncing Vedantic values (of which ahisā, the ideal of noninjury, is the most famous if not the most important). They may also be viewed as conflicts between contradictory cosmogonies. The traditional Hindu universe, or "world egg," was closed; those who died must be reborn in order to allow life to recirculate; those who were virtuous had to be balanced by others who were evil in a world of limited good. This reciprocity was further facilitated by the karman theory, which held that one's accrued good and bad karman could be transferred, particularly through exchanges of food or sexual contact, from one person to another; if one gained, the other lost. Thus, if there are to be saints, there must be sinners. Nor may the sinners refuse to sin, or the demon to rape and pillage, if the saint is to be able to bless and meditate. (Or, in another part of the forest, the householder must not refuse to sacrifice and produce food if the renouncer is to be able to remain aloof from sacrifice and yet to go on eating.) Yet the renouncer wished, ideally, to leave this universe altogether; the good demon wished to abandon demondom forever. The bhakti mythology of good demons was thus inspired to create a series of liminal heavens in which the devotee, or bhakta, demonic or human, could satisfy the absolute demands of universal dharma while disqualifying himself from, rather than defying or explicitly renouncing, the demonic demands of his own svadharma.

Gods versus Demons

But it is a mistake to view demons as merely the symbolic expression of certain human social paradoxes. Demons exist, and are the enemies of the gods. Indeed, in India that is what demons primarily are: non-gods. In the earliest layer of the gveda, which still shares certain important links with Avestan mythology and looser ties with the Olympian gods and Titans, gods and demons were not different in nature or kind; they were brothers, the children of Prajāpati, the lord of creatures. The demons were the older brothers, and therefore had the primary claim on the kingdom of heaven; the gods were the usurpers. The gods triumphed, however, and post-Vedic mythology (beginning with the Brāhmaas) began to associate the divine victors with a cluster of moral virtues (truthfulness, piety, and all the other qualities of universal dharma ) and the demonic losers with the corresponding moral flaws. The "good" demons of the medieval pantheon, therefore, were not so much upstarts as archconservatives, reclaiming their ancient right to be as virtuous as the gods of the arriviste establishment.

These palace intrigues in heaven had interesting repercussions on earth, in the relationship between humans and gods. In the gveda, humans and gods were pitted against demons. Humans and gods were bound to one another by the mutually beneficial contract of sacrifice: The gods kept humans prosperous and healthy in return for the offerings that kept the gods themselves alive and well and living in heaven. The demons were the enemies of both gods and humans; the major demons or asura s (the ex-Titans) threatened the gods in heaven, while the minor demons, or rākasa s (more like ghouls or goblins), tormented people, both in their secular lives (killing newborn children, causing diseases) and in their sacred offices (interfering with the sacrifices that maintained the all-important bond between heaven and earth).

But with the rise of the ideal of renunciation as a challenge to the sacrificial order, these simple lines were broken. For demons might offer sacrifice, but if they sacrificed to the gods they strengthened their enemies, which went against their own interests, while if they offered the libations into their own mouths (as they were said to do in the Brāhmaas) they exposed their innate selfishness, and the powers of truth and generosity abandoned them, taking with them their power to overcome the gods in battle. But if demons amassed ascetic power they could not be faulted on traditional moral groundsfor they had, in effect, renounced traditional moral groundsand their power could not be neutralized by the powers of the gods. In this situation, demons were like human ascetics, who could bypass the entire Brahmanic sacrificial structure and strike out as religious loners, outside the system, with powers that, although gained by nonsacrificial methods, could nevertheless challenge the sacrificial powers of the gods on equal grounds, because the heat (tapas ) generated by the ascetic was of the same intrinsically sacred nature as the heat generated by the sacrificial priest. In the myths, this challenge is expressed by the simple transfer of heat: The tapas generated by the demonic or human ascetic rises, as heat is wont to do, and heats the throne of Indra, the king of the gods; Indra immediately recognizes the source of his discomfort (for it recurs with annoying frequency) and dispatches from heaven a voluptuous nymph (an apsaras ) to seduce the would-be ascetic by siphoning off his erotic heat in the form of his seed. In this middle period, therefore, the epic period in which Indra ruled in heaven, humans and demons could be pitted against the gods.

A further realignment took place with the rise of the great sectarian gods, Viu and Śiva. The mythology of the "good" demon brought into play a mythology of the "good" untouchable or the good non-brahman in local and vernacular traditions; one aspect of this development has been seen in the myths of the king among the untouchables. For in bhakti mythology the devotional gods are on the side of good humans and good demons alike; they are against only evil humans and evil demons. The straightforward lines of Vedic allegiance are thus sicklied o'er with the pale cast of morality. While in classical orthodox Hinduism, it was one's action that mattered (orthopraxy ), now it was one's thought that mattered (orthodoxy ). Thus, devotional Hinduism can be generous to untouchables, and even to Buddhists and Muslims, whose ritual activities made them literally anathema to orthodox Hinduism, but it can be bitterly intransigent toward wrong-thinking Hindus (and, of course, to wrong-thinking Muslims, Buddhists, and untouchables), no matter how observant they might be of caste strictures governing behavior. In this view, what one is (demon or untouchable) or what one does (kill, tan leather) is not so important as what one thinks, or, even more, feels (love for the true God).


This emphasis on what is thought or felt in contrast with what is done or brought into existence is basic to all of Indian mythology. Its roots go back to the Vedas, where the gods use their powers of illusion (maya ) not merely to delude the demons (themselves masters of illusion) but to create the entire universe. The Upanisadic doctrine that the state of unity with the godhead is closer to dreaming sleep than it is to waking life (and closest of all to dreamless sleep) paved the way for the concept, already encountered in the myths of cosmogony, that the universe is merely a projection or emanation from the mind of a (sleeping) god, that humankind is all merely a dream of God. The belief that the gods are seen most closely in one's dreams is encountered widely outside of India and accounts, in part, for the universal value set on premonitory dreams. But just as Indian philosophy, particularly Mahāyāna Buddhist philosophy, developed the doctrine of illusion to a pitch unknown in other forms of idealism, so too Indian mythology played countless imaginative variants on the theme of dreams and illusion.

In its simplest form, the theme could transform any myth at all into a myth of illusion: At the end of any number of complex adventures, the god appears ex machina to say that it was all nothing but a dream. All is as it was at the beginning of the storyall, that is, but one's understanding of what the situation was at the beginning of the story. This is a motif that is known from other cultures (although not, one suspects, from any culture that could not have borrowed it from India). But in its more complex form, the theme of illusion is combined with the folk motif of the tale within a tale, the mechanism of Chinese boxes, with the peculiar Indian Möbius twist: The dreamers or tellers of tales are dreaming of one another, or the dreamer of the first in a series of nested dreams, one within the other, turns out to be a character inside the innermost dream in the series. Ultimately, the worshiper is dreaming into existence the god who is dreaming him into existence.

The Pantheon

This article has left until last the theme that is usually regarded as the meat and potatoes of mythology: the pantheon of gods and goddesses. These will all be treated separately elsewhere in this encyclopedia, so for this author it remains only to remark upon their interrelationships and the patterns of their interactions. The basic structure of the Indian pantheon might be viewed, appropriately enough in the home of homo hierarchicus, in terms of a decentralized hierarchy. At the center of the pantheon is a single god, or a godhead, recognized by most Hindus. They may refer to it (him/her) as the Lord (Īsvara), the One, the godhead (brahman ), or by a number of other names of a generally absolute character. This godhead is then often identified with one of the great pan-Indian gods: Śiva, Viu, or the Goddess (Devī). The concept of a trinity consisting of Brahmā the creator, Viu the preserver, and Śiva the destroyer is entirely artificial, although it is often encountered in the writings of Hindus as well as Western scholars. If there is any functional trinity, it is the triangle of Śiva, who is married to Devī, who is the sister of Viu.

On the third level of differentiation, Viu may be worshiped in the form of one of his avatāra s (of which Rāma and Ka are by far the most popular), and Śiva may be worshiped in one of his "manifestations" or "playful appearances" on earth. Devī is often identified with a local goddess who brings as her dowry her own complex mythology. In general, local gods are assimilated to the pan-Indian pantheon through marriage, natural birth or adoption, or blatant identification: Durgā marries Śiva; Skanda is the natural son of Śiva; the demon Andhaka becomes Bhngin, the adopted son of Śiva; and Aiyanar is Skanda, a god by another name. These assimilations work in the upstream direction as well; the pan-Indian concept of the dancing Śiva probably originated in South India, and the erotic liaison of Ka and Rādhā in Bengal. Such cross-fertilizations result in gods and goddesses who are truly and literally multifaceted; their many heads and arms reflect not merely the many things that they are and can do, but the many places they have come fromand are heading toward.

At this point, the pantheon splinters into a kaleidoscope of images and tales that demonstrate how the one God became manifest right here, in Banaras or Gujurat or Madurai, how this particular temple or shrine became the center of the earth. For, like a hologram, the entire Indian mythological panorama is always present in its entirety in every single spot in the Indian world.

See Also

Avatāra; Bhakti; Birds; Cosmology, articles on Hindu Cosmology, Jain Cosmology; Dharma, article on Hindu Dharma; Elephants; Horses; Karman; Mahābhārata; Māyā; Monkeys; Nāgas and Yakas; Purāas; Rāmāyaa; Sanyāsa; Snakes; Tapas; Vara and Jāti.


There are several good introductory collections of Indian myths. Both my own Hindu Myths (Harmondsworth, U.K., 1975) and Cornelia Dimmitt and J. A. B. van Buitenen's Classical Hindu Mythology (Philadelphia, 1978) give translations of selected central texts. The latter inclines more to folkloric and localized Sanskrit traditions; the former leans more toward the classical themes and includes a detailed bibliography of primary and secondary sources. The available surveys are useful as reference works: Sukumari Bhattacharji's The Indian Theogony (Cambridge, U.K., 1970), Alain Daniélou's Hindu Polytheism (London, 1964), V. R. Ramachandra Dikshitar's The Purāa Index (Madras, 1955), E. Washburn Hopkins's Epic Mythology (1915; reprint, New York, 1969), A. A. Macdonell's Vedic Mythology (1897; reprint, New York, 1974), Vettam Mani's Puranic Encyclopaedia (Delhi, 1975), and Sören Sörensen's An Index to the Names in the Mahābhārata, 13 pts. (London, 19041925).

Most of the primary sources for Indian mythology in Sanskrit are now available in English translations of varying reliability. For the gveda, see my The Rig Veda (Harmondsworth, U.K., 1982); for the Brāhmaas, see Arthur Berriedale Keith's Aitareya and Kauītaki Brāhmaas (Cambridge, Mass., 1920); Julius Eggeling's The Śatapatha Brāhmaa, 5 vols., "Sacred Books of the East," vols. 12, 26, 41, 43, and 44 (Oxford, 18821900; reprint Delhi, 1966); Willem Caland's The Pañcavia Brāhmaa (Calcutta, 1931); and A. A. Macdonell's The Bhaddevatā Attributed to Śaunaka (Cambridge, Mass., 1904). The Mahābhārata has been completely if awkwardly translated by Pratap Chandra Roy and K. M. Ganguli, 12 vols. (18841896; 2d ed., Calcutta, 1970); a fine new translation by J. A. B. van Buitenen, terminated by his death when he had completed only five of the eighteen books (Chicago, 19731978), is in process of completion by the University of Chicago Press at the hands of a team of translators. The Rāmāyaa has been completely if clumsily translated by Hari Prasad Shastri, 3 vols. (London, 1962), and is now being properly translated by Robert P. Goldman and others and published by Princeton University Press.

The Purāas, which are the main sources for the study of Hindu mythology, are now becoming available in English translations in several different series: "Ancient Indian Tradition and Mythology" (AITM), published by Motilal Banarsidass in Delhi; the "All-India Kashiraj Trust" (AIKT), in Varanasi; and two older series that have recently been resurrected, the "Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series" (CSS), in Varanasi, and the "Sacred Books of the Hindus" (SBH), originally published in Allahabad and now republished in New York by AMS Press. These are the Purāas that have emerged so far:

Agnipurāam. 2 vols. Translated by M. N. Dutt. CSS, no. 54. Calcutta, 1901; reprint, Varanasi, 1967.

Bhāgavata. 4 vols. Translated by Ganesh Vasudeo Tagare. AITM, nos. 710. Delhi, 1976.

Brahmāa. 5 vols. Translated by Ganesh Vasudeo Tagare. AITM, nos. 2226. Delhi, 1983.

Brahma-vaivarta Purāam. 2 vols. Translated by Rajendra Nath Sen. SBH, no. 24. Allahabad, 19201922; reprint, New York, 1974.

Śrimad Devī Bhāgavatam. Translated by Swami Vijnanananda. SBH, no. 26. Allahabad, 19221923, issued in parts; reprint, New York, 1973.

Garuapurāam. Translated by M. N. Dutt. CSS, no. 67. Calcutta, 1908; reprint, Varanasi, 1968.

Kūrma Purāa. Translated by Ahibhushan Bhattacharya and edited by Anand Swarup Gupta. Varanasi, 1972.

Liga Purāa. 2 vols. Edited by Jagdish Lal Shastri and translated by a board of scholars. AITM, nos. 56. Delhi, 1973.

Markandeya Purāa. Translated by F. Eden Pargiter. Bibliotheca Indica. Calcutta, 18881904, issued in parts; reprint, Delhi, 1969.

Matsya Purāam. 2 vols. Translated by a taluqdar of Oudh. SBH, no. 17. Allahabad, 19161919.

Śiva Purāa. 4 vols. Edited by Jagdish Lal Shastri and translated by a board of scholars. AITM, nos. 14. Delhi, 1970.

Vāmana Purāa. Translated by Satyamsu M. Mukhopadhyaya and edited by Anand Swarup Gupta. Varanasi, 1968.

Viu Purāa. Translated by H. H. Wilson. London, 1940; 2d ed., Calcutta, 1961.

For a complete list of Sanskrit editions of the Purāas, see my Hindu Myths, cited above.

There are also several useful studies of selected Indian mythic themes. Still the best introduction is Heinrich Zimmer's Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, edited by Joseph Campbell (1946; reprint, Princeton, 1972). Also helpful is Arthur Berriedale Keith's Indian Mythology, vol. 6, pt. 1, of The Mythology of All Races, edited by Louis H. Gray (1917; reprint, New York, 1964). There are also a number of books devoted to particular gods or mythic themes: for Tamil mythology, David Dean Shulman's Tamil Temple Myths (Princeton, N.J., 1980); for gods and demons, my The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology (Berkeley, Calif., 1976); for cosmology, Richard F. Gombrich's "Ancient Indian Cosmology," in Ancient Cosmologies, edited by Carmen Blacker and Michael Loewe (London, 1975); for Ka, John Stratton Hawley's Krishna, the Butter Thief (Princeton, N.J., 1983) and At Play with Krishna (Princeton, N. J., 1981); for Śiva, my Śiva, the Erotic Ascetic (Oxford, 1981); for Devī, The Divine Consort: Rādhā and the Goddesses of India, edited by John Stratton Hawley and Donna M. Wulff (Berkeley, Calif., 1982) and my Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts (Chicago, 1980); for the myths of illusion, my Dreams, Illusion, and Other Realities (Chicago, 1984). Finally, no study of Indian mythology can fail to take into account the writings of Madeleine Biardeau, particularly her Clefs pour la pensée hindoue (Paris, 1972); Études de mythologie hindoue, 4 vols. (Paris, 19681976); and her essays in the Dictionnaire des mythologies, edited by Yves Bonnefoy (Paris, 1981).

New Sources

Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish. Yaksas: Essays in the Water Cosmology. New York, 1993.

Doniger, Wendy. Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India. Chicago, 1999.

Flueckiger, Joyce Burkhalter. Gender and Genre in the Folklore of Middle India. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996.

Jamison, Stephanie. The Ravenous Hyenas and the Wounded Son: Myth and Ritual in Ancient India. Ithaca, N.Y., 1991.

Kinnard, Jacob N. Seeing and Knowing in the Art of Indian Buddhism. Richmond, U.K., 1999.

Leslie, Julia. Myth and Mythmaking. Collected Papers on South Asia, 12. Richmond, U.K., 1996.

Sherer, Alistair. The Hindu Vision: Forms of the Formless. London, 1993.

Vaudeville, Charlotte. Myths, Sins, and Legends in Medieval India. New York, 1996.

Wendy Doniger (1987)

Revised Bibliography

About this article

Indian Religions: Mythic Themes

Updated About content Print Article