Myths and Legends of the Hindus & Buddhists/CHAPTER I

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Myths and Legends of the Hindus & Buddhists
Sister Nivedita and Anand K. Coomaraswamy

Chapter I - Mythology of the Indo-Aryan races

The Study of Mythology

IN the early history of man Asia formed a vast breeding-ground of civilization of which countries like Egypt, Arabia, Greece, India, and China were the extremities. Egypt and Arabia were destined later, from their geographical positions, to be overrun and suffer destruction of their culture. Greece and pre-eminently India formed what may be called culs-de-sac. Here, as if up the long shores of some hidden creek, would be forced the tidal wave of one epoch after another, each leaving on the coast a tide-mark that perhaps none of its successors would be able entirely to cover. Hence, in India, we may hope to discover means of studying, as nowhere else in the world, the succession of epochs in culture.

Civilization develops by new conjunctions of tribes and races, each with its individual outlook, the result of that distinctive body of custom which has imposed itself upon them through the geographical conditions of what ever region formed their cradle-land and school. Western Asia is one of the central areas of the world. Here by the very necessities of the configuration the great high ways from North to South and East to West meet, and mercantile cities points of barter and exchange will grow up at the crossways. Equally obvious is it that India and the remote parts of the Nile Valley will form seats of occupation and production. Here race upon race will settle and combine. Here agricultural nations will grow up. Here civilization will accumulate. And here we may look to see the gradual elaboration of schemes of thought which will not only bear their own history

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stamped upon them, but will in their turn become causes and sources of dynamic influence upon the world outside. It is not impossible to recover the story of the ideas which the Nile people have contributed to the world as we know it. But those people themselves, so we are informed, have irretrievably relaxed their hold upon their own past. Between them and it there is only broken continuity, a lapse of time that represents no process of cause and effect, but rather a perpetual interruption of such a series; for a single generation enamoured of foreign ways is almost enough in history to risk the whole continuity of civilization and learning. Ages of accumulation are entrusted to the frail bark of each passing epoch by the hand of the past, desiring to make over its treasures to the use of the future. It takes a certain stubbornness, a doggedness of loyalty, even a modicum of unreasonable conservatism maybe, to lose nothing in the long march of the ages; and, even when confronted with great empires, with a sudden extension of the idea of culture, or with the supreme temptation of a new religion, to hold fast what we have, adding to it only as much as we can healthfully and manfully carry.

The Genius of India

Yet this attitude is the criterion of a strong national genius, and in India, since the beginning of her history, it has been steadily maintained. Never averse to a new idea, no matter what its origin, India has never failed to put each on its trial. Avid of new thought, but jealously reluctant to accept new custom or to essay new expression, she has been slowly constructive, unfalteringly synthetic, from the earliest days to the present time. The fault of Indian conservatism, indeed, has been its tendency to perpetuate differences without assimilation.

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The Motives of Religion

There has always been room for a stronger race, with its own equipment of custom and ideals, to settle down in the interstices of the Brahmanical civilization, uninfluenced and uninfluencing. To this day Calcutta and Bombay have their various quarters Chinese, Burmese, and what not not one of which contributes to, or receives from, the civic life in the midst of which it is set. To this day the Baniya of India is the Phoenix or Phoenician, perhaps of an older world. But this unmixingness has not been uniform. The personality of Buddha was the source of an impulse of religion to China and half a dozen minor nations. The Gupta empire represents an epoch in which foreign guests and foreign cultures were as highly welcomed and appreciated in India as to-day in Europe and America. And finally only the rise of Islam was effective in ending these long ages of intercourse which have left their traces in the faith and thought of the Indian people.

The Motives of Religion

Hinduism is, in fact, an immense synthesis, deriving its elements from a hundred different directions, and incorporating every conceivable motive of religion. The motives of religion are manifold. Earth-worship, sunworship, nature-worship, sky-worship, honour paid to heroes and ancestors, mother-worship, father-worship, prayers for the dead, the mystic association of certain plants and animals : all these and more are included within Hinduism. And each marks some single age of the past, with its characteristic conjunction or invasion of races formerly alien to one another. They are all welded together now to form a great whole. But still by visits to outlying shrines, by the study of the literature of certain definite periods, and by careful following up of the special

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threads, it is possible to determine what were some of the influences that have entered into its making. Now and again in history a great systematizing impulse; has striven to cast all or part of recognized belief into the; form of an organic whole. Such attempts have been made with more or less success in the compilation of books known! as the Puranas, in the epic poem called the Ramayana and most perfectly of all in the Mahabharata. Each of these takes some ancient norm which has been perhaps! for centuries transmitted by memory, and sets it down in writing, modifying it and adding to it in such ways as bring it, in the author's eyes, up to date.

The Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is the result of the greatest of the efforts thus made to conserve in a collected form all the ancient beliefs and traditions of the race. The namej Mahabharata itself shows that the movement which culminated in the compilation of this great work had behind! it a vivid consciousness of the unity of the Bharata or Indian people. For this reason one finds in this work aj great effort made to present a complete embodiment of the ideals to be found in the social organism, religion, ancient history, mythology, and ethics of the Indian people. Hence if we want to follow Indian mythology from its dim Beginnings to its perfect maturity through all its multiform intermediate phases we cannot have a better ; guide than the Mahabharata. For in India mythology is not a mere subject of antiquarian research and disquisition ; here it still permeates the whole life of the people as a controlling influence. And it is the living mythology which, passing through the stages of representation of! successive cosmic process and assuming definite shape

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The Mahabharata thereafter, has become a powerful factor in the everyday life of the people it is this living mythology that has found place in the Mahabharata.

It should be understood that it is the mythology which has left its clearest impress in the Mahabharata that has attained a fully developed form, and exercised a potent influence on Indian society. Other myths have for a time appeared in a vague nebular form and then vanished like smoke, leaving little trace behind ; they have not assumed any concrete forms in the memory of the race. Thus it is that we find a popular saying prevalent in Bengal that

"Whatever is not in the Mahabharata is not to be found in the land of Bharata [India]."

In the Mahabharata we find on the one hand the primal forms of mythology, and on the other its fully developed forms also. We find in this creation of the Indian mind a complete revelation of that mind.

In the infancy of the human mind men used to mix up their own fancies and feelings with the ways of bird and beast, the various phenomena of land and water, and the movements of sun and moon and stars and planets, and viewed the whole universe in this humanified form. In later times, when man had attained the greatest importance in the eyes of man, the glory of stellar worlds paled before human greatness.

In this book we have dealt with both these stages of mythology, the initial as well as the final. On the one hand, we have given some glimpses of the primal forms which mythology assumed after passing through the hazy indefiniteness of primitive ages. On the other, we have related more fully the stories of the age when mythology had reached its maturity.

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