Myths and Legends of the Hindus & Buddhists/CHAPTER VIII

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


Summary of Indian Theology

THE following scheme sets out very briefly the fundamental conceptions of Indian theology and cosmology, as assumed in most of the foregoing myths and legends :

The Gods

The One Absolute Reality is Brahman (neuter), which, by the assumption of attributes, becomes Ishvara, god or overlord. Ishvara has three aspects, viz. Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, with their Shaktis or energies, Sarasvati, Devi, and Lakshmi. The sectarian worshippers identify one of these with the highest Ishvara, and regard the two other aspects as merely devas. Hence there appears a certain confusion of status in the legends, according to the particular sectarian standpoint from which they are related. The most important sects are the Shaivas, who worship Shiva, the Vaishnavas, who worship Vishnu (chiefly in his avatars, as Rama or Krishna), and the Shaktas, who worship Devi as the Supreme. Almost all Indian worship is monotheistic ; there is not for the individual worshipper any confusion of God with gods. Avatars are special incarnations assumed by portions of the Supreme for helping on the processes of evolution and release. Ten such avatars of the supreme Vishnu are usually recognized, of whom Rama, Krishna, and Buddha are the last, and Kalki is yet to come. "Whensoever," says Shrl Krishna, "the Law fails and lawlessness uprises, O thou of Bharata's race, then do I bring myself to bodied birth. To guard the righteous, to destroy evildoers, to establish the Law, I come into birth age after age."

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Different Names

A source of confusion to the student of Indian mythology at first appears in the many names by which one and the same Supreme Divinity may be known.

The most important of the name identities are, for Shiva, Mahadeva, Hara, Nataraja, and for Vishnu, Hari, Narayan. A familiarity with these names is gradually acquired, and it is realized that the different names refer to as many aspects of One Being. For the gods possess a manifold consciousness, and by division of their attributes appear and act in many places and many forms at one and the same time. It will have been observed that every god, whether Ishvara or deva, has a feminine counterpart or aspect. These wives are the Shaktis or powers without whom there could be no creation or evolution. For example, the Shakti of Shiva is Devi, whose other names are Sati, Uma, Durga, Chandi, Parvati, Kali, &c. ; it is she who is worshipped by many millions as the Mother, and all these worshippers speak of God as She. The great sex-distinction pervades the whole universe, and the psychology of sex is every where the same : all things that are male are from Shiva, all that are female are from Uma.

Cosmic Powers

Distinct from Ishvara are the devas, Indra, Agni, Varuna, Yama, old personified cosmic powers who alone were worshipped in the old Vedic days, before the emergence of Shiva and Vishnu. These devas dwell in swarga, an Olympian paradise; they bestow on their worshippers divers boons, but they are never saviours of souls. Their moral status is like that of men, and swarga is a place where all wishes and desires are gratified, where

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Kali by Surendra Nath Kar

also human beings obtain the reward of good deeds in the intervals between one birth and another. The devas do not perform tapas (asceticism) or sacrifice themselves for the world, nor do they incarnate as avatars. Human beings, by tapas or ritual sacrifices, and generally by good deeds, may attain a place in swarga, and even the status of a deva; but this does not preclude the necessity of rebirth on earth, nor is it to be regarded in any sense as salvation (mukti, moksha) or as equivalent to the attainment of nirvana. Nirvana is a state, swarga a place.

Amongst the devas is Kamadeva and his wife Rati (desire). Associated with the devas in swarga are the rishis (including, e.g. Narada, Vishvamitra, Vashishtha, &c.) and the Prajapatis (including Daksha); the former are the priests, the latter the worshippers, of the devas. Swarga also is the home of a variety of mythical beings, the apsaras, gandharvas, kinnaras, and the special animals who are vehicles of the gods, such as Vishnu's Garuda and Ganesha's rat. The apsaras are the dancing girls of Indra's court; the gandharvas and kinnaras the musicians, and these last have forms which are only partly human, some being partly animal, others partly bird in nature. The apsaras, gandharvas, and kinnaras do not enter into the cycle of human incarnation and evolution, but, like the fairies of Western mythology, may in rare cases make alliances with human beings. Yama, though one of the devas, is the Lord of Hades, where the bad deeds of human beings are expiated in the intervals between one birth and another. It should be understood that a part of the interval between births is spent in Hades, a part in Heaven, according to the proportion of merit and demerit earned by the individual in question. The demons (asuras, daityas, rakshasas) are constantly at

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war with the devas, who are represented as appealing to Brahma, Shiva, or Vishnu for assistance.

The Universe

In speaking here of the Hindu cosmology, it is chiefly our solar system that is to be understood ; but it will be clear that similar principles are applicable to any other system, or to a whole universe composed of many systems. No original creation of the universe can be imagined; but there are alternations, partial and complete, of manifestation and withdrawal. At the commencement of a cycle (kalpa) the world is created by the Brahma aspect of Ishvara ; during the cycle it is sustained by Vishnu ; and at the end, as Shiva, he destroys it. This cosmic process takes place according to the following time scheme :

A cycle, or Day of Brahma, a kalpa, the period of the endurance of the solar system, is 12,000 years of the devas, or 4,320,000,000 earth-years. At the beginning of each Day when Brahma wakes, the " Three Worlds " so often spoken of in the myths, together with the devas, rishis, asuras, men, and creatures, are manifested afresh according to their individual deserts (karma, deeds) ; only those who in the previous kalpa obtained direct release (nirvana, moksha), or who passed beyond the Three Worlds to higher planes, no longer reappear. At the close of each Day the Three Worlds, with all their creatures, are again resolved into chaos (pralaya), retaining only a latent germ of necessity of remanifestation. The Night of Brahma is of equal length with the Day. The life of our Brahma or Ishvara is one hundred Brahma- years, at the end of which time not only the Three Worlds, but all planes and all beings Ishvara himself, devas,

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rishis, asuras, men, creatures, and matter are resolved into chaos (riiaha-pralaya, " great-chaos "), enduring for another hundred Brahma-years, when there appear a new Brahma and a new creation. It will be seen that both major and minor alternations of evolution and involution are represented as necessitated by natural law the latent force of past action (karma). Causality governs all conditioned existence. The whole scheme is highly scientific.

The Day of Brahma is divided into fourteen manvantaras, over each of which presides a Manu, or teacher. Each manvantara is followed by a Deluge, which destroys the existing continents and swallows up all living beings, except the few who are preserved for the repeopling of the earth. The name of our Manu is Vaivasvata, who is the source of the Laws of Manu, formulating the basic structure of Hindu society. The Day of Brahma is also divided into 1000 yuga-cycles (maha-yuga); each consisting of four ages, the Satya, Treta, Dvapara, and Kali vugas, of which the last three are periods of progressive degeneration from the first. The four yugas together last 4,320,000 years; the first 1,728,000, the second 1,296,000, the third 864,000, and the last 432,000. The present year (A.D. 1913) is the 5013th of the Kali yuga 1 of the present maha-yuga ; this maha-yuga is the twenty-eighth of the seventh manvantara of our kalpa, called the Varahakalpa, because in it Vishnu incarnated as a boar (varaha) ; and this kalpa is the first day of the fifty-first year of the life of our Brahma.

The events related in the Mahabharata took place in the Treta yuga of our maha-yuga ; those of the Ramayana in the Dvapara yuga. The oldest stories of the battles of

1. The commencement ot which Kali yuga was coincident with the Day of the death of Krishna.

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the gods and asuras and the legends of the rishis go much further back: the Churning of the Ocean, for example, took place in the sixth manvantara the rescue of the elephant from the crocodile in the fourth ; the Boar in carnation in the first ; and the emergence of Brahma, called the lotus-born because of his origin from a lotus sprung from the navel of Narayana, at the very beginning of the kalpa. The Three Worlds (triloka), to which constant reference has been made, are the physical plane (Bhur), the astral plane (Bhuvar), and Heaven (Swarga) ; these three only, with the underworlds, are concerned in the daily creation and dissolution. These also constitute the Samsara or Wandering, the condition of birth and rebirth, where desire (kama) and personality (ahamkara) are the guiding principles of life. Above the Three Worlds are four other planes which endure throughout the life-period of a Brahma ; these are reached by such as pass beyond the Three Worlds without attaining direct release ; they go onwards to Ishvara, and attain release with him at the conclusion of the period of a hundred Brahma-years. Below the Three Worlds are the seven Patalas or under worlds (distinct from the realm of Yama) ; these are inhabited by the nagas, the semi-human serpents, who possess a rich material civilization of their own. These underworlds are supported on the heads of the naga Ananta (Infinity), who also supports Narayana during his repose in the Night of Brahma.

The earth is supported by eight elephants, one in each of the eight quarters. There are also guardian gods of the quarters, those for East, South, West, and North being Indra, Yama, Varuna, and Kuvera ; according to the Buddhists, however, it is the regents of these gods who are the guardians of the quarters, and it is these regents

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who are represented in the oldest Indian god-figures, those of the Bharhut Stupa (second century B.C.). Even earlier the Brahmans also had representations of the devas, but made in impermanent materials ; while the representation of Ishvaras and Supreme Buddhas is a later development, attaining its highest types in the seventh or eighth century A.D.

The prime cause of creation is inexplicable, for in a universe conditioned by causality causes must precede causes backwards for ever. But the process of manifestation or creation is more properly regarded as outside time, and equally past, present, or future. No motive can be assigned for this Will, a fact which is mythically represented by calling the world-process Ltld, the Lord s amusement; or, again, by saying that Being desires to behold the reflection of its own perfection mirrored in Non-Being.

Mythical Geography

The mythical geography of our system must also be described. There are seven island-continents surrounded by seven seas. Jambu-dwipa (the world) is the innermost of these ; in the centre of this continent rises the golden mountain Meru, rising 84,000 leagues above the earth. Around the foot of Meru are the boundary mountains of the earth, of which Himalaya lies to the south ; the land of Bharat-varsha (India) lies between Himalaya and the salt sea. Meru is buttressed by four other mountains, each 10,000 leagues in height; of these, one is Mandara, used as a pivot for the churning of the ocean. The name of the continent Jambu-dwipa derives from a Jambu tree that grows on one of these four mountains. Its fruits are as large as elephants ; when they are ripe

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they fall upon the mountain, and their juice forms the Jambu river, whose waters give health and life to those that drink of them. There are also lakes and forests and mountain spurs.

On the summit of Meru is the city of Brahma, extending 14,000 leagues, renowned in Heaven ; around it are the cities of Indra and other regents of the spheres. About the city of Brahma flows the Ganges, encircling the city; according to one account, the river divides in four, flowing in opposite directions ; according to another, Ganges, after escaping from Heaven and from Shiva's tresses, divides into the seven sacred rivers of India. In the foot-hills dwell the gandharvas, kinnaras, and siddhas ; the daityas, asuras, and rakshasas in the valleys. All these mountains are included in Swarga (Paradise), where the fruit of good actions is enjoyed. Bharat-varsha (India, or perhaps the whole human world) is one of nine lands situate in areas bounded by the various mountains spoken of. Of these nine, it is in Bharat-varsha only that there are sorrow, weariness, and hunger ; the inhabitants of other varshas are exempt from all distress and pain, and there is in them no distinction of yugas. Bharata is the land of works, where men perform actions, winning either a place in Heaven, or release ; or, it may be, rebirth in Hell, according to their merit. Bharata is, therefore, the best of varshas ; other varshas are for enjoyment alone. Happy are those who are reborn, even were they gods, as men in Bharat- varsha, for that is the way to the Supreme.

History of the Theology

With regard to the history of some of the ideas here

spoken of :

From the hymns of the Rig-Veda, which go back to a

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time when the Aryans were not yet settled in the Ganges valley, but lived amongst the tributaries of the Indus, we learn of a time when there was no caste, no privileged worship, no Brahmanical system of government, but there were many pastoral tribes governed by hereditary kinglets. The old Vedic religion consisted in the worship of the personified powers of Nature, gods of the sky, the air, and the earth. Gradually the belief in these distinct deities yields to a conviction that they are manifestations of One, who has many names, such as Prajapati, Vish- vakarma, &c., but is finally called Brahman, a word which in the earlier hymns means nothing but the power of prayer, in a way analogous to the Christian conception of the Logos. To this was added the idea that this Brahman was nothing but the all-pervading Self (atman), to know whom is to know all. Thus we get side by side two phases of religion the old sacrificial cult, whereby men seek to win a place in Paradise by means of moral behaviour and offerings to the gods ; and the search for the highest knowledge, the knowledge of the Brahman. This position was reached before the time of Buddha; the fully developed Brahmanical system above described attained shape in the succeeding centuries.


The prevailing philosophy (there are, of course, other systems also, though all are closely interconnected), the doctrine of esoteric reality to which the above exoteric scheme is related, is a form of uncompromising monism called the Vedanta ; it maintains that there is but One Reality, the Brahman, of which naught whatever can be predicated. This is the Unshown, the Unknown God ; whatever qualities or attributes one might wish to use to

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express its nature, in a famous Vedantic phrase : " It is not that, it is not that " (neti, neti). To know this reality is to know all, just as to know clay is to know all that is made of clay the apparent differences consist only in name and form (namarupa). This reality is within our selves, and we in it. It is, in fact, our only true Self (atman), obscured in us by personality (ahamkara) and attributes (upadhis). The knowledge of this Reality is Release (moksha, nirvana), just as when an earthen pot is broken it is realized that the space within is one with the space without. To attain this release is the highest end of life.

The life of each individual soul (jivatman) follows a double path the primal Will to Experience (pravrittimargaya), and the later Will to Denial (nivritti margaya], or, briefly, the paths of Pursuit and Return, familiar to the mystics of all ages and countries. The process of Embodiment and Release is always in progress ; but inasmuch as the Released return no more, it is clear that the Pursuers must always be in the majority. Yet it is an evil thing for any community if it be composed wholly of those who pursue, without a due leaven of those who return.

Human Society

On this basis the ancient rishis laid down as the four aims of human life, Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha, i.e. Morality, Wealth-winning, Fulfilment of Desires, and Release. That individual souls are in different stages of development, besides possessing special capacities or tendencies as well as special deserts according to the nature of past action, is reflected in the theory of caste (varna, lit. colour), each with its appropriate morality (sva-dharma) .

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"Caste," as Sister Nivedita has said, "is race continuity ; it is the historic sense ; it is the dignity of tradition and of purpose for the future. It is even more: it is the familiarity of a whole people in all its grades with the one supreme human motive the notion of noblesse oblige"


Moksha, or Release, is ultimately attainable by the individual alone, and depends on his or her relation to God. But the secular ends of life, morality, wealth, desire, and, above all, the birth of children, require the co-operation of men and women. Hence in the Hindu social system great stress is laid on marriage; so far from celibacy being recommended to the citizen on religious grounds, it is expressly declared that neither can the citizen attain to Heaven after death, nor can his ancestors remain there, unless he has begotten a son. The Hindu marriage is indissoluble, except in the fourth caste. Polygamy is permitted, but is comparatively rare, as the number of men and women is about equal; the most usual reason for a second marriage is the childlessness of the first. As in so many other systems, the basis of marriage is duty rather than romantic love. The high spiritual status of the Hindu woman is reflected in the mythology ; indeed, as we have seen, there are many millions of Hindus who think habitually of God as She.

It is She (says Shankaracharya) with whom Shiva seeks shelter . . .
Whose words are sweet.
The Destructress of ills,
Ever and in all places perivading,
Tender creeper of Intelligence and Bliss.

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" The mother," says Manu, "exceedeth a thousand fathers in the right to reverence, and in the function of teacher." And again in the Kubjika Tantra : " Whosoever has seen the feet of woman, let him worship them as those of his teacher."

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The life of a citizen is appointed for all but the few who feel already in their youth the irresistible call to renunciation (vairagya, turning away), and so become monks or nuns. For such as these asceticism is a vocation. The citizen, on the other hand, as we have seen, is commanded to marry and to bring up children. But life as a citizen is not the whole life, even of an ordinary man ; there comes a time when he, too, turns away from the world. His life is planned in four stages (ashramas], as follows: studentship, life as a householder and wealth-winner, retirement, and finally complete renunciation of all ties. It is the strength of character, the merit accumulated in many lives so ordered, that gradually ripens the individual soul, until at last it feels the irresistible call and bends its whole force toward Release (nirvana).