a discussion of its major themes
The Hindu pantheon developed over a considerable period of time. To answer the question “What do Hindus believe about the gods?” one must clarify which time period, as their emphasis on certain gods changed through the centuries. The earliest Hindu texts are the four Vedas, the Rig Veda being the oldest (1200 BC), containing 1028 hymns with more allusions to myths than full stories. Over one fourth of the Vedic hymns concern Indra, the king of heaven, the storm god who gained prominence by defeating the demon/dragon Vritra who was holding back rain from heaven, having imprisoned the cloud-cattle. In the Mahabharata Indra is the father of Arjuna. Other important Vedic gods were Varuna, god of the ocean, Agni, god of fire, Surya, the sun god (and father of Karna), and Yama, god of death.
By the time that the Mahabharata was written (300 BC – 300 AD), other gods who played only minor roles in the Vedas have become popular. Three gods in particular came to be known as the Trimurti: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Their fame grew during the Middle Ages when “stories of old” called the Puranas recorded their achievements and adventures in great detail. After the Trimurti became dominant, the Puranas relegated most of the older gods to the status of World Protectors, eight lords over each point on the compass.
Gods of the Trimurti
Brahma the Creator became associated with Prajapati, the primary creator god in the early Vedas, whose name means “lord of creatures.” Brahma is sometimes said to be self-created, or born from a lotus out of Vishnu’s navel, or hatched from the cosmic egg containing the primordial universe. He is often depicted with four heads. In one of the many stories of creation, when his daughter/consort Sarasvati tried to avoid his lustful gaze, other heads grew up in each direction which she ran; when she ascended to heaven, a fifth head appeared to follow her flight, which Shiva cut off because of Brahma’s incestuous lust. In another version of this story, Brahma found Sarasvati in the form of a cow, so he became a bull and mated with her; she became another animal and he did also, until all living creatures were born from their various unions. Brahma’s existence is the foundation for all life; while he is awake, a day of Brahma lasts 4,320,000,000 years, after which Brahma sleeps and nothing exists for the same period. Thus Hinduism regards creation not as a one-time event “in the beginning” but as a continual process of endless cycles. Some Brahma stories relate how the god must act to correct certain problems within his creation. In the Mahabharata the gods become concerned that men were too full of righteousness (dharma) and might become gods themselves, so Brahma creates wanton women to lead them astray. In another tale he creates Death in the form of a woman in order to prevent overpopulation. At first Death refuses her task, fearing that what she must do, striking down innocent children and those in the prime of life, would be a violation of dharma, but Brahma insists that this is her proper duty. After the act of creation, Brahma has little prominence among the gods. Often referred to as grandfather, he appears aloof, unaware or unconcerned about the consequences of his actions; in the Ramayana he rewards demons with great power for their asceticism (acts of self-denial), thus causing much grief to the other gods.
Vishnu the Preserver sustains and protects the cosmic order (dharma). Represented with blue skin and four arms, he is often shown sleeping on a coiled serpent floating on the ocean before creation, at which time he was known as Narayana. He rides Garuda, the sacred bird. A minor deity in the Vedas, as Vishnu rose to prominence over the centuries, his “history” became more complex. The medieval Puranas developed the idea of Vishnu having appeared on earth in nine previous avatars or incarnations (avatar means “descending”) during the present Great Age with one still to come, each time entering the world to defend dharma, the proper order of the universe (note that the number of avatars varies in the Puranas, some listing as many as 22, others say they are innumerable). See the typical list of ten below.
Shiva the Destroyer gained prominence among the gods by destroying the city of demons; in one version he waited 1000 years until the cities, which rotated in the air, were aligned, then pierced all three with one arrow. He became so powerful because the other gods gave him their divine energy, which he kept after the battle (story in the Mahabharata). Shiva appears with a blue neck because he swallowed the poison from the serpent Vasuki, which would have polluted the milk ocean. He also has three eyes, for one day his wife Parvati playfully covered two of his eyes and the universe fell into darkness; he created a third eye to restore light. This eye destroys by fire. Shiva wears a necklace of skulls as in his role as Kapalin, “lord of goblins.” Dancing Shiva symbolizes the eternal movement of the cosmos, but also he dances to bring about the destruction of maya / illusion (i.e. this world) at the end of each kalpa (see great ages below). Hinduism does not consider Shiva to be evil, as the destruction he brings is seen as a necessary part of the eternal cycles of existence.
Avatars of Vishnu
- First, Vishnu appeared as a great fish named Matsya who gave aid to Manu (the Hindu Noah) in the great flood.
- Next, he descended to earth as the tortoise Kurma, who rescued fourteen of the best treasures of the previous world from the flood, including Lakshmi the goddess of prosperity who would become his wife. He also supported on his back the mountain from which the gods and demons churned the milk ocean with a giant serpent. In the Vedas and the epics both these first avatars were associated with Brahma, not Vishnu.
- As Varaha the wild boar, he pushed mud up from the seabed to create the land mass of the Indian continent.
- As Narasimha the man-lion, he killed a demon who swore neither man nor animal could harm him, so Vishnu became something of both. This was the last avatar during the first age.
- Vamana the dwarf tricked a demon-king who ruled the three worlds (earth, heaven, and the netherworld) into agreeing to give him as much land as he could cover in three steps. He then grew to enormous size and encompassed the universe in three steps.
- Next Vishnu appeared as a normal human, the brahmin Parashurama. By his influence priests became the dominant caste by defeating the warriors He appears in the Mahabharata but not as an avatar of Vishnu.
- Rama, the hero of the Ramayana (the other great Hindu epic) was born to defeat the demon Ravana. He was the husband of Sita and extremely jealous of her. After she was kidnapped by the demon, he suspected that she’d been unfaithful, and sent her into exile for 15 years, carrying his two sons. In the role of his avatars, Vishnu took over Indra’s earlier aspect of demon-slayer.
- The most popular of Vishnu’s avatars is Krishna, the “dark one.” Many stories tell of Krishna as a baby when he escaped several attempts by the demon king Kamsa to kill him. In his youth the handsome Krishna enjoyed amorous episodes with cowgirls; by some accounts he had 16,000 wives and 180,000 sons. As a powerful prince Krishna appears as a major character in the Mahabharata, siding with the five Pandava brothers in the great war.
- Hindus claim that Vishnu appeared as the Buddha, the first avatar in the present age. This addition to the Vishnu myth was probably an attempt to subordinate the rival philosophy of Buddhism to the Hindu system of belief. As Buddha, he deceives the enemies of the gods with lies, saying there are no gods, no endless cycle of lives, only peaceful sleep after death (nirvana).
- Kalki: at the end of this age, Vishnu will appear again as the bringer of destruction on a white horse. He will purify the world of evil, and the endless cycle of ages will begin again (see below).
Vishnu as Kalki
Goddesses don’t appear prominently in the early Vedas, but apparently belief in them arose out of popular cults of the common people. Their stories are recorded in the medieval Puranas. Among Hindus, goddesses are very popular today, in particular the consorts of the Trimurti.
SARASVATI: consort to Brahma/Prajapati (his daughter in the Vedas), goddess of the arts, knowledge, and creativity, “mother” of the four Vedas. Once she was late to a ceremony so Brahma married another wife. When Sarasvati arrived and found out, she cursed him to be worshipped only once a year, thus no major cults honor him as with other two in the Trimurti.
LAKSHMI: consort to Vishnu, reborn as his wife with each avatar, most famous as Sita for Rama. Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, fortune, beauty, pleasure, prosperity (very popular goddess)
PARVATI: consort to Shiva, who appears in different forms. As Durga, she is depicted with ten arms riding a lion/tiger, and kills demons using the attributes of other gods such as Vishnu’s discus, Shiva’s trident, and Indra’s thunderbolt. During a fit of rage, Kali the “black one” one time sprang from Durga’s forehead. Dressed with a necklace of human heads and a belt of severed arms, Kali usually holds a sword in one of her many hands, the decapitated head of a demon in another, and stands above the body of Shiva who threw himself at her feet to stop her destructive rampage. In certain forms of Hindu ritual the participant seeks to realize the essential unity of all things. By meditating on Kali, the embodiment of darkest reality, he breaks his bondage to the illusion of duality in nature between light and dark, sacred and profane, life and death. In truth all things are one. Accepting death as the necessary counterpart to life transforms the natural fear of death into liberating wisdom. Kali reminds the believer that certain aspects of life are untamable and unpredictable, a threat to our feeble attempts to bring order (which is mere illusion) to the essential disorder of reality.
Sarasvati , Lakshmi, Kali
Demons (asuras, “antigods”)
In the Mahabharata a rakshasa (demon/man-eating ogre) is one of many asuras, powers older than the gods that distract men from the true path, preventing spiritual progress. Different types of asuras include nagas (serpent spirits), daityas (genii), and danavas (giants); these terms are often interchangeable. Other celestial beings include apsaras (heavenly dancers) and gandharvas (heavenly musicians).
Some texts describe both gods (devas) and demons (asuras) as being assigned to castes. In the battle between Indra and Vritra, the demon had through great asceticism become a brahmin demon, so Indra committed the great sin of brahminicide by killing Vritra. In one sense a demon warrior who kills men is only fulfilling his particular dharma or social duty, and is not thought of as evil.
Gods and demons are not considered irreconcilable opposites such as good and evil but are complementary forces. In the eternal cycle of creation and destruction, both are necessary aspects of Ultimate Reality. In the Vedas the gods and demons were both children of Brahma, sharing the same origin and nature. Only at the churning of the Great Milk Ocean were the demons deceived and denied access to the divine drink of Soma. So the division between gods and demons is not so much good and evil as who won and who lost.
The Mahabharata begins by saying that asuras became human warriors in the end of the 3rd age, so the gods must become incarnate as well to counter their power. When asuras die, they also go to Indra’s heaven (as does Duryodhana).
FUNDAMENTAL BELIEFS OF HINDUISM
Hindu religion is more a philosophy of life than strict doctrine. There is no authoritative hierarchy of clergy; the religion is highly decentralized with multiple sects, perfectly acceptable to Hinduism. Hindus claim that there are different spiritual paths for each person.
A practical definition of Hinduism: performing the duty (dharma) of one’s stage in life and social status (caste).
The essence of the Hindu vision of reality lies in the tension between dharma (social duty or righteousness) and moksha (release from the material world, final liberation from the endless cycles of rebirth). Both these perspectives, the world-supporting and the world-denying, are necessary to fulfill human destiny.
Other important terms:
karma = moral law of cause and effect (deeds of past lives determine present)
samsara = rebirth according to the nature of a person’s karma; what we are now is the sum of all we have done in the past.
Dharma and caste
Dharma means fulfilling one’s duty in one’s station in life, which is determined by birth, not merit. Each person is born into a distinct caste, depending on the karma from the past lives. There is no crossing over or intermingling from one caste to another, as this would disrupt the social order. Brahmins are the highest caste because they have faithfully executed their duty in a previous life; lower castes must have served society poorly to be born into their caste, but if they perform their duty in this life, they have hope of being reborn to a higher caste. Thus dharma focuses on maintaining social and cosmic stability.
The caste system is supported by the Rig Veda myth of the giant Purusha from whose head brahmins were created, nobles and warriors from his arms, farmers and merchants from his stomach, and servants from his feet, an example of how mythology preserves the values of a society by rooting present practice in the ancient past, but also it can be seen as a means of maintaining the status quo to the benefit of those in power.
BRAHMAN, the one true reality
BRAHMAN is the spiritual essence underlying all reality, or more accurately, is the only reality. All gods and the world are only aspects of BRAHMAN, only an illusion in comparison to the one reality. This is the insight of the Upanishads (8th century BC), recognizing an ultimate unity in the multiplicity of gods and all life. BRAHMAN (which I write with all caps) is not the same as the creator Brahma, nor should it be confused with the highest caste of Brahmins (not all scholarly texts make these distinctions in spelling so it becomes confusing at times).
BRAHMAN is one, limitless, impersonal, indefinable, without qualities, eternal, unchanging, inactive (complete in itself thus no need to act).
BRAHMAN is present in all people in the form of the atman or soul. We must realize that BRAHMAN and atman are one, that our essential self transcends our individuality, our limitations, even our death. This realization brings release (moksha) from illusion. Seeing the world as full of particulars, individuals with egos acting in competition, life as diversity and change — all this is maya (illusion).
Release (moksha) from the endless cycles of illusion does not mean “non-being” (a Western concept). In Hindu thought, existence in this world is characterized by the illusion of polarities (good/evil, light/dark, male/female, being/nonbeing) whereas BRAHMAN is beyond these distinctions.
Cycles of time
There are four ages (called yugas):
- The first lasts 1,728,000 years
- The second lasts 1,296,000 years
- The third lasts 864,000 years
- The fourth lasts 432,000 years (this last age is Kali yuga, our present age beginning 5000 years ago)
Each age sees a decline in virtue (dharma) from the previous. As told in one parable, in the first golden age, dharma stood on four legs like a table, but in the second age it stood only on three, in the third age on two, and now in the present age only on one, thus all but one fourth of the world’s virtue has vanished in the present age.
These four ages, as lengthy as they may seem, are only a small part of the great cycle of time:
- 4 ages = one mahayuga (great age), 4,320,000 yrs, after which creation will rest (return to a state of non-differentiation) for one mahayuga.
- 1000 mahayugas = one day of Brahma (or one kalpa), 4,320,000,000 years, after which Brahma sleeps and creation rests for one kalpa.
- Brahma’s lifetime = 100 years of his days and nights: 4.32 billion x 365 x 2 x 100 = 311 trillion yrs, after which Shiva dances, all things including Brahma dissolve and nothing exists for an equivalent time, then it all begins again.
Against such immense scale, one single lifetime becomes insignificant.
THE THEME OF DHARMA IN THE MAHABHARATA
Vyasa says that the purpose of writing the Mahabharata is “to engrave dharma on the hearts of men.” The Sanskrit dictionary has over 200 entries for dharma, the most important being:
- that which is established or firm, steadfast, “what holds together”
- decree, law
- righteousness, justice, duty
- virtue, morality, religion
In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna the avatar of Vishnu says: “Whenever righteousness (dharma) becomes lax, O Arjuna, and injustice (adharma) arises, then I send myself forth to protect the good and bring evildoers to destruction; for the secure establishment of dharma, I come into being age after age. … I was born to destroy the destroyers.”
Moral dilemma: how to defeat evil without resorting to evil oneself
The Mahabharata does not depict the conflict between the two sides as a battle between right and wrong. The Pandavas are not perfect, and several who fight for the Kauravas are truly noble, such as Bhishma, Drona, and in some ways even Karna. Each rule of war is eventually broken by the Pandavas: Bhishma is shot by Arjuna when he lays down his arms before Sikhandin, Arjuna kills Jayadratha at “night” when Krishna darkens the sun, Arjuna shoots Karna when unarmed (at Krishna’s urging), Bhima crushes Duryodhana’s thigh (hitting below the waist).
Duryodhana accuses Krishna of unfair conduct, but Krishna responds with two defenses: that it was his own deceit at dice that began this conflict, and it was in order to defeat a greater evil: “The gods have destroyed demons in the past in this way.” Arjuna’s father Indra defeated Vritra by trickery, a myth retold in the epic. Duryodhana bitterly replies that the Pandavas could never have won without cheating, to which Krishna agrees; right does not always triumph by ideal and unsullied means. “There are limits to the extent an individual can be moral in an immoral society” (Chaitanya 110). Krishna tells Yudhishthira, “Sometimes one protects dharma by forgetting it.”
Ambiguous nature of dharma in the Mahabharata
In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna fears that acting out his own dharma as warrior will conflict with universal dharma: how can killing family members be good, and not disrupt the social order? Herein lies an unresolved conflict in Hinduism between universal dharma and svadharma (an individual’s duty according to caste and station in life). A warrior must kill to fulfill his duty, whereas a brahmin must avoid harming any living creature. Even demons have their own castes and svadharma, which may run counter to human morality. One person’s dharma may be another’s sin. This doctrine distinguishes Hindu thought from religions such as Judeo-Christianity and Islam which teach universal or absolute moral codes.
Yudhishthira’s battle cry: “Where dharma is, there is victory.” But contrast Karna’s lament at his death that his righteousness did not make him victorious: “Knowers of dharma have always said, ‘Dharma protects those devoted to dharma.’ But since my wheel sank today, I think dharma does not always protect” (CN 165).
The events of the Mahabharata occur at the end of the third age, showing evidence of dharma’s decline. Yudhishthira has a vision of the age to come: “I see the coming of another age, where barbaric kings rule over a vicious, broken world; where puny, fearful, hard men live tiny lives, white hair at sixteen, copulating with animals, their women perfect whores, making love with greedy mouths. The cows dry, trees stunted, no more flowers, no more purity; ambition, corruption, the age of Kali, the black time” (quoted from the play).
After the dice game, Draupadi challenges the men by asking, if Yudhishthira lost himself first, then by what right did he wager her freedom, being a slave himself? When even the wise Bhishma cannot resolve the question, she says, “I think time is out of joint. The ancient eternal dharma is lost among the Kauravas.”
Incidentally, the four ages (yugas) are named after throws of the dice, the last (kali) being the worst (dharma standing on a one-legged stool).
In his dying speech, Bhishma tells Yudhishthira that in the fourth age of kaliyuga (our present age), “dharma becomes adharma and adharma, dharma.” Somewhat paradoxically, he continues, “If one fights against trickery, one should oppose him with trickery. But if one fights lawfully, one should check him with dharma … One should conquer evil with good. Death by dharma is better than victory by evil deeds.”
Bhattacharji, Sukumari. The Indian Theogony. 1988.
Chaitanya, Krishna. The Mahabharata: A Literary Study. 1985.
Ions, Veronica. Indian Mythology. 1967, 1983.
Katz, Ruth. Arjuna in the Mahabharata. 1989.
Kinsley, David. Hinduism: a Cultural Perspective. 1982.
Knappert, Jan. Encyclopedia of Indian Mythology. 1995.
Murdoch, John. The Mahabharata : an English Abridgment with Notes. 1904, 1987.
O’Flaherty, Wendy. Hindu Myths. Penguin, 1975.
Stanford, Ann. The Bhagavad Gita. 1970
Sukthankar, V. S. On the Meaning of the Mahabharata. 1957.
Williams, David (ed). Peter Brook and the Mahabharata: Critical Perspectives. 1991.