Gods of the Vedic Period
Much of the meaning of the Rig Veda is imperfectly understood and the meanings of many words have become obsolete for many centuries. However a broad concept of the religion of Rig Veda is clear enough. The chief object of worship is the Deva (Prajapati - father of all gods and humans), who is seen as 'the bright, shining one'. Prajapati retreated in history and was replaced by many other major gods. The main gods of Vedic period are Indra, Varuna, Surya, Agni, Soma, Rudra and Yama. Indra, the warrior God, was associated with thunder and storm. He rode in a bright chariot with a thunderbolt in his hand as his weapon (akin to Zeus of the Greeks and Thor of the Germans). He is also depicted riding his mount, Iravata the elephant.
Varuna, second only to Indra in importance, was the guardian of the laws of nature. He watched the populace for any misdeeds and assured a moral society. He was ethically the highest Vedic god and was pure and holy. The cosmic order (Rta) was his responsibility. Mitra, an important god connected with vows and covenants is also mentioned in the Zoroastrian pantheon under his Greco-Iranian name Mithras.Surya, the sun god has several other forms and names. Savitur, the stimulator, is mentioned in the holy Gayatri mantra. Pushan another sun god was the protector of the herdsman. Visnhnu, also exhibited solar characteristics and covered the earth in three paces. He would gain prominence much later in Hinduism, and would be retained as the main deity. Agni, the fire god was considered as an intermediary between gods and men for he consumed the sacrifice and carried it to the gods. Somawas originally a plant extract, which made a potent drink. However, later soma was identified with the moon. Rudra was a remote god, dwelling in the mountains. He was an archer and had a fierce character. He could bring disease with his arrows and at the same time was the guardian of healing herbs. Later Hinduism adopted many of his characters in their deity Shiva. Yama, lord of the dead, was also the guardian of the 'World of the Fathers', where the blessed dead ancestors feasted in bliss forever. A few goddesses also are mentioned in the Rig Veda. Prthvi was the goddess of the earth. Aditi was the great mother of the gods. Ushas was the goddess of dawn whileRatri was the spirit of the night. Aranyani, a nature goddess was the lady of the forest. None of these goddesses played a major role in the practice of the religion. The prominent gods were exclusively male dominated. Kama the love-god was the Indian version of cupid, a handsome man with bow and arrow in his hands.
Gods of Hinduism
To an uninformed observer Hinduism may appear chaotic and polytheistic. However, fundamentally Hindus believe in a Universal God and this belief is derived from the Vedic philosophy of the World Soul. The hundreds of gods portrayed are faces of the same single force, the Universal God. This God is all pervasive, omnipotent and omniscient, in the true Vedic sense (sarvantharyami). A Hindu will see the power of God in everything that surrounds him, animate or inanimate. Animals like cows, monkeys or snakes may be considered sacred and even an ordinary stone may hold the power of God. The all-pervasive God is the creator of all matter and everything created by the Universal God represents a part of Him. This may appear as idolatry to a Western observer, whose religion generally condemns it, but a Hindu worships the Spirit that the idol represents rather than the idol itself. It only gives the worshipper a channel or a symbol to concentrate on during his prayers and meditation.
Originally, three major faces of gods came to be popularly worshipped, namely Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Shiva is almost as popular as Vishnu and is evolved from the fierce Vedic god Rudra. Residing in the Himalayan Mount Kailasa, Shiva is a great ascetic, always meditating for the welfare of the world. He is covered with ashes and from his matted hair flows the sacred river Ganga. He is death and time, which destroy all things. On his forehead is a third eye, an emblem of his superior wisdom. His neck is blue (Neelakantan), from the effects of the poison he drank in order to save the humanity. The bull Nandi is his mount and beside him sits his beautiful wife, Parvathi. Shiva is also the god of fertility and is mostly worshipped in the phallic symbol called Linga. In the South he is also called as Pashuapati (Lord of the Beasts). The Shaivite sect considers Shiva as the Supreme Being.
The protector and maintainer of humanity is Vishnu. He lives in the highest heaven, the Vaikunta. A great eagle (Garuda) is his vehicle and Lakshmi is his wife seated to his right. He is considered as the Universal God (as early as in the Bhagavad Gita). He is also called as Hari (as against Hara, another name for Shiva). Vishnu became an embodiment of many popular gods, namely Vasudeva in Western India andNarayana, an obscure god mentioned in the Brahmana literature of Upanishads.Krishna, the hero of the epic Mahabharata came to be identified as an incarnate (avatar) of Vishnu. Rama, the hero of the epic Ramayana was another major avatar of Vishnu, incarnated in order to rid the world of the demon Ravana. When there is disorder in the world Vishnu will incarnate himself to restore order for the welfare of the world. In all there are ten avatars of Vishnu.
Matsya (The Fish): When the earth was overwhelmed with a universal flood, Vishnu took the form of a fish and saved the first man (Manu), his family and seven sages (rishis) in a boat fastened to a horn on his head. The sacred Vedas were also saved.
Kurma (The Tortoise): Vishnu took the form of a tortoise in order to retrieve ambrosia (amritha) from the cosmic flood. This amritha was essential for the gods to preserve their youth. On the back of Kurma the gods placed Mount Mandara and tied the divine snake Vasuki around the mountain. With snake acting as the rope to twirl the mountain, the ocean was churned, whence the ambrosia appeared.
Varaha (The Boar): When the demon Hiranyaksha cast the earth into the depths of cosmic ocean, Vishnu adorned the form of a wild boar and slew the demon. Using his tusks, he then raised the earth to safety.
Narasimha (The Man-Lion): The demon Hiranyakashipu, obtained a boon from Brahma after intense ascetism (tapas) ensuring that he could not be killed either by day or night, by god, man or beast. He persecuted the gods and men as well as his pious son Prahlada. When the young son called for the Lord's help, Vishnu burst out of a pillar, in a form half man and half lion at sunset and killed the demon Hiranyakashipu.
Vamana (The Dwarf): Here the demon Bali Chakravarthy commences a course of ascetism (tapas) to obtain supernatural powers. When he was a menace to the gods, Vishnu appeared as a dwarf, asking Bali for alms. Bali granted Vamana three paces of ground as requested. Vamana transformed himself into a giant and covered the earth with one step, the heavens with another. Though a demon, Bali was an honorable one and never went back on his word once granted. Seeing that there was no place for the third step, Bali, accepting defeat and to save his honor, knelt in front of god and asked him to place the third step on his own head. He was thus destroyed and the gods were rescued.
Parashurama (Rama with the Axe): Born as a son to a Brahmin Jamadagni, Parashurama killed the wicked King Kartavirya who robbed Jamadagni. Kartavirya's sons later killed Jamadagni, after which an enraged, axe wielding, Parashurama destroyed all the males of the Kshatriya class for twenty-one successive generations. He is also credited to have rescued the lands of Kerala and South Kanara from the sea and reclaimed them. Parashurama is frequently referred to in the literature, but rarely worshipped.
Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya: Vishnu incarnated himself as Rama to save the world from the oppressions of demon Ravana, king of Lanka, who also abducted his wife Sita. Rama is a benevolent, brave and a faithful husband. He formed a complete family unit with his faithful wife, Sita and three loyal brothers, Lakshmana, Bharatha and Shatrughna. He also is shown as a loving father to his twin boys Lava and Kusha. The monkey-god Hanumat is his loyal friend and helper. His glorious story is depicted in the epic Ramayana, written by sage Valmiki in a set of seven books.
Krishna, the hero of Mahabharatha: Born to Vaudeva and Devaki of the Yadava tribe, he grew up as the foster child of cowherd Nanda and his wife Yashoda. Krishna's life can be studied in three stages. As a child he performed many miracles, slew demons like Puthani and also played numerous pranks on his doting mother, such as stealing butter from the vessel etc. When confronted by Yashoda and asked to open his mouth she saw the impression of the whole universe in the infant's mouth. As an adolescent Krishna was seen as a flute-playing cowherd, enticing the village girls to come and dance to the tunes. His favorite was the beautiful Radha. Later Krishna married Rukmini, the daughter of king of Vidarbha and made her his queen. His amorous advances eventually led to 16,000 wives and 180,000 children and grandchildren. Krishna's greatest manifestation was as a charioteer to Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers (Kuru Dynasty of Hasthinapura), as depicted in the epic Mahabharata. Here he preached the great sermon of the Bhagavad Gita. Krishna also had an older brother called Balarama (also called Halayudha-meaning armed with a plough), who was also worshipped for sometime in the past. Some consider Balarama as another avatar of Vishnu (later supplanted by Buddha).
Buddha: According to most theologians Buddha became god in order to ensure damnation of the wicked by making them deny the sacred Vedas. However Jayadeva's Gita Govnda states that Vishnu became Buddha out of compassion to animals and to put an end to their bloody sacrifice.
Kalki: is the incarnation yet to come. At the end of the present Dark Age, Vishnu will appear on a white horse, with a flaming sword in his hand. He will punish the wicked, reward the good and restore the Golden Age again.
Brahma, the creator of the world came to be worshipped less and less. Durga, the mother Goddess, later replaced Brahma as one of the main deities and many temples were built for her in India.
Shakti and other Pantheon of Gods
Mother Goddess is called by many names. The chief form is that of the wife of Shiva called in her benevolent form, Parvathi (Daughter of the Mountain), Mahadevi (the Great Goddess), Sati (the Virtuous), Gauri (the White One), Annapurna (Giver of Food), or simply as Matha (Mother) or Ammai (Mother in Tamil).
In her grim form she is known as Durga (the Inaccessible), Kali (the Black One), andChandi (the Fierce). Shakti (the Potent and Powerful) is also considered to be another form of the same Mother Goddess. In her most fierce form Durga or Kali is dancing on the demons with a garland of human skulls, with her blood-dripping tongue protruding. She has a lethal weapon on each of her many arms. Though there are many temples in India devoted to Mother, she is worshipped as the cult figure Kali, mainly in Bengal and Assam today. As she represents power and potency, she is also worshipped in the form of the female genitalia called Yoni. Sati (Durga incarnate) was married to the Lord. When her father Daksha quarreled with her lord she flung herself into his sacrificial fire. The ashes of her yoni fell in various spots in India, which then became sacred shrines to her cult.
Another goddess who had temples built for her is Saraswati. She is the wife of Brahma and is considered to be the patron of art, music and learning. Though there is no creator God mentioned in the Rig Veda, by the end of Rig Vedic period, such a god existed by the name of Prajapati (creator of all gods and men), who later is identified as Brahma of Hindus. While Saraswati has many temples built for her, ironically temples for Brahma, her husband, are very rare in India today (there is one on the lake Pushkara near Ajmer). Bramha is usually depicted as seated on a lotus arising from the navel of recumbent Vishnu, lying on the seven-hooded serpent Shesha.
Broadly six forms of godheads are being worshipped in India currently. Apart from the Vaishnavas' Vishnu, Shaivites Shiva and Shakta's Devi there are three more godheads that are adored. Sauras worship Surya, Ganapatyas worship Ganesha andKaumaryas treat Skanda (Muruga in the Tamil lands), as their godhead. Collectively these six forms of divine worship of Hindus are called as Shanmatas.
However, other gods are worshipped with their own temples and are numerous all over the country. Each god has a special function to perform, be it protection of a certain sect or to bring good luck and wealth to the worshipper. Thus temples were built for Lakshmi. She is the wife of Vishnu and is the goddess of good luck and temporal blessing.
Ganesha (or Ganapati), the second son of Shiva and Parvathi, bore the head of an elephant and is credited with removing snags and obstacles of any venture undertaken. He is worshipped at the beginning of all undertakings. He is called the 'Remover of Obstacles or Vigneshvara'.
Subramanya, the god of fertility is the other son of Shiva and Parvathi. He is also called as Kartikeya, Kumara, Muruga (in South) or Skanda (in North).
Hanumant, the monkey god is the son of Vayu and a servant of Rama. He is mainly a village god and is a guardian spirit.
Local Gods and Spirits
The countryside has many more local gods and goddesses. Each village has its own goddess or Gramadevata, often in the form of an idol worshipped under a sacred tree. Goddesses were also worshipped as protectors against diseases. Shitala (the Cool) also called as Mariyammai in the Tamil countryside, was prayed to by the mothers to protect their children against smallpox. Snake goddess Manasa protected from snakebites. Naga, a snake-spirit, guarded the underground city of Bhagovatiand guarded great treasures. They can take human form and many ancient tribes claim to be descendents of Nagas, especially from a union between human hero and a feminine form of the snake called Nagini. Assam even today has tribes that are calledNagas.
Yakshas were similar to fairies, who generally were friendly to humans especially to men. Gandharvas were male fairies that were seen as heavenly musicians. Some are depicted with human head and the body of horses, called Kinaras and resembled the Greek centaurs. Apsaras were temptresses of ascetics. Menaka seduced sageVishvamitra and conceived Shakuntala, heroine of Kalidasa's famous drama. Urvasiwas another legendary Apsara beauty. Vidhyadharas are heavenly magicians, residing in the Himalayan magic cities, able to transform themselves at will and also fly through the air. Rishis and Siddhas attained holy status because they were ascetics and composers of the hymns of the Vedas. Some of the famous Rishis are Vashishta, Vishvamitra, Brhaspati, Kashyapa, Agastya and Narada, the inventor of the musical instrument veena.
The evil spirits were the Asuras or demons (Suras were the gods) that constantly fought the gods in heaven. Rakshasas were more of a menace to people on earth. Most famous Rakshasa was Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka, who died in the hands of Rama. Less terrible were the Pishachas, who also roamed the battlefields and burial grounds at night and distressed men. Betala (Vetala) or the vampire took up its abode in corpses and roamed the charnel grounds. Finally there were the Pretas and Bhutas, naked spirits of dead people, especially those who died an unnatural death. These were very dangerous to their surviving relatives.
Animal and Inanimate Gods
Animals and plants also have attained sacred status. Cow is the most sacred animal, as it is believed to be one of the treasures churned from the cosmic ocean by the gods. The five products of the cow (Panchkavya) namely, milk, curd, butter, urine and dung are believed to have great purifying potency when mixed in a single mixture.
Kamadhenu was a mythological cow said to have belonged to Vashishta that could satisfy all desires of mankind. Nandi, the bull is the mount of Shiva and is seen in most Shiva temples. Snake is also sacred and the legendary serpents Shesha, andVasuki are symbols of both death and fertility. Shesha also is seen as a bed for the recumbent Vishnu while Vasuki was used as a rope used in churning of the cosmic ocean.
Monkey, though not mentioned in the Hindu sacred texts, later is revered perhaps because of Hanumant, Rama's faithful servant.
Villages also had sacred trees. Pippala or Ashvata (Ficus religiosa) were especially sacred and the sanctity of these later spread to Buddhism. Vata or nyagrodha, the banyan tree (Ficus indica) has also attained religious status. Women pray to the Ashoka tree for blessings in order to conceive children. The legendary Kalpa-vrikshawas a tree that fulfilled all wishes. A plant called Tulsi is grown in the courtyard and tended with great care by women and is believed to be sacred to Vishnu. There are two types of grass Kusha and Darbha that are sacred from the Vedic time onwards. However the Soma plant from that period was forgotten. Another inanimate object that attained holy status is the Salagrama (a fossilized shellfish), which is recognized as one of the symbols of Vishnu. Symbols representing Om, Swastika and Mandalawere considered to have cosmic and magical powers.