Do our Gods have any kin among the ancient, and extinct, Gods of far off lands, say Greece or Rome or Scandinavia? Obviously yes. The similarities in appearance, behavior, characteristics or weaponry of our Gods and the Hellenic and other Gods of that region are so widely accepted that it is possible that all of them have a common ancestry. Also one single source of myth to serve as a divine fountainhead from which spouted various forms of divinities like Zeus and Indra, Hera and Lakshmi, Hades and Yama, Poseidon and Varuna, Persephone and Sita, to cite just a few names.
If it was sage Kashyap who sired the whole retinue of Devas and Asuras in our mythology, the Greeks have Kronos as the father figure of all the Gods of Mount Olympus as also of all the Titans, the counterparts of our Asuras. And even Mount Olympus has a mirror image in our Mount Meru, the abode of Indra and other Gods.
The similarities are indeed striking, some looking like copycat images. Take the case of Krishna, one of the most popular of the deities in the Hindu pantheon. Krishna’s birth, the attempts to kill him during his infancy and his death after an arrow pierced his vulnerable heel have all their reflections in different, unrelated stories in the Hellenic, Scandinavian or Norse lore. In the role of Kamsa the Greeks have Kronos, the father of Gods, who feared that his sons born to wife Rhea might pose a threat to him. If Kamsa killed his nephews one after another, Kronos simply swallowed his sons at birth. As against the eighth child of Devaki surviving Kamsa’s iniquitous calculations, it was Zeus, the sixth son of Kronos, who was clandestinely sent away to safety by Rhea. Later, a grown up Zeus comes back to deal directly with Kronos, just as Krishna faced Kamsa.
Krishna was invincible in every way but he had a weak point, his heel. It was here that the fatal arrow from a hunter struck him after he lost everything that he had prized in his life: his country, which went under the sea, his clan, its members fighting each other to death, and his wives, who were forcibly taken away by marauding robber gangs.
Krishna’s counterpart in death in the Hellenic lore was Achilles, the invincible hero of the Trojan war, whose weak point too was the heel. His mother Thetis, Goddess of Water, had sought to give him invincibility by immersing him in the River Styx, the borderland river, like our own Vaitarani, that separates the living and the dead worlds. As Thetis held Achilles by the ankle of one leg while immersing him in the river that part of his body was untouched by water and therefore remained a vulnerable point. Achilles met his death after an arrow hit him on that point.
Even the Trojan war, caused by the abduction of the wife of a king, had its parallel in our own lore of Sita abducted by Lanka ruler Ravanan, sparking an all-out war.
Nowhere is the Hellenic and Indian similarity so pronounced as in the case of Zeus and Indra, the former the Supreme God in the Greek tradition and the latter the Supreme God in the Vedic tradition. Both are lords of the skies, lightning and thunder being their major weapons. In the circumstances of their births, in their many exploits, in their notorious lust for heavenly or earthly women, and in many other respects Zeus and Indra are practically one and the same.
Indra is described in one of the Upanishads, the Aitareya Upanishad, as the first to realize that he and Brahman are one and the same. That also explains how he got the name Indra. Once he realized that he was part of Brahman, he exclaimed idam adarshanamiti, which means ‘This I have seen.’ He therefore came to be known as Idam Dra (This I saw) a name that contracted to Indra, because, the Upanishad explains, parokshapriya iva hi devah (even Gods are fond of cryptic names).
So much about the striking similarities in the lore! But how to find the common source from which all these varied strands of the myth emanated?
Vedic Sanskrit, linguistic scholars had found, was a member of one of the world’s primary language families, later known as Indo- European Languages. Sanskrit belonged to its sub-group known as Indo-Iranian Languages of which Indic and Iranian, spoken by Indo-Aryans, were prominent. The Indo-European languages are believed to have derived from the hypothetical language known as Proto-Indo-European Language, which is no longer spoken.
It was generally believed that the earliest speakers of this language originally lived around the Eurasian steppes, that is Ukraine and neighbouring regions in the Caucasus and Southern Russia, and then spread to the rest of Europe and later down to India. The Proto-Indo-European linguistic unity was believed to have come to an end by about 3400 BC.
The common myths that later shaped the mythologies of the Greeks, the Scandinavians and the Vedic Indians must have had their origin in this Proto Indo-European phase.
In the absence of any verifiable evidence on this language, linguists and other scholars had increasingly employed comparative mythology as one of the means to arrive at an understanding. And comparative mythology definitely pointed to a common origin for the varied tales of Gods and Goddesses with identical characteristics in diverse lands.
Apart from comparative mythology, scholars have employed other methods too for the study of the prototype language preceding the Indo-European language group. They included the Ritual School which held the view that the stories were invented to explain various rituals and religious practices.
It was Sir Wlliam Jones, philologist and Judge of the Supreme Court in British India, who first propounded a theory about the definite relationship between Indian and European Languages, which later came to be known as Indo-European Languages. His celebrated speech at the Asiatic Society on 2nd February 1786 was often cited as the beginning of comparative linguistics:
‘The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family. ‘
It is this common source that has come to be known as Proto-Indo-European.
Now, what is the present status of the Gods and Goddesses who all originated together sometime in the distant past in the Eurasian steppes and then re-located to different regions, including India, with the migration of vast multitudes of people?
In all those distant lands Zeus and other Gods have all vanished, leaving behind only architectural and sculptural remnants and cultural markers like painting and poetry. People there take stories about these Gods only as Myths and nothing but Myths. Even in Greece, where Zeus and his tribe reigned supreme once, there are said to be far less than 2,000 people who partake in annual mountain ceremonies connected with these erstwhile Gods.
In India, however, the Gods are there in all their glory and the believers are unwilling to treat stories about them merely as Myths. Why is it so?
Is it because of the power of the Gods, resourcefulness of the priestly class or gullibility of the people?