In general, mythology is defined as the collective stories that belong to a specific culture and embody all the religious beliefs and values. In Hinduism, the myths truly depict the spiritual essence of this tradition that traces its roots to the Indus Valley as far back as 4000 BCE. In fact, even today Hinduism mythology continues to be an integral part of this ever-changing global culture and remains as important as the Bible or the Koran.
Indian civilization, Hinduism in particular, is based on a broad enough philosophical foundation to encompass individuals of all faiths and beliefs. The early historian Williams in Brahmanism and Hinduism (455) emphasized that the interest in Hinduism lies in its ability to be continually adaptable to the continual diversity of human character. Philosophers appreciate the religion's spiritual and abstract aspects. The poets enjoy its aesthetic and ceremonial offerings. Individuals who relish seclusion, laud its contemplative and peaceful aspects. Practical people like the more pragmatic notions. It is this ability to appeal to many different individuals that has allowed for the culture's continued popularity. Noting the continued importance of Hinduism Williams stated:
And here I may observe circumstances in the history of India is more worthy of investigation than the antiquity and perseverance of her institutions. It has existed almost unaltered since the description of its organization in Manu's code two or three centuries before Christian era. It has survived all religious, political and physical convulsions from which India suffered from time immemorial. Invader after invader has ravaged the country with fire and sword but the simple self-contained township has preserved its constitution intact, its customs, precedents, and peculiar institutions unchanged and unchangeable amid all other changes. (455)
This statement about Hinduism's continued importance is just as relevant today as it was a century ago, as noted by Williams.
In fact, as noted in the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (326), Hindu is also known as Sanatana Dharma or in Sanskrit, the original language of India, "The Everlasting Religion." Further, Sanatana Dharma does not have a specific point of origin, founder or church. The leaders of the Hindu culture only restated the teachings of the Vedas, the essential truths of the Aryans.
Hindu mythology dates back to the first Vedic hymns, of a very spiritual nature, that were composed to express the sense of beauty, gladness and bounty of the world. This sacred literature, which details hymns of praise, correct ritual procedure, spells and charms (Forty, 126), was at first the sole province of the Brahmans or priests (Rice 24). It was handed down orally from generation to generation. Later, the Vedic hymns were committed to the written word. In a word, they are "divine." They are given to humans directly from God or Brahma. Hindus believe that "God created the whole universe out of knowledge of the Vedas." In other words, "Vedic knowledge existed even before the creation of humankind. They are the authority, or knowledge of God" (Rice 24).
In Hindu mythology, as noted in Bulfinch's Mythology (320), Brahma is the source of all the universe in addition to the well from which other deities have flowed. Brahma's attributes are represented by the three personified powers of "creation," "preservation," and "destruction." Under the respective names of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva (Shiva), these form the Trimurti or triad of principal gods. There are also lesser gods that include Indra, the god of heaven, thunder and rain; Agni, the god of fire; Yama, the god of the infernal areas; and Surya, the god of the sun.
The Judeo/Christian God and Brahma are very different: In the former, God is the one who creates: He is not his creation. That is, God is not a tree or river or animal; these are instead manifestations of God. In the latter, Brahma is his own creation. The universe is not a creation, but rather his own emanation Everything in the world, such as inanimate objects, humans, animals, and gods, is part of him. Thus, every person's soul is Brahma (Bulfinch).
Brahma is most often shown as a peacock sitting upon the lotus, because he grew out of the sacred water lily issuing from Vishnu's navel. His wife is Sarasvati, the Goddess of Eloquence, who has the attributes of the warrior conch (Hackin 118). Although Brahma is the supreme being of the triumvirate, Vishnu and Siva predominate and have absorbed all the myths, ancient and new.
Myths about Vishnu abound because of his popularity throughout the centuries. Throughout the Vedic Hymns, Vishnu is seeing as a majestic and powerful god.
In one myth where the gods and giants are battling, Vishnu takes refuge far from the violence of arms to enjoy peace and lofty meditations. The other gods beg for his intervention. Despite the fact that his body is small in his dwarf incarnation, Vishnu's intellect is great. He goes to the giant man-at-arms Bali and states, "Lay down your arms and grant the gods as their refuge nothing but the space enclosed by three steps of mine; the rest of the universe will be yours." Bali, who has a powerful body but little intellect, quickly agrees. Vishnu takes one step and clears the Sky, a second step and passes Earth, and a third step and moves beyond the Lower World (Hackin 131).
Noted in Vishnu and His Avatars (64), as the preserver of the cosmos, Vishnu upholds the laws of the universe. When order rests in the world, he sleeps on the coils of Sesha, ruler of the Nagas, who floats along the cosmic ocean. However, when the universe is in disorder, Vishnu either mounts his vehicle, Garuda, and fights the forces of chaos, or sends one of his Avatars or incarnations to save the world. It is believed that Vishnu has ten Avatars, the most popular being Rama and Krishna. These are: 1. The fish Matsya; 2. The turtle Kurma; 3. The boar Varaha; 4. The man-lion Narasimha; 5. The dwarf Vamana; 6. The warrior-priest Parashurama; 7. The prince Rama; 8. The cowherd Krishna; 9. The sage Buddha-Mayamoha; and 10. The horseman Kalki. Vishnu uses either trickery and guile as noted in the story above or force to succeed.
Although Siva is the third of the Hindu triad, he has the largest number of followers and worshipers (Bulfinch 322). He is the bloodthirsty and terrible god, chief of the evil spirits, the ghouls, the vampires, and the nocturnal phantoms that prowl about the burning-grounds. As the god of destruction, Siva has a necklace of skulls, snakes coiling all over his body and long and matted hair that extends over the whole sky and space. His crown is decorated by the crescent moon that represents his control on the time cycle. He smears his body with ashes and wears tiger and elephant skins. He has a third eye on his forehead, or the source of knowledge and wisdom (Dowson 233).
A person may worship Siva or Vishnu or some other gods and goddesses or believe in the "Supreme Spirit" or the "Indestructible Soul" within each individual and still be called a good Hindu. However, as noted above, few people worship Brahma. Rather, it is Vishnu and Siva who have had the most prominent positions in Hinduism.
One of the myths explains why Brahma is all powerful but does not hold a major role in literature. In the story, as usual, he is depicted with four rotating heads, faces and arms. His hands hold a water pot used in creating life, a string of rosary beads for keeping track of Universal time, the Vedic text and a lotus flower. When establishing the universe, Brahma creates a female deity known as Shatarupa, or one with a hundred beautiful forms, and is immediately infatuated. Shatarupa moves in a number of different directions to avoid Brahma's stare. Wherever she goes, Brahma develops a head. He thus develops five heads, one on each side and one above the others. In order to control Brahma and to punish him for being obsessed with his own creation and daughter, Siva cuts the top head off and declares that there be no appropriate worship in India for the "unholy" Brahma. Therefore, only Vishnu and Siva are still worshipped, while Brahma is almost completely ignored (O'Flaherty 29).
Hindu mythology contains many different stories about these major as well as the minor gods. Nearly all stories are based on fundamentally similar concepts and ideas. These include the triads, as noted previously, in addition to 1) Performing a Penance: Humans and demi-gods or asuras are usually in a state of deep penance and meditation to reach the aura of a particular god. In this condition, they are separated from the world and deprived of any pleasures; 2) Granting of a Boon or generosity: In many situations of penance, Lord Brahma, Vishnu or Siva frequently appear and grant a wish of power to the person. The desire may be protection against a specific type of creature or a limited…