In the Hindu universe, gods and goddesses play freely among human beings to help them, nudge them towards right action and mete out justice. They may appear to us as avatars in superhuman form or manifest themselves as forces of nature. The many myths of Hinduism become colourful and entertaining when Shiva, Vishnu and Devi take different forms to enact their rivalries, destroy demons and teach devotees with superpowers a lesson in humility.
This first-of-its-kind book brings together the major deities of the Hindu pantheon, describing the different manifestations by which they are recognized, celebrated and worshipped-from Durga to Sira to Kali, and from Narasimha to Parashurama to Krishna. The contributions by Bulbul Sharma, Namita Gokhale, Nanditha Krishna, Parvez Dewan, Royina Grewal and Seema Mohanty offer enchanting stories about our favourite divinities.
Bulbul Sharma is the author of five collections of short stories, a novel, three books for children and a work of non-fiction. Her books have been translated into several languages. She divides her time between New Delhi and Goa.
Namita Gokhale is the author of sixteen works of fiction and non-fiction, including the cult classic Paro: Dreams of Passion. Gokhale has also written the Puffin Mahabharata and Lost in Time: Ghatotkacha and the Game of Illusions. Her edited anthologies include Himalaya: Adventures, Meditations, Life and The Himalayan Arc: Journeys East of South-east. Gokhale is the founder and co-director of the Jaipur Literature Festival and of Mountain Echoes, the Bhutan Literature Festival. She is the director of Yatra Books.
Nanditha Krishna has a PhD in ancient Indian culture from the University of Bombay. She has been a professor and research guide for the PhD programme of C.P.R. Institute of Indological Research, affiliated to the University of Madras. She was the honorary director and later president of the C.P, Ramaswarni Aiyar Foundation, and is the founder-director of its constituents, including the Kanchi Museum of Folk Art. She is the author of several notable books, including Sacred Plants of India, Sacred Animals of India, Hinduism and Nature, Madras Then, Chennai Now and The Arts and Crafts of Taminadu.
Parvez Dewan is an officer of the Indian Administrative Service. His previous books include The Hanuman Chalisa of Goswami Tulasi Das, The Names of Allah and Jammu-Kashmir-Ladakh: Travel, Trekking, Art, Culture and Society.
Royina Grewal has written two monographs on Chanderi and Mandu as well as Sacred Virgin: Travels along the Narmada, In Rajasthan: A Travelogue and In the Shadow of the Taj. Her interest in history is expressed in the six son et lumiere productions she has conceived, scripted and directed. Grewal and her husband divide their time between Delhi and an organic farm in Rajasthan.
Seema Mohanty is a freelance writer based in Mumbai. She wrote The Book of Kali based on the lectures and writings of her brother, Devdutt Pattanaik, the well-known mythologist.
It is often said that Hindus worship thirty-three million gods. I don't know who invented that number, but it is as mythical as the stories surrounding the gods of Hinduism. There are several deities and divinities who are a part of the history of Hinduism, each with an elaborate literature establishing his or her divinity.
Hindus believe in one Supreme Being or Brahman who is nirguna or without qualities, with neither a physical appearance nor physical attributes. But the devotee may conceive the Supreme Being as he wills, which is generally saguna or with attributes. The Saguna Brahman may be a personal god or an incarnation, a natural phenomenon (like a mountain or river) or even a form of zoolatry. Many deities represent important historical or environmental events or the social evolution from grazing to food production. Each deity has a complex and distinct personality. From the myriad deities of the Hindu pantheon, a devotee chooses to worship the divinity most suited to his or her disposition. Some deities like Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti have their-own individual cults and -followers; others are a part of a complex tradition of multiple deities who lead the path to a Nirguna Brahman.
The Supreme Being or Nirguna Brahman of Hinduism IS very different from the one god of the Abrahamic religions: If Jehovah or Allah is a mighty ruler sitting in his kingdom of heaven in the sky, with the power to pardon the sinner or reward his devotee, Brahman is found everywhere, within us and without, irrespective of whether .you are a worshipper or not, in humans and even animals. The Abrahamic god is far removed from his human followers, for they are monotheistic religions that separate god and people. In contrast, Hinduism is a monistic religion where, in spite of the multiplicity of deities, there is an awareness that they are all part of one Supreme Being, as are human beings and animals. There is no distinction or duality between mind and matter, or god and the world. The individual divinities are but a manifestation of the genderless Brahman, who is the Ultimate Reality.
Hindu divinities have evolved over millennia, with new ones appearing over the years and many forgotten as the forms of worship changed. They evolved from thirty- three Vedic devas or 'shining ones' who represent the forces of nature and the moral values of the times. Thus Indra was the rain, Varuna the waters and Agni the fire, Vishnu was the all-pervading sun, along with Surya and Savitr, while Ushas was the dawn. Pushan represented agriculture. Dyauspitr was the father of the shining ones and Prithvi was Mother Earth, The rivers-especially the mighty Saraswati-were sacred, for they gave water for sustenance. The Vedic people depended on a capricious nature for their survival and established the concept of sacred nature. Five thousand years ago, the sages of the Rig Veda showed a clear appreciation of the natural world and its ecology. Asuras were initially 'leaders' among the Vedic people. Towards the end of the Rig Veda, it is said that they were banished to the north and became synonymous with demons. The' gods, or devas, represent light and are constantly battling the demons, or asuras, who represent the forces of darkness. If the devas and asuras represent the opposing forces of light and darkness, it is also a battle between the human ego and the alter ego. Th~ deva-asura dichotomy represents the inner battles within the self.
In the epic and puranic periods, the situation changes. The devas represent goodness, and the asuras evil. Vishnu, Shiva and Devi become all-powerful, each with an entire literature of his or her own. Later, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva combine to form a trinity of the Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. Brahma's consort is Saraswati, the goddess of learning, while Vishnu's consort is Lakshmi, or Shridevi (prosperity) and Bhudevi (earth). Shiva's consort has complex manifestations such as Parvati, the gentle daughter of the Himalayas, Sati, who threw herself into the fire to avenge her husband, and Durga or Shakti, the source of all energy. But the gods also combine to form Harihara and Shankara-Narayana (Vishnu-Shiva) or the androgynous Ardhanarishwara, a combination of Shiva and Parvati. Each god is given attributes and weapons and an animal vahana or vehicle: Shiva's primary attribute is the trident or trishul and his vehicle is the bull; Vishnu's primary attributes include the conch and discus, while his vehicle is Garuda the .... eagle; Brahma holds a kamandalu (pot of water), rosary beads and palm leaves befitting arishi, and his vehicle is the swan. Similarly, Lakshmi may be identified by her lotus seat and elephants, Durga by her lion vehicle and Saraswati by her veena and swan vehicle. In time, a rich iconography and several myths developed not only for the main deities themselves but for their many manifestations and incarnations which became a part of the great tapestry of Hindu theism.
Different myths associated with the gods represent natural or social phenomena. For example, the battle between Indra and Vritra in the Rig Veda represents the destruction of drought (Vritra) by rain (Indra). Similarly, the battle between goddess Durga and the buffalo deity Mahisha represents the war between the food producers who worshipped the goddess and the pastoralists who grazed buffaloes.
A Hindu icon-murti, pratima or vigraha-may be an image made of stone, metal, terracotta or even a painting, but it is never regarded as the Supreme Being himself. The image represents an association of ideas that are of value to the devotee. When an icon or idol is worshipped, it is regarded as the spirit of the deity and a point of concentration for the worshipper, yet the idea of Brahman or the Supreme Reality is never confined within it. The gods are superhuman manifestations of their worshippers. If humans have two hands, gods have many, representing their many superior abilities. The four-faced Brahma represents the height of wisdom, for he has more brainpower than an ordinary person.
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