In this article, I present to you the origins of our religion as well as give a brief introduction to some of the most important Gods. It must be noted that there are over 330 million Gods and Goddesses and that there are over one billion people who follow this religion. Even though this is the popular belief, according to the Sanathana Dharma, there is only one God, or one Supreme Being. He is nameless and formless, He is everything and He is nothing, He is without beginning or end. We are disconnected parts of God and we need to find our way back to Him and this can be done in various ways. We are the ones who give Him different forms, so that we can understand Him better. Hinduism is not really a religion. It is a way of life. Hence this article is way too short to cover the breadth, complexity and depth of our way of life and the deeper meaning behind our scriptures.
Origins of Hinduism
The word Hinduism was used to denote the inhabitants of the Indus valley. Many believe that this religion is timeless i.e. existed since the beginning of time and does not have a founder. Interestingly the word Hindu is actually a mispronunciation of the word Sindhu. The Persians were familiar with the Indian Subcontinent had quite some difficulty in pronouncing “s” due to linguistic barriers. It can be said that Hinduism has evolved and developed itself through various cultural and philosophical beliefs and practices. Everything we know about Hinduism is found in ancient and sacred texts like the Vedas and the Puranas and other scriptures. Archaeologists discovered figures in yogic poses made from terracotta in the Indus Valley as well as silver and bronze figures, as well as a Shivalinga.
Main Texts in Hinduism
There are many scriptures which describe and exemplify the ways in which one can reach God, some of which are described below.
We have two great epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharat.
The Ramayan is about a prince who is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu named Rama. He has three brothers: Bharat, Lakshman and Shatrughan. His wife is Sita and he exemplifies the ideal human being. He is the perfect example on how one should carry out their dharma regardless of their situation. He is the perfect son, the perfect brother, the perfect friend, husband and so on. Rama is exiled to the forest for fourteen years at the behest of Kaikeyi (Bharat’s mother). Lakshman and Sita also accompany him in his exile. During their stay in the forest, they encounter different rishis and learn from them and Sita gets kidnapped by Raavan. Rama and Lakshmana search far and wide for Sita. They meet Hanuman and Sugriva on their search who promise to search for Sita with them. The troupe hears that Sita is held captive in Lanka. Hanuman goes to Lanka to find Sita and he finds her sitting under a tree in a beautiful garden. He sees that Raavan comes to the garden every single day and asks her ‘s to marry him. Sita, being a faithful wife, rejects Raavan’s advances. Hanuman then appears in front of Sita and tells her that she will be rescued. Rama, Lakshman, Hanuman and the monkey army builds a stone bridge and cross the sea to Lanka. They fight Raavan, kill him and make Vibhishana, Raavan’s brother king of Lanka and rescue Sita who undergoes Agnipariksha (the test of fire) to prove her faithfulness towards Rama. They finally return to Ayodhya where Rama is warmly welcomed by his subjects and is crowned king.
The Mahabharat is the story of a fight between cousins; the Kauravas and the Pandavas for the throne and political power. It all started when King Shantanu married the river Ganga who said that she will marry him on the condition that she may act as she pleases. Shantanu agrees to this and Ganga bears seven children, which she throws into the river. The eighth child is spared due to Shantanu’s intervention and is named Devavrata. Shantanu marries Satyavati, a fisherwoman whose father allowed the marriage on the condition that Satyavati’s child would become the king of Hastinapura. Devavrata hears of this condition and vows that he will remain celibate and will never become the king. Due to this vow, he is named Bhishma. Satyavati begets two children: Vichitraveerya and Chitrangadha. Chitrangadha dies in a battle with a gandharva of the same name. Vichitraveerya ascends the throne. He marries the sisters Ambika and Ambalika. Soon after, the weak king dies, leaving his wives without progeny. Satyavati summons her son Vedavyas. When Ambika sees Vedavyas, she closes her eyes and the son born to her is blind. He is named Dhritarashra. When Vedavyas enters Ambalika’s room, she becomes pale and trembles in fear at the sight of the great rishi. Ambalika’s son is born with a pale complexion and is named Pandu. The maid servant of the queens however, approaches Vedavyas fearlessly and with humiliation. Vedavyas is pleased and the son born to the maid is named Vidhur and is blessed to have great intelligence.
Since Dhritarashtra was born blind, he was not eligible to ascend the throne so Pandu is crowned king instead. Dhritarashtra marries Gandhari who ties her eyes with a blindfold. Pandu weds Kunthi and Madri. He then retires to the forest due to a curse he received from a sage. Dhritarashtra is made the de-facto king. Kunti gets three sons Yudhishthira, Bheem, Arjun thanks to a blessing she got from Durvasa, a rishi who is known to be short tempered. She teaches Madri the mantra and Madri gets twins Nakul and Sahadev. In Hastinapura, Gandhari gets a hundred sons and a daughter. The eldest ones are Duryodhan and Dusshasan. The daughter is named Dusshala. Pandu dies while he affectionately touches Madri.
The five boys and Kunthi go to Hastinapur. The rivalry between the Kauravas and Pandavas begins. The Pandavas are superior to the Kauravas in knowledge as well as in wielding weapons. They are mentored by Drona who promises Arjuna to make him the best archer in the world. Yudhishthira is made crown prince and Duryodhana is filled with envy. The Pandavas rule over Indraprasta. Yudhishthira is called to a game of dice and he loses badly; his wealth, his jewels, his palace, his brothers, himself and his wife. Draupadi is dragged to the court by her hair and Dusshasana tries to disrobe her. Draupadi prays to Lord Krishna to save her. Dusshasana tries to pull her sari but the sari keeps getting longer and longer. Vows are made and the Pandavas are exiled for 12 years and a year of staying incognito which they successfully complete. The Kauravas do not want to give the Pandavas even five villages to rule over. This instigates the great Kurukshetra war which lasts for 18 days. The Pandavas triumph with the support of Krishna. Yudhishthira is crowned king. He seeks advice from his great grand-uncle Bhishma about how to be a good ruler and about dharma. Dhritarashtra, Kunti, Gandhari and Vidhur retire to the forests and live as ascetics. Yudhishthira performs the Ashwamedha sacrifice. The Vrishini clan droops down to committing sins and end up destroying each other. Lord Krishna himself is killed by Jara, a hunter who mistook Lord Krishna’s legs for a deer. The Pandavas decide that it is time for them to depart earth. As they climb a mountain, each one of them falls to death. Yudhishthira is accompanied by a dog throughout the journey. As he steps on the chariot that will take him to heaven, he insists that the dog should also come with him. The dog was actually Lord Yama, the God of Death in disguise. Saying that his son passed the test of righteousness, Yudhishthira came to heaven. He saw the Kaurvas there and found out that his brothers were in hell. Yudhishthira insisted that he wanted to be in hell with his brothers. Lord Yama was pleased and declared that this was once again, a test of righteousness, which Yudhishthira had successfully passed. He then assured him that his brothers were actually in heaven.
There are eighteen Puranas which discuss five main topics: the first creation of the universe, the destruction of the first universe and the second creation of it, Gods and Goddesses, humans (stories of kings, rishis and the common folk) and they also talk about the history of the solar and lunar dynasties (Suryavanshis and Chandravanshis). The purpose of the Puranas is to give examples of Vedic teachings and to implore us to seek God and have a great sense of devotion towards Him.
There are four Vedas: Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda. Veda translates to “knowledge” in Sanskrit. At the end of each Veda is the Vedanta, also known as the Upanishads. These contain the essence of each Veda. The Vedas give instructions for every aspect of life; one of which includes how holy rituals must be performed.
The Bhagwat Gita is also known as the “Divine Song”, and this is the conversation in the Mahabharat between the Pandava warrior Arjuna and Lord Krishna which took place just before the start of the Kurukshetra war. Arjuna was appalled and devastated at the sight of his brothers, teachers and elders on the other side of the battlefield. Just as he was about to give up on fighting, Lord Krishna strongly advised him to carry out his “dharma” i.e., duty and to pick up his bow and fight for righteousness.
The Bhagwat Gita isn’t merely a religious text. It is a guide on how to live life correctly. The Bhagwat Gita contains solutions to all problems. The main concept of the Bhagwat Gita is this: The Soul or Atman is eternal. It is immortal and indestructible. Only the body is mortal. Those who understand this will be able to attain enlightenment and moksha from the cycle of birth and death. The Lord has given us various means to attain Him; we can and must perform good deeds (karma yoga), or through pure devotion (bhakti yoga) or by attaining knowledge (gyana yoga).
Introduction to Indian Gods and Goddesses
Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu Shiva
Lord Brahma is the creator of the world. He has four heads, one facing in each direction. His consort is Saraswati, the Goddess of Knowledge. He rides the swan. Many of you may have noticed that he is never depicted as an idol in temples. The reason for that is this story: Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma were having an argument on who was greater. Then suddenly, a fiery lingam with no beginning or end sprung up in front of them. Lord Brahma assumed the form of a swan and wanted to find the end of the lingam and Lord Vishnu took the form of a boar and dug the ground to find the origin of the fiery lingam. Many years passed but neither of them succeeded. After some time, a Ketaki flower fell from the sky and Brahma saw it. He asked the flower to bear witness for him. Lord Vishnu, in the meanwhile, had given up. He met Brahma and accepted defeat. Lord Shiva emerged from the Linga and cursed Lord Brahma for being dishonest. He said that Brahma would never be worshipped in temples. The Ketaki flower would never be used for worship inside the temples of Shiva.
Lord Vishnu is the preserver. He lives in the Ocean of Milk called Vaikunta. His consort is Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth. Lakshmi sits by the feet of Lord Vishnu which shows that she is a dutiful wife. Lord Vishnu rests on the serpent Adisesha. His mount is Garuda, which resembles an eagle. According to popular belief, Lord Vishnu has ten incarnations. He has incarnated nine times and will assume an avatar at the end of the Kali Yuga. He has more than ten incarnations, but these ten are said to be the most important for us.
Lord Shiva is the destroyer. His consort is Parvati. Lord Shiva assumes many forms. He is a family man, a great yogi and he is also known as Nataraja, the Lord of dance. He has two sons: Ganesha and Karthikeya. His weapon is the trident, and he rides on the bull, Nandi.
Parvati is the reincarnation of Sati, who was Shiva’s first wife. She got married to Lord Shiva by undertaking austere penance. She provides for the universe as Annapurna, she is the mother of Ganesha and Karthikeya. She forms half of the divine energy of the universe. She has many forms: Durga, Kali, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, and so on. Her nine forms are celebrated during Navarathri (nine nights).
Ganesha is the elephant-headed God. How he was born and how he got his elephant head is a story for another day. His mount is Mooshak, a mouse. In his hand, he carries his favourite delicacy a Modak, a rice ball with a sweet filling made from coconut and jaggery. He is the destroyer of obstacles and the God of wisdom. No ritual commences without seeking his blessings first, as he paves the path for success. According to some Itihasas, he is married to Siddhi and Buddhi and in others, he is known to be celibate.
Karthikeya was born from six fiery seeds which Agni, the God of Fire who carried the seeds in his palms and couldn’t bear the heat anymore. He requests the River Ganga to carry the seeds for him. Ganga flows to a forest where six Krittikas find and raise him. Parvati comes down to the scene from heaven and the ladies argue about the children. Parvati then hugs all six children at once and the six children transformed into one body with six heads. Since the Krittikas raised him, he is known as Karthikeya. He is also known as Skanda or Muruga. His weapon is a spear and he rides a peacock. His abode is the mountain Pazhani. The reason why he lives away from the divine family will be narrated in another article.
As I mentioned before, this article is too short and the scriptures are very vast in number as well as deep to be covered in one article. I hope you enjoyed this brief introduction to Hinduism and some of the Indian Gods and Goddesses. In the upcoming articles, I will be going into the details of our Itihasa and narrate the stories of various Gods and Goddesses. Thank you for reading.
- In Indian Culture, Why Do We, by Swamini Vimalananda & Radhika Krishnakumar: Why do we apply holy ash?, p.25-26
- The Gita for Children by Roopa Pai
- Amar Chitra Katha: various comics
- https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/beginners-guide-asian-culture/hindu-art- culture/a/roots-of-hinduism
- https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-asia/beginners-guide-asian-culture/hindu-art- culture/a/principal-texts-of-hinduism
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