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Early Deities of Indian Mythology

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 2:46 AM
Krishna and one of the cowgirls in their ecstatic dance of love. The idea of union with the divine through sexual ecstasy is especially fostered by the mythology of Krishna, portraying the physical manifestation of worship through bhakti or devotion. Detail of cloth painting. Rajasthan, nineteenth century.
The Dravidian peoples, who spread into almost every part of India and Sri Lanka, were a mixture of native populations of India and Proto-Drav-Indians, who seem to have entered India in waves from about 4000 to 2500 B.C. They introduced a neolithic village culture based on agriculture or hunting in Baluchistan and Sind, and this enriched and incorporated elements of the mesolithic culture evidenced about 5000 B.C. by the earliest known paintings in rock shelters of bison, elephant and buffalo, as far afield as Adamgarh in central India and Badami in the southern Deccan. The so-called Indus Valley civilisation which developed from this stretched from Afghanistan to beyond present Delhi and from the Makeran coast of Baluchistan far down into Gujerat. Great cities such as Mohenjodaro and Harappa (in present-day Pakistan) and Kalibangan in India rose during the third millennium B.C. and reached the height of their considerable material culture about 2150-1750 B.C. (as Carbon-14 dating has shown, somewhat later than thought when the sites were first excavated in the 19zos).

From the archaeological excavations it is clear that the great cities had risen above a purely agricultural economy and conducted trade over-land and by sea with places as far afield as Mesopotamia. The Sumerian-style seals found at each of the major sites give us the best clues to what their deities and myths may have been, though the accompanying inscriptions have not so far been satisfactorily deciphered. Nor can we know whether the remarkable visual similarities indicate beliefs derived from Mesopotamia or merely an iconography borrowed from there. 

Mithuna couple from a frieze of such embracing figures round the walls of the Durga temple at Khajuraho, tenth-eleventh centuries. Both Vishnuite Shivaite temples adorned with such celebrations of human unity with nature and the divine were built at Khajuraho in northern Central India and escaped Muslim iconoclasm.
Whatever the case, the Dravidians, as an agricultural people, clearly worshipped deities connected in one way or another with fertility. There were two main elements in this, both analogous to Mesopotamian cults: phallic worship typified in the seals found at Harappa, which show a god seated with legs crossed and wearing bull's horns (the bull being a universal symbol of male potency); and the cult of mother goddesses, most plainly depicted on seals which show plants growing from the womb of a female deity, or which show a naked goddess before whom a human sacrifice is being performed. Such figures are accompanied by animal ministrants, the goddess by what appears to be half-bull, half-ram, and the god by deer, birds, an elephant, a tiger, a rhinoceros and a buffalo or in other cases by votive serpents. Serpent worship certainly antedates the Aryan invasions, though it was incorporated into both Buddhist and Hindu iconography. Significantly, from Aryan times onwards the majority of serpents or Nagas were considered demons, but a few were highly honoured as divine. This age old reverence for animals, alien to Aryan belief, may well have contributed to Buddhist and Hindu ideas of reincarnation.

Krishna as the pastoral god surrounded by a herd. The pre-Aryan motif of the Lord of the Beasts is echoed in such Hindu images conjuring up the essential unity of nature and the divine. In some of his other incarnations Vishnu was not merely accompanied by animals but took animal form himself. Seventeenth-century carved teak from a processional chariot. The Dravidian beliefs were deeply enough entrenched in India to survive the changes brought about by the successive waves of Aryan invasion that took place from about i800 B.C. and led to or at least coincided with the decline and disappearance of the Indus Valley cities. In a number of particulars the iconography of the Indus Valley civilisation, and therefore possibly beliefs, 'reappears with the first Hindu cult images of gods of the firstto fourth centuries A.D. Thus Shiva and his consort resemble the Dravidian cult figures in many respects, Shiva often being depicted in a cross-legged yogic posture with the bull Nandi as his symbol, and his consort being associated with human sacrifice. Other Hindu deities too are characteristically accompanied by particular animals, often a 'vehicle'. And the graceful yakshi figures that feature so prominently in early Buddhist sculpture of the third to first centuries B.C., when no images of the Buddha himself were made, appear to be derived from Dravidian female nature deities associated with trees and water and symbolising the fertility of water and earth. As in the Indus civilization seals, they are accompanied by naturalistic animals, and some-times by a male ministrant or counterpart, the yaksha. Such figures later influenced the depiction of the Buddha in the sculptures made at Mathura and installed at Sarnath. 

Naga protected by the hoods of a five-headed cobra. A motif in Indus civilization images, serpent deities reappear in both Buddhist and Hindu iconography, symbolizing the transition between the formless waters beneath the earth amidst the tree roots that are snakes' homes and the fecund creation that stems from them in plant, animal and human life. Sandstone,
The yakshi and yaksha figures survived into Hinduism too, in trans-muted though still powerful form, as guardians of wealth, and they are thought to have influenced the development in India of cosmic sexual symbolism. From being personifications of the ever-renewing sap of life, whose embrace has the power to fertilise trees, yakshis developed into the three great female deities of Indian rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati, source of eternal sustenance, and so into the culminating personification of abundance, the goddess Lakshmi. In Tantric belief, whose influence is so strongly reflected in the countless images of Mithuna, embracing couples, that adorn Indian temples, the female principle of voluptuous activity is the motive force that sustains the universe, because without it the male principle of static, transcendental potentiality would remain in inert passivity. They illustrate, to European eyes sometimes in gross physical form, spiritual union with the divine. This Tantric trend, which became powerful in the fifth century A.D. during the Golden Age of the Gupta empire, is in striking contrast to the ascetic stream in Indian tradition, yet both seem equally to derive from the pre-Aryan past, and stand in a dialectical relationship to each other, opposite poles of the human approach to existence.

Writer- Veronica Lons

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