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Religion and History - Indian Mythology

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 1:45 AM

A young yogi seeking union with the divine through ascetic exercises stands immune from the attacks of demons. Among the ranks of demons are the grotesque rakshasas with their backward-turning feet and the asuras, ancient deities supplanted by lndra and the later Hindu gods. Pahari school, from Basohli, c. 1710.

India's recorded civilization is one of the longest in the course of world history and its mythology spans the whole of that time and more. For some periods, indeed, since Hindu scholarship traditionally has little interest in history as such, mythology and sacred lore constitute the sole record, and the changes that may be noted in such traditional materials are thus vital clues to our knowledge of social and political change. Further-more the mythology is distinguished from that of most other lands, and certainly those of the West, by the fact that it is still part of the living culture of every level of society.

Illustrations from the Buddhist text 'The Transcendental Wisdom of the Further Shore', painted on palm leaf with Sanskrit text. Bengal. After the twelfth century Buddhism largely died out in India proper, but it made a permanent mark upon Hindu thought, while Hindu and notably Tantric influence can be seen in the proliferation in later Buddhism of Bodhisattvas, many represented with multiple arms, whose role is to help devotees attain worldly as well as spiritual desires.The Indians have always tended to retain their early beliefs and mould them sometimes perhaps distorting them in such a way as to mirror new social conditions, to adapt to the customs or beliefs of new rulers, or to fit into a new philosophical scheme. Over the millennia invaders with superior military techniques have entered the subcontinent in a steady stream, mostly from the north-west, and with the exception of the Muslims from the eleventh century onwards have been assimilated into but at the same time have influenced the more advanced and deep-rooted culture of the peoples they conquered. Deities and the myths attached to them have thus multiplied. The major synthesis of the Aryan or Vedic gods and the native Dravidian deities took shape as the roots of Hinduism. Because this happened under the guidance of the hereditary class of priests and philosophers, the Brahmins, it reinforced the status of the priests, stressing the value of their prerogative, the performance of sacrifice, in men's relations with the gods.

The Lord of the Beasts. Wearing the bull's horns characteristic of pre-Vedic deities and later of Shiva, this three-faced ithyphallic deity sits in yogic position surrounded by votive gazelles, an elephant, a tiger, a rhinoceros and a buffalo. The parallel with Shiva is not the only one: headdress and posture are also reminiscent of Buddha's sermon in the Deer Park. Seal found at Mohenjodaro. c. 2000 B.C. Buddhism was a reform movement rejecting some of the extremes of the Brahmins' doctrine and practice. It arose in the fifth century B.C. and held sway among the educated and powerful in northern India from the time of the Maurya emperor Ashoka in the third century B.C. until its waning in India in the seventh century A.D. Though Buddhism and the parallel movement of Jainism were originally ethical systems whereby the individual through personal effort could attain union with a universal Absolute beyond all gods, in time they too acquired mythology and borrowed some of the Hindu and pre-Aryan deities. This in turn affected classical Hindu mythology and Hindu philosophy of the Golden Age under the Guptas (fourth to sixth centuries A.D.), which was in part a defensive reaction to Buddhism. By the ninth century A.D. Hinduism was showing a tendency to monotheism by putting far greater emphasis on Shiva and Vishnu as high gods of universal cosmic significance, with worship by bhakti (devotion to a personal god) rather than by sacrifice performed by priests. After some two and a half millennia as prime intermediaries with the gods, however, the priestly caste was by then secure in its preeminence.

Goddess standing between the parted branches of a sacred pipal tree (the tree of Buddha's enlightenment). Half-kneeling before her is a suppliant god, leading a mythical animal, part human, part bull and part ram, apparently to be sacrificed. The horned crowns worn by goddess and suppliant indicate their divine nature. In the foreground are seven maidservants. At times the influence exerted by the priesthood in India has succeeded, at least among the educated, in trans-forming the pattern of beliefs. In some cases the changes advocated were no more than a response to the natural evolution of India's mythology as a consequence of historical circumstances: dynastic changes, invasions, economic conditions and the resultant social setting of the Indian peoples. Thus, for example, the name`asura', originally applied to Aryan deities such as Varuna, came by the Brahmanic age to refer to demons, albeit powerful ones. Such changes were particularly apt to alter mythological beliefs, for Indian myths as well as the religions around which they have grown up are closely tied to the social structure. It may be said that this is true of all mythologies but Indian mythology, through its persistence beyond the primitive levels of civilization and into a highly developed and stratified culture, has been able, for instance, to reinforce the doctrines of caste, so that even government disapproval cannot banish it from society.

Caste was first evolved in the late Epic or Brahmanic age, about 800-550 B.C., as the Aryans expanded over northern India and found it necessary to integrate majority indigenous populations into their social framework, and it seems from evidence in the great epics composed in that period that at first change of caste was possible. The rigidity and complexity of the caste structure as it developed later seems almost entirely due to Brahmin influence, and through it Brahmins maintained by right of birth a position as the highest caste. Not all Brahmins at any time were priests, but nevertheless Brahmin-imposed doctrine held that each Brahmin had to maintain the purity of the caste as a whole, and contact with the lower castes, especially as regards food, might pollute and was strictly regulated.

A bull standing before a censer. The most common symbol on Indus civilization seals, it suggests the connection with Iranian religionIn asserting their own status as exclusive repositories of the sacred, and specifically oral, Vedic traditions that they recited, and as masters of ritual and sacrifice, sole intermediaries with the gods, Brahmins claimed the right to respect and to alms. They distanced themselves from the lower castes by defining the others' functions and duties. Thus the Kshatriya caste among whom were kings and warriors had the duty of ruling by maintaining efficient and just administration, conducting warfare to expand and defend the state, and contracting external alliances; the Vaisya (merchant and artisan) caste had a duty to further the economic life of society; while the Sudra (peasant or cultivator) caste was set apart as the lowest caste since its members were not considered 'twice-born', could not be initiated and so wear the sacred thread, and were forbidden to study or teach the Vedas, their only permissible contact with the other castes being as servants. Beyond the castes were the outcastes, who under-took the menial 'unclean' tasks that polluted the individual; and beyond all these were the Dravidian aborigines with their tribal gods, who in the Vedic and Epic ages, until about 600 B.C., were by far the most numerous in the subcontinent as a whole.

Others of the priests' innovations were inspired by philosophical developments understood only by the few in general only the priests them-selves but affecting all. Just as in other cultures, such as those of the ancient Near East and Egypt, where mythology began by explaining natural phenomena, then served to bolster the status of the ruler, and finally be-came a symbolic language expressing the ideas of philosphers, so in India the esoteric cults treated the great body of accumulated myths as a source of symbols with which to ex-press philosophical ideas. Inevitably the myths themselves were sometimes moulded to conform to the ideas that they were made to represent.

A symbol of fortune, bringer of good luck. The swastika, whose arms could be turned in either direction, became associated in Hinduism with the sun and also with Ganesa, the pathfinder whose image is often found where two roads cross. Changes in the social and philosophical backgrounds may be termed the natural causes of mythological evolution. They were not the only factors; less openly admitted but of equal importance were the various efforts on the part of the priests to maintain their own power and influence with the masses by accepting their more primitive beliefs and dei-ties and weaving them into the new system by means of myth. Equally the Brahmins consolidated their position of trust with rulers by securing the allegiance of the people throughout the period when Buddhism was the faith of the educated and powerful, and when a succession of dynasties, some foreign, dominated northern and central India (roughly ZOO B.C. to A.D. 800). By the twelfth century the last remaining centres of Buddhist teaching, the monasteries of Bengal and Bihar in eastern India which had enjoyed the patronage of the Pala dynasty of the eighth to twelfth centuries, had declined. With the Turkish Muslim conquest of eastern India soon after f zoo, Buddhism was con-fined to peripheral countries such as Nepal, Tibet, Assam, Burma, Sri Lanka and South-East Asia. (A resurgence of interest in Buddhism in its native India did not occur till the twentieth century, largely among those considered Untouchables by Hindus.)

Drona and Karna fighting Arjuna and Bhima. Bhima, son of the wind god Vayu, throws camels, elephants, horses and men up into the air so that they are smashed as they fall back to earth. Episode from the epic Mahabharata. The epics, incorporating mythological material, were composed about the fifth century B.C. but were not written down for nearly a thousand years, and illuminated manuscripts became common only after the fourteenth century A.D. Persian manuscript A.D. 1761-63. Muslim incursions into northern India had begun in the early eleventh century and Mahmud of Ghazni ordered the destruction of Hindu and Jain temple art. Although effective Muslim rule was not to come until the early thirteenth century and many shrines were rebuilt, enormous dam-age was done. Nevertheless Hindu traditions, with the appeal of syncretistic deities, were well enough established thanks to the Brahmins to survive both in the north and in the south of India, where Muslim influence reached only much later. Jainism survived too, largely in Gujerat and southern Rajasthan, where its appeal was to artisans and to wealthy mercants with the means to patronise it generously; where necessary it became an underground cult whose artists, turning to easily concealed manuscript painting, maintained iconographic traditions despite Muslim rule. Paradoxically Muslim persecution also prompted Hindus to set down their scriptural traditions in more permanent form. Whereas before they had valued and relied chiefly on oral tradition a factor which in itself encouraged the proliferation of mythology now they set down the scriptures in illustrated manuscripts. The language used was Sanskrit, the classical Aryan language of the Brahmins (whereas Buddhist texts were also written in a range of vernacular languages). This reinforced the myths contained within the scriptures.

That no one trend was completely dominant is attested by the extreme complexity of Hindu mythology as it exists today, and even more by the numerous contradictions and inconsistencies in the stories concerning practically every deity in the Indian pantheon. There is also a thread of overt anti-Brahmanism that runs through some myths. It mirrors the reaction voiced in the Upanishads of the fifth century B.C. and brought to a head by the reform movements of Buddhism and Jainism against the self-proclaimed superior position of Brahmins, against caste, deities, ritual, sacrifice, and the doctrine which the Brahmins put forward of samsara, the transmigration of souls, implying endless rebirth into a harsh life. Instead of a religious life based on sacrifice that sought riches, health and long life from the divine power, asceticism or meditation was advocated, with the aim of detachment from the illusions of worldly life and union with the cosmic spirit.

Jain image of the released spirit. Detachment from the illusions of earthly life and the individual search for absolute truth, independently of priesthood and ritual, were the aim of both Buddhist and Jain teaching. Some of the contradictions and in part the great differences that today exist between the beliefs held by the educated and the common people may be traced to the overcomplicated systems evolved. Some of these differences could not be bridged by mythological ingenuity. The philosophical preoccupations of the Brahmins with the growing intricacies of their rituals, and on the other hand the heroic austerities of sages who relied on discipline, not the support of the gods, led to the exclusion of the common people, who were thus thrown back in some cases on earlier beliefs, whose attendant ritual had more bearing on their own lives. There are in India innumerable deities of purely local significance alongside the great gods. Often they are closely identified with a specific tract of land, its soil and the life it sustains. Some-times they are worshipped only in a particular village, or even by a section only of the village, or as domestic gods. The priests of these village dei-ties are commonly non-Brahmins, and they may prepare themselves for their priestly role not by purification or scriptural learning but by trance or possession, thus harking back to the intoxication sought by early Aryan priests from soma. Their function may often be to cast out evil spirits causing sickness or misfortune from the sufferer and transfer them to the deity. Needless to say, myths that may have grown up about such local deities cannot be covered in a general work. But in fact, since the position of these local deities is unchallenged by the status of the great gods of the Hindu pantheon, there has not been the spur to the elaboration of a mythology to defend them against rival claims of other deities or to adapt to a changing social order, which is often the background to developed myths about the major gods.

An idealized representation of the bull of the Indus Valley, civilization, with the as yet undeciphered characters which date back over 4,000 years. As for the major gods, the people came to accept new introductions by identifying them with old gods, and thus reconciling all beliefs. This trend was helped by the evolving ideas of the Brahmins. The idea of reincarnation, which was unknown to the Aryan invaders and is never mentioned in the Vedas, appeared about the year 700 B.C. and was developed to the point where any deity, hero, spirit or human being might be an incarnation of any other. By applying this principle to the old and the new gods it became possible to claim that the priests were really worshipping the same deity as the common people under another name and in another in-carnation or avatar. Alternatively the Brahmins might contrive that resurgent old traditions or new practices be justified on the basis of their sup-posed proclamation in the past, preferably by one of the major gods. Thus the pre-Aryan worship of cobras is incorporated into the Shiva cult in the Shivala festival of Maharashtra be-cause Shiva is said to have told the people to worship cobras in order to make them safe. A mythological family relationship is also introduced: Shiva is said to be the father of the snake-mother Manasa.

Despite this apparent confusion and variety, one of the remarkable features of India's mythology is precisely its homogeneity over the whole country, with the exception of myths current among the few isolated hill tribes still existing. And because of the various factors outlined above, the complexity of the pantheon is common to all. However strictly attached sectarian Hindus may be to one particular deity, they have always felt the need and ability to fit the others into their own system. Hence the continued importance of mythology, which it is best to approach historically.

Writer – Veronica Ions
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