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Hindu Mythology

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 6:32 AM

Nandi, the bull mount of Shiva. Guardian of all quadrupeds, he is Shiva's chamberlain and provides the music for the Tandava, the dance of Shiva Nataraja.

The Hindu Triad 

As we have seen, the idea of a triad of gods is rooted in the earliest Indian beliefs and seems to have its origin in solar cults, for the 'three-bodied' sun created with his fertilizing warmth, preserved with his light, and destroyed with his burning rays. Though the triad remained, its members changed, so that the Adityas (Varuna, Mitra and Aryaman) gave way to Agni, Vayu and Surya, and Vayu in turn gave way to lndra. These deities were sometimes thought of simply as the three most important gods, some-times as components of a single god embracing the world: Agni is the earth god, Vayu or Indra is the god of the atmosphere and Surya is the god of the sky. In the Rig Veda, Indra is closely united not only with Agni but also with Vishnu (in his earl form). But in the Brahmanic and especially in the Upanishadic period Vishnu, not lndra, is the most important god left from the Vedic pantheon and is thus fitted for a place in the triad. Similarly Rudra or Shiva is early identified with fire, from his role as god of red lightning, and can take the place of Agni. The first conjunction of the Hindu gods was in Harihara, where Vishnu and Shiva were treated as one deity. But this union ran counter to the tradition of the triad, and perhaps for form's Brahma, being officially the All-god was added to make up a triad.

This triad was not, however, simply derivative from the fire triad it introduced the new idea of conjunction and unity of creation, preservation and destruction, which lined with the new concept of a cycle of life, death and rebirth. To a great ex-tent the triad as such was of mystic significance; but though the idea of a triune god embracing all three components was an old one, it became particularly important in the context of sectarian belief, where the followers of either Vishnu or Shiva sought to assert, and to prove by myths, that their god was the greatest and actually contained the triad within him.

One such myth relates that Vishnu and Brahma fell into a dispute as to which of them was the more venerable. When they had been quarrelling for some time there appeared before them a fiery pillar, like a hundred universe consuming fires. Both gods were amazed at the sight and both decided that they must find the source of the column. So Vishnu took the form of a mighty boar and followed the column downwards for a thousand years, while Brahma took the form of a swift-moving swan and travelled upwards along the column for a thousand years. Neither reached the end and so returned. When they net again, wearily, where they had started, Shiva appeared before them; they now recognised that the column was Shiva's lingam, and acknowledged him the greatest and most venerable of the gods. 


Five-headed Brahma riding on a goose. Born with one head, Brahma acquired four more in order not to lose sight of the female partner he had created. But Shiva later struck off one of the heads, leaving Brahma with only four. In his hands are a sceptre, a string of beads and a water jug. Talc drawing from South India. Victoria and Albert Museum, London,
As Creator, Brahma is sometimes said to have been the first of the gods, the framer of the universe and the guardian of the world. At other times, how-ever, he is said to be himself the creature of the Supreme Being, Pitamaya, the self-existing father of all human beings. In the Puranas Brahma is held to be the son of the supreme being and maya, his energy; or he is thought to have hatched out from the golden cosmic egg, which floated on the cosmic waters; or to have been born from a lotus which sprang from Vishnu's navel.

Though he is sometimes thought to be self-created, Brahma's role, when he is considered as one of the triad of Hindu gods, is exclusively that of creator, his earlier position as All-god generally passing either to Vishnu or to Shiva. As the world is already created, much more interest is aroused by these other gods, the Preserver and Destroyer, who 'captured' the myths originally ascribed to Brahma, such as his ten forms, which we shall consider as Vishnu's avatars. Only traces of these myths survive, for example in Manu's creation myth, where Brahma appears as a fish. Brahma often figures in the main body of Hindu mythology as the inferior of Vishnu or Shiva, or as the victim of a sage or demon, who by practicing austerities forces Brahma to make a concession and so a situation where Vishnu or Shiva must intervene.

Formally Brahma is revered as the equal of Vishnu and Shiva. He is the god of wisdom, and the four Vedas are said to have sprung from his heads. His heaven is said to contain in a superior degree all the splendors of the other heavens of the gods and of the earth.

Brahma rides a goose and is depicted with red skin and wearing white robes. He has four arms and carries the Vedas and his sceptre, or a spoon, or a string of beads, or a bow, or a water jug. His most salient features, however, are his four heads. Originally he possessed only one head, but he acquired four more, and then lost one. Having created a female partner out of his own sub-stance, Brahma fell in love with her. This modest girl, who is variously called Satarupa, Savitri, Sarasvati, Vach, Gayatri and Brahmani, was embarrassed by his fervent look, and moved to avoid his gaze. But as she moved to the right, to the left and behind him, a new head sprang out in each of these directions. Finally, she rose into the sky, and a fifth head appeared there to look at her. Brahma joined with this girl, who was his daughter as well as his wife, to pro-duce the human race.

It was Shiva who deprived Brahma of his fifth head, though the story of how this occurred varies. All versions, however, illustrate the tension existing between them. Though it is sometimes said that they were born simultaneously of the supreme being and immediately vied for superiority, some declare Shiva sprang from Brahma's forehead; others claim that Shiva created Brahma, who worshipped him and acted as his charioteer. As for Brahma's fifth head, according to one version Brahma claimed that he was superior to Shiva, who thereupon cut off the head with his nail. A second version states that Shiva cut off the head because Brahma told Vishnu a lie in an effort to establish his superiority over Vishnu. In a third version Shiva punishes Brahma for drunkenly commit-ting incest with his daughter. A variant of this myth relates that the daughter was Sandhya, Shiva's wife, who tried to escape her father's advances by changing into a deer, but was pursued through the sky by Brahma in the shape of a stag. Shiva, who witnessed all this, shot an arrow which cut off the head of the stag, and Brahma then paid homage to Shiva. The fourth account says that Brahma wanted Shiva to be born as a son to him and that Shiva, though he had promised Brahma that he would grant him any boon, kept his promise but punished him for his insolence by pronouncing a curse which deprived him of one head. But Shiva thus committed Brahminicide, for Brahma was considered the chief of the Brahmins. He was paralysed for his crimes and thus open to attack by a demon created by Brahma. He fled but was captured and forced to perform penances.

Apart from being the progenitor of the human race in general, Brahma was the father of Daksha, who was born from his thumb. Daksha became chief of the Prajapatis, sages associated with Brahma's creation. Though Daksha gave his daughter to Shiva as a wife, he insulted the god until, cowed by his violence, he was forced to acknowledge Shiva's superiority to him and to his father, Brahma. 


Shiva Bhairava Shiva in his fearsome aspect as the Destroyer. For his crime of Brahminicide Shiva was condemned to wander the earth thus as a human ascetic. Bronze, ninth century.Rudra, Shiva's Vedic forerunner, was the red god of storms and lightning, the terrifying god living in the mountains and god of cattle and medicine who must be propitiated. As god of lightning, Rudra became associated with Agni, god of fire and consumer and conveyor of sacrifice. With Rudra as his antecedent, Shiva could claim as his inheritance the position of priest of the gods and of candidate for divine supremacy.

By contrast with Brahma, a personification of a relatively late abstract principle, Shiva could combine with his Vedic antecedents features reaching even farther back than the Vedic age. He had characteristics of the Indus god, and his powers, especially in the epics, were said to derive from the practice of austerities, that is from yoga rather than from sacrifice. Such powers heightened his claims as priest of the gods. In the aspect of a yogi Shiva is depicted with a snow-white face, is dressed in a tiger skin and has matted hair.

Rudra's original character as god of cattle is extended by combining it with that of the pre-Aryan Lord of the Beasts. The bull is of course universally considered as a symbol of fertility, and this aspect of the lord of cattle had attached to Rudra. But the pre-Aryan Lord of the Beasts exacted sacrifice, because of the ritual connection of sacrifice (death, murder and violence) with plant and animal fertility a basic cult of agricultural peoples and the foundation of Indian mythology in pre- and post-Aryan periods. The fertility-giving aspect of Shiva is thus reinforced by identification with the yogic Lord of the Beasts, and at the same time the idea of violence present in Rudra is under-lined. Shiva Bhairava, the Destroyer, is thus by extension Shiva the bringer of fertility, the creator, the 'Auspicious'. In this sense his activity as destroyer is essential to that of Brahma as creator, and Brahma is thus some-times said to be inferior to Shiva. For this reason Shiva is known as Mahadeva or Iswara, Supreme Lord. His supreme creative power is celebrated in worship of the lingam or phallus.

Shiva repeatedly demonstrates his mastery of austerities as the source 0f power. Thus in the epic version of the slaying of Vritra by lndra, Vritra has obtained power to create illusions, endless energy, unconquerable might and power over the gods because Brahma cannot deny it to him after his practice of austerities. Shiva alone of the gods has sufficient strength gained by yoga to pit against that obtained by Vritra. It is Shiva who, by backing Indra and lending him his strength, enables him to overcome Vritra.

On another occasion Shiva acquired strength to make him superior to all the gods combined. At one time the asuras had obtained a boon from Brahma which consisted of the possession of three castles which could only be conquered by a deity and then only if he could destroy them with a single arrow. From these bastions the asuras made war on the gods, none of whom was strong enough to shoot the fatal shaft. Indra, king of the gods, asked Shiva for his advice; Shiva replied that he would transfer half his strength to the gods and that they would then be able to overcome their enemies. But the gods could not support even half of Shiva's strength, so instead they gave half of their own strength to Shiva, who proceeded to destroy the asuras. However, he did not return the gods' strength to them but kept it for himself, and ever after was the greatest of the gods.

Shiva and Parvati. It was such dalliance with his consort on the occasion of the sage Bhrigu's visit that led to Shiva being worshipped in the form of the lingam. Rajput painting, eighteenth century. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. Ross-Coomaraswamy Collection. He is often depicted as a demon-slayer, in which role he is called Natesa, and is seen dancing on the body of an asura. He sometimes wears an elephant skin belonging to an asura he killed.

His boons are also positive: he is worshipped as giver of long life and god of medicine, and his help is inestimable as strengthener of warriors. He is in a sense indiscriminate in his role, for he is ready to give help to anyone who would worship him. Thus in the Mahabharata Arjuna is said to have journeyed to the Himalayas to propitiate the gods before the outbreak of the great war, but got into a fight with a mountaineer who was Shiva in disguise. When he discovered who his adversary was he worshipped him and was not only forgiven but also given a powerful magic weapon. On the other hand Aswathaman, who was on the opposing side in the Bharata war, and who also fought tenaciously with Shiva until he realised who he was, threw himself on a sacrificial fire in the god's honour, this being the only offering he could make; as a reward for this Shiva entered into his body, so enabling him to slay all about him.

Among Shiva's beneficent roles is that of distributor of the seven holy rivers. The Ganges, which winds round Brahma's city on Mount Meru in the Himalayas, descends from the mountains in great torrents. Shiva, in order to break the fall, stands beneath the waters, which wind their way through his matted locks and divide into seven, the holy rivers of India. Shiva performed a vital service to the gods and thus to the world during the churning of the ocean of milk, the object of which was to produce amrita, or ambrosia, which was to strengthen the gods in their struggle against the demons. After some time the serpent Vasuki, whom the gods were using as a churning rope, vomited forth poison, and this was about to fall into the ocean of milk, contaminate the ambrosia and thus destroy the gods. But Shiva stepped forward, caught the poison in his mouth, and was saved from swallowing it himself only by the efforts of his wife Parvati, who by strangling him held the poison in his throat, which turned it blue.

Apart from his blue throat, Shiva is represented as a fair man, with five faces, four arms and three eyes. The third eye appeared in the centre of his forehead one day when Parvati play-fully covered his eyes and thus plunged the world into darkness and put it in danger of destruction; it is a powerful weapon, for by fixing it upon his enemies Shiva can destroy them with fire. With this eye, he kills all the gods and other creatures during the periodic destructions of the universe. His other weapons are a tri-dent called Pinaka, which is a symbol of lightning and characterizes Shiva as god of storms; a sword; a bow called Ajagava; and a club with a skull at the end, called Khatwanga. Further weapons are the three serpents which twine around him and may dart out at enemies: one coiled in his piled up, matted hair and raising its hood above his head; one on his shoulder or about his neck; and one which forms his sacred thread.

In addition to the weapons, most of Shiva's personal attributes emphasise the violent aspects of the deity, for which he is most generally known. These include his head-dress of snakes and necklace of skulls, which he wears when haunting cemeteries as Bhuteswara, lord of ghosts and goblins. In the character of Bhairava his violent nature is intensified, for he is then said to take pleasure in destruction for its own sake. When depicted in such roles Shiva is attended by troops of imps and demons. In his role as stern upholder of righteousness and judge, he carries a drum shaped like an hourglass and a rope with which to bind up sinners.

Ardhanarisvara, or Shiva and his shakti or female nature combined in one image. He-she is seen riding the bull Nandi. The seductive one-breasted torso is surmounted by the high-domed head which represents the lingam. The essential nature of Shiva is seen in the reconciliation of opposites. From the Elephanta caves. Apart from the lingam, personal attributes which characterise Shiva as god of fertility are the bull Nandi which accompanies him or whose symbol in the shape of a crescent moon he wears on his brow, encircling his third eye, and the serpents which twine about him. Many of Shiva's violent aspects are symbolised in the characters of his consorts, who are particularly associated with his bloody rites. The yoni, which is their emblem as the lingam is his, is known as his shakti, or female energy.

Shiva likes to dance in joy and in sorrow, either alone or with his wife Devi, for he is the god of rhythm. Dancing symbolises both the glory of Shiva and the eternal movement of the universe, which it serves to perpetuate. But by the Tandava dance he accomplishes the annihilation of the world at the end of an age and its integration into the world spirit, so that it represents the destruction of the illusory world of maya. Maya no longer refers to Varuna's creative energy in the universe; it is that which governs life on earth, the illusion of material reality, and that from which by various means the faithful seek to free themselves. When dancing Shiva represents cosmic truth; he is surrounded by a halo and accompanied by troops of spirits. He is watched by anyone fortunate enough to be granted the vision. When the serpent Shesha saw the dance he forsook Vishnu for several years and gave himself up to austerities in the hope of seeing it again. The gods them-selves assemble to behold the spectacle, which was treated as proof of Shiva's superiority over Vishnu by some hermits who till then had lauded only Vishnu. Even demons are affected by his dance when he performs it in cemeteries, thus bringing the unclean evil spirits into the orbit of his spiritual power.

But Shiva is generally depicted immobile, as an ascetic naked, his body smeared with ashes and his hair matted. His meditation and austerities build up his spiritual strength, giving him unlimited powers to per-form miracles and also strengthening his powers as fertility god, for the two roles are not so antithetical as might at first appear from the myth in which he kills Kama, god of desire, by burning him up with the fire from his third eye. Though Shiva may have struck Kama dead for having interrupted his meditations, the effect of Kama's shaft was not thereby nullified. By still further delaying his union with Parvati, thereby causing Parvati herself to perform austerities in order to arouse his interest and causing all the gods to hope anxiously for the consummation of his desire, Shiva in effect heightened the desire and strengthened the force of his role as fertility god. The child produced from his union with Parvati was one of the strongest of the later pantheon: Karttikeya, god of war, who to some extent supplanted Agni.

It was the angry sage Bhrigu who caused Shiva to be worshipped in the form of the lingam. He was sent by the other sages to test the three gods of the triad to see which was the greatest. When he reached Shiva the god did not welcome him; he Was engaged with his wife and would not be interrupted. For his lack of respect due to a sage, Bhrigu cursed Shiva to be worshipped as the lingam. Brahma also failed to gain Bhrigu's approval, for he was too occupied with his own self-importance to receive the sage with due courtesy. Vishnu was sleeping when Bhrigu reached him and the sage rudely kicked him in the ribs Instead of rising in wrath Vishnu, full of concern, asked him if he had hurt himself, gently rubbing the foot which had injured him. Bhrigu went away proclaiming that this was the god most worthy of adoration such compassion and humility before a sage was the mark of greatness.

Shiva quarrelled with many of the gods, for though he claimed the right' to judge their actions and to punish them, many of the other gods in turn considered him to be a Brahminicide because he struck off one of Brahma’s heads, for which offence he was condemned to be a wanderer and to perform penances. The gods mocked at him as an ugly, homeless mendicant unclean, ill-tempered and a haunter of cemeteries. Eventually, however like Brahma and Vishnu, Shiva acquired a heaven of his own. This was situated on Mount Kailasa, in the Himalayas, and was the scene of his austerities and where the Ganges descended on his head.

Though Shiva quarrelled with many of the gods, his most open disputes were not with Vishnu, his real rival, but with Brahma. The quarrel was continued in a feud with Daksha Brahma's son, who became Shiva's father-in-law. When Daksha called together the assembly at which his daughter Sati was to choose her husband, he issued invitations to all the gods except Shiva, whom he considered to be disqualified because of his impure habits and unkempt appearance. But as Sad had long been a devotee of Shiva and wished to marry no one else, she was disconsolate to discover Shiva's absence After searching the assembly hall she prayed to him to appear and threw the garland into the air, where Shiva appeared and received it. Daksha was thus forced to allow the marriage.

Shiva had not, however, forgotten the initial insult, and later, when Daksha held an assembly to which all the gods were invited, he repaid it in kind. As Daksha entered all the gods rose to greet him, except his father, Brahma, and his son-in-law, Shiva. Brahma, of course, owed no such deference to his own son: but the disrespect from his son-in-law enraged Daksha, who declared to the assembled gods and sages his low opinion of Shiva, a disgrace to the reputation of the guardians of the world, who encouraged others to transgress and himself flouted divine ordinances and abolished ancient rites (sacrifice). Daksha protested against Shiva's ha-bit of haunting cemeteries accompanied by ghosts and spirits, looking like a madman, with no clothes, smeared with ashes, with matted hair, and with skulls and human bones about his person; and he denounced his habit of calling himself 'Auspicious' (Shiva) when in fact he was dear only to the mad and to the beings of darkness. Having delivered himself of his tirade, Daksha returned home to plan his next move against Shiva, which was to hold a great sacrifice without inviting his son-in-law to be present.

Shiva and his family. As Bhuteswara he is a haunter of cemeteries and places of cremation. At the burning ground his wife Parvati holds Karttikeya in her lap and watches while Ganesa and Shiva string together the skulls of the dead. Kangra painting, 1790. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Daksha's revenge was, however, to miscarry. Sati, seeing all the gods trooping off to the sacrifice, enquired where they were going and was disconsolate when she heard that they were all going to her father's home. Accordingly she went herself to see her father and pleaded with him to invite Shiva. But Daksha merely repeated the strictures he made at the earlier assembly; upon which Sari, to vindicate her husband's honour, jumped into the sacrificial fire and was consumed by its flames. Shiva, hearing of this, stormed into Daksha’s house and, producing from his hair some of the demons with whose company Daksha reproached him, destroyed the sacrifice. In the uproar which followed he scattered all the gods and cut off Daksha's head.

He then gave himself up to insane grief over Sati's death, retrieving her body from the embers and clasping her to him and calling on her to answer him. So violent was his emotion and the rhythm of the dance into which he threw himself, encompassing the world seven times, that the whole universe and its creatures suffered too. Finally Vishnu, to put an end to this frenzy of mourning, cut Sati's body, which was still in Shiva's arms, into fifty pieces, and thus re-stored him to his senses. Shiva repented of his murder of Daksha and brought him back to life; but the head could not be found, so a goat's head was used instead.

But this was not the end of the feud. When Sari was reborn as Parvati and again married to Shiva, Daksha held another sacrifice and once more failed to invite Shiva. Parvati spied the festivities from her seat on Mount Kailasa and informed Shiva who, furious, rushed to the scene. Accounts of what followed vary.

According to the famous version, given in the Mahabharata, Shiva pierced the offering with an arrow and thereby inspired such fear in the gods and sages that the whole universe quaked. Shiva then attacked the gods, putting out Bhaga's eyes and kicking Pushan as he was eating the offering and knocking out his teeth; or alternatively causing Pushan to break his teeth on the arrow embedded in the offering whereupon the gods acknowledged Shiva as their lord and refuge.

More interesting are the versions of the myth which introduce Shiva's true rival, making the issue less the feud with Brahma than a dispute with Vishnu for supremacy. According to one, Shiva hurled Pinaka, his blazing lightning trident, which destroyed the sacrifice that Daksha was holding in honour of Vishnu and then struck Narayana's (Vishnu's) breast. Narayana hurled it back with equal vigour at Shiva, and a battle flared up between the two gods which was halted only when Brahma intervened, persuading Shiva to appease Narayana.

There is even more violence in the version of the myth told in the Puranas when Shiva heard from Parvati that he had been excluded from the sacrifice. He created a 'being like the fire of fate', called Virabhadra, whose looks and powers were terrifying, and sent him, together with hundreds of thousands of specially created demigods, to the place of sacrifice. These creatures broke up the sacrifice, causing the mountains to totter, earth to shake, winds to roar and the sea to be disturbed. The gods were routed: Indra was trampled underfoot, Yama's staff was broken, Sarasvati's nose was cut off, Mitra's eyes were put out, Pushan had his teeth knocked down his throat, Chandra was beaten, and Agni's hands were cut off. Then either Daksha admitted Shiva's supremacy, or the intervention of Vishnu, who seized Shiva by the throat, forced Shiva to desist and acknowledge Vishnu as his master. 


In the Vedas Vishnu distinguishes himself only for the 'three steps' with which he measures out the extent of the earth and heavens. The significance of this act is amplified to include other functions in the epics, where Vishnu is equated with Prajapati, the creator and supreme god. As Prajapati he encompasses Brahma, Vishnu himself as preserver, and Shiva as destroyer. As the preserver he is the embodiment of the quality of mercy and goodness, the self-existent, all pervading power which preserves and maintains the universe and the cosmic order, dharma. Vishnu is the cosmic ocean, Nara, which spread everywhere before the creation of the universe, but is also called Narayana, 'moving in the waters'; in this character he is represented in a human form, sleeping on the coiled serpent Shesha, or Ananta, and floating on the waters. Brahma is sometimes said to have arisen from a lotus growing from his navel as he slept thus. After each destruction of the universe Vishnu resumes this posture. According to Vishnu's adherents, he is unlike Brahma and Shiva in that he has no need to assert his own superiority. Indeed, his mildness combined with his power proves him to be the greatest of the gods. As the preserver, Vishnu is the object of devotion rather than of fear, and this affection is similarly extended to his wife Lakshmi, goddess of fortune.

When Vishnu is not represented reclining on the coils of the serpent Shesha, with Lakshmi seated at his feet, he is shown as a handsome young man with blue skin, dressed in royal robes. He has four hands one holds a conch shell or Sankha, called Panchajanya, which was once inhabited by a demon killed by Krishna; the second hand holds a discus or quoit weapon called Sudarsana or Vajranabha, also an attribute of Krishna's, given to him by Agni as a reward for defeating lndra; the third hand holds a club or mace called Kaunodaki, presented to Krishna on the same occasion; the fourth hand holds a lotus, or Padma. He also has a bow called Sarnga, and a sword called Nandaka. He is usually either seated on a lotus with Lakshmi beside him, or riding his vehicle, Garuda, who is half-man and half-bird.

Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, dancing on the body of a dwarf demon. His victory over the spirit of evil is of cosmic significance, for the destruction of evil presages recreation and the establishment of divine order. The surrounding halo both honours Shiva and represents the cycle of creation, destruction and rebirth. Tenth-century bronze, from Madras. Victoria and Albert. Museum, London. Vishnu's heaven, Vaikuntha, is on the slopes of the world-mountain Mount Meru. With a circumference of 80,000 miles, Vaikuntha is made entirely of gold and precious jewels The Ganges flows through it, and is sometimes said to have its source in Vishnu's foot. Vaikuntha contains five pools, in which grow blue, red and white lotuses Vishnu and Lakshmi are ensconced amid the white lotuses, where they both rdiate like the sun.

Though Vishnu existed as a god in Vedic times, his role as preserver is essentially a late development. It depends upon two assumptions. First, the theory of samsara, which teaches that every human is born many times over and that each life represents a punishment or a reward for his previous life, according to how well he has followed his dharma, or the path of duty laid down for him in that particular condition of life. If in each life he has faithfully performed his duty, he may hope to progress steadily upwards, until he becomes a saint, or even a god. On the other hand, if he does not perform his duty he progresses as steadily towards life as a demon. The second assumption is that gods and demons represent the two poles of existence, and that both are active in the world, a constant struggle being carried on between the two forces. In the normal course of events, good and evil are evenly matched in the world; at times, however, the balance is destroyed and evil gains the upper hand. Such a situation is deemed unfair to humans and at such times it is Vishnu as preserver who intervenes by descending to earth in a human incarnation or avatar.

Such avatars are therefore not chance events, and during each one Vishnu has a specific task to perform. It is sometimes thought that Vishnu is called upon to descend to earth in this way once in each cycle of universal time. There are ten avatars in the present Mahayuga, the first four of which are said to have occurred during the Kritayuga, and the seventh, eighth and ninth of which are the best known. Late texts, however, say that there are twenty-two, or even that they are innumerable.

With the eighth incarnation, that of Krishna, which became very popular at a relatively late stage, a new and important idea is added to the older beliefs. Since Brahmanic times it had been believed that the progressive rise through countless lives to the level of god to enter Indra's heaven' should not be the ultimate aspiration; it was far better to practise austerities (yoga) until the point where the soul became entirely unattached to the individual and was able to fuse with the universal spirit. The achievement of this release (moksha) became the ultimate aim, only to be attained by certain gifted spirits, and it absolved them from the weary round of existences to which they were otherwise doomed. Now the Krishna myth introduced an important variant to this belief, for in the course of the Mahabharata the god explains that there is another route to release of the soul: this is through bhakti, or devotion to a particular god (in this case Krishna speaks only of devotion to himself, who as Vishnu can in any case be equated with the universal spirit). Thus by concentrating his thought on the god a person can hope to merge his or her soul with him and earn release in a way that is far more attractive than the old discipline of austerities and yogic concentration. It is this which explains the enormous popularity of Krishna, who is the most widely worshipped avatar of Vishnu. It may be remarked in passing that this aspect of his cult has obvious similarities to Semitic beliefs in a saviour god and that the episodes of Krishna and the cowgirls resemble Dionysiac cults.

An interesting twist to the theory of bhakti is seen in the myth relating to Sisupala, King of Chedi, who hated Krishna so much that he thought of nothing else but him or Vishnu, even in his sleep and even as he lay dying. And the consequence of this was that Sisupala too gained release, simply from concentrating his thoughts so exclusively on the god. Besides the avatars, Vishnu has a thousand names, the repetition of which is a meritorious act.

Nevertheless, Vishnu's especial function as preserver remains linked to the older beliefs and is exercised through his avatars, when he descends to earth as a great hero and saves mankind and the universe. As a mortal hero, Vishnu guards the righteous, destroys evil-doers and establishes the reign of law, dharma. 

Vishnu's avatars: Matsya 

The preserver and protector, Vishnu holds first place in the hearts of many Hindus. This eighteenth-century painting from Jaipur shows him in the centre of his avatars - his incarnations on earth when his supreme power is put to the service of mankind. Nine have appeared but there is another still to come. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Vishnu's first incarnation, as a fish,is one borrowed from the mythology of Brahma, and already described in connection with Manu. In the Vishnu myth, the sage is called Vaivaswata and is the seventh Manu and progenitor of the human race. The object of the incarnation was to save Vaivaswata. Vishnu took the form of a small golden fish with one horn, but grew until he was forty million miles long when he predicted the deluge. He gave Vaivaswata further help by towing his ship with a rope attached to his horn and by advising him to allow the ship to descend slowly with the waters rather than allowing it to become high and dry on the peak of the Himalayas.

One version of this story gives a further purpose for the incarnation. During one of the periods of universal chaos, while Brahma was sleeping the Veda, which had emerged from his mouth, was stolen by a demon called Hayagriva. As Matsya, his fish incarnation, Vishnu saved Manu but also instructed him in the true doctrine of Brahma's eternal soul, and when Brahma woke killed Hayagriva and restored the Veda. 


The second incarnation, as a tortoise Kurma, is also borrowed from the Brahma myth a relatively simple one where Brahma or Prajapati assumes the form of a tortoise in order to create offspring. In the Vishnu myth the means of creation and the objects created are more complex During one of the periodic deluges which destroyed the world in the first age some things of value were lost, the most important of which was amrita, the cream of the milk ocean, whose absence threatened the continued existence of the universe. Accordingly Vishnu descended to earth as a tortoise to help to recover these objects. Gods and demons together set about producing amrita by churning the ocean of milk, using Mount Mandara as a churning stick. Such was the weight of Mount Mandara that the operation would have been impossible unless Kurma had lent his curved back as a pivot on which to rest it. With Vishnu (Kurma) supporting the whole, with the help of the potent herbs which they had thrown into the ocean, and using the serpent Vasuki as a churning rope, gods and demons proceeded with the task, and in due course all the precious objects lost in the deluge rose up out of the milky ocean.

The ocean gave forth not only the water of life, amrita, but also Dhanwantari, bearer of the gods' cup of amrita and their physician; Lakshmi or Sri, goddess of fortune and beauty, Vishnu's wife Sura, goddess of wine; Chandra, the moon, which Shiva took; Rambha, a nymph, who became the first of the lovely Apsaras; Uchchaisravas, a beautiful white horse, which was given to the demon Bali, but afterwards seized by Indra; Kaustubha, a jewel, which went to Vishnu; Parijata, the celestial wishing tree, which was later planted in Indra's heaven and belonged to his consort lndrani; Surabhi, the cow of plenty, which was given to the seven rishis; Airavata, a wonderful white elephant, which became Indra's mount after he stopped riding a horse; Sankha, a conch shell of victory; Dhanus, a mighty bow; and Visha, the poison vomited out by the serpent, which Shiva nearly swallowed. 


Two main versions exist of Vishnu's third incarnation, as a boar. The first of these versions again derives from an earlier Brahma myth, and claims that Brahma and Vishnu, who were one, took the form of a boar, a water-loving creature, in order to create the world out of the cosmic waters. The boar, Varaha, having observed a lotus leaf, thought that the stem must be resting on something, so he swam down to the depths of the ocean, found the earth below and brought a piece of it to the surface. The second version of the myth relates that Brahma had been induced by the propitiation of a demon, Hiranyaksha, to grant him the boon of invulnerability. Under cover of this boon Hiranyaksha began to persecute mortals and gods and even stole the Vedas from Brahma and dragged the earth down to his dark abode under the waters. But Hiranyaksha, when reciting the names of all the gods, men and animals from whose attacks he wished to be immune, forgot to mention the boar. Accordingly Vishnu took the form of a boar forty miles wide and four thousand miles tall, dark in colour and with a voice like the roar of thunder. He was as big as a mountain, mighty as a lion, with sharp white tusks and fiery eyes flashing like lightning. With his whole being radiating like the sun, Vishnu descended into the watery depths, killed the demon with his tusks, recovered the Vedas and released the earth, so that it once more floated on the surface. 


Vishnu as Varaha, the boar avatar, ascending from the ocean depths. In the crook of one of his left arms he bears the rescued goddess Bhumi or Prithivi, the earth. From above Brahma (right) and Shiva (left) look on, while human worshippers pay homage. Chauham style slate carving, twelfth century. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Vishnu's fourth incarnation was designed to free the world from the depredations of the demon king Hiranyakasipu who, like his brother Hiranyaksha, had obtained from Brahma the boon of immunity from attacks by human, beast and god; he had Brahma's assurance that he could be killed neither by day nor by night, neither inside nor outside his house. Protected by this immunity, Hiranyakasipu overreached himself. He forbade worship of all the gods and substituted worship of himself. He was therefore particularly incensed to discover that his own son Prahlada remained an ardent devotee of Vishnu. Hiranyakasipu tried persuasion and he tried torture, but still Prahlada refused to give up his worship of Vishnu. Hiranyakasipu finally ordered serpents to bite him to death. But Prahlada was unaffected, and the serpents fell into feverish disarray, their fangs broken and fear in their hearts. Vast elephants were sent against Prahlada; he was thrown over precipices; he was submerged under water. But all to no avail: Hiranyakasipu could not kill his son. Finally, one evening, the demon king, in exasperation at his son's repeated assertion of Vishnu's omnipresence, pointed out a pillar in the doorway of his palace and demanded to know if Vishnu was there inside it. Prahlada declared that he certainly was, whereupon Hiranyakasipu said that he would kill him, and he kicked the pillar. At this Vishnu stepped out of the pillar in the form of Narasinha, a creature who was half-man and half-lion, and tore Hiranyakasipu to pieces. The circumstances of Hiranyakasipu's death fell outside the conditions of Brahma's boon, for the time was evening neither day nor night, the place was the doorway of the palace not inside nor outside the demon's house, and the assailant was a man-lion neither human, beast nor god.

The Varaha and Narasinha avatars are sometimes represented in a composite figure, Vaikuntha. 

Writer Name: Veronica Lons

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