Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Puranic, by W.J. Wilkins, , at sacred-texts.com
The Apsaras are nymphs, and the Gandharvas choristers in Indra's heaven. The Apsaras are not as a class prominently noticed in the Vedas, but Urvasi and a few others are mentioned by name. In the Institutes of Manu they are said to be the creations of the Seven Manus, the progenitors of mankind. In the Epic poems more is said about them—the Rāmāyana attributing their origin to the churning of the ocean, and with this the Purānic account of their origin agrees. It is said that when they rose from the waters neither gods nor asuras would wed them, so they became the common property of both classes. They are sometimes called "the wives of the gods," and "daughters of pleasure."
"In the Purānas various ganas or classes of them are mentioned; the Vāyu Purāna enumerates fourteen, the Hari Vansa seven. They are again divided, as being daivika, 'divine,' or laukika, 'worldly.' The former are said to be ten in number, and the latter thirty-four, and these are the heavenly charmers who fascinated heroes as Urvasi, allured austere sages from their devotions and penances as Menekā and Rembhā. The Kāsi Khand says there are forty-five millions of them, but only one thousand and sixty are the principal. The Apsaras, then, are fairylike beings, beautiful and voluptuous. They are the wives or mistresses of the Gandharvas, and are not prudish in the dispensation of their favours. Their amours upon earth have been numerous, and they are the rewards in Indra's heaven held out to heroes who fall in battle. They have the power of changing their forms, and give good luck to whom they favour." *
In the Satapatha Brāhmana is a story, which has been copied into the Purānas, concerning Purūravas and the Apsaras Urvasi which will give some idea of the character of these beings. Owing to the imprecation of Indra and Varuna, Urvasi was compelled to leave heaven. Purūravas, son of Budha and a daughter of Manu, fell deeply in love with her; and she agreed, on certain conditions, to live with him. She said, "I have two rams which must always remain with me, both by day and night; you must never be seen by me undressed; and I must eat only ghī, or clarified butter." The inhabitants of heaven being anxious for her return, the Gandharvas came at night and carried off her rams. Purūravas, in order to rescue them, rushed into her room hurriedly, without being dressed, trusting to the
darkness to hide him. Unfortunately a flash of lightning revealed him to her gaze, and, the condition of her remaining with him being broken, she returned to her celestial home. Purūravas was distracted at his loss, and wandered from place to place searching for her. At length he was successful in his quest, and obtained a promise that she would meet him yearly and present him with a son. After five visits, she assured him that if he offered a sacrifice with the express object of gaining her, he would succeed. He followed her advice, became a Gandharva, and so obtained eternal possession of his strange bride.
The Gandharvas, according to the Vishnu Purāna, were sons of Brahmā. "The Gandharvas were next born, imbibing melody; drinking of the goddess of speech, they were born, and thence their appellation. (gām dhayantah, 'drinking speech')." * In another place the same Purāna † makes them the offspring of Kasyapa and Arishtā, and therefore grandchildren of Brahmā. The Padma Purāna speaks of them as the children of Vach. They are said to be sixty millions in number. They defeated the Nāgas, or snake-gods, seized their jewels, and usurped their kingdom. In their distress the snakes resorted to Vishnu, who promised to enter into Purukutsa and destroy them. The Nāgas sent their sister Narmadā (the river Nerbudda) to ask the help of Purukutsa, who consented to do her bidding. As a reward the Nāgas gave this power to their sister, that whoever worshipped her and repeated her name should be safe not only from the poison of snakes, but other poison too.
It would appear from the earlier books that the
Gandharvas were assistants of Indra, the Storm King,
and were rewarded by the later writers with a place in his heaven. And as the deities were all provided with a wife or wives, the Gandharvas were not neglected in this respect. The beautiful though frail Apsaras were allotted to them, and when Indra was in danger of losing his throne, or the other gods were in a similar plight through the austerity of the devout, some of the more attractive were commissioned to visit them and distract their minds.
The name of these heavenly musicians and their loose matrimonial alliances with the Apsaras has come into common use to designate one of the five forms of marriage—that where the mutual consent of man and woman to live together is all that is necessary, without any civil or religious ceremony.
These formidable beings are frequently referred to, and their actions described at some length in Hindu legend. Though Brāhmans by birth, strange to say they are described as cannibals. The goddess Parvati gave to the whole tribe the power to arrive at maturity the moment they were born. They are said to be able to assume any form at will; and we read of them appearing as horses, buffaloes, and tigers. Some of them had a hundred heads. Amongst the most noted of them was Rāvana, the hereditary foe of Vishnu, who in several incarnations left his heavenly home to slay him. The demon reappeared on the earth after remaining some years in hell; it was therefore necessary for the god in like manner to revisit the earth to get rid of him. Some of Rāvana's relatives, such as
[paragraph continues] Kumbhakarna, Vibhishena, Indrajit, and others, were almost equally notorious.
Kumbhakarna, a brother of Rāvana, as soon as he was born, stretched forth his arms, and gathered everything he could reach to stay his hunger. Later on in life, on one occasion he seized five hundred Apsaras, and at another time he laid violent hands on the wives of a hundred sages, besides cows and Brāhmans innumerable. Brahmā threatened to destroy him unless he moderated his demands. Fearing he might come to an untimely end, he commenced a life of austerity, which was to continue ten thousand years. But as this proceeded, the gods feared lest, as a result of such a penance, he should be stronger than ever, and, especially that he might obtain immortality and be able to swallow up everything, gods and men included. In their distress they appealed to Brahmā, who caused his wife Sarasvati to enter the demon's mind, and delude him so far as to lead him to ask as a boon that he might sleep for ever. The plan succeeded. But the Rākshasas were not pleased with the result, and asked Brahmā, to allow him to awake once in six months for one day only, and then eat as much as he wished. This request was granted. At one meal he is said to have eaten six thousand cows, ten thousand sheep, ten thousand goats, four hundred buffaloes, five thousand deer, and drank four thousand hogsheads of spirits, with other things in proportion, and then was angry with his brother Rāvana for not providing him with more! His home in Ceylon is said to have been 20,000 miles long, and his bed occupied the full length; but according to the Rāmāyana the island itself was only 800 miles in circumference!
What can be represented by these monsters? In
[paragraph continues] Manu, * amongst instructions concerning sacrifice, we read: "As a preservative of the oblation to the patriarchs, let the housekeeper begin with an offering to the gods; for the Rākshasas rend in pieces an oblation which has no such preservative." According to Professor Wilson these beings may be divided into three classes: "One is of a semi-celestial kind, and is ranked with the attendants of Kuvera, the god of wealth; another is a sort of goblin, imp, or ogre, haunting cemeteries, animating dead bodies, disturbing sacrifices, and ensnaring and devouring human beings; the third kind approaches more to the Titan, or relentless and powerful enemy of the gods." Can it be that men, finding it difficult to abstain from evil and do good, have invented these mighty beings to represent the forces of evil that are arrayed against them? They are described as eating cows and also men, when, according to the ordinary belief of the people, these are the greatest imaginable crimes. May this not be a vigorous method of teaching that the enemies of God and man will not stop at anything in order to secure success in their work of destruction? It may be that the Rākshasas of the Epics were the rude barbarians of India, who were conquered by the Aryans, and their manners of life and religious ceremonies caricatured in this strange fashion. Some of the more intelligent were styled monkeys, possibly the more savage were styled Rākshasas.
The name Bhuta is given to a similar class of beings who are the common attendants of Siva; hence. his name of Bhutanātha, the lord of spirits. The term Pisarch is given to beings similar to, though if possible more offensive than, the Rākshasas.
As there are considerable numbers of Jains, chiefly in the north and north-west of India, some account should be given of their objects of worship.
The origin of this sect is obscure, especially as their chronology is so wild and extravagant. Hindu notions of time are reasonable compared with those of the Jains.
In some respects, there is much in the tenets of this religion that closely resembles those of Buddhism. Both reject the divine origin and authority of the Vedas; though when a Vedic text agrees with his own belief, a learned Jain will not scruple to employ it to buttress his own teaching. Both may be regarded as heretical sects of Hinduism. Both reject the divine institution of caste, and profess to believe in the social and religious equality of man: though the Jains are not regarded as outside the pale of Hinduism. For when, as it sometimes happens, a Jain wishes to worship as an orthodox Hindu, a place is found for him in the caste system; he is not treated as an outcast. Both acknowledge in a general way the more common and modern of the Hindu deities; and very much of the worship of both is very similar to that which prevails amongst the Hindus. In both systems a number of saints have been raised to the dignity of deities, and have largely taken the place of the inferior gods of the Hindu Pantheon. In fact, at one time it was a commonly received opinion that the Jains were the present-day representatives of the Buddhists, But fuller and more correct knowledge has shown that the two religions, though strikingly similar, have distinct and separate origins. Possibly they originated about the same time, when there was
considerable religious excitement in India; or it may be, that very soon after Gautama Buddha commenced his work as a teacher, some of his followers broke away from his leadership, and from that time have formed a separate and independent stream. At the present time Jains and Buddhists worship a succession of deified saints in place of the many gods adored by the Hindus; but in the two systems the names of these saints are quite different. The main lines of the religions are very similar, but the differences are sufficiently great to show that they have run a separate, though to a large extent parallel, course.
The Jain saints belonging to the present age are twenty-four in number; in a previous age there were twenty-four, and in a succeeding age there will be a similar number. These twenty-four as represented in the temples are seated in an attitude of contemplation. In features they greatly resemble each other, and in order to distinguish them, they are painted in different colours, and have either their names engraved on their pedestals, or some distinguishing sign, commonly an animal by their side. In the stories of their lives there is little of a distinctive character. But there is this noticeable fact, that in height of stature and in length of life there has been a steady decline. A brief account of the first and last two of these saints, now regarded as divine beings, may be taken as fairly representative of the whole.
1. Vrishabha, of the kingly race of Ikohwaku, was son of Nābhi and Marudeva. He is usually painted yellow, and has a bull as his characteristic mark. His stature was 500 poles in height, and he lived 8,400,000 great years. He was born at Oude. When crowned king he was 2,000,000; he reigned 6,300,000 years, and
spent 100,000 in the practice of austerity, by which he became qualified for sainthood.
23. Parswanatha was also of the same race as the first. He is represented as blue in colour, and has a snake to distinguish him. Possibly this was the real founder of the Jain sect. He was born at Benares, and commenced his saintly life when he was thirty years of age, and, continuing his asceticism for seventy years, died when he was just a hundred years old.
24. Mahavir is the last and much the best known of all. His common title is "The Saint." His image is golden in colour, and his symbol a lion. He resigned his position as a god in order to obtain immortality as a saint, when there was a little over seventy-five years to run before the end of the age. His parents were Brāhmans; but as Indra considered it improper that one whom he recognized as a saint before he was born, who was to occupy such a position, should be born in a humble family, he removed the fœtus to the womb of a princess of the royal race, Trisala, wife of Siddhārta. At twenty-eight he lost his father, became king and reigned for two years. Then resigning his royal state, he entered upon a life of austerity, and after forty-two years of preparation, at the age of seventy-two he became exempt from pain for ever. In other words he died, and obtained moksha, deliverance from birth and death, absorption. According to tradition, the death of the last Jain occurred two thousand four hundred years ago.
483:* Dowson, s.v.
484:* Page 41.
484:† Page 150.
487:* Manu, bk. iii.