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Divinities of the Epic Period

The Great Indian Epics--Utilized by the Brahmans--The Story of Manu--Universal Cataclysm--How Amrita (Ambrosia) was obtained--Churning of the Ocean--The Demon Devourer of Sun and Moon--Garuda, the Man Eagle--Attributes of the God Shiva--Comparison with Irish Bator--Rise of the Goddesses--Saraswati and Lakshmi or Sri--Fierce Durga and Kali--Sati, the Ideal Hindu Wife--Legend of the Ganges--The Celestial Rishis--Vishwamitra and Vasishtha--History in the Vedas--Wars between Aryan Tribes--Kernel of Mahábhárata Epic.

THE history of Brahmanism during the Buddhist Age is enshrined in the great epics Mahábhárata and Ramáyana, which had their origin before B.C. 500, and continued to grow through the centuries.

The Mahabharata, which deals with the Great War for ascendancy between two families descended from King Bharata, has been aptly referred to as "the Iliad of India". It appears to have evolved from a cycle of popular hero songs, but after assuming epic form it was utilized by the Brahmans for purposes of religious propaganda. The warriors were represented as sons of gods or allies of demons, and the action of the original narrative was greatly hampered by inserting long speeches and discussions regarding Brahmanic conceptions and beliefs. An excellent example of this process is afforded by the famous Bhagavad-gita, from which we have quoted in the previous chapter. The narrative of the first day's battle is interrupted to allow Krishna to expound the

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doctrines of the Vaishnava faith, with purpose to make converts to the cult of Vishnu. Almost every incident in the poem is utilized in a similar manner. In fact the epic, as we are informed in the opening section, "furnisheth the means of arriving at the knowledge of Brahma". The priests, with this aim in view, loaded the chariots of heroes with religious treatises, and transformed a tribal struggle for supremacy into a great holy war. If the Iliad survived to us only in Pope's translation, and our theologians had scattered through it, say, metrical renderings of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, the Westminster Confession of Faith, Fox's Book of Martyrs, and a few representative theological works of rival sects, a fate similar to that which has befallen the Mahabharata would now overshadow the great Homeric masterpiece. The "Iliad of India" is a part of what may be called the Hindu Bible, which embraces the Ramayana, the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Puranas, &c.

The Ramáyana, which is called "the Odyssey of India", because it deals with the wanderings and adventures of the exiled prince Rama, was utilized mainly by the cult of Vishnu, but both Vishnu and Shiva figure as great gods in the Mahábhárata, and now one and anon the other is given first place.

If the documentary material, which is available in India for dealing with its ancient religious beliefs, were as scanty as those which survive to us from Ancient Egypt, comparisons might have been drawn between the Brahmanic cults and the priestly theorists of Heliopolis, Memphis, Sais, &c., and it might have been remarked of the one nation as of the other that its people clung to archaic beliefs long after new and higher religious conceptions obtained as tenets of orthodox religion. In India

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the process of change and development can, however, be not only traced, but partially accounted for, as we have shown. Old myths were embraced in the epics and the Puranas for the purpose of educating the people by effecting a compromise between folk religion and the profound doctrines of the ancient forest sages.

"Father Manu" of the Vedas, who appears to have been worshipped as a patriarchal ancestor, was, for instance, embraced in the Mahábhárata by the cult of Vishnu. He had been exalted by the ritualists as one who was greater than the gods, because he had been the first to inaugurate sacrificial rites, and he was afterwards associated with Brahma in performing some of the acts of Creation at the beginning of one of the Yugas (Ages). It was necessary, therefore, to show that he owed his power and opportunities to Vishnu.

In the Mahábhárata the sage Markandeya refers to Manu as the great Rishi, who was equal unto Brahma in glory. He had practised rigid austerities in a forest for ten thousand years, standing on one leg with uplifted hand. One day while he brooded in wet clothes, a fish rose from a stream and asked for his protection against the greater fish which desired to swallow it, at the same time promising to reward him. Manu placed the fish in an earthen jar and tended it carefully till it increased in size; then he put it in a tank. The fish continued to grow until the tank became small for it, and Manu heard it pleading to be transferred to the Ganges, "the favourite spouse of Ocean". He carried it to the river, and in time the fish spoke to him, saying: "I cannot move about in the river on account of my great length and bulk. Take me quickly to the Ocean." Manu was enabled to carry the fish from the Ganges to the sea, and then it spoke with a smile and said:


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"Know thou, O worshipful one, my protector, that the dissolution of the Universe is at hand. The time is ripe for purging the world. I will therefore advise thee what thou shouldst do, so that it may be well with thee. Build a strong and massive ark, and furnish it with a long rope; thou wilt ascend in it with the seven Rishis (the Celestial Rishis), and take with thee all the different seeds enumerated by Brahmans in days of yore, and preserve them carefully. Wait for me and I will appear as a horned animal. Act according to my instructions, for without mine aid thou canst not save thyself from the terrible deluge."

Manu gathered together all the different seeds and "set sail in an excellent vessel on the surging sea". He thought of the fish, and it arose out of the waters like an island; he cast a noose which he fastened to the horns on its head, and the fish towed the ark over the roaring sea; tossed by the billows the vessel reeled about like one who is drunk. No land was in sight. "There was water everywhere, and the waters covered the heaven and the firmament also. . . . When the world was thus flooded none but Manu, the seven Rishis, and the fish could be seen."

After many long years the vessel was towed to the highest peak of the Himavat, which is still called Naubandhana (the harbour), and it was made fast there. The fish then spoke and said: "I am Brahma, the Lord of all Creatures; there is none greater than me. I have saved thee from this cataclysm. Manu will create again all beings--gods, Asuras, and men, and all those divisions of creation which have the power of locomotion and which have it not. By practising severe austerities he will acquire this power. . . ."

Then Manu set about creating all beings in proper and exact order. 1

Markandeya elsewhere described the universal cataclysm

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with more detail. After a drought lasting for many years, seven blazing suns will appear in the firmament; they will drink up all the waters. Then wind-driven fire will sweep over the earth, consuming all things; penetrating to the nether world it will destroy what is there in a moment; it will burn up the Universe. Afterwards many-coloured and brilliant clouds will collect in the sky, looking like herds of elephants decked with wreaths of lightning. Suddenly they will burst asunder, and rain will fall incessantly for twelve years until the whole world with its mountains and forests is covered with water. The clouds will vanish. Then the Self-created Lord, the First Cause of everything, will absorb the winds and go to sleep. The Universe will become one dread expanse of water.

Account has to be taken of the persistent legend regarding the ambrosia which gave strength to the gods and prolonged their existence. In "Teutonic mythology" it is snatched by Odin from the giants of the Underworld, and is concealed in the moon, which is ever pursued by the demon wolf Managarm, who seeks to devour it.

The development of the Indian form of the myth is found in the story of "The Churning of the Ocean", which is dealt with in the Mahábhárata, the Ramáyana, and several of the Puranas.

According to the epics, the ambrosia, the Indian name of which is amrita (both words implying immortality), was required by the gods so as to enable them to overcome the demons. In Vishnu Parva, however, a Brahmanic addition to the myth was made so as to exalt a sage and illustrate the power he could exercise over the old Vedic deities. It is related that Durvásas obtained from a merry nymph a sweet-scented, inspiring garland which made him dance. He presented it to Indra, who

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placed it on the head of his elephant. The elephant then began to prance about, and grew so excited that it cast the garland on the ground. Durvásas was enraged because that his gift was slighted in this manner, and cursed Indra and foretold the ruin of his kingdom. Thereafter the king of the gods began to suffer loss of power, whereat the other deities became alarmed, fearing that the demons would overcome him in battle. Appeal was made to Brahma, who referred the gods to Vishnu, the Preserver. That supreme being commanded that the ocean should be churned for amrita.

In the epics the gods allied themselves with the demons to procure amrita from Vishnu's Sea of Milk. The "churning stick" was the mountain Mandara, and the "churning rope" the serpent Vasuka 1 (Ananta or Shesha). Vishnu said: "The demons must share in the work of churning, but I will prevent them from tasting of the amrita, which must be kept for Indra and the gods only."

The gods carried the mountain Mandara to the ocean, and placed it on the back of Kurma, the king of tortoises, who was an incarnation of Vishnu. 2 Round the mountain they twisted the serpent, which was "a part of a part of Vishnu", the Asuras holding its hood and the gods its tail. As a result of the friction caused by the churning, masses of vapour issued from the serpent's mouth which, becoming clouds charged with lightning, poured down refreshing rains on the weary workers. Fire darted forth and enwrapped the mountain, burning its trees and destroying many birds, and the lions and elephants that crouched on its slopes. In time the Sea of Milk produced butter flavoured by the gums and juices which dropped from

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the mountain. The gods grew weary, but Vishnu gave them fresh strength to proceed with the work. At length the moon emerged from the ocean; then arose the Apsaras, who became nymphs in Indra's heaven; they were followed by the goddess Lakshmi, Vishnu's white steed, and the gleaming gem which the god wears on his breast. Then came Dhanwantari, the physician of the gods, who carried a golden cup brimming with amrita. Beholding him, the Asuras cried out: "The gods have taken all else; the physician must be ours."

Next arose the great elephant Airávata, which Indra took for himself. The churning still went on until the blue, devastating poison appeared and began to flow over the earth, blazing like a flame mixed with fumes. To save the world from destruction, Shiva swallowed the poison and held it in his throat. From that time he was called Nilakantha, "the blue-throated".

Meanwhile the demons desired to combat against the gods for the possession of the beautiful goddess Lakshmi and the amrita. But Vishnu assumed a bewitching female form, and so charmed the Asuras that they presented the amrita to that fair woman.

Vishnu immediately gave the amrita to the gods, but soon it was discovered that a demon named Rahu had assumed Celestial form with purpose to drink it. The amrita had only reached his throat when the sun and moon discovered him and informed Vishnu. The divine Preserver then flung his discus and cut off Rahu's huge head, which resembled a mountain peak. Rendered immortal by the amrita the head soared to the sky, roaring loud and long. From that day Rahu's head, with mouth agape, has followed sun and moon, and when he swallows one or the other he causes the eclipses.

Meanwhile the demons fought against the gods, but


LAKSHMI ARISING FROM THE SEA OF MILK<br> From a sculpture at Mámallapuram
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From a sculpture at Mámallapuram


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were defeated, although they flung rocks and mountains. Thousands were slain by the sky-scouring discus of Vishnu, and those who survived concealed themselves in the bowels of the earth and the depths of the ocean of salt waters.

Once upon a time the ambrosia was robbed from the gods by Gar´uda, half giant and half eagle, the enemy of serpents. This "lord of birds" was hatched from an enormous egg five hundred years after it had been laid by Diti, mother of giants; his father was Kas´yapa, a Brahman identified with the Pole Star, who had sacrificed with desire for offspring. It happened that Diti, having lost a wager, was put under bondage by the demons, and could not be released until she caused the amrita to be taken from a Celestial mountain where it was surrounded by terrible flames, moved by violent winds, which leapt up to the sky. Assuming a golden body, bright as the sun, Garuda drank up many rivers and extinguished the fire. A fiercely revolving wheel, sharp-edged and brilliant, protected the amrita, but Garuda diminished his body and entered between the spokes. Two fire-spitting snakes had next to be overcome. Garuda blinded them with dust and cut them to pieces. Then, having broken the revolving wheel, that bright sky-ranger flew forth with the amrita which was contained in the moon goblet.

The gods went in pursuit of Garuda. Indra flung his thunderbolt, but the bird suffered no pain and dropped but a single feather. When he delivered the amrita to the demons his mother was released, but ere the demons could drink Indra snatched up the golden moon-goblet and wended back to the heavens. The demon snakes licked the grass where the goblet had been placed by Garuda, and their tongues were divided. From that day all the snakes have had divided tongues. . . . Garuda

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became afterwards the vehicle of Vishnu; he has ever "mocked the wind with his fleetness".

Shiva, as we have indicated, developed from Rudra, the storm god. He is first mentioned as Mahadeva, "the great god", in the Yajurveda, and in the Mahábhárata he is sometimes exalted above Vishnu. In one part he is worshipped by Krishna. He is the "blue-necked, three-eyed trident-bearing lord of all creatures". The trident is a lightning symbol which appears to have developed from the three wriggling flashes held in the left hand of hammer-gods like Tarku and Rammon. Shiva's third eye was on his forehead, and from it issued on occasion a flame of fire which could consume an enemy; once he slew Kamadeva, the love god, who wounded him with flowery arrows, by causing the flame to spring forth.

Balor, the night god of Irish mythology, had similarly a destroying eye; "its gaze withered all who stood before it"; 1 he was the god of lightning and death, the "eye-flame" being the thunderbolt.

Shiva's dwelling is on the Himalayan mount Kaila´sa 2. He is Girisha, "the lord of the hills", and Chandra-Shekara, "the moon crested", Bhuteswara, "lord of goblins", and Sri Kanta, "beautiful throated". When he is depicted with five heads, he is regarded as the source of the five sacred rivers flowing from the mountains. As the god with snow-white face, he is the spirit of asceticism (Maha-Yogi) adored by Brahmans performing penances. In the Mahábhárata Arjuna, the warrior, invoked him by engaging in austerities until smoke issued from the earth. Then Shiva, "the illustrious Hara", appeared in huge and stalwart form and wrestled with him. Arjuna's limbs were bruised and he was deprived of his senses. When he recovered he hailed the god, saying: "Thou art

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[paragraph continues] Shiva in the form of Vishnu and Vishnu in the form of Shiva . . . . 1 O Hari, O Rudra, I bow to thee. Thou hast a (red) eye on thy forehead. . . . Thou art the source of universal blessing, the cause of the cause of the Universe. . . . Thou art worshipped of all the worlds. I worship thee to obtain thy grace. . . . This combat in which I was engaged with thee (arose) from ignorance. . . . I seek thy protection. Pardon me all I have done."

Shiva, whose sign is the bull, embraced Arjuna and said, "I have pardoned thee."

The god was invoked by another warrior, Ashwattaman; son of Drona. Having naught else to sacrifice, the worshipper flung himself upon the altar fire; Shiva accepted him and entered his body so as to assist him in slaughtering his sleeping enemies. Bloody rites were at one time associated with Shiva worship. As the Destroyer of the Hindu Trinity, he is armed with a discus, a sword, a bow, and a club; but his most terrible weapon is the trident. Sometimes he is clad in the skin of an elephant and sometimes in that of a leopard, the tail dangling behind. A serpent, coiled on his head, rears itself to strike; another serpent darts from his right shoulder against an enemy.

The bull symbol, Nandi, the moon crescent on his forehead, and the serpent girdle, indicate that Shiva is a god of fertility. A phallic symbol is associated with his worship. In localities he is adored at the present day in the form of a great boulder painted red which usually stands below a tree. Offerings are made to this stone, and women visit it during the period of the moon's increase to pray for offspring.

As Natesa, the dancer, Shiva dances triumphantly on the body of a slain Asura. A fine bronze in the Madras

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[paragraph continues] Museum depicts him with four arms, and a beaming, benevolent face, wearing a tiara, and surrounded by a halo of fire; he absorbed the attributes of Agni as well as those of Rudra. He is the destroyer of evil and disease, the giver of long life and the god of medicine, and is accordingly invoked to cure sickness. Victims of epilepsy are believed to be possessed by Shiva.

In early Puranic times, when Brahmanism was revived and reformed, the worship of goddesses came into prominence. This was one of the most pronounced features of the anti-Buddhist movement, and was due probably to the influence of Great Mother worshippers. In the Vedic Age, as we have seen, the goddesses were vague and shadowy; as wives of the gods they were strictly subordinate, reflecting, no doubt, the social customs which prevailed among the Aryans. Ushas, the dawn, and Ratri, the night, were mainly poetic conceptions. Even Prithivi, the Earth Mother, who was symbolized as a cow, played no prominent part in Vedic religion: a magical influence was exercised by water goddesses. The male origin of life appears to have been an accepted tenet of Vedic belief. Aditi, mother of the Adityas, is believed to be of more recent origin than her sons. Indra seems to have similarly had existence before his mother, like the other hammer gods, and especially P’an Ku and Ptah.

Female water spirits are invariably regarded as givers of boons, inspiration and wisdom; holy wells have from remote times been regarded as sources of luck; by performing ceremonial acts those who visit them obtain what they wish for in silence; their waters have, withal, curative properties, or they may be used for purposes of divination. The name of the goddess Saraswati signifies "waters"; she was originally the spirit of the Saraswati river, and was probably identical with Bharati, the goddess


SHIVA DANCING ON TRIPURA<br> <i>From a bronze in the Madras Museum</i>.
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From a bronze in the Madras Museum.


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of the Vedic Bharata tribe. In Puranic times she became the wife of Brahma and the Minerva of the Hindu Pantheon. She is identical with Vach, "Mother of the Vedas", the goddess of poetry and eloquence, and Viraj, the female form of Purusha, who divided himself to give origin to the gods and demons and all living creatures. When Brahma took for a second wife Gayatri, the milk-maid, she cursed him so that he could only be worshipped once a year.

Saranyu, who may have developed from Ushas, the Dawn, is the bride of Surya, the sun god, and mother of the twin Aswins; she fashioned the trident of Shiva and the discus of Vishnu, and other weapons besides.

Lakshmi, or Sri, who had her origin at the Churning of the Ocean, became the wife of Vishnu, and the goddess of beauty, love, and prosperity. She has had several human incarnations, and in each case was loved by the incarnation of Vishnu. She is Sita in the Ramáyana, and the beautiful herdswoman beloved by Krishna. Lakshmi is "the world-mother, eternal, imperishable; as Vishnu is all-pervading, she is omnipresent. Vishnu is meaning, she is speech; Vishnu is righteousness, she is devotion; Sri is the earth, and Vishnu is the support of the earth." This benevolent goddess is usually depicted as a golden lady with four arms, seated on a lotus.

Shiva's complex character is reflected in the various forms assumed by his bride. As the Destroyer he is associated with Durga, who has great beauty and is also a war goddess. As Kali she is the black earth-mother, and as Jagadgauri, the yellow woman, the harvest bride. Armed with Celestial weapons, Durga is a renowned slayer of demons. In her Kali form she is of hideous aspect. Sculptors and painters have depicted her standing on the prostrate form of Shiva and grinning with outstretched

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tongue. Her body is smeared with blood because she has waged a ferocious and successful war against the giants. Like Shiva, she has a flaming third eye on her forehead. Her body is naked save for a girdle of giants' hands suspended from her waist; round her neck she wears a long necklace of giants' skulls: like the Egyptian Isis, Kali can conceal herself in her long and abundant hair. She has four arms: in one she holds a weapon, and in another the dripping head of a giant; two empty hands are raised to bless her worshippers. Like the Egyptian Hathor or Sekhet, the "Eye of Ra", she goes forth to slay the enemies of the gods, rejoicing in slaughter. Like Hathor, too, she is asked to desist, but heeds not. Then Shiva approaches her and lies down among her victims. Kali dances over the battlefield and leaps on her husband's body. When she observes, however, what she has done, she ejects her tongue with shame.

As Sati, Shiva's wife is the ideal of a true and virtuous Hindu woman. When Sati's husband was slighted by her father, the Deva-rishi, Daksha, she cast herself on the sacrificial fire. Widows who died on the funeral pyres of their husbands were called Sati 1, because in performing this rite they imitated the faithful goddess.

Sati was reborn as Uma, "Light", the impersonation of divine wisdom; as Amvika the same goddess was a sister of Rudra, or his female counterpart, Rudra taking the place of Purusha, the first man. Par´vati was another form of the many-sided goddess. Shiva taunted her for being black, and she went away for a time and engaged in austerities, with the result that she assumed a golden complexion.

A trinity of goddesses is formed by Saraswati, the white one, Lakshmi, the red one, and Par´vati, the black one. The three were originally one--a goddess who


GANESA<br> <i>From a sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum</i>.
Click to enlarge

From a sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

(see page 151)


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came into existence when Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva spoke of the dreaded Asura, Andhaka (Darkness) and looked one at another. The goddess was coloured white, red, and black, and divided herself, according to the Varaha Purana, into three forms representing the Past, Present, and Future.

It was after Sati burned herself that the sorrowing Shiva was wounded by Kamadeva, the love god, whom he slew by causing a flame of fire to dart from his third eye. This god is the son of Vishnu and Lakshmi. He is usually depicted as a comely youth like the Egyptian Khonsu; he shoots flowery arrows from his bow; his wife Rati symbolizes Spring, the cuckoo, the humming bee, and soft winds. As Manmatha he is the "mind-disturber"; as Mara, "the wounder"; as Madan, "he who makes one love-drunk"; and as Pradyumna he is the "all-conqueror".

Gane´sa 1, the four-armed, elephant-headed god of wisdom, is the son of Shiva and Parvati. He is the general of Shiva's army, the patron of learning and the giver of good fortune. At the beginning of books he is invoked by poets, his image is placed on the ground when a new house is built, and he is honoured before a journey is begun or any business is undertaken. The elephant's head is an emblem of sagacity. A myth in one of the Puranas relates that the planet Saturn, being under a curse, decapitated Ganesa simply by looking at him. Vishnu mounted on the back of the man-eagle Garuda and came to the child's aid. He cut off the head of Indra's elephant and placed it on Ganesa's neck. In a conflict with a Deva-rishi Ganesa lost one of his tusks. Several myths have gathered round this popular, elephant-headed deity, who is also identified with the wise rat.

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Another son of Shiva and Parvati is Kartikeya, the Celestial general and slayer of demons. He is also regarded as the son of Agni and the Ganges.

The goddess of the Ganges is Gangá. This most sacred of all Indian rivers, the cleanser of sins and the giver of immortality, was originally confined to the Celestial regions, where it flowed from a toe of Vishnu. How it came to earth is related in the following myth: Sag´ara, a King of Ayodha (Oude), had great desire for offspring. He performed penance, with the result that one wife became the mother of a single son and the other of sixty thousand sons. He prepared to perform a horse sacrifice, but Indra stole the sacred animal. All the sons went in search of it by digging each for the depth of a league towards the centre of the earth. They were, however, consumed by the fire of Kapila, a form of Vishnu, who protected the earth goddess, his bride. Sagara was informed that his sons would come to life again and rise to heaven when the Ganges flowed down to the earth. His grandson went through rigid penances, and at length Brahma consented to grant the prayer that the sacred river should descend from the Himalayas. Shiva broke the fall of the waters by allowing them to flow through his hair, and they were divided into seven streams. When the waters reached the ashes of the slain princes, their spirits rose to heaven and secured eternal bliss. Sagra island, at the mouth of the Ganges, is invested with great sanctity, on account of its association with the King of Ayodha of this legend. All the Indian rivers are female, with the exception of the Sona and Brahmaputra, the spirits of which are male.

Other goddesses include Man´asa, sister of Vasuka, King of the Nagas, who gives protection against snake bites, and is invoked by the serpent worshippers: Sasti,


KARTIKEYA, THE WAR GOD<br> <i>From a painting by Surendra Nalh Gangoly</i>.<br> (By permission of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta)
Click to enlarge

From a painting by Surendra Nalh Gangoly.
(By permission of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, Calcutta)


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the feline goddess of maternity and protectress of children, who rides on a cat; and Shitala, the Bengali goddess of smallpox, who is mounted on an ass, carries a bundle of reeds in her hand, and is clad in red; she is propitiated on behalf of victims of the dreaded disease.

A prominent part is played in the Brahmanic mythology of the Restoration period by the Deva-rishis, the deified Vedic poets, sages, and priests, who stand between the Vedic gods and the Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

Originally there were seven Deva-rishis, and these were identified with the seven stars of the Great Bear, their wives being represented by the Pleiades. Their number was, however, increased in time. 1 Sometimes they visit the earth in the form of swans, but more often they are brooding sages who curse gods and mortals on receiving the slightest provocation.

One of the most prominent of these Rishis is Na´rada 2, who cursed and was cursed by Brahma. In the Mahábhárata he is a renowned teacher and a counsellor of kings, and also a messenger between Indra and heroes. He is a patron of music, and invented the Vina (lute) on which he loves to play. His great rival is Parvata, who also acts as a Celestial messenger.

Daksha is the father of Sati, the peerless wife of Shiva. It was on account of this rishi's quarrel with her husband, who was not invited to a great feast, that she flung herself upon the sacrificial fire. Shiva cut off Daksha's head and replaced it with the head of a goat.

Bhrigu was the patriarch of a Vedic priestly family. He married a daughter of Daksha, and was the father of

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[paragraph continues] Lakshmi, wife of Vishnu, who rose from the ocean of milk. Bhrigu once cursed Agni, whom he compelled to consume everything. Angiras, Kratu, and Pulaha were Deva-rishis who also married daughters of Daksha. Pulastya was a famous slayer of Rakshasas. He once cursed a king who refused to make way for him on a narrow forest path, and the king became a Rakshasa.

Marichi was the grandfather of the dwarf incarnation of Vishnu, and Atri was the father of the irascible sage Durvasas, a master curser.

Vasishtha is sometimes referred to as identical with Vyasa, the reputed arranger of the Vedas, and author of the Mahábhárata. He possessed a wonderful cow which granted whatever he wished for. A king named Vishwamitra desired to possess this wonderful animal, and when he found that he was unable to obtain it by force, he determined to raise himself from the Kshatriya to the Brahman caste by performing prolonged austerities. When Vishwamitra secured this elevation he fought with his rival.

Some Vedic scholars regard Vishwamitra and Vasishtha as actual historical personages. They argue that Vishwamitra was originally a Purohita (family priest) in the service of Sudas, the king of an Aryan tribe called the Tritsus. References are found in the Rigveda to the wars of Sudas, who once defeated a coalition of ten kings. Vishwamitra is believed to have been deposed by Sudas in favour of Vasishtha, and to have allied himself afterwards with the enemies of the Tritsus. 1

Professor Oldenberg, the German Sanskrit scholar, is convinced, however, that there is no evidence in the Rigveda of the legendary rivalry between Vishwamitra and Vasishtha. He regards the Vasishthas as the family priests of the Bharata tribe and identical with the Tritsus.


PARVATI, WIFE OF SHIVA<br> <i>From a South Indian temple</i>.
Click to enlarge

From a South Indian temple.

(see page 150)


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Among the tribes which opposed the advance of the conquering King Sudas, who appears to have been a late comer, was the Puru people on the banks of the Saraswati river. We find that the early authors suddenly cease to refer to them, and the problem is presented: What fate had befallen the Purus? Professor Oldenberg, whose view is accepted by Professor Macdonell, Oxford, explains that the Purus merged in the Kuru coalition. The Kurus gave their name to Kuru-kshetra, the famous battlefield of the epic Mahábhárata; they had already fused with the Panchala tribe and formed the Kuru-Panchala nation in Madhyadesa, the "Middle Country", the home of Brahmanic culture, the birthplace of the famous old Upanishads.

The Bharatas, and their priestly aristocracy of Tritsus, the Vasishthas, appear to have joined the Kuru-Panchala confederacy about the time that the Brahmanas were being composed, and these were probably influenced by the ritualistic practices of the Vasishthas. There are references to Agni of the Bharatas, and a goddess Bharati is mentioned in connection with the Saraswati river.

It appears highly probable that the Bharatas and the Kuru-Panchalas represent late invasions of peoples who displaced the earlier Aryan settlers in Hindustan. Among the enemies of the invaders were the Kasis, a tribe which became associated with Benares. It is not possible to prove the theory that this people had any connection with the Kassites who established a Dynasty at Babylon. The Kassites are believed to be identical with the Cossæi of later times, who were settled between Babylon and the Median highlands. Some think the Kassites came from Asia Minor after the Hittite raid on Babylon, if the Kassites, as Hittite allies, were not the actual raiders. The fact that the Maltese cross, which is found on

p. 156

[paragraph continues] Elamite neolithic pottery, first appears on Babylonian seals during the Kassite Dynasty, suggests, however, that the Kassites came from the east and not the west, with the horse, called in Babylon "the ass of the east".

The great epic Mahábhárata, "the Iliad of India", may have been founded on the hero songs which celebrated the Aryan tribal wars in India. Its action is centred in Kuru-kshetra, "the country of the Kurus", in which the Bharatas had settled. Two rival families contend for supremacy; these are the Kauravas (the Kurus) and the Pandavas who are supported by the Panchalas and others. The Pandavas and Kauravas are cousins and the descendants of the eponymous King Bharata. In the royal family tree the tribal names of Kuru and Puru appear as names of kings.

A popular rendering is given in several chapters which follow of the epic narrative embedded in the Mahábhárata, which is about eight times as long as the Iliad and Odyssey combined. This monumental work is divided into eighteen books; a supplementary nineteenth book alone exceeds in length the two famous Greek epics.

As we have stated, the Mahábhárata had its origin as an epic prior to B.C. 500. It was added to from time to time until it assumed its present great bulk. The kernel of the narrative, however, which appears to have dealt with the early wars between the Kurus and Panchalas, must be placed beyond B.C. 1000.

Our narrative begins with the romantic stories which gathered round the names of the legendary ancestors of the Kauravas and the Pandavas. The sympathies of the Brahmanic compilers are with the latter, who are symbolized as "a vast tree formed of religion and virtue", while their opponents are "a great tree formed of passion".


141:1 Condensed from Vana Parva section of Mahábhárata, sec. clxxxvii, Roy's trans.

143:1 Va´suki.

143:2 Brahma, as Prajapati, assumes, in one of the myths, the form of a tortoise to "create offspring".

146:1 Celtic Myth and Legend, p. 49.

146:2 Or Kailāsa.

147:1 Combined with Vishnu he is Hari-hara.

150:1 Often spelled Suttee.

151:1 A familiar Bengali rendering is "Gonesh", which is often given as a pet name to an exemplary boy.

153:1 In Vishnu Purana the Rishis are divided as follows: 1, Brahmarishis, sons of Brahma; 2, Devarishis, semi-divine saints; 3, Rajarishis, royal saints who had practised austerities. There are variants in other sacred books which refer to Maharishis, Paramarishis, &c.

153:2 Or Nãrada.

154:1 Rigveda, viii, 53. 9-11, and vii, 18.

Next: Chapter IX. Prelude to the Great Bharata War