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Hindu mythology is intricately associated with Hindu religion and culture. In fact, much of Hindu customs, rituals, and practices are derived from the archetypal myths. These myths and epics have been compiled and transmitted for over three thousand years.
Hindu myths cover an array of themes, and have been subject to various interpretations and analyses. These myths aren’t just stories but serve as a profound philosophical and moral guidance for both adults and children. Let’s take a closer look at the Hindu mythological texts and their significance.
Origins of Hindu Mythology
The exact origin of Hindu myths cannot be discovered, as they were orally produced and transmitted several thousand years ago. Nevertheless, historians and scholars deduce that Hindu myths originated with the coming of the Aryans, or Indo-Europeans settlers, who migrated into the Indian subcontinent.
The Aryans founded the earliest known form of Hinduism, and they produced several literary and religious texts. The oldest of these scriptures were known as the Vedas.
The distinct background of the Aryans, along with the influence of local cultures, gave rise to multi–faceted mythological texts, with layers of profound meaning.
The Vedas were succeeded by the Ramayana and Mahabharata, heroic epics that gained wide recognition throughout the sub-continent. Eventually each village and locality adapted the myth to suit their own traditions and ritualistic practices.
Through these myths and stories, Hinduism spread to the other parts of India and gradually gained more followers. These myths were also subject to various interpretations by saints and ascetics, who brought to attention the various deeper meanings and significations embedded within the text.
The Vedas are the oldest Hindu scriptures, from which all other texts and myths originated. They were written in ancient Vedic Sanskrit between 1500-1200 BCE.
The Vedas promoted the importance and significance of truth, and served as a guide to live a pure and respectable life. The texts had no single author, but were compiled, written and organised by Vyasa, a great saint of early Hinduism.
Vyasa divided the Vedas into four components: Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda and the Atharva-Veda. This division was done so that the common man could read and comprehend the texts without any difficulty.
Rig- Veda means knowledge of verses, and contains a collection of 1,028 poems or hymns. These verses are further grouped into ten books called mandalas. The hymns and poems of the Rig-Veda are designed as invocations to communicate with the chief deities of Hinduism. They are usually recited to gain blessings and favours from the gods and goddesses.
The Rig Veda also provides a step-by-step guidance on how to attain spiritual bliss through yoga and meditation.
In Sanskrit, Yajur Veda means worship and knowledge. This Veda has about 1,875 verses that are to be chanted prior to ritual offerings. The Yajur is divided into two broad categories, the black Yajurveda and the white Yajurveda. The black consists of unorganized verses, while the white has well- structured chants and hymns.
The Yajur- Veda can also be considered a historical record, as it contains information on the agricultural, social and economic life in Vedic Era.
Sama-Veda means song and knowledge. It’s a liturgical text that contains 1,549 verses and melodious chants. This Veda contains some of the world’s oldest melodies, and is used for ritualistic invocation and chanting. The first section of the text contains a collection of melodies, and the second has a compilation of verses. The verses must be sung with the assistance of the musical intonations.
Historians and scholars believe that classical dance and music originated from the Sama- Veda. The text provided rules for singing, chanting, and playing musical instruments.
The theoretical portions of the Sama- Veda have influenced several Indian musical schools and Carnatic music in particular.
The Upanishads are late Vedic texts composed by Saint Ved Vyasa. They are the most widely read of all Hindu scriptures. They deal with philosophical and ontological questions, such as being, becoming, and existence. The main concepts of the Upanishad are Brahman, or Ultimate Reality, and the Atman, or soul. The text declares that each individual’s an Atman, who ultimately merges with the Brahman, that is, the supreme or Ultimate Reality.
The Upanishads serve as a guidance to attain ultimate joy and spirituality. Through reading the text, an individual can gain greater understanding of their Atman or Self.
Though there are several hundred Upanishads, the first ones are thought to be the most important, and are known as Mukhya Upanishads.
The Ramayana is an ancient Hindu epic written in the 5th century BCE, by saint Valmiki. It has 24,000 verses, and narrates the story of Ram, the Prince of Ayodhya.
Ram is the heir of Dasaratha, the king of Ayodhya. But despite being the eldest and most favored son of the king, he doesn’t get an opportunity to ascend the throne. His cunning step mother, Kaikeyi, persuades Dasaratha to hand over the throne to her son, Bharatha. She’s successful in her attempt, and Ram, along with his beautiful wife Sita, is banished to the forest.
Although Ram and Sita find joy in simple, ascetic living, their happiness is soon shattered by Ravana, the demon king. Ravana kidnaps Sita and takes her across the sea to Lanka. Ram who is pained and angered by the loss of his beloved, vows to defeat and kill the demon-king.
With the help of several monkey- gods, Ram builds a bridge across the sea, and reaches Lanka. Ram then defeats the demon king, Ravana, and returns home to claim the throne. He and his queen Sita live happily for several years and beget two sons.
The Ramayana continues to be relevant even today, and Hindu’s look upon it as a sacred text, that conveys the importance of Dharma (duty) and righteousness.
The Mahabharata was written by Saint Ved Vyas in the 3rd century BCE. It has a total of 200,000 individual verse lines, in addition to several prose passages, making it the longest epic poem in the world. Within Hinduism, the Mahabharata is also known as the fifth Veda.
The epic narrates the battle between two royal families, the Pandavas and Kauravas, who fight for the throne of Hastinapura. The Kauravas are constantly jealous of the skills and abilities of the Pandavas, and repeatedly try to eliminate them. The Pandavas overcome these hurdles and eventually win the Kurukshetra War. They successfully rule the empire for several years, and eventually ascend to heaven after the death of Krishna.
The major theme of the Mahabharata is fulfilling one’s sacred duty or dharma. Individuals who venture away from their assigned path are punished. Therefore, the Mahabharata reiterates the principle that each individual must accept, and carry out the duties assigned to him/her.
The Bhagvad Gita, also known as the Gita, is part of the Mahabharata. It consists of 700 lines and is composed in the form of a conversation between Prince Arjuna, and his charioteer, Lord Krishna. The text explores various philosophical aspects such as life, death, religion and dharma (duty).
The Gita became one of the most popular texts due to its simple rendering of major philosophical concepts. It also provided people with guidance in their day- to-day lives. The conversations between Krishna and Arjuna explored themes of conflict, uncertainty, and ambiguity. Due to its simple explanations and conversational style, the Gita gained wide recognition throughout the world.
Puranas are a collection of texts that cover a wide range of themes such as cosmogony, cosmology, astronomy, grammar and the genealogies of gods and goddesses. They are diverse texts that include both classical and folk narrative traditions. Several historians have termed the Puranas as encyclopaedias, due to their vast range in form and content.
The Puranas have successfully synthesized the cultural practices of both the elite and the masses of Indian society. Due to this reason, they are one of the most highly praised and venerated Hindu texts.
It’s also believed that they paved the way for Indian classical dance forms such as the Bharatanatyam and Rasa Leela.
Additionally, the most celebrated festivals known as Diwali and Holi are derived from the rituals of the Puranas.
Hindu Mythology in Popular Culture
Hindu myths have been recreated and re-imagined in simplistic forms for both adults and children. Television channels such as Pogo and Cartoon Network have created animated shows for epic characters such as Bheem, Krishna, and Ganesha.
Additionally, comic book series such as Amar Chitra Kadha have also attempted to provide the essential meaning of epics through simple dialogues and graphic representations.
By simplifying the deeper meanings within the epics, the comics and cartoons have been able to reach a larger audience, and create greater interest amongst children.
Indian writers and authors have also attempted to rewrite the myths, and render them in fictional prose. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions is a feminist text that looks at the Mahabharata from the perspective of Draupadi. The Shiva Trilogy written by Amish Tripathi re imagines the myth of Shiva by giving it a modern twist.
Hindu mythology has attained worldwide significance and recognition. It has influenced several other religions, belief systems, and schools of thought. Hindu mythology continues to grow, as more and more people adapt and recreate the ancient stories.