All About Hinduism

Archive for the category “Beyond Myth”

Hindu Devas and their Japanese Avatars

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As much as I like to discover the esoteric meaning of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, I am equally fascinated by their history. Where they came from, how they evolved and their place in the world in present times. In my previous posts I have often touched upon other forms of the deities, as they are worshipped today, in other countries or religions.

A few days ago I came across an excellent post by Videshi Sutra on the integration of Hindu devas into Buddhism and their journey to Japan via China.  
Videshi Sutra says… 

This is a historical phenomenon, which entertains and fascinates me to no end. Buddhism had a huge impact on all East Asian cultures, especially on their pantheons of deities. On first glance it might seem odd that a reform movement, which rejected many of the core tenets of Vedic religion would transmit a belief in Vedic deities. This apparent oddity is a misunderstanding of Buddhism’s “atheism,” and a misunderstanding of what a “Deva” actually is.

Most forms of Buddhism, while rejecting the concept of all-powerful gods or creator deities, openly accept the existence of powerful supernatural beings.

In the Buddhist pantheon, the Devas have generally converted to Buddhism and now serve as his protectors, the protectors of his teachings, or as helpers to mortals who are trying to achieve enlightenment.

To find out  more on how the Buddhist versions of Hindu gods were integrated into Japanese   culture ( with fantastic images) read the rest of the article here Hindu Devas Take a ( Silk Road) Trip to Japan!

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Contemplating Ganesha

ImageGanesha the elephant-headed god, one of Hinduism’s most well known faces, is steeped in symbolism.

Over the ages, the story of Ganesha’s unusual birth and his unique form have been interpreted in various ways. For the purpose of this post I have taken the most widely accepted versions and in the true spirit of Hinduism given you my own intuitive understanding of them.

Ganesha is said to be the physical form of the symbol Aum. Aum is the symbol of Creation. It represents the unmanifest Shakti which manifests as Prakriti or Nature. Thus Ganesha born of Shakti represents all Creation.

The mantra Aum is also Pranava, the prime mantra through which all existence is known. ‘Pra’ means Prakriti and ‘nava’ is the boat which helps us navigate the endless ocean of Creation called Prakriti. So it is through her son that we may know the mother.

Hence, Ganesha is also associated with the Muladhara Chakra which is the seat of Shakti. By meditating on Ganesha the Kundalini Shakti is realised and awakened to remove all obstacles and transform us.

As Parvati created Ganesha by herself with no help from Shiva, he is our direct link to Nature of which we are also a part. Ganesha leads us to ourselves.

Parvati created Ganesha so that he may guard her honour. Hence Ganesha is portrayed as the typical mother’s boy who adores her and above all protects her.  Thus he is ‘Ganesha- Guardian of all Beings’. In protecting all of Creation, he protects Prakriti his mother.

Adi Shankaracharya who established Ganesha as one of the five main deities said this of Ganesha,

“Though Ganesha is worshiped as the elephant-headed God, the form (swaroop) is just to bring out the formless (parabrahma roopa).
He is, ‘Ajam Nirvikalpam Niraakaaramekam.’ This means Ganesha is unborn (ajam), he is without attributes( Nirvikalpa), he is formless (Niraakaar) and he symbolizes the consciousness which is omnipresent.” Which brings us back to why Ganesha is associated with Aum.

As for Ganesha’s form, the big elephant head symbolizes intelligence and wisdom. His big ears pick up on the softest of prayers whispered by his devotees. His small shrewd eyes miss nothing and his trunk represents discretion. An elephant may use his trunk to fell trees or pick up a blade of grass depending on the situation.

He is Ekdanta, the one with a single tusk. This stands for single mindedness.His big belly holds all the knowledge of the Universe.

An elephant is not hindered by any obstacle in his path. He simply steps over it or goes around it. Hence Ganesha is the remover of obstacles and of his four arms one is raised in the Abhaya mudra, which says to his devotees, ‘fear not I shall protect you.’

The second hand holds a noose to rein in the wandering mind while the third has the goad to push people onto the path of righteousness. Finally, the fourth hand holds a sweet modak which shows his eternal childlike nature.

 Om Gan Ganapataye Namah !!

How Indra Lost His Thunder

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Born of the Sky and the Earth, he was an Aditya, one of the first deities. He was the copper hued Great God of War, Rain and Thunder. Worshipped more than any other deity in the Vedas, he was said to protect the gods and men alike. Sitting atop the celestial Mount Meru he supported the heavens with its thirty-three gods and guarded the directions.

Riding his white elephant Airavat and wielding the thunderbolt he led the mighty Sun, Fire, Air and Water into many fierce battles with the demons. He was the slayer of the dark dragon Vritra who stole the waters from the earth. He even fathered Arjuna, the great hero of the epic Mahabharat.

So why do we no longer care about this King of Gods, the Great Indra ? At what point was he dislodged from our consciousness as Sakra, the powerful one, to become a lesser god with a bad reputation, to be remembered only in folklore?

He was quite simply traded for loftier gods.

The Hindu pantheon has continuously shifted and changed. As the Hindu philosophy evolved, so did the gods and goddesses.

The Vedic culture was based as much on worship of Nature as it was on trying to understand it. Since the earliest of times we see a civilization obsessed with science and the pursuit of knowledge.

Even the Rig Vedic hymns which seem like simple dedications to  Nature and its elements are full of very detailed and accurate astronomical observations.  This quest for knowledge did not stop at the visible Universe. The Creation Hymn hints at a ‘Reality’ that cannot been seen or known. A reality that existed even before the gods came.

The Upanishads, written long after the Vedas, are all about uncovering that hidden ‘Reality’.

By now, the rishis, seers, through centuries of meditation, had all come to a common conclusion that what is outside is also within. We are a part of the whole and each part is whole. ‘Aham Brahmasi, or I am Brahman ( cosmic consciousness) is one of the three “Truths’ explained in the Upanishads.

Such lofty ideas needed loftier gods.

The heavens were no longer the ultimate realm.  And, thus we see the rise of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, as the higher principles of the Universe.  In their shadow Indra, the God of War becomes quite irrelevant, even undesirable.

The focus had shifted from violent conquest of one’s enemies to conquering one’s mind; from pleasing god to realizing god !

But not all is lost for the once King of Gods. Untitled taishakuten

The legacy of Indra lives on in a benign form in Jainism and Buddhism wherein he is known as Sakra in Sanskrit or Sakka in Pali.

For Buddhists in Tibet, China and Japan he is Taishakuten, a powerful guardian deity and is often depicted riding a white elephant.

Legend has it that the city of Bangkok was gifted by Indra and built by the celestial architect Vishwakarma.

Perhaps it is for the best that in these times of war and conflict, we remember the warrior-god in his gentler avataars.

 

 

 

                                                      Statue of  Taishakuten at the Toji Temple, Kyoto

Saraswati-The Goddess of Knowledge and Learning

She is the sublime Goddess of Knowledge. From her flows all learning. She is ‘Vac Devi’, the goddess of speech who ‘dances on our tongues’ to create the magic of words. It is she who incarnates as Art in all its forms.

While Brahma is the Lord of Creation, Saraswati his daughter is Creativity itself.

You will find her by the river or seated on a lotus flower, dressed in white and gold, radiant like the moon. In her hands she holds the veena, the vedas  and a mala of beads . Lost in contemplation she sits alone with only peacocks and swans for company .

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Her Origin

Saraswati means ‘to flow’, as is the nature of knowledge and creativity. It cannot be contained and must flow freely. Saraswati is also the Goddess of Purity, for the true purpose of knowledge is to purify the mind and lead it to wisdom.

It is also the nature of a river to flow, to purify and to nourish. And, ultimately to merge with the ocean.

No surprise then that the Goddess Saraswati as we know her today started off as the holy river, Saraswati, which once flowed from the East to the West in northern India.

Today only a small part of it remains as the Ghaggar river in Rajasthan; the rest of it long lost under the vast Marusthali desert.

However satellite images and geological mapping show that the Vedic Saraswati was indeed an enormous river, about 1500 kms long and eight kms wide in her prime.  Archeologists believe she played a major role in sustaining the Indus Valley civilization.

Which explains why Saraswati is praised so lavishly in all the Vedas with several hymns dedicated to her. One hymn describes her as the ‘best of the mothers, best of the rivers, best of the goddesses’.

The river was an important part of all Vedic worship and rituals and continues to be an integral part of Hinduism even today.

Around 4000 BC when the Saraswati dried up, the people who had settled on her banks moved eastwards. Thousands of years later, by the time the Upanishads and Puranas were written, the River Ganges had become the most important river and the Saraswati had faded into a memory preserved in myths and stories.

In the Mahabharat she is mentioned as the river which upon entering the desert ‘dived under it’ and disappeared into the sea.

One story in the Puranas tell us how the Saraswati disappeared.

Once upon a time the Gods wanted someone to carry Agni, the scared fire, to the sea. But, no mortal or god would dare to touch the fiery Agni lest they be burnt to ashes except the mighty Saraswati. At the request of the devas Saraswati gathered up all her waters and taking the form of a woman held Agni within her and rushed off to the sea. Agni’s fire was gone and so was Saraswati, lost forever to the sea.

Another tale from the Bhagwat Puranas speaks of Saraswati being born from Brahma’s mouth. Wise and pure, she gave the gift of learning and knowledge to man.

These stories tell of a major change in beliefs and rituals in post Vedic times.

With Saraswati returning Agni to the sea the sacrificial fire appears to have lost its power. The material and animal sacrifices that were once offered to Agni came to be replaced by a sacrifice of self or the (ego), through the pursuit of creativity and knowledge.

This transformation in attitudes is clearly seen in the Upanishads wherein Saraswati now becomes the Goddess of knowledge who leads man to the ocean of Truth.

This idea of Saraswati was later incorporated into Jainism and Buddhism. Through Buddhism it spread beyond India to the far east.

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In Jainism, she became Saraswati, the dispeller of darkness and ignorance. Tibetan Buddhists know her as Yang Chenmo who bestows wisdom and learning.
In Mongolian she is Keleyin ukin Tegri, in Chinese she is called Tapien-ts’ai t’iennu or Miao-yin mu, and in Japan she is Dai-Ben-Zai-Ten, meaning ‘the great divinity of the reasoning faculty’.

                                                                                                                                               Ben-Zai-Ten

                                                                                                                        

Festivals

Saraswati puja is celebrated on Vasant Panchami, the fifth day of the month of Magh which falls anytime from mid-January to mid-February. On this day all children place their books and musical instruments at Saraswati’s feet and seek her blessings while very young children will write their first letter in her presence with the help of an adult.

She is also worshipped in a big way during the festival of Navratri, the nine nights of the goddess.

This lovely prayer composed by Sage Agastya is chanted regularly by Hindus in their homes, schools and any place of learning.

या कुन्देन्दुतुषारहारधवला या शुभ्रवस्त्रावृता

 या वीणावरदण्डमण्डितकरा या श्वेतपद्मासना ।

या ब्रह्माच्युतशंकरप्रभृतिभिर्देवः सदा पूजिता

सा मां पातु सरस्वति भगवती निःशेषजाड्यापहा ॥१॥

Yaa kundendu tushaar haar dhavalaa

Yaa shubra vastra avrita

yaa vina var danda mandita kara

yaa shweta padmasana

yaa Brahmachyutashankarprabritibhir devai sadaa pujita

Saa maam paatu Saraswati Bhagawati nisheshjaadyapahaa

 

Translation:

Salutations to the one who is pure white like jasmine, with the coolness of the moon and brightness of the snow and shines like a garland of pearls

One who is dressed in white

Whose hands are adorned by the veena( stringed musical instrument)

And the boon-giving staff,

And who is seated on a pure white lotus

One who is adored by Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and worshipped by all devas.

Goddess Saraswati , I pray, dispel my ignorance completely.

( Can you see how these words could easily be describing the River Saraswati ? !)

You can hear it  sung here  just as I learnt it in school.

Shiva’s Dance of Destruction

Shiva, the Lord of Dance, is forever dancing his Cosmic Dance.

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You’ve seen him as the Nataraja, lost in a trance, keeping the rhythm of the Universe with his dumroo( drum) and dancing to its beat.

Holding a trident in one  hand, a deer in another, he is seen striking a beautiful pose with one leg lifted, the other placed on a dwarf. His matted locks, unfurled,  spread out like rays reaching the outer edges of the  Cosmos. As Nataraja, he shows us the cycle of life and death, Beginning and End.

There are times however, when Shiva will take on his Rudra avatar( Harsh Self) and dance the Tandav Nritya, the dance of destruction.

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He dances at a furious pace,to the beat of his drum. Bom, Bom it vibrates, causing wild thunder storms all around the universe, even shattering the sun, the moon and other stellar bodies.

Brandishing his trident, he destroys Tripura, the three worlds. He tramples upon the  dwarf of ignorance and conquers death, displaying its skull on his head.

But, for those  who are dare to look at this terrible sight, he raises his right hand to say ‘be fearless’; for what is being destroyed is only your ignorance, you ego; the illusion that you are just this.

And then, if you pay close attention you will see a crescent moon shinning on his forehead, and you will know it is going to be light again  and darkness will be gone. As your ignorance is destroyed,you will find enlightenment .

Thus, while Brahma creates the Universe and Vishnu drives it, Shiva destroys it, both within and without, so that it may be created again.

( The Tandav dance is often performed in Classical Indian dance forms. Here is great clip of Meenakshi, an Indian actress dancing it in a Bolywood movie)

Secrets of The Milky Ocean

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Hindu mythological stories were originally composed in Sanskrit, in the form of verses or shlokas.

These verses often seem to have more than one meaning, which makes Sanskrit scholars think that these stories are more than just stories. They are like codes, cleverly disguised to pass on certain ideas and perhaps keep records of some important events.

The Churning of the  Ocean,Samudra Manthan, is full of such secrets and hidden meanings. Given below are some of them.

1. Good vs Evil- The Battle Within

A common interpretation of the myth is that the Devas and the Asuras are the good and bad tendencies in all of us. And, the churning of the milky ocean waters is like the agitation we experience when we are troubled.It is the agitation in our consciousness.

The story tells us that in the fight between good and bad, we must steady our mind like the mountain by supported on the back of a Turtle. One of the names used for the mountain in the original story is ‘Mandhara’ which means a steady mind. While the Turtle is often used as a symbol for controlling the senses. Just as a turtle withdraws its head, legs and tail into its shell so also we can learn to control our six senses.

The serpent Vasuki, represents desire that is constantly tugging us between the good and bad.

As we fight this battle within our selves and try to overcome the bad, many emotions and thoughts come to the surface. At first they are negative like the Halahal poison. But, if we swallow it like Shiva and don’t give up, we will be rewarded by great riches. These are symbolized by Laxmi, the goddess of wealth; Kamdhenu-the wish-fulfilling Cow; the Kalpatru – the wish-fulfilling tree: the Kaustubh gem, etc.

Finally, we will get biggest treasure of all, realization of the Ultimate Reality or Truth which is the true nectar of immortality.

2. Yoga

The second interpretation refers to a practice of yoga. Yogis say that when the all the senses are withdrawn and  mind is stilled in meditation, the Kundalini energy which sits, coiled like a serpent, at the base of the spine called the Merudanda ( Mount Meru in the story), rises upwards and reaches the crown of the head to give a person a glimpse of the Truth.

3. The Milky Way

In the full version of the story, there are detailed descriptions of the specific positions of the moon, the sun and some planets at the time of the Churning. Rahu and Ketu swallow the Sun and Moon in eclipses.  Could it be that the Ksheer Sagar( Milky Ocean) is the Milky Way, and the story is possibly an astronomical observation or an event? Perhaps it has been cleverly recorded as a story so that it is not forgotten

4. Evolution

Vishnu’s incarnation as a turtle in the story draws another obvious parallel.

Vishnu has ten avatars .First  came the Fish, then  the Turtle, then a Boar, then Half Man-Half Beast,  then a Dwarf followed by Parshuram the sage, Rama, Balarama, Krishna and the last one yet to come is Kalki.

The order of these incarnations  seem like Darwin’s theory of evolution. Could these be  Hinduism’s idea of evolution of  man. Or does it imply a natural hierarchy? Is it  a Creation Myth?

Which of these above interpretations of the story do you like  most? Can you find another meaning hidden in there?

If you do , I’d like to hear about it.

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