Thursday, September 4, 2008

Gods come and go

A study of Hinduism today is daunting. It is complex, requires great study and must be carefully worded (to avoid ruffling feathers, many of which are just waiting to be ruffled). This is my attempt at understanding a small part of this vast domain.

Any crash course on Hindu Gods will star Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. All of our many Gods are but relatively few. Bengal worships the Devi, Andhra Vishnu. Tamils pray Murugan and Marathas Ganpati. Kerala and Gujarat both venerate the Devi and Krishna alternately. The north calls for Ram and Hanuman. The first ladies of the holy trinity command their own following. A lot of minor Gods and Goddesses find their place in the Indian fabric. Groups of people hold allegiance to one particular God. And yet classical antiquity calls for 330 million Gods. And we rise to the occasion, praying to different entities for each of our needs. Hindu heaven has a neat organizational structure, where each deity is assigned to fulfill specific wants. In the seemingly sterile corporate fabric are hidden relationships. All Gods are related. Spouses, siblings, progeny and ancestors, all relentlessly conspiring in endless cycles of karma and dharma, running India itself, one might suppose. Hinduism has been around for a long time and has undergone several transitions. Scholars grapple with Vedic Hinduism, Bhakti traditions, Medieval Hinduism and even Post-modern Hinduism. Being a Hindu is confusing. Casteism brought its own ways and dikats to worship Gods, language and geography interfered and so today a nation of a billion worships billion Gods in billion ways.

What does an ex-Soviet state, straddling the Caucasus have to do with Hinduism? The birthplace of Hinduism if one might take the liberty to pin down something to that effect, is somewhere on the shores of the Caspian near Baku, Azerbaijan. Spontaneous flames on water and land due to subterranean oil gave birth to fire worship. A few thousand kilometers to the southeast the same race of people lived along a river, the Saraswati or the Haraxwati as the ancient Persians called it.

Ancient Vedic Hinduism had much in common with Zoroastrianism, and the two are purported to have a common ancestry. Several Gods freely flowed across faiths till time and distance pinned them down to a particular religion. And thus began Hinduism. Shrouded in exotic names, birthed in the cold north and rooted in the sub continent. The Asuras were conceived then as powerful entities prone to swift retributions. Agni commanded respect and fire worship is a central part of praying today and the Rig Veda is chanted with a devotion that preserves earlier nuances but whose meanings are lost. So did elemental water and the Sky. Mitra was Sun God and a mediator. Varuna controlled rta* and was de facto head of the fledgling pantheon. Dyaus Pitr (Sanskrit Dhyavaprithvi, Greek Zeus, Slavic Div and Norse Thor) was sky father. Wedded to Prithvi earth Goddess, parents to Indra and Agni. Varuna, Indra, Soma, Agni, Surya/Mitra. These were the Gods we began with. The Rig Veda mentions each one in detail, with dedicated hymns and books. Soma was a complex entity; wine, moon and herb. Sharanya was Surya’s wife, the Goddess of clouds and mother to Shani, Manu and Yama. Deities that were the rage then are passé today. Simple elements gave rise to complex hierarchies and a pantheon was in the making. Later times saw the rise of Rudra and Sati. The Devas were projected as protagonists, the Asuras vilified and the Gods as we know them today came into the forefront. Hinduism was on its way.

Time and the mingling of different peoples and cultures shaped several aspects of the religion, resulting in the way we pray today. All religions have a history. Hinduism does too. The future is what will be interesting.


Means the ‘order or course of things’. rta was why trees grew, seasons changed, water flowed and the sun rose. Anyone who controlled rta effectively held the universe in their hands.


Coconut Chutney said...

I think its interesting to note that although it all starts with nature (surya, varuna etc) the guys who are actually worshipped in a big scale in India are Vishnu and Shiva.

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis! You're right about the lost meaning of the Rig Vedam when it is chanted. As time went by, the second tier of deities like Rudra, Virat Purusha (Vishnu), Hiranyagarbha (As Brahma is referred to in the Rig Veda) emerged and stole the limelight! This was due to the advent of the popular literature of those times, like the three great epics and the Puranas. Even the Upanishads couldn't compete. Today's Hinduism is a montage of the Vedic religion, Puranic Hinduism. Even the word 'Hindu' is not of Sanskrit origin. It is a morphed form of the word 'Sindhu', the river considered to be the cradle of the religion we call Hinduism. It was coined by the Persians, again, like 'Haraxwati'. Today's Caste system is a totally misinterpreted concept.
PS: The Rig Veda is rife with references to many powerful godesses too. Ratri, Ushas, Saraswati (the river), Aditi - just to name a few. Also, 'Sharanya' is also called 'Chhaaya'.

Anonymous said...

O BTW! If someone tells you that Brahmins at one point ate all kinds of meat, don't yell at them. It's true! They were the ones who supervised the various sacrifices and also were the first to savour the spoils! Vegetarianism was first propagated by Jains. So much for our Brahminical advocacy!

PS: I'm not a Brahmin basher trying to slander their long held reputation. I'm just trying to mirror a bare fact. I am a Brahmin, vegetarian myself, for cryin' out loud!

buddy said...

@coconut chutney: we seem to have forgottne the elements and moved on to complexer Gods.

@karthik: yupp..i agree
about chhaya, some sources say she is suryas second wife [all polygamists! including ur namesake ;)], at any rate she was Shani's mother, my mistake in the post.
The mahabharata is rife with references of brahmins cooking beef and the like and so I, being the conformist that I am, devour hot dogs and turkey :D

Anonymous said...

Three actually, Ushas (twilight) and Prabha (radiance) being the other two. As if this was not enough, he went on to have so many illicit relations (refer to Ramayana & Mahabharata)! Khiladi only Surya is! The 'brightest' minds have the darkest of histories! My namesake tho, poor guy, settled with two and is faithful to them! And don't even get me started on your namesake! :P
And "hot dogs and turkey" vaa? Chee! Warasht, dirtieshtu fellow only u are! Apacharam, apacharam! You have no place in Heaven, gett oouuuuttt, I say!

buddy said...

i forget their names...pads and alamelu? or sri and bhu?... or is it 4? ;)
pliss to help

Liberal said...

Wonderful writing...even more of a compliment from me considering you know my views on god, but Hinduism as a topic of study is fascinating

maxdavinci said...

y you peepuls slandering poor surya re? he is having enough trouble with jyothika and maintaining that 6-pack!

lol ok ok i'll stop...

agni, vayu n varun were initially prime deities but later have been reduced to messenger n courier boys. Now they just deliver all the homa kundam ingredients to their destination!

nice post btw...

buddy said...

@ Liberal : thanks

@ max: Thaangalai! pah! and thanks

padmaja said...

Very interesting read... Nice to know all you young things are taking so much interest in such matters! Really makes me want to read up more!

Srividya said...

Hello there! This makes a nice read. I don't know if you've actually analyzed whole scriptures and have penned this, or you've just put together, something you've read somewhere and your own perspective of the whole issue; into words... but this IS an intriguing read.
I'm not sure if I'm erudite enough to comment on this ... but really ... does it matter now whether Yama or Varuna used to head the throng of Gods and now it is someone else? I'm sure the hierarchy projected by the scriptures is to satisfy minds like ours, which constantly sniff around for patterns...for something that we can make sense of.
That's my opinion though. And with the Indo-US N-deal on the verge of coming through (? am still not sure if that's a good thing) and Bihar's deluge of troubles and a whole lot of issues ... all we need is the goodwill of all the Gods put together. The more the merrier I say! Bring 'em on!

buddy said...

@padmaja: thanks. it is interesting

@srividya: thanks. yes i hust put together nformation from various sources in my own words...and you are bang on about us looking for patterns and more the merrier!

swatimala said...

interesting and awesome analysis!

Historiophile said...

The coterie of Gods was actually an ever expanding one over the centuries, right through middle age as the Vedic culture expanded to bring the entire sub-continent into its frame.

Many local gods and tribal dieties were incorporated into our pantheon making it such a huge population. For e.g. Murugan was a pastoral diety in Tamil Nadu, similarly Vithala was a pastoral god in Karnataka and Maharashtra.

Regarding the links...the relation between Ancient Avestan religion and Indo-Aryans was an inverse one. Ahuras were their Gods, while Asuras were our demons...Daivas were demonic spirits for them, while Devas for us were the Gods in reality.