HINDU GODS, GODDESSES, AVATARS, CONSORTS, MOUNTS AND NAGAS

HINDU GODS

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Lakshima
According to Hindu scriptures there are 330 million devas (Hindu Gods). These gods come in many forms and types. Some well-known ones are featured in well-known Hindu myths. Some local ones are worshiped in only a few villages or even by a few villagers. Some are associated with animals, plants (all living things are regarded as divine) as well as natural objects and forces. Others are deified ancestors or historical figures. Many deities are associated with particular places or specialized powers or seasons.

The pantheon of gods is as complex as it is vast. Identifying which god is which is often very difficult because they are usually depicted as eternally young and have the same serene expressions. Identification is often made from certain features or certain object they are holding or the animal they are riding on. Making matters even more complex is the fact that the names of gods, their stories, ancestry and links with other god often varies quite a bit from place to place. Many gods have been created over the years through the amalgamation of different gods and cults.

Individual Hindus generally recognize a multiplicity of gods but are only devoted to one or a few of them. In Hinduism there is no real hierarchy of gods. Each god and goddess in Hinduism occupies its own heaven and is worshiped with a different set of doctrines and beliefs. Each gets its turn receiving darśan from Hindu followers.

Many Hindu rituals are oriented towards specific deities. Most of the practices are based on sacred treatises of relatively recent origin. Devout Hindus invoke the names of deities at the beginning of business and religious ceremonies. After winning a big case some Hindu lawyers thank the mother goddess Kali with a sacrificed goat.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Today the great majority of Indian people are Hindus. Although Hindus may select one deity for personal worship among the great gods and goddesses and the countless regional and local gods, all of these deities can be under- stood as representing the many aspects of the One.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Hindu gods and deities are often described in terms of light. See Creation Story and Story in the Mahabharta

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: heart of Hinduism hinduism.iskcon.com/index ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; ; Religious Tolerance Hindu Page religioustolerance.org/hinduism ; Hinduism Index uni-giessen.de/~gk1415/hinduism ; Hindu Universe hindunet.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hinduism Home Page uwacadweb.uwyo.edu/religionet/er/hinduism ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Hindusim Today Image Gallery himalayanacademy.com/resources/books/wih/image-library ; India Divine Pictures of Hinduism indiadivine.org/pictures

Monotheism Versus Polytheism

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Ganesh and his his mount, a rat
Hindus find the notion of one God unnecessarily restrictive. They are “dazzled by the wondrous variety of the creation...For so multiplex a world, the more gods the better! How could one god account for so varied a creation?”

Even so Hinduism is basically monotheistic religion at heart in that all gods are images of the Supreme Being, Brahma (See Below). To explain the multiplicity and plurality of gods, Hindus view the Brahma as a diamond with a multitude of facets, each representing a god, with some individual facets having more of a hold on individual people than others Whereas Christians, Jews and Muslim ascribe the powers of the cosmos to one god. Hindus ascribe different aspects of the cosmos to different gods. Interaction with these gods brings people closer to the cosmos.

Hindus believe that God is everywhere; that all human beings are sons of God; and that the Hindu, Jewish and Christian gods are the same, for no label can be attached to god. Hinduism easily absorbs figures from other religions such Buddha and even Jesus.

Uneducated Hindus, it has been said, are more likely to view Hindu gods in a polytheistic way while educated Hindus are likely to have a monotheistic perspective and perceive the pantheon of gods as the equivalent of saints and angels in other religions.

Worship of Personal Gods

For the vast majority of Hindus, the most important religious path is bhakti (devotion) to personal gods. There are a wide variety of gods to choose from, and although sectarian adherence to particular deities is often strong, there is a widespread acceptance of choice in the desired god (ishta devata ) as the most appropriate focus for any particular person. Most devotees are therefore polytheists, worshiping all or part of the vast pantheon of deities, some of whom have come down from Vedic times. In practice, a worshiper tends to concentrate prayers on one deity or on a small group of deities with whom there is a close personal relationship. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Puja (worship) of the gods consists of a range of ritual offerings and prayers typically performed either daily or on special days before an image of the deity, which may be in the form of a person or a symbol of the sacred presence. In its more developed forms, puja consists of a series of ritual stages beginning with personal purification and invocation of the god, followed by offerings of flowers, food, or other objects such as clothing, accompanied by fervent prayers. Some dedicated worshipers perform these ceremonies daily at their home shrines; others travel to one or more temples to perform puja , alone or with the aid of temple priests who receive offerings and present these offerings to the gods. The gifts given to the gods become sacred through contact with their images or with their shrines, and may be received and used by worshipers as the grace (prasada ) of the divine. Sacred ash or saffron powder, for example, is often distributed after puja and smeared on the foreheads of devotees. In the absence of any of these ritual objects, however, puja may take the form of a simple prayer sent toward the image of the divine, and it is common to see people stop for a moment before roadside shrines to fold their hands and offer short invocations to the gods. *

Since at least the seventh century A.D., the devotional path has spread from the south throughout India through the literary and musical activities of saints who have been some of the most important representatives of regional languages and traditions. The hymns of these saints and their successors, mostly in vernacular forms, are memorized and performed at all levels of society. Every state in India has its own bhakti tradition and poets who are studied and revered. In Tamil Nadu, groups called Nayanmars (devotees of Shiva) and Alvars (devotees of Vishnu) were composing beautiful poetry in the Tamil language as early as the sixth century. In Bengal one of the greatest poets was Chaitanya (1485-1536), who spent much of his life in a state of mystical ecstasy. One of the greatest North Indian saints was Kabir (ca. 1440-1518), a common leatherworker who stressed faith in God without devotion to images, rituals, or scriptures. Among female poets, Princess Mirabai (ca. 1498-1546) from Rajasthan stands out as one whose love for Krishna was so intense that she suffered persecution for her public singing and dancing for the lord. *

A recurring motif that emerges from the poetry and the hagiographies of these saints is the equality of all men and women before God and the ability of people from all castes and occupations to find their way to union with God if they have enough faith and devotion. In this sense, the bhakti tradition serves as one of the equalizing forces in Indian society and culture. *

Hindu Avatars, Consorts, Mounts and Body Language

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Vishnu Avatars
Hindu gods are often coupled in male and female pairs. All the important male gods have a shakti (female consort). These gods also have various avatars (incarnations) and vahana (mounts or creature they ride on) and are linked to other gods by marriage and birth and kinship. The mounts of Hindu Gods, which include tigers, swans, and bulls, transports the gods between earth and heaven. Many Hindu gods take the shape of horses when they die.

Avatars are often other gods. Krishna, for example, is an avatar of Vishnu and Kali is an avatar of Shakti. Many of these incarnations are believed to have occurred over time as different gods from different places, or with different duties, were merged.

Many Hindu gods have good and evil sides and even change into gods that are quite different from each other. Shiva, for example, is both the god of destruction and the enforcer of divine law and creation. He is both a god and a goddess named Shakti. Incarnations sometimes mirror the phases and experiences that humans go through in their lives.

Important Hindu Gods

The Hindu trinity consists of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the Supreme Being and Creator. Vishnu is the Preserver and Shiva in the Destroyer. Together they represent the Hindu cosmological cycle. The great goddess Devi, or Shakti, is also very important.

Hindus are generally divided into as Shaivas or Shaivites (devotees of Shiva), Vaishnavas (devotees of Vishnu) and Shaktas (devotees of Shakti). There are sophisticated philosophical schools and exotic cults associated with these groups. See Sects.

Followers of other gods often worship their favorite gods in conjunction with one, two or all three of the deities mentioned above and their different manifestations and mounts. Most of the lesser gods that are worshiped have some connection with Shiva.

See Separate Articles on BRAHMA, VISHNU, KRISHNA AND SHIVA factsanddetails.com and GANESH. HANUMAN AND KALI factsanddetails.com .

Images of the Hindu Gods

Images of the gods often have multiple arms, with each hand holding a symbolic object or making a certain gesture ( mudra ) that have a specific meaning. A palm facing downward, for example, means that worshiper is safe and can take refuge. An open palm facing the viewer indicates protection and favor and tells the worshiper to have no fear. An open palm facing the viewer with the two middle fingers bent can also indicate fearlessness. A raised foot indicates liberation. Hands almost palm to palm near the chest symbolize teaching and turning the Wheel of Dharma. Kneeling or offering water are expressions of respect and humility.

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “ Buddhist deities, Hindu gods are identified by the attributes they hold, their attendants, their color, and their adornment. Many wear the lavish jewelry and elaborate hairstyles of Indian royalty, and most wear the “sacred thread.” (Bodhisattvas are also sometimes depicted wearing the sacred thread.) Often male gods have female goddess consorts, and most gods and goddesses have an animal or a bird (called vehicles or mounts) upon which they travel about the universe. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

“Shiva has many roles and guises, each identified by particular attributes and poses. He is sometimes depicted with two arms but more frequently four, and he often carries a trident. In the center of his forehead is a third eye, shown vertically. His hairlocks, long and matted from his ascetic practices, are piled up in a tall chignon. Some of Shiva’s most common attributes are: 1) the third eye, indicating divine omniscience; 2) damaru, a hand drum, indicating the primordial sound of creation; 3) a crescent moon in his hair, representing the cyclical nature of time; 4) agni, the consuming fire of destruction; 5) an antelope, representing animal fertility (Shiva is lord of the animals); 6) a trident and battle ax, symbols of Shiva’s militance. <*>

“Vishnu is usually depicted with four arms and wears a tall conical crown. Typically, one of his hands makes the fear-allaying gesture. His animal mount is Garuda, a man-bird and ancient solar symbol of power. In Vishnu’s nine previous avatars, he appeared as a fish, tortoise, boar, man-lion, dwarf, the ax-bearer Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, and the Buddha. Vishnu’s tenth appearance, yet to come, will be Kalki. His two most popular avatars are Krishna and Rama, both of whom, like Vishnu, are portrayed with dark blue-gray colored skin.Vishnu’s usual attributes are: The Great Goddess Devi.

Hindu Goddesses

Philosophical musings as far back as the Rig Veda contemplated the universe as the result of an interplay between the male principle (purusha ), the prime source of generative power but quiescent, and a female principle that came to be known as prakriti , an active principle that manifests reality, or power (shakti ), at work in the world. On a philosophical level, this female principle ultimately rests in the oneness of the male, but on a practical level it is the female that is most significant in the world. The vast array of iconography and mythology that surround the gods such as Vishnu and Shiva is a backdrop for the worship of their female consorts, and the male deities fade into the background. Thus it is that the divine is often female in India. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “One of the most striking characteristics of Hinduism is the importance of goddesses. As Hinduism developed, Vedic goddesses came to the fore. Lakshmi and Sarasvati, for instance, became the consorts of Vishnu. Other goddesses, who may have been worshipped independently outside of the Vedic tradition, gradually appeared as powerful deities on their own, most prominently, Devi, who represents the essence of female power.” [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Vishnu's consort, Lakshmi, has a number of well-known incarnations that are the center of cults in their own right. In the Ramayana , for example, female characters are responsible for most of the important events, and the dutiful Sita, who resists the advances of lustful Ravana, is a much beloved figure of devotion. Lakshmi receives direct worship along with Ram during the big national festival of Dipavali (Diwali), celebrated with massive fireworks demonstrations, when people pray for success and wealth during the coming year. The Mahabharata is equally packed with tales of male and female relationships in which women hold their own, and the beautiful Draupadi, wife of the five Pandava heroes, has her own cult in scattered locations throughout India. *

Devi and Her Incarnations

Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “The Great Goddess Devi appears in myriad forms. As Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and beauty, she is one of the most popular deities in India and is sometimes shown flanked by two elephants who honor her by pouring water over her head with their trunks. Devi, in the form of Lakshmi, is Vishnu’s wife. Devi also appears as Vishnu’s wife in two of his incarnations: when he is Rama she is Sita, and when he is Krishna she is Radha. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York <*>]

Parvati is another form of Devi. In Hindu mythology, she is the reincarnation of Shiva’s first wife Sati, who killed herself because of an insult to her husband. (The traditional custom, now outlawed, in which a Hindu widow throws herself upon her husband’s funeral pyre is called suttee, a word derived from Sati. As the name implies, suttee recre- ates Sati’s final act of loyalty and devotion to her husband.) Beautiful Parvati was born to lure the mourning Shiva into another marriage, thus taking him away from the life of the ascetic into the more active realm of husband and father. Like Lakshmi, Parvati represents the ideal wife and mother. She is portrayed as a perfect balance between purity and sensuality. <*>

The militant Durga, another incarnation of Devi, was created by the gods to kill a demon that the male gods, even combining their powers, could not vanquish. Durga holds in her multiple hands the weapons lent to her. The conch shell, a war trumpet which in spiral form symbolizes the origin of existence The war discus, a wheel-shaped weapon with a sharp cutting edge A club or mace, symbol of authority and the power of knowledge The lotus, symbol of transcendence and purity 31 her by the gods; for instance, Shiva’s trident and Vishnu’s war disk. She also holds a sword, bell, and rhyton (drinking vessel) shaped like a ram for drinking the blood of demons she has killed. Despite her awesome powers, when she kills the demon Mahisha, her face is serene and beautiful and her body is the female ideal. Violent, ferocious images of the goddesses Chamunda and Kali symbolize the darker side of the Great Goddess, who in these forms kills demons, repels evil, defeats ignorance, and protects the devotee and the temple. <*>

Lakshima and Other Hindu Goddesses

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Shiva and Parvati
Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth, good fortune and beauty. She is Vishnu's wife. She has two or four arms and is often shown seated on a lotus flower between two elephants with their trunks raised above her, sprinkling water on her. She is often depicted holding a lotus blossom, conch, disc and mace of Vishnu. Many people worship her because she brings good fortune.

Lakshima was born in the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. She descended to earth as one of Vishnu’s avatars. She is sometimes depicted as Sita, the wife of Rama, or Rukmini, the consort of Krishna. She appears with each of Vishnu’s incarnations. When Vishnu came to earth as Vamana, the dwarf, Lakshmi appeared as a lotus.

Annapurna, the goddess of nourishment and abundance, is an aspect of the goddess Parvati and is often depicted with a pot overflowing with rice and a vessel filled to the brim with milk. She is the deity that beggars often prey to.

The Ganges is named after Ganga, a river goddess who descended from heaven and had her fall broken by Shiva’s hair. She is the second wife of Shiva. Her sisters are Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Sindhu and Kaveri. Prayers honoring all these holy relatives are recited in the holy river when the bathers submerge themselves to be purified. Ganga represents fertility because she provides water for land. She is often depicted with a bowl of water in one hand and lotus flower in another, sitting on a makara , a legendary sea monster.

Garelaisama. is a female deity associated with edible plants and good luck in hunting as is said to have the power to keep drunk people from quarreling. Whenever an animal is caught a piece of meat is cut off and immediately offered to Garelaisama. In the past hunters often tried to kill only male animals so as not upset the female deity. If one was accidently killed the hunter prayed for forgiveness.

Other Hindu goddesses: 1) Savitri, goddess of movement; 2) Usha, daughter of the sky and her sister night; and 3) Saraswati, goddess of wisdom and knowledge (See Brahma);

Skanda, Indra and Yama

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Yama
Skanda is the God of War and the son of Shiva and Pravati (See Above). He wears a tiara or has hair divided into three locks and knotted at the top of his head. . He is often shown holding a double thunderbolt, a sword, a spear and/or a trident, symbols of his prowess as a fighter. He was created to defeat the powers of evil as represented by the demon Takara. His mount is a peacock.

Skanda is a complex god with many different, often conflicting, stories about his origins. He is also known as Kartikehha, the Boy God, Kataragama, Kumara and Subrahmanian. In some stories his father is Agni or his mother is Ganga or the six stars of the Pleiades. He is depicted with both six heads and five heads and as many as 12 arms. According to one story he was originally six children that his mother Parvati hugged so hard they became one child with six heads. Skanda is associated with war, pain and suffering. Acts of penance such as placing spikes through ones cheeks are sometimes done in his honor.

Yama is the God of Justice and the Underworld. Also known as the Lord of Law and Supreme Judge, he decides who will go to heaven and hell, what place they will occupy there based on their performance on earth and then determines how they will be reincarnated. Yama was the first person in the world to die. He has multiple arms (usually eight) and holds the weapons of justice (clubs) necessary for judging the dead and determining their fate. His mount is a buffalo.

Indra is the Vedic God of Storms. Once a king of all gods, he became popular in the post Vedic period. He lives in a golden palace on the summit of Mt. Meru and wears a high tiara or turban and is dressed in fancy clothes and jewelry. He holds a disc, an elephant goad, an axe to make rivers flow, and a thunderbolt, his main weapon. He often rides on the central head elephant with three heads. Many stories about him revolve around his legendary anger. Once after members of his cult decided to follow Krishna instead, Indra conjured up a fierce storm to punished them and Krishna had to hold up a mountain to protect them.

Other Hindu Gods

Kama is the God of Love. He carries a bow adorned with flowers and a case of floral arrows made of lotus, limes, mace, jasmine and gold mango tree flowers. He usually has two to eight arms. His consort is Rati; his mount is a parrot. Rati is the Goddess of Desire and Sexual Lust.

Surya is the Sun God. A prominent god in the Vedic era who is less important now, he wears a long tunic and high boots and often appears with the moon. He sometimes holds a lotus and rides a chariot drawn by seven horses. The wheel depicted in many Hindu temple is the wheel of happiness from his chariot.

Other Hindu deities include: 1) Vayu, the wind god; 2) Sitala, the small pox god, who remains revered as a protector of children even though small pox has been eradicated; 3) Kunera, the God of Wealth, a dwarf, often depicted with a lemon or pomegranate in one hand and a mongoose or jewels in the other. Many Hindus pay homage to Buddha as if he were one of their gods.

Hindu Mythical Beings

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Ravana
Garuda is a giant mythical bird with wings, a human body, a thick, curved , bird-like beak and bulging eyes. The mount of Vishnu and the enemy of the nagas, it has claws like an eagle and wears a diadem and jewelry. The bottom part of the body is covered with feathers.

The Kala is a mask-like creature whose image is often found above the doorways of temples. Regarded as a protector, he has round, bulbous eyes, a human or lion nose, a big grin, two horns and claw-like hands. According to legend, he was once a full-bodied monster with a ravenous appetite. One day he asked Shiva for a victim to consume. Angered by the request, Shiva told the Kala to devour himself. The Kala did as he was asked but was unable to devour his head. Moved by the act, Shiva ordered that his image be placed at the doorways of temples as a reminder of his “terrible and beneficent powers.”

Asparas are celestial nymphs who live in Indra’s heaven and are often depicted as beautiful dancers or courtesans of the sky. In South Asian art asparas are commonly shown carrying flowers, which they toss on kings and heros. They also appear in Southeast Asian art.

Other major mythical figures include: 1) 1 Bali, a demon king who was dethroned from his position as king of the world by Vishnu; 2) Bana, a demon who has multiple arms and rides a chariot pulled by lions; 3) Ravana, the demon king featured in the the Ramayana; and 4) Vyala, a lion beast that symbolizes untamed instincts.

Hindu mythical beings include: 1) Ananta , a celestial snake that Vishnu rests on while in deep cosmic sleep; 2) asuras , demons that represent the forces of evil; 3) dvarapalas , club-bearing protectors of temples often found at the entrance gate of temples; 4) makara , a large sea creature with the body of a reptile and a trunk-like jaw and snout, sometimes with another creature emanating from his mouth; and 5) yakshas , male and female spirits, with bulging eyes and fangs, associated with fertility and trees.

Nagas and Cobras

Nagas are mythical semi-divine serpent-gods that live in the water or the underworld beneath the earth. They are ruled by Vasuki and are enemies of Garuda. They can marry humans and bring rain and prosperity to a region and are closely associated with Vishnu and Vaishnavote Hinduism. They are often depicted as cobras with multiple heads (often five) that spread out like a fan and are regarded as protectors of sacred places.

Cobras are worshiped throughout India. Unlike Christians who equate snakes with the devil and the temptation of Eve, Hindus view cobras as a positive symbol. According to legends they have shielded kings, tribal heroes and Hindu gods such as Krishna with their hoods. Villagers honor them for their ability to bring rain, fear them for their ability to bring disasters and regard them as reincarnations of important chiefs.

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Nagas on a Cambodian temple
Especially among Tamils, cobras are associated with the Shiva, one the three most important gods in Hinduism, and lingams, symbols of Shiva that represent rebirth and fertility and the creative forces of the universe. Shiva is sometimes painted with a cobra around his head. Phallic-shaped stone lingams are often protected by nagas.

Termite mounds are also associated with Shiva and a cobra found living in one is cause for celebration. Sometimes when one os found Tamil women build a wall around a snake-occupied mound and turn it into a shrine. If the snake stays in the mound priests visit and offerings of camphor and flowers are made. After years a temple may grow up around the mound.

Sometimes a crowd of will gather around a cobra. Usually the snake will make a hasty retreat to the nearest underbrush, but sometimes it will rear up in the middle of the crowd open it hood and make no attempt to strike those watching or to get away. When this happens women will sometimes roll their eyes and go into a trance, swaying back and forth within inches of the snake. This will go on for hours sometimes, with the snake just as entranced as the women and they are of the snake. When Miller asked a women about the experience she said, "Of course the Good Snake wouldn't bite us. To us Nulla Pambu is a manifestation of Lord Shiva. The god himself was there, and naturally we worshiped without fear.”

The town of Shirala in west-central India hosts the Great Serpent Festival in July. Before it begins men spend weeks digging up the earth around their town looking for snakes. When a snake is caught it is handled reverently and placed in a large earthen pot. On the day of the festival the snake handlers parade the snake pots through the streets, followed by boys with red-washed monitor lizards carried high in the air tied to poles. According to Miller the lizards look as if they have been crucified. But apparently the ritual is not cruel; the lizards are regularly given water.

When the procession ends the snakes are let out of the their jars while handlers hold on to their tails. Parch rice is thrown in the the direction of the snakes and offerings are made. Bamboo sticks are used to control their movements and boys sit in front rolling pebble-filled pots back and forth. Miller said all of the snakes he examined had fangs "yet never throughout the day, did we see any of these hundreds of cobras attempt to strike their handlers."

Local Deities

In rural areas little-know local gods are often considered more important than the famous Hindu gods. The religious scholar A. L. Bashan wrote: “Local divinities and demigods, whose total is enormous...play a great part in the life of the peasant and the ordinary man. While the great gods are thought to be busied with important affairs and chiefly accessible in temples, these often nameless godlings are always available to help the village with its troubles.” Local mountains, rivers, large strange-shaped rocks, forests and other natural objects are often regarded as divine and honored in the same way that animist tribal people revere natural objects and spirits. Hindus often believe that village deities are benevolent if they properly appeased but can cause illness if they are not. No doubts in ancient times Hinduism absorbed local deities, sometimes as incarnations of relatives of existing gods. There are also beliefs in spirits and ghosts. The souls of the dead who have not been properly buried are thought to live outside the World of Fathers and torment their relatives as ghost until they are properly buried. There is also a belief that ghosts of people who died unfortunate deaths can cause harm.

Along many paths in the countryside, and in some urban neighborhoods, there are sacred spots at the base of trees, or small stones set in niches, or simply made statues with flowers or a small flame burning in front of them. These are shrines for deities who are locally honored for protecting the people from harm caused by natural disasters or evil influences. Worshipers often portray these protectors as warriors, and, in some cases, they may be traced back to great human fighters who died for their village and later became immortalized. In South India, there are thousands of hero stones, simple representations of warriors on slabs of stone, found in and around agricultural settlements, in memory of nameless local fighters who may have died while protecting their communities hundreds of years ago. At one time, these stones may have received regular signs of devotion, but they are mostly ignored in contemporary India. In the fields on the outskirts of many villages, there are large, multicolored, terra-cotta figures of warriors with raised swords or figures of war horses; these are open-air shrines of the god Aiyanar, who serves as the village protector and who has very few connections with the great tradition of Hinduism. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Local deities may begin to attract the attention of worshipers from a wide geographical area, which may include many villages or neighborhoods, or from a large percentage of the members of particular castes, who come to the deity seeking protection or boons. These deities have their own shrines, which may be simple, independent enclosures with pillared halls or may stand as separate establishments attached to temples of Shiva, Vishnu, or any other great god. Deities at this level attract expressive and ecstatic forms of worship and tend to possess special devotees on a regular basis or enter into their believers during festivals. People who are possessed by the god may speak to their families and friends concerning important personal or social problems, predicting the future or clarifying mysteries. These local gods often expect offerings of animals, usually goats or chickens, which are killed in the vicinity of the shrines and then consumed in communal meals by families and friends. *

In the twentieth century, there has been an increase in the number of new, regional gods attracting worshipers from many different groups, spurred by vast improvements in transport and communication. For example, in the hills bordering the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala is a shrine for the god Ayyappan, whose origin is uncertain but who is sometimes called the offspring of Shiva and Vishnu in his female form. Ayyappan's annual festival is a time of pilgrimage for ever-growing numbers of men from throughout South India. These devotees fast and engage in austerities under the leadership of a teacher for weeks beforehand and then travel in groups to the shrine for a glimpse of the god. Bus tickets are hard to obtain for several weeks as masses of elated men, clad in distinctive ritual dhotis of various colors, throng public transportation during their trip to the shrine. In northwestern India, the popularity of the goddess Vaishno Devi has risen meteorically since independence. Vaishno Devi, who combines elements of Lakshmi and Durga, is an extremely benevolent manifestation of the eternal virgin who gives material well-being to her worshipers. One million pilgrims travel annually to her cave shrine in the foothills of the Himalayas, about fifty kilometers north of the city of Jammu. *

Since the 1950s, the most spectacular example of a deity's increasing influence throughout northern and central India is the cult of Santoshi Ma (Mother of Contentment). Her myths recount the sufferings of a young woman left alone by her working husband and abused by her in-laws, who nevertheless remains loving and faithful to her man and, by performing simple vows to the goddess (fasting one day every week), eventually sees the return of her now-rich husband and moves with him into her own house. Santoshi Ma, thought to be the daughter of Ganesh, is worshiped mostly by lower middle-class women who also pray for material goods. In the 1980s and early 1990s, her shrines were spreading everywhere and even taking over older temples, aided by the release in the 1970s of an extremely popular film version of her story, Jay Santoshi Ma . *

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 3 South Asia edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); The Creators by Daniel Boorstin; A Guide to Angkor: an Introduction to the Temples by Dawn Rooney (Asia Book) for Information on temples and architecture. National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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