Hindu Trinity (from left to right); Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva

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]

Websites and Resources on Hinduism: Hinduism Today hinduismtoday.com ; India Divine indiadivine.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Oxford center of Hindu Studies ochs.org.uk ; Hindu Website hinduwebsite.com/hinduindex ; Hindu Gallery hindugallery.com ; Encyclopædia Britannica Online article britannica.com ; International Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/hindu ; The Hindu Religion, Swami Vivekananda (1894), .wikisource.org ; Journal of Hindu Studies, Oxford University Press academic.oup.com/jhs

Major Hindu Gods and Goddesses: Vishnu, Shiva and Shakti

Several gods predominate in the many myths, legends, and styles of worship. One of the main Hindu gods is Vishnu, often represented as a divine king accompanied by his beautiful wife, Lakshmi, the bestower of wealth and good fortune. Besides presiding as a divine monarch, Vishnu periodically descends to earth, assuming a physical form to help beings attain salvation. Vishnu has ten main incarnations, two of which — Rama and Krishna- -are particularly popular. Rama was a great hero, whose exploits in rescuing his wife from the demon king of Lanka are recounted in the epic Ramayana. Vishnu's most popular incarnation is Krishna, who combines in a single divine figure the mythic episodes of a warrior prince and a rustic cowherd god. As warrior, Krishna figures prominently in what is perhaps the single most important Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, where he stresses the importance of doing one's duty and devotion to god. As divine cowherd, Krishna served as an inspiration for a vast body of religious poetry in Sanskrit and the regional South Asian languages. From the eighth to the twelfth centuries, Tamil devotees of Vishnu (alvars) composed poetry in praise of the god. These Tamil poems, collected in anthologies, are still recited during worship and festivals for Vishnu. [Source: Russell R. Ross and Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1988 *]

Brahma om hamsa

The second major Hindu deity, and by far the most important god among the Tamils in Sri Lanka, is Shiva. He differs considerably from Vishnu. In many stories he reigns as a king, but often he appears as a religious ascetic, smeared with ashes, sitting on a tiger skin in the jungle, with a snake around his neck. He is the lord of animals. Although he is an ascetic, he is also a sexual figure, married to the beautiful Parvati (the daughter of the mountain), and his image is often a single rock shaped like a phallus (lingam). He is often a distant figure whose power is destructive, but paradoxically he is a henpecked husband who has to deal with family squabbles involving his sons. His devotees enjoy retelling his myths, but worshipers visualize him as a cosmic creator who will save his creatures when they have abandoned themselves totally to his love. One of the most powerful expressions of his creative role is the image of Nataraja, "Lord of the Dance," who gracefully manifests the rhythm of the universe. Great Tamil devotees (nayanmar) of the early middle ages created a large collection of poems dedicated to Shiva and his holiest shrines. These collections are still revered among the Tamils as sacred scriptures on the same plane as the Vedas.*

Female deities are very important among the Hindu Tamils. At temples for Shiva or Vishnu there are separate shrines for the god and for his consort, and in many cases the shrine for the goddess (amman) receives much more attention from worshipers. Hindu philosophy interprets the goddess as the Shakti, or cosmic energy, of the god in the world and therefore the most immediate creative or destructive force, to be thanked or placated. Many of the manifestations of the goddess are capricious or violent, and she is often seen as a warrior who destroys demons on her own or whom Shiva himself has to defeat in combat. As Mariamman, she used to bring smallpox, and she is still held responsible for diseases of the hot season.*

Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva: the Hindu Trinity

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 and are responsible for the creation, upkeep and destruction of the world. Vishnu is the preserver of the universe, while Shiva's role is to destroy it in order to re-create. Brahma's job was creation of the world and all creatures. His name should not be confused with Brahman, who is the supreme God force present within all things. [Source: BBC]

Brahma is not worshipped and there are very few temples in his honor due to 'mythological' reasons. Vishnu (and the incarnations of Him, Rama and Krishna), Shiva (and his various forms), their wives, are very popular with numerous temples and followers. The wives of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva are Saraswati, Laxmi, and Parvati, respectively. Collectively, they are sometimes referred to as Divine mother (or Shakti). Two of Parvati's fierce but very powerful forms are Durga and Kali.

Shiva is the god who destroys the world when it is in a state of chaos and ungodliness. He is also the lord of the beasts. Shiva is associated with meditation. Shiva wears a snake coiled round his neck and hair. He holds a trident in his hand and sits on a deer skin in a yogic position. Shiva rides on a bull called Nandi. Shiva's wife is Parvati and his son is Kartikeya.

Vishnu was a minor deity in early times. Later on, he became one of the main Hindu gods. He appears as a man with four arms riding on a mythical bird or resting on a serpent. In his four hands, Vishnu holds a conch shell, a discus, a lotus and a mace. From time to time, Vishnu descends to earth in a human, animal or creature form to restore the balance of good and evil in the world. It is thought that he has descended nine times already. Some of his more well-known incarnations are the hero Krishna, the hero Rama, a tortoise and a fish.

Popular Gods


In addition to the main gods, there are a number of subordinate divine beings, who are often the most popular deities. Ganesha, or Pillaiyar (or Ganapati), the elephant-headed son of Shiva and Parvati, is the patron of good fortune and is worshiped at the beginning of a religious service or a new venture, such as a business deal or even a short trip. Murugan, his brother, is a handsome young warrior who carries a spear and rides a peacock. He is worshiped near hills or mountains, and his devotees are known for fierce vows and austerity that may include self-mutilation. Every village has its own protective deities, often symbolized as warriors, who may have their own local stories and saints.*

Hanuman, the monkey god and general, is a helper of Rama and popular in villages and rural India. Regarded as brave and loyal, he is worshiped as a symbol of strength and intelligence. He was once associated mostly with Sri Lanka but now is revered all over India as well as in Southeast Asia. Images of Hanuman are often placed at the entrances of temples because of his reputation for fiercely defending his territory against invaders. Hanuman is said to be the son of the wind god Vayi and is well known for his ability to change his appearance. He is often depicted as a warrior hero dressed in armor and carrying a mace and/or a dagger, weapons he used to defeat the demon Ravana,

Kali — the Goddess of Death — is a form of Shakti, a wife of Shiva and the daughter of a fierce mountain god. Also known as Durga, she is often pictured with three eyes, black skin, a tongue dripping blood, a necklace of skulls and a sword used for cutting off heads, and is sometimes shown with a severed head in one hand and a cobra wrapped around her neck. Kali is known for her dance of death and is revered for coming to earth and defeating the hideous demon Raktavijra, known for being ability to reproduce himself 1,000 times with each drop of his blood that falls to earth.

Early Hindu Gods

Varuna is thought of as the creator of the universe. One of Varuna's most important acts was to measure out the 'three worlds'. The three worlds are the earth, the heavens and the air between the earth and the heavens. Varuna provides for humans by bringing the rain to earth and making the rivers flow. He lives in a gold palace in the sky which has a thousand columns and a thousand doors. [Source: British Museum]

an 8th century image of Varuna with Varunanu from Karnataka

Agni is the god of fire. He is shown as a man with red skin, three flaming heads, seven tongues, seven arms and three legs. Agni wears a garland of fruit. Agni is the messenger of the gods and always tells the truth. Agni was an important god in early times. Later on, his brother Indra became more important. Agni is the son of Prithvi and Dyaus.

Ashwins are the twin gods of the morning. Ashwins are young, handsome and athletic. Ashwins are horsemen who are known for their goodwill towards humans. They are also the physicians to the gods

Ganesha is the god of wisdom. He is also a good scribe. Ganesha is always worshipped at the beginning of any project or journey, and before a book is written. Ganesha has the head of an elephant and the body of a human with four arms. Ganesha rides on a tiny mouse who runs very quickly.

Ganesha was created by Parvati to protect her while she was bathing when her husband Shiva was away. When Shiva returned and tried to enter Parvati's bath he was challenged by Ganesha. Shiva became angry and cut off Ganesha's head. When Parvati realised what had happened, she was quite upset. Shiva promised that he would bring Ganesha back to life. He went into the forest vowing to bring back the head of the first being he saw. The first being he met was an elephant. So Shiva cut off the head of the elephant, returned home and placed it on Ganesha's shoulders. This is the reason that Ganesha has the head of an elephant and the body of a child. The sage Vyasa is supposed to have dictated the epic Mahabharata to Ganesha.

Early Hindu Nature Gods

Dyaus is the god of the Sky. He is also a god of fertility. Dyaus appears as a bull. Dyaus had three children with the goddess Prithvi. His daughter Ushas was the goddess of the dawn. His two sons were Agni, the god of fire, and Indra, the god of thunder. [Source: British Museum]


Indra is the king of the gods and the god of thunder. He appears as a man with golden skin. In early times, Indra is shown riding in a chariot pulled by two horses. He carries a thunderbolt in his right hand. In later times, Indra is shown riding on a white elephant named Airavarta. Indra loves soma, the intoxicating drink which gives him his strength. Indra defends gods and men against the demon Vritra and drought. As the storm god and fertility god, he is responsible for bringing rain to the plains. Indra is in charge of regulating the heavens, days, months and seasons. Indra's consort is Indrani.

Maruts are spirits of violent storms and thunder. They are courageous young men who wear helmets, breastplates and bracelets of gold. Maruts also wear animal skins over their shoulders. Maruts ride in a chariot with golden wheels. This chariot is pulled by three deer.

Rudra is the god of cattle and wild animals. He sometimes appears as a man riding on a boar. However, as the lord of the cattle he is shown as a bull. Rudra is also a healer. He is shown as being beautiful and bright as the sun. Rudra sometimes acts as an archer who shoots arrows of death and disease at gods, men and cattle. In later times, Rudra becomes the god Shiva.

Surya is the sun god. He is shown with golden hair and arms. Surya has a golden chariot driven either by seven horses or by one horse with seven heads. Surya controls the waters and the winds on earth. Surya is thought to be the son of Dyaus. He was an important god in early times, but later on Indra becomes more important.

Vayu is the god of air and the wind. He rides in a chariot pulled by deer. Vayu is seen as the god who brought life to all the gods and humans.

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.

Agni, Kama and Surya

Agni is the God of Fire and Protectorate of Mankind. He lives in the Earth and serves as a mediator between man and the gods. He has two heads., which symbolize the sacrificial fire and the fire of the domestic hearth, and four arms, which hold a fan to put out the fire, an axe, a torch and a ladle. His mount is a rhinoceros.

Agni (meaning “fire”, related to Latin “ignis” ) is said to be the “priest of the gods and the god of the priests." In the heavens he is the sun; in the atmosphere he is lightning; on earth he fire:

“O Agni, illuminator of darkness, day by day we approach you.
with holy thought bringing homage to you.
Presiding at ritual functions, the brightly shining custodian
of the cosmic order.”

Agni, like Shiva, is closely associated with Varanasi (Benares). One Hindu scripture reads: "Over all shines a radiant fire illuminating the Hindi vision. The fire-god was everywhere — how many was he? Sacrificial fire was a messenger carrying the consumed oblation upwards to the gods. Benares, the pilgrim's destination, was the City of Light.”

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.

Skanda, Indra and 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.

Hindu Mythical Beings

20120501-Ravana 2.jpg
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.

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.

local gods in Tamil Nadu

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 . *

How to Become a Gadharva (Forest Spirit)

The story “How to Become a Gandharva” is from one of the latest and best known of the Brahmanas. It is an expansion of a love story begun, but not concluded, in the most famous of the Rig Veda 'dialogue' (samvada) hymns, X, 95. The tale recurs in the Mahabharata and the Puranas, and was used by Kalidasa for his drama Vikramorvashi. In the later Samhitas, the Gandharvas and the Apsarases-ancient classes of celestial beings are often associated with waters and trees. Like many forest creatures, they are sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile to men. The story is about how King Pururavas falls happily in love with the nymph, Urvashi, until the Gandharvas separate the lovers by a ruse, The lonely king seeks a ritual means in which he too becomes a Gandharva. [Source: Translation by A. L. Basham, in his The Wonder That Was India (London, 1954), PP. 405-7, Eliade Page website]

On “How to Become a Gandharva”, 'Shatapatha Brahmana,' XI, 5 reads: “The nymph Urvashi loved Pururavas the son of Ida. When she married him she said: You must embrace me three times a day, but never lie with me against my will. Moreover I must never see you naked, for this is the proper way to behave to us women !' She lived with him long, and she was with child by him, so long did she live with him. Then the Gandharvas said to one another: 'This Urvashi has been living too long among men ! We must find a way to get her back !'

She kept a ewe with two lambs tied to her bed, and the Gandharvas carried off one of the lambs. 'They're taking away my baby,' she cried, 'as though there were no warrior and no man in the place!' Then they took away the second, and she cried out in the same way. Then he thought to himself. 'How can the place where I am be without a warrior and a man?', And, naked as he was, he leapt up after them, for he thought it would take too long to put on a garment.

Yakshi under a stylized Ashoka tree, at 2nd century BC Bharut Stupa

Then the Gandharvas produced a flash of lightning, and she saw him as clearly as if it were day-and she vanished...Bitterly weeping, he wandered all over Kurukshetra. There is a lake of lotuses there, called Anyatahplaksha. He walked on its banks, and there were nymphs swimming in it in the form of swans3. And she noticed him, and said: 'That's the man with whom I lived!' 'Let us show ourselves to him,' they said. 'Very well,' she replied, and they appeared to him [in their true forms].

Then he recognized her and entreated her:
'O my wife, with mind so cruel,
stay, let us talk together,
for if our secrets are untold
we shall have -no joy in days to come!'
Then she replied:
'What use is there in my talking to you!
I have passed like the first of dawns.
Pururavas, go home again!
I am like the wind, that cannot be caught.'.
Mournfully Pururavas said:
'Today your lover will perish,
he will go to the furthest distance and never come back.
He will lie in the lap of disaster,
and fierce wolves will devour him.'.

She replied:
'Pururavas do not die! do not go away!
do not let the fierce wolves devour you!
Friendship is not to be found in women,
For they have hearts like half-tamed jackals!'
And then she said to him:
'When I dwelt in disguise in the land of mortals
and passed the nights of four autumns,
I ate a little ghee once a day,
and -now I have had quite enough! . . .

But her heart pitied him, and she said, 'Come on the last evening of the year, then, when your son is born, you shall lie one night with me.' He came on the last night of the year, and there stood a golden palace. They told him to enter, and brought her to him. She said: 'Tomorrow the Gandharvas will grant you a boon and you must make your choice.' He said: 'You choose for me I' She answered: 'Say, "Let me become one of you!"'

In the morning the Gandharvas gave him a boon, and he asked: 'Let me become one of you.' 'There is no fire among men,' they said, 'which is so holy that a man may become one of us by sacrificing with it.' So they put fire in a pan, and said: 'By sacrificing with this you will become one of us.' He took it and his son, and went homeward. On the way he left the fire in the forest and went to a village with the boy. When he came back the fire had vanished. In place of the fire was a pipal tree and in place of the pan a mimosa. So he went back to the Gandharvas.

They said: 'For a year you must cook enough rice for four [every day]. Each time [you cook] you must put on the fire three logs of the pipal anointed with ghee . . . and the fire which is produced [at the end of the year] will be the fire [which will make you one of us]. But that is rather difficult,' they added, 'so you should make an upper firestick of pipal wood and a lower one of mimosa wood, and the fire you get from them will be the fire [which will make you one of us]. But that too is rather difficult,' they added, 'so you must make both the upper and lower firestick of pipal wood, and the fire you get from them will be the fire.' So he made an upper and a lower firestick of pipal wood, and the fire he got from them was the fire [which would make him one of them]. He sacrificed with it and became a Gandharva.

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.

Last updated December 2023

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