Category Archives: f. Puranic Mythology and Other Hindu Deities

The Savitri and Satyavat Myth

The myth of Savitri and Satyavat is the fictional love story of a Hindu wife following her husband through death and saving him with her great dharmic wisdom. The origin of the story dates back to the Mahabharata. The sage Vyasa had written the Mahabharata with the help of the god Ganesa to give to the world as a gift. Within Vyasa’s telling of the Mahabharata the ideology of dharmic character is clarified and expanded on through side stories such at Savitri and Satyavat. The Mahabharata tells the epic story of the Pandavas and the Kauravas were battling each other, and at one point, the Pandavas were exiled to live in the forest for 13 years. During this time, the brothers meet with the rishi Markandeya. The most dharmic brother, Yudhisthira, was lamenting the kidnapping of Draupadi, the Pandava’s wife, as she had been taken by Jaydratha (Anand 2). He asked the rishi if he had ever met a more dharmic woman than Draupadi. The rishi responded with the myth of Savitri and Satyavat, answering his question by telling of the most dharmic woman possible.

The king Asvapati of the land Mudra had no heirs. Worried that he would die before his bloodline would be carried on, he devoted himself to prayers and sacrifices, asking the gods for many sons. After eighteen years, the sun Goddess Savitri answered Asvapati’s hundred thousand hymns to her (Narayan 182). The goddess explained that although she knew he requested for many sons, she would instead bless him with a single daughter, for whom he should be grateful (Anand 3). Soon after, Asvapati’s eldest wife gave birth to a baby girl, whom he named Savitri after the goddess. When Savitri had grown up, her beauty was so astounding that suitors would not ask for her hand in marriage. When the king requested a reason, they responded she must be an incarnation of a goddess and could not be married. The princess Savitri then began a penance, as she waited for a proposal. However, none appeared. The king decided Savitri must be married, and came up with a plan for her to find a husband. Savitri was told to search for her own husband that was well suited and that was as good to her as she was to her father (Narayan 183). Savitri was unsure how to do so, but agreed to do his bidding. The king sent an assembly of his men to accompany his daughter who were under the order not to interfere with her decision.

A year later, she returned to her father who was with the heavenly sage Narada. Narada did not understand why she did not have a husband yet, but the king was ready to receive her answer. Savitri reported that she named Satyavat her husband [often called Satyavan]. Narada strongly advised against her decision. He explained that although Satyavat was perfectly suitable, he was cursed to die in exactly one year from that day. Asvapati tried to persuade his daughter to find another husband, but Savitri refused. Satyavat was her first and only choice for husband, and she would not choose again.

Satyavat was son of the exiled, blind king Dyumatsena, and he took care of him and his mother in their forest hermitage. Before the wedding, Asvapati asked the exiled king for his blessing on the marriage (Nadkarni 2012:np). Dyumatsena was hesitant but agreed. Once the blessing was given, Savitri married Satyavat and joined him in his forest home. Savitri was the ideal wife and daughter in-law, and brought joy to the household (Narayan 185). However, she always remembered the curse and silently counted down the days. When four days were left before the cursed day, Savitri began a triratra vow, a severe penance of fasting, praying, and standing, for three days and nights. Her parents in-law were worried for her and insisted she end this penance, but Savitri refused. On the fourth day, when Satyavat was to begin his daily journey into the forest, Savitri begged him to allow her to join him. Satyavat was hesitant but agreed only if Savitri gained approval from her in-laws. Asking her parents in-law, they granted her wish as Dyumatsena knew she had never asked for anything before (Narayan 186). Travelling deep into the forest, Satyavat was unaware of his fate, but Savitri could not focus on anything else (Narayan 186). As Satyavat was swinging the axe to cut trees, he suddenly felt fatigued. Savitri went to his aid and brought him to rest his head in her lap. She realized this must be the hour that Narada had foretold. Satyavat soon fell into a deep sleep. Savitri continued to hold him when a figure came to hover over them. As Savitri focused on this figure, she saw that it was the God of Death, Yama, coming to take Satyavat’s soul. Savitri rested Satyavat’s head on the ground, and rose to address the God of Death. Savitri asked the God why he himself had come (Dutt 423). Yama answered that because Satyavat was such a distinguished person, he wanted to honour Satyavat in his death by bringing him to death’s halls himself. Yama recognized Savitri as an auspicious wife with a rare gift of being extraordinarily sensitive. But unwavering, Yama continued to take Satyavat’s soul to his kingdom against Savitri’s requests.

However, Savitri had begun to follow him to the land of death, a place where she could not go. Yama tried to persuade her to turn back, but Savitri was refused, knowing that where her husband went, she went, as it was her dharmic duty as a wife to accompany her husband through life and death. Impressed by her knowledge of dharma, Yama told her to ask for any boon other than the life of her husband and he shall grant it (Nadkarni 2012:np). Savitri asked for the return of her father in-law’s sight. They continued their conversation and Yama is repeatedly impressed, granting 3 more boons. Savitri asked for Dyumatsena’s kingdom to be restored, her father to have a hundred noble sons and for a hundred sons for herself and Satyavat. Yama granted these, but then realized too late that for the final boon to be granted Satyavat must be returned to earth. Yama kept his word and gave his blessing and Satyavat’s soul back to Savitri to return to his body (Nadkarni 2012:np).

Restoring his soul to his body, Savitri and Satyavat hurried home to his parents’ hermitage as they were late to return. Dyumatsena, with his sight recently restored, and his wife were worried when Satyavat and Savitri had not returned at their normal time. Neighbours had come to comfort them. When Savitri and Satyavat finally arrived, a celebration was thrown in their honour. Questioned on their reason for such a late arrival, Savitri began her story of all the transpired events, beginning with Narada’s prophecy up until their return home. She explained in detail her interactions with Yama, the God of Death, and the boons he had granted her (Dutt 429). The next day, Dyumatsena was informed his enemy, who had seized the throne, had been killed by the hands of one of his own ministers. Dyumatsena was once again declared king of the Shalwa kingdom. Savitri and Satyavat had their 100 sons who were brave, noble, and never fled from war (Dutt 430). Asvapati was also blessed with 100 sons who kept his bloodline and lineage strong for generations.

Savitri is used as the example of the ideal Hindu wife; a woman who is willing to follow her husband through death and back. Savitri symbolizes the dharmic wisdom that overcomes death (Anand 2). The perfect wife is to maintain her position beside her husband for all of time. In each dharmic marriage the man has the responsibility to take care of his family in all the physical aspects of life, while the wife “embodies the power to sustain their existence” (Rodrigues 125). She must maintain this power by being as auspicious as possible, and by being loyal by following orders from her husband. This enhances her personal spiritual power, or sakti. Her whole family depends on this spiritual power for their survival. By having this power, she is responsible to take part in sati, the ritual where the wife is required to lie on her deceased husband’s pyre, showing that she is willing to die with him and to use her sakti to cleanse his soul in a spiritual sense (Pitchman 26). Savitri is the ideal wife because when she completed sati she brought Satyavat back to life with her, proving she was purely dharmic. Her higher understanding of the dharmic teaching and her commitment to Satyavat is what brought her husband back to life (Verma 67). As they are two parts of a whole, both the husband and wife rely on each other to live a dharmic life. Their devotion to each other, especially Savitri’s, deems her the ideal wife in Hindu culture.


Anand, Subhash (1988) Savitri and Satyavat: A Contemporary Reading. Pune: Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute

Dutt, Manmatha Nath (1895) A Prose English Translation of the Mahabharata: (translated Literally from the Original Sanskrit Text). H.C. Dass.

Nadkarni, Mangesh V. (2012) Savitri-The Golden Bridge, The Wonderful Fire: An introduction to Sri Aurobindo’s epic. Auroville: Savitri Bhavan

Narayan, R. K. (1964) Gods, Demons, and Others. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Pintchman, Tracy (2011) Woman and Goddess in Hinduism: Reinterpretations and Re-envisionings. New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism–The e-Book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Verma, K.D. (1977) Myth and Symbol in Aurobindo’s “Savitri”: A Revaluation. Michigan: Asian Studies Center, Michigan State University

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Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topicśvapati

Article written by: Abby Neudorf (Spring 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.

Savitri and Satyavan

The Hindu myth of Savitri and Satyavan, found in the Mahabharata, is a tale of the love and devotion a Hindu wife was expected to have for her husband. In the Hindu tradition women are expected to show this devotion to their husbands above all else, and the tale of Savitri’s devotion is one of the most poignant and significant examples of this.

The story begins with Aswapati, a king, who was virtuous and lived what could be considered a perfect dharmic lifestyle. Despite this, Aswapati could not conceive a male heir; as he grew older this became more and more of a concern. After 18 years of a perfect dharmic lifestyle, including performing ten thousand oblations daily and reciting Mantras in honour of Savitri, Aswapati was visited by the goddess Savitri herself, who is also called Gayatri. Savitri could not grant him a son, but instead granted him a daughter, who the king named Savitri after the goddess. In some versions Savitri did not grant him the child herself, but informed Aswapati that Brahma was granting him a child (Sarma 329). Savitri grew up to become a beautiful woman, compared by the people to a goddess, and because of her intimidating beauty none would marry her. Aswapati sent her off in search of a husband, as none in his land would marry her. (Ganguli 570-571)

When she returned, she tells her father of another king, Dyumatsena. Dyumatsena was a wise, virtuous kshatriya king. Dyumatsena grew blind, and thus his kingdom was overthrown by an old enemy, ousting Dyumatsena and his family and forcing them into a hermitage. Dyumatsena’s only son, Satyavan, grew up in this state of hermitage. Savitri met the adult Satyavan, and chose him as the one she would marry. She praised his virtues to her father, listing his energy, wisdom, bravery, and forgiveness. She compared his noble attributes to those of various gods, to further emphasize just how perfect a match Satyavan was. Her father’s counselors, who accompanied Savitri on this journey supported her statements. The king asked his trusted advisor if this seemingly perfect youth had any defects, and it is revealed that Satyavan was to die exactly one year from this meeting. Aswapati urged Savitri to choose another, but she had already made up her mind and refused to change it, stating that she had already selected Satyavan and will not select again. The king relented on seeing the full extent of her devotion, and the two were wed. (Ganguli 572-574)

As the day of Satyavan’s death approached, Savitri offered prayers and ascetic observances for the three days prior to Satyavan’s preordained demise. Savitri and Satyavan went out in the woods on the day in question to pick fruits and cut down tree branches. Satyavan began to feel weak, and Savitri laid him on the ground with his head in her lap. The next moment, Yama, the god of death, appeared to Savitri. He had come to personally take Satyavan’s soul. He did so and departed, but Savitri proceeded to follow him out of her devotion to her husband. She spoke to Yama of Satyavan’s virtues, and he was impressed by her words and her devotion and granted her a boon, anything she wanted except Satyavan’s life. She requested that her father-in-law, Dyumatsena, regain his eyesight and his strength. Yama granted this, and continued on his way. Savitri followed him still, telling Yama more of Satyavan. Yama granted her a second boon, and she asked for Dyumatsena to regain his kingdom. She continued to follow him, this time speaking of mercy, and Yama granted her a third boon. She asked to beget children to continue her father’s line, and Yama granted her that she may have a hundred sons. She proceeded to speak about justice. Yama had heretofore been very impressed with Savitri’s devotion and extensive wisdom, and he granted her a fourth boon. She asked for a century of sons, begat by her and Satyavan, and Yama granted this before realizing the implication. He realized Savitri had tricked him and, impressed with her cunning, granted Satyavan’s life back, as she could not father sons with him if he was dead. This differs, as in some versions it is not by Savitri’s cunning, but by her continued devotion that she convinced Yama to give Satyavan back (Sarma 334). When Savitri and Satyavan returned, they found Dyumatsena’s eyesight and strength had returned, and he ascended once again to his rightful place at the head of his kingdom. Savitri and Satyavan had many children, and all was well (Ganguli 576-585).

Savitri’s devotion to her husband is the key theme of this myth. Even before they are married, she is unshakeable in her conviction to stand by Satyavan despite his impending death, and this devotion is what impresses her father so much that he allows the two to be wed. This is especially significant due to the inauspicious status of widows in the Hindu tradition, and the prohibition of remarriage (Rodrigues 127-128). She also shows devotion towards her husband’s family, who in the Hindu tradition essentially becomes her new primary family. Her requests of Yama to return her father-in-law’s sight, strength, and kingdom exemplify this ideal. Lastly, her devotion to Satyavan even in death is impressive. She follows Yama, death himself, and he grants her multiple divine boons, eventually even giving her Satyavan back. It is interesting to note however, that Savitri is not a helpless damsel following Yama because she is incapable of anything without her husband. If anything, after Satyavan’s death she shows her many other impressive characteristics in convincing Yama to bring Satyavan back.

The ideal of pativrata is described by Rodrigues as “ascetic dedication to [the woman’s] husband” (Rodrigues 124). It is the highest vrata, or ascetic observance, that Hindu women follow. The pativrata is closely related to sakti, spiritual power, and the husband was dependent on this spiritual power for his survival and strength. The story of Savitri exemplifies this, as Savitri’s devotion is very closely tied to her husband’s strength and survival, literally bringing him back from death. Savitri initially tries to prevent his death, performing vrata for three days just prior to the promised time. When this fails, she follows Yama, an extraordinary display of ascetic devotion, and her spirituality is a key factor in convincing Yama to bring Satyavan back.

Some scholars explore the similarities and differences between Savitri and Draupadi. Indeed, the entire reason this myth was told in the Mahabharata was in response to Yudhisthira asking if there had ever been a woman whose devotion matched Draupadi’s (Ganguli 570). Weiss looks at Savitri’s marriage as a sort of inversion of Draupadi’s. Savitri is an ascetic wife, while Draupadi is married to five men, both deviations from the Hindu norm. As Weiss states: “Savitri lowers her social status by an act that creates social discontinuity (ascetic practices terminate social lineage), and Draupadi limits the natural capacities of her husbands by marrying all of them.” (Weiss 268-269).  The feminist scholar Lohia gently criticizes Savitri in comparison to Draupadi, stating that loyalty was important, but only as a single aspect of a woman’s personality (Yadav 110). Ultimately, both women represent distinct aspects of the Hindu ideal.

The story of Savitri and Satyavan exemplifies Hindu ideals of a wife’s devotion to her husband. Savitri marries the man she chooses regardless of his impending death, and refuses to let him go. When he does die, it is her devotion and strength of character that brings him back to life. In my opinion, she epitomizes the ideal of pativrata, and is an example of how the Hindu epics teach how one should live through tales with simple moral principles.


Ganguli, Kisari Mohan (1990) The Mahabharata of Krishna-Dwaipayana Vyasa Vol.III (5th Edition). New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism – The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sarma, Bharadvaja (2008) Vyasa’s Mahabaratam. Academic Publishers.

Weiss, Brad (1985) “Mediations in the Myth of Savitri.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 53, No. 2: 259-270.

Yadav, Kumkum (2010) “Draupadi or Savitri: Lohia’s Feminist Reading Of Mythology.” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 45, No. 48: 107–112.

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This article was written by Thomas Hill (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Ganga (River and Goddess)

Starting in the Himalayas, flowing over 2,000 km across India, going south and east all the way to the Bay of Bengal, is the Ganges River. The river is not just a physical feature of the world, it also has a spiritual connection to the Hindu religion. The river is the goddess Ganga. Hinduism has tales to describe the connection of their religion to the river and why it is important to them. The myths explain who this goddess is and also how the river came to be created and the significance of the river itself. Of all the myths in which Ganga plays a role, the main and most important one is how she came to earth. The main myth describing Ganga’s descent to earth told in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and in Puranas, is widely known in India (Eck 2012:138). The most popular tale of Ganga’s descent includes Siva, who plays an important role in this myth. It was with Siva’s help that Ganga landed on earth and saved the sons of King Sagara. Siva helped by catching Ganga, for the impact from her fall would destroy the earth. The Vedic myths have Indra (god of storms) playing the role of having the waters descend to earth. Indra did this by setting the water free and letting it fall to earth, as told in the Rig Veda (Eck 2012:137).

Although there are many different versions of the tale from different sources, there are themes and facts that remain the same. A main theme in all the different versions of Ganga’s descent is that the water (heavenly, celestial, and divine) descends from heaven to earth, and gave the river a connection, for example a pathway, to the heavens. Other constants within the myths are that the water falls to earth to save it, or that there was another god (Indra or Siva) to help the waters come to earth in one way or another. Another common theme is that the waters have powers of some kind. For example, the water is life-changing, and has a connection to immortality because of the presence of soma (the nectar of the gods) in the water. It is said that the Ganges River is quintessence of the source of all sacred waters, indeed of all waters, everywhere (Eck 2012:159). The Ganges River is sacred water, and is an essential element for all the Hindu rites and rituals (Singh 210).  The important factor of all the myths was that Ganga came from the heavens with her celestial water to save earth in some way.

The goddess Ganga is linked through symbolism to the Trivanti at Prayaga. She is also known as Tripathaga, or the Triple-Path River. Ganga is identified as a triple river, flowing in the three realms – in the heavens, on the earth, and in the netherworlds. The Trivanti express the nature of Ganga, whose mythology connects her with the three major gods – flowing from Visnu’s foot in heaven, falling on Siva’s hair, and carried in Brahma’s water pot (Eck 2012:149). This connection with the triple divinity is distinctly present with the Trivanti at Prayaga. The Ganga has been seen as the white river because it bears the mica-laden waters of her Himalayan course; this description is referred to in the Rig Veda (Eck 2012:145).

Ganga may be depicted as a mermaid on top of Siva’s head. This image is connected to the descent myth, when she fell from heaven to earth (Eck 1986:51). Ganga may also be portrayed on a river or surrounded by water. She is usually depicted sitting on a crocodile (makara), and with an aureole surrounding her head. She is also decorated with jewelry, such as a crown, a necklace, and other ornaments (Darian 2001:72). Like other goddesses and gods she is eerily beautiful and serene. Ganga is known to have a vase (kumbha) with her, which is said to have a connection to the purifying waters (Darian 2001:125). She is also pictured with a water lily, either holding the flower or in some images sitting on a giant flower. The images she is holding are auspicious emblems of her generosity (Eck 2012:132). Ganga’s image sometimes can be golden on a silver throne on her mount, and her holding a water pot and a lotus. The way Ganga is portrayed helps to distinguish her from the other goddesses, and the symbols that connect with water, like the crocodile, strengthens the connection to her myths.

The Ganges River and Ganga are also known as Mother Ganga. She is said to be forgiving, embracing, nourishing, and does not have any anger. Unlike other goddesses she does not have any weapons, but has symbols of auspicious blessings. Those goddesses are seen as gentle with ferocious tendencies, and although Ganga does have this potential, she is acclaimed in unambiguous terms (Eck 2012:161). In some myths she is a mother figure or has a mother role, particularly in the Vedas.

The river and the goddess, do not exist without each other. In the myths the river is the goddess, and the goddess is the river. This connection between Ganga and the river, which is the Ganges River, brings the myth into the real physical world. The myths describe where the river is, which correspond to the actual geographical placement of the river; for example from where it originates to where it ends. The myths of the river and goddess brings the spiritual world into the physical world. This connection of the goddess Ganga and the Ganges River illustrate how interwoven religion and culture are in the Hindu tradition. The myths give the actual river a mystical and powerful meaning. Although the river was originally important for survival, this spiritual connection enhances its importance to Hindus.

Ganga plays a vital role in worship and ceremonies, in rituals of birth and initiation, of purification and religious merit, of marriage and death (Singh 210). For instance, during the initiation or sacred thread ceremony (upanayana), a young man may eat nothing but bread and water from the Ganges. Another example is that Hindus often wish to have a person’s ashes scattered on the sacred river after death (Darian 2001:14). Ganga worshipped as a source of life and generation, and in some rituals water is taken from the Ganges River, put in a pot and used to ensure a good harvest. Another ritual is for newly married women to go to the river and pray for children and the long life for her husband (Darian 2001:37). A ritual at the river is where one takes the water in their hands and pours it back as offerings to the departed ancestors and the gods (Eck 2012:131-132). There is another ritual where the water from the Ganges River is poured on a representation of Siva (linga) at shines and temples. It is to recreate Ganga’s fall from heaven and through Siva’s hair. This ritual is either done constantly, or done by a worshipper who brought the water themselves. This simple ritual is done countless times daily (Eck 2012:140).

There is a ten-day festival called Dasahara, which celebrates the descent of Ganga from heaven to earth or Ganga’s birth. During this festival the river is filled with boats and decorated with long ropes of marigold garlands. There is even chanting Victory to Mother Ganga (Ganga Mata ki Jai) (Eck 2012:132). On the 10th of the waxing fortnight of Jyestha (May- June) is the height of the festival. It is believed by devotees that bathing in the Ganga in the morning of this day grants high merit, and destroys ten sins (dasahara) or ten lifetimes of sins. Those who worship Ganga start bathing in the river and do the associated rituals from the first day of Jyestha and complete the cycle on the 11th day (Singh 218). This day is devoted to worship of Visnu.

The myths about the river, with it having power (Shakti), has great significance to Hinduism and the culture. For the devout people who visit and worship at the river every day, it has deep connection to their way of life, and their religion. The water from the Ganges River is seen as pure, has life-giving properties, sacred, and known as the crossing place from earth to heaven. Many Hindus live near the river or pilgrimage to visit the river. Many devout people go to the river in the morning and gather on the steps (ghats) to bathe, to drink a least a few drops of the water, and take blessings or religious instructions from the priests (ghatias) at the steps. Also, there are various offerings, including ancestral offerings, on the steps (Singh 213). The Ganges River is regarded to be holy all along is course, from its source to the sea (Eck 2012:132). The rituals and these offerings show how deeply embedded the Ganga river is in Hindus’ daily lives and their religion.



Darian, Steven (1976) “Ganga and Sarasvati an Incidence of Mythological Projection.” East and West 26 (1/2). Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (IsIAO): 153–65.

Darian, Steven (2001) The Ganges in myth and history. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Eck, Diana (1986) “Darshan of the Image.” India International Centre Quarterly 13 (1). : 43–53.

Eck, Diana (2012) India: a sacred geography. New York : Harmony Books.

Foulston, Lynn (2009) Hindu goddesses: beliefs and practices. Brighton [England] ; Portland, Or. : Sussex Academic Press.

Narayan, M. K. V. (2009) Exploring the Hindu mind: cultural reflections and symbolisms. New Delhi : Readworthy Publications.

Scharfe, Hartmut (1972) “The Sacred Water of the Ganges and the Styx-water”. Zeitschrift Für Vergleichende Sprachforschung 86 (1). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (GmbH & Co. KG): 116–20.

Singh, Rana P. B. (1994) “Water Symbolism and Sacred Landscape in Hinduism: A Study of Benares (wassersymbolismus Und Heilige Landschaft Im Hinduismus: Eine Studie Aus Benares).” Erdkunde 48 (3). Erdkunde: 210–27.


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Ganges Valley


Ganga Sagar Mela

Godavari River

Narmada River



Seven Gangas



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Article written by Angel Hope (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.



Garuda, in Hindu mythology, is the name for the large bird-like vehicle, or vahana, of the great Vedic god Visnu. The name Garuda is often said to come from the word garutmat, the winged one, from the root garut, which is the word for a wing (Fausboll 79). Garuda is often associated with power and morality, and both Hindus and Buddhists revere him across the world for his strength and speed. His physical appearance is often inconsistent in texts written describing him. At times, he is described as having the head and wings of a bird, with a human body; other times, he has a human face and the body of a bird (Wilkins 456). In one text, he is described as being emerald in colour with a beak, golden wings, talons, and four human arms. Most commonly, he is described as having the beak, wings and talons of a bird with a human head and body. Although there are some discrepancies to his true form, he is always described as being so brilliant upon his birth that the gods mistook him for a reincarnation of Agni, the Vedic god of fire. (Williams 139).

Garuda’s father was the ancient sage Kasyapa and his mother was Vinata, who was the rival wife to her sister Kadru. Kadru and Vinata were said to be such good wives to Kasyapa that he awarded them each with a boon. Kadru asked for 1000 snake (naga) children and Vinata asked for only two children, each stronger and more powerful than any of Kadru’s (Fausboll 77-78). Five hundred years later, Kadru’s eggs had all hatched but Vinata’s showed no sign of hatching. Shamed by this embarrassment Vinata cracked open one of her eggs and Garuda’s elder brother was born. Aruna, only half developed, cursed his mother with servitude and left to become the charioteer for Surya (Williams 62-63). Garuda was born from the second egg and upon his birth he burst forward, flew up into the sky and spread his golden wings. He was so brilliant that it hurt the gods’ eyes and he was worshipped as Agni by mistake (Williams 139). In Wilkins’ Hindu Mythology, Garuda is described as being born with eyes of lightning, rays that set the world on fire, and powerful wings that caused the mountains to be driven away (451). [Other versions of his birth story told of Garuda as the product of Kasyapa’s practices combined with the magical practices of the Balakhilayas, a class of tiny sages (Williams 138)].

Garuda’s role in Hindu mythology is quite limited, aside from accompanying Visnu, thus he is most known for the story of Garuda and the amrita told in the Mahabharata. This legend tells of the origin of the animosity between Garuda and serpents, and also tells of how Garuda met and pledged his loyalty to Visnu. When the horse Uccaisravas was obtained from the ocean, Vinata and Kadru disagreed on the colour of the horse; Vinata declared that the horse was white, while Kadru said the horse had a black tail. Kadru proposed they make a bet and whoever was incorrect about the true colour of the horse would become a slave to the winner. That night, Kadru went to her sons and told them to transform themselves into black hair and cover the hair on the horse’s tail. The next morning, as they examined the horse, they found it to be white but with a tail dark and black. Kadru cheated and Vinata was now a servant to her and her serpent children (Choudhuri 143).

Once Garuda was born, he was determined to free his mother from slavery, so he went to the snakes asking what he could do to free Vinata. They agreed to free Vinata if Garuda retrieved the divine nectar, amrita, which granted immortality. [In other versions of the story he is told to retrieve the moon (Chandra), whose bright spots are filled with amrita (Wilkins 451)].  Garuda flew to the heavens where the amrita was being guarded, and fought off the gods and obtained the nectar by blinding them with a sandstorm formed by his wings. As he was leaving, Indra threw a thunderbolt that struck Garuda but did not weaken him (Choudhuri 145). Visnu was so impressed with Garuda that he offered him a boon of immortality and Garuda pledged he would serve Visnu and become his vehicle. Indra also admired Garuda’s strength, and the two of them came up with a plan to free Garuda’s mother, and keep the amrita away from the nagas. Garuda took the amrita back to the snakes, exchanged it for his mother and told them that before they could drink the nectar, they must first be ritually pure. As the serpent children went to bathe, Indra stole back the amrita and returned it to the devas (Williams 139). As the amrita was taken a few drops of nectar spilt onto the grass. The nagas, desperate for immortality, licked the darbha grass, which split their tongues. The small amount of nectar they got gave them the ability to shed their skins and have partial immortality (Wilkins 450).

In the Ramayana, it tells of a great conflict between Ravana and Rama. Rama and his brother were badly injured and close to death, due to a flight of serpents sent by Indrajit. As they lay dying, Garuda appeared and healed them, allowing them to continue with their war (Wilkins 455). Another myth describes Garuda’s role in the birth of Airavata, the divine elephant. When Garuda came into existence, Brahma took two half- eggshells from which Garuda had hatched and sang over them seven holy melodies. From this, Airavata came forth and became the mount of Indra.

Since the quarrel between Vinata and Kadru, the mother of serpents, Garuda has been the natural enemy of serpents. When Vinata was still a slave to Kadru, Garuda was ordered to carry Kadru’s naga sons over a sea. As Garuda was transporting them, he flew too close to the sun. As the hot sun began to scorch the serpents, Kadru prayed to Indra who sent clouds and rain to save her sons (Choudhuri 144). Garuda is often referred to as “Destroyer of Serpents” as he devours snakes as his preferred food. Vausboll’s Indian Mythology declares that from the time of the creation the serpents are intended by the creator for Garuda’s eating (80). On the day of Garuda’s marriage, the serpents, so afraid of the idea of Garuda having children, attacked him. Garuda slew all but one, which he saved and wears as an ornament around his neck (Wilkins 451).  Garuda had six sons who are also sworn enemies to the serpents (Fausboll 79). To this day, as a protection against snakes, certain Hindus may repeat Garuda’s name three times before going to sleep (Wilkins 451).

Although Garuda is not strictly divine, he appears alongside Visnu in his exploits, and is seen as a symbol for Visnu and worshipped together with his lord (Wilkins 449). As Hinduism spread to Southeast Asia and Nepal, the independent worshipping of Garuda became more popular. Many started to believe that Garuda was a personification of sacred mantras, and that on his wings, one was transported to the realm of the gods (Williams 138). As Buddhism started to adopt Hindu ideas, Garuda became a symbol of royalty in many Buddhist countries. In Buddhist Thailand, Garuda the sun eagle represented the royal power and divine approval given to royalty (Williams 139).  Garuda is also seen as representing the mind, which can instantaneously soar skyward, pervade all creatures and is immortal. Garuda is so powerful “his haste and violence is so great that he seems to drag the earth itself with its waters, mountains and forests after him”(Fausboll 79). If he ever boasted of his power and strength, Visnu would often punish him, thereby keeping Garuda humble.

Garuda is often depicted carrying Visnu on his shoulders or back.  He also holds a sharp –rimmed battle discus called “Fair to see” or sudarsana. He uses this fiery, sun battle discus against his opponents by hurling it at them (Zimmer 76). In other depictions he stands in meek obedience with his right palm placed on his mouth and his other hand held reverently close to the chest. When Garuda is paired like this with Visnu, he personifies Vedic knowledge. As Garuda and the serpents are enemies, they represent balance and harmony, one of the most important aspects of Visnu (Bunce 103).

Interestingly enough wings, although often seen in western tradition, are not commonly seen as physical characteristics of Hindu gods. The gods either float or are carried by vehicles or vahana (Zimmer 93). Garuda is an exception of this, and is therefore used as a symbol for flight in many different countries. We can see examples of this today as the national airline of Indonesia is called Garuda Indonesia.

It is very rare to find a temple dedicated to Garuda alone, as he is often worshipped alongside Visnu. Near the city Mulbagal, India, a temple dedicated to Garuda was found named Koldevi. It was said to have been built under the supervision of Sri Ramanujacharya, a Hindu theologian and philosopher, and has an idol of Garuda seen kneeling on one knee while carrying Lord Visnu and Goddess Laksmi in his hands. There are other temples that have depictions of Garuda, but they are often dedicated to Visnu. In Cambodian architecture, instead of just carrying Visnu, Garuda is depicted as supporting the entire temple. Images of Garuda are multiplied and arrayed in rows bearing the structure and are seen along the entire temple. This temple is regarded as an earthly copy of Vaikuntha, the god’s celestial dwelling (Zimmer 76).

Although Garuda is not regarded as entirely divine, he symbolizes power, strength, morality, immortality, and much more.  He is an important icon in many countries in Southeast Asia, and is even the national symbol for Indonesia and Thailand. He is not only an essential figure in Hinduism, but Buddhism as well. Therefore, many depictions of him can be seen in many Buddhist and Hindu countries. Garuda is regarded as the King of the Birds and, most importantly, the mount of Lord Visnu.



Bunce, Fredrick W (1997) A Dictionary of Buddhist and Hindu Iconography: Illustrated: Objects, Devices, Concepts, Rites and Related Terms. New Delhi: Printworld.

Choudhuri, Usha (1981) Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology. Delhi: NAG.

Fausboll, V (1981) Indian Mythology: According to the Indian Epics.  Delhi: Cosmo.

Wilkins, W. J (1900) Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Purānic. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink.

Williams, George M (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Zimmer, Heinrich (1974) Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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Article written by: Carissa Peterson (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

Mohini and the Churning of the Ocean of Milk

Mohini is a manifestation of Visnu in the myth of the churning of the ocean of milk. The myth starts out with a war between the devas (representation of good) and the asuras (representation of bad), but the devas were losing due to an unfair advantage on the asuras’ side (Glucklich 158). The asuras got help from Siva who had given them the ability to resurrect from the dead after the devas had killed them (Glucklich 158).  Because of this, the devas sought after Brahma to help them. He suggested that instead of fighting with the asuras they should partner up with them to summon Visnu to help them churn the ocean of milk in order to gain “the nectar of immortality” (Glucklich 158). Visnu plays a vital role in this myth because he manifests in many forms to help the devas and the asuras to churn the ocean. Visnu takes on forms to be: the foundation for the churning stick (a tortoise), the churning rope (a serpent), and of course Mohini (Kinsley 67).

Mohini (a female representation of Visnu); Delhi National Museum, 2017

While the ocean was churning, various other things emerge before the nectar of immortality. Once it appeared out of the ocean the devas drank, which is when Mohini appears as a seductive woman who distributes the nectar and beheads Rahu, an asura disguised as a deva, before he can swallow the nectar (Glucklich 159-160). With the nectar and Visnu’s weapons, the devas defeat the asuras as they retreated (Glucklich 160). Some believe that the nectar of immortality was a euphemism for Soma (Glucklich 160) while others interpret it as a “representation of the abundance of earth” (Kinsley 68). This shift between sexes often has bad or negative connotations in religious myths. Normally, when a god, or anyone for that matter, is turned into a different sex (usually men turning into women) it is form of punishment or a curse, with the exception of Mohini (Parasher-Sen 45). Earlier versions of the myth were short and did not use Mohini’s name but rather spoke of an anonymous woman (Visnu in disguise) who took back the immortality nectar that the asuras had stolen (Parasher-Sen 48). A different rendering of this myth believe that Mohini’s role was to cheat the asuras out of their share while distributing the immortality nectar (see Parasher-Sen 48). In the Vayu Purana version of the myth, Brahma says a mantra that brings Mohini out of the ocean, and when he sees her he is so pleased by her looks (Parasher-Sen 48).

Part of the churning the ocean myth is the chase of Mohini by Siva. There are several versions of this part of the myth. In the Bhagavata Purana, after seeing Mohini, Siva loses his senses and runs after Mohini. He becomes so overwhelmed with passion that only after he ejaculates, he realizes that Mohini is really just a manifestation of Visnu and that he had been fooled (Parasher-Sen 48).  In the Agni Purana once Mohini turns back into Visnu, Siva asks him to turn back into his female form. When he does, Siva becomes naked and grabs Mohini by the hair until she frees herself and runs away. He follows her and it is unclear if he catches her again but whereever his semen drops is where sacred places of lingas and gold appear (Parasher-Sen 48). These ‘connections’ between Mohini (Visnu) and Siva was said to have created a child (Aiyanar) which turns Mohini into a mother figure instead of a temptress (Parasher-Sen 49).

The final part of the myth is the binding of Visnu and Siva which creates Harihara. Harihara is an androgynous figure which is created by Visnu who is often, but not always, composed as feminine and Siva who is always depicted as masculine (Parasher-Sen 45). Even though Visnu reverts back to his masculine form before the binding with Siva, he is still considered to be the feminine side (Parasher-Sen 45). Although the Harihara is described as being androgynous, with Visnu possessing the female body parts, it is rare to find a depiction of this (Parasher-Sen 51). It is hard to find sculptures of Harihara with Mohini on the side of Visnu, although there are instances of this representation (Parasher-Sen 51). The feminine side (Visnu/Mohini) is often depicted holding either a wheel, a conch, or a mace in one hand and a crab in the other, while wearing a crown and crocodile earrings (Parasher-Sen 51). While the masculine side (Siva) is often holding a trident, sword, drum, rosary, battle-axe, or a skull while wearing serpent earrings and a ‘top-knot of hair’ with a crescent moon (Parasher-Sen 51).

Mohini can be considered many things: the seducer of Siva (Parasher-Sen 46), the nectar distributor (Parasher-Sen 48; Glucklich 159-160; and Kinsley 67), the mother of Aiyanar (Parasher-Sen 49), and the deceiver of asuras (Parasher-Sen 46). Some scholars think that Mohini is important to the Hindu culture because she helps show women in a more positive light, and that the transformation from a male to female is not always a curse but rather a gift (Parasher-Sen 56), and in the case of Mohini, a necessity to stop the bad from becoming more powerful than the good.


Glucklich, Ariel (2008) The Strides of Visnu. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kinsley, David R. (1986) Hindu Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Parasher-Sen, Aloka (1999) “Images of Feminine Identity in Hindu Mythology and Art: The Case of Visnu-Mohini.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1: 43-60.







Vayu Purana                                                                                                                            


Bhagavata Purana

Agni Purana




Sculpture/Art Work





Article written by: Michaela Klein (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Dikpalas

The Dikpalas (also called Lokapalas) are known in Hinduism as the guardians of the directions. Each god or goddess represents a specific cardinal direction and are used in ritual for various purposes. It is generally agreed upon that there are four main deities, which correspond to north, south, west, and east. However, it is common that those 4 deities are expanded to include deities for the southwest, southeast, northwest and northeast. For this article, I will include Yama, Agni, Vayu, Varuna, Indra, Nirrti, Kubera, Isana, Brahma, and Visnu (Morgan 65). The last two deities symbolize the two additional directions, the nadir and zenith. The kshetrapala was known as the guardian of the farmland, but has now become a deity who resides over a particular piece of land (Werner 65).

The dikpala that is associated with the Eastern direction is Indra. Indra is the god of rain and thunder (Perry 121). He is often depicted riding a white elephant, while holding a lightning bolt called a vajra. As the leader of the devas, or gods, he is believed to be constantly waging war on the asuras, or demons (Morgan 73). Indra is represented in the eastern direction of Hindu temples.

Agni is most commonly associated with the southeastern direction and is depicted with two heads. He is known as the god of fire and is responsible for leading man to the gods. He is thought to be represented by sacrificial fire, from which he takes offerings into the godly realm. In the Rg Veda, he is second in power to Indra. It can be interpreted that he represents both fire and water because he is said to be fire born from water (Werner 17). His bearded, pot bellied form is commonly seen riding a ram as a mount (Morgan 73).

Yama is the god of death or the underworld and represents the southern direction. In the Rg Veda, he is said to be the first mortal who died and became ruler over the underworld (Werner 119). He is thought to represent the element of fire and is positioned over the southern area of the temple.  He is often depicted riding a buffalo with a mace in his hand (Morgan 73).

Nirrti is the goddess of the southwestern direction, and is thought to represent poverty and corruptions. She is commonly depicted having dark skin, hair, and clothes (Kinsley 13). She is thought to be the embodiment of pain, and is often depicted riding a man as her mount with a sword in her hands (Morgan 73).

Varuna is the god who represents the western direction. He is known to be the god of water and the sea and is represented by the serpent snare (Acri and Jordaan 293). He is often seen together with Mitra and the two of them make up the gods of the oath or societal affairs. Alone, he is often depicted on an alligator-like mount holding a noose (Morgan 73).

Vayu is the god of the northwest and is known as lord of the winds. In the Rg Veda hymns, he is described as having exceptional beauty, but is not as prominent as others gods such as Indra or Agni. He is often depicted riding a stag, while holding a flag in his hand (Morgan 73).

Kubera is the god associated with the northern direction and is the lord of wealth. He is often depicted wearing many jewels, being overweight and having a winged conch shell. His vehicle is sometimes a man or horse. He is the treasurer of Laksmi, who is the goddess of good fortune and prosperity (Morgan 73).

Isana is associated with the god Siva and represents the northeast direction. Isana is a form of the god Siva, and represents knowledge and prosperity. This god is known as the one from whom the universe originates. He is often depicted riding a bull and holding a trident (Morgan 73).

It is worth mentioning that sometimes there are two other gods included in the dikpalas. Brahma is a god that is associated with the zenith, the upward direction. He is commonly understood as having a significant impact in the Hindu creation story. He can be seen riding a goose as his mount and has four faces and arms (Buhnemann 65). The zenith is represented between the northeast and east. Visnu is the god that is associated with the nadir, or downward direction. He is highly significant in Hinduism and his incarnations include Rama and Krsna. As the god of preservation, he is known for preserving the universe during its endless cycles of rebirth. He can be depicted as a pale blue being which has four arms. It is common for objects such as a lotus, conch, discus, prayer beads or a manuscript to be visible in his hands. The nadir is represented between the southwest and south direction (Buhnemann 65).

The Dikpalas are used in Hinduism as guardians of the cardinal directions and guardians of the sacred worship space. The first six gods mentioned above are older gods that appeared in the Vedas, while Kubera and Isana are from folk cults predating the Vedas (Morgan 72-73). In temples, each corresponding god is represented in each corresponding cardinal direction. For example, Yama would be portrayed in the southern area of the temple and Indra in the East.

A Hindu practitioner would salute the guardians during the beginning of the ritual.  This is commonly done in parts, depending on how elaborate the ritual is. First, each guardian is invoked into his or her specific cardinal point starting with Indra in the east. Next, the attributes of the directional guardians can be invoked (Buhnemann 65). They correspond as follows: East – the thunderbolt (vajra), southeast – the spear (sakti), south – the staff (danda), southwest – the sword (khadga), west – the noose (pasa), northwest – the goad (ankusa), north – the mace (gada), northeast – the trident (trisula), zenith – the lotus (padma), and nadir – the wheel (cakra) (Buhnemann 65).

Each of the eight directional diety’s consort, vehicle, and directional elephant can be named as well. Respectively, they are named: Indra – Saci/Airavata (his mount is already a directional elephant), Agni – Svaha/the ram/Pundarika, Yama – Varahi/the buffalo/Vamana, Nirrti – Khadgini/the corpse/Kumuda, Varuna – Varuni/the sea monster/Anjana, Vayu – Vayavi/the deer/Puspadanta, Kubera – Kauberi/the man/Sarvabhauma, Isana – Isani/the bull/Supratika. Depending on the practitioner or the type of ritual being conducted, some or all of the above may be used (Buhnemann 65-66).



Werner, Karel (1997) A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism. Surrey: Curzon

Perry, Edward (1885) “Indra In The Rig-Veda”. Journal of The American Oriental Society 11: 117-208

Morgan, Kenneth (1987) The Religion of The Hindus. Delhi:  Shri Jainendra Press

Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of The Divine Feminine in The Hindu Religious Tradition. Delhi:  University of California Press

Jordaan, Acri, and Andrea (2012) “The Dikpalas of Ancient Java Revisited: A New Identification for the 24 directional deities on the Siva temple of the Loro Jonggrang complex”. Brill 168: 274-313.

Buhnemann, Gudrun (2003) Mandalas and Yantras in The Hindu Traditions. Leiden:  Brill


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Article written by: Meghan Gausman (March 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

The Devi Mahatmya

Many ancient cultures have traditions believing in the power of a mother goddess. Hinduism is one such religion that still has a strong culture of goddess worship that has continued to develop over the years. There are many indications of the importance of fertility and the importance of worshiping feminine power in the remains of the Indus Valley Civilization, which was discovered in the 1920’s. Female figurines as well as seals were found depicting the female figure (Coburn 15).

The Devi Mahatmya is one of the first texts in the Hindu tradition to equate female divinity with the principle of Brahman, which is ultimate reality (Abbot and Foulston 12). It is part of a larger text called the Markandeya-Purana. However, out of all of the texts in the Markandeya-Purana, the Devi Mahatmya has the most commentaries and is mostly viewed on its own as opposed to with the full text. The term Devi Mahatmya translates to “Greatness of the Goddess”. The text is all about the myths of Hindu goddesses and was originally in Sanskrit (Coburn 1). It was likely written in the sixth century and is still used today to worship the goddess (Kinsley 489). The text mostly narrates tales of battles between the goddess (Devi) and various demons, but takes place within a larger story. Throughout the Devi Mahatmya the goddess is referred to by over 200 different names. Several of these names describe characteristics of the goddess, while others convey honour. Many of them refer to goddesses that have been mentioned in other Hindu literature. (Kinsley 490).

The Devi Mahatmya is usually presented in three sections. Each section is about a specific goddess and has its own seer and deity. These three sections contain different chapters and are unequal in length. The first section is chapter 1, the second consists of chapters 2-4, and the third spans chapters 5-14. These three sections that make up the Devi Mahatmya are often surrounded by appendages or angas. These are subsidiary texts that the Devi Mahatmya relies on and they come before and after the main text.  These angas discuss ritual use of the Devi Mahatmya (Coburn 100).

The Devi Mahatmya tells of three battles between the goddess, Devi, and different demons. These three battles make up the three sections of the text. The frame story, which connects these episodes, is that there is a sage that is teaching his two pupils about the identity of the goddess. The sage tells his pupils about the three battles. The first section and battle of the Devi Mahatmya tells how the demons Madhu and Kaitabha were defeated. The second section is about the goddess’ defeat of the demon Mahisa. The third section is the myth of Sumbha and Nisumbha (Coburn 22-24).

In the first section, the goddess is associated with the deity Visnu. The goddess takes on the characteristics of the great male god. When associated with Visnu the goddess is characterized by negative qualities such as sleep and delusion (Kinsley 491). These characteristics are referred to as maya and the goddess is referred to as Mahamaya ten times in this episode. Although maya has negative overtones it also has positive ones such as the ability to create (Kinsley 498-499).  The two demons in this section, Madhu and Kaitabha, are said to have come out of Visnu’s ear to harass Brahma, the creator god. In this story, the goddess is able to awaken Visnu so that he can defeat the two demons. He fought them for five thousand years and then he was finally able to defeat them. He granted their last wish and killed them on land by cutting off their heads (Coburn 39).

The second section of the Devi Mahatmya has the goddess born from the strength and power of many different gods (Kinsley 492). This section is unique because it describes the birth of a completely new god. In this episode, the demon Mahisa conquers the gods and expels them from heaven to wander the earth. Hearing about this, Visnu and Siva became angry and out of a fiery splendor, known as tejas, the goddess was created. The goddess was created from different aspects of each god and given different weapons from all of them (Coburn 40). Together, this new goddess and the other gods had been expelled fought in a battle against Mahisa’s army. They fought until Mahisa’s army begged them to stop and Mahisa was slain. At the end of the battle flowers were released from heaven (Coburn 44). The goddess in this episode is praised by the gods and continued to protect the worlds.

The third section is the longest section of the Devi Mahatmya and consists of the most chapters. This episode begins with the gods going to the Himalayas (Kinsley 491). The demons Sumbha and Nisumbha hear of this great goddess and send two of their generals, Canda and Munda, to abduct her and bring her to him in order to get married. The generals believe that they will be able to take the goddess with ease and little effort. They approach her confidently and with pride forgetting that she is all-powerful. As they approach, the goddess first lets out a mantra that has the power to create and destroy, and then goes on to destroy the two generals. The king demon, named Sumbha, who had given the orders for the goddess to be abducted is angered when he hears that his two best generals have been destroyed by a woman (Amazzone 63). When he attacks, the goddess goes on to destroy both Sumbha and his brother Nisumbha; The Devi Mahatmya makes it very clear that the goddess is universal and all-powerful (Abbot and Foulston 66).

The Devi Mahatmya is still used in the Hindu tradition today. It is one of the most influential texts in the tradition and is used to worship the goddess at different Hindu rituals and gatherings. One of the gathering in which the Devi Mahatmya is used is the Durga Puja. The Durga Puja is the most popular festival, it is celebrated once a year in Kolkata and devotees get to “gaze upon the Goddess’s face.” (Abbot and Foulston 157). It is one of the largest pilgrimage experiences within Southeast Asia, millions or people take part in this pilgrimage in order to worship the goddess. The festival takes place over nine nights and part of the festival is the recitation of the Devi Mahatmya and her victories over the demons (Amazzone 48).

Although the Devi Mahatmya is an ancient text in the Hindu tradition it still stands out among all of the other texts. It is one of the most influential texts and is unique because it tells tales of the great goddess. It has been used all throughout the Hindu tradition and is still used today at festivals and to worship the goddess.


References and Further Recommended Reading

Abbot, Stuart and Foulston, Lynn (2012) Hindu Goddesses: Beliefs and Practices. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press.

Amazzone, Laura (2010) Goddess Durga and the Sacred Female Power. Maryland: Hamilton Books.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1991) Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devī-Māhātmya and A Study of its Interpretation. New York: State University of New York Press.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1988) Devi Mahatmya: The Crystallization of the Goddess Tradition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Hawley, John Stratton and Donna Marie Wulff, (1996) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley:University of California Press.

Kinsley, David (1978) “The Portrait of the Goddess in the Devī-Māhātmya.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion Vol. 46 No. 4: 489-506. Accessed January 30, 2016.

Kinsley, David (1975) “Freedom from Death in the Worship of Kali.” Numen 22(3): 183-207. Accessed February 3, 2016. Doi: 10.2307/3269544


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Article written by: Ana Ferzacca (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.















To individuals who are familiar with the Hindu epic Ramayana, the name Ravana has come to mean the main antagonist of the epic, the demon king of Lanka who was manipulated into kidnapping Sita, the wife of Rama. In the epic Ravana is described as the mighty king of the Raksasas with ten heads, twenty arms, and copper-colored eyes, and bright teeth like the young moon (Valmiki, Vol 2: 94-95). He gained control of his kingdom by banishing his half-brother Kubera who was the rightful king. His kingdom was the Kingdom of Lanka, which was said to be at the southern tip of India and some believe that it may be the current state of Sri Lanka as Hanuman, the monkey god, is depicted jumping over a sea to reach the kingdom.

In terms of Ravana’s ancestry, he was a Brahmin by birth as he was born the Visrava, a Brahmin sage and Kaikesi, a Raksasa princess. It is believed that Sumali, Kaikesi’s father who was the king of the Daiteyas, wanted her to marry the most powerful man in the world and chose Visrava as he was the son of Rishi Pulastya, one of the six human sons of Brahma. Ravana also had quite a large number of brothers and sister, the most famous being Surpanakha, who manipulated him into kidnapping Sita because she was insulted by Laksmana and Rama; other siblings are listed as Kumbhkarna, the sleeping giant who was quite skilled at war, Vibhisana, the dharmic Raksasa who eventually helped Rama and older half-brother Kubera, the god of wealth. Even though it is said that Ravana had quite a large of number of queens and a great harem, his favorite queen was said to be Mandodari, a woman of great beauty and wisdom. Mandodari was a pious women who was always apologetic for the misdeeds of her husband. He was the father to several children; Trisiras and Indrajit, who were killed in the battle of Lanka, and Ravani, Aksa, Devantaka, Atikaya, and Narantaka. It is recorded that all of Ravana’s wives performed Sati after his death and died at his funeral pyre.

In terms of Ravana’s kingdom, Lanka was initially ruled by Sumali, Ravana’s maternal grandfather. The ruling was then taken over by Ravana’s half brother Kubera, also known as the god of wealth, who was given the kingdom as a prize because of the austerities he performed to Brahma. Ravana eventually took over the kingdom forcibly, however it is recorded that Lanka flourished under his rule and after Ravana’s defeat; the kingdom was then turned over to his dharmic brother Vibhisana. It is believed that Lanka is the current state of Sri Lanka as the island of Sri Lanka is at the southernmost tip of India. There is also remains of a land bridge that connected Sri Lanka and India, which is known as Rama’s Bridge to this day, and some consider this as proof that Sri Lanka is connected to the Ramayana.

Bas relief depicting Ravana trying to topple Mount Kailasa, the abode of Siva and Parvati; Mahabalipuram, India
Bas relief depicting Ravana trying to topple Mount Kailasa, the abode of Siva and Parvati; Mahabalipuram, India

In the Ramayana there are many references to Ravana’s wickedness and evilness. First of these can be seen as his defeat of his half-brother to gain control of Lanka. This was not done through normal means as he performed asceticism for Brahma, the god of creation, and a boon was granted to him for his perseverance (Pollock 509). Ravana in turn asked for the ability to defeat gods in battle and with this ability he was able to defeat his half-brother and win his kingdom. Ravana was also well known for forcing himself upon women and it is believed Kubera had cursed Ravana after such a conquest and that is why he was not able to force himself upon Sita. The greatest misdeed of Ravana in the Ramayana is the abduction of Sita who is seen as the image of righteousness. The abduction was caused by Surphanakha’s need for revenge because of Rama’s reaction after her proclamation of love as well as Laksmana cutting off her nose and ears as punishment for insulting Rama. Ravana in turn sent fourteen thousand Raksasas to Rama, Sita, and Laksmana’s dwellings yet they were all defeated. Ravana then decided to take matters further by flying to Rama’s dwellings and abducting Sita after distracting Rama and Laksmana (Kishore 1995: 69-71). As Sita was in captivity for approximately a year, during which time Ravana repeatedly tried make her his wife using many tactics; meanwhile, Rama had prepared an army of monkeys to rescue Sita. This lead to the Battle of Lanka in which the vast army of Raksasas were defeated by Rama’a army and Ravana was slaughtered by Rama himself. However, the demise of the demon king did not come easily, as Rama had to acquire extraordinary weapons in order to slaughter him, the reason for this pertains to Ravana’s boon granted by Brahma.

Even though Ravana is depicted mainly negatively in the Ramayana, there are also positive aspects of his embedded in the epic. He is shown as a great scholar who mastered the Vedas and the arts as well. He was knowledgeable in Brahmin skills as well as Ksastriya skills. Ravana was also a great ruler, which was seen by the prosperousness of Lanka during his reign. When Hanuman first visits Lanka, he was amazed the “splendid yellow-white palaces, like to a city stationed in the sky” (Valmiki, Sundarakandam: 15) He also was said to be a fair ruler and this was cemented by the loyalty of his subjects which is seen many times in the epic. Ravana was a firm devotee of the destructor god, Siva and this devotion seems to stem from his meeting with the god at Kailash. It is said that Ravana may have written a devotional hymn to Siva, the Siva Tandava Stotra. When analyzing the epic the battle of Lanka could be seen as the clash of the two great devotional sects, Saivism and Vaisnavism because of Ravana’s devotion to Siva and Rama being the incarnation of Visnu himself.

When discussing the great demon king, Ravana, one must always consider his positive and negative aspects. Even though he is depicted as evil and wicked in the epic and his effigies are burned even today where as Rama is seen as righteousness, one must realize that for all of Ravana’s negative aspects, positive aspects must be present as well.


Dowson, John (1879) A classical dictionary of Hindu mythology and religion, geography, history, and literature. London: Trübner

Kishore, B.R. (2005) Ramayana. Diamond Pocket Books

Pollock, Sheldon (1984) The Divine King in the Indian Epic. Journal of the American Oriental Society.

Richman, Paula. (1991) Many Ramayanas: The diversity of a narrative tradition in South Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rocher, Ludo (2006) The Ramayana Revisited. Journal of the American Oriental Society.

Roy S.B. (1982) Mohenjodaro and the Lanka of Ravana: a new hypothesis. New Delhi: Institute of Chronology.

Valmiki. Dutt, M.N. trans., Arya, Ravi. Eds. – Ramayana (Volumes I,II,III,IV)I. New Delhi: Parimal Publications.


Life and Character sketch of Ravana.





The Ramayana





Kingdom of Lanka








Bala Khanda

Ayodya Khanda

Aranya Kanda

Kiskindha Kanda

Sundara Kanda

Yudda Kanda

Uttara Kanda


Written by Savini Suduweli Kondage (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.