Category Archives: Other Supernatural Entities

Demons, Apsaras, and marginal miscellaneous beings


Dattatreya is an important figure in the Hindu religion. Dattatreya is regarded as an important dharmic Guru, Yogi, and incarnation of three main deities in this religion. He is seen as a significant Yogic figure across a wide spectrum of the religion from Tantric to Brahminic orthodox Hinduism (Rigopolous 7). Dattatreya also extends past the confines of Hinduism into certain sects within Jainism as well as Sufism and is even briefly talked about within some Buddhist texts.

Dattatreya is seen as an incarnation of the three main Hindu gods: Siva, Visnu, and Brahma, fused into one singular being. The incarnated form of these three gods (Dattatreya) is depicted as a three headed, six armed being. Each set of his arms contains symbols for each of the three gods: a lotus and water pot is depicted for Brahma, a wheel and conch for Visnu, and a trident and drum for Siva. Dattatreya is usually portrayed dressed as an ascetic while also accompanied with a cow (symbolic in Hindu tradition of the earth) and four dogs (representative of the four Vedic texts) (Pain 95).

Dattatreya is a deity that is associated with the conservation of the environment and education pertaining to the environment. Teachings of this deity involve attaining realization through the observation of the earth (symbolic presence of the deity associated with the cow) as it is a sacred space representative of the entire cosmos itself. Dattatreya teaches this message in the way that most Hindu philosophical teachers address the world, in a matter of self-realization. This deity’s teachings reflect that of a Buddha-like figure in the way in which this deity points to self-realization and freeing the self from material attachment. The true nature of things is much deeper and that enlightenment comes from freeing the self from material attachment (Haigh 1). However, teachings such as these are seen all across Hinduism as reflections of highly realised Gurus (teachers) relaying much deeper meaning than just what is seen.

The manner in which Dattatreya goes about his teachings in a highly realized manner comes from how the being was thought to have attained moksa (self liberation) in the first place. This deity gained liberation from being temporarily earth bound while being taught by twenty-four Gurus. Each of Dattatreya’s teachers taught him deep yogic lessons in which he later portrays within his own teachings such as compassion and the absence of material attachment.

The mythological creation of Dattatreya dates back to the Rg Veda and a rsi (“seer”; semi divine figures who composed the sacred texts) named Atri. Dattatreya came into being from a boon asked from the wife of the sage/rsi Atri (also thought to be a manifestation of Agni the fire god) called Anasuya  (the non-envious one)(Rigopolous 2). A demon, named Svarbhanu, pierced the sun and moon with arrows, causing darkness to fall over the land. However, the gods noticed Atri practicing tapas (generating of inner heat) in a forest nearby and asked for his help. Atri was able to restore light to the moon and sun due to his great ability to generate his inner heat (Rigopolous 3). Atri’s wife, Anasuya, then requested the boon of giving birth to the trimurti (tri incarnation) incarnation of Siva, Visnu, and Brahma, bringing forth Dattatreya. Tales of Atri and the relevance of Dattatreya can also be found in Hindu texts such as the Ramayana.

Since Dattatreya is found in many different forms such as a rsi, Yogi, and a god, across many different Hindu writings from the Ramayana to the Vedas, one wonders if there were many different figures with the generic name generated with the root datta (surrendered), treya (three), and atreya (child of Atri) (Rigopolous 28). However, in many of these texts, there are different stories and hymns relating the figures to one another and the roots of their names, most likely illustrating a transformation of this deity in order to teach specific lessons within the text.

Dattatreya’s worship resembles that of other gods within the religion, and draws specific aspects from worship of the three gods that make up the trimurti form. Just as Siva or Visnu have sramana (wandering philosopher) groups dedicated to them that use one god as a focus in hopes of attaining moksa. Dattatreya’s sect is referred to the Datta cult (Pain 97) derived as an abbreviation for the full name.

Devotees of Datta rarely visit the temples of Dattatreya and only stay for brief periods of time for darsana (visions of divine beings) or to view the depiction of the deity. Temples of Dattatreya are often quite small, mostly consisting of tucked away or roadside shrines. However, larger Datta temples for worship do exist and have characteristics that resemble Siva temples, often containing a corridor, which surrounds the inner shrine of the temples (Pain 101). These temples also usually contain a small hall for initial entry, which contain a small bell that is rung by devotees to signal their arrival to the god.

Worship, within the temples dedicated to Dattatreya, also follows ritual patterns associated with other gods within the Hindu religion. Among these devotional practices is, ritual bathing for purification before entering, as well as offerings of incense, food, and flowers, along with the occasional waving of lights in front of the deity. For Dattatreya Thursdays are particularly auspicious, on which a more thorough ritual worship is done (Pain 101).

The attire of Dattatreya also has significance in his worship. The depiction of him wearing the robes of a sramana relates to the constant and super human movement of this deity from one holy place to another such as bathing in the Ganga river in the morning and then moving to the Mahalakshmi temple in Maharashta to beg for alms and so on, carrying out his day wandering. The constant movement of Dattatreya ties into his worship and relates to the images of this deity where he is worshiped are footprint or sandal-like impressions called padukas (Pain 102). The padukas are the main focal point of worship for this deity as they are symbolic of non-attachment to material objects. They also tell how renouncers should continue to move from place to place, re-emphasising Dattatreya’s core teachings.

Emphasis on a particular god constituting the trimurti may be seen in specific sites as well, depending on which of the deities is most popular in the local community. For example, the walls in a temple may be lined with pictures or symbols of Siva such as his trident in areas where Siva plays greater role in community worship. Smaller single representations of each god that constructs Dattatreya may also be seen within the temples, to reiterate the importance of each major god that constructs him.

Dattatreya’s teachings are consulted in India today due to his stance regarding environmental protection, as this country continues to modernise. Reference to his teachings is often made when discussing issues such as pollution and sustainable development (Haigh 128).  His teachings are also used to further show the importance of environmental protection as well as to diminish other environmentally destructive practices. Dattatreya’s teachings are able to have a strong influence on environmental presentation due to their intellectual and well-constructed arguments.



Pain, Charles (1988) “The God Dattatreya and the Datta Temples of Pune.In The Experience of Hinduism: Essays on Religion in Maharashrta, edited by Eleanor Zelliot, and Maxine Bernsten, 95-104. Albany. State University of New York Press.

Haigh, Martin (2007) Sri Dattatreya’s 24 Gurus: Learning from the World in Hindu Traditions. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University Press.

Rigopoulos, Antonio (1998) Dattatreya: The Immortal Guru, Yogic, and Avatara: A Study of the Transformative and Inclusive Characters of a Multi-faced Hindu deity. Albany: State University of New York Press.


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

Agni (God of Fire)

Agni is said to be one of the closest connected gods with humans than any of the other deities in the Hindu tradition. The god Agni is identified with being the producer of fire and referred to as being Indra’s (god of thunder and lightning) brother (Macdonell 57). There are many different myths as to how Agni was born; some say that the deity was born three times, once from water, then air and last on Earth. A common myth is that Agni was made from the coupling of the god of the earth (Prthivi) and god of the heavens (Dyaus) and is said to be the son of Brahma. Agni was born fully-grown and was said to be ravenously hungry which led him to devour his parents (McLeish 1996). Agni is the intercessor between the deities and humankind, and is of the few gods in the Hindu tradition that has retained its power to this day (Chandra 9-10).

Agni is identified as one of the first deities to take human form. He is said to be a red man who has seven tongues with which he licks up the butter offered in sacrifices. He is also portrayed as having seven arms, three legs and two heads. Agni is almost always portrayed with a ram as his vehicle, and is occasionally shown riding in a chariot with fiery horses or goats (Jansen 64). His eyes and hair are both black, and on his head he often bears the horns of a bull. He is usually seen wearing a yellow waistcloth. He appears to be young man, which is due to his rebirth everyday through the friction of two sticks. Agni is immortal and lives amidst humankind, yet in heaven he is portrayed as the sun. Agni’s image of fire is a symbol of destruction, which explains why his attributes include an axe, torch and flaming spear, as well as prayer beads (Jansen 64).

Soma (the moon) is a deity who is regarded as a link between the human and the divine, just like Agni. Soma is identified with the moon, which is said to “contain the ambrosia of immortality” (Flood 46). Agni and Soma are said to be the most significant gods (devas) placed at the level of the Earth. They are connected in the sense that the moon is identified with Soma, as Soma is with Agni, and Agni is with the Sun. The public (srauta) rites are primarily focused on Agni and Soma in which vegetarian and non-vegetarian items are offered into multiple sacrificial fires. The (srauta) rites require the burning of three sacred fires. Items such as milk, animals, vegetable cakes and stalks of the soma plant are all offered into the fires (Flood 41-54).

Agni is addressed in approximately one third of the hymns in the Rg Veda. He was central in sacrificial ritual because it was the fire that transformed the offerings into something accessible to the gods (Fowler 98). Agni was a very important deity, and this was evident through the high degree to which he was worshipped. He is described as a divine sage and a swift messenger between the gods and humans, which is why he is still widely worshipped to this day. His worshippers are said to thrive and have a prolonged life (Wilkins 24). He announces hymns to immortals and brings them down from heaven above to sacrifice them. Without Agni, the deities do not experience any satisfaction. Agni is worshipped in many forms such as, a wise director, a protector of all ceremonies and a successful accomplisher (Wilkins 23).

Agni is portrayed in the Mahabharata as being drained of all his energy. Through devouring the Khandava forest he regains his strength. In that story, Indra attempts to stop Agni, but with the assistance of Krsna, Agni ends up consuming the forest (Wilkins 27). Agni is known by multiple names such as, Vahni which means “burnt sacrifice”, Jivalana as “He who burns”, and Dhumketu which is “He whose sign is smoke” (Wilkins 27). Agni is said to have formed heaven and earth and is spoken of as the son of both worlds. He is said to have created the sun and decorated heaven with stars.

The importance of fire in Hindu rituals remains today, as does the deity Agni. Among the directional guardians, Agni was in control of the southeast, which is where dawn breaks. Agni was born fully mature and was able to consume everything, pure and unpure.  (Andrews 8). Fire was widely worshipped because it represented heat and light and was believed to have come from the sun. Fire was a very important part in Hindu rituals because it allowed people a way to give sacrificial offerings to the gods. This is why Agni is still important in today’s society. Agni is known to forgive sin, and offers boons that usually have to do with offspring, prosperity and domestic welfare. Indra’s boons give power, glory and victory (Macdonell 98). All gods had equal power at one time, but after acquiring immortality through sacrifices, Agni, Indra and Surya became grander than the other gods (Jansen 63). The god of war, Skanda, later became the successor of Agni and Indra.

In the epic Ramayama, the king of demons abducted Rama’s wife Sita. After Rama wins a battle with the army of demons, he is able to take his wife home, but doubts her loyalty. He accuses her of being unfaithful while she was away from him and in response, Sita throws herself into a fire to prove herself loyal. Agni, god of fire, did not harm Sita in any way and placed her into Rama’s arms without injury. This led Rama to believe his wife’s words (Jansen 78). This reveals aspects of how Agni has the power to control outcomes such as Sita being harmed or not.

Agni takes part in blessings at occasions such as marriages and deaths, and he commands riches in earth and heaven. He is prayed to by individuals and worshipped as a forgiver of sins, and it is said that he surrounds other gods as the “circumference of a wheel does the spokes” (Wilkins 24). The god Siva has three eyes: the sun, the moon and fire. His third eye is the eye of inner vision and is often invoked at the time of meditation. The third eye also burns with desire (Kama) (Badlani 95).

Agni is also said to be the son of Angrias and grandson of Sandila who is one of the great sages. Agni is the eldest son of Brahma and his wife is Swaha. Through this marriage, he has three sons, Pavak, Suchi and Pavman, and forty-six grandsons for a total of forty-nine descendants (Chandra 10). Agni’s attendant, Matarisvan, is a minor messenger god (Chandra 220). Agni symbolizes a spark in nature through the image of two pieces of wood being rubbed together. This produces the fire in that Agni dwells. (Andrews 8).

Another story in the Mahabharata is one in which Bhrigu curses Agni. Bhrigu married a woman named Puloma who was promised to a demon. Through seeing her exquisiteness, Bhrigu decides to take her away without the knowledge of anyone. Agni assists the demon in finding the bride’s hideaway and claims her back. Bhrigu curses Agni because he helped the demon and says, “from this day you shall eat everything.” Agni did not understand why he was being cursed because he had been honest and accomplished his task of assisting the demon in finding the bride’s hideout. He refers to himself as the mouth of the gods and ancestors. Bhrigu alters his curse by changing it so that Agni purifies all that is passed through him (Wilkins 366). Agni is a Kravyad (flesh-eater), and is represented under an unsightly form. He is called upon to devour meaning he places his enemies into his mouth and engulfs them. He sharpens his tusks and eats his enemies (Wilkins 27).

Agni is the lord of knowledge and fire; he is the chief deity and he is the power of inner and outer illumination. He is the mouth of the gods and the wealth giver (Danielou 64). He is said to have two shapes: one being fearful and the other benevolent. He is called Rudra. Agni is known as a devourer and a god of many powers, one being fire. He is of great importance and is highly worshipped. He is one of the highest gods in the Hindu tradition.


References and Related Readings

Andrews, Tamra (2000) Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea and Sky. Santa Barbara: Oxford University Press.

Badlani, Hiro G (2008) Hinduism: Path of the Ancient Wisdom. New York: iUniverse Inc.

Chandra, Suresh (1998) Encyclopaedia of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons.

Danielou, Alain (1991) The Myths and Gods of India: The Classic Work on Hindu Polytheism from the Princeton Bollingen Series. Rochester: Inner Traditions International.

Findly, Ellison B. 2005. “Agni.” In Encyclopedia of Religion 2nd Edition, edited by Lindsay Jones, 178-179. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Accessed February 3, 2016.

Flood, Gavin D (1996) An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fowler, Jeaneane D (1997) Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

Jansen, Eva Rudy (1993) Gods, Manifestations and Their Meaning. Havelte: Binkey Kok Publications.

Leeming, David (2005) The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lochtefeld, James G (2002) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group

Macdonell, Arthur Anthony (1898) Vedic Mythology. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

McLeish, Kenneth (1996) “Agni.” Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc: Accessed February 4, 2016.

Wilkins, W.J (2003) Hindu Gods and Goddesses. London: W. Thacker and Co.


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

Vahanas (Vehicles of Deities)

The Hindu religion is rich with depictions of gods and goddesses, and provides imagery with deep symbolic significance and meaning. A complex mythology extends to all aspects of a deity’s portrayal, including their mounts or vahanas. Each deity’s mount makes a symbolic reference to the positive aspects of that deity, while at the same time they symbolize negative aspects that the deity takes control of. As such, “the animal symbol, placed beneath, is interpreted as carrying the human figure…It is a duplicate-representation of the energy and character of the god” (Zimmer 70). Most mounts are in the form of animals which exist on the plane of the Earth; thus these creatures are seen as being the physical, earthen embodiment of their god or goddess counterpart. Animals that are linked to the gods and goddesses are considered important to Hindus, and have been cherished as symbols of virtue and value (Chatterjee 27). The symbolic associations of certain animals, identified as mounts, coupled with the popular tropes, archetypes, and idiomatic storytelling of the Hindu tradition, serves to communicate meaning through representations and iconography.

Some of the vahanas of Hindu mythology are ranked more important than others, some even gaining the status of deities themselves. Over time a vahana can itself become, “a great object of Hindu veneration” (Chatterjee 27). Some vahanas become the symbolic manifestation of a certain aspect of a deity’s personality. The mahisa, or buffalo mount, symbolizes death and is thus represented as the mount of Yama, the Lord of Death (Bunce: 171). The animal manifestation of the mount becomes symbolically significant in the physical realm. For some deities, like Brahma, whose mount is a wild goose, or gander, “these vehicles or mounts are manifestations on the animal plane of the divine individual themselves. The gander is the animal mask of the creative principle, which is anthropomorphically embodied in Brahma. As such, it is a symbol of sovereign freedom through stainless spirituality” (Zimmer 48).

The general concept of vahanas serves to give symbolic complexity to a specific understanding of a deity, creating more deep and meaningful associations between popular Hindu icons and mythologies. Sometimes, out of these associations, grow myths or stories which permeate the relationships that Hindus have with their religious figures. Knowing the symbolic association between a deity and their mount can increase the level of depth and complexity that an individual gets out of hearing Hindu myths, which often contain multiple layers of symbolic meanings to be interpreted. For instance, the vahana of Agni—who is understood to be both the god of fire and the physical manifestation of fire itself—is a ram, which is considered the “bodily form of penance” (Bunce 54). This symbolic association between Agni and penance is deeply rooted in the daily practice of Hindus, as they practice their own forms of penance, puja, and yogas which involve the use of fire.

It is through the symbolic representation of the gods and goddesses that Hindus connect the divine to their own physical existence. It is through these representative symbols, which have real-world counterparts, that morality can be discussed in ways that are external to the body, located instead in codified mythology which can be subjectively interpreted. The personified attributes of the gods and goddesses, which are extended to their mounts, become objects of worship and desire for Hindus. For example, Siva’s mount is Nandi, a docile bull who is considered a symbol of dharma; dharma being the proper conduct one learns to follow and practice in their life. Thus, Nandi represents many good qualities of Siva which individual Hindus wish to embody: “Siva’s ability to burn away sloth, ignorance and evil, ensures the constant renewal of fertility, correct motivation, and religious aspiration; thus he perpetuates the condition in which all levels of dharma can flourish” (Chatterjee 28). Because one of the features of the Hindu faith is the ability to worship different deities for different reasons, the intense symbolic meaning that is attached to certain representations of a deity can be invoked for different reasons. This means that when the Nandi is present in a depiction of Siva, he is signalling or alluding to a layer of meaning that would not be present without him.

The elephant-headed god Ganesa is often depicted sitting atop a mouse. “His vahana is a mouse and he himself represents the Elephant, thus it portrays that they can live together happily” (Chatterjee 26). This serves to teach something with its symbols, while also revealing a subtlety about the personality of Ganesa. Other associations provide lessons and insight on how to live your life, such as the relationship between Visnu and his griffon-like, half man and half eagle mount, Garuda, who is considered the personification of Vedic knowledge. In Hindu mythology, though, Visnu is often associated with the cosmic serpent, which makes his story complex as he maintains the serpent’s natural enemy, the eagle, as his vahana. This comes to symbolize the synthesis of harmony and balance through conflict, which is considered to be one of the more important attributes of Visnu (Bunce 103). Furthermore, the inclusion of these symbols serves purpose in Hindu life by employing paradoxes through which, “the vital tensions of the world-process are brought into existence and maintained” (Zimmer 76).

This sort of tension between symbols comes up in anthropological discourse, and has often been thought to serve a vital function in the construction of culture (Erickson & Murphy 120). The understanding that is synthesized, both on the level of the individual and the collective, when paradoxes of religious iconography and storytelling are confronted, is where Hindu theology happens. Considering that Hinduism is a religion of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, it relies on the daily practices of individuals to inform their correct ways of thinking, and the correct ways of forming a personal relationship with the gods. The symbolism of the gods, and the real-world accessibility of some of their mounts, which can actually exist on the same plane as humans, makes them tangible to people while also maintaining their status as sacred. This is an interesting feature of Hinduism, as it is often the case that the sacred is separated from the more mundane aspects of human existence. For Hindus though, symbolic reminders of the sacred permeate all aspects of life, including relationships with animals.

Also notable is the use of vahanas to solidify the representation of a specific god or goddess. Sometimes with the anthropomorphic icon of a deity, it can be hard to determine exactly which deity is being referenced, and what the context of that reference is. This is made easier through the use of symbols, like the specific objects that a god happens to be carrying in his or her hand(s). When a mount is added to a depiction of a deity, it makes it even easier to tell exactly who it is supposed to be, especially because part of the Hindu tradition is recognizing these symbolic associations and knowing the litany of icons which can be employed. When a deity is depicted then, “its reference becomes specified by the determinant, or parallel symbol, added underneath” (Zimmer 71).



Bunce, Frederick W. (1997) A Dictionary of Buddhist and Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd.

Chatterjee, Gautam (1996) Sacred Hindu Symbols. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Erickson, Paul A., and Liam D. Murphy (2013) A History of Anthropological Theory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Zimmer, Heinrich (1946) Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press.


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Article written by: Brittney Ruston (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.

Kubera: God of Wealth

Kubera holds a variety of titles within Hinduism, most notably being the god of wealth and riches. He is also regarded as the god of fertility, a tutelary household spirit, the protector of sailors and god of the dead (Coulter and Turner 283). In the Satapatha Brahmana, he is the lord of thieves and criminals (Sutherland 63), and these are but a few different titles he possesses. Despite having various titles and responsibilities, he is often associated with having a lesser role in Hindu mythology in relation to other deities (Wilkins 388). However, this does not mean that Kubera does not have a rich history and importance within the mythological realm of the Hindu tradition. One of the main reasons that Kubera is not regarded as being a prominent deity is due, in part, to the lack of images and monuments dedicated to him. When he is depicted in images, which mostly come from the Himalayan regions, Kubera has a large potbelly and he holds a mongoose that vomits jewels when he squeezes it (Buswell). Another way he is depicted is as the guardian of the north and is portrayed as a dwarfish figure with a large paunch, holding a money bag or a pomegranate. He is also sometimes depicted riding on a man (Britannica), which makes him unique in relation to other gods, who usually are mounted on animals. Kubera is a lokapala or “world guardian” (Sutherland 65), deities who are usually illustrated as being mounted on animals such as elephants, whereas Kubera is described as being a naravahana or “one whose mount is a man”(Sutherland 67). Although Kubera is regarded as a god in Hindu mythology, he is also often depicted as a demon. The classification of Kubera being a demon, therefore, cause some discrepancies in his physical appearance, with some illustrations of him depicting a more hideous, monster-type of figure. In these portrayals, Kubera is described as being a pot-bellied, three-legged, one-eyed dwarf with eight snaggle-teeth (McLeish). He is also often illustrated as having ugly, black skin, again with a potbelly and is heavily jeweled, sits cross-legged and holds a purse (Coulter and Turner 283). Despite these more unsightly physical attributes associated with the demonic side of Kubera, many depictions of him offer a gentler, appealing visual of the god, illustrating him with gold coloured skin and studded with gems (McLeish), a visual representation of his role as the lord of wealth and prosperity.

Kubera’s lineage can be a bit confusing, as different sources and literature state different familial lines. In the Artharvaveda, Kubera is said to be the son of Vaisravana. In the Mahabharata, he is son of Vaisravana and Idavida, and brother of Visravas; this is further complicated by the Puranas, which states that Kubera was born to Visravas and Ilibila (Williams 190). He also has a half brother named Ravana, who is the notable demon in the Ramayana (Williams 190). Kubera also has a wife, named Hariti (Werner 51) and a daughter named Minaksi, who becomes one of Siva’s wives (Werner 73). He also had a son, named Nalakubera (Williams 219). In addition to his family, Kubera had a few close companions. Kubera is usually accompanied by two friends named Yaksa and Yaksi (Coulter and Turner 283). He is also associated socially with Charvi, Danava and Rambha (Coulter and Turner 282). According to most accounts, Kubera is said to reside in a palace in the country of Sri Lanka. However, Kubera does not live there permanently, as he is driven out of his palace and the country by his power hungry half-brother Ravana (Britannica). The relationship that Kubera and Ravana have with one another does not prove to be very hospitable and cooperative, as they are often depicted in feuds with each other. This hostile relationship ultimately causes Kubera to relocate to a residence on Mount Kailasa, which is also home to other deities, such as Siva (Britannica).

Kubera is most notably known as being the lord of riches and wealth, which includes the resources and elements that are contained within the earth (Williams 190-191). As the ruling god of wealth and riches, Kubera is responsible for possessing and distributing the wealth, as well as guarding the earth’s treasures (Kinsley 226). He is granted the power to move the earth’s riches from one place to another, and he often brought gems and precious metals near the surface during the rule of righteous kings and hid them during times of wickedness (Williams 190-191).  Kubera exercises this power over the elements when he sides with Rama in the war between Rama and Ravana, Kubera’s half-brother. Kubera decides to align himself with Rama, rather than be loyal to his brother, because Ravana dethrones and exiles Kubera from his palace in Sri Lanka (McLeish). Ravana does this in order to try and win himself a queen and kidnaps Rama’s wife, Sita, causing there to be a war between the two men (McLeish). Rama wages war on Ravana for the actions taken against Sita, and by the end of the feud, Rama is victorious (McLeish). Kubera, who remained loyal to Rama throughout the feud, is granted the responsibility of being the shepherd of all the precious stones in the world, as a reward for his assistance in the war against Ravana (McLeish). Kubera was, therefore, allowed to dictate over these stones and control their movements (McLeish), which meant he could determine who had access to them.

Among other roles and responsibilities that Kubera was attributed to was being the leader of the yaksas, creatures who dwell in the woods and forests and promote the growth of plants (Kinsley 226). It is understandable that Kubera would be well acquainted with the yaksas as they both have roles associated with prosperity, with the yaksas encouraging the growth of plans and Kubera being a symbol of richness. The yaksas are depicted as being sharp and cunning, with a benevolent earthly temperament, which Kubera is depicted as embodying (Sutherland 64). Kubera exudes this temperament most notably through his physical appearance, which includes a potbelly, a common Asian motif for good luck and more importantly, abundance (Sutherland 64). However, the yaksas also articulate a notion of ethical ambivalence, suggesting that they also possess a more corrupt, evil side (Sutherland 63). This can be associated with Kubera’s more unethical approaches that cause him to not only be classified as a god, but as a demon as well.

Within Hindu mythology, Kubera is depicted as being a rather unforgiving god. In one particular myth in the Padma Purana, Kubera is portrayed as being a devotionalist, who had an abundantly beautiful garden that contained flowers that are utilized in daily temple worship (Williams 153). Kubera had a hired gardener named Hemamali, who tended to the flowers everyday. One day, Hemamali took a trip to Manasasaras, the lake of the gods, and forgot that it was his duty to get the flowers to Kubera for worship. Kubera waited all day at the temple for Hemamali, but he did not show up, which caused Kubera to become very angry. Hemamali was summoned to Kubera’s palace, where he was punished for his absence by being cursed as a leper. To make things even worse, Hemamali was expelled from Kubera’s heaven, Alakapuri (Williams 153). This story illustrates some of Kubera’s less desirable personality traits, as he can be viewed as being an unforgiving and strict ruler. This can further demonstrate how he was often categorized as being a demon throughout different stories in Hindu mythology, as he could be a menacing and merciless god. However, Kubera has a benevolent and softer side to him as well that is revealed through his more noble actions. Through his protective guardianship and distribution of the earth’s secret resources, he is seen as a paternal, manipulatable figure (Sutherland 65). He is also regarded with holding the title of lokapalas, meaning he is a world guardian, as well as being a dikpalas, a guardian of the directions (Sutherland 65).

It is quite apparent that the Hindu god of wealth possesses many different traits and abilities. Kubera can be described as being a noble god, who possesses and distributes wealth and riches, protecting it from the less desirable, corrupt peoples of the world. However, he is regarded as having a more temperamental side showcasing a strict and menacing personality, which sometimes causes him to be depicted as a demon. Because of these dichotomies, it is difficult to fully comprehend what Kubera looked like physically, as he is depicted in many different forms. It is also unclear as to what his familial lineage looks like completely. Despite these discrepancies, it is clear that Kubera was an important god in Hindu mythology.



Buswell, Robert E. Jr., and Donald S. Jr. Lopez (eds.) (2013) “Kubera”. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Coulter, Charles Russell, and Patricia Turner (2000) Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers.

Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

McLeish, Kenneth (1996) “Kubera”. In Myth: Myths and Legends of the World Explored. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Sutherland, Gail Hinich (1991) The Disguises of the Demon: The Development of the Yaksa in Hinduism and Buddhism. New York: State University of New York Press.

Wilkins, W.J. (2009) Hindu Mythology. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.

Williams, George M. (2008) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.

____(2016) “Kubera”. Encyclopaedia Britannica: Britannica Academic. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.

Werner, Karel (2005) Popular Dictionary of Hinduism. Taylor and Francis E-Library.


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Padma Purana

Mount Kailasa

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Article written by: Kara Johnston (March 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.

Demons defeated by Krsna

The myths pertaining to Krsna’s destruction of demons begin before he was born. It all started with a prophesy that was foretold at his mother’s wedding, while his mother and father were being driven by King Kamsa, his mother’s brother. As they were driving a voice was heard in the sky calling Kamsa a fool because he is driving the chariot of his sister; whose eighth son will kill him ( Bhaktivedanta  Ch. 1). These events led Kamsa to be fearful of the offspring of his sister which caused him to imprison his sister’s family, and murder her children as they are born. One of the main reasons that Kamsa was so afraid of his sister’s future child is because a sage, Nanda, informed Kamsa of his old life. He told him that in a past life Kamsa was a demon, named Kalanemi, who was defeated by Visnu. Then Kamsa learns that his sister’s child will be the God Visnu who had already killed him before (Bhaktivedanta  Ch. 1).

Because he had been murdering his own sister’s children, Visnu ensured that when he incarnated as Krsna, Kamsa would be powerless to kill him. Visnu appeared to his parents upon Krsna’s birth, and had his father switch Krsna with a female infant, to escape the grasps of Kamsa  (Bhaktivedanta  Ch. 3, Bryant p.240). But Kamsa was not content with letting the child live, so he gathered his Demon ministers who advise him to kill all the children that were recently born. Kamsa approved of this plan which led to Krsna’s first encounter with a demon (Bhaktivedanta  Ch. 4).

One of the demons dispatched by Kamsa’s kill order was Putana. Putana had the abilities to fly and shapeshift; with these powers she roamed the lands, devouring infants. While searching for more infants to slaughter, Putana happened upon the house where Krsna resided. Krsna closed his eyes to avoid Putana’s wickedness as Putana approached him and placed him on her lap.  Putana then gave Krsna her breast which was covered in poison in an attempt to kill the infant.  Krsna accepted the milk, but also sucked away Putana’s life breath. Losing her life breath caused Putana to collapse and lose control of her powers as she was dying. While Putana lost control of her power she transformed back into her original, grotesque form extending over miles; her transformation destroyed everything in it’s path.  As Putana collapses there is a loud noise and everyone nearby is astonished by the sudden appearance of this defeated demon. While everyone is in disbelief, the Gopis see Krsna playing on Putana’s lap, they then quickly came and picked him up ( Bhaktivedanta  Ch. 6, Bryant 120-121).

The second Demon defeated by Krsna was Trnavarta, a servant of Kamsa’s, who was sent to devour Krsna. Trnavarta appeared before Krsna in the form of a whirlwind, to create a dust storm in order to hide himself while kidnapping Krsna. But as Trnavarta was flying away with Krsna, baby Krsna assumes a huge weight so that Trnavarta could fly no further. Burdened by this weight Trnavarta crashed to the ground and immediately died under the weight of Krsna. Again the Gopis saw Krsna playing on top of this dead demon’s body ( Bhaktivedanta  Ch. 7).

As Krsna grew up, he assumed duties to help his father, such as watching the calves. One morning Krsna was playing with his brother, Balarama, by the river while they were watching the calves. Eventually a demon by the name of Vatsasura arrived taking the shape of a cow in an attempt to hide from Krsna’s sight. However, Krsna noticed the imposter and followed him with his brother until Krsna saw his chance to defeat Vatsasura; Krsna took the demon from behind and threw him into a tree, immediately ending his life (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 11).

On another occasion, while Krsna was watching the calves with some of the other boys they noticed a giant duck-like creature or the embankment. This creature was the demon Bakasura, a friend of Kamsa’s. As soon as Bakasura saw Krsna, he attacked him and attempted to swallow him whole, but eventually fails and threw him up. After Bakasura failed to devour Krsna, he tried to crush him between his beak. Krsna fearing for his life, grabs the beaks of Bakasura and breaks his mouth into two. This is how Krsna killed his fourth demon (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 11, Bryant 240).

Early one morning, Krsna, accompanied by his cowherd friends went into the forest (Bryant 125-126). While in the forest, they came upon the Demon Aghasura, who was the brother of Putana and Bakasura that Krsna has already killed, so he wanted revenge for his brother and sister. Aghasura was a giant serpent, and he wanted to devour Krsna, his friends, and all of their calves. To reach his ends, Aghasura opened his mouth extending it from the land to the sky; eventually, all of the calves and all of the children, enter his mouth. Krsna entered last and as Aghasura was closing his mouth to devour the children, Krsna expanded his body, causing Aghasura to choke and eventually suffocate to death (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 12). A Sourcebook recognizes the trip into the forest and repeatedly acknowledges that Krsna has defeated Aghasura, but does not talk about the specific fight (Bryant 117, 170, 424, 557).

Krsna’s friends approached him telling him about the demon named Dhenukasura and his friends, and how they kept people and animals from the fruit in an area of the forest. While talking about this area, Krsna’s friends asked him to slay the demon, so that they may have access to that area. Krsna, wanting to please his friends, went to the forest with his brother and his friends; as they arrived in the forest, Balarama pushed the trees, causing the fruit to fall which alerted Dhenukasura of their arrival. Dhenukasura is in the form of an ass and runs at the boys, arriving at Balarama first; upon his arrival he kicked Balarama in the chest, and on the second time that he tried to kick him, Balarama grabbed the demon’s hind legs, swirls around and threw him into the treetop, killing him. This causes Dhenukasura’s demon friends to attack Krsna and Balarama, but they are defeated in the same manner as Dhenukasura (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 15). Sourcebook again references Krsna’s the defeat of Dhenuka (Bryant 170, 333). Earlier in the story Bhaktivedanta made the claim that Balarama was the incarnate of Anata Sesanaga, a god with great strength, that carries a mountain giving him a great weight, this is what allowed Balarama to fight demons next to Krsna (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 12).

In the river Yamuna, housed a giant black serpent named Kaliya, the hundred and one headed snake, who was poisoning the river. For this reason, Krsna decided that he would defeat Kaliya. Krsna jumped into the Yamuna river and made a very loud noise; he was successfully in getting Kaliya to approach and when Kaliya arrived he grabbed Krsna in his coils. At the same time, the Gopis had been searching for Krsna and found him in this same instant. When they saw Krsna in the coils of the snake, it made all of the Gopis distraught, to such an extent that Krsna’s parents attempted to enter the lake to help him, but were stopped by Balarama. Krsna noticed how distraught his community was becoming by thinking he was in peril, so he rose up from Kaliya’s grasp; this angered the snake and allowed Krsna to circle behind Kaliya head. Krsna then bent the snake’s neck, climbed on his head and started dancing. Kaliya tried to lift his other heads, but every time he did, Krsna kicked that head back down while dancing, slowly killing Kaliya (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 16, Bryant 126-127). Kaliya’s wives, known as Nagapatnis, saw their husband getting defeated by Krsna, so they decided to pray to Krsna and offer things to him in an attempt to free their husband from his impending death. They started begging Krsna for Kaliya’s mercy and eventually Krsna granted this mercy and demanded that Kaliya and his family leave the river and go to the sea, so that they could no longer harm people (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 16).

The eighth demon defeated by Krsna was Pralambasura, who disguised himself as a cowherd boy, with the intent of kidnapping Krsna and his brother while they were playing with the other boys.  Krsna saw Pralambasura as the demon he was and tricked Pralambasura into joining them for game. The boys split into two teams, Krsna was one leader and Balarama the other. The game eventually ended with Balarama’s team winning. The losers had to carry the winners on their backs, which ended up with Pralambasura carrying Balarama on his back. Pralambasura took this chance to kidnap and devour Balarama, but he was unaware that Balarama was the incarnation of Anata Sesanaga, giving him a great weight which prevented the asura from easily taking him. In an attempt to escape with Balarama on his back Pralambasura transformed into his normal body which was monstrously big, and gave him more strength to carry Balarama. At first Balarama was scared, but then he realized that this was a demon trying to kill him, so Balarama used his great strength and struck him on the back of his head, killing him (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 18).

One evening, Krsna and Balarama entered the forests near Vrndavana, with many beautiful women accompanying them. While they are enjoying each other’s company, the demon Sankhasura appeared. Sankha meaning white conch, this demon was called Sankhasura because of a marvelous gem on his head that resembled a conch shell. This demon was driven by greed; he saw the beautiful woman surrounding Krsna and Balarama and became jealous. Sankhasura saw himself to be wealthier than these two boys, so he saw himself as deserving of the company of these woman. With this thought, he came before Krsna, Balarama, and the women and he started to lead all of the women away, almost as if he were their husband. While he leads the women away, they call for help so Krsna and Balarama chase down the demons. Fearing for his life, Sankhasura releases the damsels and ran from Krsna and Balarama. While Balarama stays to take care of the women, Krsna continued to chase Sankhasura with the desire of defeating him and taking the sankha from his head. Eventually, Krsna caught up to Sankhasura and hit him in the head, killing him; Krsna then took the sankha and presented it to Balarama (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 33).

One day, a demon in the form of a giant bull, Aristasura, came to Vrndavana and as he entered the city, he started to make a terrifying amount of noise (Bryant 426). This led the animals to run in fear, and the inhabitants to call Krsna for aid. Krsna confronted this giant demon trying to pacify the situation, but this only angered Aristasura. The demon charged towards Krsna, but Krsna simply grabbed him by his horns and tossed him to the side. Aristasura became injured, but was so enraged that he mustered enough strength to stand again and again he attempted to charge Krsna, but Krsna again tossed him aside. Krsna, then, approached the demon that he knocked down and kicked him until he perished (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 35).

The sage, Nanda, wanted to rush the prophesy along; he noticed Kamsa’s plan of killing the children born around the time of Krsna to be ineffective, so he told him of the location of Krsna. This led Kamsa to order the Kesi demon to kill Krsna (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 35). So Kesi went to Vrndavana in the form of a horse, and when he arrived there, he stormed around the town to challenge Krsna to a battle. Once Krsna arrived Kesi charged at him with the intent of stomping on him; Krsna used his strength to grab hold of the demon’s legs and, spinning around the horse, Krsna throws Kesi. This stuns Kesi for a moment, but when he regains his senses, he attempted to run at Krsna again. This time Krsna shoved his arm down Kesi’s throat, while using his powers to make his arm expand, suffocating Kesi. After a few moments of this Kesi perished (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 36).

Later that same day, Vyomasura appeared. He was a demon with the ability to fly through the sky, as Vyomasura passed over, he saw the boys playing a game. The demon desired to kidnap and devour these children so he hid himself among the boys and slowly took many of the boys that were playing with Krsna, and hid them in the hills for later. Krsna noticed what was happening and caught Vyomasura as he was trying to take another child; Vyomasura began to fear for his life and expand himself, Krsna then threw him to the ground with such force that he died immediately. Then, Krsna went and freed his friends (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 36).

Kamsa decided on a new plan; he organized a wrestling match, telling his servants that this will be their chance to kill Krsna (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 35). Krsna and Balarama decided to go to the wrestling match and when they arrive, Kamsa set a Giant elephant to try to kill Krsna. In a heroic feat of strength Krsna overpowered the elephant, killing him and his handler (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 42). Now that Krsna has displayed his strength, the wrestlers had an opportunity to challenge Krsna; this led to two simultaneous fights, Canura fighting Krsna and Balarama fighting Muskita. After the matches began, the people in the audience started doubting the boy’s strength due to their size and boyish beauty, which caused Krsna and Balarama to no longer wish to wrestle and they decided to kill their opponents. In Krsna’s fight, he quickly struck Canura, briefly stunning him, Canura began fearing for his life and started punching Krsna in the chest with both his hands. Krsna was not disturbed by these attacks and simply grabbed Canura’s arms and swung him, throwing him and killing him instantly. In Balarama’s fight, it began with Balarama getting struck, but then returned the blow with tremendous force causing Muskita to die (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 43).

While the crowd cheered for Krsna’s victory, Kamsa became angry, and ordered that Krsna and Balarama be driven from the land, and everyone who came with them should be robbed. Kamsa also orders for the people whom he sees as related to Krsna to be killed, namely Krsna’s father, the sage Nanda, and Krsna’s grandfather (Kamsa’s father). Hearing these atrocious commands, Krsna became angered with Kamsa and attacked him; Krsna threw Kamsa to the ground, got on top of Kamsa’s chest and repeatedly struck his face until he dies. This ends the prophesy of Krsna killing Kamsa (Bhaktivedanta Ch. 43). Later Krsna is referred to as the slayer of Kamsa during later expeditions (Bryant 186).



Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1970) Krsna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead. Los Angeles: ISKCON.

Bryant, E. F. (2007) Krishna: A Sourcebook. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Prabhupada, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami (1970) Nectars of Devotion. Los Angeles: ISKCON.


Related Research Topics





Hare Krsna



Related Websites (list of demons defeated by Krsna and the anarthas they represent) (Krsna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead)


Article written by Jeffrey Freedman (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

Lord Dattatreya

    The origins of Lord Dattatreya’s myths and stories are first found in two great epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. However, it is in the Puranas that we find the detailed legendary character which evolves. In the Puranas we learn that Dattatreya was born to Anasuya and her husband rsi Atri as an incarnation of the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva (Rigopoulos 1). Lord Dattatreya is a male deity with three heads which represents the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. He is portrayed with four dogs in front which symbolise the Vedas and a cow behind, which stands for Mother Earth. In the Mahanubhava panth, Lord Dattatreya is worshipped as a single- headed deity (Joshi 130-161). Lord Dattatreya is mostly worshipped in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat. Lord Dattatreya is viewed by his devotees as the Guru of Gurus and initiator of Navnath sampradaya.

The Avdhuta Gita is one of the famous writings which are associated with him. This book consists of 289 slokas which are divided into eight chapters. It is based on Vedanta philosophy (Joshi 58). This book was very influential in the western part of India and was widely used by the Navnath sampradaya to spread the Dattatreya cult. The first chapter deals with the condition of the human soul. The other chapters describe the nature of the reality that everything is Brahman and the   innermost self (atman) is one. There is no duality; Brahman is a universal soul. The eighth chapter recommends the avoidance of the women: It describes the harm done by women to man on the path to liberation. Avdhuta Gita forbids the pursuit of worldly pleasures to those who want to enjoy the complete happiness or bliss. Even today the book is popular among the devotees of Dattatreya in Maharashtra (Rigopoulos 192-220).

The Guru Caritra is credited for the rise in the Dattatreya cult in modern era. Until the sixteenth century Lord Dattatreya used to represent Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. From that period onwards, he developed two incarnations Shripad Shri Vallabaha and Narshima Saraswati. The popularity of the Dattatreya cult grew among the masses as indicated by his frequent appearances in Marathi Literature (Raeside 498). The Guru Caritra is the most influential text in the Dattatreya sampradya or his cult. The book claims its mystical origins and it describes the life stories of two avatars: Shripad Shri Vallabaha and Shri Narshima Saraswati who were born in Pithpur, Andhra Pradesh and Karanja, Maharashtra (Rigopoulos 110). The Guru Caritra was written in Marathi by Saraswati Gangadhar in 1550. It is divided into fifty-one chapters, including the avataranika which is the set of instructions for reading it. The text is a conversation between two people: Siddha muni and Namdharaka. Chapters 5 to 10 describe the Sripad Vallabha`s life story and the miraculous powers he used to help people. Chapters 20 to 51 describe the life story of Shri Narshima Saraswati and the miracles he performed. The Guru Caritra is a book which promotes orthodoxy, the importance of performing rituals and dharma (Rigopoulos 109).

The story of the birth of Shripad Shri Vallabha takes place in a village called Pithapur near Rajmahendri in Andhra pradesh there lived a Brahmin couple, Alparaja and his pativrata wife Sumiti. The Brahmin was well versed in the Vedas and both of them had a strong belief in god. Once there was a sraddha ceremony in their house which was performed to please their ancestors. On that day a renouncer came to their door and asked for alms. Sumiti immediately gave the alms to the renouncer, despite the fact that she was not supposed to offer alms on that day. Due to this, the renouncer who disguised himself appeared in his real form as Lord Dattatreya. He was very pleased with the act of Sumiti and he offered a boon to her. The Brahmin and his wife had two sons who were blind and lepers. She asked Lord Dattatreya to be born as her child. Lord Dattatreya granted the boon and after a few months she had a son who had a shining face likes the sun and he was very beautiful. The Brahmin couple gave him a name of Shripad which is one of the names of Lord Dattatreya. Shripad grew up very well there and at the age of sixteen said he would like to renounce worldly pleasures and go to the Himalayas to initiate and guide a few saints. Sumiti was very sad after hearing these words and she tried her best to convince him to stay with them. Shripad renounced worldly pleasures and made his way towards the holy places like Banaras, Badrinath and Gokrana. Before he left he cured his two brothers and blessed them with every-lasting wealth and prosperous lives. On his way he helped people such as Ambika and her son who was mentally handicapped. Shripad also promised Ambika that he would be her son in her next birth. In Kuravapur, Sripad gave a boon to a washer man that he would be born in a Muslim family in his next birth and would be a ruler. Shripad also mentioned to him that he would meet him again when he would be Narshima Saraswati in his next birth (Bhagvant 59-126). [see Sri Guru Caritra in Marathi Ch. from 5 to 10. It also describes the stories in detail including the story of Gokrana Shiva linga, the Brahmin killed by thieves and who was brought back to life].

It is believed by the devotees in the Dattatreya sampradaya that Lord Dattatreya is reborn from time to time to guide his devotees to salvation. The stories related to Sri Narshima Saraswati who is considered as the second avatar of Lord Dattatreya in the Guru Caritra are as follows: Shri Narshima Saraswati was born in town Karanja, Maharashtra in a Brahmin family. His parent’s names were Madhav and Amba. His given name was Narhari. Prior to his upanayana he just uttered the “OM” sound and nothing else. After performing the upanayana he is reputed to have spoken and recited all the hymns of the Vedas. At this time he was only seven years old and people were amazed by his knowledge. Narhari decided to renounce the materialist world and its pleasures and he also renounced his family at a very young age. He promised his parents that he would return after twenty years of penance. On his way to Kasi Narhari met many sannyasins and he guided them. Narhari got a diksa from an old sannyasin Krsna Saraswati and he was given a new name, Narshimha Saraswati, to keep the linage of his guru. On his way towards Gangapur, he guided many people on the spiritual path, healed and gave boons to many. Narshimha Saraswati lived for few years at Narsobawadi and Audhumbar before he decided to spend his rest of his life at Gangapur. He accomplished his mission by showing people the right way and re-establishing the correct dharma (Joshi 70-72).

There is a story in the Guru Caritra which shows his character when he helps a Dalit man to defeat two learned arrogant Brahmins in a Vedic recitation competition. As per the Guru Caritra, he helped all the people without any discrimination regarding their caste or religions. Narshima Saraswati used his miraculous powers to represent himself as one who had come for humanity to save them from ignorance. His teachings are based on doing the good karma, observing the vratas which are believed to purify the body and soul and give the observer what he wishes. Narshimha Saraswati`s main mission was to awake the people towards the reality. The Guru Caritra tries to list that the miracles which Narshimha Saraswati performed, such as waking up a dead Brahmin, healing lepers and giving a boon to a sixty year old lady to give birth to her first child. Blessing his disciples to provide food to thousands of people, curing the smallpox of a Muslim king were among other miracles attributed to him. Every miracle he performed had a message to the people that there was something deeper beyond the worldly pleasures and one should find the reality of existence (Rigopoulos 117). [During this period his fame and glory was spread all over Maharashtra and he was recognized as a great sage by Hindu sections as well as Muslim rulers in India. After spending twenty years in Gangapur in 1459 he left for ShriShaila Mountain and was never seen again (see Sri Guru Caritra Marathi)].

Today Gangapur, which lies in Karnataka state, is considered the center place by Dattatreya worshipers. The Gangapur ksetra lies near the sangama of two great rivers, Bhima and Amarja. In the Dattatreya temple there is a small room in which the Nirguna-Padukas are kept, these padukas are believed to be certain signs of the never ending presence of Lord Dattatreya in them. The Nirguna-Padukas were the holiest thing to be worshiped in Dattatreya sampradya from many centuries. In this temple there is a little window from where the devotees take darshan of Dattatreya (Rigopoulos 119). This place is also famous for healing people who are possessed by evil spirits. The sufferer is generally taken to the temple when the prayers or artis are performed at certain times of day. It is believed that evil spirit cannot stand in front of the presence of god and leaves the sufferer. This is another reason why Dattatreya temples at Audhumbar, Narsobavadi and Gangapur are famous as powerful healing centers. There are millions of locals who visit these sites to be free from the evil supernatural powers such as the possession by sprits, black magic. These places are known as jagrit sthanas that is an awakened deity (Rigopoulos 122). [See Rigopoulos 121 where he references M.S. Mathe and describes in detail the worship of the Nirguna-Padukas. Also see Rigopoulos 123 where he says it is not clear why these places got importance of healing centers].

DattaJayanti is one of the Hindu festivals which is associated with Lord Dattatreya. “This festival is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the full moon of month of marga-sirsa according to the Hindu calendar” (Rigopoulos 122). The DattaJayanti is certainly one of the popular festivals in Maharashtra. But there is no evidence in the Guru Caritra where it instructs or emphasises to celebrate the festival. This festival has been celebrated since ancient times and no one knows exactly when it was celebrated for the first time. Devotees believe that Dattatreya was born on this day and it is celebrated as his birthday. The festival lasts for a day and involves his devotees coming together, make prayers and offerings to him.[ see Rigopoulos 132 where he says it is unclear to scholars which is the right day , but he references the dasopant caritra which says Dattatreya`s birthday is on Monday . However tradition believes it’s on Wednesday].

Today Lord Dattatreya has his own unique place among the Hindu gods and in hearts of his devotees, despite being a very ancient avatara of the Trimurti. Lord Dattatreya is regarded as the immortal guru who answers the prayers of his devotees and helps them to prosper in their material life as well as spiritual path. The various sampradayas and saints associated with Lord Dattatreya are equally helpful in spreading his glory and uplifting the lives of the believers and removing their sorrows. It is believed by his devotees he grants vision in dreams and comes to fulfil their wishes and desires (Rigopoulos 253-255). The Guru Caritra stands as a central text in Dattatreya sampradaya which describe the life stories of two avataras. The NirgunaPadukas at Gangapur stand as main pilgrimage site.




Bahadur, Sri Jaya Chamarajendra (1982) DATTATREYA: The Way and the Goal. London: Coombe Springs Press.

Bhagvant, Yogiraj (2002) Sri Guru Caritra in Marathi. Pune: Rajesh Prakashan.

Chetanandnda, Swami (1984) Trans Avadhuta Gita of Dattatreya. Calcutta: Advaita Ashram.

Dhere, R.C (1964) Datta Sampradayaca Itihas 2nd edition. Pune: Nilakanth Prakashan.

Joshi, Hariprasad Shivprasad (1965) Origin and development of Dattatreya worship in India. Baroda: Maharaj Sayajirao University of Baroda Press.

Mate, M.S (1988) Gangapur Dattatreya: In Temples and Legends of Maharashtra. Bombay: Bhartyiya Vidhya Bhavan.

Raeside, I.M.P (1982) “Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London”,  Dattatreya: Vol. 45, No. 3: 489-500.

Rigopoulos, Antonio (2000) Dattatreya: The Immortal Guru, Yogin, and Avtara. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.


Related Topics


Swami Samartha

Shirdi Sai baba

Navnath Sampradya










Rsi Atri

Narshima Saraswati






Mhanubhava panth


Related Websites


Written by Abhijeet Shende (Spring 2013), who is solely responsible for its content.


Yama is the much dreaded god of death. Depicted as a man with a gruesome face with dark green skin, coppery eyes, and blood-red robes, he resides in his palace in Naraka situated in the nether regions. Yama rides his buffalo when entering the human realm carrying his mace and noose, dandahasta and pasahasta, everywhere in case he needs to cut off an individual in the midst of his or her life. Recorded in the Book of Destiny, every living soul’s life span has been predetermined. Assistants to the god are responsible for fulfilling the duties of the book and bringing down the souls to Naraka. With Yama sitting on his throne, Chitragupta, one of Yama’s better known servants, will read out the sum of the deceased man or woman’s assets and sins as they pass judgement before the god. Accordingly the hardened sinner will be sent to one of Yama’s many Hells, or virtuous individuals will be reconciled with his or her forefathers in Pitris (Pitris is an equivalent to heaven). In some cases, it is told that an individual may also be reincarnated (rebirthed) back to the world either as a superior or inferior organism; depending on their Karma. As stated by Dieter B. Kapp in his article The Concept of Yama in the Religion of a South Indian Tribe, “Life on earth is characterized by deeds performed according to one’s own will and wishes, though they are predestined. Life after death, i.e., life which starts with death and ends with the reaching of paradise, means purification from worldly sins. The span of life which has to be spent lying on the ‘refuse heap’ of the region of ancestors serves for purification from pollution sins. Life in paradise is marked by external bliss, it., eternal youth, love, abundance of vegetarian food, music and dance” (Kapp, 518).

Despite Yama’s later evil role in Hindu mythology, the Vedas described Yama as the first man who died and the king of the departed. Vedic tradition also references Yama as the lord of justice, giving him the title Dharma. Yama can be interpreted to mean “twin” in Vedic tradition some myths have him paired up with his twin sister Yami. Surya, the sun god is also the father to Yama, his brother Shani and sister Yami. Yami has a minor role in the rg Veda, but fascinatingly Shani is portrayed as the deity that gives the sentence of one’s deeds throughout life by appropriate punishment and rewards; Yama grants the outcomes of the actions after death.

Relating back to death, Yama is given another name: Kala, Sanskrit for “time”, appropriately assigned because time is naturally selected and nobody can stop or change time. To better explain, human health always nears death after birth through decay, disease, or accident. The only cause of delay of being taken to Naraka is due to treatment options of sick persons, but the inevitability of death can never be stopped due to the outline of nature.

The Hindu God of Death, Yama, with his skull topped staff and buffalo mount, Pratihara period, 10th century, Rajasthan, Delhi National Museum
The Hindu God of Death, Yama, with his skull topped staff and buffalo mount, Pratihara period, 10th century, Rajasthan, Delhi National Museum

In terms of classification systems of Hindu mythology, Bodewitz best describes it in his article The Dark and Deep Underworld in the Vedas. “In the classificatory system (see Bodewitz 2001) the east belongs to the gods, the southeast to (some of) the Pitrs, the south to (some of) the Pitrs, and the southwest to the demons (at least it represents hell). Here the south (the region of some of the Pitrs) is in opposition to the north (the region of people living on earth). Again this opposition has to do with light (north) and darkness (south). It also deals with above and be- low, since the north (uttard) and the south (adhard) are qualified by adjectives in this sphere.” (Bodewitz 221). To better explain, Hindus view the southern region as inauspicious because of Lord Yama’s ruling. East and North having to be associated with light are considered auspicious.

In addition to Hindu mythology, Yama is included in Buddhist teachings. Though in Buddhism, Yama loses his role as a judge and punisher of the underworld because Buddhist teachings state that Karma alone will determine an individual’s fate come time for death. Logically, because of karma there is no need for a supernatural justice, restating the lack of Yama’s role. Come death the souls of the dead are reminded by Yama the concept of Karma and that the souls are responsible for the punishment they will undergo. Buddhist teachings also surround Yama by a concept of Mara which speculates Yama is hidden in the embodiment of moral evil. Contrasting from the Hindu’s depiction of Yama: dark green skin, gruesome face with copper eyes, and blood red robes, tantric Buddhism shows Yama as a terrifying figure ornamented with human skulls, consumed by flames, and holding in his right hand prajna (sword of insight), and in his left hand the mirror of karma, so the individual looking into the mirror shows the true reflection of their deeds. Japanese Buddhism worships Emma (same role as Yama), the demon lord of the Underworld who judges the dead. Emma (Yama) can only be overruled by prayers.

In addition to his rule as king and judge of the underworld, Yama is also a great teacher. “This is one of the ten principal Upanishads, which are expansions to the four Vedas that are usually delivered” as explained in Laura Strong’s written works, Immortal India: Mythic Hindu Death Rituals and Beliefs about the Afterlife. Despite the obvious meaning of the Upanishad (death, and the meaning surrounding it), it also elucidates the meaning of life and secret to immortality. To summarize the Katha Upanishad surrounding Yama and his teachings, the myth starts with a character Nachiketa. Nachiketa had a pure soul, despite being the son of a notoriously greedy man. Feeling disturbed by viewing his father inappropriately sacrificing cows, the boy asks his father to whom was he given. Despite being ignored Nachiketa asked again, and on the third time the irritated man banished Nachiketa to Yama’s abode. Upon discovery of Yama’s absence, loyal Nachiketa waited three days and nights. Upon Yama’s return, the might god offered him three wishes. Firstly, Nachiketa wished to be returned alive to his father and have his father be pleased with him. Secondly, Nachiketa wished to be instructed on how to perform a proper Vedic fire-sacrifice. “The third and most important boon requested by the young student is to know the secret of immortality. Yama is not as eager to hand over this knowledge, but eventually Nachiketa persuades him and he begins by teaching Nachiketa “the mystic sound which all scriptures praise–Om.”” (Strong 2000:6). He then goes on to explain that, “When the body dies, the Self (Atman) does not die!” (Strong 2000:6). Accordingly, one must fully understand Atman.

Upon writing about Yama, it is logical to provide information about Hindu death rituals. Following the passing of a family member, relatives of deceased individual start preparing for either cremation or having the body placed in a burial ground. Typically, unless the family is dealing with an infant, the body is cremated in which the cremation pyre is lit by the eldest son. Subsequently the ashes are then submerged into a holy river, following the family undergoes a purifying bath to enter a state of extreme pollution. Pinda (rice balls) are then offered to the spirit of the deceased during the memorial service. Particularly, this is viewed as a contribution to cleanse the soul so it can pass through the realm of Yama.

In conclusion, Yama is guardian of the South presiding over the resting place of the dead and the lord of death Yama is relatively a substantial part of mythology in India. Earlier represented by the Vedas as a cheerful king of the departed ancestors who became the first human to die, this god’s role quickly changed in later mythology to become a judge of good and evil deeds of deceased souls and determine their retribution. Beyond Hindu mythology Yama has passed over into Buddhist mythology with a lesser but similar role as guardian of the dead in the following countries: Tibet, China, and Japan. Reflecting on the recently deceased individual’s karmic balance, Yama makes judgement and governs a proper reprisal. Upon deciding, Yama safeguards proper rhythm in considering rebirths back to the Hindu world so the Hindus make daily offerings of water back to this god.






Works Cited (APA)


L.D. Barnett (1928) “Yama, Gandharva, and Glaucus”. Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies: University of London, Vol. 4, No. 4, p. 703-716


W. Bodewitz (2002) “The Dark and Deep Underworld in the Veda”. Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 122, No. 2, p. 213-223


Doniger, Wendy (1976) “The Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology”. Berkeley: University of California Press Ltd. pp. 1-157


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Yama (2013) In Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from http://



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Article written by: Blake Irvine (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content