Category Archives: Puranic Mythology and Other Hindu Deities

Ganga (River and Goddess)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Ganges Valley


Ganga Sagar Mela

Godavari River

Narmada River



Seven Gangas



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


Related Topics for Further Investigation














Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


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

Mohini and the Churning of the Ocean of Milk

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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







Vayu Purana                                                                                                                            


Bhagavata Purana

Agni Purana




Sculpture/Art Work





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

The Dikpalas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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Recommended Websites


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.

The Devi Mahatmya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References and Further Recommended Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related Topics



Markandeya Purana


Durga Saptashati










Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


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














The Devi Bhagavata Purana

The Devi Bhagavata Purana is one of two Bhagavata Puranas. It exalts the goddess Devi, and the other praises the god Visnu. The Devi Bhagavata Purana is a more brief form than that of Visnu’s Bhagavata Purana. Devi only speaks half a sloka (a metric style in prose composition; a couplet (Rodrigues 564) propounding herself as the ground of all being (Brown 17).

“All this universe indeed is just I myself; there is nothing else eternal.”

The Devi Bhagavata Purana [DBP] is comprised of 12 books (skandhas), 318 chapters, and 18,000 verses (slokas). It is a Sakta Upa-Purana, the “lesser” Puranas. There are eighteen or nineteen Maha (greater) Puranas, and many Upa (lesser) Puranas that encompass the vast body of Puranic literature (Rodrigues 290). There is conflict over the exact age of the text. An old age would suggest more validity and greatness for some [See Brown “The Problem of Canonicity” (18-24); looks at both religious and academic perspectives and compares differing views of scholars], however, there is evidence that such texts are often edited, adjusted, modified, and expanded upon in order to heighten the status of the text and present it in favour of devotees. There is evidence that the Devi Bhagavata Purana is not an exception to these practices (Brown 20-21).

The goddess Devi is usually portrayed in myths as a warrior whose mount is a lion named Mahasingha, and is known to defeat many demons; however she is also the cosmic mother, especially to her devotees. She is not typically seen as the wife, consort, or sakti of particular male gods (Rodrigues 323). She is beyond being a consort to anyone, though she bears a special relationship to every deity (Hawley & Wulff 32). For her devotees, Devi is independent and embodies the powers of all the gods combined. She is known by many names, most often known as Durga (She who is Formidable), or Candi (She who is Fierce). Other names include Prakrti (matter or nature), Maya (trick or illusion), Sakti (power or ability) (Coburn 20), and Mahamaya (the great matrix of phantasmal reality) (Rodrigues 323). She is also Parvati or Kali, themselves eventually known as individual goddesses. Devi is also associated with a “horde of females known as ‘the Mothers.’” There are hundreds of females part of this group and are known to be fighting, ferocious, and bloodthirsty beings, although the maternal instinct associated with Devi runs deep in all of them (Coburn 21).

There are two particularly important festivals associated with the Great Goddess, a spring and an autumn Navaratra (“nine nights”). The spring festival evidences Devi’s associations with fertility, while the autumn celebrations draw in Devi’s marital dimension (Rodrigues 324). Instructions on sacred places, vows, festivals, such as the Navaratra, and proper worship of Devi can be found in the Devi Bhagavata Purana.

“The two nine nights vow called Navaratra are to be observed, one in the autumn and the other in the spring season. These are very dear to Me. He is certainly My devotee and very dear who for My satisfaction performs these and the other Nitya Naimittik vows, free from any pride and jealousy. He certainly gets the Sajujya Mukti with Me.” (DBP 7:38:42-43) [Mukti is freedom/release from samsara/bondage, See Rodrigues (556)]

The Devi Bhagavata Purana is only one of many texts celebrating the Great Goddess. This text takes into account many myths already told in other Hindu sacred texts and elaborates on, retells, and/or adjusts these stories. In the second book and sixth chapter, the birth of the Pandavas [the family in constant rivalry and conflict with their cousins, the Kauravas, from the Mahabharata epic] is told (Rodrigues 230). However, the Devi Bhagavata Purana makes relatively few changes, and avoids direct contradictions with the Mahabharata (Brown 21). The question of which of the two Bhagavatas is more genuine is often raised, and many scholars argue over which has more authority. The Devi Bhagavata Purana could seem, to some, to be completely aware of the “tampering” of certain myths in Visnu’s Bhagavata Purana, and therefore purposely makes fewer changes and goes back to a more ancient standard in order to gain authority over Visnu’s Bhagavata Purana (Brown 21). Puranic works, such as the Devi Bhagavata Purana emerged by the 7th century CE, though many were composed later. (Rodrigues 281), therefore it is a late Purana. There is speculation over its age and its placement as an Upa-Purana versus a Maha-Purana by many scholars, however, at present; it is in the category of an Upa-Purana, despite the conflict.

Mention of Sita, Rama, Laksmana, and Ravana [characters from the Ramayana epic] is made in the third book and twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth chapters. These two chapters describe the birth of Sita, her discovery by King Janaka, the capturing of Sita by Ravana, and Rama’s search for her. The Ramayana makes no mention of Devi worship by Rama; however, a change made in the Devi Bhagavata Purana is that Rama finds solutions to his problems in Devi worship, due to the goddess-centered worship of the text (Brown 167). In the Devi Bhagavata Purana, Rama performs the Navaratra (nine night ceremony devoted to Devi), then Devi appears to Rama, informs him of his previous incarnations [he is an avatara of the god Visnu; the birth of the various avataras of Visnu can be found in the fourth book of the Devi Bhagavata Purana], reveals his purpose to kill Ravana, and promises him the recovery of his kingdom, if Rama continues to worship her (Brown 167-168). [For further information on the Ramayana epic consult Rodrigues (2006) or Valmiki/Goldman (1996)].

The Devi Mahatmya, also known as the Durga Saptasati, is another goddess-centered text that tells of the conception of Devi. The fifth book and eighteenth chapter of the Devi Bhagavata Purana recounts the slaying of the buffalo demon Mahisa by Devi, a retelling of the myth from the Devi Mahatmya (Glorification of the Great Goddess) text. Devi is endowed with the powers and weapons of all of the gods in order to slay the great buffalo demon Mahisa.

“Visnu then addressed all the Devas to give all their auspicious ornaments and weapons, He said: — ‘O Devas! Better give, all you the various arms and weapons, endowed with strength, created out of your own weapons and give them all today to the Devi.’” (DBP 5:8:75)

Certain elements differ in the Devi Bhagavata Purana from the Devi Mahatmya, such as the weapons in which Devi slays Mahisa. In the Devi Mahatmya, she slays him by crushing him with her foot, impaling him with her spear, and beheading him with her great sword (Rodrigues 323). In the Devi Bhagavata Purana, Devi pierces the demon with her trident, and then beheads him with her discus of a thousand spokes.

The Hindu belief in karma is also demonstrated in the Devi Bhagavata Purana. Karma is the concept of causality in moral action in which good deeds are meritorious (punya) and evil or sinful deeds (papa) have painful effects (Rodrigues 551). The fourth book and second chapter states:

“O best of kings! The fruits of karma must have to be experienced, whether auspicious or inauspicious, be he a Deva, or human being or an animal; anyone who has embodied himself in fine or gross bodies!” (DBP 4:2:34)

The Devi Bhagavata Purana covers many subjects, retells many myths, tells of the benefits of worshipping Devi, instructs how to worship Devi, illustrates hells and the destiny of sinners, explains the origins of the Earth and of other deities, speaks of narratives, explains hymns to Devi, and much more. Although it is an Upa (lesser) Purana, it contains vast amounts of information and requires great study in order to fully comprehend and explain. [The entire English translation by Vijnanananda of the Devi Bhagavata Purana is available online and also in print copy; link attached below.]

Devi’s many devotees are part of the Sakta sect in Hinduism and hold her as preeminent. Devi developed as an independent goddess unattached to any male sectarian tradition, and therefore is the basis of the goddess-based sectarian tradition, Saktism. [For more information on Saktism consult Tigunait (1998) or Rodrigues (2006)]. Devi is Sakti, the power that creates the cosmos. The devotees designated as Saktas form a smaller segment of Hindu population than either Saivas (worshippers of the god Siva) or Vaisnavas (devotees of the god Visnu) (Rodrigues 278-280). Devotees recognize that Devi has an ultimate form (formlessness) and an intimate form (accessible through faith), this presents that the gods themselves cannot know the cosmic form of the goddess without the personal extension of her grace (anugraha), and this can be done only through loving devotion (bhakti) to her (Beane 56). Therefore, devotees are strongly devoted to Devi because only through this loving devotion do they receive Devi’s good graces, any less would have consequences. The benefits of worshipping the goddess Devi and reading goddess-centered texts, such as the Devi Bhagavata Purana, can be recognized in verses from the text itself:

“She regulates the hearts of all and is the Cause of all causes. Without Her worship no one’s desires can be expected to be accomplished. Therefore, O Best of Suras! Worship the Universal Mother, the Prakrti Devi with greatest devotion and with greatest purity for the destruction of your enemy…She will then surely fulfill your desires.” (DBP 6:5:6-31)


References and Related Readings

Beane, Wendell C. (1973) History of Religions – The Cosmological Structure of Mythical Time: Kali-Sakti. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Bhagavata Purana, 2 vols. text and translation. Gorakhpur: Gita Press, 1952-60.

Brown, Cheever Mackenzie (1945) The Triumph of the Goddess: The Canonical Models and Theological Visions of the Devi Bhagvata Purana. Albany: State University New York Press.

_____ (1974) God as Mother: A Feminine Theology in India: An Historical and Theological Study of the Brahmavaivarta Purana. Hartford, Vt.: Claude Stark.

Coburn, Thomas B. (1991) Encountering the Goddess: A Translation of the Devi-Mahatmya and a Study of Its Interpretation. Albany: State University New York Press.

Das, Bhagawan (1962) Krsna: A Study in the Theory of Avataras. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Hawley, J.S & Wulff, D.M. (1998) Devi: Goddesses of India. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hazra, R. C. (1958-63) Studies in the Upapuranas, 2 vols. Calcutta: Sanskrit College.

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

Pintchman, Tracy (1994) The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Pulasker, A. D. (1955) Studies in the Epics and Puranas of India. Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2003) Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durga Puja with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

_____ (2006) Hinduism – The eBook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Tigunait, Rajmani (1998) Sakti, the Power in Tantra: A Scholarly Approach. Honesdale: Himalayan Institute Press.

Valmiki, David & Goldman Robert P. (1996) The Ramayana of Valmiki. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Van Lysebeth, André (1995) Tantra: The Cult of the Feminine. York Beach, Me.: Samuel Weiser.

Vijnanananda, Swami (trans.) (1921-23) The Srimad Devi Bhagavatam. Allahabad: Sudhindra Nath Vasu.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Bhagavata Purana












Mahabharata Epic

Ramayana Epic



Devi Mahatmya








Durga Puja


Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by Brianne Graham (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Bhagavata Purana

The devotion and worship of Krsna is one of the most influential and widespread series of cults in the Hindu tradition. One of the most important texts regarding this devotion is the Bhagavata Purana. One the most basic level, the Bhagavata Purana concerns the exploits of many of the incarnations of Visnu. In particular, the narrative devotes its longest section to the deeds of the avatar Krsna.

The Bhagavata Purana is said to have been composed by the sage Vyasa. Vyasa is often credited as the author of the Puranas, the Mahabharata, and the Upa-Puranas (Prasad 1). The identity of Vyasa is a controversial subject among scholars, and most modern scholars tend to treat Vyasa as a mythological figure. This is because the sheer amount of writing attributed to him would seem impossible for one man to compose in a lifetime (Prasad 3). Therefore most scholars agree that Vyasa is in fact a number of different authors, however the exact identity of the authors is still subject to debate.

There is also debate among scholars regarding the actual date of composition of the Bhagavata Purana. According to Sheo Shanker Prasad, there are currently three dominant theories regarding the Bhagavata’s date of origin. The first theory is that the famous grammarian Vodadeve composed the Bhagavata sometime in the 13th century CE (Prasad 38). According to Prasad, this theory is declining in favor mainly because there would seem to be direct references and even commentaries written concerning sections of the Bhagavata, which would seem to have been composed prior to the 13th century (Prasad 40). The second theory concerning the composition date of the Bhagavata claims that it was composed sometime during the sixth century CE. This theory is also falling out of favor with scholars, due mainly to the fact that it claims that there are quotations and references to the Bhagavata in other works dating from the seventh and eighth centuries. These claims are currently being debated because some speculate that the passages in question may simply have been later additions to such early texts in order to make them compatible with the Bhagavata narrative (Prasad 41). The more modern consensus seems to be with the third theory expressed by Prasad. This theory speculates that the Bhagavata Purana was composed sometime between 900-1000 CE (Prasad 39). Prasad argues that the Bhagavata must have been composed sometime between the Devi-Bhagavata [c. 950 CE] and Sriharsa’s Naisadhiya-carita [c.1020-1080 CE] and thus had to have been composed sometime between 950-1080 CE (Prasad 43-44). This theory is also supported by a number of modern scholars, including Bimanbehari Majumdar (Majumdar 61-63). Despite the modern shift towards the theory that the Bhagavata was composed during the tenth century, there is still no absolute consensus among scholars as to the actual date of composition, and event the most popular theories rely on a great degree of speculation.

The story contained within the narrative itself opens with a group of rsis who wished to enter heaven. To achieve this, they began performing a complicated and tiring yajna, but due to the nature of the ritual, they were forced to take a break (Sharma 7). While they were resting, the rsis were joined by the great sage Suta, himself also a rsi. The members of the original group performing the yajna wished to learn more about Krsna, and acknowledging Suta as the most knowledgeable concerning the life of Krsna, asked him to teach them (Sharma 7). Suta responded by telling the Bhagavata Purana.

At its most basic level, the Bhagavata Purana is the tale of the deeds of avatars of the god Visnu. Here we find one of the more distinguishing features of the Bhagavata, namely that it describes 24 incarnation of Visnu, whereas other texts tend to only refer to ten incarnations (Sharma 7). Visnu’s avatars described in the Bhagavata Purana are as follows: The first was described as a celibate Brahmin; the second was a wild boar or varaha; the third was the great sage Narada; the forth incarnation was actually two people, Nara and Narayana; the fifth was the sage Kapila; the sixth was Dattatreya, son of the sage Atri and his wife Anusuya; the seventh was Yajna, who “held the title of Indra during the first manvantara” (Sharma 8); the eighth was Rishabha; the ninth was king Prithu; the tenth was a fish; the eleventh was a turtle, named Kurma; the twelfth was Dhanvantari; the thirteenth was a beautiful woman; the fourteenth was a narasima, or half-man half-lion; the fifteenth was a vamana, or dwarf; the sixteenth was Parashurama; the seventeenth was Vedavyasa, whose real name was Krsna Dvaipayana, who received name Vedavyasa because he reorganized the Vedas so that they might be easier understood by man [reorganized into the current four volumes]; the eighteenth was Rama [from the Ramayana]; the nineteenth and twentieth were Baladeva and his younger brother Krsna; and the twenty-first was the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (Sharma 7-9). The twenty-second avatar described by Suta was not yet born, but would be named Kalki (Sharma 9). While Suta claims there are twenty-four incarnations, he only describes twenty-two (Sharma 9). The bulk of the narrative of the Bhagavata Purana is composed of the exploits of the various avatars of Visnu.

As previously stated, the largest individual section of the Bhagavata Purana concerns the exploits of the avatar Krsna. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of this section of the Bhagavata is that is perhaps the earliest Sanskrit text concerning the childhood of Krsna (Sharma 6). This section describes the birth of Krsna and his older brother Baladeva as the result of Brahma’s prayers to Visnu that he might end evil’s hold on the world (Sharma 15). In this tale, Kamsa, king of the Yodvas, forces Krsna into hiding as a child. It describes his youthful exploits playing with cow herders and playing the flute (Sharma 15-16). The Bhagavata also describes Krsna’s return to Mathura and his slaying of Kamsa, as well as other divine acts [such as lifting a mountain with one finger] (Sharma 16). The story of Krsna is often seen as the most important part of the Bhagavata and is consequently one of the most studied sections.

One such study was composed by Vallabhacarya sometime in the late 15th or early 16th century CE. In his introduction to his translation of Vallabhacarya’s work, James D. Redington notes that chapters 29-35 of book ten of the Bhagavata were of particular interest to Vallabhacarya and others due to the aesthetic implications of Krsna’s “love games” with women of the cow herder caste (Redington 1). Vallabhacarya notes the implication of Krsna as the ideal male, as well as the aesthetic implications of the Gopis [cow herder women with whom Krsna played his games] as examples of ideal feminine beauty (Redington 2).

A more modern study by Richa Pauranik Clements argues for the social importance of the Krsna tales in the Bhagavata. Clements, like Vallabhacarya, found importance in the “love games” of Krsna and the Gopis, and claims that the Bhagavata sometimes implies a reversal of common Hindu dharmic ranking, namely that the narrative often seems to place the dharmic duties of the Sudra class [that “of service and devotion” (Clements 26)] as the most favored (Clements 26). However the author also notes that the narrative retains traditional varna distinctions as well. This is demonstrated, according to Clements, by the fact that while Krsna has sexual intercourse with women of the Sudra class, he can only marry a member of his own (Kshatriya) class [it is also worth noting, according to Clements, that Krsna does not seduce a member of the higher Brahmin class] (Clements 26).

The Bhagavata Purana is an intricate and expansive work that describes the deeds of the avatars of one of the chief Hindu deities, Visnu. For this reason alone it could be seen as significant, however, it has proven to also be one of the most important texts in regards to the worship of one particular avatar, Krsna.



References and Further Recommended Reading

Shastri, J.L. ed. (1970) Ancient Indian Tradition & Mythology: (Puranas in translation). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Clements, Richa Pauranik (2002) “Embodied Morality and Spiritual Destiny in the Bhagavata Purana.” International Journal of Hindu Studies Vol. 6 No. 2, p. 111-145.

Majumdar, Bimanbehari (1969) Krsna in History and Legend. Calcutta: University of Calcutta Press.

Prasad, Sheo Shanker (1984) The Bhagavata Purana: A Literary Study. Delhi: Capital Publishing House.

Preciado-Solis, Benjamin (1984) The Krsna Cycle in the Puranas: Themes and Motifs in a Heroic Saga. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Sharma, P.R.P. (2007) Encyclopedia of Puranas. New Delhi: Anmol Publications Pvt. Ltd.

Vallabhacarya (1479-1531?) Vallabhacarya on the Love Games of Krsna. James D. Redington, trans (1983). Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.


Related Topics







Varna system


Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by Daniel Lavigne (Spring 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Life and Character sketch of Ravana.





The Ramayana





Kingdom of Lanka








Bala Khanda

Ayodya Khanda

Aranya Kanda

Kiskindha Kanda

Sundara Kanda

Yudda Kanda

Uttara Kanda


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

The Puranas

The Puranas are a group of eighteen religious Hindu texts consisting of 400,000 slokas. Their composition dates back to the 4th century CE (Wilson 22 & 24). They are often considered to be the fifth Veda. They are listed as follows, in respective order: Brahma, Padma, Vaishnava, Saiva, Bhagavata, Naradiya, Markandeya, Agneya, Bhavishya, Brahma Vaivaarta, Lainga, Varaha, Skanda, Vamana, Kaurma, Matsya, Garuda, and Brahmanda Purana (Wilson 23). They are the main source of Hinduism’s mythology, but include history as well. They are not considered to be authoritative texts of Hindu belief, but are used as guides for worship (Wilson 5). There are also another group called the Upapuranas, which are also eighteen in number. They are considered to be lesser texts, and are not as studied due to their inferior status. The Puranas focus on mainly non-vedic deities: namely Visnu, Siva, and Devi, all of which are equated with Brahman, rather than Vedic deities (Wilson 13). The sage Vyasa is said to have composed the texts. As a result, it is similar to the epic the Mahabharata and is considered to be smrti. However, the Puranas focus on mainly on bhakti practices, rather than dharmic practices. In the Mahapuranas, the practice of worship (puja) is described as a form of worship that anyone can do, regardless of class or gender. These include forms of puja such as ascetic observances (vrata) and pilgrimages (Singh 219).

The Puranas were one of the first texts to be converted from oral representation to the written word (Brown 76). They can be classified in many different fashions, including general classifications dependent upon their general teachings. Classification based on the teachings of three qualities (alluded to in the Matsya Purana) are widely accepted (Wilson 19-22). The three qualities are: truth (Satta/Sattika), ignorance (Tamas/Tamasa), and passion (Rajas/Rajasa), which are also the three gunas of Sankyha philosophy. Six Puranas represent each quality, thus the eighteen Puranas can be classified as three groups of six, corresponding with the quality they focus on. The Puranas that collectively represent Sattika are the Vaishnava Puranas. Tamasa is represented by the Saiva Puranas and Rajasa by the Brahmanda Puranas (Wilson 20). The Matsya Purana does not explicitly classify which Puranas are specific to each quality, but does give indications that sections within the Mahatmya Purana that refer to Hari or Visnu are considered to be Sattika; sections devoted to Agni or Siva are Tamasa; and sections which concentrate on Brahma are Rajasa (Wilson 20-21). More specifically, within the Vaishnava grouping are the Vishnu, Srimad Bhagavata, Naradiya, Garuda, Padma and Varaha Puranas. The Puranas included in the Saiva grouping are the Siva, Linga, Skanda, Agni, Matsya, and Kurma Puranas. The Brahmanda grouping includes the Brahma, Brahmanda, Brahma Vaivrata, Markandeya, Bhavishya and the Vamana Puranas (Wilson 20).

The Puranas can also be classified based on their narration of five main subjects, which are known as Pancha Lakshana (Wilson 10). The five properties are: Sarga (creation), Pratisarga (renewal or recreation), Vamsa (genealogy of the deities), Manwantara (period of time of the Yugas), and Vamsanucaritam (tales of genealogical figures, heroes, and deities) (Wilson 7). The Puranas also include descriptions of the cosmology and philosophy. Each of the eighteen Puranas do not necessarily teach about each of the Pancha Lakshanas. They may include some of them or none at all. They also use stories of deities to demonstrate their teachings (Vansanucaritam). Therefore, each of the Puranas differs in the material it covers. The Puranas are not entirely coherent in the information they provide, but have greater efficacy when viewed as a whole.

A general description of the teachings contained in each of the Puranas is given below: the Brahma Purana describes Sarga, tells of the Manvantaras, describes how yoga should be performed and dedicates much to Krsna (Wilson 28-29). The Padma Purana includes accounts of genealogy and cosmology and bhakti (Wilson 30). The Visnu Purana describes Sarga (Wilson 32). The Saiva Purana includes details of Vamsa and Manvantaras (Wilson 37). The fifth Purana, the Bhagavata Purana, tells the history of Krsna (Wilson 43). The Narada Purana is composed of prayers to Visnu (Wilson 53). The Markandeya Purana describes Sarga, Manvantaras, and Durga, but in an un-religious way. It is merely a sequential history (Wilson 56-58). The Agni Purana does not include accounts of the Pancha Lakshana. It focuses on medicinal therapies as described in the Sausruta as well as grammar (Wilson 55-56).

The ninth Purana, the Bhavishya Purana includes details of Pratisarga, in addition to dedication to numerous deities, religious rites and ceremonies, vratas and caste duties (Wilson, 58). The Brahma Vaivarta Purana mainly includes prayers dedicated to Krsna (Wilson, 66). The eleventh Purana, the Linga Purana deals with Sarga and Pratisarga (Wilson 68). The Varaha Purana focuses on pilgrimage sites (Wilson 71). The Skanda Purana deals with the importance of temples and their construction, not a topic directly related to any Pancha Lakshana (Wilson 74). It is said that the Vamana Purana is very un-puranic in nature. There are brief references to Sarga and Manvantaras, but it is generally lacking the five teachings of the Puranas (Wilson 76). The fifteenth Purana is the Kurma Purana, which refers to Sarga and Manvantara , with the use of Vamsanucaritam in its first section (Wilson 79). The Matsya Purana also includes Sarga as well as caste duties and vratas (Wilson 82). The Garuda Purana’s main objective is the description of vratas. It does briefly talk about Sarga, but it is not the main focus (Wilson 84). The last and eighteenth Purana is the Brahmanda Purana. This Purana also seems to be a misfit, not coinciding with the general Puranic nature. It gives description of worship, but does not focus on any of the Pancha Lakshana (Wilson 86). Regardless of the way in which the Puranas are organized, they still have the same teachings and importance. Each is unique, but complementary to one another. Although some of the Puranas have more teachings than others and therefore may be considered more significant (such as the Visnu Purana), it is important to view all eighteen books as a whole.

References and Further Readings.

Brown, Mackenzie C. (1986) Purana as Scripture: From Sound to Image of the Holy Word in the Hindu Tradition. History of Religions 26, no. 1 (August): 68.

Dimmitt, Cornelia & van Buitenen, J. A. B., eds. and trans. Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1978.

Klostermaier, Klaus K. (1994) A Survey of Hinduism. 2nd Ed. Albany: SUNY Press.

Matchett, Freda. (2005) The Puranas: Blackwell companion to Hinduism. p 129-143. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications.

Singh, Shalini. (2005) Secular pilgrimages and sacred tourism in the Indian Himalayas. GeoJournal 64, no. 3 (November):215-223.

Wilson, H. H. (2006) The Vishnu Purana: A System of Hindu Mythology and Tradition. Read Books Publications.

Related topics:

Sanskrit Literature

Non-Vedic Deities

Pancha Lackshana

Bhagavad Gita


Related websites:

Written by Erin Stewart (Spring 2009), who is solely responsible for its content.