Category Archives: Vaisnava Deities

Vrindavan (Vrndavana)

India is a country with a varied and rich mythology. Vrindavan (aka Vrndavana) is located in Northern India around fifteen kilometres from Mathura and is considered to be one of the seven holiest cities for Hindus (Haberman, 272). The city features many sacred land and water features such as the Yamuna River, sacred groves (vanas), ponds (kundas) and ghats (holy steps leading down to a river) (Luthy, 4). It is also referred to as Vrindavan or Vrindivana city. The name Vrindavan is derived from ‘Vrinda’ which is another name for the sacred tulsi (i.e. basil) plant. It is one of the most holy cities within the Hindu tradition and is commonly known as the “The City of Temples” with allegedly five thousand in total.

Major religious routes within the forests of Vrindavan were first established in the sixteenth century based on the Sanksrit text Vraj Bhakti Vilasa written by Narayan Bhatt (Shah, 41). Bhatt is responsible for mapping out a large portion of the religious sites that are worshipped to this day. Bhatt more specifically mapped out the place-names found within the Puranas onto the physical terrain where these sites are found (Ghosh, 193) Pilgrimages are religious and cultural phenomena that are important features the Hindu religion. In the Hindu religion, a pilgrimage is referred to as a tirtha yatra and is a liminal process that establishes participation in the spiritual realm (Singh &Haigh, 783). A pilgrimage has been defined as a journey resulting from religious causes, externally to a holy site, and internally for spiritual purposes and internal understanding (Barber, 1). Today, pilgrimage is defined differently, as a traditional religious or modern secular journey (Collins-Kreiner, 440). For example, the Krsna Balrama Madir Temple, established in 1975 by His Divine Grace Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, has now become Vrindavan’s most popular temple and has one of the highest standards of deity worship and cleanliness. It has become one of the most popular temples and Hare Krsna devotees can be found here throughout the year (Jacobsen, 143).

Vrindavan is one of the most important places of pilgrimage for devotees of Krsna as the city is well-known as the forested region where the deity Krsna grew up as a humble cowherd (go-pala). The city itself is said to be where Krsna spent his childhood and many say that he still resides within the city itself.  It is located in the Mathura district of Uttar Pradesh. The area of Vrindavan is described in the Puranas as the childhood home of the deity Krsna. This mythologized place was located geographically when the Bengali Saint Caitanya travelled there to rediscover Krsna’s childhood home where he then experienced visions of the deity in the uninhabited forest (jangala) which is now modern day Vrindavan (Ghosh, 194). Caitanya and his followers began to construct temples in the holy city that can still be found today. For example, the Madan Mohan Temple is the oldest temple in Vrndavan today and is closely associated with Caitanya.

Mathura (just outside of Vrindavan) is a little town and a major place of pilgrimage on the banks of the Yamuna River. It attracts about a half of a million pilgrims each year, especially during major festivals such as Krsna Janmastami, Holi, and Radhastami. These journeys are made to sacred places as an act of religious devotion (Nash, 101). Pilgrimage sites are places that people consider sacred and maintain their sanctity by visiting them regularly and relating them into their religious framework (Eck, 8). In India more than one hundred million people visit around two thousand major pilgrimage sites annually (Shinde, 449). During ritualized pilgrimages individuals travel to a sacred place and perform rituals considered necessary to appease the sacred object in that place. These ritual acts of worship acts by pilgrims (individual and collective) of worship and rituals are regarded as part of their normal their religious duties (Shinde, 450). Pilgrimages are crucial in the Hindu religion in order for an individual to engage all of the senses when to experiencing the sacred sites Vrindavan has to offer. The believer “sees” the sacred sights (temples, churches, relics, icons, monuments), he/she “hears” the sacred sounds (church and temple bells, drum beats, chanting, singing, the call to prayer), “touches” the sacred artifacts (icons, deities, texts), “eats” special food (such as consecrated food); and “smells” specific aromas (incense, fresh flowers) (Eck, 9). All of these experiences vary depending on the individual’s participation in the religious culture developed around the pilgrimage site itself (Shinde, 451).

Although there are thousands of temples erected within Vrindavan there are a few that stand out. Since the establishment in the fifteenth century, Vrindavan has continued to be a center for devotional pilgrimages dedicated to the deity Krsna. Vrindavan is a place for pilgrims to visit Krsna temples, participate in worship and rituals, listen to narration of stories from the religious epics of Krsna, and perform poetry, art, dance, song, and drama dedicated to Krsna’s glory (Shinde, 452). For example, these everyday rituals involve dressing the idol in finery and darshan, communal singing of hymns, and food offerings to the deity depending on the temple of worship. Today you can find a live video stream of the Sri Sri Krsna Balarama Mandir which has now become one of the most popular and visited temples in the world.

Vrindavan is also a major site for Vaisnava groups. For example, widows (mostly from Bengal) have been congregating in Vrindavan for years to live out the rest of their lives. In India, social mores inhibit women from remarrying and they are shunned because they are viewed as inauspicious. Nilakantha Braja (The Blue-necked God) written by Assamese writer Indira Goswami highlights the plights of the widows who reside in the sacred city by depicting the despicable and undignified life and death experiences of these women. Known as the Radheyshamis (widows who sing devotional songs in temples for a pittance) these widows sing bhajans (hymns) in order to accumulate money to survive (Bhushan, 138). Whether young or old, widowed women leave behind their colorful saris, jewelry, and even shave their heads if they are part of the more conservative Hindu traditions (Jamadar, Melkeri, & Holkar, 57). Although these women are not forced to die in ritual sati (burning themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre) they are still expected to mourn until their own deaths. Therefore, these women find refuge in Vrindavan where they lead miserable lives surviving by begging and singing hymns in praise of Gods (Pande, 209).

Today, the city of Vrindavan has become more of a tourist attraction than a pilgrimage site. Pilgrimages, themselves, are being transformed into mere sightseeing tours and can now be more accurately labeled as ‘religious tourism’ (Shinde, 184). Annually, Vrindavan receives more than six million visitors, who are no longer visiting strictly for religious reasons (Shinde, 448). Places that were once Hindu holy sites may be accessed with a simple search on Google where the best flight deals and top places to visit are a click away. However, some temples remain constant to modern Hindus such as the Banke-Bihari Temple which is considered to be the most popular shrine and is associated with Swami Haridas and Nimbarka. Another is Nidhi Van Temple where Krsna and Radha are said to come out after midnight and indulge in raas-leela (dance found in the Puranas) and then rest in the Rang Mahal Temple which is decorated daily for the two deities.

In conclusion, Vrindavan is gaining popularity due to its numerous temples. Construction and development are ongoing which includes temples, guest houses, and apartments. Simply wandering around Vrindavan allows one to see the vast beauty of the holy city and share vicariously in the myths of Krsna.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READINGS

Barber, R. (1993) Pilgrimages. London: The Boydell Press.

Bhushan, Ravi. (2014) “Estranged Identity: The Problem of Hindu Widows in Indira Goswami’s Nilakantha Braja.” Labyrinth: An International Refereed Journal of Postmodern Studies 5 #2:138-141.

Collins-Kreiner, N. (2010) “Researching pilgrimage: Continuity and transformations.” Annals of tourism research, 37(2): 440-456.

Eck, D. L. (1981) “Darsan: Seeing the divine image in India.” Chambersberg, PA: Anima Books: 8-9.

Ghosh, P. (2002) “Tales, tanks, and temples:the creation of a sacred center in seventeenth-century Bengal,” Asian Folklore, 61 #2:193-222.

Haberman, D. (1994) Journey through the Twelve Forests: An encounter with Krsna. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Luthy, T. (2016) “Few people know that Krishna was the first environmentalist”. Political Ecology of Tourism: Community, power and the environment.

Jacobsen, K. A. (2015) “Book review: Modern Hindu Personalism: The History, Life, and Thought of Bhaktisiddhānta Sarasvatī, written by Ferdinando Sardella.” Numen, 62(1): 143-146.

Jamadar, C., Melkeri, S. P., & Holkar, A. (2015) “Quality of Life among Widows”. #1: 57-68.

Mostafanezhad, M., Norum, R., Shelton, E. J., & Thompson-Carr, A. (2016) “Political Ecology of Tourism: Community, Power and the Environment”. Routledge: #2.

Pande, Rekha (2015) “Widows Of Vrindavan-Feminisation Of Old Age In India.” Pakistan Journal of Gender Studies Vol. 10: 209-223.

Shah, B. (2006) “The Pilgrimage of the Groves: Reconstructing the Meaning of a Sixteenth-Century Hindu Landscape”. Arnoldia: 39-41.

Shinde, K. A. (2015) “Religious tourism and religious tolerance: insights from pilgrimage sites in India.” Tourism Review, 70(3): 179-196.

Shinde, K. A. (2011) ““This is a religious environment”: Sacred space, environmental discourse, and environmental behavior at a Hindu pilgrimage site in India””. Space and Culture. 14: 448-463.

Shinde, K. A. (2008) “The environment of pilgrimage in the sacred site of Vrindavan, India.” PhD diss., Monash University: 449-451.

Shinde, K. A. (2007) “Case study 6: Visiting sacred sites in India: Religious tourism or pilgrimage.” Religious tourism and pilgrimage festivals management: An international perspective: 184-197.

Singh, R. P., & Haigh, M. J. (2015) “Hindu Pilgrimages: The Contemporary Scene.” The Changing World Religion Map: 783-801

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Banke-Bihari Temple

Bhagauata Purana

bhahjans

Chaintanya

dham

ghats

go-pala

Hare Krsna

Holi

jangala

Janmashtami

kundas

Krsna Balrama Madir Temple

Madan Mohan Temple

Mathura

Nimbarka

Nidhi Van

Nilakantha Braya

raas-leela

Radhahtami

Radheyshamis

Rang Mahal

sati

Sri Sri Krsna Balarama Madir Temple

Swami Haridas

tirtha yatra

tulsi

vaisnava

vanas

Vraj Bhakti Vilasa

Yamuna River

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.vrindavan-dham.com/vrindavana/ (Sri Vrindavan Dham, 2016).

http://daily.bhaskar.com/news/JM-a-secretive-place-in-vrindavan-where-radha-krishna-indulge-in-raas-leela-every-n-4874572-PHO.html?seq=5 (Daily Bhaskar, 2016).

http://hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/concepts/mathura.asp (Hindu Website, 2016).

http://www.stephen-knapp.com/vrindavana_the_holy_land_of_lord_krishna.htm (Vrindavana: The Holy Land of Lord Krsna, 2009).

http://www.krishna.com/vrindavan (Krishna.com, 2016).

 

Article written by: Lindsay Tymchyna (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

 

 

 

 

 

Radha

India is a patriarchal society in which men are considered more important than women; wives are often ranked based on their husband’s social status. However, goddesses are an exception and challenge this notion, as they hold power (Sakti) over all humans and often hold presidency over male gods in the Hindu religion (Vaudeville 1). Radha is an inspirational goddess in the Hindu religion, due to her everlasting love and unbreakable devotion (Bhakti) for the god Krsna, who is one of the eight incarnations of Visnu (Mukhhopadhyay 4). Unfortunately there is no record of Radha’s individual identity before she met Krsna; therefore, they are often considered one entity with the name Radha-Krsna (Miller 13). Radha’s story is unique because it reinforces love between human and the divine (Dimock and Levertov 9).  Together, their story constitutes the attainment of the highest level of connection, passion, and love that two beings can share, which is known as Rasa.

The Gitagovinda describes the love relationship of Radha and Krsna through poetry and song, and was written in the 12th Century by Jayadeva (Miller 14). Jayadeva reveals that Radha and Krsna first encountered one another in the country Braj. This was Radha’s birth town where she was well known and often called Lali, which means darling (Vaudeville 11). Krsna was married to sixteen thousand wives, and had sixteen thousand Gopis, which are cow-herding women. Krsna’s flute had the power to make women drop whatever they were doing and join him in listening to beautiful melodies, thus attracting Radha (Dimock and Levertov 8).

Krsna and Radha knew and longed for each other before they had any first encounters, leading to the notion that they are not, and never were, separate entities at all. Rather, Radha is Krsna’s characteristic of power and strength (Sakti), and everything that he wants out of a partner; she is said to be his reason for coming into the world (Wulff 111). Radha evolved from Krsna to bring nature (Prakrti), Maya (mysterious power), and Sakti (energy) into existence (Brown 62).  This alludes to the idea that Krsna needs Radha because she is the energy and power that he transmits to all of the other Gopis when he loves them. When Radha and Krsna are apart he longs to feel the stability he encounters in her presence.

One crucial concept of importance when surveying Radha and Krsnas love is the importance of memory. It is highly recognized that both Radha and Krsna remembered each others’ encounters and the way they made each other feel, most of their relationship was spent lovingly devoting themselves to each other through their connection of memories, and the hope that they would one day reunite after huge bouts of separation. Krsna is absent for long periods of time as he goes away to the Mahabharata war, in hopes of finding his lost identity (Miller and Goswami 14, 89). Radha becomes so obsessed with the idea of Krsna that she sees him everywhere she goes, even in the trees, almost as a hallucination (Wulff 31). Radha remembers miniscule details about Krsna, and fantasizes about making love to him. Through this, Krsna can sense her love and they share a connection through wanting each other; this desire is known as Kama (Miller 20). The foundation of their relationship is that they love each other so deeply that they will do anything to stay devoted, even after great amounts of time pass without contact. Their love is eternal and they both never feel the strength of that bond with any of their other significant partners.

Radha is often perceived as Krsna’s mistress because Krsna never married her but always admired her. Radha and Krsna never marry because they desire a love without constraints and one of spontaneity (Wulff 41). Radha’s biggest insecurity is that she is forced to overcome the jealousy she experiences when she imagines Krsna participating in sexual acts with other Gopis (Dimock and Levertov 7). Radha feels intensely conflicted in her own mind, as she is aware that Krsna is attracted and involved with other women, but this does not stop her from giving Krsna all she has (even though she is also married). She is aware that she appears mad to everyone else around her, but she does not care because her feelings of love are so deep that no object, or human could change the way she feels (Wulff 38).

Radha’s love is Krsna’s Sakti; without it he would be incomplete and lost. She energizes Krsna providing him with the means to carry on as a friend, master, child, or lover (Brown 69). Because Radha is Krsna’s favourite, she becomes one with him; alone she is just a normal cow herding Gopi, but in combination with him she is considered to be a powerful mother figure who Krsna needs and desires. Sometimes she is even regarded as more important than he in the Hindu religion. The image in which Radha forces Krsna to let her put her feet on top of his head, demonstrates the power that she had over him (Miller and Brown 23,71). The two complement and complete each other; something is taken away from one being without the presence of the other.

Radha submits her complete self to Krsna in a variety of ways. First, she listens and sings with Krsna, which proves that they are emotionally surrendered to each other. Radha and Krsna can mediate and be on the same level with one another, through this they achieve Samarana, which means spontaneity, in which all expectations are lost and they are able to love each other freely without restraints of other people (Goswami 80). Radha and Krsna are trying to achieve Rasa, which is the highest level of love, in which they will no longer feel like separate entities; rather, their love will be so powerful that it joins two individuals into one being (Goswami 80).

Today Radha and Krsna are still very important deities in Hindu worship; the Hindu calendar allows them both to be praised on separate days. Radha Ashtami is celebrated in August or September, and it is to commemorate the day of her birth. On this day people fast from food and worship her (Bellenir 1). All goddesses are seen in the Hindu calendar to have both a dark (Kali) and a bright (Durga) side, to represent the waxing and waning of the moon. The light side is said to take on human form, which carries weapons, and the dark represents a cosmic mother figure (Vaudeville 3). One also finds renounced paintings of Radha and Krsna; these represent their deep love and bond. Most original paintings show Krsna alone playing his flute, although later on Radha is also shown playing. This represents that Radha is most definitely Krsna’s favourite, and therefore receives special privileges over the other Gopis (Goswami 87).

Radha and Krsna’s relationship illustrates that not only humans can attain extreme love connections for one another, but the love between a human and God is also possible. The Radha-Krsna relationship proves that the highest Bhakti, Rasa, is possible for these two as they remember every characteristic and devote their entire being to another; even when jealousy and anger take over, their devotion for one another prevails (Dimock and Levertov 13). Krsna proves his love by making Radha his favourite out of all of the women he has encountered, and Radha devotes every action to loving Krsna and being his power to continue loving her and all of his wives and Gopis (Brown 63).

 

Bibliography

Bellenir, K (2004) Religious Holidays & Calendars. Detroit: Omnigraphics, Inc.

Brown, Mackenzie. (1982) “The Theology of Radha in the Puranas.” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.57-72. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dimock, Edward and Levertov, Denise (1967) In praise of Krishna: songs from the Bengali. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goswami, Shrivatsa. (1982) “The Play and Perfection of Rasa”  In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.72-89. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Miller, Barbara. (1982) “The Divine Duality of Radha and Krishna” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.13-27. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mukhoradhyay, Durgadas (1990) In Praise of Krishna. Delhi: Br Publishing Corporation.

Vaudeville, Charlotte. (1982) “Krishna Gopala, Radha, and The Great Goddess.” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of India, p.1-13. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wulff, Donna. (1996) “Radha: Consort and Conquerer of Krishna” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. Devi: Goddesses of India, P. 109-112. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wulff, Donna. (1982) “A Sanskrit Portrait: Radha in the plays of Rupa Gosvami” In John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, eds. The Divine Consort Radha And The Goddesses Of india, p.27-42. Berkeley: University of California Press.

 

Related Research Topics

  • Braj
  • Durga
  • Devi
  • Gitagovinda
  • Gopi
  • Jayadeva
  • Kali
  • Lali
  • Maya
  • Prakrti
  • Rasa
  • Sakti
  • Samarana

 

Related Websites

http://www.drikpanchang.com/festivals/radha-ashtami/radha-ashtami-date-time.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radha_Krishna

http://hinduism.about.com/od/scripturesepics/a/lovelegends_4.htm

https://sites.google.com/site/fortheloveofkamadeva/radha-krishna-not-so-typical-love-story

 

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

Garuda

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.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

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

Airavata

Amrita

Indra

Kadru

Kasyapa

Mulbagal

Ramayana

Ramanujacharya

Vahanas

Vaikuntha

Vinata

Visnu

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garuda

http://www.britannica.com/topic/Garuda

http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/garuda.htm#.VtamnowrL_U

http://www.mythicalcreaturesguide.com/page/Garuda

http://webonautics.com/mythology/garuda.html

http://www.ancient.eu/Garuda/

 

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

The Bhagavad Gita (A Comprehensive Study)

The Bhagavad Gita remains, to this day, one of the most influential books of the Hindu religion, estimated to originate as far back as roughly the third or fourth century BC (Davis 6).  The Gita, or Song of the Blessed One or Lord is a long dialogue between Krishna (a Supreme Deity) and a warrior, Arjuna (Edgerton 105).  The event takes place on the battle field of Kurukshetra, during a war between two rival families, finding the warrior-Prince Arjuna steeped in doubt and dejection (Edgerton 105).  Through the dialogue, Krishna teaches and reveals the mysteries of existence to Arjuna, convincing him to perform his sacred duty and fight the impending war (Edgerton 105, Stoler-Miller).  The Bhagavad Gita’s malleability has survived the ages and continues to have a profound effect on those who read it (Davis).  This essay will examine the content of the Gita, in addition to various commentary of both individual chapters, and the work as a whole.  In addition, this paper will supply further context of specific passages, and provide a moderate history of the book to substantiate its existence and importance in regard to Hindu tradition.

To begin, the actual content of The Bhagavad Gita shall be examined chapter by chapter.  In the initial chapter of the Gita, Sanjaya, an overseer, or chorus of sorts, reports the setting to the blind King Dhritarashtra, which is made apparent by listing the warriors assembled on the “Kuru Field” (Edgerton 3).  Near the end, we find Arjuna slumped in his chariot between the two sides, steeped in misery at the thought of going to war against his kinsmen, riddled with a lowness of spirit, physically crippled, in the presence of the imminent war before him.  He foresees in the war “… omens of chaos” (Stoler-Miller 25), finding “…no good in killing [his] kinsmen” (Stoler-Miller 25).  This chapter is known as Arjuna’s Dejection (Stoler-Miller 21) or Discipline of Arjuna’s Despondency (Edgerton 8).

Commentary from the viewpoint of the average Hindu, as provided in this paper by Eknath Easwaran, titles this chapter “The War Within”, and points out the first detail the reader must pick up in order to understand the actual purpose of the text – this is not Krishna’s fight, it is Arjuna’s own internal battle (Easwaran 47).  The author points out some interesting insights here about the significance of the setting of the Gita, that may explain the seeming paradox of the lessons Krishna is trying to deliver in the context of a war.  As the incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, Krishna is sworn to be noncombatant and impartial, and as Arjuna’s charioteer in the middle of a battlefield, this role becomes possible (Easwaran 47).  Easwaran also explains some of the other people mentioned in the opening chapter, giving more context to the non-Hindu reader.  The blind king, Dhritarashtra, is Arjuna’s uncle, and has been blind since birth (48).  He was never actually supposed to rule, but ended up assuming power when his brother, Pandu, whom he co-ruled with, died (Easwaran 48).  Dhritarashtra tried to eventually install Duryodhana, his own son, as King.  However, the grown up son of Pandu, Yudhishthira, is the rightful heir, thus leading to the war and its imminency (Easwaran 48-49).  Other people worth mentioning according to Easwaran are Drona, a brahmin-turned warrior specialist, who taught all the warriors including Arjuna, who was his prized student (Easwaran 49).  Bhisma, “the grandsire”, a respected elder statesman, is also Dhritarashtra’s advisor, and worth mentioning according to the translator (Easwaran 49).  Easwaran also discusses the two main viewpoints about the setting of war as a backdrop for the Gita.  Firstly, there is the orthodox Hindu view that “…condones war for the warrior” (Easwaran 50), claiming war for a warrior is simply dharma playing out.  War is tragic and honorable at the same time, and is an evil that simply cannot be avoided.  War is in accordance with divine will to the orthodox viewpoint (Easwaran 50).  The second view of this setting is the mystic standpoint, which claims an allegory of cosmic struggle between good and evil (Easwaran 50).  Gandhi famously said by placing too much stock in the setting of the Gita “…gives importance only to its opening – its preface – ignoring the scripture itself” (Easwaran 50).  Chapter one of the Bhagavad Gita “…bridges a rather perilous bridge between the warrior’s world,…and the really important part of the Gita – Sri Krishna’s revelations of spiritual truth” (Easwaran 51).

The second chapter, known as Philosophy and Spiritual Discipline (Stoler-Miller 29) or Discipline of Reason Method (Edgerton 17), lets the colloquial discourse of Krishna begin.  Arjuna is so beside himself, his “…eyes [are] blurred by tears” (Stoler-Miller 29).  Krishna urges Arjuna to rise to the occasion of his sacred duty, even though to Arjuna  is clearly torn between “…conflicting sacred duties” (Stoler-Miller 30).  Which is better?  To not fight and be silent?  Or to go into battle, and surely have to slay kinsmen?  In this moment of the dialogue, Arjuna has settled on stepping aside from the fight that confronts him.  Krishna begins with telling him that you “…[cannot] grieve for those beyond grief” and that “learned men do not grieve for the dead or the living” (Stoler-Miller 31).  The deity is speaking of rebirth and reincarnation of spirit, beyond the realm of the human body.  Krishna also reminds Arjuna that the senses are fleeting, the human body is impermanent, and that the embodied self is indestructible and immeasurable, and when one finds the infinite spirit within, one is freed from delusion (Stoler-Miller 34-39).   The analogy used is of changing of clothing and the body, in that the cycle of life is inevitable. Arjuna questions what defines a man deep in contemplation and Krishna informs him that he has to give up desires, and be content with oneself.  One must also free himself from attachment and desire.  This chapter lays the foundation for further understanding of Krishna’s teachings to Arjuna, confirming he has no cause to grieve, since through self control and discipline, one finds serenity (Stoler-Miller 32-39).

According to Easwaran’s commentary, “The Illumined Man” is the title of the following chapter, chapter two of the Gita.  Krishna’s task as Arjuna’s spiritual teacher is set out, to raise him out of despair and put him on his way to salvation (57).  He points out that Arjuna has always been a man of action, and has not given much thought to spirituality at this point of his life, but as Krishna points out, active life alone is not enough (Easwaran 57-59).  Thus Arjuna asks the perennial questions to give the Gita its purpose and mandate – Is there a soul?, What happens to the soul after death?, and Is there a deeper reality? (Easwaran 57-60).  Interestingly, as the author points out, Krishna begins with an “ultimate premise”  of the atman to answer his students principal questions (Easwaran 58), rather than leading Arjuna stage by stage. The main point is that the immortal soul is more important than the passing world (Easwaran 57-60).  Out of his comprehension, Arjuna knows he needs Krishna as his Guru (in Hindu thought, one needs an experienced teacher to seek spiritual enlightenment) (Easwaran 57-60).  This chapter also introduces the concept of samsara, and seeing past the dualities that exist in life (Easwaran 57-60).  Also touched upon in this overview chapter are the different types of yoga and their importance for spirituality (Easwaran 57-60).  One of the Gita’s most cited and famous quotes is found in this portion when Krishna answers Arjuna’s question about what difference spiritual wisdom makes in everyday life (Easwaran 59).  The warning of sense objects, yet shying from austerity is also introduced (Easwaran 57-60).

The third teaching in the Gita expands on the notion of discipline regarding action.  It is known as Discipline of Action (Stoler-Miller 41) or Discipline of Knowledge (Egderton 27).  This chapter focuses on disciplined knowledge of the discipline of men themselves when in action.  Arjuna questions whether understanding is more powerful than action and queries his mentor to”…speak one certain truth” (Stoler-Miller 41).  His mentor replies by first explaining that one cannot escape the force of action, neither by abstaining by it or acting for fruits (Stoler-Miller 41-45).  Krishna reaffirms that performing necessary action is far more powerful than inaction, and that actions must be performed without attachment, uttering words spoken by Prajapati (Stoler-Miller 42).  Prajapati said “By sacrifice will you procreate!  Let it be your wish-granting cow!” (Stoler-Miller 42).  Perhaps the most important point in this section is when Krishna declares that “Your own action  done imperfectly is better than doing someone else’s duty perfectly” (Stoler-Miller 46).

The third section of the scripture is called “Selfless Service” according to Easwaran.  He explains the meaning of “karma yoga”, which translates in Sanskrit as “the way of action”, and this takes a sharp turn away from the previous chapter (Easwaran 71).  While Krishna begins to try and teach his student, Arjuna can only find himself concerned with his immediate predicament (Easwaran 71).  Krishna explains: we must all act selflessly and out of a sense of duty, doing our part in the grand scheme of things, which cannot be avoided (Easwaran 71-72).  Here, the Doctrine of Karma comes to the forefront as Krishna tries to convince Arjuna to fight his battle, which is one of the most basic Hindu teachings (Easwaran 71-72).  Put quite simply by Krishna, actions determine destiny, reminding him not to avoid work, but to perform them without selfish attachment (Easwaran 72).  Arjuna’s next question deals with what binds us to our selfish ways, and his teacher answers that is the qualities of anger and selfish desire (Easwaran 73).  The Gita refers to the Sankhya philosophy of the three gunas: sattva, rajas, and tamas, warning of the pitfalls of the latter two (Easwaran 72-73).  An example of a noble king by the name of Janaka is given as an example of how to conduct oneself to Arjuna (Easwaran 73).

Knowledge (Stoler-Miller 49) or Discipline of Renunciation of Actions (Edgerton 31) are the titles of the fourth teaching.  Perhaps in this part of the Gita Arjuna better understands his sacred duty of action as a result of how Krishna clarifies true knowledge.  The deity explains that when sacred duty decays and chaos prevails, he must then re-create himself to restore order, much the way sacrifice in the world of man (ie: Arjuna’s sacred duty to fight) is equivalent to action, even though action can easily be obscured (ie: wrong action, inaction) (Stoler-Miller 50-52).  In other words, existence must keep going, and we must do our duty, even when it may not be desirable or ideal (Stoler-Miller 50-52).  When one has true knowledge, which is the mastery of oneself, the totality of all action emanates in it, and if one recognizes this, one can never descend into delusion (Stoler-Miller 52-52).  “The fire of knowledge reduces all actions to ashes (Stoler-Miller 54).

Chapter four, in reference to Easwaran’s treatise of the Gita is referred to as “Wisdom in Action”.  Arjuna is informed he will be privy to “secret teachings” (Easwaran 81).  The process of re-birth is again raised, and Krishna’s greatness is implied when he informs Arjuna he can recall his past lives unlike mortal men (Easwaran 81).  Roots of the Sanskrit words avatar (avatara=descent) and krish (“to draw a plow”, “to draw to oneself”) are also explained by this author (Easwaran 82-83), which gives some insight into the Hindu thought about God.  The latter part of this chapter turns back again to Arjuna’s problem, and Krishna makes a new point in the final verses, in that wisdom is the end of selfless action, knowing is the fruit of doing (Easwaran 83).

Chapter five is called Renunciation of Action (Stoler-Miller 57) or Discipline of Meditation (Edgerton 37), and focuses on which is superior: renunciation of action or discipline.  Krishna teaches discipline in action is better, and that by mastery of one correctly, one will find the fruit of both, and that renunciation is impossible without discipline (Stoler-Miller 57).  He further explains that undisciplined men are in bondage, attached to the fruit of desire (Stoler-Miller 58).  Through “…exist[ing] in the infinite spirit, [men will find] flawless equilibrium” (Stoler-Miller 59).

The fifth chapter, according to lay Hindus, is titled “Renounce and Rejoice”, and contrasts complete renunciation (sannyasa) and detachment in the working world (Easwaran 91).  Siddhartha Gautama’s quest, for example, is a prime illustration of trying to maintain balance yet avoiding austerity through a middle way (Easwaran 91).  The translator points out that the word “yoga” presents difficulties in the Gita, as it means different things at different times (Easwaran 92).  Generally speaking, it is fair to say that yoga=practice and sankhya=theory (Easwaran 92).  The Gita could indeed be the first Hindu scripture to combine karma yoga and the pursuit of self knowledge together (Easwaran 92).  The true goal of action is knowledge of the self, and in that the example of the lotus flower is given – it spends its life floating in water, yet is waterproof (Easwaran 92).  Krishna’s point is that a life of work cannot be fulfilling without self knowledge, also known as the knowledge of Brahman (Easwaran 93).  The last three verses, as the author points out, deal with Samadhi, and how once established, can come and go, yet always be resilient (Easwaran 93-94).

The Man of Discipline (Stoler-Miller 63) or Discipline of Meditation (Edgerton 41), the name of the sixth teaching of Krishna to Arjuna, outlines what proper discipline in living is.  Declaring that discipline is renunciation, only one who is mature in this has tranquility as a means (Stoler-Miller 63).  For Krishna, discipline is equal to renouncing and detaching from all intentions, sense objects and actions being renounced and detached from (Stoler-Miller 63-69).  Men need to “elevate not degrade oneself” (Stoler-Miller 63).  The self is both ones best friend and worst foe, and a man without self-mastery is in internal war (Stoler-Miller 64) and by controlling the mind, diet, breath, demeanor, senses, sleepfulness, desires and cravings, the disciplined man is “…unmoved, even by deep suffering” (Stoler-Miller 66).  The man who’s self is in God and who “…acts with honor, cannot go the wrong way” (Stoler-Miller 68).

The sixth chapter, according to Easwaran, is called “The Practice of Meditation”, and is one of the most interesting chapters of the Gita according to this author.  Krishna delivers a detailed explanation of meditation for the layperson very simply (Easwaran 99).  Easwaran points out how the western notion of a yogi is inconsistent, in that what a true yogi is is a person who does his or her job without attachment to rewards (100).  Great depth is gone into by Krishna in his explanation of the practice of meditation, and he uses a mountain top analogy to explain to Arjuna that his spiritual path will not be easy, but a constant struggle right to the top (Easwaran 100-101).  A famous verse in this chapter has Krishna comparing the mind to a flame, while Arjuna says his mind is more like the wind (Easwaran 101).  The teacher reinforces to the student that through practice, the mind can be trained, in the proper mindfulness, in the proper way physically (Easwaran 101-103).  Arjuna questions what happens to a person who is spiritual but does not pursue this goal.  Krishna reaffirms that any practice will not got to waste, and that spiritual enlightenment can take as many lives as it needs to (Easwaran  102-103).

The seventh teaching in the Gita is entitled Knowledge and Judgment (Stoler-Miller 71) or Discipline of the Theoretical and Practical Knowledge (Edgerton 45).  Arjuna’s teacher tells him that by practicing discipline in God’s protection, one can know God without doubt (Stoler-Miller 72).  God teaches the totality of knowledge and judgment, and that nothing else needs to be known (Stoler-Miller 71-72).  In both versions, Krishna clearly states God’s lower and higher natures.  The lower  natures are eight-fold and include earth, water, fire, wind, space, mind, understanding, and individuality, and the higher nature of God is the “…life force that sustains the universe” (Stoler-Miller 72).  Nature’s triad of qualities, spoken further of in the fourteenth teaching, lucidity, passion and dark inertia also come from God (Stoler-Miller 72), and in turn produce four types of virtuous men devoted to God: the tormented, the seeker of wisdom, the suppliant and the sage (Stoler-Miller 73).  Krishna reminds Arjuna that “unwaivering faith [maybe granted] to any devoted man to worship in any form”  (Stoler-Miller 73).  The overwhelming tone of this teaching is devotion to God and the love one will endure in return.

Easwaran explains, in the seventh chapter, the problems with the translations of certain words from Sanskrit, such as jnana (wisdom, roughly) and vijnana (realization, roughly) (Easwaran 111).  These words can be left up to interpretation, and can mean many different things.  This chapter follows several trails, sometimes losing a unifying theme – which as Easwaran points out is knowledge of the supreme reality underlying nature (111).  Two natures, important to the Sankhya school of Hindu philosophy, are discussed in this section, which are prakriti (mind and matter) and purusha (pure spirit) (Easwaran 112).  The word “maya” (from the Rig Veda) also appears here as the three gunas are brought forth, swirling within maya, hiding Krishna’s true nature (113-114).  Moha (delusions) are contrasted with jnana and vijnana (113-114).

The eighth teaching, perhaps one of the most difficult chapters in the Gita to decipher, is entitled The Infinite Spirit (Stoler-Miller 77) or Discipline of the Imperishable Brahman (Edgerton 45), begins with a question from Arjuna concerning what the infinite spirit is, what its inner self is, what its inner being is, and what its inner divinity is (Stoler-Miller 77).  Krishna answers respectively with that the inner spirit is eternal and supreme, its action or creative force is the inherent being, and its divinity is man’s spirit (Stoler-Miller 77).  There is an overall focus on God and how man will always be one with him.

“The Eternal Godhead” is the title of the eighth chapter by Easwaran, and alludes to several important concepts presented more fully in the Upanishads (119).  The very ancient ideas discussed and taught by Krishna in chapter eight explain the soul’s journey after death, and how to die (Easwaran 12-13, 119).  Arjuna questions how God can be known at the hour of death.  Krishna replies that anyone who remembers God will, since the mind directs the soul (Easwaran 119-120).  First, consciousness is withdrawn from the senses, and then the mind is placed (locked up) in the heart (chakra), at which time the mind can go north (released from karma) or south (not, and reborn) (Easwaran 120-122).  This chapter also alludes to the “days and nights of Brahma”, which is strikingly similar to modern expand and collapse theories of the universe, yet Hindu thought believes in a higher state of being (Vishnu), or avyakta (the unmanifest) (Easwaran 124).

The Sublime Mystery (Stoler-Miller 83) or Discipline of Royal Knowledge and Royal Mystery (Edgerton 49) is the title of the ninth chapter.  Krishna divulges to Arjuna “…the deepest mystery” “…since he finds no fault and will realize it with knowledge and judgment” (Stoler-Miller 83).  The deep mystery is that God is everything, yet does not exist within men, and that any man devoted is not lost (Stoler-Miller 84-85).  If men act in resolve through sacred duty, they are one with God, regardless of what they do. (Stoler-Miller 86).

Chapter nine of the Gita is called “The Royal Path”, in average viewpoints, and praises Krishna as the supreme being, while exalted nature is stressed, and warning is given to those who think God is limited or to be underestimated (Easwaran 129).  This would definitely speak to the average follower about the importance of loyalty to God.  A lot of this chapter is dedicated to bhakti, or real love and devotion to God, reassuring God’s impartiality toward all living things (Easwaran 129-131

The tenth teaching, called Fragments of Divine Power (Stoler-Miller 89) or Discipline of Supernal Manifestations (Edgerton 54), has Krishna trying to explain that regardless of diverse attitudes about God among men, God is the source of everything, and everything proceeds from God (Stoler-Miller 89-90).  Arjuna asks him to recount his divine powers.  The deity explains that he is the beginning, middle and end, a number of Gods including Vishnu, Indra, and Shiva, he is the great mountain of Gods, Meru, he is OM, the great Himalayas, the sacred fig tree, chief of divine sages, the immortal stallion, the king, etc., sustaining the world with a fragment of his being (Stoler-Miller 90-95).  The purpose of this teaching is a segway of demonstration of Krishna’s greatness into the next chapter that includes the actual vision of Arjuna.

“Divine Splendor” is the title of chapter ten according to Easwaran’s explanation, and goes deeper into revelation of the divine being of Krishna, the source from which all comes, encompassing all dualities, and incomprehensible beyond thought (Easwaran 137-138).  The author points out that this can be a difficult chapter for non-Hindu reader, for there are many unfamiliar names.

The vision teaching, or eleventh chapter titled The Vision of Krishna’s Totality (Stoler-Miller 97) or Discipline of the Vision of the Universal Form (Edgerton 61), is perhaps the climax of the Gita itself, and it is explained by the outside voice of Sanjaya.  After Arjuna asks Krishna to “…reveal himself…”(Stoler-Miller 97), the great vision of God’s totality begins, intense and foreign.  Arjuna is so affected by this that he has a clearly written physical reaction to the intensity of his experience.

“The Cosmic Vision” in Easwaran’s version is claimed to be the most exalted chapter of the Gita.  Arjuna sees the divine vision of Krishna as his full nature as God himself (Easwaran 147).  Some critics have questioned why the vision is granted to Arjuna, and the reasoning probably is because in the Mahabarata, the two have been companions for many years.  The rest of the chapter describes Arjuna’s Samadhi, a word used by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutra (Easwaran 147-148).  For Arjuna, there are two forms of Samadhi experienced during his vision, savikalpa (God in human form), and nirvikalpa (all forms disappearing into God, supernatural fire consuming the entire phenomenal world) (Easwaran 148).  It is here, and has been described by many mystics as “a thousand suns” (Easwaran 148).    There is definite entertainment value for the lay follower in this chapter.

The twelfth section of the Gita is called Devotion (Stoler-Miller 111) or Discipline of Devotion (Edgerton 64).  Arjuna questions who best knows discipline.  Krishna answers that men who worship, with true faith, the imperishable, the ineffable and the un-manifest.  He explains that men are bound by bodies, and therefore the un-manifest becomes hard to comprehend (Stoler-Miller 111).  Therefore, meditating with singular discipline, and attaining knowledge gives one faith in devotion (Stoler-Miller 111-113).

Easwaran refers to this chapter as “The Way of Love” (159).  It is brief and focuses on the supreme importance of devotion and faith in spiritual development (Easwaran 159).  As the author points out, all world religions would probably agree with the Gita at this point, as it stresses a way of devotion, and stresses the efficacy of devotion (Easwaran 159).  The approach found in this text is one of incomprehensibility of everything, and faith from love, as love is a sure path to God, and can be cultivated through practice (Easwaran 159-160).

Knowing the Field (Stoler-Miller 115) or Discipline of Distinction of Field and Field Knower (Edgerton 68) names the thirteenth teaching.  Krishna first explains what “The Field” is, being the great elements: individuality, understanding, un-manifest nature, the eleven senses, and five sense realms (Stoler-Miller 115).  He continues by clarifying that dispassion toward sense objects, an absence of individuality, and seeing the defects in birth, death, old age and suffering will help a man attain the infinite spirit (Stoler-Miller 116).  The self is not an actor, and everything is born from the field and its knower (Stoler-Miller 117-118).  “Just as the sun illuminates the world, so too does the master illuminate the entire field” (Stoler-Miller 119).

“The Field and the Knower”, according to Easwaran, is the title of chapter thirteen, and gives the reader two sweeping categories: the field (the body and mind, all components of prakriti – mass, time, energy, space and strata of mind) and the knower (the Self that resides within) (Easwaran 165).  This section focuses in on the dualities (prakriti and purusha) of all things (Sankhya philosophy), and how the “field of karma” defines the whole of existence.  The interesting comparison of akasha (space itself as an element) is used as an analogy (Easwaran 168).

The fourteenth teaching in the Gita is entitled The Triad of Nature’s Qualities (Stoler-Miller 121) or Discipline of Distinction of the Three Strands (Edgerton 72).  Krishna tells Arjuna he will teach him “…the farthest knowledge one can know” (Stoler-Miller 121).  The triad of nature’s qualities are lucidity, passion and dark inertia, which all bind the self in the body (Stoler-Miller 121).  Lucidity binds one to joy, passion to craving and attachment, and dark inertia to ignorance and delusion (Stoler-Miller 122).  Arjuna proceeds to have Krishna explain these aspects and how they work for and against men.  Arjuna questions what distinguishes a transcendent man from others, and Krishna explains that no desire, disinterest, knowing qualities of nature, being self-reliant, impartial and resolute serves God faithfully and becomes the basis for perfect joy (Stoler-Miller 124-125).

Easwaran titles chapter fourteen “The Forces of Evolution”, and contends it deals greatly with the nature of prakriti, the basis of the world of mind and matter in which we exist (175).  The gunas, do not translate perfectly from Sanskrit, but are likely to be present, and constantly shifting, in all people, as they are thought of as the “mix that colors our experience” (Easwaran 175-176).  Krishna tells Arjuna that all three must be transcended for the soul to attain peace.

Chapter fifteen, or The True Spirit of Man (Stoler-Miller 127) or Discipline of the Highest Spirit (Edgerton 75), gives an analogy of the tree of life: unchanging, nourished by nature’s qualities, budding with sense objects, we must take an ax, sharp like attachment, and free man to return to the original spirit (Stoler-Miller 127-128).  The seer of truth though knowledge will see God and in turn conquer self-mastery (Stoler-Miller 128-131).

An average Hindu would probably call this section “The Supreme Self”, and recognize it is a fairly difficult section of the Gita – essentially, it deals with questions of theology (Easwaran 181).  The nature of God and that which transcends everything including Atman and the world of matter is explained to Arjuna, even though a paradox is found here: Krishna says he is Atman yet transcends it (Easwaran 182).  An upside down Pipal tree is given as an analogy to Arjuna this time (Easwaran 182).  This section also speaks of Krishna’s abode of light: avyayam padam (pada=foot or step), in reference to how Vishnu took three steps to measure out the cosmos (Easwaran 182-183).  Krishna is the prana or breath or vitality, which refers to ancient scripture of the five pranas, the Gita dealing with the two most prominent: breath and digestion of food (Easwaran 182-183).

The sixteenth teaching of Krishna to Arjuna, called The Divine and the Demonic Man (Stoler-Miller 133) or Discipline of Distinction between Divine and Demonic Lots (Edgerton 78), lists the different traits of both a divine man and a demonic man.  Demonic traits led to bondage and divine traits lead to freedom put simply (Stoler-Miller 133-135).  While all creatures are one or the other, demonic men cannot comprehend activity and rest, have no clarity, morality or truth residing within them, landing them in the three gates of hell, desire, anger and greed (Stoler-Miller 135).

Easwaran refers to this chapter as the “Two Paths” (187).  It is a most unusual chapter, as it departs from the view of human nature and describes two tendencies among men: the higher or divine and the lower or demonic, and describes in great depth the differenecs between a desirable man and the opposite (Easwaran 187).  This section also mentions the three doors to hell: lust, greed and anger.  Demon and divine are not to be taken too literally, as they more imply the battle between good and evil (Easwaran 189).

The second last chapter of the Gita, before the dialogue concludes, called The Three Aspects of Faith (Stoler-Miller 137) or Discipline of Distinction of Three Kinds of Faith (Edgerton 82), finds Arjuna questioning Krishna about which quality “…men who ignore tradition, but sacrifice in full faith…”(Stoler –Miller 137) have.  The deity explains that a man’s faith depends on lucidity of mind, giving examples to Arjuna, such as food choices of men (Stoler-Miller 138).  He says that one must not violate norms, one must practice bodily, mental and verbal penance, and one must also practice proper acts of charity (Stoler-Miller 138-140).  Krishna also expands on the notion of OM TAT SAT in this section.

Commentary by Easwaran also addresses the question about what happens to those who do not follow orthodoxy.  According to him, Krishna goes into greater detail of the gunas and stresses the importance of shradda (faith, or the sum of all that’s held in the heart) (Easwaran 193).  According to Krishna there are different kinds of faith depending on the gunas present and potency.  Om Tat Sat is also mentioned in this chapter, which means “only the good really exists”, and Krishna explains how evil is transient and therefore does not actually exist (Easwaran 194-195).

The final and concluding chapter of the great discussion between Krishna and Arjuna entitled The Wondrous Dialogue Concludes (Stoler-Miller 143) or Discipline of Renunciation unto Salvation (Edgerton 91), answers the student’s question about the “…real essence of renunciation”(Stoler-Miller 143).  This can be achieved, according to the deity, by giving up actions based on desire and relinquishing all fruits of action, through the three kinds of relinquishment: action in sacrifice, charity, and penance (Stoler-Miller 143-145).  However, he clarifies that renunciation of prescribed action is inappropriate and becomes a way of dark inertia (Stoler-Miller 144).  Krishna further explains five causes for success for all actions, including the material basis, the agent, different instruments, the various behaviors, and fate (Stoler-Miller 145).  The dialogue concludes with a basic over view of Krishna’s lessons, about sacred duties, relinquishment and detachment, the infinite spirit and our own intrinsic being and our bounding to it (Stoler-Miller 146-153).  Krishna enforces with Arjuna, to “…keep his mind on God”(Stoler-Miller 152), and the conversation ends with a small commentary from Sanjaya.

The closing chapter in the text is titled “Freedom and Renunciation” according to Easwaran’s viewpoint, and it roams over many subjects.  The Gita is aimed at those who “live in the world”, yet desire fulfillment, and therefore Krishna recommends the path of tyaga over the path of sannyasa, a middle route to enlightenment (Easwaran 201).  Moksa (liberation) comes from renunciation of the gunas, Krishna tells Arjuna, since in life you can never be sure things will turn out as planned (Easwaran 202).  The Gita offers a more practical application of some of the Sankhya teachings, such as the three kinds of happiness (Easwaran 202).  Krishna explains caste in this conclusion, and points out it is better to do one’s own work imperfectly than to do another’s perfectly (Easwaran 202), but the returns to his favorite topic: devotion and faith in God, to wrap up the diologue, giving the analogy of a toy mounted on a machine (Easwaran 202-203).  Arjuna is asked if he understands and he confirms, attending to his divine duty.

The Gita is problematic to translate perfectly from its initial writing in Sanskrit to other languages, as demonstrated by Easwaran.  This contributes to the subjectivity in interpretations already available in individual passages, chapters, and work as an aggregate.  In order to demonstrate the partisanship that one can interpret from The Bhagavad Gita, a comparison of several versions of the text regarding “…two verses with unmistakable resonance for modern society” could provide further evidence (Davis 172).  In Richard H. Davis’s biography of the Gita, he provides comparison of “…four distinct approaches to the task of translating [it]” (172).  This paper will summarize one of those in comparison with several others from my research.

The two notable and descriptive passages that easily expose the subjectivity of the translations are in the eleventh teaching, during Arjuna’s grand vision, when Krishna describes himself and the greatness of God to the warrior prince (Davis 172).  As Davis recounts, “on July 16, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer (a brilliant physicist and gifted amateur student of Sanskrit) watched the first human-controlled atomic explosion at Los Alamos, New Mexico…[he] later recalled [this] passage from the Bhagavad Gita…” (172):

If the radiance of a thousand suns

Were to burst at once into the sky,

That would be like the splendor

Of the Mighty One…

I am become Death

The shatterer of worlds. (173).

 

It is not surprising that Oppenheimer compared the intensity and God-like force of an atomic bomb to these passages, and the description Krishna gives as God himself (Davis 173).  Drawing from the two more poetic and easy reading versions I came across during my own research of the Gita, it can be demonstrated how these passages can be delivered more gently, and taken in a completely different context.

In Barbara Stoler-Miller’s translation, the passages read:

 

If the light of a thousand suns

were to rise in the sky at once,

it would be like the light

of that great spirit…

I am time grown old

creating world destruction (pp. 99, 11:12, pp. 103, 11:32).

 

And in Stephen Mitchell’s interpretation of the translation, the matching segments announce:

If a thousand suns were to rise

and stand in the noon sky, blazing,

such brilliance would be like the fierce

brilliance of that mighty Self…

I am death, shatterer of worlds

annihilating all things. (pp. 134, 11:12, pp. 138, 11:32).

 

These two translations clearly show, when juxtaposed against Oppenheimer’s version,  the poetics that can be drawn from the text.  It can be made more gentle, with milder words – especially in the latter passage speaking about the inevitable fate of death and destruction in the human world.

Interpretation of the passages according to both a lay/average Hindu viewpoint, and a consecrated Hindu Guru will also greatly expose the variability available in the Gita.  Swami Prabhupada, who “…established a following of Krishna consciousness” (Davis 7), interpreted these passages this way:

 

If hundreds of thousands of suns rose at once into the sky,

they might resemble the effulgence of the Supreme Person in that universal               form…

Time I am, the destroyer of the worlds, and I have come to engage all people.      (pp. 181, 11:12, pp. 183, 11:32)

 

Obviously, from this explanation, one can draw out words such as “effulgence” and “engage”, to see how the passage is being used as an instrument of piety.  In contrast to Swami Prabhupada, an average interpretation of these sections by Eknath Easwaran read:

 

If a thousand suns were to rise in the heavens

at the same time, the blaze of their light

would resemble the splendor of that supreme

spirit…

I am time, the destroyer of all; I have come

To consume the world. (pp. 151, 11:12, pp. 154, 11:32).

 

The lay read of this section is much more toned down and simple, expressing the greatness and incomprehensibility of God, without any distinct push in the direction of piousness whatsoever.  By comparison of several versions of specific passages in the translation of The Bhagavad Gita, it is easy to realize the extreme subjectivity and personal sway that can be placed on the text for individual purposes.

To further demonstrate this, it is advantageous to now turn to The Bhagavad Gita’s biography and historical background, with regard to the work as a whole.  The physical place of the believed setting of The Bhagavad Gita, was in “Kurukshetra,…[which is] both a particular field of battle and perpetual field of dharma, as Dhritarashtra’s opening question suggests” (Davis 4), found near the town of Jyotisar, India (Davis 4).  This being said, most researchers agree that the text was written in northern India, sometime during the classical period between the reign of the Mauryan king Ashoka (r. 269-232 BCE) and Gupta dynasty (320-547 CE), as part of a much larger opus, the epic poem Mahabharata (Davis 6).  The Mahabharata, which was originally composed in ancient Sanskrit, tells the legend of a devastating enmity between two clans of the ruling class for control of a kingdom in India (Davis 10).  From an early date, the Gita circulated as an independent piece, and found itself as a “…self standing work of religious philosophy”, giving it a binary identity (Davis 11).  But in order to appreciate its full “…rhetorical power” (Davis 11), the story found within the Gita is better understood in the full context of the larger epic in which it is found, the Mahabharata.  The background of the two rivaling sides of cousins is explained more clearly in the complete epic, and the point at which we find Krishna and Arjuna in the beginning of the Gita seems more fitting, than to a reader who may just be exposed to the Gita alone.

Krishna’s battlefield teachings addressed two of the main causes of philosophical distresses being discussed by religions at the time of the Gita’s composition, moral questions and psychological insight (Davis 15).  Rebirth, or samsara, was a widely accepted premise in classical India (Davis 16).  The Gita took on a more liberal note of practice of religion during its time of emergence as well, in that anyone could engage in yoga while still being active in worldly affairs, which was very attractive and more practical for the everyday masses (Davis 20).  The Gita discusses two important systems of thought, Samkhya (dualist approach) and Vedanta (monistic approach) (Davis 22).  Thus, one of the appeals of the script may be its “…heuristic validity”, with either path seen as correct (Davis 22).  The path of devotion, or bhakti, is new in Sanskrit literature, and makes its debut in the Gita to religious audiences (Davis 22-23).

Krishna’s teachings are widely speculated to provide a convincing justification for Arjuna to fight, and the Mahabharata does not shy away from the calamitous consequences of that choice (Davis 33).  The Gita embraces the message of the greater epic as a whole (Davis 33).  The war, as found in the Mahabharata, is not sensationalized as it is in the Gita, ending with very few survivors of the warrior class, extreme grief and ethical failure (Davis 33-34), better supporting the eschatological belief of “Indian cyclic time, [and great dissolution followed by new creation]” (Davis 35).  “Later Indian tradition uses the Mahabharata as transition from one era to another…[taking us from the Dvapara era to the Kali-yuga era]” (Davis 35).

The belief of the authorship of the Gita is especially fascinating, proclaimed by both a “divine authorship of God” (Davis 36), and Vyasa, the physical author of the work (Davis 36).  Vyasa was a brahmin sage, and appears as a character within the Mahabharata, playing a pivotal role, who was actually a genetic grandfather to the Pandava and Kaurava fraternities (Davis 36).  While it is believed that Vyasa was the author of the Mahabharata, “…few historians accept a single genius as an author”,  and was probably complied over a lot of time (Davis 39).  The great poet Jnanadeva “…composed a lengthy new work that translated and expanded on the Sanskrit Gita in Marathi language” (Davis 44).  During this time, Gitas of other deities were also produced with The Bhagavad Gita as a model in the writing of these,  and while Krishna’s significance was always recognized, rivalry always wanted to oust him, indicating the characteristics of medieval theistic Hinduism (Davis 53).

There were also many commentators of the Gita in classical India, “…seek[ing] to determine the true meaning of [the] difficult text” (Davis 54-55).  Shankara was among them, but not the first or the last, claiming “…[the] concentrated essence of the Veda [within the Gita itself]…”, giving it a permanent and universal meaning (Davis 54, 59).  In contrast, another commentator of the same time period, by the name of Ramanuja, who disagreed with Shankara, demanded “…[the] path of knowledge alone will not suffice for higher ends” (Davis 63).   He also maintained that Krishna came to the battlefield to “…reveal the new path [of devotion]”, bhakti, a new concept found in the Gita (Davis 63-64).   These two views reveal only the tip of the iceberg of commentary in classical India and beyond that the Gita received in its early days.

In 1866, the transatlantic under-sea cable was laid under the Atlantic Ocean, linking the North American and European continents in an unprecedented way, and in 1869, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific rail lines joined, forming a transcontinental railway, linking homeland North America in the same fashion, and the French Suez Canal, linking the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean (Davis 72).   With the new and rapid form of communications taking place in their infancy stages to what we know today, inevitably the movement of information suddenly became faster and more efficient across oceans, formerly a huge obstacle to such flow of ideas (Davis 72).  Just before this, the Gita would see its first translation to English  by an British man and employee of the East India Company, by the name of Charles Wilkins, in 1785 (Davis 75-76).  His translation of this,  the first Sanskrit text, fascinated European erudite circles, helping along a demand for a new influx of eastern literature (Davis 76).  This version also saw the Gita’s first notable political use – vis a vis British control in colonial India (Davis 76).  The success that the Gita would find among this new audience would be exponential, especially in the midst of the Romantic movement (Davis 83-84).  From the late eighteenth century onward through the early nineteenth century, those who read or interpreted the Gita “…did so in a political context” (Davis 93).  While certain attitudes and approaches, such as those of Governor General Hastings, “…advocated for [a better] understanding [of Indian] culture, others such as James Mill used the Gita to “…criticize and judge…” the history of India (Davis 96).  Mill used the rhetorical value available to the apt purveyor in the Gita to his full advantage, portraying the Indian civilization as problematically primordial, further calling for radical change (Davis 96-99).  During the latter half of the nineteenth century, new versions of the Gita began to appear, with scholars in Germany wanting to “…get to the bottom of the Indian antiquity…”(Davis 100), with the most popular and perhaps notable by Edwin Arnold called “The Song Celestial” (Davis 104).

Along with the new wave of antiquity texts flowing into Europe and North America, the first Hindu sannyasin, Swami Vivekanada, would also find his way to America in 1893, to speak to the World Parliament in an impromptu manner, that would both introduce Western thought to a living breathing knower of Eastern faith, and fascinate many more (Davis 105-112).  Perhaps the most famous reader and commentator of the Bhagavad Gita was Gandhi, the Mahatma (Davis 136).  First read by the young Gandhi, in London around 1888-1889, he called it a “…spiritual reference book” (Davis 136).  What set his interpretation aside from all others up to this point was that he “…approached the Gita as not specifically Hindu…”, but as universal knowledge and truth for all (Davis 137).  Throughout Gandhi’s career, the text was “…made a constant point of reference” (Davis 137).  Another way in which Gandhi’s interpretation of the Gita differed from others before him was that he was indifferent to any historical context, placing more importance in allegory, in that the war in the book represents “…[the] battle within all…”(Davis 139).  He was well educated and able to effectively argue skewed views of the text by both past and contemporary commentators, promoting ahimsa over violence (Davis 141).  The Gita was last in Gandhi’s discussion three days before his death in 1948, killed by an assassin who ironically was also an avid reader of the text (Davis 138-143).  Prayers are still held at Gandhi’s ashram in India daily, with the recitation of the Gita practiced daily (Davis 181-185).

In 1923, Jayadayal Goyandka opened The Gita Press in northern India, publishing “…expansive editions with Hindi translations” (Davis 154), making the Gita widely available.  After the Holy Bible, the Gita is the most frequently translated religious work to this day (Davis 155), and as of 1982, there were 1891 versions of the text circulating in 75 languages around the world, giving context to the importance of the book (Davis 155).  Just as it is believed that the Gita was originally delivered through an oral performance, the text finds itself in contemporary acts as well (Davis 177).  Nowadays, audio incarnations are available through multi-media, a sixties rock group named themselves The Bhagavad Gita respectively, and Jimmy Hendrix’s album cover “Axis” featured a picture of Krishna and Arjuna (Davis 180)     Just as the Gita speaks of existence being nothing more than a mere changing of our clothes as we change bodies during reincarnation, the book itself has undergone much the same process (Davis 156).  The text remains, to this day, one of the most significant books of the Hindu religion, and is repeatedly politically and ideologically contorted to suit.  The Bhagavad Gita’s variability and flexibility has survived the ages and continues to have a profound and philosophical effect on those who read it.

 

Works Cited

Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, A.C. (1968). Bhagavad Gita as it is. Los Angeles, CA: Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.

Davis, R.H. (2015). The Bhagavad Gita: A biography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton  University Press.

Easwaran, E. (1985). The Bhagavad Gita. Tomales, CA: The Blue Mountain Center of Meditation/Nilgiri Press.

Edgerton, F. (1972). The Bhagavad Gita. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Mitchell, S. (2000). Bhagavad Gita: A new translation. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.

Stoler-Miller, B. (1986). The Bhagavad Gita: Krishna’s counsel in time of war. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

 

Article written by Laura Gunn (2015), who is solely responsible for it 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.

REFERENCES AND RELATED READINGS

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.

 

RELATED TOPICS

Visnu

Siva

Asuras

Devas

Vayu Purana                                                                                                                            

Immortality

Bhagavata Purana

Agni Purana

Androgynous

War

Seduction

Sculpture/Art Work

Aiyanar

 

RELATED WEBSITES

http://www.qualiafolk.com/2011/12/08/mohini/

http://hinduwebsite.com/churning.asp

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kshir_Sagar

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohini

 

Article written by: Michaela Klein (February 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).

 

Bibliography

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

Anarthas

Visnu

Gopi

Nagas

Hare Krsna

Balarama

 

Related Websites

http://www.iohu.org/demons-killed-by-krsna-and-the-anarthas-they-represent-p-8.html (list of demons defeated by Krsna and the anarthas they represent)

http://www.krsnabook.com/ (Krsna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead)

http://vedicilluminations.com/downloads/Academic%20General/Bryant%20Edwin%20F/Bryant_Edwin_F._(editor)_-_Krishna__A_Sourcebook.pdf

 

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

The Avatara (Divine Descent) Concept in Hinduism

Divine descent is a Hindu phenomenon that has often been misinterpreted or misunderstood. It is widely associated with the Christian doctrine of Docetism (Sheth 12), however the Sanskrit word avatara more closely relates to words such as descent or manifestation (Matchett 4-6). The earliest written record of this doctrine comes from the Bhagavad-Gita. In it, Krsna begins to explain the mysteries of his incarnation in order to clear the warrior Arjuna’s confusion. Krsna explains his previous births (janmani) as being the lord of the individual selves, yet one with all around him. He goes further into saying that he is fully aware of his many previous births and at any point of his choosing he may generate himself in order to touch foot in the mortal world. In the context of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krsna spawns himself a completely new body while still maintaining his personal divinity and understanding of Purusa (see Matchett 102-103).

Krsna finally states, “Whenever law of righteousness withers away and lawlessness arises, then do I generate myself ” (Bhagavad-Gita 4.7-8). This underlines the main purpose for divine descent in the Hindu tradition. The goal is restoring cosmic balance to the realm of humans by maintaining and enforcing dharma while eliminating and defeating adharma or destruction of social order (Sheth 99). In general, the preserver god visnu is the main source of divine descent into the human realm however avatars of gods such as Shiva or Ganesh have also been said to manifest themselves (Courtright 175). It is through the many incarnations of Visnu that the wills and actions of the gods may be fulfilled. This is a vehicle for which the deities may be fully appreciated and their wills fully upheld. Many Hindus believe that meditation on the divine incarnation and the human deeds performed by these avatars can help in the pursuit of enlightenment.

Pillar with bas-reliefs depicting some of Visnu's avataras (Mahabalipuram, India)
Pillar with bas-reliefs depicting some of Visnu’s avataras (Mahabalipuram, India)

Many Hindus hold these avatars (avatara) close in thought through their days. These divinely descended deities have personified themselves in a way that allows Hindus to more accurately understand their importance. Rama and Krsna are both avataric figures that have remained beloved for thousands of years (Roshen 250). These heroes take the most underlying key concepts of Upanishadic texts and personify them in an understandable vehicle for learning. In common belief, many believe these avatars are just heroes responsible for the safeguarding of our existence, making them worthy of praise.

Many sects of Hinduism have been devoted to the teachings and actions of particular avatars. Vaishnavism is one of the main sects of Hinduism that gives focus to Visnu and his descents as supreme lord. One of the most prominent figures in Vaishnava teachings is the eighth avatar of Visnu, Krsna. Many Hindus participate in celebrations dedicated to these prominent figures. One such celebration is that of Rama Navami, a very popular and well-known festival dedicated to the birth of the 7th avatar and protagonist of the great Ramayana epic, Rama (Abbe 111). The teachings of Rama and his actions throughout the epic make him a model for dharmic action and a guide for the perfect man. The Rama Navami is a particularity important festival that honors the birth date of the great deity and is attended by the thousands every year.

Among some of the most important Puranic texts associated with Hinduism is the Bhagavata-Purana. Often considered the purest of the Puranas, the Bhagavata-Purana is one of the great Hindu texts that focuses very clearly on bhakti towards Visnu but often uses Krsna as a vehicle through which Visnu can be more clearly interpreted. Bhakti is a central focus for the attainment of enlightenment and is often expressed as an ongoing devotion and personal love to a god, often associated with monotheistic Hindu views such as Vaishnavism (Gupta 12). Devotees of Krsna consider him to be the only pure expression of Visnu through divine descent. Therefore the great hero of the Mahabharata, Krsna, is often shown tremendous amounts of bhakti throughout Hindu tradition. In some specific schools of Vaishnavism, Krsna is said to be so overwhelmingly important that he is considered the source of all other avatars. This notion gave birth to the school of Krsnaism, a sect devout in their worship to lord Krsna as the Bhagavan himself (Matchett 52).

In modern times, the largest and most common denomination of Hindus are Vaishnavas with more than 550 million practicing today (Abbe 115). The sects’ overwhelming emphasis on the power of bhakti and worship, as a whole, has lead to the creation of many discernable religious practices. Vaishnavism holds representations of Visnu and his avatars, most commonly Rama or Krsna, as reality and essential in showing daily bhakti (Gupta 14). Representations of the preserver god and his avatars are absolutely necessary for reverence and worship. Many will pray to these representations several times a day, often offering material objects as offerings. One of the most discernable of these practices is the marking of the tilak on the forehead of a Hindu. These tilaks vary enormously across different sects but all are characterized by a symbolic connection to Visnu and his avatars (Abbe 163). With such strong emphasis on personal devotion to a single deity, it is easy to see how many elaborate and beautiful temples have been created in order to aid the process. Thousands of temples are scattered across India, adorned beautifully with artwork and sculptures as praise towards the many avatars who descended in order to keep cosmic balance. Thousands attend these intricate temples; dedicated to the many vehicles in which lord Visnu extends his love to his devotees.

When pertaining to avatars in the Hindu tradition, the most widely associated deity is clearly Visnu. Among these incarnations are the ten widely known Dashavataras who are the most important and fundamental in the understanding of avatara. However, there exist many more then just ten manifestations of Visnu: as stated by the Bhagavata Purana there exists an innumerable and infinite number of avatars. Divine descent is not only restricted to Vaishnava deities. The Linga Purana contains manifestations from other gods such as Ganesh and Shiva who sent forth avatars in order to keep the cosmic balance by slaying evil demons and performing dharmic action. Many times we also see the descent of Visnu’s consort Laksmi into the realm of humans; often as consorts for the various avatars of Visnu himself such as Sita, the beautiful and dharmic wife of the hero Rama.

Of the Vaisnava avatars, the most prominent are grouped into a list of ten appropriately named the Dashavatara. Each of these ten incarnations are from one of four yugas or eras in Hindu tradition. The first of these yugas is that of the satya yuga where human action was dictated and governed by the god. Also known as the Golden Age or age of truth, this is when the first four of the dashavatara. Matsya the fish is typically listed as the first of Visnu’s avatars and is often associated with the comparable genesis narrative of Abrahamic tradition (Sheth 113). Matsya descends to earth in order to alert Manu, the first man, of an impending storm that will wipe out the earth and all who reside on it. The flood myth is common across most cultures and many comparisons can be made. Matsya orders Manu to gather all the grain and in many accounts animals as well, and board an arc, which Matsya pulls to safety. Many times, Matsya is said to defeat a demon after saving Manu. From the demon he recovers the holy Vedas and bestows them to man.

From this story a lot can be said about the other nine Dasavataras and the many symbols they represent. From the tale of Matsya, we see the very first supposed avatar of Visnu. Comparatively, Matsya is vital to genesis of human life and in many ways is held to explain our very origins. The subsequent 9 avatars following Matsya seem to all follow this theme of evolution and the creation of human existence. The remaining 3 avatars from the satya yuga are all forms of beasts, including Narasimha who begins to take human characteristics, as well as lion. The evolution from a scientific stand point of the water dwelling fish to the amphibious turtle and subsequently by a boar or more broadly a man beast. Visnu’s avatars seem to clearly represent the process of human evolution in an order that follows scientific reason. The subsequent treta yuga, begins with what could be interpreted as the first proto man, Vamana or the dwarf god. From here, Visnu only chose to incarnate himself into humanly forms each slightly further into the development of human thought. Parasurama lives a life of forest dwelling and using early weapons; his successor Rama is an example of humans organizing themselves into communities and kingships. The evolution extends into a period of more politically advanced systems with Krsna and stops at the catalyzing ninth avatar Buddha who depicts the age of human realization and enlightenment. Hindus had, in a way, shown a Darwinian and evolutionary understanding thousands of years before the very birth of Darwin (Brown 227).

Bas-relief on a temple pillar depicting Visnu in his tortoise avatara (Ranganathaswamy temple, Srirangam, Tamil Nadu, India)
Bas-relief on a temple pillar depicting Visnu in his tortoise avatara (Ranganathaswamy temple, Srirangam, Tamil Nadu, India)

Kalki, the final avatar, is the most unique incarnation of the Dashavatara. Unlike his predecessors, Kalki has not yet descended upon our realm. Of the ten avatars, Kalki is described as the destroyer of filth and the final avatar in the current mahayuga. It is said that Kalki will descend upon the earth following the end of the Kali yuga, the same yuga we reside in today. This moment will mark the end of our current mahayuga where Kalki generates in order to rid the world of the “filth” that has been acquired during this current age of misery and spiritual degeneration (Mahony 333).

The avatars of Ganesh are an interesting comparison to the highly discussed incarnations of lord Visnu. The Mudgala Purana regards Ganesh as the most revered and holy of the gods for his constant involvement in the well being of humans. The incarnations of Ganesh are often used as models for the creation of the world and are used to describe theological concepts of the Hindu tradition. Each incarnation of Ganesh is sent to eradicate a demon typically symbolic with malicious qualities (see Courtright 176). The actions stated in both the Ganesa Purana and Mudgala Purana have lead many to a life of bhakti towards Ganesa.

Divine descent is a truly intricate and substantial process in the Hindu tradition. Its complexities and origins are deeply rooted in the theological Hindu thought that has shaped the lives and practices of countless cultures. These avatars offer a vehicle for which all those wishing to extend their love and devotion to gods, may do so. A universal language of devotion is achieved through these enormously impactful figures. Perhaps the complexities associated with divine descent are truly a measure of the complexities of the gods themselves most undoubtedly characterized by an infinite number of avatars. Divine descent is truly a phenomenon that expresses the extent of love felt by the gods towards their people; love that could not exist without the enduring bhakti of their people.

 

References and Further Readings

Brown, Mackenzie (2010) “ Vivekanda and the Scientific Legitimation of Advaita Vedanta.” Handbook of Religion and the Authority of Science, Vol.10, No.1: 227-230.

Dubois, Abbe (2007) Hindu Manners, Customs and Ceremonies. Paris: Cosimo Incorporated.

Gupta Raui (2007) Caitany Vaisnava Vedanta of Jiva Gosvami: When Knowledge meets devotion. Edinburgh: University of Sterling.

Mahony, William (1987) “Perspectives on Krsna’s Various Personalities.” History of Religions 26, Vol. 26, No.3: 333-335.

Moffit, John (1977) “Incarnation and Avatara: An Imaginary Conversation.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Vol.13, No.2: 456-461.

Matchett, Freda (2001) Krishna, Lord or Avatara? : The Relationship between Krishna and Vishnu. Surrey: Routledge Publication.

Courtright, Paul (1987) “ Ganesha: Lord of Obstacles, Lord of Beginnings.” The Journal for Asian Studies, Vol.26, No.1: 175-177.

Roshen, Dalal (2011) Hinduism: An Alphabetical Guide. Delhi: Penguin Books India.

Sheth, Noel (2002) “ Hindu Avatara and Christian Incarnations: A Comparison.” Philosophies of East and West, Vol.52, No.1: 98-125.

Related Topics:

Vaisnavism

Visnu

Bhagavad-Gita

Bhagavata- Purana

Dasavatara

Treta Yuga

Dvapara

Kali Yuga

Satya Yuga

Linga Purana

Ganesa

Rama

Krsna

Cosmic Balance

Bhakti

Janmani

Laksmi

Rama Navami

Upanishads

Trimurti

Garuda Purana

 

Noteworthy websites:

http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Religions/Avatars/Vishnu.html

http://vaishnavparivar.info/

http://www.hinduism.co.za/vedas-.htm

 

Article written by: Zachery Sanderson (March 2015), who is solely responsible for its content

 

Krsna and Kamsa

Amongst the many manifestations of the god Visnu, Krsna is one of the most celebrated and popular of them all. He is revered by his followers for being the eighth incarnation of Visnu, and is considered to be a part of him as well, making him a divine character. Despite his massive following and devotion in Hinduism, Krsna is considered to be a relatively new god figure when compared to the other deities. He is not mentioned in the Vedas, but is first heard of in the Chhandogya Upanisad when they reveal that he is the son of Devaki, who is also the daughter of the king, Ugrasena (Crooke 2). Kamsa, the second half of this topic, is known to be Krsna’s uncle (or sometimes his cousin, based on the interpretation found in one book), who overthrew his father, King Ugrasena (Crooke 7). He was later defeated and killed by Krsna in battle.

Kamsa, after securing the throne, heard of a prophecy about the one that would usurp and kill him. It was said that his killer would be born as the eighth son of Devaki, who happened to be Krsna’s biological mother, Kamsa’s sister, and Ugrasena’s niece. Narada, a sage that appears frequently in the Puranic texts, is the one to tell Kamsa about how Devaki’s child would be a child of the earth and a part of Visnu himself (Sheth 43). [A more detailed description of Narada can be found in Sheth (1984)]. Kamsa then summoned his sister Devaki and her husband, Vasudeva, to Mathura in order to keep an eye on them and their growing family.

Every time Devaki gave birth, Kamsa would kill the child soon after. However, with Devaki’s seventh pregnancy her baby was transferred to the womb of Vasudeva’s second wife, Rohini. Because of this, Krsna was considered to be Devaki’s seventh son instead of her eighth. When Krsna is born, his parents (in the Visnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana) seen him in his “divine form” (Sheth 44) but forbid him to display his divinity for fear of him being killed by Kamsa. In other versions, Krsna is sent down the Yamuna River, where he is rescued by a couple of cowherds, who swapped him with their baby girl in order to ward off Kamsa’s bloodthirsty pursuit of him (Rodrigues 313). It turned out that the girl was none other than the goddess Devi, who tells Kamsa that Krsna was still alive. Kamsa tried to annihilate Krsna by killing all of the young boys within the kingdom, but was about to get his intended target in the process.

Many ordeals and adventures unfolded as Krsna grew up. He defeated the demoness Putana by draining her of her life force, and revealed the entirety of the cosmos to his adoptive mother, Yasoda, in his mouth. When he was older, Krsna ventured into the forest called Vrndavana, where he defeated the snake Kaliya and stopped it from poisoning the water any further. When the thunder god Indra tried to flood the town that Krsna grew up in, Krsna used Mount Govardhana as a dry haven for his people by holding it up with a single finger while they hid underneath it (Rodrigues 314). At the same time, he stopped Indra from receiving any further sacrifices from the villagers (Crooke 16).

Later on in his life and after overcoming trials of his own, Krsna finally confronts Kamsa after returning to Mathura when he was invited to participate in a wrestling match. Using all of his divine powers and strength, he destroys Kamsa with the weight of the universe (Sheth 59). In this tale, Krsna is the hero, the destined child that slays his evil uncle and restores the throne to Ugrasena.

In the Bhagavata Purana, Krsna is also known as Hari, Visnu, and the Higher Self (Sheth 52). The title of Hari is also seen within the Visnu Purana (it tends to complement its information with the Bhagavata Purana quite a bit). In the Mahabharata he comes to Draupadi’s aid when she asks for his help by allowing her clothes to continuously cover her even as they are being stripped off by the Kauravas when they try to humiliate her (Rodrigues 231-232). Krsna was also a godly advisor to the epic’s hero, Arjuna (the son of the thunder god Indra), and soon became a family friend to both him and his brothers, the Pandavas. Technically, they became brother-in-laws as well, as Arjuna had a child with Krsna’s sister, Subhadra (Rodrigues 138, 232).

In the Harivamsa (a segment of the Mahabharata) the tradition of showing Krsna as a hero continues. He is considered to be more heroic than a divine being, because he possesses the qualities of a traditional hero. These qualifications include a unique birth and childhood, where the growing hero displays powers beyond what an ordinary person would possess. Child-heroes are also known to be exiled, only to return at a later date to prove their worth. They also compete in any contest in order to prove their worth, and relish in fighting and defending their honour. These qualities of proving themselves are further implied within the Visnu Purana and the Bhagavata Purana (Sheth 3-4). The nature of Krsna is also described within the Harivamsa, calling him a Brahman, self-born, eternal, the Ancient One, and many other words (Sheth 77). Several stories about Krsna appear in the Harivamsa, such as his battle with the demon called Fever and how he is affiliated with playing the flute (Sheth 102).

Krsna is infamous for having a sensual reputation for enticing cowgirls (gopis) with his flute, bringing them out to the forest where he bides his time. His musical instrument of choice is known to have a seductive trait, which is further seen in the Vrndavana (Kinsley 41). Here the young deity and the gopis engage in blissful passions, such as singing, dancing, and the art of lovemaking. His relationship with the gopis and the cowherds of Mathura are considered an “important theme” in the eyes of bhakti with the keywords being “union” and “separation” (Hardy 52).

There are several times where Krsna is separated from the gopis, either due to him having to leave or getting into a fight with one of them. The final time that the “separation” theme is seen with Krsna in relation with the gopis is when he leaves them all in order to go to Mathura (Hardy 53). In Hindu mythology, the gopis are either seen as a collective group in one myth or having one represented in the limelight of Krsna’s adoration, such as Radha. With her and the rest of the gopis, Krsna shows the possibly of relationships between the gods and the humans (Kinsley 41). Since he is a young god, he is notorious for being a prankster as well (Kinsley 9). He is the “eternal child” of Hindu faith, and acts in every way that a child would behave, hence the spontaneous activities and pranks (Kinsley 12-13).

Krsna’s physical appearance is also famous for having a blue pigmentation in his skin and an incredibly youthful body. His image is usually accompanied by his infamous flute, but there are times where the flute is absent, and instead Krsna would pantomime that the flute is always in his hands, and would instead be called Gopalakrsna during this state. [More is said about Gopalakrsna in Chary & Smith (1991)]. Despite all this, the flute remains pivotal to his image and connection as the Divine One (Chary & Smith 97). In other versions, Krsna can be viewed with a multitude of extra arms holding a variety of objects, such a padma, an iksu, and other similar items. Sometimes he is accompanied by his wives.

In some academic circles there are scholars that attempt to understand Krsna in a historical sense, because he displays many human characteristics as opposed to his divine ones. They try to understand and discover Krsna as an actual person that lived within Earth’s historical timeline. Scholars use evidence toward their theory of him being a human, such as his appearance in the Mahabharata (Hardy 18-19). Krsna is also the most well-known Hindu god outside of India, because of his prominent role in the Bhagavad Gita, which has been translated a great deal into other languages (Chary & Smith 99). [A full explanation of the Bhagavad Gita is shown in Fowler (2012].

Also, Krsna is one of the few gods that has gone through the stages of life: infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (Chary & Smith 100), which would make people unfamiliar with his life story believe that he might have been a real-life figure in Indian history. In the Indian epics (i.e. the Ramayana and the Mahabharata) the heroes grow up and go on episodic adventures, but do not see the gods participate in a familiar, humanistic way. Krsna gets a full explanation of his life compared to the other gods and goddesses. To scholars, it is also known that Krsna married at some point in his adult life to his two wives, Rukmini and Satyabhama, and was equally affectionate and attentive to each of them (Chary & Smith 103). [To learn more about Rukmini and Satyabhama and their significance as Krsna’s wives, see Chary & Smith (1991)].

Krsna is a fascinating god within Hindu mythology and its respective religion. His role in battling and defeating Kamsa (the original “evil uncle,” long before Claudius from Hamlet) dictates him as a famous protagonist that takes on many of the qualities seen within a traditional hero. His unusual birth and journey through childhood and adulthood is what makes him memorable and compelling as a heroic character, even outside of Indian culture. The ability to view Krsna both as a godly figure and as a man with human qualities adds another layer of depth to his persona. Seeing a god indulge himself with sensual and romantic needs make him appealing as a character study, and also to scholars who want to discover if he qualifies to be a historical man of India as well.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

Chary, M. Narasimha & Smith, H. Daniel (1991) Handbook of Hindu Gods, Goddesses, and Saints. Delhi: Sundeep Prakashan.

Couture, Andre & Schmid, Charlotte (2001) “The Harivamsa, the Goddess Ekanamsa, and the Icongraphy of the Vrsni Triads.” Journal of the American Oriental Society; Apr-Jun2001, Vol. 121 Issue 2, p173, 20p, 1

Crooke, W. (1900) “The Legends of Krishna.” Folklore Vol. 11, No. 1 (Mar., 1900) (pp. 1-42)

Fowler, Jeaneane D. (2012) The Bhagavad Gita: A text and Commentary for Students. Brighton; Portland: Sussex Academic Press.

Hardy, Friedhelm (1983) Viraha-Bhakti: The Early History of Kṛṣṇa Devotion in South India. Delhi: Oxford.

Keith, A. Berriedale (1908) “The Child Krsna.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. (Jan., 1908), pp.169-175

Kinsley, David R. (1975) The Sword and the Flute: Kālī and Kṛṣṇa, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism—the Ebook: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Sheth, Noel (1984) The Divinity of Krishna. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Arjuna

Avatara

Bhagavad Gita

Chhandogya Upanisad

Devaki

Gopalakrsna

Gopi

Harivamsa

Kali

Kaliya

Lila

Mahabharata

Narada

Putana

Radha

Rukmini

Satyabhama

Subhadra

Ugrasena

Vasudeva

Visnu

Vrndavana

Yasoda

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.bharatadesam.com/spiritual/upanishads/chandogya_upanishad.php

http://www.harekrsna.com/philosophy/associates/demons/mathura/kamsa.hm

http://hinduism.about.com/od/lordkrishna/p/krishna_birth.htm

http://www.india-crafts.com/sculpture/hindu-statues.html

http://www.krishna.com/

http://www.krishnabalarama.com/

http://www.krsnabook.com/ch44.html

http://www.purebhakti.com/teachers/bhakti-discourses-mainmenu-61/19-discourses-2000/202-krishna-kills-kamsa.html

 

Article written by Melissa Wall (March-April 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Krsna and Yasoda

The Hindu deity Krsna is a highly regarded and popular god in Hinduism, known to hold the title of svayam bhagavam (The Supreme Personality of Godhead). The myths of Krsna are displayed in several Hindu texts, primarily in the Bhagavad-Gita, where he epitomizes the ideals of both karma and dharma. The myths depicting Krsna and his adoptive mother Yasoda elaborate on these karmic and dharmic ideals by showing Krsna as the quintessential son and Yasoda in the image of the perfect mother. In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krsna “performs actions without attachment, and so persons should do the same. [He] also cautions against indecisiveness and inaction, which is a form of ‘doing’ and carries with it karmic consequences” (Rodrigues 251). The immense popularity of Krsna’s image in Hinduism has been attributed to his accessibility, compared to other gods who are typically depicted as isolated and inaccessible (Rodrigues 314). Through his many myths, Krsna is seen as an ideal infant, child, and adolescent, one who gains much devotion from those who encounter him.

Krsna as a relatable and accessible character is emphasized through most myths and tales that he is depicted in. Hillary Rodrigues supports this, noting that Krsna’s popularity is due to Krsna being “the apple of every mother’s eye, a lively young boy, on whom one can shower maternal love. Devotees may imagine themselves as loving parents, envisioning God as their child. As a teenager, Krsna is the ideal friend, protecting his companions from danger. As a young man, he is the irresistibly attractive lover. When older, he is spiritual advisor and political strategist, friend and ally” (Rodrigues 314). By showing Krsna at many stages of a normal human life, those hearing the myths of Krsna are able to envision actually knowing him and connecting with him, which makes the ideals he espouses much more relatable and attractive to follow.

In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krsna acts as a guru to Arjuna and describes the duties and necessity of dharma in the world. In one scene, Arjuna hesitates joining a battle, an action which Krsna claims as “unmanliness, weakness, pity, and emotional attachment”; he also elaborates on how to actually perform the actions in a dutiful manner, claiming action as karmic, good, and inevitable (Bryant 79).

The myths describing Krsna’s birth vary in different sources; however, there remains a general consistency to the main themes and episodes of the tale. It begins with an angry king, who is forewarned of a male to be born in his kingdom that will end his reign and, ultimately, his life. He is the king of Mathura, mostly known as Kamsa. [Hawley refers to the king of Mathura as Kan; however, most sources name him Kamsa (Hawley 53)]. The prophecy informs Kamsa that his death will be at the hands of his sister and brother-in-law (Devaki and Vasudeva)’s eighth son. Kamsa is described as being a “man of pride”, “inwardly insecure” and “patently cruel, repugnant of tradition” (Hawley 53). When he hears the prophecy, he immediately attempts to kill Devaki, but Vasudeva is able to calm him when he promises to bring any sons they have to the king. Kamsa imprisons both Devaki and Vasudeva, where the couple gives birth to six children; Kamsa kills each child.

When Devaki is impregnated with her seventh child, a miracle occurs. Hawley writes “the Great God … removes one white hair from the head of the great snake that symbolizes his primordial energy, and one black one from his own. The latter he holds in readiness: it will become Krsna whose very name means ‘black’. With the former, he penetrates the womb of Devaki, heralding a miraculous if not altogether virgin birth: the white Balaram” (Hawley 54). Following this, the fetus was transferred to the womb of another of Vasudeva’s wives, Rohini, who was safe across the river. To those still in the jail, it seemed that Devaki simply had a miscarriage (Bhaktivedanta 11). However, Rohini safely birthed Devaki and Vasudeva’s seventh child, Balarama.

Following this pregnancy, Krsna decides to descend. At this point, there are a few variations in the myth. The version Bhaktivedanta elaborates in his text follows that Brahma, Siva, along with demigods and sages, visited the prison. The great deities all professed that Krsna was “true to His vow” (Bhaktivedanta 11). In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krsna promised to “protect the pious and destroy the impious. … The demigods were very glad that the Lord was appearing to fulfill his mission, and they addressed Him as … the Supreme Absolute Truth” (Bhaktivedanta 14). Some sources claim at this point that a “divine sleep” falls upon the area, to which Krsna’s birth can safely take place (Hawley 55).

When Krsna is born, he takes his true form; he was four-armed, decorated with all the accouterments associated with Krsna, including a conch-shell, lotus flower, jewelry, a helmet, and more (Hawley 24). The myth varies here as well, some claiming Vasudeva urges Krsna to take the form of a normal infant, while some say it was Devaki. Regardless, the parents beg him to look like a mere baby for the sake of Krsna’s own safety. Vasudeva escapes the holds of the prison to deliver Krsna to a place of safekeeping: to his friends’ Nanda and Yasoda’s house in the near town of Gokul, who had just given birth to a daughter of their own. Bhaktivedanta’s version of the myth here states that Nanda and Yasoda’s newborn baby was the “internal potency” of Krsna: Yogamaya (Bhaktivedanta 30). [Krsna is said to have “multipotencies”, of which Yogamaya is the chief of all potencies. This is further explained in many sources, especially in Bhaktivedanta’s work.] With the help of the deity in his arms, Vasudeva is able to see clearly through the darkness of the night on his way to Gokul, and fords heavily flowing rivers with ease. The myth again diverges here, according to which sources are addressed. Because of the divine sleep in some sources, Vasudeva is able to exchange Krsna with Yasoda and Nanda’s baby girl, and Yasoda “has no inkling that the son is not her own” (Hawley 55). In other sources, Yasoda is simply sleep-deprived from the labor of childbirth and “does not remember whether she had given birth to a male or female child” (31). Regardless, the infants are swapped, and Krsna is safe under the protective care of Nanda and Yasoda, and Vasudeva brings back a baby girl rather than the eighth son that Kamsa fears.

Krsna lives his life under the pretense that he is Yasoda’s son; Yasoda is an extremely loving and devoted mother to Krsna for life. Her love of Krsna is elaborated in almost every myth involving the two of them. By hearing these myths, followers of Hinduism gain knowledge of the proper dharmic actions to follow as a mother/son unit.

One of the most well known myths of Yasoda and Krsna is The Vision of the Universal Form, told in the Mahabharata. The tale goes that Krsna, as a child, is playing with his brother Balarama one day, when one of the gopis told Yasoda that Krsna has been secretly eating mud and dirt. Yasoda, fearful for Krsna’s health, runs to him and begins to scold him, to which Krsna claims these are false accusations. Yasoda tells him to open his mouth to prove his innocence. Krsna opens his mouth, and Yasoda sees “the universe of moving and nonmoving things; space; the cardinal directions; the sphere of the earth with its oceans, islands and mountains; air and fire; the moon and the stars. She saw the circle of constellations, water, light, the wind, the sky, the evolved senses, the mind, the elements, and the three guna qualities” (Bryant 123). This understandably shocks Yasoda, who realizes Krsna is no ordinary child, and begins to worship him immediately. Krsna relieves his adoptive mother of this stress and speculation, erasing her memory of this incident. Bhaktivedanta sees this incident as assurance that Krsna is, and always will be, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, despite the form he takes (Bhaktivedanta 62).

Another myth depicting the relationship of Krsna and Yasoda involves a naughty Krsna being punished as a normal child by his mother. Yasoda was churning butter one day, and Krsna “felt hungry, and out of love for His mother, wanted her to stop churning. He indicated that her first business was to let Him suck her breast and then churn butter later” (Bhaktivedanta 64). Yasoda allows him to climb on her lap and suckle; however, when her milk on the fire boils over, she sets Krsna down to attend to matters. Krsna is highly displeased as this, as he feels his hunger is of most importance, so he breaks a butter pot and runs into hiding. Yasoda searches for Krsna to scold him for breaking a pot, simply seeing him as her son who was naughty and misbehaving. She finds him and threatens him with a stick, but when she sees her poor boy’s face stricken with fear and laden with tears, she decides to simply bind him with rope as punishment for his misdeeds (Bhaktivedanta 64). This is an example of Yasoda’s love and devotion for her child, being able to see the emotion in his face, empathizing, and restraining herself from invoking more fear in her beloved son.

When Yasoda attempts to bind Krsna, she discovers that the rope she is using is slightly too short for its purposes, so she lengthens it by adding more rope to the original piece. However, this turns out to be just slightly too short to bind him as well. This occurs a few times, with Yasoda adding more and more rope, each time with it being short enough that Krsna cannot be bound. The myth tells that this because he is Krsna, the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and it is impossible to bind or subdue (Bhaktivedanta 65). However, Krsna sees how exhausted and frustrated Yasoda becomes, and “appreciated the hard labor of his mother, and being compassionate upon her, He agreed to be bound up by the ropes. Krsna, playing as a human child in the mouth of mother Yasoda, was performing his own selected pastimes. … The Lord feels transcendental pleasure by submitting himself to the protection of the devotee. This was exemplified by Krsna’s surrender unto His mother” (Bhaktivedanta 66).

Yasoda’s love and devotion to Krsna is elaborated in almost every myth they are depicted in together, even when she is a fairly minor character to the story. Bhaktivedanta notes Krsna and Balarama beginning to crawl and teethe as infants, which “intensified their feelings of joy. … To see [their] fun, Yasoda and Rohini would call their neighboring friends, the gopis. Upon seeing these childhood pastimes of Lord Krsna, the gopis would be merged in transcendental bliss. In their enjoyment they would laugh very loudly” (Bhaktivedanta 59). Even when the boys would get into trouble, breaking pots and tormenting animals and babies in the community for fun, the gopis would complain but “when mother Yasoda thought to chastise her boy … she saw his pitiable face, and smiling, she did not chastise Him” (Bhaktivedanta 61). These tales emphasize Yasoda’s willingness to allow Krsna to have fun as a child, scolding him only when his safety is in question.

Bryant states “it has not been Krsna’s influential teachings … or his statesmanship … that have produced the most popular and beloved stories of this deity. Rather, it has been his childhood lilas – play, pastimes, or frolics – during his infancy, childhood and adolescence … that have been especially relished all over the Indian subcontinent over the centuries” (Bryant 111). These lilas show the interaction between Krsna and Yasoda, depicting the epitome of mother/son love and devotion to each other, allowing those following these myths to learn the dharmic ideals of the relationship. There is no question of the love between this mother and son, which seems even stronger since they are not biologically related. Yasoda is the ideal mother, showing restraint, endless love, and joy in watching her son grow. Krsna is the ideal son, able to frolic surrounded by love, who ultimately obeys his mother’s wishes despite the fact that he is a Supreme Godhead. Mothers and sons of the Hindu religion can look to these myths for advice to enhance their love and devotion to each other.

 

REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING

 Bhaktivedanta Swami, A.C. (1970) Krsna: The Supreme Personality of Godhead; Volume One.    Boston: Iskcon Press.

Bryant, Edwin F. (2007) Krishna: A Sourcebook. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hawley, John Stratton (1992) At Play with Krishna: Pilgrimage dramas from Brindavan. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

Preciado-Solis, Benjamin (1984) The Krsna Cycle in the Puranas. Delhi: Shri Jainendra Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2006) Hinduism: The eBook. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

  

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Dharma

Karma

Visnu

The Bhagavata Purana

The Bhagavad Gita

Mahabharata

Kamsa

Kauravas

Pandavas

The bhakti movement

International Society for Krishna Consciousness

Gopis

Putana

Kaliya

Arjuna

Rukmini

Kurukshetra War

Vaishnavism

Lila

Yadu dynasty

Yogamaya

Balarama

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://hinduism.enacademic.com/922/Yashoda

http://gosai.com/krishna-talk

http://ompage.net/ChristKrishna/krishna.htm

http://www.harekrsna.de/yasoda-e.htm

http://www.harekrsna.de/artikel/krishnas-mouth.htm

http://swami.org/pages/swami/articles.php

http://beta.photobucket.com/images/yashoda+krishna/

Article written by Mandy McCullough (March 2013) who is solely responsible for its content.

Narasimha: The Man-Lion Avatara of Visnu

Narasimha is the man-lion avatara of the Hindu god Visnu. This particular incarnation is most well-known for his victory over the demon Hiranyakasipu. Narasimha’s victory required a circumventive nature in order to slip through the loopholes in the boon granted to Hiranyakasipu by the powerful god Brahma, which quite nearly ensured the demon’s immortality (Soifer 3). In later versions of the myth Visnu manifests in the form of the man-lion in order to save Hiranyakasipu’s son Prahlada from the wrath of his powerful father (Soifer 73). Prahlada is saved because of his loving devotion to Visnu which Prahlada maintains despite his father’s forceful efforts to change his son’s beliefs (Soifer 74). The increased importance of the role played by Prahlada alters the portrayal of Narasimha greatly in later versions of the myth (Soifer 74).

Before discussing the depictions, mythology, temples and worship of Narasimha it is beneficial to briefly discuss the nature of the god Visnu whom this avatara embodies. Of little importance in the Rg Veda, Visnu’s popularity grew over time and he became highly influential in the Puranas (Soifer 15). Visnu is described as a benevolent, bountiful guardian willing to help mankind (Soifer 16). He has the ability to take on different forms, avataras, which retain the characteristic of benevolence so central to Visnu’s basic character (Soifer 18). Visnu’s purpose and character is deemed so righteous that even when he performs deceitful acts they are considered to be done in the name of dharma (Soifer 23).

The Narasimha (Man-Lion) Avatara of Visnu (Bhaktapur, Nepal)
The Narasimha (Man-Lion) Avatara of Visnu (Bhaktapur, Nepal)

In the most famous versions of the Narasimha myths Visnu takes on the man-lion form which is described as ferocious and beastly in nature with one intent and purpose: to kill Hiranyakasipu and restore order to the cosmos. There are several depictions of Narasimha that show him in exactly this fearsome light. The Philadelphia sculpture of Narasimha’s central focus is on the man-lion’s two arms with claws being plunged into the belly of Hiranyakasipu who lies on Narasimha’s lap with innards spilling along his right side (Meister 291-92). The image of Narasimha found at Madhia also depicts a two-armed Narasimha supporting the demon’s back on his knee as he “leans over, his arms stiff, to thrust his ‘neither wet nor dry’ nails into the demon’s belly” (Meister 297). The image of Narasimha as a threat to demons in general instead of solely to Hiranyakasipu is depicted in the image at Nachna where a four-armed man-lion holding weapons, chases a sword bearing demon who is attempting to flee the fearsome wrath of Visnu’s ferocious avatara (Meister 297).

There are however, less gruesome and ferocious depictions of Narasimha. These images are found primarily in Andhra Pradesh where the Narasimha mythology has evolved to include local traditions, locations, and people. In this region Narasimha is often depicted with Chenchita who was a woman from a local forest tribe that Narasimha is believed to have married. There is a panel in the Korukonda temple that depicts Chenchita with a bow and Narasimha in a sitting posture removing a thorn from her foot (Vemsani 47). The Ahobaleswara temple houses sculptures of the couple that are each one foot tall and show Narasimha with his lion’s face and thick mane holding Chincheta’s chin with his right hand and a bow in his left, “clad from the waist and adorned with elaborate jewelry” (Vemsani 48). The Prahladavaradanarasimha temple houses two sculptures that stand two feet tall and portray Narasimha as having four hands (Vemsani 48). His upper right hand holds a sudarsanachakra (wheel), his upper left hand is obscured from view, the lower right hand touches Chenchita’s chin, and the lower left hand is wrapped around her (Vemsani 48). Again in these sculptures the couple is covered from the waist but in addition to jewels they are both wearing crowns (Vemsani 48). Through these depictions of Narasimha the observer gains a sense of human emotion associated with the powerful deity being a sensitive lover in contrast to his deadly and fierce portrayal in classical Hindu texts (Vemsani 48).

The very different depictions of Narasimha as a fierce demon slayer, and as a gentle, loving husband described above show that beliefs regarding this deity have evolved and changed over time as the myths concerning his exploits changed. The earliest form of the Narasimha myth is short and found in the Mahabharata (Soifer 73). Soifer states that “how the myth arrived at its rudimentary form, and where the figure of the man-lion came from remain unsolved mysteries” (Soifer 73). While the origins of this myth are unknown, Soifer’s study of eighteen versions of the Narasimha myth concluded that “central structural changes in the myths pivoted around the Asura Prahlada” (Soifer 73). As Prahlada’s role in the myths became ever more predominant the tone and structures of the myths changed until eventually they were centered on Prahlada (Soifer 73). It was the increased significance of the role played by Prahlada in later myths that ultimately altered the characterization and role of Narasimha (Soifer 74).

The story of Narasimha had simple origins in the Mahabharata which grew in later versions of the myth. The Mahabharata bluntly describes a part lion, part man who tore the asura Hiranyakasipu apart with his nails and gives no explanation of the motive behind this event (Soifer 75). The Bhagavata Purana describes Hiranyakasipu as a club wielding threat to the gods which provides the motivation necessary for Narasimha to tear the demon apart with his nails, but this version fails to mention the man-lion features (Soifer 76). In the version described by the Agni Purana Narasimha kills Hiranyakasipu, the demon’s brother and all of the other asuras so that the suras, who had been vanquished by Hiranyakasipu, could be restored to their rightful place (Soifer 76). These versions show the first major shift in the myth as the motive for Narasimha’s presence and actions become clear because of Hiranyakasipu increased description as a threat to the gods and the triloka.

The next obvious development in the myth involves the granting of a boon to Hiranyakasipu by Brahma; the boon also begins simply and grows more complex. The Brahmanda and Vayu Puranas both begin by describing the austerities performed by Hiranyakasipu that earned him a boon from Brahma, and end with Hiranyakasipu being torn apart by the nails of the man-lion to restore cosmic order (Soifer 77). The Harivamsa, Brahma Purana, and Visnudharmottara Purana are remarkably similar versions of the myth that claim the events described took place during the Krta Yuga as Narasimha is said to have arrived at the end of this Yuga (Soifer 79). Again in these versions Hiranyakasipu is granted a boon by Brahma for his austerities but the demon specifically seeks invincibility by listing several conditions he wishes not to die from (Soifer 80). These versions describe a reign of terror that followed the granting of Hiranyakasipu’s boon, as well as the displeasure of the gods who are upset with Brahma for granting such a boon to the demon (Soifer 80). The protests of the gods are quelled when Brahma assures them that Visnu will eventually conquer Hiranyakasipu, which he does in the classical man-lion form, however in these stories he kills the asura with one hand instead of the alternative clawing sequence (Soifer 80-81). Thus these versions introduce the idea of a boon given to Hiranyakasipu that upsets the balance of power and requires a clever solution, but also a change in Narasimha’s behaviour as he uses a less animalistic approach in killing his enemy.

The introduction of Hiranyakasipu’s son Prahlada in the Siva and Kurma Puranas marks the beginning of significant change in the focus of the myth as well as Narasimha’s role within it. In these myths Hiranyakasipu is power hungry and wreaks havoc on the world after Visnu’s boar avatar kills his brother, forcing the gods to live on earth in disguise (Soifer 83). In these versions it is the gods who seek Visnu’s aide, who like in the other versions takes on the form of the man-lion, this time setting out at sunset to destroy Hirankyakasipu (Soifer 83). Prahlada is introduced when he announces Visnu’s arrival as the man-lion and advises Hiranyakasipu to submit, but his advice is ignored and the demon is clawed apart on Narasimha’s knee (Soifer 83-4). These myths end not with the gruesome death of Hiranyakasipu, but with Narasimha crowning Prahlada king (Soifer 84). This again is a development in Narasimha’s character that moves him toward human characteristics and away from the original purely beastly mentality.

The final and perhaps most significant factor that influenced the evolution of the Narasimha myths is the introduction, and acceptance, of the concept of bhakti. The Skanda, Bhagavata, and Visnu Puranas depict most clearly the influence of bhakti on the myth. Like some of the versions mentioned above Hiranyakasipu is granted a boon but in these versions he asks that if should be killed, it be done by Visnu in the form of the man-lion (Soifer 93). The marked differences found in these versions are Prahlada’s devotion to Visnu and the fact that he is presented as a child (Soifer 93). Prahlada’s life is threatened several times because of his belief in Visnu and finally Hiranyakasipu demands that Prahlada make Visnu appear from a palace pillar or die by the sword (Soifer 93). As a result of Prahlada’s devotion to Visnu Narasimha appears from within the pillar to tear Hiranyakasipu to shreds with his nails, thus fulfilling the terms of the boon and also saving the devoted child (Soifer 93).

The ever evolving and malleable story of Narasimha gained the deity supreme status among Vaishnavites in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh where several temples to Narasimha can be found (Vemsani 35). The Narasimha temples that will be discussed each have their own local mythology stories associated with the temples and worship of Narasimha (Vemsani 37), however as the evolution of several Narasimha myths have already been traced above this section will focus on the temples themselves and the ritual practices performed in each, instead of the associated myths.

The Simhachalam temple is located in the northern coastal region of Andhra Pradesh and is one of the oldest Narasimha temples in the state (Vemsani 37). There is an image of Narasimha on the hill that is said to have self-manifested where the temple was built, presumably by Prahlada, in antiquity (Vemsani 40). Brahma and several other gods are said to have visited the temple which acts to sanctify the temple.

Worship at the Simhachalam temple is particularly complex because its Narasimha is the composite form of Visnu’s Varaha (boar) and Narasimha avartaras, known as the Varahanarasimha (Vemsani 37). Varahanarasimha is worshipped as a multiple deity because the statue of it located in the Simhachalem temple is a form of Siva on the outside but of Narasimha on the inside (Vemsani 46). This shows the combination of Saiva and Vaisnava traditions by the worship of Narasimha (Vemsani 46). Ritual practices at this temple involve covering the Narasimha with thick sandalwood paste throughout the year so that it comes to resemble a Sivalinga (Vemsani 46). The paste is removed only once per year in the month of Vaisakha on Suklatrtiya for twelve hours during an annual pilgrimage to the temple (Vemsani 46).

There are nine temples in Ahobilam, located on the hills Garudadri and Vedadri which are dedicated to the worship of Narasimha. Each of the nine temples is dedicated to one of nine forms of Narasimha that is said to have manifested in the area (Vemsani 41). The Bhargavanarasimha temple is located near the lake it is named for; similarly Pavananarasimha is located on the river it derives its name from. Yoganandanarasimha is dedicated to the form of Narasimha in meditation. Chatavatanarasimha and Karandanarasimha are both named for the trees they are located under. Ahobalanarasimha is the central temple which is located on the hilltop (Vemsani 41). Malolanarasimha is a peaceful form depicted with Laksmi, while Jwalanarasimha is located in a temple to the fiery Narasimha which is said to be built in the exact location Hiranyakasipu was killed (Vemsani 41). The ninth temple is dedicated to Krodhanarasimha which makes it the second location in Andhra Pradesh where Narasimha is worshipped in the composite form of boar and man-lion avataras (Vemsani 41).

Ritual practices of Ahobilam regard Narasimha as a son-in-law because of his mythical marriage to a local tribeswoman name Chenchita (Vemsani 47). Rituals therefore include a communal performance of the wedding during the annual festival Brahmotsava, as well as the offering of new clothes and gifts to the deity (Vemsani 47). Another festival that takes place in the area is known as paruvetautsava which is a hunting trip that includes a procession of the deity Narasimha through thirty-two villages and may last up to forty days (Vemsani 47).

The temple in Mangalagiri is noteworthy because Narasimha is worshipped not for his well-known victory over Hiranyakasipu, but for the destruction of Namuci (Vemsani 43). The hill that the temple is built upon is said to have been formed by the blood of the slain demon (Vemsani 43). At this temple Narasimha is depicted as Visnu and not just an incarnation of the god which is shown visually by the garland of 108 salagramas which are a symbolic representation of Visnu (Vemsani 43). Rama, Yudhisthira, and the Pandavas are said to have once visited this temple to offer prayers to Narasimha (Vemsani 43).

One of the unique and well known ritual practices at the temple in Mangalagiri involves offering panakam (jaggery water – jaggery is brown sugar) to Narasimha who is represented by a boulder projecting from a back wall (Vemsani 47). Half of the panakam is poured into the mouth of the deity which creates gurgling that is said to be made by the god and is interpreted as the sound of satisfaction, while the other half is given to devotees (Vemsani 47). Another ritual performed at this temple involves embracing palachettu, the tree of milk, which is said to bless people with children (Vemsani 47).

Lastly the temple in Yadagirigutta is found in the naturally formed caves of the western mountain range (Vemsani 44). Within the temple there are stone images of three manifestations of Narasimha including Jwalanarasimha, Yoganandanarasimha and Gandabherundanarasimha (double headed eagle Narasimha) (Vemsani 44). This temple worships Narasimha as a physician who cures the ill and assists people with worldly problems which places the avatara in a new light in which he is not the fierce, animalistic deity of classical texts but instead an amicable and approachable deity (Vemsani 44).

The most common ritual practice performed at the temple in Yadagirigutta is performed by the cured and those wishing to be cured (Vemsani 47). The ritual involves the performance of a mandala pradaksina (circumambulation of the temple), those wishing to be cured first take a dip in the Tank of Visnu and then visit the temple while their clothes are still wet (Vemsani 47).

In conclusion it can be seen that the incarnation of Visnu as Narasimha grew in terms of nature, significance, mythological complexity, visual depictions, and eventually in relation to the types of worship bestowed upon him as well. This is a deity with humble Vedic beginnings that evolved into a supreme deity in a large portion of India who is worshipped by both Vaishnavites and Saivites alike.

 

 

References and Further Recommended Reading

Meister, Michael W. (1996) “Man and Man-Lion: The Philadelphia Narasimha.” Artibus Asiae 56 #3/4: 291-301.

Soifer, Deborah A. (1991) The Myths of Narasimha and Vamana: Two Avataras in Cosmological Perspective. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Vemsani, Lavanya (2009) “Narasimha, the Supreme Deity of Andhra Pradesh: Tradition and Innovation in Hinduism-An Examination of the Temple Myths, Folk Stories and Popular Culture.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 24 #1 (January): 35-52.

 

Related Topics for Further Investigation

Avataras

Visnu

Matsya

Kurma

Varaha

Vamana

Parashurama

Rama

Krishna

Balarama

Kalki

 

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/vishnu.htm

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narasimha

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avatar

 

Article written by Ashley Malcomson (2013) who is solely responsible for its content.