The Gandharvas are a very difficult idea to define, but simply, they are supernatural beings strongly tied to music. They are celestial bards, demi-gods, demons, but predominantly celestial musicians (Thite 52-53). They preside in many places but are mostly seen in the heavenly courts or looking over Soma; they can even reside on earth. They are recognized as being beneficial in life but also destructive, life giving and life taking. They are related heavily with the Apsara, occasionally even mating with each other. As an overview, they can be seen as the duality force of Hindu mythology. They are both the good and the bad, they are double-natured in nearly every way (Thite 54).
The origin of the Gandharvas seems to follow two different paths: they were created, or they were born. The idea of them being born also has two sides to it. The least dominant of the two theories is the idea that there was only one Gandharva in the beginning, and all others are descendants of him (Barnett 704). This original Gandharva is hypothesized to have been created but there is no record by whom. The more dominant theory is that there were many born from different deities for the purpose of serving them. Their names indicated the deity in which they served (Mehendale 130). The creation theory for the emergence of the Gandharvas also has two sides to it; that they had a creator, and that they were created from seemingly nothing. In the creation theory, it is unclear what the purpose of their creation was. Their creator is said to be Brahma but gives no reason for their creation (Mehendale 130). As Gandharva is usually translated to “music” or musician” their creation likely had to do with music. The other hypothesis is that they were created aimlessly; rather, they were created by the cosmos, (Mehendale 130). In both of the theories of emergence, birth and creation, the justifications contradict each other; they were created for a purpose versus, them being created for no reason at all. There seems to be constant controversy regarding the emergence and Gandharvas and there purpose in the Hindu religion.
The idea of mortality is familiar to the Gandharvas, unlike most deities. Their mortality has two hypotheses, in some texts they are seen as mortal, whereas in other texts they are immortal due to their consumption of Soma. The source of their immortality can be split into two different causes: sacrifice and consumption of Soma. The consumption of Soma was done at the same time as the other deities. At that time, the Gandharvas requested to be the protectors of Soma not only in the heavens, but also on earth. This request was granted, causing the gods to look down on them as lesser beings (Thite 53). Human sacrificial practices are seen as the second source of the Gandharvas (and Apsaras) immortality. Because of Gandharvas dual-nature they are seen as both benevolent and malevolent. Because of this, they have a specific sacrifice dedicated to them and the Apsaras. The Aupashada sacrifice is said to belong to the Gandharva and the sacrificial offerings to the Apsara (Thite 54).
The mortality of the Gandharvas is depicted in the killing of thousands of them by Arjuna. In the Mahabharata epic, the Gandharvas are seen as demi-gods fighting in the Mahabharata War and the main character, Arjuna, kills them by the thousands. Indra revives them later using “nectar”; this is believed to be Soma (Mehendale 133). This shows that Gandharvas are mortal but that they are able to be resurrected by Indra. Their seemingly immortal mortality shows just how diametric their existence seems to be.
As every other aspect of their being, the life, role, and depictions of the Gandharvas are also diametric. Their most important role seems to have been as the guardians of the sacred Soma, however, this has differing depictions. In some depictions, they are the guardians of Soma, guarding it from all the other gods. In these depictions, they are protective and even greedy regarding it (Thite 53). The other side of the story is that they had Soma stolen from them and in their deprivation decided to steal it back; their attempt very decisively fails. In comparison to the other deities, they can be seen as demi-gods rather than full deities themselves (Barnett 707). In their failure, they were viewed by the other deities as being malevolent in nature and as such are seen in a more demonic light. Though “Soma guardians” seems to be the primary depiction of the Gandharva’s role, it is not the only one. A less prominent view of the Gandharvas is that they are tied with the Apsaras as nature spirits. The duality of them is seen through their ties with both fertility and death (Thite 57). When thinking of fertility and life, ideas of greenery and forests are ever present, because it links such ideas with the Gandharvas. The tie with death seems to be ancestral because not only are they tied with the idea of death, but they are tied with the god of death himself; the Gandharvas and the Apsaras are seen as being the parents of Yama and his siblings (Berriedale 18). One more role of the Gandharvas is to accompany the souls of soldiers who died in battle. It was not regular soldiers, but war heroes that were accompanied into the afterlife. These heroes were not only accompanied by the Gandharvas, but the Gandharvas also played music while the Apsaras surrounded the heroes with dance (Mehendale 129). In this view, they are still tied to the dual-nature of their being. In general, the Gandharva can be seen as neither good nor bad but rather both; they can be seen as having a nature similar to that of humans because they have the capacity to be both good and evil.
Since Gandharva quite simply translates as “musician,” there have been cases in which people, places, or things, take on the name of Gandharva as a symbol of a linked to music. One example being The Gandharva Mahavidyalaya New Delhi which is an institution that tries to revitalize and maintain the tradition of Gandharva music and dance. Gandharva music is an ancient tradition that is still performed in India today (Kotwal et al. 195). As the Gandharvas are believed to have travelled back and forth between heaven and earth many times, it is believed that they may have intermingled with human women. One example of the Gandharva’s lust for women is when the gods prevented the Gandharvas from stealing sacrificial Soma by presenting their wives as distractions. Because of their lust for women, they lost interest in Soma and pursued the women, allowing the gods to escape with Soma (Thite 56). Some people believe that Gandharva music was passed on the humans by the Gandharvas. Others believe that people just take the name of Gandharva as a symbol of their trade. Musicians in Hindu society are of the lowest class, sudras, and are sometimes even untouchables. In ancient times, it is said that the Gandharvas had heavy ties with the sudra class, thus the gods looked down at them as lesser beings (Thite 54). In Hindu mythology, the Gandharvas are seen as having very little importance. When looking at their little importance, and their tie to sudras, it can be seen that the Gandharvas inhabit a different world then our own.
Though the Gandharvas were believed to traverse between earth and the heavens quite regularly, they did frequent different locales. When they are in the heavens, they have multiple set locales, and when they are on earth, they resided in many places. When in the heavens, there are two different mythologies; they serve the other deities, and they look over Soma. They share relations with many gods, including: Indra, Kubera, Sankara, and Manibhadra by: praising, worshiping, surrounding, and following them. They will also reside in the Gods’ heavenly courts; examples of such include praising Kubera as well as Indra. (Mehendale 131). A large amount of literature states that when the Gandharvas are in the heavens, they stand on a perch looking over Soma. When the Gandharvas reside on Earth, they typically reside in places of beauty, both in sight and in smell (Thite 55).
In general, the Gandharvas live a life of diametric opposition; they are gods and yet they are demons, they are Soma guardians yet they are the robbers of Soma. Their life is tied very heavily with that of the Apsaras as their abilities of music and dance tie together. Because of their dual-nature, the Gandharvas are seen as being benevolent demi-gods, but also as malevolent demons. Their link to the Sudra class significant ties with humans. It is logical that they would reside in many different locales, as they have many different purposes. When they reside in the heavens, they look over the sacred Soma or they follow different gods. When they walk on earth, they frequent beautiful places of nature. Just like the other aspects of their lives, the creation of the Gandharvas is also dual-natured; they were created and yet they were born. All this together emphasizes their dual-nature and shows them as the force of duality in Hinduism.
This article was written by: Michael Christensen (spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.
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Berriedale, Keith (1964) The Mythology of all Races-Indian. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc.
Kotwal, Rinchhen, and Vishwajeet V. Ringe (1997) “Stress Reduction through Listening to Indian Classical Music during Gastroscopy.” Diagnostic and Therapeutic Endoscopy Vol. 4:191-197
Mehendale, M (1985) “A Cultural Index to The Mahabharata Tentative Specimen Fascicule.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute Vol. 66:128-134
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Basu, Anindita (2016) “Apsaras and Gandharvas.” Ancient History Encyclopedia Modified September 05, 2016. Accessed February 1, 2017.
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Article written by: Michael Christensen (Spring 2017), who is solely responsible for its content.