A summary of the Hindu scriptures

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(Copyright © 2014 Piero Scaruffi)

The hymns of the Rig Veda were "written" by rishi/rsis, the "seers" (in theory, they didn't write the hymns, they only "saw" them). The Brahmanas mention the "Seven Rishis" (the "Saptarshi"): Gautama (or Uddalaka Aruni), Bharadvaja, Vishvamitra, Jamadagni, Vashista, Kashyapa, Atri. Other rsis include: Gritsamada, Vamadeva, Kava and Chyavana. Atharvan and Angiras wrote ("saw") the Atharva Veda. There are also female rishikas: Romasha, Lopamudra, Apala, Kadru, Visvavara, Ghosha, Juhu, Vagambhrini, Paulomi, Yami, Indrani, Savitri, Devayani, Nodha, Akrishtabhasha, Sikatanivavari and Gaupayana. The Mahabharata has its own list of rsis, that adds Marici, Pulaha, Kratu, Pulastya, etc.

The Rig Veda lists 33 devas/deities, and Yajnavalkya in the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad divides them in 3 groups (earth, atmosphere and sky) of 11 each, but who belongs to which category is debatable. Later (in the Brahmanas and Puranas) deva/sura has become the name for the benevolent deities, whereas the evil ones are now called asura (Vritra, for example). However, some of these deities (Agni, Varuna, Mitra, Rudra) are also called "asura" in the Vedas, which probably simply meant "powerful" in those earlier days. Anyway, the Brahmanas now neatly divide the devas into: Prajapati, Indra, the 12 Adityas, the 11 Rudras (avatars of Shiva), and the 8 Vasus (Agni, Vayu, Dyaus, Surya, Soma, etc). The different enumerations are always inconsistent: whichever way you organize the devas, either one is missing or there's an extra one.

Some begin the story with Prajapati. To be fair, the Rig Veda seems to imply that Varuna was once the supreme ruler of the Vedic pantheon (and possibly the progenitor of Zoroaster's god Ahura Mazda), but Prajapati is probably a more interesting character to a Western mind because it is from his self-sacrifice that the world originates. This story parallels the story of Purusha, the primordial cosmic man: in Rig Veda 10.90 it is Purusha's self-sacrifice that creates the world. According to the Brahmanas, the fire god Agni is not properly a "first-born" but a second self that Prajapati generates and that continuously regenerates Prajapati himself (and the identification of Prajapati with fire is crucial in priestly rituals).

Note that, far from being consistent, the Rig Veda contains multiple hymns about "creator deities", one being Prajapati, but others being Hiranyagatbha, Savitr, Dhatr, and Tvastar The Rig Veda applies the attribute "visvakarman" (loosely, creator power) to Indra, Surya, Agni and Tvastar. Tvastar, despite having no hymn dedicated to him, is credited by the Atharva Veda as the one who invented life, and generally as the architect and craftsman of the universe (and mentioned more than 60 times in the Vedas as a fecundating deity). Indra (Hymn 18 of Mandala IV of the Rig Veda), inebriated with soma and brandishing Tvastar's thunderbolt, established his rule over the world by slaying the demonic monster Vritra/Vratra (with help from Vishnu) and thus liberating the rivers that Vritra had seized. However, the most famous creation hymn, the Nasadiya Sukta (Rigveda 10:129), does not mention any creator.

According to the Shatapatha Brahmana, Prajapati, who was pure mind ("manas") and therefore self-consciousness, had sex with his "daughter" Ushas and that act procreated the world. Rudra avenged the incest by killing his "father" Prajapati. In later scriptures Prajapati mutated into Brahma the creator (that's the protagonist of the Upanishads, the name "Brahma" never appears in the Vedas) while Rudra mutated into Shiva the destroyer (in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad, Shiva Purana and Linga Purana). Shiva also suggested to Brahma that he had also created Mrtyu or Death. Brahma created his son Daksha with the goal that he would populate the world. (Other sources say that Brahma created Daksha, Dharma, Kamadeva and Agni, not just Daksha). Daksha had lots of children. Depending on which Purana you read, Daksha had either 89 or 24 daughters from his wife Prasuti and another 116 or 62 from his other wife Panchajani. Then he married them off, for example 27 of his daughters married Soma, and 13 married Kashyapa. In particular, according to the Puranas, Kashyapa married Aditi and their children were the Adityas. In the Rig Veda there are 8 Adityas: Varuna, Mitra, Aryaman, Bhaga, Ansu, Indra, Dhatr, and the sun-god Martanda (the one that gets discarded); and confusingly Daksha is also listed instead of Dhatr ("Daksha sprang from Aditi and Aditi from Daksha"). In the later Bhagavata Purana there are 12 Adityas: Vishnu the preserver (clearly the most important), Indra, Vivasvat, Mitra, Varuna, Bhaga, Aryaman, Dhatr, Savitr, Pushya, Tvashtha, Amshuman. At this point Martanda, Aditi's aborted child, has become Vivasvat, still a manifestation of Surya, the Sun god. Others also use 12 with the last 4 are replaced by Pusan, Tvastar, Savitr, Amsa. Kashyapa also married another daughter of Daksha, Muni, and from their union were born (according to the Bhagavata Purana) the apsaras, female spirits such as Urvashi (the first apsara), Menaka (considered the most beautiful), Rambha and Tilottama who act as muses of the various arts. According to the Rig Veda (X.95.18), Urvashi (the first apsara), fell in love with a mortal man, the pious king Pururavas.

Meanwhile, Daksha's daughter Sati married Shiva against Daksha's will. (The full story is that Shiva had beheaded the fifth head of Brahma after that head had gone berserk and rejected the Vedas). Following a confrontation with her father, Sati self-immolated in fire. The widowed Shiva went mad. His wrath created two monsters, Virabhadra and Bhadrakali, who killed everybody on the scene of the self-immolation and beheaded Daksha himself. Shiva then performed the Tandava dance with Sati's charred body. Vishnu dismembered Sati's charred body into 51 pieces that fell at various places (hence the 51 holy places of the Shakti cult). The adventures of Shiva continue in the deodar forest until he meets Parvati, daughter of Himavat and Mena, who is in turn sister to Dhanya and Kalavati. Meanwhile, Brahma had granted Taraka virtual invulnerability as an award for Taraka's piety.... with a catch: that only a son of Shiva could kill Taraka. Taraka used his superpowers to wreak havoc in the world. The gods felt threatened and asked Kama/Kamadeva (the god of love) for help. Kama caused Shiva to fall in love with Parvati, the two had a son Skanda and Skanda slew Taraka, thus saving the world from destruction. (Skanda will later become the god of war Karttikeya, replacing the Vedic gods of war Indra and Agni). Besides Skalda, the couple also had another son, Ganesh.

According to the Rig Veda, Tvastar, the architect and craftsman of the universe, married his daughter Saranyu (capable of turning herself into a mare) to Vivasvat (or to the Sun god Surya, according to other versions), and they had several children: the identical twins known as the Ashwini Kumaras or the Ashvins, who are mentioned hundreds of times in the Rig Veda, the identical twins Yama (male) and Yami (female), the former being the first person ever to die (and therefore became Death himself), and Manu. According to the Puranas, the first man, Manu, was the son of Saranyu and of one of the Adityas, Vivasvat or Surya (hence Manu is also known as "Vaivasvata", son of Vivasvati). Among other things, he also saved humankind from the flood in the Shatapatha Brahmana (a myth similar to the flood myths of Gilgamesh and Noah). Manu's granddaughter Sukanya married the rsis Chyavana. The Ashvins, briefly in love with Sukanya herself, helped Chyavana, and in return he included them in a soma ritual, even bending Indra's will.

There is a relationship among gandharvas, soma and vac. In the Vedas the word Vac refers to both speech and a goddess (created and married to Prajapati). Ditto for Soma, a substance and a deity. Soma makes deities immortal, and Indra and Agni are particularly fond of it. The gandharvas, notably Visvavasu (the one most often mentioned in the Rig Veda), are the celestial messengers between the divine and human worlds; more importantly, they know the secret of the drug soma. In Mahidasa Aitareya's Brahmana the devas traded Vac for Soma. Neither Soma nor Vac is really a personified deity: they are soma, a drug, and vac, speech, and specifically the reciting voice of the priest. The gandharvas are guardians of Soma in the sense that they are the custodians of soma (the drug). Vac offers herself as a naked woman to the Gandharvas in exchange for the precious soma that the devas want in the sense that someone talks the Gandharvas into surrendering the soma drug to them. (Later in the epic poems the gandharvas lose the individual identities that they had in the Vedas, they become just a class of beings. In the Vishnu Purana the gandharvas have become the sons of Brahma, but also confusingly, in the same text, they are the children of Kashyapa. In the Padma Purana the gandharvas are children of Vac. Gandharvas are married to apsaras, the muses, and gandharvas often perform as entertainers at the courts of gods, in particular for Indra). (Even more confusingly, in the Brahmanas the goddess Vac becomes identified with Sarasvati, the river goddess of the Rig Veda),

Vishnu, mentioned more than 90 times in the Rig Veda but only as Indra's assistant (and perhaps younger brother), is promoted to creator of the universe in the Yajur Veda, as prominent a deity as Indra and Agni. In the Rig Veda, Narayana is merely the rsis of the "Purusha Sukta" (Rig Veda 10.90), but later he becomes became Purusha himself (Satapatha Brahmana 13. 6. 1.1) and, by the time of the Mahabharata, Narayana has simply become another name for Vishnu. However, Narayana is not so much a deity as the first cause that generates Brahma itself. Vishnu/ Narayana is an all-pervasive substance and soul of the unvierse, the supreme self (paramatman). Hence Brahma here becomes Vishnu's "son".

There are countless ancillary human characters, notably Narada, the peripatetic guru mentioned in the Ramayana and the Bhagavata Purana, an intermediary between deities and humans, a sort of reporter on divine life; and Yajnavalkya, the author of the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad who lived at the court of King Janaka of Mithila, who had two wives but no children, and who, before dying, told his wife Maitreyi the secret of the atman, of the self.

The Yadava king Vasudeva (a reincarnation of the rsis Kashyapa) had several children from several wives, in particular Balarama ("strong Rama") and Subhadra from his wife Rohini, and Krishna from his wife Devaki. Vasudeva's sister Kunti married Vyasa's son Pandu. According to the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna was raised by Yashoda and Nanda in Gokul, where gopis (cow herding girls), notably Radha, fell madly in love with him. Driven by Krishna's flute, the gopis of Vrindavan danced with him the "rasa lila". Krishna left the countryside (and the gopis) and moved to the city of Dvaraka, where he married 8 queens and befriended the sage Narada. According to the Vishnu Purana, Krishna married the princess Rukmini.

There are three Ramas: Parashurama (son of rsis Jamadagni), Krishna's half-brother Balarama ("strong Rama") and prince Ramacandra, the protagonist of the Ramayana. Rama is an earlier avatar of Vishnu than Krishna. The Garuda Purana (1.86.10-11) lists eight avatars of Vishnu, and the Bhagavata Purana (Canto 1, Chapter 3) lists 25, but in both Rama comes before Krishna. The Ramayana takes place in northeast India during the "third age". The Mahabharata takes place in northwest India during the "fourth age".

The Ramayana, written by a former robber (Ratnakar/ Valmiki) redeemed by the sage Narada, is another didactic poem about dharma. This time the hero is Rama, the ideal son, the ideal husband (to Sita) and the ideal prince (of Aydohya). Trouble actually started in paradise. Ravana, the ten-headed demon king of Lanka, made invulnerable to deities (but not to humans), had overthrown the devas in heaven. Brahma instructed Vishnu to restore order. Obediently, Vishnu incarnated as a man, Rama, and his wife Lakshmi incarnated as a woman, Sita. (Technically speaking, Vishnu impregnated the three wives of Ayodhya`s king Dasharatha and the four princes Rama from queen Kaushalya, Bharata from queen Kaikeyi and the twins Lakshmana and Satrughna from queen Sumitra were born). The adolescent Rama was trained to kill by the legendary rsis Vishwamitra, first to get rid of the rakshasas who had been harassing the old man as well as some rival sages, and then the female demon Taataka, who represents another annoyance to the old man's life, and then her two sons Mareecha and Subahu, who were plotting revenge. Rama is a veritable killing machine, all on behalf of the whims of his preceptor Vishwamitra. Meanwhile, Mithil's king Janaka had raised as his own daughter the beautiful Sita, whom he had found abandoned in a field. Janaka promised his daughter in marriage to the man who could string the giant bow of Shiva. Vishwamitra and Rama visited the city and sure enough Rama achieved the impossible feat. Janaka married Rama and Sita, and the couple returned to Ayodhya to live an exemplary virtuous life. Trouble on Earth started when Rama's father Dasharatha abdicated. His wife Kaikeyi had once saved his life and back then Dasharatha had promised her to fulfill any wish she had. Kaikeyi asks Dasharatha to give the kingdom to her son Bharata and to ban Rama from the kingdom. Rama accepted and went into exile, accompanied by his wife Sita and his beloved brother Lakshmana. To be fair, Bharata didn't want the title of king at all, but Rama could not be talked into disobeying his father's will. Rama, his wife and his brother ended up spending 14 years years in the forest until Ravana made the mistake of kidnapping Sita (while distracting Rama and Lakshmana with a magical deer). Rama set out to find the demon, finds him, defeated his army (with the help of Hanuman's monkey army and of Hanuman's supernatural powers), killed Ravana and freed his wife (hence India's festival Dussehra). Now Rama and Sita (who has been asked by Rama to prove her chastity) were allowed to return home to Ayodhya and be crowned as king and queen (hence India's festival Diwali). The kingdom prospered in peace. The Ramayana is another self-referential poem, in which the author eventually meets his protagonist: Valmiki not only meets Rama and Sita but even teaches the Ramayana to their children.
The Mahabharata was composed by the sage Vyasa, the illegitimate son of the abandoned orphan Satyavati, and then by his pupil Vaishampayana, and recited to the Kuru king Janamejaya, last descendant of the Pandavas, the great-grandson of the hero of the poem, Arjuna.

The Pandavas were the five sons of Vyasa's son Pandu by his two wives Kunti and Madri, each boy being in reality fathered by a specific deity: Arjuna (Indra), Yudhisthira (Dharma), Bhima (Vayu), plus the twins Nakula and Sahadeva (Ashvin twins). The Mahabharata is about the Kurukshetra War that was fought over a dynastic succession by two groups of cousins in the kingdom of Kuru: the Kauravas and the Pandavas, whose families ruled over the two halves of the kingdom (king Dhritarashtra, Vyasa's blind son, of the Kauravas in his capital Hastinapura, king Yudhishthira of the Pandavas, the eldest son of Pandu and Kunti, in his capital Indraprastha). The eldest Kaurava, Duryodhana, cheated at a game of dice with the eldest Pandava, Yudhishthira, and won the Pandava land. The Pandavas were expelled for thirteen years and, as part of the deal, they had to spend the last year incognito at the court of king Virata. Nonetheless, at the end of the 13 years Duryodhana refused to yield half of the kingdom back to the Pandavas. Hence the war, largely engineered by Krishna.

Arjuna married the beautiful Draupadi, but Kunti forced him to share her with his brothers, and so all the Pandavas were married to the same woman. When Arjuna broke their agreement on how to sleep with Draupadi, he was banned from court and started a journey. He met Krishna and Krishna helped him abduct and marry Krishna's half sister Subhadra, from whom Arjuna had a son, Abhimanyu. Arjuna spent one year at Indra's palace, where Indra offered him the maid Urvashi, Arjuna refused, and Urvashi in revenge turned him into a eunuch for one year. Arjuna spent the year incognito at the court of king Virata, where he rejected the king's beautiful daughter Uttara and instead had her marry his son Abhimanyu. Arjuna also helped repel an attack by the vicious Kauravas.

During the war, armies from all over Bharatha (the Indian subcontinent) joined in one or another alliance. Before the battle Arjuna hesitated because he didn't want to kill his own cousins and friends, but Krishna instigated him to go ahead with the massacre in the name of justice (this dialogue constitutes the "Bhagavad Gita" ("Song of the Blessed One"), adorned with a lot of philosophical excuses). The war lasted only 18 days, as narrated by Sanjaya to Dhritarashtra, and the Pandavas eventually defeated the Kauravas. Krishna was sent by Vishnu in person to rescue "dharma" (justice, law, virtue) and therefore, as Arjuna's main advisor, Krishna plotted to make the war happen (a war that killed millions) and even devised nasty unethical tactics to kill the enemies. Among the casualties of the Pandavas were the four commanders of Duryodhana's army, who also happened to be very dear to them: the old Bhishma (Satyavati's step-son, and beloved grand-uncle of both the Pandavas and the Kauravas), their teacher Drona, their half-brother Karna, and their maternal uncle Shalya. Dhritarashtra and Kunti survived but died in a forest fire. Before dying with them, Dhritarashtra's wife Gandhari, mother of the Kauravas who had all been exterminated, cursed Krishna wishing the extermination of the Yadava race, Krishna's caste; and in fact a few years later the Yadavas, inebriated by alcohol, killed each other in a senseless civil war. Krishna too killed many and was eventually killed. Draupadi and the younger Pandavas trekked north towards heaven but only Yudhishthira made it through taking with him the dog Dharma (Dharma being Yudhishthira's father and dharma being the whole purpose of the war). Yudhishthira passed his final test when he refused to abandon the dog, as Indra asked him upon entering heaven.

The Hindu canon (written in Sanskrit):
  • Shruti (includes some poetry)
    • Vedas
    • Brahmana
    • Upanishad
  • Smriti (all poetry)
    • Ramayana
    • Mahbharata (incl. Bhagavad Gita)
    • Purana
    • Dharmasastra (incl. Manusmriti)

Two things stand out compared with other ancient mythologies (see for example A Timeline of the Hebrews):
1. Not a single object, building or monument survives of Vedic India. We only know about it from the scriptures. If the scriptures had been lost, we wouldn't know anything about Vedic India.
2. The scriptures contradict each other to a degree unmatched by any other body of religious texts, providing alternative versions of just about every single story.
Danielle Feller: "The Sanskrit Epics' Representation of Vedic Myths" (2004)
Jayant Gadkari: "Society and Religion from Rugveda to Puranas" (1996)
Emmie te Nijenhuis: "Dattilam - A Compendium of Ancient Indian Music" (1970)
Malati Shendge: "The Civilized Demons - The Harappans in Rigveda" (1977)
Moriz Winternitz: "A History of Indian Literature, Volume 1" (1981)
Mahesh Sharma: "Tales From The Puranas" (2009)
T. H. P. Chetharassery: "History of the Indigenous Indians" (1998)

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(Copyright © 1999 Piero Scaruffi)