Indian religion and mythology are closely interwoven and cannot really be separated. Moreover, both are so vast and confused that any generalization is likely to oversimplify. The earliest Indian texts are the Vedas, a series of sacred hymns in honor of the Aryan gods, who personified natural forces such as the sun, storm, fire, soma, and the like. The Vedic religion was materialistic, devoted to obtaining power, prosperity, health, and other blessings by means of ritual and sacrifice.
By the time of Buddha around 500 B.C., the old Vedic religion had been transformed by Brahmin priests into a fantastical hodgepodge, with the priests claiming godlike powers for themselves. Buddha addressed himself to the problem of human suffering and discovered a way to eliminate it through disciplined living and giving up one's desires. He gained so many followers that the Brahmins were forced to incorporate his ideas into their teachings. The result was Hinduism, a modified polytheism with three major gods: Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva.
We will look at the principal Vedic and Hindu gods and relate two appropriate myths. Then we will view two legends, the first deriving from the Ramayana and the second treating the life of Buddha.
Main Vedic Gods
Indra is the main god of the Vedas, a hard-drinking, swaggering warrior who rides his solar chariot across the sky and wields the thunderbolt. As a storm god he brings the rain to fertilize India's parched soil.
Mitra and Varuna maintain the cosmic order. Mitra, the sun, presides over contracts and friendship, while Varuna, the moon, supervises oaths. Like Indra, these gods reflect the values of the warrior caste.
Agni is the priest's god of fire. He presides at the altar and hearth, exists as lightning, and blazes at the heart of the sun.
Brihaspati is the god of incantation and ritual, the personification of priestly magic.
Soma is both a narcotic plant and a god who gives inspiration, liberates men, and represents the principle of life.
Savitar is the god of motion, and whatever moves or acts is dependent on this deity with golden eyes, hands, and tongues.
Ushas is the beautiful, charming goddess of the dawn, a source of delight to all living creatures.
Puchan brings all things into relationship, blessing marriage, providing food, guiding travelers, and ushering the dead.
Siva is the terrifying god of destruction, a deity so formidable that people must flatter him to avert calamity.
Kali is Siva's wife, a bloodthirsty fertility goddess decorated with emblems of death.
Prajapati is the master of created beings, the father of gods and demons, and the protector of those who procreate.
The Devas and Asuras are gods and demons, respectively, and battle each other with magical powers.
The Rakshas are evil semi-divine creatures that practice black magic and afflict men with misfortune.
Hindu Gods and Concepts
Brahma refers to the spiritual reality underlying all phenomena, and is sometimes personified as a god. Brahma emerged from the golden egg created by the waters of chaos and established every universe.
Maya is the veil of illusion, the sensuous appearances that delude human beings into materialism.
The Transmigration of Souls refers to the propensity of souls to incarnate themselves in various material forms, from the mineral to the superhuman. Since soul matter is indestructible, each soul lives innumerable lives.
Karma refers to the debt of sin incurred in the past and in this present life, a debt that must be paid before the soul is to reach perfection.
Vishnu is the supreme Hindu god. He rests on the cosmic waters between creations, or universes; and in each creation he takes on some avatar or material form such as a fish, a wild boar, a turtle, a lion, a dwarf, a man. His worship is marked by affectionate piety and devotion.
Siva is an extremely important Hindu god, the dancing deity of creation and destruction. He has four arms and has a third eye on his forehead with which he destroys. His worship is marked by asceticism.
Parvati is Siva's wife, a goddess symbolic of his power and ruthless in her battles against demons under her various names and aspects.
Ganesa is the popular god of prosperity, a son of Siva and Parvati with four arms and an elephant's head.