Death and Destruction in Hindu Mythology Essay

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HISTORY Project 1 Death and Destruction in Hindu Mythology Thomson Muriyadan F. Y. B. M. M Div: A Roll no. 38 If one’s perception of mythology is that of mystical creatures, gods and demons and boons and curses, then Hindu mythology fits the bill perfectly. A glance at the introduction of any of the books written on the subject could make one dizzy at the sheer number of gods, demons and stories about the world it encompasses. The Hindu view with respect to birth, life and death is very diverse and the myths leave enough room for logical interpretation.

An outsider (non-Hindu) would find these myths to be very nonsensical whereas the Hindus are taught from the younger age to interpret these myths in their own personal ways though they continue the accept the larger truth about them. DEATH. Death has been one of the strongest reasons why man continues to follow a particular religion. Though one might say a person is always born into a religion and hence, is a believer by this virtue and also might disown religion at sometime of his life, there are a mighty few numbers who keep their stand on being an atheist till death.

Death can be viewed as the ultimate truth of life and the most inevitable event in one’s journey of life. No religion, accepted in considerable numbers, promises immortality of the body. But religion kicks in to console the believer the immortality of the soul. Many religions consider death to be an event where the soul is liberated from the body and is free of the problems and desires of this world. Every religion gives the faithful a different world view and puts the responsibility of one’s death in the hands of one or more supernatural beings who form the basis of each religious theology.

In Hinduism, death is not viewed as a great calamity at all. This is because of the prevalence of a concept called samsara (Sanskrit word meaning the bondage of life, death and rebirth). It is the cycle of birth and rebirth or metempsychosis which is dictated by the inexorable law of karman, to which every individual is subject. (Dictionary of Hinduism, Margaret and James Stutley, 1977). Thus, in general, there are three consequences of death- Ascending to Heaven or swarg, descending to hell or narak or interestingly a rebirth onto earth which is a distinct feature of Hindu belief and mythology.

This concept of rebirth has been disputed in many other religions like Christianity which doesn’t believe in rebirth. The Hindus believe firmly in this theology and hence, some of their religious traditions like marriage is a bond that has to be kept for 7 rebirths and so on. This abstraction is therefore followed throughout Hindu mythology giving the gods the power to reincarnate themselves and appear in various forms. Human beings are believed to be reborn from many births as animals and formerly as plants. So death in this context acts a link in between successive rebirths.

To be reborn, one must die and in what form one will be reborn is decided by the tally of one’s karma that includes the good and bad deeds and the state of the soul while dying. If the soul enjoys desires uncontrollably it is reborn as a human being. If it manages to overcome earthly desires, it becomes eligible to see heaven and so on and so forth. In Hindu mythology, most of the concepts are understood with reference to the actions and consequences of the doings of gods and demons. On doing a detailed study of the mythologies recorded between the time block of 1500 B. C. – 1500 A. D.

One will see contrasted ideas of death. On mapping the general ideas we find death to be or to fulfill the following purposes- To be reborn, as a form of punishment, as a religious sacrifice, as a means to liberated oneself, etc. In Hindu mythologies, death is closely related to time since the Sanskrit word for time, kala, also coincides with name of the god of death who is also known as Yama. Birth and death are normal markers for human or existential time. However, here again we must consider mythic time which considers birth to be rebirth. If one were to search for the beginning of his chain, mythic view defies it by asserting that there is no absolute beginning, but rebirth is cyclic and thus, time plays an important role in understanding these periodic patterns of death and rebirth. . For in mythic time, this birth or lifetime was preceded by the prior “causes” in the karmic chain that shape this birth always answering why one was born in this caste (varna), into this marriage group (jati), with these disabilities, and so on. For most part of the mythology, the function and hence the power of deciding one’s time (end of life) is bestowed in the hands of Yama, who is the god of death.

According to the Hindu Book of Mythology compiled by George M. Williams (1967), Yama came to be the god of death in later part of this period. He had varied roles in earlier mythologies. In the Rigveda, he is considered as the first mortal (later recognized as the first human! ) He was the son of a solar deity named Vivasvat and was assimalated into the Dharma, the god of social order and the guardian of the four corners of the earth or the Lokapalas. In the Katha Upanishad, he talks to a youth Naciketas about the nature of death and its mystery thus portraying him as a philosopher-teacher.

It was only later in mythologies is he portrayed as being the feared god of death. He is also believed to have two dogs- Syama and Sabala who came for souls leading them to Pathala (hell). Thus, death here takes a cruel and fearful turn. In the Hindu picturesque, hell, which was supposed to be a comfortable abode of the dead is transformed into a realm of punishment populated with all sorts of dreadful creatures like blood-thirsty demons and tree spirits in the later part. The underworlds changed radically from period to period.

As the kingdom of Yama, lord of the dead, the underworld was named Yamapuri (city of death). Yama and Kala were the same god, and so space and time are one in death. The Upanishadic lad Naciketas could report that the accommodations were fine and the occupants well cared for in Yamapuri. However, subsequent rulers, all kings of the asuras, turned the place into a living hell. Probably influenced by Buddhist and Jain conceptions of hell, medieval Hindu mythology treated the seven narakas (and some incorrectly added the Vedic netherworlds or patalas) as places of torment and punishment or evil deeds. Thus, Yama is associated in time with Kala (killer) and Mrityu (death) and hence, with the lord of cremation, Siva. Thus. The link between death and punishment becomes evident in the later part of this mythological survey. Kala worked within a fixed universe: he would come only at the appointed time of death, which was governed not by him but by a causality regulated by karma and the time believed to be allotted for each species, from plants and animals to humans and gods. Even Brahma, the creator, had a fixed allotment of one hundred divine years.

This is highly contradicting the concept of creator in other religions where the creator has infinite existence. After death the spirit of the body was taken by the attendants of Kala to his court, and there the spirit was judged according to the virtue (dharma, punya) and vice that had shown in action in that lifetime. Depending on the judgment, the spirit (pitri) was sent to Vaikuntha (heaven) or Naraka (also called Pitriloka, the land of the spirits). This is very much similar to those of other faiths.

Quite humorous is the fact that Kala himself was ruled by the laws of karma, could be defeated by the magic of sages or the austerities of demons like Ravana, and was fooled by the play of supreme deities as observed in the Book of Hindu mythology by George M. Williams. In some other accounts such as the Atharvaveda, Agni (goddess of fire) takes the soul of the deceased from the funeral pyre to one of the worlds (lokas) of heaven (svarga), Indraloka or Brahmaloka, or to hell (naraka). Fortunately for Agni, later accounts give this function to Yama, god of death.

An uncomfortable observation of the get-up of Yama in popular media is that his person bears a lot of resemblance to a typical middle-aged South Indian with a pronounced mustache, pot belly, dark skin, gold ornaments and a colorful dhoti. If one were to search for an example of death being awarded on being purified of one’s sin then the story of Bhadraka, a sinful Brahmin can shed some light. Bhadraka had lead such an immoral life that some accounts say that he was out-casted. But one day he took a ritual bath for three days at Prayaga, during the month of Magha (a month in the Hindu calendar that falls in February or March).

It had been said that those who took a bath at Prayaga in the month of Magha would be absolved of all their sins. So Bhadraka was awarded rebirth in heaven after his death because of this single act. This type of myth advertised the powers of a particular pilgrimage place. So great were Bhadraka’s sins that everyone could believe that they had sinned less and would surely get to heaven by taking a pilgrimage to Prayaga and bathing there. Thus, for a pious man death becomes a means to attain his dream of being reborn into heaven. This takes away from the fierce face of death and makes it more welcome an occasion.

The legend behind the celebration of Onam, a harvest festival for the people of Kerala tells a story of a benevolent asura king, Mahabeli, who was awarded death as the god’s were insecure that an asura would win the hearts of people and hence, would make their positions questionable. However, Mahabeli doesn’t quit his devout nature in fear of death and hence, pleases the god’s by which he is granted his wish to visit his people every year on the occasion of Onam. This illustrates, on personal interpretation, death as a means of religious sacrifice being awarded.

An interesting observation in the Uttara Ramayana ( a good collection of youtube videos on this subject is available especially the animated interpretation uploaded by rajshri. com) is that child-death was something which was not consistent with ramrajya (rule of Ram). Hence, when it does occur, it is a matter of great concern in that period of time. It forces Ram to go in search of the sage, Jambuka, responsible for it. Thus, here death is seen as an insult to a perfect kingdom and it calls for action to restore its dignity.

Death is not an end of all, but a natural process in the existence of soul as a separate entity, by which it reassembles its resources, adjusts its course and returns again to the earth to continue its journey. In Hinduism death is a temporary cessation of physical activity, a necessary means of recycling the resources and energy and an opportunity for the jiva (that part which incarnates) to review its programs and policies (www. hinduwebsite. com/hinduism/h_death. asp ). This sums up the reason one has to die and death being a cyclic and part of a continuous chain of xistence. If one looks at death as a tragic event or a curse on mankind (which is inconsistent with the Hindu faith) then one would look at immortality as a gift or boon. In the Vedas, amrita was a characteristic or quality of a suitable offering in the fire sacrifices to the gods. Soma (the divine plant) had more amrita than other offerings. Later amrita (or amritam) was a substance produced by the Churning of the Milky Ocean (kshirabdhi-mathanam). There were different versions of this myth in the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and the Puranas.

According to one version the demons (asuras) had triumphed over the gods (devas), so the devas sought Lord Vishnu’s help. He told them about amrita and how it would bestow immortality on those who drank it. Because the devas were able to take all of the amrita with Vishnu’s help, they were able to prevail over the asuras. These were the seven beings who did not have to experience death. Hanuman was one among the ciranjivis. The other six chiranjivis were ? vatthama, Maha-bali (Bali), Vyasa, Vibhishana, Kripa, and Parasu-Rama.

Accordingly, they are all still alive in this creation and perhaps will be in all others. All this concerned with the role of death and its consequences. Death of a family member calls for various ceremonies to be held. Most of the rituals are done with respect to the mythologies. Cremation is the ideal method for dealing with the dead. But Infants are buried. After cremation the bones and ashes are collected and eventually immersed in a holy river. A particular feature of the Hindu ritual is the preparation of rice balls (pinda) offered to the spirit of the dead person during memorial services.

In part these ceremonies are seen as contributing to the merit of the deceased, but they also pacify the soul so that it will not linger in this world as a ghost but will pass through the realm of Yama, the god of death. (hinduism. about. com/od/basics/a/rites_rituals_5. htm ) DESTRUCTION. Once the entire mystery revolving around death is clarified to the believer, the very next question that demands an answer is that of the creation of the world and subsequently its destruction. In Hindu mythology, Shiva has a direct link to destruction. He is the God of destruction.

Before we understand the mythology of Shiva, we must know what Hindu Mythology has to say about the process of destruction itself. How did the cosmos, the gods, and humans come into being? Which came first? Some Hindu myths say that humans created the gods, so the order has been debated. The creations (srishthis) is believed to be repeated again and again. In Hindu mythology due the concept of rebirth, there also emerges a concept of age or kalpa. Each age was followed by its destruction (pralaya), and there would eventually be fourteen great creations.

Some texts say that we are now in the seventh age. Each age was ruled over by its first human being, its Manu. And each age received the Vedas and was expected to live the dharma, but eventually would go into a decline that precipitated another destruction and another creation and this process goes on. So, which came first: time, the cosmos, or a god who created one or both?. Hindu mythology is rich in answers. The paradigmatic Hindu myth of the return to the one is that of the destruction of the cosmos by Shiva in one version or by Vishnu’s sovereign agency in another.

Everything goes back into the cosmic ground of being and will once again be recreated into all the multiplicities of life. Yet there is an interesting paradox: Despite being dissolved in the divine fire of cosmic destruction, one’s karma survives (at least the minor dissolutions, according to many myths) and one’s karmic chain continues until divine grace intervenes. There is no ending, as this cycle starts over again. Also, according to the Vishnu Purana there is no purpose to cyclic time either, as it is just for the play (lila) of Vishnu.

Further, Pralaya (“dissolution”) generally meant the destruction of one creation before the next. The Agni Purana mentioned four kinds of pralaya: a daily destruction (nityapralaya), the destruction at the end of a kalpa or a day of Brahma (Brahmapralaya), the destruction at the end of a thousand catur-yugas (Prakri- tapralaya), and the final destruction and dissolution of the individual self (atman) and absorption into the Supreme Self (atyantika-pralaya). Shiva (or Siva) is one of the most significant deities of Hinduism. His name apparently means “Auspicious One. ” Devotees of Shiva are called “Saivites. Shiva is known by many other names- Sambhu (“Benignant”), Samkara (“Beneficent”), Pasupati (“Lord of Beasts”), Mahesa (“Great Lord”) and Mahadeva (“Great God”). (From http://www. religionfacts. com/hinduism/deities/shiva) . Though mostly associated with destruction, Shiva is a paradoxical deity: “both the destroyer and the restorer, the great ascetic and the symbol of sensuality, the benevolent herdsman of souls and the wrathful avenger. ” One famous myth concerning Shiva is the one in which he saves humanity by holding in his throat the poison that churned up in the waters and threatened mankind.

For this reason he is often depicted with a blue neck which is rarely noticed as his long hair and his manly body is more noticeable. He has significant roles in epics loke the Ramayana and Mahabharata as well. In the Ramayana, Shiva is a mighty and personal god, and in the Mahabharata he is the equal of Vishnu and worshiped by other gods. Shiva became associated with generation and destruction; sometimes fulfilling the role of Destroyer along with Vishnu (the Preserver) and Brahma (the Creator) and sometimes embodying all three roles within himself.

Such ambiguity of identity is mostly associated with only Shiva. In an edition of the White line journal, in the photos section. Mahadeva image of Siva in the Elephanta caves (on an island off of Bombay), which dates to between the 5th and 7th centuries CE, Shiva is shown in his threefold form. This triple aspect of Shiva, which has become a dominant form, is rich with symbolism: Shiva’s symbols are the bull and the linga. The latter symbol is historically associated Shiva and the Ganges with the phallus, but is not generally perceived as such by worshipers.

Other depictions of Shiva have his hair in matted locks and piled atop his head like an ascetic and adorned with the crescent moon and the Ganges River (according to legend, he broke the Ganga’s fall to earth by allowing her to trickle through his hair). Shiva is, therefore, also known as “Gangadhar”. Gangadhar literally means the carrier of Ganga (River Ganges). (http://www. rudraksha-ratna. com/hindu_trinity. php) Shiva is sometimes shown with his trident (“trishool”) in his hand. The “trishool” is a three pronged weapon which symbolizes the destruction of the ego with its three-fold desires of the body, mind and intellect.

Shiva with his weapon indicated his victory over his ego and attainment of the state of perfection. Because of his connections with destruction, Lord Shiva is one of the most feared and heavily worshipped deities in Hinduism. One way he projects this fierceness is his association with snakes. The snakes coiled at different places of Lord Shiva’s body have names. The serpents coiled at His ears are named Padma and Pingala. The serpents coiled at His armlets are named Kambala and Dhananjaya. The serpents at right and left wrists are named asvatara and taksaka. The serpent at his waist is called Nila. — Vamana Purana. Shiva has a third eye, giving him the capability of inward vision but also burning destruction when focused outward. He is variously shown with two or four hands, which hold a deerskin, a trident, a small hand drum, or a club with a skull at the end. This gives the picturesque of a feared deity. A lot of the mythologies dealt with such characterization to make the concept and its deity to coincide with such impact. Finally, in the Kurma Purana, he was the lord of destruction and began and ended creation, he was also the master of death, Mrityunjaya, and time, Mahakala.

There were also myths in Markandeya Purana propounding the nature of Siva as exceeding the powers of Yama, the god of death. Thus, we have realized an entire account of Lord Shiva and his associations with the concept of destruction as seen in the Hindu mythology. In conclusion, death is an integral part of the life of an Hindu as it promises to give him access to another birth. It is not a tragic or sad event but one that, as a Hindu, one must accept gracefully. Destruction, on the other hand, is also cyclic in nature and acts like a divine balancing act keeping the cosmos in a never ending loop of creation and destruction.

Every mythology has a distinct interpretation of these concepts but in the end adhere to a larger story which helps interpreters make such conclusive statements. It is believed that to a true Hindu it is this larger picture that matters. As a religion, these mythologies were used an important instruments by religious leaders to instill these ideas in a very effective manner. A perfect understanding of these concepts with the right vision is very critical to the survival of this religion in its true form.

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