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INDIAN MYTHOLOGY

W.G. Davey: All Rights Reserved

wgdavey@zianet.com

Overview

Our perspective of Indian mythology is unique and will not be found anywhere else, even in detailed discussions by lifetime students of these works. It brings the whole elaborate structure of gods, goddesses, demons and heroes down to earth as members of six generations of a single, mighty, but very human family.

It is complex, there is a host of names, and it is likely to be unfamiliar to most western readers. But studying it is unavoidable if the entire range of Indo European mythologies is to be put into context and understood since it has two aspects which are not found anywhere else. The first is that we find, without any doubt, that the principal characters of these mythologies were known by many names, but it is only in the Indian myths that we find such a wealth of detail that this can be proven. The second is the consequence of the enormous bulk of documentation that has survived – far greater than all that exists elsewhere combined. This means that names and themes of non-Indian mythologies can almost always be matched in the Indian tales but very less often elsewhere.

The sheer bulk of the Indian stories makes it impossible to give more than an outline of the many names of the principal, their family relationships, and their lives. In particular we have found that it is better to discuss most of the Indian stories in conjunction with parallel tales in the non-Indian accounts. Here we will concentrate upon the sources of Indian mythology and our methods of disentangling the incredibly tangled web of names and stories.

The Indo European Peoples in India

The time and means of the arrival of the Indo Europeans in the Middle East and in India is still mostly unknown. The relationship between the Indo European language peoples and the others fairly clearly shows that the invaders entered India from the northwest and then spread south and east. The archaeological remains do not (as yet) permit identifying artifacts and sites with the invaders, and the attractive idea that the remains of the cities of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro on the Indus river show their destruction at the hands of the invaders is plausible but probably wrong. The fascinating written records are (it seems) still un-deciphered, and such dating as has be done does not help with the issue of invasion.

Still, despite the obvious uncertainty, the informed opinion that the Indo Europeans arrived at about 1500 BC, through the passes and plains of the northwest and then spread through the rest of the subcontinent at least does not conflict with the available evidence.

Sources of Indian Mythology

First and foremost, the reader but remember that Indian mythology is inseparable from Indian religion; the myths are religious accounts of gods and goddesses for many millions of people. And, perhaps because of the strong religious aspects, the oral transmission of the stories was even more reliable than with other cultures. But the accounts were written down in India long before they were in other countries and the Sanskrit (or Sanscrit) language writings date to well before the age of Christianity. The language is remarkable in that it claims a perhaps-unique precision of expression, and its grammar was "perfected" by Panini in about 400 BC.

The "perfection" of Sanskrit and the fact that has remained in use to the present day, surely must make it more difficult to date written sources, but it is possible to distinguish the very oldest formulations. And the Sanskrit script is a challenge to the western reader, so that considerable study is required to follow it, but many western and other scholars have been able to study and analyze the original writings for about 200 years. Fortunately for most of us, excellent translations in English and other European tongues are available, though with some difficulty since they are often only found in major libraries rather than as popular works. In this regard, the reader should not expect even the best of the non-original accounts (some of which are excellent reading) to contain the detail which must be studied for our needs.

The four primary sources, roughly in terms of earliest to latest, are the Rigveda, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the many religious commentaries known as the Puranas. All together these constitute over English-language 100 texts. An immensely important secondary source is the 1899 Sanscrit-English dictionary of Sir Monier Monier-Williams. And we have found it necessary to construct our own tertiary document from combining certain data from all of these sources in a biographical dictionary in computer format so that we can collect information in an expeditious way.

The Rigveda are hymns, chants, and incantations addressed to the gods, imploring or demanding their help in return for prayers and sacrifices. Related works, which however we do not use, are the Yajur-veda, the Sama-veda, and the Arthava-veda. The Rigveda has been available in English for over 150 years new and translations are still being made. They are of different lengths and quality, but all are useful. Our preference is the 1857 translation of H.H.Wilson (seven volumes of 300 to 400 pages) because of the extensive commentaries, and the one volume 1889 translation of R.G.Griffith (700 pages) because of its useful index of names though it is less well regarded than most others in terms of accuracy. Less useful is the classical two volume translation in "Sacred Books of the East", edited by F. Max Muller.

The genealogical and thematic information in the Rigveda is generally in the form of snippets, such as, when speaking of Indra, the King of the Gods, "he who made his mother a widow"; that is, he killed his own father.

The Ramayana is the epic story of the life and struggles of the prince and hero Rama – one of the incarnations of the god Vishnu. In brief, Rama and his two brothers are partial reincarnations of the god Vishnu who has agreed to this to combat the demon Ravana; but Rama has the greatest portion of Vishnu. He is educated by the great priest (and magician) Vishwamitra, and marries the beautiful princes, Shita. But Shita is abducted by Ravana and taken to his island kingdom of Lanka (identified with modern Ceylon), and Rama, with allies both human and animal, rescues her.

The oldest version of the Ramayana was written by Valmiki (who appears in the Ramayana himself) and we use is a 1953 translation of Valmiki by Hari Prasad Shastri; this is in three volumes and about 1600 pages.

The Mahabharata is by far the largest single source. It is an account of a war between the sons of two half-brothers, the protagonists being called "Pandavas" and the "Kurus".

Although the name denotes that they are descended from Pandu, in fact the five Pandavas are actually sons of gods. Yudhishthira who is the leader is the son of the Dharma, the immensely strong Bhima son of the wind-god Vayu, Arjuna the fabulous left-handed archer son of Indra, and the twins Nakula and Sahadeva sons of the Ashwins. The Kurus are the 100 sons of Dhritarashtra, and the principal and heir is called Duryodhana. Although initially the kingdom was divided between the two sides, Duryodhana cheats the Yudhisthira of his portion of the kingdom in a gambling game.

butthe king, to avoid conflict, then bans the Pandavas from the kingdom for a period of thirteen years which they spend at the court of King Virata.

The Pandavas are in disguise in Virata’s court, but are instrumental in saving his kingdom after it is attacked, and after adventures return home where they have to go to war to obtain their lost lands.

Very interestingly, Krishna, who was powerful king related to both sides of the family, appears to attempt to negotiate a peace, and when this fails becomes an advisor to the Pandavas, and particularly Arjuna. And as his advisor Krishna tells Arjuna of his duties in the very important Bhagavad Gita. The Pandavas eventually win, but are overcome with remorse and, together with Krishna, die (from a wound in his heel).

Although the story of the war is long enough in itself, the Mahabharata is far longer than otherwise would be the case since it contains a tremendous number of accounts of other stories, usually in the context of key past events and experiences. The result is eighteen books, and the writer uses an 1896 translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli (reprinted in 1970) that is in twelve volumes and about 5000 pages. There is no index but a Danish professor , S. Sorenson, started to construct a massive 800 page "Index to the Names in the Mahabharata" that had to be completed by others after his death and published in 1904.

The same fate befell J.A.B. Van Buitenen who authored an excellent modern English translation, fully indexed, in the years 1973 to 1978, but who died after translating only the first five of the eighteen books.

The Puranas are later than the epics and collect and comment upon these other sources. There are eighteen principal Puranas (the name simply means "old") six of which accord eminence to the god Vishnu, six to the god Shiva, and six to Brahma. But, the Puranas did not simply repeat the accounts in the epics and the Rigveda since there are stories found there which have the ring of authenticity but which are not found elsewhere in the Indian literature.

A series of modern translations is in the hands of an Indian publisher, and from their inception in 1970 to date (2000) 61 volumes have appeared. The translation is still proceeding and the completed set may well run to over 100 volumes.

The 1899 Monier-Williams Dictionary is a remarkable work which, although it is truly a dictionary, is also an encyclopedia of information on the names and themes of Indian mythology. And, although is in Sanskrit alphabetical order, it is in English. It is a gigantic work of over 1300 pages in small print and three columns per page so that it is comparable in length to a 4000 page book. Its breadth and scholarship is striking since Monier-Williams was assisted by a large number of Indian scholars who studied over 100 different source documents.

The Author’s Biographical Dictionary: Immensely valuable though the Monier-Williams dictionary is, the biographical and mythological information is spread – in Sanskrit alphabetical order – throughout the huge volume. This is a difficult format to use and so the present author has extracted all (hopefully) relevant entries and listed them in English alphabetical order in a computer-based "Biographical Dictionary". This contains about 10,000 entries in about 500 pages. And to the entries in the original dictionary we have added a large number of entries from the other source documents as we have encountered them in our studies.

This document is the basis for our initial search for genealogical information.

Genealogies

Although the author had been studying many mythologies, including the genealogies involved, for some considerable prior time the present work may be said to have had its true beginning when examining Indian myths. Initially the thrust was simply to document the many existing genealogies to try to remove overlapping and inconsistencies and with no realization that a much different task lay ahead.

Indian genealogies run to a hundred or so generations rather than a few tens so that it was not surprising to see duplication of some names, and, in particular, the names of gods tended to appear in many places. But it is the nature of gods to have freedom in time and place and this in itself was not surprising.

But then we discovered that one of the names for Indra, the King of the Gods, was Gadhin and we realized that this was identical in form to the oldest form of the name for the Norse king of the Gods, Gwoden. And Robert Graves, in "The White Goddess", had noted that the latter was identical with that of the Welsh wizard, Gwydion. To our knowledge the fact that Gadhin was equivalent has not been previously observed is clear proof that all of the Indo European mythologies have a common origin.

To expand upon this point, it is not that the name "Gadhin", which means "singer" and perhaps signifies a bard, was particularly obscure or concealed in some way, but it has no prominence in Indian lore. It can be found in, for example, the respected "Hindu Classical Dictionary" of Dowson published in 1928, but as Gadhi and Gathin not the more revealing Gadhin. Dowson records that he was the father of the great magus Vishwamitra, and that Indra took this form but that is all he says. The reader may feel that the relatively unimportant role of the person called Gadhin is an indication that its occurrence is just a coincidence, but there are similar instances of change of status elsewhere. For example, although the name of "Indra" does appear in the closely parallel Persian mythology, it is the name of a demon not a god, and not one of the major demons either!

This discovery led to an arduous examination of Indian mythologies with a very critical eye and eventually led to the conclusion that the genealogies as given are heavily fragmented and duplicated. But the truly startling conclusion was that all the principal gods, goddesses, demons, and heroes were linked in just six generations of one family from Brahma through to Krishna and perhaps beyond.

only reached after diligent study.

We first selected a name of a prominent individual and then used a computer The writer would emphasize that although the equivalence of Gadhin, Gwoden and Gwydion was accepted from the beginning, the remaining parts of the genealogy were often reached reluctantly at first and without any attempt to force a conclusion. But, to be completely open on this point, our genealogies are selected from a vast mass of such data which often shows conflicting information. But the conclusions are, we believe, fully justified, both on the basis of Indian documentation and parallels in other Indo European myths.

The path we followed will perhaps reassure the reader that our conclusions were "search" routine to find all references to that name in our dictionary. We then constructed a "working document" by collecting all references to that name in one place; this document of course then contained the names of family members, allies, enemies and so on. We then examined this document and tried to identify a consistent genealogy for the individuals mentioned covering several, perhaps three to five, generations. Each of these genealogies was then put in the form of a chart together with the references and information used to construct it. As the study proceeded it led to several hundred working documents summarizing the available information on and individual and over 200 separate genealogies. These separate smaller genealogies were eventually combined to give the "six generations" that are the core of our understanding of Indian mythology.

Many, Many Names

In examining this vast array of names we came to the realization that is demonstrated a vastly important fundamental fact – all prominent individuals were known by several names, sometimes very many of them. In part this will come as no surprise since the two gods, Shiva and Vishnu, are each known to have "1000 names", though the listed names may not add up to this exact number. Since they are gods, this in itself is perhaps no surprise, but what is unusual is that the Indian methods of giving names generates several possibilities for all individuals.

For example, modification of one or more vowels is used to designate descendants of a prominent ancestor; for example, the name "Gautama" as in Gautama Buddha", simply means a descendant of "Gotama". This there are many individuals who can be, and often are, known as "Gautama. And sons and daughters may be known by variants on their mother’s name, perhaps to distinguish between sons of on man with several wives. And individuals may have names that recall exploits such as Indra’s name of "Vritrahan", the slayer of the demon of drought, "Vritra"; paradoxically, this means that a hero may have a name based on that of his enemy.

The importance of this discovery cannot be over emphasized – the study of all of the Indo European mythologies shows that one name for an individual will be found in one mythology but not in another. And unless we know the many alternatives, we will not be able to identify equivalent names in different mythologies.

This single point, even without our recognition that there are only six generations involved, makes the study of Indian mythology essential since it is only in the vast body of Indian myth that all of the alternative names can usually be found. Almost all other Indo European mythological names can, or must, be found in Indian sources; and, to anticipate, this is also often true for the themes of the stories.

One final but important point is that the alternative names for a person are not listed in most cases and it is necessary to infer what they are. What we have noted is that although the principal’s name may be different in two stories and there is no acknowledgment of alternatives, the names of the lesser persons are often unchanged. But if, for example, we find that the father and the son of two "different" people are the same there is a strong likelihood that the two people are one. This approach is not always necessary, but in two cases, the magus Vishwamitra and Indra, it is important since there we can construct a web of associated names that are all linked to the central name and often to each other. Such linkages are very convincing confirmation of alternative names which may otherwise be conjectural.

Parallel Names in Indian and Other Mythologies

We shall not attempt to cover the large number of parallels here but will simply give some notable examples.

Varuna (Brahma) Uranus, Greek

Gayatri, wife of Brahma Gaia, Greek

Gadhin (Indra) Gwoden, Norse; Gwydion, Welsh

Danu, goddess Danu, Irish goddess

Uttaraka Phanadara Uther Pendragon

Agni, god of Fire (Shiva) Agnar, Norse

Garutmat (Vasishtha) Gahmuret, Germanic/Celtic

Garuda (Vasishtha) Geirrodr, Norse

Prahrada (Vishnu) Peredur, Welsh

Achalas (Vishnu) Achilles, Greek

Parashu-rama (Krishna) Perseus, Greek

Indian Themes and Parallels

The lives of the principals of Indian mythology can be constructed from the many stories scattered throughout the sources, and the obvious stories attributed to them can be supplemented by examining the myths associated with alternative names. This is sometimes important, for example, in constructing a fuller life of Krishna. However, we have found it more suitable to discuss the thematic parallels in the discussion of the other Indo European myths and are generally not given in the Indian discussions.

However some examples are indicated below. The Indian case is given first.

The supposed sacrifice of Brahma to create the heavens and the earth; the almost identical Norse sacrifice of the giant Ymir to create the world.

Gadhin, King of the Gods; Gwoden, Norse King of the gods.

Balin, killed in a fight with his brother, Sugriva; Balin killed by his brother who also dies, Arthurian Welsh Celtic.

Garuda the vulture (Vishwamitra) whose brother dies when he flies too close to the son; the Greek Prometheus legend.

Viswamitra, the magus and guide of Rama; Merlin or Myrddin, mentor of Arthur.

The blue-throated God Shiva who drinks poison; the blue-throated Irish Gaedil after a serpent’s bite.

Uttara’s single-handed of his father’s kingdom when the army has been lured away; the Irish hero Cuchulain’s single-handed defense of Ulster.

The attempt to kill the infant Krishna by his uncle; Arthur’s attempt to kill his nephew Mordred.

Concluding Comments

The reader may fairly ask why, if our conclusions are correct, they have not been seen before. We cannot fully answer this question since the information that we have has been available for a century or more, but we will offer some possibilities.

The first is that an analysis such as ours would presumably have no place in Indian studies since the accounts are religious in nature and so there is no need to search for inconsistencies or discrepancies. Perhaps the answer that the Gods can do as they wish is enough.

The second point is that such analyses as ours have probably been out of favor with scholars for the last century. In the Nineteenth Century there were eminent scholars who wholeheartedly studied the broad topic of Indo European mythology, most prominent of whom was perhaps Max Muller. But fashions change, in scholarship as elsewhere, and this topic was simply not a popular one.

The third possibility is that our use of a computer to store the information and the subsequent ability to extract and collect relevant facts has made a near impossible task feasible. This may be so but the common assumption that "putting it on the computer" is an easy route to understanding is, in my belief, completely false. Our only use of the computer is to make it easier to assemble information, but the scholars of old were energetic, thorough, and able, and were surely capable of this task.

Whatever, the reason, we ask only that doubters examine the entirety of the evidence with the same diligence that we have brought to the problem and make a judgment based upon the facts alone. Our interpretation is not unique, but we believe that it is the only plausible one.

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