Indian God and Goddesses
Stories Myths Legends and Traditions
In Dravidian times,
Ganesha was worshipped as an elephant, signifying the wisdom and majesty
of the universe. The invading Aryans, adopted the Dravidian god and
affirmed their belief in Ganesha. Ganesha made a ceremonial entrance
as an Aryan god. ‘The auspicious god’, he would be worshipped at the
beginning of all rites, an unbroken tradition that continues to this day.
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on the Ganapati Image to Enjoy.
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In myths, the birth
of Ganesha is celebrated as a divine twist of fate. The most popular myth
brings alive the story about the elephant head. It all began when Parvati,
wanted to bathe. She needed privacy and since there was no one at hand,
she created a guard with the sweat and oils from her body. She brought the
figure of a young man to life and told him to stand guard while she
When Shiva, her
husband returned and strode towards their home, he found his way blocked
by an unknown soldier. The soldier blocked Shiva’s entry. Shiva was
furious, a duel began. The soldier fought well, but was no match against
the might of Shiva, who killed him. Parvati came out and saw the dead
body, she demanded he be brought back to life.
Shiva sent his
hordes to collect the head of the first living being, who was sleeping
with head facing north. The north was associated with wisdom, and was also
the direction from which the Aryans had invaded.
white elephant paid the price for Shiva’s blunder. While Airavat slept
facing the north, Shiva’s hordes beheaded him. His elephant head was
carried away for the dead body. An incensed Parvati demanded that her
child be promoted to the status of a primary god. Shiva and all the other
gods knew this was the only way they could placate her and Ganesha took
his place before all the gods.
All rituals (samskaras),
begin with the worship of Ganesha. His image invokes the universe, his
head signifies wisdom and his body is globular, Vishwaroopa. Ganesha
represents the majesty of the animal kingdom with his head and his vehicle
the mouse shows subjugation of pestilent rats. .
His trunk is
twisted into an embodiment of ‘Om’, the syllable that created the
world. To combat evil, he carries weapons the discus, trident, sword and
shield. A broken tusk is a reminder of his battle with a demon, and the
fight with the forces of evil. Yet, the same tusk is used by him in the
writing of the epic, the Mahabharata. When Vyasa wanted to compose the
Mahabharata, Brahma suggested Ganesha be his scribe. Vyasa agreed and
Ganesha brought his broken tusk to writing quill. Vyasa dictated the
entire epic in verse. Ganesha recorded every word for Gods and men alike.
He carries a modak
(sweet dumpling) in one hand, for his appetite is insatiable, and
conscious of his role the other hand shows in the ‘abhaya mudra’(do
not fear, I am here to protect).
explains Ganesha’s role in changing astronomy. In the month of Shravan/Bhadrapad,
after a feast of modaks. Ganesha was on his way home. He was riding his
mouse, a snake slithered into their path, the mouse tripped and Ganesha
took a tumble. His stomach split, and the modaks fell out, Chandra (the
moon) was watching and he began to laugh. Ganesha picked up the snake and
used it as a belt to hold his stomach together. He looked up, cursed
Chandra and banned him from the night skies.
Soon the gods and
humankind were dazed glare of the relentless sun. There was no respite of
darkness when the moon was banished from the sky. The gods took a
delegation to Ganesha and pleaded their case. Ganesha gave in, but made an
astronomic condition. The moon would never shine like before. Full moon
would be just once a month (earlier every day was a full moon). On other
days the Chandra as a reminder of his misdemeanor would wax or wane!
the divide between the believers of Shiva and Vishnu. Ganesh idols are
worshipped both by Shaivites and Vaishnavites. Ganesha temples are seen in
almost every village in India. Chubby and gleeful and elephant headed,
Ganesha easily finds his place in the hearts of Gods and people.
preserver of human life is one of the three gods of the Trimurti. He is a
generous God and known as being ‘Sattvaguna’ (kind and merciful).
Vishnu is the only God of the Trimurti who is reborn whenever there is a
crisis on earth.
(righteousness) is disturbed, Vishnu descends to earth as an avatar (a
human form) to fight the forces of evil.
The Puranas list
the Dasavatars’, ten avatars, Vishnu took on to sustain the cosmos. Seen
in order, they represent the evolution of mankind from the fish stage to
These avatars were
Matsya (fish), Kurma (tortoise), Varaha (boar ), Nara-simha (man-lion),
Vamana (dwarf), Parashurama (a powerful warrior), Rama, Krishna, Buddha
and Kalki (white horse).
A romantic aspect
of the myths, is that whenever Vishnu descends to earth he marries Lakshmi
(his Goddess wife). They are destined to marry on earth as in heaven. When
Vishnu is Rama, Lakshmi is born as Sita. As
Krishna he marries her as Rukmini.
The story of the
fish avatar, is Hindu, but the likeness to Noah is uncanny. A great flood
threatened to submerge Manu (a patriarch who once ruled the earth). Manu
asked a for a bowl of water which he needed for his religious rites. In
the bowl was a fish who told Manu that if he looked after him, Manu would
be saved from the flood. Manu agreed and took the fish to the ocean.
In the ocean the
Matsya grew to whale-like proportions. Taught by Matysa how to build a
ship Manu could sail during the flood.
While the deluge
ripped the land apart and treacherous waves rose from the ocean, Manu was
safe. Matsya was his tether who towed the ark to safety. When they reached
the shores they found a dead and barren land ravaged by the storm .
Manu found the
cargo contained the seeds for every form of life, from which he could sow
the world. Vishnu as Matysa supported Brahma who renewed the world
After the deluge,
many cosmic treasures sank deep into the ocean. The Asuras (demons) were
in race against the Devas (minor gods) to churn the oceans for amrit (the
nectar of immortality).
Vishnu appeared as
Kurma (the tortoise) who sided with the Devas. Together, they decided they
would create a churn for obtaining the amrit.
The serpent Vasuki
was threaded around Mount Mandara to create a churn. Kurma dived to the
floor of the ocean and balanced Mount Mandara on his back. In the grip of
Kurma’s cosmic force, Mount Mandara could not sink into the ocean bed.
The Gods churned,
and the nectar of immortality came to their hands. As they continued to
churn, fourteen treasures appeared. For Kurma the most precious was
Lakshmi, the Goddess of beauty and good fortune who would be his wife.
When the demon,
Hiranyaksha dragged Bhoomi Devi (Mother Earth) underwater, Vishnu took the
form of Varaha (a wild boar). After a fierce battle he overpowered the
demon and lifted Bhoomi Devi from the waters. He pushed with his snout and
the land puckered forming the Himalayan Mountains. He dragged more land
from the sea and shaped the Indian subcontinent.
During the satayuga
(first epoch) a tyrannical Daitya (demon) tormented the world. No god
could overcome him and with each battle he won, the Daityas pride grew.
Crazed by his invincibility he shot an arrow at a pillar to defy Vishnu.
Vishnu burst out as Narasimha (man-lion) and tore Daitya to shreds.
Later Bali, the
King of the Daityas had become ruler of the world. He had wisely
worshipped Vishnu who had granted him a special boon. Protected by this
boon Bali became a cause for celestial concern. When all the other Gods
were overcome they pleaded to Vishnu for help.
Vishnu took the
form of Vamana (a dwarf), and was born as the stunted child of Kasyapa and
Aditi. He went as Vamana to a yagna (sacrifice) being performed by Bali.
Bali was offering
sweets to all those present at the yagna.. Vamana held out his hands and
said he was a poor peasant. He asked for as much land as he (Vamana) could
cover in three steps. Bali took a look at the dwarf peasant and granted
him this boon.
Vamana expanded to
a cosmic size. His first step covered the earth, the second reached
heaven. Vamana’s third step would have reached the lower world but Bali
bowed before Vamana realising he had to be Vishnu. Pleased by Bali’s
humility, Vishnu spared him and gave Bali a kingdom of his own in the
In the Treta epoch,
(the age of the sacred fires) the warrior class were becoming dominant.
Their weaponry made them aggressive. They were subjugating ordinary
people. The Gods wanted power to revert to the priests. Vishnu appeared as
Parashurama, and took away the powers of the warriors returned it to the
As Rama, Vishnu
came on earth to slay the demon Ravana. A legendary man, his compassionate
nature and his belief in duty elevated him as ‘Maryada Purusha’, ideal
In his eighth
Avatar, Vishnu was Krishna the greatest
teacher whose words form a priceless Hindu scripture, ‘The Bhagwad Gita’
or the guide to life.
As the Buddha,
Vishnu is a great religious teacher of India. He revealed the secrets of
moksha and the path to Nirvana.
avatar will be as Kalki (white horse). At the end of the present age (Kal-Yuga)
he will come back riding a white horse. Predictions say Kalki will
brandishing a flaming sword and destroy last demons on earth.
In his cosmic form
Vishnu is seen reclining on a many headed serpent called Ananta and the
oceans lie subdued under him. He holds a chakra (discus) in a hand with
which he maintains order in the universe. The shankha or conch was
retrieved by him during the churning of the oceans, and its deep humming
sound is an evocation of the sea. He holds a lotus for peace and a gada
(mace) a controlling weapon. Garuda the eagle is his celestial vehicle.
As god and in each
of his avatars Vishnu plays the role of the preserver making the earth a
safe heaven for his believers.
The eighth avatar of Vishnu is Krishna. While he was on earth as Krishna
he fought innumerable demons and conquered the hearts of many women and
composed the the ‘Bhagwad Gita’ a Hindu treatise on a battlefield.
Krishna was born on
the eighth day of the holy month of Shravana in Mathura (North India).
Kamsa, the demon had been warned that the eighth child of Devaki and
Vasudev would bring about his doom. Kamsa imprisoned the pregnant Devaki
along with Vasudev.
The gods conspired,
the child was taken to Yashoda and Nand, cowherds who lived in Vrindavan.
As a child, Krishna was mischievous, he had a taste for butter and was
affectionately called ‘Makhan chor’ (butter thief).
Kamsa’s demonic spies were carefully combing the countryside to find
Krishna. Putana was the first demon sent by Kamsa to kill the baby
Krishna. She fed him poison from her breasts, but Krishna suckled out her
life and survived.
Krishna grew up to
be the darling of Gokul, all the milkmaids fell in love with him when he
played his flute. Krishna would marry Rukmini, an incarnation of Lakshmi
but before their wedding he would have to rid the earth of more demons.
had promised her hand in marriage to Shishupal, an incarnation of Ravana(a
demon). On their wedding day she eloped with Krishna. Before they could
marry, Krishna had to kill the demons Shishupal and Jarasanda.
While every turn in
his life is marked by a battle against evil, Krishna is most respected for
the Bhagawad Gita or the Song of God. He recited the finest piece of
literature on the battlefield of Kurukshetra.
charioteer, Krishna was the first to see Arjuna overcome by the
realisation that he would cause the death of his gurus and relatives.
While the armies of the Pandavas and the Kauravas stood facing each other
with their arrows drawn, Krishna, recited the Bhagwad Gita, the nucleus of
Shiva is known as
the destroyer in the Trimurti. He is the husband of Parvati and their
children are Kartikeya and Ganesha.
appearance is quite awesome. He wears a snake Vasuki around his neck. He
is also known as Neelkanth (blue-throated), for he holds Vasuki’s poison
in his throat. The legend dates back to the time when the gods churned the
oceans. Vasuki’s poison threatened the world. Only Shiva could take the
poison in his mouth. He held it in his throat forever and earned his name
Also known as
Pashupati, Lord of the animals he sits on a tiger skin subduing
aggression. He holds a damru (a small drum) a symbol of creative activity.
One hand is raised in the abhaya-mudra, for he is the benevolent force of
He wears a pair of
unmatched earrings that symbolize his being Ardhnarishwara (half man and
half woman). One earring is a Kundala, worn by men and the other a Tatanka
worn by women. Shiva unites the sexes in his being. The love of Shiva and
Parvati (his wife) fused together, they become one, the single creators.
reveals himself in secular as well as religious texts. A Dravidian king he
married Sati a daughter of an Aryan king. (Sculptures from The Indus
Valley Civilization depict Shiva).
Daksha opposed their union. After the wedding, at a yagna (sacrifice),
being performed by Daksha. Shiva was ignored by his father in law who
found him ‘uncivilized’.
bear this humiliation of her husband, jumped into the sacrificial fire.
When Shiva came to collect her ashes he could only express his deep pain
and grief through a violent dance called the Tandav. He terrified all
creation as he danced around the earth seven times.
When nothing would
pacify Shiva the gods feared his sorrow could destroy the earth. They
decided to revive Sati and she was born as Parvati (daughter of the
had renounced the world and gone to Mount Kailash where he had began a
hard penance. When Parvati reached Mount Kailash, Shiva was so involved in
his meditation that he was immune to Parvati’s presence.
Parvati did all she
could to entice Shiva but his meditation was powerful. Finally she asked
Madan/Kama (the god of love) for help. Kama told her to dance in front of
Shiva. When Parvati danced, Madan shot an arrow laced with flowers at
Shiva, whose penance broke.
When Shiva opened
his eyes his first sight was Parvati dancing before him. Shiva fell in
love with Parvati and became her loving husband. Parvati became his shakti
In Mount Kailash
their ardour was intense, The Gods worried about the child who would be
born from this union. Shiva’s seed dropped on the banks of the Ganga
(the river which flows through his matted hair). This lingam is worshipped
all over India.
Their first child
was Kartikeya or Subramanya. Kartikeya would fight the demon Taraka rescue
the world and then return to Parvati and Shiva.
The birth of
Parvati’s second child was far more prosaic, Parvati wanted to bathe in
privacy and she created a son from the sweat of her body. She asked him to
guard the door.
When Shiva returned
and walked towards the bathing area, Ganesha blocked his path. Shiva was
angry and offended by the impudent new guard who had the nerve to question
him. In the battle of wills Shiva beheaded Ganesha.
Parvati was furious
and demanded Ganesha be brought back to life. Shiva sent Nandi (his bull)
to bring back the first head of an animal who was sleeping with his head
to the north.
Nandi brought back
the head of Airavat, Lord Indra’s elephant. After this single cosmic
misunderstanding the family Shiva, Parvati, Kartik and Ganesha lived
are dedicated to Shiva, on every Monday of the year people observe a fast
Parvati, is the
wife of Shiva and the mother of Kartikeya and Ganesha. Shiva and
Parvati’s marriage can be traced in historical and religious texts.
Shiva was a
Dravidian king who married Sati, a daughter of an Aryan ruler. Sati’s
father, Daksha disapproved of their union. After the wedding, at a yagna
(sacrifice), being performed by Daksha. Shiva was ignored by his father in
law and the guests.
Sati, who could not
bear this humiliation of her husband, jumped into the sacrificial fire and
became the first Sati (a tradition where women would burn themselves on
their husband's funeral pyres).
collected her ashes, he could only express his deep pain and grief through
a violent dance called the Tandav. Terrifying all creation he danced
around the earth seven times. Unable to console Shiva, the Gods resolved
they would revive Sati.
Sati was reborn as
Parvati, daughter of King Himavat who lived in the Himalayas.
Shiva had renounced
the world and in Mount Kailash he began a hard penance. Immersed in
meditation, Shiva was immune to the presence of Parvati (daughter of the
Parvati asked Madan/Kama
the God of love for help. He told her to dance in front of Shiva. While
Parvati danced, Madan shot an arrow laced by flowers at Shiva, whose
penance broke. When Shiva opened his eyes Parvati was his first vision.
Shiva too began to dance with Parvati and as the gods watched the couple
in bliss, their fears were laid to rest.
Parvati lured Shiva
into marriage and away from asceticism. He became a householder and she
became his shakti, the creative force of the cosmos.
In Mount Kailash
their ardour was intense, the gods were worried about the child who would
be born from this union. Shiva’s seed dropped on the banks of the Ganga
(the river who flows through his matted hair). This is the lingam that is
worshipped all over India. Their first child was Kartikeya or Subramanya.
Kartikeya would fight the demon Taraka rescue the world and then return to
Parvati and Shiva.
child was Ganesha. Legends say his birth was determined by Parvati's
desire for privacy. She wanted to bathe and created a son from the sweat
of her body. She asked Ganesha to guard the door. When Shiva returned to
their living area, Ganesha confronted him. Shiva who was unaccustomed to
being blocked at his doorstep fought Ganesha and beheaded him. When
Parvati saw her son lying beheaded, she was furious and demanded Ganesha
be brought back to life.
Shiva sent his
hordes to bring back the first head of an animal who was sleeping with his
head to the North. They brought back the head of Airavat, Lord Indra’s
elephant. Ganesha was given primary status as a god and Parvati was
Parvati is the only
female deity, who like Vishnu has the ability to change her form. She
appears in incarnations as Durga and Lakshmi. As Parvati she is soft,
gentle and sattvic. As Durga she becomes a powerful warrior, and as Kali a
bloodthirsty Goddess who can even demand sacrificial killings.
Shiva and Parvati, and brother of Ganesha, Kartikeya is the God of War.
Shiva his father is also identified with Agni the God of Fire. His
heritage gives him the daunting responsibility of defending all the Gods.
Katikeya has a bow
and arrow slung across his back ready for war. He rides a peacock and
commands the celestial armies. He is known by many names, all with the
same meaning - fierce warrior, Skanda, Subramaniam and Murugun.
the Goddess of Fortune, lived in the ocean and was discovered by Vishnu
her husband in his avatar as a tortoise!
The story began
when the Devas (minor gods) were in race against the Asuras (demons) to
obtain amrit (the nectar of immortality). The Devas consulted Vishnu was
on earth as Kurma, a tortoise. They decided they would churn the oceans
for the amrit.
They created a
churn by threading the serpent Vasuki around Mount Mandara. Kurma dived to
the ocean floor and balanced Mount Mandara on his back. In the grip of
Kurma’s cosmic clutch, the mountain could not sink into the ocean bed.
The gods churned
and received the nectar of immortality and then fourteen treasures came to
their hands. For Kurma the most precious was Lakshmi, the Goddess of
beauty and good fortune who would be his wife.
Lakshmi from the ocean married her first in heaven and then many times on
earth. Each time Vishnu descended on earth in an avatar, he would marry an
avatar of Lakshmi. A cosmic couple, they would wed on earth as in heaven.
When Vishnu appears
as Parashurama, he marries Lakshmi as Dharini. When he is Rama, Lakshmi is
born as Sita. As Krishna he marries her as Rukmini.
Lakshmi plays a
central role in creation, for she is Vishnu’s shakti. Her birth in the
oceans bestowed her with boundless fertility. On earth she is known as ‘Prakriti’,
nature, the mother of all living beings. When Vishnu and she are together,
they fly through the skies on Garuda, an eagle.
Lakshmi is never alone, two elephants shower her with the waters of the
Ganga. Dressed in a red sari, she wears rich gold ornaments that express
her ties with good fortune.
She sits on a
lotus, signifying her spiritual power, an ascension from murky water
flowering into purity. The lotus is understood as a symbol of the cosmic
Lakshmi is the most
popular goddess in the Hindu Pantheon. Each month of the year finds a
festival to celebrate Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.
In the month of
Kartik on Diwali, Lakshmi Pooja precedes the welcome of the New Year. At a
time when the last year comes to a close and it is the eve of the New
Year, people pray to Lakshmi, for success, wealth and prosperity.
United by their
belief in the Goddess of good fortune, Shree Lakshmi, Hindus revere
Lakshmi with boundless affection each year.
The life of Rama,
ideal man and great warrior is the story of India’s second epic, ‘The
Ramayana.’ The seventh avatar of Vishnu, Rama
brings to life a quality known as ‘Maryada Purush’ ideal man.
In the 3rd century
BC, Valmiki wrote the epic ‘Ramayana’, immortalising the life of Rama.
He was born as
Ramachandra the eldest son to King Dashratha, who ruled the kingdom of
Ayodhya in north India. Early in his life, a sage called Vishwamitra recognized
Rama as an avatar of Vishnu and sought his help in the slaying of a female
demon, Taraka. Right from his fight against evil Rama was victorious. This
victory foreshadowed the great battle with the demon, Ravana.
First Rama would
marry. His wife is his celestial partner Lakshmi, who descended in avatar
as Sita. To win her hand, Rama showed his prowess as a warrior. Rama was
the only suitor who could bend the great bow of Shiva, in front of the
entire court of King Janaka. Rama and Sita married and returned to the
Kingdom of Ayodhya.
However his step
mother Kaikeyi obstructed his path to the throne. She wanted her son,
Bharat to inherit the kingdom and conspired against Rama. Rama was sent
into exile for fourteen years.
Sita and Lakshmana
(Rama's brother), went with him into the forest where trouble soon
followed. When Rama spurned the advances of a Surpa-Nagara a female demon
she attacked Sita. Lakshmana defended Sita and wounded Surpa-Nagara.
Nagara’s brother entered the fray. Ravana was the ten headed demon King
of Lanka, As wily as he was vicious, Ravana tricked Rama and Lakshmana and
While Rama was
searching for Sita, a spirit called Kalabandha told Rama to go to the
Monkey King, Sugriva for help. Rama and Lakshmana went to King Sugriva who
was in the midst of a crisis. Bali, his brother had taken the kingdom that
rightfully belonged to Sugriva.
Rama and Lakshmana
took on a war with Bali and restored the kingdom to Sugriva. King Sugriva
offered Rama the services of his general Hanuman, to help find Sita.
Hanuman was able to discover Sita’s whereabouts. She was imprisoned by
Ravana in his island nation of Lanka.
To rescue Sita a
bridge was built to reach Ravana’s kingdom. Rama, Lakshmana, Hanuman and
an army of warriors crossed the bridge and flooded into Lanka. In the war
between good and evil, all the demons were killed. Ravana was killed by
Rama and Sita was rescued.
Together Ram, Sita
and Lakshmana returned to Ayodhya. Rama was crowned king and the era when
he governed was called ‘Ramrajya’ in recognition of a time when
democracy was given the highest dignity.
in a Dravidian past and was accepted into the Aryan age. He is also known
as Maruti, Pavanaputra and Anjaneya. In the Ramayana, India’s second
epic written by Valmiki in the 3rd century BC, we meet Hanuman as a
Commander in Chief, of the army of King Sugriva (a Monkey King).
The son of a wind
god Vayu, Hanuman uses his ancestry and his ape like agility to help Rama
win the war against Ravana.
Rama and Hanuman
had first met when they had fought as fellow warriors for King Sugriva.
They restored Sugriva to his kingdom. An ever grateful Sugriva offered
Rama the services of Hanuman to help find Rama’s wife, Sita. Sita had
been abducted by Ravana. Rama had been unable to find her and sought
Sita was imprisoned
in Lanka, Ravana’s kingdom an island off the southern tip of India.
Brandishing his mace, Hanuman took a single leap across the gulf
separating the two countries and located Sita. The demons of Lanka tried
to trick Hanuman. They set fire to his tail, hoping to distract him,
Hanuman turned his tail on the city and set Lanka on fire, burning the
demons to cinders.
During the battle,
General Hanuman swung the war in Rama’s favour. When Lakshmana was
wounded, Hanuman flew to the Himalayas for the medicinal herb Sanjeevani.
Unable to identify the Sanjeevani, he wrested the entire mountain from the
land and carried it to Lakshmana.
celebrate his strength, and agility in temples consecrated to Hanuman.