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India, big enough to be called subcontinent has a known history of over seven thousand years. It consists of the population of heterogeneous character created by the intermixture of many races of local as well as foreign origin. It’s name ‘Bharat Varsha’ is derived from the ancient rulers of the Bharat clan. The world ‘Varsha’ means the region that comes under the same rainfall zone. Originally this country had several small but independent republics which in course of time formed one big nation having the same cultural heritage which astonishingly combines their initial diversities. First the north India, from the Himalayas to the Vindhya mountains was unified and then through the great efforts of the sage Agastya and Parshurăm, its contact with south India was established. Finally the great Indian subcontinent from Himalayas to Kanyakumari culturally became one country. People of divergent races, lifestyles and languages have lived their life on this ancient land considering it as the holiest place on earth. Thousands of casts and communities, most of them tribals, with their colours, manners and cultures, harmoniously led their lives under one roof. With their own dialects, sects, deities, beliefs, customs and occupations they enjoyed their community - life freely. The Aryans of the North and the Dravids of the south mainly Telang, Kannada, Tamil etc. were the major two subcultures that have contributed to the cultural growth of this country.

For many centuries Sanskrit remained the main language of the religion and literature which gradually paved way to the regional languages that flourished in full bloom in the medieval period. The oldest literature in the world known as ‘Vedas’ is in Sanskrit language. Oral tradition, steadfastly observed and traditionally followed without break retained the Vedic literature in its original form, the only literature and the method of its kind in the world. The way the Vedic hymns were recited thousand years back are still recited in the same way even today.

Any centralized political power never existed in India. Bharatas, Pandavas, Mauryas, Guptas and many others dynasties had their empires but they never ruled India as a whole. Even the regions where they ruled for years retained their distinct characters undisturbed. At times many kingdoms simultaneously survived with peaceful coexistence.

There never was established any centralized religious order, authority or system in India. Neither was there any prophet to establish any particular religion nor was any organization to force the spread of any particular cult. Religion remained a free expression for every individual. Many schools of religious thoughts freely flourished in India and the people silently followed the cults of their own choice. Though there exists one and the same God it was generously accepted that the same God can be approached through His various forms and names and by different paths. There was full freedom to all to accept and worship any God of his belief. There existed various God and Goddesses simultaneously but no God or Goddess was underestimated or insulted. Universal acceptance by tolerance was considered to be the great virtue of religion.

Many outside groups belonging to different races came to India but all were assimilated by absorbing their cultural contributions without any struggle. The mutual existence of various forms of worship, and religious sects remained the main characteristic of Indian’s religious system.

Wherever there exists the divine glory or the divine strength that is considered as a diety by the Indian mind. Imaginary and invisible world of deities of various kinds is a unique feature of Indian religion. These deities, it is believed fulfil the desires of their devotees if they are worshipped with intense love and devotion. Indra, Agni, Varuna etc. of Vedic times and Shiva, Vishnu, Kali, Durga, Ganapati and others of the later period are the deities of this category.

The man in his uncivilized stage conceived the idea of God out of fear and worshipped any stone, tree or mountain as God. The Vedic sages in India were highly civilized and rational minded. Their idea of God was developed by thought process. First time in Rigveda they talk of deities that represent various natural as well as human powers experienced by them in day to day life. The wind God Maruta, Agni, the Fire, Sőma, the intoxicating herb, the Earth the supporter, the Sun the light giver, Prajapati and Shiva, the creators, the Brahmanaspati, the knowledge giver, Indra, the valorous were some of the deities worshipped by the Vedic sages. The stormy winds, the torrential rains, the floods, the earthquakes, the thundering, the lightening and many other natural phenomena were seen as divine powers. It was a mixed experience of fear, awe and usefulness. The Vedic sages bowed down to these powers and sang beautiful prayers. Magnificent, beautiful and sacred manifestations of the nature in different forms inspired the Vedic sages to sing and the orderliness, regularity and lawfulness observed in the natural activities motivated them to philosophise with remarkable rationality.

In the next stage they conceived the independent deities that control the natural phenomena by their powers. Varuna, Brihaspati, Prajapati, Aditi, Usha and others fall in this category. Still these deities were formless. But gradually the deities started getting human forms and there appeared four-armed Vishnu, eight-armed goddess Durga, three-eyed Shiva, four-faced Brahma. Their superhuman divine powers were symbolized through their multiple hands, faces etc. Unlike earlier deities these deities were not harmful but full of compassion. The relation between the God and the man changed from fear to devotion and love. It became the inspiring force for the Indian people that established the grand tradition of devotional worship.

In the later stage these deities represented morality, truth, honesty and other virtues and were considered as the manifestations of one God alone. From this attitude evolved the great principle of ‘Ekam sat’ - one Reality behind everything. The idea of one supreme God was established in the later part of the Vedas. In the Upanishadic periods the idea got further developed into Ishvara, Supreme Lord who illumines the whole universe along with the lower deities of supernatural powers. Upanishadic search of one Absolute Brahman provided perennial inspiration to all the future philosophical works including the Bhagvadgita.

The total humanization of the other deities was predominant during the period of Brahman literature. The deities like human beings, had their families with relations of father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister etc. They had likes, dislikes, they lost, they quarrelled, they erred, they failed. They were also shown as selfish, envious, jealous, proud etc. Men were advised to worship them but warned not to follow them.

The Upanishads, were the philosophical letterings of spontaneous revelations of the great sages. They spoke of the one Absolute Brahman and the centers of Its glory existing in the universe and the man. Bhagvadgită in its 10th Adhyaya enumerated some selected centers of glory of the Lord. They include some deities mentioned in the Rigveda by their ancient names which are in fact the powerful natural phenomena. Gita tried to integrate the old concepts into new logical forms.

Organizing, illuminating and activating of the universe was controlled by different powers of the one Absolute Brahman who has created this universe and remained emanent in it. Everything in the universe is a divine manifestation of the Absolute Brahman. This was the culminating point of the concept of God in the Indian philosophical system. Here the sages freely talked about the process of cosmic creation. With the strong motivation to search for the superior God amongst all the Gods conceived earlier Upanishads arrived at the concept of one supreme Absolute Brahman for the first time in human history. The great sages realized the lofty truth of oneness through their mystic experience and gave spontaneous expressions to their revelations in fearless mood but in powerful words.

Soon the great mythological era of the Indian history began and the world of Indian deities which had already set the trend of humanization underwent a drastic change. That change influenced the Indian masses in such a way that the lofty and profound spiritual principles established by the Upanishads were pushed back to learned few and the supernatural and imaginary ideas of gods and goddesses took the hold of the common people. Upanishadic approach to God was intellectually rational and mystical at the same time. But this intellectual and spiritual approach was beyond the grasp of the common man. Whereas the use of the supernatural element, world of wonders, and miracles, the exaggeration and the flights of imagination helped the mythological works called Puranas to spread their sway like a wild fire. Almost all the Vedic deities lost their importance and were pushed to the lower position as mere protectors of the space. The Puranas changed the characters of some deities from good to bad and some from bad to good. The deity of death, Yama became the lord of the hell and divided the fate of the dead according to his merits or sins acquired during lifetime. The Ganesh who initially was the god of the obstacles became the remover of obstacles. The Purana’s efforts were to harmonise the different schools of thoughts, deities, forms of worship and divergent ideas into one larger unity. Their emphasis was on strengthening the religious faiths rather than recording the history. They achieved this goal by hundreds of mythological stories they created through their vast imagination and untiring zeal. The idea of incarnations was further developed and strengthened by expanding and restricting the number to ten important incarnations as Matsya-the fish, Kurma,-the tortoise, Varăha-the boar, Narsimha-the lion-man combination, Vămana-the dwarf, Parashurăma, Răma, Krishna, Buddha and Kalki. Interestingly some researchers have tried to interprete these incarnations as the theory of evolution of man.

Bhagavadgită has rationalized this concept of incarnation by expanding it to as many births of the Godhead as necessary to establish virtue by destroying evil whenever virtue subsides and wickedness prevails. The worship through devotion remained the pivotal point of all the Puranas and that resulted in replacing the ritualistic as well as intellectual approaches in the realm of God-worship.

The struggles between gods and demons, immensely used in these mythological stories had its origin in the Rig-Vedas as the symbolic and imaginary fights between light and darkness or good and bad mentioned as deva and asura. But the Puranas presented these struggles as true historical facts. The demons who overpowered heavenly gods like Indra and troubled human beings t by power aquired from Lord Shiva’s worship and hard penances. The demons were killed by Vishnu and other gods when intensely prayed for protection. The Puranas are full of such stories wherein Indra killed Vritra and Andhaka; the goddess Durgă killed Mahisha, Kumbha-Nikumbh; Rudra killed Tripura; Ganapati killed Sindhura and Vighna, Vishnu killed Madhu and Kaitabha, Răma killed Răvana, Krishna killed Dhenuka, Naraka, Agha etc….. so on and so forth. The symbolism and imagination were totally converted into realism.

In due course, the trinity gods Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesha, representing respectively creation, preservation and dissolution of the universe received extraordinary importance and barring Brahma, became the prominent Gods to be worshipped for personal favours. This led to the formation of two popular cult of worship known as Vaishnava and Shaiva which in history, at times, created serious quarrels over the superiority issue. The Puranas usually propăgated unity among all the three gods.

Bhagavadgită accepted the trinity principle as symbolic representation and discarding the personalized forms elevated the idea to three functions of the Absolute Brahman-they are the three major stages through which all sentient and non sentient beings pass through. Even the universe has to pass through these stages. The eleventh Adhyaya of the Gita wherein the Lord Krishna revealed his cosmic form to Arjuna covers these three aspects in visual form by integrating them in the body of the supreme God , Ishvara.

As in mythology the Indian philosophy too, accepts the principle of God’s appearance in human form, but not in super natural way. The fourth Adhyaya of Gita speaks of the Lord Krishna appearing in human forms as Incarnations at an appointed time to help the distressed and to kill the wicked. Strictly observing of human laws and not by miracles these incarnations fulfil the divine purpose of their descent on this earth. The Puranas did not follow this approach.

In addition to Vishnu and Shiva, Puranas included three more deities for worship, making the group of five popularly known as Panchayatan. These three are goddess Shakti, Ganapati and Surya, the Sun. Shiva and Vishnu retained their mythological importance by alternately enjoying the supreme position. Devi or shakti or Jagadamba or Durga or Kali are but the names of the same goddess with the feirceful form that destroyed the demoniac powers. Ganapati, the god with elephant head is the god of learning and also the remover of obstacles. Surya , the sun was already in worship in Vedic age but by the influence of Shaka Kushana races who came as invaders, the occult practice was added to sun-worship.

In the humanization process the Puranas had also thought of the gods with their wives in company. Mainly Saraswati, Laxmi and Părvati, the wives of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesha respectively were given their distinct roles as the presiding deities of learning and art, divine strength, and the wealth and prosperity. They are independently worshipped; individually or collectively; daily or occasionally.

The imaginary world of Indian deities was created and enriched by the mythological stories of the Puranas to unify the divergent streams of thoughts and modes of worship existing in different regions and communities of India. The temples and temple arts; fairs and festivals flourished in India in such magnificent form that it has become the most colourful and joyful treasure of Indian culture. The role of super natural power in assisting human efforts is so deeply rooted in Indian soil that it has resulted into thousands of village gods, family gods, ancestral gods etc. flourishing in every nook and corner of the country. The faith that they are the protectors and the wish-fulfillers provide divine cover to human strength and efforts. However this has also led to lot of superstitious ideas overpowering the minds of the weak.

Behind all these formulations of gods, goddesses and deities in various forms stands one eternally accepted truth that no man can really see God except through these human manifestations. Intellectually this may appear to be absurd. But without transcending human nature, it is very difficult to know God in his true nature. Till then man has to see Him in man as man. The Puranas contributed by creating humanized versions of God prepare the man to go higher and higher in his pursuit of Absolute Truth. The devotional worship in various forms that exist in India for centuries together has kept this big nation united and peaceful. The mythology and symbolism have become the integral part of all religions all over the world as a necessity to help the aspirant soul in his Godward march. India is exceptionally rich in producing the spiritual siants because of the exuberant growth of devotional cults that sprung up every where due to its mythology and ritualism.

Lord Krishna’s declaration in Bhagvadgită about his incarnations in human forms is a matter of solace to humanity since all the major religions of the world have experienced this truth in one form or the other. The soul of Indian philosophy lies in its acceptance of all religions as equally true and their thoughts and paths are equally capable of reaching the final Truth. Bhagvadgită asserts this principle repeatedly.

The Puranas were also responsible for turning the religion from its ritualistic grandeur to simplified modes of worship. Emotional nobility of the mind and the physical involvement attained the key position in worship. To achieve this they converted the Yadnya institution into temple institution that revolutionized the whole socio-cultural life of India. It was the compulsion that they devised certain rituals and worship-systems because the ordinary people were not capable to understand the higher ideals of supreme devotion. At the preparatory stage of worship the inclusion of priest services, festivals, pilgrimages, fairs, story telling, singing, dancing etc. were included in the temple activities to popularize the worship of the divine.

Since antiquity Indian people loved and enjoyed the surrounding nature where they saw beauty and divinity combined. - Indian nature is very rich in all respects. The flora and fauna of India were never treated as the material wealth for human consumption. The people saw in them the wonders and powers of divinity. Their love for nature was converted into worship of of divinity. Their love for nature was converted in to worship of nature. Fish, turtle, crocodile, bore, cow, bullock, snake, eagle, peacock, elephant, lion, tiger, swan and many such creatures either became gods or the vehicles of their gods. Fish, tortoise and bore had the distinction of manifesting as incarnations. In the same way holy waters of rivers like Gangă, Yamună, Saraswati, Krishnă, Godăvari, Narmadă, Kăveri etc. were given forms of goddesses. Seas and lakes too were not excluded. The heavenly bodies like earth, sun, moon, stars, planets etc. were offered the status of deities. Even in the world of vegetation certain plants and trees like baniyan tree, fig tree, tulasi etc became sacred beings for worship. Animal-form- gods like Hanuman, the divine monkey, Ganapati, the elephant headed and Narsimha, the man-lion combined incarnation received the highest veneration. Hanumăn and Ganapati are the most popular deities of Hindus that protect them from all evils. In tenth Adhyaya of Bhagvadgită Lord Krishna, while describing his divine glory has cited many of such examples as his manifestations.

The Image-worship is very popular in India and almost all deities and gods in innumerable number, appear in one form or the other not necessarily in human forms though human forms are very popular in majority. These idols are inseparably associated with the particular aspect of God. Most of them are the revealed forms experienced by the great sages in their deepest spiritual perception. They symbolise and express as nearly as possible, the particular view of God. In India different gods and goddesses representing different divine aspects are worshipped in hundreds of temples and festivals throughout the year.

All these gods and goddesses are worshipped as independent powers or the manifestations of the one and the same supreme Brahman, appearing in its Allmighty, All knowing and All merciful form of Ishvara. Bhagvadgită has categorically stated that any gods or other beings when worshipped for themselves and for worldly gains, such worship is only a ritualistic Karma and it gives the worshipper that particular fruit which he desires from it. But when the same god or goddess or beings are looked upon as Brahman and worshipped, the result obtained is the same as by worshipping the supreme God. Bhagvadgită prefers the second approach as a preparatory instrument for a beginer until he goes beyond and sees the Absolute as Absolute. Narrow-minded and selfish worshippers according to Gita are of inferior nature.

Whatever outwardly appears to be contradictory or superstitious or fallacious in Indian religion has a deep philosophical foundation which if not understood in proper sense creates lot of misunderstanding. The truth lies hidden some where else and the myths are carried forward.

 

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