The Hindu spiritual landscape is populated by multidimensional characters whose embodiment of both positive and negative aspects finds no parallel within the good versus evil mythology of the Western world. From the goddess Kali to the mysterious elephant-headed Ganesha, Indian Mythology explores the rich tapestry of these characters within ninety-nine classic myths, revealing the essence of the Hindu worldview and demonstrating how these ancient stories can inform a contemporary generation.
Devdutt Pattanaik examines the meaning behind the metaphors of the classic myths in symbolic art and in a multifaceted tradition of ritual practices. Fifty artistic renderings of important mythological figures (from seventeenth-century temple carvings to twentieth-century calendar art) illustrate the complex polytheistic Hindu tradition and show how central these figures are to the Hindu conception of the world. Vishnu and Shiva, Gauri and Kali, Krishna and Rama embody the inherent tension between two poles-positive and negative, light and dark, pre-servative and destructive, world affirming and world rejecting. These opposing energies are valued equally in the cyclical Hindu worldview-a long view that recognizes their natural balance over time. The author also compares and contrasts Indian mythology with the stories of the Bible, ancient Egypt, Greece, Scandinavia, and Mesopotamia, offering Western readers a way to decode the symbolism of the rich Hindu tradition-an enduring mythic tradition that has empowered millions of human beings for centuries.
A medical doctor by training, Devdutt Pattanaik moved away from clinical practice to nurture his passion for mythology. His books include The Goddess in India and introductions to Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi. He lives in Mumbai, India, where he works as a health communicator and writes and lectures on Hindu narratives, art, rituals, and philosophy.
Consider this: A religion believes in one god, who is the all-powerful God, and in one life and one way of living one's life-by obeying the will of that god, as expressed through a prophet-in order to gain everlasting joy in heaven after death. The alternative is to face eternal suffering in hell.
Now consider this: Another religion believes there are several gods, even Gods and Goddesses, several lifetimes, and several ways of living one's life. This religion has no need for the concept of evil because every event is a reaction to past events. This religion maintains that there are several "heavens" and several "hells," where gods can be punished and demons worshipped. This religion holds that the cosmos is multilayered and populated by a variety of beings, and believes that time is cyclical, with events repeating themselves again and again and again. .
It would be foolish to try to understand one religion in terms of the other. Hence, to understand Hindu mythology-its sacred narratives, art, and ritual-a paradigm shift is required. One most move away from Western concepts of right/wrong, divine/diabolical, angel/sinner, heaven/hell, genesis/apocalypse, and fall/return. These concepts evolved to satisfy the needs of the Occident, and they presently form the bedrock, in some form or other, of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In India a different worldview evolved over four thousand years, with the concepts responding to various sociocultural phenomena and transforming with the words of wise men to satisfy the needs of the local population. European scholars who were deeply influenced by biblical thought defined this worldview as a religion. For the native practitioners it was simply a way of life into which one was born.
European colonial powers were confronted with the Hindu way of life when mercantile and later imperial ambitions brought them to South Asia in the sixteenth century. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Indian subcontinent had become part of the British Raj. India had been under foreign rule before: Persians, Greeks, Huns, Turks, and Mongols all governed the land. But the earlier invaders had either been assimilated into the local population or had left the natives alone, calling those who stubbornly refused to convert to their ways "nonbelievers.. The European rulers, however, kept a self-conscious distance from the conquered race and made concerted efforts to understand them. They knew that the secret of political control lay in a sound knowledge of the subjects.
The British, and to some extent the French and Portuguese, soon realized that understanding the dominant religion of India was nothing short of solving a conundrum. There was no historical founder or prophet (like Jesus or Muhammad), no well-defined god (like Jehovah or Allah), no sacred book (like the Bible or the Koran). The translations of sacred texts revealed no clear sense of history or geography. The traditions were varied. There was no clear difference between the sacred and the secular, no consistency between philosophy and practice. In short, there was no "religion." The British needed to construct a religious entity to make the complex beliefs and practices of the conquered people comprehensible. They needed Hinduism.
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