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Gods & Stories from Indian Mythology

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

Have you ever wondered about the 330 million gods of Hinduism? This lesson will discuss a sampling of some of the most popular of these gods and their stories, which are an influential part of Indian mythology.

Hinduism Basics

Indian mythology contains some of the most interesting and complex narratives and characters of the various world mythologies. When we talk about ''Indian mythology,'' we are usually referring to the mythology of Hinduism, a major world religion based primarily in India. Its name derives from the name of the Indus River. Long ago, people began calling anyone living on the east side of it ''Indu'' which later became ''Hindu.'' If you have heard of ''karma,'' you already know a little bit about Hinduism, though the idea of ''what goes around comes around'' is slightly different than the Hindu teaching. Hinduism usually emphasizes the goal of moksha, or the release from samsara, the continuous cycle of death and rebirth.

Many Hindus believe in multiple gods. If you have heard of Hinduism having 330 million gods, this is true--but it does not mean that each Hindu worships each god. For the most part, Hindus believe there is one ''ultimate reality'' which is called Brahman and the gods, or devas, are manifestations of this divinity. So even though there are many gods, they are all just forms of the same thing--and some of the gods are avatars, or physical manifestations of devas. So Brahman (ultimate reality) is manifested in devas (gods) and the devas are, in turn, physically manifested in avatars which can be seen.

Major Hindu Gods

Let's look at some of these figures. Perhaps the most important Hindu gods are those referred to as the Trimurti, which consists of three devas who work together as a whole for the universe. First, there is Brahma who is the creator god. Brahma created everything, which is then preserved by Vishnu, the protector or preserver god. The third deva, Shiva, is the destroyer god. While this might not sound like a good thing, Shiva is not necessarily concerned with destroying the world, but with destroying the self (helping Hindus remove themselves from their desires) and with destroying demons.

The Trimurti--Brahma, Vishnua, and Shiva--seated on lotuses with their consorts.
Brahma, Vishnua, and Shiva seated on lotuses with their consorts

Many of the other important Hindu deities are related to the Trimurti. The ''elephant god'' who rides on a mouse is frequently seen in novelty stores with some Indian influence. This god is Ganesha who is the son of Shiva. Ganesha also is a destroyer--but instead of destroying the world, self, or demons, he destroys obstacles and is seen as a god of fortune and success. No wonder he is so popular!

Ganesha riding his vahana (mount), the mouse.
Ganesh on his vanaha, a mouse or rat

Avatars of Vishnu

Rama

Two of the other important deities in Hindu mythology are avatars (physical manifestations) of Vishnu, the protector or preserver. Rama, one of these avatars, has an epic about his life: the Ramayana or ''Journey of Rama.'' The Ramayana tells the story of a world that is infested with demons after Brahma granted a wish to a demon king because of his skill. His wish was for the demon race to be protected from gods and other mythical creatures, but he forgot to ask for them to be protected from humans and animals.

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