Indian Mythological Creatures

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

India has a complex mythology, one which has a special place for mythological creatures. In this lesson we'll talk about mythological creatures in India and see what they reflect about ancient Indian beliefs.

Mythological Creatures of India

The subcontinent of India is a big place, so we can expect it to be home to some big mythologies. Guess what? It is. Indian mythological traditions contain a wide number of mythological heroes, creatures, and events, but we need a little context before we can understand them.

As with most cultures, Indian myths are deeply integrated into their religious beliefs. This is very important to keep in mind, particularly since the native Indian religion of Hinduism is one of the oldest still-practiced religions in the world today. In fact, many of the creatures we read about in Indian mythologies first appeared in ancient Hindu texts, such as the Vedas, a set of sacred religious scriptures.

Throughout Hindu works, mythological creatures often appear as what researchers call liminal beings, those defined by being in-between. They aren't quite of this world, but not entirely of the divine realm either. So a study of mythological creatures in India gives a glimpse into how ancient Indians saw this world, as well as worlds beyond.

Animal-Like Creatures

Let's start by looking at some of the creatures that are purely animal-like, as opposed to the many who occupy more complex categories. Animals played an important role in Indian culture, as well as both Hindu and Buddhists beliefs, and many common animals, such as horses or cattle, actually had entire scriptures devoted to them. The understanding was that humans had something to learn from earthly animals. So mythological animals were extra important, helping humans connect to the supernatural.

It's no surprise then that mythological creatures tended to bear similarities to actual animals that were important to people of India. For a great example, look at the elephant. Elephants were very important in ancient India and are found throughout mythologies. For example, Airavata was one of the nearly 20 elephants in Hindu mythology said to hold up the Earth. This white elephant with wings carried the god Indra. It was also known for creating rain by spraying the earth with waters from the oceans.

Another elephant-like creature was the yali, which is generally depicted as part elephant, part lion, and sometimes part serpent or horse. As a symbol of absolute power and strength, yali are often carved at the entrance of temples, serving as guardians.

Airavata
Airavata

Can we see how many of these creatures fill an in-between position in the cosmos, connecting natural and supernatural worlds? Sometimes, Indian myths tell of people trying to tap into the supernatural through these creatures.

The farasi bahari were green horses that lived on the bottom of the Indian Ocean. According to tradition, they sometimes feed near shore, so farmers would take their horses to the coast at certain times of year in the hope that one would mate with a farasi bahari. If this happened, it would give birth to a green horse that would run with limitless endurance.

Human-Like Creatures

As with most mythological systems, many creatures also have some distinctly human-like traits. Many are helpers to the gods, but not as mounts for riding the way Airavata was. Instead, we get creatures like the gandharvas, celestial beings that were part human, part horse or bird.

If that sounds familiar, many scholars think the gandharvas inspire Greek myths of centaurs, which had upper bodies of humans and lower bodies of horses. Gandharvas were skilled musicians and played beautiful music in the court of the god Indra. They were often married to beautiful female spirits of the clouds and waters called apsaras, who would dance to the music of the gandharvas.

Apsara
Aspara

Creatures like the gandharvas and apsaras lived amongst the gods, but there were some that were a bit closer to home. Yaksha were nature spirits who protected the trees, energies, and natural treasures of the Earth. They were usually friendly, but also something to be wary of. A lost traveler in the woods or someone disrespectful of nature could quickly learn that yaksha had a darker side as well.

Yakshas
Yaksha

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