The text on this page is used with permission from Oxford University Press from A Dictionary of World Mythology by Arthur Cotterell.
- One of the three chief gods in the Rig-Veda, Agni personified fire and
was at the center of ancient worship. This god was created by Brahma and
is pictured in red. Angi has two faces and seven tongues to lick up
sacrificial butter. Agni is now invoked by Hindu lovers and men for
Amithba - The boddhisattva of 'infinite light'. Amithba represents the primordial, self-existent Buddha. This god was born from a lotus and ceaselessly stretches out aid to the weak and faltering. Amithba became a popular way of salvation for many Buddhists because he was the archetype of compassion, gentle and easygoing.
Amrita - Meaning: 'non-dead'. In Hindu mythology, Amrita is the water of life. Amrita is an echo of practices that antedate the Aryan invasion.
Myth: Amrita was recovered at the Churning of the Ocean when Rahu, the demon, succeeded in obtaining a sip, forcing Vishnu to cut off his head before he gained complete impregnability. The demon's head, a severed piece of immortality, was adopted as a talisman, a protector from evil influences, that served a function similar to gargoyles.
Ananta - The world serpent in Hindu mythology. During the night of Brahma, Vishnu sleeps on coils of prodigious snake, Sesha, also known as Ananta, 'the endless' whose thousand heads rise above the deity like a canopy. This scene and everything in it, the deitiesí serpentine couch, the water on which the snake lies, are all manifestations of the primeval essence.
Asuras - The equivalent of the Persian Ahura Mazdah, Asura is a word that relates to 'supreme spirit or divine'. However, somewhere in the course of history the word became one to denote demons or anti-gods, making a complete U-turn. Gods and Asuras were always locked in conflict, no one side completely defeating the other, for, if this were to happen, the surviving side would become redundant.
Avalokitesvara - The Buddhist epitome of mercy and compassion. When Avalokitesvara attained to supreme consciousness, he chose not to pass into nirvana, but vowed to stay behind as the succor of the afflicted. He was filled with compassion, karuna, for the sufferings of the living, which he sought to bring to enlightenment. He was represented as a handsome young man holding a lotus flower in his hand who wore a picture of Amithaba in his hair. His female consort was Tara, also known as Pandaravasini, 'clad in white'.
Brahma - Brahma is regarded as one of the Hindu triad, Vishnu, the creator, Shiva, the destroyer and Brahma. Brahma, however, has lost his powers to these two and to the Divine Mother. Brahma has four heads. He originally had five, but one head was destroyed by Siva's third eye as he spoke disrespectfully. In his four hands, Brahma holds a scepter, a rosary, a bow, an alms-bowl, and the manuscript of the Rig-Veda.
Buddha - Gautama Siddhartha, the North Indian prince who became Buddha, the enlightened one, required his followers to isolate themselves from the worldly life. The Saffron robes worn by the Buddhist priests is a symbol that they have withdrawn from society that they had elected to leave its toils. The color of the garment was the one that condemned men or those before execution wore. These priests sought the final escape from karmic bondage, Nirvana. To achieve nirvana one must eliminate the ego and destroy aversion and desire. Buddha received enlightenment underneath a fig tree.
Myth: The first appearance of Devi was as Durga, a beautiful warrior maid of yellow hue seated on a tiger. Mahisha, a tyrannous monster-demon, had through terrible austerities acquired invincible strength. Durga's arrival was miraculous, a sort of potency welling up from the wrath of the gods. Mahisha was a colossal water buffalo of which all gods were afraid, for neither Vishnu nor Shiva could prevail against it. Only the strength of all the gods combined seemed capable of conquering the bull. Therefore, it was that the eighteen-armed Durga went out to give battle. A titanic combat ensued and Durga over came both the bull and its weapon, not so easy a task. Thereafter, ascendancy to Devi had been granted, she became 'the All-comprehending one'.
As Kali, the goddess is truly fearful.
Dharma - An ancient Hindu sage who married 13 of Daksha's daughters. Dharma, in Hindu society, is the doctrine of the duties and the rights of each caste in the ideal society, and as such the mirror of all moral action.
Ganesa - The elephant-headed son of Shiva removes obstacles and vouchsafes wisdom. Ganesa is propitiated at the beginning of any important enterprise and is invoked at the commitment of books. He often appears on the covers of Indian studentsí notebooks. Ganes is a short pot-bellied man with four hands and a one-tusked elephant head, sometimes riding on a rat or being attended to by one. In one hand Ganesa holds a shell, in another a discus, in the third a club, and in the fourth a water-lilly.
Myth: Parvathi once went into the bath and asked her son to guard the door. The son did so faithfully. Ganesa, however, also guarded the door against Shiva, who, in rage, decapitated the boy. So distressed was Parvathi when she learned of the decapitation that Shiva went out to find another head to fit on the boy. He first found an elephant head and fit on Ganesa's head.
Gommatesvara - Bahubali, also known as Gommatesvara was the son of Rishbha, the last Jain Savior. a 56 1/2-foot statue of him was erected at Sravana Belgola and was discovered in 983. Bahubali was the brother of Bharaba. Legend tells of a struggle between the brothers for the empire with results in Bahubali's disillusionment at the moment of victory. This resulted in him handing over his earthly kingdom to Bharatha and retiring to the forest to do penance.
Hanuman - The monkey chief and son of Vayu is also known as Bajarangbali. He was an ally of Ram in his epic battle with Ravana. His divine nature permitted him the ability to change in shape and size and have the ability to fight. Because of the services Hanuman provided to him, Ram granted Hanuman the gift of perpetual life and youth.
Hayagriva - Meaning: ''horse-necked'. A demon who stole the scriptures from Brahma's mouth when he was asleep and was killed by Vishnu as matsya-avatara, the fish incarnation.
Indra - King of the gods in the Rig Veda. Indra has authority over the firmament , he can dispense thunderbolts and rain at his will. Indra won over the position by slaying Virtra, of Ahi, the serpent of drought. His thunderbolt split the stomach of Ahi, releasing the waters, liberating the dawn, creating life. Indra's presence was signaled by a rainbow in the sky. Indra was defeated by Ravana, a sign of the decline of his power.
Jataka - The 'birth-stories' - of which there are 547 - are tales told by the Buddha of his previous births as bird, animal, man. Many of these tales are found in the Indian collection of the Panchatantra. Others have a provenance outside South and Central Asia. They hold autobiographical and set a moral precedent for a Buddhist.
Kama - Like Eros, Kama rose at the creation of the universe. Desire was the prima germ of the universal mind. The Hindu god of love is no cupid, instead of the fleshy image that is commonly portrayed by Western artists, Kama was an incredibly adroit adroit youth, the husband of Rati, the bees, and fires arrows tipped with flowers whose scent announces the sweet, irresistible attack of love.
Lakshmi - The lotus goddess of Hindu myth, wife of Vishnu and symbol of his creative energy. Lakshmi is characterized by the lotus, the vegetable symbol beneath her and the lotus flower in her left hand. Lakshmi is associated as Laka-mata, 'the mother of the world'. Lotus-eyed, Lotus-colored and decked with lotus garlands she stands as the symbol of maternal benevolence, her full breasts are a constant source of succor and delight.
Mahavira - The last Jaina savior. Mahavira was a contemporary of Buddha and died about 500 BC. His childhood was one that in a sense 'proved' he was a savior as it was filled with miracles. His name was earned when he overcame a serpent that threatened his friends. His name means 'great hero'. Asserting traditional Jaina belief, Mahavira taught that the individual soul , the transmigrating jiva, was free to make its own escape through a sustained act of self-renunciation. Ahimsa, 'non-violence' was carried to an extreme in Jainism.
Maitreya - Also known as Metteyya, is the name of the Buddha yet to come. This is in the tradition of the Buddhist belief that there will be a series of Enlightened ones that will be before and after Buddha. Maitrey is regarded as living in the sensual apex of the Universe.
Manjusri - A boddhisattva who like Avalokitesvara receives worship as a divinity in Mahayana Buddhism. In Nepal and Tibet Manjusri has been granted the rank of a Buddha. He is a popular deity and is looked upon as the father of civilization in the Himalayas.
Manu - He is the Hindu Noah.
Myth: One day, in the water Manu found a tiny fish that begged him to spare its life in return for his. Manu asked how the fish could possibly save him from something and found out that there was an imminent flood, which would carry away all living things. Therefore, Manu put the fish in a pot, but it grew so rapidly that he was forced to put it in a tank, a lake and finally the sea itself. Thereupon the fish predicted the flood and asked Manu to prepare his ship against danger, which Manu did. When the waters rose and Manu floated on their surface, the fist towed the boat with a cable fastened to its horn. The journey was long and took them above the submerged peaks of the Himalayas. Lonely, Manu prayed for offspring and was granted a wife. Manu and his wife were the progenitors of mankind.
Mara - In Indian mythology Kama and Mara are the two sides of existence for life. They are the optimist and the pessimist: the desire for life, the fear of death - the tasty bait, the keen hook. These two powers rule the world of the unawakened, those beguiled by maya. Mara, the master of illusion, became in Buddhist myth, the evil one. Threatened by Enlightenment, the powerful demon committed his entire strength to the capture of Gautama's mind. Though defeated and shamed, Mara is said to linger in the world, hoping to seize the souls of the dead.
Milinda - The Milindapanha (Questions of Milinda), records the conversion of Menander to Buddhism. Menander, as Milinda, acquired legendary stature with the Buddhists . His ashes were entombed in a stupa and his name was connected with the origin of the statue of the emerald Buddha, which Menander's teacher, Magesana made with special powers.
Muchalinda - A gigantic serpent-genie who dwelt in the roots of a Bo tree under which Buddha gained his enlightenment. In a state of bliss the meditating sage did not perceive the gathering of a frightful tempest, and so Muchalinda devoutly encircled the body of Buddha seven times before spreading his broad hood above as an umbrella. Once the storm had passe, the snake monarch unwound his coils and transformed into a young man, and with hands joined together respectfully, he bowed to the world savior.
Nagas - The serpent-genii figures in the mythologies of Hinduism, Jainism , and Buddhism. They are serpent-like water gods whose friendly natures contrast with the savior vs. serpent symbolism of West Asia. A Naga was pictured as having a human face, with the tail of a serpent and the expanded neck of a cobra.
Parsva - Parsva was the 23rd Jaina thrithankara. He is reputed to have lived in the eighth century BC, about 84,000 years after the death of his saintly predecessor, Neminatha. Parsva was an incarnation Indra. His father, King Asvena, had been informed that his son would either be a world leader or a world savior.
Pushan - Frequently mentioned in the Rig Veda this Hindu deity acquired distinctly defined characters only in later times. 'The nourisher', the supplier of cattle and possessions, Pushan carries and ox-goad and is drawn by goats. Because of his toothlessness, worshippers offer gruel and cooked food of ground material.
Rishaba - Son of semi-divine parents, Rishaba was the founder of Jainism. He had one-hundred sons and left his throne to his eldest, Bharata. He then withdrew into meditation and lived with such austerity that only a bag of skin and some bones were found at his death. The Jaina doctrine of the karmic bondage of the soul, a profound sense of contamination of the daily experience, meant that those who sought to liberate themselves, had to detach themselves completely from the outside world.
Rishis - Hindu seers. These divinely inspired sages composed Vedic hymns in which symbolic language conveys the inner mysteries and the deepest philosophies of Aryan belief. They were the forerunners and founders of the Brahmins, their poetry extending the religious horizons of the invading pastoralists. In a state of Samadhi, they experienced the visions of the cosmic unity of the universe, an inward revelation that is indicated in the born sons of Brahma. The oldest list includes Gotama, Bharadwaja, Viswamitra, Jamad-agni, Vasishtha, Kasyapa and Atri.
Saraswati - The Ganges, Jamuna and Saraswati are the sacred rivers of Hindu mythology. The Saraswati river acted as the boundary of Brahmavartta. Saraswati was personified as the river goddess who blessed them with purified water. Later Saraswati became Vak, the goddess of river-like streaming speech.
Shiva - The name of Shiva is unknown, but another name for this fearful deity is Rudra, 'The Howler' that is common and occurs almost equally as frequently. In appearance Shiva is fair, has four arms, four faces and three eyes. The third eye posses a fiery glance from which all things created shrink. It is sometimes represented by three horizontal marks, often worn by his devotees. He is the arch ascetic, the Divine Yogi, who meditates alone on the Himalayas. Shiva's vehicle is the Nandi, a milk-white bull which is conspicuous outside the front entrances to the Gods temples. Nandi is the guardian of four legged creatures.
Sumeru - World mountain of Hindu mythology. The vertical axis of the universe, Mount Sumeru is like a Babylonian ziggurat, providing homes to a pantheon of Gods.
Surya - The god of the sun was one of the three chief deities of the Rig Veda, the other two being Indra and Agni. The most distinct of several human gods, Surya is described as short, with a burnished copper body, riding through the sky in a chariot drawn by seven horses and driven by Aruna, dawn, his wife. Worship of Surya can be found in Bihar and Tamil Nadu where is benevolence is invoked for the healing of the sick.
Tara - Avalokittesvara's spouse. She is the sakti of bodhisattva, the energy of his essence. It was she who aroused him to bring into existence on this earth Gautama Siddhartha. The two wives, the Chinese and Nepalese princesses of Sron-btsan-sgam-po, the first Buddhist king of Tibet are said to be reincarnations of Tara. The worship of Tara is widespread in Tibet.
Varasattva - He is one of the adamanite substance and the wielder of the thunderbolt. This Buddha is one of the six dhyani-buddhas, 'meditation buddhas' and, in Tibet, is recognized as the primeval Buddha from which all the others issued forth. He is regarded as the protector of the devotee that seeks enlightenment.
Varuna - He is one of the oldest deities, he is uncreate. He is the universal encompasser, a personification of the all-investing sky and the source of sustenance and all created things. Varuna ruled the sky at night, whose star-like presence was the cause of wonder of many men.
Vasishtha - This Hindu sage was the possessor of a sacred cow, called Nandini, which had the power to give him anything he might desire. The enmity between Vasishtha and Viswamitra (who tried to steal Nandini) is the central theme of several ancient texts.
Vayu - Literally 'air, wind'. Vayu is often linked with Indra, whose chariot he shares. Later scriptures speak of Vayu in conflict with Vishnu.
Vishnu - As preserver and restorer, Vishnu is a very popular deity. Vishnu is the all-pervading deity whose powers have been manifested to the world in his 10 principal avatars, 'descents', in which a part of his divine essence was incarnated in a human or supernatural form. Avatars have come to the world only when there was need to correct some evil influence. Vishnu is represented pictorially as a handsome youth of a dark blue color and dressed like an ancient king. In his four hands, he carries a conch shell, a discus, a club and a lotus flower. His vehicle is the Garuda, the sun bird. Garuda is the enemy of all serpents.
Viswamitra - One of the seven great Rishis, he was of royal lineage, the son of a kshatriya with the qualities of a Brahmin.
Myth: Once Viswamitra ordered the Saraswati to bring Vasishtha, his arch rival, to him for execution. The river however, floated Vasishtha out of his reach. Thereupon, the enraged rich turned the river into blood.
Yama - The Hindu god of death, he is the restrainer and is originally conceived as the king of the departed spirits who lived in the upper sky. He and his sister Yami were the first mortals. Yama was green, armed with a noose as well as a club he rode on a buffalo.
Yuga - In Hindu cosmology the age of the world.