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Neveleva S.L. Mythology of the Ancient Indian Epos. The Pantheon [Мифология древнеиндийского эпоса. Пантеон]. М., 1975. 118 p.


The studies of the ancient Indian cultural heritage are focused on the Mahābhārata, the ancient Indian epic which is art inexhaustible source of ideas, subjects, plots and characters for the subsequent Indian literature and art as well as those of the adjacent countries. The third part of the Mahābhārata, the Āraņyakaparva (Forest Book), is very rich in mythologic material, which makes it suitable for the description of the epic mythology system.

The present essay is a preliminary study of the mythologic entities of the first order, i. e., the main gods of the Hindu (epic) pantheon. There is evidence that the Mahābhārata bears certain resemblance to another ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana, as far as the treatment of the mythologic characters is concerned. Therefore the conclusion drawn on the basis of the former text could be applied to the latter.

In the first part of the essay the principal points of the plot are considered from the standpoint of mythologic information content which is finally admitted to be on a very high level.

A general survey of the links within the epic pantheon proves that despite certain typological likeness of the mythologic concepts in the ancient Indian epos to the corresponding Vedic notions (polytheism, inconsistency of the monotheistic trend, pantheistic views), many accents are shifted in the epos: nones-sential deities (Vishņu, Çiva) or deities which do not occur in the Vedas (Brāhma) some to the foreground. Apart from the lack of close ties with the forces of nature, a great degree of anthropomorphization of the pre-epic deities acting in the Mahābhārata is apparent.

Along with the narrative texts (narrations of the gods' deeds), numerous similes and epithet names (nicknames) regarded as condensed narratives are used for portrayal.

The second part of the work deals with the characters of the three chief deities of the epic pantheon, i. e., Vishņu, Brāhma, Çiva, as well as Skanda. Vishņu of the epic is associated in his traditional action of the three steps with the three worlds of the universe and is clearly opposed to the Sun. The Vedic association of Vishņu and Indra with the latter playing the major part, is transformed, with regard to the epic, into the alliance of unequal forces dominated by Vishņu. The traditional functions of creation, preservation and destruction, fulfilled by Brāhma, Vishņu and Çiva as the members of the triad are attributed to Vishņu alone, who is very popular in the epic. There is no clear-cut distinction between the functions of the three gods, so the concept of the triad cannot be applied in the interpretation of the Mahābhārata.

Peculiar exclusively to the Vishņu mythology are his avataras, their objectives agreeing with the general character of the protector-deity, who appears on the scene in times of trouble, punishing evil and restoring justice. The avataras of Vishņu which are similar to the device of transformation wide-spread in world folklore are stabilized, they steadily pertain to a definite person and, what is particularly significant, have a consistent ethical purpose. They come within the context of the mythologic diachrony and have taken shape as historically developed plots. Vishņu's earliest avataras as a fish, wild boar, horse-headed creature, man-lion, are zoomorphic, carry fairytale, fantastic elements, while the later avatāras (Rāma, Krishņa, Kalki), very important both from the conceptual standpoint and from the point of view of the plot, are anthropomorphic and clearly express a messianic idea.

Brāhma is considerably inferior to Vishņu in popularity and vividness of the character. Though the creative function of both Brāhma and Vishņu apparently coincide, it is Brāhma for whom this characteristic is determinative. Evidently, the trend of looking upon Brāhma as a god-creator is already forming in the Mahābhārata while the ancient mythology tradition of attributing the act of the world creation to a single supreme deity as it were splits with reference to Brāhma and Vishņu resulting in the inexplicitness of their characteristics as creative forces.

Çiva is the deity personifying a formidable, destructive force. Historically connected with fertility Çiva is a perfect ascetic and at the same time he is the subject of the phallic cult. In the basic episodes of the Āraņyakaparva two themes of his mythology gain prominence: the multiformity and absolute identity with fire.

The third part of the essay briefly characterizes pre-Vedic and post-Vedic gods acting in the epic. According to the Āraņyakaparva, the epic world guardians (lokapālas) are four in number. They are not completely fixed in terms of cardinal points and their lists vary, still, in either respect Yama (the South) and Varuņa (the West) could be mentioned.

Among the epic lokapālas Indra is very popular in the Vedas, being the supreme god of interjacent space and associated with the formidable rain. The function of this character is quite definite in the epic: Indra is the king of the gods, their ruler; he is a warrier, heavenly military leader as well as the deity granting fertility. The Vedic association of Indra and Varuņa in the Mahābhārata does not hold good any longer, for Varuņa is a minor deity of the epic pantheon, the sovereign of the waters.

Sovereignty over the North and the East shared by them unite Indra and Kubera, the latter being the god of wealth related to the demons-raksasas both througt his genealogy and due to his status; he is worshipped as their king and he is also the leader of all kinds of mythical creatures — Gandharvas, Yakshas, Guhyakas, Kinnaras.

The part of a justice-doer played by Yama, the ancient Indian god of death, could be regarded as the natural extention of his original function, but the complete identification of Yama and Dharma is evidently out of the question.

The epic gods of the elements and celestial bodies remain connected with the natural substrate to a considerable degree, and they are less anthropomorphic than the others. Agni, the god of fire, manifests himself in a triple way: as the sacred fire of sacrifice, as the cosmic light, and as the living force of every being. The gods of the Wind (Vayu) and of the Sun (Sūrya) are in fact identical with their natural archetypes and possess all their features.

So-called “abstract” gods of the epic pantheon fall into two conventional groups; (1) the deities personifying abstraction on the epic level (Dharma, Kāma), and (2) mythologic characters originating as abstractions and, through modification with time, becoming more concrete entities (Brihaspati, Viçvakarman, Āditi).

The last section of the essay sums up the characteristics of the epic mythology, the most significant of which is the existence of two trends: archaic one, implying the traditional worship of the pre-epic deities who are transformed to a certain degree, and the epic trend as such, bringing three principal deities — Vishņu, Brāhma, and Çiva — to the fore.


Аннотация, Введение, Summary, Оглавление


Indian Epos
Indian gods
Indian mythology

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