May Varuna with guidance straight,
And Mitra the One-who-knows,
And Aryaman in accord with Aditya,
Guide us forth, like the wind that blows,
As with their Might Evermore
They guard the Sacred Laws,
Shelter may they vouchsafe to us,
Immortal Gods to mortal men..
The Vedic Seers of ancient India knew that mere words could not capture the essence of the Supreme Reality. However, they did not give up trying, and shared their visions as hymns dedicated to the various sentient beings guarding the natural and supernatural phenomena around them. These guardians of the Three Lokas were referred to as Devas (Sanskrit root 'Div' meaning the 'Shining One').
33 Crore Devtas but that is nothing but a myth - in Sanskrit the word koti refers to both crore as well as type and the use of the first meaning has led to the spread of this false belief. The oldest Hindu texts enumerate 33 principle Devas who were the guardians of Nature and Cosmic Creation.
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad in fact has a clear discussion between a rishi Vidagdha and the foremost authority of those times Rishi Yagnavalkya. The younger rishi starts by asking how many gods are there and Yagnavalkya begins his answer with three thousand and three and ends by saying that they are but the manifestations of the thirty-three. These principal 33 Devas are:
- 12 Adityas or Solar gods including Indra, Surya, Mitra and Varun
- 11 Rudras, the Manifestations of Lord Shiva
- 8 Vasus or Elemental gods such as Vayu, Agni, Antariksh and Dyaus, the Sky God
- Prajapati Brahma
- Shri Hari Vishnu
The 33 Gods
The Vedas especially venerate the sons of Aditi known collectively as Adityas and are full of hymns dedicated to Indra, Agni, Surya, Varun and the like. The 12 Adityas correspond to the 12 Solar months and represent different attributes of social life. These are:
Ansh (due share),
Bhaag (due inheritance),
Dhatri (ritual skill),
Tvashtar (skill in crafting),
Surya/Vivasvan (social law),
Vaman (cosmic law).
Indra/Shakra, of course is the eldest and the undoubted leader of other Adityas and has proved his worth on numerous occasions, most famous of his exploits being the slaying of the dragon Vritra.
Indra leads the Adityas
Interestingly, these 12 Adityas were adopted into Chinese and Japanese Buddhism as guardians of the monasteries covering the four main directions, four semi-directions, above, below and the Sun and Moon.
The 12 Japanese Devas
A similar depiction is found on a rock-cut cave far away in Yazili Kaya in Turkey! This rock-cave has multiple depictions of Gods and Goddesses that resemble Hindu gods. The lower chamber in this cave shows a frieze with 12 gods carved onto it who were worshiped by the people known as Hittites.
Dhruv (Pole Star),
Indra with the Vasus
The 11 Rudras are three-eyed manifestations of the Original Rudra and include Lord Shiva, who, along with Prajapati Brahma and Shri Hari Vishnu forms a part of the highest echelons of the hierarchy amongst Gods known as the Trimurti . The respective roles of the Holy Hindu Trinity are:
- Brahma, the First in this Trinity and is the Creator and Master of all Divine Ceremonies.
- Shiva, the Cosmic Dancer, Nataraj who through his celestial dance, sustains the endless rhythm of the Universe.
- Vishnu, the Preserver god who incarnates to help mankind face the challenges posed whenever Evil forces become too dominant in the Universe.
The Hindu Trinity
With time, other manifestations of the Supreme Lord appeared and were also incorporated in the group of Devas. Principal amongst these are Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Lord Shiv and Shakti; and Hanuman, the monkey-god who is the 12th manifestation of Lord Shiva. Others include the twin sons of Surya - Ashwini Kumars and the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu known as the Dashavatar.
Buddhist Cosmology expands the concept of the 33 Devas further and describes a separate Heaven for them called the Tavatimsa, on top of Mount Meru, similar to Mount Olympus of the Greeks in purpose as well as function). The father of Indra is Dyaus who is worshiped as Zeus in Greek Mythology, Deus-Pater or Ju-piter in Roman Mythology, and as Ju-daea in Hebrew traditions. In Slavic Mythology, the same name appears as Div and in Norse Mythology as Ziu or Tyr.
In fact, a number of gods in Indo-European civilizations have similar names as well as functions. In Norse mythology, Odin is the All-father resembling Dyaus/Zeus. The Greek god Ouranos & Vedic Varun are very similar in nomenclature as well as attributes. Likewise, the Hindu Storm-gods known as Maruts are quite similar to Mars, the Roman God of War.
The Mittanis of middle-east (2000 BCE) worshiped Mitra, Varun, Indra, Tvaṣṭṛ and Nasatya (One of the two Ashvini brothers)! Greeks also worshiped one of the Adityas, Mithras while the Egyptians and Romans were big devotees of another Aditya Surya/Apollo/Re. The rivalry between Devas and their elder brothers Asuras also finds echo in the legends of Titans and their younger brothers Olympians.
Indo-Greek gods & goddesses
Hindu mythology gives an insight about the principles and thoughts valued by our ancients from the time when they had a COMMON Belief-system. However, a Hindu, with sufficient insight into his religion, will not get swayed by these different manifestations and knows that all these gods are images representing the many facets of One Reality, the Supreme Brahman.
At its core, Hinduism has always believed in One Supreme God Who manifests Himself as many in order to Create, Preserve and ultimately Annihilate the Creation. This Supreme Brahman is beyond concepts and images and this attitude of Inclusiveness provides the characteristic of tolerance to Hinduism.
Devas in the Universal Form of Lord Vishnu
I will share more insights on similar topics in the posts that you can access from the right hand panel. For now, let us grab the magic carpet called Mythology and once again, Begin at the Beginning.
Aum Shanti: Shanti: Shanti: