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The earliest reliable information about Indian mythology dates to the time of the creation of the Rig-Veda (2000-1000 B.C.), the ancient monument of Indian religious literature containing hymns to the Vedic gods. The mythology of the Vedic Aryans reveals their perceptions of the universe and of the meaning of various forces and phenomena of nature, personified by numerous gods of the Rig-Veda (of which there are more than 3,000). Although the ancient Indians thought of gods as being in the image and likeness of man, anthropomorphism had not yet developed to the level of clearly expressed individual characteristics. Ideas about the struggle between good and evil principles in nature were reflected in myths about the enmities between gods and demons. The notions of the ancient Indians about the universe were demonstrated in cosmogonic myths. According to one such myth, in the beginning there was nonbeing (asat), which gave birth to being (sat), which was made of the earth and the solid sky. The sky and the earth gave birth to the god Indra. He separated the sky and the earth, as a result of which air space was formed. The atmosphere became the dwelling place of Indra and other gods. Indra vanquished the snake Vritra, leader of the demons. The waters of the world, which gave birth to the sun, flowed out of the belly of the snake Vritra.
Brahmanism replaced Vedic mythology at the beginning of the first millennium B.C. In the cosmogonic myths of Brahmanism the universe was viewed as resting on the backs of elephants, the earth as a lotus floating in the ocean, and the continents as the petals of the lotus, one of which was Jambudvipa (India). Mount Meru, around which the sun revolved, was believed to be at the center of the earth. The universe passes through four stages of development, corresponding to the European myths of the gold, silver, copper, and iron ages (the iron age with its disasters and social injustice—Kali Yuga—is seen as the modern age), and then it perishes and a new, endlessly recurring cycle of development begins. This and a number of other cosmogonic and cosmological myths, as well as myths justifying social differences in society, particularly the existence of estates, or varnas, are associated with the image of Brahma, who was considered to be the creator of the universe. The varna system appears in Indian mythology as primordial and is linked with the myth of the first man, Purusha, who was identified with Brahma. The inequality of the varnas is explained by the nature of their origin: the varna of Brahmans came from the lips of Purusha; of Ksha-triyas, from his hands; of Vaisyas, from his loins; and of Sudras, from his feet, which trampled the mud. Siva and Vishnu, the other leading gods of Brahmanism, were considered to be the embodiment of eternally living nature and fertility. Most widespread were the myths about Vishnu, personified on earth as various beings for the destruction of evil forces and for assistance to men and gods. These are the myths of the ten major avatars (incarnations) and 22 “minor” avatars of Vishnu. Myths about the feats of the heroes Rama and Krishna constitute a significant body of works. The penetration of Ceylon by people speaking an Indo-European language, ancestors of the Sinhalese, was reflected in the myth of Rama’s struggle with the demon Ravana and his march with the warrior Hanuman, lord of the apes, to the island of Lanka, the home of Ravana. Myths about Rama make up the basic content of the epic Ramayana. Another epic poem, the Mahabharata, is the richest collection of myths, especially in regard to Krishna. Myths about the avatar of Vishnu Parashurama and the thousand-handed Arjuna reflected the struggle between the Kshatriyas and the Brahmans. Concepts of the reincarnation of souls (samsara) and requital (karma) played an important role in Brahman mythology. There are many myths about the rishi (wise men). Rishi Vyasa was believed to be the author of the Vedas, the Mahabharata, and the Puranas, as well as an enlightener of humanity.
Buddhist myths are generally associated with the personality of the Buddha. Myths about the buddhas and bodhisattva deities (the future savior Maitreya, the benevolent Avalokiteshvara, and others) appeared soon after the birth of Christ. Myths were created about the celebrated teachers of Buddhism. Jainist myths relate principally the feats of Mahavira and the 23 “founders of faith” (tirthankara) who preceded him.
Indian mythology has had a profound influence on the literature, art, and folklore of South Asia.
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E. M. MEDVEDEV