An Introduction to Mythology

Page: 129


Asshur, the head of the Assyrian pantheon, had attained to the position of chief god in it because his city of Asshur was the capital of Assyria. At the same time his worship was even more strongly national than that of Merodach in Babylonia. He was the sun personalized, and he was probably identical in[Pg 289] most respects with Merodach. He was, in fact, the national god of Assyria grafted on to a Babylonian myth.


According to one of the oldest commentators on the Vedas, three principal deities were known to the Hindus in Vedic times—Agni, Vayu or Indra, and Surya. Agni appears to personify three forms of fire—sun, lightning, and sacrificial fire, Indra was a god of the sky or firmament, twin brother of Agni and king of the gods. Surya was the sun himself. These three formed a triad. In later Vedic times the number of the gods was increased to thirty-three, but behind all these are two more ancient gods of the father and mother type—Dyaus (equated with the Greek Zeus and an abstract deity of the sky), and Prithivi, the Earth-Mother. Mitra was perhaps identical with the Persian Mithra and seems to have ruled over day, while Varuna his companion, also a sky-god, combined the divine attributes of the other gods. He was the possessor of law and wisdom and ordered all earthly and heavenly phenomena. Indra also appears to have been a god of the firmament, but, in another sense, he was a god of storm and battle; while Soma has been well described as "the Indian Bacchus."

The gods of the later ages of Hinduism naturally differ considerably from those of the Vedic period, as might well be expected, considering the time between the two epochs. It is true that the Ramayana and the Mahabharata still keep the personnel the old pantheon, but whatever was animistic in the gods in Vedic times became in the later Puranic period (named after the written Puranas or traditional myths) wholly anthropomorphic. Moreover, a definite attempt to arrange a pantheon is discernible. Eight of the principal gods are revealed as guardians of the universe, each having rule over a definite domain. Some of them have even changed their character entirely. For example, we now find Varuna a god of water; Indra has all the characteristics of a great earthly chief who has dealings with terrestrial monarchs and who may be defeated by them in battle. In Hanuman, the monkey king, we perhaps find a representative of the aboriginal tribes of Southern India.

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More important than all these is Brahma. Only a few hymns of the Vedas appear to deal with him as the one divine, self-existent, and omnipresent being, but in the later Puranic literature we find him described as an abstract supreme spirit. With Brahma Hinduism reached its greatest heights of mystical and metaphysical thought. Such questions are asked in the Vishnu Purana, for example, as: How can a creative agency be attributed to Brahma, who, as an abstract spirit, is without qualities, illimitable, and free from imperfection? The answer is that the essential properties of existent things are objects of observation, of which no fore-knowledge is attainable, and the innumerable phenomena are manifestations of Brahma, as inseparable parts of his essence as heat from fire. Again, this Purana says: "There are two states of this Brahma—one with, and one without shape; one perishable, one imperishable; which are inherent in all beings. The imperishable is the supreme being; the perishable is all the world. The blaze of fire burning in one spot diffuses light and heat around; so the world is nothing more than the manifested energy of the supreme Brahma; and inasmuch as the light and heat are stronger or feebler as we are near to the fire or far off from it, so the energy of the supreme is more or less intense in the beings that are less or more remote from him. Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva are the most powerful energies of God; next to them are the inferior deities; then the attendant spirits; then men; then animals, birds, insects, vegetables; each becoming more and more feeble as they are farther from their primitive source."

The Vishnu Purana gives the following derivation of the word Brahma: It "is derived from the root vriha (to increase) because it is infinite (spirit), and because it is the cause by which the Vedas (and all things) are developed." Then follows this hymn to Brahma: "Glory to Brahma, who is addressed by that mystic word (Om) associated eternally with the triple universe (earth, sky, and heaven), and who is one with the four Vedas. Glory to Brahma, who alike in the destruction and[Pg 291] renovation of the world is called the great and mysterious cause of the intellectual principle; who is without limit in time or space, and exempt from diminution and decay.... He is the invisible, imperishable Brahma; varying in form, invariable in substance; the chief principle, self-engendered; who is said to illuminate the caverns of the heart, who is indivisible, radiant, undecaying, multiform. To that supreme Brahma be for ever adoration."

Brahma had his mythological side as Brahmā, apparently a development specially intended for his employment in myth. There he appears as the Creator of the world, born from a golden egg which floated on the waters at the beginning. He went through many avatars or bodily changes, and is thus the active manifestation of the First Cause, Brahma. He was connected with two other gods, Vishnu and Siva.