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Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists

Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists

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by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Sister Nivedita

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Gathered together in a single volume, here are the most important stories of Indian mythology, taken mainly from the epic poems the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, with additional tales from the purana and vedas from assorted narratives of Krishna, Buddha, and Shiva. The stories range from the initial stages of mythos to the final, mature state.


Gathered together in a single volume, here are the most important stories of Indian mythology, taken mainly from the epic poems the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, with additional tales from the purana and vedas from assorted narratives of Krishna, Buddha, and Shiva. The stories range from the initial stages of mythos to the final, mature state. Includes 32 illustrations by Abanindro Nath Tagore and others.

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Dover Publications
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Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists

By Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1967 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12277-9



The Study of Mythology

IN the early history of man Asia formed a vast breeding-ground of civilization of which countries like Egypt, Arabia, Greece, India, and China were the extremities. Egypt and Arabia were destined later, from their geographical positions, to be overrun and suffer destruction of their culture. Greece and pre-eminently India formed what may be called culs-de-sac. Here, as if up the long shores of some hidden creek, would be forced the tidal wave of one epoch after another, each leaving on the coast a tide-mark that perhaps none of its successors would be able entirely to cover. Hence, in India, we may hope to discover means of studying, as nowhere else in the world, the succession of epochs in culture.

Civilization develops by new conjunctions of tribes and races, each with its individual outlook, the result of that distinctive body of custom which has imposed itself upon them through the geographical conditions of whatever region formed their cradle-land and school. Western Asia is one of the central areas of the world. Here by the very necessities of the configuration the great highways from North to South and East to West meet, and mercantile cities—points of barter and exchange—will grow up at the crossways. Equally obvious is it that India and the remote parts of the Nile Valley will form seats of occupation and production. Here race upon race will settle and combine. Here agricultural nations will grow up. Here civilization will accumulate. And here we may look to see the gradual elaboration of schemes of thought which will not only bear their own history stamped upon them, but will in their turn become causes and sources of dynamic influence upon the world outside. It is not impossible to recover the story of the ideas which the Nile people have contributed to the world as we know it. But those people themselves, so we are informed, have irretrievably relaxed their hold upon their own past. Between them and it there is only broken continuity, a lapse of time that represents no process of cause and effect, but rather a perpetual interruption of such a series; for a single generation enamoured of foreign ways is almost enough in history to risk the whole continuity of civilization and learning. Ages of accumulation are entrusted to the frail bark of each passing epoch by the hand of the past, desiring to make over its treasures to the use of the future. It takes a certain stubbornness, a doggedness of loyalty, even a modicum of unreasonable conservatism maybe, to lose nothing in the long march of the ages; and, even when confronted with great empires, with a sudden extension of the idea of culture, or with the supreme temptation of a new religion, to hold fast what we have, adding to it only as much as we can healthfully and manfully carry.

The Genius of India

Yet this attitude is the criterion of a strong national genius, and in India, since the beginning of her history, it has been steadily maintained. Never averse to a new idea, no matter what its origin, India has never failed to put each on its trial. Avid of new thought, but jealously reluctant to accept new custom or to essay new expression, she has been slowly constructive, unfalteringly synthetic, from the earliest days to the present time.

The fault of Indian conservatism, indeed, has been its tendency to perpetuate differences without assimilation.

There has always been room for a stronger race, with its own equipment of custom and ideals, to settle down in the interstices of the Brhmanical civilization, uninfluenced and uninfluencing. To this day Calcutta and Bombay have their various quarters—Chinese, Burmese, and what not—not one of which contributes to, or receives from, the civic life in the midst of which it is set. To this day the Baniya of India is the Phoenix or Phoenician, perhaps of an older world. But this unmixingness has not been uniform. The personality of Buddha was the source of an impulse of religion to China and half a dozen minor nations. The Gupta empire represents an epoch in which foreign guests and foreign cultures were as highly welcomed and appreciated in India as to-day in Europe and America. And finally only the rise of Islam was effective in ending these long ages of intercourse which have left their traces in the faith and thought of the Indian people.

The Motives of Religion

Hinduism is, in fact, an immense synthesis, deriving its elements from a hundred different directions, and incorporating every conceivable motive of religion. The motives of religion are manifold. Earth-worship, sun-worship, nature-worship, sky-worship, honour paid to heroes and ancestors, mother-worship, father-worship, prayers for the dead, the mystic association of certain plants and animals: all these and more are included within Hinduism. And each marks some single age of the past, with its characteristic conjunction or invasion of races formerly alien to one another. They are all welded together now to form a great whole. But still by visits to outlying shrines, by the study of the literature of certain definite periods, and by careful following up of the special threads, it is possible to determine what were some of the influences that have entered into its making.

Now and again in history a great systematizing impulse has striven to cast all or part of recognized belief into the form of an organic whole. Such attempts have been made with more or less success in the compilation of books known as the Puranas, in the epic poem called the Ramayana, and most perfectly of all in the Mahabharata. Each of these takes some ancient norm which has been perhaps for centuries transmitted by memory, and sets it down in writing, modifying it and adding to it in such ways as bring it, in the author's eyes, up to date.

The Mahabharata

The Mahabharata is the result of the greatest of the efforts thus made to conserve in a collected form all the ancient beliefs and traditions of the race. The name Mahabharata itself shows that the movement which culminated in the compilation of this great work had behind it a vivid consciousness of the unity of the Bharata or Indian people. For this reason one finds in this work a great effort made to present a complete embodiment of the ideals to be found in the social organism, religion, ancient history, mythology, and ethics of the Indian people. Hence if we want to follow Indian mythology from its dim beginnings to its perfect maturity through all its multiform intermediate phases we cannot have a better guide than the Mahabharata. For in India mythology is not a mere subject of antiquarian research and disquisition; here it still permeates the whole life of the people as a controlling influence. And it is the living mythology which, passing through the stages of representation of successive cosmic process and assuming definite shape thereafter, has become a powerful factor in the everyday life of the people—it is this living mythology that has found place in the Mahabharata.

It should be understood that it is the mythology which has left its clearest impress in the Mahabharata that has attained a fully developed form, and exercised a potent influence on Indian society. Other myths have for a time appeared in a vague nebular form and then vanished like smoke, leaving little trace behind; they have not assumed any concrete forms in the memory of the race. Thus it is that we find a popular saying prevalent in Bengal that "Whatever is not in the Mahabharata is not to be found in the land of Bharata [India]." In the Mahabharata we find on the one hand the primal forms of mythology, and on the other its fully developed forms also. We find in this creation of the Indian mind a complete revelation of that mind.

In the infancy of the human mind men used to mix up their own fancies and feelings with the ways of bird and beast, the various phenomena of land and water, and the movements of sun and moon and stars and planets, and viewed the whole universe in this humanified form. In later times, when man had attained the greatest importance in the eyes of man, the glory of stellar worlds paled before human greatness.

In this book we have dealt with both these stages of mythology, the initial as well as the final. On the one hand, we have given some glimpses of the primal forms which mythology assumed after passing through the hazy indefiniteness of primitive ages. On the other, we have related more fully the stories of the age when mythology had reached its maturity.




VALMIKI is a name almost as shadowy as Homer. He was, no doubt, a Brahman by birth, and closely connected with the kings of Ayodhya. He collected songs and legends of Rama (afterwards called Rama-Chandra, in distinction from Parashu-Rama); and very probably some additions were made to his work at a later time, particularly the Uttara Kanda. He is said to have invented the shloka metre, and the language and style of Indian epic poetry owe their definite form to him. According to the Ramayana, he was a contemporary of Rama, and sheltered Sita during her years of lonely exile, and taught the Ramayana to her sons Kusa and Lava. The material of the Ramayana, in its simplest form, the story of the recovery of a ravished bride, is not unlike that of another great epic, the Iliad of Homer. It is not likely, however, although the view has been suggested, that the Iliad derives from the Ramayana: it is more probable that both epics go back to common legendary sources older than 1000 years B.C.

The story of Rama is told in one of the Jatakas, which may be regarded as a shorter version, one of many then current. Probably at some time during the last centuries preceding Christ the current versions of Rama's saga were taken up by the Brahman poet, and formed into one story with a clear and coherent plot; while its complete form, with the added Uttara Kanda, may be as late as A.D. 400. As a whole, the poem in its last redaction seems to belong essentially to the earlier phase of the Hindu renaissance, and it reflects a culture very similar to that which is visibly depicted in the Ajanta frescoes (first to seventh century A.D.); but of course the essential subject-matter is much more ancient. The version given in the present volume amounts to about one-twentieth of the whole Ramayana. It is a condensed translation, in which all the most essential matters are included; while no episode or figure of speech has been added for which the original does not afford authority.

Ethic of the Ramayana

Not the least significant feature of Valmiki's epic lies in its remarkable presentation of two ideal societies: an ideal good and an ideal evil. He abstracts, as it were, from human life an almost pure morality and an almost pure immorality, tempered by only so much of the opposite virtue as the plot necessitates. He thus throws into the strongest relief the contrast of good and evil, as these values presented themselves to the shapers of Hindu society. For it should be understood that not merely the lawgivers, like Manu, but also the poets of ancient India, conceived of their own literary art, not as an end in itself, but entirely as a means to an end—and that end, the nearest possible realization of an ideal society. The poets were practical sociologists, using the great power of their art deliberately to mould the development of human institutions and to lay down ideals for all classes of men. The poet is, in fact, a philosopher, in the Nietzschean sense of one who stands behind and directs the evolution of a desired type. Results have proved the wisdom of the chosen means; for if Hindu society has ever as a whole approached the ideal or ideals which have been the guiding force in its development, it is through hero-worship. The Vedas, indeed, belonged essentially to the learned; but the epics have been translated into every vernacular by poets, such as Tulsi Das and Kamban, ranking in power with Valmiki himself. The material of the epics, moreover, as also of many of the Puranas, has been made familiar not only to the literate, but also to all the unlettered, not excepting women, by constant recitation, and also by means of the drama, in folk-song, and in painting. Until quite modern times no Hindu boy or girl grew up unfamiliar with the story of the Ramayana; and their highest aspiration was to be like Rama or Sita.

The Mythical Origin of Castle

It is in the Ramayana, and in the Laws of Manu (c. 500 B.C.) that we find the chief account of the ideal Hindu system of Colour (caste). The mythical origin of Colour, according to Manu, is as follows: Brahmans are sprung from the mouth, Kshatriyas from the arm, Vaishyas from the thigh, and Shudras from the foot of Brahma. This myth is true in an allegorical sense; it is used more literally to give divine sanction to the whole system. But it must not be supposed that Manu or Valmiki describes a state of society actually existing at any one time all over India. The history of Hindu society might much rather be written in terms of the degree of approach towards or divergence from the systems of the Utopists, Valmiki and Manu. How powerful their influence still is, compared even with the force of custom, appears in the fact that it is at the present day the aim of many reformers by no means to abolish the caste system, but gradually to unite the sub-castes until none but the four main Colours remain as effective social divisions.

This development, combined with some provision for the transference from one caste to another of those who are able and willing to adopt the traditions and accept the discipline of a higher Colour, is what the present writer would also desire. Transference of caste, or the acquiring of Colour, is continually going on even now, by the absorption of aboriginal tribes into the Hindu system; but stories like those of Vishvmitra illustrate the immense theoretical difficulty of such promotions. Against this extreme exclusiveness many protests have arisen in India, the most notable being that of Buddha, who, so far from ac-cepting the divine right of a Brahman by birth, taught that—

Not by birth does one become a Brahman:
By his actions alone one becomes a Brahman.

The strength of the hereditary principle has always prevailed against such reactions, and the most that reformers have actually accomplished is to create new caste groups.

VAlmiki's Ideal Society

Let us now examine very briefly the nature of Valmiki's ideal society. From the first we are impressed with its complexity and with the high degree of differentiation of the interdependent parts of which it is constituted. It is founded on the conception of gradation of rank, but that rank is dependent, not upon wealth, but upon mental qualities only. The doctrine of reincarnation is taken for granted; and the conception of karma (that the fruit of actions bears inevitable fruit in another life) being combined with this, the theory logically followed that rank must be determined solely by heredity. He who deserved to be born as a Brahman was born as a Brahman, and he who deserved to be born as a Shudra was born as a Shudra. This is the theory which finds practical expression in the caste system, or, as it is known to Indians, the system of " Colour" (varna), in modern vernacular, "birth" (jati). Fundamentally, there are four Colours: Brahmans, the priests and philosophers; Kshatriyas, the ruling and knightly class; Vaishyas, traders and agriculturists; and Shudras—servants of the other three, who alone are "twice-born," that is, receive priestly initiation in early manhood. Besides these, there are recognized a vast number of subdivisions of the four main classes, arising theoretically by intermarriage, and distinguishable in practice as occupation-castes.


Excerpted from Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. Copyright © 1967 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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