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Vedic Symbolism and Puranic Traditions: In Reference to Deities

Shashi Tiwari, New Delhi

I In the long tradition of Hinduism the most ancient and authoritative scriptures are Vedas Sruti, which is divided into four parts as the Samhitas, Brahmanas, Aranyakas and Upanisads. Then are two great epic, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata which have a profound influence on all the aspects of Hindu life and culture for thousands of years. Then there are eighteen Puranas, rich in myth and symbol of which the best known is the Srimad-Bhagavata Purana. Puranic literature is very wide in contents. They were written between second-third century AD to thirteen-fourteen century AD according to most of the scholars. Some Puranas are of early times such as Visnu, Vayu, Brahmanda, and Markandeya, while some as Bhavisya, Skanda, Samba etc. are of later period. As a result, impact of Vedic culture with its adaption would not be seen identical in the developing religious traditions of the Puranas. Traditionally epic and Puranas are considered as the expansion or explanation of Vedic thoughts and messages. Our traditions often group them together for reference and evidence Itihasa Puranabhyam vedam samupabrnhiyeta. In the literary history of India generally they are placed after the completion of Vedic literature. The Puranas are those writings which also follow epics. The meaning of the word Purana suggests it as ancient lore from the term Pura. By another etymology pura ca nava ca Puranas are considered ancient as well as new. That is why writings of Puranas are spread over a long time period. The Puranas contain no real history, yet they reflect history and culture very plainly. They epitomize religious practices, beliefs, and myths, and represent the advent of various religious cults along with the varied description of social and political changes of that time. The Puranas were destined to become the important force in the development of Hindu religion; therefore, their influence can be
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examined on the different aspects of Indian thought. The modern Hindu sects are to some extent the direct expansion of Puranic doctrines, because their major principles are of respectable antiquity. II Perhaps the most striking distinction between Vedic and Puranic thought is the emphasis laid in the Vedas upon Right (Rtam); and in the Puranas upon idols ( Pratima). Since this aspect is primarily related with the Indian mythology and features of gods, I will like to analyze this point in the light of Vedic Symbolism. Devata or deity is that which is praised, invoked or addressed in a Vedic Mantra or Sukta. Vedic deities are generally explained as natural elements, activities or phenomenon, existing in various zones of our environment. A large number of gods are described in the hymns, and it is very difficult to arrange them in different classes, but Yaska in his Nirukta talks about three Gods: Agni in earth, Vayu or Indra in atmosphere, and Sun in heaven. Each one of them is known by various names depending on the different actions performed. These three gods are three major forms of energy, fire on earth, air in intermediate space, and light in upper region. Other energies of those regions are related to or under them. So generally gods are classified in three groups called upper, middle and lower, and, therefore, provide a system to study cosmos and atmosphere and its all aspects. In the Vedas, the order of the Universe is called 'Rita. The Vedic gods, upholding Rita, are all lawful, and beautiful. Varuna is depicted as the Lord of Rita, the universal natural order. He is ruler of cosmos and even of the gods. Here it is very essential to understand that according to Vedic view various Vedic gods are in fact regarded as the various aspects of one Supreme reality. This fact could be proved from Vedic references. Vedic Seer says in one verse mahat devanam asuratvam akam power of all gods is one and the same. Yaska explains it differently, Mahabhagyat devtayah eka eva atma bahudha stuyate it is the greatness of one Supreme Reality that He is praised variously. Another Rigvedic verse says: Ekam sadviprh bahudha vadanti agnim yamam matarishvanamahuh || - RV 1.164.46 Meaning hereby They call him Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, Yama and Garutmata etc. for the wise call One Existence by many names.
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In this verse many gods are described as one and the same. They are called by many names as Agni, Yama, etc. but in reality, they are the names of the One Ultimate Reality. This is a special feature of Vedic mysticism in reference to Vedic gods. It discovers the final and ultimate unity, beyond all plurality. III When we see to the Puranic view on Gods, we find a number of deities of Vedic Samhitas referred to in the prominent Puranas. Position of these deities is not always found the same during the Vedic, Epic and Puranic stages. A deeper study establishes that features and characteristics of these deities are changing a lot from Vedic age up to the Puranic age. In Puranic period of Indian mythology, status of some Vedic deities enhanced; as they grew up to be more powerful; for instance Rudra became iva. Position of some Vedic deities decreased, or they became unimportant as Indra. Likewise nature of some deities changed a lot within ancient religion; as Visnu, a solar deity of Rgveda, became an important god in Puranic phase. There are some deities who remained on the same position constantly from the Vedas up to the Puranas as Sun, and Agni. Some new gods and goddesses were also added in the Puranic age such as Laxshmi, Kali, Kartikeya etc on the same line. Institution of five major cults is a unique feature of Puranic mythology. Five main cults for the worship of Visnu, iva, akti, Surya, and Ganea were prominent in the age of Puranas. Some independent Puranas were written on these deities which confirms the impact of these cults. All these have Vedic origin directly or indirectly. Surya is the same. Rigvedic Rudra becomes Shiva gradually. Vedic solar god Vishu is now Mighty Vishnu because his qualities are enlarged. Vedic goddesses Aditi, Vak, prithivi, Usha etc. jointly represent Shakti Devi. Ganesh is comparatively Puranic invention, yet based on Vedic concept of Ganapati. In short, for the devotee of a cult, his ista deva is the greatest god, and is identified with Supreme Reality due to tremendous faith and devotion in Him. This notion is perfect in the light of Vedic mysticism. IV Now I will like to discuss why and how Vedic Symbolism is embedded in the Puranic thoughts. There is a saying in Vedic tradition Prokshpriyah hi Devah meaning Gods love indirect narrations. Yaskas Niruka has mentioned that Vedic Mantras should be understood in three ways Adhibhoutika, Adhidaivika and Adhyatmika because these gods have three dimensions. The
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indication here is quite clear that Vedic mantras and gods can be explained variously. Vedic seer talks briefly and indirectly. This unique feature of Vedic lore is due to its Symbolism. The features of Vedic gods are altered, developed, and glorified to a great extent by the authors of Puranas due to their broad approach towards the symbolism of Vedic concepts. Unique style and main subject matter of Puranas were other two reasons for this variation. Our Epic and Puranas have tried to explain Vedic messages and thoughts in their own style, making them simple, interesting and reachable to all. They added myths and legends too. Vedas are revealed by Vedic seers while epic and Puranas are written by ancient Sanskrit Poets/ acharyas. Puranic authors explained Vedic concepts in an extended manner. Newness can be noticed everywhere in Puranas but with rooted Vedic ideas. The celebrated Gayatri mantra which forms part of the daily devotion of the Hindus is addressed to Savita Devata, who symbolizes the stimulating power of the Sun and thus refers to lighting power of Supreme Divinity. This mantra is called Savitri too, and in Puranas Savitri is a goddess. In the opening Mantra of the Rigveda Agni, is praised as a most knowledgeable and divine illuminator. Agni represents the enlightening power of the Supreme Being. Here we have Agni Purana which is considered as encyclopedia of all knowledge. Vedic god Indra is a mighty hero who conquers the battles with demons. His greatest enemy is Vritra. Yaska renders Vritra as Megha (cloud). Thus he is generally regarded as God of rains who destroys megha,Vratra. In the spiritual sense Indra represents the Supreme Self which always fights with evil thoughts within a man and finally stands victorious. So in the Puranic stories, Indra is Lord of all gods who kills many demons. Surprising, Indra is no more a God to worship. Its credit may be given to Sri Krishna who stopped Indra Puja and started Govardhan puja in his time. Shata kratu meaning performer of hundred deeds is an adjective of Indra is Vedas. As Kratu also means Yajya, so in the Puranas we find a myth that person performing hundred yajyas can take the seat of Indra. That is why Menaka was send to Vishvamitra. Likewise, Shachipati is another title of Indra in Vedas. Sachi means power and Shachipati means Lord of Power. But we see Shachi name is given to his wife in Puranas. Now some thought over Vedic Visnu. As a solar deity, his main characteristic feature is his taking of three strides Trivikram in the Rigveda. His epithets
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Urugaya (wide-going) and Urukrama (wide-striding) symbolize the same action. With these three steps, he crosses the sky, mid-air and the earth at once. Thus, he is shown as all pervading god. In Puranas, we find him taking various forms for particular proposes and with certain qualities. This Trivikarm is origin of his Vaman Avatara. Kurma, and Varaha are names of Puranas too. Thus Visnu represents the omnipresent nature of Supreme Reality. He is placed in Great Devatrayi. Famous Vedic god Soma who was offered complete ninth mandala of Rigveda represents Divine bliss, and is considered the lord of waters and plants (aushadi). In later Vedic texts he symbolizes moon. But he is not in a prominent position during Puranic age. Drinking of Soma by gods can be connected with amritpan of gods in Puranas. Similarly many other Vedic words such as, Yajya, Grita, Pani, Ashva, Ashvamedha, Purushmedha, Go etc. can be explained symbolically, philosophically or scientifically. Conclusion The question arises how pratima or idol of deities were imagined in Puranic traditions. Deitys natural form is indicated directly or indirectly in Vedic prayers but gradually his divine form has overpowered the minds of devotees due to impact of legends and cult in the Puranic period. His personification was done on high level and thus a whole figure was formed with family, associates, arms, ornaments, conveyance (vahan) and belongings etc. This leads to draw a figure or statue. Images were carved. Then temples were erected. Trithas were constituted. Moreover, as has been said earlier, Puranas are meant to make subtle concepts easy So in this way, Nirguna is made Saguna. Even they state that there is no difference between the two. During the worship eshta deva is the Supreme Reality for the worshipper. Nevertheless basis remains intact without disturbing the spirit of Vedic concepts. In fact the multiple development of Puranic traditions is outcome of Vedic culture due to its symbolism. Dr Shashi Tiwari, New Delhi, 13/7/2012