Religious Beliefs

How did the overall structure of the Hindu pantheon evolve?

First, divine personalities that would eventually become major deities (especially Vishnu and Shiva) emerged from among the Vedic pantheon. Ancient lore from all over India contributed to the gradual “fleshing out” of stories of the major deities. Meanwhile stories of other “names and forms” of lesser divine beings continued to develop a life of their own in various regions of India. As major communities of belief formed around stories of Vishnu, Shiva, and their various female counterparts, larger mythic frameworks evolved to integrate narratives of lesser deities into those of the greater deities. For example, Vaishnavite tradition developed the structure of Vishnu’s “Ten Avatars” or “descents.” That mythic framework brought together an astonishing assortment of descriptions of God’s involvement in human affairs.

The first three avatars are nonhuman divine interventions in the birth of the cosmos: Matsya (the fish), Kurma (the tortoise), and Varaha (the boar). Three avatars represent divine confrontation with evil and demonic forces: Nara-simha (the man-lion), Vamana (the dwarf), and Parashurama (Rama with the Axe). The two most popular avatars are those of Rama and Krishna, heroes both on and off the field of combat, whose consorts Sita and Radha are of nearly equal importance. As a statement of its even greater inclusiveness, the list includes the Buddha himself. Avatar number ten is the dark and mysterious Kalki, the only avatar yet to come, whose task is to bring an apocalyptic end to the present age.

Integrating Shaiva imagery is the concept of Shiva’s “holy family.” Both Vishnu and Shiva have their consorts (Lakshmi or Bhu, and Parvati, Durga, or Kali respectively). Unlike Vishnu, Shiva has children. Stories of Ganesha and Skanda brought these formerly local or regional deities into the larger structure of the divine family. Finally, a concept known as the “triple form” (tri-murti) unites the whole complex of images by identifying a “trinity” of divine roles. Brahma, never an object of great popular devotion, creates. Vishnu sustains. And Shiva destroys, paving the way for renewal of the endless cosmic process.

Krishna visiting Radha, awaiting word from her maiden, Kangra school painting, India, c. 1820-1825. (Photo courtesy of the St. Louis Art Museum. W. K. Bixby Oriental Art Purchase Fund.)


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