You Gotta Know These Hindu Deities and Heroes
- Vishnu: One of the Trimurti (the holy trinity of Hindu gods), Vishnu is the Preserver, protecting the world. When needed, Vishnu descends to Earth as an avatar, or incarnation. Nine have appeared so far: Matsya, Kurma (tortoise), Varah (boar), Narasimha (man-lion), Vamana (dwarf), Parashurama, Rama, Krishna, and Buddha. A tenth, Kalki, will appear with a flaming sword to save humans from the darkness. Some cult followers worship Vishnu as Narayana, the primal being. Vishnu has dark blue skin, rides with the eagle Garuna, and sits on the snake Shesha. His symbols are the conch, disc, club, and lotus; his chief wives are Lakshmi and Bhu (the Earth). Kama, the god of love, may be his son.
- Shiva: Also known as Lord Mahesh, Shiva is the Destroyer in the Trimurti. Developed from Rudra, the Vedic god of death, Shiva is often shown sitting on a tiger skin and riding the bull Nandi. He is also associated with a lingam (phallus). He has three eyes, of which the third (in the middle of his head) is all-knowing; when it opens, the world is destroyed and regenerated. Lord of all underworld beings, he wears a necklace of skulls and another made of a snake. He carries a trident as a weapon and has a blue throat, the result of drinking poison while the ocean churns. Parvati, one of his several consorts, bears him two sons: Kartikeya (the god of war) and Ganesha.
- Brahma: The third of the Trimurti, Brahma is the Creator. By dropping an egg into the cosmic waters, he hatches a younger form of Brahma that creates other beings. Also the chief priest, he has four heads that each point in a cardinal direction, representing the Four Vedas. Brahma has a fifth head until Shiva plucked it off; as punishment for that act, Shiva is forced to wander as a beggar and carry Brahma’s severed skull as a bowl. Brahma’s wife is Savitri, who curses him after he lets a cow-maiden stand in for her at an important ritual. Few people worship Brahma, either because of the curse or because he lost a power struggle to Vishnu.
- Krishna: This eighth avatar of Vishnu is born when Vishnu plucks two of his own hairs — one light, one dark — and uses the dark hair to impregnate Devaki. Her husband Vasudeva saves Krishna from evil King Kansa by carrying him across the river Yamuna to safety in Gokula. Krishna can be depicted as a child, adolescent, or adult. As an infant, he plays pranks such as stealing butter. As a youthful lover, he plays the flute and dances with the gopis (cow-maidens) in the Vrindavana forest. As an adult, he is a dark-skinned warrior with a light, angelic face, charioteer to Arjuna (in the Mahabharata). In the Bhagavad-Gita it is he who reveals the importance of dharma and bhakti. His consort is the cowherd girl Radha.
- Ganesha: This elephant-headed god of wisdom and learning is often shown riding a rat. Parvati “gives birth” to Ganesha by creating him from the saffron paste she scrubbed off of herself after bathing. When Parvati instructs Ganesha not to let anyone in as she took another bath, Ganesha prevents Shiva from entering, prompting Shiva to cut off Ganesha’s head. To calm Parvati, Shiva tells servants to take the head of the first baby found whose mother had her back turned; the servants bring back the head of a baby elephant. Ganesha has two wives (Riddhi and Siddhi), two sons, and a daughter. People pray to this remover of obstacles and bringer of good fortune before they commence business.
- Rama: The seventh avatar of Vishnu is hero of the Ramayana. Born as a prince to King Dasharatha and Queen Kaushalya, Rama wins the hand of his wife Sita in a competition held by Sita’s father, King Janaka; only he can string Shiva’s bow. When his aunt Kaikeyi schemes to deprive him of Dasharatha’s throne by putting her son Bharata there, Rama and Sita are banished to a forest for 14 years. During that time, the ten-headed demon Ravana kidnaps Sita, but Rama rescues her and kills Ravana. Bharata abdicates; Rama makes Sita walk through fire to prove that Ravana had not corrupted her.
- Indra: The god of rain, thunder, and war, Indra wields the thunderbolt (vajra) and rides Airavat, the four-tusked white elephant. In early Vedic times he was king of the gods who ruled swarga; many Rig Veda hymns are devoted to him. With the aid of both the Marut storm gods and his favorite drink, soma, Indra leads the Aryan conquest of India. He also defeats the dragon Vritra, who had stolen the world’s water.
- Lakshmi (or Sri): The last and greatest treasure born from the “churning of the ocean,” Lakshmi is the goddess of prosperity and patron to moneylenders. The epitome of feminine beauty, she sits or stands on a lotus flower and appears in her own avatars alongside Vishnu: Sita to his Rama; Padma the lotus to Vamana the dwarf; Radha (or Rukmini) to Krishna. A form of the mother goddess (Shakti, or Devi), she also represents virtue and honesty.
- Shiva’s consort: Several incarnations of the “mother goddess” take this moniker. Parvati, the most benevolent form, is the reincarnation of Sati, who threw herself into the fire. Durga is a demon-slayer who rides a lion into battle and carries a weapon in each of her many arms. Kali is a black-skinned goddess of destruction, who defeats the demon leader Raktavija by drinking all of his blood. Although Kali’s dance can destroy the world, Shiva throws himself at her feet to calm her, turning her into Parvati.
- Arjuna: The chief hero of the Mahabharata, Arjuna is the son of Indra and one of five Pandava brothers, who fight a bitter war against their 100 cousins, Kauravas, culminating at the battle on “Kuru’s Field.” Before the battle, Arjuna asks his charioteer (Krishna) why he must fight. Krishna responds that Arjuna must follow a devotion to god (bhakti), and that even as he slays his brethren, it is for a just cause. Along with the rest of the Pandavas, Arjuna is married to Draupadi.
- Hanuman: Son of the wind god Vaayu and Queen Anjana, Hanuman has a human body with a monkey’s head. As a boy he swallows the sun (mistaking it for a piece of fruit); the angry Indra whips him with a thunderbolt. In response, the wind god Vaayu refuses to breathe air into the world, prompting Indra to apologize and the other gods to bestow immortality and shapeshifting ability on Hanuman. He figures prominently in the Ramayana, where he flies to Lanka to tell Sita that Rama will rescue her from Ravana.
- Agni: Part of a trinity with Surya (the sun) and Vaayu (the wind), Agni can be brought to life by rubbing two sticks together. Since Agni is responsible for sacrificial fires, he is the patron of priests. He has a red body, two heads, three legs, four arms, and seven tongues; he often carries a flaming javelin. In the Mahabharata, Agni’s grandfather is one of seven great sages; with the help of Krishna, he devours the Khandav forest.
This article was contributed by Adam Fine.