Myths are situated within historical periods. The same myth told in the medieval period of India as it was articulated in the Purânas (a body of scriptures of later Hinduism) may differ from earlier contexts and meanings. For example, Siva has not always been the same supreme deity that he became in some of the Purânas. There was no Lord Siva in the earliest extant stories of the Âryas (anglicized as Aryans), a people who were the Sanskrit-speaking arrivals to the Indian subcontinent approximately four millennia ago.
The origins of myths about Siva appear to be among the native, tribal, or indigenous peoples who did not speak Sanskrit. So even the name of this god would have been in a tongue that was not part of the central community that was evolving into what would later be called Hindu.
Pre-Aryan Period (c. 2500–1700 B.C.E., Indus Valley or Dravidian civilization)
Indian culture has many roots. Two of the most important for modern Hinduism are the Indus Valley culture (c. 2500–1700 B.C.E.) and the Aryan culture (appearing in the Indus region around 1500 B.C.E.). The indigenous culture of the Indus is shrouded in mystery, as its script has defied translation. However, its archeological remains are extensive and seem to suggest some correspondences to later Hindu mythology. Indologists maintain a Web site to track activity and claims on the subject: http://www.indology.org.
The tiny “sealings” that may have been used to label grain bags depict mythical beings of great imagination—beasts that are often a composite of real and imaginary creatures. Some have multiple heads, others a single horn. Taken together with the archeological sites, these sealings have allowed scholars to construct a picture of the mythology of the Indus Valley culture (or Harappan culture, as it has been named after one of its principal cities): (a) male gods worshiped by the ruling elite; (b) yogic practice and a lord of yoga, called the proto-Siva; (c) mother goddesses worshiped by the masses; (d) public baths for ritual bathing; (e) tree spirits; (f) worship of snakes (later known in Sanskrit as nâgas) and theriomorphic (animal-shaped) beings, images of which were often tied to ritual objects to indicate their imminent sacrifice.
The Vedic or Samhitâ Period (c. 1500–900 B.C.E. Aryan Civilization)
The Vedas, the sacred scriptures of the Âryas, define both a period of time and a culture. Almost all who consider themselves Hindu believe that the Vedas are eternal, that they exist eternally at the most subtle level. However, they must have become manifested in the form that scholars study them at some point in time. Therefore, it should not be offensive to even the most ardent Hindu fundamentalist that scholars have found that point of time to be less than four millennia ago, or more precisely, circa 1500 B.C.E.
The Aryan culture appeared full-blown on Indian soil in the Rigveda, a collection (samhitâ) of more than a thousand hymns (rik-s), which later became the first of three (triya) and then four Vedas. The three Vedas were the Rigveda, Sâmaveda, and Yajurveda. These, plus the Atharvaveda (a collection full of shamanic magic), became the Samhitâs and the first limb of a later conception of the fourfold Veda that then included the Samhitâs (collections that included the Rigveda), Brâhmanas (commentaries), Âranyakas (forest texts), and Upanishads (a treasury of mystical and devotional texts).
But the fourfold Vedas evolved slowly in several stages. The Vedic language was Sanskrit, with mythic and ritual elements memorized by priests, and unwritten for almost a millennium. Whether the Aryans were indigenous or arrived as warrior nomads from the steppes of Russia is a matter of contentious debate, reflecting agendas of colonialism and independence, postmodernism and Hindu fundamentalism. However interpreted, this culture contributed much to Hindu myths from its vast solar pantheon (Sûrya, Indra, Ushas) and its fire rituals and sacrifices (agni yâgas, literally “fire sacrifices”).
By approximately 1200 B.C.E. Rigvedic mythology had reached its greatest expanse, and its influence over later Indian history was enormous. In fact, each succeeding age has related back to some remembered or imagined Vedic (i.e., Rigvedic) past, to which they have usually claimed to be the heirs. The exception would be those who consistently used the catur–yuga (four ages) theory of declining righteousness and thought that the Vedas were no longer suited for an evil age—only later scriptures like the Purânas.
The Brâhmanical and Aranyâka Period (c. 900–c. 600 B.C.E.)
The mythological point of view changed between the period of the Samhitâs (collections) and that of the Brâhmanas (commentaries). The Brâhmanas were more concerned with ritual and its effectiveness and less concerned with the older Rigvedic gods (devas). The role of Agni, the god of fire, had increased, and the symbolism of the fire sacrifice was more explicit. In the later Brâhmanas there were thirty-three devas, enumerated as eight vasus, eleven rudras, and twelve âdityas—with two gods unnamed.
The period of the Brâhmanas and Âranyakas (forest texts) reached its fruition approximately 900 B.C.E. This period witnessed the ascendancy of the brâhmanas (priests), referred to in English as brâhmans and brâhmins, to the top of a social hierarchy, the caste system. The foundation had already been laid for the priestly assertion that their role was more essential than that of the Vedic gods, since they knew and controlled the sacrificial rituals. A tension between Brâhmanical (sacrificial) religion and later forms of Hinduism that tended to subordinate Vedic sacrifice became a constant in both the liturgy and the mythology from this point onward
The Upanishadic Period (c. 900–c. 600 B.C.E.)
This period, the time of the major Upanishads (though minor Upanishads were produced for many more centuries), saw at first a reaction to and revolt against the caste system led by priests and against the blood sacrifices to the Vedic gods. Later, however, these texts were coopted by the priestly (orthoprax) tradition and made the fourth Veda—and for a majority of Hindus this most important and last section of the Vedas has been referred to in English as Vedânta (anta, or “end,” of the Vedas).
About half of the Upanishads were mystical and unitive, speaking of experiencing the divine as the one (ekam), while the other half promoted devotion to one or more deities. New gods and goddesses were celebrated, and devotional practices began to be introduced. About this time (c. 600 B.C.E.) non-Hindu elements (Buddhist, Ajivika, Jain, and later elements from invaders such as the Yanavas, Shakas, and Pahlavas) made their “heteroprax” contributions (“other” or “alien practice”) to Hindu mythology—such as temples, indoor shrines, and rituals modeled after service to a divine king.
One can find ascetics (munis, yogis, samnyâsîs, tapasvins, and taposdhanas) on the periphery and among indigenous people (Dravidians, tribals). Renunciate traditions contributed elements that questioned blood sacrifice and the killing of animals, and promoted asceticism (even the gods should constrain themselves), vegetarianism, and much more. But within a few centuries, these too would be integrated into orthoprax, Brahmânical religion. All of these elements were picked up by Hindu mythology and modified in the following periods.
The Epic Period (c. 400 B.C.E.–c. 400 C.E.)
The period of India’s great epics, the Mahâbhârata and Râmâyana, continued the expansion of mythology, emphasizing divine action on earth in incarnations and manifestations. Gods and demons multiplied as did their stories. Epic mythology foreshadowed the rich polytheism of the next two periods. The Mahâbhârata contained two appendices that were extremely important sources for later mythological development, the Bhagavad Gîtâ and the Harivams´a.
The Purânic Period (c. 300–800 C.E.)
The mythology of the Purânas can be broken into three periods (300–500; 500–1000; 1000–1800), or the whole period may simply be referred to as the Hindu middle ages or medieval period. During the previous periods, everything had been prepared for the banquet of Hindu mythology. Its table was now a smorgasbord of mythic delights. Everything from the past could be found on the table, but most elements were characterized by new mixtures, with Hindu sectarianism on one hand (with each sect centered around one of the principle gods and goddesses—Vishnu, S´iva, or Devî) or Hindu universalism on the other (all paths are the same; all paths lead to the Absolute).
The three sub-divisions within this period help locate in time historical developments within the sectarian communities, the rise and decline of Tântrism and its influence on mainstream mythology, the tendencies in Purânic mythologizing of subordinating Vedic gods and past heroes to ever-increasing moral weaknesses, and the like. This is a period of exuberant polytheism.
The Tântric Period (c. 900–c. 1600)
Imbedded within the Purânic period was a shorter one of Tântra and S´ âkta, so called from the s´aktî, or cosmic energy, associated with the Divine Mother (Devî). This period appeared full-blown by 900. Some say that it finally became visible again, having disappeared from historical sight at the time of the Aryan dominance of indigenous, Indus Valley culture. Some say that it never died and that it continues secretly today. Others point to a revival encouraged by the New Age movement in the West.
And indeed, it is true in some way about every period of mythology in India. The old myths and beliefs do not really die but are reborn, though usually in a metamorphosis, to continue into the present. During the Tântric period, the mythology of Tântra and S´âkta revived and enriched blood sacrifice and the pursuit of pleasure as central themes. Tântra’s stories differed radically in meaning from those of epic mythology, which favored devotion, asceticism, and duty.
The Modern Period
The modern period is said to begin with Râja Rammohan Roy (1772–1833), who was a century ahead of his civilization, if not of world civilization. Roy demythologized Hindu mythology a century before Rudolf Bultmann demythologized Christianity. Roy particularly opposed the Purânas and their polytheism, championing a rational and sometimes mystical interpretation of the Upanishads. The analysis of “core mythologies” begun by Rammohan Roy is not within the scope of this study; briefly, it promises a way for a culture’s mythology to be studied in order to see its influence even when that influence is unknown or denied.
The modern period also contributed two quite different approaches—the revivalism of such figures as Svâmî Vivekânanda (1863–1902) or Svâmî Dayânanda Sarasvati (1824–1883) and of Hindu fundamentalism (ranging from the Hari Krishnas to the Rashtriya Svayamsevak Sangh, simply known as the RSS). One of the novel uses of mythology by Hindu fundamentalists has been in the conversion or reconversion of Indian tribals and nonscheduled classes (modern India’s name for former outcastes).
Myths were found or invented to make tribals or former “outcastes” Hindu and bring them within the cultural whole of a reconstructed Hindu mythological community.