In India , a new class of writing was emerging which would convey the unified vision of advaita Vedanta in a more accessible format. Unlike the directly revealed Truth of the Vedas and Upanishads, referred to as sruti, meaning ‘heard’, this new body of orally-transmitted literature is known as smriti, meaning ‘remembered’. The most important texts of this period are the Puranas, written as a means to popularize the teachings through concrete example, such as myths and legends and the lives of great saints within the context of historical events. Moreover, stories of the Hindu goddesses and gods were central.
Composed by a variety of sages and poets between approximately 400 CE and a millennium later, there are eighteen principal Puranas. In the Devi Mahatmya section of the Markandeya Purana, the goddess figure is eulogized in her immanent form:
O Goddess, you are insight, knowing the essence of all scripture, you are Durga, a vessel upon the ocean of life [that is so] hard to cross, devoid of attachments.
[You are] Sri, whose sole abode is in the heart of Kaitabha’s foe [Vishnu], you are Gauri, whose abode is made with the one who is crowned with the moon [Siva].
Slightly smiling, spotless, like the orb of the full moon, as pleasing as the lustre of the finest gold [is your face].
Other goddesses are honoured throughout the Puranas. One of the most famous is Durga, who is created by the gods to slay the buffalo demon, Mahisa. Like the warrior aspect of her Greek counterpart, Athena, she is the powerful goddess of war and rides a lion and wields many weapons. Also known as Chandi, she wears a garland of skulls, whilst holding a severed head in one hand and a lotus in the other, symbolizing the opposing forces of good and evil in the universe. In the Devi Mahatmya, Durga gives birth to Kali from the spot between her eyebrows, right in the midst of battle. As a goddess of terrifying demeanour (and often interchangeable with Durga in other myths), Kali’s mission is to save the world:
In such a way, then, does the divine goddess, although eternal, take birth again and again to protect creation. This world is deluded by her; it is begotten by her; it is she who gives knowledge when prayed to and prosperity when pleased. By Mahakali is this entire egg of Brahma pervaded, lord of men.
The Hindu trimurti – Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver and Siva, the destroyer – are graced by the presence of their goddess consorts. Indeed, Saraswati reappears once again during the Puranic era along with her consort, Brahma – in the Rig Veda, she is the sacred embodiment of the River Ganges; in the Puranas, however, Saraswati is the embodiment of wisdom (‘Sara’ means ‘one who gives the essence’, ‘swa’ ‘of our own Self’).
Pictorially, Saraswati is represented as sitting on a lotus. She holds the sacred scripture in one hand (representing jnana yoga) and a lotus blossom in the other. With her third and fourth hands, she plays the vina or Indian lute (representing bhakti yoga). She always wears white, as a symbol of her purity, and the swan is her vehicle. Moreover, her four hands are also representative of the four aspects of the inner personality, namely manas (mind), buddhi (intellect), ahamkara (ego) and chitta (heart). In the Padma Purana, the goddess of wisdom is praised:
Devi Saraswati, the protectoress of the universe, seated on a white lotus and adorned with white flowers, wears a white apparel.
The Eternal One is besmeared with white sweet scented pastes and has a white rosary in Her hands, is anointed with white sandal paste and holds a white vina.
The white coloured One is adorned with white jewels, to Her Siddhas, Gandharvas, gods and demons offer their salutations as also the sages and Her praise the Rishis always sing.
Whoever chants this hymn to Devi Saraswati, the sustainer of the universe, at dawn, noon and at dusk attains all knowledge.
The second god of the Hindu trinity is Lord Vishnu, the preserver of the universe: in order for society to function properly, there must be wealth. Hence, he is married to Laksmi, the goddess of good fortune and prosperity. Also known as Sri, she has skin the colour of a red lotus, is seated on a red lotus and has a garland of red lotuses around her neck. She is also, not surprisingly, referred to as the goddess of the lotus, Padma. Paradoxically, accumulation of material wealth is not what is to be striven after – it is the cultivation of moral and ethical values which are the goal. In the myth of the ‘Churning of the Ocean Milk’ told in the Vishnu Purana, Laksmi emerges from the sea, which represents the sattvic mind, wreathed in lotuses. Of Vishnu’s and Laksmi’s relationship, the Purana says:
The eternal Sri, loyal to Vishnu, is the mother of the world. Just as Vishnu pervades the universe, O excellent Brahmin, so does she. Vishnu is meaning; Sri is speech. She is conduct; Hari [Vishnu] is behaviour. Vishnu is knowledge; she is insight. He is Dharma; she is virtuous action.
Vishnu is the creator; Sri is creation. She is the earth and Hari earth’s upholder. The eternal Laksmi is contentment, O Maitreya; the blessed lord is satisfaction.
As with many Hindu deities, she is has bifurcated history in that she also represents the legacy of the great Mother Earth, in particular the autumn harvest, and as such is worshipped on the day of the autumnal full moon.
The final goddess of the trinity is Parvati, meaning ‘she who dwells in the mountains’ (the Himalayas ), who is married to Siva, Lord of destruction. Also known as Uma (a variant spelling of Om using the letters ‘a’, ‘u’ and ‘m’), she represents manifested matter. Of unsurpassed beauty, Parvati represents the true celebration of womanhood. She is usually depicted in bright-coloured saris, drenched in garlands and holding lotuses in her hands.
Initially born into the world in order to seduce Siva, she also symbolizes the nourishing life-giving source as a complement to her ascetic and reclusive husband. However, she does not win him over through her feminine wiles but through her devotion to spiritual practice. Disguising himself as a matted-haired ascetic, Siva decides to test Parvati until he is satisfied by her purity and steadfastness:
‘I have tested you, blameless woman, and find you firmly devoted to me. I came to you in the form of a brahmacarin and said to you many things, all out of desire for your own welfare. I am profoundly pleased with your special devotion. Tell me what your heart desires! There is nothing you do not deserve! Because of your tapas, I shall be your servant from this moment on. Due to your loveliness, each instant without you lasts an age. Cast off your modesty! Become my wife forevermore! Come, beloved. I shall go to my mountain at once, together with you.’
Parvati became overjoyed at hearing these words of the lord of the gods and abandoned immediately all the hardships of tapas. Trembling at the sight of Siva’s celestial form, Parvati kept her face modestly turned down and replied respectfully to the lord, ‘If you are pleased with me and if you have compassion for me, then be my husband, O lord of the gods.’
Thus addressed by Parvati, Siva took her hand according to the custom and went to Mount Kailasha with her. Having won her husband, the mountain-born girl performed the divine offices for the gods.
After their marriage, Siva and Parvati depart to Mount Kailasha in Tibet , Siva’s favourite dwelling place, where their lovemaking is so intense that it shakes the very foundations of the cosmos. Over the course of time, they have three children, including the elephant god, Ganesha. It is said that Siva and Parvati represent the balance between the way of the renunciate and the way of the householder. Moreover, Parvati symbolizes created matter and Siva the immanent spirit of the universe, just like the dyads of Prakriti and Purusha, yin and yang, Yahweh and Shekhinah. Thus Parvati and Siva not only complement each other, they are in fact each other’s completion.
Indeed, the hermaphroditic image of Siva and Parvati, known as the Ardhanareshwara, is a familiar symbol in India , with the right side representing Siva, complete with trident and serpent, and the left side Parvati, adorned with jewellery and flowers. Indeed, images of the lingam (the male principle) and the yoni (the female principle) are also familiar objects in temples, as is the practice of dabbing a white dot on the forehead (shwetabindu), to represent semen, and the red dot (shona bindu), menstrual blood.
The union of two perfected lovers finds expression in much of Hindu literature and none can be more powerful and beguiling as the Ramayana, composed around the second century BCE by the sage, Valmiki. It is the famous tale of Rama and Sita, who are incarnations of Vishnu and Laksmi. Rama is heir apparent to his father, King of Ayodhya. He wins the hand of Sita, who is from a neighbouring kingdom, by stringing Siva’s bow (in a similar manner to Odysseus proving his identity to Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey). Court intrigue and scandal force Rama and Sita into exile for fourteen years, whereupon they have many adventures, including the famous episode where Sita is kidnapped by the demon, Ravana, and taken to his kingdom in Lanka. Rama enlists the help of the monkey god, Hanuman, and between them they eventually manage to liberate Sita.
During her capture, she resists all sexual advances by Ravana and proceeds to lecture him on the Dharma. When Rama and Sita return to the kingdom of Ayodhya , Sita’s faithfulness during her year’s captivity is brought into question. As a test of her purity, she is commanded to undergo an ordeal by fire. Accepting her fate, she steps into the flames but Agni, the god of fire, extinguishes it and addresses Rama thus:
‘Here is Vaidehi [Sita], O Rama, there is no sin in her! Neither by word, feeling or glance has thy lovely consort shown herself to be unworthy of thy noble qualities. Separated from thee, that unfortunate one was borne away against her will in the lonely forest by Ravana, who had grown proud on account of his power. Though imprisoned and closely guarded by titan women in the inner apartments, thou was ever the focus of her thoughts and her supreme hope. Surrounded by hideous and sinister women, though tempted and threatened, Maithili [Sita] never gave place in her heart to a single thought for that titan and was solely absorbed in thee. She is pure and without taint, do thou receive Maithili; it is my command that she should not suffer reproach in any way.
The Ramayana is in every way an analogy of the human condition and Rama and Sita are representative of the ideal couple – Rama is the strong, discerning hero; Sita is the loyal, beautiful wife.
Because the direct experience of Reality is rare, the wise use myth and story to communicate their esoteric message. And none could be more compelling than another masterpiece, the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic written by an unknown poet sometime between the tenth and fifth centuries BCE. Again similar to Homer’s Odyssey in its panoramic scope, it recounts the story of a great war between two rival clans living in ancient India . Underpinning the many tales and adventures is the teaching of the Hindu sage, Kapila – the philosophy of Samkhya and the knowledge that the drama of life is merely the play of maya.
Many women feature in the Mahabharata but it is Draupadi who is the most central female character – indeed, it is an argument over her virtue and reasoning abilities that precipitates the war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas. Later, in a game of dice, the eldest of the five Pandava brothers, Yudhishthira, gambles away himself, his brothers and their joint wife, Draupadi. The victor of the game, the king’s son, Duryodhana, demands that Draupadi be brought before him, dragged by the hair. But she is no ordinary wife and displays a highly developed understanding of the Dharma. She reasons that if Yudhishthira had gambled himself away, he would no longer be a free man and therefore had no right to decide the fate of her and her other husbands.
In a fit of anger upon hearing the obvious truth, Duryodhana orders that Draupadi and her husbands be stripped of their clothing. As one of King Dhritarashtra’s sons pulls at Draupadi’s sari, it miraculously continues to unravel unendingly, thus protecting her honour. As a devotee of the Lord Sri Krishna, eighth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, her virtue is saved by her guru’s grace:
Of all the women of mankind, famous for their beauty, of whom we have heard, no one have we heard accomplished such a deed! While the Parthas and the Dhartarastras are raging beyond measure, Krishna Draupadi has become the salvation of the Pandavas! When they were sinking, boatless and drowning, in the plumbless ocean, the Pancali [Draupadi] became the Pandavas’ boat, to set them ashore!
Indeed, Draupadi and Lord Krishna share a very special relationship. Draupadi always considers him to be her sakha or beloved friend and Krishna addresses her as sakhi, in recognition of the platonic love between them. Speaking of her humiliation in the court of King Dhritarashtra, Krishna tells Draupadi that he is most impressed by her steadfast belief in the Dharma and in return, promises to bring about the complete annihilation of the house of the Kauravas.
Thus, the battle of Kurukshetra sees the destruction of the Kaurava dynasty. Indeed, it forms one of the most famous passages in the Mahabharata, being more commonly known as the Bhagavad Gita, meaning ‘The Song of God’. Attributed to the sage, Vyasa, and seen essentially as a separate work in its own right, it is the most definitive treatise on Samkya philosophy ever composed. The Bhagavad Gita opens with Arjuna, one of Draupadi’s husbands, and Krishna , his chariot driver, facing the impending task of entering into battle against the Kauravas. Despite the enmity that exists between both families, Arjuna is overwhelmed and utterly despondent by the drama which is about to unfold. But Krishna , acting as a personification of the Self, reminds him of his immortal being. He goes on to point out that the universe is merely the play of opposites, the perennial battle of existence. Through an understanding of the Dharma and by knowing the phenomenal world to be all but an illusion, the individual can be set free from the bondage of ignorance and the chains of mortality.
Krishna discriminates between Purusha and Prakriti, between the Absolute and maya, between the real and the unreal. He then reveals to Arjuna the four paths to liberation – devotion (bhakti yoga), action (karma yoga), knowledge (jnana yoga) and contemplation (raja yoga, the ‘royal road’ and highest path). Whichever path we choose, however, all ultimately lead to the one Self:
He who realizes the divine truth concerning My birth and life, is not born again; and when he leaves his body, he becomes one with Me.
Many have merged their existence in Mine, being freed from desire, fear and anger, filled always with Me, and purified by the illuminating flame of self-abnegation.
Howsoever men try to worship Me, so do I welcome them. By whatever path they travel, it leads to Me at last.
Moreover, the practice of meditation and the one-pointed focus on the Self will lead the devotee to everlasting bliss:
When the volatile and wavering mind would wander, let him restrain it, and bring it again to its allegiance to the Self.
Supreme Bliss is the lot of the sage, whose mind attains Peace, whose passions subside, who is without sin, and who becomes one with the Absolute.
Thus, free from sin, abiding always in the Eternal, the saint enjoys without effort the Bliss which flows from realization of the Infinite.
The Bhagavad Gita is one of the most profound texts on the nature of nonduality ever composed, in that it synthesizes living in the world and performing one’s duty, all the while concentrating one’s heart on the supreme Absolute:
. . . the Great Souls, O Arjuna! Filled with My Divine Spirit, they worship Me, they fix their minds on Me and on Me alone, for they know that I am the imperishable Source of being.
Always extolling Me, strenuous, firm in their vows, prostrating themselves before Me, they worship Me continually with concentrated devotion.
Others worship Me with full consciousness, as the One, the Manifold, the Omnipresent, the Universal.
I am the Oblation, the Sacrifice, and the Worship; I am the Fuel and the Chant, I am the Butter offered to the fire, I am the Fire itself; and I am the Act of Offering.
I am the Father of the universe and its Mother; I am its Nourisher and its Grandfather; I am the Knowable and the Pure; I am Om ; and I am the Sacred Scriptures.
I am the Goal, the Sustainer, the Lord, the Witness, the Home, the Shelter, the Lover and the Origin; I am Life and Death; I am the Fountain and the Seed Imperishable.
I am the Heat of the Sun. I release and hold back the Rains. I am Death and immortality; I am Being and Not-Being.
The Bhagavad Gita very quickly became the Bible of Hinduism since it espoused the advaita Vedanta doctrine in a practical way. Nevertheless, other great sages would go on to reveal the mystical teachings in a unique way – for example Patanjali, the sage of the early centuries CE in his Yoga Sutras; Shankara, in the seventh century CE, in his classic work Vivekachudamani or ‘The Crest Jewel of Wisdom’, and Dattatreya in the tenth century, in his Avadhut Gita.
The Bhagavad Gita also precipitated the cult of bhakti in the form of Krishna worship. As the eighth incarnation of Vishnu, Krishna is the male embodiment of the Self and many sacred texts have been composed in his honour. Whereas the Mahabharata focuses on his wise counsel in the battle towards the Pandavas, it is the Bhagavata Purana or the Srimad Bhagavatam that recounts his adventurous adolescence and his amorous exploits with the gopis (cowherdesses) in Vrindavan.
It is said that Krishna was the lover of 16,000 gopis, who all leave their household cares behind to lose themselves in the rasa lila, the circular dance of the soul. Through the beguiling tunes of his magic flute, Krishna lulls the women into a trance of devotion and ecstasy. He says to them:
‘I know what is in your minds and I have accepted your devotion to me. Believe me, devotion to me has never gone unrewarded. You have given me your hearts and your minds and there is nothing in your minds except love for me. Listen to me. The love which is lodged in your hearts is so pure that it can never become lust of the type which lies in the human heart. The seed of a plant will give forth new shoots when planted in the earth. But if it is fried or baked, then it will not be able to sprout again. Even so, love of a human type which is for human beings will give birth to further involvements with this world. But love which is directed towards me will be an end in itself and it will never make you earth-bound. Go home with the assurance from me that your efforts will not go unrewarded.
Despite treating all his women alike, one in particular was his eternal consort and supreme devotee and her name was Radha. Believed to be the embodiment of Laksmi, Radha was a strikingly beautiful and discerning young woman. And like Rama and Sita before them, Radha and Krishna are the epitome of the divine pair, united in their love.
The bhakti movement would continue to grow throughout India , inspiring many sages and poets. One in particular was Narada, living sometime during the first few centuries of the first millenium. Little is known of his life and yet his Bhakti Sutras are one of the most beautiful expositions on the nature of love:
Now, in a spirit of auspiciousness, we shall commence to expound on bhakti – spiritual devotion.
The nature of spiritual devotion is the supreme love.
And its essence is the nectar of immortality.
Obtaining spiritual devotion, a person becomes a siddha, a perfected one, beyond death and fully satisfied.
Achieving spiritual devotion, one becomes completely desireless – grieving not, hating not, not rejoicing in fleeting happiness, without passion for person concerns.
With a realization of spiritual devotion one becomes spiritually intoxicated; one becomes overwhelmed; one comes to rejoice in the Self.
And in the manner of Rumi, Narada attempts to define the indefinable:
The essential nature of love is inexpressible.
Like taste for one who is mute.
Love is manifest where there is an able vessel.
This love takes the form of an intimate experience of exquisite subtlety – devoid of the influence of the three modes of nature, devoid of desire – a boundless, perpetual expansion.
Achieving that experience one sees only love, hears only love, speaks only of love, and thinks of love alone.
For Narada, the highest bliss, the everlasting joy of eternal peace, is not through the attainment of wisdom but through the simply act of loving itself:
Some assert that spiritual devotion can be developed solely by wisdom.
Some assert that wisdom and devotion are both necessary.
According to the son of Brahma, Narada, spiritual devotion is its own fruit.
And the fruit of devotion is union with God:
Spiritual devotion is singular, though it manifests as eleven forms: cherishing the glorious qualities of God, cherishing the spiritual forms, cherishing ritual worship, cherishing constant remembrance, cherishing service, cherishing God as a dear friend, cherishing God with parental affection, cherishing God like a loving wife, cherishing knowledge of the Self, cherishing oneness with God, cherishing the supreme separation.
The cult of bhakti continued to dominate Hindu society through the centuries. Moreover, Krishna worship became the main focus for the expression of devotees’ love. Many poets have written about their love for Krishna but one in particular stands above all others – the Tamil saint from the middle of the seventh century, Andal.
Legend has it that Andal was discovered as a baby in Srivilliputtur by the Brahmin priest, Periyalvar, underneath a basil bush (the herb sacred to Vishnu), who raised her as his own daughter. He initially called her Kodai, meaning ‘she who is born of Mother Earth’. As a child, she became so totally devoted to Krishna that she would wear garlands prepared by her father intended for his honour in the temple. Indeed, her only wish was that she would one day become Krishna ’s bride. Her father, catching Kodai admiring herself in the mirror covered in the garlands, reprimanded her but Vishnu allegedly appeared to him later that night in a dream. He commanded her father that only the garlands that had been worn by Kodai could be used in offering, since they were drenched in the sweet fragrance of her pure being.
Periyalvar realized the holiness of his devoted daughter and renamed her Andal, meaning ‘she who dives deep into the ocean of divine love’. Such were her longings for Krishna that Andal imagined herself to one of the gopi girls, pining for the presence of her Lord. Thus inspired, Andal composed the Tiruppavai, or ‘Song Divine’ as a record of her intense and passionate experience. A poem of thirty stanzas, it recounts the ecstatic longing of the young women for their divine lover, Lord Krishna. The overall effect is not the sackcloth and ashes of the Christian mystics but an erotically charged exaltation of love:
Favouring January’s full moon is here –
Maidens bejewelled, keen on bathing, come out!
Darling girls of the cowherd clan
Whose hamlet brims over with beauty and wealth;
That cruel sharp spear Nanda’s son,
Young lion of Yasoda [ Krishna ’s foster mother] with her love – filled eyes
Cloud-hued, red-orbed, sun and moon for his face
Narayana [Vishnu] himself has offered his gracious drum all for us
To sing his praise and gain the world’s.
Indeed, Krishna ’s love is all the women require:
In morning’s small hours we came to adore
Those golden lotuses, your feet: why?
Born are we in the cowherd caste
But you must take us in your own employ.
Not only for today do we seek your drum
But for ever and ever, seven times seven births!
Would be one with you, work only for you –
Change all our other wishes, Lord!
Their love is total and yet similarly available to anyone who sincerely desires it:
There thirty stanzas in chaste Tamil
In honour of Him who churned the sea,
Were composed by Kodai the daughter
Of that Prince of Brahmin priests
With his garland fresh and cool,
Of the lovely village, Srivilliputtur.
Maids bejewelled, their face the moon
Seeking Kesava [‘beautiful haired’] got his grace
As narrated in these lines.
Whoever will chant them without fail
Will be looked after by the Lord
His four shoulders high as hills,
Eyes red, face comely and benign:
Will gain his grace wherever they go
And be happy evermore!
Indeed, the poem is still sung daily in temples throughout southern India today.
Andal’s literary talent continued to flourish – her ‘Sacred Utterances’ or Nacchiyar Tirumozhi, explores in greater length her devotion to Krishna . In rapturous exaltations of ecstasy and anguish in a sequence of fourteen poems similar in its eroticism to the Song of Songs, Andal describes her yearning for Krishna :
O famed and expert God of Love,
Take note of the penance I undergo –
My body unwashed, my hair unbound,
My lips without colour, one meal a day.
One thing I have to say, my Lord,
That my womanhood may not be a waste
Grant me this, my life’s aim,
That I become Kesava’s servant-maid.
Her yearning is intense and she begs Krishna to reveal himself to her:
O lovely Koel [ Krishna ], through my greed to embrace
The one on the milky sea,
My surging breasts in their ecstasy
Melt and distress my soul.
What do you gain by hiding yourself?
If you will coo and bring to me
The one with the discus, conch and mace
You will get a place in heaven.
The sixth poem, ‘A Dream Wedding’, is the culmination of Andal’s hopes and imaginations – she becomes the bride of Krishna :
My friend, I dreamt that numerous priests
Brought water for holy sprinkling
From the four corners of the earth
And raising Vedic chants,
Knotted the guardian string round my wrist
That I may wed Kannan [ Krishna ] the pure.
Indeed, the marriage customs observed in Andal’s time – the bridegroom coming in procession the night before the wedding, their going around the sacred bridal fire and then proceeding through the streets in the evening – are all observed today in southern India, chanted to Andal’s song of the ‘Dream Wedding’.
Later in the poem, she speaks of losing herself in her love:
Fair mothers, my sweet ambrosia
With his lovely hair, his lovely mouth
His lovely eyes
And the lovely lotus from his belly button –
My husband –
Has my loose bangle
Made me lose indeed!
My Lord of Srirangam,
Rich and righteous,
Who owns this sea-swept earth entire
And the sky
Has made his possessions
With the bangle which I wore
On my hand!
Throughout her short life, Andal refused to marry any mortal man – Krishna was the sole object of her affection. It is said that Vishnu, supremely pleased with her devotion, appeared to Periyalvar once more in a dream, instructing him to bring Andal to the holy shrine at Srirangam, on the banks of the Cauvery in southern India . Legend says that the moment that she entered the sanctum of the temple, she was surrounded by a blaze of light and was absorbed into the image of Vishnu. She was only fifteen years old.
When and where Andal composed her verses is not clear but she is keen to impart the knowledge that it is she who is author of her immortal words. Indeed, throughout her verse, Andal teaches us that love for the divine Beloved can set us free:
Kodai whose brow no bow can match
Putter Vishnuchittan’s [Periyalvar’s] daughter
Made these verses in her passion
For that jewelled lamp of the cowherd clan
Who wrought mischief with his pranks.
Those who can recite them well
Shall never struggle in the sea of sorrows.
Return to list of topics in Discourses by Teachers and Writers .
See the list sorted by Topic.
See the list sorted by Author.