The Nagas are a fabulous race of snakes. They are powerful and dangerous, and usually appear in

the form of ordinary snakes, but sometimes as fabulous snakes and, in some circumstances, in

human form. There are snake-kings, such as that Takshaka whose glittering capital is the glory of

the underworld kingdom.

Certain royal families or dynasties reckoned Nagas among their ancestors.

Statues of divinised Nagas are still commonly worshipped in the South of India. Needless to say a

symbolical and highly metaphysical sense is now attached to the cult. The statues are always

placed under a tree. On a private property custom even demands that an uncultivated space shall

be left round the god-snakes for the jungle to grow freely. The popular belief is that if the snakes

have their own domain reserved to them they are more likely to spare human beings.

In Mythology the Nagas and their wives, the Naginis, often play a fatal part, and their favorite

methods are surprise and trickery. But there are exceptions. In epochs of cosmic rest Vishnu sleeps

under the protection of the great snake, Sesha, who forms his bed while his seven raised heads

give the god shade.

Reptiles in general are supposed to be gifted with amazing powers, and the fact that they are

amphibious seems to have greatly struck the imagination of the Indians.

Here briefly summarised are two legends from the Mahabharata, where we come on Takshaka,

king of the Nagas.


King Parikchit was passionately fond of hunting. One day when he was exhausted with fatigue

and thirst after a long pursuit of a wounded gazelle, it happened that he unintentionally offended

a hermit of the highest virtue who was observing a vow of silence in the heart of the forest. The

wise man's son was indignant at this insult to his father, and placed his curse on the king, saying:

'Within a week the snake Takshaka will burn you with his poison, and you will die.'

When the king heard this fatal news he built a palace on top of a column which stood in the

middle of a lake, and decided to shut himself up there. But Takshaka succeeded in overcoming the

vigilance of the guards by a ruse. He changed some snakes into wandering monks and sent them

to the king bearing offerings of water, the sacred plant and fruits. The king received them,

accepted their gifts and dismissed them.

Then the king said to his ministers and friends: 'Let your excellencies eat with me the delicious

fruits brought by these ascetics.' Among the open fruits there appeared a strange insect shining

like red copper, with glittering eyes. The king picked up the insect and said: 'The sun is about to

set, and I have now no fear of death. Let the hermit's speech be accomplished, let this insect bite

me.' And he put it on his neck. Then the snake Takshaka, for he it was, wrapped the king in his

coils and uttered a great roar.

Seeing the king caught in the snake's coils the counsellors burst into tears and suffered the keenest

grief. They then fled from the monster's roaring, and even as they ran they saw the marvellous

reptile rise into the air. Takshaka, king of the snakes, red as a lotus, traced across the forehead of

heaven a line as straight as that which parts the hair on the head of a bride. The king fell dead as if

struck by lightning, and the palace was wrapped in fire.

Afterwards they carried out for Parikchit all the ceremonies relating to the next world. Then the

chaplain, the ministers, and all the assembled subjects acclaimed the new king, his son Janamejaya,

who was still a child.

Utanka and the Earrings

A young Brahman student, Utanka, was told to take to his tutor's wife a pair of earrings, which

had been given her by the queen. This queen (who was the wife of king Janamejaya, son of the

king Parikchit who figures in the preceding tale) warned the young man that the king of snakes,

Takshaka, had long coveted these jewels.

The Brahman set out, and on the way noticed a naked beggar who sometimes approached and

sometimes disappeared from sight. Soon after, Utanka stopped to perform his ablutions, and laid

the earrings on the ground. The beggar glided up swiftly towards the jewels, grasped them and

fled. When his ablutions were

finished Utanka discovered the theft, and eagerly pursued the thief. But at the moment when

Utanka got his hands on him the robber abandoned his borrowed shape, became a snake again,

and glided into a cleft which opened into the earth. Having thus returned to the world of snakes,

the cunning Takshaka took refuge in his palace.

Utanka then remembered the queen's words. But how was he to get at Takshaka? He began to

search the hole with the end of his staff, but without success. Indra saw he was overwhelmed with

grief and sent his thunderbolt, saying: 'Go, and bring aid to this Brahman!' The thunder

descended, entered the cleft by following the staff, and burst open the hole. Utanka followed in its


Having entered the limitless world of snakes, he found it was full of admirable establishments for

games, both large and small, and crowded with hundreds of porticoes, turrets, palaces and

temples, of different types of architecture. He then chanted a hymn in praise of the Nagas, but

although the snakes were smothered with praise they did not return the jewels.

Thereupon Utanka entered into meditation. A marvellous symbolical vision of nights and days, of

(he year and the seasons, unrolled before his eyes; and then he saw Indra himself mounted on a

horse. He praised the god in a sacred chant, and Indra, well-pleased, offered his help. Utanka

asked: 'Put the snakes into my power.' 'Breathe on the crupper of my horse,' replied Indra. Utanka

obeyed, and the steed suddenly caused an outburst of huge flames accompanied by smoke. The

world of snakes was buried in the

smoke; and terrified by the glow of the fire Takshaka hastily emerged from his palace and

returned the ear-rings to the young Brahman.

Indra then lent Utanka his miraculous steed which brought the young man to his tutor in a

second. He arrived just in time to hand the jewels at the time appointed to his tutor's wife as she

had asked.

Rudra and the Maruts

The Indological school of Uppsala, K.F. Johansson and his followers E. Arbman and J.

Charpentier, have lately found numerous traces of popular religion in the Vedas. The cult of

Rudra plays a central part in it. This prince of demons (Bhudapati) is a savage figure, and god of

the dead, in as much as he and his crew feed on the departed, like the followers of Odin in Nordic

mythology. He is an earth god, but on the evidence of a single passage in the Rig-Veda which

gives him the vajra (thunderbolt) scholars have been in too great a hurry to interpret him as a god

of the hurricane or the storm. Rudra does not share in the sacrifice of Soma which extends to all

Devas - he belongs to another category.

He is a formidable archer, whose shafts despatch men and beasts to the next world. The accuracy

of his aim is praised by begging him to shoot at other places and not at the house of the suppliant.

Once they are hit by him men and animals die of sickness. So this savage god is invoked as a

doctor and a veterinary surgeon, on whom every cure depends. He dwells in the mountains, and

thus his rule extends to heaven and the air as well as to earth.

The gods are as afraid of him as mortals are. One day when Prajapati committed incest with his

own daughter Ushas who to escape him had changed into a gazelle, Rudra saw it as a mortal sin.

In terror Prajapati called out: 'Don't shoot at me - I'll make you Lord of all animals!' Henceforth

Rudra is named Pasupati, Lord of animals. But he shot all the same, and then wept to think that

his shaft had struck the demiurge himself.

The Maruts are the sons of Rudra and Prisni (goddess of the dark season) and, as Hillebrandt has

pointed out, seem to have been dead souls before they became the genii of wind and storm. In the

most ancient texts they are 'Rudras', copies of the god of the dead, but when Rudra became a

heavenly being they dropped the name and became gods of the atmosphere.

They are depicted as hustling the clouds, shaking mountains and wrecking forests. These

energetic Rudras only become more gentle in order to please Rodasi, Rudra's wife, who likes to

accompany them in her chariot.

Origins of Siva and Vishnu

This archaic popular god Rudra is the source of the god Siva who becomes of the first importance

after the Vedic age - like Vishnu - in the religion of the masses. As we have seen, Siva also bore the

title of prince of demons, Bhudapati. His name means 'the favorable' or 'the benevolent' and was

meant to propitiate a dangerous deity who breathes pestilence and death. The god is essentially

destructive but was endowed with benevolence by the piety of his worshippers who dreaded his

dangerous manifestations. But his malevolent vocation brought round him all the atrocious and

horrible deities revered by the Dravidians. Once presented as the wives of Siva these ogresses

were consecrated by Hinduism - Uma, Durga and Parvati are three aspects of the same goddess.

The name Tryambaka applied to Rudra already means the god accompanied by the three mothergoddesses,

amba, ambika. The cult of Vishnu has some frail links with Vedic mythology. He there

appears as a solar god who traverses the three worlds in three steps. They are heaven, air, and

earth, and he prefers to live in heaven. He is associated with Indra as conqueror of the dark Vritra,

and there is no reason for surprise at this since Indra is the god of the warrior aristocracy and the

sun was an emblem of royalty. Here we come again on the Maruts, the acolytes of Vishnu. We

note that in his multiple forms this god, quite unlike. Siva, was the object of pious devotion and

tenderly affectionate worship.

Gandharvas Apsaras

The Gandharvas, the familiar spirits of the Indo-Europeans, belong to folklore. They are menhorses

which the rites bring into masquerades Like Carnival, which shows them in their

generative function. The part they play in the fecundity of Nature is conjoined with that attributed

to them by abstract reflection - according to which that part of the soul which moves

on from life to life is called 'gandharva'. The Gandharvas play heavenly music and jealously look

after the Soma. They are the licentious mates of the Apsaras, nymphs who were first aquatic and

then rustic, and in the first period of Brahmanism were supposed to dwell in figtrees and bananaplants.

The Vedic Apsara, Urvasi, gave rise to a legend which suggests the story of Psyche.

One day king Pururavas was hunting in the Himalayas and heard calls for help. Two Apsaras,

playing among the flowers in a wood, were being carried off by demons. He was fortunate

enough to be

able to rescue them. Pururavas besought one of them, Urvasi, to respond to his love, and she

consented on condition that she never saw her husband undressed. They lived together a long

time and Urvasi hoped she was with child. However, the Gandharvas, who are the customary

friends and companions of the Apsaras, regretted her absence and thought of a stratagem. Urvasi

had two little lambs she always kept near her, and tied to her bed at night. Pururavas was laid

beside her one night and the Gandharvas stole one of the lambs. 'Ah!' exclaimed Urvasi, 'they have

taken my lamb as if there was not a man and a hero lying beside me!' Shortly afterwards


they stole the second lamb, and she made exactly the same lament.

Pururavas thought: 'While I am here shall it be said there is no hero?' And without troubling to

dress he leaped up to pursue the thieves. Then the Gandharvas filled the sky with flashes of

lightning, and Urvasi saw her husband as clearly as in daylight. And she disappeared.

In despair the king sought throughout the land to find his beloved. At last he came to a lake where

a flock of swans were swimming. They were Apsaras, and Urvasi was among them. Urvasi

revealed herself, and Pururavas besought her to return with him and to grant him at least a

moment's conversation. But Urvasi replied: 'What have I to say to you? I left you like the first

dawn. Return home, Pururavas. I am like the wind, and hard to capture. You broke the pact which

bound us. Return to your home, for it is hard to conquer me.' But seeing Pururavas' despair the

Apsara at last allowed herself to be softened. 'Come back on the last day of the year,' she said.

'Then you can spend the night with me, and your son will have been born.' Pururavas returned on

the last night of the year. The Gandharvas took him into a golden palace, and sent Urvasi to him.

She said: 'In the morning the Gandharvas will grant you a boon. What will you choose?' 'Choose

for me,' said Pururavas. 'Then say to them, "I want to become one of you." '

Next morning he made this wish. 'But,' said the Gandharvas, 'nowhere on earth does there burn

the sacred fire which can make a man like unto us.' They gave him a dish containing fire, saying:

'You will make the sacrifices with this fire, and thus you will become a Gandharva like us.'

Pururavas took the fire and returned home, bringing his son with him. But having left the fire for

a moment he found it had disappeared. At the place where Pururavas had left the fire rose the tree

Asvattha, and where he had left the dish containing the fire stood the tree Sami. He asked the

advice of the Gandharvas. 'First cut the wood of the Sami tree, and then make a slim wand with

the wood of the tree Asvattha. By turning one against the other you will make fire, the same fire

you received from us.' In this way Pururavas learned how to make fire, and having cast his

offerings into it, he became a Gandharva, and dwelt with Urvasi ever after.


The abstractions of the latest collections of hymns opened the way for priestly scholasticism. The

Vedas mentioned Visvakarma as the universal agent, Prajapati as the master of living things, Brihaspati

as the master of the formula, Sraddha as faith. Brahmanas and Upanishads were to equate

Prajapati and Brihaspati either with religious forces like the brahman, or with metaphysical

notions like theatman, or with ancient mythological figures like the Purusha.

Brahman, a neuter term, is much older than the masculine name of the god Brahma and

designates the essence of the Brahman caste, just as Kshatram designates the essence of the

Kshatriya caste. Every existence, all knowledge depend on the brahman, as the keystone of the

whole social order is the Brahman caste.

Brahman is also the sacred syllable Om, the eternal soul which penetrates the whole universe and

is its cause.

Brahma and Sarasvati. Brahma, a masculine term, is the first person of the Hindu Trinity. He is

essentially a creative god, the father of gods and men.

'This (world) was darkness, unknowable, without form, beyond reason and perception, as if

utterly asleep.

Then the august and self-existent Being, he who never unfolded, having unfolded this (universe)

under the form of the great elements and others, having shown his energy, appeared to scatter the

shades of darkness.

This (Being) whom only the spirit can perceive, subtle, without distinct parts, eternal, including in

himself all creatures, incomprehensible, appeared spontaneously.

'Wishing to draw different creatures from his body, he first by thought produced the waters and

deposited his seed in them.

This (seed) became a golden egg as brilliant as the sun, in which he himself was bom (under the

form of) Brahma, the first father of all worlds.

The waters are called Naras, they are the daughters of Nara; and since they were his first

dwelling-place (ayana) he took the name Narayana.

'From this (first) cause, indistinct, eternal, including in itself being and not-being, came the Male,

known in the world by the name of Brahma.

'In this egg the blessed one remained a whole year, then of himself, by the effort of his thought

only, he divided the egg into two.

'From the two halves he made heaven and earth, and between them the air and the eight cardinal

points and the eternal abode of the waters.

'From himself he drew the Spirit, including in itself being and not-being, and from the Spirit he

drew the feeling of self which is conscious of personality and is master.

'And also the great (principle) the Soul, and all objects which possess the three qualities, and

successively the five organs of the senses which perceive material things.' (LawsofManu, chap. I,

v. 5.)

The god Brahma is depicted with four faces (caturanana), dressed in a white garment, riding on a

swan, sometimes a peacock, or else seated on a lotus growing from Vishnu's navel. He holds

varying objects in his four hands - the four Vedas, the disk, the alms dish, or the sacrificial spoon.

Sarasvati, his wife, is the goddess of music, wisdom, and knowledge, the mother of the Vedas. It

was she who invented the de-vanagari alphabet, Sanskrit. She is depicted as a beautiful young

woman with four arms. With one of her right hands she holds out a flower to her husband, for she

is always beside him: with the other she holds a book of palm leaves, showing her love oflearning.

One of her left hands holds a garland and the other a little drum. At other times she is seated on a

lotus, with only two arms and playing on the vinu. Her name contains an allusion to a river,

which has led to the inference that originally she was a goddess of the waters.

A legend explains Brahma's four faces, the birth of Sarasvati, and the creation of the world.

Brahma first formed a woman from his own immaculate substance, and she was known as

Satarupa, Sarasvati, Savitri, Gayatri or Brahmani. When he saw this lovely girl emerge from his

own body Brahma fell in love with her. Satarupa moved to his right to avoid his gaze, but a head

immediately sprang up from the god. And when Satarupa turned to the left and then behind him,

two new heads emerged. She darted towards heaven, and a fifth head was formed. Brahma then

said to his daughter. 'Let us beget all kinds of living things, men. Suras, Asuras.' Hearing these

words Satarupa returned to earth, Brahma wedded her and they retired to a secret place where

they remained together for a hundred (divine) years. At that time Manu was born - he is also

named Svayambhuva and Viraj.

Brahma's fifth head was eventually burned up by the fire of Siva's third eye.

Atman, the self, oneself (reflexive pronoun), designates what is manifested in the fact of

consciousness as being the thinking principle. The word derives from an Indo-European root

meaning 'to breathe' - in India as in Europe 'spirit' takes its name from breathing.

Purusha, the Male, in the same texts and before that in the tenth book of Hymns is another name

for the absolute Spirit. Here the continuity of the myth in the philosophy appears still more

obvious. What was to become the Spirit was first of all cosmic Man, whose different limbs formed

each part of the world, and whose personality is at once the sacrificer and the victim, the sacrifice

(yajna) being considered as reality itself.

Priests and Mythical Heroes. Several groups of mythical figures were conceived both as collective

beings and as being summarised in a type-character, the centre of a cycle of legends. The social

nature of these beings comes out clearly. Every Indian tradition in the first historical epochs is a

matter of kula, of lineage, either family descent or religious association, or better still both

together. These are the races of Rishis who preserved and transmitted the Vedic revelation,

supposedly 'seen' by them, though in reality slowly elaborated by the poets, the influential

ancestors of the Brahman


The Atharvans (Iranian athravans) in ancient Aryan antiquity were priests of fire. Atharvan (in the

singular) is a prototype of the priest, who produced Agni, fire by friction, and instituted the

system of sacrifices. He lives with the gods in heaven. His son Dad-hyanc also lights Agni. His

affinity with Soma gave rise to some obscure myths, which are the expression of his sacerdotal


The Angiras are Rishis, sons of the gods, and are supposed to descend from a first Angira. They

played the part of fathers to humanity. They too discovered Agni in wood, and presided over

sacrifice, which earned them immortality as well as the friendship of Indra.

While the Angiris, true 'angeloi', performed - like angels - the function of intermediaries between

gods and men, there are other beings which are theoretically entirely human, the Manus. We are

told that Agni dwells with them, and the reason is that Manu, the first of the race, was also the

founder of sacrifices. Manu was not only the first to offer sacrifices, he was the first man, the

ancestor of humanity. He derived from Vivasvat, the rising Sun, like Yama, the first of the dead.

Manu reigns over the living, Yama over the Manes. A part similar to that of Noah is attributed to

Manu, who during a deluge was saved by a miraculous fish which

later on came to be considered as an avatar of Vishnu. It seems very likely that the Semitic fable

was the origin of this cycle of legends. In later times when sacrifice did not include the whole of

human activity, Manu was credited with the part of legislator, and his name was attached to the

most famous code of Brahman law.

Yama, judge of men and king of the invisible world, was born from Vivasvat, the Sun, and from

Saranya, the daughter of Tvashtar. He was born before his mother grew weary of the glitter of her

shining husband. He and his twin sister, Yami, made up the original couple from whom humanity

is derived. Max Muller thought they meant Day and Night, which explains why they are

inseparable and yet can never unite. Yami begged Yama to be her husband but the brother

repelled her advances, saying that those who preach virtue should give the example of practising


As he was the first of all beings to die, Yama is the guide to every-


one who adventures into the next world. He reigns there below, and inhabits a secret sanctuary of

heaven bathed in supernatural light. In his kingdom, friend is restored to friend, the wife to the

husband, children to their parents, and all live happy, protected from the ills of earthly existence.

In this, the third, stage of heaven the Manes or Fathers (pitri) as well as the gods who come there,

drink a Soma which delivers them from a second death. Two savage dogs guard the entrance.

We can now understand the epithets applied to Yama Vai-vasvata, son of Vivasvat; Kala, the

weather; Dharmaraja, king of virtue; Pitripati, lord of the Fathers; Sraddhadeva, god of funeral

ceremonies; Antaka, he who ends life; Kritanta, with the same meaning; Samana, the leveller;

Samavurti, the impartial judge; Dandadhara, carrier of the stick, the punisher.

It is hard to touch Yama when at the appointed hour he comes to earth to seek his victim. Yet the

sweet and beautiful Savitri, wife of Satyavat, by dint of a stubborn conjugal tenderness persuaded

the god of death to spare her husband. As Yama carried off Satya-vat's soul, Savitri followed his

steps until at last the god was touched by such fidelity and promised to grant her wishes provided

she would not ask him to bring her husband back to life. Then give me,' she said, 'a hundred

strong sons born of Satyavat to carry on our stock.' Bound by his promise Yama had to bring the

dead man to life.

Matarisvan: Bhrigus. Those mythical wise men, the earliest human beings, have transmitted to the

most distant posterity the most precious of all knowledge - the technique of sacrificing in fire. The

man who captured the thunderbolt in heaven, and gave to mortals the secret of the fiery element

was Matarisvan.

We must also mention the Bhrigus, the 'shining ones', the name of a race destined to kindle and

maintain Agni in human cults. The first bearer of this name designates one of the ten patriarchs

instituted by Manu. A legend shows what authority these primitive men, in their capacity as

possessors of the sacrificial knowledge, could exert over the most illustrious of the immortals.

Certain wise men could not decide which of the three gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, was most

deserving of the Brahmans' worship; and Bhrigu was deputed to test the character of these gods.

In approaching Brahma he intentionally omitted one of the signs which are due to him - the god

gave Bhrigu a reprimand, but accepted his apologies and forgave him. Bhrigu then entered the

dwelling of Siva and behaved in the same way. He would have been consumed to ashes by the

angry god if he had not soothed him down with soft and humble words. Then he went to Vishnu

who was lying down asleep, and woke him up with a kick in the chest. Far from getting into a

rage the god asked if he had hurt himself and gently massaged his foot. 'Here is the greatest of the

gods,' said Bhrigu. 'He surpasses the others by the most powerful weapons, kindness and



The Vedas look upon the worlds - heaven, air, earth - sometimes as being constructed like a work

of art, and sometimes as having derived from an organic development. Book X of the Hymns

bridges the transition between the Vedic myths and the philosophical speculations of the


Before being and not-being there was a dark and watery chaos. Then a germ of life gifted with

unity came to life by developing a sort of spontaneous heat, the 'tapas', which was at one and the

same time heating, sweat and ascetic fervour. This principle felt and afterwards manifested the

need to beget. (X, 129.).

In another explanation there was a primordial giant, a cosmic man, Purusha (the Male). The

different parts of the world are his limbs, and in his unity this individual includes the first

sacrificer and the first victim. (X, 90). In later metaphysics the term 'purusha' came to mean the

spiritual principle.

In the work of creation there intervenes, with different meanings according to different traditions,

the golden egg, the 'hiranyagarbha'. Produced by the primordial waters or brought into the world

by Prajapati, this embryo gave birth to the supreme god, for instance the Brahman (Satapaiha

Brahmana, VI, 1, 1, 10). Tn this egg were the continents, the oceans, the mountains, the planets and

the divisions of the universe, the gods, the demons and humanity. They say Brahma was born,

which is a familiar way of saying that

he manifested himself.' (Vishnu-purana.) At the end of a thousand years the egg opened, and

Brahma who emerged from it meditated and started the work of creation. Seeing that the earth

was submerged under the waters he assumed the aspect of a wild boar, dived, and lifted it up on

his tusks. At this period the old Vedic divinities were relegated to an inferior rank, even Varuna

and Indra who, once the essential elements of the world had been created, had contributed to the

establishment of its dimensions. Brahmanism thus preserves the ancient Vedic belief, according to

which the gods maintain, without instituting, the fundamental order of things.


According to the Rig-Veda, the dead are either buried or cremated. Cremation rapidly spread and

was considered the normal way of attaining a definite dwelling place in the next world, in the sun

or in the stars.

Later on all kinds of distinctions occurred. Only the spiritual principle, asu or manas, went to the

sun, carried there by Agni. According to the Satapatha Brahmana there are two paths for the just -

to the Fathers (pitri) and to the sun. while for the evil another leads to hell, naraka. In the Vedas

the kingdom of Yama was a paradise for the good, but in the Puranas it is also a place of expiation

for the wicked. According to the Upanishads we must distinguish between the journey to Brahma,

the reward of perfect knowledge, which attains an abiding place from which there is no return,

and the journey to heaven where after enjoying the reward deserved the soul returns to be reborn

here below.

Thus we find a distinction which takes on the greatest importance in the faith of the Buddhists - on

the one hand transmigration (samsara) without end, the normal condition of existence, and on the

other hand the possibility of getting free for ever from this transmigration, that is to reach nirvana,

for those who have completely understood the structure of things.

Heaven is a place where we possess the same goods as on earth, but without risking the troubles

of earthly existence. One is provided with a glorious body. The idea of hell which may be

discerned however in the Athervabeda became general at a later date. It has not a widely Indo-

European character like the idea of a dwelling of the blessed in heavenly light.