What is Myth? Exploring A Sacred World and Its Inhabitants

Article of the Month - Apr 2010

This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet.

(Viewed 45018 times since Apr 2010)

Ancient traditions world over, not merely those from the realm of religion but also history, metaphysics, cosmology, medicines and sciences, are largely myths, sometimes quite strange and unbelievable, events with no apparent cause-and-effect reciprocity, and beings beyond human conception. Opinions differ as to what exactly the term ‘myth’ means. It is sometimes defined as something false or untrue, the same as means the Hindi term ‘mithya’ – two structural co-relates having identical sound. This is an obviously wrong notion. A myth is a broad truth in regard to an event or a set of beings, men, animals or others, the factual dimensions of which have either blurred or weeded out by time as irrelevant, and what survives in people’s minds, texts, memory or traditions, is its essence, a truth’s timeless pith, a mystique or philosophy, and the fiction amassing around, its mere body. A strange dilemma, a myth is a truth but the term ‘myth’, not ‘truth’, better defines what it portrays, perhaps being a truth of higher grade, or fiction being its body.

Many mythical traditions, Hindu, Christian, Islamic or any, like the myth in regard to the Great Deluge submerging the earth and enveloping the entire cosmos under impenetrable darkness, a single human couple – progenitors of the race of man, and a Great Fish along with a boat alone surviving – the myth that explores evolution of the earth and human race in many early civilizations, have many parallels and a strange unity in their themes. They all have similar interwoven events, mystic dimensions and a bizarre look. Not mere fiction or creation of fancy, such world-wide unanimity of these traditions suggests that the event which a myth portrays, or at least its core context – central part, might have been once a reality, which being strange and rare, gathered around it a certain amount of divinity and mysticism, and was thus mythicised and re-defined or rather re-cycled in terms of a prevalent theology for promoting its dogmatic ends, or a human value.


Myths from India, with a large body of literature emerging over millenniums giving them authenticity, versatility and vividness, explore with greater enormity and unique breadth multifarious cosmic activity, whether taking place in the man’s mind or beyond it in the phenomenal world. Whatever exists materially, the earth, the sun, the moon, a river, ocean, sky, a mountain, an animal, a medicinal herb, nectar or poison, or whatever takes place in finer regions of existence, a weakness of mind, inherent spiritual strength, pain or pleasure, or a desire to own and rule, an Indian myth has made it its theme, sometimes exploring its origin or emergence and at other times, its role, sometimes a river’s descent on the earth, or the earth’s rise from under the deep seas, and at other times, sublimation of a weakness, or aggregation of divine energies into a single being for undoing the evil or a wrong.

Shree Gajendra Moksha Stotra (Audio CD)

In this world of Indian myths a boon of immortality, when defiled turning atrocious and wrong, instruments death and defeat, not timeless life, and on the contrary, the doomed is seen defeating the death when virtue stands his guard. This world does not accept dividers, those dividing man from woman, man from animal, or live from dead, nor accepts the scale of time fragmented into past, present and future. Here the present summons the past to come live to it, and future, to become a present-day reality; here a mountain or a stone piece, a tree or a river talks to a human being, an animal summons the Supreme for rescuing it,

an evil one transforms into a beast, and vice-versa a well-meaning beast, into a divinity. Here wrath – an apparent weakness, when enshrining a holy figure, sublimates into the instrument of good, and high wisdom and great austerities, when placed into an evil frame, generate evil, and finally, destruction and ruin.

Here in this strange world a human being swallows the sea, and a vast and massive hill-range, such as Vindhyachala, sheds its height for giving passage to a mortal, and thus, in a sage becoming taller than a mountain, the meaning of the height gets redefined.

Here are four more prevalent myths representing four great events overlapping divine, human, animal and material spheres : one, related to Vaivashvata Manu, progenitor of human race, Great Deluge and the emergence of the earth from under its tempestuous waters; two, recovery of nectar and other jewels from the depths of ocean when it was churned, as also demons’ greed, and gods’ designs to defeat their intentions; three, sublimation of wrath – a weakness, when it is to destroy a false ego, and destruction of the ‘sacred’ – an yajna, when it was designed to disgrace and insult someone, specially one’s own kin; and four, fusion or assimilation of various divine energies into one being for defeating evil and restoring order and cosmic balance.


Occurrence of a Great Deluge, which swallowed the earth, its inhabitants and the entire Creation except a human couple, a Great Fish and a boat, and enshrouded the entire cosmos into abyssal darkness, occurring crores of years ago – over thirty crores as per calculation under Indian astronomical tradition, is a myth prevalent in almost all ancient civilizations, especially, Hindu, Christian and Islamic. In Hindu tradition it took place when the holy king Vaivashvata Manu ruled the earth. Many observations of modern scientific studies to also include the evolution theory suggest that initially there prevailed some kind of abyssal darkness and all around was dead mass out of which shaped the cosmos, something as brings to mind the myth of the emergence of a massive all-engulfing flood, waters receding over a period of crores of years and the earth surfacing out of them. However rare and remote, the event of the Great Flood appears to have once taken place – a factual thing, though not part of the known past or history; obviously a natural event of cosmic disturbance, though subsequently re-cast by various world traditions, mostly theological, in their own terms and according to the objective each sought to serve, and now the Great Deluge is a myth.

Matsya Puranam

In some form or the other, the legend of the Great Fish rescuing Vaivashvata Manu from the Great Flood occurs in both, Vedic and post-Vedic literature. Even during the period of Atharva-Veda the legend seems to have been a common knowledge. In the Shatpatha Brahmin it has been elaborated in greater details. After the Flood subsided and Manu was again engaged in yajna and the life of austerities, from oblation made in the course of a yajna there appeared a maiden. Born of the yajna that he performed the maiden was his daughter known in the tradition by the name of Ila. The Shatpatha Brahmin contends that it was by Ila that Manu created human race.

Though not without some contradictions erupting over the period of time, subsequent Hindu scriptures give to the legend a more definitive form determining its period, Manu’s lineage and other things. They link the occurrence of the Great Deluge with the life span of Brahma, the period from his birth to his death, and with Vaivashvata Manu, one of Brahma’s descendants, being fifth in his line. Texts define Brahma’s lifespan as the Mahakalpa. The Great Flood that destroyed the universe – Prapancha, as texts call it, is claimed to take place after Brahma perishes. Brahma’s life-span extends over thirty crores, nine lacs, seventeen thousands and three hundred and seventy-six hundred human years, which come to one hundred twenty Brahma years which some texts call Divine years. Each Brahma year consists of three hundred sixty Brahma days. A Brahma day, known in the tradition as Kalpa Kala, comprises fourteen Manavantaras, each ruled by a Manu. Thus, each Brahma day has fourteen Manavantaras and fourteen Manus. A Manavantara, the life-span of one Manu, comprises seventy-one Chaturyugas each of which consists of four yugas – Krita or Satayuga, Tretayuga, Dvaparayuga and Kaliyuga. Thus, it is after some twelve crores and twenty-four lacs Chaturyugas that a Brahma’s life terminates. Termination of Brahma’s life reveals in the form of the Mahapralaya – Great Deluge.


Matsya Avatar (The Ten Incarnations of Lord Vishnu)

As the Hindu tradition has it, the last Great Deluge took place during the tenure of Vaivashvata Manu, the seventh in the line of fourteen Manus who presided over the last Kalpa Kala. Though an aggregation of solar energy present in the cosmos, Manu was born of Sangya by Vivasvana, a descendant of Brahma, fourth in his line. It is thus that Vivasvana’s son Manu gets Vaivashvata Manu as his name in Hindu tradition. In divine genealogy Manu was the grandson of Kashyapa, and Kashyapa, son of the Brahma’s son Marichi, was Brahma’s grandson. Almost in all Hindu texts the myth has been alluded to in context to Vishnu’s Matsyavatara – his emergence as Fish, the first of his ten principal incarnations.

In incarnation theory, as Fish Vishnu rescues Vedas, not Manu, though symbolically the two events are hardly different. Both Vedas and Manu not only descend direct from Brahma but are rather Brahma’s spiritual offspring, his spiritual manifestations. Vishnu, with double of Brahma’s lifespan, summons Brahma into his next tenure, something which the myth of Matsyavatara suggests symbolically. Whether the Matsyavatara myth represents Vishnu as Fish restoring to the earth the Vedas or Manu, both, manifesting Brahma spiritually, suggest Brahma’s re-emergence or re-birth for effecting re-Creation.


Sheshashayi Vishnu, And The Birth Of Lord Brahma

The narrative part of the myth is rather simple. Vaivashvata Manu, a holy god-fearing king, was once engaged in penance at Badari on the bank of river Kritimala. In due course he descended into the river for taking a holy dip. With the water that he collected for oblation a tiny fish mounted his palm. Before he could decide what to do of it, the fish prayed him not to forsake it for it feared that the large fishes would swallow it. Hearing this Manu brought the fish to his palace and put it into an earthen pot. Fish grew to a size larger than the pot. It was the same when the fish was put into a larger pot. Manu then put it into a pond and, when it grew larger than the pond, he shifted it to the river Ganga, though within days the river too fell short to the size of the fish. Finally, the fish disclosed to Manu that within seven days a great flood shall swallow the earth and everything, and advised him to make a large boat and taking seven sages into it he should escape. The fish assured him its help.

As advised, Manu got a large boat prepared, boarded it along with seven sages, namely, Vashishtha, Kashyapa, Atri, Jamadagni, Gautam, Vishvamitra and Bharadwaj, and stood ready for escaping the flood. As foretold within seven days torrential rains began swelling the ocean and the earth and everything, living beings, trees and mountains, submerging under the swelling waters. There grew horns on the head of the fish, to which Manu tied his boat and then the fish began dragging it and reached the highest peak of Himalaya and landed the boat’s inmates safe on it. Thus while all beings and all things were destroyed by the flood, Manu, seven sages and some germs contained in the boat survived to father various species when the earth re-emerged. The mountain peak to which the boat was tied is still known as Naobandhana, or as one to which the boat was tied. The Matsya puranas identifies the mountain peak where the Manu’s boat harboured as Malaya Mountain. The Kamayani, an epic by the early twentieth century Hindi poet Jai Shankara Prasad, has elaborated the theme of the myth into a timeless work of literature.


In Biblical tradition the incidence of the Great Flood occurs with a few variations. As Manu in the Hindu tradition, the Biblical tradition has Adam as the first creation of God and the progenitor of human race. To him were born nine sons, namely, Seth, Enos, Kainan, Mahalil, Jared. Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech and Noah. To Noah, when he was five hundred years old, were born three sons, Shem, Ham and Jopheth. It was during the period of Noah that the Great Flood occurred.

As the tradition has it, one day God made his appearance and said to Noah, "The end of all flesh is come before one; for the earth is filled with violence through them, and behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make thee an ark of gopar wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark and shalt paint it within and without with pitch. …… I, do bring a flood of water up on the earth, to destroy all flesh wherein is the breadth of life from under heaven and everything that is in the earth shall die. But ….. thou shalt come into the ark, thou and thy sons and thy wives and thy sons’ wives with thee, and of every living thing of all flesh two of every sort….; they shall be male and female. ….. For yet seven days and I will cause it to rain up on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living substance that I have made I shall destroy from off the earth." Noah did as the Lord had commanded him – made an ark and collected all beings and things as specified by God and boarded them all in it.

When Noah was six hundred years old, the Great Flood occurred. It began raining and waters began flooding the earth. It rained for forty days and forty nights and the waters swelled and covered the earth, mountains and everything, though the ark that carried Noah and those with him was lifted above these waters, and every time when these waters swelled the ark rose above them. Every living substance died and all things perished. After hundred fifty days, after the rains stopped, God sent a wave of wind and with this tempestuous waves cooled down and then Noah got down the ark, and then his sons, wives, sons’ wives and all species in groups of two each, the male and female, and the world began reviving. Then Noah made an altar unto the Lord and took every clean heart and clean fowl to make offerings at the altar.

The legend of the Great Flood is a part of many other traditions of the ancient world. The legend, as appears in the Islamic tradition, is identical to that in the Holy Bible except the name of the mountain peak where Hazrat Noah’s boat harbours. In Holy Qur’an the name of the mountain peak is Judi. In Greek literature the legend has been woven around Duculius and his wife Peria. In all other details the myth is almost like that in the Indian tradition. Babylonian literature also has the legend of the Great Flood. After the flood has subsided, Jihsathrus, the son of Ardentus, appeases gods by offering sacrifice and then builds the city of Babylonia. The event of Great Flood figures in Persians’ religious literature as also in the traditions of China, Indo-china, Malaya, Australia, Malaysia, North-south America among many other countries.


'Samudra-manthana' or churning of ocean for obtaining nectar and Shri, one of a few occasions on which gods and demons joined hands for accomplishing something, is another quite widely known episode of Indian mythology. Exploration of ocean, sometimes for the treasures of a ship drowned and buried under it and at other times for its own riches, is known to have always been man’s ambition and it has been carried out time and again by people possessed of a desire to obtain it – a massive act requiring many hands and multiple means to accomplish it. In recent times, not merely for the riches that the ocean stores under its waters but it is being churned, or dug, also for things, crude in particular, that it contains below its bottom.


In Indian tradition, the event of ocean churning has been alluded to, almost unanimously, in context to Vishnu’s Kurmavtaras – his incarnation as Tortoise or Turtle, the second of his ten principal ones, and to the emergence of Shri or Lakshmi from the womb of the ocean, and other precious jewels, and nectar and arson. Several ancient Indian texts have allusions to the legend, but the Vishnu PuranaHarivansha Purana and Dasavatara Purana are more elaborate in their details. 'Puranas' have a number of legends related to Samudra-manthana; however, while some of them maintain that the ocean was churned for recovering the precious jewels lost in the Great Deluge, others contend that the aged gods, who had grown weak and decrepit and for reviving their youth and vigour stood in dire need of nectar which lied buried deep into the womb of ocean, had no other option but to churn it for obtaining it. However, weak as they were, they could not churn it by themselves, and the helpless ones, on the advice of Lord Vishnu, they conciliated with demons and persuaded them to jointly churn it.

However, the myth related to Durvasa, the sage known in the tradition for his short temper and wrathful nature, prevails over them all. It is said sage Durvasa once visited Baikuntha, the abode of Lord Vishnu. Out of reverence to the great sage, Vishnu, when seeing him off, honoured him with a garland of Parijata, the celestial flowers pregnant with inexhaustible sweet honey and unfading freshness. On way back Durvasa met Indra riding his Airavata. Durvasa thought that a garland of Parijata – a thing of royalty, was hardly of any use to a recluse like him and better that he gave it to Indra who in his position as the king of gods truly deserved it. He hence placed the garland on Indra's neck, but Indra, conceited as he was, neglectfully hurled the saint’s sacred gift on his elephant's head. The sweet fragrance of Parijata flowers invited bees that swarmed around the elephant’s head, and irritated as the animal was, it tore the garland, threw it down and crushed it under its feet.

Samudra Manthan (Churning of the Ocean)

A blatant insult, Durvasa cursed Indra to become devoid of all splendour and riches. Instantly Shri, the presiding deity of riches, splendour and fertility, deserted Indra and all three worlds that he ruled. She disappeared into Kshirasagara, the ocean of milk. Bereft of all grandeur and prowess Indra and other gods approached Brahma who after hearing their plight invoked Vishnu. Vishnu appeared and said that churning of Kshirasagara was the only way for recovering 'Shri' from it, and also that they could not do it alone, hence they should conciliate with 'asuras' and persuade them to participate in the act. Vishnu suggested that Mount Mandara could be used as the churning rod and the Great Serpent Vasuki as the rope.

As advised by Lord Vishnu gods approached 'asuras'. They persuaded them to conjointly churn the ocean and discover out of it nectar, the elixir of timeless youth and life, and other precious jewels, and thus defeat death, old age and decay for ever. The greedy ‘asuras’ instantly agreed and the two ever warring factions reconciled. They then uprooted the Mount Mandara and laid it vertically like a churning rod into the ocean and the great serpent Vasuki was laid coiling round it like the churning rope. To evade the adverse effect of the poison that the great serpent emitted from its mouth Vishnu wished that the gods held its tail part, and 'asuras', its mouth. He knew that suspicious 'asuras' would opt for contrary to what gods proposed to them. He hence asked them to hold the serpent’s tail-part. As expected, the vain and conceited ‘asuras’ declined taking it as an insult to hold the tail instead of the head of the animal. They declared that they would hold the serpent’s head, not tail, something that the gods wished.


The churning was begun but before long the ocean yielded deadly ‘halahala’ – arsenic, which began suffocating all alike, gods, demons, human beings and animals, and destroying entire vegetation and nature, rivers and all water sources and air. Amidst great hue and cry both gods and demons looked for help. Finally, Shiva came forward and swallowed the arsenic and stored it up in his throat, which turned his neck blue earning him Neelakantha name – one with blue neck.

However the arsenic could not be rendered completely ineffective. With its heat Shiva’s body burnt like an oven; hence, when churning re-commenced and from it revealed moon, for its soothing cool effect Shiva bore it on his head and this gave him Chandrasekhar as his yet another name.

The Gracious Lord Dhanavantari

Obstacles yet awaited. When the ocean began giving forth its treasure, one after the other – Surabhi, the celestial cow, Uchchishrava, the divine horse, Airavata, the multi-trunked white elephant, Kaustubha-mani, Parijat etc., they realised that Mount Mandara was sinking into the ocean’s basin and neither gods or demons nor the Great Serpent Vasuki were able to hold it. The feat could not be suspended or left unfinished for the more desired objects, more so the nectar and Shri, were yet to surface. It disappointed both gods and demons alike. When yet in the gust of disappointment they felt that the fast sinking mountain was suddenly contained into its position. Vishnu, with no option left, had incarnated as Kurma – tortoise, with an earth-like large diameter, and slipped unnoticed under the mount Mandara and held it on its back. Churning was re-commenced and the ocean yielded further pots of wine and nectar, Dhanwantari, the legendary physician, Shri or Lakshmi, the divine conch among others.


Virabhadra, Lord Shiva’s son born of his sublime wrath, and one of his guards and generals, is a rare character from Indian mythology in which a weakness, such as anger, sublimates into a divine form and terminates a wrongful vain act designed to insult and derogate others. He was created by Lord Shiva for destroying the 'yajna', the sacrificial rites, of Daksha, Shiva's father-in-law and the father of Sati, his consort. Daksha was the Brahma’s son and ruled of the earth.

Virabhadra - The Trusted Guard of Lord Shiva

By a hundred year long penance, Daksha appeased Mahamaya and as he wished she was born to him as his daughter by the name of Sati. The most beautiful maiden on the earth Sati married Shiva against the wishes of her father who was annoyed with him for decapitating one of the five heads of his father Brahma in a dispute and carried the severed head all along in the style of a trophy. Hence, for insulting Shiva as also Sati Daksha organised a great 'yajna' but did not invite them. With great agitation in mind Sati wished to go to the yajna and destroy it. Indifferent Shiva dissuaded her but she went. Daksha, her father, not only neglected but also insulted her and abused Shiva. Desperate as Sati was, she jumped into sacrificial fire and immolated herself.

Shiva loved Sati madly. The news of her death maddened him with rage and grief. His matted hair waved in air and moved from the sky to the earth and from its stroke emerged Virabhadra and Bhadrakali.


Devi Bhadrakali with Eighteen hands | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai

He commanded them to destroy the 'yajna' of Daksha. Varying slightly from this version of the Devi Bhagavata, the Mahabharata acclaims their emergence from his mouth. There rose from each hair-pore of Virabhadra a fearful monster, known as 'Raumya' in scriptural tradition, and they attacked the sacrificial fire of Daksha and extinguished it. Virabhadra’s fury went on inflicting further destruction targeting Brahma’s entire creation but Shiva appeared and pacified him and attributed to him the status of a planet by the name of Angarakshaka, a guard to Mangala, the benevolent, which in Indian Trinity Shiva represented. Thus, Virabhadra is revered as both, a planet of auspices and as Lord Shiva’s guard. As such, the tradition has woven around him a number of myths representing him sometimes as protecting Kashyapa and other sages from a monstrous fire, and sometimes gods, from a serpent-monster, or from the mouth of Panchamedha, a demon.


Among traditions related to emergence of Devi a more popular one, perhaps as popular as the one that contends that Devi is beyond time and beyond form : 'Sarvam khalvidamevaham nanyadasty sanatanam', that is, 'all that is, it is me (Devi); there is nothing lasting but me (Devi)', relates to her creation from assimilation of divine energies, as also, powers and attributes of all gods, for the elimination of demon Mahisha who once ruled the earth. As the Devi Mahatmya section in the Markandeya Purana and a number of other texts have it, after he had conquered the entire earth Mahisha’s ambitions soared higher. He sent words to Indra, heaven's ruler, to either accept his suzerainty or face him in battle. Indra preferred war but he and his army of gods could not face Mahisha and fled, and Mahisha occupied Indra’s abode too.

The Creation Of Devi

Gods, led by Indra, rushed to Brahma who revealed on them that by his own boon Mahishasura was invincible against all males – men, demons or beasts. Helpless himself, Brahma took them first to Shiva and then to Vishnu. After he heard of Mahisha's misdeeds, from Vishnu's countenance burst a divine lustre with which radiated the entire ambience. He turned towards Shiva, and then Brahma, Agni, Surya, Indra and all other gods. A similar lustre began bursting from the faces of them all. This divine brilliance, amassing into a huge mount of radiance, covered the entire creation from the sky to the earth. Out of it revealed gradually a female figure, first, her head, then breasts, waist, thighs and legs. From Shiva's lustre was formed her head; from Yama's, her hair; and from that of Vishnu, Moon, Indra, Brahma, Sun, Vasu, Kuber, Prajapati, Agni, Twilight, and Vayu, her arms, breasts, waist, feet, toe-nails, finger-nails, nose, teeth, eyes, brows, and ears. She had eighteen arms and a three-eyed face. The celestial creation had unique lustre not known or possessed by any divinity ever before. Filled with gratitude, all gods prostrated and worshipped the divine creation, Devi, the Great Goddess.

Out of his trident Shiva created another and presented it to the celestial creation. So did Vishnu, Varuna, Agni, Yama, Vayu, Surya, Indra, Kuber, Brahma, Kala, and Vishvakarma. They offered to her their disc, conch, dart, iron rod, bow, quiver full of arrows, thunderbolt, mace and drinking pot, rosary and water pot, sword and shield, battle-axe and a number of amulets respectively.

Goddess Durga as Mahishasura Mardini

Besides, Ocean brought for her glittering jewels, Shesh, a necklace inlaid with celestial gems, and Himavana, his lion for her vehicle. Sage Narada narrated to the Devi all about gods' miserable plight and Mahisha's atrocities and misdeeds and prayed her to rescue gods and mankind from him. In a fierce battle she killed the demon and freed the world from his clutches. For the divine creation the usual term that sage Markandeya has used is 'Devi' but after she killed demon Mahisha the term ‘Mahishasura-Mardini – one who killed demon Mahisha, emerged as her more popular epithet.

References and Further Reading:

  • Shatpatha Brahmin
  • Mahabharata
  • Agni Purana
  • Bhagavata Purana
  • Vishnu Purana
  • Holy Bible
  • Holy Qur’an
  • Vishnu Purana,
  • Harivansha Purana
  • Dasavatara Purana
  • Matsya Purana
  • Devi-Mahatmya section of Markandeya Purana
  • Devi-Bhagavata
  • Puranic Encyclopaedia ed. Vettam Mani
  • Prachina Charitrakosha ed. Siddheshvara Shashtri Chitrav
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  • Thank you so much for giving me so much joy to read and see the pictures .I am most grateful to you all. May God bless you and give strength to continue and enliven us.
    Bharat April 18, 2010