Quite frequently, we hear it said that people may like Vedic religion, Vedic mythology – but they balk at the later developments upon same. Often because they claim that these subsequent scriptures “denigrate” various Vedic – and therefore Indo-European – Gods.
I have already addressed elsewhere the arguments that the Puranas contain all manner of allegedly “non-Aryan” elements – and demonstrated repeatedly that in almost every major instance, this is a charge without water. That in most circumstances, all that has happened is something that is lesser-known yet still of Vedic precedency – or at least, is of demonstrable Indo-European pedigree – has been ‘carried forward’ and expanded upon. And usually in ways that are both fundamentally commensurate with and immediately recognizable as their European relative or more archaic Indian relative ancestor. This should be unsurprising – many of the Puranas are simply preserving the ‘popular mythology’ of the Vedic age, and material that did not make it in to the Vedas due to the role of the latter as ‘ritual manuals’ rather than anthologies of our legendarium.
I shall not repeat those arguments here. Not least because it is, broadly speaking, a set of threads found interwoven throughout my almost-entire canon of work.
Instead, I wish to focus upon this other charge: the notion that the Puranic mythology and its successors ‘blaspheme’ in a way, by unfairly or artificially “denigrating” the Great Gods of the Vedas.
And, along with this, a psychological examination of what is going on here.
Now, the simple truth of the matter, is that while in various instances certain Vedic Gods ARE depicted in a manner that is less than entirely flattering – and occasionally being bested in combat or in other such contests by some deity or avatara that is not to be found, or at least not so prominently to be found amidst the Vedic canon …
… this does not, in and of itself, constitute a ‘blasphemy’ – it does not, either, axiomatically constitute some sort of ‘distorted’ ‘innovation’. And for one good reason:
In many of these instances, what is being reported is, again, something that is either *also* found in the Vedas and associated ancient Vedic texts of similar antiquity – or it is broadly commensurate with something that is found therein.
And therefore – how can it be ‘blasphemy’ or ‘denigration-via-derivation’ to reproduce such matters in later texts?
Our Gods are Great. Nobody seriously disputes this – unless they have an agenda, of course, which is not and cannot be our own. But nobody ever said that various of these Gods are ‘infallible’ – either morally or metaphysically. Gods fighting Gods is something that is well-renowned as occurring. Gods behaving in a less than morally unimpeachable manner is, again, something well-renowned as occurring. Not only, in either set of circumstances, amidst the Vedic and post-Vedic Hindu mythology – but in just about every genuine Indo-European mythology you can possibly name.
In fact, I would go so far as to state that this lack of ‘perfection’ (or, in some instances, perfection-*through*-imperfection – and see my Of Bhairava And Balance series for more upon that in a metaphysical and ethical sense!) … this lack of ‘perfection’ makes our Gods more relatable. Somehow, upon occasion, more ‘real’ – at least to us, anyway.
Now this notion of Gods as ‘real’ is quite integral to what I am getting at. Because the idea of Gods as absolutely spotless moral exemplars at all times and in all circumstances in violation of the actual mythology – is to reduce the Gods from *real beings* to Gods as ‘archetypes’. Allegories. Teaching tools and fable-stories. It is an artistic representation in the same way that a painting is – that is to say, it is ‘two dimensional’. Lacking in depth and nuance, no matter how cool it might otherwise seem to be. Which does not, of course, mean that there’s no place for such ‘paintings’ – only that they should not be confused for the more complex, more vital and vitally living Reality.
No, real people – real Gods – may occasionally make mistakes (or, at least, *seem* to – from a certain point of view, of course). Real Gods may be bested in competition or combat – They even Die. And Real Gods also may potentially engage in ‘growth’, ‘development’, ‘come back better’ following Their previous defeats. Just as people do.
So, in terms of this ‘disrespect’ to Vedic Gods that we find people charging the Puranic materials with … it is true that Indra is not usually presented as ‘supreme’ in the Puranas. And has His various moral imperfections brought up from time to time. But Indra is not ‘supreme’ in The Vedas, either – except upon a situational basis.
Indra in the Vedas is portrayed as noble, valiant, and incredibly powerful. And this also comes through in various Puranic materials also. When, in the course of the Mahabharat, Krishna tells Arjuna to call upon Devi Durga for blessing in the upcoming War … this is the carrying forward, in its way, of Indra’s *own* conduct in the RigVeda prior to the fight against Vritra [c.f RV VIII 100 ]. Devi’s frame of reference for how powerful She is going to make Arjuna – includes ‘The Thunderer’ as being pretty much the benchmark for unstoppable force.
It is true that Indra is depicted in Puranic materials as engaging in some … extrajudicial killings, we might perhaps somewhat euphemistically say – but these are not ‘innovations’ only to be found in the Puranas. They are *right there* in the Vedas Themselves! And, as it happens, in the Vedas, these too often attract the appropriate sanction, the declaration that Indra has committed a Sin – and therefore may even wind up having to flee away from the site of the crime. Even where the killing is a legitimate, sanctioned one – we still find Vedic materials in which Indra may or may not be entirely martially valorous (and understandably so, as in some of these cases, it is a threat against which almost none other could have stood anyway): for example, Indra’s fear leading to His haggling with Lord Vayu to induce the latter to go and reconnoitre whether Vritra really *has* been successfully slain, or whether the demon-dragon adversary might yet still breathe.
People object to the portrayal of Indra as less than totally, ideally courageous in some Puranic accounts. And yet even beyond the aforementioned Vedic precedency for this – we must ask the question: do they similarly oppose and call for the throwing out of Homer due to Homer’s representation of Ares? [To be sure, this is somewhat of a ‘biased account’ – yet you will still see people quite rightly drawing upon the Iliad and Odyssey when making statements about proper and archaic Greek mythoreligious belief]
The insistence that various Puranic materials – indeed, virtually *all* the Puranic materials – ought be disregarded , due to alleged ‘disrespect’ to various Gods by presenting some of Their moral or other shortcomings … is both hyper-critical and hypocritical when we can often exceptionally easily find frequent parallels for many of these in other Indo-European religions. For instance, some might seek to infer that Indra is being defamed via the Puranic and other Smriti portrayals of His womanizing conduct. And yet the womanizing conduct is also displayed by Zeus. Does this mean that Greek mythology has defamed Zeus? I think not!
Or maybe it is the ‘punishment’ – maybe the particular sanction meted out against Indra for said womanizing, is why it is said to be denigratory. This, I also do not accept.
A core tenet of the Indo-European Cosmos is that Gods, as well as Men, are also under The Law. Rta, Orlog, Dikaiosune. Cosmic Order. When Odin carries out an act of sexual impropriety in order to conceive a mighty avenger-son, He is not treated as above the Law. He is sent into Exile. Which, to be sure, is a bit of a … potential non-punishment for a Wandering God – but the principle is nevertheless there.
Now it should, perhaps, be noted here that I am NOT making the case for absolutely EVERY post-Vedic text being treated as equally canonical – let alone equally canonical to The Vedas Themselves. That is not, and never has been, how our theology works. We have two categories relevant here – Shruti and Smriti. ‘That Which Is Heard’, and ‘That Which Is Written’. Shruti is the more canonical, as it is *direct* revelation. Smriti has an author, and represents a perspective – often one that has gone through any number of iterations of revision and editing down the ages when it finally gets to us. The Vedas and some associated texts are Shruti. The Puranas and Itihasas [the Mahabharat and Ramayana] are Smriti. And absolutely *all* of it is best taken *non-literally* – per the rather direct and repeated statements of various well-respected ancient Hindu theologians upon the subject.
Which does not, as it happens, mean that the materials in question are ‘untrue’ – just that often, ‘Mythic Truth’ means something rather different to ‘Literal Truth’ ; and that we are dealing with, as Obiwan Kenobi once put it, things that are true “from a certain point of view”.
There are also serious and serial debates within HInduism itself over just how canonical some smriti texts actually are – with the Vaishnavas in particular often asserting that various otherwise-canonical materials which portray Shiva winning against Vishnu , or other such things, are ‘tamasik’ [‘dark’/’occluded’/’corrupted’] and can be safely disregarded. Much to everybody else’s general a/be-musement.
I cannot help but feel that this sort of impulse also underlies some of the psychological ‘rejection’ of the Puranic canons by various people who come to the matter from outside of the Hindu sphere. They quite understandably have an attachment to particular Gods Whom they know from their own ‘local’ Indo-European mythoreligious tradition and perspective … and react quite negatively to the perception that their own ‘favourites’ are being harshly treated in this or that work. So they presume that the entire layer of the canon in question is somehow at fault – and that because it is later than The Vedas (occasionally by multiple millennia in extremis) that it is therefore not only ‘unreliable’ but actively malicious: almost a covert ‘plot’ to ‘cast down’ the previously prominent Gods in favour of more recent apparitions, pseudo-Zoroastrian style. And that it is somehow less ‘Aryan’ due to the incorporation into ‘Arya’ Hindu civilization of an array of non-Indo-Aryan peoples. Oddly, they never seem to mentally include the Greeks, Scythians (Sakas), and other Indo-Europeans turning up on the fringes of the Aryavarta sphere during the Puranic age in this calculus.
Obviously, not everybody who has an issue with the Puranic presentation of this or that Deity is thinking this way – and it is indeed most definitely possible to have a legitimate opposition to the way in which particular Puranic mythology is propounded *at the expense of* the broader Vedic context from which it descends, or in ways that overtly contradict vast swathes of the rest of the Hindu, let alone Indo-European canon upon whichever matter. A large portion of my ongoing contratemps with the Hare Krishnas and some other Vaishnavas is that they tend to do *Exactly That* – and yes, in direct and deliberate service of an “Our God Is Greater” type propagandizing proselytization.
Yet when counteracting such presumptuous prevarications, the proper approach is to have them *outgunned*. By making use of *both* the Vedic materials *and* the Puranic materials. And, of course, others besides. But I digress.
The post-Vedic ‘Puranic’ era canon of Hinduism is truly *massive* – there are dozens upon dozens of Puranas, or documents claiming to be such. Not all of them are equally valuable in a theological sense. But it does not seem prudent to attempt to draw some sort of entirely artificial mental-theological ‘dividing line’ in time or conceptry beyond which one basically attempts to pretend that these things do not exist, and have absolutely no validity whatsoever.
As I have already said – often, what is found in the Puranas is the direct carrying forward and explication of what is found in The Vedas. It is not ‘newer’ in its expression, except in terms of the actual composition of the text itself. And even then, some are built around truly archaic ultimate cores of quotational value. And much of the time, where somebody has insisted that such-and-such is ‘non-Aryan’ incorporation – they mean, of course, ‘corruption’ – this has turned out not to be the case for *precisely* this reason. Because we can *demonstrate* that it is actually a Vedic concept, an Indo-European concept that is being viewed more expansively or more directly than had otherwise been hte case.
It is not appropriate, either, to try and declare illegitimate an entire centuries-spanning canonical corpus of texts, because they do not accord with how one ‘feels’ that a particular favoured Deity ought be exalted. Which does not mean, of course, that it is inappropriate to criticize various post-Vedic materials for being curiously *specific* in some of their unflattering presentations thereof, either – only that a (well-founded) theological-exegetical, rather than a psychological-emotional reasoning must be advanced to do so. But as we have said, often the ‘unfavourable’ elements that are being objected to – are not ‘new’ nor ‘novel’, but find Vedic expression, as well as comparative expression elsewhere in the Indo-European canons of other cultures thousands of miles or hundreds, thousands of years more distant.
All things considered, I feel that often when people are doing this thing – sneering at post-Vedic Hindu mythology and claiming they have no use for it … they are doing so out of a serious ignorance of what is actually contained therein. Either in the Vedic mythology or the Puranic. And they are doing so out of personal preference for the former over the latter – perhaps because they like to imagine themselves ‘closer’ to the archaic Indo-Aryans than the Indo-Aryans and their descendents who wrote the Puranas … or who still continue to practice the Hindu religion, replete with its Vedic bones and seeds, today.
I suppose it is their loss.
For ultimately, it seems, in many of these cases wherein people wish to attack or to criticize the Puranic mythology as being “non-Indo-European” – the elements in question which they have singled out for de-legitimation are integral to the Indo-European Mythos Itself.