Hindu mythology is fascinating, but it is also intricate and difficult to comprehend. It is basically an art form through which various aspects of religion are expressed. By its very definition, it is not a factual presentation; it is in the design and arrangement of allegories and symbols. The myths act as a bridge between that which we perceive and what we cannot know.91 To the believer, however, a myth is as real as it can be. There is a vast scope of variations in interpretation and understanding of this medium. In fact, as in any other art, the artist often displays a vigorous expression of feelings of the subconscious and unconscious, which may otherwise remain quite restrained in society.
One of the earliest mythological figures is that of Lord Vishnu, the god of preservation. His skin is blue. He has four hands. In one, he holds a conch trumpet; in another, a discus-shaped boomerang. The other two hold a lotus and a mace. He reclines on the coils of a serpent, named as Adi Shesh (Adi means the beginning, and Shesh means the end). His image in temples is adorned with silks, gold, pearls, perfumes, sandal paste, peacock feathers, and bright flowers. His rituals are associated with beautiful music, communal dance, and sweet food cooked in clarified butter. His blue color represents the ether that pervades all space. The serpent he rests on represents time, coiling and uncoiling itself with unfailing regularity. His vehicle is the sun itself. With the trumpet, he blows the breath of life and warns wrongdoers to return to the path of dharma, or the orderly conduct of righteousness. With the mace, he would strike those who do not listen and obey.92
In Hindu mythology, the earth is represented as a cow. When tired of being exploited, she takes her woes to Lord Vishnu, who reassures her, “I will descend on Earth and relieve you of your burden.” Thus, the Lord came down as Rama, Krishna, and in other forms to mitigate the sufferings on Earth. To Hindus, this narration and presentation has always inspired beyond limits. They feel enriched and empowered. The cow is the earth itself, whose milk sustains life. In exchange, she must be taken care of. The practice of cow worship, the taboo against beef, and eventually, vegetarianism may have roots in this belief.93
One of the most important considerations in Hindu mythology is the status of man and woman. Man was presented as the spiritual being and the woman as his earthly complement. Man would not be able to manifest without the partnership and alliance of woman. In Hindu temples, therefore, God is often accompanied with the goddess. The man and woman in Hindu society became complimentary aspects of one another. In Shiva temples it is Parvati; in Vishnu temples, it is Lakshmi; in Krishna temples, one finds Radha; in Rama’s temples, there is Sita. Thus the inseparable pairing of male and female became established in Hindu philosophy. So much was the force of this cohabitation of the male and female that Lord Rama had to make use of a golden effigy of Sita to conduct the rituals of a yagna, when the Lord abandoned her, after returning to Ayodha.
There are thousands of mythological tales in Hindu scriptures, especially in the Bhagvat Purana. Often, these are symbolic representations of the Divine and its many manifestations, which have been given animate characteristics to make them alive and tangible to the common person.
The sacred River Ganges is known as a consort of Lord Shiva. According to the legend, she was brought down from the heavens, passing through the hair of Lord Shiva, by King Bhagiratha to purify the ashes of his ancestors. Ever since, Hindus always consider the Ganges as a holy river and immerse the ashes of their ancestors into it. The Ganges and other rivers are often worshipped as a divine mother because of their enormous contribution toward the prosperity of the land. The mythological representations have cultivated mammoth devotion in Hindu society; these representations have become the icons of the Divine in full measure.
Despite the abundance of mythological tales found in Hindu scriptures, they are more like allegories and parables, rather than actual facts. They reflect religious and cultural viewpoints and perspectives in a symbolic manner; one may accept them accordingly. In olden times, these mythological tales were regarded as authentic and thus accepted in a much serious manner; in the modern era, however, most people do revere and respect them as icons of religion and spirituality, but do not become very rigid and obsessive about these legends.