UPANISHAD – A scripture from the last of the four divisions of the Vedas

The meaning of upanishad is “to sit near attentively.” They usually consisted of a metaphysical discussion between the sage and a disciple. There are 108 Upan­ishads traditionally, although only a dozen, the so-called major Upanishads, are in every list. Minor Upanishads are still being written. In the early Vedic period, before the Upanishads were recognized as author­itative, there was a three-fold division of the Vedas: the Samhita (collection of hymns), Brahmanas (commentaries), and Aranyakas (forest texts). The Upan­ishads formed the last (anta) part of the Vedas, also called Vedanta (from … Continue reading

TALADHVAJA – A king and the husband of a sage

The story of Taladhvaja was retold to solve a variety of problems—above all, how a sage could remain an ascetic when he had changed genders to marry a king. The solution in the Devi Purana was a kind of popular use of Advaitan phi­losophy in a myth: using a popular understanding that life is maya, an illusion or dream. King Taladhvaja’s story was nested in one about the sage who made the most appearances in other people’s stories—the great sage Narada. In order for Narada to experience the relative value … Continue reading

TAKSHAKA – A mighty serpent

The grandfather of this kalpa, Kasyapa-prajapati, founded the kingdom of ser­pents with his wife Kadru. Takshaka was one of her seven greatest children, the septa-nagas. Takshaka and her most righteous children were cursed to be reborn on earth and to be burned alive as their punishment for not obeying their mother. The story goes like this: Kadru had become involved in a wager with another wife of Kasiyapa, Vinata. They bet on the color of the tail of the divine horse Uccaishshravas, each wagering her own service to the other. … Continue reading

SURYA – The sun god

Surya was a primary deity of the Aryans at the time of the earliest hymns of the Rigveda. The solar cult saw the sun as the most obvious symbol of life, con­sciousness, and divinity. For some time within each of the first three periods of Hindu mythology, Surya was acknowledged as the creator, the principle of life, the Supreme, or supreme ruler of all. Afterwards Surya underwent the process so familiar in Hindu mythology—appropriation of his powers and attributes by other deities, subordination to other deities, and finally attacks on … Continue reading

SUKRA – Master of magic, teacher of the asuras (demons)

In the Epics Sukra was the son or grandson of Bhrigu, the powerful magician who almost killed Agni. Sukra was also known as Kavya. Sukra became the greatest mas­ter of magic of his age, but he served the asuras. The devas (gods) sent sage Kaca to learn how he had made the asuras invincible. (For more details see the main entry on Kaca.) Devayani was Sukra’s daughter and had a prominent role in that story. The Puranas made Sukra an example of sensual excess. Sukra constantly used up his austerities … Continue reading

SUDDHI – A concept

The concept of purification (suddhi) is linked to pollution (mala) and the ways it is removed: ritually, physically, or even by divine grace. Central to the Vedic sacrifices was the notion that blood sacrifices would atone for wrong-doing and remove a form of purification called agnisuddhi. Siva was not invited to Dak­sha’s fire ritual, and that snub implied he was impure. Siva’s impurity may have been by birth—his very caste status (varna) was questioned by the Brahmanical tradition, according to which Siva was a tribal or Dravidian deity and thus … Continue reading


Subrahmanya means literally “favorable to priests,” often used as an invocation to the devas (gods) in Vedic soma sacrifices. Subrahmanya was also the designa­tion for one of three assistants to the Vedic Udgatri priest. However, this beau­tiful Sanskrit compound was simply appropriated in the Puranas to name Siva’s most frightening creation, a son born to destroy a demon before he was a week old. The story of Agni’s rape of the wives of the sages was also appropriated but reconstructed in such a confusing way that they were not Subrahmanya’s … Continue reading

SOMA – (1) A deva (god); (2) a plant and the Vedic drink made from it; (3) the moon

This entry will focus on Soma as the plant and Vedic drink. For more information about Soma as a deva and as the moon, see the entry on Candra. In the Vedic period Candra, the moon, and Soma, the entheogenic (religious experience-inducing) plant, were connected by associa­tions (bandhus) in the early hymns. Mythologically, Soma emerged from the Milky Ocean in a pot, a process made possible by the Kurma incarnation of Vishnu and Vishnu’s shape and gen­der shifting as Mohini. Soma was the drink or nectar of immortality (amrita), fought … Continue reading

SKANDA – Son of Siva and god of war

Skanda was the six-headed son of Siva, god of war. Skanda can be seen as either sharing his function with Karttikeya, Guha, Kurmara, and Subrahmanya or as absorbing them as epithets. Siva’s son had been the son of Agni, god of fire, in earlier mythology. In the Mahabharata there were several versions of Agni’s paternity of Skanda. In one account of the story of Agni and the frog damsel, Agni had been hiding in the ocean and finally agreed to father Skanda. In another version Agni as the sacrificial fire … Continue reading

SIVA – A god; the Supreme Lord of the universe

If the mention of the word Siva (auspicious) in the Vedas is considered to refer to Lord Siva, Siva spans all periods of Hindu mythology. No matter when he enters Hindu mythology, Siiva is among the two or three most important gods— either as one of the later Hindu Triad, as the highest of the many gods (devas), or as the Absolute itself (Brahman). One might think of layer upon layer of stories about Siva. Viewed from the present, the mythologies are intertwined and very complex. If each layer is … Continue reading