Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ramayana: Bridging Puranic and Vedic Hinduism

I would like to start off with the title which to my mind is itself misleading because I don't think there exists a specific dichotomy between Puranic and Vedic Hinduism.

To be more precise the dieties associated with the Puranas such as Shiva,Brahma,Vishnu,Ganesha, Karthikeya, Durga are not theologically distinct from Indra, Agni,Vayu, Varuna et al but a continuation and or amalgalm of them.

One of the reasons I prefer the Ramayana  apart from the fact that it reads as  a great thriller and adventure story is that it is more concise, linear,coherent and has sense of continuity and parallel story of the "Vedic era" as opposed to celebration of inconsistencies, jumbled structure and confusion that comprises much of the narrative of the Mahabharata.

As with all great kings, the geneology is of prime importance hence we see the Ikshaku stalwart Sagar defeated the mlecchas from northwestern India, brought Ganga down to earth on the physical and spiritual realm and hosting and sponsoring the Sagara Manthana(churning of the ocean) which implies a gathering of scholars and sages who would churn the scriptures of their essence to generate new ideas and philosophies as one churns milk to make various lacto products.

Much of this finds its way into the corpus Vedanta /Upanishads. Upanishads loosely translated meaning sit close and listen ie the guru when he was feeling generous would explain the result of the ideas in the Vedas to his pupil rather than them simply memorize and chant the relevant portion all day.

Now the King Sagara was quite a few generations removed from Rama so one would assume that the Sagara Manthana was completed during his reign. But that is unlikely as there are indications it was a long project which went on for decades if not centuries. Hence an older vanara narrated to Rama how he gathered herbs during the Sagara Manthana (probably contributed to the creation of deity Dhanvantri who codified the Ayurveda)

It is around this time that Shiva makes his first appearance in a very "Vedic" era as a restrainer and upholder of Ganga's flow as well as Nilakantha, capturing the left over toxic residue of the Sagar Manthana(probably the objectionable and evil ideas) and making sure the Shaivite scholars keep their lips sealed about these matters even if their psyches were affected so that the ideas do not spread out thereby cause harm to others.

Later on another sage associated with Shiva and his dieties(Karthikeya or Subramanya, the latter term once associated with Indra but later applied solely to Skanda/Karthikeya) but also the most famous Vedic verse Gayatri Mantra.

All the while the antagonists Parasurama and Ravana all have prior run ins with Shiva where they incur his displeasure.

So what do we see? Vedic and Puranic deities are developing in parallel rather than in a linear fashion where Puranic follows Vedic as is commonly assumed.

Vedic dieties are nothing more than the building blocks for Puranic dieties - take a Chandra here, some Rudra there , burn some Kama in the process and you've got yourself a Shiva!

And on and on it goes with other dieties.

Vedas and Puranas are therefore not a separate and discrete entities but constantly compliment each other. Now there was greater quality control in the Vedas as they were the base and dealt with plainly religious matters and not much political history but since Puranas did deal with both, quite a few wild eyed Puranic accounts of various kings which defy logic and sound history not to mention Vedic tradition found its way into the canon over the years. Especially in the medieval era.

But all in all if you want an elegant understanding of the evolution ,nature and structure of Vedic Hinduism,look no further than the Ramayana.


  1. Agreed that Shiva, Vishnu and Indra have evolved from the Vedas to Puranas. But Brahma, Ganesha, Karthikeya, Durga et al are not seen in the Vedas and are indeed theologically distinct from the Vedic deities. The Upanishadic Brahman is not exactly a deity. It is a kind of consciousness pervading the Universe. This is not found in the Puranas, at least the earlier ones.

    The bulk of the Ramayana is coherent compared to the Mahabharata, but there are different versions of it, with some kandas (chapters) added. Ramayana is by no means a wholesome guide to Hinduism. It is a small part of the ocean of Hindu beliefs.

    Wild imagery notwithstanding, the fact remains that when it comes to genealogies, the Vedas, Puranas and epics mutually contradict each other too often. This means that modern scholars cannot agree with traditional scholarship in considering these texts as proper historical records.

    If Sagar Manthan is an allegory, is Ganga's descent also an allegory? If not, what is the criterion to consider an event in the texts as an allegory?

    Ravana may have had a run in with Shiva but nevertheless he is said to be a devout Shiv-bhakt.

    "Now there was greater quality control in the Vedas as they were the base and dealt with plainly religious matters and not much political history "

    There was a fair amount of politics in the Vedas as well with the exploits of chieftain Sudas, the battle of ten kings, etc. The 'family books' ie the earlier mandalas are said to be written by powerful Vedic families in the Kuru-Panchala region. The very act of collecting canonical books into the Rig Veda, the perfection of Srauta ritual etc were part of a political process in the Vedic times.

    1. I never said Brahman was a diety but the abstraction of a ultra entity who supersedes all dieties. And later it was Vishnu and Shiva who would always compete for the title of Brahman so to speak

      There is always confusion in geneology due to either contracting it to bring a king closer to more illustrious ancestors and going off on a tangent and finding supernatural antecendents which may have a meaning which is lost now.
      So don't throw out the baby with the bathwater.

      Ganga's descent under Sagara -no. Until Bhagiratha-yes
      If you read the Puranas, there are commentaries in some I believe Markandeya Purana to my recollection is pretty explanatory of what each dietiy means, what it represents and why and what sage brought it about.
      And some are not so much such as the Garuda Purana which is purely supernatural imagery with relatively little exposition.

      Im aware of Ravana being a Shaiva bhakt but the point was Shiva was alive and well in what is actually considered a very "Vedic" era

      I explained why Ganesha, Karthikeya are not really distinct from Vedic dieties. If you didn't understand the first time, I will not bother again.The line between being a contrarian for the sake of it and being dense is a fine one.

      The politics in the Vedas are miniscule compared to those of the Puranas. And they are there only because they had written/sponsored the writing of the Mandalas. A lot of it was compiled in the Kuru Panchala region but the sages and kings were not restricted to that "Aryan"area.

    2. @ YSV

      "take a Chandra here, some Rudra there , burn some Kama in the process and you've got yourself a Shiva!" - Probably this was the vedic way of integrating the nonvedic(tantric) Shiva into their realm.Rama praying to Rameshwaram Shiva also might be carrying this same inner significance,ie,veda accepting the discarded part of samudra manthan tantra.

      @ PremChand

      "If Sagar Manthan is an allegory, is Ganga's descent also an allegory? If not, what is the criterion to consider an event in the texts as an allegory?" - These allegories are spiritual in nature.If you can advance in meditative penance to a high level,the underlying meanings in the scriptures which are apparent fanciful and meaningless,will be revealed to you by your consciousness.Then you will find that in many cases expressing your inner vision in correct words in the language of humans will be impossible.Hence the need to define them through allegories,which portray them in the closest possible way ,because it is impossible to describe many extrasensory experiences and revelations in human languages.

    3. @ YSV & PremChand

      Moreover,I think that the allegories were not exactly allegorical in the eary Vedic or Tantric times,when there were spiritually enlightened Gurus to guide students into the world of present they have become allegorical and meaningless to us because we have lost the guidance.