Category Archives: Deities and Entities

The Apsaras

The name, “Apsaras” is derived from the Sanskrit word, apsa meaning water (Pattanaik 22). While the origins of these heavenly water nymphs vary, the most common version of the myth claims the Apsaras were born as a result of the churning of the milky ocean. Other versions, specifically found within the Manu Sastra claim the Apsaras were created in part with the seven Manus to serve as wives of the gods and daughters of pleasure (Williams 57). Originally believed to have emerged as a group of thirteen, the Apsaras are understood to have grown in numbers reaching up to 35 million (Williams 57). The ambiguity of the Apsaras does not stop with the myths of their origin; rather, the Apsaras are also ambiguous in their purpose. However, the commonality between the varying myths regarding the Apsaras purpose is that each Apsara is “skillfully versed in the 64 ways to please the senses” (Pattanaik 22). For example, certain myths claim the purpose of the Apsaras creation was to pleasure the gods, and occasionally the warrior heroes, as dancers in Indra’s court. Alternate myths depict the Apsaras as the wives of the Gandharvas or temptresses of sages. Regardless of their relationships, the indisputable feature of the Apsaras is that they are beautiful and seductive heavenly charmers (Williams 57).

According to the Mahabharata, the Apsaras play a major role in the act of war (Hara 139). The Apsaras are believed to accompany fallen soldiers into Indra’s heaven, where they and the Gandharvas embody all aspects of desire. Therefore, it is believed that heroic warriors would race into battle, braving any outcome in hopes of receiving the ultimate reward, an Apsara lover. This passive imagery of the Apsaras is only one half of the myth; the Apsaras are also understood to be active and aggressive in their search for a lover. The battlefield is a war zone to the Apsaras as well. Thousands of Apsaras descend the fields, playing instruments and singing songs. The Apsaras wait for the slain solders to fall, and then fight one another for the honor of marrying a fallen hero and accompanying him to Indra’s Court. Multiple kings used this imagery of the ascending and descending Apsaras in order to entice their men into battle (Hara 139).

Just as there are multiple versions of the myths regarding the origins and the role of the Apsaras, there are multiple versions of the myth regarding the soldiers’ ascent to the Apsaras. The Kumarasambhava claims that the Apsaras do not descend to earth in order to obtain their fallen heroes. Rather, a wild elephant uses its tusks to throw the fallen soldiers to the Apsaras waiting in heaven (Hara 142). The Kumarasambhava also details the results pertaining to two opposing soldiers who die in battle simultaneously. It is believed that their battle continues in heaven, this time for the Apsara herself (Hara 143).

Although the Apsaras are often seen as object of desire, they do face some hostility. The myth of the Apsaras creates a rivalry between the beautiful nymphs and the jealous widows of the fallen solders. The Mahabharata details the aforementioned wars from the point of view of the war wives and widows. One story tells of a widow’s prayer to her husband as to not forget of her love and service to him when he meets and becomes enchanted with his new Apsara (Hara 143). Additional stories describe the jealousy that the wives felt even before battle, witnessing their husband’s excitement to be slain and thus, rescued by an Apsara (Hara 144). Many women desire to follow their husbands into heaven, therefore they perform the act of sati, in which the wife immolates herself atop her husband’s funeral pyre to prevent the Apsaras from reaching the fallen solider. However, many Apsaras are believed to be aware of this tactic, and so they aim to entrap the solider before the arrival of the wife (Hara 146).

In regards to the historical content of these myths, it is important to note that throughout the early Vedic period, women possessed societal agency not necessarily associated with women of the later Vedic period. Therefore, this powerful representation of women through the Apsaras would not have been unusual (Wangu 40). It is also important to note that the Apsaras were “expected to behave outside the norms of society…as [they are] creature(s) of power much stronger than that of mortal men” (Pollock and Turvey-Sauron 141). Thus, their agency to choose their husbands and ascend or descend the heavens as they please was easily believed.

Multiple prominent Apsaras appear in their own specific myths told inside larger texts such as the Mahabharata or the Rg Veda. Some examples of these Apsaras are Urvashi, and Tilottama. According to the Mahabharata, Tilottama is an Apsara created by Visvakarman (Williams 282). Visvankarman combined all the elements of beauty found in the world, both animate and inanimate, in order to create Tilottama. Thus, Tilottama was so beautiful that Siva spouted faces on all sides of his head so that he may always see her and Indra grew one thousand eyes so that he may never lose sight of her. Aside from impressing the gods, Tilottama’s beauty was created in order to seduce the Asuras (demons), Sunda and Upasunda. Ultimately, in this seduction, Tilottama’s goal was to entice the two Asuras into battle. Tilottama successfully seduces both Asuras, causing them to kill each other over her love (Williams 282).

Urvashi (the one born of a thigh) is an Apsara who was created from the thigh of a mortal as a result of a conflict between Indra and Narayana, a sage. Indra attempted to distract Narayana as he was performing austerities over Indra’s throne. One of Indra’s distractions included summoning all the existing Apsaras to tempt Narayana. However, rather than allow himself to be distracted from his auspicious task, Narayana slapped his thigh and created Urvashi, whose beauty surpassed all the previous Apsaras. Indra accepted Urvashi as a gift and apologized to the sage, bringing Urvashi home where she became the eleventh Apsara (Williams 286). Urvashi’s myth does not stop here. It is believed that either Brahma or Mitravaruna cursed Urvashi to be born on earth, where she would eventually fall in love and marry a king named Pururavas under three conditions. First, Pururava was expected to provide Urvashi with two lambs. Secondly, Urvashi was to only eat ghee and finally, Pururava was to never allow Urvashi to see him naked. Although Urvashi was happy and in love, Indra began to miss her and so he sent a group of Gandharvas to retrieve her. In order to do so, they forced Pururava to break two of his three promises. While the couple was making love, the Gandharvas stole Urvashi’s sheep causing Pururava to jump out of bed. At this moment, they illuminated the sky causing Urvashi to see him naked and thus, leave him. Pururava spends the rest of his life searching to see Urvashi again (Williams 286).

As figures of beauty and seduction, the Apsaras are depicted in many art forms. Traditionally, in paintings the Apsaras were artistically depicted as swans, due to their mutual connection with water (Wangu 38). Eventually, the swan symbolism is replaced with the symbolism of Yakshas and Yaksinis, embodiments of “luminosity and awe-inspiring manifestation of a mysterious power which must be worshiped” (Wangu 38). This new depiction of the Apsaras through the Yaksha and Yaksinis imagery was created in order to parallel the pairing of the Apsaras to the Gandharvas and were often used as “decorative elements’ in ancient paintings (Wangu 38-39).

As statues, the Apsaras are depicted in the female form, beautiful and often emulating signs of a lover or seductress. Examples of these signs include a coy, turned away face, fingernail markings on the face or shoulder and little to no clothing (Slaczka 216). In statue form the Apsaras are also depicted as wearing many expensive articles of jewellery and hair ornamentation to expresses their luxurious qualities (Slaczka 216).

One of the most popular artistic mediums used to represent the Apsaras is dance, originating with the Devadasis (servants of God). The Devadasis were groups of women, living and working in temples, who provided services to the temple gods and devotees. However, the primary role of the Devadasis was to preserve and present the arts, specifically dance (Rodrigues 284). The Devadasis performed in large dance halls, located inside the temples, in order to pleasure the gods. Thus, the Devadasis were understood to emulate the myth of the Apsaras as beautiful and erotic embodiments of pleasure. Unfortunately, the Devadasis tradition fell victim to sexual exploitation and colonial ignorance. The tradition was outlawed and thus, the sacred dances and rituals were lost (Rodrigues 284). However, Nijhawan does argue that through the awakening and support of academics, the story of the Devadasis was revived and brought into the twentieth century (102). Nijhawan goes on to clarify that, while Devadasis image is echoed in the modern styles of Bollywood dance, it is again faced with the unfortunate fate of sexual exploitation of women and lack of female agency (103).

Unlike the rites and traditions of the Devadasis, the Cambodian ballet managed to keep the traditional myths of the Apsaras alive well into the modern day. The Apsara figurines located in the temples of Angkor-vat inspire the origins of the Cambodian ballet. The choreography performed by the dancers themselves emulates the gestures of the statues, while the costumes replicate the original ornamentation and colours of the figurines. Both dancer and costume working together to preserve and express the traditional beauty and praise of the mythological figures (Strickland-Anderson 226-227).


Encyclopædia Britannica (2010) “Apsara.” Britannica Academic

Hara, Minoru (2001) “Apsaras and Heroes.” Journal of Indian Philosophy Vol. 29: 139-146.

Nijhawan, Amita (2009) “Excusing The Female Dancer: Tradition and Transgression in Bollywood Dancing.” Journal of South Asian and Popular Culture, Vol. 7: 102-103. Doi: 10.1080.

Nut, Suppya H. (2014) “The Legend of Apsara Mera”: Princess Norodom Buppha Devi’s Choreography for the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.” Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 31, No. 1: 280-288.

Pattanaik, Devedutt (2006) Myth = Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New Delhi: Penguin.

Pollock, Giserelda. (2007) The Sacred and the Feminine: Imagination and Sexual Difference. Victoria Turvey-Sauron (Ed.). New York: I.B.Tauris.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism-The Ebook: An Online Introduction (2nd ed.). PDF e-book. Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online.

Slaczka, Anna A. (2012) “Temples, Inscriptions and Misconceptions: Charles-Louis Fábri and the Khajuraho “Apsaras” The Rijksmuseum Bulletin, Vol. 60, No. 3: 212-33.

Strickland-Anderson, Lily (1926) “The Cambodian Ballet.” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 12, No. 2: 226-227.

Wangu, Madhu Bazaz (2003) Images of Indian Goddesses: Myths, Meanings and Models. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Williams, George M. (2008) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Related Topics for Further Investigation




Cambodian Ballet











Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

This article was written by: Ramona Badau (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.


The Gandharvas are a very difficult idea to define, but simply, they are supernatural beings strongly tied to music. They are celestial bards, demi-gods, demons, but predominantly celestial musicians (Thite 52-53). They preside in many places but are mostly seen in the heavenly courts or looking over Soma; they can even reside on earth. They are recognized as being beneficial in life but also destructive, life giving and life taking. They are related heavily with the Apsara, occasionally even mating with each other. As an overview, they can be seen as the duality force of Hindu mythology. They are both the good and the bad, they are double-natured in nearly every way (Thite 54).

The origin of the Gandharvas seems to follow two different paths: they were created, or they were born. The idea of them being born also has two sides to it. The least dominant of the two theories is the idea that there was only one Gandharva in the beginning, and all others are descendants of him (Barnett 704). This original Gandharva is hypothesized to have been created but there is no record by whom. The more dominant theory is that there were many born from different deities for the purpose of serving them. Their names indicated the deity in which they served (Mehendale 130). The creation theory for the emergence of the Gandharvas also has two sides to it; that they had a creator, and that they were created from seemingly nothing. In the creation theory, it is unclear what the purpose of their creation was. Their creator is said to be Brahma but gives no reason for their creation (Mehendale 130). As Gandharva is usually translated to “music” or musician” their creation likely had to do with music. The other hypothesis is that they were created aimlessly; rather, they were created by the cosmos, (Mehendale 130). In both of the theories of emergence, birth and creation, the justifications contradict each other; they were created for a purpose versus, them being created for no reason at all. There seems to be constant controversy regarding the emergence and Gandharvas and there purpose in the Hindu religion.

The idea of mortality is familiar to the Gandharvas, unlike most deities. Their mortality has two hypotheses, in some texts they are seen as mortal, whereas in other texts they are immortal due to their consumption of Soma. The source of their immortality can be split into two different causes: sacrifice and consumption of Soma. The consumption of Soma was done at the same time as the other deities. At that time, the Gandharvas requested to be the protectors of Soma not only in the heavens, but also on earth. This request was granted, causing the gods to look down on them as lesser beings (Thite 53). Human sacrificial practices are seen as the second source of the Gandharvas (and Apsaras) immortality. Because of Gandharvas dual-nature they are seen as both benevolent and malevolent. Because of this, they have a specific sacrifice dedicated to them and the Apsaras. The Aupashada sacrifice is said to belong to the Gandharva and the sacrificial offerings to the Apsara (Thite 54).

The mortality of the Gandharvas is depicted in the killing of thousands of them by Arjuna. In the Mahabharata epic, the Gandharvas are seen as demi-gods fighting in the Mahabharata War and the main character, Arjuna, kills them by the thousands. Indra revives them later using “nectar”; this is believed to be Soma (Mehendale 133). This shows that Gandharvas are mortal but that they are able to be resurrected by Indra. Their seemingly immortal mortality shows just how diametric their existence seems to be.

As every other aspect of their being, the life, role, and depictions of the Gandharvas are also diametric. Their most important role seems to have been as the guardians of the sacred Soma, however, this has differing depictions. In some depictions, they are the guardians of Soma, guarding it from all the other gods. In these depictions, they are protective and even greedy regarding it (Thite 53). The other side of the story is that they had Soma stolen from them and in their deprivation decided to steal it back; their attempt very decisively fails. In comparison to the other deities, they can be seen as demi-gods rather than full deities themselves (Barnett 707). In their failure, they were viewed by the other deities as being malevolent in nature and as such are seen in a more demonic light. Though “Soma guardians” seems to be the primary depiction of the Gandharva’s role, it is not the only one. A less prominent view of the Gandharvas is that they are tied with the Apsaras as nature spirits. The duality of them is seen through their ties with both fertility and death (Thite 57). When thinking of fertility and life, ideas of greenery and forests are ever present, because it links such ideas with the Gandharvas. The tie with death seems to be ancestral because not only are they tied with the idea of death, but they are tied with the god of death himself; the Gandharvas and the Apsaras are seen as being the parents of Yama and his siblings (Berriedale 18). One more role of the Gandharvas is to accompany the souls of soldiers who died in battle. It was not regular soldiers, but war heroes that were accompanied into the afterlife. These heroes were not only accompanied by the Gandharvas, but the Gandharvas also played music while the Apsaras surrounded the heroes with dance (Mehendale 129). In this view, they are still tied to the dual-nature of their being. In general, the Gandharva can be seen as neither good nor bad but rather both; they can be seen as having a nature similar to that of humans because they have the capacity to be both good and evil.

Since Gandharva quite simply translates as “musician,” there have been cases in which people, places, or things, take on the name of Gandharva as a symbol of a linked to music. One example being The Gandharva Mahavidyalaya New Delhi which is an institution that tries to revitalize and maintain the tradition of Gandharva music and dance. Gandharva music is an ancient tradition that is still performed in India today (Kotwal et al. 195). As the Gandharvas are believed to have travelled back and forth between heaven and earth many times, it is believed that they may have intermingled with human women. One example of the Gandharva’s lust for women is when the gods prevented the Gandharvas from stealing sacrificial Soma by presenting their wives as distractions. Because of their lust for women, they lost interest in Soma and pursued the women, allowing the gods to escape with Soma (Thite 56). Some people believe that Gandharva music was passed on the humans by the Gandharvas. Others believe that people just take the name of Gandharva as a symbol of their trade. Musicians in Hindu society are of the lowest class, sudras, and are sometimes even untouchables. In ancient times, it is said that the Gandharvas had heavy ties with the sudra class, thus the gods looked down at them as lesser beings (Thite 54). In Hindu mythology, the Gandharvas are seen as having very little importance. When looking at their little importance, and their tie to sudras, it can be seen that the Gandharvas inhabit a different world then our own.

Though the Gandharvas were believed to traverse between earth and the heavens quite regularly, they did frequent different locales. When they are in the heavens, they have multiple set locales, and when they are on earth, they resided in many places. When in the heavens, there are two different mythologies; they serve the other deities, and they look over Soma. They share relations with many gods, including: Indra, Kubera, Sankara, and Manibhadra by: praising, worshiping, surrounding, and following them. They will also reside in the Gods’ heavenly courts; examples of such include praising Kubera as well as Indra. (Mehendale 131). A large amount of literature states that when the Gandharvas are in the heavens, they stand on a perch looking over Soma. When the Gandharvas reside on Earth, they typically reside in places of beauty, both in sight and in smell (Thite 55).

In general, the Gandharvas live a life of diametric opposition; they are gods and yet they are demons, they are Soma guardians yet they are the robbers of Soma. Their life is tied very heavily with that of the Apsaras as their abilities of music and dance tie together. Because of their dual-nature, the Gandharvas are seen as being benevolent demi-gods, but also as malevolent demons. Their link to the Sudra class significant ties with humans. It is logical that they would reside in many different locales, as they have many different purposes. When they reside in the heavens, they look over the sacred Soma or they follow different gods. When they walk on earth, they frequent beautiful places of nature. Just like the other aspects of their lives, the creation of the Gandharvas is also dual-natured; they were created and yet they were born. All this together emphasizes their dual-nature and shows them as the force of duality in Hinduism.

This article was written by: Michael Christensen (spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.


Barnett, L. D (1928) “Yama, Gandharva, Glaucus.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies, University of London Vol. 4:703-16

Berriedale, Keith (1964) The Mythology of all Races-Indian. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, Inc.

Kotwal, Rinchhen, and Vishwajeet V. Ringe (1997) “Stress Reduction through Listening to Indian Classical Music during Gastroscopy.” Diagnostic and Therapeutic Endoscopy Vol. 4:191-197

Mehendale, M (1985) “A Cultural Index to The Mahabharata Tentative Specimen Fascicule.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute Vol. 66:128-134

Thite, G (1987) “Gandharvas and Apsarasas in the Vedas.” Journal of the Indian Musicological Society Vol. 18:52-64

Related Reading

Basu, Anindita (2016) “Apsaras and Gandharvas.” Ancient History Encyclopedia Modified September 05, 2016. Accessed February 1, 2017.

Hara, Minoru (2009) “Divine Procreation.” Indo-Iranian Journal Vol. 52:217-49.

Viladesau et al (2014) “The Oxford Handbook of Religion and The Arts.” Edited by Frank Burch Brown. New York: Oxford University Press


Related Research Topics



Indian Music

The Mahabharata

Gandharva Veda

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Article written by: Michael Christensen (Spring 2017), who is solely responsible for its content.


Dattatreya is an important figure in the Hindu religion. Dattatreya is regarded as an important dharmic Guru, Yogi, and incarnation of three main deities in this religion. He is seen as a significant Yogic figure across a wide spectrum of the religion from Tantric to Brahminic orthodox Hinduism (Rigopolous 7). Dattatreya also extends past the confines of Hinduism into certain sects within Jainism as well as Sufism and is even briefly talked about within some Buddhist texts.

Dattatreya is seen as an incarnation of the three main Hindu gods: Siva, Visnu, and Brahma, fused into one singular being. The incarnated form of these three gods (Dattatreya) is depicted as a three headed, six armed being. Each set of his arms contains symbols for each of the three gods: a lotus and water pot is depicted for Brahma, a wheel and conch for Visnu, and a trident and drum for Siva. Dattatreya is usually portrayed dressed as an ascetic while also accompanied with a cow (symbolic in Hindu tradition of the earth) and four dogs (representative of the four Vedic texts) (Pain 95).

Dattatreya is a deity that is associated with the conservation of the environment and education pertaining to the environment. Teachings of this deity involve attaining realization through the observation of the earth (symbolic presence of the deity associated with the cow) as it is a sacred space representative of the entire cosmos itself. Dattatreya teaches this message in the way that most Hindu philosophical teachers address the world, in a matter of self-realization. This deity’s teachings reflect that of a Buddha-like figure in the way in which this deity points to self-realization and freeing the self from material attachment. The true nature of things is much deeper and that enlightenment comes from freeing the self from material attachment (Haigh 1). However, teachings such as these are seen all across Hinduism as reflections of highly realised Gurus (teachers) relaying much deeper meaning than just what is seen.

The manner in which Dattatreya goes about his teachings in a highly realized manner comes from how the being was thought to have attained moksa (self liberation) in the first place. This deity gained liberation from being temporarily earth bound while being taught by twenty-four Gurus. Each of Dattatreya’s teachers taught him deep yogic lessons in which he later portrays within his own teachings such as compassion and the absence of material attachment.

The mythological creation of Dattatreya dates back to the Rg Veda and a rsi (“seer”; semi divine figures who composed the sacred texts) named Atri. Dattatreya came into being from a boon asked from the wife of the sage/rsi Atri (also thought to be a manifestation of Agni the fire god) called Anasuya  (the non-envious one)(Rigopolous 2). A demon, named Svarbhanu, pierced the sun and moon with arrows, causing darkness to fall over the land. However, the gods noticed Atri practicing tapas (generating of inner heat) in a forest nearby and asked for his help. Atri was able to restore light to the moon and sun due to his great ability to generate his inner heat (Rigopolous 3). Atri’s wife, Anasuya, then requested the boon of giving birth to the trimurti (tri incarnation) incarnation of Siva, Visnu, and Brahma, bringing forth Dattatreya. Tales of Atri and the relevance of Dattatreya can also be found in Hindu texts such as the Ramayana.

Since Dattatreya is found in many different forms such as a rsi, Yogi, and a god, across many different Hindu writings from the Ramayana to the Vedas, one wonders if there were many different figures with the generic name generated with the root datta (surrendered), treya (three), and atreya (child of Atri) (Rigopolous 28). However, in many of these texts, there are different stories and hymns relating the figures to one another and the roots of their names, most likely illustrating a transformation of this deity in order to teach specific lessons within the text.

Dattatreya’s worship resembles that of other gods within the religion, and draws specific aspects from worship of the three gods that make up the trimurti form. Just as Siva or Visnu have sramana (wandering philosopher) groups dedicated to them that use one god as a focus in hopes of attaining moksa. Dattatreya’s sect is referred to the Datta cult (Pain 97) derived as an abbreviation for the full name.

Devotees of Datta rarely visit the temples of Dattatreya and only stay for brief periods of time for darsana (visions of divine beings) or to view the depiction of the deity. Temples of Dattatreya are often quite small, mostly consisting of tucked away or roadside shrines. However, larger Datta temples for worship do exist and have characteristics that resemble Siva temples, often containing a corridor, which surrounds the inner shrine of the temples (Pain 101). These temples also usually contain a small hall for initial entry, which contain a small bell that is rung by devotees to signal their arrival to the god.

Worship, within the temples dedicated to Dattatreya, also follows ritual patterns associated with other gods within the Hindu religion. Among these devotional practices is, ritual bathing for purification before entering, as well as offerings of incense, food, and flowers, along with the occasional waving of lights in front of the deity. For Dattatreya Thursdays are particularly auspicious, on which a more thorough ritual worship is done (Pain 101).

The attire of Dattatreya also has significance in his worship. The depiction of him wearing the robes of a sramana relates to the constant and super human movement of this deity from one holy place to another such as bathing in the Ganga river in the morning and then moving to the Mahalakshmi temple in Maharashta to beg for alms and so on, carrying out his day wandering. The constant movement of Dattatreya ties into his worship and relates to the images of this deity where he is worshiped are footprint or sandal-like impressions called padukas (Pain 102). The padukas are the main focal point of worship for this deity as they are symbolic of non-attachment to material objects. They also tell how renouncers should continue to move from place to place, re-emphasising Dattatreya’s core teachings.

Emphasis on a particular god constituting the trimurti may be seen in specific sites as well, depending on which of the deities is most popular in the local community. For example, the walls in a temple may be lined with pictures or symbols of Siva such as his trident in areas where Siva plays greater role in community worship. Smaller single representations of each god that constructs Dattatreya may also be seen within the temples, to reiterate the importance of each major god that constructs him.

Dattatreya’s teachings are consulted in India today due to his stance regarding environmental protection, as this country continues to modernise. Reference to his teachings is often made when discussing issues such as pollution and sustainable development (Haigh 128).  His teachings are also used to further show the importance of environmental protection as well as to diminish other environmentally destructive practices. Dattatreya’s teachings are able to have a strong influence on environmental presentation due to their intellectual and well-constructed arguments.



Pain, Charles (1988) “The God Dattatreya and the Datta Temples of Pune.In The Experience of Hinduism: Essays on Religion in Maharashrta, edited by Eleanor Zelliot, and Maxine Bernsten, 95-104. Albany. State University of New York Press.

Haigh, Martin (2007) Sri Dattatreya’s 24 Gurus: Learning from the World in Hindu Traditions. Oxford: Oxford Brookes University Press.

Rigopoulos, Antonio (1998) Dattatreya: The Immortal Guru, Yogic, and Avatara: A Study of the Transformative and Inclusive Characters of a Multi-faced Hindu deity. Albany: State University of New York Press.


Article written by: Michael Hutchinson (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

Agni (God of Fire)

Agni is said to be one of the closest connected gods with humans than any of the other deities in the Hindu tradition. The god Agni is identified with being the producer of fire and referred to as being Indra’s (god of thunder and lightning) brother (Macdonell 57). There are many different myths as to how Agni was born; some say that the deity was born three times, once from water, then air and last on Earth. A common myth is that Agni was made from the coupling of the god of the earth (Prthivi) and god of the heavens (Dyaus) and is said to be the son of Brahma. Agni was born fully-grown and was said to be ravenously hungry which led him to devour his parents (McLeish 1996). Agni is the intercessor between the deities and humankind, and is of the few gods in the Hindu tradition that has retained its power to this day (Chandra 9-10).

Agni is identified as one of the first deities to take human form. He is said to be a red man who has seven tongues with which he licks up the butter offered in sacrifices. He is also portrayed as having seven arms, three legs and two heads. Agni is almost always portrayed with a ram as his vehicle, and is occasionally shown riding in a chariot with fiery horses or goats (Jansen 64). His eyes and hair are both black, and on his head he often bears the horns of a bull. He is usually seen wearing a yellow waistcloth. He appears to be young man, which is due to his rebirth everyday through the friction of two sticks. Agni is immortal and lives amidst humankind, yet in heaven he is portrayed as the sun. Agni’s image of fire is a symbol of destruction, which explains why his attributes include an axe, torch and flaming spear, as well as prayer beads (Jansen 64).

Soma (the moon) is a deity who is regarded as a link between the human and the divine, just like Agni. Soma is identified with the moon, which is said to “contain the ambrosia of immortality” (Flood 46). Agni and Soma are said to be the most significant gods (devas) placed at the level of the Earth. They are connected in the sense that the moon is identified with Soma, as Soma is with Agni, and Agni is with the Sun. The public (srauta) rites are primarily focused on Agni and Soma in which vegetarian and non-vegetarian items are offered into multiple sacrificial fires. The (srauta) rites require the burning of three sacred fires. Items such as milk, animals, vegetable cakes and stalks of the soma plant are all offered into the fires (Flood 41-54).

Agni is addressed in approximately one third of the hymns in the Rg Veda. He was central in sacrificial ritual because it was the fire that transformed the offerings into something accessible to the gods (Fowler 98). Agni was a very important deity, and this was evident through the high degree to which he was worshipped. He is described as a divine sage and a swift messenger between the gods and humans, which is why he is still widely worshipped to this day. His worshippers are said to thrive and have a prolonged life (Wilkins 24). He announces hymns to immortals and brings them down from heaven above to sacrifice them. Without Agni, the deities do not experience any satisfaction. Agni is worshipped in many forms such as, a wise director, a protector of all ceremonies and a successful accomplisher (Wilkins 23).

Agni is portrayed in the Mahabharata as being drained of all his energy. Through devouring the Khandava forest he regains his strength. In that story, Indra attempts to stop Agni, but with the assistance of Krsna, Agni ends up consuming the forest (Wilkins 27). Agni is known by multiple names such as, Vahni which means “burnt sacrifice”, Jivalana as “He who burns”, and Dhumketu which is “He whose sign is smoke” (Wilkins 27). Agni is said to have formed heaven and earth and is spoken of as the son of both worlds. He is said to have created the sun and decorated heaven with stars.

The importance of fire in Hindu rituals remains today, as does the deity Agni. Among the directional guardians, Agni was in control of the southeast, which is where dawn breaks. Agni was born fully mature and was able to consume everything, pure and unpure.  (Andrews 8). Fire was widely worshipped because it represented heat and light and was believed to have come from the sun. Fire was a very important part in Hindu rituals because it allowed people a way to give sacrificial offerings to the gods. This is why Agni is still important in today’s society. Agni is known to forgive sin, and offers boons that usually have to do with offspring, prosperity and domestic welfare. Indra’s boons give power, glory and victory (Macdonell 98). All gods had equal power at one time, but after acquiring immortality through sacrifices, Agni, Indra and Surya became grander than the other gods (Jansen 63). The god of war, Skanda, later became the successor of Agni and Indra.

In the epic Ramayama, the king of demons abducted Rama’s wife Sita. After Rama wins a battle with the army of demons, he is able to take his wife home, but doubts her loyalty. He accuses her of being unfaithful while she was away from him and in response, Sita throws herself into a fire to prove herself loyal. Agni, god of fire, did not harm Sita in any way and placed her into Rama’s arms without injury. This led Rama to believe his wife’s words (Jansen 78). This reveals aspects of how Agni has the power to control outcomes such as Sita being harmed or not.

Agni takes part in blessings at occasions such as marriages and deaths, and he commands riches in earth and heaven. He is prayed to by individuals and worshipped as a forgiver of sins, and it is said that he surrounds other gods as the “circumference of a wheel does the spokes” (Wilkins 24). The god Siva has three eyes: the sun, the moon and fire. His third eye is the eye of inner vision and is often invoked at the time of meditation. The third eye also burns with desire (Kama) (Badlani 95).

Agni is also said to be the son of Angrias and grandson of Sandila who is one of the great sages. Agni is the eldest son of Brahma and his wife is Swaha. Through this marriage, he has three sons, Pavak, Suchi and Pavman, and forty-six grandsons for a total of forty-nine descendants (Chandra 10). Agni’s attendant, Matarisvan, is a minor messenger god (Chandra 220). Agni symbolizes a spark in nature through the image of two pieces of wood being rubbed together. This produces the fire in that Agni dwells. (Andrews 8).

Another story in the Mahabharata is one in which Bhrigu curses Agni. Bhrigu married a woman named Puloma who was promised to a demon. Through seeing her exquisiteness, Bhrigu decides to take her away without the knowledge of anyone. Agni assists the demon in finding the bride’s hideaway and claims her back. Bhrigu curses Agni because he helped the demon and says, “from this day you shall eat everything.” Agni did not understand why he was being cursed because he had been honest and accomplished his task of assisting the demon in finding the bride’s hideout. He refers to himself as the mouth of the gods and ancestors. Bhrigu alters his curse by changing it so that Agni purifies all that is passed through him (Wilkins 366). Agni is a Kravyad (flesh-eater), and is represented under an unsightly form. He is called upon to devour meaning he places his enemies into his mouth and engulfs them. He sharpens his tusks and eats his enemies (Wilkins 27).

Agni is the lord of knowledge and fire; he is the chief deity and he is the power of inner and outer illumination. He is the mouth of the gods and the wealth giver (Danielou 64). He is said to have two shapes: one being fearful and the other benevolent. He is called Rudra. Agni is known as a devourer and a god of many powers, one being fire. He is of great importance and is highly worshipped. He is one of the highest gods in the Hindu tradition.


References and Related Readings

Andrews, Tamra (2000) Dictionary of Nature Myths: Legends of the Earth, Sea and Sky. Santa Barbara: Oxford University Press.

Badlani, Hiro G (2008) Hinduism: Path of the Ancient Wisdom. New York: iUniverse Inc.

Chandra, Suresh (1998) Encyclopaedia of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons.

Danielou, Alain (1991) The Myths and Gods of India: The Classic Work on Hindu Polytheism from the Princeton Bollingen Series. Rochester: Inner Traditions International.

Findly, Ellison B. 2005. “Agni.” In Encyclopedia of Religion 2nd Edition, edited by Lindsay Jones, 178-179. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. Accessed February 3, 2016.

Flood, Gavin D (1996) An Introduction to Hinduism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Fowler, Jeaneane D (1997) Hinduism: Beliefs and Practices. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.

Jansen, Eva Rudy (1993) Gods, Manifestations and Their Meaning. Havelte: Binkey Kok Publications.

Leeming, David (2005) The Oxford Companion to World Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lochtefeld, James G (2002) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism: A-M. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group

Macdonell, Arthur Anthony (1898) Vedic Mythology. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.

McLeish, Kenneth (1996) “Agni.” Bloomsbury Dictionary of Myth. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc: Accessed February 4, 2016.

Wilkins, W.J (2003) Hindu Gods and Goddesses. London: W. Thacker and Co.


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Article written by: Kimberly Sitter (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

Vahanas (Vehicles of Deities)

The Hindu religion is rich with depictions of gods and goddesses, and provides imagery with deep symbolic significance and meaning. A complex mythology extends to all aspects of a deity’s portrayal, including their mounts or vahanas. Each deity’s mount makes a symbolic reference to the positive aspects of that deity, while at the same time they symbolize negative aspects that the deity takes control of. As such, “the animal symbol, placed beneath, is interpreted as carrying the human figure…It is a duplicate-representation of the energy and character of the god” (Zimmer 70). Most mounts are in the form of animals which exist on the plane of the Earth; thus these creatures are seen as being the physical, earthen embodiment of their god or goddess counterpart. Animals that are linked to the gods and goddesses are considered important to Hindus, and have been cherished as symbols of virtue and value (Chatterjee 27). The symbolic associations of certain animals, identified as mounts, coupled with the popular tropes, archetypes, and idiomatic storytelling of the Hindu tradition, serves to communicate meaning through representations and iconography.

Some of the vahanas of Hindu mythology are ranked more important than others, some even gaining the status of deities themselves. Over time a vahana can itself become, “a great object of Hindu veneration” (Chatterjee 27). Some vahanas become the symbolic manifestation of a certain aspect of a deity’s personality. The mahisa, or buffalo mount, symbolizes death and is thus represented as the mount of Yama, the Lord of Death (Bunce: 171). The animal manifestation of the mount becomes symbolically significant in the physical realm. For some deities, like Brahma, whose mount is a wild goose, or gander, “these vehicles or mounts are manifestations on the animal plane of the divine individual themselves. The gander is the animal mask of the creative principle, which is anthropomorphically embodied in Brahma. As such, it is a symbol of sovereign freedom through stainless spirituality” (Zimmer 48).

The general concept of vahanas serves to give symbolic complexity to a specific understanding of a deity, creating more deep and meaningful associations between popular Hindu icons and mythologies. Sometimes, out of these associations, grow myths or stories which permeate the relationships that Hindus have with their religious figures. Knowing the symbolic association between a deity and their mount can increase the level of depth and complexity that an individual gets out of hearing Hindu myths, which often contain multiple layers of symbolic meanings to be interpreted. For instance, the vahana of Agni—who is understood to be both the god of fire and the physical manifestation of fire itself—is a ram, which is considered the “bodily form of penance” (Bunce 54). This symbolic association between Agni and penance is deeply rooted in the daily practice of Hindus, as they practice their own forms of penance, puja, and yogas which involve the use of fire.

It is through the symbolic representation of the gods and goddesses that Hindus connect the divine to their own physical existence. It is through these representative symbols, which have real-world counterparts, that morality can be discussed in ways that are external to the body, located instead in codified mythology which can be subjectively interpreted. The personified attributes of the gods and goddesses, which are extended to their mounts, become objects of worship and desire for Hindus. For example, Siva’s mount is Nandi, a docile bull who is considered a symbol of dharma; dharma being the proper conduct one learns to follow and practice in their life. Thus, Nandi represents many good qualities of Siva which individual Hindus wish to embody: “Siva’s ability to burn away sloth, ignorance and evil, ensures the constant renewal of fertility, correct motivation, and religious aspiration; thus he perpetuates the condition in which all levels of dharma can flourish” (Chatterjee 28). Because one of the features of the Hindu faith is the ability to worship different deities for different reasons, the intense symbolic meaning that is attached to certain representations of a deity can be invoked for different reasons. This means that when the Nandi is present in a depiction of Siva, he is signalling or alluding to a layer of meaning that would not be present without him.

The elephant-headed god Ganesa is often depicted sitting atop a mouse. “His vahana is a mouse and he himself represents the Elephant, thus it portrays that they can live together happily” (Chatterjee 26). This serves to teach something with its symbols, while also revealing a subtlety about the personality of Ganesa. Other associations provide lessons and insight on how to live your life, such as the relationship between Visnu and his griffon-like, half man and half eagle mount, Garuda, who is considered the personification of Vedic knowledge. In Hindu mythology, though, Visnu is often associated with the cosmic serpent, which makes his story complex as he maintains the serpent’s natural enemy, the eagle, as his vahana. This comes to symbolize the synthesis of harmony and balance through conflict, which is considered to be one of the more important attributes of Visnu (Bunce 103). Furthermore, the inclusion of these symbols serves purpose in Hindu life by employing paradoxes through which, “the vital tensions of the world-process are brought into existence and maintained” (Zimmer 76).

This sort of tension between symbols comes up in anthropological discourse, and has often been thought to serve a vital function in the construction of culture (Erickson & Murphy 120). The understanding that is synthesized, both on the level of the individual and the collective, when paradoxes of religious iconography and storytelling are confronted, is where Hindu theology happens. Considering that Hinduism is a religion of both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, it relies on the daily practices of individuals to inform their correct ways of thinking, and the correct ways of forming a personal relationship with the gods. The symbolism of the gods, and the real-world accessibility of some of their mounts, which can actually exist on the same plane as humans, makes them tangible to people while also maintaining their status as sacred. This is an interesting feature of Hinduism, as it is often the case that the sacred is separated from the more mundane aspects of human existence. For Hindus though, symbolic reminders of the sacred permeate all aspects of life, including relationships with animals.

Also notable is the use of vahanas to solidify the representation of a specific god or goddess. Sometimes with the anthropomorphic icon of a deity, it can be hard to determine exactly which deity is being referenced, and what the context of that reference is. This is made easier through the use of symbols, like the specific objects that a god happens to be carrying in his or her hand(s). When a mount is added to a depiction of a deity, it makes it even easier to tell exactly who it is supposed to be, especially because part of the Hindu tradition is recognizing these symbolic associations and knowing the litany of icons which can be employed. When a deity is depicted then, “its reference becomes specified by the determinant, or parallel symbol, added underneath” (Zimmer 71).



Bunce, Frederick W. (1997) A Dictionary of Buddhist and Hindu Iconography. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld Ltd.

Chatterjee, Gautam (1996) Sacred Hindu Symbols. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Erickson, Paul A., and Liam D. Murphy (2013) A History of Anthropological Theory. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Zimmer, Heinrich (1946) Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization.  New Jersey: Princeton University Press.


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Article written by: Brittney Ruston (April 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.




Garuda, in Hindu mythology, is the name for the large bird-like vehicle, or vahana, of the great Vedic god Visnu. The name Garuda is often said to come from the word garutmat, the winged one, from the root garut, which is the word for a wing (Fausboll 79). Garuda is often associated with power and morality, and both Hindus and Buddhists revere him across the world for his strength and speed. His physical appearance is often inconsistent in texts written describing him. At times, he is described as having the head and wings of a bird, with a human body; other times, he has a human face and the body of a bird (Wilkins 456). In one text, he is described as being emerald in colour with a beak, golden wings, talons, and four human arms. Most commonly, he is described as having the beak, wings and talons of a bird with a human head and body. Although there are some discrepancies to his true form, he is always described as being so brilliant upon his birth that the gods mistook him for a reincarnation of Agni, the Vedic god of fire. (Williams 139).

Garuda’s father was the ancient sage Kasyapa and his mother was Vinata, who was the rival wife to her sister Kadru. Kadru and Vinata were said to be such good wives to Kasyapa that he awarded them each with a boon. Kadru asked for 1000 snake (naga) children and Vinata asked for only two children, each stronger and more powerful than any of Kadru’s (Fausboll 77-78). Five hundred years later, Kadru’s eggs had all hatched but Vinata’s showed no sign of hatching. Shamed by this embarrassment Vinata cracked open one of her eggs and Garuda’s elder brother was born. Aruna, only half developed, cursed his mother with servitude and left to become the charioteer for Surya (Williams 62-63). Garuda was born from the second egg and upon his birth he burst forward, flew up into the sky and spread his golden wings. He was so brilliant that it hurt the gods’ eyes and he was worshipped as Agni by mistake (Williams 139). In Wilkins’ Hindu Mythology, Garuda is described as being born with eyes of lightning, rays that set the world on fire, and powerful wings that caused the mountains to be driven away (451). [Other versions of his birth story told of Garuda as the product of Kasyapa’s practices combined with the magical practices of the Balakhilayas, a class of tiny sages (Williams 138)].

Garuda’s role in Hindu mythology is quite limited, aside from accompanying Visnu, thus he is most known for the story of Garuda and the amrita told in the Mahabharata. This legend tells of the origin of the animosity between Garuda and serpents, and also tells of how Garuda met and pledged his loyalty to Visnu. When the horse Uccaisravas was obtained from the ocean, Vinata and Kadru disagreed on the colour of the horse; Vinata declared that the horse was white, while Kadru said the horse had a black tail. Kadru proposed they make a bet and whoever was incorrect about the true colour of the horse would become a slave to the winner. That night, Kadru went to her sons and told them to transform themselves into black hair and cover the hair on the horse’s tail. The next morning, as they examined the horse, they found it to be white but with a tail dark and black. Kadru cheated and Vinata was now a servant to her and her serpent children (Choudhuri 143).

Once Garuda was born, he was determined to free his mother from slavery, so he went to the snakes asking what he could do to free Vinata. They agreed to free Vinata if Garuda retrieved the divine nectar, amrita, which granted immortality. [In other versions of the story he is told to retrieve the moon (Chandra), whose bright spots are filled with amrita (Wilkins 451)].  Garuda flew to the heavens where the amrita was being guarded, and fought off the gods and obtained the nectar by blinding them with a sandstorm formed by his wings. As he was leaving, Indra threw a thunderbolt that struck Garuda but did not weaken him (Choudhuri 145). Visnu was so impressed with Garuda that he offered him a boon of immortality and Garuda pledged he would serve Visnu and become his vehicle. Indra also admired Garuda’s strength, and the two of them came up with a plan to free Garuda’s mother, and keep the amrita away from the nagas. Garuda took the amrita back to the snakes, exchanged it for his mother and told them that before they could drink the nectar, they must first be ritually pure. As the serpent children went to bathe, Indra stole back the amrita and returned it to the devas (Williams 139). As the amrita was taken a few drops of nectar spilt onto the grass. The nagas, desperate for immortality, licked the darbha grass, which split their tongues. The small amount of nectar they got gave them the ability to shed their skins and have partial immortality (Wilkins 450).

In the Ramayana, it tells of a great conflict between Ravana and Rama. Rama and his brother were badly injured and close to death, due to a flight of serpents sent by Indrajit. As they lay dying, Garuda appeared and healed them, allowing them to continue with their war (Wilkins 455). Another myth describes Garuda’s role in the birth of Airavata, the divine elephant. When Garuda came into existence, Brahma took two half- eggshells from which Garuda had hatched and sang over them seven holy melodies. From this, Airavata came forth and became the mount of Indra.

Since the quarrel between Vinata and Kadru, the mother of serpents, Garuda has been the natural enemy of serpents. When Vinata was still a slave to Kadru, Garuda was ordered to carry Kadru’s naga sons over a sea. As Garuda was transporting them, he flew too close to the sun. As the hot sun began to scorch the serpents, Kadru prayed to Indra who sent clouds and rain to save her sons (Choudhuri 144). Garuda is often referred to as “Destroyer of Serpents” as he devours snakes as his preferred food. Vausboll’s Indian Mythology declares that from the time of the creation the serpents are intended by the creator for Garuda’s eating (80). On the day of Garuda’s marriage, the serpents, so afraid of the idea of Garuda having children, attacked him. Garuda slew all but one, which he saved and wears as an ornament around his neck (Wilkins 451).  Garuda had six sons who are also sworn enemies to the serpents (Fausboll 79). To this day, as a protection against snakes, certain Hindus may repeat Garuda’s name three times before going to sleep (Wilkins 451).

Although Garuda is not strictly divine, he appears alongside Visnu in his exploits, and is seen as a symbol for Visnu and worshipped together with his lord (Wilkins 449). As Hinduism spread to Southeast Asia and Nepal, the independent worshipping of Garuda became more popular. Many started to believe that Garuda was a personification of sacred mantras, and that on his wings, one was transported to the realm of the gods (Williams 138). As Buddhism started to adopt Hindu ideas, Garuda became a symbol of royalty in many Buddhist countries. In Buddhist Thailand, Garuda the sun eagle represented the royal power and divine approval given to royalty (Williams 139).  Garuda is also seen as representing the mind, which can instantaneously soar skyward, pervade all creatures and is immortal. Garuda is so powerful “his haste and violence is so great that he seems to drag the earth itself with its waters, mountains and forests after him”(Fausboll 79). If he ever boasted of his power and strength, Visnu would often punish him, thereby keeping Garuda humble.

Garuda is often depicted carrying Visnu on his shoulders or back.  He also holds a sharp –rimmed battle discus called “Fair to see” or sudarsana. He uses this fiery, sun battle discus against his opponents by hurling it at them (Zimmer 76). In other depictions he stands in meek obedience with his right palm placed on his mouth and his other hand held reverently close to the chest. When Garuda is paired like this with Visnu, he personifies Vedic knowledge. As Garuda and the serpents are enemies, they represent balance and harmony, one of the most important aspects of Visnu (Bunce 103).

Interestingly enough wings, although often seen in western tradition, are not commonly seen as physical characteristics of Hindu gods. The gods either float or are carried by vehicles or vahana (Zimmer 93). Garuda is an exception of this, and is therefore used as a symbol for flight in many different countries. We can see examples of this today as the national airline of Indonesia is called Garuda Indonesia.

It is very rare to find a temple dedicated to Garuda alone, as he is often worshipped alongside Visnu. Near the city Mulbagal, India, a temple dedicated to Garuda was found named Koldevi. It was said to have been built under the supervision of Sri Ramanujacharya, a Hindu theologian and philosopher, and has an idol of Garuda seen kneeling on one knee while carrying Lord Visnu and Goddess Laksmi in his hands. There are other temples that have depictions of Garuda, but they are often dedicated to Visnu. In Cambodian architecture, instead of just carrying Visnu, Garuda is depicted as supporting the entire temple. Images of Garuda are multiplied and arrayed in rows bearing the structure and are seen along the entire temple. This temple is regarded as an earthly copy of Vaikuntha, the god’s celestial dwelling (Zimmer 76).

Although Garuda is not regarded as entirely divine, he symbolizes power, strength, morality, immortality, and much more.  He is an important icon in many countries in Southeast Asia, and is even the national symbol for Indonesia and Thailand. He is not only an essential figure in Hinduism, but Buddhism as well. Therefore, many depictions of him can be seen in many Buddhist and Hindu countries. Garuda is regarded as the King of the Birds and, most importantly, the mount of Lord Visnu.



Bunce, Fredrick W (1997) A Dictionary of Buddhist and Hindu Iconography: Illustrated: Objects, Devices, Concepts, Rites and Related Terms. New Delhi: Printworld.

Choudhuri, Usha (1981) Indra and Varuna in Indian Mythology. Delhi: NAG.

Fausboll, V (1981) Indian Mythology: According to the Indian Epics.  Delhi: Cosmo.

Wilkins, W. J (1900) Hindu Mythology, Vedic and Purānic. Calcutta: Thacker, Spink.

Williams, George M (2003) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Zimmer, Heinrich (1974) Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization. Princeton: Princeton University Press.


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Article written by: Carissa Peterson (April 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

Kubera: God of Wealth

Kubera holds a variety of titles within Hinduism, most notably being the god of wealth and riches. He is also regarded as the god of fertility, a tutelary household spirit, the protector of sailors and god of the dead (Coulter and Turner 283). In the Satapatha Brahmana, he is the lord of thieves and criminals (Sutherland 63), and these are but a few different titles he possesses. Despite having various titles and responsibilities, he is often associated with having a lesser role in Hindu mythology in relation to other deities (Wilkins 388). However, this does not mean that Kubera does not have a rich history and importance within the mythological realm of the Hindu tradition. One of the main reasons that Kubera is not regarded as being a prominent deity is due, in part, to the lack of images and monuments dedicated to him. When he is depicted in images, which mostly come from the Himalayan regions, Kubera has a large potbelly and he holds a mongoose that vomits jewels when he squeezes it (Buswell). Another way he is depicted is as the guardian of the north and is portrayed as a dwarfish figure with a large paunch, holding a money bag or a pomegranate. He is also sometimes depicted riding on a man (Britannica), which makes him unique in relation to other gods, who usually are mounted on animals. Kubera is a lokapala or “world guardian” (Sutherland 65), deities who are usually illustrated as being mounted on animals such as elephants, whereas Kubera is described as being a naravahana or “one whose mount is a man”(Sutherland 67). Although Kubera is regarded as a god in Hindu mythology, he is also often depicted as a demon. The classification of Kubera being a demon, therefore, cause some discrepancies in his physical appearance, with some illustrations of him depicting a more hideous, monster-type of figure. In these portrayals, Kubera is described as being a pot-bellied, three-legged, one-eyed dwarf with eight snaggle-teeth (McLeish). He is also often illustrated as having ugly, black skin, again with a potbelly and is heavily jeweled, sits cross-legged and holds a purse (Coulter and Turner 283). Despite these more unsightly physical attributes associated with the demonic side of Kubera, many depictions of him offer a gentler, appealing visual of the god, illustrating him with gold coloured skin and studded with gems (McLeish), a visual representation of his role as the lord of wealth and prosperity.

Kubera’s lineage can be a bit confusing, as different sources and literature state different familial lines. In the Artharvaveda, Kubera is said to be the son of Vaisravana. In the Mahabharata, he is son of Vaisravana and Idavida, and brother of Visravas; this is further complicated by the Puranas, which states that Kubera was born to Visravas and Ilibila (Williams 190). He also has a half brother named Ravana, who is the notable demon in the Ramayana (Williams 190). Kubera also has a wife, named Hariti (Werner 51) and a daughter named Minaksi, who becomes one of Siva’s wives (Werner 73). He also had a son, named Nalakubera (Williams 219). In addition to his family, Kubera had a few close companions. Kubera is usually accompanied by two friends named Yaksa and Yaksi (Coulter and Turner 283). He is also associated socially with Charvi, Danava and Rambha (Coulter and Turner 282). According to most accounts, Kubera is said to reside in a palace in the country of Sri Lanka. However, Kubera does not live there permanently, as he is driven out of his palace and the country by his power hungry half-brother Ravana (Britannica). The relationship that Kubera and Ravana have with one another does not prove to be very hospitable and cooperative, as they are often depicted in feuds with each other. This hostile relationship ultimately causes Kubera to relocate to a residence on Mount Kailasa, which is also home to other deities, such as Siva (Britannica).

Kubera is most notably known as being the lord of riches and wealth, which includes the resources and elements that are contained within the earth (Williams 190-191). As the ruling god of wealth and riches, Kubera is responsible for possessing and distributing the wealth, as well as guarding the earth’s treasures (Kinsley 226). He is granted the power to move the earth’s riches from one place to another, and he often brought gems and precious metals near the surface during the rule of righteous kings and hid them during times of wickedness (Williams 190-191).  Kubera exercises this power over the elements when he sides with Rama in the war between Rama and Ravana, Kubera’s half-brother. Kubera decides to align himself with Rama, rather than be loyal to his brother, because Ravana dethrones and exiles Kubera from his palace in Sri Lanka (McLeish). Ravana does this in order to try and win himself a queen and kidnaps Rama’s wife, Sita, causing there to be a war between the two men (McLeish). Rama wages war on Ravana for the actions taken against Sita, and by the end of the feud, Rama is victorious (McLeish). Kubera, who remained loyal to Rama throughout the feud, is granted the responsibility of being the shepherd of all the precious stones in the world, as a reward for his assistance in the war against Ravana (McLeish). Kubera was, therefore, allowed to dictate over these stones and control their movements (McLeish), which meant he could determine who had access to them.

Among other roles and responsibilities that Kubera was attributed to was being the leader of the yaksas, creatures who dwell in the woods and forests and promote the growth of plants (Kinsley 226). It is understandable that Kubera would be well acquainted with the yaksas as they both have roles associated with prosperity, with the yaksas encouraging the growth of plans and Kubera being a symbol of richness. The yaksas are depicted as being sharp and cunning, with a benevolent earthly temperament, which Kubera is depicted as embodying (Sutherland 64). Kubera exudes this temperament most notably through his physical appearance, which includes a potbelly, a common Asian motif for good luck and more importantly, abundance (Sutherland 64). However, the yaksas also articulate a notion of ethical ambivalence, suggesting that they also possess a more corrupt, evil side (Sutherland 63). This can be associated with Kubera’s more unethical approaches that cause him to not only be classified as a god, but as a demon as well.

Within Hindu mythology, Kubera is depicted as being a rather unforgiving god. In one particular myth in the Padma Purana, Kubera is portrayed as being a devotionalist, who had an abundantly beautiful garden that contained flowers that are utilized in daily temple worship (Williams 153). Kubera had a hired gardener named Hemamali, who tended to the flowers everyday. One day, Hemamali took a trip to Manasasaras, the lake of the gods, and forgot that it was his duty to get the flowers to Kubera for worship. Kubera waited all day at the temple for Hemamali, but he did not show up, which caused Kubera to become very angry. Hemamali was summoned to Kubera’s palace, where he was punished for his absence by being cursed as a leper. To make things even worse, Hemamali was expelled from Kubera’s heaven, Alakapuri (Williams 153). This story illustrates some of Kubera’s less desirable personality traits, as he can be viewed as being an unforgiving and strict ruler. This can further demonstrate how he was often categorized as being a demon throughout different stories in Hindu mythology, as he could be a menacing and merciless god. However, Kubera has a benevolent and softer side to him as well that is revealed through his more noble actions. Through his protective guardianship and distribution of the earth’s secret resources, he is seen as a paternal, manipulatable figure (Sutherland 65). He is also regarded with holding the title of lokapalas, meaning he is a world guardian, as well as being a dikpalas, a guardian of the directions (Sutherland 65).

It is quite apparent that the Hindu god of wealth possesses many different traits and abilities. Kubera can be described as being a noble god, who possesses and distributes wealth and riches, protecting it from the less desirable, corrupt peoples of the world. However, he is regarded as having a more temperamental side showcasing a strict and menacing personality, which sometimes causes him to be depicted as a demon. Because of these dichotomies, it is difficult to fully comprehend what Kubera looked like physically, as he is depicted in many different forms. It is also unclear as to what his familial lineage looks like completely. Despite these discrepancies, it is clear that Kubera was an important god in Hindu mythology.



Buswell, Robert E. Jr., and Donald S. Jr. Lopez (eds.) (2013) “Kubera”. The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Coulter, Charles Russell, and Patricia Turner (2000) Encyclopedia of Ancient Deities. Jefferson: McFarland and Company, Inc., Publishers.

Kinsley, David (1998) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten Mahavidyas. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited.

McLeish, Kenneth (1996) “Kubera”. In Myth: Myths and Legends of the World Explored. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Sutherland, Gail Hinich (1991) The Disguises of the Demon: The Development of the Yaksa in Hinduism and Buddhism. New York: State University of New York Press.

Wilkins, W.J. (2009) Hindu Mythology. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd.

Williams, George M. (2008) Handbook of Hindu Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press.

____(2016) “Kubera”. Encyclopaedia Britannica: Britannica Academic. Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc.

Werner, Karel (2005) Popular Dictionary of Hinduism. Taylor and Francis E-Library.


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Article written by: Kara Johnston (March 2016) who is solely responsible for its content


Mohini and the Churning of the Ocean of Milk

Mohini is a manifestation of Visnu in the myth of the churning of the ocean of milk. The myth starts out with a war between the devas (representation of good) and the asuras (representation of bad), but the devas were losing due to an unfair advantage on the asuras’ side (Glucklich 158). The asuras got help from Siva who had given them the ability to resurrect from the dead after the devas had killed them (Glucklich 158).  Because of this, the devas sought after Brahma to help them. He suggested that instead of fighting with the asuras they should partner up with them to summon Visnu to help them churn the ocean of milk in order to gain “the nectar of immortality” (Glucklich 158). Visnu plays a vital role in this myth because he manifests in many forms to help the devas and the asuras to churn the ocean. Visnu takes on forms to be: the foundation for the churning stick (a tortoise), the churning rope (a serpent), and of course Mohini (Kinsley 67).

Mohini (a female representation of Visnu); Delhi National Museum, 2017

While the ocean was churning, various other things emerge before the nectar of immortality. Once it appeared out of the ocean the devas drank, which is when Mohini appears as a seductive woman who distributes the nectar and beheads Rahu, an asura disguised as a deva, before he can swallow the nectar (Glucklich 159-160). With the nectar and Visnu’s weapons, the devas defeat the asuras as they retreated (Glucklich 160). Some believe that the nectar of immortality was a euphemism for Soma (Glucklich 160) while others interpret it as a “representation of the abundance of earth” (Kinsley 68). This shift between sexes often has bad or negative connotations in religious myths. Normally, when a god, or anyone for that matter, is turned into a different sex (usually men turning into women) it is form of punishment or a curse, with the exception of Mohini (Parasher-Sen 45). Earlier versions of the myth were short and did not use Mohini’s name but rather spoke of an anonymous woman (Visnu in disguise) who took back the immortality nectar that the asuras had stolen (Parasher-Sen 48). A different rendering of this myth believe that Mohini’s role was to cheat the asuras out of their share while distributing the immortality nectar (see Parasher-Sen 48). In the Vayu Purana version of the myth, Brahma says a mantra that brings Mohini out of the ocean, and when he sees her he is so pleased by her looks (Parasher-Sen 48).

Part of the churning the ocean myth is the chase of Mohini by Siva. There are several versions of this part of the myth. In the Bhagavata Purana, after seeing Mohini, Siva loses his senses and runs after Mohini. He becomes so overwhelmed with passion that only after he ejaculates, he realizes that Mohini is really just a manifestation of Visnu and that he had been fooled (Parasher-Sen 48).  In the Agni Purana once Mohini turns back into Visnu, Siva asks him to turn back into his female form. When he does, Siva becomes naked and grabs Mohini by the hair until she frees herself and runs away. He follows her and it is unclear if he catches her again but whereever his semen drops is where sacred places of lingas and gold appear (Parasher-Sen 48). These ‘connections’ between Mohini (Visnu) and Siva was said to have created a child (Aiyanar) which turns Mohini into a mother figure instead of a temptress (Parasher-Sen 49).

The final part of the myth is the binding of Visnu and Siva which creates Harihara. Harihara is an androgynous figure which is created by Visnu who is often, but not always, composed as feminine and Siva who is always depicted as masculine (Parasher-Sen 45). Even though Visnu reverts back to his masculine form before the binding with Siva, he is still considered to be the feminine side (Parasher-Sen 45). Although the Harihara is described as being androgynous, with Visnu possessing the female body parts, it is rare to find a depiction of this (Parasher-Sen 51). It is hard to find sculptures of Harihara with Mohini on the side of Visnu, although there are instances of this representation (Parasher-Sen 51). The feminine side (Visnu/Mohini) is often depicted holding either a wheel, a conch, or a mace in one hand and a crab in the other, while wearing a crown and crocodile earrings (Parasher-Sen 51). While the masculine side (Siva) is often holding a trident, sword, drum, rosary, battle-axe, or a skull while wearing serpent earrings and a ‘top-knot of hair’ with a crescent moon (Parasher-Sen 51).

Mohini can be considered many things: the seducer of Siva (Parasher-Sen 46), the nectar distributor (Parasher-Sen 48; Glucklich 159-160; and Kinsley 67), the mother of Aiyanar (Parasher-Sen 49), and the deceiver of asuras (Parasher-Sen 46). Some scholars think that Mohini is important to the Hindu culture because she helps show women in a more positive light, and that the transformation from a male to female is not always a curse but rather a gift (Parasher-Sen 56), and in the case of Mohini, a necessity to stop the bad from becoming more powerful than the good.


Glucklich, Ariel (2008) The Strides of Visnu. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kinsley, David R. (1986) Hindu Goddesses. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Parasher-Sen, Aloka (1999) “Images of Feminine Identity in Hindu Mythology and Art: The Case of Visnu-Mohini.” Indian Journal of Gender Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1: 43-60.







Vayu Purana                                                                                                                            


Bhagavata Purana

Agni Purana




Sculpture/Art Work





Article written by: Michaela Klein (February 2016) who is solely responsible for its content.

The Dikpalas

The Dikpalas (also called Lokapalas) are known in Hinduism as the guardians of the directions. Each god or goddess represents a specific cardinal direction and are used in ritual for various purposes. It is generally agreed upon that there are four main deities, which correspond to north, south, west, and east. However, it is common that those 4 deities are expanded to include deities for the southwest, southeast, northwest and northeast. For this article, I will include Yama, Agni, Vayu, Varuna, Indra, Nirrti, Kubera, Isana, Brahma, and Visnu (Morgan 65). The last two deities symbolize the two additional directions, the nadir and zenith. The kshetrapala was known as the guardian of the farmland, but has now become a deity who resides over a particular piece of land (Werner 65).

The dikpala that is associated with the Eastern direction is Indra. Indra is the god of rain and thunder (Perry 121). He is often depicted riding a white elephant, while holding a lightning bolt called a vajra. As the leader of the devas, or gods, he is believed to be constantly waging war on the asuras, or demons (Morgan 73). Indra is represented in the eastern direction of Hindu temples.

Agni is most commonly associated with the southeastern direction and is depicted with two heads. He is known as the god of fire and is responsible for leading man to the gods. He is thought to be represented by sacrificial fire, from which he takes offerings into the godly realm. In the Rg Veda, he is second in power to Indra. It can be interpreted that he represents both fire and water because he is said to be fire born from water (Werner 17). His bearded, pot bellied form is commonly seen riding a ram as a mount (Morgan 73).

Yama is the god of death or the underworld and represents the southern direction. In the Rg Veda, he is said to be the first mortal who died and became ruler over the underworld (Werner 119). He is thought to represent the element of fire and is positioned over the southern area of the temple.  He is often depicted riding a buffalo with a mace in his hand (Morgan 73).

Nirrti is the goddess of the southwestern direction, and is thought to represent poverty and corruptions. She is commonly depicted having dark skin, hair, and clothes (Kinsley 13). She is thought to be the embodiment of pain, and is often depicted riding a man as her mount with a sword in her hands (Morgan 73).

Varuna is the god who represents the western direction. He is known to be the god of water and the sea and is represented by the serpent snare (Acri and Jordaan 293). He is often seen together with Mitra and the two of them make up the gods of the oath or societal affairs. Alone, he is often depicted on an alligator-like mount holding a noose (Morgan 73).

Vayu is the god of the northwest and is known as lord of the winds. In the Rg Veda hymns, he is described as having exceptional beauty, but is not as prominent as others gods such as Indra or Agni. He is often depicted riding a stag, while holding a flag in his hand (Morgan 73).

Kubera is the god associated with the northern direction and is the lord of wealth. He is often depicted wearing many jewels, being overweight and having a winged conch shell. His vehicle is sometimes a man or horse. He is the treasurer of Laksmi, who is the goddess of good fortune and prosperity (Morgan 73).

Isana is associated with the god Siva and represents the northeast direction. Isana is a form of the god Siva, and represents knowledge and prosperity. This god is known as the one from whom the universe originates. He is often depicted riding a bull and holding a trident (Morgan 73).

It is worth mentioning that sometimes there are two other gods included in the dikpalas. Brahma is a god that is associated with the zenith, the upward direction. He is commonly understood as having a significant impact in the Hindu creation story. He can be seen riding a goose as his mount and has four faces and arms (Buhnemann 65). The zenith is represented between the northeast and east. Visnu is the god that is associated with the nadir, or downward direction. He is highly significant in Hinduism and his incarnations include Rama and Krsna. As the god of preservation, he is known for preserving the universe during its endless cycles of rebirth. He can be depicted as a pale blue being which has four arms. It is common for objects such as a lotus, conch, discus, prayer beads or a manuscript to be visible in his hands. The nadir is represented between the southwest and south direction (Buhnemann 65).

The Dikpalas are used in Hinduism as guardians of the cardinal directions and guardians of the sacred worship space. The first six gods mentioned above are older gods that appeared in the Vedas, while Kubera and Isana are from folk cults predating the Vedas (Morgan 72-73). In temples, each corresponding god is represented in each corresponding cardinal direction. For example, Yama would be portrayed in the southern area of the temple and Indra in the East.

A Hindu practitioner would salute the guardians during the beginning of the ritual.  This is commonly done in parts, depending on how elaborate the ritual is. First, each guardian is invoked into his or her specific cardinal point starting with Indra in the east. Next, the attributes of the directional guardians can be invoked (Buhnemann 65). They correspond as follows: East – the thunderbolt (vajra), southeast – the spear (sakti), south – the staff (danda), southwest – the sword (khadga), west – the noose (pasa), northwest – the goad (ankusa), north – the mace (gada), northeast – the trident (trisula), zenith – the lotus (padma), and nadir – the wheel (cakra) (Buhnemann 65).

Each of the eight directional diety’s consort, vehicle, and directional elephant can be named as well. Respectively, they are named: Indra – Saci/Airavata (his mount is already a directional elephant), Agni – Svaha/the ram/Pundarika, Yama – Varahi/the buffalo/Vamana, Nirrti – Khadgini/the corpse/Kumuda, Varuna – Varuni/the sea monster/Anjana, Vayu – Vayavi/the deer/Puspadanta, Kubera – Kauberi/the man/Sarvabhauma, Isana – Isani/the bull/Supratika. Depending on the practitioner or the type of ritual being conducted, some or all of the above may be used (Buhnemann 65-66).



Werner, Karel (1997) A Popular Dictionary of Hinduism. Surrey: Curzon

Perry, Edward (1885) “Indra In The Rig-Veda”. Journal of The American Oriental Society 11: 117-208

Morgan, Kenneth (1987) The Religion of The Hindus. Delhi:  Shri Jainendra Press

Kinsley, David (1987) Hindu Goddesses: Visions of The Divine Feminine in The Hindu Religious Tradition. Delhi:  University of California Press

Jordaan, Acri, and Andrea (2012) “The Dikpalas of Ancient Java Revisited: A New Identification for the 24 directional deities on the Siva temple of the Loro Jonggrang complex”. Brill 168: 274-313.

Buhnemann, Gudrun (2003) Mandalas and Yantras in The Hindu Traditions. Leiden:  Brill


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Article written by: Meghan Gausman (March 2016), who is solely responsible for its content.

Lord Dattatreya

    The origins of Lord Dattatreya’s myths and stories are first found in two great epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. However, it is in the Puranas that we find the detailed legendary character which evolves. In the Puranas we learn that Dattatreya was born to Anasuya and her husband rsi Atri as an incarnation of the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva (Rigopoulos 1). Lord Dattatreya is a male deity with three heads which represents the Trimurti: Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. He is portrayed with four dogs in front which symbolise the Vedas and a cow behind, which stands for Mother Earth. In the Mahanubhava panth, Lord Dattatreya is worshipped as a single- headed deity (Joshi 130-161). Lord Dattatreya is mostly worshipped in the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat. Lord Dattatreya is viewed by his devotees as the Guru of Gurus and initiator of Navnath sampradaya.

The Avdhuta Gita is one of the famous writings which are associated with him. This book consists of 289 slokas which are divided into eight chapters. It is based on Vedanta philosophy (Joshi 58). This book was very influential in the western part of India and was widely used by the Navnath sampradaya to spread the Dattatreya cult. The first chapter deals with the condition of the human soul. The other chapters describe the nature of the reality that everything is Brahman and the   innermost self (atman) is one. There is no duality; Brahman is a universal soul. The eighth chapter recommends the avoidance of the women: It describes the harm done by women to man on the path to liberation. Avdhuta Gita forbids the pursuit of worldly pleasures to those who want to enjoy the complete happiness or bliss. Even today the book is popular among the devotees of Dattatreya in Maharashtra (Rigopoulos 192-220).

The Guru Caritra is credited for the rise in the Dattatreya cult in modern era. Until the sixteenth century Lord Dattatreya used to represent Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. From that period onwards, he developed two incarnations Shripad Shri Vallabaha and Narshima Saraswati. The popularity of the Dattatreya cult grew among the masses as indicated by his frequent appearances in Marathi Literature (Raeside 498). The Guru Caritra is the most influential text in the Dattatreya sampradya or his cult. The book claims its mystical origins and it describes the life stories of two avatars: Shripad Shri Vallabaha and Shri Narshima Saraswati who were born in Pithpur, Andhra Pradesh and Karanja, Maharashtra (Rigopoulos 110). The Guru Caritra was written in Marathi by Saraswati Gangadhar in 1550. It is divided into fifty-one chapters, including the avataranika which is the set of instructions for reading it. The text is a conversation between two people: Siddha muni and Namdharaka. Chapters 5 to 10 describe the Sripad Vallabha`s life story and the miraculous powers he used to help people. Chapters 20 to 51 describe the life story of Shri Narshima Saraswati and the miracles he performed. The Guru Caritra is a book which promotes orthodoxy, the importance of performing rituals and dharma (Rigopoulos 109).

The story of the birth of Shripad Shri Vallabha takes place in a village called Pithapur near Rajmahendri in Andhra pradesh there lived a Brahmin couple, Alparaja and his pativrata wife Sumiti. The Brahmin was well versed in the Vedas and both of them had a strong belief in god. Once there was a sraddha ceremony in their house which was performed to please their ancestors. On that day a renouncer came to their door and asked for alms. Sumiti immediately gave the alms to the renouncer, despite the fact that she was not supposed to offer alms on that day. Due to this, the renouncer who disguised himself appeared in his real form as Lord Dattatreya. He was very pleased with the act of Sumiti and he offered a boon to her. The Brahmin and his wife had two sons who were blind and lepers. She asked Lord Dattatreya to be born as her child. Lord Dattatreya granted the boon and after a few months she had a son who had a shining face likes the sun and he was very beautiful. The Brahmin couple gave him a name of Shripad which is one of the names of Lord Dattatreya. Shripad grew up very well there and at the age of sixteen said he would like to renounce worldly pleasures and go to the Himalayas to initiate and guide a few saints. Sumiti was very sad after hearing these words and she tried her best to convince him to stay with them. Shripad renounced worldly pleasures and made his way towards the holy places like Banaras, Badrinath and Gokrana. Before he left he cured his two brothers and blessed them with every-lasting wealth and prosperous lives. On his way he helped people such as Ambika and her son who was mentally handicapped. Shripad also promised Ambika that he would be her son in her next birth. In Kuravapur, Sripad gave a boon to a washer man that he would be born in a Muslim family in his next birth and would be a ruler. Shripad also mentioned to him that he would meet him again when he would be Narshima Saraswati in his next birth (Bhagvant 59-126). [see Sri Guru Caritra in Marathi Ch. from 5 to 10. It also describes the stories in detail including the story of Gokrana Shiva linga, the Brahmin killed by thieves and who was brought back to life].

It is believed by the devotees in the Dattatreya sampradaya that Lord Dattatreya is reborn from time to time to guide his devotees to salvation. The stories related to Sri Narshima Saraswati who is considered as the second avatar of Lord Dattatreya in the Guru Caritra are as follows: Shri Narshima Saraswati was born in town Karanja, Maharashtra in a Brahmin family. His parent’s names were Madhav and Amba. His given name was Narhari. Prior to his upanayana he just uttered the “OM” sound and nothing else. After performing the upanayana he is reputed to have spoken and recited all the hymns of the Vedas. At this time he was only seven years old and people were amazed by his knowledge. Narhari decided to renounce the materialist world and its pleasures and he also renounced his family at a very young age. He promised his parents that he would return after twenty years of penance. On his way to Kasi Narhari met many sannyasins and he guided them. Narhari got a diksa from an old sannyasin Krsna Saraswati and he was given a new name, Narshimha Saraswati, to keep the linage of his guru. On his way towards Gangapur, he guided many people on the spiritual path, healed and gave boons to many. Narshimha Saraswati lived for few years at Narsobawadi and Audhumbar before he decided to spend his rest of his life at Gangapur. He accomplished his mission by showing people the right way and re-establishing the correct dharma (Joshi 70-72).

There is a story in the Guru Caritra which shows his character when he helps a Dalit man to defeat two learned arrogant Brahmins in a Vedic recitation competition. As per the Guru Caritra, he helped all the people without any discrimination regarding their caste or religions. Narshima Saraswati used his miraculous powers to represent himself as one who had come for humanity to save them from ignorance. His teachings are based on doing the good karma, observing the vratas which are believed to purify the body and soul and give the observer what he wishes. Narshimha Saraswati`s main mission was to awake the people towards the reality. The Guru Caritra tries to list that the miracles which Narshimha Saraswati performed, such as waking up a dead Brahmin, healing lepers and giving a boon to a sixty year old lady to give birth to her first child. Blessing his disciples to provide food to thousands of people, curing the smallpox of a Muslim king were among other miracles attributed to him. Every miracle he performed had a message to the people that there was something deeper beyond the worldly pleasures and one should find the reality of existence (Rigopoulos 117). [During this period his fame and glory was spread all over Maharashtra and he was recognized as a great sage by Hindu sections as well as Muslim rulers in India. After spending twenty years in Gangapur in 1459 he left for ShriShaila Mountain and was never seen again (see Sri Guru Caritra Marathi)].

Today Gangapur, which lies in Karnataka state, is considered the center place by Dattatreya worshipers. The Gangapur ksetra lies near the sangama of two great rivers, Bhima and Amarja. In the Dattatreya temple there is a small room in which the Nirguna-Padukas are kept, these padukas are believed to be certain signs of the never ending presence of Lord Dattatreya in them. The Nirguna-Padukas were the holiest thing to be worshiped in Dattatreya sampradya from many centuries. In this temple there is a little window from where the devotees take darshan of Dattatreya (Rigopoulos 119). This place is also famous for healing people who are possessed by evil spirits. The sufferer is generally taken to the temple when the prayers or artis are performed at certain times of day. It is believed that evil spirit cannot stand in front of the presence of god and leaves the sufferer. This is another reason why Dattatreya temples at Audhumbar, Narsobavadi and Gangapur are famous as powerful healing centers. There are millions of locals who visit these sites to be free from the evil supernatural powers such as the possession by sprits, black magic. These places are known as jagrit sthanas that is an awakened deity (Rigopoulos 122). [See Rigopoulos 121 where he references M.S. Mathe and describes in detail the worship of the Nirguna-Padukas. Also see Rigopoulos 123 where he says it is not clear why these places got importance of healing centers].

DattaJayanti is one of the Hindu festivals which is associated with Lord Dattatreya. “This festival is celebrated on the fourteenth day of the full moon of month of marga-sirsa according to the Hindu calendar” (Rigopoulos 122). The DattaJayanti is certainly one of the popular festivals in Maharashtra. But there is no evidence in the Guru Caritra where it instructs or emphasises to celebrate the festival. This festival has been celebrated since ancient times and no one knows exactly when it was celebrated for the first time. Devotees believe that Dattatreya was born on this day and it is celebrated as his birthday. The festival lasts for a day and involves his devotees coming together, make prayers and offerings to him.[ see Rigopoulos 132 where he says it is unclear to scholars which is the right day , but he references the dasopant caritra which says Dattatreya`s birthday is on Monday . However tradition believes it’s on Wednesday].

Today Lord Dattatreya has his own unique place among the Hindu gods and in hearts of his devotees, despite being a very ancient avatara of the Trimurti. Lord Dattatreya is regarded as the immortal guru who answers the prayers of his devotees and helps them to prosper in their material life as well as spiritual path. The various sampradayas and saints associated with Lord Dattatreya are equally helpful in spreading his glory and uplifting the lives of the believers and removing their sorrows. It is believed by his devotees he grants vision in dreams and comes to fulfil their wishes and desires (Rigopoulos 253-255). The Guru Caritra stands as a central text in Dattatreya sampradaya which describe the life stories of two avataras. The NirgunaPadukas at Gangapur stand as main pilgrimage site.




Bahadur, Sri Jaya Chamarajendra (1982) DATTATREYA: The Way and the Goal. London: Coombe Springs Press.

Bhagvant, Yogiraj (2002) Sri Guru Caritra in Marathi. Pune: Rajesh Prakashan.

Chetanandnda, Swami (1984) Trans Avadhuta Gita of Dattatreya. Calcutta: Advaita Ashram.

Dhere, R.C (1964) Datta Sampradayaca Itihas 2nd edition. Pune: Nilakanth Prakashan.

Joshi, Hariprasad Shivprasad (1965) Origin and development of Dattatreya worship in India. Baroda: Maharaj Sayajirao University of Baroda Press.

Mate, M.S (1988) Gangapur Dattatreya: In Temples and Legends of Maharashtra. Bombay: Bhartyiya Vidhya Bhavan.

Raeside, I.M.P (1982) “Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London”,  Dattatreya: Vol. 45, No. 3: 489-500.

Rigopoulos, Antonio (2000) Dattatreya: The Immortal Guru, Yogin, and Avtara. Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications.


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Written by Abhijeet Shende (Spring 2013), who is solely responsible for its content.