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Following the Flower of Hinduism: Part II Monkey-Headed Gods and All
June 17, 2000

What's Up With All the Elephants?

Well, although the elephant does not hold the same sacred space as the cow, one of the most favorite of all the Hindu Gods, Ganesh, has an elephant head. The story has it that one day Shiva's wife Parvati was home alone bathing while Shiva had gone out. She made a figure of a little boy and gave it life, and told the young boy to guard the house. The boy was not to let anyone in while she was bathing.

Meanwhile, Shiva returns home, but the boy, merely following his orders, refuses to let him enter his house. Now, Shiva, who is well known for his short temper, is one god you definitely would NOT want to upset. In a lapse of rage he cut off the boy's head. Parvati came out crying, screaming at Shiva for killing her beloved boy, so Shiva set out to find a replacement head. The first living creature he saw was an elephant, so he used this head to restore life to Ganesh, and the boy with the elephant head became the beloved son of Shiva and Parvati.

Now that you were a good student, and stuck through learning about the underlying philosophies of Hinduism, you're ready for the fun stuff: Hinduism as it is popularly practiced today. This is the Hinduism you've perhaps seen and wondered about. A Hinduism of fascinating mythology, and seemingly endless gods and goddesses accompanied by seemingly endless festivals and rituals.

As we've already learned, these gods and goddesses were primarily created to personalize the brahman, or the universal soul. There are hundreds of Hindu Gods, which is why Hinduism has long since earned the reputation of being a polytheist religion, but in actuality all of these gods and goddesses are representations of different aspects of one supreme, universal God.

At the heart of it all is the Hindu trilogy: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Unfortunately for Brahma, he had a curse placed upon him long ago by a wandering sage and thus he is not worshipped. There is only one temple dedicated to Brahma, and unless you travel all the way to Pushkar in the deserts of Rajasthan, you won't find Brahma being worshipped in public. He is the least approachable of the Hindu gods and his powers are thought to be infinite and a bit incomprehendible to us mere mortals.

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The colorful pictures make learning about Hinduism fun!
Vishnu and Shiva, on the other hand, have huge followings and most Hindu stories or deities you may have heard of probably have something to do with one of these two powerful Gods. Kids all over India and Nepal grow up reading comic style books depicting different adventures of Vishnu and Shiva.

Vishnu is usually associated with right action and dignity. Since he is the preserver, it is his role to protect and sustain all that is good in the world. This is no easy task, so Vishnu reappears in different incarnations at different times throughout the history of the world to restore order, kind of like the messiahs and prophets you learn about in western religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

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Vishnu shown here as the likeable hero, Krishna
It is said that Vishnu will appear in this universe 10 different times, in 10 different incarnations, or "das avatar." The first incarnation was a fish, then a tortoise, then a boar. The fourth was a 1/2 man- 1/2 lion creature, the fifth was a dwarf., and the sixth was an axe-wielding man. The seventh was the dutiful king Rama, while the eighth was the clever and likable hero Krishna. Hindus believe the ninth incarnation of Vishnu was even more progressed than Krishna, the enlightened man, lord Buddha himself, and now the final incarnation of Vishnu will be Kalki. From fish to amphibian to land animal....from land animal to part man to simple man, and so on to the enlightened being....wait a second, this sounds familiar! What's remarkable is that Vishnu's 10 incarnations follow Darwin's theory of evolution, but were written thousands of years before Darwin, or the Scientific Process for that matter, were even born!

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Shiva the destroyer
The final God of the Hindu trilogy, is Shiva. Shiva is the destroyer, and is associated with death and destruction. When I was younger, I used to be afraid of Shiva, and couldn't understand how everyone worshipped him as such a kind and loving God. Aren't death and destruction bad things? I was too young then to realize the different way in which Hindus view these ideas. In Hinduism it is believed that everything, both good and bad, must be destroyed to make way for new things-without death, growth and rebirth would not be possible. Thus Shiva, the destroyer, is often accredited with being the creator too, for it is he who ultimately clears the way for creation. Shiva is believed to be the first yogi (or practitioner of yoga), and is often depicted sitting in deep meditation on a mountain top in the Himalayas.

From his head flows the sacred river the Ganga and he has a serpent around his neck. His hair is long and matted, and he wears only a cloth around his waist, and today many ascetic men wander around India and Nepal following his model. They follow Shiva's model-- that material concerns of this world are only an extreme illusion to distract you from meditation and ultimate enlightenment.

Who's the Monkey?!?

The monkey-headed God, is none other than Hanuman, Hinduism's ultimate symbol of devotion. Hanuman, a king amongst the monkeys, became a loyal devotee and companion to Lord Rama. In fact it is said that he started praying to Lord Rama before this incarnation of Vishnu was even born. One of the favorite all time stories passed down from generation to generation in India and Nepal is the Ramayana which depicts the adventures of Lord Ram struggling to restore justice in the face of evil monsters and greedy rulers. I used to eagerly await bedtime to hear another story from my grandmother about how Hanuman remained by Rama's side even when faced with 10 headed demons, or how he uprooted an entire mountain and flew it over great distances to save Rama's beloved wife Sita.

The ancient Hindu texts describe the world going through different ages, or yugs, and we are now currently in the Kali Yug. This is the time when the world is supposed to climax. We inhabitants of the earth will progress to such extreme that we will eventually lead to our own ruin. At this point Vishnu will reincarnate to the world as Kalki who will save the world by ending it. Shiva will step in to aid in the complete destruction of the world, when a big flood is predicted to come and clear away everything. Some believe that all that will remain will be a seed. Finally Brahma will take this seed and use it to create the world all over again, fresh and new.

Requires "Flash" and is a 553k download.

In this 'virtual' puja, (or worship) to Ganesh you will find some of the major aspects of any Hindu puja. First ring the bell as Hindus do upon entering any temple. Then click on the flower to adorn Ganesh with flowers. Then click on the colorful powders to mark the image with the auspicious mark on the forehead (don't forget to smear some red on your forehead too!) Next light some sweet incense, and finally click on the flame to light the purifying haarti. Congratulations! You've just completed your first virtual puja!



p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Kavitha - Following the Flower of Hinduism: Part I - The Mysteries
Jasmine - Hug A Tree - It May Be Your Last Chance
Team - Making a Difference: Wanna Go To Burma? Think Again!
Team - Life in Tibet Could Be Better

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