Hindu mythology explained

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Himanshu Bhatt

Because Hindu history is so ancient, going back to the prehistoric eras of Neolithic, Chalcolithic, and Bronze ages, the need to carry history forward in the form on myths became essential as not everybody was literate and needed to pass down historical events orally. The Indian Subcontinent has civilizations, such as Indus Valley Culture, Black and red ware culture, Thrissur culture, and Thoothukudi (1800 BCE) culture.

The meanings of stories have to be interpreted in the proper context and judgement must be made when to take a story literally and when figuratively. For example, the Vamana Purana[1] states that sages Pirambara and Markendaya brought the Sarasvati River down from Svarga to Puskara city and the Kurukshetra region. This means that the rishis built 2 important tirths or (places of pilgrimage) along the course of the river at Puskara and Kurukshetra, and that the rivers origins are in Himalayas (i.e., Svarga-loka.)

Even on flags, animal symbols were the most common icons. Asura Bali's flag contained a Serpent, Hanuman's of a monkey, Krishna's varying between Hanuman's flag in the Mahabharata and a flag of Garuda during his war with Bali, and Skanda's is of a hen.

Garuda Valley was actually a place on the Sutlej River. The Zhang Zhung Kingdom's capital is mentioned in Tibetan texts as Khyunglung Ngulkhar - the Silver Palace of the Garuda Valley.[2]

Totemic demonyms

Hindu mythology explained
Achala Muni was born of an elephant, and Kesa Pingala of an owl, and Agastya Muni from the Agasti flower, and Kushika Muni from the kusa grass, and Kapila from a monkey, and Gautam Rishi from a creeper that entwined a saul tree, and Drona Acharya from an earthen pot, and Trittiri Rishi from a partridge, and Parswa Rama from dust, and Sringa Rishi from a deer, and Vyasa Muni from a fisherwoman...
Hindu mythology explained

—Ashu Ghosha, Vajra Suchi [3]

Hindus since the prehistoric ages have symbolically named their children after animals. Even demonyms of gotras and tribes are totemic, such as those mentioned in the Rig Veda and other early scriptures as the Upanishads. Notable in the Rig Veda are the Gotamas (Oxen), Kaushikas (Owls), Mandukyas (Frog-sons), Paravatas (Turtle-doves), Sunakas (Doggies), Vatans (Calves), and Vatsavats (Possessing calves.)[4] Some aggressor invader tribes of the Dasarajna War whom King Sudas and his Bharata tribe had triumphed over were the Ajas (Goats), Alinas (Bees), Kikatas (Horses), Matsyas (Fish), Pārāvata (Turtle-doves), Simyu (Lion cubs), and Visanin (Horned.) Other tribes mentioned in the Rig Veda include the Abhira (Serpents) and Nagas (Serpents.)

Further, 'Kashyapa' means turtoise while 'Matanga' means elephant.

Furthermore animal emblems remained very popular in use by monarchs on their dynasty's flags, including Chola Dynasty's tiger flag, Ratlam's Hanuman flag, and Seraikella's Garuda, lion, and swans flag.

Hybrid iconography of people in Hindu history

Hanuman depicted as a monkey

Krishna and Arjuna during the Mahabharata War on the chariot mounted with Hanuman's flag.

Hanuman belonged to the Kishkindha tribe whose flag has a monkey as its emblem. In fact the Jain Ramayanas call the Kishkindha Kingdom to which Hanuman belonged "Vanara-dhvaja Rajya" (Monkey-flag Kingdom.)

Hanuman of course was an Adivasi (tribal) soldier of the Kishkindha Dynasty.

In the Jain Ramayanas, such as the Paumarcharyam and Trishashtishalaka-Purusha Charitra, neither Hanuman nor Anjana (his mother) are monkeys but mere humans, as are the rakshasas and people such as, Jambavan and Garuda. They mention that the Vidyadharas sport monkey flags.

Vishnu's avatars depicted as animal-like


Matsya was the person who helped secure Prince Vaivasvata Manu during the deluge that endangered the life of the monarch. Matsya means Fish and he is depicted as such but he was a fisherman who would have known where to guide the boat of Manu during the flood.


Kurma was a turtle in afloat in a sea atop of whom was mounted Mt. Mandara as the Devas and Asuras twist Vasuki by pulling in a tug of war. Kurma means turtle, as does the name Kashyapa. Puranas refer to Kurma also as Kashyapa. We know that several seers had their tirthas and ashrams at the foot of a mountain. What this story is saying is that at the bottom of Mt. Mandara by Sage Kashyapa's hermitage the Devas and Asuras partook in their competition for supremacy.


Varaha was the name of the soldier that defeated the Daitya Hiranyaksha. The name itself means boar. The story entails a princess named Bhu (Earth) being kidnapped by Hiranyaksha and held captive in the Daitya realm of Rasātala. Hence, the story was condensed to a demon having taken 'the earth' to the underworld, and a boar then came to fight the demon to save the world.


Narasimha had slain Hiranyaksha's brother Hiranyakashipu. He is depicted as half-man and half-lion. Either Narasimha was indeed the soldier's first name or his full name was Nara Simha. Lion is a common name whether it's 'Simha', 'Singh', 'Singhania', or another world. Nara itself is a name which many Hindus are given. Nara was also name to another Vishnu avatar. It is noteworthy that Narasimha was also a Sarabha, a tribe native to the Karakoram (Hari-varṣa), where Hiranyaksha ruled from. Sarabhas were associated with lions and griffons.


Hayagriva (also called Hayasiras) is usually depicted as half-man-half-horse because the name itself means horse-necked. It is a common name of Hindus, even today. Hayagriva was a Kinnara, a tribe which has existed in the Himalayas per Puranic accounts. They have been depicted as horse-headed (and as half-birds too) by scriptures because the horse is 1 of the totemic symbols of this tribe. Hayagriva and Hayaśirā are also the names of one of the descendants of Danu because a Danava had married a Hayagriva.[5]

Other notable, Hayagriva-Kinnaras include Turanga-vaktra (or Turanga-vadana) the horse-faced charioteer of Indra's Swarga.

Ganesh depicted with elephant head

Symbolic representations of animal headdresses and masks from various cultures, similar to how Indians depicted Ganesh.

The traditional stories about Ganesh having acquired an 'elephant-head' externally from Shiva having placed it onto Ganesh are popular.

In the world's tribal communities, animal headdresses have been popular, especially for priests to act as intermediaries to communicate between human and nature.

We know that Gajasura was slain in battle by Shiva and his 'head' was placed atop Ganesh's body. This story is saying that the headdress crown of the Gaja tribe's chief Gajasura was taken by Shiva after the former's defeat and Shiva crowned Ganesh as the chief of the Ganas. Hence, Ganesh's title 'Ganapati' (Lord of the Ganas.)

Other venerated persons from Ganesh's tribe are Manibhadra, who is also worshiped in Jainism, and Rakta Jambhala, who is worshiped exclusively in Vajrayana Buddhism. Because Rakta Jambhala is of the Gana tribe, he too is called Ganapati.

Skanda also had ancestry of the Ganas, which is why he too like Ganesh is depicted with an elephant head. Hence, one of his titles is 'Ganaswami'.

Guhyakas as half-birds and half-elephants

Guhyakas, like Yakshas, are normally described as attendants of Kubera.

They are of a few kinds; Ganas and Mattamayurkas are the major tribes among them.

Revanta, their chief, is known from the Rig Veda to have been a son of Surya.

Because the Guhas live in Vetala (Uttarakhand) and Skanda was one of them, scriptures also name him 'Guha' and Guhapriyā. They are associated with birds. Guhas have historically also been called Mattamayurkas (Wild Peacock) as the peacock is usually the bird associated with them and the kingdom they controlled was called Bahudhanyaka.

Skanda also had ancestry of the Ganas, which is why he too like Ganesh is depicted with an elephant head. Hence, one of his titles is 'Ganaswami'.

Guhya have also been described as half-birds and half-horses.

Another popular Guhyaka is Sahkhacuda, an attendant of Kubera.

Garudas as half-birds

Garuda was the name of a sub-tribe among the Kinnara who were descended from Kadru, a wife of Rishi Kashyapa. Hence, this was a totemic title. The person Garuda is depicted as a half-man-half-bird. Garudas have also been called Suparnas because Suparna was an important Garuda.

The Ramayana mentions Gridhas or Suparnas (Beautifully-winged.) Suparna is also mentioned in the Rig Veda as a sun-bird.

Whereas Kinnaras are mainly depicted as horse-headed (Hayagrivas) in Vaishnava scriptures, in Buddhist Jatakas they are usually Garudas.

Sarabhas as griffons

Sarabha incarnation of Shiva.

Sarabha is also a totemic tribe name. The most notable of whom is Sarabha, also known as Suluvesa who fought Narasimha after the latter had gotten out of control.

The Shabara-swamin is a commentary by sage Yudhishthira Mimamsaka on the Mimimsa Sutra of Rishi Jaimini. The Mimamsa-Shabara-Bhashyam is a commentary by Halligrama Subha Shastri.

Just as Singh and other lion-associated surnames are used by mainly Indians of northwestern regions, so is Sarabha. An example is Kartar Singh Sarabha, a Sikh member of the Ghadar Party who was martyred fighting for the cause of India's independence in the 20th century.

More dynastic totemic iconography

Flag Dynasty Region Period of governing
India: Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka

Kandyan Lanka
Kanker Chhattisgarh
Keonjhar Odisha
Khairagarh Chhattisgarh
Khilchipur Madhya Pradesh
Kochin Kerala
Kota Rajasthan
Lunavada Gujarat
Narsinghgarh Madhya Pradesh
Nayagarh Odisha
Pandya Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka
Pal Lahara.jpg
Pal Lahara Odisha
Pudukkottai Tamil Nadu
Rajgarh Madhya Pradesh
Ratlam Madhya Pradesh
Seraikella Jharkhand

See also


  1. Vamana Purana 37.16.23
  2. A Handbook Of Tibetan Culture By Graham Coleman
  3. Vajra Suchi by Asvaghosha TRANSACTIONS OF THE ROYAL ASIATIC SOCIETY OF GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND [Transactions, Volume III] [London, J. Murray and Parbury, Allen & Co.] [1835] {Scanned and edited by Christopher M. Weimer, May 2002}
  4. P. 164 Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics: Mundas-Phrygians By James Hastings, John Alexander Selbie
  5. Srimad Bhagavatam 6.6.29-31