In the Indian tradition, time is seen as non-linear – past, present and future co-exist in each generation. This theory underpins the doctrines of karma and samsara, the cycles of causality and rebirth. Indian religion has evolved over many centuries – its gods and goddesses have not been discarded but modified, and their attributes and roles have become fluid. It is this fluidity that has resulted in a rich body of stories and one of the world’s oldest unbroken traditions – India’s earliest religious texts are the four Vedas (‘books of knowledge’), which date from circa 1000 BC. Present-day India, as diverse in cultures and topography as ever, is imbued with ideas that can be traced back through millennia. There are few distinctions made between mind and matter, or humankind and nature. Hinduism, the most widespread religion in India (although just one of seven major faiths with Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism), is at once also a science, a lifestyle and a social system. The vast number of Hindu gods and goddesses can be bewildering, but beyond this variety lies unity, expressed in the unchanging, indestructible divine reality known as brahman that, according to Hindus, exists in all things. Everything in the universe, every creature and plant, is a manifestation of brahman and thus contains an element of the divine.
The multiplicity of Hindu deities merely reflects different aspects of the divine unity, and a symbol of the underlying connection is the trimurti, or triad, of the gods Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma. These gods are sometimes shown as three faces on a single statue symbolising three distinct functions: Brahma as the creator, Vishnu as the protector and Shiva as the destroyer of all things at the end of each cycle of time. Significantly, each deity derives his power from his goddess consort – Sarasvati, Lakshmi and Parvati, respectively. The key to understanding Indian philosophy’s different schools of thought lies not in logic but in the convention of vidya (unitary thought), which seeks to understand phenomena as a single system in which God and humankind are one. Enlightenment is believed to lie in realising infinite harmony with the universe. One of the later Hindu sacred texts, the Upanishads, expresses it thus: atman (the vital force in all things) is brahman (absolute truth). Another significant feature of Indian belief is the desire to transcend the chaos and unpredictability of the world in order to find the truth, nirvana (spiritual ecstasy) or enlightenment. From the earliest times, evidence suggests that people believed that they might achieve this goal through the practice of meditation.
The immense Indian subcontinent encompasses an astonishing diversity of geographical regions. The vast mountain range of the Himalayas inspired awe in all those who beheld it. Its peaks appeared to reach up out of the human world to touch the realms of the gods, and the range was regarded as sacred by both Tibetans and Indians as a transitional domain between the human and heavenly realms. Mount Meru, the mythical axis of the cosmos, lay at its centre. One legend credited the mighty god Indra with the formation of the mountains: it was said that they had been a herd of flying elephants who had displeased him. All the gods were thought to make sacrifices on the mountains, but Shiva was particularly associated with them. Mount Kailasa was his mythological paradise and, as an ascetic, his deep meditation on this mountain ensured the continued existence of the world.
The great river Ganges, which rises in the Himalayas and flows across north-east India, is sacred to the Hindus, who believe that bathing in her water will enable them to reach Indra’s heaven, Svarga, on Mount Meru. They also revere the holy city of Prayaga (now Allahabad), where the Ganges is joined by her two tributaries, the Yamuna and the subterranean Sarasvati. This is a place of pilgrimage so sacred that a tiny piece of its soil is believed to be capable of wiping away sin. Each of these great rivers was deified as a goddess, of which the most holy was Ganga, daughter of the mountain god Himavat and an aspect of the great mother goddess, Mahadevi. She was said to have emerged from the toe of Vishnu, and to have descended from heaven to cleanse the earth of the accumulated ashes of the dead. The ashes of the faithful are thus still committed to her care.
In the second millennium BC the early Indus Valley civilisation collapsed under the constant incursions of the Aryan invaders, a group of Bronze Age tribes. The Aryans believed in many gods, spirits and demons, many of whom are still venerated in India to this day, such as Indra, god of thunder; Varuna, keeper of order; Agni, a fire god; Surya, a sun god; and Yama, king of the dead. Followers of Buddhism and Jainism, two religions which arose in India in the sixth century BC, were also dedicated to the use of meditative techniques as a means of release from the cycle of death and rebirth. For Jains, the path to liberation demanded that stringent austerities be practised, while Buddhists emphasised the inward struggle. The adoption of many deities from other religions helped Buddhism in particular to spread and flourish. Within India, Buddhism was largely reabsorbed into Hinduism: the Buddha himself was said to have come into being as the ninth incarnation of the great Hindu god Vishnu. The continual absorption and assimilation of different beliefs is perhaps the dominant characteristic of Indian religion. Certainly, it has helped give rise to such a rich and varied mythology.