The striking similarities between Greek and Indian mythology Although the general topic of my interpretation presentation and my 5 essays is Greek mythology and considering how vast Greek mythology is I could talk strictly about Greek mythology in all 5 of them; I decided to base my first essay on the similarities between Indian and Greek mythology since I felt simply talking about Greek mythology would become too monotonous. I will begin my essay with a basic introduction of what mythology means and what Greek and Indian mythology comprises of.
The term mythology usually refers either to a collection of myths (especially one belonging to a particular religious or cultural tradition) or to the study of myths. However, the word myth itself has multiple definitions. According to the Merriam- Webster dictionary “Myth: “1a: a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon. 2a: a popular belief or tradition that has grown up around something or someone, especially: one embodying the ideals and institutions of a society or segment of society. 2b: an unfounded or false notion. 3: a person or thing having only an imaginary or unverifiable existence. 4: the whole body of myths.”(1) With regard to the study of culture and religion, scholars have derived a few other definitions.
For example, the Classicist Robert Graves defines a myth as “whatever religious or heroic legends are so foreign to a student’s experience that he cannot believe them to be true.”(2) Another classicist, GS Kirk, rejects the notion that all myths are religious or sacred. In the category of “myth”, he includes many legendary accounts that are “secular” for all practical purposes. (3) According to Alan Dundes (a folklorist), a myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind assumed their present form. (4) Robert A. Segal, professor of theories of religion at the University of Lancaster, defines “myth” broadly as any story whose “main figures [are] personalities — divine, human, or even animal. (5) Greek mythology can be defined as those myths and teachings that belong to the ancient Greece.
It revolves around gods and goddesses, other immortals, demigods, monsters or other mythical creatures, extraordinary heroes, and the origins and significance of their own cultural practices. Greek mythology is represented in a large collection of narratives and representational arts. The only general mythographical handbook to survive the ancient Greek times was the Library of Pseudo-Apollodorus. This work tries to resolve the contradictory tales of the poets and provides a grand summary of traditional Greek mythology and heroic legends. The oldest known and most famous Greek literary sources, Homer’s epic poems Iliad and Odyssey, focus on the Trojan War and its aftermath.
Two poems by Hesiod, the Theology and the Works and Days, contain accounts of the genesis of the world, the succession of divine rulers, the succession of human ages, the origin of human woes, and the origin of sacrificial practices. Myths are also preserved in the Homeric Hymns, in fragments of epic poems of the Epic Cycle, in lyric poems, in writings of scholars and poets of the Hellenistic Age, and in texts from the time of the Roman Empire by writers such as Plutarch and Pausanias among other sources. Archaeological findings provide a principal source of detail about Greek mythology, with gods and heroes featured prominently in the decoration of many artifacts. According to ‘Understanding the Odyssey’ by Albala-Johnson, the earlier inhabitants of the Balkan Peninsula were an agricultural people who, using Animism, assigned a spirit to every
aspect of nature who then took human form and entered the local mythology as gods. However the most widely accepted version of how the world and the gods originated is reported by Hesiod in his Theology. Hestoid explains that the world began with a certain void and from this void emerged the night and Erebus (where death dwells). Somehow, love was born and with love, light, and day Gaia (the earth arose). Gaia gave birth to Uranus (the skies) who later fertilized her and therefore the Titans, the Cyclopes (single eyed creatures) and the Hecatoncheires (100 armed creatures) were born. Uranus, disgusted by the Hecatoncheires, imprisoned them. This angered Gaia and hence she convinced Cronus (the youngest titan) to overthrow Uranus. Cronus did so and he ruled over Olympus with his wife/sister, Rhea. It was prophesized that Cronus would be overthrown by his own son. To avoid such an event from occurring, Cronus ate up all the children Rhea conceived, barring one, i.e Zeus, who Rhea hid herself. Zeus then tricked Cronus into vomiting out all his other children. An epic battle was waged between the titans and the Olympians and as a result, the Olympians gained victory over the Titans.
The titans were then exiled in Tartarus except Atlas who was forced to bear the weight of the world on his shoulders. With the fall of the titans, the new pantheon of Gods and Goddesses was confirmed. Zeus was the leader of the Olympians and these Olympians included Poseidon (god of the seas), Hades (god of the underworld), Hestia (virgin goddess), Hera (goddess of marriage and childbirth), Ares (god of war), Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), Apollo (the god of light, truth and music), Aphrodite (goddess of love), Hermes (messenger), Hephaestus (god of fire and forge), and Artemis (goddess of chastity, virginity, the hunt, the moon, and the natural environment). The humans were created next. Bridging the age when gods lived alone and the age when divine interference in human affairs was limited was a transitional age in which gods and mortals moved together. These were the early days of the world when the groups mingled more freely than they did later.
Most of these tales were later told by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and they are often divided into two thematic groups: tales of love, and tales of punishment. The age in which the heroes lived is known as the heroic age. The monumental events of Heracles are regarded as the dawn of the age of heroes. The heroic age can be grouped into three great events: the Argonautic expedition, the Theban Cycle and the Trojan War. The Greek mythology ends with the Trojan war, since at the end of this war Rome was born.
Hindu mythology can be defined as a large body of traditional narratives related to Hinduism as contained in Sanskrit literature, Ancient Tamil literature, the Puranas and other religious regional literature of South Asia. Rather than one consistent, uniform structure, the Hindu pantheon developed over a considerable period of time. The earliest Hindu texts are the four Vedas, the Rig Veda being the oldest (1200 BC), containing 1028 hymns with more allusions to myths than full stories. The other 3 vedas were the Yajurveda, the Samaveva and the Atharvaveda. Over one fourth of the Vedic hymns concern Indra, the king of heaven. Other important Vedic gods were Varuna, god of the ocean, Agni, god of fire, Surya, the sun god, and Yama, god of death. After the vedas, the most important texts of Hindu mythology included the Itihasa and the Puranas. The two great Hindu Epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata tell the story of two specific incarnations of Vishnu (Rama and Krishna). These two works are known as Itihasa.
The epics Mahabharata and Ramayana serve as both religious scriptures and a rich source of philosophy and morality. By the time that the Mahabharata was written (300 BC – 300 AD), other gods who played only minor roles in the Vedas have become popular. Three gods in particular came to be known as the Trimurti: Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer. Their fame grew during the Middle Ages when “stories of
old” called the Puranas recorded their achievements and adventures in great detail. After the Trimurti became dominant, the Puranas relegated most of the older gods to the status of World Protectors, eight lords over each point on the compass. The Puranas contain legends and stories about the origins of the world, and the lives and adventures of a wide variety of gods, goddesses, heroes, heroines, and mythological creatures (asuras, danavas, daityas, yakshas, rakshasas, etc.).
According to Hindu mythology, the act of creation was thought in more than one manner. According to the Rigveda, humans came into existence through a cosmic egg, (hiranyagarbha). It narrates that all things were made out of the mangled limbs of Purusha, a magnified nonnatural man, who was sacrificed by the gods. In the Puranas, Vishnu, in the shape of a boar, plunged into the cosmic waters and brought forth the earth (Prithvi). The Shatapatha Brahmana tells us that in the beginning, Prajapati, the first creator or father of all, was alone in the world. He differentiated himself into two beings, husband and wife. Prajapati was soon replaced with Brahma in the Puranas. In the Puranas, Brahma the creator was joined in a divine triad with Vishnu and Maheshvara (Shiva).
The universe was created by Brahma, preserved by Vishnu, and destroyed for the next creation by Shiva. Vishnu, being the preserver, had a number of incarnations. These included Matsya (the great fish), Varaha (the wild boar), Rama and Krishna among others. It is said that at the end of this age, Vishnu will appear again as the bringer of destruction on a white horse in the form of Kalki. He will purify the world of evil, and the endless cycle of ages will begin again. Apart from the trilogy of the gods and the numerous incarnations, the goddesses that are a major part of Hindu mythology include Sarasvati (goddess of the arts, knowledge and creativity), Laxmi (goddess of wealth and fortune) and Mahadevi. These 3 goddesses have their own set of incarnations. Hindu mythology never came to an end. It still continues even to this date. Comparative mythology is the study of myths from different cultures in an attempt to identify shared themes and characteristics.
The anthropologist C. Scott Littleton defined comparative mythology as “the systematic comparison of myths and mythic themes drawn from a wide variety of cultures”. (7) One can take many approaches why comparing mythology. It can be linguistic, structural, psychological and historical among others. In the book the ‘Elementary forms of religious life’ by Emile Durkheim, he talks about the similarities between the basic ideas, characteristics and principals upon which all religions are based. He studied one simple religion and explained how the basis of these simple religions forms the basis of more advanced and complex religions. Although religion and mythology are not the same, these concepts overlap each other.
Both terms refer to systems of concepts that are of high importance to a certain community, making statements concerning the supernatural or sacred. Generally, mythology is considered one component or aspect of religion. Religion is the broader term: besides mythological aspects, it includes aspects of ritual, morality, theology, and mystical experience. Similar to what Durkheim has done in the conclusion of his aforementioned book, in the next few paragraphs I will be exploring the similarities specifically between Greek and Indian mythology. While comparing both these mythologies from a structural point of view, the basic origin of the world was from chaos or a void. In Greek mythology it was Gaia who gave birth to Uranus and they both together formed the basis of the folklore. In case of Indian mythology, it was
Purusha or Prajupati (Brahma). Both of these mythologies focus on three supreme gods. In Greek they are Zeus, Poseidon and Hades while in Hinduism they are Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Unlike the three Greek gods who are brothers, the three Hindu gods aren’t related to each other nor are they known to possess similar powers. Zeus however can be compared to Indra. Zeus was the king of the Greek gods while Indra was Rig-vedic king of the Hindu gods. Both of them ad thunderbolts as weapons and dwelt in the heavens. Both Zeus and Indra represent Thursday in the days of the week. However, unlike Zeus who was a supreme god, Indra was ruled over by the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Indra also seemed to love importance through the passage of time. Poseidon can be compared to Varuna since both these gods ruled the seas and the sea creatures. Hades can be compared to Yama since both are the gods of the underworld and are associated with death and afterlife. However unlike Hades who rules in the underworld, which is said to be situated right below the earth, Yama rules Naraka which is in another dimension itself. While Hades takes the souls of all to the underworld, Yama takes them to the next life. Also, Yama cannot touch the souls of those who are not the devotees of Vishnu or Shiva.
All the gods in both Hindu and Greek cultures are immortal. Hindu gods drink Amrutha while Greeks gods drink Ambrosia so as to live forever. There is a certain level of similarity between the linguistics here too. The Hindus believe that Svarga (Heaven) is the place where the righteous live in a paradise while Naraka (Hell) is the place where the sinners are punished for their sins. The Greeks have Mount Olympus as the home of the Gods and consider it Heaven while the underworld or hell, is below the earth as mentioned before. Both the cultures have a Council of Gods. In Hinduism
The Council of Gods meet with all other Gods in Indraloka atop Mount Meeru and in Greek Mythology the Gods met on Top of Mount Olumpus. Both these locations are fictitious and in both cultures the God’s meet there for divine council and discuss their duties for the welfare of mankind.
Apart from Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon and their Hindu counterparts, there are other similar gods and goddesses. Hera is similar to Laxmi since they are both goddesses of home, wealth and prosperity and are married to one of the three supreme gods. Athena can be compared to Saraswati for both of them are the goddesses of wisdom and learning. While Athena is the daughter of Zeus, Sarasvati is the daughter of Brahma (according to the vedas). However, unlike Athena, Sarasvati is not the goddess of war. Instead she is the goddess of creation. While Athena carries a shield and other weapons, Saraswati carries a lotus and a veena (a musical instrument). Apollo and Surya are also much alike. While Apollo had to drive the sun across every day, Surya is the sun himself. Apollo is also the god of truth, light and healing. He carries around a silver bow while Surya has hair and arms of gold.
Both Hephaestus and Vishvakarma are the worker gods who design and make weapons for the Gods and manufacture tools. Ares and Kartika are both gods of war. Kartika is said to have six heads while Ares has one. Also, Kartika has a personality similar to that of Athena’s since they both represent the strategic part of warfare unlike Ares who represents bloodlust. Kronos can be compared to Mahakala for both are the gods of time and space. While Kronos has a definite figure, Mahakala does not. Eros and Kamadeva are both gods of love. Eros is often represented blindfolded because it is said that love is often blind. Both eros and Kamadeva carry arrows as weapons. Hermes and Narada are both messengers to the gods. Hermes is the son of Zeus while Narada is the son of Brahma. In Hindu mythology, Aspara’s and Gandharva provide entertainment to the gods
while in Greek mythology; it’s the Naiads, Dryads and the Satyrs. The concept of the good overpowering the evil is present in both cultures. The Gods of Mount Olympus represents good while their antitheses are the Titans represent evil. In the same way we have the Asuras as the chief tormentors of the Devas. The interesting fact in both these mythologies is that both good and evil are fathered by one and the same being. While the Gods and the Titans were fathered by Cronus, the Devas and the Asuras were fathered by Kashyap. There is a constant struggle between the forces of Good and Evil in both mythologies. Throughout the mythologies we can see the Gods tricking their antithesis during instances when they require the Titan’s or the Asura’s help and eventually in both cultures, it is the good that takes down evil.
Prophecies also have a major role to play in these mythologies. One of the most recurring themes in these myths is that of a main character trying to avert a particular prophecy but in turn succumbing to his destiny. In both mythologies we can see this theme recurring again and again. One such instance in the Greek mythology is that of Cronus who becomes aware of a prophecy that he will be overthrown by one of his children. Although Cronus tries to avert his fate, he eventually is overthrown. Similarly in Hindu mythology King Kansa is foretold that the eight son of his sister Devaki would kill him. To avert this, Kansa imprisons both Devaki and her husband Vasudeva and allows them to live on the condition that they hand over all their newborns to him. Devaki’s eighth son was Krishna (a reincarnation of Lord Vishnu) and as Kansa had killed all their previous children, they arranged for the child to be brought up in exile and presented another newborn to Kansa in his place. A grown up Krishna later returned to avenge the death of his brothers and killed Kansa.
Myths all around the world talk about a great flood. Both Hindu and Greek mythology incorporate that concept. The Hindu texts, such as the Satapatha Brahmana, talks about an impending flood and how lord Vishnu warns the first man Manu and advises him to build a boat. Similarly in Greek mythology, Zeus, angered by the savage sacrifice of a boy by Lycon (king of Arcadia) unleashed a flood such that it washed everything clean. However, Deucalion (son of Prometheus) with the aid of his father escaped the flood by building a box as a flotation device.
There are many other similarities between the various mythologies in the world. It is not possible to cover all of them under the realms of a single essay. But it is infinitely fascinating to learn more and more about them as they shows us how similar we all are, even though we have different cultures and are from different civilizations. The Greek and Indian civilizations are one of the oldest civilizations however it is an established fact that there was never any contact between the two cultures or civilizations yet there are so many connections between them. It is very intriguing to study the vast common ground that both these extremely different mythologies are built on. I have tried to cover a few of those similarities above and I hope I have done justice to both these beautiful cultures.
(1) “Myth”, Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, 2007
(2) Graves 1968, p. v.
(3) Kirk 1973, p. 11
(4) Dundes, Introduction, p. 1
(5) Segal 2004, p. 5
(6) R. Hard, The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, 1
(7) Littleton, p. 32