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Hindu Beliefs and Folklore

- Pralaya, Kalki, Satyuga and Kaliyuga, Swarga and Narka, and Surya Grahana

by Sudheer Birodkar

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Table of Contents

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Pralaya

Pralaya means a flood or deluge. In Hindu folklore there is a belief that when evil reaches its zenith, a great flood would occur and wash everything away and civilization would have to be started afresh which should be devoid of the evil traces that caused the flood.

Deluge in the Bible

This idea is not peculiar to India and is found very prominently in Judaism and Christianity as Deluge (similar to the one that occurred in Biblical times when Noah used his Ark to save all the species).

Noah's Ark

According to the Bible, there was an age when man fallen from grace,and evil was rampant. God felt it imperative to intervene and to cleanse mankind of evil influences. He sent down a great flood. But in order to give man a chance to improve he ordained that Noah and his family be saved. As per God's wish Noah picked up one male and one female member of every animal species and when the flood came Noah saved himself and also the animals by sailing in his ark (boat).

The Rationale behind such Myths

The reason why such ideas of a deluge portending a catastrophe are perpetuated seems to be a downright practical one. In a society where the value attached to tradition is high, such belief can function as a psychological check that could be used for the preservation of ethics morals and religious beliefs. The possibility of a future calamity kept the populace a God fearing one and ensured maintenance of the type of social life that was considered desirable. This way traditions, rituals and beliefs could hold their own against the ravages of changing times.

This had both a positive and negative aspects. While social acceptance of certain norms of behaviour was fortified; such ideas also imparted a changeless character to society which spawned orthodoxy, blind belief and obscurantism which normally served the interests of a section of the society. Across the globe in different cultures this section was normally that of the clergy in whose interest it was to perpetuate such beliefs and use them as a lever to compel the laity to make offerings to pacify angry Gods. These offerings to the Gods were waived by clergymen who developed a vested interest in perpetuating such beliefs. Practices which originated in this manner included, charity towards clergymen and the church to obtain God's grace, the practices in mediaeval Christianity (before the birth of Protestanism) of accepting gifts in cash or kind by clergymen against remission of sins which were confessed by a parishioner.

But the reason why the belief about a deluge should exist among more than one civilization probably lies in the aspect common to most ancient civilizations Civilizations like those of the Indus valley or the Gangetic Plain in India or those in Mesopotomia, Egypt etc. were riparian and depended on the river for their lifeblood. These civilizations faced a regular threat from the seasonal or annual floods. And as they were located on the plains, a flood spread rapidly and affected far flung areas. Towns and cities were at its mercy, crops were devastated throwing normal life into disarry. A fallout of the severe floods was that the building up of life would have to start from scratch. Their own civilizations were the world for these people and the memory of the flood was immortalized in their folklore.

The Lost Continent of Atlantis

There is also a legend which links the folklore of a flood in many cultures to one common source - the Lost Continent of Atlantis. It is claimed that about ten to eleven thousand years back there was an island continent in the Atlantic Ocean along what is today the mid-Atlantic ridge below the surface of the sea. This continent was located around the present-day archipelago called the Azores. The Azores are said to be the peaks of some of the taller mountains of the mid-Atlantic ridge that rises above the sea level.

The Civilization of Atlanis Thrived Thirteen Centuries Ago

As this theory goes, some ten thousand years back when the rest of the world was still in a state of savagery and barbarism, people on this island continent made great advances and established the world's first urban civilization. If this civilization really existed; then it would have been the oldest one as otherwise the earliest urban civilization is dated around sixth century B.C.E. (i.e. eight thousand years old) at Jarmo in Iraq and Jericho in Israel.

According to the legend, we are told that the civilization of Atlantis survived and thrived for many centuries as it was not subject to attacks by barbarians; the sea being a natural barrier. But after surviving for hundreds of years in safe isolation it met destruction at the hands of nature.

A Cataclysmic earthquake, submerged the continent and the civilization of Atlantis

A severe cataclysmic earthquake, submerged almost the entire island continent and the civilization of Atlantis was destroyed. But there were some survivors who safely reached the shores of Europe in the east and those of the American continent on the west.

The Lost Continent of Atlantis, the Deluge and Noah's Ark?

There is also a legend which links the folklore of a flood in many cultures to one common source - the Lost Continent of Atlantis. It is claimed that about ten to eleven thousand years back there was an island continent in the Atlantic Ocean along what is today the mid-Atlantic ridge below the surface of the sea. But after surviving for hundreds of years in safe isolation it met destruction at the hands of nature. A Cataclysmic earthquake, submerged the continent and the civilization of Atlantis. But there were some survivors who safely reached the shores of Europe in the east and those of the American continent on the west. Similarities like the construction of Pyramids and the use of the phonetic script that are common in the culture of the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas of America with the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia are cited to justify this theory. It is said that the people of Atlantis possessed a phonetic script from where the survivors took it both to Europe and the Americas. The common folklore of the Coming of a Wise Man (God) is also cited to support this theory. This theory of the existence of Atlantis has been written off as fantastic and incredible till now but time and again some sea divers come across sub-marine remains of stone steps, tiled floors and other man-made artifacts on the sea-bed near the area where Atlantis was supposed to be. If this seemingly fantastic theory of the existence and destruction of Atlantis turns out to be true, it would provide a logical and factual explanation to the deluge idea (and the biblical story of the Noah's Ark) that has existed in more than one country's folklore

Pyramids and the Phonetic Script - Common Elements Across Continents

Parallels seen in the culture of the Aztecs, Mayas and Incas of America with the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia are used to justify this. Both the Civilizations have an architectural tradition of building conical pyramids which look very similar. Secondly according to some writers some people in America used a phonetic script which was similar in principle to the scripts used in Asia and Europe. The phonetic script is a very original discovery as compared to the pictoral script and it is said that the poople of Atlantis possessed a phonetic script from where the survivors took it both to Europe and the Americas.

Common Folklore of the Coming of a Wise Man (God)

Again in the folklore of both the Mesopotemians in Asia and Mayans in America there is a narrative about a wise man who came from a distant land and taught the people many arts which enabled them to establish a civilized way of life. Among the Aztecs and other civilizations which existed in America (Mexico) when the Spaniards first landed, they were looked upon as the much awaited wise man who ages ago had appeared and taught a civilized way of life to the inhabitants.

Sub-marine Archeological Remains of Atlantis?

All these points are used to build up the theory that Atlantis was real, and the roots of most of the ancient world's known civilizations lie in the civilization on the lost continent of Atlantis. This theory has been written off as fantastic and incredible till now but time and again some sea divers come across sub-marine remains of stone steps, tiled floors and other man-made artifacts on the sea-bed near the area where Atlantis was supposed to be. Similar discoveries were also made earlier but they were near the sea shore at the Azores, hence it was said that they belonged to some recent civilization which went under the sea due to increase in sea level due to the rise in the sea level caused by the increase in sea water as a result of the melting of the ice caps in the polar regions. But if this seemingly fantastic theory of the existence and destruction of Atlantis turns out to be true, it would provide a logical and factual explanation to the deluge idea that has existed in more than one country's folklore

Kalki - The Avatara of Vishnu Yet to Appear

The Hindu deity Vishnu is said to have appeared so far in ten incarnations viz., that of a fish (Matsya), tortoise (Kurma), boar (Varaha), man-lion (Narasimha), dwarf (Vamana), warrior (Parasurama), King (Rama) the cultivator (Balarama), the cowherd (Krishna) the enlightened (Buddha) The next incarnation we are told is Kalki who is portrayed as a horse-rider. The term Kalki is supposed to be a derivation of Kala or Kalaha meaning an a "Age" or time. Kalki is supposed to appear and lead the society out of the current Kaliyuga (Dark Age). Kaliyuga is an age of evil in which man has fallen from his pristine glory. The term Kali means strife and war, Other terms very near to Kalki are Kalka Kalanka which means dirt, filth and sin. Kalki is the incarnation who would deliver mankind from its sinful state in the present Kali age. Hence the name for this incarnation could be a derivation from the term Kalka.


Deluge and Messiah (Avatara) Ideas helped preserve the Existing Order

This concept also seems to be having a purpose similar to that of Pralaya in fortifying a religious order from being changed totally by the compulsions of the changing times. By resisting change it served to preserve the ethical and moral ideas that had received religious sanction and acted as a restraint on traits in human character that were deemed to be undesirable. Religion has normally been a vehicle of moral and ethical norms. According to Hindu morality a virtuous person should stay away from the Shadripus or six vices which are identified as Kama (lust), Krodha (anger), Lobha (greed), Moha (gluttony) Mada (jealousy). The 'Ten Commandments' in the Bible is another such example. Whether the "Ten Commandments" were actually received by Moses could be an issue of endless debate. But it is indisputable that ideas such as the list of vices in Hinduism and the "Ten Commandments" did have a desirable effect on social life. The concept of an incarnation or prophet to appear helped in maintaining the existing social order across the globe, and is not specific to Hinduism.

In most religions, we have the idea of a prophet Muslims have their Mahdi; Christians have the second coming of Christ, Jews have the unnamed Messiah yet to descend on earth (Jesus and Mohammed were declared to be this Messaih as mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible. But the Jewish people did not accept them as their Messiah while those who accepted Jesus as the Messaih became Christians and those who accepted Mohammed became Muslims, while the Jews continued their way, expecting their Messiah who in their view is yet to come). The Zoroastrian Parsis also have the idea of a prophet who would appear in the future and re-establish the rule of righteousness.

Satyuga and Kaliyuga

Hindus often say that our society is passing through a Kaliyuga or a dark ago (Kali = dark or evil, Yuga = age), and that in times past there existed a Satyuga or a righteous age (Sat or Satya = truth or righteousness). The Satyuga are told would return sometime in the future. Being a devout people the words Satyuga and Kaliyuga have an ethical connotation for most of us. The sceptical few might casually ease away such ideas as prattle. But neither belief nor dis-belief can satisfy an inqui5tive mind.

The Four Yugas as Defined in the Vedas

As narrated in Vedic literature the history of society has passed through four ages viz., Kritayuga, Tretayuga and Dwaparyuga up to the existing Kaliyuga. The question "how this concept came into being?" can be attempted to be answered by examining the definition of the various Yugas (ages) as given in Vedic literature can provide an answer.

. As per the Rigveda, the first age - the Kritayuga is associated with wandering, the next one, the Tretayuga with standing, the Dwaparyuga with slow movement and the Kaliyuga with sleeping or lying prostrate. A careful examination of the Vedic literature, especially that in the Rigveda reveals a close parallel between the course of social progress from savagery to barbarism to civilization.

As per the Rigveda, the first age - the Kritayuga is associated with wandering, the next one, the Tretayuga with standing, the Dwaparyuga with slow movement and the Kaliyuga with sleeping or lying prostrate.

The Satra Collective Activity of Vedic Times

A careful sifting of the Vedic literature, especially that in the Rigveda reveals a close parallel between the course of social progress from savagery to barbarism to civilization. For thousands of years in the first age (Kritayuga) men roamed the earth in tribal clusters. They went through several lands, fighting other tribes and were driven from place. Initially the lack of prey, disease, wild animals or by climatic conditions.

The Rig Veda states that Aryans had to wander through sixteen lands before they could settle down. Under such conditions productive activity viz., the hunt had to be a collective effort. For sustaining the entire tribe, large animals like elephants, buffaloes, reindeer etc. had to be caught and this could not be done individually. In Vedic literature such collective activity is referred to as Satra which means a session and implies collectivity. Man lived on the margin of subsistence.

Man Lived at the Margin of Subsistence

Under such conditions, man's productive power to hunt his means of sustenance were barely enough to ensure his survival. Hunting being the main form of productive activity, it was not possible to enslave a group of persons, captured from some other tribe, and make them carry out the hunts. Such captured persons had either to be killed and eaten or had to be absorbed into the tribe as members of the hunting group. These practices are referred to in Vedic literature as the Purusha-medha Yagna.

Hence, slavery did not exist in that period. So also there could be not accumulation of wealth, there being hardly any excess wealth, the society being on the margin of subsistence. This environment made impossible the existence of greed and theft, as those was almost nothing that members of the tribe possessed and stored which could become the object of greed and theft. The only possessions of these people wore those weapons of bone (Asthi) and stone (Vajra) and the crude hearth (Agni).

All these items could not be possessed by any individual member of the tribe, they had to be the tribe's common property and could not be the object of theft. Life in such a society would have been a very hard one due to the harsh natural environment and the constant fear of animal and human predators. These factors would have made every tribe a cohesive unit and its members led a simple yet happy, devoid of self-seeking instincts which doomed in the pastoral, agrarian and mercantile societies which replaced the tribal-hunting way of life, as man's productive power gradually developed.

The craze of accumulation of wealth in the form of cattle, grain and money in the pastoral, agrarian and mercantile societies, which made possible the emergence greed, robbery, slavery etc., must have made the earlier simple but happy age of collective hunting and common sharing appear as an age of righteousness. for this reason, the memory of this past age (Kaliyuga) was retained by especially those who were relegated to the position of paupers in the new society and that age was extolled as a Satyuga (age of righteousness) which it was said would return and lift the pall of vices that characterized the later days.

The idea of a Satyuga to return in future was immortalised in religious bards and folklore but gradually the term Satyuga retained only a non-temporal and a spiritual connotation, its meaning of as an age where the way of life was such that prevented the emergence of greed, theft and other corollary vices was forgotten. That, this past age of collective hunting and common sharing was nowhere within our consciousness.

The Story of Yugas (Aeons or Ages)

The main factor that made possible this emergence of the concept of a Satyuga were the qualities of the craze for personal wealth, subjugation of one person by another, insecurity in an environment where each one thinks of none other than himself, absence of collective and community feeling etc. All these against the backdrop of a tribal society and collective morality made the past age as a Satyuga. We shall discuss briefly how these later ages up to the present age were looked upon in Indian folklore as a dark age i.e. Kaliyuga.

From Hunting/Gathering to a Pastoral Way of Life

We know that throughout history man's productive power has constantly increased. From the tribal society dependent on hunting, man progressed to a pastoral society where he did not kill animals roaming the forests but captured them and reared them under his protection so as to increase their numbers systematically and consequently ensure a steady flow of meat and milk for himself. But with the domestication of cattle it was not necessary to tend the cattle collectively. As the cattle could be tended individually or in groups smaller than the entire tribe, there came about the institutions of clan and clan property which later developed into individual property.

Gotra - The Common Cowpen

These clans which were based on ownership of cattle came to be termed as Gotra which literally means a cowpen. In this environment rival clans strived to obtain cattle, the principal sources of wealth, by war when they could not successfully breed it. The word used to describe a war was Gavishti which literally means 'to search for cows Here qualities such as greed and accumulation of wealth in the form of cattle could thrive.

The First Riparian Agricultural Settlements

Later on came agriculture and man settled down along rivers to grow crops. An agrarian way of life is more congenial for individual ownership of wealth that in this context was land and cattle. And once the qualities of individual greed and self-seeking were born there was no going back for them. In an agricultural society man's wealth grew phenomenally, as compared to what it was earlier, and along with the growth of settled agriculture were developed professions like plough-making, pottery, chariot-building, etc. Trade of the various commodities was made necessary so as to obtain a variety of goods. This led goods.

Accummulation of Agricultural Wealth and the Beginning of Mercantile Activity

This lead to the formation of meeting point for trading from which were born towns and cities. Now wealth came to be measured in terms of agricultural produce ( Dhanya) from which possibly the term for wealth (Dhana) is derived. This was fertile ground for the development of individual property, a selfish morality which resulted in concentration of wealth in the hands of the powerful members of society who had their corollary in the section of the deprived have-nots.

The Haves and Have-nots, Masters and Slaves, Dwijas and Shudras

In the wake of material prosperity also came vices like craze for wealth, selfishness, and unequal distribution of wealth and exploitation. For this reason again and again philosophers, poets and bards and the fall in morality in the later ages and fondly hoped for a return of the simple and happy days of collective hunting and common sharing. The moral degradation that accompanied material prosperity has always been with us since the fading away of the Satyuga (Kritayuga). The Tretayuga, Dwaparyuga and Kaliyuga that came later were-each worse than the earlier age.There were now the Haves and Have-nots, Masters and Slaves, Dwijas and Shudras

In the Mahabharata. Srikrishna marks the end of the Dwaparyuga and beginning of the Kaliyuga that has existed till today. Thus our entire history since the Mahabharata is enveloped by the dark age. How is it that the reign of Sri-Rama - Ramrajyya (assuming that Ramayana pre-dates the Mahabharata), the reign of Emperor Ashoka, the golden age of the Guptas were all part of the dark age - Kaliyuga?

The answer probably lies in the fact that irrespective of material prosperity, the moral degradation that was determined by the way of life of the people and the social structure, was the feature that made the age a dark age. And this feature was there throughout history since the disappearance of the tribal-hunting way of life. But as said earlier the way of life of collective hunting and common sharing was forgotten, what was remembered was that in times past there was a righteous age (Satyuga) where greed. theft. selfishness and other corollary vices did not exist and it was being fondly hoped that this age of Satyuga would return and lift the pall of Kaliyuga that has settled on our society.


Surya Grahana (Solar Eclipse)

A Solar Eclipse is a phenomenon that has been widely chronicled in literature of all civilizations across the globe. This phenomenon has acquired a religious significance in more than one civilization. Among the Hindus, an eclipse is looked upon as a catastrophe and prayers are held by the devout amongst us during an eclipse for the sun to re-emerge from behind the dark facade.

Traditions Observed During Eclipses

An eclipse is looked upon as unholy and inauspicious and during its occurrence people follow quaint practices like immersing images of Gods in a pitcher full of water, observing fast, conducting a Yagna (Fire sacrifice) and holdong special prayers to enable the eclipse to pass. Beliefs such as the air getting impure, making it necessary for pregnant women to stay indoors and for all others to desist from eating or drinking anything during the tenure of the eclipse are also observed.

Dhumketu - Comets of Doom

Another similar event which is seen in the skies and is looked upon as inauspicious, is the appearance of a comet (Dhumaketu). Why is it that such physical occurrences have acquired a non-temporal and that too a negative significance? The answer perhaps lies in the human attitude towards the unknown and the abnormal. It is instinctive in human beings to wonder at extra-natural (super-natural for some) phenomena which cannot be readily understood and explained by existing human knowledge.

The Two Human Attitudes Towards the Unknown

But being an intelligent species we could probe into things not known to us and try to guess their nature. The starry heavens above us have been an object of marvel since time immemorial. Disciplines such as astronomy, astrology, climatology, weather-forecasting, space exploration, studies in extra-terrestrial life, etc. are born out of man's desire to know the unknown.

But then this is not the only attitude which results when we human beings face the unknown. Fear, awe and worship are also attitudes which the unknown creates in us. This is especially so when we witness any abnormal occurrence. It is in keeping with man's other instinct to look upon any abnormal occurrence as something extra-natural and supernatural.

The sun and moon have been for ages immemorial, objects of awe and worship. The relevance of the sun as a provider of light and heat was perceived since ancient times. The sun especially was an object of virility and strength. An occurrence during which the sun gradually disappeared anytime during the day was one which could strike terror in the in the hearts of the devout. But the very fact that an eclipse recurred after an interval of a period must have made it known to ancient people that during an eclipse the sun does not cease to exist, but is blurred out for some reason or the other. In India at least it was believed that in an eclipse, the sun is only covered up by something because of which it is not seen and does not burn out. This is evident from the term Grahana that we use; to describe an eclipse. 'Grahana' means to absorb or to swallow- as in vidya-grahana (acquiring education) or anna-grahana (having food).

Interestingly a mythology has been built up in ancient times which neatly explains why an eclipse has to occur and has to pass away after a certain time. In brief this myth is as follows:

Rahu and Ketu were two cannibalistic demons who in the course of their nefarious activities incurred the wrath of Lord Vishnu. They challenged Vishnu to a fight, but powerful as they were they proved no match for the infinite prowess of the Lord. With one stroke of his discus (Sudarshan-chakra), Vishnu hacked off the heads of both the demons and threw the heads far away from the world into the skies where they could bother nobody.

But cruel demons that they were, they were blessed with immortality. And though bodyless, the heads retained life. Once in the skies the could not torment folks of this world but the sadistic instincts of the two demons found expression in the repeated attempts they made at swallowing the sun and moon.

Being bodyless their mouths could retain neither the sun or the moon for long. But this disability did not deter them from trying to swallow these heavenly bodies and the fact that they are still at this game is evident from the Solar and Lunar eclipses that we witness periodically1

Conclusion

These are a few of the beliefs that are current in Indian society. The reader would have experienced how revealing is an exercise that takes us behind myths and legends which are part of Indian culture. The deeper one goes, the more enthralling the exercise becomes. It is part of the process of getting to know our heritage better. Nowadays we hear voices emphasizing on the preservation of our culture. But do we have adequate knowledge of what our culture is? In what circumstances of day-to-day life of the bygone ages has it evolved ? What part of it is relevant today and what part will retain its relevance in the future?

Getting to know the fountain-head of our different cultural attitudes is itself a bedrock for its evaluation.

Now we move on to read about the social origins of Moksha, Upavasa, and Muhurta.

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by Sudheer Birodkar

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