“Vasudeva saw that wonderful child born as a baby with four hands, holding conchshell, club, disc, and lotus flower, decorated with the mark of Shrivatsa, wearing the jeweled necklace of kaustubha stone, dressed in yellow silk, appearing dazzling like a bright blackish cloud, wearing a helmet bedecked with the vaidurya stone, valuable bracelets, earrings and similar other ornaments all over His body and an abundance of hair on His head.” (Krishna, The Supreme Personality of Godhead, Vol 1, Ch 3)
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“I am sure you have heard this explanation before. It seems rational enough, at least to me. You have these people who study different cultures. They create a sort of comparison sheet. They check to see what is the same between the various groups. What is different? They might notice similarities in, say, worship of the sun. One group refers to the sun by a certain name, another group with their own name, but the level of reverence is practically identical.
“The explanation I’m alluding to is that a lot of the mythology, for lack of a better word, is based on a primitive understanding. Without the tools of modern science at their disposal, people came up with stories to explain the various phenomena of nature.
“For instance, they didn’t understand the concept of a planet, so they made up a deity who took the form of a planet. They didn’t understand how eclipses work, so they passed on a story about one planet eating another.
“While we generally don’t criticize people of the past for thinking this way, we acknowledge that today we have better explanations. Nothing about an origin, mind you, but at least there is a scientific explanation for things like earthquakes, cloud formation, eclipses, and so forth.
“I think what is unique about Vedic culture is that the majority of the people within it still hold on to the old explanations. I know there is a substantive reason for this, that there is so much other accompanying information that is relevant today more than ever, but doesn’t that present a predicament? Aren’t some of the images a tough sell to the sophisticated person educated in modern times?”
1. A talking monkey who can leap over oceans and carry a mountain in his hands
His name is Hanuman. He is likely the most popular deity within Vedic culture, as there are different branches and offshoots depending on region and inherited traditions within the family. Shri Hanuman is like a great unifier; universal respect, adoration and affection for him.
He is in the peculiar physical body of a monkey. The Sanskrit word is Vanara, which refers to a forest dweller, but other Sanskrit words are also used to describe the form. Hari and kapi can refer to monkeys, and so it is not in dispute the type of form Hanuman carries in the manifest world.
The Vanaras of the period of time described in the Ramayana show hints of civilized life. Hanuman, for instance, can speak Sanskrit and engage in diplomacy for the benefit of Sugriva, the king of Vanaras in Kishkindha.
Hanuman’s defining characteristic is his pure devotion for the Supreme Lord. Hanuman worships Rama, who is an avatara of the singular Almighty, the one God worshiped by the entire universe since time immemorial.
Because of his pure devotion, Hanuman has exceptional abilities. He can leap over oceans, for instance. He can change his size at will, becoming small in an instant and also larger than a tree, if needed. In one famous image, he is carrying a mountain in one hand. This is to rush to the scene of a rescue, with no time to lose in search of a specific herb within that giant mass of land.
2. Someone with poison stuck in their throat
This image is of Lord Shiva. In many sections of Vedic literature he is referred to as the Supreme Lord Himself. He is sort of identical to the person worshiped by Hanuman, but manifesting differently within this world. He accepts the specific duty of destroying the entire creation at the appropriate time.
Lord Shiva is also known as Mahadeva, or the great god. He has peculiar features and characteristics. He is known to stay around crematoriums. Ghosts and spirits work under his direction, and he smears ashes on his body.
Mahadeva is the most renounced, and so he has no issue taking on difficult tasks in the service of others. He maintains poison within his throat, as a means of helping the gods in their battles with the demons, the asura class.
3. An elephant god
Ganesha is another popular deity within the Vedic tradition. His image and likeness are fixtures in business establishments and also homes. He is known to remove obstacles from the path of the people who worship him.
Ganesha is the devoted son of Mahadeva and Parvati Devi. There is a unique story to him receiving an elephant head, but that did not change his disposition or his great qualities. Ganesha has the notable distinction of being worshiped first in every important Vedic ritual.
4. A crow teaching an eagle about topics life and death
Passed forward through the wonderful poem of Goswami Tulsidas known as Ramacharitamanasa, we have the conversation between the crow named Kaka and the eagle named Garuda. Both are devoted to the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and they are happy to be seated in the position of meditation.
Kaka is the teacher. He tells the tale of Rama’s appearance and lila in this world. Garuda listens attentively. This real-life exchange also symbolizes the importance of the guru-disciple relationship and the ideal behavior of each participant.
5. A blue-complexioned figure who has four hands and is wonderfully adorned
This is the vision of Narayana, who is also known as Vishnu. This is one image for the Almighty. Contrary to what speculation might conclude, God is neither old nor tired. He is so beautiful that a person is mesmerized at the sight.
The vision of Narayana confirms Divinity, as Vasudeva saw this image of the Supreme Lord in his newborn child named Krishna. Vasudeva and his wife, Devaki, were devoted to Narayana for several lifetimes, and the fruit of that dedicated worship was receiving God Himself as their beloved son.
These images might be a tough sell to the uninitiated, but as we can see the explanations are deep and expansive. There is much more to these personalities than a single picture can show. The glories of Narayana’s devotees are too great to be spoken or written down in a single millennium, so we can only imagine how wonderful God Himself is, along with His teachings preserved to the modern day.
Perhaps a tough sell,
But images much to tell.
Like Hanuman’s amazing strength,
Ganesha’s glories of immeasurable length.
Mahadeva in service ready,
Even holding poison steady.
That limitless qualities of Divine showing,
With time the greatness only growing.
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