Kāvya or Sanskrit poetry is set within an elaborately drawn and largely fantastic world which enchants but can also mystify the new reader. Even those familiar with Indian mythology may find themselves wondering quite how a hunter can track a lion in the snow-bound Himalayas by the pearls it drops. That pearls are found in an elephant’s temples and would therefore be likely to have lodged in the lion’s paws when he attacked and killed his prey, is not common knowledge. Rather it belongs to what the tradition calls ‘kavisamaya’ or ‘poetic convention’. Some of these conventions are commonsensical: that evil is black for instance. Others though are more peculiar to the Indian tradition: that laughter is white (because when you laugh you reveal most of your teeth).
To help our readers, we have therefore created a not by any means exhaustive guide to these poetic conventions. To this, we have added the chief details of the divine and mythological, much of which comes from the Vedas (the most ancient and authoritative text of Hinduism), the Purāṇas (stories of the exploits of various gods) and the two epics, the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata, whose potted contents are given below under Rāma and Arjuna respectively.
Please note that the physical characteristics of each god described here have many spiritual dimensions which have not been mentioned. Readers who would like to learn more are invited to refer to works on Hindu mythology and Hinduism.
The world is split into three (or two, four, seven, fourteen or twenty one) realms: Svarga (heaven), Bhūmi (the earth) and Pātāla (the region under the earth which houses the snakes).
BRAHMĀ: has four heads (he had five originally, but Śiva chopped one off with his finger nail). He is married to Sarasvatī, the all-white goddess of learning and language who plays the vīṇā and is to be found in each of his four mouths. Both husband and wife ride a pure-white haṃsa. Brahmā is the creator of the Vedas and indeed the universe, although he was himself born in a lotus that appeared out of Viṣṇu’s navel.
VIṢṆU: comes down to earth in ten different incarnations every kalpa, the most famous of whom are Kṛṣṇa, Rāma and Paraśurāma. As Vāmana (the Dwarf) he covered the world in three strides to overcome one daitya king and defeated another in his half-man half-lion form, Narasiṃha. He rides on the lord of all birds, Garuḍa, and is married to Lakṣmī, the fickle goddess of wealth and fortune who is found either upon his chest or in a lotus by day and the moon by night. Viṣṇu reclines upon the coiled-up expanse of Śeṣa, king of the snakes, and sleeps throughout Varṣā, the rainy season. He has his own particular heaven called Vaikuṇṭha and wields the discus. Blue of body, he bears the red (occasionally white) Kaustubha jewel and a curl of hair, the Śrīvatsa, upon his chest; he also wears the Vanamālā and Vaijayantī garlands.
ŚIVA: is a mighty ascetic smeared in ash who lives on alms. He resides on Mount Kailāsa and has snakes and skulls for ornaments, the crescent moon above his dreadlocks, and is clad either in a freshly skinned elephant hide (or antelope or tiger skin) or nothing. He wields the trident, the Pināka bow and carries a deer in one hand. He has a blazing third eye in the middle of his forehead, a famous loud laugh, and his neck is dark blue from when he drank and thus disposed of a deadly poison. He rides on Nandī, his bull, and is accompanied by his ghoulish troup, the gaṇas or bhūtas. His wife is Pārvatī, who forms his left half. In the evening, they dance the tāṇḍava and lāsya together. When Gaṅgā came down to earth, Śiva quelled her potentially devastating flood by making her run through his dreadlocks; he is also given to the worship of Sandhyā, the goddess of twilight. Both goddesses often provoke Pārvatī’s jealousy. Śiva destroyed the asuras’ flying city triad, Tripura, using Mount Meru as his bow. He bears a grudge against the ketakī flower but is enamoured of the toxic hallucinogenic plant, dhattūra. In his form as Dakṣiṇāmūrti, he explains the meanings of the Vedas to sages while seated under a banyan tree.
PĀRVATĪ: the daughter of Himālaya (and before that of Dakṣa, who so insulted her husband Śiva that she threw herself on the fire of his sacrifice and was then re-born as Pārvatī), she is at once the mother goddess and Durgā or Kālī, a terrifying figure with a necklace of blood-dripping heads who rides a tiger. She and Śiva have two sons: Kumāra, the gods’ general who rides a peacock; and Gaṇeśa, the elephant-headed god who removes all obstacles, has a soft spot for sweets and rides a rat.
KṚṢṆA: is much more than just another of Viṣṇu’s incarnations. As well as a playing a major part in the Mahābhārata and delivering the Bhagavad Gītā to Arjuna, he spends much of his time with milkmaids, particularly Rādhā his lover (he is married to Rukmiṇī among others), and boasts of many exploits from a very young age.
KĀMA: is the god of love who was burnt to a frazzle by Śiva’s fiery third eye when he was trying to get the god to fall in love with Pārvatī, hence his name ‘the bodiless one’. He shoots his victims with arrows that are made of five particular flowers, with a sugarcane bow whose bowstring is formed of a row of bees. His banner is emblazoned with either a fish or a crocodile and his vehicle of choice a parrot. He is married to Rati and occasionally also Prīti (both of which mean ‘pleasure’), and is good friends with Vasanta.
INDRA: is the king of the gods who has a thousand eyes. He rides Airāvata, king of elephants, and is married to Śacī. The rainbow is his bow and he also wields the thunderbolt. He has conquered an impressive list of enemies including Bala, Vṛtra, Pāka, Pulomā and Namuci. His city is the resplendent Amarāvatī with its beautiful pleasure garden, Nandana. His, and all the gods’, guru is Bṛhaspati. Anyone who performs a hundred horse sacrifices can usurp his throne.
The gods live on AMṚTA (an immortal potion) and are propitiated by means of elaborate sacrifices, in which the offertory ghee is brought to them by their delivery boy, fire. They do not sleep, blink or grow old, and they have no shadow. They are entertained by the APSARASES, heaven’s courtesans, who are also often dispatched to earth to seduce dangerously powerful ascetics.
THE SEMI-DIVINE: Vidyādharas fly and play the lute. Kinnaras, not to be confused with kimpuruṣas which have an animal body but a human head, have a horse’s head and a human body but nevertheless sing beautifully and play the vīṇā. Gandharvas too are expert singers, as well as dancers; they fly about in aerial carriages called vimānas. The siddhas and the sādhyas are more interested in tapas. Yakṣas are Kubera’s attendants and live with him in Alakā.
KALPAVṚKṢA and KĀMADHENU: the wish-giving tree (there is also a wish-giving creeper) sprouts jewels and pretty silk saris as well as granting wishes; the wish-giving cow is the first and ultimate cow.
THE DIRECTIONS, very often thought of as women, are usually eight (sometimes four or ten) in number and are each guarded by a presiding deity. The principal among these are Indra in the East, Varuṇa in the West, Kubera in the North and Yama in the South. Each direction also has an elephant, the diggaja, which is accompanied by its spouse.
STARS: include Agastya who appears at the beginning of Śarad, causing the monsoon-turbulent waters of lakes and rivers to become calm and clear. All of the saptarṣis or seven sages are stars, including Vasiṣṭha whose wife, Arundhatī, a symbol of conjugal harmony as well as a star, is pointed out as a part of the marriage ceremony. All of Dakṣa’s daughters (who are jointly married to the moon although his favourite is Rohiṇī) are also stars.
AGASTYA: is a sage who was born in a pot. He literally subdued the proud Vindhya as he travelled to southern India, and the mountain, committed to remain bowed before him until his return, waits eternally – the sage has made his home in the South and married its principal river, Kāverī (his wife is also called Lopāmudrā). Agastya drank the ocean in a single mouthful to deprive the asuras of a hiding place.
ARJUNA: is a great archer and the best known of the five Pāṇḍava brothers who fought the war of the Mahābhārata against their cousins the Kauravas led by Duryodhana. He and his brothers are all married to Draupadī, who was bet and lost in a game of dice by one of her husbands, and then saved from the shame of being disrobed in public by Kṛṣṇa.
RĀMA: is another of Viṣṇu’s incarnations and the hero of the Rāmāyaṇa, in which he is exiled to the forest by an evil step-mother and robbed of his wife, Sītā, by the king of the rākṣasas, Rāvaṇa. With the help of an army of monkeys – chief among whom are Hanumān, who leaps across the sea to Laṅkā, and Sugrīva – he rescues Sītā, kills Rāvaṇa and returns triumphant to his kingdom, Ayodhyā.
PARAŚURĀMA: also an incarnation of Viṣṇu, is so called because he wields an axe (paraśu) with which he went on a kṣatriya-killing spree to avenge his father’s death and created the land of Kerala.
THE SEASONS: There are six seasons in a year, each neatly spread across two months. Each month is split into a bright fortnight, when the moon is waxing, and a dark fortnight, when it is waning.
The seasons are:
VASANTA (spring): the beginning of the year in which koels sing, mangoes bloom and beautiful women play on swings and perform the dohada ritual to bring trees to flower
GRĪṢMA (summer): in which those that can take refuge from the long days of fever-inducing sun in water games, preferably with their lovers, or resort to coolants such as pearls and sandalwood paste
VARṢĀ (rains): the longed-for monsoon in which lovers are reunited because all travel becomes impossible, peacocks dance, snakes emerge from their holes, the red indragopa insects appear, fireflies light otherwise jet-black nights, haṃsas flee to Mānasa lake, rainbows spring up from anthills and lotuses retreat under the surface of the water
ŚARAD (autumn): in which lakes and rivers shrink but become calm and clear, the dark clouds of the rains give way to fluffy white ones, lotuses bloom once again, the moon shines brightly and rice fields are populated by singing girls and parrots
HEMANTA (winter) and ŚIŚIRA (the cool season): which are almost indistinguishable and are spent mainly in fire-warmed rooms, making love; lotuses die in the frost and snow but this is also the harvest season
THE OCEAN: in fact there are four oceans. The ocean gave birth to the moon, is stuffed with jewels and is home to Viṣṇu and Lakṣmī, the dānavas, Varuṇa and the submarine fire. It also harbours those of the mountains who fled Indra’s assault as well as the jalamānuṣas and jaladvipas – water-men and water-elephants. The ocean is the husband of all rivers and swells as the moon rises. As well as salt-water seas, there are also those made of milk, yoghurt, honey, sugarcane juice and treacle. The ocean takes one of its names, sāgara, from when King Sagara’s 60,000 sons dug it up searching for their father’s sacrificial horse. The ocean is also the earth’s girdle or her flowing garment.
GAṄGĀ: the divine river who was summoned to earth by Bhagīratha to purify the ashes of his ancestors, Sagara’s sons. She flows in heaven, on earth and in the underworld and is thus the ‘triple-stream’ river. Gaṅgā epitomises white.
YAMUNĀ: as dark as Gaṅgā is white
SARASVATĪ: is sung of in the Vedas but disappeared under sand due to a curse
MOUNTAINS are also many and manifold:
MERU: the golden mountain at the centre of the world. The stars, planets, sun and moon all revolve around it. Heaven sits upon its summit and it is the only thing that isn’t destroyed when the world ends.
KAILĀSA: the silver mountain, home to Kubera and Śiva
HIMĀLAYA: best known as the abode (ālaya) of snow (hima) and medicinal herbs
VINDHYA: separates North India from the South and boasts an abundance of elephants
MALAYA: in the South is the source of the intoxicating Malaya wind and sandalwood trees
SAHYA: on India’s western coast acts as a buffer to the ocean’s waves
LOKĀLOKA: at the edge of the world is bathed in continual light on one slope while the other is permanently dark
The RISING and SETTING MOUNTAINS above which the sun and moon rise and set
MANDARA: the mountain which was used by the gods and asuras to churn the ocean. Mandara, and the earth itself, rest upon the back of a tortoise, who is another of Viṣṇu’s incarnations.
THE SUN: is drawn across the sky each day in a single-wheeled chariot driven by a legless charioteer with seven horses and snakes for reins, while thumb-sized sages run ahead of the chariot singing the sun’s praises. Every time he rises, he destroys anew the mandeha demons. He sucks up water and releases it in the form of rain. There are 12 suns who take turns to light the world during the year but appear simultaneously at the destruction of the world. The sun is the right eye of Viṣṇu or Śiva and rises from and sets into the ocean as well as in front of and behind the rising and setting mountains. When he sets, he departs to another continent, leaving behind his rays in the lamps of people’s houses.
THE MOON: is born of the ocean. The black mark that mars his surface is a hare or a rabbit. The moon is made of amṛta and his cool rays soothe pain and heat but are unbearable to the lovelorn. He is harassed by Rāhu who occasionally eats him on full-moon days, thus causing an eclipse – Rāhu similarly harries the sun. The moon periodically enters into the sun to replenish his lustre thereby temporarily disappearing – this is amāvāsyā, the new moon night. During the dark fortnight the moon is gradually eaten by the gods and thus wanes. The moon is the left eye of Viṣṇu or Śiva.
PLANTS: lotuses bloom at the touch of the sun’s rays and are found in rivers as well as lakes; as well as the ordinary type there are also golden and thousand-petalled varieties. When they close at night they often trap bees inside them. The śephālikā flowers only in the evening. By night, the moon’s rays bring water lilies to bloom and make medicinal herbs glow. The kadamba bursts into bud at the sound of thunder. The aśoka has no fruit; sandalwood trees have no flowers or fruit and snakes haunt their base. The karṇikāra flower is beautiful but unscented and the śirīṣa famously delicate. The kiṃśuka blazes like a forest fire and the ketakī has thorns. Several trees bloom only when beautiful women perform the dohada ritual: the aśoka must be kicked, the tilaka needs but a glance, the kuravaka an embrace and the priyaṅgu a touch; the bakula awaits a mouthful of wine, the mandāra sweet words and the campaka laughter; the mango must be blown upon; the nameru longs for singing and the karṇikāra dancing.
BIRDS AND BEES: bees seek lotuses and water lilies and by extension women’s lotus faces as well as many other flowers but never the campaka; koels mango trees; crows neem trees; and parrots pomegranates. Peacocks eagerly await the monsoon clouds at whose thunder they dance. Cakoras dine on moonlight and cātakas on raindrops. Cakravākas are round in shape and the couples are separated each night and reunited by day. Koels are brought up by other birds, normally crows. Haṃsas can separate milk from water and are attracted to the sound of women’s anklets. Some birds have their own musical notes, the most famous of which are the ‘fifth’ (the koel’s ‘pa’ note) and the ‘first’ (the peacock’s ‘sa’ note). Beware the parrot and sārikā both of which can and do repeat human conversations and imitate human voices.
ANIMALS: snakes hear with their eyes and eat only air; they live in anthills. Elephants destroy lotus ponds and are fond of sugar cane fields. When running wild in rut, they cause untold damage and disruption. The musk produced in the musk deer’s navel is a favourite perfume for women. Lions, affronted by the clouds’ thunder, roar back at them; and howling jackals are fire-mouthed. Śarabhas are scary eight-legged animals (the second set of legs is on their back).
JEWELS: pearls are found in elephants’ temples, clouds, bamboo, wild boars, conch shells, fish, the Tāmraparṇī river in southern India and oysters – but only when raindrops formed during the rise of the Svāti star fall into them. Jewels are found in snakes’ hoods and the mountain Rohaṇa. When it thunders, Mount Vidūra puts forth the gem called vaidūrya. Moonstones ooze water when the moon shines; sunstones emit fire when the sun shines. The sparśamaṇi can turn metal into gold with its touch and the cintāmaṇi grants anything you want.
WOMEN: are beautiful when they have a face, hands and feet that resemble lotuses; lips like those of the red bimba fruit; eyes which extend to their ears and eyebrows that dance suggestively; a neck like the conch shell; heavy breasts shaped like water pitchers or the domes on an elephant’s forehead; buttocks and thighs so substantial it is often difficult to walk; a waist – so thin as to be as imperceptible as the sky – with a ‘triple-wrinkle’ of flesh and a line of fine hair leading up to their deep navel; thighs that taper like an elephant’s trunk or are as roundly shaped as a banana stem; and a gait that resembles that of the elephant or a haṃsa. Their jingling anklets sound like the haṃsa’s call and their voice like the koel’s song. And they shoot glances – often from the bow of their brows – that are a swarm of bees or the checkered black and white of the khañjana bird.
LOVERS: when separated grow thin and pale and cannot endure the moon’s rays, the Malaya breeze, pearls, sandalwood or plantain leaves. Lotus fibres are used to allay their burning grief, and they often paint pictures of their missing significant other. Men love to provoke a fight, often by calling their sweethearts by the wrong name, as recompense for which they readily prostrate at the lady’s lac-dyed feet to be kicked. The savouring of betel leaf and wine are an essential part of many a rendezvous. The woman who goes out for an illicit, planned, meeting with her lover is so common she is given a name – the abhisārikā.
WAR: is accompanied by headless trunks that dance on the battlefield. Those killed in battle go directly to heaven, along with yogīs, by breaking through the sun’s orb. Once in heaven they are attended upon by apsarases.
KINGS: are recognised by their white parasol and yak-tail whisks to keep the flies away, their staff with which they dispense justice, their throne, footstool and the banner they fly with their emblem. Lakṣmī rests upon their chests and they are wed to the earth herself, as well as their many queens.
DHARMA is what one ought to do. VARṆA is the division of society into four groups and ĀŚRAMA is the division of an individual’s life into four stages. The YUGAS are four immensely long, successive periods of time at the end of which the world is destroyed and the cycle starts again. We are currently in the last and worst, Kali Yuga. A thousand yugas is one day for Brahmā. TAPAS often involves extreme mortification of the flesh and is used to obtain supernatural powers as well as for spiritual reasons. Each person is imbued with three GUṆAS in different measures: sattva, tamas and rajas (roughly ‘goodness’, ‘sloth’ and ‘hyper-activity’).
OMENS: require the services of a professional to interpret but involve cats, crows and antelopes, sneezing and the throbbing of various parts of the body.
COLOURS: laughter and fame are white, notoriety is black and anger red. Blue, green and black are often not distinguished from one another.
PĀTĀLA: UNDER THE EARTH
NĀGAS: are the snakes who are the main inhabitants of Pātāla and are ruled by Vāsuki or the white Śeṣa, who bears the earth upon his hood. Their eternal enemy is Garuḍa.
RĀKṢASAS: are a particularly nasty set of night-roaming creatures who destroy sacrifices, drink blood, eat corpses and avoid the sun’s rays. Rāvaṇa, their king, was a great scholar and Śiva devotee who posed such a threat to the world that the gods asked Viṣṇu to go down to earth and defeat him.
DĀNAVAS, DAITYAS, ASURAS and other interchangeable demons and anti-gods also live here
YAMA: is the god of death who rides a buffalo and bears the staff of judgement. His sister is Yamunā. Strictly speaking he lives in Yamapurī, but he rules Naraka (Hell), which is – or rather are as by some accounts there are 28 in total – below the earth but above Pātāla.