With so many Puranas and stories of Ramayana, Mahabharata and so on, is not Hinduism just a religion of fairy tales?

When we teach rudiments of Hinduism to kids (like Gods, worship, praying, getting boons, morals, right and wrong, good habits and bad habits etc) we teach them with stories of Gods and demons from puranas, itihasas etc. All the stories may look like fairy tales.

How many of us who have heard Ramayana and Mahabharata stories as kids have bothered to re-read more elaborate versions of these stories after we became adults? If and when we read them, we can grasp so many things related to dharma, adharma (right and wrong conduct) in actual situations in life. Mahabharata will turn out to be a real story for adults and hardly a fairy tale for children! One will be wonderstruck by analyzing the various characters and how we actually see many people similar to those characters in attitude and behavior in our real lives!

We see how dharma can be wrongly interpreted by many people to suit their own whims and fancies; how deep wisdom about life and living is so intrinsically woven with the story and characters.

Then comes the bombshell – The Bhagavad Gita in Mahabharata! Does it not totally shake up our whole perception about God, religion and spirituality? Does it not turn the ‘fairy tales’ to one grand discourse to grasp the intricate and profound spiritual wisdom of Hinduism?

Unfortunately, so many of us are still kids when it comes to sticking to the fairy tales part of Hinduism and refuse to grow up. Like little kids fighting to establish that their favorite cinema Hero is the greatest, we keep still fighting about supremacy of Shiva over Vishnu and so on!

For those who refuse to grow up from the shackles of ‘fairy tale’ part of Hinduism and for those who never get exposed to the great saints and sages of Hinduism and their teachings, Hinduism will only look like a fantasy.

Why do some elders say not to keep Mahabharata book at home and not to worship some specific God forms at home?

It is quite a superstitious belief that keeping Mahabharata book at home or reading it in totality will bring a split (or fight) in the family. Since Mahabharata deals with the grand Kurukshetra War between brothers to claim ownership of the Kuru kingdom, this sentiment might have come. During my boyhood, when I was reading Mahabharata, my mother would warn me and advice me to skip a few chapters!

Unfortunately such a superstition has distanced many of us from going deep into the Mahabharata story which is so full of teachings and morals that are so apt for our generations too.

It is normally advised that ferocious God forms (particularly Kali, Tara, Dhumavati, Chinna Masta, Chandalini and the like) are highly discouraged from worship at homes. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used to say that unless there is a wherewithal to follow regular and prescribed worshiping procedures (as per tantra shastras) at home, it is best to avoid keeping images/ pictures of such goddesses as they have the potential to harm the owners.

In the recent past Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) too used to take away such pictures of goddesses if found in the pooja rooms of her devotees when she made house calls based on their invitation.

Vishnu prayed to Lord Shiva in all his forms, but Shiva didn’t pray to Vishnu. Why?

Your intent in posing this question is to get either a reply that Shiva is a greater God, most probably, or just to indirectly convey to Vishu-worshipers that Shiva is the supreme God or simply stir a debate on it!

Hinduism permits worship of multiple Gods who are endowed with different looks, powers and attributes; they, in reality, represent the One God, known as Brahman, Parabrahman, Paramatman or Satchidananda. Hinduism acknowledges that there are basic differences in every person in tastes, temperaments and capacity of intake in the matter of religion. In real life, a woman found distasteful to one man can be the soul stirring sweet-heart of another man. When such a difference is taste can exist, why not allow different tastes in worshiping the God?This is precisely the logic behind the idea of multiple God forms in Hinduism.

Thus, Hinduism permits you to choose a specific God form most appealing and lovable to you; it encourages you to believe wholeheartedly that that particular God form indeed is the one supreme God. A chaste woman considers her husband alone to be the most handsome and most wonderful person; likewise, at the lower steps of religion, a believer’s conviction that his personal God alone to be the most powerful and the “only true God” is also encouraged.

It is a common mentality amidst devotees of a specific God forms to think their God is the supreme God and all other Gods are subservient to Him. While it helps in focusing one’s devotion to his Ishta and get single pointed devotion, the negative side is that unless one develops in spirituality and grows up, he ends up in becoming a “selling agent” for one’s ishta!

Surprisingly, the same mentality seems to have existed in those sages who wrote specific Puranas like Vishnu Purana, Shiva Purana etc. The Shiva Purana, Linga Purana etc would claim Shiva to be the Ultimate God and Vishnu is a worshiper of Him. The Vishnu Purana will say vice Versa. The Devi Bhagavatam will say Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma were created by Devi!

If you are an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva and if you read Srimad Bhagavatam, particularly the episode about Vishnu taking Mohini Avatar and Shiva getting infatuated with Mohini, you would feel highly enraged and disturbed!

Puranas do serve a purpose. But if you take them too seriously, no specific spiritual benefit would accrue. Puranas can be used as a ladder at lower levels to step into higher level of spirituality so that the ladder can be discarded.

How did the end of Rama Avatar happen? How did Rama Rajya end?

According to Valmiki’s Uttara Ramayana, Rama ruled his kingdom from Ayodhya for 11 thousand years. The way he ruled his country was so prosperous, dharmic and wonderful that ‘Ramarajya’ as a word used to symbolize the best ideal of rule to emulate.

During Rama’s rule, all his subjects lead a virtuous life; there were no thiefs and there was no dacoity. There  was no enemy attack on the kingdom. Dharmas and shastras were the guiding principles of life. Rishis and sadhus were the leading lights of the society. There was no draught, no floods or other natural calamities.

After Rama ruled Ayodhya for 11 thousand years, Lord Yama (Lord of Time) came to meet Lord Rama in disguise at the king’s palace in Ayodhya. He wanted a total private talk with Rama on an important matter. Rama asked Lakshmana to stand outside the doors as a guard to prevent anyone from entering the room and gave a warning that whomsoever intruded into the room during the private discussions would be killed by Him.

Once alone, Lord Yama conveyed Lord Brahma’s message that since the purpose of Lord Vishnu’s Avatar as Rama had been over after annihilating Ravana and also His wish to rule the kingdom for 11 thousand years too was over, it was now time for Rama to return to His heavenly abode as Vishnu, if he so wished to leave his earthly divine play.

Rama agreed that he too preferred to return to his abode rather than continuing in this world.

As the conversation was taking place, Rishi Durvasa came to the palace and wanted to meet Rama urgently. When Lakshmana told Durvasa about Rama being busy on an urgent matter, Rishi Durvasa, known for his short temper and capacity to curse people, threatened Lakshmana with dire consequences if he was not allowed to meet Lord Rama.

Lakshmana had to yield. He went into the room to inform Lord Rama about the arrival of Durvasa. Rama bade farewell to Lord Yama and came out to meet Durvasa. Durvasa wanted Rama to feed him sumptuously as he was in extreme hunger after doing a penance for a long time by taking fasting as a vow. Rama arranged it immediately.

However Rama became woeful as he had to keep his word that he had uttered earlier (that he would kill any intruder during his private talk with Yama). Taking a cue from the scriptures that said that renouncing a person is equivalent to killing that person, Rama, with heavy heart said to Lakshmana that he was renouncing all the ties with Lakshmana.

Lakshmana felt that his end had come. He went to River Sarayu and stopped his breath and entered into samadhi. He left his mortal body; his soul which was one fourth part of Lord VIshnu returned to the heavenly abode.

Grief stricken Rama called all his citizens and ministers and announced his decision to relinquish the kingdom and retire to the woods so as to leave his life like Lakshmana. He asked Bharata to take over the kingdom of Ayodhya. The devout Bharata stoutly refused the proposal as he too wanted to accompany Rama.

Rama with his sons Lava & Kusa (A still from the film Lava Kusa)

As advised by Bharata, Rama gave the Southern Kosala portion of the Kosala kingdom to his son to Kusa and the Northern Kosala zone to his son Lava to rule.

The entire population of Ayodya had no desire to live after their beloved Rama was no longer the king. They too expressed their desire to follow Rama.

News was sent to Satrughna, who was by that time ruling the kingdom of Mathura. Satrughna too had no desire to live if his beloved brother was gone. He handed over his kingdom (Mathura and Vidisha) to his two sons to rule and rushed to Ayodhya.

Having heard the news, Rama’s erstwhile associates and well wishers — Hanuman, Sugriva and his vanaras (monkeys), Jambavan and the other bears, Vibhishana and his loyal Rakshasas came to Ayodhya. All of them wished to go with Rama when he exited the earth.

However, Rama blessed Hanuman and Vibhishana to be Chiranjeevi’s — ever living. He wanted Hanuman to enjoy the company of devotees of Rama wherever they sang the glory of Rama. He wished Vibhishana to keep ruling the his kingdom of Sri Lanka. He blessed Jambavan and his five associates to live till Kaliyuga.

Sugriva said he had given charge of his kingdom to his son Angata and had no longer any desire to live. All the monkeys too said so.

Thus Rama, followed by Bharata, Satrughna, their families and servants, the ministers, the vanaras, bears and Rakshasas and the entire populace of Ayodhya with their cattle and birds left the city and went to the River Sarayu, chanting vedic hymns. None of them had any worries and every one was extremely happy. Whomsoever saw Rama leaving, including animals and creatures gleefully joined him so as to ascend to the heavenly abode.

All the celestial Gods headed by Lord Brahma had assembled at the skies near the river Sarayu to welcome their Lord. They chanted hymns praising their Lord Vishnu and welcoming him back.

Rama requested Lord Brahma to allow all his citizens, followers and lovers including the animals and creatures who had served him with respect and devotion into the heavenly world. Brahma said that he would accommodate all of them unmindful of any sins committed by them into the region known as Santanaka, which was next only to Brahma Loka. He also said all those celestial beings who had earlier taken up various forms and descended to earth to assist Rama in his activities of the avatar would regain their original divine forms.

All of them headed by Rama joyfully immersed themselves in the waters of Sarayu, left their bodies and ascended to the higher worlds.

How come there are so many puranas containing same stories in different and distorted versions? Why some Puranas eulogize some Gods while others undermine the same Gods?

Such things happen naturally in a grand religion with scriptures written at various centuries across a time period of some 3000 – 4000 years.

As our Rishis have pointed out, the quality and caliber of people deteriorate from one yuga to another — people were at their best of dharma and spirituality in Satya Yuga and gradually deteriorate to their lowest level at Kali Yuga.

Accordingly, the capacity for the people to grasp religion and spirituality deteriorated in contrast to knowledge of science and technology advancing century by century! The more the head grows, the weaker the heart becomes.

Puranas too must have undergone deterioration accordingly. Sanskrit Pundits and scholars with highly religious bend of mind, who had access to ancient scriptures of Puranas too were subject to different ideas about God and they too might have got compartmentalized to sects like Shaivism, Vaishnavism etc. Accordingly, eulogizing one God over other and undermining one God over other might have started by them by writing new Purnas/ editing/rewriting/ inserting fresh supplements to established puranas with their own concoctions, intentional distortions and manipulations.

Vyasa and 18 Puranas – a critical view

Vyasa Maharshi (Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa) is considered an Avatar of Lord Vishnu and he is credited with compiling all the 18 major puranas. He is also considered a Chiranjivin (immortal) – ever living. He is also credited with compiling Vedas into four (Rik, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas). He was the author of the epic Mahabharata too. He is also said to be the author of Brahma Sutras.

Vyasa Maharshi dictating Mahabharata to Lord Ganesha…

If we take Vyasa’s Mahabharata and his Bhagavata Mahapurana, there are several variations in the happenings of events post Mahabharata war that appear in both the scriptures. While in Mahabharata the five Pandavas were described to be people who were in the clutches of their attachments and aversions till the end of their lives and they were mentioned to end up in Heaven. Same case with king Parikshit too. It means they were all like ordinary mortals who were destined to go through further birth and death cycles. On the other hand, Srimad Bhagavatam mentions them to become earnest seekers at their fag ends of life and attain moksha by Self-realization.

Puranas (as well as the Itihas Mahabharata) contain several stories of Gods, Devatas, Asuras, great devotees, great emperors, historical events and lineages of kings, description of geographies, theories about creation and so on. Many of them get repeated in various puranas, in different versions and variations. Naturally, the question arises how there are so much variations and distortions, if the author or all the puranas is one and the same Vyasa.

Some historians say that the time periods of writing Mahabharata, Brahma sutra, Bhagavata Purana etc are different, spreading across several centuries. Krishna Dvaipayana Vyasa (of Mahabharata) and Badarayana Vyasa (of Brahma sutra) could be two different personalities, according to some of them.

Or, it is also possible that Vyasa being a title, there could have been so many descendents of Vyasa (off Krishna Dwaipayana Vysasa) who, in subsequent centuries edited/ re-wrote original versions, wrote newer ones as per their own interpretations and and still maintained the authorship to be Vyasa (in general).

There is also a possibility that so many other scholars wrote / compiled Puranas in various centuries, but for the sake of gaining authenticity, they projected as if every Purana originated from Vyasa/written by the same Vyasa!

Different tastes and affiliations, different Puranas

According to Hinduism, God appears in the form in which an ardent Devotee does tapas (extreme austerities) to get the vision of God.  Naturally, if a Shaiva (devotee of Lord Shiva)  longs to have the vision of His God, God appears to him as Shiva. Such a devotee, by the strength of his personal realization becomes convinced that the Ultimate God is Lord Shiva and his mindset may get so firm that God could not be in the form of Vishnu or Brahma.

Thus, saints and gurus chose such of those Puranas that matched with their own experience, liking, taste, temperament and mental leaning as “the most authentic” and discounted other puranas. Thus Shiva Purana, Linga Purana etc were projected as authentic ones by Shaivas,while Vaishnavas stood by Vishnu Purana and Bhagavata Purana. Shaktas eulogized Markandeya Purana, Devi Mahatmiya etc.

It is perhaps in the same way that the pinnacle of Advaita experience (philosophy) of Upanishads got diluted to suit the capacity of intake of spiritual seekers who could not attain that level of oneness with Brahman. That’s how Vishishtadvaita and later Dvaita came up as alternative interpretations of scriptural truths, evolved based on the respective Acharya’s spiritual experiences with reference to God.  It helped people by and large to get connected to their personal God and religion in a way accessible and practicable by them and also gave them the assurance that they are in tune with the scriptures.

Srimad Bhagavata Purana is considered the greatest of all the puranas because it contains all the three shades (Advaita, Vishitadvaita and Dvaita) in its stories, discourses, prayers and parables. It is one Purana that can be said to bridge both Bhakti (devotion) and Jnayna (Knowledge) in a wonderful way.

Only after the advent of Itihasas and Puranas, the practice of worshiping Avatars (like Rama, Krishna, Narasimha etc) came up in Hinduism, particularly suited for Kali Youga. That’s how Agamas/ Pancharatras too came up later in Kali Yuga establishing and formalizing worshiping of Gods through idols in formally consecrated temples for worship, which was not there at all at Vedic times.

It can also be noted that in Vedas’ Karma Kanda, worshiping of Devatas (Indra, Varuna, Agni, Savita, Vayu and so on) and satisfying them through yagas (fire sacrifices) was widely prevalent. Over passage of centuries and and after evolution of Buddhism and Jainism from Hinduism, fire sacrifices and offering cows and horses as sacrifice in Yagnyas stopped. Worship of Eswaras (Prime Gods like Shiva, Vishnu and Shakti) became more prominent leaving Devatas behind.

The Puranas, as part of Smritis have contributed in a big way to pave the way for this shift.

Are Both Shruti as well as Smritis authentic scriptures of reference for Hinduism?

Both Shruti (Vedas) and Smritis (covering Puranas, dharma shastras, Tarka shastras, Itihasas, Bhagavad Gita, Agamas/ Pancharatras  and so on) are indeed parts and parcels of Hindu sacred books of reference.

Most Smritis invariably claim their allegiance to Shruti. Smritis are derived works of and supportive additions to Vedic knowledge. Smritis came up to spread the Vedic knowledge in a simplified and easily comprehensible manner to people cutting across all varnasramas. Some Smritis may also contradict with each other in interpreting Vedas/ Upanishads.

In Brahma Sutras, Sage Vyasa asserts many points on the essence of our Upanishadic philosophy by stating that it is confirmed in Smriti.

However, the authority of smritis is not total or all-encompassing.

For example, dharma sastras like Manu Smriti, Parasara Smriti etc are rather time bound; there are certain things in them that are suited for specific period of history and culture of the society, which may not be applicable to a society a few centuries later to their period.

If some smritis contradict in some ways the conclusions of Upanishads, then those contradictions may not be acceptable as authentic conclusions. For example, The existence of God or supreme being is not directly asserted, nor considered relevant by the Samkhya philosophy (a Smriti).  Since this contradicts with Upanishads (that affirms existence of God beyond name and form as Brahman)  this particular notion in Samkhya is not considered authentic.

In Puranas, there are different prime Gods eulogized as the Ultimate God in different Puranas. Sects of people accepting one God form as their Prime God may not accept the statements contradictory to their beliefs cited in other Puranas.

Vedic Chanting

Vedic knowledge was primarily restricted to Brahmins and Sages. Though Kshatriyas and Vaishyas too had access to it, they were not permitted to chant and propagate Vedas. Vedas were not accessible to Shudra class and also to ladies, including Brahmin ladies.

It is said that Maharshi Vyasa wrote Mahabharata with a purpose of making dharma shastras, upanishadic knowledge and other valuable guidelines for the welfare of the people at large, particularly to ladies and Shudras who had no access to them otherwise. Itihasas and Puranas carried the essential wisdom in a simplified way explained through stories and parables.

Shruti (originally in Sanskrit language) which was strictly restricted for propagation through qualified and disciplined Brahmins who had to follow a life of strict austerities; Shruti was bound by rigids rules, chanting procedures and restrictions to ensure their propagation through verbal chanting retaining their pristine nature without giving scope for distorsions and mutations.

On the other hand, Smritis (originally in Sanskrit language) had scope for easier propagation, for copying and spreading, accessible for translation to other languages and so on even in olden days. As a consequence, Smriti texts, as times passed, had scope for manipulation, distortion and insertion of additional texts by scholars and pundits whose knowledge and also caliber got diluted and narrowed in course of time.

A Pauranika (Bard) explaining Purana.

Smritis (particularly puranas and ithasas) were allowed to be propagated widely by Pouranikas (bards / exponents of puranas who had knowledge of Sanskrit) and Pournikas were not restricted to Brahmin caste. It appears that some pouranikas were Sutas (person born from Kshatriya father and Brahmin mother) who were not permitted to propagate Shruti.

Was Bhagavad Gita directly written by God / Sri Krishna?

No. Bhagavad Gita was a verbal discourse given by God (Sri Krishna) to Arjuna just before the beginning of Kurukshetra war.

Since no other person was around except the two, how was it recorded? Maharshi Vyasa (who was one of the incarnations of Lord Vishnu as per Bhagavata Purana) had given special powers of visualization (‘dhoordarshan‘) to Sanjaya, a personal assistant/ minister of blind Kaurava King Dhritarashtra to remotely witness all that happened in the Kurukshetra war in order to narrate them to the blind king.

Maharshi Vyasa was one of the most prime characters in Mahabharata. He was a rishi having many mystic powers. He was the one who fathered Dhritarashtra and Pandu. Thus he was the grandfather of both Kauravas (Sons of Dritarashtra) and Pandavas (sons of Pandu). He was one central personality who was a knower of trikala (past, present and future) and he would present himself physically at most critical places and times amidst his kin in order to give them solace when in trouble and guide them on dharma. Thus he was an eye-witness and also a historian of the entire Mahabharata story.

Much later after the period of Pandavas and Kauravas, he formed in his mind the entire story of Mahabharata as a grand Itihasa which was too monumental a work to put into writing. Conceding to his prayers, Lord Brahma engaged Lord Ganesha to do the writing of this grand epic on palm leaves based on the dictations of Vyasa.

Bhagavad Gita is part and parcel of Mahabharata, and it comes in the middle of Mahabharata as part of the Bhishma Parva/

Interestingly, Vyasa’s Mahabharata text as we have today is not a direct narration of Vyasa but appears as narrated by the Pouranika (Purana exponent) by name Ugrasrava, son of Romaharshana Rishi, surnamed Souti to the rishis of Naimisharanya!

He narrated it as heard by him from Maharishi Vysampayana (a disciple of Vyaasa) to King Janamejaya (Grandson of Abhimanyu and great-grandson of Arjuna ) during a Sarpa Yagna in the august presence of Sage Vyaasa himself.

We cannot help but get wonderstruck by the power of memory and transmission our rishis of the past had on account of their severe austerities (Tapas).

Is there any historical proof that Lord Shiva actually came to earth? Or have we to only go by Shiva Purana, Linga Purana etc on these matters?

Puranas are part of Hindu Smritis. Smriti means as remembered. Some things happened at some period of time (=history); those who knew it remembered it and told the happenings to their descendents. The descendents passed it on to subsequent generations as they remembered them.

Thus Puranas are said to be histories only, but as they were passed from generation to generation and as they were also poetic works, there was scope of plenty of exaggerations, over-bloated descriptions bordering on wild imagination, distortions, deletions, intentional and mischievous insertions and so on. They also contained metaphors and allegories which could be wrongly interpreted.

Different Gods were eulogized as the Supreme Gods in different Puranas. People have different tastes and temperaments; they got compartmentalized to worshiping different Godheads that suited their taste. People by nature, would not be happy simply by confining to glorifying their God. They would fight and establish that their God alone is the supreme as “proved” in their Purana and discount the other purana as a figment of imagination!

If one tries to prove that Shiva Purana is true as per history, a vaishnava would come with quotes from Bhagavata Purana where Shiva would be depicted to be a mean and insignificant God and claim that Bhagavata Purana alone is true history! And there will be retort from Shaivites, mocking at Vishnu who could not find the feet of Shiva after digging earth to any depth, quoting from their puranas.

Puranas could at the best be source of inspiration at the lower rungs of religion for one to gain faith and progress in spirituality to move towards Brahman, the God beyond name and form of the Upanishads and to the unity of Atman and Paramatman.

Else, only arguments and bad taste would remain.

Why do some elders advise us not to keep scripture like Mahabharata at home? Why do they say some idols should not be worshiped at homes?

It is quite a superstition that keeping Mahabharata book at home or reading it in totality will bring a split (or fight) in the family. Since Mahabharata deals with grand kurukshetra war between brothers to claim ownership of the Kuru kingdom, this sentiment might have come. During my boyhood, when I was reading Mahabharta, my mother would warn me and advice me to skip a few chapters!

Unfortunately such a superstition has distanced many of us from going deep into the Mahabharata story which is so full of teachings and morals that are so apt for our generations too.

It is normally advised that ferocious God forms (particularly Kali, Tara, Dhumavati, Chinna Masta, Chandalini and the like) are highly discouraged from worship at homes. Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa used to say that unless there is a wherewithal to follow regular and prescribed worshiping procedures (as per tantra shastras) at home, it is best to avoid keeping images/ pictures of such goddesses as they have the potential to harm the owners.

In the recent past Mata Amritanandamayi (Amma) too used to take away such pictures of goddesses if found in the pooja rooms of her devotees when she made house calls based on their invitation.

Are there any equivalents of Adam & Eve in Hindu mythology?

In Hinduism, multiple theories exist about creation. Different Puranas give different ideas about creation and procreation. Upanishads give a different perspective. According to Jnanis, the whole creation is a product of our mind only.

If you are looking for some equivalent to Adam and Eve, then Brahma Puranam gives it. Lord Brahma gave birth to a man and a woman from his own body. The man was named Svayambhuva Manu and the woman was named Shatarupa. Humans are descended from Manu.The word manava to represent man came from ‘Manu’. For that matter, linguists may claim the word Man in English indeed came from Manu.

The statement that Manu and Satarupa were the first created human species appear in several other puranas too and there are different versions of how they were created. For example, Padma Purana says Manu and Satarupa are the first of several males and females that came from Lord Rudra’s Artanari swarupa (Half female form) when he split the body into two as per demand from Lord Brahma — the male half of the body producing 11 males and the other half producing females.