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What Are the Major Elements of Hindu Mythology?

By Alan Rankin
Updated May 23, 2024
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Hindu mythology describes the holy figures and stories of the Hindu faith. This is the dominant set of beliefs and traditions for many on the Indian subcontinent, one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Hindu mythology includes legends of gods and heroes included in the holy texts and epic poems of ancient India. Some of these texts are thousands of years old, making Hinduism one of the oldest religions on Earth. A major element of Hinduism known around the world is karma, the belief that a person’s actions are rewarded or punished on a cosmic scale.

The original Hindu faith has split into many sects and divisions in modern times, but many still believe in some form of a supreme god who takes on many aspects. This supreme being, Vishnu, can manifest as various avatars, or earthly incarnations, including the blue-bodied Krishna. Adherents of the Krishna incarnation include the Hare Krishna sect, possibly the most widely known Hindu faith in the United States and the Western world. For this reason, many Westerners confuse Hinduism with Hare Krishna, which is only one of the many spiritual paths originating in India.

An important work of Hindu mythology is the Mahabharata, an epic poem originating in the first millennium BC. The Mahabharata is one of the oldest and longest of the world’s ancient texts, and its influence is as widespread as that of other religious texts, such as the Bible or the Koran. One section, called the Bhagavad-Gita, involves Vishnu’s avatar Krishna explaining concepts of morality and honor on the eve of a battle. The Bhagavad-Gita has become an important religious text on its own, sacred to the Hare Krishnas and other Krishna sects as well as Hindus in general. The other classic Hindu text is the Ramayana, describing the life of Rama, an earlier avatar of Vishnu.

According to Hindu mythology, all people and animals have immortal spirits, and these spirits are regenerated, or reincarnated, after death. A person’s actions in life will determine how his or her spirit will reincarnate. Bad people may become lower animals, while good people may become higher spirits, called bodhisattva, or even leave the reincarnation cycle entirely. This sense of cosmic balance is called karma and is widely known, with even non-Hindus discussing good karma and bad karma, often in a metaphorical sense. An equally important concept is dharma, implying a natural order to the universe and the attempt to find one’s place within that order.

Hindu mythology has had a wide influence on world philosophy and spirituality. The faiths of Buddhism and Zen had their origins in Hinduism before becoming widespread belief systems in their own right. Many popular works of fiction and nonfiction make reference to Hindu spirituality. One example is Nina Paley’s 2009 independent film Sita Sings the Blues, an animated retelling of the Ramayana. The Mahabharata itself has been filmed many times, including a five-hour version by British director Peter Brook released in 1989.

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