Previous: Movies are Magic: Crash Course Film History #1
Next: Karl Marx & Conflict Theory: Crash Course Sociology #6



View count:1,880
Last sync:2017-04-14 20:00
In which Mike Rugnetta continues our unit on pantheons with the complex Indian pantheon, focusing on stories that were written in Sanskrit. We start with a violent creation story. We talk about the concept of Brahman, and the personification as three deities: Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Then, the goddess Durga teaches us how to behead a buffalo demon while riding a lion.

Brockington, John, World Mythology, the Illustrated Guide.

Thanks to the following Patrons for their generous monthly contributions that help keep Crash Course free for everyone forever:

Mark, Les Aker, Bob Kunz, William McGraw, Jeffrey Thompson, Ruth Perez, Jason A Saslow, Eric Prestemon, Malcolm Callis, Steve Marshall, Advait Shinde, Rachel Bright, Ian Dundore, Tim Curwick, Ken Penttinen, Dominic Dos Santos, Caleb Weeks, Kathrin Jan├čen, Nathan Taylor, Yana Leonor, Andrei Krishkevich, Brian Thomas Gossett, Chris Peters, Kathy & Tim Philip, Mayumi Maeda, Eric Kitchen, SR Foxley, Justin Zingsheim, Andrea Bareis, Moritz Schmidt, Bader AlGhamdi, Jessica Wode, Daniel Baulig, Jirat

Want to find Crash Course elsewhere on the internet?
Facebook -
Twitter -
Tumblr -
Support Crash Course on Patreon:

CC Kids:

 (00:00) to (02:00)

Hey there, I'm Mike Regnetta, and this is CrashCourse: Mythology.  Today, we're gonna tackle one of the most difficult and fascinating pantheons in all of mythology.  We've got dancing dwarves, buffalo demons, and some many armed folks.  Yes sir, there is a lot going on in this pantheon.  Maybe even more than in the Egyptian pantheon.  Sorry, Thoth.  

In this episode, we'll talk about the pantheon of deities in Indian myths.  Unlike myths from Egypt and the Ancient Near East, there are living people for whom these stories have deep personal religious meaning.  Remember how it got a little uncomfortable when we discussed the Bible's creation story?  Well, it's gonna be a bit like that, but we're gonna try to minimize the awkwardness, just ask--wait.  There's no God of Awkwardness.  Ruh-roh.


Discussing the Indian pantheon is tricky for two reasons.  First, because it remains a living belief system for about a billion people, and second, because Indian religious and mythic traditions are not only abundant, but also ancient.  As in Egypt, there are different sets of gods and goddesses that were worshipped at different points in time, but unlike Egypt, India was and is home to many different languages, which means we have a lot of different stories, each with many different variations.  

We are gonna focus mostly on stories that have been written in Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism.  Sanskrit first appears in written form around 150 CE in a series of rock inscriptions that look a lot more complex than what I have inscribed on rocks.  This probably doesn't say 'Parvati was here, Vishnu + Lakshmi 5eva'.  Let's remember that Sanskrit is a complex language, and its poetry may sound unusual to English ears, but we can handle it, just lead the way, (?~1:59), Norse God of Poetry.

 (02:00) to (04:00)

In the earliest Indian traditions, Dyaus the Sky Father and Prithvi, the Earth Mother, were central.  Hey, sky dad and earth mom, nice to see you over here, too.  Do you mind if I drop off some cosmic laundry?  Later, however, Surya, the Sun God, Agni the Fire God, and Indra, the Warrior King of the Gods took top god-billing from mom and dad who were arguing all the time.  Sky dad, earth mom, just knock it off, stop the fighting.  We can all get along.

Indra was the child of the sky and the earth, and was responsible for keeping them separate, but had his own beef with another god, Varuna, who may once have been the ruler of the gods but was supplanted by Indra.  I mean, hey, even gods got beef, right?  I wonder if one of them recorded a diss track.  Anyway, the most well known myth about Indra is about his battle with Vritra, a giant serpent or dragon whom Indra kills, thus creating the sun, the dawn, and the sky.  Yeah, I know, you thought that we had sky covered, but mythology is tricky.

The death of Vritra also gave form to chaos, which is nice, so this is our old friend the creation story, but with violence instead of sex.  In a number of stories, Indra is described as battling and destroying hostile minor dieties and demons.  I mean, someone has to do it, right?  And so, maybe you're thinking, yay, Indra, he fights the good fight.  But he also breaks oaths, kills family members, and commits adultery with Ahalya, the wife of the sage Gautama, for which he loses his testicles, cherries emoji, scissors emoji, face screaming in pain emoji.  But hey, wait, it's okay, in another myth, he has them replaced with those of a ram emoji, so I guess it all works out in the end.  

Indra's weapon of choice is a thunderbolt, similar to Zeus, by India's classical age, he becomes a god of rain, and this changing function over time is generally emblematic of Indian myth.  Like the Egyptian pantheon, it's difficult to pin down one canonical set of myths or characters because they appear in so many forms, often with multiple names.  

 (04:00) to (06:00)

Here's another version of how things get going.  In the Vedas, which are the most ancient Hindu scriptures, Prajapati was the creator god, but over time and especially in the Upanishads, another collection of important Sanskrit texts, the less anthropomorphic concept of Brahman developed.  Brahman isn't a god so much as the all-encompassing essence of reality, the supreme cosmic spirit.  It's pretty cool, right, Thoth?  It's not something that you can easily represent on a sandstone relief, but then again, it's not that dissimilar from god in the monotheistic religious traditions.  

Brahman has sometimes been translated as 'the world soul' and all individual souls are one with it.  Don't get too comfortable though, because Brahman, in later classical Hindu mythology and religion, is embodied and personified as three dieties, Brahma, the creator, Vishnu, the preserver, and Shiva, the destroyer.  They're all distinct with their own stories, and yet also represent aspects of the more esoteric and universal idea of Brahman.  This triumvirate--the trifecta of divine (?~5:10), Hindus call it the (?~5:12) and Vishnu and Shiva loom largest in Indian myths.  

So then why is Brahma third banana?  Well, once the universe is created, the work of the creator is done.  True, the concept of cyclical existence is central to Hindu and Buddhist worldview, so you'd think a creator would be considered among the most important gods.  Still though, Brahma's significance declined in comparison with that of Vishnu and Shiva, perhaps because according to John Rockington, "Essentially, he is a fusion of a creator deity with the impersonal Brahman propounded in the Unpanishads, which see the goal of religious endeavor as some kind of union with the absolute, whereas the popular forms of religion attested to in the epics prefer a more personal and devotional approach."  In other words, Brahma doesn't really get involved in the juicy stuff, battles and quests and adultery.  

 (06:00) to (08:00)

 (08:00) to (10:00)

 (10:00) to (12:00)

 (12:00) to (12:31)

Website Security Test