Divine Hierarchy - The who's who in the Indian pantheon of celestial beings

Most of the gods we know can be sorted into gods, demi gods, lesser gods, asuras, devas, rishis and the super gods. Buddha and Mahavira are more of saints than proclaimed gods.

The hierarchy starts with us humans being, the lesser mortals at the bottom, higher up are the lesser gods who are the gandharvas, kinnaras, vidhyadharas and apsaras. Their lords are the yakshis and yakshas - fertility goddesses and nature gods. Shalabhanjikas are fertility goddesses often depicted against trees with one leg bent up and one hand holding a branch. They are believed to be virgins who were capable of making a tree bear flower.

Nagas have a similar standing on this plain. Snakes are associated with water, the underground, and fertility. They were adopted into Hinduism as emblems of Shiva (perhaps reflecting Shiva's own origins from earlier nature cult), and were adopted into Buddhism as protectors of Buddha.

Above them are the rishis, devas, and demi gods etc who would be weather gods and their sons. Ganesha, the proclaimed son of Lord Shiva is the lord of the Ganas . Finally we have the super gods like Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma and to a certain extent the Mother Goddess.

All gods have vehicles or vahanas and various hybrid creatures like griffins scattered through out the pantheon.

Now lets have a closer look at the lesser known demi Gods:

Vidyadharas :
They are wisdom bearers. always seen with a small garland, who fly above the heads of gods. The garland symbolizes the attainment of supreme (spiritual) wisdom.

Gandharvas :

They are "Fragrances," celestial musicians and husbands of the apsarasas.

Apsaras :
They are celestial dancers, most famous being urvashi, the lead dancer in indra's court.

Kinnaras :
Kinnaras, who in Hindu mythology, are heavenly musicians who are the followers of Vaisravana also known as Kubera, their lord, who is a yaksha also popularly known as the lord of wealth. They have human heads and the bodies of birds or horses. The Kinnaras were either the sons of Kasyapa, or sprang from the toe of Brahma. They are often identified with the Kimpurushas, whose appearance is the exact opposite and who are also followers of Kubera. Essentially they are entertainers.

Here are a few verses from the Bhagavat Gita where reference is made to kinnaras.

Srimad-Bhagavatam 3:20:45
"The mention of upadeva-vara refers to inferior demigods like the Gandharvas, Kinnaras and Uragas, who are not exactly demigods but between the demigods and human beings."

Srimad-Bhagavatam 4:1:54-55
"From the description given in this verse, Garuda appears to belong to the Kinnara planet. The inhabitants of the Kinnara planet have the same features as Garuda. Their bodily features are like those of a human being, but they have wings. The word gita-kirtih indicates that the inhabitants of Kinnaraloka are very expert in singing the glories of the Lord. In Brahma-samhita it is said: jagad-anda-koti-kotisv asesa-vasudhadi-vibhuti-bhinnam. In each and every universe there are different types of planets, and each planet has distinctive features. On the strength of this verse, we can understand that in Kinnaraloka the inhabitants can fly with their wings. There is also a planet, known as Siddhaloka, where the inhabitants can fly even without wings. ."

These are celestial couples who are a common motif across temples both buddhist and hindu. They are believed to exert an influence which is both auspicious and magically protective.

In the next level are:

Gods or celestial beings, they are the residents of heaven. These Devas are also called ‘Suras’ - those with soma, the wine or ambrosia of heaven. Soma is the elixir of ecstasy, joy and contentment. The heavens are divided into three parts, the realms of desire, the realms of form, and the realms of formlessness.(picture is of devas pulling the serpent to churn the ocean at Angkor wat)

Demons, rivals and enemies of Sakra Devendra (Indra) and the Devas (Gods) with whom they are constantly at war. The Asuras dwell in the oceans (the atmospheres, the realms of turbulence) whereas the gods (Devas) dwell in the serene palaces of heaven. Asura literally means ‘one without the ambrosia of heaven (soma)’ - that is, they are restless, without the bliss, joy and contentment of heaven - they must ever struggle in the realms of strife and turbulence. They appear in many forms, including Nagas (water spirits), Yakshas (earth spirits), Daityas (genies), Dasyus (barbarians), Kalakanjas (stellar spirits), Kalejas (demons of time), Khalins (threshers), Nivata-kavacas (wearers of armor), Pisacas (flesh eaters), Raksasas (night wanderers) and a host of others forms. There are four classes, according to their manner of their rebirth: no.1 egg-born no 2 womb-born no 3 metamorphosis born no 4 water/spawn born. They are the competitive forces of nature that are forever battling for dominance over one another. In human nature they represent the assertion & clash of rival egos.

(Literally 'Devourers') The king of birds, with golden wings, living below heaven but above the highest trees of the earth. The Garudas are associated with the legends of the Roc and the Phoenix, and they are said to be able to travel a hundred thousand miles in a single day. They are the enemies and devourers of serpents (Nagas). They are called 'The Wings of Speech', and they represent the spiritual power and magic of the spoken word, which conquers nature, invokes and inspires the mind and carries it far and wide. The god of knowledge (Vishnu) is said to ride on the Garuda's back and the Garuda is said to carry the 'Wish-Fulfilling (Cintamani) Gem' around its neck.

Demons shaped like boas or pythons, with large bellies; also called ‘human but not human’. Demons of reptilian personality.

These spiritual beings can all be forces for good and spiritual enlightenment when embracing the Sutra and the teachings of the Buddha. In embracing and protecting the Sutra, they are known as the Naga Kings, Yaksa Kings, Gandharva Kings, etc.


Surviving original Shiva temples.

There are plenty of Shiva temples scattered around the country. So what are the original ones i am talking about? Most later shaivite temples depict either little or too much. For eg. Shiva temples at belur and halebid depict the entire pantheon of Gods, vaishnavite included on the over ornate walls of their temples, while some others restrict imagery to very few forms of Lord Shiva, line the later south indian temples in Tamil Nadu. They dont go beyond the depiction of Nataraja, Dakshinamurti, Lingodbhava and if you get lucky a form of trimurti. Of course you do have Parvati, ganesh, karthikeyan and chandikeshwara in all of them.

Original temples of Shiva had sprawling panels of mythological stories on Shiva and his exploits in all his various forms counting upto 26. Today we have few standing examples that depict all these forms and much more, some still unidentified, in few temples built from the period of the Vakatakas to the Cholas.

Here are some of the most authentic Shiva temples still standing:

Elephanta caves Mumbai coast:
Off the coast line of Mumbai stand Shiva caves on the island of Elephanta which have fantastic depictions from Shiva mythology arcoss their their dark walls. The sculptures take their influence from the art styles of the Guptas and the caves of Ajanta. Mammoth life size sculptures, exquisitely carved, depict Shiva in various poses. These include Ardhanarishwara, kalyanasundaramurti, yogishwara, nataraja, andhakasura, vrishabhavana, ravanaanugraha to name a few. The most striking of course is that of Trimurti, whose prototype goes way back to Indus valley. The caves of Elephanta are styled exactly like buddhist caves and were excavated well before structural architecture took shape in india.

Kailashnatha temple Ellora:
Another completely amazing temple and grand at the same time is that of Kailashnatha temple. The interesting part of this tempe is that it is right in the middle of brahmanical, buddhist and jaina caves. Tp top it all it is a museum of architecture that displays the sculptural supremacy of three dynasties that ruled the indian sub continent parallely - the chalukyas, pallavas and the rashtrakutas. there is cultural warfare written all across the walls of this temple. Apart from depicting various forms of Shiva, this temple shows stark examples of sculptors from all dynasties working together in the same place. eg. saptamatrika panel in a cave near the main temple shows few of the goddesses in pallava style, few others in rashtrakuta style and the remaining in chalukyan style. How do we figure that out? A rashtrakuta sculpture knows no proportion, heads are BIG and legs are SMALL. if the figure had to stand up, it would not be able to balance itself. A chalukyan sculpture always has a waist band and a Pallava sculpture is always slender and not intricately carved, very simplistic. Kailashnatha temple is also the first temple in India to be built multi storeyed, and monolithic at the same time. Truely fantastic.

Shore temple Mahabalipuram:
Almost completely eroded but salt and sea breeze over the centuries, we see traces of Shiva mythology on the walls of this temple. More than Shiva iconography this temple yells out the presence of strong naga cults and mother goddess worship. The reclining Vishnu is made of the bed rock, and existed well before this temple was built. Strangely, this is the first temple that hosts two shiva shrines back to back, one facing east and the other facing west. Nandi vahana does not stand in front of any of these shrines but seems to occupy the walls instead.

Kailashnatha Kanchipuram:
A truely well preserved and amazing structure, this temple gives us a complete account of shiva iconography ,so complete that we have not been able to identify all of them yet! Its a store house of all the possible forms one can think of. The sculptures are on the temple walls as well as on the walls that enclose it. Interestingly somaskanda panel seems to have been the most popular panel of the time. This temple also has the only example of a shrine chamber well within the gopuram.

Brihadheswara tempe Tanjore:
Truely magneficient archetecture and amazing sculptural depiction of Lord Shiva scatter its walls. This time with more plan and structure. All the walls of this temple depict Shiva or other Gods from his troop counting upto almost 10 per wall and that would be 30 allover. Interesting elements of this temple is that it redefines how a temple of Shiva should be built, with a series of Shiva lingas planted into the ground along the boundary walls of the temple. The yoni pitha of all these temples point northwards for the exit of the libation fluids. Interesting sculpture here is to see Shiva standing near the entrance with Vishnu bowing to him on his kneels. Shows the celebration of shaivite supremacy over vaishnavites. Of course vishnavite temples give it back equally well!!!

Brihadeshwara Gangaikondacholapuram:
Like father like son, but with a difference. This temple is definitely smaller but bursting with architectural creativity more than its older couterpart which is the personification of symmetry. The tower is not all that squarish anymore but more rounded! Shiva iconography covers all its walls as well with repetitions at certain places.

Interestingly all these temples display the various mythologies on the exterior walls except for elephanta cave which is completely on the inside! But its onlyin later stages that the 108 lingas came into temple architecture.

Other temples propbably are subsets of these temples. They house fewer forms of Shiva himself and concentrate more on the Gods and demi gods who accompany him. The outer walls are a little more bare and attention is given to elaborate architecture as compare to elaborate sculptural depictions.

All in all a true shiva temple contained concepts all about HIM and not about people around HIM!
But interestingly it seems to also have a lot to do with the magic of "Kailasa".


Thirst for a better life - the temple priest

What is a better life in the traditional indian mind?
In today's definition it probably is pots of money, good adouring wife who cooks great food and a good hubby who is loving and caring, children who are naughty for entertainment but well behaved otherwise and bright at school, a car or two at the backyard of preferably a self owned house. Dad's property being part of inheritence (i was shocked when a few people were really vocal about it!). Fantastic gadgets around the house, say a hify home entertainment system and other electronic equipment. a laptop and an ipod at arms reach and not a hit on the pocket. latest phone models that your friends would die for and maybe a plasma screen on your wall for a movie from your favourite movie collection. A bunch of real fun loving good friends who are there and not there at the same time. Peace between mom and wife. etc etc etc etc etc ....

a programmer would aspire for all this, thats the kinda life he is looking for. a priest is torn between two worlds. the world of the spiritual and the world of materialism. so lets see the other side of a priest's life. priests of all temples are trained in the art of performance of ritual, in recitation of sacred hymns, meanings of it, purpose of it, dos and donts, benefits and damages. they are historically and traditionally superior because of their intellect. (i have learnt to understand that intelligence is a luxury once the stomach is full).

the priests are normally the resposibility of the ruling matt, that takes care of all thier food, residence, maintenance of family, education of children preferably back into the matt's gurukul etc. all this while they perform ritual for the masses. The historical life of a priest down the ages has been one of renunciation from worldly interests and retreating into a world of intellect and spiritualism and passing the tradition of gurukul system down the ages which still continues today at shankara matt and others. their life revolves around the temple, their education is that of holy texts and not maths and chemistry equations that we go through in school.

their syllabus is that of occult sciences and ancient systems and sacred texts of subtle truth, of mythology and its impact on the spiritual progress of the human being classified in indian society as brahmin, kshatriya, vaishya and shudra, the labour of each community once upon a time being respected and not looked down upon. leading a virtuous life was of prime importance in society and these were the messengers who taught the ignorant masses how to lead it.

where the priests spoilt the show historically is:
1. converting devadasis(temple dancers also learned in other arts) to prostitues and therefore leaving behind a lot of illegitimate children(nambudiris of kerala and tamil priests),
2. being the rich folk and exploiting position when the ruling patronage decided to pay them hefty incomes for being respectable intellects and earning them a position at the courts(cholas were known for this)
3. being born brahmins and taking advantage of so called superior birth
4. taking milleage out of gullible ignorant audience and making them pay through their noses on the grounds of superstition that cannot be scientifically proven.
5. losing the honest trust most people had on them as being true to their faith and business of priesthood.

the result:
1. lack of trust and faith among people towards the actual occult sciences when its the priest to blame for not delivering the right goods.
2. mass disbelief and scorn on superstition which has left most of average indian house holds confused about what to believe and what not to believe.
3. lack of faith in paying for pujas, archanas, homams, etc. when the priest sits right next door talking on a cellphone when he is supposed to be singing mantras and calling the spirits down to earth to protect and bless the householders.
4. lack of interest in correcting wrong moves made by political parties or temple commities when temples are being slowly desecrated by
(a) the introduction of electric light into the garbha griha,
(b) lack of interest towards regular worship of the deity inside and subsequent steps of temple ritual being missed out (maybe because of lack of funds).
(c) cleaning of temple tanks and getting rid of plastics which clog the drainage systems and leave most of the tanks dry when they should be full of clear water so that devotees can purify themselves before the trip to the temple.
(d) blocking and closing of pradakshina paths around temples and restricting access, leaving the worship incomplete as circum-ambulation is important to ritual worship.
so on and so forth.

historically, temple priests in india have been the highest paid by the ruling patronage in society and today its their own greed that has brought about their down fall and resultant lack of trust. so today's generation of priests are reaping the deeds of the past.

if you still wish to pay them and give them a better life and feel sympathetic for them...go ahead.


Corruption among temple priests at sacred shrines.

Tamil Nadu

Kapaleeshwar kovil, Mylapore:
It is an interesting feature to see that apart from this temple being a place for community services and worship of the deities inside, it displays certain boards that speak a lot of religious intolerance. The boards say "non hindus not allowed". Why? Is it that we consider our Gods so sacred that any non hindu will desecrate the idol? What is the exclusivity for, is it that they are more impure than we are? I dont think so. Lets move on.

Shiva temple Chidambaram:
Here no cameras are allowed, the restrictions are more severe than other places. The boards threaten to confiscate electronic equipment if any such attempts are made to remotely photograph the Lord Nataraja inside. Secondly, there is an additional charge of Rs 30 a head to get onto the platform to get a closer view of the Lord. I dont mind paying but are the priests taking care of the cieling frescoes of the Chola period that have deteriorated with time right at the heart of this temple. Forget that, indians never learnt to preserve their past, they only know how to ape the west. Is the outer prakara of the temple maintained and kept clean? Where does all the money go?

Shiva temple Thiruvannamallai:
Here is another example of corruption at its best. In temples you can see the Lord, maybe from a distance but at least you can see Him. Here, you pay 30 bucks to enter into the inner most hall and sanctum, so if you are a staunch devotee and no money with you, you can be sure that only a miracle can get you through to get a glimpse of the Lord.

Shiva kovil, Sirkali:
Its as simple as it gets here. Apart from all the Nadi Jotsyars who hound you at the temple entrance, with their boards and advertisements, the priest of this temple simply couldnt care less. He would look at you and ask, is there a shrine in there at all? It was one of those places where i could get a view of the Lord with my handy cam with absolutely no objections at all!!! The priest didnt seem to have any ownership towards the shrine at all!

Perumal temple Kanchipuram:
I forgot the main name of this temple, its a large vaishnavite temple, orthodox and you pay for EVERYTHING. The kalyanamandapa stands in teh temple courtyard with the tank next to it. Oxygen levels are really low in the water so all the fish swim up, among the worlds plastics floating in the green waters. BUT, to get a view of the inside of the Kalyanamandapa you pay 5 bucks a head to enter an originally airy mandapa which has now been clothed in thick grills, around it such that even a kitten cant seem to get through. So much for preservation of ancient monuments. The indian priest has learnt to just make money on it and not even attempt preserving it.

Shiva temple Papanasam:
The temple falls bang in the way from Tanjore to Kumbhakonam. Its claim to fame is that Lord Rama is supposed to have worshipped 108 lingas within its walls. A very interesting and unique set of lingas catch your fancy in this temple, which is quite unlike other 108 set of Shiva shrines typically found around Shiva shrines. The price to enter this little hall of Lingas is Rs 20 for 3 people and its your tough luck if you show up with a lesser crowd. So the flat payment is 20 whether you have 3 people in your company or not! Interesting. The man with the ticket has a good belly and is loaded with such lethargy that i wonder if the idol gets a daily abhishekam!

Trichy Rock fort:
Gorgeours place and rottenly maintained. Painted all over with additional 21st century constructions that are more of a blotch in the whole canvas. Ticket is Rs 5 or 10 to enter, per head of course and if you do have a handycam or camera, please pay Rs 50, they will make you pay for it higher up, in case you escape the first time. The good side, you get a few books on the temple history in return, the sad side, its all in tamil, so you better know how to read it!

Srirangam Ranganatha temple:
I was attacted and mauled by senile old priests all above the age of 75, who wanted temple donations all in the name of temple maintenance. The nice part is the temple as compare to others is reasonably well maintained. I also didnt mind paying to get a quick darshan given our ever increasing indian population does pose its problems when it comes to crowd management in temples. Photography is not allowed once you cross the outer 3 prakaras of this gigantic walled temple. The good side, you dont pay for photography where its allowed and most of the imperial chola and vijayanagara sculptural art falls in these prakaras so you really dont miss much.
Point of caution: there are a lot of these old priests who sit around the mandapas and catch any unsuspecting pilgrim and tell them to do a few things before they very deftly guide them around the temple and finally take them towards a room which looks like an office where i suspect you will pay handsomely for some so called "prasadam". I escaped it, i suggest you do the same.

Thiruvanaikkaval temple, Jambukeshwara linga, Srirangam island:
Here the same 75 year old senile men, either beg you to pay for a simple arti, or take Rs 150 or so for a promised closer view for which you anyway pay with a ticket at the counter, think its Rs 10 per head. The good side, you get to see the Lord through a grilled window if you dont pay for a clearer view, given this shrine is a little sunken into the earth and can be entered from a side door which leads into a very small chamber that can house a max of 10 people without priests. The disgusting element is the look of corruption and lethargy on the faces of the priests.

Shiva temple Kalahasti, Vayu Linga:
This is totally hillarious, but i will also assure you, if you are a believer of Rahu Ketu and shani and are told to pay Rs 250 to get any Sarpa Dosha's off your head, please do not believe in these. The Kalahsti temple is a complete fraud deal when it comes to blind faith among their rather gullible audience. There are methods to get over doshas of various kinds, including sarpa doshas but that is a prescribed method that is defined by the family Guru and not just paying through your nose to please the Gods. Typically you would be told to light a ghee lamp at the inner Gajastambha on an auspitious day or give a whole packet of Gingerli oil in the sanctum. Yes to get a closer view of the Vayu linga you have to ay Rs 500 to get to the vestibule of the main shrine sanctum. If not its the standard Rs 30 to get a quick darshan, yes! the joys of over population i should say.

Brihadeshwara temple, Gangaikondacholapuram:
Here, free entrance but no cameras are allowed. You can take your camera inside and sincerely tell the authorities that you dont intend taking pictures of anything in the hall, leave alone the garbha griha, but you can sneak a small shot here and there. Is it worth it? well if you get lucky , yes its completely worth it.

So end of all this, should we hindus pay to see the Lord? Should tourists and non hindus who have come crossing oceans to get a glimpse of the shrines to quench their curiosity of Hinduism be denied this pleasure? If yes, how does it hurt us? Should temples force pilgrims to pay up, when there is a rich hat called Kanchi kamakoti peetam sitting there walloping money to pay for extortion instead of maintaining these jewels of architecture? Should money be asked of every thing a devotee asks for be it a coser view, an archana, or any other form of serious worship?

Last but not the least, should temple priests be allowed to use cell phones while they perform pujas , homams and other sacrifices in honor of householders anywhere?

If this is not corruption what is it, and if we keep silent and allow it, how is it going to improve and make a spiritual change to our lives?