Exploring the Rich Tapestry of Asian Mythology: Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes
Greetings, Mythology Enthusiasts!
When you travel to Asia, have you ever wondered who the characters are in the paintings on the walls or statues in the palaces or temples around Asia? In this edition, embark with us on an enthralling journey as we delve into the rich tapestry of Asian mythology, where heroes, gods, and goddesses weave tales of valor, magic, and divine splendor. Join us as we explore the legends of Hanuman, Sūn Wù Kōng, Durga Puja, Amaterasu, and Garuda—each a luminary in the vast cosmos of Asian folklore.
May your journey through the realms of Asian mythology be filled with awe and inspiration!
1. Hanuman – India and Thailand
In Hindu mythology, we find Hanuman, the commander of the monkey army, as narrated in the Ramayana, the great Sanskrit poem detailing Rama’s journey.
In his youth, Hanuman, born to a nymph and the wind god, attempted to seize the Sun, mistaking it for a fruit. Indra, the king of gods, responded by striking Hanuman on the jaw with a thunderbolt. Owing to his persistent misbehavior, powerful sages cursed Hanuman to forget his magical abilities, such as flying and infinite size, until reminded of them. Guided by Jambavan, the king of bears, Hanuman led the monkeys in aiding Rama, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, in rescuing his wife Sita from the demon Ravana, the king of Lanka (not necessarily present-day Sri Lanka). Reminded of his powers, Hanuman leaped across the strait between India and Lanka, overcoming attempts by watery demonesses to obstruct him. Discovered in Lanka, his tail was set ablaze, but he used the fire to burn down the city. Hanuman also flew to the Himalayas, returning with a mountain of medicinal herbs to heal Rama’s wounded army.
Hanuman is venerated in temples dedicated to Rama or in shrines dedicated specifically to him. In temples across India, Hanuman is depicted as a monkey with a red face, standing upright like a human. His devotion and service to Rama make Hanuman a revered model for human devotion (bhakti).
2. Sūn Wù Kōng – China
Let’s move to another monkey. On the Mountain Huaguo, a rock undergoes a mystical transformation and is shaped by the winds into Sūn Wùkōng, a monkey imbued with supernatural powers. He leads a tribe of monkeys and finds refuge in the Cave of the Water Curtain. Sūn Wùkōng joyfully rules as Monkey King over the monkeys until the awareness of his mortality prompts a quest for immortality. He masters numerous magic spells by training under a Buddhist patriarch. When the Ten Judges of the Dead arrive, Sūn Wùkōng resists, successfully erasing his and the monkeys’ names from the Book of Life and Death. The Kings of Heaven report his misdeeds to the Jade Emperor.
When assigned as the Keeper of the Heavenly Horses on Mount Pénglái, Sūn Wùkōng rebels upon realizing the insignificance of this position. Proclaiming himself ‘Great Sage, Equal of Heaven’ he forces the gods to acknowledge this title after a prolonged battle. Appointed as the guardian of Xī Wáng Mǔ’s heavenly peach garden, Sūn Wùkōng rebels again when excluded from a crucial banquet. He steals Xī Wáng Mǔ’s peaches of immortality, Lao Tzu’s pills of longevity, and the Jade Emperor’s royal wine, consuming them all. Returning to the Cave of the Water Curtain, he faces an attack from the Army of Heaven and defeats them, including Erlang Shen, heaven’s greatest general.
Buddha intervenes by trapping Sūn Wùkōng in a mountain, sealed with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum. He remains there until Guānyīn makes him a disciple of the Buddhist monk Xuánzàng. Accompanying Xuánzàng on the journey to retrieve sutras from India, Sūn Wùkōng alternates between protecting his companions and causing mischief. Ultimately, Sūn Wùkōng attains enlightenment, transforming into a Buddha and achieving the immortality he sought for so long.
3. Durga – India, Nepal
Durga, a prominent Hindu goddess, holds a revered position as a primary aspect of the mother goddess Mahadevi. She embodies qualities associated with protection, strength, motherhood, destruction, and warfare.
The legend of Durga revolves around her valiant efforts to combat evil and demonic forces that pose threats to peace, prosperity, and dharma, symbolizing the triumph of good over evil. Durga, believed to unleash divine wrath against the wicked for the liberation of the oppressed, brings about destruction to pave the way for creation. She is viewed as a maternal figure, often portrayed as a beautiful woman riding a lion or tiger, adorned with multiple arms, each wielding a weapon, and frequently vanquishing demons. This depiction underscores her role as a symbol of strength and protection.
Devotees of the goddess-centric sect, Shaktism, hold Durga in high regard, and her significance extends to other denominations such as Shaivism and Vaishnavism. The primary texts of Shaktism, namely Devi Mahatmya and Devi Bhagavata Purana, venerate Devi (the Goddess) as the primal creator of the universe and the embodiment of Brahman, the ultimate truth and reality.
Durga commands a substantial following in Hindu communities across India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Her worship is particularly prominent after the spring and autumn harvests (approximately April and October/November), coinciding with the festivals of Durga Puja, Durga Ashtami, Vijayadashami, Deepavali, and Navaratri.
4. Garuda – Southeast Asia
In Hindu mythology, Garuda is portrayed as either a kite or an eagle, and functions as the mount (vahana) for the god Vishnu. The Rigveda draws a parallel between the sun and a bird during its journey across the sky, symbolizing the flight of the eagle carrying the ambrosial soma plant from heaven to earth. According to the Mahabharata, Garuda’s mythological origin identifies him as the younger sibling of Aruna, the charioteer of the sun god Surya. Garuda’s mother, Vinata, who is known as the mother of birds, was deceived into becoming the slave of her sister and co-wife, Kadru, the mother of nagas (serpents). The enduring hostility between birds, particularly Garuda, and serpents stems from this deception. To secure Vinata’s release, the nagas demanded that Garuda obtain the elixir of immortality, the amrita, or soma, for them. Garuda accomplished this task, granting snakes the ability to shed their old skin. On his return from the heavens, he encountered Vishnu and agreed to serve as both his vehicle and emblem.
Descriptions of Garuda vary; one text portrays him as emerald-colored, with the beak of a kite, roundish eyes, golden wings, and four arms, with the breast, knees, and legs of a kite. Additionally, anthropomorphic depictions present him with wings and hawklike features. Two of his hands are clasped in adoration (anjali mudra), while the other two carry an umbrella and the pot of amrita. At times, Vishnu is depicted riding on Garuda’s shoulders. Devotees of Vishnu utilize images of Garuda to signify their affiliations, and images the Garuda are found on coins, amulets and medallions from India, Thailand and Indonesia.
5. Amaterasu – Japan
Amaterasu, revered as the magnificent goddess of the sun, embodies the rising sun and is considered the empress of the divine, ruling over the universe and symbolizing Japan itself. The Japanese Imperial Family claims descent from her and so asserting their divine right to govern Japan.
At the heart of Shinto and Japanese spiritual life, Amaterasu, also known as Amaterasu Ōmikami, emerged from the left eye of her father, Izanagi. He decorated her with a necklace of jewels and entrusted her with the oversight of Takamagahara, the ‘High Celestial Plain’, which serves as the dwelling place for all deities. When her brother, the storm god Susanoo, was sent to govern the sea plain, he visited Amaterasu to bid farewell. As a gesture of goodwill, the two gods each chewed and spat out an object carried by the other made up of the pieces of a sword and jewels. However, Susanoo’s behavior turned disruptive—he damaged rice field divisions, desecrated Amaterasu’s dwelling, and even threw a beaten horse into her weaving hall. In response, Amaterasu withdrew into a cave in protest, casting darkness upon the world.
To entice the sun goddess out, the other gods devised a plan. They gathered crowing cockerels and placed them near the cave, hung a mirror and jewels on a sakaki tree, and had the goddess Amenouzume perform a lively dance. The gods, amused by the spectacle, roared with laughter. Intrigued, Amaterasu, curious about the merriment amidst the darkness, peeked out of the cave. Upon seeing her reflection in the mirror and hearing the crowing of cockerels, she emerged. The gods swiftly placed a shimenawa, a sacred rice straw rope, at the entrance to prevent her return to seclusion.
Amaterasu’s primary place of worship is the Grand Shrine of Ise, Japan’s foremost Shintō shrine. Here, a mirror, one of the three Imperial Treasures of Japan alongside a jeweled necklace and a sword, manifests her presence there.
As we traverse the realms of Asian mythology, these heroes, gods, and goddesses emerge as beacons of wisdom, courage, and cultural heritage. Booking your trip with Secret Retreats guarantees you the very best experiences at the very best prices. Our Travel Teams are all local people and as travel professionals they are keen to share all the secrets of their fascinating Asian homes with you in building your tailor-made travel itinerary in Asia.