With millions of gods that comprise a holy pantheon and living beings seeking salvation from rebirth, Hinduism can be hard to understand. To complicate matters further, there are sects within Hinduism with slightly incongruous beliefs. Ultimately, however, there are a few widely accepted concepts that form the bedrock of Hindu mythology.
THE HOLY TRINITY
THE CREATOR (BRAHMA), THE PRESERVER (VISHNU), THE DESTROYER (SHIVA)
Hinduism is creationist in that Brahma is assumed to have created our universe and everything in it. Unfortunately, much like a slice of creamy Black Forest cake that is left out in a tropical summer, the universe slowly starts to spoil as evil forces gain power. Vishnu, who has the unenviable role of maintaining law and order, comes down to Earth ten times to restore balance. Ultimately, when all hope is lost, Shiva wrecks the place. Brahma then creates another universe, and the cycle starts again.
THE FOUR AGES (YUGAS) IN A KALPA
Each universe or cycle of creation goes through four ages over its life. The First Age is the Satya Yuga, or the age of truth, when everyone is (presumably) truthful and virtuous. I imagine it feels a bit like a raw-food-only yoga retreat where friendly vegetarian patrons spend their afternoons smiling at each other in tree pose. Trouble starts to brew in the Second Age, or Treta Yuga. Someone starts sneaking freshly baked garlic naan into the camp. It’s the gateway drug to the world of processed carbs. But there isn’t enough for all the yogis; a few fights break out. Things get worse in the Dvapara Yuga, or the Third Age – the recipe for biryani surfaces. Groups form as people start taking extreme stances: only fruit and vegetables, or meat and rice? Few are able to maintain balanced meals. By the time the Fourth Age, or the Kali Yuga, comes around, the neighbourhood is really starting to go. Binge eating habits are the norm. Banana caramel S’mores Frappuccinos are a thing. It’s time to abandon this marble. Needless to say, we are currently in the Kali Yuga. The four ages comprise a kalpa, i.e., one instance of creation.
This is the rule that transforms a seemingly harmless circle-of-life-philosophy into a Tarantino-style movie. The Earth is periodically overrun by an assortment of thugs, and sleepwalks from crisis to crisis, but Vishnu only gets ten chances to come down (i.e., incarnate) to set things right. As matters stand today, Vishnu has already incarnated nine times in forms that suggest Darwin might have been onto something – he’s been a fish (Matsya), a tortoise (Kurma), a boar (Varaha), an anthropomorphic lion (Narsimha), a dwarf (Vaman), and ultimately full-grown humans (Parshuram, Ram, Krishna, Buddha). The last avatar was the Buddha, circa 2,500 years ago. Vishnu has one avatar left for this kalpa – Kalki. But there are at least two problems that merit further thought: (a) we—i.e., humans—are on our own before Kalki, and (b) Kalki marks the end of our world.