Indian gods bear a curious resemblance with deities of the Greek pantheon. Sparse evidence connects the two ancient civilizations, which only heightens curiosities. Terrifying and sublime, fantastic and imperfect, the flawed immortals echo humanity’s greatest hopes and darkest fears in all their fullness and splendour. Here’s a rundown on some of the most intriguing Indian gods and their strikingly similar Greek peers.
Shiva and Dionysus
Presiding over insanity, fertility and intoxication, Dionysus, the Greek God with a dual personality, brought joy to his worshippers and pushed opponents to the brink of madness. The affirmation and destruction of life is a common thread binding Shiva and Dionysus. Shiva, the great ascetic, is also worshipped as the God of fertility. His fearsome third eye could reduce mortals to ashes if opened; closed, the third eye could offer priceless spiritual insights and perception of truth.
Zeus and Indra
Indra was the Indian god of rains and the king of the heavens. Zeus was the Greek god of the sky and the ruler of all gods. Indra and Zeus, in their respective empires, usurped their father’s thrones, had adulterous affairs, wielded thunderbolts and slew sea monsters.
Achilles and Karna
Mahabharata and the Trojan war claimed the lives of the two tragic heroes who waged wars only for honour and glory. Formidable warriors, Karna and his Greek peer Achilles were each born to a divine parent. Much like Karna’s armour, Achilles’ Styx-coated body made him invincible. Sworn to guard their respective friends and comrades, the two warriors had no dogs in the battles they were drawn into.
Hermes and Narada
Hermes, the son of Zeus and Maia, is the winged herald and emissary of Greek gods, known for stealing cattle from Apollo, the sun god. Described in the Odyssey as the messenger god, he is the cunning protector of travellers, thieves and merchants. Quite like Narada, ever the trickster, Hermes wafts across the worlds and is a patron of music. Hermes invented the lyre, while Narada played the khartal and tanpura.
Kamadev and Eros
According to Vaishnava tradition, Kamadev, the Indian deity of love, is the son of Vishnu and Lakshmi. The God of desire and longing rides a parrot and is armed with flower-arrows, a bow made of sugarcane, and a bowstring sweetened with honeybees.
Eros, the Olympian God of love, was the son of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love, and the brother of Anteros, the God of mutual love. Depicted as a winged infant with a stretched bow, his arrows pierced the hearts of gods and mortals alike and left ‘delicious wounds’.
Hades and Yama
The Greek God of the dead and king of the underworld Hades is also known as Pluto. Though portrayed as cold and aloof, he was not evil and held his subjects to account. The eldest son of Cronus and Rhea was also, strangely, a gifted physician and could raise mortals from the dead.
The Indian deity Yama, the king of Naraka or hell, dons red clothes and rides a water buffalo. The four-eyed dog Sharvara is the sentinel of Naraka, while Cerberus, a three-headed dog described as the “hound of Hades” guards the gates of the underworld. What’s even harder to wrap our heads around is that Yama is the Hindi word for the planet Pluto.
Sita and Persephone
Persephone was the Greek goddess of vegetation and the queen of the underworld. She was picking flowers in the Valley of Nysa when Hades, besotted and in love with the goddess, abducted and carried her off to the underworld. The symbolism here is rich and meticulous: The Goddess is the personification of grains and plants that burst forth in the spring and stay hidden inside the ground after harvest.
Indian Goddess Sita, the daughter of Bhumi (Mother Earth), adopted by King Janaka, is worshipped for her immense sacrifices. The parallels with the Greek goddess are striking. Ravana, the king of Lanka (the land of demons), abducted her from the forest, and long after her release, the lonely and heartbroken goddess ended her life by throwing herself into an abyss – the arms of Mother Earth.
The similarities between ancient Indian theatre and Greek comedy, Nagarjuna’s philosophy and Pyrrhonism (the philosophy of the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho), and the rich tapestry of Indian and Greek mythologies may or may not be on account of hitherto undiscovered histories and stories. However, the great similarities leave an inescapable impression of shared quests and quandaries of our ancient human ancestors that manifest in their unusually similar cultural and religious practices.