Gandharvas (from the Sanskrit: गंधर्व, gandharva, possibly meaning "fragrances") refers to a group of low-ranking male nature dieties that appear in both Hindu, Buddhist, and sometimes even Jain mythology. In all three traditions, the gandharvas are closely related to the wilderness as well as the creative arts, particularly music. Gandharvas also have symbolic connections with procreation and sexuality, including the Hindu institution of "Gandharva marriage," a consensual union of husband and wife who have cosummated their relationship before any sort of ceremonial union.
In the Hindu tradition, the term gandharva is used in both the singular and the plural to refer a particular divine being and a race of related demigods, respectively. The former sense of the term is prevalent earlier on in the Vedas, where the celestial gandharva acts as messenger between the divine and human worlds, commonly holding the secrets of the gods and revealing them to select beings. Fittingly, this gandharva is considered a personification of the light of the sun. In a similar role, gandharva prepared and guarded Soma, the intoxicating ritual beverage which was thought to bestow power on both gods and human beings alike.
The term gandharva also came to denote an entire race of male nature spirits, 60 million in number, who, according to the Vishnu Purana, were the sons of Lord Brahma, the creator deity. Later on in the same text, gandharva are said to be the offspring of Kasyapa and Arishta, which would actually render them the grand-children of Brahma. The Padma Purana, meanwhile, considers the gandharvas to be children of Vac, the goddess of speech.
The nature of the Gandharvas is capricious, to say the least. They have incomparable healing powers and are identified in the Rg Veda as the physicians of the gods; but, in contrast, they are also capable of causing madness. In their more unnerving forms, they are said to haunt remote areas such as forest glades and ponds. As such, it was considered necessary to keep the gandharvas appeased with many offerings, obeisances and prayers. Some are part animal: often their face was that of a bird, and their hindquarters were those of a horse or donkey. This human-animal hybridity lead some nineteenth century scholars to draw a connection between the theonym gandharva and that of the Greek centaurs, although this ostensible association has been met with strong opposition from most Indo-Europeanists. The Gandharvas upheld an intense rivalry with another group of nature spirits, the Nagas, a mythological race of snake-like dieties. In one encounter, the Gandharvas overthrew the kingdom of the Nagas, not only defeating the serpents in battle but also taking their jewels as well.
Gandharvas were said to be husbands of the Apsaras, nymph-like female nature spirits who held jurisdiction over the clouds and water. Numerous Puranas describe the Gandharvas as handsome, youthful men, and attribute them with superb musical and dramatic skills. As such, Gandharvas often filled the role of entertainers in the heavenly courts, appearing at banquets and other special events to create beautiful music for the gods while the Apsaras danced along. Such associations occur most frequently with the storm-god Indra, for whom the Gandharvas dance, sing and play games in Svarga ("the good kingdom"), his glorious abode atop the mythical Mount Meru. They also appear in a similar function at other events of mythological significance, such as the all-important horse sacrifice in the Mahabharata. Iconographical depictions attempt to synthesize all these aspects of their character, and so the gandharvas are commonly pictured in flight with their musical instruments abreast, scarves and flower garlands rippling behind them.
In conjunction with their musical abilities, Gandharvas are thought to be able to bestow beautiful singing voices upon girls. With this in mind, skilled singers both male and female who have mastered classical Indian music have been popularly referred to as "Gandharvas" as an homage to their divinely inspired abilities. However, true to their inconstant nature, the interaction of the Gandharvas with human beings does not always prove to be so benevolent. Among Hindus there is a prevailing belief that gandharvas will occasionally visit earth and persuade young unmarried women into amourous encounters, only to vanish after impregnating them, leaving their earthly lovers in misery.
In Hindu law, one of the eight legitimate types of marriage is referred to as a Gandharva marriage. This occurs when man and woman make mutually consensual love, but do so without formal approval from anyone else, most importantly their parents. This form of marriage is so-called because the Gandharvas, keeping an ever-watchful eye from the heavens, are said to be the only ones who bear witness the union. While this variation of marriage is considered valid, it is among the four "reprehensible" forms of legal union since it is carried out in the absence of parental validation, ritual affirmation, and is ultimately based upon lust. Such marriages are considered valid solely to provide a woman with the legal status of being a wife, and are certainly not intended to promote sexual activity outside or marriage. As such, Gandharva marriage is looked down upon and not intentionally practiced. Mythological Gandharva marriages of note include that resulting from the love affair between King Dushyanta and his eventual wife Shakuntala presented in the Mahabharata.
Paralleling later Hinduism, Buddhist theology considers gandharvas (or, in Pāli, Gandhabba) to be a race of demi-gods, ranking among the lowest variations of devas. They are classed among the Cāturmahārājikakāyika devas, and are subject to the Great King Dhṛtarāṣṭra, Guardian of the East. Buddhist gandharvas are also known for their skill as musicians, as well as their connection to the wilderness. Here they are among other wild beings that can potentially disturb a solitary monk in his attempts to meditate. They are connected with trees and flowers, and are described as dwelling in the scents of bark, sap, and blossom.
Among the notable gandharvas in Buddhist mythology are Timbarū, Pañcasikha, and Mātali. Timbarū was a chieftain of the gandharvas. Pañcasikha acts as a messenger for the Four Heavenly Kings, conveying news from them to Mātali. Matali, meanwhile, is the charioteer and representative for Śakra, Buddhist equivalent of Indra, and the Trayastrimsa devas over whom Sakra ruled. One popular love story in Buddhist lore links these three important gandharvas. Pañcasikha was immediatly stricken with the pangs of infatuation when he saw Timbarū's daughter Bhaddā Suriyavaccasā dancing before Śakra, but was unable to act upon his feelings, since Suriyavaccasā was at that point in love with Sikhandī, Mātali's son. Pañcasikha went to Timbarū's home and played a melody on his lute constructed of beluva-wood, singing a love-song into which he wove themes about the Buddha and his Arhats. Later, Śakra prevailed upon Pañcasikha to intercede with the Buddha so that Śakra might have an audience with him. As a reward for Pañcasikha's services, Śakra was able to get Suriyavaccasā, already pleased with Pañcasikha's display of skill and devotion, to agree to marry Pañcasikha.
Gandharvas are also closely related to Buddhist soteriology. According to the Janavasabha-sutta (DN.18), sentient beings are reborn among the Gandharvas as a consequence of having practiced the most basic form of ethics. Accordingly, it was considered embarrassing for a monk to be born in no better birth than that of a Gandharva. Accordingly, the term Gandharva or gandhabba is also used in a completely different sense, referring to a being (or, strictly speaking, part of the causal continuum of consciousness) in a liminal state between birth and death.
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