The word ‘myth’ today is generally used as a pejorative to describe something that is not as true as it is made out to be. The ancient myths however are truer by far than most of the historical accounts. While history is likely to take on the colour of a narrator’s perception; old myths, told and retold over and over again, carry the distinct voice of a collective consciousness. In the words of Alan Dundes (1934-2005), a myth is ‘a sacred narrative…that serves to define the fundamental worldview of a culture by explaining aspects of the natural world and delineating the psychological and social practices and ideals of a society.’ Merritt Conrad Hyers
Suman K Sharma
(1933-2013), an eminent theologian, said that ‘myths deal not only with truth but with ultimate truth.’ In this space, we have retold oversixty myths, mostly culled from Sukhsagar, a Hindustani version of the epic Srimad Bhagwad Puran. They do not always seem to follow common sense.Yet, they have important things to tell us of the way we were and, by inference, what we are today.
Devout at heart
Deep inside, we are a devout community. Rather than subscribing to the concept of a formless One, most of our elders tended to believe in saakaarBhagwan. He is nearer to the mortals than any god can be and manifests himself in as many forms as there are creatures on the earth. In him do we see the ultimate saviour. To the despised Dhruva, Narayana bestowed forever the highest place in the world. He savedPrahlad by burning the vicious aunt Holikain the roaring fire into which she had plunged with the daitya prince in her arms; and as Narsimha, He ripped apart the torso of the dastardly Hrinyakashipu for daring to mock at Prahlad’s helplessness. Kaliya Nag poisoned the banks of the Jamuna with his fumes, making it difficult for the dwellers of Gokula even to breathe properly. He came in the form of little Krishna and forced the dreadful serpent to leave the place for good. The Deity, we still believe, is always there to help us out in the direst circumstances. But for that absolute guarantee of protection, what He demands is absolute surrender, the kind that Raja Bali showed when he asked Vamana to measure out his third step on his head, as there was nothing more left with him to offer to the avatar.
Gods and their earthly traits
Like other ancient civilisations, we too have a hierarchy of gods and anti-gods possessing human traits. Vishnu, also known as Narayana, is the Lord Supreme.Partial to devas, He sees nothing the wrong in short-changing the pleasure-seeking giants. When the Churning of the Ocean brings forth a pitcher of amrit, Vishnu assumes the enticing form of Mohini, who, with her antics, pours out the ambrosia to devas, depriving the daityas of their rightful share. Bali has all the noble qualities of a king; his only flaw is of being a daitya powerful enough to threaten devas. Foreclosing direct confrontation, Vishnu appears before the over-generous king as a dwarf Brahmin and sends him off to PataalLoka, but not before divesting him of all his realms on the Earth and in the skies.
Brahma, in contrast, more often than not acts like an over-indulgent grandfather. When pleased, He generously grants boons to the mortals and daityas alike, not giving much attention to the possible fallout of his largesse. Brahma blesses Hrinyakashipu with near immortality, granting that he would neither be killed during the day time nor at night, neither inside the house, nor outside; neither on ground, nor in the sky; and that no man, beast or bird could kill him. It takes all the ingenuity of Vishnu to materialise as half-man half lion at twilight out of a pillar, cradle the supercilious tyrant in His lap and tear the tyrant apart.
Shiva too is known for his boons which sometimes prove grossly out of tune. Pleased with Bhasmasura’s utter devotion, He bestows on him the power to burn anyone to ashes just by touching that person’s head. The rakshasa tries to reach for the head of Mahadeva himself, forcing the latter to run away for dear life. Once again, it is Vishnu who has to intervene in the guise of a Brahmin scholar. He sweet-talks Bhasmasura into putting his hand over his own head just to see whether Shiva’s boon actually worked. Addled, Bhasmasura follows the fake Brahmana’s instruction and is instantly reduced to ashes. Shiva is thus spared the ignominy of perishing at the hands of a stupid rakshasa.
Indra and his host of devas appear rather pusillanimous. Every time a daitya, a rakshasa or even a mortal gains prominence by dint of his piety or sheer power, they rush to Vishnu to come to their help. And Vishnu surely is always there to sort out the matters in their favour this way or that. Not for Him are the constraints of morality which bind us – ordinary mortals.
Do we find here some resemblance to our own elite – starting from the top-most honcho in the government, to his band of fumbling ministers and down to the carpetbaggers whose clout is perpetually threatened by their adversaries? Certain things never seem to change.
God, or no God
Rishi Bhrigu, the great sage, took it upon himself to see who among Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh was the most deserving of adoration. He went first to Brahma, his own father, and put to him the question. Brahma snubbed him. His next call was on Shiva. The Mahadeva too won’t listen to such nonsense. They were three aspects of the one and only Trinity, where was the need to questionwho amongst them was the best! Lest he should rouse Shiva to anger, Bhrigu thought it wiser to make a hasty retreat from Him. As he still had a mission to execute, he barged directly into Vishnu’s abode. Before thinking twice, he gave the Deity a kick on His chest.
We have it on the authority of the scribes that instead of raising even an eyebrow at the affront, the Lord began to press the Brahmin’s foot lest it should have been hurt on striking the hard chest of the Be-and-all of the Universe.
It depends on the way one looks at it – the humility of the Master of the Universe, or the egalitarian ethos of that age when a mere mortal could put to test the Ultimate Ruler’s subservience to the commoners that He ruled. But the fact that emerges from the tale is that our ancestors were indeed a democratic lot.
Fast track to the present: India and Pakistan became sovereign countries in 1947. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan is senior to the Indian republic by one whole day. Yet, Pakistanis have seen three military coups, as also indirect military intervention in governance on numerous occasions, not to mention numerous failed coup attempts during the period. In contrast, we Indians never had to face such a calamity as to be ruled by a military junta. Yes, we did have a 21-month period (1975-1977), when our democratically elected leader, Indira Gandhi, had the gall to restrict our liberties by way of the much castigated ‘Emergency’. But in less than two years, it became a fight between ‘democracy’ and ‘dictatorship’. Mrs Gandhi’s supporters deserted her en-masse and she lost in the elections held in March 1977 to the Janata Party, led by Mr Morarji Desai. The once mighty Mrs Indira Gandhi was even jailed twice in the ‘jeep scam’ in 1978.
That is the point. We Indians have inherited the democratic values from ancestors; while our neighbours have willingly discarded them.
She, a person; not a possession
Rishi Veda Vyasa was passing through a jungle with his son, Shuka Deva. Young ShukaDeva, strode with youthful vigour, while the elderly Veda Vyasa lagged a few steps behind. As they came upon a thicket, the father and son heard voices of several divine women bathing sportingly in a natural fountain. Shuka Deva walked on as before. But Veda Vyasa noticed that women cried out in shame on seeing him and ran for their clothes. ‘They did not mind my son’s presence, but why have they reacted so strongly on seeing me?’ wondered the astonished sage. He was soon to sort out the enigma. For Shuka Deva, the unclothed bathing women were young persons having fun, but for the worldly-wise him they were women arousing desire. It was not their nudity per se that made the bathers shy, but the way an onlooker perceived it. Our ancestors considered the organs of procreation as sacrosanct. ‘Prakriti is the womb,’ says Krishna ‘I impregnate it with the individual souls…’ (Gita, 14:3).
A person’s private parts bring shame only when they become objects of lust. Lust – an overwhelming desire to possess – degrades women from being equal partners of human race to mere objects. The self-appointed arbiters of social norms today, who lecture girls and young women to dress ‘properly’ so as not to invite unwelcome attention, should take a leaf from Rishi Veda Vyasa’s book.
Violence, when required
Ahimsa has always been a cherished ideal with us, since everything that exists in the Universe is His manifestation. Even so, our ancestors were not too squeamish about violence. Godhead Krishna declares that He appears epoch after epoch to protect the good and finish off the wrongdoers (Gita, 4:8). Miscreants must be made to pay for their evil deeds. Ravana’s sister, Shrupnakha tried to kill Sita when she failed to seduce Lakshmana and then Rama himself. Angered, Lakshmana cut off her nose. Dushasna had the temerity to ask Draupadi to sit on his left thigh. Bheema, one of her five husbands, at the behest of Krishna, avenged the insult by crushing Dushasana’s accursed thigh with his heavy mace. Krishna himself tore open the body of His rival, King Jarasandh, and flung away the parts in opposite directions. To right a wrong on the part of the Kauravas, the Pandavas fought the bloody war of Mahabharata.
The recent incident of 27 February when our valiant IAF went across the LOC to wipe off the launching pads of terrorists in Pakistan occupied Kashmir truly reflects our trait as a nation.
Yet, with rage went clemency. The evil had to be punished. But when someone had paid for their wrongdoing, they were restituted. The daityas and rakshasas killed by Godhead went straight to the Vishnuloka. Angered rishi/muni frequently placed curses on all and sundry, but they also made sure to pronounce when and how the punitive effect of their curse would go away. Human beings were destined to go to naraka to face the dire consequences of their evil deeds. But their stay in the worst of the hells was for a limited period, after which the soul was given another chance to strive for absolution. The concept of roasting a soul in eternal fire and brimstone was alien to our forefathers. Even in the IAF strike on the Balakot terrorist camps, all care was taken not to harm any civilians in the territory.
The virtue of moderation
Lastly, moderation was the corner stone of the Sanatan Dharma, the eternal code of conduct for mankind. Raja PrachinVahirsh went overboard in his old age with sacrificing animals to seek entry to swarga after his impending death; till Narada Muni disabused him of his folly. When Prince Satyavrata wanted to renounce the worldly affairs to meditate, Brahma himself appeared to tell him that he should, at that point of his life, train himself for his future role of a ruler rather than go to the jungles like a hermit. The story of Raja Bali, the daitya king, who gave away all that he possessed and was then literally pushed down under foot by VamanaAvatara to the nether-world is the ancients’ way of saying that even piety when done in excess goes wrong. ‘Atisarvatravarjayet’- excess in any field of life is forbidden – ordained our elders.
The consequences of defying this dictum is for everyone to see: be it the spread of life-style diseases the world over or the dreadful Kailya Nag of pollution that no Krishna of today seems to be able to keep in check.
Through myths do we hear our forebears speak. They may not always be in tune with the present times, but we can certainly take a cue or two from them to lead our lives.