Twists in the tales

MYTHOLOGY

Twists in the tales

DH illustration: Yathi SiddakatteVats of clay fashioned into figurines big and small; plantain trees propped against a wooden bench on which coconuts and flowers vie for place; heaps of puffed rice…fragrances and colours…

From the tailor's sewing machine to gigantic turbines, the barber's strop to the surgeon's scalpel to the writer's pen, all wear the same mark of propitiation… a tool is a tool no matter who and how it is wielded…

Cars, scooters, bicycles and even bulldozers and buses are washed and adorned…
Once again, we are in the midst of the Dussera festivities….

Every year the Indian calendar routinely celebrates the triumph of goodness over evil. Almost as if it were punctuating the course of time, these festivals appear; a reminder that even the victory of gods and goddesses come with an expiry date. In time, evil would make an appearance and it is up to the deacons of goodness to trample it down to nothingness. Again and again.

I have often wondered why is it that we need convincing on a regular basis. Is it that we have an inordinate streak of badness in each one of us that needs to be flushed out periodically? For this is what we see and learn from mythology. Especially Indian mythology.

While the western world perceives myths as an individual occurrence, a unique phenomenon, Hinduism adheres to the belief that in the history of the world, everything recurs in periodic cycles. As in life, so in our myths…

Over the course of researching one of my novels, I grew more and more interested in this aspect of Indian mythology. And so as a detour, I began trawling texts seeking the more obscure myths. For every popular myth that has found a place in our life and calendar as a festival with its associated rituals and offerings, there are several shadowed by obscurity.

Obscured myths

Take Dussera, a festival that unlike the more spectacular Diwali has a true pan-Indian presence. The reason why Dussera is celebrated varies from region to region.

According to one legend, Rama with his brother Lakshman, follower Hanuman, and an army of monkeys fought a great battle for 10 days against the great demon and king of Lanka, Ravana, to rescue his wife Sita. This victory of Rama is regarded as the victory of good over evil and light over darkness.

Yet another legend talks of how Kautsa, the young son of Devdatt, a Brahmin, living in the city of Paithan on completing his education under the guidance of Rishi Varatantu insisted on his guru accepting a present, or gurudakshina. Initially, the guru refused but later asked for 140 million gold coins, one hundred million for each of the subjects taught.

The obedient student went to King Raghu to ask for the money, as the king was renowned for his generosity. Within three days, the king made the God of wealth Kuber make a rain of gold coins near the shanu and apati trees. After giving the promised amount to the guru, Kautsa distributed the rest of the coins among the needy on the day of Dussera. Apparently even today, in Ayodhya, the capital of King Raghu, people pluck the leaves of the apati trees to present to each other.

In Tamil Nadu, the first three days are dedicated to the worship of Lakshmi, Goddess of wealth and prosperity, the next three days to Saraswati, Goddess of knowledge and the last three days to Shakti (Durga).

However, in many ways Dussera is a commemoration of womanhood at its prime. Be as the benevolent Lakshmi or the wise Saraswati or the power of Parvati, womanhood in all its aspects are revered and worshiped as Shakthi. 

But Shakthi is not an Indian geographical property. Lucius Apuleius, the Roman philosopher in his novel, ‘The Golden Ass’, written during the second century describes how the great goddess revealed herself to him at the end of his ordeal. “I am nature,” declared the great goddess, “the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are. My nod governs the shining heights of Heaven, the wholesome sea-breezes, the lamentable silences of the world below. Though I am worshiped in many aspects, known by countless names, and propitiated with all manner of different rites, yet the whole round earth venerates me.”

It is this we celebrate with our Dussera. The powers ascribed to the great goddess is universal. The truth of her revelation is the same for each and all, everywhere. No matter what specific form it might take, the recipient is afforded a glimpse into hidden depths. Myths possess an intensity of meaning that is akin to poetry.

Mythical tales

This is what makes myths so powerful. For Plato, the first known user of the term, mythologia meant no more than the telling of stories which usually contained legendary figures. The main characters were not always gods, since the Greek had an impressive number of heroes: Hercules, Jason, and Theseus, to name the most famous. In fact, the storytellers and balladeers of primitive societies understood this better than anyone else.

“Our tales are men’s experiences, and the things one hears of are not always lovely things… When I narrate legends, it is not I who speak, it is the wisdom of our forefathers, speaking through me.”

In India, myths are popular tales reworked by poets so as to absorb elements of religious belief. And at times acquires the religious overtones of a polemic. But a myth is not a parable. In fact, what distinguishes one from the other is how myths emphasise on the supernatural. Myths also reflects a preoccupation with the ultimate problems of existence, as opposed to an interest in promulgating morality.

While our festivals may be about propitiating gods and goddesses for conquering the dark forces of evil, their true blessing is to make a direct appeal to the unconscious. The power of a festival is the flash of insight that illuminates the narrowness of matter-of-fact explanation and compels the intellect to acknowledge the need for a more adequate understanding of how human we are. And hence how fallible. 

(Anita Nair is the author of ‘Magical Indian Myths and World Myths and Legends’)

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