Thursday, December 29, 2011 0 reflections

Season's Greetings

Sunday, December 04, 2011 0 reflections

Razmnama : Mahabharata's Persian translation by Akbar


Dear reader,


Recently I came across the word "Razmnama" which, on further investigation I learnt, was the Persian name given to the translation of the epic Mahabharata that had been started initially by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. On further looking around I found a lot of evidence indicating the existence of such an illustrated book. The comprehensive collection of these, now scattered and almost extinct, illustrations is titled 'Razmnama : The book of war' - http://amzn.to/vpRnix.


Given below are a few fine examples of these paintings that had been created at the behest of Akbar during their translation to Persian at the time of his reign. The pieces have the unmistakable influence of Mughal art and also carry writings in Persian. I shall add more of these illustrations here as and when I find them. 


You may click on them for larger versions.


The disrobing of Draupadi


Krsna talks to Yudhishitira


Death of Bheeshma


Arjna's son Babruvahana fights the Nagas


Karna kills Bhma's son Gatotkacha


Krsna with the Pandavas


Krsna declares end of war by blowing on conch


Kunti leads Dritarashtra & Gandhari to the forest


Arjna and Krsna in battle


Scholars discuss in a court about the translations
Yudhistra with Bheeshma 1
Arjna shoots Bhshma
Yudhistra and brothers ask Bhsma permission to fight

Karna slays Kaikeya prince Visoka
Vanaras help Rama build a bridge

Churning of the ocean - Manthan
Prince Chandrahasa with a Goddess
Draupadi with companions on a terrace
Arjuna is killed by his son Babruvahana
Garuda carries the elephant & the turtle

Ydishtira with Bheeshma 2











Saturday, November 19, 2011 1 reflections

A mystery called Kalidasa



I was about 10 years old when I first saw 'Kaviratna Kalidasa' in Kannada featuring the thespian Dr. Rajkumar. Out of the various scenes the one that stuck most to my memory was the transformation he undergoes from a quintessential rural goatherd to one of the biggest names in Sanskrit literature. The scene where this takes place is depicted thus: Having shocked the living daylights out of the immensely intelligent and articulate princess he married (due to the evil motives of a minister) he tries to console her in the time of such grief. To help him out with this she takes him to the Kali temple (a deity Kalidasa is known to have utmost devotion for) and tells him to sit and pray to her all night. She also assures him that Kali will appear before him and 'cure him' from the illiteracy that plagues him. Kalidasa, hence, sits and starts to pray. Lo and behold the goddess does appear in human form (bejewelled with the usual cinematic inclusion of theatrical ornaments) and asks him to push out his tongue. When he does so she dramatically raises her trident and etches the word 'Aum' on it. The very next moment a halo of knowledge starts to glow behind his head as he opens his eyes, now welled up by the effect of this drastic transformation, and starts to sing Kali's praises in pure Sanskrit.

The scene, needless to say, is a memorable one. Partly because of the masterful authenticity Dr. Raj brings to this otherwise comic version of how Kalidasa actually got his skills. (As a child, and being one who was woefully inept at topics like Math and Biology, I secretly hoped that I too could get a goddess to come to me this way and etch that magical 'Aum' on my tongue so that I could ace exams and get more Amar Chitra Katha and GI Joe's as gifts...)

A second version of this story is presented in the aforementioned Amar Chitra Katha comic where Kalidasa is shunned by the princess on realizing she has been swindled into marrying an absolute dimwit. Unable to tolerate the shame he walks straight to the Kali temple and spends many days in meditation trying to please the goddess. On failing to do so he picks up the sword near the idol and tries to kill himself (as a sacrificial offering) when, finally, the goddess appears and blesses him with the vision and tongue of a poet laureate.

To me both these versions, despite their colorful variety, of Kalidasa's literary beginnings began to seem less and less accurate with passing time. The one point I had a hard time digesting was the appearance of Kali as some sort of quick fix mantra to take care of all of his problems. A premise, that, just seems too easy for the start of such a legend's historic journey.

Over the last few years I have sporadically tried to find out as much as I could about Kalidasa's origins as a poet but have failed to find anything reliable. So, as an attempt to try and rationalize the intellectual start of such a literary giant in Indian literature, I present to you my humble version of the same episode.

So what might have happened? Perhaps this: Contrary to popular belief Kalidasa was not a complete illiterate. He is said to have had 'minimal literacy' but was not a very bright lad. This perhaps means that he did get some crude sort of formal education but either due to poverty (given that he was a goatherd in all versions) or due to the lack of motivation, the boy never learned much. This brings us to the next point. Now, why does anyone learn anything sincerely? Some ounce of genuine purpose? Maybe some spoonfuls of passion mixed in? But Kalidasa had none of these factors to actual see the benefits of a good education. At such a point in his life enters the wronged minister. He spots an ideal way to get back at the egotistical princess. He takes a gullible Kalidasa under his wing and trains him enough to pass the 'groom test' she conducts with every man who walks into the palace wanting to be her husband. Due to a sequence of circumstantial events the princess does not detect the plot hole. In fact I have also read that Kalidasa was quite a handsome looking fellow. So there is also a bright chance the princess, despite her centered demeanor, developed a slight state of infatuation just by laying her eyes on him. This perhaps also explains why she didn't think too much of his bizarre responses which were being aptly paraphrased by the minister.

Long story short, the marriage takes place. She discovers she was wrong and kicks him out. Initially I was surprised she didn't have him executed immediately. But on second consideration it dawned upon me that it could have been her soft feelings for the man and the blatant realization that he too was a victim, that made her merely let go of him, albeit with a broken heart. What happened next? Kalidasa, clearly now full of self hate and uncontrollable fury (at having been shamed by the princess thus) goes to an abandoned Kali temple (or even somewhere in the middle of a forest. It doesn't matter where) and starts to meditate intensely.

Initially he is full of distractions. He thinks of the beautiful princess and lets his thoughts wander. That then brings back the ugliness of her words that drove him out of her life. Anger keeps returning and fuelling the energy in him to focus on the goal at hand – to prove her wrong. For several days, Kalidasa is in this state of trance. Animals, birds and insects wander about him but do not harm him as he doesn't seem like a threat. His mind is full of prayer verses that he knows for Kali. His face and body is now covered with all kinds of debris. Rain, sunshine, wind – each one of them have come and showered him with their presence. His body has also been regularly answering nature's calls without his knowledge since, well, it has to do what it has to do. His soiled garments are proof that despite the shabbiest state of affairs the man has not moved a muscle. His body remains but his mind is fixed only on Kali. He wants to please her and get her blessings. It is also possible that due to the state of fatigue and growing hunger he may have had bizarre hallucinations of Kali at some points too.

Now, while all of this is happening in his conscious state his subconscious state has been picking up a few things. It notices the song of birds, the perfume of trees, the music in the breeze, the rustle of leaves, the hum of bees, the rhythm in the rain drops, the way a wind runs up to someone and hugs them like a child eager for attention, the way different times of a single day smell so unique from one another, the way animals communicate various feelings to each other – of anger, of lust, of sorrow, of trust. Every single entity in the world around him is coming alive in a way that Kalidasa had never bothered to notice before. In fact it seems he didn't have the faculty to do so. By filling up his conscious state with so many disturbances and wants, he had subdued the poet in him for a very long time. But now, in these moments when his body is not his own and nothing else matters, the poet inside him is waking up. A sense of calm comes over him. He looks and smells like the foulest garbage mound on earth but within that heap of hovering flies and maggots stirs the psyche of a man in whom the thirst for knowledge has begun. It starts in the inner most walls in his mind. First as a drop of dew, then multiple drops, drop by drop accumulating, a puddle, many such puddles now, filling up quickly as the elements around him start to influence the volume, growing with each passing day, becoming too heavy for him to hold it within until it starts to fill his insides. His itch for learning becomes so grave that he can't even reach it to scratch it back to peace. It continues to well up like an emerging lava as the fumes of its impending arrival start to ooze out of him. His yogic trance starts to die away as the long hidden meaning for his birth breaks down every door and like a flood that cannot be tamed, gushes out of him, illuminating him from within and exploding out into the open. The raw fierce energy of the force ignites his conscious state now and switches his eyes open. The lack of food in his stomach and water in his throat for days, perhaps weeks, now suddenly hits him. His mental strain in keeping his focus on the goal was so overwhelming that it now overpowers his physical attributes. He leans over immediately and loses consciousness.

The reason I feel something similar to this, if not all of it, happened was because the mind is arguably one of the most powerful things in the universe. Learning to control it basically means being able to control pretty much everything else in and around one. So if Kalidasa was to go on into the passages of history and create epics then the fire of ambition to actually go there had to have come from within him. His devotion to Kali was perhaps so huge that in a sheer display of humility he later on dedicated his mastery to her – thus earning the name Kalidasa (there is literature that says his name was something else earlier to this episode. He became Kalidasa much later).

So let us wrap up then. Maybe he did faint, maybe he didn't. That is besides the point. Either way once he was back to his senses he was a different man. He got up and walked straight to the river where he shed his awful clothes, bathed till his mind was content and came out a completely new man. Maybe, while in the waters, he wept bitterly till his heart's content too so that along with those foul tears his past also might disappear into the waters never to resurface again.

He then perhaps got some help from someone for shelter and food, after which began a lengthy phase of him reading and analyzing every scripture, epic, upanishad and veda known to man. This must have taken him several years since even though he had the burning desire to overcome his own shortcomings it still needed a different sort of mental and physical acumen to actually absorb the literature he was gradually being exposed to. It is conceivable then, that after such rigorous self training (or perhaps he did seek out a guru too. We have no evidence to claim he didn't) he walks into the court of King Bhoja one day and enthralls the audience with his abilities. The rest, as they say, is history.

Like many of the pieces I have recently written, this too is an attempt to dissect out the mysterious origins of Kalidasa and try to find a non-mythical way to explain his talents. That he eventually fell prey to the same (the story that he was killed by a greedy courtesan to get some extra money) is perhaps the most fitting end to a life that was always somehow so much larger than itself.

Thoughts and feedback most welcome.

Saturday, November 05, 2011 2 reflections

Short Fiction : Ranga and the demon king

Ranga and the demon king
a short fiction by ShaKri


Circa 19— and the land was a meat mart. Fresh ones went for a higher price while the aging skins were left on the back burner. Dicey ones abandoned in the name of the Omnipresent while the smarter ones were often found in a puddle of their own blood. A shameful dance of how meaningless and absolutely worthless a human life was became more apparent with every tabloid spill. Burning the soles of his hardened feet was the common man, stuck somewhere between the moon and the rainbow, trying to scratch his back in peace. Ignored, he sat waiting in line for an unknown finale just because others like him did too. Fanning themselves with the only other piece of clothing they had brought, they waited. And they hoped.

Thrown somewhere into this bizarre equation of simmering humanity was Ranga. Burning the tips of his fingers with a beedi he had borrowed, he smoked in deep drags with a moist hand towel on his head. Strapped in a dirty dhoti that begged for a wash and an equally shabby cotton shirt he sat enjoying his ten minute lunch break. His face was an image of eternal struggle laced with a hint of a discerning frown. Little was known about this middle aged looking wrinkle-faced nobody who minded his own business and slaved at almost every road repair, flyover construction, brick-laying and sign painting project the city would undertake. Sniffing till his mouth went dry in the blistering heat, Ranga would get soaked in sweat as he toiled relentlessly each passing day to make the few rupaiyyah he got at the end of it. A quick wipe of the weary face and another deep whiff of the foul tasting beedi was all he needed to get through the day.

He ate when there was food available. He slept where there was room. His only possession was a hand-sown cotton bag that hung in desperation along his groin. He would flap up his dhoti with an air of uncouth proficiency and stuff his earnings into that bank of atomic fortunes. Many a time this rather ghastly act of uninvited publicity would see orthodox faces in the crowd look away in utter disgust. With little care for anything around him he would sneeze out a long one, adjust his crotch with practiced ease and move on. Nothing, it appeared, could make the fellow blink an eyelid of concern for anyone else besides himself.

Not far from the invisible shanty-town that was the city’s eyesore was the new project at hand. Ranga’s discovery about this high yielding job had borne fruit when he found himself tenth in the ant-hill that was forming for rapid occupation. A name exchange, a nod of approval on the payment rules and he was in. Zaveri Builders had taken it upon themselves to provide the already bejeweled headdress of the city yet another elite column of apartments with one bedroom and two bathrooms. Ranga was once forced to join in some banter about the owner being a major power player but being the way he was, he coughed and spat before resuming work.

His apathetic reactions to the people around him had created unrest among the ranks as he quickly got the repute of being a loathsome loner. He was, without a shred of doubt, a man of few words but somehow the only salvation others like him with nastier coughing and spitting habits had was to know they were part of a community. This blatant disregard by Ranga of the working-ants brotherhood did not seem to gel well with the clan.

The meat market would remain simmering with the blister of each passing sun. The women folk carried heaps of gravel and stones during the day while their bare bottomed toddlers watched in curious glee before returning to their sand play. At night these mothers and their children nestled next to each other with a half empty stomach while the fathers drank themselves insane and yelled obscenities at the perfumed bedrooms of the snoring elite. Their make shift tents with a dull kitchen outside would be filled with badly sung lullabies and the occasional wail of a nightmare as the stars enveloped this part of the globe. Apart from this faction of noise and activity the rest of the area and all sixteen-floors of it would be the city of the dead.

The booze-hound men would sit around all night exchanging dirty jokes about the owner of the building being an impotent with only one working testis. They would guffaw at various ill conceived rumors about the project’s money being generated by the mafia. Some of them would swear on their dead mothers (‘God rest her soul!’ they would add) that they had seen with their own living eyes covert exchanges at late night meetings. Initially they would call out to Ranga to come on over and join their verbal exploits but on his consistent reluctance to do so they had confidently declared that even he was not a complete man either. Too bad, they said, that at least the owner had so much money! And they might as well have been right about Ranga’s non existent manhood had it not been for that fateful night when the demon king finally decided to make an appearance.

Literacy among these folk was pretty minimal. Agriculture had been their main occupation before the land started to crack and worms began consummating on their crops. While some of them took rat poison for dessert others fled the land to the city where the dreams were produced and caged. They left behind wailing wives and dead kin. Memories of a hard life were past them as the glitz and distraction of a disoriented metro consumed them in one merciless gulp. The silence that engulfed their empty eyes would be filled with the reflections of the stars sequined on some teenager’s ripped jean. The masks they would wear as they built someone's aspiration during the day would burn off their faces as the liquor made way into their food craving veins. With a stomach full of lost ambitions, they would disappear into a mirage of poison vials and humping ring worms before the irksome crow would croak each morning. Those few minutes of reconciliation was all they had. It was all they could afford.

What did not bother Ranga about this scene was the familiarity of it all. He too was a child of abuse in the name of democracy. A lowly farmer whose land had been lost in oceans of debt that would take at least three generations of buttock peeling to pay back. As the heads of the administration looked the other way his home burned. His brothers hung from banyan trees with letters of sorrow cold in their still palms. The elders cremated their mortal remains but the spirits still wandered around the old banyan tree, looking for a release. A proper one. And hopefully a happy one. It seemed like the mixed emotions of the banyan tree dwellers fell on the wrong ears. Somewhere in the belly of an undigested sky slept the demon king in peace. Their cries soaked in flesh-scented fury, somehow, reached the pit of the evil that sang itself a lullaby of death. Not the silent kind O no! The noisy kind. The kind that makes stomachs churn and tongues heave. Somewhere someone somehow had managed to say those two words – magical concoctions of liberty – that would descend from the ill bowels of the skies. That unmistakable pair wrapped in one pristine request – ‘Release Us’.

Ranga squatted for a quick late night relief near the garbage mound when the signs initially appeared. Two drunks were discussing various ways of having rough sex with the latest starlet when mixed with the wind came the scent of decaying souls. Ranga picked it up almost right away. His thoughts ran back to his village, to his family, to his wife, to his twin-daughters who still had not yet reached their tenth year of existence and to his dying land. The land that sat buried inside the shame of his family. The land that had made him as hard as itself. That mass of helpless earth that sat choking on its spit with no one to care for it. As the silence broke with the demon king’s flaming eyeballs Ranga was on his feet – alert, aware, ready. He stood all set to take the monster by his blazing horns and send him back to where he came from.

It was close to 3 AM when the out of control four wheeled chariot of the demon king was on its final ride. Loud and unfamiliar music radiated with glaring insanity from its foul interiors that spat out sparks of fire as it mercilessly banged itself against the sidewalk. Ranga’s math was as accurate as it had ever been. If he did not come in the way of the demon king’s death-strewn path then more than two dozen drunks and eight sobers would be trampled under the hot wheels of the chariot the demon king was riding. The refugee camps with the mothers and children would be next in line. If he did manage to cross paths with the frenzied machine then there was no way to predict which route the dying chariot would take before fragmenting into a thousands pieces perhaps taking Ranga along with it.

Without a second to spare, Ranga took one last look at the boiling lights from hell and leaped onto the chariot’s view. The dark shades prevented him from seeing the demon king in the eye but what a sight that was! An ear piercing crescendo of unearthly noises came out of the metal chariot as Ranga clung onto it desperately trying to force it out of its path of impending mayhem. A few meters away from the snoring half-dead Ranga realized he had gained access to the chariot's steering wheel. He quickly maneuvered his arm onto the square that was dimly lit by smoke and expensive alcohol. He heard a cry behind him; a sleepy sober was shouting at the top of his lungs and trying to pull out every sleeping worker away from that cursed sidewalk. In the following moment the chariot was in Ranga’s control. At a speed unimaginable the demon king's chariot sped onto the construction site narrowly missing the snoozing booze-hounds and crashed violently into one of the weaker pillars in the basement area.

The explosion that followed echoed across the neighborhood. The roar of melting metal was so intense that life in the hundred meter radius was brought out of its slumber. Within a few seconds scores of groggy heads surrounded the smoking chariot of the demon king that was now engulfed in raging flames. Wailing children and their hysterical mothers appeared from their camps and did little to bring order to this chaos. Residents from the neighborhood rushed towards the accident spot with overflowing buckets of water and blankets. Within minutes the fire was brought under control as the entire area was engulfed in a foggy layer of invisible grief.

A burly man, who identified himself as Yadav, began pushing curious onlookers aside to try and rip open the doors of the burning chariot. Using the water and the blankets as fire-safety gadgets he pulled open the door with some effort to find two seriously injured individuals trapped inside. One of them was a young woman who seemed to have hurt her head with a bright red stream of blood dripping down her face and the second one, the driver, was a young man who was immediately identified as the impotent owner’s only son. Someone’s presence of mind worked well that dreary night as an ambulance and a police jeep arrived within the next few minutes.

The impact had been quite vexing. The front portion of the chariot had been completely damaged as the bodies of the unconscious occupants were awkwardly stuck inside. With efforts by the burly Yadav they were finally pulled out and put on sanitized stretchers before being whisked away to safety. The police quickly cleared out the area so that the clean up operation would go smoothly. Considering the owner’s son was involved in this grisly incident they did not want any delay. Not a minute more. Not a second more.

‘Hey! See this!’ screamed one of the younger workers as the ambulances disappeared into the distance. The crowd turned its attention towards the lad only to realize that one more fatality had occurred. One of the local workers, whose name no one knew, lay in a pool of blood as the back of his head had pierced into one of the metal rods that stuck out of one of the concrete blocks of aspirations. They slowly pulled out the dead body of the stranger from its entanglement and laid it out in the open for everyone to take a peek.

‘Sorry son of a bastard’ said one of the intoxicated workers. ‘We pleaded with this fellow to be with us. If he had been then he would have been alive today. You see what happens if you act too smart? I always knew he was not man enough!’ Having said this he spat on Ranga’s bloodied face before being pushed away by the others. Someone later called the local authorities and informed them about an unknown body that had been involved in the incident and needed cremation. Thus, Ranga’s historic tryst with the demon king remained undocumented.

.

Note:
The inspiration for 'Ranga and the demon king' came from Shankar Nag's 1985 Kannada movie called 'Accident'.

Other posts of a similar genre:
A tale for Ambu
The death of Krsna
Tuesday, November 01, 2011 7 reflections

Short Fiction : The death of Krsna

Dear reader, 


I had posted a blog yesterday discussing the death of Krsna. One possibility was that he could have been perhaps executed for his controversial role in various parts of the epic. The more I thought about that possibility the more I wanted to pen those moments where, perhaps, a group of assailants accosted Krsna one evening and killed him in a planned ambush. Given the room for some creative freedom there I present to you the short fiction version of mine below. It details the final moments of the attack. It has been eons since I blogged short fiction so this was one way of breaking those shackles of uncertainty.

Feedback, of course, is most welcome.

Cheers.





~ The death of Krsna ~ 
a short fiction by ShaKri


The meandering clouds bore a reddened glow even before the blood spill that fateful dusk. Stunned into a sense of helplessness by their impending tryst with destiny the tall trees that overlooked the palace city for centuries swayed about uneasily. From the cacophony of a bustling day in paradisiacal nests the king emerged. Exiting from the rear side of the colossal palace, he took the snaking path to the river’s edge for his evening bath. Silent shadows had followed him with the precision of a hawk and the grace of a swan ever since he had slipped out for his evening dip in the river from the palatial halls. On recognizing the followers, he had then acknowledged their need for anonymity whilst continuing his journey towards the water front. The breeze that gently danced on the impatient surface of the river somehow seemed to carry a bitter pinch of melancholy with it as he, the dark skinned monarch of the Yadavas, walked without the slightest hint of royalty on him despite his standing. No jewels, no footwear, no head dress. He walked like a man in a state of eternal trance yet his gait was unwavering. His face bore the pain of the crumbling walls of a once mighty empire yet his lips managed to curl into a subtle smile. To the untrained eye he might have seemed like the commonplace wanderer with no home or country to call his own yet his confident stride bore the mark of a man who could own every inch of land he stepped upon. His flowing auburn tresses swayed about with the same playful nature that had for many decades sent a flurry of inexplicable affections into the hearts of absolute strangers. His saffron colored silk dhauti fluttered in the stiff breeze as he took one meticulously placed step after another.

Barefooted, he stood a few meters away from the river's edge and silently gazed at the horizon. After those humble beginnings behind caged rooms here he was this day; prepared, perhaps, to finally find liberation. His eyes, now lit by the dying light of the day, seemed to be in a wordless conversation with an invisible entity. Or perhaps it was just the image of the remaining sparks of hope that still sat smoldering in them despite the obvious absence of that roaring fire which had made him the creator, architect, father and emperor of that city... his city...his Dvarka.

The setting sun in the distance somehow seemed to be in the most irregular haste to bring that day to an end. The solitary king, even with his eyes into the nothingness beyond, could pick up restless feet moving about in the shade of those tall trees. He showed no reaction. Instead, he walked on, stepping into the welcoming arms of the nervous river that seemed equally impatient to embrace him. With the abundance of time at his disposal, the great king began disappearing into the shimmering layers of liquid gold and silver.

'Now?' whispered an inquisitorial voice from within the shadows.

'No!' asserted another. 'No one is to waste a single breathe! We wait for him to emerge. The venom we bring today shall enter him from the front. Not the back! We perform this so that he may be aware of every moment of it!'

'What difference, O learned one, does it make in what direction death arrives from?' reasoned another voice.

'Direction?' hissed the commander. 'You speak of direction O venerable warrior? Do you not see the rotting corpses of those he has slain O brethren? Have your senses gone blind to the fiend in that glorified Yadava? Without laying a finger on a fly in the battle field he has claimed victory by slaughtering thousands, tens of thousands of kinsmen merely by pointing the arrow in the right direction. Yes...direction. The charioteer of mayhem masters that quite well. The imposter! The thief! Listen closely. Tonight we point our craft to his heart as his eyes watch. That, my brethren, would be the right direction. The just direction!' he added with an emphatic appeal in the word 'just'.

Meanwhile in the distance, away from the ghostly patch of hissing whisperers, the king had slowly emerged out of the waters. His blue dhauti clung to him so purposefully that it seemed as though he had changed his skin to a bluish tint. He brought his jewel-less hands in rapt salutation to the swiftly setting sun and prayed under his breathe. Eager faces, boiling with fury, watched his ritual as their breathing got heavier and stance became more alert. The aged king then repeated this sequence standing in the cold and soothing bosom of the river twice more before turning around and plastering the dripping tresses onto his nape. He then stepped out of the river onto the sandy shore like a fresh memory of a long forgotten dream.

He walked a few paces towards the majestic trees and stood there admiring their poise for a few fleeting moments. Tiny granules of muck stuck to his feet as if pleading him in desperation not to tread any further. He found the thought amusing. The birds he could speak to were nowhere in sight. The animals he had cared for were absent that day. And yet, he reflected, the earth he stood upon was smearing itself against him in a hapless attempt to shield him. But before the king could ponder further at his futile attempt at life’s poetry, it began.

He heard the impatient release first followed by a short grunt.

Before the next few sand grains in time’s capsule could drop, a sleek arrow swiftly appeared from oblivion and punctured the pages of history. It pierced through the generous space just under his heart, like a knife cutting through fresh fruit, and forcefully lodged half of itself into his rib cage.

The king gasped and made a choking sound, stepping back a little. His eyes instantly welled up from a familiar feeling of loneliness at such a vacant junction in his long life. Perhaps, he thought in that passing slice of time, too long a life. Blinking rapidly through moist eyes he looked around and tried to regain his posture. A recognizable figure emerged from the shadows of the trees followed by three more faces the king had come to know quite well. Each of them held a sturdy bow and a full quiver of poison tipped arrows. The end had commenced.

'Hearty salutations O Dvarkadeesh!' screamed one of the men stepping from behind the leader and taking aim from a closer range to let go of another arrow. This one sped past the previous resident in the king's person and made a clean penetration into his stomach. He noticed the bottom half of the arrow protruding from his torso before the pain hit his senses. On realizing the agony, he swayed erratically to his left, lost his balance and collapsed on his knees. He could hear the distant sound of a conch being blown somewhere. He wondered if it was that from the palace that had realized his unannounced absence. Or was it just another figment of his many illusions? The river's soothing waters still dripping from his sides, he parted his lips, struggling for air. His eyes remained open and his face still seemed to carry a subtle smile. Was that a smile of prior knowledge? Or was it that of unexpected relief?

'Halt!' the leader screamed before a third arrow could be planted. His eyes searched the area around the fallen emperor and spotted something which made him grin. He walked up to the king and having grabbed him by his wet tresses, dragged him away from the river's edge onto the foot of a giant Pippala tree nearby.

'For centuries have you played all the wrong games O son of Vasudeva!' he said pulling the king up on his unstable feet and propping him against the tree. 'Many a silent night has been curdled with the venom of your deception that now freely flows out of you. Today, O kin of the Pandavas, you are no longer playing any game. You, sire, are the game.' Having mouthed these words he, unhesitatingly, stepped back a couple of steps, pulled the string on his sturdy bow to its maximum length, said something incoherent under his breathe and released a third arrow that penetrated the king's right thigh. This time the wound was the deepest. It cut right through him and lodged itself into the tree on which he had been placed. The king shut his eyes tighter and winced in visibly excruciating agony yet not a hint of noise escaped his mouth.

'The grit deserves applause your majesty!' another voice opined. 'Three arrows and not a single scream leaves your lips! But your city will scream, sire! O yes it will! When the news of your pitiful end spreads like wildfire, every stone, every grain, every inch of the grand city of yours will howl so loud that its echoes will be heard for hundreds of yugas to come!'

The fourth assailant now stepped forward and took aim.

'And for the four maha yugas...' he said inhaling deep '...here are four little tokens for your royal pleasure!'

The last arrow found its mark on the king's left foot fracturing it and, thus, paralyzing it as it pierced a gaping hole into the tree as well, pinning him in the process.

The leader walked up to the semi-conscious emperor who lay nailed to the Peepul tree and spoke in a low tone in his ear.

'You can tell your own story now Madhava for now you have received an end akin to the grandsire Bhsma whom you fell on a bed of arrows that day. This is no bed, indeed. But the bowl of nectar that pours into us from crushing your world of deceit to smithereens shall last us till the end of time itself.'

Throwing these venomous words around the injured king like cobwebs of a nightmare he could not wake up from the assailants cautiously withdrew and vanished forever into the annals of the past.

Resting his head against the comforting bark of the tree the king slowly opened his eyes and looked at the clouds. Darkness was almost complete yet he could make out the final few layers of sunshine still reluctant to leave. Nightfall would surface soon. He also knew that even though the sun would reappear to the world in a few hours the black mask of fate that had been tied around Dvarka's lovely face to asphyxiate it away from existence could never be undone. Much like its creator, his beloved city was also breathing its last. His era had now arrived at the threshold of an uncertainty he knew no way out of. Or was it perhaps because he knew all the ways that he had been stitched in such an unceremonious fashion to nature herself?

It was in the medley of such random thoughts that his fading eyes rested on yet another familiar face. He emerged from the shadows with tears streaming down the cheeks and eyes red rimmed with grief. He approached the king gingerly and clutched his lifeless and limp hand.

'Welcome...dear....Uddhava...' said the dying king to his friend.

.

Recommended reading of a similar nature:

Dvarka
The Eldest Kaunteya
Monday, October 31, 2011 2 reflections

Death of Krishna - An alternate view

On one of the last few pages of Amar Chitra Katha’s edition of ‘Dashavatara’ is a visual of Krsna sitting under a tree while a hunter, mistaking Krsna’s foot to be that of a deer, shoots it. Upon impact, Krsna meets instant death and is then shown starting his ascent to the heavens as this moment thus marks the end of Vsnu’s avatar as Krsna in the Treta Yuga.



Such a simple and widely known explanation for Krsna’s eventual demise tickled my curiosity. Is this really how such a well-known figure from the Indian epics died? Could there be another way to explain his death?

To better understand the variations of how Krsna’s life might have ended I looked around and found S Acharya’s book called ‘Suns of God’ that tries to draw conspiracy theory parallels between Krsna, Christ and Buddha. Notwithstanding its generic viewpoint on various things, the one section which caught my attention was called ‘Krsna Crucified?’ which narrates a slightly different variant of the Amar Chitra Katha version of it. Here the author suggests that due to the various enemies Krsna had made for himself (with the infighting in the Yadava clan) a man named Angada (explanation further below) took him to the banks of the Ganga and executed him with arrows. His mortal frame then stuck to a tree for a while which, perhaps by whatever divine force was in him, bore ‘bright red flowers and diffused around it the sweetest perfumes’. By the time his biggest follower Arjna could reach the spot, Krsna’s mortal soul had already vanished.


The attacker (hunter) mentioned in Acharya’s book – Angada – is said to have been the vanara Baali’s son reincarnation. During the Ramayana, he is said to have been oblivious to the fact that it was in fact Rama who had killed his father Baali during the tussle with Sugriva. Rama assures him that he shall be given a chance to avenge his father’s death and this, we are told, comes true in Rama’s next incarnation as Krsna when Angada is reborn as the hunter who ends up killing Krsna.

This telling made me recall another episode called ‘Hamsa Geeta’ which also talks about the last moments of Krsna. In this version one of Krsna’s closest allies Uddhava (who is often mentioned in the Bhagavata Purana) is said to have been the last person to have seen Krsna alive. During his dying moments, Krsna narrates to him the ‘Hamsa Geeta’ which is a variant of the ‘Bhagavata Geeta’. The term ‘hamsa’ comes from the word ‘Parama Hamsa’ indicating the grace in the supreme one. Devdutt Patnaik, as a matter of fact, had written an article on this specific episode It is also after this that Uddhava narrates the end of Krsna to Vidura in one of Bhagavad Purana's book # 3's verse. While the rhetoric in the purana is obviously maintained that Krsna's divinity became 'invisible to the mortal eye' we can perhaps also read it as 'is no longer visible since he is no longer with us', thus indicating his death as a humanly entity.

Yet another version of his death revolves around Gandhari’s curse. According to that Gandhari had cursed that both Krsna and his clan would meet a sorry end. Upon the untimely killings of all her sons she is said to have been enraged at Krsna for not doing enough to stop the battle and admonished him for letting her sons die. This curse, we are told, thus returned to kill everyone Krsna considered family through internal back biting and growing mistrust thus resulting in the downfall of not just the Yadavas but also the subsequent end of Dvarka.

Now let us consider a version that sort of combines all these variations.

It has been often discussed that Dvarka, Krsna’s magical city, was one of the most spectacular places ever created. After the coronation of Yudhishtra in Hastinapura, Krsna returned to Dvarka to establish a robust and completely democratic society. Some of the narrations of Dvarka are so unbelievable that they transcend words. Now, either by curse (if you believe in that sort of thing) or due to the changing times and lifestyles people had begun to take everything for granted. The new generations that came after Krsna not only perhaps began abusing their privileges but also didn’t have the patriotic bone in them to care for their land. Their blatant lack of respect towards anything decent and their hopeless disconnect with the historical past cannot be overruled as a reason for their eventual downfall. As is commonplace in stories of royals the quick degeneration of trust invariably lead to greed and there on to the next obvious stage of crime. The gradual yet inevitable end, hence, was waiting to happen. Given the kind of visionary king Krsna is said to have been, it can be safely assumed that he saw all of this coming. In this process, we can also assume that he did a lot to try and maintain harmony in his land but with little success. The rabid nature of things took an ugly turn when he possibly ended up making more foes than friends – both within and outside his family. It isn’t too hard to believe either that thanks to his immensely controversial role in the Kurukshetra war, there were a lot of folks who were just waiting for the right time to strike and take Krsna out of the equation. If this is seen as a possibility then the Acharya’s mention of Krsna’s execution becomes a reality. Krsna is said to have been more than a 120 years when he died (not unnatural for someone in that time given how we have people living past 100 even today). So we can safely assume he wasn’t in the best of health given the tribulations he had had to go through. So it could be that he was indeed overpowered, taken to the river bank and shot to death by poison arrows by those who wanted unabridged power and control over Dvarka. This then could have been witnessed by Uddhava (Krsna’s close friend) but given how powerless he was before such forces it is conceivable that he did little else than take a dying Krsna in his arms and listen to the ‘Hamsa Geeta’ rendition. Arjna is mentioned in the Bhagavata as having visited Dvarka after Krsna’s death and brought over a lot of people from a submerging city. He is even said to have cremated Krsna’s father Vasudeva by using young Vajra, Krsna’s great grandson, to perform the final duties. If this were indeed the case is it then really so hard to believe that on hearing of Krsna’s gruesome murder he didn’t come running as fast as he could to be with him? So the possibility of him also cremating Krsna also emerges. It could be perhaps after this that he stayed on in Dvarka to take care of business until the flooding by the sea began and evacuation started.

Now, to establish Krsna’s divinity this version of mine does not suffice. In this version Krsna comes out as a tired and exasperated ruler who had a brilliant vision for his people which was later smeared with the charcoal of lust and avarice. At an age where he had little power over what was happening, Krsna’s helplessness gets depicted in a pitifully humane shade. To avoid such a meek portrayal of an otherwise legendary character from the epic it was perhaps important to pen his death (as was done with most of his life) with the ink of the majestic. Hence the version of a hunter (whose previous birth was that of Angada) and him mistaking Krsna’s feet to be that of a deer’s ears was perhaps constructed. Such a connection also fits well in suggesting that Krsna indeed was the next incarnation of Vsnu after Rama. Curiously enough, this bridging of epics seems a little too convenient for my taste and hence this piece to try and connect dots that might have been removed with time’s eraser.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 6 reflections

The Immortals of Meluha - A review

Dear reader,

I have always been an admirer of Indian mythology. This was one of the primary reasons I picked up Amish Tripathi's much acclaimed book (the first of a trilogy) on Shiva – The Immortals of Meluha. I had not read any reviews back then (still haven't) since I wanted to read the book from a completely unbiased point of view. The secondary reason was the 'surprise me' factor which was so eager to learn something new, discover something exhilarating and perhaps, appreciate something original. This blog, hence, is a brief summary of my observations after reading Immortals of Meluha.

The plot, for the uninitiated, is a fictional retelling of how an ordinary tribal chief called Shiva went on to become one of the most lauded Gods in the continent's over crowded pantheon. Given its fictitious nature then, it instantly allows Amish to wield the sword of creative liberty pretty frequently. He starts the story in 1900 BC on Mount Kailash from where Shiva is brought to this utopian city called Meluha which the Kshatriya king Rama has established. People there live under an extremely strict adherence to Rama's protocols of consistent moral obedience, spiritual sanctity and patriotic submission. Shiva, with his tribe called the Ganas, comes to Meluha much like a tourist visiting a country for the first time. He observes their culture, absorbs what he can and soon is administered a serum called the somarasa. As it turns out, as a side effect of this rasa, Shiva's throat turns blue. This instantly sends signals everywhere since he is now heralded as the 'Neelkanth' or a divine being who has been sent to protect the Suryavanshis (Meluhans) against the evil and atrocious villains Chandravanshis. The plot then documents Shiva's first hand experiences at trying to come to terms with this bizarre God like treatment he starts to receive from everyone around including the emperor of Meluha King Daksha, his close associates and eventually his daughter Sati. The story also brings in the other villainous tribe called the Nagas who are shown as being physically deformed at birth due to the sins of their previous birth. Joining this loathsome list of groups are the Vikarmas who are apparently cursed-for-life due to sins of the current birth. The story then essentially revolves around these four groups always ensuring that Suryavanshis are portrayed as the heroes and everyone else as beings lesser holy than they. The book ends with Shiva gaining some insight into why he is being called 'the chosen one' and learning some lessons that, I predict, will help him realize his status as 'Neelkanth' in books 2 and 3.

Now, let us acknowledge the positives first. One has to commend Amish for choosing a popular deity from the Hindu pantheon and smearing him with a more connectable and human dab of paint. By keeping him a common man and discounting the mythical aspect of Shiva's legendary tale, Amish's attempt at ensuring that the reader is able to reach out to Shiva's character is note worthy. We live in times where it is becoming increasingly challenging to relate with these characters from our vedas, upanishads and puranas so to see an Indian author take that plunge and try to rationalize unquestioned magic with deducible logic is worthy of praise. His attempts at providing a lot of new information (for instance the vikarma) and the plausible foundations for the Mohen-Jo Daro and Harappa civilizations are also well captured. The discussions about faith and science between Shiva and the Meluhan scientist Brihaspati were one of the highlights of the book considering it has been an area where I have found much interest. There are also a couple of scenes between Shiva and the Vasudeva priests which creates a thought provoking feel. So – yes. The book has plenty of interesting and creatively presented information about some of our civilization's oldest concepts.

Then we come to the list of things I had issues with. The primary one is the pedestrian use of language in most of the daily interactions. It is unclear why the author chose to go with such 90s style college life like language when putting words into the likes of the much recognizable main protagonist. If it was done to 'connect' with the 'modern day crowd' (whoever that is) then it is not only in bad taste but also down right ludicrous. To hear Shiva say things like 'this bloody blue throat of mine!' or 'Damn it!' or 'What the...' just doesn't seem to gel with either the time frame or the personality of the character. What this did was instantly turned me off from the seriousness of the issue at hand. Whatever little emotion was building up within me for Shiva was lost immediately when he spoke like one of my college mates. The second issue I had was the over 'Bollywoodization' (for the lack of another word) of the emotion scenes. It seems to me that the author had hoped this book would become a movie some day so some of the scenes seem to be tailor made for such a situation. One sample is a seriously injured Sati lying in Shiva's lap, bloodied and muddied, and through shaking lips and drooping eyes mouthing the words 'I love you' to an inconsolably weepy Shiva as arrows whiz past them in conceivable slow motion. The only thing missing was a Karan Johar soundtrack in the background to complete the scene. And speaking of weepy, I never understood why everyone in the book is always so quick to tears! The overly emotional characters get a tad exhausting after a point specially when there hasn't been enough said to establish the need for such strong emotions. It seems that Amish has written these parts more as a reader than a writer since little else can explain the abundance of tears in the plot. Here is another gem: Towards the end of the book, King Dilipa (a Chandravanshi king) and his daughter are introduced. The daughter is presented as so stereotypically raunchy that she reminded me of Rakhi Sawant and Mallika Sherawat instantly. This, I am afraid, is not an example of good literature. Such half baked and disjointed lines were mouthed at times that the entire premise of the book was on thin ice. The other thing that I found oddly out of place and extremely forced was the humor. Some of it uses sarcasm that seems straight of a 'Friends' episode with Ross looking around the dining table and saying 'Thanks guys for the support!' while the audience in the background guffaws into a roar. As I said earlier – shoddily out of place.

As is possibly obvious from the above illustrations, Immortals of Meluha is an original, unique and relevant idea that could have been executed with a lot more literary finesse. One can, of course, always forgive Amish for being haphazard with these details considering it is his first novel and from what I have read, a product of much labor and dedication. For someone who isn't a seasoned writer this is no mean feat. But regardless of the accolades he is undoubtedly getting I do hope that from the feedback he has received he has focused more on the negatives than the positives. After all, much like his analogy of devas and asuras the naysayers are the ones who need to be attended to first. With his second book in the trilogy already out ('Secret of the Nagas') only time will tell if this series will continue to improve both in its literary and monetary worth.

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Thursday, October 20, 2011 0 reflections

An alternate Ganesha


Preface
One of the most prominent symbols of Indian mythology and the major share holder in the Hindu pantheon of Gods is without a doubt Ganesha. Every year, millions across the world bow down in salutation to this much beloved and revered deity and ask him to forgive their sins and to bless them with health and success. If you were born in India then you probably know the story all too well. Introduced to you by an elder (usually the mother or grandmother) in infancy and then consistently reinforced throughout your teen and adult existence with such alarming frequency that some eventually reach what I call a state of 'religious coma'. This is that stage where your hands automatically go up in a temple when the aarti is done to the idol, when you mechanically extend your hands out when the teertha (holy water) is offered by the priest and you find it almost blasphemous to walk away without a piece of the flower that had been used in the pooja. While in Udupi a few months ago, I saw a singular evidence of such seasoned behavior when a fellow swallowed a piece of gopi chandana thinking it was a sweet prasadam. It was after the powedery lump had hit his taste buds that he inevitably swallowed it with much visible annoyance. This blog, hence, is an attempt to try and step past that state of coma and look deeper into the man behind the God.

So we look closer at Ganesha. We all know him as the son of Shiva and Parvati and the brother of Kartikeya. We also know that he is popularly called the vignanaashaka or remover of obstacles and is often used as the first point of reverence by many whenever a new venture or undertaking is initiated. Is there a bigger more recognized Indian deity for all intents and purposes? Unlikely. The buck certainly begins and stops at the mooshaka-vaahana Ganapati. The million shlokas out there form an impenetrable bulwark against the glory of this timeless icon.

The most popular version of how Ganesha ended up with an elephant's head is of course also common knowledge. If you are unaware of this somehow, then I can certainly guide you to the right starting point. But my pondering with this post isn't about what we've already heard. It is about the possibility of removing the mythical aspect from Ganesha's story and examining it with a more relevant pair of eyes in today's setting. Why? Because of two critical reasons: One, it throws open possibilities that might not seem as far fetched as accepting a story of an elephant's head being medically compatible with a (dead) human body. And two, it perhaps will engage us, force us even, to look at Ganesha outside this 'religious coma' I mentioned earlier, as a deity who definitely deserves our eternal devotion but for more humane reasons than divine.

So what am I talking about then? Well this – what if none of what we have heard actually happened when Ganesha was born? The whole beheading of a boy and then reviving him back to life by replacing his head with that of an elephant's head? What if, for the sake of focus, Parvati did actually give birth to a healthy baby boy who unfortunately was born with a huge facial disfigurement that made him look like someone with an elephant face? Perhaps an elongated nose that appeared like an elephant trunk? There are several cases reported every year all over the world of people with facial tumors and such being operated upon so this does not seem too unlikely if we discount the mythological aspect from it. The famous 'Elephant Man' being one of them and the recent instance of a Chinese man who was operated upon had a similar affliction. We can safely assume that such a potentially life threatening medical procedure was not around back then which is why there wasn't much anyone could do for the boy and hence was thereafter affectionately called gajamukha – the elephant faced one.

The most intelligent one

For this cruel infliction that nature had cast upon little Ganesha, it appears that it made it up in an extremely generous way. Ganesha wasn't just naturally brilliant but was also blessed with an amazing accuracy for detail. He is said to have been an immensely curious boy who had an inexhaustible appetite for learning. Given his physical limitations, it is possible that he spent all his awake time reading up every veda and upanishad ever written. This not only made him the most learned person in the universe but also an extremely wise one. This was conceivably a feat beyond compare since it automatically made him a symbol of learning and education. The men who wrote scriptures thereafter perhaps began using Ganesha as a source of much motivation every time a new venture would come by since what better way to energize oneself than thinking of a lad who, despite his physical limitations, had overcome every obstacle to keep himself intellectually hungry? This is perhaps why even today Ganesha remains a primary point of reverence amongst religious folks in India.

The most devoted son

There are various stories that highlight how devoted Ganesha was to his parents, especially his mother. The rationale behind this also doesn't seem too far if we consider how much love and pampering he had been showered with right from his birth. He had been kept on a very high diet of sweets (modak being his favorite) and other rich delicacies which not only made him gain weight but also slowed down his movements considerably. This is why that metaphorical story of him circling his parents when challenged to go around the world three times is often narrated. Maybe this indeed happened and maybe his brother Kartikeya did actually get on a bird and fly around the world. But given the impossibility of Ganesha of doing something similar, he chose to be the wise one and rightfully highlighted that his parents were his only world. Why would he do this unless he was absolutely convinced that no one loved him more than his parents? This story since has also become an ideal example for kids to learn that they should respect their parents.

The perfect scribe for Mahabharata

It is a well known fact that Veda Vyasa, the author of Mahabharata, used Ganesha to pen down the epic. Why would he do this unless he was certain of Ganesha's unmatched literary prowess? We can all agree that the epic was Vyasa's biggest project. Then why not choose someone who had gained some experience in that area earlier? Simple: because there was no one like Ganesha when it came to not only jotting down what was being said but also doing it with elegance beyond compare. This is perhaps why Ganesha had told Vyasa right at the beginning that he would write down the epic only if Vyasa narrated (or sang it) without a pause. Vyasa had then agreed to that after laying his own condition that Ganesha should 'understand' each phrase before jotting it down. Ganesha's intellect was so superior then, that Vyasa had to force himself to dish out such complex phrases that despite the speed at which Ganesha was processing and writing it down, he would need to pause and decipher the meaning before proceeding. These were the moments where an aged Vyasa would sit back to take a break. Hence, this arrangement was designed to get an aging Vyasa's work done by a young and curious Ganesha who loved reading and writing.

The ideal leader for the Ganas

Since we have already mentioned several times as to how big a source of inspiration he was to everyone around him, it is not impossible to think that the Ganas automatically looked up to him as their friend, philosopher and guide. Given his vast wisdom, it is possible that they would turn to him for all kinds of advice and directions to lead their lives in the best way possible. This is perhaps why, aptly so, he was labelled the 'eesha' for the 'ganas' – Gana-Eesha – Ganesha or Ganapati.

Iconic associations

a) The mouse at his feet
Ganesha is often portrayed as being seated with a mouse at his feet. There are many versions as to what this actually means. One of them appears in John Grimes' 'Ganapati – Song of the self' where he says that the mouse is representative of the various obstacles (or vighnas) that life presents us with. Ganesha, given his mastery at having overcome much hardship in life, is then definitely the right representative to look for if the biggest obstacle in life can become as small as that mouse in the Ganapati photographs and kneel down in front in meek surrender. Another version of this representation from Alice Getty's 'Monograph of the elephant faced God' is that despite being a glutton, Ganesha allows the mouse to go ahead and eat some of his laddoos and modaks because he was that generous. He never judged anyone based either on their caste or economic worth. He helped everyone who came his way with his wisdom and intelligence. This is why the mouse represents the needy and the helpless who can always turn to Ganesha for support.

b) Ganesha's wives – Buddhi, Siddhi and Riddhi
There are various interpretations as to whether or not Ganesha was married. Given the kind of child he is portrayed to have been, the only feminine associations he seems to have had was with his mother. He was most attached to her at such lengths that separating him from her was practically impossible. Given such a huge motherly attachment, it is unlikely that Ganesha was ever interested in any other woman. This earned him the status of Bramhacharya (state of strict celibacy). In the Ganesha purana, there is also mention of his being associated with buddhi (intellect), siddhi (spiritual power) and riddhi (prosperity) – all of which we can surmise were true given how intelligent,spiritually powerful and prosperous a life he had led thanks to extremely doting parents. So, in essence, he becomes a symbol of all three rolled into one thus making him a grand metaphor to look up to as a divine being. In the Shiva Purana, he is also said to have two 'sons' in Subha (auspiciousness) and Labha(profit). No surprises here either if we try to decode the meaning. If you are intellectually prosperous and spiritually adept, then every moment is auspicious and profitable thus translating to a consistent phase of contentment. Again, all metaphorically designed to keep us motivated from Ganesha's achievements.

c) Many hands/heads of Ganesha
This too is another popular interpretation where he is shown to have multiple hands (and sometimes multiple heads too). Just like Ravana, Ganesha too was gifted with such superlative intellect that it was as if he had multiple hands and heads. He could think as quickly as someone with four or five heads and write down stuff as swiftly as someone with four hands. Again, metaphorical interpretation only.

Inference

So what can we make of all this? Quite a bit. Even today we look up to people who have accomplished impossible seeming tasks despite their physical limitations purely because of a determined mind and call them heroes. If Ganesha also were to be looked at from an alternative angle then a similar source of much inspiration appears. Ganesha's story could be that of a sweet-mannered boy who was born with a horrible facial disability but just by his sheer determination went on to become one of the biggest icons of history. The fact that writers over the centuries have painstakingly ensured that only one popular version of his birth exists seems to indicate just how unprepared they must have been to tell a story where the son of Shiva and Parvati (both major divinities in India) did not have 'normal' features. And yes – if we want to believe that he was created by Parvati's 'essence' (some stories say sandal paste on her body, others say sweat or dirt) then that still holds true if she gave birth to him naturally. He is still a product of her being. So it is possible that authors made up the whole story of his head being cut off by Shiva since it not only lent itself to the mythical aspect but also contributed generously to the divine.

As with my earlier post on Hanuma, this post is not at all to undermine Ganesha's divinity in any way whatsoever. But it is to try and look at him from a human angle where he becomes a huge source of inspiration for all the projects we undertake and not a fictitious figurine from Hindu mythology who we pray to in a state of seasoned 'religious coma' and expect somehow success to come to us magically since I doubt it works that way. If Ganesha deserves our devotion it could be for the hurdles he overcame as a person, for his well mannered wit, his unmatchable intellect and his everlasting wisdom. These are the lessons I would take away and hence think of the man behind the God before my hands mechanically go up in salutation the next time I visit a Ganesha temple.



You might also like these posts in the Mythology section
Poem on last days of Dvarka
The Rama ~ Krsna Timeline
Looking for the real Hanuman
In search of Mayasura
Tuesday, October 11, 2011 7 reflections

Poem - Dvarka


Dear reader,
I have been reading quite a bit about the last days of Krsna's mythical city Dvarka which was submerged under the sea. Every blog and article I've read about the magical city made me wonder what it would've been like when Arjuna, Krsna's closest friend, associate and ally in the Mahabharata, went to Dvarka to bring back as many people as he could to Hastinapura after Krsna's death. So I thought of penning this piece as a way to try and imagine what emotions he must have gone through while such a reportedly marvelous piece of architecture was merciless taken away by what sounds like an extremely violent and giant version of the Tsunami.
I do hope you find the piece engaging.

Cheers,


Please click on the image below for the larger version or access it directly by clicking here.




You might also like these posts in the Mythology section
The Rama ~ Krsna Timeline
Looking for the real Hanuman
In search of Mayasura
Sunday, October 09, 2011 5 reflections

The Rama ~ Krsna Timeline

Dear reader,

The past few days have come with such a steep learning curve that if used properly I can pole vault myself in that curve to the moon. The deeper I dig into the puranas the more interesting and unheard of information I come across. During one such ventures I began asking myself - All my life I’ve heard that Krsna was the next avatar after Rama, but how are these two immensely popular characters from our mythology connected? If we see them as purely historical figures who did actually exist and rule their kingdoms for an X period of years, then is there a way to maybe come up with some sort of draft of the lineage? After about 15 hours of looking around various scriptures, primarily the Vishnu Purana and a book called “Ancient History of India” I came to what I consider a decent representation of how these two characters from our land were connected. The initial cue came to me when I learnt that Rama’s youngest brother Shatrugna had conquered Lavanasura (King of Mathura Madhu’s son) and taken over that land. He had then put his son Subahu on the throne for a brief period before he was ousted by Satvat’s son Bhima Satvat. There began my journey of tracking down names, looking up references, matching records from various different sources until I was able to make a concise list of kings who ruled Mathura. The lineage led me to Sura (or Surasena in some texts) who has been mistakenly quoted as being Shatrugna’s son and hence the father of Vasudeva. Oh no. It was nowhere near that. In fact, 16-17 generations must have passed between Rama and Krsna thus making it at least 1800 – 2000 years between them. So, for what it’s worth, I have put the time line chart below for you to look at. Any confirmed discrepancies will, of course, be truly appreciated.

Please click on the thumbnail image below for the larger version



Cheers,



Other recommended reading:
Looking for the real Hanuman
In search of Mayasura
Saturday, October 08, 2011 7 reflections

Looking for the real Hanuman

Preface

Everyone knows the most popular versions of Ramayana that have been high on our mythology diet in India. The whole feud between good versus evil and the thousands of back stories, sub plots, lessons of the moral kind and of course divinity. Yes – we've heard it all. But even as a child, one of the most fascinating characters from this epic I often found myself wondering about was Hanuma (or Hanuman). That brave and fiercely devoted vanara chief who spent most of his adult life passionately serving the exiled Kshatriya prince Rama. With time, Hanuma quickly became a symbol of strength, morality, friendship, devotion, honesty and even a representation of the Almighty. Almost every street in India has a temple honoring him. He even went on to become a huge media darling with everything from a full blown television series to children's animated features to advertisements being dished out under his name. For all intents and purposes, his image with Indian kids (and quite possibly a lot of adults too) is that of a gentle giant, a 'desi' Superman of sorts but without Lois Lane given his bachelor status. All of this we know.

But this piece isn't about the superhuman, the God incarnate, the divine entity in Hanuma. It is actually about that person, that individual, who for whatever karmic purposes was present in that channel of time to be immortalized as one of the many Gods the Hindu pantheon is always dizzy with.

So where do we begin? Let us imagine that if I were to get into a time machine and transport myself back into Tretayuga what would I see that isn't connected to any magic, any miracle, any well edited computer graphic generated spectacle? That is what this piece is all about. An attempt to smear the age old photograph of unbridled and mostly unquestioned devotion with the paint of some reasoning in an attempt to hence arrive at its by product – respect.

Starting Point

I began my research with trying to find out about what the word 'vanara' actually meant. From what I understand the vanaras were a group of forest dwellers (sort of like adivaasis) who lived in the then known region called Kishkindha (roughly present day Karnataka). On further examination I learned that given the description of their physical appearance, they were quite possibly at the final stage of evolution into complete humans. Hence the word 'ape-like humanoid' is used everywhere. What might this mean? Well, they weren't humans yet (conceivably because of their genetic coding being of a different nature, geographical reasons) but weren't mere apes either. They were, for the lack of a better word, ape-people. They could speak, gesture, reason and even emote like normal humans. Sort of like the euhominids (maybe a root word for humanoids?) They were very mischievous, quite aggressive, extremely curious, had a generous appetite for fruits and nuts and were physically well built with an extremely strong presence of mind.

With this image established I ventured further. Tracing Hanuma's birth wasn't too hard. His mother was Anjana and father was the tribal chief Kesari. There are various versions of Hanuma's birth and the most popular one (and the reason he is called 'son of the wind God' or Vaayuputra) was because Shiva's 'essence' began falling to earth during the great churning (Manthan) on seeing the bewitching damsel Mohini. The wind God, apparently, fearing some big catastrophe if Shiva's essence were to hit the ground captured it and later, when the time was right placed it in Anjana's womb. Thus making Hanuma an avatar (reincarnation) of Shiva. The other version is that Anjana and Kesari performed intense prayers to Shiva over a very long period of time and were granted Hanuma as a boon by a pleased Shiva. One more popular version is that when Dasharatha (Rama's father) was performing a grand Putrakarma yagna at Ayodhya to beget children, a part of the payasam (sweet pudding) from that prayer which was to be distributed among his three wives was accidentally picked up by the wind and put into Anjana's lap. She consumed it and Hanuma was born thus making him indirectly Rama's brother and hence also explaining the extreme regard he had for Rama.

All these versions lend themselves unarguably towards the inclusion of supernatural elements of boons, curses and other divine interventions. The simpler, most likelier, version could just be that given the exemplary nature of Hanuma's strength his comparison to both Shiva and Vayu could be nothing more than well placed metaphors. It could be that Hanuma had an absolutely natural birth from Anjana (Kesari being his biological father) but even as a child he was so unbelievably strong and different from other vanaras that the comparisons were inevitable. So basically it was Valmiki's way of peppering the story with ingredients that made for excellent reading.

Flight to Lanka episode

With this shaky backdrop I ventured further. The one incident that begs explanation was when Hanuma reportedly flew to Lanka to try and find out more about the abducted Seeta. In the Valmiki Ramayana there is an entire section dedicated to just how huge he grew in size, how the rocks and stones of the mountain he stood on began shivering and how he soared into the skies, tearing apart the clouds and surging forward amid the delirious cacophony from the other vanaras. On closer inspection it is revealed that he must have taken off from Dhanushkodi at the southern tip of the Indian peninsula and landed in Thalaimannar on the Lankan shores. The distance between the two is roughly about 27- 30 kms. When I zoomed in on this area on Google maps I noticed small islets peppered between these two spots. Now I know these images are from recent times and obviously the sea must have looked quite different 5000 or even 10000 years ago. But is it not possible that these islets were much bigger, more obvious back then and stood out pretty clearly along the sea's horizon? Given that global warming is now being proven as a real happening water levels were bound to rise across the planet and not surprisingly the islets were bound to submerge under water as we now see them. Hypothetically then, knowing Hanuma and the kind of ceaseless energy he is said to have had, is it not conceivable that he traveled from one such islet to another – sometimes jumping, swimming at other times, resting for a bit in places until eventually he managed to reach Lankan shores? It is not mentioned anywhere in Valmiki Ramayan that he took 'x' number of hours to reach Lanka. What is mentioned of course are the various mythical creatures he encountered on the way. Since we are on a mission to try and keep things as non-mythical as possible let us assume for the sake of an argument that these 'creatures' could have been wild animals or other aadivasi tribes in the area who might have lived on these remote islets? And since they understandably saw Hanuma, the vanara stranger, to be a threat they might have attacked him. He, being the strong and confident vanara chief that he was, took on their challenge and killed them without hesitation. This approach also might help in the story of Makaradhwaja who is known as Hanuman's son. The myth version of it is that a drop of Hanuman's sweat/seed fell into the sea which was consumed by a sea creature (perhaps now extinct) making it pregnant. The creature was then caught by Ahiravana's men and when its stomach was split open the part creature part vanara offspring was found who later went on to become one of the main guards for Ahiravana's fort. So was this episode an example of how a euhominid was somehow compatible with whatever species that sea creature was? Lot of interesting possibilities emerge.

So if this indeed were the case then why glorify this effort by Hanuma then? Simple – it was a way to honor his courage and strength in the face of something as unknown and potentially life threatening as going into the kingdom of the lord of three worlds Ravana. It also was a testament to his fiercely growing devotion to Rama in whom Hanuma had begun to see a reflection of the divine. Today we do extraordinary deeds for those we consider friends. Things we ourselves are surprised by when seen in hindsight. So it should be no surprise that Hanuma would have done something similar for someone who he believed was the true image of a good, just and ideal human being. Someone to look up to. Someone to worship selflessly his whole life. Someone worthy of being worshiped.

Flight to the Himalayas to save Lakshmana

The other incident that begs for some insight is when Meghnad, Ravana's son, injures Lakshmana badly in the war. Sushena, the medicine man in the vanara camp, advises that only the Sanjeevani herb (Selaginella bryopteris) can cure Lakshmana's wound. He also adds that the only place this can be found in is the Himalayas all the way in the northern part of the Indian peninsula. Now we can safely assume the war was taking place somewhere in/around northern Sri Lanka. Obviously the distance between there and the Himalayas cannot be covered in a matter of hours. Yet in Valmiki Ramayana Hanuma is said to have become a giant and soared through the skies to Himalaya and back. Also, because he couldn't figure out the right herb he is said to have broken off a chunk of the mountain he was on and brought the entire fragment back. An image that has plastered itself all over the nation for centuries now. Once the medicine had been administered he is said to have taken the mountain back as well. This whole episode takes only a few verses in the 'Yuddha Kanda' of Valmiki Ramayana. So how do we try to put a rationale here? I thought about this for a while and I have two theories of what could've possibly happened if we discount the flying factor.

Theory 1: Hanuma was a siddha. What that means is he was an individual who had gone beyond the 'aham-kara' stage (ego) and attained a higher level of yogic power. His control over the mind has been used in several contexts despite being a vanara who are often portrayed as unruly and easily distracted. In fact it was he who introduced the concept of Pranayama yoga to the world. So if we assume that Hanuma was a top level siddha then mind travel would not have been a very hard thing for him. In fact I am pretty sure that in the tribe that he was, there were very few vanaras (excluding Angad,Sushena, Nala and Neel who were the architects of the group among others) who were as mentally astute and precise as he was. So one possibility is that he used a flying creature (perhaps a variation of the Jatayu bird that could communicate in some form? Humans have always had a way to speak with animals and birds for eons so maybe Rama too knew this lingo and hence was able to get details of Sita's kidnapping?) and trained it to fly to Himalayan region. There is also the chance that the bird did actually bring back the medicine on time and without confusion. But it was still Hanuma's extreme mental prowess that helped in this Herculean process. Hence making the whole episode a grand metaphor for 'Hanuma bringing the medicine from the Himalayas'.

Theory 2: Fine, so there were no birds or such involved. That might still seem much in some ways. Let us examine this alternative then. Hanuma actually did go to the Himalayas himself and bring back the Sanjeevani. But how long did it take him? A week? A month? A year? We know he was a force to reckon with and so he definitely used his sense of direction to lead him. This also explains his alleged fight with the drunken asura kings in the middle of the jungle one night. In fact Valmiki Ramayan also states that it wasn't just Lakshmana who was injured. Rama went down too. Sushena, the great medicine vanara, used a concoction to revive Rama instantly but was unable to bring back Lakshmana. So is it possible that Sushena then went on to preserve Lakshmana in some state of coma as Hanuma took a week, maybe even a month or more, to return with the right medicine? Given Hanuma's unquestionable strength and will power (because he was a siddha) this does not seem impossible. Ravana was in no hurry to the end the war since it wasn't he who had initiated it. So we have no reason to believe he was in a rush to finish things off with Rama. So could there not have been a brief period's pause in the war as Lakshmana struggled for life? Even here Hanuma did actually bring back the medicine albeit not by supernatural skills but yes – via extraordinary mental and physical power – which is almost akin to something supernatural.

Other incidents of shape shifting etc.

There are many such incidents in the Ramayana that narrate Hanuma's ability to reduce and increase his body when needed. This includes incidents where his tail shrunk and grew at will for various events to take place. All of these, when seen without the glasses of mythology, do lend themselves to some sort of reasonable explanation. Being the highly accomplished siddha purusha that he was, using his mental prowess to hypnotize people, create an illusion, appear and disappear like a magician would not have been very hard for him. These incidents, given their complex nature, somehow might have made Valmiki to simply drown the pen in the magical paint of divinity and etch down what was not really false but wasn't a 100% accurate either. A middle path of sorts that oscillated between fact and fiction and to some extent simplified the whole thing.

Inference

The reasons for why Valmiki might have taken this route is pretty clear. Given the effect epics like Ramayana have had on the civilization cannot be undermined. It tells the tale of honor, of being good human beings, of respecting relationships, of loving your family – all ideal values for an ideal society. But the sad consequence has been the over glorification and tragic misinterpretation of these texts. Today we see people cut each other's throats in the name of Rama and Hanuma. They use these epics as a way to terrorize factions that don't agree with their point of view. My take simply would be to honor these epics for the human values they present and not the divine. Yes, Hanuma was an immensely passionate individual who saw the divine in his friend Rama. Who stood by him every step of the way even as Rama made questionable decisions about his wife even after she was rescued. So what? All of us have people in our lives we look up to and try to idolize don't we? Despite their shortcomings? Then why build a temple for Hanuma then? Simply put – to respect him for being committed to all his relationships. To recognize him as being that brave vanara chieftain who weathered good bad and ugly in a bid to win what he was convinced was the war against evil. To symbolize his existence as not just an extremely fit forest dweller who accidentally happened to be connected to one of the biggest epics ever told but for his role as a devoted son, brother, leader and friend.

I do not know how much of all this really happened and quite honestly at the end of the day I don't even think it matters. This blog was an effort to try and explore the human side of a deity who millions worship across the world but may not fully understand why. If in this process I have encouraged you to see a side to Hanuma that goes beyond the glossy high definition color photographs sold in the market for a dime then I shall consider my attempt a worthy one.





Other recommended reading:
In search of Mayasura


Other sources - 3D sketch of Hanuman used from CGTantra.com




 
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