A Blog on Mythology and occasionally on Reality.

This is a Blog on Mythology, both Indian and World and especially the analysis of the myths.

In effect, the interpretation of the inherent Symbolism.


Friday, January 28, 2011

Self Sacrifice from Mythology to Modern Times

Concluding Part – Self-sacrifice in the Modern Times

In the earlier series, we have read about the concept and examples of self-sacrifice from different mythologies. Let us see how the meaning of self-sacrifice has changed in the current times

The reason of taking up this aspect of sacrifice is more due to the current misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the word self-sacrifice. In recent times we have heard about soldiers who have died at the borders being referred to as given up their lives or sacrificed their selves to the nation. In a worse scenario we have seen many a terrorists using the word as a justification for all the barbaric acts of terrorism. In televised tapes by terrorist groups, we have seen that the acts of terrorism are referred to as acts of self-sacrifice by a few of them.

Just as the word ‘myth’ today implies ‘lies’ and is very commonly used by one and all, the worry is that self-sacrifice is a much misunderstood and misquoted word, which is used loosely today. Be it the authorities or be they terrorist organisations.

The meaning of self-sacrifice today is blurred with the meaning of ‘martyr’. The word martyr derives from the Greek, mytros or witness. Martyrs are those who are willing to die, to sacrifice their lives in this world, in order to be assured a place in the next world and a guarantee that they will not be condemned to hell.

The early Christians, who were tortured to death for their witnessing for Christ, became the martyrs memorialized on icons. These iconic images proved a powerful attraction both for group memory and for exciting new followers. Islam adopted the martyrdom image. The grandson of Mohammed stated that it is better to die in dignity than to live in humiliation. Those who die on the path to Allah become martyrs in Islam. Similarly, Pope Urban II recruiting for the Crusades promised that all who died in the reclamation of the Holy Land from the infidels would be forgiven all venal sins and ascend immediately to Heaven (paradise). There is historical precedent on all sides.

In the ‘60s, there was a popular and rather accurate saying that “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” The British, for example, had to deal with many forces they labelled “terrorists”: the Americans in the 18th century, the Indians in the 1930s, the Jews, in Palestine in the 1940s, and the Argentinean’s Falkland Islands in the 1980s, as each was fighting for their independence from imperialist Great Britain.

Thus I feel that this is so very contextual. Freedom-fighter’s for a nation or for a religion? Crusade or Jihad? Can the dying of a soldier at the border due to a nation’s act of blunder be called a sacrifice or simply call of duty? Can a soldier’s knowingly going to fight a bunch of terrorists having sophisticated weapons with his archaic weapons be referred to as an act of sacrifice or simply a lack of choice? Can the shooting of the Mahatma for an individual who does not try to escape be considered an act of sacrifice for one’s own thought process or philosophy? Can the act of a suicide-bomber’s killing a Prime Minister be called an act of sacrifice for the cause of a movement? Is this a case of an angular vision, depending on which side of the ‘movement’ you are?

I don’t have answers to these. In this lies my dilemma – can today’s murderers be called heroes who sacrificed themselves for a cause in days to come? Who knows that hundreds of years later Nathuram Godse, Beant Singh and Satwant Singh, Dhanu, James Ray, Lee Harvey Oswald,* and the faceless perpetrators of 9/11 could just about turn into icons of self-sacrifice. Here I sincerely hope that none of us stay alive to see that day!

*Nathuram Godse assassinated Mahatma Gandhi
   Beant Singh and Satwant Singh assassinated Indira Gandhi
   Dhanu assassinated Rajiv Gandhi
   James Ray assassinated Martin Luther King
   Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated John F. Kennedy

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Self Sacrifice from Mythology to Modern Times

Part 2

Yesterday, we read about self-sacrifice and some examples from Indian Mythology. Today, we will read about the same in other mythologies –

Christian Mythology
According to the Christian mythology, god became incarnate in Jesus Christ and his death is considered to be the ultimate sacrifice. According to a view that has featured prominently in Western theology since early in the 2nd millennium, God's justice required atonement for sin from humanity if human beings were to be restored to their place in creation and saved from damnation. However, God knew limited human beings could not make sufficient atonement, for humanity's offense to God was infinite, so God sent his only Son to become the sacrifice of the everlasting covenant.

The concept of self-sacrifice is central to Christianity. Often found in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity is the idea of joining one's own sufferings to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Greek Mythology
The Greek mythology includes several stories of persons greatly honoured because they offered themselves as sacrifice for principles of altruistic love, for conscience's sake or for the country's honour and freedom. Deaths as a heroic ideal, can be traced back to Greek mythology whose moral principles influenced Greek history and culture. The demi-god Prometheus was condemned to a form of crucifixion because his great philanthropy for humanity led him to disobey Zeus and bring fire and the arts to humanity.

Alkestis, for example, the wife of Admetos, the King of Thessaly, became legendary because of her self-sacrifice in order to save her husband's life. Her offer to die in her husband's place became a symbol or an ideal that can be realized when one offers oneself for sacrifice so that others may live. Alkestis was fully aware of the nobility of her sacrifice, which saved not only her husband but also her family and country.

There are many examples in classical Greek literature of persons who sacrificed themselves on behalf of honour and freedom of their homeland. The altruistic devotion to patriotic principles that led them to self-sacrifice became the subject of several dramas by Aeschylos, Sophocles and Euripides. Iphigeneia surrendered herself to be sacrificed for the unity of Hellenes and the successful expedition against Troy. Makaria, Hercules's daughter, sacrificed herself to save Athens; Menoikeus, the father of Creon, sacrificed himself to save Thebes; and Antigone preferred to die rather than violate the divine law and obey the rule of men

Nordic Mythology
There isn’t any major reference of self-sacrifice in the Nordic Mythology, except for the self-sacrifice that Odin made to gain Knowledge. I will recount that in brief below.

The most impressive of the myths concerning Odin is that he hung for nine days and nights on the World Tree, even as his own victims used to hang, while he was pierced with a spear. He hung there as a sacrifice, ‘myself given to myself’ and fasted as he endured in agony, until at the end of the time he was able to bend down and lift up the magical runes which brought secret knowledge to men. This experience is described as if by Odin himself in the poem Havamal (Words of the High One). Thus Odin underwent something which closely resembles the visionary experience of death and resurrection endured by the shamans of Siberia and elsewhere as part of their initiation, and as a necessary preliminary to achieving powers of prophesy.

Tomorrow – we will see how the meaning of self-sacrifice has changed in the Modern times.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Self Sacrifice from Mythology to Modern Times

 Part 1

A modern and secular interpretation of sacrifice is the giving up of something valuable or important for somebody or something else considered to be of more value or importance. The need for a modern definition is important as we will see how the concepts have changed over time across the world.

Self-sacrifice can be defined as an act of deliberately following a course of action that has a high risk or certainty of suffering, personal loss or death (which could otherwise be avoided), in order to achieve a perceived benefit for self or others. Over a period of time Self-sacrifice has become a concept for broader meaning such as selflessness, or the readiness to inflict pain upon oneself to save others.

However, for our understanding we will not limit the phrase to just what can be referred to as ‘killing one self’. We will also encompass such aspects as ‘giving up’ an aspect of one’s self, or giving up something precious to one’s self and so on.

Let us examine cases of Self-sacrifice in Indian Mythology –

Indian Mythology
Before we list out the references of self-sacrifice in Indian mythology, it is important to understand that it has always been considered as one of the great virtues of mankind to be of help to the people around who were more needy. Many a person is considered brave for their virtue of giving away their wealth, knowledge, life, etc. all valuable possessions relevant for man’s existence. Indian mythology gives many extraordinary instances of people giving away their body parts and wealth in order to give preference to “daan” and “tyaag”. Let us take a few examples of such cases of self-sacrifice.

Sacrifice of Maharishi Dadhichi –
During a war between the gods and demons, the demons had dominated the battle and deprived the gods of all their weapons by using some magical powers. The gods were left with only a few but important ones and if they lost them too then the gods would definitely lose the battle. So the gods gave the weapons to Maharishi Dadhichi to keep them with him safe till they returned for the war. The demons tried to get the weapons from Maharishi, but could not. A lot of time passed but the gods did not return to collect them, thus depriving him of his regular penance. So with his magical powers he dissolved the weapons in water and drank them. This way the weapons were both safe within him and he could also carry on with his penance undisturbed.

Soon after, the gods returned asking for the weapons. To this Maharishi explained that the only way to take the weapons from him, which were now in the forms of his bones and even more powerful than before, was now to kill him, to which the gods refused to commit the sacrilege of killing a rishi. It was then that the Maharishi created a huge fire, entered into it and submitted himself to the fire. Then Lord Brahma appeared and converted the bones into various powerful weapons with the help of which the demons were defeated. This is till date considered to one of the greatest examples of self-sacrifice.

Puru's sacrifice of his youth to Yayati .
When Yayati’s wife Devyani came to know about Yayati’s illicit relationship she informed her father Sukra, who in turn cursed Yayati that he would suffer the infirmities of old age. When Yayati went and pleaded with him, Sukra lifted the curse by assuring him that one of Yayati's sons could accept his old age in exchange for the youth and the son would be crowned king after Yayati.

Yayati approached all his sons one by one, but all of them refused to barter old age with Yayati, except Puru who was out of the illicit relationship of Yayati with Sarmishta, and thus an illegitimate child too. This giving up of youth for his cursed father is considered an act of self-sacrifice.

Like above, there are many more references of such sacrifices made by many a hero in Indian mythology, some of which are:
·         Bhishma's vow of remaining celibate
·         The voluntary sacrifice of sight by Gandhari
·         Abhimanyu’s death within the chakravyahu
·         Self-immolation by Sati in King Daksha’s court

There are many more such examples, but we will stop here for the Indian Mythology.

Tomorrow, we will read about self-sacrifice in other mythologies.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Menace of Wife-beating

A recent event of a diplomat beating his wife black-blue raising international eye-brows is the talk of town, or rather, talk of the world. Thanks to this incident, people are raising lots of questions. Is this an Indian-thing? Is domestic violence in India as common as common cold? Are Indian males prone to wife-beating?

I don’t know how much importance to give to this incident, except that it has proven one thing. Wife-beating is not just a slum-thing or amongst the illiterate or rural folks. It exists, even where we never thought it did, amongst the hoity-toity of the society.

I am taken back to my school-days, when my Hindi teacher, who was very strict and autocratic in the class, and who hated debates, once introduced us to a doha by Tulsidas – dhol gawar shudra pashu nari – sab hai tadan ke adhikari. Loosely translated this would mean – drums, illiterates, untouchables, animals and women, all work when struck or beaten! There was a hush in the class with the girls in the class visibly angry and the boys chuckling away to glory. The teacher’s work was over by just translating it, no explanation given. We boys didn’t need it – it was fodder for all of us for quite a few days.

Later when maturity visited me (though people close to me might chuckle on this statement, but I’ll ignore it the way the girls of my class had done in school), I read a supposed explanation of this one. With the rest of the words remaining the same, woman ‘meant’ vices like sex, desires, etc. Needless to say that the supposed explanation again denigrates the woman, by comparing her with vices!

Men, O Men, stop wording if we are not good at it!

I rummaged through my mythical knowledge, to see if there were any references of wives being beaten by mythical characters, but could fine not one. There have been instances of violation, but none of violence. I checked History, but nothing there too. I checked my family, but on the contrary, I ended up nursing my own bruises! Oops, sorry we are talking about wife-beating and not…..

So where did man get these ideas from? I can only think that this must have been during man’s development days! Man must have had the need to punch his way up, and he must have needed a lot of practice, since they say practice makes one perfect. So our Mr. Would-be-Perfect practiced at home! Unfortunately, his wife did not object, and in the process created a generation of violence-abetters and violence-acceptors. The support-system of man too joined in and we have just found the genesis of domestic physical violence. Congratulations!

Soon after, 'Emancipation' came and left many untouched. 'Feminism' and its movement left few highly touched. But the majority continued the silent toil and kept adding to the toll of being beaten. Domestic has now become international. We are now flaunting such violence in the international arena. Reasons can be anything from seeking divorce (whatever happened to marriages being made in heaven!) to drunken behaviour (hic!) to recession (an all purpose excuse) to Christmas trees (Jesus Christ!).

I am not sure what prompted an eminent writer like Tulsi-ji to pen these words, but whenever, he did, it was then. Things ought to change now, or rather today. I urge women to wake up from the prime-time-soaps-induced slumbers and face such apologies of men with all the might. Don’t fall for the epithets of Devi, Sati and Savitri; go for the kill, I mean go for Kali! Object, if not for yourself, for the sake of your daughters. Protest, if not for results, for the trend that it might set. Do all this, if for nothing, for self-respect.

Finally, can’t help but remember one Mrs. Bobbit! Hail to thee blithe spirit!!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Jim Carrey and Lord Ganesh

Hindus in Nevada, US, are up in arms against the portrayal of Lord Ganesh in a sex act on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL), titled “The Wrath of Ganesh”, in which Jim Carrey (remember ‘The Mask’?) is part of the offensive skit. (Times of India - http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/nri/news/Hindus-upset-with-Jim-Carrey-NBC/articleshow/7303312.cms)

The outcry is not unexpected just as it is not for the first time. Earlier, we have had Ram-Sita on underwear, other gods on slippers, etc. The Western world has a penchant to shock and titillate none but themselves. The desire to shock and court controversy is inherent in many, and if one can use the sacred in that, then eye-balls are guaranteed. Should we worry?

The Western world has always been obsessed with Ganesha and has forwarded numerous theories about the sexual connotations of the trunk. Ganesha, Shiva, Kali, etc. are some of the favourite with a group of Indologists who have worked very hard to give theories which display their own depravity and short-sightedness and their inability to see the inherent symbolism, which is so poetic.

Democracy, they say is a funny animal. Allow and you can go berserk, stop and you can be accused of stifling creativity. Ban, is a bad word and in the name of creativity and alternate studies, one can get away theorising whatever you want to. As if Democracy was not enough, you now have Internet, to transmit anything that you want to, to scores of unknown viewers and readers. That such media and ideology adds to ones sense of responsibility is lost out on majority of the people.

Should we object? Yes and No.

Yes, by objecting we make a statement that such acts cannot be tolerated as the matter is sacred. Yes, because, not objecting to it could be seen as an act of meekness and could lead to more trouble and further acts of such profanity. Yes, for lack of objection, we might allow the perpetrators of ‘intellectual terrorism’, to take us hostage. Yes, because, by such objections, we can try to educate them and help them see the light of the day. Yes, thru the objections, we can show them the true symbolism behind such gods and their mythical acts.

No, because such profanities do not lead to any major damage as our cultural foundations are stronger. No, because, Hinduism, is not a religion, it is a way of life and every facet is so ingrained in each and every practitioner of this ‘way of life’ that such comments are nothing more than a small speck of dust on an elephant’s back. No, because, prior to this many an Indologist, has tried to ‘re-interpret’ our pantheon, but have not managed to do much damage.  No, because it brings out the depravity in such comments of the speaker, and if s/he wants to bask in the glory of one’s stupidity, it should not be our problem. No, a pre-occupation with the Indian mystic, but inability to comprehend is understandable!

Whichever way one looks at it, such acts should not bother anyone beyond a point. However, it still does call for a vote of thanks to Rajan Zed who is leading the protest for a public apology. According to Zed – “Lord Ganesh was highly revered in Hinduism and was meant to be worshipped in temples and not to be thrown around loosely in reimagined versions for dramatic effects on TV series for mercantile greed.” (as reported in Times of India dt. 18/01/11).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lakshman Rekha

During the exile in the epic, Ramayan, Ram rushed away chasing a golden deer for Sita. When Ram seemed to be in trouble, Sita urged Lakshman to go and see if he was in trouble. Lakshman was not sure if it was right to leave Sita alone in the forest, but on Sita’s insistence decided to go and see. But before leaving he drew a line, with instructions that under any circumstances, she should not cross the line. This line came to be referred to as Lakshman Rekha (i.e. the line drawn by Lakshman). The story goes on that Ravan comes in the guise of an ascetic asking for alms, but is not able to cross the line, till Sita herself decided to cross it to give alms to Ravana, and in the process gets abducted.

So what was this line drawn by Lakshman? Was it some sort of a magical line which no outsider could cross or did it have some other implication? As I have always said, that nothing exists in Mythology for the sake of existence. It always has a meaning which needs to be explored and most important – in context, and that too in context of its times and milieu. In modern parlance, the phrase means that it is the limit (moral, ethical or even physical) which if breached could lead to dire consequences.

Lakshman Rekha is also sometimes referred to as Maryada rekha (limiting line). Many scholars refer this line to be a line which sets limits for women. It sets a boundary of the feminine existence and their influence. This is something akin to the threshold of the house. A woman’s influence and her limits were within the threshold and her stepping out of that zone was a strict no-no.

Many see the line as a cultural divide. Inside the line was the cultured household of a family, and outside was the zone of a jungle which had no rules and no civil norms of behaviour. To be within the confines of the line was to be safe under the umbrella of one’s husband or the patriarch, but once outside, one loses the comfort of respect and support. Outside the line, a woman could not command the same status and could thus be susceptible to the vagaries of the laws of the jungle, which was different from that of a civil society.

It was both the prerogative as well as the responsibility of the men-folk to save their women from this jungle-raaj and in this context the line could both be either a limiting-line or a safety-zone. The liberal would see this as a forceful curbing of feminine power and a chauvinistic expression of the male dominated society. The others would see this as a form of protecting the weaker sex and taking charge of their duties, albeit in a rigid fashion, which probable curbs more than aids the personality of the ones within the line.

For want of a better outlook and definitely in the absence of the modern western-influence and its impact, this was probably the best that people then could think of. In the process, there is a possibility of curbing a few flowers from blooming differently, but then was this a smaller price to be paid or was it a gargantuan error on the part of a society – again in the larger context of societal norms?

To conclude, nothing is out of context, and also from the angle of the eye-sight. You get to see the seven colours distinctly, only if you are in the right side of the prism, not otherwise!

Monday, January 17, 2011


NB: Apologies for the title of the article. This is the one that soars heights not the one which dives down at the Box Office!

On the day of Makara Sankranti, Gujarat also celebrated the largest Kite flying festival, better known as Uttarayan. This is a day which sees people on roof-tops flying kites throughout the day and at times even in the evening. The day after the Uttarayan is known as Basi-Uttarayan (or stale-uttarayan) and the fun and frolic continues.

What is it about flying kites? What is its importance and what kind of joys does it bring to us mortals?

Flying kites has been a tradition across the world. Nobody knows the exact place of origin, but many feel that the origins of flying kites can be traced to China. In the initial days, they prepared kites of thin bamboo sticks and silk. This was a practice till paper was invented and then kites were made of paper. It was during this stage that flying kites moved beyond China to different parts of the world.

We do not find too many references of Kites in mythology, but the Maori’s of New Zealand used to believe that Kites were the connectors between the heavens and the earth. There are numerous references of folk-heroes travelling on a kite to the heavens or chasing someone over distances on a kite, etc. Flying Kites in ancient New Zealand was a great religious occasion and nowadays the same has been renewed as a cultural aspect.

Many cultures have seen kites as messengers and a means to communicate with the gods who resided in the heavens and thus the act was a religious act, and not just that of fun and frolic. According to a Japanese myth, a mythological bandit flew on a massive sized kite stealing the gold leaf from the dolphins for decorating the towers of a palace. However, he could not go further as he was soon executed!

Flying kites have had its moments of scientific excellence too. We all know how Benjamin Franklin had used a kite to prove that lightning was a phenomenon of electricity. The Second World War had seen the usage of kites for spying activities. Finally one can’t help but acknowledge the contributions of the kites in the development of the early flying machines. Today it is a world-wide sport.

Kites give vent to man’s quest to soar heights in the sky and rise thru the clouds to heavens and knock at the celestial doors! Unfortunately, in the process it cuts thru the birds and injuring both our aerial friends and at times themselves too. If only we leave flying kites to an environment friendly method and refrain from using materials like glass, etc. the sky would be one beautiful and a colourful canvas on this day!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Makara Sankranti

Sankaranti means movement or changing of directions and Makara corresponds to the zodiac sign of Capricorn. Makara Sankranti is celebrated when the Sun moves northwards after the Winter Solstice. Astrologically, it refers to the transition of Sun from the zodiac sign of Sagittarius to Capricorn. In all there are twelve Sankranti’s, but this one is considered to be an auspicious one.

Makara Sankranti is called by different names in different parts of India, like Khichri Sankranti, Uttarayan, Ganga Sagar, Pongal, Bihu, etc. Though different places have differing significance, the day remains a very important day at the beginning of the year. This day onwards the climate changes a bit and the importance of Sun is acknowledged. It also marks the end of winter and the days start getting longer and the nights shorter.

Makara Sankranti has a special significance in the Eastern parts of the country which celebrates the day as Ganga-Sagar Mela. It is said that Bhagirath had performed great penance to get the river Ganga on earth to redeem the sixty thousand sons of Sagar, who were burned to ashes my Kapil Muni. It was on this day that Bhagirath performed the last rites of his ancestors with the waters of the holy Ganga on earth thereby liberating his ancestors from the curse of Kapil Muni. After visiting the Patal-loka, Ganga merges with the Bay of Bengal at the site where the Ganga-Sagar mela is held annually.

Mahabharat mentions that after the war of Kurukshetra, it was on the day of Makara Sankranti that Bhishma Pitamah, the grand-patriarch of the two families decided to end his life and proceed for the heavens.

This day is also considered auspicious for the father-son relationship. Surya devta never got along with his son, Shani-dev (who is the Lord of the zodiac sign of Capricorn), but on this day, Surya visits his son and stays with him for a month. This day thus symbolises the importance of the relationship between a father and a son.

Similarly in many parts of the country, this is a harvest festival, as in Punjab and some states of Southern India. Besides, it also marks the last day of the famous forty-day Sabiramala festival in Kerala.

Needless to say, like all Hindu festival this day has its own recipes to be made and had. Preparations of jaggery and til (sesame seeds) are consumed across the country. Also, preparations of the newly harvested foods are the norm.

So on this day, leave the negative thoughts and move on with the Sun. Just as the Sun goes northwards, we mortals should try to ascend in our thoughts and deeds and actions. If we can’t match the movements of the Sun literally, let us match them symbolically at least.

Happy Makara Sankranti!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

An Obituary

Yesterday was a day of significant loss – an immeasurable loss that no words can express or bring out the pathos that’s in my heart, due to the loss.

I was mercilessly separated from one that had been a part of me, from before the time I even knew myself. It had been with me thru thick and thin, thru all endeavours of my life. It had been with me, even before I could count on my wife and child as my immediate circle of influence.

The tragic part of it was that I could do nothing, but just see it being mercilessly snatched (literally) away from me by people who had nothing to do with it. People who had no clue what it meant to me, people who had no clue how close and dear it was to me. To top it all, I was a party to the decision of the merciless severance of a more than four decade old bonding, and could not even shed one tear, for the fear of being laughed at. On second thoughts, it was more because, I was numb (literally again) with the decision of doing what I was doing. Numb because of the gravity of the situation and numb due to the guilt of me being a party to the severance decision.

Not a single person there could feel my pain (literally once again) and the sense of loss. Not one there thought of the entity that I lost, not one was bothered about it, who was a part of me for so long.

Finally the infamous Mumbai spirit of “life must go on” got the better of me. One look at it, and I was ready to move on. One look of pain, the imminent separation, and the reality of it all, and I left my Dentist’s chamber, leaving my solitary Wisdom tooth to be picked up by the beautiful nurse (someone who was sweetly staring at me while I was going through the ordeal, helping me cope with the separation) to be dumped in the dustbin.

Today, I feel a trifle foolish – what with the loss of my wisdom (tooth)!

Adieu, my friend!  

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Ravan’s Family – Vibhishan

Vibhishan was the youngest brother of Ravan and he is the only one who had defected on Ram’s side before the final battle between Ram and Ravan. Vibhishan, though being Ravan’s brother, led a life of a Brahmin and his ways were not similar to his brother’s.

It is said, that Vibhishan, also did penance to Lord Brahma and when he too was offered a boon, he simply asked for being close to the Lord’s (Lord Vishnu) feet. Ravan was extremely disappointed with him for ‘wasting’ a boon when he came to know about it. Ravan and Vibhishan never agreed on many issues, the conflict came to a decisive point when Vibhishan suggested that Ravan should return Sita with all the due courtesy and honour, needless to say, that he should apologise too. This irked Ravan to no end, and the two decided to part, with Vibhishan, going over to Ram’s side.

Many see this conflict as a conflict of right vs. wrong, a moral dilemma. Should one stay with the King and support him even if he is on the path of delusion leading to a mass destruction or should one chalk one’s own path of righteousness?  Should one risk one’s life for the King’s immoral ways or should one follow the path of ethical conduct?

In my opinion, Vibhishan was partly correct. Yes one should not be party to unethical conduct, whosoever it is and protesting is in order. But I disagree with his joining the enemy (in this case of the State) and further down, divulging all the secrets of his family’s invincibility. Without him, it would not have been possible to find the secret path to the temple of Mata Nikumbala, the place where Meghnaad, his nephew, was performing his Yagna which needed to be disturbed to kill him. Again without his divulging the secret of where to strike to kill Ravan, Ram could not have been able to vanquish his opponent. It is not for no reason that we say in Hindi - घर का भेदी लंका ढाए, meaning that it takes a traitor from the family to bring destruction, even to an empire like Lanka! It is not a surprise, that at the end of it all, he was crowned the King of Lanka.

Well one can only say – Morality pays, and it pays pretty well!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Ravan’s Family – Surpanakha

Surpanakha was Ravan’s sister and some say, the second woman, (after Kaikeyi) who was responsible for the entire epic of Ramayan. Without these women and their actions, the whole chain of events might not have taken place. Before we go into what Surpanakha did and why, let us first know who she was, besides being Ravan’s sister.

Surpanakha (Sharp nails, in Sanskrit), was the one of the key women characters of the epic. Surpanakha was named Meenakshi (fish-eyed) at birth and like her mother was extremely beautiful. She was married to Asura Dushtabuddhi and enjoyed great favours from Ravan at his court. But Dushtabuddhi’s greed for more power saw him soon lose favour of Ravan, and in due course of time, Ravan had him killed.

The widow Surpanakha, was filled with anger and spent her time in Lanka and with her in-laws who used to reside in the Southern parts of India. When she saw Ram and Lakshaman in the forest, she proposed first to Ram and then on Ram’s recommendation, to Lakshaman. To cut this part of the story, she is supposed to have tried to attack Sita, as she was the reason, behind Ram’s denial, and Lakshaman ended up severing her nose. Needless to say, that both Ram and Lakshaman did have a bit of fun at her expense, tossing her proposition from one to the other, which was the main reason of her anger.

It was this act that provoked Ravan to kidnap Sita as an act of revenge. But let us look at the matter from a different angle too. According to some versions of this episode, Surpanakha had no actual interest in both Ram and Lakshaman. She had been trying to avenge her husband’s death, but was unable to do so as Ravan was very powerful and quite invincible. It needed someone with divine powers, to kill Ravan. She knew about Ram and felt that Ram could be a perfect match for the might of Ravan and it was her idea of pitching the two in a battle, which she did succeed at the end of it, thru her designs.

Though Valmiki has described Surpanakha, as an ugly woman, some versions of the South have described her as a beautiful woman, worthy of her name Meenakshi, however, she could have been middle-aged and definitely not of Sita’s age and looks. Though we do not hear about Surpanakha, in the epic after the particular episode, but scholars feel that she lived a life of a recluse in the court of Vibhishana, who took over the reins of Lanka after the death of Ravan.

Many scholars feel that Surpanakha was one of the most misunderstood characters of Ramayan and had Ram and Lakshaman not made fun of her and reasoned with her, the whole matter could have been resolved well. Also, severing the nose of a beautiful woman for a proposal (even if we are to believe that it was an indecent proposal!) is quite a non-chivalrous thing to be done by a warrior (who then was in the garb of an ascetic). But then there are numerous incidents where Lakshaman has displayed his hot-headed nature.

I also believe that the only mistake of Surpanakha was that she was not beautiful as per the Aryan standards and that she expressed her amorous desire openly and was aggressive. Acts of expressing one’s mind openly and asking for something directly was not seen as good standards for women in those days, and that could have made Lakshaman react the way he did, thereby also setting a norm of public behaviour. Let’s not forget that it was the same Lakshaman who had drawn a Lakshaman rekha (which was a limiting line) for Sita too later in the epic, which definitely had different connotations.

To conclude, so who was Surpanakha – an anti-establishment individual or was she a liberated feminist of her times? Or simply put, was she a victim of differing standards of courtship by a different culture?

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Ravan’s Family – Meghnaad

Meghnaad was Ravan’s son and an extremely brave and courageous warrior and according to some scholars, a great citizen too. It is said that when he cried soon after his birth, it sounded like thunder and lightning, and thus he was named Meghnaad.

During one of the battles with the gods, he had won a victory over Lord Indra, and was awarded the Brahmastra (a weapon) and was christened, Indrajeet (one who achieved victory over Indra), by Lord Brahma. Besides Brahmastra, Meghnaad had access to other divine weapons like Pashupatastra and Nagpaash, or the serpent spell. In the entire Ramayana, Meghnaad has been lauded for his battle skills and was quite a formidable force for both Ram and Lakshman. It was during the battle with Meghnaad that Lakhsmana was seriously wounded, which needed Sanjivani buti from the mountains. With all his skills and his ability to steal victory, he too had even tried to reason with his father, Ravan, that they were fighting a war for the wrong reasons and that he should return Sita to Ram and save Lanka from destruction. But Ravan would not heed to any suggestions and on the orders of his father, Meghnaad went back to the battle field to face imminent defeat. Many scholars compare his devotion to his father being similar to Rama’s devotion to Dashrath.

On conquering Indra, he had tied Indra to a chariot and when he was taking Indra away, Lord Brahma intervened and sought the release of Indra. In return he was granted a boon, of invincibility. However, this invincibility could be broken if the Yagna preceding any battle could be disturbed by someone. This knowledge was with Vibhishana, the younger brother of Ravan, who had moved on to Ram’s side during the battle. He shared this with Lakshman and together with Sugriva, both of them manage to disturb the Yagna that Meghnaad was performing on the third day of the battle. Thus Meghnaad was defeated by Lakshman and a great warrior, had to meet his end by the collective deceit of Vibhinshan, Lakshaman, Kuber and others who participated in the disturbance of the Yagna.

The heroism and the victorious death of Meghnaad has been depicted in a famous poem by the noted Bengali poet and author Michael Madhusudan Dutt, in his epic poem, “Meghnaad-badh kabyo”, which was first published in 1861, which took Bengal by a storm, since in this Meghnaad was depicted as the tragic hero who was wronged by the gods, for a change!

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ravan’s Family – Kumbhakarna

Statue of Kumbhakarna in Kumbhakarna Gardens, Penukonda, Andhra Pradesh, India
Kumbhakarna literally means a person with ears as large as a pot (kumbha – pot, karna – ears. He was the younger brother of Ravana, in Ramayana. He has always been depicted as big and huge, both in size and in his appetite! Kumbhakarna was a child’s delight to read, or see in movies or hear about. The imagery is so vivid, that anybody who is found sleeping soundly, or is sleepy, is at times referred to as Kumbhakarna.

But do you know why he used to sleep so much?

Like Ravana, Kumbhakarna, too decided to do penance to Lord Brahma, to seek blessings. Satisfied, Lord Brahma, appeared to Kumbhakarna, and granted him a boon. Kumbhakarna had planned to ask for “Indra-asana”, meaning the ‘seat of Indra’. But just when the words were to come out of his mouth, the power of speech, in this case, Goddess Saraswati played a trick on him and tilted his tongue a bit, and “Indra-asana”, became “Nidra-asana” meaning, ‘bed to sleep’! Some versions say that Kumbhakarna was planning to ask for “Nirdevatavam” meaning ‘annihilation of devas’ but ended up asking “Nidravatvam”, i.e. ‘sleep’. Lord Brahma immediately granted the boon, by saying – tathastu – so be it!

But Kumbhakarna, realised the folly and said that he did not want eternal sleep, and reasoned with Lord Brahma, as to why would anybody do penance for sleeping his full life, and die at the end of a life of sleep? After listening to his arguments, Lord Brahma felt sorry for him, but he could not take back the boon already given to him. So he struck a compromise of sorts and said that he would henceforth sleep for six months and then wake up and eat for six months, before going back to sleep again.

This way, he ended up sleeping for six months, but waking him from near-dead sleep was an ordeal, so all sorts of noise was made, armies and animals were made to move all over his huge body, hoping that at some point he would wake up. Due to all strength energy being unutilised for such long periods, on waking up, he could smash a full army single handed. He was also a glutton when it came to food and six months of not eating anything would starve him to no end, so on waking up, he would need barrels and tons of food to satiate his six-month hunger.

This is the story behind, Kumbhakarna’s long duration of sleep!

Monday, January 3, 2011

Janus – the two headed God

Janus was a Roman god and is portrayed with two heads, one looking forward and the other looking back. In due course he became the symbol of New Year, with one head looking at the year gone by and the other looking at the New Year.

Janus is also from where the first month of the year, January, gets its name.

Janus, in ancient Rome was known as the god of the gates, whose one face saw the people who came into the house and other looked at those who were in it. Janus symbolized transition, from past to future. Janus was in the middle in every divide, be it of civilizations, age or seasons or coming-of-age.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year Resolutions

It’s once again that time of the year, when we make New Year resolutions, especially to break them within a few days and tell one and all, how we took the resolutions and broke it too. Each tries to outdo, in the number of days s/he took to break the resolution, the lesser the self-styled winner! Now I know what Bob Dylan meant when he wrote “The Times they are a-Changin”!

But let’s see how the practice of making New Year resolutions started. The tradition of making New Year resolutions began way back by the ancient Babylonians. They felt that it was a good idea to start the New Year by returning items borrowed from each other. It gave one an opportunity to turn into a new leaf and begin the year with a clear conscious. This gave rise to the modern day practice of making New Year Resolutions.

No, I did not make any resolution, as I think it’s a bad habit to break resolutions, but not making a resolution, is not one!
·         I don’t need to kick the habit of smoking or drinking; rather I have friends who would want me to resolve to take up drinking, at least party-drinking some say!
·         I don’t need to reduce weight, so there’s nothing to resolve there.
·         I go for morning walks, quite regularly, so what do I resolve for, to be irregular?
·         I don’t borrow anything from anybody, except from Banks, and they know how to get it back from me. Their headache, not mine!

After all the good habits that I have, the following are the resolutions my wife wants me to take, and she gave me a list. ME, can you beat that?

¹        Resolve to talk less – and then do what?
¹        Resolve to see my inadequacy as one, rather than make a virtue out of it – I wonder what she means by this??
¹        Resolve to worry less and take life easily – Gosh, and I haven’t even told her that the world might come to an end in 2012.
¹        Resolve to do some household chore – I think she meant some more! Whoever tried to satisfy a woman is a failure, ask me!
¹        Resolve to go for a vacation sometime – 52 weekends of malls, movies, hotels, restaurants, rest, chill out (at home), phew! is not enough? Repeat the above comment about satisfying women!
¹        Resolve to be more social and meet people – you mean at their homes? Invade people’s privacy?
¹        Resolve to be a bit religious – a bit? Now that’s a bitter pill!

With so many changes that she wants out of me, I might turn into a ‘new’ and ‘improved’ version of the nice old me! I wonder why I feel like a detergent soap! But then she also said that she loved me the way I was! What a contradiction!

I am truly flummoxed and have no clue if I should continue with my old good habit of not taking any resolutions, or should I try out my wife’s list? Anybody out there, willing to help me?

My wife’s friends and well-wishers are not eligible for sending in their suggestions!!