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.


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Was Gandhiji an Avatar?

On the day of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Martyrs' Day, the above question comes to mind, which is also the very basis of what we call the ‘deification of a hero’ in the studies of Comparative Mythology.

Would generations after a few hundred years believe, that a man managed to unite a diverse and large country, which was many small countries by itself, achieved freedom from British and that too on the principles of ahimsa or non-violence? Many historians and scholars have found people in villages to believe that Gandhiji was an avatar of god – how else could a person perform such enormous task of throwing the British out, when they were firm for more than two hundred years?

Many have compared Gandhiji with Gautam Buddha, probably for the glaring similarities between the two – 

  • Both were born in families which were well off – Gandhiji was born in a well-to-do Gujarati family of a businessman and Gautam was born to a King.
  • Both had a happy childhood and were educated – Gandhiji went on to become a lawyer and Buddha got princely education
  • Both were married and had children
  • Both had events which led them to their individual quest – Gandhiji had his experience while working in South Africa, while Gautam experienced the four sights, both of which were turning points for them individually
  • Gandhiji returned to India in his quest for swaraj, while Gautama left his kingdom to seek nirvana
  • Both were against violence and proposed simple living
  • Both were against the caste system and worked for the downtrodden and the untouchables
  • Both had followers who have fought later – in the case of Gandhiji, a nation got divided and in the case of Buddha, his faith was divided as differences crept in, in the form of Mahayana, Hinayana and even the Tibetan Buddhism.

Just what am I up to, is what many might wonder. Why am I hell-bent on deifying an individual from History?

The whole idea is to show how heroes of the past have got deified. This is exactly how many of the ‘gods’ could have got deified in the course of the development of civilization. Miracles and unbelievable deeds get credited to them; halo’s appear in their pictures. The classic example in mythology is that of Indra from the Vedic times, where many believe that Indra was a mortal hero who got deified during the Vedic times. Many also feel that the epics Mahabharata & Ramayana could have some roots in reality and many characters actually existed.

The following pictures have become part of the lore. The picture below is titled as “Gandhiji ki Swaryatra” – Gandhiji’s journey to heaven, by Narottam Narayan Sharma in 1948 where Gandhiji is shown above Nehru and Sardar Patel and being taken in some sort of celestial carrier by two garlanding apsaras after his death. Many other leaders are shown mourning.

The following picture shows a pensive Gandhiji being blessed by Lord Ram, a deity Gandhiji used to worship, made more famous by his last words “He Ram”. This image, set up in modern times (modern buildings and manicured lawns) with Lord Ram in his traditional attire is also seen as the ‘appropriation of Gandhiji in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism’.

Besides the above, there are many such pictures which deify Gandhiji and many other freedom fighters like Bhagat Singh, Netaji Subhash Bose to name a few.

What is interesting is that this theory of deification of heroes is not new. I would rather say, that it has only slowed down in the modern times. What were once mortals have either been raised to the status of gods or changing times have made their deeds so unbelievable, that such deeds could only be the domain of deified heroes.

To conclude, I would like to quote what Albert Einstein had to say about Gandhiji on his 70th birthday - “Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth”.

As lawyers would say – I rest my case!

As mathematicians would say – Q.E.D.!!!

Picture Courtesy - 'Photos of the Gods': The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Chourasi Devonwali Gaay

The picture given below is considered to be one of the first, if not the first, usage of mythology in India’s nationalist movement. Many might differ with me, when I make this statement about the usage of the above for a ‘national movement’, but I will explain that slightly later.

Better known as the Chourasi Devonwali Gaay, or ‘the Cow of 84 Deities’ was part of a campaign launched by the founder of Arya Samaj, Swami Dayanand Saraswati. In an article titled Gokarunanidhi, (Ocean of mercy to the cow), in 1881, Swamiji strongly advocated the ban of cow-slaughter which was widely prevalent then. The article soon found lots of supporters and people spread to different parts of the country with pamphlets and pictures advocating a ban on the slaughter of cows. This led to a larger awareness and the formation of Gowrakshak-samitis, Cow-protection groups and creation of gow-shalas, or cow-refuges, for the old and abandoned cows.

Soon this awareness drive got labelled as the Cow Protection Movement and the British took note of the support that it was gaining. They smelt a potential threat in this and seeds of discord were sown. The Muslims were agitated and branded this movement as an anti-Muslim movement and India recorded its first communal riots in 1893, in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh, which took the authorities about three days to get situation under control.

Many see this movement as a religious movement of sorts which was obviously spearheaded by Hindus. The reasons of my disagreement, as mentioned at the beginning is based mainly on the fact that Swami Dayanand Saraswati, himself was against the form of Hinduism which preached idol worship and the prevalent practice of child marriage, widow celibacy and the caste system in the name of religion. He believed in the Hinduism of the Vedic times which did not accord any superiority to the Brahmins which was a later manifestation of the religion.

The British were also aware that the movement was politically motivated and some even felt that after the 1857 Mutiny, this movement was the next big challenge for the British, since it had spread across the country. Swamiji had tried to build a secular movement around it and he also got support from the likes of Bal Gangadhar Tilak and others, but it became an unfortunate cause for communal rivalry.

The selection of cow was not just to get the cow-slaughter stopped. Cow had always had a very special place in the Hindu religion right from the Vedic times. In the Rig Veda, the cow has been equated with god. According to a myth from Bhagavata Purana, Bhoodevi or the earth goddess used to nourish mankind in every aspect of life. But man started exploiting earth for more and more, till Bhoodevi could bear it no more. She took the form of a cow and ran away which led to famine on earth, since the nourishment to plants was missing. Vishnu in the form of Prithu descended on earth and tried to convince her, but Bhoodevi was not ready to pardon mankind for such mindless exploitation. Prithu convinced her that man would respect her and he himself would come to earth in future and teach man to love and respect cows. Bhoodevi, satisfied agreed to return to earth and from then onwards, as the beloved of Prithu, she came to be known as Prithvi. Vishnu kept his word and as Lord Krishna took birth in the family of cowherds and is also known as Gopala and advocated veneration of cows.

Prithu chasing Bhoodevi - A Pahari Painting*
The picture given at the beginning of this post also illustrates the same and true to the secular nature, the cow showers its bounty on all, irrespective of man’s religion. This is shown at the bottom of the illustration by a man handing over milk to Hindus, Parsi, British and Muslims alike. The slaughterer is not shown as one belonging to any religion, but a demon or an asura, once again depicting the killer in negative shade. Many nationalists have opined that the asura is to be understood as the common force of British, but this is a debatable point, since it already shows a British being offered milk.

In simple terms, the use of a cow could be seen as a simple symbolism where the cow is shown as mother earth which is equated to the nation at large. The slaughter of cow was to be seen as the killing of the nation by foreign rulers and the people of the country were asked to stop it. The above is just another example of the multifaceted application of mythology, the treasure-trove of civilisation. From personal to national, it has far-reaching manifestations and usage.

On this day, here’s wishing all my readers a very happy Republic Day!!

* Pic Courtesy - Wikipedia

Thursday, January 24, 2013

My ‘Guddi’ Moment

All who have seen the 1971 Hindi movie, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s “Guddi" would understand what I am going to say. The scene where a school-girl Jaya Bhaduri (as she was known then) in her frocks goes inside a room and emerges out of it wearing a red silk saree, leaving everybody awestruck, was replayed at my home yesterday.

My daughter became a young lady yesterday, when she wore a saree for her school farewell. I can’t remember when my small girl who would hold my hand while crossing the road and look up to me, started staring at me at the same level (an inch taller than me I suppose, in her high heeled shoes!) slipping her arm in my arm, grew up to look absolutely stunning. Is this the same bundle of joy that I brought home from the hospital some fifteen years back? Is this the same chubby kid who would giggle at every gimmick of mine? Is this the same girl who would be uncomfortable in the squeak-when-you-walk shoe, walking confidently in the new heeled shoe?

First day to School - 2002
Last day in School - 2013

Just when did this metamorphosis happen? 

In the three-hour movie I could see it happen with Jaya Bhaduri, but how did I miss it for my daughter? When did she stop wearing lacy frocks and jump into jeans and now a saree? When did Enid Blyton’s Noddy give way to Harry Potter? When did Cartoon Network get replaced by the soaps of Star World? When did small shoes give way to high-heeled shoes? When did giggles on silly gimmicks give way to ‘grow-up-Dad’ looks? Life sure has been fast!

For the moment, I was speechless, and for the rest of the evening, I was worried. How could I let her alone in this big bad world? The small girl has grown up and will soon be ready to fly – will the world be as caring as the confines of my home? Will she find the care and comfort that I have provided her till date? 

But let’s leave the worries for another day and savour the moment, that for want of a better word I call – my Guddi moment!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Kumbh Mela and the Naga Baba’s

In the last post, we discussed the origins and significance of the massive Kumbh Mela which is currently being held in Allahabad, India. Its sheer enormity and the gathering from all over the country and parts of the world, has intrigued many a foreigner, who come down to attend every Kumbh Mela in hordes. Besides the religious fervour, which is at its full display, there is another very intriguing aspect of the Mela and that is the Naga Baba’s, or the naked ascetics.

World over, they seem to be the most photographed and also the most discussed aspect of the fair. In some, they evoke a sense of faith, while in some they evoke a sense of intrigue while for some they evoke a sense of revulsion. Just who are these babas and why are they the way they are?

The Naga babas are notable by their appearance, they are naked, and have long, knotted and unkempt hair, with ash smeared all over their bodies. They do not wear a shred of cloth even in peak winters and keep themselves warm by smoking ‘chillum’ or local marijuana. Many of them carry trishul or the trident carried by Lord Shiva as they are all followers of Lord Shiva. Many are known to perform inhuman tasks and some of them are known for doing things that the modern day civilisation might term weird, like standing on one leg for decades or using only one hand, or sleeping on a bed of sharp nails or standing on their heads for days, so on and so forth.

If one observes them closely, one can find in them all aspects of Shiva, except for the nudity. The nudity is a sign of renunciation of all material possessions and a sign of lack of any human inhibition. It also shows that they have parted with worldly pleasures and nothing arouses them, both sexually as well as emotionally and are at one with their god. This is another aspect which distinguishes them from their Lord (Shiva), who is a much married and a family man with wife and children. However, this renunciation of the baba’s is to end to the cycle of life and death and attain salvation. The reverence given to them can be seen in the fact that the first dip in waters during the Kumbh Mela is allowed to them.

The Naga baba’s consider the god Dattatreya as their Guru (who was considered to be the first naga baba) and the Adi Shankaracharya is supposed to have organised them in akharas, or camps, some of them being the Udasins, the Gorakhnatis, the Aghoris and the Yogis amongst the main ones. They were brave and did not care much for their lives and thus have been part of regiments fighting the early Mughals and later British. This streak of aggression is found in many of these babas even today, and thus often referred to as the warrior-ascetics.

If anybody tells me that they get photographed due to their nudity, then I would like to say, that there is much more nudity (and aesthetic at that), elsewhere and the Naga babas are definitely not satisfying that voyeuristic need. It is their unique lifestyle and the way they are that arouses both a sense of wonder and a squeamish suspicion about the babas. Needless to say, that they also have a heavy following in terms of disciples many of who are amongst the rich and famous of India.

Many feel threatened and embarrassed by this uncanny focus on such people during the fair. To this I only have to say, that these men are the followers of an ancient faith and live in the past out of their own volition and the impression that they create cannot be interpolated on an entire country or a philosophy which has many aspects to feel proud of. I don’t see this even as an aberration, but just another aspect of the diverse fabric of a philosophy, better known as Hinduism.