Mythology is replete with interesting mythical creatures, some like Kamdhenu, Garuda, Narasimha, Hanuman, or the Greek Centaur and the Egyptian Sphinx to the dangerous ones like Gorgons or the Greae or even the chimera. The one thing common to all of them is that they have been extremely awe-inspiring and at times creative to the last bit.
Many of the above are known to us as our basic knowledge of mythology or have been part of childhood fiction. However, I came across one such interesting creature, which finds a mention only in the Oriya version of the epic Mahabharata, by Adikavi Sarala Dasa. He has created an excellent example of an enigma of a creature, known as Navagunjara, which finds artistic expression in the local paintings better known as Pata-chitra and the Ganjifa playing cards. But first the creature.
During the exile of the Pandavas, once Arjuna was performing penance in the hills of Manibhadra. When Krishna came to know about it, he decided to test Arjuna as it had been a long time since he had met Arjuna. Krishna assumed the form of the Navagunjara, an animal composed of nine different animals. The Navagunara had the head of a rooster, and stood on three feet, each of which was of an elephant, a tiger and the deer or a horse. The fourth limb was a raised human arm carrying a lotus. The creature further had the neck of a peacock the hump of a camel (which incidentally also was in the shape of a linga), the waist of a lion, and the tail was a serpent.
|(Courtesy - Rare Book Society of India *)|
When Krishna in the form of the Navagunjara presented himself in front of Arujuna, he was both terrified and baffled. He picked up his bow and arrow to shoot the creature, but paused for a moment trying to understand the creature. How could such a creature exist? Just what could it be? It was at this stage that he understood that this must be none other than Krishna testing him. He immediately bowed his head and sought his blessings.
One wonders what this could be all about. Is it about the ability of Krishna to assume an unexplainable form? Or is it about the limitless creativity of the Creator? As mentioned earlier, this episode is found in no other version of Mahabharata, except in the version by Sarala Dasa. The author’s creativity is full of symbolism and metaphors. Many have compared this with the virata-swaroop of Krishna, except that this one is a baffling form, which is not explained or probably left unexplained.
The Navagunjara is seen as the unfathomable possibility of nature and at times its incomprehensible aspects. The creative manifestation of god and the capability to evoke a sense of awe is unimaginable. The form also implies that not all aspects of god can be understood, no matter how knowledgeable one is, like Arjuna, who was very close to Krishna. Human mind or brain has limitations and some things are beyond the scope of human understanding. While Arjuna was amazed at his own inability to explain the existence of such a creature, his picking up the bow without giving it a thought is an example of human reaction, when there is no prior knowledge of such situations.
While the episode does not have any major bearing
on the narrative by itself, it was
pregnant with symbols and created a deep impact on the belief system of the
locals. Besides being a prominent aspect of Oriya art, as mentioned earlier, it
finds a place in the form of a sculpture on the famous Lord Jagannath Temple
walls in Puri, Orissa, besides the eight of them crafted on the Neela-chakra or the disc above the
Needless to say, that among all the mythical creatures that I have come across, I find this the most enigmatic. Another such creature that comes to my mind is the Sharabha form of Lord Shiva, though not as creative or metaphorical as Navagunjara.
*Image source - The Metropolitan Museum of Art with Prashanth Nair