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.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Shakuntala - The Woman Wonged - Introduction

Many ask me, how is “Shakuntala – the woman Wronged” different from Kalidasa’s Shakuntala.

Here is an extract from the Introduction of the book –

“………what is lesser known is that Shakuntala is one of the first female characters to appear in the epic Mahabharata written by Maharishi Ved Vyasa. Shakuntala’s story is told in the Sambhava Parva part of the Adi Parva of the Mahabharata. The story is recited by Vaishampayana to Janamejeya. This tale from the Mahabharata was taken by Kalidasa and recreated in his own way into one of the most romantic plays of all times. Many of his other plays were also based on mythology, like Kumarasambhava, Raghuvamsham, Meghaduta, etc.

However, there is a big difference in the original characterization of Shakuntala by Vyasa and the dramatic representation by Kalidasa.

Vyasa’s Shakuntala is the precursor to many of his later heroines in the Mahabharata—strong, decisive and fiery. She had a mind of her own and could stand her ground against the mighty king of Hastinapur, King Dushyant. Also, Dushyant is a king of little character and displays rather loose morals in Vyasa’s Mahabharata, instead of someone who suffers from temporary amnesia as represented by Kalidasa in his version. The major difference, however, is the character of Sage Durvasa.

Sage Durvasa is an invention of Kalidasa, whose curse brings on the dramatic forgetfulness, leading to all the troubles in the life of Shakuntala. It also gives Dushyant the much-needed excuse to reject his wife, which, in the original version of Vyasa, is a breach of morality and a sign of his lusty escapade with Shakuntala.

Vyasa’s Shakuntala knew the background of her birth and understood its repercussions. She stood her moral ground when the king refused to recognize her and ensured that she won justice by the sheer ability of her reasoning and straightforwardness. Vyasa’s Shakuntala is not a damsel in distress shedding copious tears; she fights for her right and gets her way, and does not succumb to the man, irrespective of his position and stature. She was amongst the first women in the Mahabharata to fight for her rights in a man’s world and get her due.”

My Shakuntala is based on Vyasa’s version from Mahabharat.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Shakuntala - The Woman Wronged - Foreword

An extract from the Foreward of the book, written by Prof. Satya Chaitanya -

"(Shakuntala) …… is the story of a woman and a wife. A wife who insisted on equality and respect from her man, who reminded her husband of his duty towards her, who told him what honour is and what an honourable man should do. Such honour in men is something our own times need greatly. She had the courage to stand up for herself, to stand up for all exploited women, who are treated as objects rather than as people, for women who to this day are used for pleasure and then discarded like trash. And she showed this courage openly—by walking right into the royal court, standing there in the presence of all possible earthly power and challenging her man who sat on the throne to do what was right.

Shakuntala is all that a woman should be—independent, assertive, courageous and yet endowed with tenderness, capable of great love, the ability to give of oneself unreservedly, to take risks. Perhaps she imbibed all this from the environment in which she grew up after she was abandoned by her biological father because she was the symbol of his fall, his shame. That environment—the environment of the ashram of a rishi—is India’s richest heritage, the ambience from which the most beautiful things Indian were born. She grew up in an environment where she felt secure—totally secure—loved and cherished. Our girl children today too need to grow up feeling secure, loved, cherished."

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Murder Most Foul – Part 2

The Volsunga Saga of the Norse tells of Signy, who is different, as in the fact that she did not quite have to battle emotions in murdering her children. Needless to say, that this complicated tale sure is a saga in itself. Let us read this story in slight details.

Signy, the daughter of a king was married against her wishes to Siggeir. During the wedding, a one-eyed man (Odin in disguise) came and plunged a magnificent sword in a tree and said that anybody who could take the sword out, could keep it, and left. One by one everybody tried, but none could take the sword out. After everybody had tried, Sigmund, one of the nine brothers of Signy and also her twin, tried and pull it out without much effort. All praised him for the feat, but Siggeir offered to buy the sword from him and offered him three times its weight in gold. Sigmund declined leaving Siggeir disappointed.

Siggeir decided to leave immediately the next day after the wedding, as he claimed the weather was clear, with a promise from the King that all of them would visit him after three months. Signy expressed her reluctance to go with her husband and even said that she foresaw grave misfortunes, but her father would not listen to her.

Three months later, when the king and his sons came to visit Siggeir, they had to wage a battle against Siggier, and soon the king was dead and all the brothers taken prisoners. Siggier intended to kill them, but on the persuasion of Signy, he decided to leave them in the forest with their feet bound. But Siggeir’s old mother who was skilled in sorcery managed to kill all but Sigmund, who was saved by the help of Signy, resulting in the death of the old woman.
Sigmund Bound in the Woods P. Wilson Illustration, 1900

Sigmund decided to stay back in the forest and along with Signy started to plot revenge against Siggeir. Signy in the meanwhile had given birth to two sons. When the eldest was about ten, she sent him to Sigmund, to see if he could be of any help. Sigmund gave the son a sack of meal and asked him to knead some dough for him for baking bread. On returning he found that the child had done nothing as he was scared to touch the sack since he found something moving inside the sack. Sigmund concluded that the child was of no use to him and sent message to his sister. When Signy came to know the reason, she ordered Sigmund to kill the child as he did not deserve to live. The second child met with the same fate. In both the cases, the children were killed under the order of the mother.

Signy one day took the disguise of another woman and went to her brother who could not recognize her and stayed with him for three nights, after which she came back to her place and assumed her earlier form. Soon she was pregnant with a son. She later gave birth to a large and strong son and named him Sinfjotli, who obviously resembled Sigmund in every way. When Sinfjotli reached the age of ten, Signy sent him to Sigmund, who gave him the same tasks as the children earlier.

When Sigmund returned, not only was the dough kneaded, but bread was baked too. He asked Sinfjotli, if he found anything in the sack, to which the child replied that there was serpent in it, but he kneaded it in the dough. It was a poisonous serpent. Sigmund was impressed with the child, but realized that he was too young to assist him in his work. So he started to train him, but would often be surprised to see him deliver beyond expectations, not knowing of course that the child was his own blood.

Soon it was time to take revenge. Sigmund took Sinfjotli to his Siggeir’s house and as planned with Signy, they hid at one place. While they were hiding, two of the sons of Signy and Siggeir came there and saw them hiding. They rushed to report to their father, but Signy once again ordered Sigmund to kill the two children. This time, Sigmund could not do so, but Sinfjotli, caught hold of the two, killed them and threw them in the hall.

Soon a battle broke out, but the two were overpowered and tied. Signy again came to their rescue and with the help of a sword, released the two. They headed straight to the place where Siggeir was sleeping and killed him. Later the entire palace was put to flames but Signy decided to perish in it, as she had avenged the death of her father and brothers. She however, didn’t regret murdering her four sons and sleeping with her own brother to give birth to a son, whose sole purpose was to take revenge.

The above sure has a disturbing feel to it, as the killing was very cold-blooded and not an iota of remorse was found in the woman who orders the killing just because they were of ‘no use’ to them in killing their own father.

While some of the stories have the nauseating quality, what with the detailed descriptions of slit-throats, blood, consuming of hearts and goblets of skulls, the plots also have an ability to shock and make for a gripping tale, however gory they be. Also, progressively, the murderers seem to have something heroic in them, as portrayed by the later writers or re-tellers of the tales. While the crimes have not been overlooked, the cause has definitely been given some more importance, than what might have been done in the earlier versions. While moral questions around the crimes remained, the question of kinship and familial affinity in many of them and the justification of retribution for abandonment in the case of Medea, got more attention, in the later retellings.

While murdering of children is not very common in the case of Hindu mythology, we do have examples of people sacrificing their sons/daughters on the command of gods, much like Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac, resulting in resurrection of the child later. Even if we see, the beheading of Ganesha in a fit of anger as a case of filicide, the resurrection of the son, does not quite reach the levels of cold-blooded murder as we have seen in the some of the myths earlier.

Mythology is the mirror of the society in which such stories took birth and shape. While it is important to understand that this was a primeval society and such stories like all, had a particular function. These stories either highlight the hurt a woman goes through on being spurned and the extent she would go to avenge the insult, or went on to prove the power of kinship for certain individuals, women in some of the cases discussed earlier. From a narrative perspective, they provided a shock-value and gave rise to a sense of disgust or hatred for certain characters, thus once again setting a benchmark for what ought not to be done. Be it for fear of retribution or establishing a not-acceptable behavioural rule, these stories were told with a purpose.

However, the presence of such acts in modern times is quite unexplainable. No justification like honour-killings, poverty, etc. can be given, and the present case of Sheena Bora, seems to defy all reasons. Society has moved far from rule-setting and establishing norms of behavior. A murder is a murder and gruesome murder of one’s own child is unacceptable in any cultural milieu. Modern day Medeas, Procnes and Signys have to device ways of retribution which does not involve the murder of their children.

While mythology seems to have served its purpose for the larger audience, greed and lust seems to have gripped a few in the modern society beyond expectation. Is this a case of unbridled greed for money and power, or does this expose the underbelly of the high society, which thrives on charades and subterfuges, is beyond the simple thinking of ordinary mortals more. Besides satiating the hunger for intrigues and melodrama in people at large, the Sheena Bora murder undoubtedly, will go down in the annals of history, as the murder most foul, unless human beings manage to dig pits deeper than what they have reached.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Murder Most Foul – Part 1

Pic Courtesy - www.india.com
The latest murder of Sheena Bora has raised quite a furore in the minds of people, not because of the probable gruesome death of the victim, but more so because the murder was none other than her mother. Mothers in India and similar cultures have a much esteemed position and at times dramatically divine, as mothers are akin to creators, the beings that give birth to the child. This elevated the status of a mother, in a cultural sense, and thus the place of significance. It is this very elevation, which leads to shock and surprise, when we learn of such murders, which raise questions, as to how can a mother kill her child/children? How can the hands that rocked the cradle, end up throttling the life of her child? Melodrama apart, this definitely raises a very pertinent question on the current state of relationships and the complexities involved in some cases, like the present case of Sheena Bora.

Without going into the murky aspects, and the ever-growing web of complex-relationships of the dramatis personae of the case, I am personally quite intrigued by the motif of killing ones children. While this is a disturbing aspect from a social perspective, it is this that has caught my attention, leading me to see, if this is a modern phenomenon and if I could blame it on the modern degradation of familial structures, moral values and a growing lack of sensitivity, or did such crimes exist from time immemorial.

My hunting ground (pardon the ironical usage!) is mythology. Theorists and academicians will say that myths give messages of social or accepted behaviour or norms. Simplistically put, they lay down social and cultural norms. While at it, certain characteristics are reinforced metaphorically and extremes are highlighted to shock and thus bring out the enormity of the sin, which ends up being forbidden or unthinkable. Filicide or killing of one’s children is one of them.

Mythology abounds in examples of filicide, but it is important here to distinguish between sacrifices (often by the orders of gods) and murders (with or without a purpose).

In the case of the first one, parents, often fathers, are asked to offer their sons as an offering to gods leading to the ‘sacrifice’ of their sons. The case of Abraham and Isaac is the best example of this. This is primarily to test the devotion of the father to gods and in majority of the cases, the life of the son is awarded back or the pleased god appears just before the child is about to be sacrificed. Such cases are many and we will not call them acts of filicide here. We will also ignore cases of sacrificing ones children for a specific purpose without the gods asking for them, as they remain examples of sacrifices, like Jephthah sacrificing his daughter to Yahweh, from the Old Testament.

We will only focus on cases where children were killed by their parents, often for no fault of theirs and without the divine order.

A number of such myths exist in the Greek Mythology, chief among them being Medea, Procne and Tantalus. Procne and her husband Tereus lived happily with their five year old son Itys. Once Procne
Philomela and Procne
decided to invite her beautiful sister Philomela to live with them, and Tereus volunteered to bring her. On the way, Tereus falls in love with Philomela and ends up marrying her in an island under the pretext that her sister had died. When the truth was revealed to Philomela, she threatened to expose him. Fearing the inevitable, Tereus cuts her tongue and leaves her in an island and goes back to Procne, telling her that Philomela had died on the way. Soon with the turn of events, Procne learns the truth and in an act of retribution kills her son, saying that in him she could see his father. She then cuts pieces of her son and prepares supper from it and offers it to Tereus. Only after he consumes it, does she reveal the truth and escapes a raging father at her heels.

Tantalus is another similar example, except that he had no reason, whatsoever. Tantalus was a mortal son of Zeus but unlike other mortals, was a favourite with both the gods and Zeus. He was probably the only mortal, who was allowed to dine with the gods, especially the dinner-for-gods-only kind!
The feast of Tantalus. 1767. Hugues Taraval. French
Once to prove the gullibility and the foolishness of the gods, he invited them for dinner to his castle. He then cut his son Pelops to pieces and made a stew out of it and served to the gods. None of the gods had quite had the stew except for Demeter, who unmindfully chewed into what turned out to be the shoulder of Pelops. When she realised what had happened she alerted all the gods, who were now furious. Zeus punished him and sent him to the lowest region of the Underworld. (For more on this read The Crime and Punishment of Tantalus).

Finally, the murder considered to be most gruesome was by Medea. Medea had fallen in love with Jason (of the Argonauts fame) and helped him get the Golden Fleece much against the desire of her father. Later when they were escaping from a chasing father, she is supposed to have killed her brother, cut
Medea (about to murder her children)
by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix (1862)
him into pieces and scattered the parts all over, so that the distraught father got busy collecting the pieces for a respectable funeral for her son while Jason and Medea managed to escape. Yet further in the story, Jason falls in love with the princess of another city where they were seeking asylum and ends up marrying her. As an act of retribution for being ditched, Medea killed the princess and her own two sons, whom Jason loved deeply, leaving Jason all alone. (For more on this read Medea the Barbarian and Medea the Barbarian – Concluding Part ).

In all the three cases, the murder of the children, were not sacrifices; they were either an act of vanity or retribution, where the child was not at fault. All of them go down as gruesome acts of filicide and while literature has glorified Medea, the act of killing her children has always been condoned. There are many more such cases, like Cronos ‘eating’ all his sons, except Zeus, who later ends up killing his father. Besides these well known cases, there are other cases where fathers/mothers have killed their children by mistake, or in a fit of madness, often brought about by divine intervention, but we will not discuss them.

The Celtic myths too have some interesting references to filicide in the myth of Cath Maige Tuired, in which a man kills his son over the difference of opinion of medical method of curing the king who had lost his hand. The father was of the opinion that the king should have an artificial silver hand, while the son wanted to regenerate a hand magically from a tissue. The father was supposed to be so enraged with the superior medical skills of his son, that he struck him with a sword and killed him.

The Prose Edda of the Norse mythology also relates to many such cases of filicide and one of them is similar to that of Procne of the Greek mythology. In this Gudrun, avenges the death of her brothers by her husband by offering the hearts of their sons to the husband! The objective is to cause pain to her husband, leading to an heirless throne, an act which never went down well in the cultural milieu in which the story takes place. In yet another version of the same story, the murder is gruesome. Gudrun is 
supposed to have killed her sons, made goblets out of their skulls and fed their blood and hearts to her husband. Drinking from the skulls of enemy was a widely practised cultural act and thus went unnoticed by the husband, who is later killed by Gudrun and one of his nephews.

It is important to mention that the murder above and that by Procne earlier in Greek mythology, is seen more as an act of retribution, than filicide. The central theme is more to avenge an earlier act, than the murder of one’s own children. While this might seem an effort to overlook the crime, but the treatment of the acts is less important in the said narratives than what led to the crime. Besides the mothers who have avenged certain acts by killing their children, had to battle emotions before they committed the acts. Their love for their children was not less, though the need to seek revenge was greater, and in the case of Medea it was more out of being spurned or rejected by the one for whom, she had committed the crime of fratricide (killing ones brother) and more.

To be continued……………