Childhood Memories of Reading (Part IV)

My reading started with comic books.

There were not many available in those days in India. The most popular publishing houses were Gold Key, Indrajal Comics, Harvey Comics and the Classics Illustrated Junior series: and later on, Amar Chitra Katha. Gold Key published all the American favourites: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, Bugs Bunny, Yogi Bear et al. Indrajal comics brought us Mandrake the Magician and the Phantom. Amar Chitra Katha was Anant Pai/ Mohandas team’s answer to Western comics, to teach Indian children their own heritage through a familiar medium, dealing mostly with Indian history, mythology and legends: even though the art and narration sucked in the beginning, it soon became much more professional.

The very first book I remember reading (and I still own it!) is a Donald Duck story where “Unca” Donald and his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie go in search of the legendary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, sent on the mission by Donald’s billionaire uncle Scrooge McDuck. Scrooge’s arch nemesis, the witch Magica De Spell is also after the booty which complicates matters.

From the first read onwards, I was a confirmed fan of the bad-tempered, cowardly, boastful Donald – on hindsight, I guess there’s something inherently endearing in his flawed personality which is not present in Mickey Mouse, who is a hero all through. I was never a great fan of Mickey – though I liked Goofy. Donald fails by pretending to be something he is not, while Goofy accepts his idiocy and always falls on his feet somehow.

But the one which takes the cake from the entire Disney pantheon is Uncle Scrooge, in my opinion: the miserly billionaire without a single saving grace, but one can’t help admire his financial acumen. The biggest disappointment of Scrooge McDuck’s life is his “idiot nephew” who refuses to change his wastrel nature. The most enjoyable stories are where Donald, Scrooge and Donald’s super-clever nephews all star – their contrasting personalities always guarantee great stories.

I loved all of Walt Disney’s creations – Donald, Mickey, Goofy, Scrooge, Pluto, Daisy, Minnie, Grandma Duck, Gladstone Gander, Gyro Gearloose, the Beagle Boys, Chip n’ Dale, Scamp… the list is nearly endless. I used to get them at the old Pai & Company bookstore at Broadway in Ernakulam, and the Higginbotham’s stalls at railway stations – the books were cheap, even by the standards of those days (each costing a rupee or less). I can still recall the smell and feel the glossy covers, with the “Gold Key” emblem (the publisher) in the corner – oh, the sweet smell of nostalgia!

Apart from Disney, Gold Key published many other famous cartoons. Tom & Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, the Warner Brothers cartoons like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, Tweety & Sylvester et al and the numerous cartoons by the prolific Hanna-Barbera team: Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, The Flintstones, The Jetsons, Beep Beep the Roadrunner, Magilla Gorilla… I liked them all, even though not as much as the Disney favourites.




Of these, Tom & Jerry in book form were nowhere near as funny as the animated series. Woody was a pale reflection of Donald. I liked the Warner Brothers team better, especially Bugs and Elmer Fudd. Also, I remember Yogi fondly; and the Flintstones had an interesting premise, a Stone Age community living like a modern-day neighbourhood of America: with everything including the TV and the car built out of stones and with a dinosaur for a pet. The Road Runner stories had much more meat in comic book form than the animated shorts, with the birds given more personality – but Wile E. Coyote was still the villainous star.

The “Classics Illustrated Junior” published fairy tales. This was where I first encountered all the favourites from Grimm Brothers and Hans Andersen. Now I realise that many of the tales had been doctored to remove parts considered “unsuitable” for children (like the evil queen in Snow White being forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes); however, it opened up a whole new world to me, and must have triggered my lifelong interest in myth, legend and fairy stories.


Harvey Comics was totally different. Most of its stories centred around the denizens of Enchanted Forest: Casper the Friendly Ghost, Spooky, the “tuff” ghost who is not so friendly; Wendy, the good little witch and her three horrible aunts; the little devil Hot Stuff et al. Moving away from the woods, there were also the perennial favourites Richie Rich and Sad Sack, and Baby Huey the baby giant. Harvey’s stories were much wilder and full of magical elements than the Gold Key favourites, and surprisingly contained very few animal protagonists. The stories were also much longer.


From these, I “graduated” to the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and Flash Gordon, published by India’s own publishing house, “Indrajal Comics”. The paper was of a lower quality (mostly newsprint) and the colours were duller than the foreign item, but these stories were really adult! For the first time, I knew what hero worship was as the Phantom bashed up the baddies and left the skull imprint on their jaws, and Mandrake “gestured hypnotically” and knives turned into bananas! (For a long time, I thought mass hypnotism was possible.) Also, these stories featured violence and death, and skirted playfully around sex –which was exciting for an adolescent. Diana Palmer and Princess Narda were my first crushes.


Last but not least, there were the Amar Chitra Katha books, which introduced me to Indian history. The mythology they published was rather well known to me – however, later on, I came to appreciate the minute details and unknown stories they unearthed from our culture. The language was very ponderous, though!


I still have many of these books – about 20+ bound volumes, very much treasured. And I still read them once in a while, on lazy afternoons… when the years slip away, and once again I am in that ageless garden of childhood.

[Image courtesy: www.mycomicshop.com and www.comicvine.com ]

A Rejection of Hinduism – “Why I am not a Hindu” by Kancha Ilaiah

Who – or what – is a Hindu?

There are no easy answers to this question.

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

Hinduism: A major religious and cultural tradition of South Asia, which developed from Vedic religion.

From Cambridge Dictionary:

Hinduism: An ancient religion with Indian origins whose characteristics include the worship of many gods and goddesses and the belief that when a person or creature dies, their spirit returns to life in another body.

Please note that both are stressing the Vedic roots, the former explicitly and the latter implicitly (the belief that the spirit returns to life in another body).

This bears witness to the fact that how much standardisation the term has undergone over the years: originally, “Hindu” meant anybody who lived in the vast tract of land eastward of the Sindhu (Indus) river. Sindhu was pronounced as Hindu by the Persians who did not have an “s” in their vocabulary. Subsequently, after the British conquest, it came to mean any Indian who was not Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Jew – and all the various gods and goddesses proliferating the countryside gained official status. However, by this time, the so-called “upper” castes had tightened their grip on the religion: Vedic Brahmanism was accepted as canonical, prescribing the strict hierarchy of castes (the Oxford definition quoted above goes on to say that the caste system is an integral part of Hinduism). The most miserable were the untouchable outcasts who were treated worse than animals.

Which is where Kancha Ilaiah comes in.

Kancha ilaiah is a Dalit social activist and writer. The term “Dalit” is used to describe anybody outside the Chaturvarnyam (four-caste system). It is a rebellious term, a challenge to categorising of the “lower” castes as Harijan (Children of God – a term coined by Gandhi and seen as patronising) or as Scheduled Castes/ Scheduled Tribes (SC/ST – a government term referring to their “protected” status and also considered insulting). “Dalit” means crushed or beaten, and is meant to indicate their centuries-old maltreatment at the hands of the upper-caste Hindus.

In the book under discussion, Ilaiah categorically rejects his official status as a Hindu, in the wake of the renewed upsurge of Hindu nationalism of the early nineties which lead to meteoric rise of the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which rejects the secular constitution of India for “Hindutva” – a term which signifies a broad acceptance of a common Indian culture on the moderate side or a strict enforcement of the Vedic religion as state religion on the fanatic side. What Ilaiah is worried about is the induction of millions of people under the Hindu wing, who were miserable outcasts in its original implementation – by stressing the pluses of a pluralistic culture, the BJP is trying recruit people to what essentially is a fascist agenda. To counter this, he presents arguments why most of the former untouchables and the majority of the Sudras (the lowest rung of the four-caste system – the servant class), whom he clubs together as Dalitbahujans, should not consider themselves as Hindus.

The BJP’s Hindutva rocket blasted off with a vengeance on December 6, 1992 when a fanatic mob of Hindu fundamentalists tore down the centuries-old Babri Masjid (“Babur’s Mosque”) in Ayodhya – the birthplace of the Hindu hero Rama, whom they consider an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. This was the culmination of decades of anger against the mosque, which was allegedly built on the exact spot where Rama was born – according to legend, the Moghul emperor Babur demolished a temple to build it. But the reason why it was suddenly brought to a head in the early nineties is, according to many, is the Mandal Commission Report, which advocates greater number of reserved seats for the backward castes in educational institutions and government jobs, which the Janata Dal government implemented a couple of years before.

The Janata Dal government was a mix of political parties, headed by V.P. Singh. They had come into power riding on the popular anti-incumbency wave against the Congress government of Rajiv Gandhi: however, the coalition was a contradiction in terms, comprising mostly secular and casteist parties, and supported from outside by the leftists and the right-wing BJP. The implementation of the Mandal Report was Singh’s attempt to consolidate power among the masses. There was widespread anger against this move by forward caste Hindus all over the country, even to the point of self-immolation by some students. The BJP, who is mainly supported by upper-caste Hindus, immediately demanded the demolition of the mosque and the building of a Rama temple in Ayodhya. This was a clever counter-move, as they knew the government could only refuse, and they could withdraw their support thus ensuring its collapse and the non-implementation of the report.

In the turbulent era following the fall of V.P. Singh’s ministry, the BJP slowly consolidated power, pulling more and more people into its predominantly upper-caste fold, until they really became a pan-Hindu movement: drawing on the resentment against the sops provided to Muslims as minority, they became even more belligerent. Castes which were marginalised were slowly accepted as “Hindu”, and they were encouraged to proclaim their “Hindutva” (Hindu-ness) in preference to their caste identity. In this process, what happened was not a positive disappearance of caste and creation of an egalitarian vision of Hinduism; rather, the Vedic religion was accepted as canonical, its gods were made universal, and attempts are still on to standardise Hindu rituals across India.

Dalits have always resisted this attempt at assimilation: Phule, Ambedkar and Ramaswamy Naicker are the prominent examples. During the struggle for independence, Gandhi was on one side, trying to include the backward castes under the Hindu fold as Harijans while Ambedkar was on the other, advocating a separate and rather combative identity. The Dalit struggle has continued since, attaining renewed vigour in the seventies and eighties as more and more marginalised castes became educated and came into the mainstream. There have always been two conflicting visions regarding the question of caste in Indian society: the beatific one of castes slowly melting away as more and more people get absorbed into the mainstream and the more revolutionary one of the downtrodden groups grabbing power and restructuring the Indian Democracy radically. Mr. Ilaiah is a subscriber to the second vision.

***

The book explores the socio-economic and cultural differences between Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas on the one hand and the Dalits on the other based on an experiential framework. The author argues that “this is the only possible and the most authentic way in which the deconstruction and reconstruction of history can take place”. He is aware of the problems that such an approach can create, as how do you analyse the experience of another? For this, Ilaiah has relied on extensive interactions with people who came from Brahmin families (he says “particularly feminists”). He has analysed the differences between Hindus and Dalitbahujans with regard to childhood, family relations, power structures, religion etc. on the basis of this first-hand and second-hand experience.

(The perceptive reader will immediately spot problems with this approach. While it is excellent for a biography or a memoir, it runs the risk of missing out on a multitude of viewpoints in compiling a social critique. Moreover, analysing second-hand experience is always dangerous as the cross-section one utilises may not be representative: in this case, it is a given, because Ilaiah has relied upon information provided by progressive thinkers from the Brahmin community who are most likely to be prejudiced towards their own, reactionary social set-up.)

The author explores the Dalitbahujan experience vs. the Hindu experience under the following chapter headings:

  1. Childhood Formations
  2. Marriage, Market and Social Relations
  3. The Emergence of Neo-Kshatriyas and the Reorganization of Power Relations
  4. Contemporary Hinduism
  5. Hindu Gods and Us; Our Goddesses and Hindus
  6. Hindu Death and Our Death
  7. Dalitization Not Hinduization

The arguments are mostly repetitive, so instead of analysing them in detail chapter-wise, I will try to present the gist of what I gathered here.

  • Hindus (comprising Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Baniyas) and Dalitbahujans (Sudras and the so-called ‘Untouchables’) are two totally different communities, having nothing in common with each other. However, historically Hindus have managed to incorporate Dalits into their worldview at a very low level, not even allowing them the common human dignities – a position the Dalits seems to have largely accepted till recently.
  • All the social and political systems of Hindus are geared to keep them on the top socially and financially without doing productive labour. The productive Dalits are exploited to keep this order in place. The current educational system, modelled on the Hindu system of the past, actively prevents Dalits from coming to the fore.
  • Hindu family and social systems are rigidly patriarchal with women having no voice or power, while Dalit systems are more democratic.
  • The Hindu religion comprises mostly patriarchal gods, whose exploits mainly describe acts of violence against Dalits. The Dalit deities (goddesses mostly), in contrast, are more earth-bound and benign.
  • Post-independence, Brahmins and other upper-castes have retained power because of the educational advantage they wielded: the systems are skewed in their favour. Even the communist revolutions have been hijacked by Brahmins. More and more Sudras have become ‘Neo-Kshatriyas’ (i.e. gained political power – in traditional Hindu system, the Kshatriyas were the rulers), and they have moved more into the Hindu fold than out of it. Even the urbanised Dalits have started adopting Hindu lifestyles.
  • What is required in India is Dalitization; i.e. radical restructuring of Indian society by totally destroying the Hindu culture and replacing it with Dalit culture. This should be done in a peaceable way, through the ballot-box and re-education of Indian society.

Of these, I have absolutely no disagreement with the first two points. The traditional Hindu caste system is one of the most vile and disgusting systems ever implemented anywhere in the history of humankind. Man has always tried to subjugate fellow-man; however, only in India has it been legitimised with the stamp of religion and a complicated system of beliefs so that the downtrodden also came to believe in his unworthiness. Over the years, a small group of people have lived in luxury out of the riches eked out of the lifeblood of the large substrata of society.

However, when Ilaiah says that Hindu systems are rigidly patriarchal, I will have at least to partially disagree. I agree that this is the Hindu ‘virtue’ projected in traditional movies, novels and sitcoms and the ‘vice’ derided by progressive writers – but the truth is that all Hindu societies are not patriarchal, nor are all Dalit societies democratic. In Kerala, the Kshatriyas and Nairs are fiercely matriarchal, while the Ezhavas (a technically ‘backward’ class – though of late, they have come up in a big way) are patriarchal. However, the point he makes about both sexes being equal in work among Dalit societies is largely true; excepting the fact that all housework is still considered to be the woman’s share.

I also partially agree to the author’s analysis of how Hindu society has evolved post-independence. Many of the castes who were considered ‘low’ by upper-caste Hindus have come up politically, financially and socially. However, instead of trying to forge a classless society, they have been busy forming their own caste-based platforms and more importantly, aligning to the traditional Hindu model of attaining power based on caste. Thus, the Brahmin model has not been destroyed: it has been reinterpreted, introducing new castes into the power equation.

However, I have a slight caveat when he says that the communist revolution has been hijacked by Brahmins. The first democratically elected communist ministry in the world (in Kerala in 1957) was headed by a Brahmin (E.M.S. Namboothiripad), true. But one should understand that the whole concept of communism as a tool of social revolution was developed in Kerala mostly by Brahmins inspired by the evils prevalent within their community. Communism, however, has to side with the downtrodden, whatever caste he/ she may belong to, and is therefore prevented from addressing things exclusively from a caste point of view. I am also sure that the same goes for many Brahmin members of the Congress and other secular parties.

In my opinion, the book collapses when it comes to addressing religion, as it parrots many of the early Dalit arguments without taking into account the latest historical discoveries: i.e. Aryans destroyed the Indus Valley civilisation and pushed all the people to the south; Buddha was an anti-caste crusader; the whole of India became Buddhist at one point of time, and was forcibly converted back to Hinduism using strong arm tactics. All these arguments are partially true (except the first one – the Indus Valley Civilisation was long defunct before the Aryans set foot in India). Successive waves of Aryan migrations from Middle Asia did indeed subjugate and displace other cultures, but it was a slow process of assimilation. The Aryan Gods merged with the indigenous ones and created the rich tapestry that is the Hindu pantheon today. The Buddha was indeed anti-caste, but not at the social level: he destroyed the whole philosophical basis of Hinduism by positing the atman (soul) as a transitory entity which dies along with the body. The reincarnating monad was thus negated. And Buddhism was not destroyed, but assimilated by crafty Hindus, who made Buddha an incarnation of Vishnu! The Bhakti movement which originated in South India, which posited salvation was possible for anyone regardless of caste, creed or colour, brought a lot of the lower caste people into the Hindu fold.

Ilaiah describes the Hindu myths as wilful stories created by Brahmins to enslave Dalits – and here he does go overboard, trying to make the Hindu religion as evil as possible. I do not go into his criticism about the Bhagavad Gita or the Ramayana, which are widely discussed and carry considerable weight (according to me, at least): the Ramayana myth and the incarnations of Vishnu can be clearly viewed as the twisted history of an invading race. But myth is not only history – it springs from the unconscious, and there are many motifs in Indian Mythology which have clear parallels elsewhere in world myth. It is evident that the mythology we have now is a mix of the Vedic with the local.

According to Ilaiah, only the Hindu gods are violent or advocate violence (obviously he is unfamiliar with the Greek myths); the Hindu polytheism is somehow flawed and primitive, Levantine monotheism is more advanced (Hindu polytheism is actually pantheism, going much beyond monotheism, seeing God everywhere in life); and only male Gods of the Hindus have power. He even says that Brahma and Vishnu, the Aryan Gods, are placed above Siva, who is at least partly Dravidian! These are factual mistakes: Brahma has been relegated to a footnote in Hindu theology, much below Vishnu and Siva; and one of the most powerful Goddesses of the world – if not the most powerful – is Durga/ Shakti/ Kali, who is connected to the local Goddess culture prevalent all over India.

Which brings me to another point – the regional Gods and Goddesses Ilaiah mentions, who are outside the Vedic pantheon. Not all of them are derided by the Brahmins like he says. Lord Ayyappa, the local God of Kerala and arguably one of the most popular Gods in South India (worshipped by Brahmin and Dalit alike) is most probably a mountain God later adopted into the Hinduism, and given celestial parents and a royal foster father. This was the method of Hinduism: rather than confront, assimilate and sublimate. The same is the case of Mahabali, who is even now worshipped as an ideal king in Kerala (Ilaiah gives an interesting variant of the Mahabali myth in the book, but I do not know where he got it from). In fact, the stories of this sublimation can be read from the ten incarnations, but the author does not pursue this interesting concept.

Lastly, I also differ with Mr. Ilaiah on Dalitisation. The concept of one caste or religion taking over the polity and the society, however benign it may be, is anathema to the pluralistic Indian society. We have seen the oppressed grabbing power and becoming oppressors in their turn time and again in history; the same thing should not happen in India. What we have to aim for is a secular society where the underprivileged, regardless of caste, creed or colour, are protected and supported. What we should aim for is the destruction of caste in totality.

***

After reading the book through, I find myself in the curious position of agreeing totally with Kancha Ilaiah on his premise, but not at all with his analysis and the arguments he have brought to support it. Maybe I am too much of a leftist to agree to a caste revolution. Maybe, my love of Indian culture (moulded by my upper-caste Hindu prejudices, most probably) rejects his reductionist analysis of Hindu mythology. Whatever be the reason, the putting off of a potential sympathetic reader does not speak in support of the way the argument has been presented.

However, one thing is sure – unless the demon of caste is exorcised, India will never progress.

 

 

The Tree, the Serpent and the Eagle – Mythical Musings

This is another old post from my defunct blog. I had also discussed in the Joseph Campbell Fora.

***


Imagine this scene…

It is a spring evening: the witching hour when the day slips unobtrusively into night. The smell of the night flowers are wafting across the countryside. The nightingales are starting to awaken. A bunch of nubile young cowmaids are cavorting in a lake, stark naked. It can be said that they are bathing, but the more appropriate name is Jala – Krida (“Water Sport”). It is a wallowing in sensuality: an uninhibited expression of their own sexuality.

Suddenly, the dark and beautiful form of Krishna can be seen prowling around on the edges of the lake. He is surreptitiously stealing the clothes of the bathing maidens. Then, unseen by anybody, he climbs a tree by the side of the lake settles himself there.

Soon, the girls start coming out of the water and searching for their clothes. They become frantic. Then the soft strains of a romantic melody, the mellow notes of a reed-pipe, permeate the air. The girls look up, startled. They know this music! Sure enough, there he is, on the treetop…with their clothes!

Krishna! What mischief is this? Give us back our clothes!

The girls are indignant. Krishna smiles.

Ask nicely, girls. With folded hands.

They seethe, they squirm, but they do as he requests.

Not enough, says Krishna. Climb out of the water and ask.

They bite down their chagrin and shame, slowly climb out, and stand before him with one hand covering their crotch and another across the breasts.

Krishna’s smile becomes broader and more mischievous. Ask with folded hands. What did I tell you?

Robbed of all options, the girls salute him with folded hands. He drops down the dresses, one by one…

As a child, I had enjoyed this story for the element of the mischievous in it: Krishna was (and is) my favourite deity. Then, as I grew older, the undercurrent of sex in it excited me. It was as though Krishna was possessing all those girls by just possessing their clothes. But I had not thought more about it. But like all of the legends of Vrindavana, it had its own sylvan beauty.

Some years back, I was browsing through a sale of books when I came upon a tract by a group of Ahmadiyya Muslims. I learned with surprise that Ahmadiyya Muslims consider Rama and Krishna also prophets! Now, Rama would be acceptable by any religion because of his chastity and integrity: but Krishna? This wild god with his total disregard for any moral code and unbridled sensuality?

Well, I must say the writer of the tract had done a good job. His subject was Krishna: and in the effort to make Krishna “virtuous” from an islamic viewpoint, he had arrived at a profound insight-that all of Krishna’s childhood tales were metaphors. The story I mentioned above was one of the examples he quoted.

The explanation runs thus:

The cowmaids are symbols of the human soul, cavorting in the lake of earthly pleasures.

The tree is the symbol of spirituality.

Krishna, the prophet, is sitting on the tree of spirituality and drawing the human souls towards godhead.

The clothes are our inhibitions; to attain true union with God, one has to be “pure” or “naked”.

I put aside the tract with a smile, wondering at the ingenuity of the writer and promptly forgot all about it. But – is the concept so absurd?

According to Indian aesthetics, the emotions or rasas of love for a child (“Vatsalya”), romantic love (“Sringara”) and love of God (“Bhakthi”) are all expressions of Desire. The urge to possess the loved one, to be one with him/her/it. Krishna has been revered as all three: the beautiful child whom every mother wants to fondle, the demon lover whom every girl wants to be possessed by, and the ultimate saviour of many a devotee. When he whisks away the clothes of the bathing beauties and asks them to come to him naked, the vibrant sexuality of the whole episode smacks of metaphor: that of the union of the soul with the godhead as the ultimate orgiastic experience.

And the tree?

The Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attains enlightenment.

Yggdrasil, the tree of life, in Norse mythology.

The Tree of Everlasting Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Judeo-Christian mythology.

Well, well, it seems that the tree exists there for a good reason…

041114_0642_TheTreetheS2.pngYggdrasil, the world tree of Norse myth, with the dragon (serpent?) gnawing at its root and the eagle perching on its branches. It is the tree where Odin sacrifices himself for knowledge, somewhat like Jesus Christ on the cross sacrificing himself to save humanity. The Yggdrasil connected all nine worlds of Norse myth. Interestingly, it connects a Norse version of hell at its root to the Norse heaven, Valhalla, which brushes its top branches.

The eagle nestling on its top branches and the serpent gnawing at the root below require special mention. The Eagle and the Serpent. If we are to look for a universal duo in the myths of the world, it would be these two: perennially in conflict, one inhabiting the limitless, open skies and the other slinking mysteriously through the dark corridors of the netherworld. It cannot be coincidence that Vishnu sleeps on a serpent and travels on an eagle (more of that later)!

To move away from the Yggdrasil…

If Odin sacrifices himself on the world tree, the Buddha attains enlightenment below it. The image of the Buddha with the tree spreading out above his head will be familiar to most people conversant with Eastern mythology: it is uncannily similar to Vishnu with the thousand-headed snake rearing up behind him. Can it be something so mundane as the Bo tree located at Bodhgaya in India? No, says the heart. This tree has to be something special, something momentous…

(It is said that the Buddha was tempted by Mara as he was on the point of enlightenment, as Christ was tempted by the Devil. More parallels…)

The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Eternal Life, bot situated in the Biblical Paradise. And it seems no accident that it is the Serpent who tempts Eve to eat off the tree!

Even the Christmas tree seems to have its roots in long-forgotten Pagan festivals.

So why the tree? It seems to be an “Inherited Image” as Joe Campbell puts it. What makes the tree such a potent symbol?

The tree with its roots underground, piercing the earth and going into unknown places: the domain of the Serpent. The lofty branches in the skies above, also unreachable to man, the abode of the mighty Eagle. And the trunk connecting both.

The nether regions, the regions of hell, are not necessarily evil. In fact, I think the concept of evil came very late into the arena of human thought. But they are dark; dangerous; therein lies the shadow, the Serpent, the reptile inhabiting all of us. Ignored, he becomes Satan. He needs to be incorporated into the psyche.

The so-called Reptilian Brain is a part of the human brain which was the first to evolve. It resembles the entire brain of reptiles and is the seat of all base urges like survival, physical maintenance, hoarding, dominance, preening and mating. Moreover, it is without language, ritualistic and mechanical.

Well, well! Do we need wonder where the serpent came from? He is a direct inheritance from our reptilian ancestors. He frightens us with those basic urges which we have learnt to fear on the road to civilisation, but they are there all the same. And they need to be confronted.

The neurologist Paul MacLean argues that our brain consists of three separate entities. The Reptilian brain mentioned above: The Limbic system or Paleomammalic brain where the emotions reside: and the Neocortex or Neomammalian brain where abstract thought occurs. The lofty realms of the Eagle, maybe! But to reach that level of pure abstraction, we have to traverse the middle, the trunk of the tree, the realm of what we feel: the part of brain which makes us “all too human”.

Dr. MacLean says our value judgements at the top level are influenced by our emotional judgements at the middle level: whether an idea “feels” right.

No wonder the tree figures so prominently in all the myths. The ascent may be seen as a true spiritual journey!

Kalindi is a river in Vrindavana: but anybody who drinks from it immediately dies, because it is polluted by the poison emitted by Kaliya, the thousand-headed snake who makes his abode there. No trees can survive on the shores of Kalindi due to pollution, except for one: because it has had a drop of Amruth, the nectar of immortality, fall on it while Garuda, Vishnu’s eagle mount carried it away from heaven.

Krishna decides to make Kaliya behave; he jumps into the polluted Kalindi from an overhanging branch of this tree. Soon Kaliya and he are fighting, and Kaliya has Krishna in his grip: but the boy breaks free and starts dancing on the heads of the serpent! The snake is soon distraught and starts vomiting blood. His wives rush to Krishna, and beseech him to let Kaliya go free. Krishna agrees on one condition: Kaliya will stop polluting the Kalindi, and move to the middle of the sea to an island called Remanaka. He also tells Kaliya that he need not fear Garuda, his natural enemy, any more: because he has the prints of Krishna’s feet all over his head. Garuda obviously will not hurt somebody who carries his master’s (Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu) footmarks on his head as a sign of blessing!

Here are the symbols once again: the snake, the eagle, the tree…

 

***

The tree is conspicuous also in the Biblical creation myth.

Genesis 2

[9] And out of the ground made the LORD God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

[15] And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.
[16] And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
[17] But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.


And the Sepent…

Genesis 3

[1] Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?
[2] And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
[3] But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
[4] And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
[5] For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

Very interesting to note here that the Serpent is more truthful than God. Actually, eating of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil did not kill man; and he suddenly became aware of dualities and moral judgements which he was not till then. And significantly, his nakedness became a shame to him!

In such a state, there is no way he can stay in the Garden any more: he is exiled, automatically.

Genesis 3

[14] And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:
[15] And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
[16] Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
[17] And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
[18] Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
[19] In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
[20] And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.
[21] Unto Adam also and to his wife did the LORD God make coats of skins, and clothed them.
[22] And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever:
[23] Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.
[24] So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden Cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

For the man who knows Good and Evil, death is a certainty. So is the toil of life, and all the tribulations that arise out of the concept of duality. The serpent is forever banished to the nether regions.

God here seems to be afraid of man: he has already eaten off one tree, and partially achieved Godhead. He is thrown out, lest he achieve it totally by eating of the tree of everlasting life…

Is God such a jealous tyrant? Or is another reading possible for the myth?

From the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Chapter 4, Verse 10:

This self was indeed Brahman in the beginning. It knew itself only as “I am Brahman.” Therefore it became all. And whoever among the gods had this enlightenment, also became That Brahman. It is the same with the seers (rishis), the same with men. The seer Vamadeva, having realized this self as That, came to know: “I was Manu and the sun.” And to this day, whoever in a like manner knows the self as “I am Brahman,” becomes all this universe. Even the gods cannot prevent his becoming this, for he has become their Self.

Now, if a man worships another deity, thinking: “He is one and I am another,” he does not know. He is like an animal to the gods. As many animals serve a man, so does each man serve the gods. Even if one animal is taken away, it causes anguish to the owner; how much more so when many are taken away! Therefore it is not pleasing to the gods that men should know this.

This seems to express the same thoughts that the Biblical passage does: the man who attains enlightenment becomes independent of the Gods, in fact, he becomes God, therefore the Gods does not like it! This sentiment seems to me silly, and forces me to think that there may be another possible reading.

Man was made from earth, by God; and he was send back to till the earth from whence he was taken. He now has the knowledge of inevitable death, which was absent when he was in the Garden.

How can he return?

This is possible only when he attains the Godhead, as Jesus did, when he proclaims “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). He eats from the tree of eternal life, and overcomes the temporal death. He is back in the Garden of Eden, which he has never left actually.

But for this, he must bear the cross, overcome temptation from the Devil, must be crucified… Yes, he must undergo the passion of Jesus Christ.

And what of the poor serpent, who initiated the whole process?

I am fascinated by the Serpent, as I mentioned earlier. The reptilian ancestor sleeping within our brains. It seems that there is an innate need to sublimate him; at the same time acknowledging his power. That is why there are good and bad snakes slithering round in all mythologies.

God says to the Serpent: “And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.” In this context, I remember reading a very old travel book in which the writer is describing the image of Krishna. He says: “Many times he is shown holding the tail of a snake, which is burying its fang into his heel: other times, he is shown crushing the head of the snake. Here we may rest happy that the great message given to our forefathers in the Garden of Eden is not entirely lost among the heathen.” At that time, I laughed at the writer’s ignorance: now I wonder. Unknowingly, he has touched upon a germ of truth.

The snake is a deity of almost all primitive religions. Neither good nor evil, he is nonetheless extremely powerful and must be revered. I come from a place with a long tradition of snake worship: I had mentioned in another thread, the ritual of Sarpam Thullal (Snake Dance) which is one of the time-honoured traditions of Kerala.

(image courtesy: http://www.narthaki.com)

Here, the “Sarpam” or serpent is actually believed to possess the dancing girls: without which, the ritual is not effective.

Can it be that as man evolved into the civilised animal he is now, he felt the need to push the serpent deeper into the nether regions of his psyche?

***

Let’s leave the serpent and visit the eagle.

This is from Encyclopedia Mythica

Garuda

by Sumanta Sanyal

041114_0642_TheTreetheS7.jpgGaruda is one of the three principal animal deities in the Hindu Mythology that has evolved after the Vedic Period in Indian history. The other two are Ganesha, the elephant-headed son of the goddess Durgha, and Hanuman, the monkey god. It is after Garuda that the Indonesian National Airlines is named. Even today, Garuda is much revered by devout Hindus for his ethics and his strength in applying his ethics to correct evil-doers.

Garuda is the king of the birds. He mocks the wind with the speed of his flight. As the appointed charger of Vishnu he is venerated by all, including humans. Garuda is the son of Kashyap, a great sage, and Vinata, a daughter of Daksha, a famous king. He was hatched from an egg Vinata laid. He has the head, wings, talons, and beak of an eagle and the body and limbs of a man. He has a white face, red wings and golden body. When he was born he was so brilliant that he was mistaken for Agni, the god of fire, and worshipped.

Garuda was born with a great hatred for the evil and he is supposed to roam about the universe devouring the bad, though he spares Brahmins as his parents had forbidden him to eat them. Garuda is also well-known for his aversion to snakes, a dislike he had acquired from his mother, Vinata. There is a story behind this hatred of Garuda’s mother. As it is quite interesting it is told hereafter.

Kashyap, Garuda’s father, had two wives: Kadru, the elder, and Vinata, Garuda’s mother, the younger. There was great rivalry between the two wives. They could not stand each other. Once, they had an argument over the color of the horse Uchchaisravas, produced during the Churning of the Ocean just after the time of creation. Each chose a color and laid a wager on her own choice. The one who lost would become the other’s slave. Kadru proved to be right and, as part of the agreement, imprisoned Vinata in the nether regions, Patala, where she was guarded by serpents. The serpents are, according to another myth, the sons of Kadru herself.

Garuda, on hearing of his mother’s imprisonment, descended to Patala and asked the serpents to release Vinata. They agreed to do so and demanded as ransom a cup of amrita (ambrosia). So Garuda set off for the celestial mountain where the amrita was kept. Before he could get to the amrita he had to overcome three hazards set up by the gods to guard the celestial drink. First, Garuda came upon a ring of flames fanned by high winds. They roared and leapt up to the sky but Garuda drank up several rivers and extinguished the flames. Next, Garuda came upon a circular doorway. A very rapidly spinning wheel with sharp spikes on the spokes guarded it. Garuda made himself very small and slipped through the turning spokes. Lastly, Garuda had to defeat two fire-spitting serpents guarding the amrita. He flapped his wings rapidly and blew dust into the eyes of the monsters and blinded them. Then he cut them to pieces with his sharp beak. So Garuda finally reached the amrita and started to fly back with it to the nether regions but the gods anticipated his purpose and gave chase. Indra, king of the gods, struck him with his thunderbolt but Garuda proved a superior warrior and defeated the gods and continued unscathed on his journey to Patala.

When the serpents got the amrita they were overjoyed and released Vinata. Garuda got his mother back but he became an inveterate enemy of the serpents, the sons of his mother’s rival Kadru. Also the serpents, the Nagas, symbolized evil and that automatically invoked Garuda’s hatred.

As end-piece to this myth it must be told that, as the Nagas were about to consume the amrita Garuda had just brought them, the chasing gods entered Patala and Indra seized and took away the cup of amrita. Anyway, the serpents had just had time enough to lick a few drops of amrita and this was enough to make them immortal. Also, since the celestial drink was very strong, their tongues were split and that is why, to this day, serpents have forked tongues.

It turns out that the Eagle and the Serpent are born of the same father…

I find the fact that Garuda’s mother was imprisoned in the netherworld by the mother of Nagas (the serpents) very significant. The motif of a captive woman being rescued by the fulfilment of a quest is too common to miss the eye. Please note that Vinata was guarded by sepents, much like those princesses in fairy tales guarded by dragons. The Eagle of the Spirit has to supply the Serpent of the Id with the nectar of immortality: a wonderful tapestry of mythical motifs!

Garuda becomes the enemy of serpents for life: but the Nagas also get a taste of Amrutha, thus becoming immortal. The Eagle goes back to the heavens and the Serpent to the nether regions. Perhaps till they are united as Lord Vishnu’s bed and mount.

A marriage of heaven and hell?


Rama and The Hero’s Journey

Anybody who is interested in myth will most probably be familiar with the name Joseph Campbell. It is impossible not to come across his books when we are on mythical explorations.

Campbell was excited by the recurrence of certain themes in the mythology of cultures separated by wide gulfs of time and space. His exploration of the hero’s journey as it occurs in many myths is embodied in the book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. It is this book which started me off on my journey.

The following is an attempt to examine the journey of Rama, the exiled prince of Ayodhya, to recover his wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, in a Jungian light.

I make no claims to scholarship. Whatever Ramayana I know has been transmitted to me by my parents and grandparents, supplemented by my own scattered reading. There may be many factual errors immediately visible to the Ramayana scholar. Feel free to correct me anytime.

And this is my analysis. It may not agree with anybody else’s. Dissent is welcome.

I believe myth is experienced by each of us individually.

What I am trying to do is share my feeling of wonder.

***

A great chunk of Rama’s story comprises his fighting demons and demonesses in the forest. Incidentally, one gets an uneasy feeling that this forest is right by his palace, and at any time it can encroach upon it.

This forest has intrigued me from the beginning. I have my own mental image of it: it is like no forest that exists in the world. Each tree, each branch is tinged with the elfin light of fantasy.

And who are the dwellers of this forest?

As we travel through the Ramayana, we feel that the forest is mainly populated by sages and demons. Animals are only an afterthought. As he travels, Rama kills or maims different types of demons, and is imparted nuggets of wisdom by the sages. Till the abduction of Sita, the forest journey is a sort of village idyll.

Of course, when Ravana enters the scene, the whole complexion of the story changes. It becomes more tense and tragic. Those endearing monkeys creep into it. And we move out of the forest to the seaside, and over the sea to Lanka.

Let us study Rama’s journeys (yes, it is more than one) in a little bit of detail.

The First Journey: Adolescence to Manhood

Rama’s first journey, along with his brother and constant companion Lakshmana, is with the sage Viswamitra to protect his ashram from being harassed by demons. Why he would turn to two adolescent boys to do this perilous task when King Dasharatha offers himself is a very significant question. I think this is best answered by seeing the result of this journey: Rama comes back with a wife!

This, then is the journey into adulthood.

Rama and Lakshmana come of age during this episode. Interestingly, the first kill Rama makes is that of a woman! A demoness, true: but nevertheless a woman.

The first thing Viswamitra does is to give the mantras of bala and ati – bala to the brothers. These will protect them from thirst and hunger during the journey. Then they come to the hermitage where Lord Siva burnt down Kama, the god of love. Here we find the motif of desire being introduced for the first time. As we travel along with Rama, we’ll see that almost all of Ramayana is about desire.

After this idyllic episode, we next find Rama entering the forest of the terrifying Tataka. Viswamitra explains that this was once a thriving country: now become a wasteland because of the atrocities of Tataka (This motif brings to mind the grail legend). Rama promptly enters the forest and kills Tataka.

[It is interesting to note that Krishna also starts of his adventures by the killing of a demoness, in this case, Putana. She had come in the guise of a beautiful woman (another common motif) with poisoned nipples to breast – feed the infant Krishna to death. Instead, he sucks out the life through her nipple.]

It is not hard to see all these demonesses are expressions of the anima. They are the other side of the terrifying female deities like Kali and Durga. One explanation is that they are the embodiments of the punishing mother. Bruno Bettelheim in his fantastic work, The Uses of Enchantment, says that all those wicked stepmothers in fairy tales are the same thing.

Anyway, Rama has to destroy his anima before proceeding. He accomplishes that with the destruction of Tataka. Or does he? We will see that throughout his journey, Rama is troubled by this female archetype of terrifying sexuality which keeps cropping up.

Next, the princes reach Viswamitra’s hermitage and promptly rout all the demons. With mission accomplished, the sage can take them home. But he does not do so. He takes them to King Janaka’s palace, where the king holding a contest to marry off his daughter Sita.

One more mission awaits Rama before they reach Janaka’s palace. They go to the sage Gautama’s hermitage, where Ahalya, the wife of the sage, has been turned into stone by him, for infidelity. The touch of Rama’s foot turns the stone back into a woman.

[The interweaving of the story of adulterous love at this juncture is interesting. Rama is one rare mythic hero who is a symbol of purity. He has only one wife. He has absolutely no adulterous relationships. Yet these motifs of desire keep on popping up in his story.]

Well, the princes reach Janaka’s palace, where the contest is to string Siva’s bow, the Thrayyambaka. A lot of kings are there, as usual, making fools of themselves. The bow is so heavy that it can be lifted only by five thousand men! However, Rama easily lifts it and in the process of stringing it, bang! The bow breaks in two.

Now, why does the bow break? For Rama’s success, it would have been sufficient to string it. We cannot expect that the breaking of the bow has been inserted just to provide shock value. Myth just does not work that way.

If we probe deep enough, we’ll find that the bow is a phallic symbol. Note that it is Siva’s bow: Siva is worshipped as a Linga, or phallus. Also, connect this incident with Rama spending time in the hermitage where Siva burnt Kama. Rama’s journey into manhood has started. He is awakening sexually. But destructive form of female sexuality has already started to haunt him. The breaking of the bow also does not portend well. He, instead of passing the test, has actually passed beyond it.

Anyway, he wins Sita and this is the end of his first journey. But this is not quite the end. On the way back from the wedding, Rama meets with Parasurama, who is in a rage over his breaking of Siva’s bow. He taunts Rama as a woman – killer, and challenges him to string Vishnu’s bow, which is in his hands. To the surprise of all, Rama does this easily. The defeated Parasurama thus blesses Rama and walks away.

Now, this episode is very interesting. If we accept the theory that both Parasurama and Rama are incarnations of Vishnu, then this is where Rama becomes a “complete avatar”. Even otherwise, we feel a merging of two selves, and of Rama becoming complete.

Parasurama is the only divine person who is guilty of matricide: he killed his mother at the behest of his father. Even if we accept the historical explanation that Parasurama’s story is the replacement of matriarchy by patriarchy, and the ascendance of Brahmins over Kshatriyas, the question remains: why should all these heroes kill women?

Here, it would be interesting to draw parallels between myth and fairy tale. Fairy tales also abound with wicked witches in forests who are killed by the hero.

It seems, at the start of the journey, the hero has to eliminate his anima.

The Second Journey: Phase One: Honeymoon in the Forest

Rama’s journey proper begins when he is banished to the forest for fourteen years.

Dasaratha is forced to do this by his second wife, Kaikeyi. The king is totally under the thumb of this beautiful queen. However, in the story, Dasaratha is forced to do this because of a boon he has bestowed on Kaikeyi. The story is that during a war, Kaikeyi was with Dasaratha in his chariot (highly unlikely!), and saw the wheel slipping off. She inserted her finger into the hole in the axle, and held the wheel in place. As a reward, Dasaratha granted her two boons which she kept in abeyance.

The finger – in – the – hole business is too phallic for us to not see the sexual connotations. Here again, desire is rearing its head: the desire of the aging king for his beautiful queen. Significantly, this becomes the root cause of Rama losing his throne and having to live in the forest for fourteen years, because these are the boons Kaikeyi asks for.

Dasaratha dies of sorrow for Rama. It is as though the father archetype, after accomplishment of its mission, disappears from the story.

Now begins Rama’s journey proper along with Sita and Lakshmana. The forest fantastic enters the scene again. As usual, it is full of demons and sages. Rama picks up where he left off earlier: killing demons and protecting sages, picking up nuggets of wisdom from them.

One sage merits special attention: Agasthya. He is known as “Angushta Matra Purusha” or the man only as big as your thumb. But he is the wisest sage in the entire Hindu pantheon. He is knowledge condensed into a capsular format. After meeting Agasthya, it seems one phase of Rama’s journey is over. He settles into the beautiful forest of Panchavati, ready to enjoy an extended honeymoon with Sita.

But this is only a way station: the Garden of Eden from which they must be expelled, if the journey is to be completed. Here, Surpanakha the demoness, the sister of Ravana plays the role of the serpent.

Here is the anima again: not in a terrifying form like Tataka, because Surpanakha’s aim is to seduce Rama, not eat him up. The female power has changed form. Here the hunger is not for the flesh but the pleasures of the flesh. But it’s frightening all the same.

Surpanakha takes the form of “Lalitha”, a beautiful woman, and arrives to seduce Rama. It is instructive to note how Rama deals with her. Instead of sending her about her business immediately, Rama actually toys with her! It has all the elements of a flirtation. It is at this point in the story that an unease starts creeping in, like the shadow of a disaster glimpsed faintly ahead.

Surpanakha tells Rama of her unending love for him. Rama pleads that he is already married, and points her at Lakshmana. Lakshmana again redirects her to Rama, and the game goes on merrily till the demoness, mad with anger, takes on her terrible form and roars in to devour Sita. Lakshmana defaces her by cutting off her nose and nipples, and she runs crying into the forest.

This episode does do any credit at all to Rama. It is tantamount to trifling with a woman’s affections, and her disfigurement is plainly intolerable. Then why is it included in the story?

The motif of desire again…

This time, it’s terrifying: a demoness disguised as a beauty. Rama does not have the courage to deny her advances. We get the feeling that he even takes a guilty pleasure in teasing her. Then she takes on her demonic form. It is significant that Sita is the one she tries to devour. She, the wife of Rama, the object of his desire.

But is she his fully?

Think of the broken bow…

Rama has married Sita, but still he has not “won” her. His journey is only started. He must lose her, and win her again: in the event killing his alter ego, Ravana. But more of that later.

The demon of desire is not conquered fully by Rama, but only disfigured. And this particular one is going to wreak havoc.

Surpanakha runs complaining to her brothers, Khara, Dushana and Thrishiras, who arrive one after other, in force, to be destroyed by Rama and Lakshmana.

Ultimately, Surpanakha runs to big brother Ravana. However, here her tactic changes. Instead of trying to anger Ravana by the tales of the outrage done to her, she praises the beauty of Sita. It is because she tried to bring Sita to him, this outrage has been perpetuated on her, she says.

Ravana’s lust is aroused, along with his hatred of Rama, and he decides to kidnap Sita.

This is a turning point of the story. If we consider the journey as psychological rather than physical, all the demons and demonesses are part of Rama’s psyche. We see the lust demon, in particular, following Rama without letting him go. Here it is easy to see that Ravana is none other than Rama’s alter ego: Rama himself, as he’d never dare to express openly, hidden in the innermost reaches of his internal landscape, on an unreachable island. This form is terrifying, with ten heads and twenty arms. But we must also remember that apart from lust, Ravana is blameless. He is a just ruler: he does not do murder and mayhem like the demons of the forest. His only crime was kidnapping another man’s wife.

Well, the honeymoon of Rama and Sita is about to come to a disastrous end.

Ravana decides to steal Sita. I always wonder why. He was no coward: he could have attacked Rama in the forest. It is unlikely that knowledge of the fate of other demons deterred him. At this point in Ramayana, everything happens under covers rather than openly. I believe that the story takes this particular turn because, as we will see later, the time for the encounter is not yet ripe. So many things are still hidden.

Ravana goes to Maricha, his uncle, to weave a stratagem to entice Rama away from Sita. Maricha is an old demon who is one of the rare ones to escape Rama’s wrath. He was among the group who attacked Viswamitra’s hermitage early in the story: however, he was spared by Rama because he begged forgiveness. Since then he has left his old ways and is living the life of a hermit. At first he refuses, but Ravana prevails upon him by threats. It seems Rama was unwise to spare him earlier!

Now, one of the most enduring mythical symbols of Indian mythology enters the scene: The Maya-Mriga, or “The Golden Deer of Illusion”.

Maricha takes the shape of a golden deer, and wanders around Panchavati for Sita to see. Sita tries to catch him, but he remains just out of reach. Frustrated, Sita runs to her husband and asks him to catch the deer for her.

See the symbol of lust again? Sita sees something beautiful, and immediately wants to possess it. If we look at it closely, this wish is foolish. Living around the forest hermitages for such a long time, Sita would have had her fill of forest creatures: touching them and petting them. Then why does she want to possess this golden deer? This cupidity is there in all of us, the thirst for possession, which is only another form of lust. Rama’s tale is full of it, and we keep meeting it again and again, till he conquers it.

Rama puts Lakshmana in charge of Sita and rushes off after the deer, which stays just out of reach. He moves farther and farther away: the deer keeps teasing him (by the way, the image of something tempting you just out of your reach is a common theme in mythology). In the end, maddened by anger, he lets loose a bolt and kills it.

[This killing of an innocent creature because it doesn’t let itself be captured takes off some of Rama’s glow, for me at least. But then, Rama is an imperfect man till the very end of the story.]

Maricha, dying, cries out in Rama’s voice to Lakshmana and Sita. Sita is immediately worried for her husband’s safety: but Lakshmana assures him that no harm will come to Rama. It is then that Sita starts behaving in a most untoward fashion. She accuses Lakshmana of wanting Rama dead so that he can marry her! The story grows darker and darker.

Lakshmana, shocked by the tirade, finally goes after Rama. It is this opportunity that Ravana has been waiting for: he assumes the guise of a travelling mendicant, and begs for alms outside her doorstep. When she steps out to give him food, he assumes his normal form, and asks her to be his wife. When she refuses, he forcibly takes her into his sky – chariot and leaves.

Rama, disturbed by seeing Lakshmana come after him, hurries back to the ashram to find that Sita has disappeared: and so ends the first phase of this journey.

Phase Two: Meeting One’s Nemesis

 

The second phase of Rama’s journey is stark in contrast to the first. There is no sense of the pastoral romance of the earlier part. Rama does not where his love has gone: he asks the trees, the creepers and the animals about her. This is really heart – rending.

This is when he meets Jatayu, the great bird. Of course, the readers of Ramayana meet him earlier: he attacks Ravana as he flees with Sita in his sky – chariot, and Ravana cuts off his wings and he falls to earth, dying. But of course, he keeps living long enough to tell Rama what has happened to his wife.

[This bird is an intriguing character. He may have been placed there simply as a plot device: however, he seems to reflect some deeper symbolism. His story must be coupled with that of Sampadi, his elder brother, whom the monkeys in search of Sita meet later on.

While young, the two brothers decided to have a flying contest to see who could fly higher. As they got nearer and nearer the sun, Sampadi found that the heat of the sun had started to scorch his brother’s wings. To save him, Sampadi flies over Jatayu and consequently, his wings get burnt off. Now he is living a flightless existence…

We will meet him later on.]

Rama learns that Sita has been taken by Ravana towards the south, and he starts moving that way. There is one more demon whom he meets and vanquishes, and this tale is illustrative.

This is Kabandha, the demon without a head. He is simply one large belly and two arms. He uses these great arms to encircle anything that comes within range, and pulls them into his mouth located in the centre of his stomach.

As is his practice, Kabandha encircles Rama and Lakshmana prior to devouring them. But they cut off his hands and bury him alive.

As with many demons in Hindu mythology, he has also assumed this form because of a curse. (It is illustrative that almost all the devils of India are celestial beings under black enchantment. This is a common factor in fairy tales around the world also.) It is at Kabandha’s own insistence that Rama buries him.

Kabandha is an evident example of the oral stage: everything goes to the mouth without discrimination! One more obstacle in the path of Rama’s development. But like Surpanakha and Maricha, Rama lets him also go! The time hasn’t yet come for him to exorcise his demons.

It is when Rama reaches Kishkindha, the kingdom of monkeys, that the story really starts developing.

040514_0907_RamaandTheH8.jpg

Now, these monkeys are enigmatic characters. Why do they come into the story at all? Till now, Rama along with Lakshmana had vanquished all their foes and overcome all their obstacles. Now for the first time in his life, he forges an alliance with another king.

Even if we consider the Ramayana as true history instead of myth, this shows growth indeed. Forging strategic alliances are part of a king’s life. It is only common sense that two people alone, however Baliant they may be, cannot fight a mighty king like Ravana by themselves.

But why did Rama, after coming all this way alone, suddenly decide to seek help?

And why monkeys?

Let’s take a closer look at the symbol of the monkey. In many sculptures of courtesans (notably the ones at Belur and Halebid in Karnataka) the beautiful girls are always shown in the company of monkeys. Here will be a girl dressing up, staring at the mirror: a monkey is there on her table, slyly stealing the fruits kept for her lover. Another girl is preening herself in a dancing pose: a monkey is peering under her skirt. In another, a girl is chasing a monkey who is pulling at her dress.

It has been suggested that the monkeys are Vyabhichari Bhavas, the transitory emotions presented in most dance forms of India. I think of them as the representations of Id, the base animal nature of all human beings. If we dig deep down, there is no good and bad: no virtue and sin: but only animal needs. Food, drink, sex.

Rama, the virtuous prince, needs to come to terms with his animal nature. That is why this part of the journey becomes crucial. The alliance with Sugreeva is indeed the turning point of the story.

But we are jumping the gun here. Let’s follow Rama and Lakshmana as they are sighted by Sugreeva, the monkey king in exile. He has been driven out by is brother Bali, after a misunderstanding. Bali has appropriated his lands, wife and everything.

Sugreeva sends out his General, Hanuman, to check these newcomers out; to see whether they are spies of Bali. Hanuman meets with them in disguise and after ascertaining their identities, takes them to Sugreeva. The prince in exile meets the king in exile.

Here we can find a curious fact. Rama and Sugreeva seem to be mirror images of each other. Both have lost their lands and wives. It seems only natural that they agree to help each other. Rama has to help Sugreeva kill Bali, and he will in turn help Rama defeat Ravana and free Sita.

It is here that Rama gets the first concrete evidence about Sita. As she was carried aloft by Ravana, she dropped all her ornaments wrapped in a torn piece of garment. The monkeys have kept it, and show it to Rama.

It seems unnatural that Sita went to the forest clad in all her jewels, in pristine glory of a princess. No, the jewels are there for a specific reason. Rama is rediscovering his lady love, part by part.

Now comes the killing of Bali. It is here that many people who are devotees of Rama, who consider him as an incarnation of god, become uncomfortable. Because Rama kills Bali as a coward does: from hiding. Here the people who see all Hindu myths as the submission of Dravidians by the warlike Aryans nod their head grimly as if to say they had expected nothing else from a member of the lying, thieving race.

Before we get embroiled in a caste equation, let us examine this incident also as part of Rama’s journey of self – realization.

Bali is the only person to defeat Ravana, indeed, to humiliate him even. He tied Ravana to his tail and carried him all over the world, and only let him go after he repeatedly begged for mercy. Nobody can beat Bali in a face – to – face fight: half of the opponent’s strength goes to Bali! As he lies dying, this great monkey king asks Rama: “You need only have told me. I would have thrashed Ravana and brought Sita to you. Why did you kill me like this?”

Indeed, why? Bali’s claim was no idle boast: he could have done it easily. So could Hanuman, as burning of Lanka later in the story will show. (Indeed, if Ravana is Rama’s dark half, then Hanuman is his animal half.) Then why does Rama take the hard way, building a bridge to Lanka, conducting a great war, when the matter could have been accomplished so easily?

For his journey to become complete, Rama must kill Ravana himself…

To return to the story: Sugreeva challenges Bali to a hand – to – hand combat, the plan being that Rama will remain hidden and kill Bali with a strategically sped arrow. But here we have an interesting twist: Rama is not able to do so because, as soon as the brothers begin wrestling, he can’t distinguish between the two! Sugreeva runs away defeated and upbraids Rama for not carrying out his part of the contract. Rama confesses his difficulty. Then Hanuman comes up with an idea: Sugreeva will return to the fight with a garland around his neck, so Rama will be able to distinguish him. He does so, and Rama kills Bali during the fight.

Now, if we consider the monkeys as the representations of Id that Rama must come to grips with, Sugreeva and Bali are two sides of the same coin, as are Rama and Ravana. Bali is too powerful to be dealt with frontally: he will crush you. Rama has to let Sugreeva fight Bali, and kill him with a cowardly arrow. But the terms hero and coward have no meaning in the realm of the unconscious. Rama does what he has to do.

Bali has in a way done what Ravana has done: he has appropriated the kingdom of Sugreeva and seized his wife. By killing Bali and putting Sugreeva on the throne, Rama takes the first concrete step towards self – integration, at the very basic level.

Now, it is as if Hanuman steps into the role of the protagonist all of a sudden. Hanuman’s journey to Lanka and back is a mini – journey inserted into the tale, in the context of the longer journey.

Sugreeva sends his monkey warriors in search of Sita. One contingent reaches the beach at the southernmost tip of India. It is here that they meet Sampadi, Jatayu’s elder brother, and tell him of his brother’s tragic demise. Sampadi in turn tells them how he came to lose his wings (the story recounted earlier). On completing the tale, his wings grow back and he flies away!

[This encounter seems significant. When Sita is carried away, we have Jatayu, his wings cut – off and dying. Sampadi gives the monkeys news of Sita, and his wings grow back.]

The monkeys are stymied. How to cross the ocean? But now, hope has slowly begun to creep into the story: it is as if Sampadi’s rejuvenation is a symbol. Everybody knows that Hanuman can easily cross the ocean in a jump: but he does not know his own strength. On the advice of Jambavan, the eldest member of the team, they begin to praise him, fill him with self – confidence, till he grows and grows to become a colossus. Then he takes off, across the ocean.

Across the way he has many adventures. He takes a rest on Mainaka, the mountain with wings: he goes in through the mouth and out through the ear of Surasa, the giant fish: he is stopped by Chayagrahi, the demoness who grabs people by their reflection. Finally, at the walls of Lanka, he meets Lanka – Lakshmi, the prosperity of Lanka in the form of a woman, whom he fells with one blow and thus becomes the cause of her leaving Lanka forever.

As I described earlier, Hanuman’s journey is a journey within a journey, and is rich with symbolism. Take Mainaka rising from the sea. Now we have come through the forest, infested with demons, to the sea: another symbol of the unconscious, but more serene and unfathomable: and more mysterious. Reaching the sea through the forest seems to be an inevitable outcome.

Now, Mainaka is a very pertinent symbol. The story runs this way: in the beginning, all the mountains had wings. But because they flew about and settled where they will, thus creating problems for humans, Indra cut away their wings and they all fell down to earth; all except Mainaka who hid in the sea. He has been in hiding since. However, it has been prophesied that he should come up and offer a place of rest to Hanuman on his way to Lanka.

Again the symbol of wings, this time rising up from the deep, deep sea…

The demons Hanuman meets on the way are different from the ones Rama meets: the demons of the forest can be lumped together as one variety, whereas those of the sea are more animal-like than demon-like. And though he bests them, Hanuman does not kill any. Even Lanka – Lakshmi is subdued with a slap.

Hanuman discovers of Sita in the Ashoka forest, surrounded by demonesses. It is curious that Ravana has already not ravished her. One gets the impression that he cannot do so unless she herself wills it. The story of Rambha’s curse that prevents Ravana from touching any woman without her consent seems a pre-fabricated story. It is more likely that this applied only in Sita’s case: if we consider Ravana as Rama’s demon – ego, this makes perfect sense. The two are fighting it out for Sita. Which side will win, the human or demon?

Hanuman meets Sita and gives her the message that Rama is coming.

Now comes a strange episode. Hanuman behaves like a common monkey and destroys Ravana’s garden. There is a terrific fight, at the end of which Hanuman allows himself to be captured. Ravana decides to spare his life, but to set fire to his tail. Using his tale as a burning torch, Hanuman burns down Lanka.

This behaviour is unbefitting of a man of the world like Hanuman. It seems more likely that he would return quietly to inform Rama of the success of the mission. Then why does he do it?

Maybe, it is the animal nature rebelling against the demonic nature. And tasting first blood.

Rama comes with his monkey army, and proceeds to build a bridge across the ocean to Lanka.

This is a decisive act for Rama. The question can be asked: why the bridge, when building some boats will do? Surely that is the more commonsense solution? The answer is: the building of the bridge is as essential as killing all those demons. Rama requires a permanent connection to Lanka. Lanka is his natural destination, the place he must reach: the dark well of his soul.

In the ensuing war the demons are utterly decimated. It is significant that Rama kills Ravana by firing at the navel, where supposedly his power resides. Ravana, with ten heads and twenty arms, is utterly indestructible otherwise. According to the Indian concept, the navel is where all power is: the Mooladhara, where the lotus with a thousand petals resides. Thus Rama’s killing of Ravana is more mystical than physical: the final demon of the mind he must dispatch, to possess his lady love permanently.

After the victory, Rama puts Vibhishana, the younger brother of Ravana, on the throne. Significantly, he does not annex the kingdom. In Sanskrit, “Vibhishana” means non – frightening, the exact opposite of “Ravana”! Rama’s inner demon has been conquered: now he can peacefully reign in his nether kingdom.

Finally, another curious episode unfolds. Rama subjects Sita to a trial by fire, to prove her chastity. This seems ridiculous, as he went through hell and high water to regain her. If he had any doubt on her chastity, would he have gone to all the trouble? Moreover, Hanuman had informed him about Sita’s condition in Lanka, so he need not have any doubt on that account.

Then why the trial by fire?

The way I see it, Sita is Rama’s bliss (to borrow from Joseph Campbell). As I mentioned earlier on, Sita has never fully become his, until Ravana kidnaps her and he recovers her. This is the final step in that journey. It is in the internal fire of Rama’s soul that she is purified, removed of all taint of Ravana. It is Rama who is being purified, not Sita.

Sita comes out of the trial successfully (in fact, Agni, the God of fire, himself delivers her, radiant and bedecked in jewels, to Rama). The journey is complete.

Rama, Sita and Lakshmana return home by Pushpaka, Ravana’s sky – chariot. Rama does not need to pass through the forest again.

Actually, there is more to the story of Rama, if we take Uttara Ramayana also into account. But all the pundits seem to agree that it was not written by Valmiki. If Ramayana is the story of Integration, Uttara Ramayana is the story of Disintegration, frightening in its depth of despair. I will return to it, but at a later date.