The Song of the Lord

Krishna_tells_Gota_to_ArjunaIf someone asks a devout Hindu what his most sacred religious text is, you more likely than not to get the answer: “The Bhagavad Gita”. This short Sanskrit text is purportedly a discourse given by Lord Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra, when he was assailed by self-doubt at the moment of going into battle against his kith and kin. Though it is an exhortation to the warrior to carry out his duty and fight regardless of consequences, it is supposed to contain the kernel of the Indian philosophy of life, death, rebirth and the attainment of everlasting bliss.

The Bhagavad Gita –roughly meaning “the Lord’s discourse on the philosophy of the Brahman” – is largely an unread text. Most learned people know a few verses which are quoted time and again, and which are considered to be its heart. I was also guilty of this, until lately, when I got this bee in my bonnet about reading up on all of India’s ancient literature in the original. Armed with my high school Sanskrit and a dictionary, I set forth on this quest.

The Manusmriti was the text I first attacked, for the reasons I have explained in my blog (here on these pages). I decided that the Gita should be next, as a text which had formed part of my outlook on life. I was fed up of second-hand observations and wanted to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth, as it were.

I know that many say that such a “deep” philosophy cannot be understood by untrained minds, and a guru is required on such a journey. I appreciate their argument, and plan to read a few of the famous commentaries. But in my opinion, reading the original is the mandatory first step.

The Setting

The Bhagavad Gita is set within the Mahabharata , the world’s largest epic. The Kauravas and the Pandavas, cousins disputing the throne of the kingdom of Hastinapura, have decided to go to war. Arjuna, the great Pandava warrior asks his friend and charioteer Krishna to steer his chariot to the middle of the opposing armies, to survey the forces arrayed against him. But on seeing all his relatives ready for battle, Arjuna’s nerve fails him on the contemplation of the enormity of the task ahead – nothing short of the murder of near and dear! He throws down his weapon in disgust and says that he won’t fight. Better to die than rule over a kingdom obtained through bloodshed and fratricide!

This is when Krishna begins his long-winded discourse to take apart Arjuna’s seemingly noble arguments. And this is what the Bhagavad Gita such a controversial text: it argues for himsa as part of warrior’s noble duty, and rejects ahimsa as moral cowardice. This is in direct opposition to the Buddhist doctrine that was prevalent in India at that time, and it is why many scholars see it as a Brahminical attempt to strike at the root of Buddhism. But then, one has to take into account the fact that Gandhi, perhaps the greatest proponent of ahimsa that ever lived, took the Gita to heart!

We don’t hear the discourse first hand. Sanjaya, the minister of the blind king Dhritarashtra who is the ruler of Hastinapura, has been gifted with long range vision so that he can see the battle and report it to his sovereign. It is through him that we hear what transpires between Arjuna and Krishna.

The Discourse

The Gita is divided into eighteen short (by Indian standards!) chapters. They are:

  1. Arjuna Vishada Yoga (The Yoga of Arjuna’s Grief), where the warrior develops cold feet and throws down his weapons. This chapter also introduces the situation.
  2. Sankhya Yoga (The Yoga of Sankhya) which establishes the basic tenets of the discourse – the inevitability of birth and death in the universe, and the merit of action without attachment.
  3. Karma Yoga (The Yoga of Action), where the merits of attachment without action is further extolled. Here, all action is identified as coming from the Yajna (Vedic sacrifice), and Krishna makes the first statements indicating that he is more than what he purports to be.
  4. Jnana Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of Wisdom) in which the correct actions are mentioned, and the ways to obtain detachment from action; also total renunciation. Krishna reveals himself as the returning messiah.
  5. Sanyasa Yoga (The Yoga of Renunciation), where the fruits of total renunciation are enumerated. This is the classic description of Indian asceticism as per the Upanishads.
  6. Adhyatma Yoga (The Yoga of Spirituality) where the methods of attaining Nirvana are elaborated.
  7. Jnana Yoga (The Yoga of Knowledge): Here, Krishna reveals himself as the supreme lord; as the Brahman itself.
  8. Akshara Brahma Yoga (The Yoga of the Indestructible Brahman), where Krishna explains the method to escape from the cycle of birth and death by knowing the Brahman (which is he himself).
  9. Raja Vidya Raja Guhya Yoga (The Yoga of the Royal Secret), in which the worship of Krishna, as the eternal truth, even in different forms, is explained as the only way to moksha (release).
  10. Vibhuti Yoga (The Yoga of Supreme Power), which is basically an extension of the previous two chapters. Krishna declares himself as encompassing everything within the space-time continuum.
  11. Vishwaroopa Darshana Yoga (The Yoga of the Vision of the Universal form). This, according to me, is the crux of the document. Krishna takes the form of all-consuming time, terrible in his fiery visage. This is the peg on which the previous chapters hang.
  12. Bhakti Yoga (The Yoga of Devotion), where Krishna extols devotion to him, even without enlightenment, as a possible path to release.
  13. Kshetra Kshterajna Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of the Field and Knower of the Field), where the relationship between the field (the body) and the knower of the field (the soul) is explained with respect to the attainment of release.
  14. Guna Thraya Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of the Separation of the Three Qualities). According to Indian concept, all things are comprised of three qualities: Sattva (purity), Rajas (passion) and Tamas (darkness) – corresponding to good, middling and bad. This chapter expounds on how to enhance purity.
  15. Purushottama Yoga (The Yoga of the Perfect One), which explains the concept of Krishna as Purushottama, the perfect one. Here the duality of Purusha and Prakruti are also explored.
  16. Devaasura Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of the Division between Devas and Asuras). A curious chapter. After talking about going beyond all dualities in the previous chapters, here the divine is separated from the demoniacal.
  17. Shraddhathraya Vibhaga Yoga (The Yoga of the Division of the Threefold Faith). Again, this is a departure from the previous chapters. Here the “correct” way of worshipping and sacrificing is expounded.
  18. Moksha Sanyasa Yoga (The Yoga of Liberation through Renunciation), in which action and renunciation are merged, and there is a sort of summary of the previous chapters. However, what is important here is, action is clearly linked to the caste of the actor, something which was not evident in the previous chapters – and Krishna declares himself the ONLY god, rather like the God of the Abrahamic faiths.

(Note: The chapter names are from the Annie Besant/ Bhagvan Das translation. The Gita Press has slightly different chapter names. What I understand is that in the original Gita, chapters are not titled.)

The Philosophy

(Please note that what follows is my interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita’s philosophy. I am not a Sanskrit scholar, neither am I an expert in Upanishadic thought, so my interpretation might not match those of the scholars and the ascetics. I am open to counterviews.)

We live in a universe of inevitability, where “life eats life”, as Joseph Campbell puts it neatly. In this world, it is impossible to live without acting: and it is inevitable that all actions will not be beneficial to all. So how to cope? One method is to run away to a secluded place, and meditate upon the absolute: and thus gain freedom from this phenomenal world of birth, death and rebirth. This is the way of the Indian rishis and the Buddha – pierce the veil of illusion (maya), reach the still centre of existence, where there is ‘Nirvana’ (“no wind”) and be at one with the eternal. In Buddhism, this is the knowledge of one’s nonexistence – the ‘anatman’ – while in Hinduism, it is the dissolution of the individual self with the Brahman, the universal self, or the SELF, which permeates all of creation. Take your pick.

This may, however, be a tad difficult for a person engaged in the world. I still remember an incident. On the erstwhile Joseph Campbell Foundation discussion fora, an American GI posed a problem. He was against the war in Iraq, but as a soldier, he was duty-bound to fight; and if he quit his job, his family would starve. How to tackle this situation without going mad? It is exactly this question that is being answered through Karma Yoga: act, but without attachment. As said by Krishna in what is perhaps the most famous verse in the Gita:

You have control only over your karma, and never on its fruits: You are not the cause of its fruits; let not you be attached to non-karma.

That is: just do it, what you have to – do not worry about the fruits (that is, the result, reward or consequence). Do your karma without attachment. While acting in the world, lead your mind on the path of renunciation. Act in the world, without being of it.

This is almost in sync with the Taoist concept of Wu Wei:

One of Taoism’s most important concepts is Wu Wei, which is sometimes translated as “non-doing” or “non-action.” A better way to think of it, however, is as a paradoxical “Action of non-action.” Wu Wei refers to the cultivation of a state of being in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the ebb and flow of the elemental cycles of the natural world. It is a kind of “going with the flow” that is characterized by great ease and awareness, in which — without even trying — we’re able to respond perfectly to whatever situations arise.

From ThoughtCo

I also relate this concept to a story, again narrated by Joseph Campbell. It was during his series of interviews with Bill Moyers on the PBS Series, ‘The Power of Myth’:

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: …Let me tell you one story here, of a samurai warrior, a Japanese warrior, who had the duty to avenge the murder of his overlord. And he actually, after some time, found and cornered the man who had murdered his overlord. And he was about to deal with him with his samurai sword, when this man in the corner, in the passion of terror, spat in his face. And the samurai sheathed the sword and walked away. Why did he do that?

BILL MOYERS: Why?

JOSEPH CAMPBELL: Because he was made angry, and if he had killed that man then, it would have been a personal act, of another kind of act, that’s not what he had come to do.

Like Octavio Paz said in In Light of India, Krishna does not give Arjuna a way to save the world: he gives him a way to save himself.

The Myth

Of course, much of the Gita’s attraction lies on the character of Krishna – how he grows from Arjuna’s friend to the eternal Brahman, the be-all and end-all of all creation. As Krishna himself repeatedly says, he is EVERYTHING: the sacrifice, the sacrifice, the sacrificial fire, and the deity who consumes the sacrifice. Krishna’s stature grows slowly from chapter 3 onwards till chapter 11, when he shows his “Vishwa-roopa”, or the Universal Form: to see which, Arjuna cannot use his ordinary vision but must be bestowed with second sight.

As Sanjaya, witnessing this at second hand says: “It is bright as a thousand suns.”  And here’s the awestruck Arjuna gushing about it:

Arjuna said:

My dear Lord Krsna, I see assembled together in Your body all the demigods and various other living entities. I see Brahma sitting on the lotus flower as well as Lord Siva and many sages and divine serpents.

O Lord of the universe, I see in Your universal body many, many forms-bellies, mouths, eyes-expanded without limit. There is no end, there is no beginning, and there is no middle to all this.

Your form, adorned with various crowns, clubs and discs, is difficult to see because of its glaring effulgence, which is fiery and immeasurable like the sun.

You are the supreme primal objective; You are the best in all the universes; You are inexhaustible, and You are the oldest; You are the maintainer of religion, the eternal Personality of Godhead.

You are the origin without beginning, middle or end. You have numberless arms, and the sun and moon are among Your great unlimited eyes. By Your own radiance You are heating this entire universe.

Although You are one, You are spread throughout the sky and the planets and all space between. O great one, as I behold this terrible form, I see that all the planetary systems are perplexed.

All the demigods are surrendering and entering into You. They are very much afraid, and with folded hands they are singing the Vedic hymns.

The different manifestations of Lord Siva, the Adityas, the Vasus, the Sadhyas, the Visvadevas, the two Asvins, the Maruts, the forefathers and the Gandharvas, the Yaksas, Asuras, and all perfected demigods are beholding You in wonder.

O mighty-armed one, all the planets with their demigods are disturbed at seeing Your many faces, eyes, arms, bellies and legs and Your terrible teeth, and as they are disturbed, so am I.

O all-pervading Visnu, I can no longer maintain my equilibrium. Seeing Your radiant colors fill the skies and beholding Your eyes and mouths, I am afraid.

O Lord of lords, O refuge of the worlds, please be gracious to me. I cannot keep my balance seeing thus Your blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth. In all directions I am bewildered…

(Translations from Bhagavad Gita As It Is)

Translations can never capture the beauty of the original: in Sanskrit, the verses I quoted above simply roll of the tongue and one can almost imagine the majesty of a vision that cannot be described through words or colours. As Campbell says in ‘Creative Mythology’: “The best things cannot be told, the second best are misunderstood.”

It is only by envisioning Krishna as the whole of space-time itself, can one understand how his teaching passed to Arjuna. From this moment onwards, he is no longer just the friend who is doing a favour by driving Arjuna’s chariot: he is the godhead that resides within the psyche. (I have explored this concept here.) And as such, he is not only discoursing to Arjuna – what we see is the process of enlightenment, the realisation of “thou art that”, taking place.

The Politics

The Bhagavad Gita is a controversial document. It has been seen as an attempt by the Vedic religion to unseat Buddhism, which was gaining tremendous ground in India, and reinstate the caste system.  Is this charge true? Looking at the Gita dispassionately, one has to say that the charge does have some merit.

Throughout the text, one can see references to “varna sankara” (the mixing of castes), and the undesirable outcomes arising out of it – in fact, Arjuna’s original worry about killing his kith and kin is that it will destroy the dynasty and give rise to caste-mixing! Also, time and again Krishna tells Arjuna to do his duty as a Kshatriya.

All the imagery about sacrifices and oblations are Vedic in origin – and also the curious chapter 16, where Devas and Asuras are specifically mentioned, in contrast to the egalitarian teaching elsewhere, smacks of Vedic dualism. And the origin of Karma is specifically linked to the sacrifice and Prajapati, the first man of the Vedas.

Apart from all these, the following verses specifically advocate the promotion of caste.

9. 32 O Partha, those who take shelter in Me, though they be of born of wombs of sin (papa-yonaya) -women, vaisyas as well as sudras -can approach the supreme destination.

(This concept of lesser and greater wombs, in relation to the birth-death-rebirth cycle, occur in many places.)

18.41 Brahmanas, ksatriyas, vaisyas and sudras are distinguished by their qualities of work, O chastiser of the enemy, in accordance with the modes of nature.

18. 42 Peacefulness, self-control, austerity, purity, tolerance, honesty, wisdom, knowledge, and religiousness-these are the qualities by which the brahmanas work.

18.43 Heroism, power, determination, resourcefulness, courage in battle, generosity, and leadership are the qualities of work for the ksatriyas.

18.44 Farming, cattle raising and business are the qualities of work for the vaisyas, and for the sudras there is labour and service to others.

18.47 It is better to engage in one’s own occupation, even though one may perform it imperfectly, than to accept another’s occupation and perform it perfectly. Prescribed duties, according to one’s nature, are never affected by sinful reactions.

18.48 Every endeavour is covered by some sort of fault, just as fire is covered by smoke. Therefore one should not give up the work which is born of his nature, O son of Kunti, even if such work is full of fault.

So it is clear – karma means carrying out one’s caste duties, and those ONLY.

Also, in this chapter, the Krishna who said earlier that “many people worship me in many different forms: ultimately they all come to me” changes tack and becomes as inflexible as the Levantine God.

18.66 Abandon all varieties of religion and just surrender unto only Me. I shall deliver you from all sinful reaction. Do not fear.

So there is no doubt about the intention here – it is the promotion of the status quo. However, the sharp difference between the first part and the last gives credence to the conjecture that the Gita may have been bowdlerised. The high philosophy and the dazzling imagery of the first part cannot descend to this level of preaching logically.

The Bhagavad Gita and Me

The question, as a reader, is: what do I take away from this text? I am an atheist: and even though the Brahman as a concept is intriguing, I am not a fan of speculative metaphysics. But the concept of nishkama karma (action without attachment) has always appealed to me in my chosen professional field – that of engineering.

I interpret it like this. My job is to do as perfect a job of engineering as I can, to see that the product of my effort is the best I can make it. That is, the perfection of the job I do is its own reward – I should not be bothered about the end result, or the rewards I am going to obtain. I can tell you that I have tried to follow this path throughout my career and it has paid rich dividends.

Not exactly Karma Yoga as preached by Krishna, but near enough… for Kali Yuga!

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The Monstrous Feminine

Durga_Mahishasura-mardini,_the_slayer_of_the_buffalo_demonDurga

The festival of Navaratri – the ‘Nine Sacred Nights of the Goddess’ – has begun. All over India, the Goddess Durga will be worshipped for these nine days and nights. In Bengal, where it is the main state festival, it culminates with the immersion of hundreds of Durga idols in the sea.

Durga took birth to kill the buffalo-demon Mahishasura. She is an avatar of Shakti, the feminine power that pervades the universe. The Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva join together to get Shakti to incarnate herself as Durga, as the demon was undefeatable otherwise. Ten-armed with a weapon in each, riding a lion, she went on to meet the demon in battle. The demon fell in love with the goddess and asked her to marry him; enraged by his audacity, Durga slew him.

Durga (literally ‘impassable’) must be a version of the Mother Goddess, who according to most mythographers, predated the male gods. What is interesting is that in India, one of the most patriarchal societies you can imagine, the goddess still commands respect – sometimes even more than her male counterparts. But however, Indians have succeeded in deifying her, putting her on a pedestal, and going about their patriarchal lives quite comfortably: subjugating and abusing women to their heart’s content while extolling her as a goddess.

I find this motif of the fearsome divinity – which I call the monstrous feminine, the bogeyman that has lurked in the dark corners of Indian myth since time immemorial – ever present as an undercurrent in our popular myth and culture. As goddess, she is Durga and Kali, with her insatiable appetite for blood; she is present as the various rakshasis (demonesses) such as Tataka and Surpanakha in the Indian epics; and in my own homeland of Kerala, she used colour my childhood nightmares as the yakshi, the fearsome wood-sprite that ate men alive.

431px-Kali_by_Raja_Ravi_Varma

Kali by Raja Ravi Varma

The she-monsters are always conquered, of course. The yakshis are tamed and imprisoned in trees; the demonesses are killed by mythical heroes; and the goddess is placated by daily rituals and oblations (which used to comprise sacrifices, even human, in yesteryears). But there is always a sense of unease; that the hidden power, the adi-para-shakti (‘primeval pervading power’ – as the infinite form of the goddess is known – will break out of her slumber and take over the world. This is what the male-centric society has always feared: and this fear is reflected in the current aggressive resistance towards many of the feminist movements across the world. As Steve Bannon fears, women may take over the world!

Lilith

I came to know of Lilith rather late in my mythical explorations. She is a part of the Jewish myth which has been expunged from the bible: and her story is extremely interesting because of its feminist overtones.

I have relied upon the Gnosis Archive for the following story:

This potentially blasphemous story has Adam trying to copulate with animals, and finding them unsuitable, asking God for a helpmeet. “God then formed Lilith, the first woman, just as He had formed Adam, except that He used filth and sediment instead of pure dust. From Adam’s union with this demoness, and with another like her named Naamah, Tubal Cain’s sister, sprang Asmodeus and innumerable demons that still plague mankind.”

320px-Lilith_(John_Collier_painting)

Lilith by John Collier

This “filthy” woman, however, was rather feisty. She refused to subordinate herself to Adam:

Adam and Lilith never found peace together; for when he wished to lie with her, she took offence at the recumbent posture he demanded. ‘Why must I lie beneath you?’ she asked. ‘I also was made from dust, and am therefore your equal.’ Because Adam tried to compel her obedience by force, Lilith, in a rage, uttered the magic name of God, rose into the air and left him.

The “disobedient” Lilith was, unsurprisingly, punished by God: when she refused to come back, enjoying her free life with lascivious demons on the banks of the Red Sea, God cursed all her children to die. The belief is that she produces one hundred demon children per day, all of whom perish by night.

Lilith is feared as the seducer of sleeping men, the killer of babies and the spirit who causes abortions.

The subtext is clear – the independent woman is the demon, while the subordinate one made from the rib is the perfect helpmeet!

Medusa

Medusa

Medusa

The monstrous feminine in the Occident, I find perfectly embodied in Medusa. Though not especially marked as “evil” – the Greek myths are rather amoral – she is indeed the antagonist to the male hero, something he must vanquish on his quest. And it is interesting that Medusa is never really defeated face to face: even in death, her eyes can turn one to stone.

***

Here, I find it interesting to compare this metaphor across the traditions of the Levant, the Occident and the Orient. In the Biblical tradition, the monstrous feminine is unambiguously marked as evil and on the side of the devil; in the Occident, she is still frightening, and something to be vanquished, but her moral labelling doesn’t exist; while in the East, she has been deified and assimilated into the masculine myth in a masterful way.

The Tale of Nagavalli

The Malayalam film Manichithrathaazhu released in 1993 was a totally new phenomenon as far Kerala moviegoers were concerned. Shunning the popular themes of comedy, the family drama or the crime thriller (even though the film incorporated elements of all of these genres), it presented a tense psychological thriller with just a touch of the horror, and proved an instant hit. It also became a watershed film in Indian history, as it was remade in Tamil, Kannada, Bengali and Hindi. And it also won the National Award for Shobhana for her portrayal of a girl with split personality.

What was so special about the film? For one, it married the supernatural tale of spirit possession with modern pop psychology; at the same time, it fused the ancient art of sorcery with the science of psychiatry. Even though most of the theories Mohanlal as Dr. Sunny spouts in the film are unadulterated bullshit, they resonated with a populace eager to discover scientific principles in our ‘ancient wisdom’.

But most importantly, it was the character of Nagavalli, the long-dead dancer out for blood revenge on her tormentor, who stole the hearts of people. Shobhana, in a flawless performance, enacted the role of the city girl Ganga who believes that she is Nagavalli, to perfection.

manichithra

Shobhana in Manichitrathazhu

The story, stated very briefly, runs thus. Ganga and her husband Nakulan are staying in their ancestral home, which is believed to be haunted by the ghost of a Tamil dancer who had been imprisoned and later murdered by the head of the family. Ganga, who has got serious psychological disturbances, starts believing herself to be Nagavalli – and her husband to be her cruel captor. As her madness slowly progresses, the unconventional psychiatrist Dr. Sunny comes up with a unique way to cure her. In collaboration with the sorcerer and tantric expert Pullattuparambil Brahmadattan Namboothiripad, he enacts a ceremony where Ganga, in her Nagavalli avatar, is allowed to behead a dummy of Nakulan in the guise of her antagonist. The act done, she returns to her normal self – the “ghost” is “exorcised”.

Joseph Campbell has said that artists are the myth-makers of the modern-world: and this movie is a perfect example. The character of Nagavalli channels all female monsters hiding in the Indian psyche, as well as the avenging Durga (it is not a coincidence that she gets her sacrifice on Durgashtami, the eighth day of the Navaratri festival, very auspicious to the goddess): but most importantly, she is humoured, tamed and assimilated back into the pliant Ganga who practically worships her husband. And this has been done through an amalgamation of psychoanalysis and Vedic ritual. No wonder the movie was a hit!

***

So there she is, ladies and gentlemen – the monstrous feminine. Always in the background, always underneath the “civilised” facade of the “chaste” woman. Most of us in India, including women who follow tradition, do not prefer to acknowledge her; to accept the fact that the docility of woman comes at a great price to her psyche. And as woman goes through the avatars of Sati, Savitri and Sita, her inner Durga and Kali are chafing at the bit, struggling for release: the symptoms of which struggle are becoming more and more visible, day by day.

Is a new myth in the offing?

Where Women are Forbidden to Tread; or, the Mysteries Behind Menstrual Blood

Sabarimala_2All Indians, and people who have been following news from India, would know that our Supreme Court is taking far-reaching and, for what is essentially a conservative nation, revolutionary decisions regarding the freedom of the individual. They have been especially incendiary when they touched upon religious taboos. A case in point is the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, where women of menstruating age have been forbidden entry for decades: a constitution bench of the court struck down the ban as unconstitutional, as it is in violation of the right of men and women to worship equally.

This happened on last Friday (the 28th of September) and “believers” have not stopped foaming at the mouth. Since they can’t attack the court directly, their venom has been reserved for the leftists and progressives, who they feel, have somehow manipulated the judiciary to bring it about. And counter-measures are discussed in plenty: from the judicial (review petitions) to democratic (peaceful protests) to outright violence against women who plan to visit the shrine.

The left liberal contingent have also not been silent. In the intoxication of the all-too-few victories that come their way, they have trolled the right-wingers mercilessly, making them even more angry – with the result that all media including the social have become the scene of raucous name-calling and disgusting insults. There is no rational debate happening anywhere.

In this context, I came up on the post of a friend of mine on Facebook.  This lady, a feminist and a non-believer, was wondering what all the hullabaloo was about. She said she never wanted to visit the place, and assumed that most non-believers felt the same. And the believers will of course respect the taboo! So this verdict was, in her opinion, a non-starter and she was vehemently protesting people hailing this as a victory for women.

I disagreed with her and told her that even a symbolic win is crucial in the case of women’s rights – and it is especially important in this case. She was not convinced and asked for a lengthier explanation: which is when the idea of this blog post came to me. It would me more convenient for me to express myself here than on an FB post. And I will not be distracted by trolls!

To get to the root of this issue, I think we need to dig really down, all the way down to the bedrock of the human psyche, where myths are born.

The Origins of Myth

There are multiple theories on how myth originated. In J. G. Frazer’s The Golden Bough, myth is seen as a concretisation of ritual – an opinion shared by Robert Graves, as his book The Greek Myths illustrate. Carl Gustav Jung and Joseph Campbell, however, consider myth to be mostly springing up from the collective unconscious of humanity, with the narrative structured around a few key images. There are also theories of myth being the romanticised narration of history.product_thumbnail.php

I was a confirmed Jungian and follower of Joseph Campbell for years. But of late, I have come to believe that myths are made up of all of the above three. There are some primal images (which are relevant very much today in literature and art) which drive our subconscious narrative; there are rituals, passed down across the centuries, which have become our integral part – and there is the history of humankind, enshrined forever as beautiful stories in our myths and fairy tales.

In this context, I think we need to take a look at what Joseph Campbell called “The Four Functions of Myth.”

The Four Functions of Myth

 The Metaphysical Function

 The absolute mystery of life is beyond words and images. To capture this, one uses the myth as a metaphor: that is why most mythical images are absurd if one looks at them from a realistic point of view, but serve as invaluable sources for the mystical and artistic experience. One only has to look at the apparently absurd metaphors in many poems or the seemingly illogical narrative of magical realism to appreciate this.

The Cosmological Function

Before formal science made its appearance, myth tried to explain the world around us, its origins and the physical phenomena that affected our lives. This function has become redundant with the advent of science: but this is where the main tussle between religion and science happens in the modern world.

The Sociological Function

If societies were to survive, they needed to preserve a certain order. This was implemented through myth, by positing a divinely stipulated system. It is my opinion that this is where religion evolved; drawing from the Cosmological Function, rituals were established to preserve society in stasis so that the cosmic order was not violated. Over a period of time, this was taken over by the priests. This has direct bearing on our current issue.

The Pedagogical Function

This, according to Campbell, is the most important function of myth. As a person goes through life, he has to pass through various stages which are exemplified in myth as the “Hero’s Journey”. Closely related to Jung’s theory of individuation, this provides creative guidance in life and art.

Looking at the four functions above, one can see that the second and third functions have become rather redundant in today’s world. Science has taken over the Cosmological Function, while the civil code has taken over the Sociological Function in most democracies. And therein lies the root of the tussle between religion and science.

Most societies in the world are patriarchal, and have some kind of rigid, stratified layers of hierarchy within itself. Unsurprisingly, these are taken as “divinely ordained”, and priests hold the actual reins of power even though administrative power is with the ruling class. In India, this is exemplified in the caste system, with Brahmins calling the shot in almost all social matters, even after seventy years of independence.

This is maintained through the myths about the universe which have nothing to do with knowledge or science. Rather, a worldview which must have been dynamic at the time of its evolution is frozen in permanent stasis. Myths, which started life as vibrant metaphors, become concretised in time and become meaningless images. Yet these are manipulated by the priestly class to hold on to their unofficial power. The standard argument is that “these are beyond science”. (Of course they are, but not as a parallel reality but in the realm of subliminal imagery!)

Now let us have a look at the Sabarimala controversy in this light.

The Mystery of Menstruation

All the rites of passage of a person’s life are shrouded in wonder and mystery: birth, the attainment of puberty, marriage, death… consequently, we have rituals to cover them all.  Of these, the attainment of puberty in women is especially hallowed, since it also involves the discharge of blood: the blood of life, rather than the blood of death.

Kerala is a curious mix of the patriarchal Hindu religion and matriarchal tribal culture, probably because so-called Hinduism reached us very late. So side-by-side with the fiercely patriarchal Nampoothiri Brahmins, we find Nairs and Kshatriyas who even now, consider themselves matrilineal. Alongside “men-only” clubs like Sabarimala, we have festivals like Attukal Pongala where men are not allowed. We have women’s mysteries like Thiruvathira where ladies dance the night away in gay abandon, in celebration of their sexuality.

In earlier days, the girl on first attaining puberty was much feted; almost like a marriage (in fact, it is called thirandu kalyanam, “the puberty marriage”). And during the time of her monthly periods, she was kept separate. This was called theendari suddham – “the special purity of monthly periods”. (“Theendari” is literally derived from the sentence “theendathe iri” in Malayalam, which means “keep your distance”). It is my opinion that this was done out of a feeling of the awe of her power: the power of her uterus which produces the blood of life. During this exceptionally powerful period, men were barred from approaching her as they were interfering with forces beyond their ken.

Then somewhere along the way, the menstruating woman came to be seen as impure. I see this as part of the gradual takeover of myth by patriarchal religion. The woman lost her power along the way, as most of our goddesses were married of to the gods to take on secondary roles. Only a few such as the fearsome Kali could not be subjugated – and the male priests were happy to give her her token due, and preserve rites like the Pongala at Attukal where the officiating priests are, of course, men.

Lord Ayyappan and Celibacy

Ayyappan is an interesting god. Not part of the Vedic pantheon, he has nevertheless been grafted on to it as the son of Shiva and Vishnu in his female form as Mohini (“the temptress”). So Ayyappan is perhaps, the only god to be born of a homosexual union in world mythology.

Like most Indian deities, Ayyappan took birth to kill a demon, the fierce Mahishi. This demoness in the form of a water buffalo, was actually a celestial being under curse (as is the case with most Indian bogeymen), released (attaining “moksha”) by the god’s killing her. Once freed of her demon form, the celestial maiden begged Ayyappan to marry her – however, the celibate god promised to do so only the day when fresh pilgrims stop visiting his shrine at Sabarimala. He established her as his co-deity near the shrine, but they would never be seen together.

(The above story curiously parallels the celibate goddess Durga’s fight with Mahishasura, the buffalo-demon. The same undercurrent of predatory sexuality and celibacy forms the bedrock on which both these tales are built on. They are perhaps the leftovers of our tribal past, before classical Hinduism assimilated the narrative.)

Now the crux of the problem – Lord Ayyappan’s celibacy. The god is said to be a naishtika brahmachari – ritually celibate – so that the mere presence of nubile women is forbidden at his temple. Therefore, the entry of females between 10 and 50 years of age is not allowed at the shrine. Originally a social taboo, it was enforced by law later on.

This is quite understandable from a mythical viewpoint – many such taboos exist across the world. But current Indian society is in a churn. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, we are on the verge of becoming a really liberal democracy, where social restrictions are the ones that get first get challenged.

As happened with many social taboos of yesteryears, this ban also began to be questioned by women: and not by those who grew up steeped in the myth, but “non-believers” who saw unacceptable shades of gender discrimination. Naturally, this lead to outrage among the believers (women included) – who are these upstart feminists to question our faith? It is a matter of belief, and as such, above the law of the land.

The case ultimately landed in front the Supreme Court who perhaps, ruled in the only way they could. The ban was discriminatory, and as such, it had to go. And it was by no means a cut-and-dried verdict – we must note that the lone woman judge dissented. Apparently, she sided with the many women devotees of Kerala who believed in the taboo.

Why the Judgement is Important

Now we come back to the question my friend asked: why the hell is this important? For believers, no law is required to stay away from the shrine. For the non-believers, it is only a matter of principle, a token feminist victory over patriarchy, providing no real benefit.

We now come to the importance of the mythical metaphor.

If we look at the position of women in Indian society, we see her elevated to the position of goddess in principle and subjugated in practice. Poisonous codes such as the Manusmriti give religious credence to her secondary role. She is seen as a precious possession of man, but a possession all the same. The sacred feminine is a metaphor which has been bent to suit the patriarchal will. And as explained before, the very symbol of her fertility has been transformed into her impurity.

This judgement smashes the patriarchal bias, at the level of ritual. It tells the believers: “Fine! We acknowledge your belief, but when it goes contrary to the Indian constitution, it is unacceptable.” It places the secular constitution of India above centuries-old belief systems.

The Supreme Court has told Indian society in no uncertain terms that the sociological function of myth is no longer relevant in a secular democracy, if it comes into conflict with essential freedoms of the individual like gender equality. That is why this judgement has created a furore among the believers and the rebels that the genuinely irreligious people can never understand. For them, this is much ado about nothing – because the metaphor of menstruation has lost its relevance.

When Gandhiji initiated the march to Dandi, he was using salt as a metaphor to challenge the British hegemony. Here, the entry of women into a temple in the small state of Kerala at the southernmost tip of India, is the metaphor for redrawing the position of women within the Indian society – removing the so-called impurity imprinted upon her by patriarchal society.

(P. S. I am sure that the battle is far from over – our male chauvinist society will try its level best to prevent women from entering the shrine; and they may yet succeed in subverting the judgement. But the important thing is that the blow has been struck.)