A Review of “The Dance of Shiva” by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

A long time back, when I first became active on the fora of the Joseph Campbell Forum website, I downloaded a list of books which the renowned mythologist had given his students as required reading at Sarah Lawrence College. I found this book among them. But it was out of print at that time, and I could source a copy only now – with Rupa Publishers reprinting it.

Coomaraswamy’s metaphor of the cosmic dance of Shiva is well known to many, even to those who don’t know him: I first came across it during the late seventies, in Fritjof Capra’s seminal book on New Age science, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. At that time, to my teenage brain filled with grand ideas of the ultimate merger of Indian mysticism with higher physics, this was a revolutionary concept worth tripping on; you just close your eyes and meditate on all those atoms, protons, neutrons, quasars, planets, galaxies and whatnot dancing around the space-time continuum and – bingo! Niravana.

Well, I have been disabused of such naive imaginings as I grew older, and learnt more about Indian history and culture – and that it was not the one mystical love-fest the New Agers and the hippies made it out to be. True, India had a lot of great philosophical thought; a beautiful and colourful mythical heritage; and perhaps the world’s greatest epic literature. But the societal system, built on the strict hierarchy of caste, was horrendous: with the top layer existing parasitically on labours of the downtrodden bottom one. Which is why when I finally got around to reading Coomaraswamy, I was sorely disappointed.

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

This book was first published in 1918 – and sadly, it shows. This was the time when the Indian pride was on the upswing as a reaction against foreign domination and its consequent westernisation. For the apologists, anything Indian was divinely sublime. It was not a question of accepting her, warts and all; but exhorting those same warts as the epitome of beauty.
This blind admiration of Indian culture runs as one of the main themes of this book – the other being the ‘divine’ nature of Indian art, where there is no separation of devotion, myth, and the artistic insight. While I largely concur with the second (Campbell’s argument that the artist is the myth-maker in modern society resonates with me), the ‘superiority’ of Indian (or Eastern) culture to that of the West is highly debatable.

The book comprises fourteen essays. Of these, seven deal in totality and one partially with Indian art; four are paeans to Indian culture; and one each is in homage to Shakespeare and Nietzsche respectively. The essays are of varying quality – from extremely well-expressed to boringly repetitive. Let me start with the key one, ‘The Dance of Shiva’.

Shiva needs no introduction to the well-read person. He is the God who dances. When he is happy, he does the ‘Ananda Thandava’, the dance of happiness – and in anger, he dances the ‘Samhara Thandava’, destroying the universe in totality. He is full of esoteric symbolism: he wears the moon and the river Ganges in his matted hair locks; wears serpents as garlands; wears cloths made out of tiger and elephant skins; and his body is covered with the ash from funeral pyres. In his avatar as Nataraja (‘The Lord of Dance’), he dances within a circle of fire, trampling on the demon Muyalaka with his right foot, the left one raised, drum in his right hand fire in his left. He is the patron god of dance.

Commaraswamy does a detailed analysis of the five types of dance Shiva does, with extensive and fascinating quotes from mythical literature. This fact itself makes it worth reading. However, it is when he comes to the metaphoric analysis of this dance that we understand how this essay has stood the test of time and influenced a number of people over the years.

Shiva as ‘Nataraja’, the Lord of Dance

The Dancing Shiva

Coomaraswamy sees it essentially as the interplay of the feminine Prakriti, matter, nature, symbolised by the fire circle – the dancing God, touching it at four points with his head, arms and foot, is Purusha, the masculine omnipresent spirit animating it. He writes:

The Essential Significance of Shiva’s Dance is threefold: First, it is the image of his Rhythmic Play as the Source of all Movement within the Cosmos, which is Represented by the Arch: Secondly, the Purpose of his Dance is to Release the Countless souls of men from the Snare of Illusion: Thirdly the Place of the Dance, Chidambaram, the Centre of the Universe, is within the Heart.

(For those of us who have had our tryst with mysticism in the post-Fritjof Capra era, this may be old hat. Shiva’s cosmic dance has been done to death across a lot of platforms – literary, religious and mystic. But it is when we realise the Coomaraswamy’s vision is from a century ago, that we begin to appreciate its originality.)

He gushes on:

How amazing the range of thought and sympathy of those rishi-artists who first conceived such a type as this, affording an image of reality, a key to the complex tissue of life, a theory of nature, not merely satisfactory to a single clique or race, nor acceptable to the thinkers of one century only, but universal in its appeal to the philosopher, the lover, and the artist of all ages and all countries. How supremely great in power and grace this dancing image must appear to all those who have striven in plastic forms to give expression to their intuition of Life!

… In the night of Brahma, Nature is inert, and cannot dance till Shiva wills it: He rises from His rapture, and dancing sends through inert matter pulsing waves of awakening sound, and lo! matter also dances appearing as a glory round about Him. Dancing, He sustains its manifold phenomena. In the fulness of time, still dancing, he destroys all forms and names by fire and gives new rest. This is poetry; but none the less, science.

Yes indeed. As a connoisseur of art, dance and literature, I will emphatically say that this image is worth tripping on!

***

Now, coming to the essays on Indian art and music: it would be tempting to analyse each one in detail, but the exigencies of time and space compel one to economise. So I would just elaborate upon the common thread running across them, so as to emphasise the author’s intentions.

One must bear in mind that at the time of the writing of this book, India was an area of darkness to the majority in the West: it was all “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” stuff. So Coomaraswamy is at pains to justify the beauty of Indian art, mostly abstract and non-representational, to a largely unsympathetic European audience (it is amusing in some cases, as in the essay ‘Indian Images with Many Arms’, where he is at pains to point out that these are metaphorical and not meant to represent reality: elementary school stuff nowadays, in the age of ‘Guernica’). Similarly, he points out the difference between Indian and Western music; the former is purely melodic while the latter is harmonic.

Similarly, Indian art is non-representational. There is no perspective, no attempt to render ‘reality’ as such; and ultimately, there is no individuality to the work of art, or the artist. This total self-effacement of the creator is peculiar to Eastern art because the artist is not important. He does not create, but just renders what is divinely inspired in him through meditation. He is just a conduit for the art to flow through; the source is the Brahman, the essential Godhead that exists within one and all.

Religion and art thus names for one and the same experience—an intuition of reality and of identity.

…When every ascetic and every soldier has become an artist there will be no more need for works of art: in the meanwhile ethical selection of some kind is allowable and necessary. But in this selection we must clearly understand what we are doing, if we would avoid any infinity of error, culminating in that type of sentimentality which regards the useful, the stimulating and the moral elements in works of art as the essential.

Coomaraswamy’s insights on the concept of beauty in art, linking with the rasa concept of Indian aesthetics, is also enlightening.

Only when we judge a work of art aesthetically we may speak of the presence or absence of beauty, we may call the work rasavant or otherwise; but when we judge it from the standpoint of activity, practical or ethical, we ought to use a corresponding terminology, calling the picture, song or actor “lovely” that is to say lovable, or otherwise, the action “noble,” the colour “brilliant,” the gesture “graceful,” or otherwise, and so forth, and it will be seen that in doing this we are not really judging the work of art as such, but only the material and the separate parts of which it is made, the activities they represent, or the feelings they express.

… Beauty can never thus be measured, for it does not exist apart from the artist himself, and the rasika who enters into his experience.

There are no degrees of beauty; the most complex and the simplest expression remind us of one and the same state. The sonata cannot be more beautiful than the simplest lyric, nor the painting than the drawing, merely because of their greater elaboration. Civilized art is not more beautiful than the savage art, merely because of its possibly more attractive ethos. A mathematical analogy is found if we consider large and small circles; these differ only in their content, not in their circularity.

Another essay which was interesting was on the concept of ‘Sahaja’ – amorous love that transcends the physical, typically represented by Radha’s love for Krishna in Indian mythology. In his lectures, Campbell also talks at great length on this, albeit in a different context – the love of the troubadour for his lady. In the field of poesy, we can see this in the concept of the muse, exemplified by Dante’s obsession with Beatrice.

Radha and Krishna

***

Well, now for the negatives. Even with all these superb, pioneering insights into Indian art and aesthetics, I cannot love this book for its unabashed endorsement of the Indian caste system and the subservient role of women. The author sees the stratified Indian society as the epitome of social engineering, with the Brahmins at the top the equivalent of the philosopher kings envisaged by Plato. He feels that the Indian woman, whose career comprises solely of her husband and family, is the ‘ideal’ to strive for: for him, the emancipated western woman is an aberration. He considers the obnoxious ‘Laws of Manu’ as the absolute gospel. I will let Coomaraswamy speak for himself:

On the caste system:

The heart and essence of the Indian experience is to be found in a constant intuition of the unity of all life, and the instinctive and ineradicable conviction that the recognition of this unity is the highest good and the uttermost freedom. All that India can offer to the world proceeds from her philosophy. This philosophy is not, indeed, unknown to others—it is equally the gospel of Jesus and of Blake, Lao Tze, and Rumi—but nowhere else has it been made the essential basis of sociology and education.

…We must not judge of Indian society, especially Indian society in its present moment of decay, as if it actually realized the Brahmanical social ideas; yet even with all its imperfections Hindu society as it survives will appear to many to be superior to any form of social organization attained on a large scale anywhere else, and infinitely superior to the social order which we know as “modern civilization.”

…it can hardly be denied that the Brahmanical caste system is the nearest approach that has yet been made towards a society where there shall be no attempt to realise a competitive quality, but where all interests are regarded as identical. To those who admit the variety of age in human souls, this must appear to be the only true communism.

On the status of Indian women:

The Asiatic theory of marriage, which would have been perfectly comprehensible in the Middle Ages, before the European woman had become an economic parasite, and which is still very little removed from that of Roman or Greek Christianity, is not readily intelligible to the industrial democratic consciousness of Europe and America, which is so much more concerned for rights than for duties, and desires more than anything else to be released from responsibilities—regarding such release as freedom. It is thus that Western reformers would awaken a divine discontent in the hearts of Oriental women, forgetting that the way of ego-assertion cannot be a royal road to realisation of the Self. The industrial mind is primarily sentimental, and therefore cannot reason clearly upon love and marriage; but the Asiatic analysis is philosophic, religious and practical.

… It is sometimes asked, what opportunities are open to the Oriental woman? How can she express herself? The answer is that life is so designed that she is given the opportunity to be a woman—in other words, to realize, rather than to express herself.

…The Eastern woman is not, at least we do not claim that she is, superior to other women in her innermost nature; she is perhaps an older, purer and more specialized type, but certainly an universal type, and it is precisely here that the industrial woman departs from type. Nobility in women does not depend upon race, but upon ideals; it is the outcome of a certain view of life.

And as if this was not enough, he justifies arranged marriage, and even ‘Sati’ – where the wife immolated herself on the funeral pyre of her husband!

The industrial revolution in India is of external and very recent origin; there is no lack of men, and it is the sacred duty of parents to arrange a marriage for every daughter: there is no divergence of what is spiritual and what is sensuous: Indian women do not deform their bodies in the interests of fashion: they are more concerned about service than rights: they consider barrenness the greatest possible misfortune, after widowhood. In a word, it has never happened in India that women have been judged by or have accepted purely male standards. What possible service then, except in a few externals, can the Western world render to Eastern women? Though it may be able to teach us much of the means of life, it has everything yet to relearn about life itself. And what we still remember there, we would not forget before we must.

… The criticism we make on the institution of Sati and woman’s blind devotion is similar to the final judgment we are about to pass on patriotism. We do not, as pragmatists may, resent the denial of the ego for the sake of an absolute, or attach an undue importance to mere life; on the contrary we see clearly that the reckless and useless sacrifice of the ‘suttee’ and the patriot is spiritually significant. And what remains perpetually clear is the superiority of the reckless sacrifice to the calculating assertion of rights. Criticism of the position of the Indian woman from the ground of assertive feminism, therefore, leaves us entirely unmoved: precisely as the patriot must be unmoved by an appeal to self-interest or a merely utilitarian demonstration of futility. We do not object to dying for an idea as ‘suttees’ and patriots have died; but we see that there may be other and greater ideas we can better serve by living for them.

 

A depiction of ‘Sati’

I can now hear people saying: “Come on! You can’t judge an early twentieth century text by today’s sensibilities! Coomaraswamy was a man of his time, and we have to cut him some historical slack.”

Uh-huh. Nothing doing. This sugar-coating of the dark underbelly of India’s so-called ‘Arsha’ culture over a period of time – this refusal to call a spade a spade – has resulted in where my country is standing today, with atrocities against Dalits and women so commonplace that they are most of the time relegated to footnotes in the newspaper. Sorry, Mr. Coomaraswamy, I put you in the dock with other apologists for traditional Indian society. You don’t get even judicial mercy in my court!

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The Magic of the Mask

joe-closeupAll who are familiar with Joseph Campbell would be aware of his massive four-volume work on mythology, titled The Masks of God.  In it, Campbell explores how myth is connected to our innermost core, wherever the world we are from – it is a comprehensive compendium of world myth as well as an in-depth analysis of its psychological roots and historical development.

In the very beginning, Joe gives us the lesson of the mask: where everyday reality is stripped away and we enter into the world of make-believe.  But this is not the delusional world of the mentally disturbed, but the fantasy land which exists within all of us; where the extremes of religious rapture and artistic ecstasy reside.  This is where we put on the mask and play at being God.

The Lesson of the Mask

Hansel-and-gretel-rackhamCampbell quotes Leo Frobenius about the “daemonic world of childhood”, about a child who plays with three matchsticks, imagining them as Hansel, Gretel and the witch.  After sometime, the child’s father hears her shrieking in terror.  When asked the reason, the child says: “Daddy, Daddy, take the witch away!  I can’t touch the witch any more!”

Frobenius goes on to say that this “eruption of emotion is characteristic of the shift of an idea from the level of sentiments to the level of sensual consciousness.”  The match was not a witch at the beginning of the game.  However, it becomes so at the level of sentiments, while remaining a match at the level of rational thought: “the phase of becoming takes place on the level of sentiments, while that of being is on the conscious plane.”

To quote Campbell:

This vivid, convincing example of a child’s seizure by a witch while in the act of play may be taken to represent an intense degree of the daemonic mythological experience.  However, the attitude of mind represented by the game itself, before the seizure supervened, also belongs within the sphere of our subject.  For, as J. Huizinga has pointed out in his brilliant study of the play element in culture, the whole point, at the beginning, is the fun of the play, not the rapture of seizure.

Yes indeed: playing at “make-believe”, as we say about childhood, little knowing that it points to some of the core needs of our mythical psyche.  The mask, while remaining a mask at the level of conscious thought, becomes God at a much deeper level.

How a Grove Became Sacred

20161229_164353.jpgPeople who follow this blog might remember an earlier post on a Sarpakkavu, a sacred grove for serpents, that my sister (an artist) created.  Though done in a totally secular manner, the “consecration” of the grove created a mythical atmosphere and our cleaning lady, a believer in the snake deities, went into a trance.  While discussing the matter, two viewpoints surfaced – the “rational” one condemning the ritualistic aspects, and the “traditional” one acknowledging the power of the deities.  Curiously, my sister and myself, both practically atheists, found ourselves in the minority by accepting both the viewpoints partially while rejecting their exclusivity.

To explain, I found myself taking up an analogy of a tennis court. On one side is the rationalist, and on the other, the believer.  For them, the net is real: as well as the match as they keep on hitting the ball into the other court, trying to score points in endless rallies.  The agnostic sits on the net, sometimes cheering one, sometimes the other.

For the artist as well as the connoisseur, however, the net doesn’t exist. The two halves of the court overlap in different dimensions of the mythical realm.  The match is an illusion, which is why it never ends – it’s “play”.

Playing at Make-Believe

All these thoughts came up afresh in my mind as I watched a series of plays as part of the International Theatre Festival of Kerala (ITFoK) 2018, here in my hometown of Thrissur in Kerala. I watched plays ranging from the traditional ones presented on the proscenium stage (Palestine: Year Zero), plays incorporating elements of farce and epic theatre (Mundo Mozart, Bad City), a Chaplinesque comedy discussing the unbearable reality of refugee camps (Borderline), a couple of plays performed by single persons (My Body Welsh, Notes on Chai), a street-play of sorts by the children of sex workers (Red Light Express), a disturbing play from Manipur, depicting violence using a mix of dance and martial arts (Nerves) and a unique production without any noise based only on sign language (Say, What?). Diverse as they were, these plays had one thing in common: they were playing at make-believe.

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(Images courtesy: http://theatrefestivalkerala.com)

Campbell once said that the myth-makers of the current age are the artists, and I have to agree.  Nowhere is this more evident than in drama – no wonder we call a dramatic production a “play” (perhaps not surprisingly, my native language of Malayalam uses the same term – “Kali”, meaning play – for most stage performances of a dramatic nature). Also, masks are integral part of drama in many parts of the world – indeed, the iconic Greek masks of comedy and tragedy have come to symbolise drama in toto.

No play is ever realistic in the sense a movie is.  Even in the plays where the proscenium stage is used and the audience looks onto a set approximating a real-life setting through the absent fourth wall, the unreality is evident; in the modern play, even that semblance is not there.  In all the plays I saw, the set decorations were either minimalist or the stage was entirely bare.  The acting, in most cases, was stylised. The aim was not to make the audience feel that they were watching a real event – the aim was to emphasise that they were not.  The viewers were thus forced to move to a different plane of perception, to the “level of sentiments”, where the matchstick became the witch.

Drama and Ritual

Getting transported to a mythical level while watching a stage performance is second nature to us Keralites, because most of our plays are rituals, and our rituals, plays.  The highly stylised attire of the Kathakali dancers (Katha-Kali – “Story-Play”), the Koodiyattom artists and the Koothu performers are not much different in style from the ritual players who perform the temple arts of the Theyyam and the Thira. As Arundhati Roy says in The God of Small Things, even when the stories are known to everybody, we keep on watching these performances.  She says it is due to the greatness of the story.  While I agree, I feel it’s only partially correct.

The real reason, I feel, is the magic of the mask.  As we enter into the spirit of play, we willingly transport ourselves beyond the limitations of the reasoning mind into that magical realm where a matchstick can truly become a terrifying witch: where the rapture of artistic seizure awaits.

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Alone of All Her Sex

You are my light; my life’s illumination: you are my refuge, O mother!
Please don’t forsake me, Virgin Mary, you abode of kindness…

So runs one of the popular film songs from my youth – and it pretty much symbolises what the Virgin means to me.

Lourd_metharapolitha_cathedral_thrissur_(2)

The Lourdes’ Cathedral, Thrissur

Kerala, unlike other states of India, contain a sizeable Christian population who trace their pedigree back to Saint Thomas, who is purported to have come to the state in A.C.E 52. So Christianity as a religion is as common for us Keralites as Hinduism or Islam. And in the districts where the Christians are mainly Catholics – like the town of Thrissur, where I reside – the Virgin Mary is as important an icon as Jesus Christ. Many a time I had gazed at her smiling visage, beaming down upon all human beings in unadulterated benevolence from her pedestal: for a mother’s boy like me, she was infinitely preferable to the frightening image of the crucified Christ. Also, as a Hindu, the Mother Goddess was part and parcel of my mythical orientation. It was only natural that I would identify the Virgin with her, as one of her avatars.

It was only later that I came to know that the Virgin Mary is not part of Christianity as a whole, but particular to Catholicism – that in fact, Protestants actually frown upon her worship! This was a shocker; but then I also came to know that she was worshipped even greater fervour in many other countries, like Latin America and Ireland. This whetted my appetite to learn more about her cult, especially after I discovered Joseph Campbell and the field of comparative mythology. So this book by Marina Warner was a godsend.

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Ms. Warner, in Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, gives an exhaustive historical analysis of the cult of the Virgin Mary – how it started, spread, was opposed, fought the opposition and triumphed. What it lacks is the mythological perspective, except for tracing the connections between Osiris, Isis and Horus to the Virgin and the child and for the casual references to Jung’s concept the divine feminine (which she actually debunks). For Marina, Mary is the conscious creation of the Church to sublimate the feminine into the fold of patriarchal religion.

In the gospels, the mother of Jesus is practically nonexistent. Marian knowledge is concentrated only in the two gospels of Matthew and Luke – later additions in the opinion of most scholars. Matthew crafts the story of Jesus to closely resemble the tale of the great prophet of the Old Testament, Moses: however in his gospel, Mary does not play centre stage. For that, we have to look to Luke: as the author says, “Luke’s infancy Gospel is the scriptural source for all the great mysteries of the Virgin; the only time she is in the heart of the drama in the Bible is in Luke’s beautiful verses.” Historical information (to the extent that we can call the Bible history) regarding Mary is meagre.

The Virgin

The cult of the Virgin was enhanced in the west was the apocryphal Book of James, “the Lord’s brother”. It is this book which sets forth the story of the mother of Jesus in romantic detail, adding flesh to all the bare bones of suggestion in the principal gospels: it is also the one which gave rise to the enduring myth of Mary’s intact virginity.
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The virgin birth of heroes is actually adapted from the Hellenistic world: Pythagoras, Plato and Alexander were all believed to be born of woman by the power of a holy spirit (one can see this pattern also in the birth of the Buddha). While the pre-Christian faiths were happy with the metaphorical nature of this belief, Christianity had to concretise it, to contend that Mary was a virgin both before and after childbirth. While a virgin begetting a child was an acceptable belief in the ancient days (when the male contribution to conception was not well understood), a woman remaining a virgin after giving birth was problematic. This dichotomy is still rampant within Catholicism.

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Why this insistence on virginity? Well, it’s all due to Eve.

According to the Church, sexuality and desire were the fatal flaws which lead to sin, the gateway to hell – and these entered human destiny when the first woman enticed the first man to eat the forbidden fruit. The Fathers are quick to assert that sex is not sinful in itself; rather, concupiscence which leads to lust and the “tendency to sin” is. This is the original sin not remitted in baptism, and Eve was responsible for it. (This leads to the curious conclusion that sex is OK as long as you don’t enjoy it.)

In the Christian world as well as the Roman Empire before it, the evils of sex were particularly identified with the female. As childbirth was woman’s function, and the pangs of the same God’s special punishment after the fall, the womb was evil and any child born of it was tainted with original sin. Therefore, to prevent the Son of God from being tainted by it, the Church hit upon the brilliant solution of removing the taint of sex from his mother.

Thus the elevation of Mary to purity was not due to any victory of the divine feminine: rather, it was to invest Jesus with purity not accorded to the rest of mankind, especially in the face of Gnostic threats which claimed that Jesus was just another human being.

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The obsession of the church with the “sins of the flesh” was so severe that it virtually revelled in abnegation and self-torture. There is no other faith which has revelled so much in the distress of its followers. Marina writes

In Christian hagiography, the sadomasochistic content of the paeans to male and female martyrs is startling, from the early documents like the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity into the high middle ages. But the particular focus on women’s torn and broken flesh reveals the psychological obsession of the religion with sexual sin, and the tortures that pile up one upon the other with pornographic repetitiousness underline the identification of the female with the perils of sexual contact.

So the solution for normal women, if not to attain the status of the virgin, was at least to forgo the main failing of the human race – sex, for which she was held responsible – in the hope of bliss in the hereafter. Hence – the institution of the nunnery.

Thus the nun’s state is a typical Christian conundrum, oppressive and liberating at once, founded in contempt of, yet inspiring respect for, the female sex. It is, in this regard, a mirror image of the Virgin Mary herself, the sublime model of the virginal life, the inventrix virginitatis, according to Hroswitha, and the patroness of countless orders of monks and nuns. She is a preeminent and sublime example of woman, who excites love and awe.

Thus, the myth of the Fall and the need for redemption from the same are the main drivers of the creation of the myth of the Virgin.

The arguments operating on the idea of virginity control the entire structure of the myth of the Virgin Mary. For after the Fall, God did not only curse womankind to suffer childbirth in sorrow; he also sentenced all mankind to corruption in the grave. Since Adam and Eve’s sin, sex is tainted by concupiscence, and death disfigured by mortal decay. As a symptom of sin, putrefaction is concupiscence’s twin; and a woman who conquered one penalty of the Fall could overcome the other.

The Assumption

Another crucial pillar to the myth Mary, in addition to her perennial virginity, is the belief that she ascended to heaven bodily. As with all things concerning the virgin, this is also mostly apocryphal. Yet over the years, the Catholic Church enthusiastically adopted it – and it is not difficult to see why. Death and its accompanying putrefaction of the physical body is one of the worst nightmares of the devout Christian. The final judgement, during which all the dead bodies will be made whole again, is an article of faith. So it is unthinkable that the Mother of God, who is without sin, will be subject to the same indignity.

In a precise and literal way, the Virgin embodies the Christian ideals of homogeneity and independence. Through her virginity and Assumption, she expresses the particular interpretation of wholeness of the Catholic Church, and reflects two of its most characteristic aspects: its historical fear of contamination by outside influence, and its repugnance to change. In Buddhism created things at their highest point of fulfilment merge and flow back into nothingness, where all form is obliterated. This is one view of wholeness. The Catholic world’s view could not be more opposite. It longs for the formal, immutable, invincible, constant, unchanging perfection of each resurrected individual. For its most sublime example, it looks to the assumed Virgin.

So the Virgin, whose tomb is still practically untraceable, is said to have been resurrected after her death by Jesus himself, in a sequence of events closely resembling his own resurrection. There she reigns as queen beside her son.

Assumption

‘The Assumption’ by Titian

This royalty was conferred on Mary due to strictly utilitarian needs of the Catholic Church, according to the author. During the Middle Ages, the clergy was facing many threats from a variety of sources such as the iconoclast heresy. To enshrine its place on earth as God’s mouthpiece, it identified itself symbolically with the Virgin, placed her on a throne in heaven, and started pulling their theological weight. However, this policy backfired.

Secular imagery was used to depict the Virgin Mary in Rome by the popes in order to advance the hegemony of the Holy See; and her cult was encouraged because she was in a profound manner identified with the figure of the Church itself. But this triumphalism fostered by the Church was turned on its head in the later middle ages, when temporal kings and queens took back the borrowed symbolism of earthly power to enhance their own prestige and give themselves a sacred character. The use of the emblems of earthly power for the Mother of God did not empty them of their temporal content: rather, when kings and queens wore the sceptre and the crown they acquired an aura of divinity.

The faith which took off from the ideas of the seer who was against all forms of authority and money power had been appropriated by the followers of the people who sent him to the cross.

It would be difficult to concoct a greater perversion of the Sermon on the Mount than the sovereignty of Mary and its cult, which has been used over the centuries by different princes to stake out their spheres of influence in the temporal realm, to fly a flag for their ambitions like any Maoist poster or party political broadcast; and equally difficult to imagine a greater distortion of Christ’s idealism than this identification of the rich and powerful with the good.

Precisely.

The Virgin as Bride

The sacred marriage of the Goddess and her lover was a staple of pagan, pre-Christian Europe. The tale of the king of the sacred grove, married to the Goddess for a year after which he was sacrificed is familiar to everyone through Fraser’s The Golden Bough. By the Middle Ages, the Virgin was also transformed into the Bride of God. However, the church cleverly inverted this metaphor, following the methodology followed by the Jews.

Thus marriage was the pivotal symbol on which turned the cosmology of most of the religions that pressed on Jewish society, jeopardizing its unique monotheism. It is a symptom of their struggle to maintain their distinctiveness that the Jews, while absorbing this pagan symbol, reversed the ranks of the celestial pair to make the bride God’s servant and possession, from whom he ferociously exacts absolute submission.

Even the courtly love of the troubadours, explicitly sexual and ribald initially, transformed into the chaste love an unattainable ideal woman in the Middle Ages: this ideal slowly shaped itself into that of the Madonna, and the Virgin had yet another avatar. However, according to Ms. Warner, this transforming of earthly love into heavenly adoration was just another deception of the church, like the transformation of the virgin into the queen.

The icon of Mary and Christ side by side is one of the Christian Church’s most polished deceptions: it is the very image and hope of earthly consummated love used to give that kind of love the lie. Its undeniable power and beauty do not heal: rather, the human sore is chafed and exposed.

The Immaculate Conception

 

Murillo_immaculate_conception

La Purísima Inmaculada Concepción
by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

One of the biggest pillars of the cult of Mary, along with her virginity and the assumption, is the Immaculate Conception – that is, the virgin too was born without the taint of sex like Jesus Christ. From the viewpoint of a literal believer in the Bible, a woman born with the taint of sex can hardly give birth to an untainted son of God, so this transformation is reasonable. However, this became dogma only in the nineteenth century.

First originating in the apocryphal Book of James, which exalts St. Anne, the concept of the Immaculate Conception was brought to the west from the east. Jesuits took it up vehemently in their arguments with Dominicans. If one follows the history which has been fascinatingly set forth by Marina, this was one concept where myth became dogma through sheer political pressure!

————

Ms. Warner examines many more aspects of the Virgin as mother, the one who provides milk and tears, who wears the sun and the moon for garments, and who intercedes with Jesus and God on the behalf of sinners… in fact, each chapter of this book can be reviewed separately! The author’s comparison of the virgin with the whore, Mary Magdalene, is extremely intriguing:

Together, the Virgin and the Magdalene form a diptych of Christian patriarchy’s idea of woman. There is no place in the conceptual architecture of Christian society for a single woman who is neither a virgin nor a whore.

However, since I need to close this review at some point, I am stopping here. Hopefully I have whetted future readers’ appetite for this seminal work.

————

Marina Warner is not a fan of the cult of the Virgin. As I said before, she does not see Jung’s archetype of the Great Mother in Mary.

Under the influence of contemporary psychology—particularly Jungian—many people accept unquestioningly that the Virgin is an inevitable expression of the archetype of the Great Mother. Thus psychologists collude with and continue the Church’s operations on the mind. While the Vatican proclaims that the Virgin Mother of God always existed, the Jungian determines that all men want a virgin mother, at least in symbolic form, and that the symbol is so powerful it has a dynamic and irrepressible life of its own.

But unlike the myth of the incarnate God, the myth of the Virgin Mother is translated into moral exhortation. Mary establishes the child as the destiny of woman, but escapes the sexual intercourse necessary for all other women to fulfil this destiny. Thus the very purpose of women established by the myth with one hand is slighted with the other. The Catholic religion therefore binds its female followers in particular on a double wheel, to be pulled one way and then the other, like Catherine of Alexandria during her martyrdom.

The Virgin Mary is not the innate archetype of female nature, the dream incarnate; she is the instrument of a dynamic argument from the Catholic Church about the structure of society, presented as a God-given code.

She sees the myth of the Virgin enduring in the years to come, but slowly losing its symbolic power.

————

This book was written in the seventies. The Catholic Church, and Christianity, has come a lot of way since then. Even though there is still the lunatic fringe of Bible literalists vociferously present in the religious arena, metaphorical readings of the Gospels have gained popularity. Maybe this is why Ms. Warner says in her foreword to the new edition:

It’s a long time ago that I lost my faith in Mary, a long time since she was the fulcrum of the scheme of salvation I then believed in, alongside Jesus the chief redeemer. But I find that the symbolism of mercy and love which her figure has traditionally expressed has migrated and now shapes secular imagery and events; Catholic worship and moral teaching no longer monopolize it or control its significance.

As a Hindu child who stared absorbedly at her smiling countenance, or felt his heart wrench at the site of the weeping mother holding the body of her crucified son in her lap, I can identify with that. Totally.

Pieta

Michelangelo’s Pieta

Resurrection Sunday

I have been away from regular blogging for quite some time now, due to travel, personal exigencies and a job change.  Wells, things are settled a bit now, and what better time to restart than this auspicious weekend, when Vishu (the Kerala new year) and Easter come together?

Vishu is always a new beginning for us Malayalees.  We wake up before the sun, and see good things as first thing in the morning – called ‘kani’ (കണി) – fruits, vegetables, gold, an image or idol of Krishna, a piece of new cloth… hoping the new year will bring prosperity. Then there are fireworks until daybreak. The young ones get money from the elders – kaineettam (കൈനീട്ടം); literally, “handout” – and then we have our sumptuous afternoon feast: the “sadya” (സദ്യ).  We hope for the same level of prosperity during the whole year – makes sense to a predominantly agrarian culture.

Easter is also a new beginning for mankind.  In the traditionalist literal Christian narrative, it is the historic day when Jesus Christ arose from the dead and ascended to heaven, thus opening the way for the salvation of man.  If we go to the pagan roots of the festival, it is the perennial regeneration of the sacred king, murdered and rejuvenated in perpetuity – Christianity destroyed the concept of cyclical time and established its myth in linearity.  Easter is also celebrated with feasting after a month of austerity.

On the personal front, I have completed about thirteen years of life as an expatriate and is finally coming back to live in my hometown.  A long-cherished dream of a personal library is also has finally come true.  So it’s a new beginning for me as well: a new phase of life in which I will slowly withdraw from active life and move into a life of contemplation.  Vanaprastha, the third phase of a man’s life according to the Indian ethos, is just around the corner.

So let my blog also take on a new lease of life on this day of renewal!

 

The Divine Charioteer

hitopadesha

One of the forms the Hindu God Krishna is worshipped in is as Partha Sarathi, “Arjuna’s Charioteer”.  This is very curious because we generally consider the job of the charioteer as the medieval equivalent of a driver, definitely not suited to such a charismatic and powerful god.  But this form of Krishna is a key element of his mythos; and we have to dig into the Mahabharata to understand why it is so.

Arjuna and Krishna are inseparable.  According to the Bhagavata Purana, they are the reincarnations of Nara and Narayana, two great sages who themselves are the twin incarnations of Vishnu. Nara (which means “man”) was reborn as Arjuna and Narayana (“god”) as Krishna.  In the Mahabharata, when they join together, they are considered invincible. The concluding sloka of the Bhagavad Gita says

yatra yogesvarah krsno
yatra partho dhanur-dharah
tatra srir vijayo bhutir
dhruva nitir matir mama

(Wherever Krishna is there as the spiritual master, and Arjuna with his bow, there will be prosperity, victory, power and justice – this is my opinion.)

In the Mahabharata, it is difficult to see Arjuna and Krishna other than as a dyad.  Arjuna is the action while Krishna is the intention: one is the body and the other, the soul.  On the battlefield of the Kurukshetra, it is significant that Krishna is unarmed: in fact, that is one of his conditions for joining battle.  His role is solely that of guiding Arjuna and the shaping of war strategies.

The Battlefield of Kurukshetra

The epic of Mahabharata climaxes in the eighteen day battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas (Arjuna’s family), offspring of brothers, for the right to rule Hastinapura.  Krishna, a cousin of the Pandavas, is officially neutral – even though he is morally on the Pandavas’ side.  In the war, Krishna reiterates his neutrality by supplying the whole of his army to Kauravas while himself joining the Pandavas in the capacity of an unarmed strategist.  Significantly, Arjuna chooses him over the army.

Many writers and mythologists have expounded upon the symbolic nature of the Kurukshetra – the battlefield transcends its physical nature and becomes a metaphor for life at the metaphysical level.  Arjuna is man, forever spiritually weak even when physically strong – the guiding hand of Krishna is required at each and every stage to egg him on.

krishna_arjuna_gita

This is epitomised in what is most probably the most significant part of the Mahabharata, when Arjuna breaks down while surveying the enemy army, and seeing all his relatives arrayed against him – whom he will have to kill.  It is then that Krishna imparts the Bhagavad Gita to him – the “Song of the Lord”, a sort of spiritual “pick-me-up” to enable him to go ahead into battle with detachment.

It is not my aim here to analyse the spiritual qualities of the Gita: I am not erudite or qualified enough.  It is the general agreement among historians that it is a later insertion into the epic.  This slim book of eighteen chapters has been elevated to the level of the spiritual text of all time and at the same time, vilified as the mouthpiece of Vedic Brahmanism used to spread their hated caste-riddled religion over the egalitarian Buddhism.  Looking at it impartially, both views have merit.  So we’ll leave the controversy there and concentrate on the roles: the role of Krishna, the spiritual guide and that of Arjuna, his disciple.

Because when the Kurukshetra battlefield moves on to the level of metaphor, we are looking at much beyond a battle of succession of a small kingdom in North India – we are looking at life, and the roles of the self and that of the godhead buried within the collective unconscious.

The Self and the Shadow

I have always felt that Arjuna can never be comprehended without looking at his nemesis and elder brother, Karna.  Arjuna’s equal in archery, Karna is his exact opposite in almost everything.  Born of the sun god Surya out of wedlock to Kunti (interestingly, Arjuna’s father is the rain god Indra) – the mother of the Pandavas – Karna had been cast adrift in the river on a casket (a common mythical motif across the world) and found and raised by sutas, a low caste.  Facing rejection at all points due to his lower social status, Karna is elevated to the position of the king of the kingdom of Anga by Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, and from then on he becomes his fast friend and the sworn enemy of Arjuna, whom he has taken oath to kill.

Karna suffers from a sense of rejection and (it seems) an inferiority complex throughout his life.  He has a fierce pride which has brought him nothing but trouble: a couple of curses earned due to his proud behaviour ultimately prove his undoing on the battlefield.  Contrast this with Arjuna, who is constantly plagued by self-doubt and has to be given a psychological boost by Krishna at intervals!  They make a strange pair – one the dark mirror image of the other.

In this context, I always like to invoke the concept of the Jungian shadow.

From Wikipedia:

In Jungian psychology, “shadow” or “shadow aspect” may refer to (1) an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not identify in itself. Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of one’s personality, the shadow is largely negative, or (2) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious. There are, however, positive aspects which may also remain hidden in one’s shadow (especially in people with low self-esteem, anxieties, and false beliefs). Contrary to a Freudian definition of shadow, therefore, the Jungian shadow can include everything outside the light of consciousness, and may be positive or negative. “Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” It may be (in part) one’s link to more primitive animal instincts, which are superseded during early childhood by the conscious mind.

Carl Jung stated the shadow to be the unknown dark side of the personality. According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to psychological projection, in which a perceived personal inferiority is recognised as a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections remain hidden, “The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand and can realize its object–if it has one–or bring about some other situation characteristic of its power.” These projections insulate and harm individuals by acting as a constantly thickening veil of illusion between the ego and the real world.

Here, I like to think of Karna as Arjuna’s shadow. (This is my very own personal reading, of course.  There have been many erudite studies of the epic in which the social aspect of the caste system has been analysed.  I am not trying to negate any of them – this is just my own personal take. Also, I’m no Jung scholar!)  For every plus in Arjuna, there is a minus in Karna and vice versa.  One is a dark mirror image of the other – brothers, unbeknownst to themselves, each oath-bound to kill the other.

Now let us look at another important character – Karna’s charioteer Shalya.

The Reluctant Charioteer

Shalya, an uncle of the Pandavas, has been tricked into acting as Karna’s charioteer by Duryodhana – because only he has the skills to rival Krishna in the job.  Shalya is distraught that he has to do it, when Krishna offers him the solution: do it, but use the position to continuously denigrate Karna and his capabilities, because that is the only way to take this proud warrior down!

See the contrast – the self-doubting hero who is continuously guided by his charioteer (who reveals himself as god incarnate during the expounding of the Gita); and his proud antithesis (who nevertheless hides a sense of inferiority regarding his social status in his heart of hearts) who is continuously berated by his charioteer, who is supposed to be guiding him.

On the battlefield, at many points when Karna could have won, he loses out due to bad decisions.  One such instance is very illustrative.  Karna has Arjuna in the sights of his bow, and he is aiming for the neck, when Shalya advises him to aim for the chest.  Thinking that his charioteer is trying to sabotage him, Karna ignores him – and Krishna on the other side pushes the chariot down, so that the arrow misses Arjuna’s neck and takes away his crown.  Had Karna aimed for the neck, he would have got him.

Here, Shalya has followed a clever strategy.  As charioteer, he has played fair and advised the warrior he is driving on the correct strategy.  However, by ensuring Karna’s antagonism to him through his taunts, he has made sure that Karna will never listen to him – thus ensuring his defeat.

The Metaphor of the Chariot

It is also instructive to note that Karna is killed by Arjuna when his chariot wheel gets stuck in the soil.  (This apparently treacherous act by a great warrior, even though justified by Krishna, has taken away a lot of his glow and has been the subject of any number of debates.  But that is not our focus here.)  If we are looking at it realistically, the question arises – why should this make a warrior helpless?  He still has his weapons.

Here, I would like to provide my own metaphorical interpretation of the chariot as a symbol for the warrior’s psyche.  Then, the rider is the self – and the charioteer, the godhead which resides within the psyche.  When Arjuna faces a real spiritual crisis, Krishna reveals himself as God incarnate, and by showing his Viswa Roopa (himself as the whole of space and time) illustrates the core of Indian philosophy – namely that the whole of the universe is contained within oneself as one is contained within the universe.  As long as this godhead is guiding the self, the spiritual chariot runs fine – but when it turns hostile, it derails.  And when the self is in constant antagonism with the guide, the chariot inevitably breaks down disastrously.

vishnuvishvarupa

When we look at this way, worshipping the divine charioteer does not seem silly; rather, it does make a lot of sense.  Because if you listen to him, at times of spiritual crisis, you may receive your own Gitopadesha – and your chariot will keep on running.

A Sacred Grove for Serpents

949742014452f212b2409357c1f5cd571 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?

And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

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.

And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

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.

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.

And they heard the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden.

And the Lord God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?

10 And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.

11 And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?

12 And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.

13 And the Lord God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.

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.

In the Old Testament creation myth, the serpent is the villain: it is he who tempts Eve with the “Fruit of Knowledge of Good and Evil”, which God had expressly forbidden mankind from eating.  This results in man’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden (the so-called “Fall”), and the everlasting enmity between man and serpent.

This is true of the Levantine Religions which subscribe to this myth.  But for me, brought up in sylvan landscape of rural Kerala, the snake is an entity to be worshipped.  He is feared, true, but that is because of his power which is enormous when unleashed – a curse from him can affect seven generations, it is said – but he is also revered.  During my childhood, each big house had a corner of their compound set aside for the traditional Sarpakkavu, the sacred “Serpent Grove”.

My family was educated and “enlightened”, so they did not go for this pagan nonsense (they believed in the gods, of course) and I grew up with a healthy contempt for such animistic practices.  As “civilisation” spread and villages became towns and then cities, traditional Kerala homesteads made way for modern terraced villas and multi-storey apartment complexes: and the sacred groves were slowly encroached upon by western style lawns and rose gardens.

Ironically, as I slowly lost my faith in the gods as absolute entities, my creative interest in the spiritual facet of myth grew (helped by the discovery of Joseph Campbell in my early twenties) – and I began to pine for the lost serpent groves: seas of tranquil peace in the hustle and bustle of daily life, where huge centenarian trees stood guard; where the afternoon slept peacefully, and nature woke to lusty and dangerous life at twilight.

The Sacred Grove

The concept of the sacred grove is hardly confined to Kerala, India or the East – It is part of  most of the pagan universe in general.  Sir J. G. Frazer, in his landmark book The Golden Bough, discourses at length about the sacred grove of Diana at Lake Nemi, where the priest-king was ritually killed annually and reincarnated in his successor.  From Wikipedia:

The Golden Bough attempts to define the shared elements of religious belief and scientific thought, discussing fertility rites, human sacrifice, the dying god, the scapegoat and many other symbols and practices whose influence has extended into twentieth-century culture. Its thesis is that old religions were fertility cults that revolved around the worship and periodic sacrifice of a sacred king. Frazer proposed that mankind progresses from magic through religious belief to scientific thought.

golden_boughThis thesis was developed in relation to J. M. W. Turner’s painting of The Golden Bough, a sacred grove where a certain tree grew day and night. It was a transfigured landscape in a dream-like vision of the woodland lake of Nemi, “Diana’s Mirror”, where religious ceremonies and the “fulfillment of vows” of priests and kings were held.

The king was the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth. He died at the harvest and was reincarnated in the spring. Frazer claims that this legend of rebirth is central to almost all of the world’s mythologies.

Curiously enough, the temples of the Goddess in Kerala are called “kavu”s (groves), even when there are no trees present within the compound!  I have always felt that we must have “progressed” from real groves to today’s elaborate structures as patriarchy slowly replaced the pagan matriarchy and the Goddess was subjugated as the consort of God.  At some point of time, the Earth Mother was enslaved by the her consort, who was her son as well – and instead of being the offspring of Gaia, man became her master.  (We all know the impact of this paradigm shift on the environment, but that is another story.)

If the Goddess represents the dark and mysterious female principle, her companion in popularity in Kerala, the snake, represents the male principle.  No wonder he also resides in a grove, and is directly linked with fertility.  People sacrifice at famous snake temples throughout the state for getting offspring and for their continued welfare: in the famous temple at Mannarsala, a down-turned uruli (a flat vessel) is the offering, under which a snake comes to meditate until a child is born to the devout couple (the Freudian and Jungian connections are obvious here).

So, going back to the Biblical myth, I always wonder whether the serpent was a benign deity originally, who was recast into the role of the villain as the Abrahamic myth gained traction?  The fruit he offers Eve makes her aware of her sexuality, and she is henceforth cursed (or blessed?) by God to “bring forth children in sorrow”.  Maybe the Garden of Eden was initially the Grove of the Serpent, and the myth had an entirely different form…

Constructing a Sarpakkavu

Our ancestral home in Thrissur is a huge monstrosity with sprawling grounds.  A few years ago, my sister (who is an artist and a connoisseur of artistically eccentric ideas) decided to create a Sarpakkavu in one corner.  Initially, no one was in support. The traditional method of creating the grove being leaving the area totally unattended, allowing the bushes, trees and creepers to grow at will, soon one corner of our compound was choked with grass and bush.  It became a haven for stray dogs, snakes and everyone was aghast at the unsafe conditions: but my sister doggedly persisted.

Soon, nature took over.  As the big trees began to grow and spread their branches, the shade of the leafy canopy slowly killed off the wild grass, and the floor became more even.  The fallen leaves provided the necessary support for the ground to hold rainwater, and as the soil became more fertile, a miniature forest began to take shape.  Most importantly – snakes which were rampant in our grounds seem to have disappeared, apparently retiring to this piece of heaven created for them.

This is how it looks today.

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While I walked around the area yesterday, I felt positive energy flowing into me: both physically from the oxygen-laden atmosphere and spiritually from the calming presence of the gently swaying trees.  I once again marvelled at the wisdom of paganism, where man instinctively understood his place in the grand scheme of things – not as master, but as a humble cog in the machine.  As I stood absorbed by this tiny ecological paradise in a world largely gone to waste, an old mantra to the Earth Mother, which I learned at my mother’s knee, came up in my mind:

Samudra vasane Devi

Parvata sthana mandale

Vishnu patnim namasthubhyam

Paada sparsham kshmaswa me

(O Goddess, wearing the oceans as your dress and having the mountains for your breasts: Consort of Vishnu, I bow to thee; forgive the touch of my feet…)

To a Bloodthirsty God

https://nandakishorevarma.files.wordpress.com/2016/07/3eea4-ak_47_assault_rifle.jpeg?w=342&h=224

On the first of July, terrorists took over a cafe in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka and brutally hacked 20 hostages to death.  This has (understandably) shook the country and the world at large: especially since attacks against atheists, liberals and religious minorities are on the rise in the country since the past one year.  Predictably, posts lamenting the rise of Islamic fundamentalism (from the non-Muslim Right) and those stressing that this has nothing to do with Islam (from religious apologists) have swamped the social media.

This particular incident, in a world which is growing more and more xenophobic and violent, has set me thinking deeply: for the perpetrators of this outrage were mostly educated youth with middle class backgrounds.  The standard arguments about terrorism among the youth repeated ad nauseum by liberals (including yours truly!) – that mainly impoverished youngsters get sucked into terrorist outfits because it provides them sustenance; that terrorism arises mainly as a reaction against Western imperialist intervention – fall by the wayside here.  This was terrorism in the name of religion, pure and simple: a personal religion based on the hatred of the “other”.  And before my Muslim friends begin to take umbrage, let me reiterate that this kind of interpretation is possible with any faith.

Why?  Why do young people choose this path of hatred?

I have a theory.

I am an atheist for all practical purposes – I consider the concept of a personal god, sitting up there in the cloud distributing blessings to his sycophants and raining down thunderbolts on sinners and non-believers indescribably silly.  So also are the concepts of Indian gods with a multitude of faces and arms and gods who combine traits of animals and humans.  Taken literally, that is.  Once we consider these as metaphors, however, religious myths have an exquisite beauty.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/f/f9/Joseph_Campbell_circa_1982.jpgI discovered Joseph Campbell in my early twenties.  Sadly, I don’t think he is read much now in India.  Campbell allowed me to look at myths, and thereby religion, in a new light.  I could suddenly understand why mythical stories thrilled me even when my rational mind refused to accept them; why I felt rejuvenated when the temple opened the doors of its sanctum sanctorum for the twilight aarathi.  Campbell put me in touch with my inner godhead, where all the journeys lead to, whether they are Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, Islamic or atheist.  This is the seat of the atman, the anatman, the immortal soul.  The various religions and their paraphernalia are all metaphors for the same inexpressible mystery of living – all different masks for the same God.

What we call spirituality is nothing but a name for this inner quest.  In Jungian terms, it is known as individuation; Campbell calls it the “Hero’s Journey”.  This spiritual side is essential to human beings, and in our current times when religion is no longer prominent in society, it is expressed through art and literature.

Bhudevi.jpghttps://i0.wp.com/www.kalibhakti.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Bhairav-Attributes-Kali.jpgBut the spiritual side is not all “good” – in fact, there is no good/ bad dichotomy there.  Everything is accepted.  One of the main aims of the spiritual quests is to go beyond good and evil.  This realm of the divine hosts both the ever-suffering Bhumi (The Earth Mother) as well as the bloodthirsty Kali.

One feature of our current society is the total abnegation of spirituality.  We have become a race of consumers, bent only on the satisfaction of sensual pleasures.  Success and failure are measured only on the basis of material gains: the growth of a country is evaluated solely on the basis of its GDP.  On the educational front, the humanities are frowned upon, seen as a refugee camp for those who cannot make it in the professions or hard science.

In this context, our thirsty spiritual side is desperately hunting for sustenance – and finding it in the call of a bloodthirsty god, worshipped by bigots of all colour.

CGJung.jpghttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9a/Wotan_Abschied.jpgC. G. Jung famously wrote an essay on Wotan, the Norse god of war, which frighteningly foretold the rise of Nazism and its link with the warlike mythology of the Germanic races.  Hitler was but a natural outgrowth of a warrior god who took over the psyche of a disenchanted people – and we know what level of destruction was wreaked on the world.  We do not want such a thing to happen again.

 

But to prevent that, we must reconnect with Indra, Wotan, Zeus, Kali… not in the public sphere but in the realm of the collective unconscious, without the intervention of bigoted middlemen, the self-proclaimed “spokespersons for God”.  We must recognise these entities within ourselves and sublimate them into our psyches.  Otherwise, the bloodthirsty god will carry away his pound of flesh – and this time, humanity may not recover.

 

The Legendary Creator of Kerala

According to popular myth, Kerala was created when Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, threw his axe from Kanyakumari to Gokarnam. The sea moved away along the trajectory of the axe, and a fertile strip of land came out.

ParasuramaI located a book (പരശുരാമൻ: ഒരു പഠനം – “Parasurama: A Study”) on Parasurama at the Kerala Sahitya Akademi bookstore this December. It was a serendipitous find! I never knew such an in-depth study existed.

This book explores the myths and legends about this enigmatic mythical figure. It’s a fascinating read.
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Kerala has a way of taking Indian myth and making it local (I suppose all parts of India do this). Accordingly, the powerful Asura king Mahabali, who conquered all three worlds (heaven, earth and the nether regions) becomes the benevolent potbellied Maveli, erstwhile ruler of Kerala who bears surprising resemblances to aboriginal fertility gods: similarly Parasurama (“Rama with an axe”) becomes the creator of the region.

According to Hindu myth, Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Vishnu, was a Brahmin who behaved more like a warrior: he is mainly known for the mass annihilation of Kshatriya kings, as he traversed the world 21 times. His animosity towards Kshatriyas was born when his father, the sage Jamadagni, was murdered by the kin of King Karthaveeryarjuna. After the genocide, the repentant Parasurama forsook his axe, donated all the captured lands to Brahmins and is currently spending his days in meditation (Sanyasa) – there is no death for him, as he is an immortal.

Parasurama also has the dubious distinction of murdering his mother at his father’s behest. Renuka, Jamadagni’s wife, supposedly was attracted to a Gandharva and therefore guilty of adultery (though only in spirit). Her husband, however, was adamant that she should be killed – among his sons, only Parasurama agreed to do it. The happy sage granted his son whatever boon he wished – and he promptly asked that his mother be restored to life, which was granted.

The above stories illustrate why my mother was wary of telling me stories of Parasurama as a kid. My father belongs to the Royal Family of Cochin (being matrilineal, I don’t, but that’s not relevant here) and my mother apparently did not want her son to grow up hearing stories praising the sworn enemy of her husband’s family. And more obviously, she was highly disturbed by the episode of matricide.

Obviously, Parasurama is an icon of Vedic Brahmanism, and recounts the mythologised history (to a certain extent, at least) of the victory of clergy over royalty. And the story of him killing his mother might be taken as a metaphorical statement of the matriarchal societies of the Indian subcontinent being subdued by the patriarchal Aryans.

However, Parasurama is linked by folklore to many parts of India, most notably the Western Coast and Himachal Pradesh. This fascinating book explores these stories, and try to formulate an image of this bloodthirsty sage, both mythical as well as historical.

Himachal Pradesh and the North
Nirmand
It is in the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh, it seems, that Parasurama is most revered. The locals believe that he was born there, lived there and is still meditating somewhere in the hills. In Nirmand, a village 150 km northeast of Shimla (the state capital) on a hill, is where the famous “Parasurama Kothi” is located. This is a sacred room housing a sacred urn filled with water, which is supposed to represent Parasurama. It also houses a three-faced idol, the face of the sage flanked by “Kala” (Time) and “Kama” (Desire). It is the belief that Parasurama is meditating somewhere inside the Kothi: every twelve years, the “Bhunda” ceremony is carried out with much fanfare.

Legends tell of Parasurama coming here after the death of his parents and meditating for 12 years; and finding no Brahmins to do sacrifices, bringing them from elsewhere and settling them there. There are also stories of the antagonism between the immigrants and the locals, and the assignment of other castes to do the service of Brahmins. These, I found as I moved through the book, is a common theme of the Parasurama legends.

There are also folkloric myths about this sage in Kashmir, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.

The West Coast, Konkan, Goa and Karnataka

The legends on the west coast regarding Parasurama have mostly the following in common:

1. Parasurama donated the land taken from Kshatriyas to Brahmins.
2. He was instrumental in reclaiming land from the sea in various places.
3. Whenever there were no Brahmins available, he elevated the locals to Brahmins (in some cases, even rejuvenating corpses and bones).
4. Many Brahmins lost their status later due to Parasurama’s curse.

The stories reveal an aggressive proselytizer. One could almost say that this was the history of the Aryan migration to the West Coast – but the “Brahminisation” of locals smacks more of a give-and-take affair. Also, in most cases, Parasurama is said to have been abetted by local kings: In contrast to his enmity towards Kshatriyas as mentioned in the Puranas, here we find a man who is hand-in-glove with the local aristocracy.

(A curious fact: Parasurama’s mother Renuka is linked with many Dravidian mother goddesses of South India. Was she the icon of a mother cult which was subjugated by Brahminism? The metaphorical beheading and the subsequent reincarnation seem to point to this.

Renuka_temple_2Another interesting piece of information is Renuka’s identification with Yellamma, a goddess of Karnataka who is now known as a patron of Devadasis, the traditional temple courtesan’s of India. But it seems that Yellamma was originally a goddess for women who wanted freedom from their abusive husbands, and also for those who wanted to live their lives as they liked, without being tied to domesticity. Another example of patriarchal subversion?)

Kerala

Kerala is where Parasurama is really special – because he is supposed to be the creator of the region, and of donating it to Brahmins. According to the local version of the myth, Parasurama threw his axe in disgust from Kanyakumari in the southernmost tip of India to Gokarnam in the north. The sea withdrew from the areas traversed by the axe, and threw up the state of Kerala. The whole area was donated to Brahmins by the sage.

The intricate and peculiar caste system of Kerala Brahmins – the Namputhiris – is partially ascribed to Parasurama through the book Bhargava Smrithi, purportedly condensed by Jagad Guru Adi Sankara as Sankara Smrithi. What is curious is that there is a caste hierarchy within the Brahmins themselves, which is detailed out in another book, again by the sage! Surprisingly, however, there are very few temples dedicated to the sage in this state – the only famous one is the temple at Thiruvallam.

(There is a curious fact I remember from childhood. Parasurama sits in one corner of the famous Vadakkunnatha Temple, dedicated to Siva, at Thrissur. When we used to visit the temple, my father never used to worship there – being a Kshatriya, he was forbidden! Due tour matrilineal system, my mother and I could, because we were technically non-Kshatriyas. Old enmities die hard!)

Conclusion

Parasurama has many facets: the warrior Brahmin, the proselytizer, the yogi and even as creator (in Himachal Pradesh). However, this incarnation of Vishnu remains strangely mysterious, compared to the more famous Rama and Krishna.

I have given only a brief overview of the depth and breadth the Parasurama myths explored in this slim volume. It is an excellent introduction to the subject and has left me gasping for more. I would recommend it to anyone who can read Malayalam. (Being a publication by the Sahitya Akademi, it could get translated at some point of time – but don’t hold your breath.)

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PS: Parasurama is perhaps the only deity in the world who has a train named after him. The Parasuram Express runs from Thiruvananthapuram to Mangalore, tracing the path supposedly taken by Parasurama’s axe.
Parasuram Express

Selling a Myth

The “warrior hero” is a familiar figure in mythology across the world. He is the lone wolf, riding off into battle, killing without passion with the clear realisation that his ultimate destiny is a violent death. He has no personal stakes – he kills because it is his duty (or karma, as per the Bhagavad Gita). Joseph Campbell talks about a samurai who desisted from killing his opponent because he spat at him; because he had made him angry! Killing in anger, in the heat of the moment, is always decried.

This mythical figure is enduring. We see him/ her in science fiction, fantasy, historical romances and tales of the wild, wild west: and also in various bestselling books on “war heroes”, soldiers who showed extreme valour on the battlefield in the World Wars I & II and other sundry battles. Forget the fact that there is seldom anything glorious about war or the gunslinger of the Wild West was most probably a rapacious murderer: we, as a species, do not want historical facts. Mythical truth is more essential.

(Please note that I am not using the term “myth” to denote “falsehood”. In my opinion, myth is an unavoidable part of the human psyche.)

Clint Eastwood must be the one person who used the appeal of this myth to the maximum. His “Man with No Name” characters in the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone are unforgettable portrayals of the warrior hero: the lanky and laconic loner who rides off into the sunset chewing tobacco, smoke streaming from the barrel of his gun. When Eastwood became a director, this figure reappeared again and again, and in the process gained a more rounded and philosophical personality (Pale Rider, Unforgiven). Recently, he has moved away from the Wild West but the hero is still in evidence (Gran Torino).

Pale_RiderUnforgiven_2Gran_Torino_poster

So it was with mixed feelings that I watched American Sniper, the story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American military history. On the one hand, I was confident that Clint would deliver a terrific movie: on the other hand, I was not very comfortable with the “heroism” attributed to Kyle, who had stated

I am a strong Christian. Not a perfect one—not close. But I strongly believe in God, Jesus, and the Bible. When I die, God is going to hold me accountable for everything I’ve done on earth. He may hold me back until last and run everybody else through the line, because it will take so long to go over all my sins. “Mr. Kyle, let’s go into the backroom. . . .” Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean toward is that you know all of your sins, and God knows them all, and shame comes over you at the reality that He knows. I believe the fact that I’ve accepted Jesus as my savior will be my salvation. But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.

This is hardly what you’d expect from a hero! However, the movie did not contain a single objectionable statement. Chris was shown as rather honourable, having pangs of conscience before he shoots down a woman and a child who are carrying lethal weapons. Also, there are plenty of “evil” Iraqis out there (guys like “The Butcher” who drill children to death), so we get a feeling that the director is trying to say: “Look, American intervention in Iraq was not so bad!” This disturbed me, and I decided to read Kyle’s autobiography.

A good thing I did. I could immediately understand what Clint was trying to do – and it was something pretty insidious.

***

Chris Kyle sees the world in black and white: American is good, Texan is excellent, non-American is not-so-good, and Arab is bad. He has no doubt why he is fighting the war in Iraq: it is not to help the Iraqis (as the US government would have us believe), it is to “stop this shit from reaching America”. He has no qualms about killing; rather, he is at pains to tell us, over and over, that he simply loves it. He is not killing because he is a soldier and it is his duty: he became a soldier to kill.

A sample of quotes from the book is given below.

My shots saved several Americans, whose lives were clearly worth more than that woman’s twisted soul. I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job. But I truly, deeply hated the evil that woman possessed. I hate it to this day.

Our ROEs when the war kicked off were pretty simple: If you see anyone from about sixteen to sixty-five and they’re male, shoot ’em. Kil every male you see. That wasn’t the official language, but that was the idea.

The people we were fighting in Iraq, after Saddam’s army fled or was defeated, were fanatics. They hated us because we weren’t Muslim. They wanted to kill us, even though we’d just booted out their dictator, because we practiced a different religion than they did.

Man, this is going to be good, I thought. We are going to kill massive amounts of bad guys. And I’m going to be in the middle of it.

..I went to war for my country, not Iraq. My country sent me out there so that bulshit wouldn’t make its way back to our shores.

I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.

On the front of my arm, I had a crusader cross inked in. I wanted everyone to know I was a Christian. I had it put in in red, for blood. I hated the damn savages I’d been fighting. I always will. They’ve taken so much from me.

The portrait of an extremely juvenile character comes out from the book: a person whose ethical sense has been stunted in his pre-teens. The themes which are repeated again and again – his addiction to video games, the comic book heroes he tries to emulate, his simple pleasure at shooting a human being – presents the picture of a kid who have never really grown up. And he does not even bother to hide his racism; he says he would have shot any Arab carrying a Koran with pleasure, had the higher-ups allowed it.

It’s interesting to see how the tone changes when the Marines and SEALs are at the receiving end. Then people are not “killed” but “murdered”. Also, it’s interesting to hear him lamenting about the fact that the Arabs hate him just because he is a Christian, and that religion should be about tolerance – when he is ready to drop anybody with a Koran.

On top of all this bigoted racism, the book is badly written to boot. Of course, he is not a professional writer, but you would expect some coherence and sequence. The narrative comprises short staccato sentences, repetitive descriptions of Kyle’s kills interspersed with detailed discussions about arms and military vehicles.

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Clint Eastwood’s movie bears no relation to this narrative than the bare outline. By infusing a storyline into it, introducing murderous Iraqi characters and peppering it with philosophical dialogue, Eastwood has tried to present a sympathetic view of Chris Kyle. It’s rubbish.

But what he has accomplished is to make a movie which is astonishingly value neutral. You cannot pick a single incident from it to show its hidden bigotry: the script is expertly written. However, a right-winger can take what he wants from it – a celebration of “America”(see how the movie has been praised by hardliners in the US); a leftist or a liberal will be mildly disturbed, without being able to exactly put his finger on the source of the unease; and a middle-of-the-road person may think: “Well, maybe I’m misjudging those brave marines”.

This movie, declared as anti-war by Eastwood, is nothing of the sort. It is the selling of a myth, after subtly subverting to suit the aims of a murderous colonial power – a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Clint Eastwood ensures commercial success along with the spreading of an obnoxious right-wing philosophy. Unless one catches the subtext, it is liable to percolate into the psyche.

In my opinion, herein lies the danger.

The Returning King

I could not do the usual weekly update of my blog last week as we were busy with the “Onam” celebration of our college alumni here in the United Arab Emirates. “Onam” is the main festival of the people of Kerala in South India. It’s a harvest festival of mirth and plenty, when people are supposed to forget all worries and celebrate four days with song, dance and feasting. We make the “pookkalam” (floral carpet), have a sumptuous “sadya” (feast) in the afternoon, and there are various traditional games. In the Middle East, due to the abundance of expatriates from Kerala, Onam celebrations go on for literally months.

Belief is that the legendary ruler of Kerala, “Maveli”, comes to visit his subjects on that day from his abode in the netherworld: and we have to show him that we all are living in the lap of luxury as we used to during his reign which is regarded as a mythical golden age. As the following famous song says:

“When Maveli ruled the land,

All people were equal,

All people were happy,

And all free from harm…

 

There was no anxiety or disease,

Child deaths were unheard of,

Evil people could not be seen,

There were only the virtuous on earth!

 

There was no deceit or cheating,

Not even a trace of lying,

All the weights and measures,

Were according to the norms…”

 


 

This local king is now strangely entwined with the Asura (demon) king, Mahabali, of Hindu myth who was humbled by Lord Vishnu in his Vamana avatar. According to the original myth, Bali was an Asura – one of the permanent antagonists of the Devas, who are the ostensible “good guys” in the Hindu pantheon (however, their “goodness” is highly questionable). Bali was the grandson of the virtuous Prahlada, a devotee of Lord Vishnu. His only negative personal trait was his pride. Bali conquered all three worlds (heaven, earth and the netherworld).

The Devas were distraught, and rushed to Lord Vishnu as usual to intervene. Vishnu was loath to proceed against his devotee; but the Devas had to be pacified. Also, the god was upset that his devotee was subject to the sin of pride. So he took the form of a Brahmin dwarf (“vamana”) and visited the Asura king during the Aswamedha Yaga (Horse Sacrifice) he was conducting to cement his mastery over the universe. Bali welcomed the Brahmin boy and asked him what he wanted as an offering, according to custom. Vamana asked for the land he could cover in three paces.

King Bali was amused and granted the boon, against the advice of his Guru Shukracharya: and Vamana grew to a massive size, and paced out the earth and netherworld with his first step and the heavens with his second. Then he asked the king for space to put his third step. Bali could now recognise the dwarf for what he was: his lord, out to kill the sin of pride in him. Humbled, the Asura removed his crown and asked Vamana to put the third step on his head.

Lord Vishnu was delighted at the grand gesture of his disciple. Bali became “Maha” (great) Bali on that day: and Vishnu raised him to the region of Sutala, where he could reign forever without pride.

Readings

This myth has been interpreted in many ways. It is a classic story of the humbling of a great person, thus rounding out his virtues – a staple of Hindu myth. It is seen as a symbolic retelling of the treacherous takeover of Dravidian lands by the Aryans through the machinations of wily Brahmins. In Kancha Ilaiah’s book that I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog, there was even a very strange retelling where the Brahmin Vamana crushed the Dalit Mahabali’s head with an iron boot!

The classical myth has been appropriated by the Malayali, and the Asura king has been recreated as Maveli, the ruler of Kerala as mentioned at the beginning (maybe a symptom of the Keralite conceit that all three worlds are contained in his small fertile strip on the southern tip of India). However, the conclusion of the story has been modified and a tailpiece has been added. Instead of setting up Mahabali to rule in Sutala, Vamana kicks him down to Patala, the netherworld. Properly humbled, Maveli begs a boon of Vishnu – to be allowed to visit his subjects once a year, and see his fertile country. Vishnu agrees.

Thus “Onam” is born.

Of course, the country is no longer the egalitarian paradise it was earlier. But we should not let the monarch know that, lest we hurt his feelings: therefore we have to pretend. It is said that one should sell even his ancestral property to celebrate Onam!

The fact that Onam is actually the harvest festival of a bountiful country, and Maveli is supposed to come up from the netherworld, set a lot of mythical wheels turning in my mind. The first thing was the abduction of Persephone by Hades in Greek myth.

Persephone, the daughter of the earth goddess Demeter, was coveted by Hades, the god of the underworld. Demeter did not want her daughter to go permanently underground, so refused marry Persephone off to Hades – and the Lord of the Underworld kidnapped her. The angry Demeter made the earth barren in retaliation. Hades had to return Persephone; but he tricked her into eating the food of the underworld before she came back to earth. Therefore, she had to spend part of the year underground – the winter months. Then she comes up along with the first shoots of spring.

This is an agrarian myth, developed around the annual cycle of the crops: and we can immediately see the parallel in Maveli, who comes back to visit his people during the harvest month of Chingom (August-September). The previous month, Karkidakam, is known as “drought-month”, when torrential rain pours down and many people would have starved in the era when the state was dependent upon the produce of the fields for its livelihood. So the golden sunshine of Chingom would have been seen as really divine – and the larders would have been full after a month of starvation.

I would also like to link this myth with the history of the immolated kings. Joseph Campbell, in his The Masks of God, Vol.I: Primitive Mythology, talks about kings among primitive peoples who were killed at the end of a certain cycle of years, as a form of ritual regicide (there is a curious story about the king of “the south Indian province of Quilacare In Malabar[!]” who publicly used to hack himself to death, but I take this with a pinch of salt). Campbell quotes from Leo Frobenius regarding the mythical significance of this gruesome act.

The great god must die; forfeit his life and be shut up in the underworld, within the mountain. The goddess (and let us call her Ishtar, using her later Babylonian title) follows him into the underworld and after the consummation of his self-immolation, releases him. The supreme mystery was celebrated not only in renowned songs, but also in the ancient new-year festivals, where it was presented dramatically: and this dramatic presentation can be said to represent the acme of the manifestation of the grammar and logic of mythology in the history of the world.

The dying and returning god is a motif which is as old as the hills. Krishna has promised to return every time Dharma weakens in the world. Jesus Christ is supposed to return, once and for all, at the end of the universe.

Our king, Maveli, returns every year to bless us with bounty. And as we Keralites spread out across the world, our king’s visit becomes more and more global.

Ultimately (who knows?) he may conquer the universe once again…