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.)

The Ghost of Manu

Why I read the Manusmriti

A few months back, there was a debate on Facebook regarding the Manusmriti, the ancient Indian law book which was the basis of Hindu law during the British era, and which substantially influences Hindu attitudes today.  Having read parts of it in translation, I minced no words in denouncing it as a toxic document; whereupon a Hindu apologist took it upon himself to denigrate my views, saying that since I had not read the book in the original Sanskrit, I had no business trashing it. He himself claimed to have read it in the original and claimed that it had been misrepresented. Of course he was gaslighting, but I was in no position to call his bluff. So I decided that the only thing would be to read it in the original.

Armed with my high school Sanskrit and a Sanskrit-Malayalam dictionary, I set out to search for an edition of the book with a translation side-by-side. I chanced upon one immediately on the Internet Archive. Further research shows that it is essentially the same as the George Buhler translation (sans commentary) of the so-called Calcutta manuscript with the commentary of Kulluka, considered one of the authoritative texts by many scholars (though its authenticity had been questioned in postmodern times). Whatever be the case, this was the one in circulation since colonial times, so I decided to go with it.

The attempt here is to understand, from the original verses, what Manu said. However, Manu is a mythical character; and one must assume that the text must have been compiled across the ages by various people, as is the case with most ancient Indian texts. So my analysis here focuses on how this compendium of laws have impacted the Indian society, rather than whether it was officially “prescribed”.

The Influence of Manu on Indian Society

Indian society is caste-ridden and patriarchal. And Manusmriti is an instruction manual on how to implement the above. Throughout its verses, two things are reiterated time and again – the superiority of Brahmins versus the inferiority of the “lower” castes, and the total inconsequentiality of women as human beings. Even with all the internal contradictions, these two ideas stand out.

When I started sharing my reading experience on one of the reader’s groups on FB, a section of the members took fierce exception. It was their contention that as a leftist, I was intentionally maligning Hinduism based on a text that no Hindu follows; that the Manusmriti was a straw man of the left to tarnish the lofty ideals of Hinduism. Against this, my argument was simple. No doubt India contains much lofty thought (as laid out in the Upanishads) and the world’s greatest epics; but Indian society was and is one of the most non-egalitarian systems ever implemented in practice. Hardly a day passes without some report about upper-caste atrocities on Dalits (former “untouchables”), for the crime of willing to stand up to their social superiors. And this apparently enjoys the patronage of the Hindu Right.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the feeder organisation of the ruling BJP, was a staunch supporter of Manu’s laws. They vehemently opposed India’s secular constitution when it was implemented, through the organisational mouthpiece, The Organiser, on 30 November, 1949:

“The worst about the new constitution of Bharat is that there is nothing Bharatiya about it. The drafters of the constitution have incorporated in it elements of British, American, Canadian, Swiss and sundry other constitutions. But there is no trace of ancient Bharatiya constitutional laws, institutions, nomenclature and phraseology in it…in our constitution there is no mention of the unique constitutional development in ancient Bharat. Manu’s Laws were written long before Lycurgus of Sparta or Solon of Persia. To this day his laws as enunciated in the Manusmriti excite the admiration of the world and elicit spontaneous obedience and conformity. But to our constitutional pundits that means nothing.”

The RSS ideologue and the inventor of “Hindutva”, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, was an unashamed apologist for Manu.

“Manusmriti is that scripture which is most worship-able after Vedas for our Hindu Nation and which from ancient times has become the basis of our culture-customs, thought and practice. This book for centuries has codified the spiritual and divine march of our nation. Even today the rules which are followed by crores of Hindus in their lives and practice are based on Manusmriti. Today Manusmriti is Hindu Law”

So the argument that Hindus do not follow Manusmriti do not hold water. They may not have read the text; but most orthodox ones do follow the caste laws as well as keep the patriarchal attitudes. And for the right-wing, it is the Bible.

Onward with the review.

Manu’s Laws

After going through text, I am sceptical whether these can be called “laws” – they seem more to be religious and ritualistic norms to be followed by communities. Since in ancient India, civil society was virtually dictated to by the rules of caste, these may have been followed either in full or part: we have no way of knowing. However, it does inform Indian sensibilities to a great extent today.

Chapter 1

The document comprises twelve chapters, each containing various number of verses. The first chapter is basically a creation myth, somewhat akin to what is mentioned in the Purusha Sukta of the Rig Veda; about an omnipotent being who sacrifices himself to produce the universe. This being, called the Swayambhu (“Self-created”), is Manu himself; and he, in the original form of an egg, splits into two to produce heaven and earth, land and water, male and female, all corporeal and incorporeal beings as well as the mind and the spirit. This chapter is enjoyable and poetic, but one does suspect its presence here is to give mythic legitimacy to the caste hierarchy. The verse produced below which has resulted in most of the anger against this document, is illustrative.

1.31. But for the sake of the prosperity of the worlds he caused the Brahmana, the Kshatriya, the Vaisya, and the Sudra to proceed from his mouth, his arms, his thighs, and his feet.

1.88. To Brahmanas he assigned teaching and studying, sacrificing for their own benefit and for others, giving and accepting (of alms).

1.89. The Kshatriya he commanded to protect the people, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study, and to abstain from attaching himself to sensual pleasures;

1.90. The Vaisya to tend cattle, to bestow gifts, to offer sacrifices, to study, to trade, to lend money, and to cultivate land.

1.91. One occupation only the lord prescribed to the Sudra, to serve meekly even these (other) three castes.

The hierarchy is thus established: the supreme being himself creates the castes and assigns their duties. And just in case anyone has a doubt, the superiority of the Brahmin is reiterated later on.

1.96. Of created beings the most excellent are said to be those which are animated; of the animated, those which subsist by intelligence; of the intelligent, mankind; and of men, the Brahmanas;

1.97. Of Brahmanas, the educated; of the educated, the ones who have attained wisdom; of those, those who perform; of the performers, those who know the Brahman.

1.98. The very birth of a Brahmana is an eternal incarnation of the sacred law; for he is born to (fulfil) the sacred law, and becomes one with Brahman.

1.99. A Brahmana, coming into existence, is born as the highest on earth, the lord of all created beings, for the protection of the treasury of the law.

1.100. Whatever exists in the world is the property of the Brahmana; on account of the excellence of his origin the Brahmana is, indeed, entitled to all.

Thus it is very clear that the superiority of the Brahmin is by birth, and not by actions, as claimed by apologists – at least in the Manusmriti. And later he goes on to say that it is the duty of a Brahmin to go forth and teach these laws to everyone, thus endorsing the caste’s supremacy in social justice.

Chapter 2 – 6

These chapters are about the four ashramas of Hindu life: that of the student, called brahmacharya; the householder, called garhastya; the forest-dweller, called vanaprastha; and the ascetic, called sanyasa. It seems it applies mostly only to Brahmins living in northern India called “Aryavarta”, as the other castes are only mentioned in passing.  These chapters detail the rituals people are supposed to follow, and the dire consequences which will happen, if they don’t. It contains some good stuff regarding the respect one should give teachers and parents, the joys of simple vegan living, the need to respect guests, and the respect that must be provided women – spoilt, however, by blatant misogyny, contradictions and just plain silliness.

I really liked the following verses:

2.226. The teacher is the image of Brahman, the father the image of Prajapati (the lord of created beings), the mother the image of the earth, and an (elder) full brother the image of oneself.

2.227. That trouble (and pain) which the parents undergo on the birth of (their) children, cannot be compensated even in a hundred years.

2.228. Let him always do what is agreeable to those (two) and always (what may please) his teacher; when those three are pleased, he obtains all (those rewards which) austerities (yield).

2.229. Obedience towards those three is declared to be the best (form of) austerity; let him not perform other meritorious acts without their permission.

2.230. For they are declared to be the three worlds, they the three (principal) orders, they the three Vedas, and they the three sacred fires.

See here that the mother is also included, as deserving of respect: at odds with Manu’s usual mistrust of women.

But in the self-same chapter we find:

2.213. It is the nature of women to seduce men in this (world); for that reason the wise are never unguarded in (the company of) females.

2.214. For women are able to lead astray in (this) world not only a fool, but even a learned man, and (to make) him a slave of desire and anger.

2.215. One should not sit in a lonely place with one’s mother, sister, or daughter; for the senses are powerful, and master even a learned man.

Similarly, the famous verse which apologists quote, to show how Manu respected women:

3.56. Where women are honoured, there the gods are pleased; but where they are not honoured, no sacred rite yields rewards.

This is followed by a number of verses on the proper upkeep of women, keeping them happy, giving them dresses, jewellery and what-not – because:

3.57. Where the female relations live in grief, the family soon wholly perishes; but that family where they are not unhappy ever prospers.

3.58. The houses on which female relations, not being duly honoured, pronounce a curse, perish completely, as if destroyed by magic.

However, this is all done because:

3.59. Hence men who seek (their own) welfare, should always honour women on holidays and festivals with (gifts of) ornaments, clothes, and (dainty) food.

3.60. In that family, where the husband is pleased with his wife and the wife with her husband, happiness will assuredly be lasting.

3.61. For if the wife is not radiant with beauty, she will not attract her husband; but if she has no attractions for him, no children will be born.

Misogyny strikes again! Women, it seems, are honoured only as baby-producing machines. And it continues:

5.147. By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house.

5.148. In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent.

5.149. She must not seek to separate herself from her father, husband, or sons; by leaving them she would make both (her own and her husband’s) families contemptible.

5.150. She must always be cheerful, clever in (the management of her) household affairs, careful in cleaning her utensils, and economical in expenditure.

5.151. Him to whom her father may give her, or her brother with the father’s permission, she shall obey as long as he lives, and when he is dead, she must not insult (his memory).

5.154. Though destitute of virtue, or seeking pleasure (elsewhere), or devoid of good qualities, (yet) a husband must be constantly worshipped as a god by a faithful wife.

5.155. No sacrifice, no vow, no fast must be performed by women apart (from their husbands); if a wife obeys her husband, she will for that (reason alone) be exalted in heaven.

Even after the death of the husband, the widow is to remain faithful to his memory.

5.156. A faithful wife, who desires to dwell (after death) with her husband, must never do anything that might displease him who took her hand, whether he be alive or dead.

5.157. At her pleasure let her emaciate her body by (living on) pure flowers, roots, and fruit; but she must never even mention the name of another man after her husband has died.

5.158. Until death let her be patient (of hardships), self-controlled, and chaste, and strive (to fulfil) that most excellent duty which (is prescribed) for wives who have one husband only.

The man can, of course, remarry!

5.168. Having thus, at the funeral, given the sacred fires to his wife who dies before him, he may marry again, and again kindle (the fires).

I will not dwell further on these chapters. They are not “laws”, but rather, rituals and social etiquette Brahmins are supposed to follow. I guess the elaborate rituals of Brahmins for all ceremonies stem from this text, though being a non-Brahmin, I can’t say for sure.

I seriously doubt whether anyone would be able to follow the austerities prescribed for vanaprastha and sanyasa – I think they must have been practised rarely, if at all.

I will close my review of these chapters with one blatant contradiction which strengthens my belief that this text must have been edited across the years.

5.48. Meat can never be obtained without injury to living creatures, and injury to sentient beings is detrimental to (the attainment of) heavenly bliss; let him therefore shun (the use of) meat.

5.52. There is no greater sinner than that (man) who, though not worshipping the gods or the manes, seeks to increase (the bulk of) his own flesh by the flesh of other (beings).

Good stuff, isn’t it? Bolsters our idea of Hinduism as an essentially pacifist and refined religion. But then, we find this immediately afterwards…

5.56. There is no sin in eating meat, in (drinking) spirituous liquor, and in carnal intercourse, for that is the natural way of created beings, but abstention brings great rewards.

A person cannot have such a change of mind in the space of four verses!

Chapter 7 – 8

These chapters enumerate the duty of kings – and here we do find something akin to the “laws” that all of us familiar with: about civil disputes and criminal proceedings. These chapters are quite detailed in how a king must settle land and domestic disputes; how much fines and levies he should impose; what punishments, corporal and otherwise, he must mete out. The instructions are as exhaustive and dry as a modern-day law manual.

The king is supposed to rule by an iron hand: the famed “danda-neethi” where fear of punishment ensures a just society. Manu writes:

7.18. Punishment alone governs all created beings, punishment alone protects them, punishment watches over them while they sleep; the wise declare punishment (to be identical with) the law.

7.22. The whole world is kept in order by punishment, for a guiltless man is hard to find; through fear of punishment the whole world yields the enjoyments (which it owes).

The king is also supposed to be brave and warlike, and always ready to fight.  He should always be steadfast in battle.

7.103. Of him who is always ready to strike, the whole world stands in awe; let him therefore make all creatures subject to himself even by the employment of force.

Even though he wants the king to be a tough disciplinarian and warmonger, Manu wants him to stay away from all vices, be fair in battle, and never oppress his people.

7.111. That king who through folly rashly oppresses his kingdom, (will), together with his relatives, ere long be deprived of his life and of his kingdom.

7.112. As the lives of living creatures are destroyed by tormenting their bodies, even so the lives of kings are destroyed by their oppressing their kingdoms.

7.144. The highest duty of a Kshatriya is to protect his subjects, for the king who enjoys the rewards, just mentioned, is bound to (discharge that) duty.

So much for the good stuff. But throughout these instructions to royalty, one thing is reiterated again and again – Brahmins are the best among creation and they have to get preferential treatment, and must be protected at all times. Those who go against them must be dealt with very severely.

7.88. Not to turn back in battle, to protect the people, to honour the Brahmanas, is the best means for a king to secure happiness.

8.267. A Kshatriya, having defamed a Brahmana, shall be fined one hundred (panas); a Vaisya one hundred and fifty or two hundred; a Sudra shall suffer corporal punishment.

8.268. A Brahmana shall be fined fifty (panas) for defaming a Kshatriya; in (the case of) a Vaisya the fine shall be twenty-five (panas); in (the case of) a Sudra twelve.

8.270. A once-born man (a Sudra), who insults a twice-born man with gross invective, shall have his tongue cut out; for he is of low origin.

8.271. If he mentions the names and castes (jati) of the (twice-born) with contumely, an iron nail, ten fingers long, shall be thrust red-hot into his mouth.

8.272. If he arrogantly teaches Brahmanas their Dharma, the king shall cause hot oil to be poured into his mouth and into his ears.

8.279. With whatever limb a man of a low caste does hurt to (a man of the three) highest (castes), even that limb shall be cut off; that is the teaching of Manu.

8.280. He who raises his hand or a stick, shall have his hand cut off; he who in anger kicks with his foot, shall have his foot cut off.

8.281. A low-caste man who tries to place himself on the same seat with a man of a high caste, shall be branded on his hip and be banished, or (the king) shall cause his buttock to be gashed.

8.282. If out of arrogance he spits (on a superior), the king shall cause both his lips to be cut off; if he urines (on him), the penis; if he breaks wind (against him), the anus.

8.283. If he lays hold of the hair (of a superior), let the (king) unhesitatingly cut off his hands, likewise (if he takes him) by the feet, the beard, the neck, or the scrotum.

While such are the stringent punishments for “low-caste” people for presuming to go against their betters, it is vastly different in the case of Brahmins.

8.379. Tonsure (of the head) is ordained for a Brahmana (instead of) capital punishment; but (men of) other castes shall suffer capital punishment.

8.380. Let him never slay a Brahmana, though he have committed all (possible) crimes; let him banish such an (offender), leaving all his property (to him) and (his body) unhurt.

8.381. No greater crime is known on earth than slaying a Brahmana; a king, therefore, must not even conceive in his mind the thought of killing a Brahmana.

However, here also Manu surprises with his contradictions. In one place, he says no one is free from punishment and even increases the punishment based on the caste!

8.337. In (a case of) theft the guilt of a Sudra shall be eightfold, that of a Vaisya sixteenfold, that of a Kshatriya two-and-thirtyfold,

8.338. That of a Brahmana sixty-fourfold, or quite a hundredfold, or (even) twice four-and-sixtyfold; (each of them) knowing the nature of the offence.

But there is no doubt about the social level of the Sudra:

8.413. But a Sudra, whether bought or unbought, he may compel to do servile work; for he was created by the Self-existent (Svayambhu) to be the slave of a Brahmana.

8.414. A Sudra, though emancipated by his master, is not released from servitude; since that is innate in him, who can set him free from it?

8.416. A wife, a son, and a slave, these three are declared to have no property; the wealth which they earn is for him to whom they belong.

8.417. A Brahmana may confidently seize the goods of the Sudra; for, as he can have no property, his master may take his possessions.

And the women? They have absolutely no voice in this society; they cannot bear witness; cannot even talk to a male without the charge of adultery being laid on them. They are little more than property. But it is the next chapter, which describes the relationship between man and wife, that wins all awards for misogyny hands down.

Chapter 9

Manu’s concept is that the male is the seed and the female is the field: and her only duty in life is to keep herself pure for receiving and nurturing the seed, and producing a fine (male) offspring worthy of his father. Here are a few verses to give you a flavour of Manu’s idea of “woman”:

9.2. Day and night woman must be kept in dependence by the males (of) their (families), and, if they attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one’s control.

9.3. Her father protects (her) in childhood, her husband protects (her) in youth, and her sons protect (her) in old age; a woman is never fit for independence.

9.13. Drinking (spirituous liquor), associating with wicked people, separation from the husband, rambling abroad, sleeping (at unseasonable hours), and dwelling in other men’s houses, are the six causes of the ruin of women.

9.14. Women do not care for beauty, nor is their attention fixed on age; (thinking), ‘(It is enough that) he is a man,’ they give themselves to the handsome and to the ugly.

9.15. Through their passion for men, through their mutable temper, through their natural heartlessness, they become disloyal towards their husbands, however carefully they may be guarded in this (world).

9.16. Knowing their disposition, which the Lord of creatures laid in them at the creation, to be such, (every) man should most strenuously exert himself to guard them.

9.17. (When creating them) Manu allotted to women (a love of their) bed, (of their) seat and (of) ornament, impure desires, wrath, dishonesty, malice, and bad conduct.

In all the verses that follow regarding nuptial laws and disputes, the status of the woman as a “baby-machine” is constantly stressed. I have quoted only a few choice ones above.

In the middle of the chapter, once again the sage starts rambling, talking about the duties of the king and how he must never ever cause displeasure to a Brahmin:

 9.313. Let him not, though fallen into the deepest distress, provoke Brahmanas to anger; for they, when angered, could instantly destroy him together with his army and his vehicles.

9.314. Who could escape destruction, when he provokes to anger those (men), by whom the fire was made to consume all things, by whom the (water of the) ocean was made undrinkable, and by whom the moon was made to wane and to increase again?

9.315. Who could prosper, while he injures those (men) who provoked to anger, could create other worlds and other guardians of the world, and deprive the gods of their divine station?

9.316. What man, desirous of life, would injure them to whose support the (three) worlds and the gods ever owe their existence, and whose wealth is the Veda?

9.317. A Brahmana, be he ignorant or learned, is a great divinity, just as the fire, whether carried forth (for the performance of a burnt-oblation) or not carried forth, is a great divinity.

9.318. The brilliant fire is not contaminated even in burial-places, and, when presented with oblations (of butter) at sacrifices, it again increases mightily.

9.319. Thus, though Brahmanas employ themselves in all (sorts of) mean occupations, they must be honoured in every way; for (each of) them is a very great deity.

This theme gets repeated again and again as the text progresses. And let there be no doubt – Brahmins are superior by birth, and not by karma! Though a Brahmin may lose caste due to bad karma, a Sudra will never get into a higher caste – other than in his next birth.

Chapter 10-11

These two chapters delineate the caste duties, and the various punishments one suffers in this world and the next, for not carrying them out, and also the penances for saving oneself: and also, the constant insistence on the excellence of Brahmins. It is quite interesting from another viewpoint, however – here Manu explains the origin of various castes, ostensibly created by the “mixing of the varnas”. It is an exercise in permutation and combination that sets the mind reeling by the time one reaches the second page.  For anyone interested in an enumeration, Dr. Ambedkar does a fine job in Riddles of Hinduism.

What interested me here especially was the description of the so-called “unclean” castes – mostly the forerunners of modern-day Dalits. The following verses were illustrative:

10.51. But the dwellings of Kandalas and Svapakas shall be outside the village, they must be made Apapatras, and their wealth (shall be) dogs and donkeys.

10.52. Their dress (shall be) the garments of the dead, (they shall eat) their food from broken dishes, black iron (shall be) their ornaments, and they must always wander from place to place.

10.53. A man who fulfils a religious duty, shall not seek intercourse with them; their transactions (shall be) among themselves, and their marriages with their equals.

10.54. Their food shall be given to them by others (than an Aryan giver) in a broken dish; at night they shall not walk about in villages and in towns.

10.55. By day they may go about for the purpose of their work, distinguished by marks at the king’s command, and they shall carry out the corpses (of persons) who have no relatives; that is a settled rule.

10.56. By the king’s order they shall always execute the criminals, in accordance with the law, and they shall take for themselves the clothes, the beds, and the ornaments of (such) criminals.

I am reminded here of the “Harijan Bastis” commonly found in North India, a space outside the village the Dalits are supposed to live, and not “pollute” the higher castes who reside there. This seems to be historical justification for their plight.

Chapter 12

The last chapter seems to be an attempt to create a philosophical underpinning to the law-book. It talks about the three “gunas” (qualities) which make up all beings on earth: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. It also talks about the atman as the “purusha” pervading all beings. But this is “philosophy lite”, as the main aim is to declare the excellence of the Vedas.

12.95. All those traditions (smriti) and those despicable systems of philosophy, which are not based on the Veda, produce no reward after death; for they are declared to be founded on Darkness.

12.96. All those (doctrines), differing from the (Veda), which spring up and (soon) perish, are worthless and false, because they are of modern date.

Conclusion

The Manusmriti may not be a text that has any religious significance for a Hindu: in fact, it may not have been implemented in full or part any time. But in its hidebound casteism, its atrocious treatment of Dalits and women, it mirrors the mind of modern Indian society in practice. One only needs to scan through any Indian newspaper or one’s FB feed – through the stories of atrocities perpetrated on Dalits and women raped and humiliated – to see the ghost of Manu dancing gleefully on our sacred soil.

It is high time we exorcised it.

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!

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.

say-what-001.jpgnotes-on-chai-002.jpgnerves-001.jpg

 

 

 

 

 

(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!

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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.

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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.

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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…)