The Divine Charioteer

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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.

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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.

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

A Sacred Grove for Serpents

949742014452f212b2409357c1f5cd571 Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

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

But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

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

For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:

15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.

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

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

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

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

The Sacred Grove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Constructing a Sarpakkavu

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

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

This is how it looks today.

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

Samudra vasane Devi

Parvata sthana mandale

Vishnu patnim namasthubhyam

Paada sparsham kshmaswa me

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

To a Bloodthirsty God

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

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

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

I have a theory.

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

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

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

Bhudevi.jpghttps://i2.wp.com/www.kalibhakti.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Bhairav-Attributes-Kali.jpgBut the spiritual side is not all “good” – in fact, there is no good/ bad dichotomy there.  Everything is accepted.  One of the main aims of the spiritual quests is to go beyond good and evil.  This realm of the divine hosts both the ever-suffering Bhumi (The Earth Mother) as well as the bloodthirsty Kali.

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Legendary Creator of Kerala

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The West Coast, Konkan, Goa and Karnataka

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

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

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

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

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

Kerala

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

Selling a Myth

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

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

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

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

Pale_RiderUnforgiven_2Gran_Torino_poster

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

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

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

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

***

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

A sample of quotes from the book is given below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In my opinion, herein lies the danger.

The Returning King

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

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

“When Maveli ruled the land,

All people were equal,

All people were happy,

And all free from harm…

 

There was no anxiety or disease,

Child deaths were unheard of,

Evil people could not be seen,

There were only the virtuous on earth!

 

There was no deceit or cheating,

Not even a trace of lying,

All the weights and measures,

Were according to the norms…”

 


 

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

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

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

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

Readings

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

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

Thus “Onam” is born.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Hindus – An Alternative History” – Controversy and Truth

The Controversy

In 2011, Mr. Dinanath Batra, head of the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samithi (“Committee for the Struggle to Save Education”) in India brought a case against the book The Hindus – An Alternative History by the American Indologist and scholar Wendy Doniger. The lawsuit was filed under Section 295A of Indian Penal Code (a leftover of the colonial era) which punishes deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage the feelings of any religious community. The case went to litigation in February 2014. Rather than fight it out, Penguin decided to withdraw the book from publication in a phased manner in six months and pulp the remaining copies.

There was widespread outrage from freethinkers and intellectuals: concerns were raised that free speech was under threat in India. While this is hardly a unique incident – any book, play or movie which was likely to “wound religious sentiments” gets an immediate ban in India: The Satanic Verses is the most prominent example – the fact that it happened to a book by a recognised scholar justified the misgivings to a certain extent. If the trend caught on, any kind of interpretation of myth, history or literature than the officially sanctioned version would become impossible. From this to theocracy is only a small step.

Of course, with all the hullabaloo, I simply had to read the book! (I suspect many others also felt the same. According to reports, the book was being sold clandestinely in many places in India. And it is available on the net. On the whole, Mr. Batra seems to have acted as Ms. Doniger’s publicist, unwittingly.) Fortunately people have uploaded PDF copies all over the web, and locating one was not very difficult.

A Parallel History

Wendy Doniger is a scholar – but her book is not scholarly. It is aimed at the general reader. The style is chatty with a lot of sarcastic humour (actually a drawback – we will get to it later). The author has not proceeded like a conventional historian, rather her attempt has been to “set the narrative of religion within the narrative of history, as a linga (an emblem of the god Shiva, often representing his erect phallus) is set in a yoni (the symbol of Shiva’s consort, or the female sexual organ), or any statue of a Hindu god in its base or plinth (pitha).” That is, she concentrates on the religious and social narrative within the framework of history, rather than the “hard and true” facts which have been proved by archaeology.

And so this is a history not of what the British used to call maps and chaps (geography and biography) but of the stories in hi-story. It’s a kind of narrative quilt made of scraps of religion sewn in next to scraps of social history, a quilt like those storytelling cloths that Indian narrators use as mnemonic devices to help them and the audience keep track of the plot. The narrator assembles the story from the quilt pieces much as the French rag-and-bones man, the bricoleur, makes new objects out of the broken-off pieces of old objects (bricolage).

Ms. Doniger uses two metaphors for the way she has interpreted the history of Hinduism. The first is a common optical illusion, reproduced below:

With a little effort, one can see both the rabbit and the bird. This is a common property of optical illusions – our eyes pick up a pattern of markings and impose an image on them. According to Wendy, this is equally true in the case the craters on the moon, which Westerners have interpreted as the face of a man, and Indians, as a rabbit. She says:

The image of the man in the moon who is also a rabbit in the moon, or the duck who is also a rabbit, will serve as a metaphor for the double visions of the Hindus that this book will strive to present.

Whatever we currently accept as part of “Hinduism” (a problematic concept in itself) has been garnered from the “official” versions, the Sanskrit texts written down by the persons who had the power and the privilege. However, this forms only a very small part of the culture of India. Most of the narrative of Hinduism is spread along a multitude of people belonging to various castes and regions: the tales of the so-called “subaltern” groups who have had no voice in the major part of the history of this great subcontinent. The author analyses these submerged histories along with the well-known ones so a kind of double-vision is also required on part of the reader – now seeing the rabbit, now seeing the bird.

Available Light

The second metaphor is a Sufi parable about Mulla Nasrudin.

Someone saw Nasrudin searching for something on the ground. “What have you lost, Mulla?” he asked. “My key,” said the Mulla. So they both went down on their knees and looked for it. After a time the other man asked: “Where exactly did you drop it?” “In my own house.” “Then why are you looking here?” “There is more light here than inside my own house.”

One could take this as just a funny story or a profound vignette on searching for the truth in the correct (or incorrect) place. Wendy Doniger adapts it to the analysis of Indian history in the following manner:

This Sufi parable could stand as a cautionary tale for anyone searching for the keys (let alone the one key) to the history of the Hindus. It suggests that we may look for our own keys, our own understandings, outside our own houses, our own cultures, beyond the light of the familiar sources.

That is, we may be searching entirely in the wrong place, for the wrong key: even if we find it, it may be different for each person, depending upon his or her background. Also, one can only search where light is available – and many areas of Indian history are still shrouded in darkness.

A Detailed Analysis of Indian History and Culture

Ms. Doniger analyses the Indian civilisation by dividing it into recognisable periods. Starting with the Indus Valley Civilisation, it moves down in time through the nomadic Aryans and their Vedas; as the Aryans get civilised, the Vedas give rise to the more philosophical Upanishads – religion moves away from ritual to introspection. Then as the cities rise up and urbanisation kicks in, the beliefs get codified into “Dharma Shastras” (as exemplified by the code of Manu), and religion becomes more organised and rigid – the four “Varnas” (colours) or castes are born and a large group of people are marginalised as being outside the system (at the same times, money and love also get their own shastras!). Buddhism rises and declines and Hinduism resurges in the South under the Bhakti movement. In some parts of India, an esoteric discipline called “Tantra” is born.

It was into this dynamic civilisation that Islam entered: first as the so-called “Slave” dynasty of Muhammad Ghori and later, as the Mughal dynasty established by Babur. However, far from the Islamisation of India, Hindus and Muslims traded cultural elements across religious boundaries which enriched both religions. Then the Western powers came as traders and established themselves as colonialists, Britain winning out over the others in India. Yet even though their main aim was the assimilation of lucre, India changed them also – and Hinduism also underwent yet another transformation, absorbing modern values and adapting to the changing world, which has been its strength all through history.

I will not undertake a detailed analysis of Ms. Doniger’s book here. It will be a Herculean task (or in the current context, a “Bhageeratha Prayatna“), and I doubt whether I have the time and expertise. Rather, I will record here what I liked (and disliked) about the book.

First, the positives:

  1. Doniger’s scholarship. The sheer amount of books which have been read (and analysed) by this lady is breath-taking. It does not involve Sanskrit texts alone, but many narratives in the vernacular across the length and breadth of India.
  2. The impartiality of her analysis. Across these 700 – odd pages, the author has been at pains to present both sides of the question. For example, she does not present the Muslim conqueror as a fanatical religious marauder, neither does she picture him as a benign ruler – rather, he is in search of loot when he pillages temples. Similarly, the British rulers are shown as mainly interested in making money: governance is only incidental. Also, she does not picture the upper-caste Hindu as an epitome of evil out to destroy Buddhists and harass Pariahs, but rather as a pluralist who is however, not without his prejudice.
  3. Doniger has analysed the epics and myths of India in detail, pulling no punches. Kudos to her for recognising that The Mahabharata is, in its heart of hearts, an anti-war document: also for mentioning the many Ramayanas which are scattered across India (contesting the Hindu Right’s picturisation of Rama as the “Maryada Purushottama” which is derived from Tulsidas’s interpretation and not from Valmiki). Some of her contentions, like the undercurrent of sexual attraction between Lakshmana and Sita may disturb traditional Hindus, but she always provides documentary evidence for her conclusions.
  4. The largely marginalised status of women and the Dalits are forcefully etched out by the author, at the same time highlighting that all was not darkness. Like much else to do with Hinduism, here also a multitude of narratives intermingle and intersect.

The negatives (I could find only one – but that, I believe, have contributed seriously to the book’s controversial status):

  1. The author’s tone. The snarky humour she pokes at everything must have done a lot, I am sure, to put people off. It is not always edifying to be made fun of, especially about something which one considers sacred.

It is easy to see why “The Hindus – An Alternative History” angers conservative Hindus. Of late, they have been at pains to present Hinduism as a monolithic religion: the Sanatana Dharma, or “Eternal Law”, going against the teeth of all evidence. Indian literature talks of four methods of coercion: Sama (peaceful verbal coercion), Dana (bribery), Bheda (threats) and Danda (physical abuse). All four have been tried against the intellectuals and academics who have disputed this view. In his complaint against the book, Mr. Dinanath Batra has said that it is “riddled with heresies”. This is the height of tragic irony, as there is nothing in Hinduism called heresy – its very strength is its pluralism, the ability to assimilate anything into its fold.

America calls its culture the “Melting Pot”, where various nationalities are fused together to form a single culture. In contrast, Canada calls itsel the “Salad Bowl” – where all cultures are mixed together, yet each keeps its own identity. In the case of India, the cultures fuse together, yet also maintain their identity.

In Kerala, we have a tasty curry called “Avial“. It is made from bits and pieces of all kinds of vegetables and roots. Legend has it that Bhima invented this curry during his stint disguised as a cook in King Virata’s palace. The Avial has its own distinct taste – but if you savour it slowly, you can distinguish the different vegetables.

Hinduism is the world’s Avial.

Enjoy it!

The Realm of Faerie

And you love take my right hand,

Come join the faery folks’ last dance;

Then we’ll sleep and dream of Elfland,

Her wizardry and wild romance.

Wheldrake,

The Elvish Rune,

1877

 

I am currently going through the Harry Potter series (yes, I know I’m terribly late!) and I have been marvelling at J. K. Rowling’s mastery in the mixing of the traditional British school story and Celtic fairy-lore. For kids of my generation who grew up on Enid Blyton, fairy-folk like pixies and brownies were childhood playmates; there was something fascinating about the enchanted woods just over the hedge, populated by these fascinating creatures. Blyton purposefully avoided the disturbing and frightening aspects of these creatures, and they were transformed into something like mischievous little children with magical powers. The illustrations also helped.

Running in parallel to these stories were narratives of a different kind of woodland beings. These inhabited not the calm and peaceful copses of temperate England, but the shadowy forests of tropical Kerala. Consequently I think, they were more frightening and violent. The Yakshi who enticed you in the form of a beautiful lady, only to eat you up; the Gandharvan who bewitched young ladies with beautiful music; the Thendan who followed you on dark, deserted paths and hit you if you looked back… What separated these stories from Enid Blyton’s tales were the fact that they were real, in the here and the now. These beings inhabited your backyard.

As I grew up, these magical beings were relegated to the attic of my mind; stowed away, but never discarded and never entirely forgotten. I had more pressing concerns now like studies and the angst of growing up (partial differential equations were more terrifying than any Yakshi). However, my yearning for magical lands and fantastic beings survived in the form of a deep love of fantasy and science fiction, and a growing interest in mythology. And when I discovered Joseph Campbell, it was as though a kindred spirit was calling to me across the ages. I understood that mythology is not just beautiful stories: it is an integral part of our psyche.

The faerie folk lives within us.

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I found this entry on “fairy” in The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan.

Once they were divine; the TUATHA DE DANANN, the children or the people of the goddess DANU. According to the mythological history of Ireland, the BOOK OF INVASIONS, the Tuatha De were the penultimate invaders of the island, wresting control from the sturdy dark FIR BOLG and the fierce FOMORIANS. When the final invaders came, the Tuatha De went the way of their enemies, being defeated in the great battle of TAILTIU by the Sons of Mil or MILESIANS.

The Milesians did not evict the defeated race from Ireland; instead, a deal was made that the Tuatha De would take the underside of the world while the Milesians ruled the surface. Through this curious treaty the ancient race remained within the hills, under the bogs, and in other liminal areas of Ireland, where they transformed into fairy people. Sometimes the story of their fall from power was connected to the Christian story of the angels’ fall from heaven, and the fairies were thus described as fallen angels.

One can immediately see the similarity to theory that the Asuras and Rakshasas of Indian myth were actually earlier inhabitants of India, vanquished by the invading Aryans. Similarly, the Devil is nothing but a fallen angel. So it seems that the protagonists of myth are always the beings of light who dwell on the surface; the antagonists, the beings of darkness beneath. Traditionally, according to the historical analysis of myth, the winners are thought to have written history with themselves as the gods and the conquered race as demons.

In my opinion, even though there may be some historical background to these legends, the roots run much deeper – all the way down into our subconscious.

Note that in ancient myths, even though the gods win, the demons are never fully vanquished. They only retreat temporarily, to come back with renewed vigour. In the same vein, the fairies have retreated to the “underside” – they dwell there in an uneasy truce with the ordinary beings “on the surface”. However, one has to be very careful never to cross into the no-man’s land, the twilight zone between the worlds. There are bloodcurdling tales.

Kidnappings by fairies are quite common: they steal the souls of brides, who waste away in real life, while the soul is made to spend its time continuously dancing in the fairy kingdom (a legend used to great effect by Susanna Clarke in the novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel). There is also the terrifying story of the changeling, the fairy child swapped with a human child – a common trope in many fantasy and horror stories. There is the irritating goblin who can turn outright malevolent on occasion. There are also helpful fairies like the brownies and mischievous spirits like the pixies – the so-called little people – who also may turn nasty if not properly treated.

Back home in Kerala, the legends are even more blood-curdling. The Yakshi waylays unsuspecting males in the guise of a nubile young girl and entices them up the palm tree where she lives; for the unfortunate soul, it seems like he is entering a palatial mansion. As soon as the light goes off, the ogress changes back into her terrifying form and eats the would-be Romeo up. The Thendan follows you on deserted pathways; if you turn to look at him, he gives you such a slap that you fall down unconscious. If you are lucky, you will wake up with a fever. The Gandharvan is handsome and sings beautifully so that girls are easy meat for him – however, once a girl is in a Gandharvan‘s clutches, woe betide any male who goes near her.

Sarpakkavu (image courtesy: http://www.karmakerala.com)

Many of the houses in rural Kerala used to have what is called a Sarpakkavu (“Snake Grove”). This is a wooded area on the grounds which is set aside for the divine snakes, who partakes of offerings and drinks milk left for them. They are the protectors of the family; but if you cross them, the whole dynasty will be cursed, especially the children.

Most our temples in Kerala still have “gods” who cannot be accommodated inside, as their character is not wholly beyond reproach. They are accommodated outside under the banyan tree (which is a standard fixture for any temple) or at the back of the temple. The Thendan I mentioned earlier sits under the banyan tree of our local temple – I can still remember the twinge of fear as I used to pass its idol in the night. (By the way, my wife’s family house had four gods in the backyard until recently – so the concept is still not dated!)

The feeling one gets from these legends are of a world in an uneasy balance. Unlike Christian mythology, where God is unconditionally good and the Devil incorrigibly Evil, the faerie folk are somewhere in-between – like us humans. They have been pushed “beneath”, but they can come up any time and drag us down if we are not careful.

***

Humanity started out in the jungles: the race memories of a dark and frightening past hide inside the collective unconscious and still haunt us. These are what Joe Campbell calls the “Inherited Image” – like the image of the hawk that the chickens will run away from, even when they have never seen a hawk in life. These are the symbols which lie deep inside the psyche and provide fodder for much of our art, literature and myth.

And the prevalence of the faerie folk inside the enchanted forests all over the globe assures us that underneath we are all the same.

The Tree, the Serpent and the Eagle – Mythical Musings

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

***


Imagine this scene…

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

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

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

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

The girls are indignant. Krishna smiles.

Ask nicely, girls. With folded hands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The explanation runs thus:

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

The tree is the symbol of spirituality.

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

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

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

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

And the tree?

The Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attains enlightenment.

Yggdrasil, the tree of life, in Norse mythology.

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

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

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

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

To move away from the Yggdrasil…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

The tree is conspicuous also in the Biblical creation myth.

Genesis 2

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

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


And the Sepent…

Genesis 3

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

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

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

Genesis 3

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

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

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

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

From the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Chapter 4, Verse 10:

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

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

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

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

How can he return?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Let’s leave the serpent and visit the eagle.

This is from Encyclopedia Mythica

Garuda

by Sumanta Sanyal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A marriage of heaven and hell?


Rama and The Hero’s Journey

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

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

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

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

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

I believe myth is experienced by each of us individually.

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

***

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

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

And who are the dwellers of this forest?

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

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

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

The First Journey: Adolescence to Manhood

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

This, then is the journey into adulthood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Journey: Phase One: Honeymoon in the Forest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The motif of desire again…

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

But is she his fully?

Think of the broken bow…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phase Two: Meeting One’s Nemesis

 

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

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

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

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

We will meet him later on.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And why monkeys?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then why the trial by fire?

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

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

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

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