A Blog on Mythology and occasionally on Reality.


This is a Blog on Mythology, both Indian and World and especially the analysis of the myths.

In effect, the interpretation of the inherent Symbolism.


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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Earthquakes

In earlier articles, we discussed mountains (26/08/10), volcanoes (31/08/10), eclipses (22/10/10), etc. Another important aspect of nature’s fury has been Earthquakes. Something as horrendous and destructive could not be outside the realm of people’s imagination or should I say creative justification? So how did our early civilisations see or understand Earthquakes? Let’s go through some of them –

According to the Greek Mythology, Poseidon was the Greek god of earthquakes and it was believed that whenever he was in a foul mood, he would strike the ground with his trident, which was his signature weapon, causing the earth to shake and lead to destruction.

The Greeks also had another myth, which said that wild winds would get trapped in cavers under the ground. When they struggled to come out, the struggle would lead to earthquakes. The Mexicans have a similar myth which says that the earthquakes occur when the devil and his friends rip apart the earth and try to come to earth through the cracks to create trouble on earth.

According to a Nordic Myth, earthquakes were the result of the suffering Loki, has to go through for the murder of his brother. When Loki, the god of trouble, killed Balder, who was the god of beauty, he was punished by being tied down in an underground cave where a poisonous serpent was placed above his head dripping poison. Loki’s wife stood by him with a bowl to catch the poison, but every time she would go to empty the bowl, the poison would fall on Loki’s head. Earthquakes occurred when Loki would try to jerk his head to avoid the poison from falling on his head.

The Japanese believe that earthquakes are caused by a giant catfish called Namazu, who lives in the mud beneath the earth and is restrained with a stone by the god Kashima. As and when the god lets his guard fall, Namazu thrashes itself, causing earthquakes.

According to a Hindu myth, the earth is held by four elephants who in turn stand on the back of a turtle. This turtle is further balanced on the head of a cobra. During the entire balancing act, if any one of the animals, move, understandably the earth would shake, leading to earthquakes! This myth has different versions, with the number of elephants varying, and sometimes the order of animals varying, but the logic is the same, and i.e. dis-balance.

Siberia has an interesting myth. They believe that the earth rests on a sled which is driven by a god by the name of Tuli. When the dogs that pull the sled stop to scratch themselves, as they have fleas, the earth shakes, leading to earthquakes.

People from Mozambique have a very simplistic view. They believe that the earth is a living creature and like all living beings, sometimes it too feels sick and has fever. It is during such fevers, when the earth catches the chill, it shivers, and we experience earthquakes!

Finally a myth which says earthquakes happen as fallout of love! According to a West African Myth, the earth is flat, and is held on one side by a mountain and on the other side by a giant. The giant’s wife holds the sky. The earth shakes, when the giant stops to hug his wife!

Every culture had its own way of understanding an earthquake. Its devastating effects on an unscientific mind have left its imprint in the form of such creative and lovely myths. However, a common thread amongst the majority of the myths across the world has also been that earthquakes occurred due to Gods anger and as a punishment for mankind. This was always the safest and for a god fearing community, this was never questioned. It is not surprising to find people saying even today, that god uses earthquakes and such disasters to reduce evil on earth. Again a relatively simplistic view of an otherwise mammoth problem.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Turkey

Last week (Nov 25, 2010) was Thanksgiving and no Thanksgiving feast is complete without feasting on a turkey. So what is the significance of a turkey and where did it come from?

Turkeys are native to America and were raised way back during the Aztecs and  the Mayan civilisation. The turkey has always been associated with Harvest and one of the native myths suggests that it was a turkey that gave corn seeds to a brother and sister and taught them the art of growing and harvesting. Turkeys besides being associated with harvests, are also supposed to have helped in the creation of the world, as per the native mythology.

Amongst the Mesoamericans (i.e. Mexico and Central America), a turkey has a very high status. It was believed that a turkey was the personification of the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca, who was a warrior and a magician who could see the future in his mirror. Tezcatlipoca was a deity with negative shades, but when he changed himself to Chalchiuhtotolin, which meant, a jewelled turkey, he became the god of good fortune. If Tezcatlipoca could lead humans to self-destruction, as Chalchiuhtotolin, he could rid them of all the ills that led them to destruction.

The turkey in mythology also represents the Sun god. According to Hopi creation myths, it was a male turkey that tried to raise the sun in the sky, and in the process burnt its head, which till today is bald!

A turkey is one animal whose every body part can be used. Besides its meat and eggs, its colourful feathers are used for decorations and its bones are used in making whistles.

Why turkey for Thanksgiving? Well in America, it was a native bird, easily available besides being considered lucky for all the above reasons. However, the eating of turkey spread in other parts of the world too, when turkeys were imported by other countries after trade-routes were opened. During the early 16th century, the King of Spain had ordered that all returning ships should bring with it, five pairs of turkeys and thus started the practice of rearing turkesy outside America. Due to their ease of rearing and availability in abundance, they soon replaced geese during the celebratory feasts across Europe. Today a roast turkey is common for Christmas meals in UK too.  

According to a survey, on Thanksgiving, 45 million turkeys are cooked and eaten!

Friday, November 26, 2010

2nd Anniversary of 26/11

Another anniversary of 26/11, another day of remembrance, another day to relive the tragedy, another day to light candles and lay flowers at the sites of the tragedy, another day for the khadi-clad to spit rhetoric, but 730 days of loss for the kith and kin of the dead. 

This was the day, when ten outsiders played havoc with our country and all of us watched helplessly hoping that the casualty figures would be wrong and there would be less people dead, or maimed. This was the day, when gun-wielding people from outside the country came in and created mayhem, but made heroes and martyrs out of some ordinary people. Where have they gone – the unnamed policeman, the doctor, the nurse, the waiter, the ambulance driver, the porter, the passenger, etc? Where have their contributions gone?

On this day, besides others, the lone killer alive is resting in the jail. His well-being is enquired, his comfort is taken care of, and his needs are catered to. After all, our legal system is so unbiased. Prior to the trial, we said, no person is guilty till proven and gave the killer a fair trial. After the trial, he has been proven guilty, but we still need to give him a fair chance to avoid the gallows. I am not an advocate of the theory of ‘an eye for an eye’, but aren’t we overdoing this business of fairness and that too to a cold-blooded murderer, who has till date not regretted his actions, or displayed even a false sense of remorse? Rather has been making demands on the system.

For once, let me ask – why are we being fair or rather, let me reframe the question, why are being so fair? After all, we are not bombing a foreign nation for an internal tragedy? But when we catch a rat and a few moles, then let us deal with them in a manner that the world realises that we mean business. If we are not a rogue-state then we are not a soft-nation too. If we don’t mess up with others, we don’t let others mess up with us too. This needs to be shown in action and not in poetic speeches in international forums.

For the powers-that-be, it’s time to show that India cares for her citizens and to the outsiders that India can dare. Don’t mess, have teeth, will bite!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a major festival in US and the neighbouring countries. The celebrations are set on the fourth Thursday of November when family and friends sit together for meals, and thank for all that they have. So what are the origins of this day?

Not much is known except that on this day, the Pilgrims of Plymouth, which is in the modern-day Massachusetts, had their first dinner with the native Wampanoag Indians, way back in 1621. What was so special about the dinner?

The legend goes that the Pilgrims who were new to the place were struggling to settle and first harsh winter saw some deaths and they were left with little food with them. The people were not ready or prepared for the harsh conditions and all they brought with them, seeds, etc. were not conducive for the region. It was then that Squanto, a native Wampanoag Indian, who taught the Pilgrims the art of planting and growing grains and seeds in the land which was rugged. Squanto is even supposed to have given them seeds, besides teaching them how to sow and harvest. The first harvest was cause for celebration, and the Pilgrims hosted a feast for Squanto and his tribe as a thanks giving feast. Similarly, the next year was a bigger and better harvest, leading to another big feast, and thus started the Thanksgiving feast. However, it took many more years for it to be declared a national holiday in US.

So the origin of Thanksgiving was a Harvest festival. Over time, it has earned different connotations to the festival. Earlier people sat together on this day to thank god for the bountiful harvest that they would have reaped, and today, they sit together and thank all for all that they have.

Thanksgiving has an association with the Greek Mythology, that of the Horn of Cornucopia or the Horn of Plenty. This is a part of all Thanksgiving feasts and is a horn shaped container, filled with goodies. The traditional cornucopia was a goat’s horn filled to the brim with fruits and grains, which is part of the harvest.

According to the Greek Mythology, Zeus was brought up by Amaltheia, a goat who suckled the baby Zeus in a cave, while he was in hiding till he was ready to come out in public. Once when baby Zeus was playing with Amaltheia, he broke one of her horns by accident. Zeus felt very sorry for doing this and returned the horn but with magical powers that he had, and it is said that whosoever had the magical horn would get all that s/he wished. The cornucopia is also a symbol of fertility, a sign of abundance bounty.

Finally, no mention of Thanksgiving is complete without a mention of the Turkey. On this day, having a turkey for the feast is a must. Why a turkey, well we will keep it for another day!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Dionysus – the Greek God of Wine

Dionysus was the son of Zeus and Semele, who was a mortal. In Greek mythology, gods and mortals mixed around freely. The birth of Dionysus is a story in itself. Zeus the King of Heavens was known for his numerous affairs, which he always tried to keep from his jealous and ever-doubting wife Hera. Zeus was in love with Semele and once promised her that he would give in to any of his requests and this he swore on the river Styx. The oath was a very important and unbreakable one. At this, Semele requested that Zeus show up to her in original form of the King of Heavens and the Master of the Thunderbolt, an idea which had been fed to her by the scheming Hera. Zeus knew that it was not possible for a mortal to behold him thus, but then he could not break the oath, so he did what was the inevitable. Semele was burnt alive when Zeus came to her in his original form, but before she could die, Zeus snatched from her the child which was close to be born. He then hid the child from Hera and gave it to his messenger, who gave the child to the nymphs to nurse him, before he could be born.

Thus Dionysus was reared like the grapes, which ripen in the burning heat, and then nursed by the rains. Dionysus was the god of wine in Greek mythology. It is said that the god of wine, could be both kind and cruel. The worship of Dionysus was centred around two contradicting philosophies, that of freedom and joy on one hand and violence on the other. In Greek mythology, there are stories of Dionysus, which revolve around him being a god who provides joy and sometimes, a god who is brutal, leading to unimaginable destruction.

This contradiction is the crux of the god of wine. Wine is both good and bad. If consumed in limits, it makes one feel light and warm, but if consumed in excess, makes one drunk and at times rowdy and violent. The Greeks understood such contradictions well and thus knew that the nice heart-warming side of the wine always came with the excessive violent ways of the same. Under the influence of wine, man felt courageous, joyous and light hearted. People felt that they had the power of doing things that they could not before consuming the wine.

Dionysus, was the only god, who was not just outside the human beings, but inside too, and that was unique about the worship of Dionysus. The momentary sense of elation provided was enough to give man wings of imagination, to do something he has not been able to do, write, compose, draw, paint, imagine or create. But all this ran out of the man, the moment he over did the sense of joy, and got drunk; leading to the destruction that Dionysus is also known for.

Thus Greek mythology feels that Dionysus is two faced, and it doesn’t take him from changing his faces – we all know what that means, don’t we?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Rooster in Various Mythologies

Some time back, I had written about Vahanas (see Post dated July 28, 2010). Amongst many of the Vahanas, the Rooster has quite a prominent place in not just Indian Mythology, but other mythologies too. Let us go through some of them, before understanding what it symbolises –

Indian
In Southern India in the Tamil folklore, a large, red, fighting rooster (kukkuta in Sanskrit) adorns Lord Murugan's flag, heralding the dawn of wisdom and the conquest of the forces of ignorance. It is said in Mahabharata, that the rooster also adorned Srikhandi’s flag during the war of Kurukshetra. The carrier of Goddess Bahucharaji is also a rooster.

Greek mythology
According to a Greek legend, Alectryon - the ancient Greek word for "rooster" - was a youth who was ordered by the Ares, the god of war, to stand guard outside his door while the he carried on an adulterous dalliance with goddess Aphrodite. Unfortunately, Alectryon fell asleep at his post, and Helios, the sun god, walked in on the amorous couple. Spitefully, Ares turned Alectryon into a rooster, which never forgets to announce the sun's arrival in the morning.

Bible
The Bible provides a well-known reference in the passage where Jesus prophesied of his betrayal by Peter: "And he said, I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, before thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me." (Luke 22:34) This made the rooster a symbol for both vigilance and betrayal.

Jewish legends
The Talmud speaks of learning "courtesy toward one's mate" from the rooster. This might refer to the fact that, when a rooster finds something good to eat, he calls his hens to eat first.

European Tale
In old central European folk tales the devil is believed to flee at the first crowing of a cock. A medieval myth posits that the Basilisk, a giant snake who kills with a single glance and is hatched by a toad from a hen's egg, will instantly die if it hears a rooster crowing.

Asian folklore
Historical documents from Koryo Kingdom (A.D. 918 - 1392) in Korea indicate that roosters were reared in the royal court for keeping time, as no clocks existed in that era. Travellers would take roosters with them on long trips to be woken on a timely basis.

China
In China the bird has traditionally been considered a good sign, as its crow meant the break of dawn and the beginning of a fresh start. It is also believed that ghosts and evil spirits afraid of the light vanish when a rooster crows. The five virtues attributed to the rooster in Chinese mythology are: knowledge, military expertise, courage, benevolence and credibility.

Rooster Symbolism –
A rooster represents male energy and possibly aggression. If one has ever observed a rooster in a hen-house, one would notice that the roosters are very aggressive, demanding and territorial. A rooster is seen as a virile bird and extremely productive. In the olden days, it was masculine to be in a position to be progeny-productive, irrespective of age and a rooster has a unique space amongst the birds/animals to be in that category.

Though the crowing of a rooster is considered to be a wake-up call as seen by the predominantly agrarian society, the symbolism associated with the crowing of a rooster is always that of a warning call. A call to say that light has spread and it is time for the darkness to recede. Darkness which is associated with evil has come to an end. It is time to begin the day in a new way and afresh. A roosters crowing heralds this new beginning each day bringing a new dawn in every listeners life.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tattoo – Body Art

The universal body art of tattoo seems to have its origin in Mythology.

According to one of the myths, Goddess Lakshmi told her husband Lord Vishnu that whenever he went out of Vaikuntha, she felt very scared. Vishnu immediately took his weapons and pressed them on her body leaving marks of the same, saying that the weapon-marks would guard against any evil. This is probably one of the the first reference of tattoo or body art in our mythology.

Besides this there are some references of tattooing in tribal mythology of our country. The Baiga tribes of Central India believe that tattooing was started so that people could take such designs with them to grave. The meaningless of such tattoos is for God to keep trying them as riddles! The Muria community did such designs as per the instructions of their goddess.

Another interesting myth is recited amongst the Gond tribes of Central India. According to this, once Mahadeo (a Shiva incarnate) invited all the gods for a feast. All the gods and goddesses were there, among who was also a Gond god. The Gond god was there to take his wife away from there, but amongst all the goddesses, he could not recognise his wife and by mistake he dragged Parvati (Mahadeo’s wife) from the gathering. Mahadeo knew it was a mistake and started laughing, but this angered Parvati to no end. She then decided that people of different castes should have distinct tattoos and since then, tattooing has become a must amongst the tribes of Central India.










Tribal tattoos have a distinct design, which sometimes does not mean much. However, over time, such meaningless forms have given way to signs and motifs commonly understood by people, like a trishul, or a swastika or an Om. The tribal’s who have converted to Christianity sport a cross. But majority of them still carry meaningless forms like dots, triangles, etc. which might not have any significant symbolism behind them. Also, the tattoos were not restricted on only arms and other parts as done today as a fashion. Amongst the Tribals today, the tattooing was all over the body, including on the faces.

Probably the only distinction between these tattoos and what we see today is that the tattoos of the tribal’s were not a fashion statement, but a norm or a custom. People followed them out of respect for their cultures. Besides serving the purpose of teasing god’s brains, it also served as a caste differentiator.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tulasi Vivaha

Tulasi Vivaha (marriage of Basil tree) is considered to be a very important festival and also marks the beginning of the Marriage season amongst the Hindus. Tulasi Vivaha is the marriage of Vishnu (as Shaligram) with Tulasi, the Basil (also known as the Holy Basil) tree.

Once upon a time Tulasi Devi was married to a demon by the name of Jalandhara (one who was born from water). Jalandhara derived all his strength and power from her chastity and purity. So strong was this aspect of Tulasi Devi that even Lord Shiva could not defeat Jalandhara, when he declared war over the gods, by claiming sovereignty over the oceans and all the treasures that were churned out of the ocean during the samudra manthana. As it happens always, the gods went to Lord Vishnu for help. Vishnu decided to trick Tulasi Devi by assuming the form of Jalandhara and went to her. Tulasi Devi thinking Vishnu was her husband greeted him and her chastity was broken for a short while. Taking advantage of this, the gods managed to kill Jalandhara.

When Tulasi Devi came to know about this deceit, she cursed Vishnu to be a stone for being so stone-hearted. Vishnu accepted the curse and promised her that he would take the form of Shaligram shila on the banks of the river Gandika (now in Nepal). He also blessed Tulasi Devi, that she would reside with him at his abode, Vaikuntha, and on earth she would be seen as the purest of all pure things, and thus Tulasi plant is considered to be the purest of all, and a leaf of the plant is enough if put on anything to make it pure too. Tulasi is considered to be so close to Vishnu that the devotees never offer him anything without Tulasi leaves on it. On this day of Tulasi Vivaha, Lord Vishnu in the form of the black Shalgram shila gets married to Tulasi, as a plant on earth.

Besides this, there are few other myths which come to the similar conclusion of the annual marriage between Lord Vishnu (and sometimes Lord Krishna) and Tulasi plant. It is worth noting, that in the olden days, such traditions could have been initiated to grant an elevated position to the plant. This could be in recognition of its medicinal qualities. Tulasi or Basil is used for a number of common ailments, like skin disorders, coughs and colds, to name just a few. Recently during the outbreak of Swineflu, many doctors suggested a daily intake of 4-5 Basil leaves, to help strengthen ones immune system. Such festivals gave the plant an upgraded status and influenced people to plant them more commonly at homes, thus have the plant handy! It is not uncommon to find Tulasi plant in Indian homes for both religious and medicinal purposes. Thus, behind every ritual, there is a meaning or purpose. However, it is to each, as to how s/he celebrates such festivals. Grandeur and opulence in celebration might not have been in mind with our early thinkers, but since the advocates of religion have turned recognition to reverence – then so be it!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ragging

Last week the Supreme Court passed a judgement on the death of a student Aman Kachroo who was killed by his seniors during a ragging session, a couple of years back. This judgement will definitely have a far reaching impact and one only hopes that this menace will cease. But what is this ragging and why do people resort to this menace?

Ragging is a kind of rite of initiation. Rite of initiation can be defined as a ceremony to mark the coming of age or an acceptance into a group or a society. In some cases it is considered to be an acceptance into adulthood. These rites were and in some cases still are, very common across the world. Many tribes have similar ceremonies for both boys and girls, but some are more prominent and of a public nature for boys.

Tribes or cultures consider such rites a must for an individual to be regarded as a member of the society. Some of them are so strict, that boys who have not been ceremoniously initiated are not allowed to participate in social rituals and ceremonies. Such boys are not allowed to get married too, till they have not undergone the rites. The tribal logic is that such rites enables boys and girls to understand themselves better and helps them prepare for the role of adulthood. Puberty rites, circumcision and many such activities are seen as examples of rites of initiation. Many cultures like the Australian Aborigines, go through elaborate ceremonies which include teaching them the laws of the society during the rites. The thread ceremony amongst the Hindu’s can be considered to be a similar rite, though it is performed only amongst a section of Hindus (Brahmins) and is thus not a universal rite.

Such rites have or had their own significance. It heralded the transition of an individual from childhood to adulthood and thus a change of responsibility, in the absence of a present modern day structure. In olden days it was used to communicate that the days of fun were over, and as an adult, it was time to join profession (hunting, farming, etc.). It also enabled the society to acknowledge the presence of adults in the society. Every culture, be it tribes from Africa, Central America or Australia, or religions like Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism or Islam, such rites are documented in some form or the other. Some ceremonies are sometimes painful whereas some are harmless occasion of coming together and celebrating the status of adulthood.

But when such an ancient practice raised an ugly head in a modern avatar of Ragging is not known nor is it worth chronicling. Why this rite became a right by might, and why such acts became sadistic source of entertainment, is something that needs to be understood clinically. When temples of education become Guantanamo Bay’s of the world, then it is time for the Dronacharya’s of today to hang their heads in shame. If such Guru’s can show speed and the will in curbing this menace then it will go a long way in their true responsibility of imparting education. Terming such acts as ‘friendly introduction sessions’ is turning a blind eye to the massive menace that exists in our society, and if the bull is not held by the horns, we will only have more Aman Kachroos and unfulfilled dreams. Supreme Court needs to be thanked for the step taken, even if it means that four young careers have been nipped in the bud. But don’t rely only on Legislations. On our part, let’s teach our children to say ‘No’ to Ragging and help them avoid donning the roles of archaic mother-in-laws.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Govardhan Puja

During Diwali, many places in India observe what is known as Govardhan Puja. Let us go through the myth behind the puja first.

Once when Lord Krishna was a child, he saw his father make elaborate preparations for some worship. On enquiring he was told that they were preparing to worship Lord Indra, who was responsible for giving them rain, which led to the welfare of the people. Krishna reasoned with his father and all present, that it was not Indra, but mountain Govardhan who was responsible for the welfare of the people, as it was thanks to the mountain that they got grazing grounds for the cattle. It was the mountain which stopped the clouds and compelled them to rain and also gave them lots of greenery and different plants and shrubs required. Mount Govardhan was also home for numerous medicinal plants which was required for preparing local medicines. It made more sense to worship the mountain instead of Indra. At the end, Krishna convinced the people to stop the worship of Indra and start worshipping Govardhan Mountain. This angered Indra so much that he decided to punish the people of Vrindavan and sent merciless rains leading to days and nights of downpour. People got scared and went to Krishna, saying that they had angered Indra and something needed to be done.

Krishna, then came forward, worshipped the mountain as he had decided and lifted the  mountain in his last finger creating a giant umbrella to save the people from a potential deluge. Lord Indra was thus humbled, and accepted the supremacy of Krishna, and thus was started the practice of Govardhan Puja. Since this episode, Krishna was also referred to as Giridhari – the one who holds the mountain.

The myth makes a very important statement which is writ large in the theory of Mythology. No hero is forever. Indra had been a chief deity during the Vedic times, but by the Puranic age, Indra had lost considerable sheen. Gods like Vishnu (and his different avatars, like Ram, Krishna, etc.); Shiva and other gods had gained prominence. It is human tendency to demean someone to highlight the importance of another. This is exactly what happened to Lord Indra during the Puranic times. Indra who was also sometimes referred to as Devendra (Lord of the gods) was nothing but a caricature of a fallen god. There are numerous instances, where, even asuras have defeated Indra in battles and he has to seek help from Vishnu and other such gods. There is also the famous instance of Ravana’s son defeating Indra and earning the epithet of Indrajeet (literally - one who has achieved victory over Indra) in Ramayana. Such cases of old heroes making way for new are not unheard of in mythology. Many also see this conflict as a conflict of two cults, one gaining prominence at the expense of the other. Subsequently, Indra was relegated to a relatively smaller position of a smaller deity, that of being a god of rains.

Why only Mythology, isn’t the same visible in our real lives too? People who were heroes for our parents were not for us and our idols are not the ones our children look up to. But it is important to mention here that during the Vedic times, and in Rig Veda, Indra had occupied a prime position and a number of myths talk of his bravery and valour.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Chhath Puja

Chhath (literally means sixth) is celebrated on the sixth day of the month of Kartik from the Hindu calendar. It is also the sixth day after Diwali. This is a very important festival for the people of Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh and is also considered to be one of the few major festivals in the honour of Sun god.

During the Vedic times, Surya, the Sun god was one of the main deities in the pantheon of gods. Thus this festival seems to have its continuity and significance from the Vedic times. Before we venture into the myths surrounding this festival, it is pertinent to mention that this worship has similarity with a number of other cultures like Egypt, Greece and the Japanese who were the worshippers of Sun God. Egyptian god Ra, or Helios of the Greeks, or Shamash of the Sumerians, or the Japanese worshiping a Sun Goddess (only reference of Sun Goddess), were all major solar deities of reckoning.

Sun worship goes back to the Vedic age, with numerous hymns dedicated to Lord Surya in Rig Veda. The earliest reference of Chhath is found in Mahabharata which is credited to Karna, who was the son of Surya and Kunti and was also known as Surya Putra. Karna was made the King of Anga Pradesh, by Duryodhan, which is supposed to be the present day Bhagalpur in Bihar, and thus the prominence of the festival in and around the region.

Mahabharat also refers to Draupadi’s worshiping of Surya when the Pandavas were going through their share of trouble. Though Draupadi did not get any immediate results out of the worship, but they did regain their rights and their kingdom at the end of it. Thus began the practice of worshiping Surya for achieving something or some desire.

The unique thing about Chhath puja is that it is probably the only festival, where the Sun is worshipped in both the forms, i.e. both the rising as well as the setting. Since the river Ganga is the lifeline of the states mentioned above, as it flows throughout the region, the worship takes place at the banks of the river Ganga. Needless to say that Ganga has its own significance both in Mahabharat as well as in the Hindu religion. The practice of this worship has its yogic connections. It is said that in the Vedic times there were sages who would fast for unbelievable periods, and that the ability came from their gaining solar energy directly from the Sun. It is said that the rituals followed during the worship are quite similar to what the yogis of yore followed then.

As part of the ritual, people (especially women) observe fast and end up spending the whole day (sunrise to sunset) at the banks of the river. In this lies the significance of the festival. This whole day is used in a ritualistic detoxification of the body. The fasting followed by the sun rays especially during sunrise and sunset, gives an extra impetus on the different parts of the body and the much needed energy from the sun. As per the Yogis of the yore, sun helps in rejuvenating the skin and its rays at different times of the day, helps in improving the functions of different glands and their secretions.

Such festivals not only get people to spend time together, but also lead to some physical well-being. It is different matter that some sections of the society have misused such festivals for political positioning, but then what is a community if it doesn’t have its own share of both good and bad?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Rainbows

Something as beautiful and colourful as a rainbow couldn’t have escaped the imaginations of our early thinkers, could it? It is not that people then sought answers only for scary things, they were curious of such beautiful things too. So how does mythology see Rainbows?

Some of the mythologies have the rainbow associated with the destructive flood myth. As per the Biblical myth, a Rainbow is a sign of the Covenant (promise) made by God to Noah that there would be no such deluge again -           
·         Seven Noahide laws that emerged out of this covenant came to be symbolically represented by the seven colours of the rainbow.
·         The Noahide laws are considered basic principles of living righteously in a civilised society and a path to achieving salvation.

As per the Sumeiran Epic of Gilgamesh, the Rainbow is “jeweled necklace of Mother Goddess Ishtar” that she lifts on the sky, never to forget the flood that destroyed her children. An Australian Aboriginal myth says that after the floods, the Rainbow was used by the Supreme Being to ‘tie’ the rain-clouds and thus to hold back the rains.

However, not all myths are not associated with the Flood. Let’s see some of them.
·         As per the Greek myths, the Rainbow was considered to be a path made by Iris, the messenger, between Earth and Heaven.
·         As per the Hindu myth, Rainbow or the Indradhanush is the bow of Indra, the god of lightning and thunder.
·         According to Chinese mythology, the Rainbow was a slit in the sky sealed by the Goddess Nuwa using stones of five different colour
·         In Nordic Mythology, a rainbow called the Bifröst Bridge connects the homes of the gods and humans. The Germans believe that the rainbow was a bowl that God used to colour the world during creation.
·         Sometimes, a rainbow is considered a bridge, which is formed when St. Peter opens the gates of Heaven to let in some souls. The colours of the rainbow are supposed to give a glimpse of the magnificence of the heavens.

The Irish leprechaun's secret hiding place for his pot of gold is usually said to be at the end of the rainbow. This place is impossible to reach, because the rainbow is an optical effect which depends on the location of the viewer. When walking towards the end of a rainbow, it will move further away.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Birthday Celebrations

What is it about Birthdays that need celebrations? Why do we ‘celebrate’ a birthday? My search takes me to the land of mythology (and occasionally History too) and this is what I find – two stories:

The Pharaohs of Egypt were supposed to be the descendants of the god Horus, who was considered to the first image of all the Pharaohs, though Ra the Sun god was considered to be the first Pharaoh. In those days, birthdays of the Pharaoh was celebrated with great pomp and show as it was the day to be honoured as the embodiment of god had graced the earth and mankind. It was during one such celebration, that the Pharaoh was celebrating his birthday, that he hanged the chief Baker.

Another story from the Bible says that Herod Antipas was celebrating his birthday and his daughter entertained him by dancing in front of him. This impressed Herod so much, that he granted her a wish. Herod’s daughter was coached on this by her mother Herodia and she promptly asked for the head of John the Baptist. Herod did not quite wanted to dirty his hands with the murder of John the Baptist, but then he had no choice and immediately sent executioners to bring the head of John the Baptist. Herodia was against John as he had opposed the wedding of Herod and Herodia as she happened to be the widow of Herod’s brother.

Celebrations of birthdays were considered as evil by the early Christians who considered it to be a Pagan remnant. A birthday celebration was seen as self-indulgent leading to sinful behaviour like excessive drinking, etc. Also the above two myths had resulted in murders, which also got associated with early Christianity which led to such thinking. They also felt that on this day, people and the celebrant praised himself/herself as against god and thus the celebrations were looked down upon.

In due course of time, and with the arrival of neo-Christians, birthdays got associated with celebrations. Today, the birth of Jesus Christ is a mass celebration across continents. A remnant of the Pagan thinking however believed that on the day of one’s birthday, the celebrant was most vulnerable to both good and bad spirits. So on ones birthday, a celebrant was supposed to be surrounded by friends and relatives and all would wish good for the celebrant. This would deter the bad spirits from acting, thus began the concept of wishing well on Birthdays.

The usage of Birthday cake and candle too has its origin in Greek mythology. Greek goddess Artemis was the goddess of moon, and her birthday was celebrated once every month in ancient Greece. As a practice, the Greeks offered her a round cake (in the shape of a moon) and also lit candles on the cake in the likeness of a glowing moon! Needless to say that fire always had a special significance in religious orders and rituals. The practice got carried on to the modern age and today it is mandatory to cut cakes, lit with candles and making a wish.

Birthday celebrations have come a long way from the Pagans to today. But as someone has said – A birthday is just the first day of another 365-day journey around the sun. Enjoy the free trip. And if you get gifts and wishes, take them as bonus!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Quote by Joseph Campbell

‎"Whenever men have looked for something solid on which to found their lives, they have chosen not the facts in which the world abounds, but the myths of an immemorial imagination."
                                  - Joseph Campbell, "The Masks of God, Vol. I: Primitive Mythology"

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Goddess Kali

What is it about Goddess Kali that makes it so grotesque and repulsive? What is in the depiction of the goddess that invokes a sense of fear and a sense of worry? Her complexion, her nakedness, her blood-lust and her uncivilised conduct is not only deplorable but equally embarrassing for all.

She is quite an antithesis to the very concept of Mother Goddess. Instead of dressing up in bridal finery like all the other goddesses, she shuns clothes. She doesn’t tie her hair like all the other goddesses, a sign of total disdain for homely norms. She does not partake of pleasing food as others, but prefers blood! Unlike all the other goddesses, she is not a meek shadow of her husband; rather she actually puts her foot on him, a concept that is blasphemous to all and sundry. She is a goddess who lacks grace, benevolence and femininity. So what is it about her that could have been misunderstood?

In myths lie messages and the hidden symbolism. If you view Kali through the metaphysical lens, then there is nothing that can upset anybody. She is depicted to shock one and all as she is making a radical statement by her appearance and her conduct.

Kali’s nakedness represents the raw form of nature, that which cannot be bound by the norms of man-defined culture. Hair has always been a metaphor of sexuality. In the olden days, a woman’s hair-do communicated her status. Unmarried girls were supposed to plait their hair; a married woman was supposed to oil and have a centre parting and knot her hair. She was not supposed to be seen with untied hair outside her bedroom. A widow was supposed to be sans-hair. Kali’s disheveled and untied hair indicated that she was not bound by the sexual norms laid down by the people. She represented the untamed, wild aspect of life.

Kali has been the epitome of cultural reversal. She does everything that a ‘cultured’ woman would not dare do. Her lack of dressing, her mad murderous dance and her anti-culture stand, forces one and all to see things that we detest, fear or suppress in our lives. She forces us to see the raw and naked form of things that exist outside the purview of human moral or ethical standards. She is a reminder of the fragility of culture. Her nakedness represents the collapse of modesty and all that culture so strongly tries to uphold. She represents what can happen when a society does not respect the feminine forces of the world. She shows that the same docile woman who is the fountainhead of creation can lead to destruction in the goriest form, if and when provoked.

Her stepping on her husband is a challenge to the institution of patriarchal values. It’s a reminder to the ‘upholders of the moral conscience of the society’, not to rid the woman of her rights and dues and the respect that she so deserves. A woman who is expected to worship her husband can step on him to protect her own self-respect. Many modern writers see Kali as the goddess of feminism.

Our early thinkers who have given docile goddesses, have ensured that the modern-day self-made gods of the world do not get carried away and are kept in check by giving us the likes of Goddess Kali too!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Chhoti Diwali or Narak Chaturdashi

The day prior to the actual Diwali is known as Chhoti Diwali (Small Diwali) or sometimes Narak Chaturdashi.

The myth concerning this day is related to a fierce demon king by the name of Narakasur, who was the king of Pragjyotishpur, a place south of the present day Nepal. He had defeated Lord Indra in a fierce battle and taken away the earrings of Goddess Aditi. Goddess Aditi happened to be related to Lord Krishna’s wife, Satyabhama. Besides the earrings, Narakasur had also imprisoned sixteen thousand girls who were the daughters of different gods and saints.

When Satyabhama came to know about it, she was furious and sought the help of her husband, Lord Krishna. She asked for the empowerment, so that she could vanquish the demon herself. Lord Krishna was aware that Narakasur was cursed to die in the hands of only a woman, so this empowerment was necessary. Krishna, empowered her, and also decided to act as her charioteer in the battle against Narakasur.

On the day prior to Narak Chaturdashi, with the help of Lord Krishna, Satyabhama manages to not only kill Narakasur but also recovered the precious earrings. She also releases the sixteen thousand girls. However, to save the girls the embarrassment of being in the confines of a demon, Lord Krishna decided to marry all of them, and grant them legitimacy.

As a mark of victory, Krishna smeared his forehead with the blood of Narakasur and when he arrived the next day, his wives massaged him with perfumed oils and gave him a royal bath.

Since then it has become a custom in parts of Maharashtra, to get up early on the day of Narak Chaturdashi and have an oil-bath before sunrise. Many apply kumkum on their foreheads, as a ritual before the bath, imitating the smearing of the blood of Narakasur by Lord Krishna.

The myth further states that Bhoodevi (Mother earth) who was the mother of Narakasur, declared this day as a day of celebrations and not mourning. Thus this day is celebrated as Chhoti Diwali!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dhanteras

Dhan’ means wealth and ‘teras’ means the thirteenth day of the month. Dhanteras is a day better known for the worship of Goddess Lakshami, the goddess of Wealth. Why on this day and what is the significance of this day?

According to the myth of samudra manthan – the churning of the ocean, during the churning many things came out of the belly of the ocean. Among them, one of them was Goddess Lakshami. Since she came out of the ocean on this day, this day is considered to be the birth-anniversary of the goddess. Thus started the practice of worshipping the goddess on this day.

Dhanteras is also known as Dhanwantari Trayodashi. According to the same episode of samudra manthan, amongst other things, this day also saw the appearance of Lord Dhanvantari, the physician of the gods with Ayur Veda, a treatise on medicine for mankind. Dhanwantari Trayodashi is also a celebration of the gift of Ayur Veda to mankind given by Lord Dhanvantari.

Finally, another myth tells us why we light a lamp the whole night on the day of Dhanteras. According to the myth, it was destined that the son of King Hima would die of a snake bite in sleep, on the fourth day of his wedding. His wife who was very intelligent decided to defy destiny. On the fateful day, she collected all her wealth and jewellery and kept it at the entrance of her bedroom. She then lit up the whole room with numerous lamps and started singing songs and telling stories, non-stop to her husband.

In the middle of the night, Lord Yama came in the form of a snake to take away the life of King Hima’s son. But the son was not able to fall asleep due to the non-stop story telling of his wife. Also, the numerous lamps, blinded Yama and he could not enter the bedroom. Yama in the form of the snake then decided to wait, and went and sat on the heap of wealth and jewellery. The night passed and the hour passed off, thus not giving Yama a chance to take the life away. Yama had to leave, thus giving the King’s son a lease of life. Dhanteras is thus also known as a day of Yamadeep-daan a practice from then onwards, to keep a lighted lamp on for the whole night as an act of benevolence towards Yama, the god of death.

It is worth noting that Hinduism is probably the only religion or culture where wealth is worshiped and the same is not looked down upon as crass or overt-indulgence in materialism. To all who say that wealth is to be shunned, can take a back-seat for at least today, as it is only impractical to deny the importance of wealth. A day like this enables one to differentiate between the worship of wealth and the indulgence of wealth. So go ahead and pay your obeisance to the Goddess of Wealth who might be knocking at your doors!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rangoli

Rangoli is an Indian folk art which involves painting on the floor. The word Rangoli is derived from the words ‘rang’ meaning colour and ‘aavali’ implying rows, giving us an array or an arrangement in colours. The paintings can have different themes or motifs, but the idea is to generate a flurry of colours which makes it look good and pleasing to the eye. Call it Kolam as they do in South India, or Alpana as in Bengal or Madana in Rajasthan, or Aripana in Bihar, Rangoli by any name means the same. Generally the motifs of a Rangoli are common sights like, flowers, plants, birds like peacocks and swans, animals, or gods and goddesses or simple geometric designs.

The earliest mythological reference of a Rangoli is found in Chitra Lakshana, a thesis on Indian paintings from the days of yore. According to this, a king and his subjects were extremely sad on the demise of the only son of their high priest. Everybody offered prayers to Lord Brahma, the creator for returning the life of the boy. Lord Brahma was moved by the collective mourning and requested the King to draw a picture of the dead boy on the floor in his likeness. On seeing the portrait, Lord Brahma put life in it, thus giving life to the boy once again and relieving the kingdom of its sorrow. This is considered to be the first reference of Rangoli or art on the floor.

Ramayana has reference to Rangolis too. It is said that people in Ayodhya painted rangolis to welcome Ram when he came back from his exile. It is also said that drawing colourful lines invites positive energy into the household and keeps the negative forces outside. Some people believe, that during the exile, when Lakhsman left Sita to go in search of Ram, he is supposed to have drawn such lines, to keep the negative forces outside the line, what is better known as ‘Lakshaman Rekha’ – i.e. lines drawn by Lakshaman.

Another myth says that once upon a time there was a pious man by the name of Sudharma. A time came when he could not concentrate on his prayers and meditation. So he approached his guru, by the name of Rishi Vairata. The rishi suggested to him to go to a quarry nearby and ground some stones into powder. He was then advised to use that powder to paint religious designs outside his home at the doorstep. From then onwards he would get up early in the morning, have a bath and draw designs like the swastika, sun and the moon and other such symbols. Seeing a drastic change in his well-being, the neighbours too started the practice, and it is said that in many South Indian families the ladies still do this, except that they use rice flour, and the art form is known as Kolam.

The concept of Rangoli emerged from the very basic idea of Hinduism, care for all. In early days, Rangoli’s were drawn with ground rice flour. This enabled the ants and birds to come and feed on it, thus making their otherwise hard life that much easier. It was an ideal case of harmonious co-existence.

The importance of Rangolis, is specially enhanced as it is a custom to draw footprints approaching the home. These imply Goddess Lakshmi’s footsteps inside the house which brings in prosperity and luck.

Over time the concept of Rangoli has evolved into a more intricate array of colours, or in combination of flowers, but the fact remains that it is still appealing to the eyes and to the guests who are welcome during festivals.