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.


Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla and Charybdis were two monsters from Greek mythology, who have contributed enormously to the English language. But before we learn about their contribution, lets us read about them individually.

Scylla (pronounced ‘skylla’ as in ‘sky’) was supposed to be a beautiful nymph and the daughter of a sea-deity. Once Glaucus, a fisherman who had turned into a sea-god, saw her, fell madly in love with Scylla. But Scylla rejected his love. She ran away to avoid him and hid herself. Glaucus would not give up and approached Circe, a sorceress to make Scylla fall in love with him. But when Circe, saw Glaucus, she fell in love with him and tried to convince her that Scylla was not worth it. When Glaucus was not willing to change his mind, Circe, decided to make her magic work. She prepared a poisonous potion and spilt it in the sea, where Scylla used to take her bath.

As soon as Scylla dipped herself to take a bath, she changed into a six-headed horrifying monster, each of which had sharp teeth. She was now a so huge that she could barely move destined to live a life of loneliness and misery. If any ship came too close to her, then each of her heads would seize the crew and killed them on the spot.

Charybdis was the daughter of the sea-god Poseidon. She would flood the land and claim the region close to the sea for her father, thus depriving Zeus, land to rule. This angered Zeus and he cursed Charybdis to become a huge monster which was all mouth. Since then, she was forced to hide in a cave on a tiny island in the Strait of Messina, between Italy and Sicily. She would step out thrice a day and suck up huge amounts of water, and at times along with it, passing ships too.

Scylla and Charybdis were placed face to face and soon became a mariner’s nightmare. Scylla was personification of a rock which was never visible to naked eye till you got close to it and risked bumping into it and Charybdis was the personification of a whirlpool which would gulp out entire ships. Both were fatal risks that every mariner dreaded and few managed to avoid.

‘Between Scylla and Charybdis’ soon came to be referred to as being in a tough spot, where one was expected to choose between two evils. In Homer’s Odyssey, the hero, Odysseus had to make a choice of sailing too close to any one of them, and he decided to sail closer to Scylla. By his choice, he minimised the risk, as only six of his sailors were killed by the monster, as against risking the drowning of his entire ship.

Life does not necessarily give us simple choices between good and evil. Sometimes we are made to choose from two evils and then the choice has to be made for the lesser evil, like Odysseus did. In our lives too we come across such situations; when the doctor tells someone that they can save the life of any one, the mother or the unborn child. To choose between the closing of an entire vertical due to losses or continue with the support team but no scope of sales or expansion, risking an exodus. To shut down the factory or reduce the staff by a huge number risking closure anyways. Such and many similar decisions grip an individual in both his personal or professional life nearly all the time.

‘Between Scylla and Charybdis’ is a phrase that has given rise to many idioms, like, ‘between a rock and a hard place’, ‘between the horns of a dilemma’, ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’, etc.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bharat Mata

India is a country with numerous gods and goddesses in its religious pantheon, especially in the mainstream Hindu religion. The religion became a part of the naming of the country at a point of time when identity of the nation got associated with its religion and thus the name Hindustan, the land of Hindus. Important to mention that the name was not coined during the Independence movement, but was coined by foreigners who identified the nation with the religion of the majority during their journey to our country.

The religion and certain aspects of the national religion got an impetus during the independence movement when mythological allusions were used to boost the movement. (Read more about it in the earlier articles on the subject  Independence Movement & the Myth of Markandeya ;  This is Utkarsh Speaking: Chourasi Devonwali Gaay ). These apart, new deities were also ‘created’ for a reference point and lend credence to the movement. One of the deities which got a focus was Bharat Mata.

Prithvi was a Vedic deity which was worshipped from time immemorial and was associated with earth. Worship of earth was an age old concept well ingrained in the Indian psyche. Soon ‘earth’ was associated with ‘land’ and during the independence movement; ‘land’ became synonymous with ‘motherland’. The concept of motherland was becoming a central focus in nationalistic literature of the times. Around the late 19th century the idea of Bharat Mata was formed in a play by the same name in a play by Kiran Chandra Bandhopadhyay in 1873. In 1882, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s novel Anandmath introduced a hymn ‘vande mataram’, which became the clarion call for the Independence movement. In 1905, Abanindranath Tagore, the nephew of Rabindranath Tagore drew the first painting of Bharat Mata. The painting was actually drawn as Banga Mata, a personification of an undivided Bengal which was fragmented by the British. However, this Banga Mata soon became the precursor to many more representations of Bharat Mata.

Bharat Mata by Abanindranath Tagore

Abanindranath Tagore’s Bharat Mata was however, quite different from the image that people had in their minds. His Bharat Mata was a beautiful young woman who was in orange coloured saree, and looked like a sadhvi (a Vaishnav nun), standing at the edge of a lotus pond. She was shown with a halo behind her head, and had four hands, giving her a divine look. In each of her hands she was holding a sacred manuscript, an akshamala, or a rosary of beads, a vastra or a piece of fabric and a bunch of rice foliage. She had a calm demeanor and was an embodiment of grace. She was a combination of both Saraswati and Lakshmi, deities who were highly revered, the former for knowledge and the latter for prosperity. Collectively, the deity seemed to imply that the motherland had gifts of shiksha, diksha, anna and vastra, i.e. knowledge, spiritualism, food and clothing.

Earlier too such goddesses were used to give boost to such movements. Shivaji was shown being blessed by Ma Bhavani (a variation of the fiery form of Mother Goddess), implying that his actions have the blessings of the goddess in his fight against the Mughals. The ideas of motherland and Bharat Mata were well accepted by Indians and soon numerous representations were made to stir the patriotic mindset of the people. Bharat Mata started being represented in more martial form, sometimes resembling Durga, with a trident and the national flag, while sometimes she was shown blessing Mahatma Gandhi and other nationalist leaders. Sometimes to rouse passions, she was even shown chained and with a sad face and a few white-skinned asuras attacking her or with whips in their hands, implying the exploitation of her wealth by the British. All this went on to give a huge impetus to the freedom movement and soon temples were opened giving the deity a sense of permanency.

Bharat Mata by P. S. Ramachandran Rao (1937)

In 1937, at the peak of the Independence Movement, a temple dedicated to Bharat Mata was inaugurated by Gandhiji in Benaras. Soon many such temples were being build across the country. A shloka was also uttered during the worship of the goddess, which was –

Ratnakaradhautapadam Himalyakirtitinim,
Brahmarajarsiratnamdhyam vande Bharatamataram

The above meant – “I pay my obeisance to mother Bharat, whose feet are being a washed by the ocean, who wears the mighty Himalaya as her crown, and who is exuberantly adorned with the gems of traditions set by Brahmarishis and Rajarishis.”

This personification was done for a purpose way back in the late 19th century and the purpose has more than served its purpose in a largely illiterate milieu, but well-aware of its mythology.  While the concept of Bharat Mata has been kept alive by certain right-wing religious organization till date, it has lost its relevance in the modern times. Is the loss due to its lack of the original cause or due to a prevailing disenchantment, is a matter of debate. However, one can’t undermine the huge contribution of mythical themes in history of India’s Independence Movement.

On the eve of Independence day, here’s wishing all my readers a very happy Independence Day!

Pics courtesy - Wikipedia for painting by Abanindranath Tagore & The Hindu for the painting by  
                     PSR Rao.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Tarakeswar Affair

Last time we read about the temple of Tarakeshwar and its significance during the month of shravan. The temple of Tarakeshwar also has something very sinister associated with it, and that is an illicit relationship and a murder most gruesome.

At the onset, let me claim, that this has nothing to do with the temple, its presiding deity and mythology. I came across this, when I was researching for my last article and since not many outside Kolkata would know, I am writing about it today. Its importance will be dealt with later.

This refers to a famous court case by the name of “Tarakeshwar Affair”. The central characters are Nobin Chandra, a young Government employee, his wife, Elokeshi and the priest or the mahant of the Tarakeshwar temple which took place in the 19th century under the British rule.

Elokeshi meets Mahant
Nobin used to work in Kolkata and his wife Elokeshi, stayed with her parents in the village of Tarakeshwar. The Tarakeshwar temple was known for curing barren women and so Elokeshi went to the mahant to seek his blessings. The mahant gave her a medicine which was drugged and then raped her. However, there blossomed an illicit relationship between the two and the whole village was soon discussing this. When Nobin returned to his village and learnt this, he was enraged and confronted his wife.

Elokeshi confessed to the relationship, but sought pardon from her husband. Nobin was deeply in love with Elokeshi and so he pardoned her and both decided to leave the village. However, the mahant came to know about it and sent his goons to stop both of them from leaving the village. In a fit of anger, Nobin severed the head of Elokeshi and then surrendered himself to the police.
The Fatal Blow

The matter reached the court and soon the locals started taking sides besides the English court having its own laws to cater to. The mahant was represented by an English lawyer and the whole city came to witness the court proceedings while the dailies carried every bit of the proceedings verbatim. The local population was of the opinion that Nobin was right in doing so and the fault lay with Elokeshi the seductress and the mahant for luring young women into relationships.

In 1873, the Indian jury of the local court acquitted Nobin on the grounds of insanity, but the British judge referred the case to Calcutta High Court which awarded life imprisonment to Nobin and three years to the mahant. However, Nobin was released after two years due to pressure from the locals, the intelligentsia and just about every section of the society.

This affair has been the basis of many a theatres and plays during the period following this incident. While many felt that Nobin was right and in doing so, some felt that Elokeshi was made to submit to the mahant due to the pressure from her father (an angle not worth pursuing). Many held the mahant solely responsible for everything as an aspect of increasing influence and power of the Brahmin class wherein they had started hiring goons, something which was considered to be very common in places like Benaras and other such akhada-oriented religious places. Many women of the nearby areas who visited for getting cured of infertility found themselves raped and dumped in the nearby red-light areas for a life of prostitution, but the matters never came out in the open.

There were social ramifications of this affair. The missionaries who saw this as a disillusionment of the masses with Hinduism and the Brahmin class, while the British saw in this a reason to monitor temple activities. The Bengali intelligentsia saw in this a cause for the upliftment of women and focus on their rights. Many saw Nobin’s love and pardon for Elokeshi as ‘an act of softness towards women, who needed to be controlled’ and his ultimate decapitating her as an act of manliness, albeit delayed. Such debates have raged from time immemorial and traditional way of thinking has not come a long way, though.
Mahant gives medicine to Elokeshi
The most important development of this affair was that this became a huge subject matter for the Kalighat painters. Kalighat school of painting was known for its unique style which had influenced the likes of Jamini Roy and even Picasso. While they generally depicted mythological characters and events, the painters took a break from that and depicted different aspects of the affair and created a different genre of the paintings, leaving behind a huge body of work.
The Tarakeshwar Affair
The case was discussed for many years to come and is referred to similar cases even today as a precedent. No other case had generated so much of debate in Bengal leading while giving a fillip to literature and art!

 NB - All the Kalighat paintings featured above have been taken from Wikipedia

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Shravan and Baba Taraknath

The Hindu month of shravan, (July-Aug) is an important month for many a devout. The month arrives after the scorching heat unleashed by nature and rains come to soothe parched earth and bear fruits to agricultural efforts. Shravan is also the month of many festivities, like the birth of Lord Krishna, Raksha bandhan, Naag Panchami, etc. all signifying some aspect of the month. However, the deity that gets month long attention is Lord Shiva.

As someone who was born and brought up in Kolkata, West Bengal, one has been brought up by the ‘walkathon’ that many a devout undertake to the temple of Tarakeshwar, a Shiva temple at a distance of about 70kms from Kolkata. People walk the distance from far and further, balancing bamboo sticks on their shoulder, with earthen pots at two ends, filled with water from the Ganga. The walk is arduous especially due to the rainy season and fraught with danger from snakes, scorpions and other such inhabitants of the ground.

In the early days, only men used to walk the distance in groups. But after the release of a popular Bengali movie “Joy Baba Taraknath” in the late 70s, where the heroine of the movie is seen walking all the way, it has become quite popular among women to walk the distance along with men. Locals on the way to the temple arrange for rest and stands for the bamboo sticks, which cannot be placed on the ground till it reaches its destination, and offer refreshments to the pilgrims. Night long, people are heard walking the roads, chanting “bhole baba paar karega” (Bhole baba, or Shiva will show us the way) and “Dhalbo Kothay? Babar mathay” (Where will we pour? On Shiva’s head, of course!) on their way to Tarakeshwar.

Like all religious place, this one too has its origins in mythical tales. According to a legend, Vishnu Das, a resident of Oundh (Ayodhya) migrated to Bengal with his family in the early 18th century. People did not take to him too well and were suspicious about him. To prove his innocence he is supposed to have held an iron rod in his hand, after which, he was accepted by the locals. Later his brother found a spot in the nearby jungle, where cows would ooze out milk all by themselves. On digging, they found a shiva-linga with a dent at the top. A dream to Vishnu Das is said to have revealed that this was a manifestation of Lord Shiva, or Baba Taraknath and that a temple should be built there. This is also referred to as one of the few swayambhu (self-manifested, or that which is created by itself) temples of Lord Shiva

The present structure of the temple was built by Raja Bharamalla, in 1729 AD. The temple is an example of a typical Bangla architecture, which has an aatchala structure (‘aat’ - eight and ‘chala’ - sloping roof of huts) with a natmandir (a place for offering prayers) in the front. The temple is considered to be one of the oldest temples in West Bengal which holds sway on people on all occasions related to Lord Shiva, especially Shivaratri and every Monday of the month of shravan. Many stories abound of how efforts to shift the temple elsewhere have been foiled by divine efforts, which goes on to reinforce the will of Baba to stay put at the designated spot of His choice.

The practice of carrying Ganga water or jal and pouring it on the shiva-linga also has mythological allusion. It is said that the amrit-manthan, or the churning of the ocean took place during the month of shravan and amongst many things that came out of the churning was halahal, or poison. When there were no takers for this, Lord Shiva decided to consume it and hold it in his throat, which made his throat blue due to the excessive heat generated by it (and thus he is also referred to as Neelkantha, the blue-necked). Seeing this, all the gods gathered and poured Ganga-jal on his head to cool the excessively heated body. The practice of carrying Ganga-jal and pouring it on shiva-linga is carried on till today during the months of shravan!

A similar pilgrimage is undertaken in the neighbouring states of Jharkhand and Odisha too. In Jharkhand, people carry Ganga-jal from the district of Sultanganj to pour at Babadham in Deogarh, a practice which owes it origin to Lord Ram when he undertook a similar journey on foot over the same route. People undertake this 105 kms journey to coincide with reaching their destination on Mondays. Similar journeys are undertaken from different districts of Odisha to reach the numerous Shiva temples of the state, like Lingaraj temple, etc.

During the month of shravan many people abstain from eating non-vegetarian diet and vices like alcohol and smoking. It is said that shravan is the first of the chaturmas (four months) of Dakshinayan, the Southward journey of the Sun, when the nights are longer than days (as against Uttarayana, the Northward journey of the Sun, when the days are longer). This is considered to be the months when the mind is most unstable and full of negative thoughts (nights symbolising dark and devious). Non-vegetarian food is considered to be ‘hot’ and with an unstable mind, the heat would only lead to more trouble! However, a more practical reason could be that this is also the month when the fish lay eggs. To allow them to breed and thrive would only lead to a larger catch next year. It is possible that abstaining from fish led to a general abstinence of all non-vegetarian diet.

Seasons and associated festivals and each having a mythical origin are an old association, which goes on to ensure that norms are laid down, followed and adhered to. Rains leading to remaining indoors, breeding by the fishes and leaving some animals out of the menu ensuring compassion towards them, only reinforce man’s need to coexist in an ecologically dependent system.