Myths are considered to be the keys to unlocking the psyche of ancient civilizations. Presented in this volume is a selection of the classical myths and ancient legends of rivers, forests, temples, great sages and kings of India along with lights on religious, philosophical, social and mystic concepts that have been the prime elements in moulding the life of the nation through the ages.
What is more, the work outlines the significant spiritual and literary masterpieces of yore that have influenced the perennial Indian creativity in all its streams-art, architecture, dance and music.
The author’s interpretative observations go a long way in revealing to the readers the subtle, often occult, import of the subcontinent’s numerous hoary traditions.
One of the foremost creative writers of modern India who writes with equal felicity in Oriya as well as in English, Manoj Das is a recipient of a number of awards including the Sahitya Akademi Award, Saraswati Samman , Padma Award as well as Honorary D.Litt. from several universities. He has also been bestowed with the country’s highest honour for creative writing, the Fellowship of the Sahitya Akademi. He lives in Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Poducherry, and teaches at the Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education.
I feel tempted to take recourse to the way of Neil Neil—not this, not this—to introduce this work, though that is a profound way whereas mine is a modest exercise the fact is, I am neither a historian nor a pundit. I am only a student of Indian literature, a position in which a creative writer naturally finds himself. I cannot take it amiss should a reader demand to know why a Student should submit his exercise for publication. I do so only for the would-be students; not to add to the knowledge of those who know. Indeed, vast is the population of such readers who, my experience tells me would find it beneficial to share my information, ideas and reflections.
My personal passage through the literary heritage of India bought me several moments of amazement and joys of rediscovery. I could very well have kept them to myself, but it so happened it invited to speak at different forums, academic and otherwise, I used to invite questions, for they always broadened my own perception of issues and challenged me to review them from others’ outlooks. The exchange and dialogue were invariably helpful to me and the fellow-seekers. I can state with confidence that knowledge is innate in all and needs only an occasion to surface.
The more I have delved into the world of Indian myths and legends, the more amazed and overwhelmed I have- felt by their cosmic sweep, complexity and profundity. They constitute a vast world of revelations, truths, promises and secrets, but they may not. Ordinarily or fully lend themselves to rational or even symbolic interpretations so far as the modem man understands of rationality and symbolism goes. Hence, the interpretations applied to some of the primeval myths treated in the following pages may only expose a layer of their import; much lies fathoms below the ‘golden lid’.
The line between the myth and the legend in the Indian context had grown thin in several areas. Many of the pristine Vedic myths had later turned into legends, as a result their original symbolism had been diluted: the Rigvedic myth of Pururavas and Urvasi, for example, even if something of its symbolism remained in the charming romantic plays and poems into which it developed, its original intensity got blurred. Shunasepha being tied to a post because he must be sacrificed in place of a prince, originally meant his bondage to ignorance—and his release signaling his liberation from that condition, Utanka’s entry into the nether world and his discovery of the mechanism responsible for the rotation of day and night as well, as the seasons are explorations in the mystery of consciousness; and Vishwamitra creating a new heaven for his disciple Trishanku is the allegory of the efficacy of occult powers, to cite a few instances. But they are remembered, enacted and narrated more for the elements of drama and pathos in the form they assumed s legends than for their original meaning.
Often puerile tales are invented to explain a tradition that could have had its origin in a sublime plane. Let us consider a popular ceremonial image—that of Kali standing on the breast of Shiva, her one leg raised and her body in a mode of motion. Couldn’t that be the vision of a sage who meditated on the relation between Time and Eternity? The present is vartaman in Sanskrit; it meails ‘revolving’. Kali (Time is kala in Sanskrit) is shown in a mode of movement, the leg raised signifying the moment past as well as the moment to come and the leg planted on Shiva standing for the present. She is dark; for we know not what is there in store for us or for the world the next moment. She wears a garland of skulls, the relics of the aeons past. The white Shiva is static; the white contains all the shades of time and one of the major meanings of the term Shiva is Eternity. The image could be an attempt at embodying the mystic experience of Eternity supporting the movement in time.
But once a vision has been expressed through a visual; it looks gross and intriguing and urgently demands an interpretation. No wonder that a tale must be incorporated in a lesser work belonging to the plethora of books that pass on as the subsidiary Puranas.
As mystics state, Goddess Kali has not one definable personality. Depending on the worshipper’s discipline, faith and motive, she could be anything from a ruthless deity to the most sublime manifestation of the Divine Mother, her colour varying from dark to luminous golden, with a thousand forms between the two poles. As ages passed, the Vedic gods also underwent changes in the human perception of their divinity. Indra is a premier god in the Vedas, alone with Agni and Surya. Later we find indra to be more a royal position in the community of gods (Nahusha became Indra for a while) than one of the Supreme functionaries. But what is most important to remember is the significance of these premier gods in the Vedic context remains undiminished. The shift in their functions is at another plane, we can call it the wider popular plane that emerged, where the Trinity—Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva—became the repositories of all the fundamental powers.
As man evolved and became eligible to realise new aspects of the Divine, the objects of worship too changed. The myth of the young Krishna discouraging the people from worshipping Indra, the angry god trying to punish them by unleashing torrential rain and Krishna protecting them by lifting up Mount Govardhan signifies a transition from the perception of the Divine as a power that should inspire awe, to the realisation of the Divine as love, compassion and as an object of Bhakti, qualities that Krishna represented.
The term ‘deva’ is derived from div, meaning the power that illumines. The illumination came to different seekers in different ways and degrees, for difference and multiplicity are the delight of the One in manifestation. We should also remember that the term god had several lines of import. There are typal gods they are a class of beings themselves (there are several types of demigods and supernatural beings) not very much concerned with the affairs of man. The Supreme One is also perceived as God, as well Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva o the Trinity mentioned earlier. Vishnu, of course, is most concerned with the phenomenal creation and his manifestations like Ram and Krishna are gods too. We also see god in those outside the Ten Avatars of Vishnu, in the persons of epoch-making spiritual masters like Chaitanya or Ramakrishna. While Vishnu or Shiva represents the purusha aspect of the Divine in the phenomcnal creation, the prakriti aspect is represented by the Divine Mother. The difference between the Divine as purusha and the Divine as prakriti is that prakriti has two planes of action—the lower and the higher. The lower prakriti keeps us engrossed in a mess of illusory situations and false values; we are given the freedom to wallow in that state of mire as long. As we wish to, or to choose to get out of it. The moment one aspires to get out of it, the arms of the Divine Mother as the higher prakriti reach him to help accomplish it. Different goddesses such as Lakshmi and Saraswati are the aspects of the supreme Shakti, the Divine Mother, but they can be approached with prayers to satisfy our ignorant desires and they bear with us, granting or rejecting the prayers according to the need of our inner progress, which alone matters.
One of the many extraordinary convictions the Indian myths betray is the uninterrupted journey of the self through numerous incarnations—the occurrences in one life being related to those of an earlier one; the operation of cause and effect in terms of the self’s need for experience. There is a sublime plane of reality where the usual idea of bad and good, divine and hostile disappear. Jaya and Vijaya, the gatekeepers of Vishnu’s abode, were undoubtedly devoted to their Master, but the position they held brewed in them the ego that blinded them to the status of Sage Sanaka and other devotees, and they obstructed their meeting with Vishnu. The result was, Sanaka’s curse made them undergo three lifetimes of experiences as ego-incarnate titans: Hiranksha and Hiranyakashyipu, Ravana and Kumbhakarna and Shishupala and Dantavakra, to be annihilated each time by the incarnations of Vishnu. Ego exhausted, they were liberated. Even Prahlada, the glorious son of Hiranyakashyipu and an ardent devotee of Vishnu, had a reason to be born as a titan prince in relation to the history of his earlier life. A couple of devotees named Drona and Dhara passed years meditating on Vishnu most ardently, but were not blessed with the Lord’s vision. Despair drove them to the verge of suicide when they were promised the closest possible physical proximity to Vishnu’s would-be incarnation in their next birth. Chieftain Nanda and his wife Yashoda, Krishna’s foster parents, were the same couple reborn.
Just as ego sustains man’s separation from the Divine with this separation being primarily responsible for the human fascination for wrong values, disenchantment with such fascination is an inevitable part of the process of progress. Dhruva in his previous was a young aspirant, yet the luxurious life of a prince fascinated him for a while. He was born as a prince only to be disillusioned and to return to the sunlit path of quest with greater determination.
Egoistically grabbing power be it material or occult, when one has not deserved it, when one’s consciousness is not poised for It, is dangerous. Narada refused to reveal to Ravana the mystery of awn, but instead of searching for the cause of that refusaL within him with humility, Ravana threatened to cut off Devarshi’S tongue. This was one of the reasons for the titan to lose his ton heads. At another level the same ego propelled Vishwamitta 10 take away Vasishtha’s sacred cow, instead of preparing himself In consciousness to deserve her, which resulted in a series of fateful occurrences—but ultimately helping Vishwamitra to return to his original aspiration because his psychic had already embraced it.
These are instances to highlight the point that Indian mythology seen in totality leads us to the conclusion that no part can be truly appreciated unless the whole is understood, and everything can be appreciated only in the light of the ultimate human destiny.
Myths and legends apart, precious ideas and convictions remain obscured in the network of folktales spun around historical characters. Kautllya or Chanakya is perceived to be a personality single-minded1>’ resolute in his mission. Popular imagination paid tribute to this trait of that wise guardian minister of Chandragupta Maurya by showing him in the funny act of pouring sweet water at the roots of some shrubs so that ants would destroy them because a thorn from those shrubs had pricked his heel! We are amazed by the pnius of Kalidasa; hence, he must have achieved the maturity that comes through many lives of growth in a single life and in order to make that possible. Goddess Saraswati had to let him die right in front of her so many times, resurrecting him again and again. Now, once the element of Divine intervention has been. Introduced, a greater miracle should be in fitness of things. Therefore Why not portray him as an incorrigible fool who once axed the wry branch of a tree on which he sat? But for such a fool to aspire to become either learned overnight or to give up life, there must be a logical correlative and he must be humiliated by his wife, a scholarly princess. But how come an incorrigible fool married a princess? Pundits who had been snubbed by her had been provoked to trick the proud girl into marriage with him interpreting his gestures as those of a great savant!
The work is presented in nine sections. Chapter One is devoted to some of the primordial myths. They are at the root of numerous ideas, rituals, philosophies and poetry that developed later. They have been strong factors in moulding the attitude of generations of people towards life and death, towards the power of meditation and the power of love, and interpreting events and human conducts no always in terms of individual or collective mischief or virtue, but in terms of the play of some occult forces, cosmic or otherwise, working through human beings.
Chapter Two introduces a roll call of honour of literary and philosophical works, each one of the titles claiming a special position in the history of Indian literature and philosophical development. The works treated are in India’s two oldest languages, Sanskrit and Tamil. Divided into two groups, Group A enlists the books that constructed the spiritual passage and destiny of India and revealed to us its unique psychic treasures and invited us to adventures in ideas. Group B is a small archway opening up into the wonderful horizon of the creative, pragmatic and ethical works of the past that inspired the vast ,orld of imaginative literature in so many languages. I have not been able to introduce books technical in nature such as the Aryabhattiya, the Brahmsphoota Siddhanta or Leelavati Sutra.
Chapter Three answers questions that are generally asked on different aspects of the spiritual, cultural and historical heritage of India and presents some of the principal concepts, philosophical or psychological in nature. They are by no means exhaustive, but they should help the readers to clue into the vaster lores on the issues introduced. These are some of the questions I was asked on different occasions, in India and abroad.
Chapter Four enlists the legends about shrines and sacred mites. It is the presence of legends behind them, not history howsoever rich that has conditioned their choice. The origin and developments of these legends must be traced to the anthropological, historical and theoretical backdrops of the institutionS concerned. This author has briefly pointed at such roots only in a few cases, leaving the rest to researchers.
Chapter Five is about the legends of rivers. Needless to say, there are many more stories behind many more rivers, but the ones treated here, to the best of my knowledge, are among the most eminent ones.
Chapter Six narrates the legends-behind the major forest of India.
Chapter Seven is devoted to that strange class of geniuses exclusive to the Indian subcontinent, the rishis. That reminds me: some years ago when Neem was in the news, with some enterprising people in the USA trying to patent its use and India objecting to the move, an American scientist asked me. ‘The qualities of Neem we have been able to determine through the facilities at the most advanced laboratories match with what your ancient Ayurvedic texts recorded. What kind of laboratories did the Indian Ayurvedic researcher have a millennium ago?’
“The laboratory of consciousness,’ I replied. ‘The sage would idcnti1’ himself with the plant through his contemplation and the plant would reveal its secrets to him.’ My listener nodded in appreciation. ‘Only if mankind could revive the method of gathering knowledge that was demonstrated by these masters of Consciousness!’ he exclaimed.
Volumes deserve to be written on the institution of the rishis and sages of ancient India. That would be a gigantic project.
Chapter Eight gives a brief account of some of the ancient kings who are remembered for reasons other than their authority p monarchs or even as exemplary rulers. Apart from being the builders of the Indian heritage and patrons of culture, they have been the sources of inspiration for numerous literary works in different Indian languages.
As is inevitable, in each of these sections much more that should have found place has been left out largely due to my limitations.
The Appendix contains essays delineating some enigmatic situations in the epics and a few other essays strictly relevant to the main text about the strange relationship between the human and the deity. The legends celebrate (Two Lovers of the Lord) the creative role the epics have played in stirring so many mystic moods (Legends inspired by the Two Epics), the wonderful wandering minstrels who in a milieu bereft of today’s media and proliferation of engagements played an unique role in educating and entertaining people (The Lost World of Ancient Raconteurs) and the legends proliferating around the temple of Sri Jagannath, because of its exceptionality.
I have quoted from authorities sparingly, but necessarily. Often have referred to Sri Aurobindo, for his works are an unfailing source of light on issues profound providence made available to us in the twentieth century. A few passages from S. Radhakrishnan are brilliant academic summaries of certain points.
What has come to be known as Hinduism, but what in fact is the history of human quest for the cardinal questions of life with all its progress, explorations and deviations, has never been prescribed by prohibitions. The quest branched out in many directions. Different systems of philosophy originated out of the different ways in which some of the spiritual geniuses pursued the reality. If there were quarrels among their followers, the philosophies were not responsible for that D.D. Kosambi, whose approach to history has been absolutely pragmatic, rightly states, ‘Cults do not clash by themselves. It is the people who observe the cults that find it impossible to come to terms. The followers of Shankara and Ranianuja quarrelled bitterly on the worldly plane. It is very doubtful that they could have justified physical violence by the subtle theological differences between their two systems. The theological subtleties which distinguish the two schools are difficult enough to cause any number of headaches, but there seems to be nothing in either system as expounded by its great acharyas which should have led to the breaking of heads. ‘—Myth and Reality.
To be interested in the heritage of Indian myths, legends and Faiths amounts to responding to the call of a horizon— magnificent but ever-expanding, What emerge in the process of our exploration however petite, is a sense of optimism, a confidence that there is a purpose in life and there is a future for the wonderful adventures in consciousness that is the human journey.
I am grateful to the Sahitya Akademi for bringing this work— to its President Prof. Gopi Chand Narang and to the ex-Secretary Prof. K. Satchidanandan for their sustained interest and unfailing couragemeflt and to the present Secretary. Shri Agrahara Krishna Murthy and the Dy. Secretary Smt. Gitanjali Chatterjee for their k.en interest in the work.
The spontaneous and efficient help of hri Anup Kishore Das brought order into the several drafts and notes 1 had prepared over the years and gave the work an organised profile. The work was also facilitated by Shri Somdutt. I thank both these former itudents of Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education.
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