Friday, September 21, 2007

Bathroom wars and other godly tales

Question for the day: from which great mythological story does the following sentence come?

“Never had such a battle been fought outside a bathing room.”

Answer: from the account of the birth of Ganesha as told in the Svetavaraha, or the kalpa of the White Boar. (There are different versions for different kalpas, including one where Shiva and Parvati are so excited by the sight of elephants mating that they assume pachydermic form themselves and go at it vigorously right there in the jungle; the son subsequently born has an elephant’s head etc.)

The bare bones of the Svetavaraha version (familiar to most Amar Chitra Katha readers but well worth reading in a more elaborate, uncensored form) is that Parvati, annoyed by Shiva’s frequent intrusions into her bathing chambers, decides to create a son of her own who can be a loyal dwarapalaka (unlike Shiva’s pot-smoking ganas, who think it’s quite all right if a husband wants to enter the room where his wife is bathing, even if it’s only to peer at the naked sakhis who are bathing with her). Anyway, the valiant boy is fashioned out of the dirt she has washed from her body (it’s been a really long time since her last bath) and he proceeds to not only keep Shiva at bay but single-handedly defeat all the devas, ganas and other celestial beings who come to his aid (for the collective storming of the bathing room, one must pause to wonder?). Eventually, he is killed by deceit (Vishnu comes forth to wrestle with him, while Shiva lops off his head from behind), whereupon Parvati turns into the demoness Bhadrakaali, rolls her eyes horribly and threatens to destroy the world unless her son is revived. So they attach the head of a white elephant onto the headless trunk, and when Ganesha comes to life all the Gods are so relieved that they decide he will be worshipped before any of them.

It being Ganesha Chaturthi and all, I revisited the relevant chapter in one of my favourite books, Ramesh Menon’s vivid translation of the Siva Purana, and discovered many sentences (like the one at the top of this post) that are quite amusing when read in isolation. Examples:
“And I must bow to the whim of an arrogant obstinate woman who is my own wife? Thrash the boy. Kill him if you have to, or they will say Siva is henpecked.”
With his mother’s danda, he smashed the gana force like eggshells, laughing all the while in his clear, fresh voice.
And my favourite:
Her terrifying karalis, hunchbacked kubjakas, lame kanjas and long-headed lambasirsas set about their task like fire in dry grass. They picked up deva and asura, rakshasa and Sivagana, and flung them into yawning maws like bits of candy.
Stop gaping with your yawning maws. Go buy this book.

Update: given some of the enthusiastic early reactions to this post, I feel impelled to throw in a bonus from the Menon book. The section dealing with the birth of Karttikeya (who is destined to kill the tyrant Tarakasura) is even more exciting and contains the following passage, with the Gods waiting impatiently for the birth (or at least the conception) of Shiva's son:
Vishnu said, "The time has come and the constellations around the earth have reached their destined places. The heavens tremble with the mating of Siva and Parvati, yet he does not spill his seed. How will Rudra have a son unless he emits the flaming gold of his loins? Come, let us climb Kailasa."
How will Rudra have a son unless he emits the flaming gold of his loins? Wouldn't you just know that cheeky fellow Vishnu would say something like this? (For a taste of what happens next, check this old post. And for more on scriptural seed-spilling, see this one about wondrous births in the Mahabharata.)


  1. Brilliant Jai! While I have some memories of such dialogue from the Amar Chitra Katha's of my childhood, your dollops of good natured humour are well on target.

    Indian Mythology is so vast anyway ,and than regional and cultural influences add a whole new dimension to it. As a result you have different versions to some popular stories.

    I loved my childhood for the weekly Amar Chitra Katha's my father used to bring for me ,it was good entertainment in the Doordarshan era.

  2. karalis? kubjakas? kanjas? LOLs!!
    ... So the kraze for K is not that new!...

    Awesome post!...

  3. You forgot a particularly choice bit of silliness. Shiva tells one of his minions to get him the first head they find. And, possibly befuddled by their drug of choice, they bring him the head of an elephant. So, like the zero and the rocket, we find that Indians invented absurdist comedy.

  4. Er ... That should be 'his minions', not one thereof. In my hurry to share the information, I got confused.

  5. Ah! Entertainment such as only Amar Chitra Katha could deliver. Brings fond memories..

  6. sooperb. thanx for the scrumptious read :)

  7. Lalbadshah: well, Amar Chitra Katha was of course supremely entertaining, but almost everything I've mentioned here is from the Ramesh Menon translation - which is far more direct and adult. I haven't seen the ACK Ganesha in years, though I still remember some of the images.

    Aditya: yes, and apparently it was a "magical elephant", which cheerfully agreed to be beheaded if it was for a good cause.

    Shwet, Ashen Glow, Mystic Bard: do read the Menon books, I can't recommend them enough.

  8. Blasphemous post, Jai!!! Hopefully, no one in the saffron brigade is reading your post..You can expect them to burn Ramesh Menon's books for insulting the 'seeds' of Indian culture!!!

  9. that was incredibly entertaining.I almost wish the saffron brigade would actually read that,just in order that one may revel further in their studied :)

  10. E Pradeep, Haru Cornelius Ercole Nahele: if you want to see ravings of that sort, why wait? Check the Comments on this post and this one.

  11. Is it really "Karttikeya", or did some numerologist get to him too!

  12. why do some people find so much joy in denigrating the gods... the tale is not meant to be taken literally but rather figuratively

  13. Anon: But if it's only meant to be taken figuratively and not literally, then surely that means none of this actually happened. In which case no one is denigrating any gods. No?

  14. Jabberwock, very interesting post. I have always been fascinated by the extent of sexual innuendo in our scriptures and on our temple murals. And I do admit that they can be hilarious. However, I also think that they reflect the liberal views of our ancestors, which, sadly, are in short supply today. One of the comments mentioned the saffron brigade, and indeed they (saffron brigade) could do with a better understanding of how dynamic and all encompassing our scriptures actually are. I wouldn’t know of course, as I haven’t more than a passing knowledge of the same. But going by your post and several others, it seems obvious that sex, murder, intrigue and ye goode olde roman orgy were as much a part of our pantheon as chivalry, good principals etc. (By using us/we, I mean Indian and not Hindu, etc.)

    But more to the point, I feel disheartened by this yawning gap between the intellectuals who maintain a mostly disaffected view on religious posturing and fundamentalists that use even the slightest hint of religious misappropriation as fodder for their political motives. I feel the intellectuals are thereby inadvertently taking part in this bipolar war and are therefore paying a disservice to the common good. Perhaps this stems from the need of the intellectual to ideologically distance him or herself as far as possible from the fundamentalist. Where an intellectual middle ground and a better holistic understanding of issues will serve better, I see a disturbing trend of pooh-poohing. Granted, the view of the atheist is equally compelling (going by your last comment) but the atheistic view is just as stubborn as the religious view. And as such, little is to be gained by arguing either.

    And then of course, one is left with the issue of self-censorship. Not that I doubt your integrity or suchlike--your blog is very astute for the most part--but this is something that we all face. We will all lambast the inconsistencies and make fun of the religious trivia in religions from which we do not perceive an extreme backlash, while we will refrain from doing the same for others from whom we may expect more sinister consequences. In this case, going by the kind of saffron outrage doing the rounds, I might well be talking of Hinduism, actually. And how sad is that?

    Apologies for the rant, and more so if I spark off a long diatribe of comments on religion etc. But I suppose with a post like this one, you expect that.

  15. Wonderful post. Now how about writing something on the same lines about Muslims or Christians??

    I doubt that you will ever write cause our so called secular media don't have the balls that it takes to write something about Muslims or Christians.

  16. Watch it, Jai. Vedanti is reading your blog. And to save your head (not ass) fulfill the anonymous wishes with the next post on how a young Ayesha lost her way from an 'old' Mohammad's platoon one evening after his move to Medina. The next morning she was found to be escorted by a younger lieutenant into the troops. I found that sequence pretty pregnant with ideas.

    Btw, have you seen elephants mating. It takes painfully long for the male to mount and achieve the feat (full nine feet, actually). How someone can find this foreplay exciting beats my imagination.

  17. why do some people find so much joy in denigrating the gods...

    Surely a distinction should be made between mythology and the ethics and spiritual teaching in any religion? One of the ways that polytheism differs from monotheism is that the former's multitude of gods are all superhumans with all the emotions and drives of humans raised to the nth power, whereas the latter's god is an abstraction that is difficult to give a face to. The most vivid stories usually apply to the collective of gods, rather than to a particular single God. After all, the monotheistic faiths have introduced a human intermediary exactly for this reason - to serve as a comprehensible proxy. Which explains why there are myths about the prophets but not so many about the Boss himself, except where he directly intervenes in human affairs.

    If one agrees that the stories about the gods are just that, then one can do what Roger Zelazny does in his Lord of Light where he imagines that the Hindu gods are actually aliens occupying a primitive world, and fighting with each other for power. The entity known as Sam (short for, I think, Mahasamatman, a sort of Kalki clone), however, is the one who has the interests of the minion humans. I'm possibly simplifying heavily as I read this book years ago, but it seemed like an interesting take on myths and the way myths may take shape.

  18. Anon: see Hill Goat's comment. I'm not as familiar with the other "holy books" as I am with the Hindu scriptures, otherwise would have been glad to oblige. But from what I do know of the Old Testament, there's some ripe stuff in there. Must research.

    How someone can find this foreplay exciting beats my imagination

    Hill Goat: they're GODS, for heaven's sake. You're not supposed to define the limits of their imagination.

    The entity known as Sam (short for, I think, Mahasamatman, a sort of Kalki clone), however, is the one who has the interests of the minion humans

    Feanor: Not unlike Uncle Sam, huh? Will try to get hold of Lord of Light, sounds interesting.

  19. ...they (saffron brigade) could do with a better understanding of how dynamic and all encompassing our scriptures actually are.

    Prof Bakwas: absolutely. And thanks for the comment. Agree with most of your points (incl the bit about self-censorship) but I have a slight problem with this view (which I've been seeing a lot of lately) that "intellectuals" who call themselves atheists are necessarily posturing or self-consciously setting themselves up in opposition to religious fundamentalism. Speaking for myself here (and for at least a few of my friends/acquaintances), atheism is simply a very natural, matter-of-fact absence of belief in a Higher Power. No ulterior motives at all, it comes as naturally to us as breathing. And I wouldn't go out on a limb to "argue" the atheistic view or to try and convert others to it. But if believers still find it convenient to label us as Intellectuals or Pseudo-Intellectuals who are only adopting this position to show off, well, that's really their problem (in some cases, maybe it suggests latent insecurities or personal doubts about their own faith - or maybe they're just feeling persecuted for being religious).