In the Puranas, it is said that in the later ages (Kaliyuga perhaps), even an ordinary man/king can acquire the position of Indra, the king of gods. The Vishnu Purana has the following story which tells us how a mortal king became an Indra. Once there was a bitter war between the gods and the demons. The war went on for a while and there seemed to be no resolution in sight. Finally, both sides approached Brahma the creator and asked him who would eventually win this apparently unending war. Brahma thought for a while and said, “The side that the King Raji, who rules the earth, supports by taking up arms on its behalf will win this war”.
The demons were quick to approach Raji and asked him to aid them in the war. King Raji agreed but on one condition. After the war, he said, he wanted to be crowned Indra. Now the demons were in a fix. How could they possibly guarantee the kingdom of gods, even more so because Indra Prahlad’s term was not yet over? Dejected, they withdrew in disappointment.
The gods came in next with same proposition. King Raji put forth the same condition. The gods agreed at once and soon Raji joined their army and as predicted, helped them win the war. Indra had to step down and accept Raji as the supreme king of the gods. He bowed before him and placing his foot on his head said, “You have saved me from great danger, I acknowledge you as my superior and my king. From now you will be known as Indra”. But Raji was content to remain on earth and so he asked Indra to continue as his representative on the throne of heavens. Indra agreed. So even though Indra performed all the kingly duties, the oblations and sacrifices reached Raji. Although Indra was unhappy, he could do little but accept the situation since that had been the condition the gods had accepted for their victory.
However matters got out of hand when Raji’s son wanted to perpetuate the arrangement after his father’s death. Indra opposed this idea but was compelled to yield at the end. Sad and frustrated, he went to his teacher Brihaspati and asked him for a morsel of the sacrificial butter. Brihaspati was sad to see Indra’s plight and said, “Had you been courageous enough to win the war for gods earlier, you would not have ended up thus. But I can help you to regain your sovereignty.”
Brihaspati set up a yagna for Indra which would help him regain his lost powers. The yagna made Raji’s sons arrogant, they began mocking the Vedas and neglected their religious duties and ended up as enemies of gods. And at a point when they had become too weak to put up a valiant fight, Brihaspati advised Indra to kill them and reclaim his position as the king of gods.
After killing the son of Twashtri and the demon Vritra, Indra was reeling under the guilt of brahma-hatya, the killing of a Brahmin, and was soon overcome by depression. Indra left his abode leaving the heavens and the earth without a ruler. Anarchy prevailed, aggravated by the absence of rain on earth and land was soon getting converted to deserts. The gods in heaven too were worried about the absence of a ruler and wondered how they would counter the attacks of asura’s if there was one. It was decided that the gods would appoint someone to rule in the absence of Indra, but who would that be? When none of the gods wanted to take Indra’s responsibility, the gaze shifted to earth.
Nahusha was a great king of the lunar race and had acquired a reputation of being a brave warrior, besides the people were happy under his rule. When the gods approached him, he was rather shocked and wondered how he could rule the gods when he was a mere mortal. The gods assured him, that as a substitute to Indra, he would also have powers of Indra. Soon Nahusha was crowned as the king of the heavens, but the transfer of powers did not do him any good. He was soon arrogant and was prone to shouting at the guards and gods alike.
One day, Nahusha saw Sachi, the beautiful wife of Indra in her palace and was besotted by her looks. He proposed to her and said that all that was Indra’s was now his and thus so should she. Sachi was furious, but she did not say anything and sought shelter with the guru of the gods, Brihaspati. When Nahusha learnt that Sachi had taken shelter with Brihaspati, he rebuked the sages and gods and ordered them to fetch Sachi for him or face the wrath of their new King. When they tried to reason with him, that it was evil to covet another man’s wife, Nahusha laughed at them and reminded them, that it was not unusual to covet others wives in heaven, at least not when Indra coveted the wife of Gautam and Chandra stole the wife of their guru, Brihaspati. So why were they so surprised when all he was asking for what obviously was now his? Not able to answer Nahusha, the sages and the gods soon landed at the doorstep of Brihaspati.
On the advice of Brihaspati, Sachi approached Nahusha and said, that she did not mind coming over to him, provided she made sure that Indra was no more and gone for good. She asked for time to find his whereabouts and if her efforts failed, then she would be his. Nahusha found the suggestion reasonable as he was sure that Indra could never be found and agreed to wait. After some severe prayers offered to the goddess of Night, Sachi managed to find Indra who had reduced his form to hide inside a lotus. When he learnt what had happened in the heavens, he was worried as at that moment, Nahusha was more powerful as all of Indra’s powers were transferred to him. But nonetheless, Indra asked Sachi to go back and suggest that if Nahusha wanted to marry her, he should come in a palanquin carried by none other than the seven sages. While Indra used horses for his chariot, Nahusha was different and this would make him unique. Indra further added that the rest would be taken care of by him.
Sachi conveyed her desire to Nahusha, who was too happy to do as told to him by her. In the meanwhile the gods too were searching for Indra and on Vishnu’s suggestion, he was asked to perform the Ahswamedha Yagna to rid him of the sin of brahma-hatya as well as regain all his lost strength and vigour.
In his desire to marry Sachi, Nahusha ordered the seven sages to carry him to the palace of Sachi. The sages had no choice but to do what was told to them. The sages carried him in a palanquin and proceeded towards the palace of Sachi. On the way, the sages asked Nahusha if they believed in the truth of the Vedas, to which the arrogant Nahusha said, that he did not believe in the Vedas. This angered the sages and rebuked him for not having faith in the Vedas. The now angry Nahusha stretched his foot out of the palanquin and touched none other than the sage Agastya. (Another version says that Sage Agastya was shorter than the others and thus the palanquin would tilt at one end every now and then leading to Nahusha not being able to sit properly and in anger he is supposed to have kicked Agastya for this discomfort). This insult of a sage was enough to rob Nahusha of all his powers. Sage Agastya immediately cursed him saying that he was guilty of three crimes, one to say that he had no faith in the Vedas, second to kick a sage and third to make the sages, each of who were equal to Brahma, carry him in a palanquin. For this crime, Agastya cursed Nahusha to turn into a serpent for ten thousand years on earth.
This way, the gods were rid of Nahusha and Indra was back on his throne, after being rid of his sin. Later, we find Nahusha as a serpent in the epic Mahabharata, when he grips Bhima and agrees to release him only after Yushishthir answers his questions, but that is another story.
Creation myths are among the oldest stories in the world. Fascinated by the universe and haunted by the question of ‘who we are’ and ‘where have we come from’, primitive communities sought answers which led to myths and later philosophies that defined the civilisations they set up. When placed in our present day context, these myths seem like bizarre and absurd flights of the imagination. If we were to look at them not as explanations of phenomena that science has been able to tackle with far greater clarity today, but instead as early explorations of thought and also as the remnants of early belief systems, they are invaluable. This is a myth from the Andaman Islands told by the Kol tribe which spoke a now extinct language called Aka Kol; they believe that the monitor lizard is the progenitor of their race. These stories were collected by A R Radcliffe Brown, anthropologist.
When Ta Peti (Sir Monitor Lizard) was unmarried, but had gone through the initiation ceremonies that young boys of the tribe had to go through, he decided to go on a hunting expedition. He went into the jungle looking for wild pigs and climbed up a having completed the initiation ceremonies), he went into the jungle to hunt pig. He climbed up the ‘garjan’ tree, commonly found in the islands’ forests whose botanical name is Dipterocarpus. Unfortunately Sir Lizard got stuck there. The civet cat found him there and she helped him get down. The two got married and their children are the ancestors of the Andamanese.
Sir Lizard is the ancestor according to another myth too, told by another tribe, the Pucikwars. The story goes that in the beginning Sir Lizard had no wife. One day he went fishing and found a piece of black wood which he brought back to his hut and placed it on a platform above the fire. He settled down near the fire and began working intently on making an arrow and he could not see what was happening to the log of wood that he brought along. After some time had passed he heard a laugh, he looked up and saw that the piece of wood had turned into a woman. She became his wife. They had a son named poi (a species of small bird), and afterwards many other children. They lived together for a long time and one day he went fishing and was drowned in the creek. He turned into a kara-duku.(kara duku according to some translations is a crocodile and some others a cachalot)
The story is a familiar one; many know it without ever having read it in a book or having been told it in its entirety. Yet, no matter how many times it is retold, the story never fails to sweep up the listener into its swell. A young girl, an imperious sage, a strikingly handsome god and the birth of a tragic hero; it has all the ingredients needed for a gripping story.
Kunti, the adopted daughter of Kuntibhoja, was still a young girl when Durvasa,a hot headed sage came visiting. Kunti had been given away by her father because his cousin, Kuntibhoja was childless and that is how, it is said, she also got her name. Kunti is also known as Pritha, the name she was given by her birth parents. When Kuntibhoja heard that Durvasa was visiting, he grew pensive and worried. The sage’s mercurial temper was legendary. Kings shuddered at the thought of having to entertain him and his army of aides and assistants. He made demands that were impossible to meet and when they were not met, cursed the king and his kingdom to a lifetime of despair. In his wisdom, Kuntibhoja thought that Kunti was best suited to serve the sage. And so she was assigned to look after his every desire. Now, Kunti managed to keep the sage happy, so happy in fact that he gave her a boon. He blessed her with the power to call a god of her choosing at will and beget a son from him. All gods, no matter how big or small, would have to do her bidding.
Kunti, a young girl barely out of her teens was curious and also disbelieving of the true power of her boon. It seemed to be too good to be true she thought and to test it out, she summoned the one god she had admired all her life, Surya, the sun god. Surya flew down at her call and as promised by Durvasa, fathered her son.
The boy was born with golden earrings and impenetrable armour, both gifts from his divine father. He was named Karna (and later would be given the epithet Danvir or the generous one). His gifts would make him invincible in battle and mark him out as a hero among the mortals.
Meanwhile the young Kunti was petrified; if word got out about her dalliance with the god, she would bring shame upon her father and her entire kingdom. So she placed her new born in a basket and set him down the river Ashva. The basket with the baby, (a motif found in many myths all over the world), floated down the river and settled in a bed of weeds where it was found by Adiratha (charioteer and stable hand) and Radha. The couple lived in a small hut, a far cry from the palace that Karna was born into. But they adopted Karna and brought him up as their own.
With a god for a father and a princess for a mother who abandoned him at birth, the boy grew up to become one of the epic’s greatest heroes.
Image source: Wikipedia
The story of Krishna’s birth is a familiar one; we know how Devaki and Vasudeva, imprisoned by Kamsa (Devaki’s brother), manage to spirit him away one rainy night to the home of a herdsman, Nanda and his wife Yashoda, in Vrindavan-Mathura and bring their new-born daughter to take his place. When Kamsa discovers that the child is a girl, he flings her against a rock to kill her, but she escapes and announces that the real killer was growing up elsewhere. In another version, the girl turns into a goddess, slips away from Kamsa’s grasp and makes a home in the Vindhya forests where she is known as Devi Ekanamsa, a protector of the hunter tribe. She was later considered to be a form of Durga.
This story turns into a completely different one in the Jaina texts. Jinasena, an acharya of the Digambara tradition and author of the Harivamsa Purana in 783 AD has a story about Ekanasa who is Krishna’s sister. Ekanasa means one with a single nostril (stub nose) and scholars believe that this was a counter story to the Vedic/Puranic versions.
Ekanasa was born to Yashoda and Nanda and took Krishna’s place in prison but instead of killing her, Kamsa decided to leave her alone. A woman could do him no harm he thought. But then he had second thoughts and decided that her future husband could bring about his death, so he pounded her nose to disfigure her face so that she would never find a husband. She grew up with people mocking her and calling her Cippita-Nasika (one with a stubbed nose).
One day the young sons of Balarama (her nephews) saw her admiring herself in front of a mirror and ridiculed her, at which she was so hurt that she went crying to a Jain mendicant and asked him to reveal the cause of her misfortunes. He told her that in her previous birth she was a handsome but vain young man. One day, he was driving his cart around when he came across a Jain sage deep in meditation and drove right into him, toppled him off his seat and broke his nose. The punishment that Ekanasa was suffering in this birth, the medicant told her, was a direct result of her actions in her previous life.
When she heard this account, Ekanasa was moved to tears and decided to give up everything and became a Jain sadhvi (nun). She travelled the length and breadth of the country before landing up in the forests of Vindhya. She made the forest her home, living sparely and performing severe austerities. One day as she sat in meditation under a tree, a group of hunters happened to go past. Apart from hunting, they would also rob the caravans of the rich that passed through the forest and they were on their way for just such an adventure. The hunter-robbers assumed that she was the goddess of the forest and offered her choice fruits and berries and asked for her protection and then they left.
While they were gone, a lion came upon the spot and attacked Ekanasa. It devoured her, leaving blood and entrails behind and three fingers. When the hunters returned, they thought that the goddess had disappeared, but that she must take delight in blood and sacrifice given that there was so much of it all around. And from that day on, they started sacrificing animals and worshipping her as their goddess Vindhyavasini.
The Jaina tale is meant to show the foolishness of a people who follow wrong scriptures and gods. The texts reiterate that Ekanasa is a Jain sadhvi and the image of her as a disfigured nun deep in meditation, surrendering herself to the lion, a powerful reminder of the courage and character that she had within her. Her worship as a bloodthirsty goddess, the text warns, is an example of pagan worship built on false premises.
The demon king Narakasur had become a menace. King of Pragjyotisha, present day Assam, and the son of Bhudevi (Mother Earth), he had become arrogant and drunk with power. Wherever he went he spread fear and destruction; the cruel king however exceeded his share of misadventures on earth when he took away the earrings of Aditi, the mother of all gods, and also kidnapped 16000 women who were the daughters of different gods and saints.
Aditi was related to Lord Krishna’s wife, Satyabhama who appealed to Krishna and he in turn immediately mounted his vahana, Garuda and attacked Narakasura. Now Bhudevi had been given a boon that her son would be killed only by Vishnu, in his Krishna avatar. A fierce battle took place and Krishna killed the demon general Mura (and earned the epithet, Murari). Narakasura used his thunderbolt on Krishna, but it didn’t work and at the end Krishna beheaded Narakasura with his sudarshana chakra.
A slightly different version says that Narakasura had a boon from Lord Brahma wherein he would be killed only by his mother. Satyabhama was an avatar of Bhudevi and thus his mother too, which was unknown to Narakasura. During the war, Krishna was injured and feigned an inability to fight. This enraged Satyabhama so much, that she struck Narakasura with such vigour that he died instantly.
In both the versions, a dying Narakasura asked for a boon that his death be celebrated by one and all on earth, and thus the day is celebrated as Naraka Chaturdashi, the day before Diwali and also referred to as Chhoti Diwali. Not only was Narakasur killed and the precious earrings of Aditi recovered, but the 16,000 girls were also released. And to protect the girls, Krishna is said to have married all of them.
He also smeared his forehead with the blood of Narakasur and when he arrived home after the battle; his wives massaged him with perfumed oils and gave him a royal bath. Ever since 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.
It took us close to two hours to trudge up the mountain, a trek that the villagers accomplish in less than quarter of an hour, we were told by an amused lot of local know-alls. But for city-bred slouches like us, it took some serious heaving and climbing to make it to the top where the syahi devi temple sat resplendent in a pool of sunlight.
In Sitlakhet in Uttarakhand, this temple is a must-see. It was first built by the Katyur kings who ruled over the Kumaon region (now a part of Uttarakhand) sometime between 800 and 1100 AD and then rebuilt by the Chand kings and further improved upon by subsequent rulers from the Gorkha dynasty.
At the temple, Pandit Kailashnath Goswami, showed us around before telling us the story of the devi of the Katyur kings and hence Katyani devi. She was the goddess of the kings (syahi is how the local people pronounced shahi which in Hindi means royal), he says. My amateur etymological experiments are immediately crushed to dust. I had imagined syahi, the Hindi word for ink, was used as an epithet because the original devi at the temple is a dark goddess. Later another idol was installed, a white marbled goddess. Today the mandir has two goddesses – one white and one black with a Ganesh idol in the middle.
Inside the temple, Goswami tells us, a ‘shuddh’ puja happens and the offerings are all vegetarian. The dark goddess accepts animal sacrifices and until quite recently, goats were sacrificed here. The sacrifice was done at an altar, just a few steps away from the main temple, in the same courtyard, under a tree where there is another idol of the dark Katyani devi. This is the original idol that the Katyur kings are said to have installed.
The story goes that the Katyurs moved in large groups, never less than 9 lakh people at a time, Goswami says. The walked all day and set up camps at night and the local people say that all the work they did, building temples, digging wells and such other things was during the night. And the Syahi Devi temple, it was built in one night, they say.
After the Katyur dynasty had been replaced by the Chand dynasty the temple fell into disuse and people soon forgot about the devi. One day, one of the Chand kings came to the hill where the temple stands today. He liked the place and set up camp with his family and attendants.
As the evening light began to dim and the people were about to retire for the night, they saw a large eagle-like bird swoop down into the camp. It seemed to appear out of nowhere, as if the skies had shaped it out of itself. They watched in amazement but before they could even move, the bird had dived in and plucked the eyes off one of the children. Aghast the people ran helter-skelter and hid, but the next evening, the story repeated itself. And when the bird did this evening after evening, they begged their king for help. The king was miserable but he did not know what to do.
One night, as the king drifted into a disturbed sleep, the bird came to him in a dream. “I am none other than the goddess who lives in the hills,” she said. “I want food, your people are not giving me any food and so I have had to do this. Give me a place to stay and make sure that the people offer me their respect and ensure that I have enough to eat always,” she added. She also pointed the king towards a hillock in the distance where she said, he would find her idol.
The next morning, the king wasted no time in gathering his people and walking up the hill, right to the top where he found the idol, just as the bird had said he would. And his men built the temple where the devi lives till this day. Interestingly Katyani devi idol inside the temple has its eyes painted in gold.
The world over, creation myths have used the motif of the universe emerging from an egg. In India too, there are several that talk of how the sky and the earth have come to be seen as two halves of an egg or the sun is believed to be the yolk of an egg and of course, there is the golden egg motif (Hiranyagarbha) which is said to have held the universe within itself. The following myth is part of the tribal folklore of the hills of Himachal Pradesh.
In the beginning there was only the Nirankar Guru. He was alone and got bored (like Prajapati in the cosmic waters and the Egyptian Atum in the primeval waters). He rubbed his armpits in which sweat had gathered. From the right armpit he created a female vulture and a male vulture from his left armpit. He wanted to further create so he placed the female vulture over the male vulture but there was no progeny. The male vulture then flew to the east and the north and he came back to the female vulture and said: “Let us marry”. But she said: “How? We were brother and sister.”
At the words of the female, the male vulture wept and the tears that fell were drunk up by the female vulture. She became pregnant and produced eggs. But the question was where to place the eggs, for there was no earth. They were placed in the wings of the vulture but one of them fell down and broke. From one portion was created the sky, and from the other, the earth.
At the tip of Indian subcontinent, where three mighty oceans – The Indian Ocean, Arabian sea and Bay of Bengal meet, lies the shrine of the virgin goddess or Kanyakumari . There are many legends that explain why the goddess has remained a virgin and here is one.
Banasura the asura, meditated upon Brahma for years. Pleased with his devotion, Brahma granted him a boon. Banasura asked that he be killed by no man in this universe, only a woman could bring about his end. The boon having been bestowed pleased Banasura no end and he promptly reported it to his preceptor Shukra. To his surprise Shukra reprimanded Banasura saying, “You fool! You should have asked for death only at the hands of a virgin. Virgins are rare on earth. Go back to Brahma and perform rigorous tapas and ask him to modify the boon. Be specific that only a virgin can kill you”.
Confused Banasura asked Shukra, “But why do you say virgins are rare?” Shukra replied, “This world constitutes of Shiva and Shakti. Neither can exist without each other and therefore, virgins are rare.” Convinced by the logic of the argument, Bana sought Brahma’s blessings one more time and was duly rewarded. With his newly acquired power, Banasura conquered the three worlds and started harassing sages and devas. Frustrated, the devas approached Vishnu, who suggested that they go to Parashakti, the mother goddess. It was in her power to solve their problems he said and so the sages began performing the required sacrifices to Parashakti.
Pleased, the goddess appeared before them in the form of a young girl. After listening to their problems she promised them deliverance from the demon. At the right time she would eliminate Banasura and restore peace on earth, she said. True to her word, she donned the form of a beautiful maiden and went to the southern-most edge of the world where she lay in wait for Banasura. In this form she came to be known as Kanyakumari, the virgin girl.
One day Shiva (in the form Suchindaram) happened to pass by and noticed her and the austere life that she was living. He instantaneously fell in love with her and expressed his wish to marry her. The goddess agreed and the marriage was fixed for an auspicious hour by midnight. Now Sage Narad heard the news and was alarmed because he realized that if the marriage took place then Kanyakumari would no longer remain a virgin and she would not be able to kill Banasura. He decided to take matters in his hands and went to Kanyakumari and told her that perhaps it was not Shiva who wanted to marry her, but Banasura in disguise. To verify his true identity, he told her that she should ask Shiva to bring three items that could not be obtained anywhere in the world: a coconut without eyes, a mango without a seed, and a betel leaf without veins. Kanyakumari did as asked but Shiva easily fulfilled her demands and the marriage was back on schedule.
A worried Narad decided to trick Shiva (Suchindaram) instead. As Shiva embarked on the journey to the bride’s home with his wedding party, Narada assumed the form of a cock and prematurely announced the arrival of dawn. Shiva-Suchindaram was distraught as he assumed that he had missed the auspicious hour. He turned back leaving an anxious Kanyakumari waiting for her groom in bridal clothes. When the sun came up and her groom had not arrived, the goddess threw a tantrum, kicking all the utensils and food items that were part of the marriage ceremony. In anger she cursed them to turn into pebbles and shells of the sea. And even today, you can find sand grains that resemble rice grains on the beaches of Kanyakumari. Heartbroken, the goddess vowed that she would remain a virgin till the day Shiva came to her as her groom.
News of the beauty of the goddess and her severe austerities soon reached Banasura. He sought her hand in marriage but she refused him. The demon decided to take her by force leading to a fierce battle between the two. In the end Banasura was killed by her discus. A dying Banasura asked for forgiveness and repented his adharmic actions and the goddess, in an act of compassion, proclaimed that the waters of the ocean would wash away all his sins.
The tribal folklore of our country has an assortment of myths and folktales explaining the organisation of the world and its creation. The stories differ from region to region and even within a community, like the Gonds for instance, stories change when they move from one part of the country to another. This is a story from Odisha which is also home to the Gond community, apart from central India and Andhra Pradesh.
The story goes that Mahadeo divided the earth into seven parts in seven lotus leaves and threw them in the ocean. Each lotus leaf became an island. But who would step on these islands? What if they sank into water? So Mahadeo ordered Bhima to take the first step. But no sooner had Bhima put his foot on a leaf, his leg sank. This meant that there was still work to be done; meanwhile from the mud that was thrown up when Bhima put his foot in, a mountain was created. Mahadeo created seven kinds of herbs on this mountain and gave the first six to Parvati his wife. But the seventh herb he kept from her.
Then Mahadeo went to Kadali Jharia to make a wooden plough. This is a forest with plenty of water and banana trees and herbs. Bhima followed him. Left to herself, Parvati grew curious. She could not understand why Mahadeo had kept the seventh herb from her. So she ate it, but was afraid of becoming pregnant. So she created a tiger from the dirt of her body and sent him to meet Mahadeo.
The tiger bounded off to the forest where Mahadeo was making a plough. The tiger hid in a bush and tried to frighten Mahadeo who, unperturbed, threw some wooden particles from the plough that he was making and said, “Oh Kokua, chase the tiger and eat him”. Kokua are wild dogs and it is said that even today the tiger is afraid of them. Meanwhile the wooden particles became dogs and chased the tiger who fled to Parvati who was busy washing her utensils. Since she washed utensils like all women do with ash, her hands were covered in them when the kokua came running after the tiger. To stop the tiger from being killed, Parvati held the kokua’s face in her hands that were black with ash and so from that day on, the wild dogs have a black face.
Mahadeo realized that Parvati was pregnant. So he went to Nirakar and expressed his dismay and doubt at this but Nirakar said he was wrong to feel like that. If Parvati did not give birth to children how would the universe come to be, what would happen to the world? So Mahadeo went home to his wife. Meanwhile, she had given birth to thousands of children both handsome and ugly. Out of shame she buried the ugly children under the trees and brought up handsome children on her lap. Mahadeo divided the children into many clans, castes etc. The first son of Parvati and Mahadeo was the Gond.