There was once a king of Ayodhya called Ambarisa. He was preparing for the grand yagna when Indra stole the sacrificial horse. The king wandered into the forest looking for another victim for the sacrifice when he found himself in the hermitage of a poor Brahmin called Rcika. Rcika had three sons and agreed to give one of them to the king for his sacrifice. But he is reluctant to part with the eldest son and his wife refuses to let the youngest one go, so the middle child Sunahshepa steps up and says that since his parents have not shown any interest in his life, he is available to the king.
That Sita sat under an Ashoka tree (a- shoka : without sorrow) in the Ashoka grove during her stay in Lanka is commonly known episode of the Ramayana. Not so well known however, is an interesting myth from the Bhavishya Purana that adds a precursor to that tale. As it is seen with other Purana stories, it is plausible that this tale too was an attempt at acculturation and social synthesis.
Years before the abduction of Sita by Ravana, there lived a cannibal among the Bhil tribe named Sashoka. He roamed the forests of central India and lived by killing passers-by and consuming them as food.
While Uttara, Abhimanyu’s wife, has a limited role in the Sanskrit version of Mahabharata, she plays a significant role in the Bhil version of the epic, where she is known as Antra.
Subhadra is worried that since her son Abhimanyu has decided to participate in the war, he could die without an heir and therefore be condemned to hell. So his virgin wife, Antra, who he had been married off to when she was a young girl and was at her parents awaiting puberty, was summoned. But given the distance and the times, getting Antra to Abhimanyu would take six months. That would be too late and so for a way out of the problem, Krishna’s help was sought.
Krishna agreed to cast a spell over the world, where the night would be prolonged to six months and soon, messengers were sent to fetch Antra. They soon reached the Antra’s kingdom, where they were stopped by the guards who sought more information on their identity, whereabouts and purpose. And then sufficiently armed with all the information, one of the guards was sent off to the palace to alert the king and his family of the developments.
Recently a friend of mine, while trudging through Mumbai traffic, remarked that the only way he can navigate through the city’s clogged arteries is to remind himself about the Buddhist story of the still mind.
“Tell me the story, so I can use it too.” I said and this is what he told me.
Buddha was travelling with a small entourage of disciples preaching the tenets of Buddhism. As they were passing by a small pond, Buddha looked at one of his followers and said, “Get me some water from the pond. I am thirsty”.
The disciple walked towards the pond, but as he was about to fill up the vessel, a bullock cart came through the pond. As a result the waters of the pond turned turbid. “How can I give this muddy water to my master”, thought the disciple. He came back and reported, “Master, the water is very muddy and not fit to drink.”
Once in the city of Saurashtra, there lived a Brahmin and his wife, whose name was Kalaha. She would never listen to her husband, no matter what he asked her to do. Her husband was tired of this insubordination and spoke to a friend about his dilemma. His friend suggested that he ask her to do the opposite of what he wanted done and see if that made any difference!
It worked and the husband soon grew to be a master of saying what he did not mean. “Never invite my friend for dinner, he is a scoundrel,” he announced one day. Sure enough, the friend was invited home for dinner. This continued and the couple seemed to have found a peaceable solution.
Soon it was the season of shraddha and the Brahmin wanted to perform the ceremony of his father. He told his wife that he did not plan to observe the ritual. True to form, his wife not only pulled him up for being a bad son but she made sure that the ritual would be performed without delay.
“Don’t put out a feast and don’t invite too many Brahmins,” the husband said. And got his way, just as he knew he would. However, the Brahmin slipped up and at some point during the ceremony told his wife that the pindas were to be immersed in holy waters. Kalaha went and threw them down the drain! But the quick thinking Brahmin immediately instructed her not to fish out the pindas and never to immerse them in the holy waters. He got his way.
We know that demon do not swallow the sun during eclipse but, there is no dearth of excitement and curiosity around this natural occurrence. The spectacular cosmic opera that unfolds before us during total solar eclipse still enthrals us and the fact that we now know more about the cosmos mechanic does not make it any less exciting. From holiday companies selling solar eclipse packages to eclipse chasers to drift through the clouds in cosy comfort of an airplane to get an up close and personal view of this cosmic drama, to cottage industry of safe solar goggles sellers all make brisk business over a short span capitalising on curiosity of people, kept alive since the beginning of time. If modern man still finds it captivating and is compelled to experience this wondrous cosmic drama, pause, and think about the hunter gatherer societies….what they made of this sudden disappearance of sun, black night engulfing the earth in middle of a day. It is quite natural that in their simplistic way they assumed someone has eaten the sun!!
To modern man it’s the Moon coming between the sun and earth but to the ancient man across most civilisations it was a call of doom and gloom. Every civilisation from India to Mesopotamia to China to Egypt viewed this temporary disruption of natural rhythm as an ominous sign…some sinister events to unfold in future.
As far as eclipse myth goes there’s a common theme that runs across all myths – that of a demon devouring the Sun. In some cultures the demon takes the form of a giant turtle as it is in Vietnam, while in Romania it takes the form of werewolf , or a dragon in Asia, a jaguar in Latin America, a serpent in Egypt so on and so forth. Not having the scientific knowledge and tools, ancient man was unable to understand that eclipse is very much part and parcel of the natural rhythm of the cosmos. They sought to explain, in their own way, this disruption of natural order, spun stories of doom and gloom, which expressed their fear and insecurities but most importantly their limited understanding of the physical world.
Shiva and Parvati had a bitter quarrel one day. It was about the usual problems that Parvati had over Shiva’s gambling habit and other such matters. But this time she was truly furious and she left their home, smearing her face with charcoal and water to make it look darker.
She left Shiva and went to forest where dressed like a local member of the Korpalu tribe. One day Shiva approached her but she told him that he was not right to do so. She was a low caste forest woman and Shiva, a god. But Shiva argued that they were the same human beings after, the same blood ran through their veins. So the two spent a few nights together in the forest, after which Shiva decided it was time to go back home. The Korpalu woman who was really parvati told him that he could go if he so pleased but, what would she do if she found out she was pregnant with his child.
This is a story sung by the Gonds of central India and it is also depicted in their paintings
Parvati and Mahadeo were sitting around a tree, chatting when she asked him a question that had bothered her for a while. “How is it you are deathless and I had to be born ten times to be with you?” Mahadeo replied: “It is true, yet our pair has never broken!”
Since that was not the point of the question, Parvati asked again: “But why I alone should die!” Cornered, Mahadeo replied, “I know the Bijmantra, the secret of life, that is why I am deathless.”
Parvati wanted the Bijamantra. Mahadeo was not too keen but finally had to relent when Parvati dismissed all his trepidations. Upon her advice he roared loudly to clear the forest of any outsiders before he began telling her the mantra, the animals, birds, serpents, every living creature you can think of scurried away. And then Mahadeo started his lesson.
Now the spell and the story connected with the secret of immortality would take nine days and nine nights. As Mahadeo launched into it, he told Parvati that she would have to respond with and ‘hu’ at appropriate intervals so that it was clear to Mahadeo that she understood what he was telling her.
But sometime through the period as the days and nights melded into one, Parvati dozed off. For a while Mahadeo did not realise this because the ‘hu-hu’ that Parvati was meant to say continued. When Mahadeo discovered his wife asleep, before he could vent his anger upon her careless demeanour, he looked for the source of the ‘hu-hu’. And he soon found it; a parrot’s nest on the tree under which they sat had an unhatched egg when he had started, but sometime in the course of the recitation, the egg had given way to a young hatchling and; since the first sounds baby parrot heard were ‘hu, hu’, it began saying that.
Mahadeo chased the parrot but it flew away into the forest. As it flew it found refuge in the ashram of Vyasa. It flew into his mud hut where Vyasa’s wife lay asleep with her mouth open (or had opened it in a yawn) and the baby parrot dived right in. When Mahadeo stormed into his ashram, Vyasa begged for the life of the parrot that was now in his wife’s womb, growing as a child. Mahadeo granted him his boon and a son was born to Vyasa.
Meanwhile after returning to the forest, Mahadeo banished Parvati for being so callous about the secret of life. Parvati went to her father, but he drove her away for having disobeyed her husband. So she went to her son Khatmukh, but the son said that he would not take her in his house and displease his father.
Parvati then came to the mountain Vindhya and built a hut for herself and lived there. She was frightened of the beasts at night. So she took out dirt from her body and made a boy and put life in him. Her son sat on the threshold of her hut while Parvati practiced penance inside.
But soon Mahadeo’s anger was appeased and he began to repent. His remorse was so great, that he swooned and lay in that condition for twelve years. When he regained consciousness he called out his wife. But there was no reply. He threw his drum angrily on the ground. Mother earth then assuming the form of a cow stood before him and counselled him.
Mahadeo set out in search of his wife. When he finally found her hut, the boy Ganesh would not allow him to enter. There arose, then, a fight between Mahadeo and Ganesh. Mahadeo cut Ganesh’s head and went in. Parvati when she saw him said: “Why have you come here?” You had driven me out of the house!” Mahadeo denied having ever having done that. But on finding that he had killed her son, Parvati was distraught. Mahadeo then plucked a hair from his body and made a demon of it and ordered him to bring the head of a newly-born baby, whose mother was sleeping turning her back to it. But no demon was found to be sleeping thus and only a female elephant was found who slept with her back turned to her young one. Her head was brought to Mahadeo who fixed it to the head of the boy Ganesh and this is the god worshipped even today.
Story collected by: Arundhuti Dasgupta
Source: Folk tales from central India, Durga Bhagwat
Location: Madhya Pradesh
Image Source: Wikipedia
The Ramayana has many versions, narrated by multiple authors in multiple voices. The multiple versions are evidence of the richness of the Ramayana narrative and the strong literary traditions that flourished in the country that allowed writers/poets to unfetter the imagination without fear.
The story begins with King Sagara after he loses his 60,000 sons to Kapila sage’s wrath. The sons were reduced to ashes and hence were not given the proper funerary rites that are a must for ascension to heaven and for a better afterlife. Sagara’s grandson, Anshuman goes out in search of his father and uncles and finally reaches the sage Kapila’s hermitage. When he asked him for a way to grant his ancestors the freedom of passage that is the right of every human being after death, the sage told him that there was only one way to do it. And that would be bringing the river Ganga to earth.
However this was easier said than done. Despite severe penance done by every king born into the dynasty, including Sagara, Ganga stuck to her place in the heavens. The crisis worsened when Dilip, one of Sagara’s descendants died without an heir.
Without an heir and their king dead, Ayodhya descended into chaos. In heaven, Brahma and Purandara became worried. They consulted Shiva who decided to ride to the palace that was now home to Dilip’s two widows. Shiva told them, “With my blessings, you will have a son.” The women were perplexed. “How,” they asked, “without a man can we conceive?”
Shiva told them that with his boon, they would have the power to bear a child without a man. The two women should copulate, he said, and leave the rest to the gods. The two women who shared a close friendship and upon the god’s assurance waited till they both knew the right time had arrived. Then they united sexually and in the tenth month, one of them conceived and a son was born. Since the child was born from the union of two women, from two bhagas (female organs), he was named Bhagiratha. And he was the son that finally brought the river down to earth and released the trapped souls of his ancestors.
Story collected by: Arundhuti Dasgupta
The Aasana tree is a common Indian deciduous tree. The spines on its bark tell the story of a time dating back to the Mahabharata. The story of Bhishma, before he became Bhishma.
Prince Devavrata, the handsome son of King Shantanu of Hastinapura, rides out of the palace gates one morning upon his chariot. Young and restless, perhaps even a tad reckless, Devavrata is not still the wise old Bhishma, who will live on in the collective memory of Indians for centuries.
The golden glow of the morning sun lights up the capital city. Citizens bow before the prince, making way for his speeding chariot as it rides out of the city limits. Charismatic successor of the kingdom, Devavrata rides into the forest with a young vigour and confident flair.