Saturday, September 27, 2014

3.1 Yayati in Vyasa’s Mahabharata

Yayati was a notable ancestor of the warring cousins. In the Mahabharata his story is told in the Sambhava Parva of the Adi Parva starting from Section LXXVIII. The following is a summary from the translation by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, available online. [1] The story of Yayati appears in various retellings of the Mahabharata as well as in independent works of literature.

Devayani was the daughter of Sukracharya, the preceptor to the Asuras. Sarmishtha was the daughter of Vrishaparvan, the king of the Asuras. Following a childish squabble Sarmishtha threw Devayani in a well. King Yayati, who had been hunting in the area, helped Devayani out. Burning with revenge, Devayani emotionally blackmailed her father into threatening to withdraw his support to the Asuras if her wishes were not met.

Vrishaparvan readily consented to give Devayani whatever she wanted and the brahmin’s daughter demanded, “I desire Sarmishtha with a thousand maids to wait on me!” In order to prevent a calamity falling on her clan, Sarmishtha readily fulfilled Devayani’s wish.

Then Devayani accosted Yayati in the woods and proposed marriage. Yayati pointed out that she was not only a brahmin but the daughter of a very learned brahmin. Therefore he would not be a suitable match for her. He also had misgivings because brahmins were known for pronouncing curses at will. Devayani clarified that Yayati was the son of a brahmin and therefore a brahmin. Though not explicitly stated at this point in the narrative, this refers to Yayati being born due to the blessings of sage Angiras. This is today interpreted in a literal sense, but more likely refers to the practice of niyoga or surrogate fatherhood. Ultimately the two get married. There is no mention of romance or sexual attraction in the narrative. The whole affair is as cold and calculated as the negotiation of business deal.

In due course Devayani bears a son. Perturbed that she will be left childless, Sarmishtha convinces Yayati that he is duty bound to beget a child from her. Again, there is no seduction or attraction, only reasoning. Sarmishtha also bears a son. She tells Devayani that the father of the child was a resplendent ascetic. Thus Yayati sired Yadu and Turvasu from Devayani and Drahyu, Anu and Puru from Sarmishtha.

Once Devayani chanced to meet the children of Sarmishtha and from them learned of their parentage. Devayani went to her father, who pronounced a curse on Yayati making him lose his youth. The King immediately became decrepit. Yayati pleaded that he had not yet been satisfied by youth or Devayani, so Sukracharya added this escape route: “But if thou likest, thou art competent to transfer this thy decrepitude to another.”

Yayati summoned his sons and said that he had not yet been gratified with the enjoyment of youth. He asked one of them to give up his youth for the King’s old age. Yadu, Turvasu, Drahyu and Anu refused and were handed out various curses. Puru exchanged his youth for his father’s old age without demur and was appointed heir and blessed with long life, fame and numerous progeny.

For ‘a thousand years’ Yayati ruled well but also indulged in the pleasures of life. Then he returned youth to Puru, gave him the throne and ascended to heaven. The tale of Yayati continues there, but that is another story. The Pandavas and the Kauravas were from descendants of Puru.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

2.2 How Hindu Mythology

Should any one stumble on this blog by mistake or otherwise, he or she should be made aware what the subject of the posts is. This blog is essentially about literature, and to a lesser extent about art, sculpture, architecture, dance, cinema and theatre. Specifically, it is about how Hindu mythology has evolved in these arenas of communication. Since Hindu mythology is inextricably also linked with theology, devotion and rituals, these will also make an appearance from time to time. However, I am not fully conversant with these issues and they will not be the focus of my blogs.

It is my belief that the evolution of mythology is driven by changes in the social environment of the related community. The creative souls in the community continuously revisit the mythological stories and reinterpret and recast them according to the needs and interests of the society. While there are changes in form and even in certain values, I have found that the core generally remains the same. It is the perfect coexistence of continuity and change. At the same time evolving mythology also drives social change. Sometimes the retelling of stories, by accident or design, not only gives new direction to the future retelling of stories, but also to larger social objectives. In this manner, both driven by and driving social change, the ancient mythology of a community is kept alive, grows and remains relevant.

Future generations can delve into mythology for solutions to their problems. Joseph Campbell said, “The myths and rites were means of putting the mind in accord with the body and the way of life in accord with the way that nature dictates.” [1] But unless the mythology is presented in a manner that interests them, it will not attract new generations and this storehouse of symbolic information will lie idle. For example, hardly anyone today reads the original Ramayana and Mahabharata written by the seers Valmiki and Vyas, because of their verbosity and florid language. But almost all Hindus, and even all Indians, know the content of these great epics, because their stories have been retold in every generation. At one time Amar Chitra Katha in comic strip form enthralled and educated a generation of youngsters. The next generation was introduced to the epics through the mega television serials produced by Ramanand Sagar and B.R. Chopra. Today animated episodes from the epics can be downloaded from You Tube.

Having put the preliminaries out of the way, I aim to start on the retelling of stories.

[1] Campbell, J. The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. Anchor Books A Division of Random House Inc. (1998). p. 87.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

2.1 Why Hindu Mythology

Hindu mythology is a maligned phrase. Hinduism purists who believe that the events described in the sacred texts happened exactly as stated have a problem with these events being described as mythological. Their objection is understandable. The word mythological today has acquired a sense of falsehood. But after due consideration, I have decided to persist with the term Hindu mythology. Therefore, a clarification is in order. offers the following independent definition for mythology: A set of stories or beliefs about a particular person, institution, or situation, especially when exaggerated or fictitious. [1] offers a similar definition: A set of stories, traditions, or beliefs associated with a particular group or the history of an event, arising naturally or deliberately fostered. [2]

My sense of mythology fits in with these definitions. I do not believe that the events described in the texts under consideration occurred as stated. I believe that the described events are exaggerated or fictitious or deliberately fostered versions of the actual ones. However, I prefer to use the word dramatized to those given in the dictionary definitions. The dramatization of actual events has a specific purpose. The idea is to entrench the ethos underlying those events into the collective psyche of the society.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Way back in school when studying the world history I was taught about Cleopatra.  I do not remember anything from those lessons.  But I have a vivid recollection of the Hollywood film Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, which obviously dramatized events. Several scenes from the movie are impressed in my memory. In one of them Cleopatra unleashes a tirade on Julius Caesar when his soldiers have burnt the library of Alexandria. She tells Caesar that his soldiers could have raped, murdered, pillaged all they wanted but they had no right to destroy a library that was the store house of the world’s knowledge. [4] It is historically recorded that the library did burn down. But Caesar’s soldiers were responsible for burning at best a part of the library, and even that is not certain. [3] And it can never be known if Cleopatra did admonish Caesar. That is why it is dangerous to take mythology for history. You can get the details wrong. But the dramatized version does provide insights. Even at that time knowledge was valued and efforts were made to preserve it. And it helps you to remember the broad superstructure that would be true to a degree.

Therefore with apologies to the purists, I will move ahead.

Monday, August 11, 2014

1. The Retelling of Stories

Stories have been told since time immemorial. The practice of storytelling perhaps originated with the recounting of the day’s hunt while the meat was cooking on the fire. Thereafter music and acting got added to the process of storytelling. Over time formal theatre came into existence. Stories were also told through sculpture, painting, dance and other art pursuits. With the advent of printing storytelling changed drastically. The requirement of someone or some people to narrate stories was no longer necessary. Stories were more conveniently told through books that could be read in solitude. Today movies have become a popular medium for telling stories, whether on the big screen, television or computers. Throughout the millennia of storytelling two laws have emerged. The first law of storytelling is that stories will be retold. The second law of storytelling is that stories will change in the retelling.

The stories of Hindu mythology extend far back into time. For several thousands of years there were transmitted orally from generation to generation. Around 5000 years ago they were put on record, mainly in the epics and the puranas. These have been the basis for Indian literature, dance, music, art and sculpture down the ages. Till about 50 years ago almost all Hindu cultural activities were based on stories from the puranas. However, these were not a mere the repetition of the originals. The cultural creators changed the stories to suit their own perceptions and also the mood of the times.

I have been following this retelling of Hindu mythology for a few decades with utmost interest. My mind is getting saturated with reactions, analyses, comparisons and the entire spectrum of activities that follow serious reading. I need to disgorge these so as to create space for more. Just as Albus Dumbledore of Harry Potter fame used a “pensieve” to store his memories, I intend using this blog to record my encounters with the retelling of stories from Hindu mythology. It will be an endeavour without research and will in all likelihood have incompleteness and errors. If it is God’s will I would rectify this in the future. At the moment the blogs are an exercise in self-indulgence or swant sukhay. Those who share this interest are invited to join this journey. Your comments and criticisms will be valued and acknowledged if used.