Hindu religion, as we know it today, is mostly an aggregation of what used to be six independent sects called the Shanmatha, which included the worship of the Sun (Saura), Vishnu (Vaishnava), Shiva (Shaiva), Kumara or Skanda-Karthikeya (Kaumara), Devi (Shakta) and of course, Ganapati (Ganapatya).
The Missing Deity of the epic
The third and the fourth parvans of the Mahabharata namely the Vana parvan and the Virata parvan refer to the worship of many of these deities. But there is one deity, whose worship references are conspicuously absent in the epic. Which deity is that?
Let’s first start with the deities that the epic knew.
Vishnu: As everyone knows, Krishna, considered an avatar of Vishnu, plays an overarching role in the epic. The Bhagawad Gita clearly presents Krishna, the incarnation of Vishnu, as the supreme god.
That is not to say the other equally large Shaivite tradition does not find representation in the text.
Shiva: References to Shiva can be found in the Vana parvan where Arjuna performs a penance to please Shiva and obtains divine weapons such as the Pashupathastra from him. Of course, who else, but the destroyer God, to grant Arjuna weapons of mass destruction!
Shakti: While Shakti, as Parvati, does make a cameo appearance in the Pashupatastra episode of the Vana parvan, she finds greater representation in the Virata parvan. Just before the Pandavas enter the kingdom of Virata to complete the last year of their exile incognito, they pray to Durga, the goddess of war. The Pandavas, led by Yudhishtra, sings praises of goddess Durga seeking success in their mission. She appears before them and blesses them with successful completion of the incognito year without being recognised by the Kauravas and eventual victory over them in the war.
Surya: While in exile in the forest, Yudhishtra is faced with the responsibility of not just feeding his brothers and their wife, Draupadi, but with also ensuring that all the Rishis and Brahmins who have followed him into the forest are fed. So, he performs several austerities to the Sun god, Surya, who blesses him with the Akshaya patra, the vessel that ensured unending supply of food for the Pandavas and their retinue through their stint in the forest. Yudhishtra knew very well, which God to please, when it came to asking for bountiful food!
Karthikeya: The story of the birth of Skanda, the son of Shiva, his childhood exploits and his slaying of Tarakasura are narrated by sage Markandeya in detail in the Vana parvan. Stories about the exploits of Karthikeya, the war God, may have inspired the Pandavas to prepare themselves for the impending war.
Thus, we find that the epic, through its period of evolution, accommodated several existing and emerging religious sects in the form of stories about their chief deities. All deities of the Shanmatha, except one!
So, which deity is absent from the epic’s narrative?
It is Ganesha!
Why are there no stories about his worship in the epic?
One reason may be that for a long time, Ganapati worship was concentrated in the Western parts of India where he was considered a farmer’s god. Ganapati worship became more mainstream and widespread only around the 5-6th century CE by when it started to emerge as a large and independent sect. Interestingly, by this time, the Mahabharata, as a text, had more or less completed its period of evolution and had reached its final written form. That can explain why stories of Ganesha did not find themselves into the epic.
However, as the worship of Ganesha became popular over time, his devotees could not be disappointed. So, the story about how Vyasa requested Ganesha to be his scribe while composing his magnum opus, was inserted as a frame story in a later-period manuscript, written in Devanagari and belonging to India’s North-Central region.
Who knows? The clever interpolator who inserted the story, may have been a Ganpati devotee himself. But as an elephant-headed God of wisdom, he could not have found a better scribe to pen down Vyasa’s magnum opus!
Om Ganeshaya Namaha!
For more on the Vyasa and Ganesha story, watch this 2-minute video!
Damsels in distress and knights rushing to rescue them from the clutches of wily witches, scheming step-mothers and dangerous dragons has been the common theme of most fairy tales from our childhood. These stories from medieval Europe have largely presented women as delicate, helpless beings, incapable of defending themselves, and waiting for a valiant prince to arrive and liberate them from their miserable existence.
Surprisingly for a patriarchal society, this theme of men rescuing women is quite rare in Indian mythology, other than, of course, the famous story of Rama who goes out in search of his kidnapped wife.
On the contrary, Indian mythology is full of stories of women who go all out to rescue their lovers or consorts, with or without their shining armour. These women often save their beloveds from tricky tribulations and sticky situations, accompany them to the warfront, and at times even bring them back from the dead.
And the Mahabharata, unlike any other work of world mythology, is replete with stories of women champions. Here are some stories of gutsy women who displayed enormous valour in their quest to bring back their loved ones from the brink and beyond of disaster. What is interesting about these stories is that, unlike men, these women chose to rely entirely on their moral courage, wit and wisdom rather than swords and daggers to assist them in their quest.
Let’s begin with Ulupi, who revived her dead lover Arjuna with the Mrithasanjivani gem. As Arjuna lay dead, killed by his own son Babruvahana owing to a curse of the Vasus, it was Ulupi, Arjuna’s Naga wife, who summoned the jewel of the Nagas, placed it on Arjuna’s chest and brought him back to life. According to one version of the story, Ulupi plotted the entire drama of the son killing his father in order to redeem Arjuna from the curse of the Vasus for having slain their brother, Bhishma.
Shachi or Indrani, Indra’s consort, was yet another courageous woman, who was believed to be the source of Indra’s powers. Once, after having killed the demon Vritra treacherously, Indra was so overcome with guilt and shame that he fled Amaravathi, and hid himself in the stem of a lotus in a pond so far away, where he could not be found by other gods.
Unable to find Indra, the gods replaced him with a human, Nahusha. Unfortunately, Nahusha turned out a bad choice as he harassed the gods and the sages, and also tried to persuade Shachi into marrying him.However, clever Shachi managed to get rid of Nahusha by having sage Agasthya curse him into becoming a serpent. She also sought out Indra and convinced him to come out of his hiding and resume his position as the lord of the Devas. Thus, Shachi not only saved her husband from eternal damnation and but also became a kingmaker of sorts, giving back the Devas, their leader.
What makes Shachi’s story interesting is that, in her search for Indra, she is described as having undertaken a long and arduous journey, navigating high mountains and deep seas through darkness and difficulties, very similar to the journey undertaken by Joseph Campbell’s hero.
Equally critical was the role of Damayanthi in tracking down Nala, her husband, who had been banished from his kingdom and forced into hiding. Damayanthi hatched a clever plan to track down Nala. Using a difficult riddle which only Nala could solve, she traced him to King Rituparna’s court. There, Damayanthi’s messenger spread false news about her second swayamvara. Hoping to prevent Damayanthi’s remarriage, Nala rushed to her, and was thus reunited with his family.
Of course, the list of heroic women from the Mahabharatha cannot be complete without the mention of Savithri, who got none other than the Lord of Death to rewrite the destiny of Satyavan, her beloved. After Satyavan’s death, Savithri followed Yama over long distances on his journey to the land of the dead, till he was forced to yield to the persuasive Savithri and agree to return Satyavan alive to her.
To conclude, it would be unfair to dismiss these mythological women as pativratas, to be lauded merely for their sexual fidelity. It is feminine nature to fiercely protect the loved ones, whatever the cost! And loved their men, these women did! To the extent of even choosing them over gods (Damayanthi) and mighty kings (Savithri) sometimes!
More importantly, like Campbell’s hero, many of these women (Savithri, Shachi) stepped beyond their conventional role, crossing the threshold from the ordinary into the extraordinary, thus undergoing a significant transformation in their personalities in the course of their quest.
In light of these stories, maybe our perception of Indian mythology as having no female heroes needs a serious rethink!
Click the link to listen to the stories of the Panchakanyas, who were as bold as they were beautiful!
Everyone knows that the Mahabharata is an epic! The longest poem of the world! A great piece of world literature!
But how many of us actually know about the nature of the epic?
Apart from the core narrative of the rift in the Kuru family, the epic has several layers of content containing long discourses on politics and statecraft, several teachings for the common man to help him lead his everyday life, detailed descriptions on various religious doctrines and last but not the least, the crest jewel of Indian philosophy, the Bhagawad Gita.,,,,
Phew! That was a long list….Oh! Wait! Don’t forget the 67 sub-tales called Upakhyanas and hundreds of small and big fables, parables, folklore, myths and legends!
Because of its vast size and extreme complexity of its contents, the epic has even been described as a monstrous chaos!
So, is the Mahabharata something like this?
No! Say those who have studied the epic in-depth and seen its underlying patterns. They say, the Mahabharata is like the banyan tree….
Andal, the only female Alvar, is known for her two compositions – Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Thirumozhi.
While the central theme of Thiruppavai is devotion, her composition Nachiyar Thirumozhi brims with erotic passion for the divine. This kind of Madhurya Bhakti is rather unique to the Indian Bhakti tradition and the Alvars are believed to have pioneered literature based on Viraha Bhakti.
How do we understand Andal’s love?
This video attempts to explore what her expressions of desire and longing for her divine lover mean and what inspired her to compose these poems of love!
Andal was the only female to be counted among the 12 ardent devotees of Vishnu called the Alvars.
She is credited with two works that are hailed both for their expression of devotion as well as their erotic and literary beauty – Thiruppavai and Nachiyar Thirumozhi.
This video tells the story of Andal, her pining and longing to unite with her lover lord, and the final fulfillment of her desire. The video also includes rendering of some of Andal’s verses by a trained Carnatic vocalist.