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!
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….
The oldest evidence for the use of the spoked wheel in India can be found in the Mesolithic cave paintings of Mirzapur in Uttar Pradesh.
Several Indus valley seals with chakra designs have been found.
The Rig Vedic Indians not just rode chariots fitted with spoked wheels but also gave symbolic imagery to the wheel. They imagined the wheel as a part of the Sun’s chariot.
By virtue of its association with the fiery flaming disc in the sky, the chakra became symbolic of time and seasons, the Rtachakra, the wheel of time.
As the turner of the wheel and keeper of the cosmic order, kings and emperors became Chakravartins,
In Buddhism, the chakra became representative of Buddha’s teachings and the universal moral order. Emperor Ashoka used the chakra to propagate not just Buddha’s Dhamma but also to establish his eternal rule.
From the cart wheel in the Mirzapur cave art to the Ashoka chakra in our national flag and emblem, the chakra has covered a long journey and has conveyed Indian thought through the ages.
Watch the video for the whole story of the Chakra and the a song that best conveys the idea of India’s unity in diversity,
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.
AK Ramanujan, the great folklorist from India collected a folktale in which a story and a song once escaped from the mouth of a sleeping woman frustrated that she refused to share them with others. The next morning, when she woke up, she had forgotten both the story and the song that she had kept all to herself.
This folktale illustrates the importance of story-telling for Indians. Stories have a compelling need to be told, listened to and shared. With time, as these stories get told and retold innumerable times in different formats, they evolve into a tradition.
Great epics were composed in Greek (Illiad and Odyssey) and Akkadian (the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh) too. But today, they remain merely as distant memories from a forgotten past. Whereas, Ramayana remains a living tradition and continues to fascinate and enrich the minds of every passing generation.
Ramayana, the first Indian epic
In the Indian culture, the Valmiki Ramayana, dated to approximately 3rd century BCE, is considered the Adi Kavya or the first poetic composition in Sanskrit of epic proportions. No other composition earlier had had the vastness or richness of the plot that Ramayana had. No other story had reflected the ethics and value system of a society as the story of Rama did. Everyone loves a good tragedy, as Aristotle’s idea of catharsis would tell us. The most enduring stories told, we often find, are either tragedies or love stories. Ramayana, brimming with karuna rasa, was both – a tragic love-story – and therein lay its eternal appeal. The message that God too was bound by the laws of destiny and suffered very human problems struck a chord with the common man facing societal pressures and challenges.
How the epic spread across the Indian subcontinent….
As Adi Kavya, Ramayana became the first or the basic template of a story for all future stories and epics. Several later mythological compositions and religious texts borrowed the textual template from Ramayana. The influence of Ramayana was so profound that almost all the Hindu religious literature ever composed including the Mahabharata and the Shaiva and Vaishnava Puranas narrate the story of Rama.
But imitation, as they say, is the best form of flattery. Valmiki’s composition set forth an explosion of texts, in Sanskrit, Prakrit as well all as the vernacular resulting in at least 300 different retellings of the epic. With every retelling, Rama’s story diffused into the local culture and gradually emerged as the common denominator that united people of diverse ethnicity and culture across the Indian subcontinent.
Ramayana presented the retellers with a staple story and a set of archetypal characters that were suitably altered to fit the milieu. The language changed, the names changed, the relationships between the cameos changed, but the key characters (Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Hanuman and Ravana) and episodes from the epic more or less remained the same. The mode of transmission of the Ramayana was not all textual.
In a sense, Ramayana, which literally means the path of Rama, is a travel story. Rama travels through a very long route called the Dakshinapath that ran from Ayodhya in the north to Rameshwaram in the south, on his search for Sita.
Even as Rama’s adventures took him down south, Valmiki wove into it previously unknown details of the geography, and flora and fauna of peninsular India, along with an account of the lifestyles of the smaller clans and tribes that inhabited these parts. In as much as these details added to the epic’s novelty value, they also widened the reach of the epic through associations of certain sacred geography with specific episodes from the epic.
Ramayana in Indian art
Apart from oral renditions, the story of Rama reached the largely illiterate audience in the form of folk and classical dances, songs, theatre, shadow-plays that used puppets, etc. The Ramayana was also presented as the theatrical re-enactment of Rama’s life (Ramlila) and through scroll painting traditions (that support oral story telling with visual props) such as the Phad tradition from Bhilwara, Rajasthan and Kalamkari painting tradition from Kalahasti, Andhra Pradesh.
These art forms borrowed the epic’s basic idea and adapted it to suit the local belief systems, social structure and values. Characters such as Lakshmana and Shurpanaka were assimilated into the native culture and embedded into the local tales, where they freely intermingled with other indigenous characters. For instance, in the Phad story telling tradition, the protagonist Papuji is believed to have been Lakshmana in his previous birth and had married Shurpanakha.
Architecture too developed around the characters and episodes from the epic. The relief at the Prambanan temple complex at Java depicting episodes from the Ramayana and the relief work showing Ravana trying to lift Mount Kailash at Ellora caves are some of the finest examples of story-telling in stone, that were inspired by the epic.
From classical to folk renderings, the story gradually travelled inlands and diffused into the mythology of the tribals too. Gond Ramayani and Bhil Ramayan are two well-known tribal versions of the epic. While Gond Ramayani narrates the story of Lakshmana’s hunt for a bride, in the Bhil Ramayana, Ravana does not battle Rama but returns Sita to him after realizing his blunder.
…….to be continued
Part 2 – How & Why the story of Rama spread beyond India, and other Asian versions of the epic
Check out the Jain version of the Ramayana by clicking the video link: