The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Anatomy of a Murder

Humans kill each other all the time. This is not a special or unique attribute. Many kinds of animals kill their own.

But humans also hate killing each other. In this again, we are not unique. Many kinds of animals will not kill their own, and mourn deeply if they accidentally do.

In some societies everybody had a license to kill. In others it was a privilege and responsibility vested only with the state and its limbs – the nobility, the army, the judiciary and sometimes, the clergy. Anybody who did not belong to one of these institutions and still dared to strike upon their neighbour became a murderer.

But in separating murder as a crime from the killing of humans in battle, sacrifice or punishment, we encounter a third impulse which is perhaps unique to humans – the need to emotionally and rationally justify the killing of our own.

This impulse may simply be an expression of our general need for rationalising things. Or it may stem from the cognitive dissonance that occurs when we try to reconcile our innate bloodlust with our innate empathy.

Regardless, as a result of this impulse, the plain act of killing a fellow human being does not determine the morality of a person. Whether it be stories or real life, killers of any kind and creed can be found acceptable, and even heroic.

This phenomenon may or may not extend to transhuman/humanoid characters, be they victim or perpetrator.

A stunning number of classical heroes and deities are renowned and prolific killers of demons, ogres, giants and other sentient non-human humanoid beings. Modern heroes likewise kill zombies and aliens and suchlike with impunity.

The same courtesy is sometimes extended to vampires or the occasional alien who are treated sympathetically despite their human bodycount.

But what does all this mean?

I think it means that we humans are discerning creatures, and we do not consider all similar actions equivalent. That a human life has been lost is not the only point. The motive, the process and the circumstances all matter to us.

Detractors of this point of view claim that such thinking results from, and results in bigotry. That in judging one death to be a tragedy, and another to be a necessity, we effectively claim that some lives are worthier than others.

They are not wrong.

The same kind of utilitarian view is also taken in labelling killers as honourable heroes or despicable murderers.

Inevitably the question arises, ‘Who decides which life is worthier than another?’ The answer to this and other variants of Juvenal’s satirical question is simply, ‘whomever is in power’.

As I've written in my answer to Why should a God resort to violence and war?
The question of justification of a war is raised by four kinds of people:
  • The current or prospective belligerents of the war, who are looking for a reason to enter, continue or exit the war. Non-combat intervention, such as through sanctions and embargoes and other forms of influence, also counts as belligerence here. Their criteria for 'justness' is mainly a matter of cost-benefit analysis. 
  • The participating public, i.e. the civilian population of the belligerent countries/communities who show their indirect support to the war through funding, etc. Their criteria for 'justness' is basically ideology (patriotism is an ideology). 
  • The so-called innocent bystanders, who are affected by the crossfire/aftermath despite not being active belligerents or passive participants. Their criteria for 'justness' is a sort of commonly expected corollary to the Golden rule viz. "we've hurt no one, therefore we should not be hurt by anyone". 
  • The analysts who view the war either from a safe distance or in hindsight, analysts like you and me. We can judge a war by any number of criteria - morality, practicality, divine sanction, etc. etc.
Replace ‘war’ with ‘killing’ and you’ve got your answer.

Nevertheless, current opinion dictates that people and fictional characters who kill others for whatever reason should at least show some hesitation or remorse for their actions in order to remain sympathetic to the audience.

I’m not sure where I stand with that.

I am not in any way or form, a pacifist. I do sincerely believe that killing someone is sometimes the only solution, and I applaud the people who take on this difficult job, so that the rest of us can keep our hands and conscience clean. But even so killing people is never the first solution, and that the license to kill, like other forms of power, should only be entrusted with those who truly understand the value of life.

If at all my protagonist is required to kill, I don’t want them to be hesitant or remorseful, but to be careful and introspective, much like Captain Yoo Shi-jin of DOTS.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

The truth about Śikhaṇḍi

Śikhaṇḍi is one of the heroes of the ancient Indic epic Mahābhārata. He was the Prince of Pāñcāla, son of King Drupada, and elder sibling of Dhṛṣṭadyumna and Kṛṣṇā Draupadī, conqueror of Kalinga (modern Odisha) and slayer of the Kaurava Patriarch Bhīṣma.

But he is best known for being the poster child of queer characters in Indic mythology. But what kind of a queer character was he? Was he gay? Transgendered? Or something entirely different? Let’s investigate.

In the Critical Edition of the epic, Śikhaṇḍi’s story starts with Ambā, the eldest Princess of Kaśi. This woman was wronged by Bhīṣma, and when all her attempts to avenge herself failed, she undertook great penances to invoke the God Shiva, taking the following oath:
yatkṛte duḥkhavasatim imāṁ prāptāsmi śāśvatīm
patilokād vihīnā ca naiva strī na pumān iha
nāhatvā yudhi gāṅgeyaṁ nivarteyaṁ tapodhanāḥ
eṣa me hṛdi saṁkalpo yadartham idam udyatam
strībhāve parinirviṇṇā puṁstvārthe kṛtaniścayā
bhīṣme praticikīrṣāmi nāsmi vāryeti vai punaḥ
(Udyogaparva, 188, 4-6)
“He for whom mine hath been this state of continuous grief, he for whom I have been deprived of the region that would have been mine if I could obtain a husband, he for whom I have become neither woman nor man, without slaying in battle that son of Ganga I will not desist, ye that are endued with wealth of asceticism. Even this that I have said is the purpose that is in my heart. As a woman, I have no longer any desire. I am, however, resolved to obtain manhood, for I will be revenged upon Bhishma. I should not, therefore, be dissuaded by you.’ Unto them she said these words repeatedly.”
(KMG, Udyogaparva, Section CXC)

The deity was pleased with her penance, and promised her that she would be reborn as Drupada’s daughter, and gain manhood shortly after birth, consequently slaying Bhīṣma. Meanwhile Drupada also had a major grievance against Bhīṣma, and was performing penances to gain a son who would destroy that patriarch. The great deity Shiva appeared in front of Drupada and guaranteed him that he would ‘have a daughter who would become a son’ and kill Bhīṣma in battle.

Therefore when Śikhaṇḍi (aka Śikhaṇḍini) was born, she was assigned female at birth and also knew herself to be female. However her parents chose to hide her true gender and presented her as a boy to the public, pinning their hopes on the divine prophecy. She was raised as a boy, with the masculine name Śikhaṇḍi, and the accompanying masculine gender roles and privileges.

This charade continued until Śikhaṇḍini underwent puberty, at which point her parents reacted by getting her married – to the Princess of Daśārṇa. When the latter found out the true gender of her ‘husband’, she raised a hue and cry about it, which led her father Hiranyavarma to threaten total destruction upon Śikhaṇḍini’s kingdom.

Finding herself at the root of this impending doom, Śikhaṇḍini fled to a deserted forest, contemplating suicide by starvation. Said forest happened to be home of a powerful tutelary spirit (yakṣa in Sanskrit), whom the public avoided at all costs.

Turns out that the public were wrong, and our yakṣa host, named Sthūṇākarṇa, was a very kind person. When he found Śikhaṇḍini fasting unto death he promised to help her, and when she asked for it, he immediately agreed to a temporary gender-exchange – he would take on Śikhaṇḍini’s womanhood, and Śikhaṇḍini would be turned into a man.

Our hero Śikhaṇḍi then returned and presented himself to his irate father-in-law, and the latter sent a number of damsels to verify his gender. Here the text says that they ‘were pleased to report’ that Śikhaṇḍi was indeed a man.

Pleased as punch at this news, Hiranyavarma showered a vast quantity of riches on Śikhaṇḍi. And before returning to his own kingdom, he rebuked his poor daughter for telling tales. The crisis being averted, Śikhaṇḍini happily went back to Sthūṇākarṇa’s forest to give back her borrowed manhood as promised.

Meanwhile the king of the yakṣas, a formidable being called Kubera, came to visit Sthūṇākarṇa with his retinue. But Sthūṇākarṇa was in female form, and too ashamed to show himself. Kubera was apprised of the situation, and he grew very angry at Sthūṇākarṇa for giving away his manhood, calling him all sorts of names. He cursed Sthūṇākarṇa with permanent womanhood, but upon reconsideration he limited the sentence to the duration of Śikhaṇḍi’s remaining natural life.

So when Śikhaṇḍi came in to keep his end of the bargain, he was informed that he was to remain a man for the rest of his life. He was not unhappy with this. He went on to study the various martial arts under Droṇa along with the Pāṇḍavas and Kauravas and became a great warrior, ranked as a mahārathī. Śikhaṇḍi had an equally skilled son named Kṣatradeva, and both of them fought in the great civil war on the side of the protagonists. (Droṇaparva, 9, 59)

In fact, Śikhaṇḍi was so highly skilled that he was Bhima’s original choice for the position of General of the Pāṇḍava Army (Udyogaparva, 149, 29-32). He led the division of Matsya soldiers and fielded important attacks against such opponents as Droṇa and Kṛpa.

Of course his greatest feat was the fulfilment of the prophecy to slay the Patriarch Bhīṣma. In that fateful campaign it was Śikhaṇḍi who covered Bhīṣma with arrows, and here it must be clarified that Arjuna’s role was in fact subordinate to Śikhaṇḍi’s.

Bhīṣma’s refusal to fight against Śikhaṇḍi is explained in his own words thusly:
vratam etan mama sadā pṛthivyām api viśrutam
striyāṁ strīpūrvake cāpi strīnāmni strīsvarūpiṇi
na muñceyam ahaṁ bāṇān iti kauravanandana
na hanyām aham etena kāraṇena śikhaṇḍinam
(Udyogaparva, 193, 62-63)
“Even this is my vow, known over all the world, viz., that I will not, O son of Kuru’s race, shoot weapons upon a woman, or one that was a woman before or one bearing a feminine name, or one whose form resembleth a woman’s. I will not, for this reason, slay Sikhandin.”
(KMG, Udyogaparva, Section CXCV)

Clearly, Bhīṣma was undone by his benevolent misogyny.

And finally, as an addendum to Śikhaṇḍi’s story, here is a comprehensive list of terminology used in the text to describe his gender situation:
  1. strīpuṃsa, i.e. one who was both woman and man (several places)
  2. strīpūrvaka, i.e. man who was formerly a woman (several places)
  3. jajñe kanyā putratvam āgatā, i.e. born a daughter but gained son-hood (Adīparva, 57, 104)
  4. yāṁ yakṣaḥ puruṣaṁ cakre, i.e. woman whom the yakṣa created (turned into) a man (Adīparva, 57, 104)
  5. sutā jajñe daivāc ca sa punaḥ pumān, i.e. daughter who was born again as a man by the work of fate (Udyogaparva, 49, 32)
  6. strīpuṁsoḥ puruṣavyāghra yaḥ sa veda guṇāguṇān, i.e. O tiger among men, he knows the good and bad qualities of both womanhood and manhood (Udyogaparva, 49, 32)
  7. kanyā bhūtvā pumāñ jāto, born a woman and reborn a man (Udyogaparva, 169, 20)
  8. strīpumāṁs te bhaviṣyati, i.e you will have a child who will be both woman and man, Shiva’s prophecy to Drupada (Udyogaparva, 189, 5)
  9. kanyā bhūtvā pumān bhāvī i.e. I will have a daughter who will become a man, Drupada describing Shiva’s prophecy to his wife (Udyogaparva, 189, 7)
Compared to all this Sthūṇākarṇa is described as:
  1. strīsvarūpavān i.e. a man with female form (Udyogaparva, 193, 37)
  2. evam eva bhavatvasya strītvaṁ i.e. may he retain this womanhood, Kubera’s curse (Udyogaparva, 193, 41)
  3. strīlakṣaṇaṁ cāgrahīḥ pāpakarman i.e. one who accepted female attributes that were foreign and unbecoming to him (Udyogaparva, 193, 42)
If you have been following the story keenly, you should have noticed a couple of things
  •         Ambā was not dysphoric, she merely sought manhood in order to qualify as a warrior and defeat her enemy in battle
  •          By all indications Śikhaṇḍini identified herself as being female, even though she presented as male due to the actions of her parents.
  •          Her sex/gender transition was to be strictly temporary. During the period of its effectiveness, it may be assumed (but never confirmed) that Hiranyavarma’s agents had sex with Śikhaṇḍi in order to ascertain his gender. Yet, immediately after this event she is described as female in the text.
  •          Śikhaṇḍi can only be said to properly start identifying himself as being male only after his magical transition is confirmed as being permanent. For all this, he does not seem to miss his previous gender. 
  •          My description uses female pronouns for Śikhaṇḍini and male pronouns for Śikhaṇḍi, whereas I refer to Sthūṇākarṇa as male even after his transition. This convention is lifted directly from the Sanskrit original.
  •          Śikhaṇḍi is described as being content with his gender at all times, whereas poor Sthūṇākarṇa is severely ashamed after his transition
Finally, when we compare the actual terminology used to describe Śikhaṇḍi and Sthūṇākarṇa in the text, it becomes clear that Śikhaṇḍi is not transgendered but genderfluid, and it is Sthūṇākarṇa who was condemned to involuntary transsexuality.

Notice that we have only been talking about the gender attributes of Śikhaṇḍi. What about his sexual orientation? Did it change with his gender?

The correct answer is that we do not know. Yes he did father a son later, but performing heterosexual acts is not a guarantee of heterosexuality.

Other examples exist, such as that of King Bhaṅgāśvana, who fathers 100 sons as a man, and then is magically transformed into a woman by Indra. Consequently in this female form she gives birth to 100 other sons, fathered by a forest-dwelling sage. In this case, the former King had not only performed heterosexual sex in both forms, she later expressly claimed that she gained more pleasure as a female heterosexual, preferring to stay female forever. (Anuśāsanaparva, 120)

When we take all such sources in aggregation we conclude that sexual roles were considered part of the gender role and hence gender identity, and that the notion of sexuality i.e. that a person is permanently predisposed to be attracted to persons of one or more particular gender – is not recognised by Indians either in our texts or practices.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Wonder Woman - Full review

As of now, Wonder Woman has a rating of 8.3 on IMDB, and a 93& fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
I'm here to tell you that it thoroughly deserves a 96% rating. But most of all, I'm going to embody my worst nightmare: I'm going to be that nagging parent who asks, "baki ke 4% kahaan gaye?"

The Wonder Woman of the DCEU is a highly mature individual. Though endued with outward youth and beauty, she was not born yesterday, and that knowledge shows. This movie shows us, in her voice, and from her view, how she came to be.

We follow her, from the present, to her childhood, as she begins narrating. We see her world being invaded, and we see her jumping at the call. We see the reactions of the audience surrogate, as he comes to terms with the reality of her existence. In turn, he tells her about the human condition. Their plan to end the War to end all Wars, their choice of comrades, the villain's reveal - each of these are executed with utter perfection of storytelling and direction. Full marks to all of these.

Just stopping here, one could say that DC had been redeemed, rescued from ignominy, and placed on a moral and practical pedestal way above anything that Marvel has made thus far (except maybe Jessica Jones and Luke Cage).

And then, suddenly, near the very end, the movie inexplicably begins to resemble Captain America: The First Avenger. Uncannily so. The namesakes have near identical endings. It is not a blunder, certainly not unforgivable. And I will go so far (and I hope I am proved wrong), as to say that most of the male audience would fail to see how this was to the movie's detriment.

But from my own POV it explains the "baaki ke 4%".

I loved the moment overtaken by tinnitus. If not for that particular scene the whole movie would have been, as my sister put it, "rubbished", by the choice of the ending. When I came out of the theatre my immediate reaction was one of betrayal, and anger. But calming down, I realised that Patty Jenkins (that's the director) was simply being courteous. Far more courteous than most male filmmakers have been to us (case in point: the Marvel series Peggy Carter. That was well executed, but alas, cancelled.)

Coming back, at the very end the movie brings us back to the present, showing us the Diana who had been transformed by these events.

It is useful at this point to compare Diana of Themyscira aka Wonder Woman with Kal-el aka Superman, especially within the DCEU. Both are superior beings, and not human. Both have parents who say things like "mankind doesn't deserve you", and "Maybe you should have let them die". Both ultimately reject this advice, due to their innate compassion, and the recognition of the simple fact that they have the ability to protect the world. Thus, they both do all they can to help us.

Unlike Superman in the DCEU, however, Diana knows better than to bear the burden of the world alone. She knows how to temper her mercy with justice. She is not a martyr. And that is the single most powerful message that the movie gives us all, men and women.

That we should do our best. But we should not have to be martyrs.

A Wonder Woman movie means a lot for humanity. There is not the slightest doubt aout it. A world in which future parents are told stories where women are normalised, where they are neither worshipped nor demeaned, is a world in which parents don't kill their unborn daughters, who raise their daughters to be all they can be, and who teach their sons how to be humans, not wannabe Gods. In telling stories that are inclusive, that represent without tokenism, we fight the actual disease of which the oppression of women and minorities is a symptom.

This movie, despite its flaws, fits the bill.

Do watch it.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Sita's Superpowers

Citations are in the format (Kanda, Sarga, Verse) and refer to the Critical Edition of the Valmiki Ramayana

Assertiveness and political savvy

Sita was first and foremost, a Lady. This means that she was correct in etiquette and used courtesy as her armour, and it also means that she was essentially groomed to rule over people.

Albus Dumbledore said in Philosopher’s Stone, “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.” And Sita’s authoritative and commanding personality is demonstrated against friends and enemies alike.

e.g. in (Ayodhya, 27, 3), Sita straight up taunts Rama, calling him a woman disguised as a man (स्त्रियं पुरुषविग्रहम्), because Rama refused to take her with him in exile. This would be thought a pretty big insult even in our times, but in the context of the Ramayana it was a very grievous insult, because the men of the Ramayana were simply obsessed with manliness (पौरुषं).

She also boldly advises Rama to not enter Dandaka (which he ignores, and therefore invites trouble), and her comeback to Rama in (Yuddha, 104) has to be heard to be believed. She also freely and generally orders Lakshmana about on multiple occasions.

And of course, there’s her multiple verbal beatdowns of Ravana. My favourite:
त्वं पुनर्जम्बुकः सिंहीं मामिहेच्छसि दुर्लभाम्
How can a jackal like you covet a lioness like me! (Aranya, 45, 32)
Sita's political savvy is also shown in at least two situations,
  1. Her handling of her kidnapping and rescue - see my answer to Why did Hanuman not take Sita with him when he visited Lanka in search of her?
  2. Her poise in when she was sneaked outside the city limits by Lakshmana and asked to stay with the rishis (she was not banished) in (Uttara, 47):

    यथा भ्रातृषु वर्तेथास्तथा पौरेषु नित्यदा |
    परमो ह्येष धर्मः स्यादेषा कीर्तिरनुत्तमा || ११||
    यत्त्वं पौरजनं राजन्धर्मेण समवाप्नुयाः |
    अहं तु नानुशोचामि स्वशरीरं नरर्षभ | यथापवादं पौराणां तथैव रघुनन्दन || १२||

    When the brothers and citizens face bad publicity such a move (separation/estrangement) is prescribed. O King (Lakshmana), when you receive (your share in the kingdom and) citizens in accordance with Dharma, (you will understand.) O bull among men, (for my part,) I will not emaciate myself over the insults I've received from Rama and the citizens.
Words cannot describe the awesomeness of this response.

Magical/Spiritual powers

In the Ramayana (and Mahabharata) universe, spiritual merit can be used to solve problems via various applications.

These applications form a hierarchy as shown in this chart:

Now in Sita's case, she was meritorious enough to use curses, and was able to invoke favours from Agni without external assistance.

In the first case. Sita put up a blade of grass in between herself and Ravana twice - once in (Aranya, 54, 1) and another in (Sundara, 19, 3). It is implied that this was her standard behaviour whenever Ravana came to threaten/tempt her in Lanka. In (Sundara, 20, 20) she informed Ravana that she was more than capable of cursing him to oblivion.

Given the usage of blades of grass as bearers/conductors of Astras in both epics, it is very likely that Sita was also planning to use the grass as conductors for her curses. Further, Ravana, despite having a track record of raping women, threatened to eat Sita rather than rape her. Given that he did not fear humans in general, the only explanation is that he took Sita's threat of cursing him fairly seriously.

[In (Aranya, 54, 19) Sita says that she does not wish to defend her body against imprisonment, injury and death. This is misinterpreted to point out that Sita was not willing to use a curse to defend herself. However in the last line of this verse Sita specifically says that she cannot tolerate dishonour - taken as a whole the verse means that "I do not care if you hurt my body but if you try to dishonour me I will not take it lying down."

Dr Pattanaik grievously misinterprets this same verse as "I am not my body. I will never ever be violated." Not only is this completely contrary to Sita's words, it is horrifically disrespectful to actual survivors of rape and abuse.]

In the second case, Sita invokes the favour of Agni so that fire did not hurt either Hanuman (Sundara, 51) or herself (Sundara, 53) and (Yuddha, 104-6). See also The episode with Agni and Sita. On a completely unrelated note, such invocation of favour from a devata/asura is a technically known as Theurgy.

Friday, January 29, 2016

How Karna was misinterpreted

Karna's conversation with Krishna - Udyoga Parva, Chapters 138-141

This group of chapters is titled कर्णोपनिवादपर्व (Karna Upanivada Parva), which means "The failed reconciliation with Karna".

In chapter 138, Krishna Vasudeva bluntly reveals Karna's parentage, tells him that the he is in fact a Pandava, the Pandava birthright is his, the other Pandavas, Draupadi, and their sons and kin were ready to do his bidding, and that he should switch sides pronto.

Here Karna's reply is misinterpreted.

Karna uses the word अभिजानामि (abhijanami) which KMG mistranslates as "I know". It actually means "I recognize". The context being that this is the first time Karna has learnt of his true parentage from any source. KMG's translation bungles that up - makes it look like Karna always knew his parentage. It also makes it sound like Karna is actually clairvoyant, which he is not.

So the rest of the conversation reads as follows:
  1. Karna realizes that Krishna is speaking in good faith, and accepts Vasudeva's words and interpretations as the truth
  2. He recognizes the logic behind his being a Pandava and regrets having humiliated his brothers (but says nothing of Draupadi), but does not recognize them as family
  3. He recognizes the Sutas and Dhartarashtras as his true family
  4. He recognizes Krishna's might as kingmaker (not as God) and realizes that his and the Kauravas' defeat and death is inevitable, but that does not faze him
  5. He says that he was born for the destruction of the earth, along with Shakuni and the sons of Dhritarashtra and he is dedicated to that purpose
  6. To that end, he likens the forthcoming civil war to a massive sacrifice for the cleansing of the earth, and sees Duryodhana as its yajamana (performer) and his own inevitable death as the beginning of the second round of said sacrifice
  7. If nothing else, he is dedicated to eradicating Arjuna
And here's where there's a difference of opinion. What is Karna saying? Is he
  1. an Omnicidal Maniac who is trying to destroy the world (Class 3a / Apocalypse How) out of pure envy OR
  2. a self-aware necessary villain who entreats Krishna Vasudeva to let him do his job OR
  3. an avatar of a destructive natural force which is Above Good and Evil OR
  4. combinations thereof
The text itself goes with options a and c, implying that Karna and Shakuni are manifestations of Time the destroyer. Everybody and the grandfather Himself (Prajapati) says this over and over again - only they use the words Destiny and Time directly.

It is important here to understand that Time's destructive nature is not necessary, it is natural. In the sense that one can't fight it, it's inevitable, but one is not expected to help its cause. Out of envy and other adharmic tendencies, Karna has willingly chosen to help this cause.

Contrast this with Rama of the Ramayana who realizes that destiny has sent grief his way, but as a man (human and male) it is his duty to fight fate (and time) anyway.

This is why choosing option b here leads to some interesting and erroneous conclusions regarding Karna being an anti-villain, noble demon, etc.

Karna's conversation with Kunti - Udyoga Parva, Chapters 142 - 144

Here we find some interesting facts
  1. Kunti recognizes that Karna is adharmic, and that he needs redemption
  2. Kunti asks him to make peace with his brothers and rescue their (combined) birthright from the clutches of Duryodhana et. al.
  3. Karna hears from his father Surya, but disregards him
  4. Karna flat-out declares Kunti as "the woman who never cared" and refuses to see her or her other children as family
  5. Nevertheless, Karna voluntarily promises that he would not hurt Yuddhishthira, Bhima or the twins. Kunti doesn't ask him to, he just does
Why? Is this generosity, arrogance or pragmatic focus?

Earlier in Chapter 108 of the Adiparva we are told that he never refuses supplicants who come to him during his morning prayers. Kunti arrives at exactly this dedicated time. Yet he refuses her actual request, in essence breaking his much-lauded habit and going against his alleged reputation as a danaveera.

So, options:
  1. this promise was an attempt to salvage his philanthropy cred without actually sacrificing his real interests
  2. he did regret humiliating the Pandavas (except Arjuna) as he said in Chapter 139 and this was his way of repenting
  3. he (correctly) realized that the 4 he was sparing were not a threat to him
  4. His main contention was with Arjuna alone and he did not want to waste his energies on the other 4
  5. combinations thereof
The text itself supports all of the above.

Regardless, many people do misinterpret this as genuine unselfish generosity, which is a trait that Karna never actually exhibits anywhere in the Mahabharata.

Yuddhishthira's grief for Karna - various

In Chapter 108 of the Adiparva, we the audience learn about Karna's real parentage.
But the Pandavas and Kauravas and even Karna did not know that. Because nobody told them.

In Chapter 119 of the Adiparva, the Pandavas and Kunti learn that Duryodhana poisoned Bhima. We the audience learn about Karna being one of its masterminds.
But the Pandavas and Kunti did not know that. Because nobody told them.

In the Ghoshayatra Parva, Chapter २३२, Yuddhishthira advised his brothers to join him in rescuing Duryodhana and his brothers (who were justly and soundly defeated and imprisoned by Gandharvas).

Reading the rest of this Parva, we the audience learnt that this episode actually brought the Kauravas very very close to giving up on their hostilities with the Pandavas. In fact, if it were not for Karna and Shakuni's actions at that precise point, the great and bloody civil war would not have happened.
But the Pandavas did not know that. Because nobody told them

When Krishna Vasudeva confronted Karna with his past crimes in Chapter 67 of the Karna Parva, he only talked about his atrocious behaviour during the game of dice, because even Krishna Vasudeva did not know the full extent of Karna's villainy - because he was not omniscient and nobody told him.

And then comes Chapter 27 of the Stri Parva, when Kunti finally breaks her silence, and whispers her secret to the Pandavas (and only them), asking them to perform Karna's funeral rites. After the reveal of Karna's parentage, Yuddhishthira alone grieves for Karna.

In the very next chapters (1-6), which fall in the Shanti Parva, Yuddhisthira learned the secret of Karna's life story from Narada. Narada explained how Karna hated the Pandavas from day one, and how he used his childhood friends, the sons of Dhritarashtra, to further his own agenda of envy.

Narada explained how every single effort on Karna's part was born from his hatred of the Pandavas, especially Arjuna, and his greed for fame and greatness. Because of the gross impurity and baseness of his motives, he naturally encountered curses and other obstacles. Narada advised Yuddhishthira to not grieve for this brother, because despite all wickedness he was a great kshatriya and died in fair battle.

Kunti too reiterated how she and Surya had on multiple occasions tried to bring Karna back to the path of dharma, but had failed and given him up for a lost cause.

KMG's sources were on point in these chapters, and Narada's and Kunti's narration can be read in English here: Santi Parva: Rajadharmanusasana Parva: Section I to VI

In these and further chapters of the Shanti Parva, Yuddhishthira expressed the following sentiments:
  1. He marvelled at the sheer magnitude of trouble Karna had caused them, and grieved for the lost opportunity of having Karna on his side, in addition to Arjuna

    तेन मे दूयतेऽतीव हृदयं भ्रातृघातिनः |कर्णार्जुनसहायोऽहं जयेयमपि वासवम् ||३८||
    My heart is sorely wounded by that act of fratricide. If I had both Karna and Arjuna by my side I could have conquered even Indra.
  2. He revealed that despite witnessing Karna's atrocities at the game of dice, he was mysteriously pacified by the sight of Karna. Further:

     यदा ह्यस्य गिरो रूक्षाः शृणोमि कटुकोदयाः | सभायां गदतो द्यूते दुर्योधनहितैषिणः ||४०||
     तदा नश्यति मे क्रोधः पादौ तस्य निरीक्ष्य ह | कुन्त्या हि सदृशौ पादौ कर्णस्य इति मतिर्मम ||४१|| सादृश्यहेतुमन्विच्छन्पृथायास्तव चैव ह | कारणं नाधिगच्छामि कथञ्चिदपि चिन्तयन् ||४२||
    Even as I heard the harshness and fury born of bitterness in his voice as he spoke in favour of Duryodhana in that gathering, having stared at his feet my anger abated instantly. It seemed to me like Karna's feet resembled Kunti's feet. I tried to enquire about the cause of this resemblance to Kunti by various means, but was never able to obtain an answer.
  3. He regretted that he had caused the slaughter of many of his kin, including Karna, in order to obtain sovereignty. To that end, he was horrified by his actions, and fully prepared to renounce the world and starve to death. Everybody else (correctly) opposed this line of thinking
Further, by the time we reach the Swargarohana Parva, we see that the extremely patient and forgiving Yuddhishthira has nothing but bitterness left for Duryodhana, whereas he now saw Karna as his wayward (and prodigal) brother, and was extremely pained when he saw Karna in hell.

But what does this mean?

We can see that Yuddhishthira was ignorant/dismissive of Karna's crimes, so he wouldn't have expected to see him in hell. Also, we can see that he was more concerned about having killed a
brother rather than just another opponent. That said, is Yuddhishthira's grief a consequence of his own gentle nature or an indication that Karna deserved redemption?

Vyasa confirms the former hypothesis. He says:
एकं हत्वा यदि कुले शिष्टानां स्यादनामयम् | कुलं हत्वाथ राष्ट्रं वा न तद्वृत्तोपघातकम् ||१९|| अधर्मरूपो धर्मो हि कश्चिदस्ति नराधिप | धर्मश्चाधर्मरूपोऽस्ति तच्च ज्ञेयं विपश्चिता ||२०|| तस्मात्संस्तम्भयात्मानं श्रुतवानसि पाण्डव | ... त्वं तु शुक्लाभिजातीयः परदोषेण कारितः | अनिच्छमानः कर्मेदं कृत्वा च परितप्यसे ||२५||
If a clan can be saved by the slaughter of an individual, or a country saved by slaughtering a family, then such slaughter is not a sin. O king, sometimes dharma appears as adharma and vice versa, but the knowledgable can distinguish between them. O learned one, be you consoled by such knowledge... O noble one, your hand was forced by the mistakes of others, you did (wage war etc.) unwillingly and even having done it you torment yourself [as befits your nobility].
Every learned person in the Mahabharata speaks of Karna's sins, but not one of them speaks about his redemption. The rest of the Pandavas don't even waste a single breath mourning for Karna. The fact that Karna is found seated/merged with Surya at the end also draws no comment.

So any sane person would logically conclude that Karna was a garden variety bad guy who was mourned by the overly noble hero. Right?

And yet it is here that we find the greatest example of Alternative Character Interpretation, namely that Yuddhishthira's "love" for his brother would have redeemed Karna, and Yuddhishthira's grief is the result of guilt at his inability to do so.

(full disclosure: I usually subscribe to this kind of thinking)

Does this sound familiar? It should, because it is the exact same attitude that Thor of Marvel Cinematic Universe apparently harbours for his (adopted) brother Loki.

(disclaimer: MCU Thor, Loki, etc. are not to be confused with the actual Norse deities)

The argument here is that Thor has great and nearly unwavering love for Loki as a person (which is true and heartwarming), Loki himself loved his (adopted) mother Freya and therefore Loki is worthy of redemption.

The problem is that we cannot readily extend this argument to Yuddhishthira, because he is not shown as feeling such warmth towards Karna as a person, and Karna clearly felt nothing but hate for the whole Pandava/Vrishni consortium.

Also, the argument itself may not be logical.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Chapter 2: Pillars of the Indras of the West

Cultures around the world have traditionally worshipped tall things, whether they be trees, mountains or monoliths. Of particular note is the worship of un-carved wooden pillars or poles, which seems to have had a peculiar connection to specific deities.

Indra's Flagpole, aka Mahendradhwaja described in the previous chapter, and the chaityas described in the epics share the following characteristics with these international sacred pillars/poles.
  1. They are meant to represent sacred trees (In Indra's case it is a bamboo plant)
  2. They are originally made of wood
  3. They are not modified with carvings of humans, animals etc
  4. They are worshipped as a standalone representation of a deity
  5. They are used as symbols of royal authority
Most of these are found in the Levant and surrounding regions, stretching to Egypt in the south, Italy in the west, Turkey in the north, and Iraq in the east.
Source: British Museum online collection site:,_nw_palace-8.aspx
Assyrian sacred pillar on wall panel, dubbed "Tree of Life" by modern scholars,
Nimrud, Iraq, 883-859 BCE
"Abydos seti 16" by Jon Bodsworth - Licensed under Copyrighted free use via Commons -
Djed pillar, ancient Egyptian religious symbol on wall panel, possibly connected to the Assyrian symbol on the left,
Abydos, Egypt, 1290 to 1279 BCE
Source: "Lions Gate detail" by Orlovic - Own work. Licensed under GFDL via Commons -
Detail of Lion Gate, showing Pillar-Baetyl (sacred pillar) flanked by two lionesses,
Mycenae, Greece, 1350 BCE
Source: Museo Whitaker, Motya site:
Stele with group of Pillar-Baetyls (sacred pillars), Punic religion,
Nora, Italy, 9th-8th Century BCE

Stele showing an Asherah Pole, sacred to semitic Goddess.
Antakya, Turkey, 810-783 BCE
Reverse of Coin struck by Roman Emperor Macrinus, showing conical pillar dedicated to Aphrodite in a temple courtyard,
Byblos, Lebanon, 217-218 CE
As you can see, these examples cover many different civilizations, including the Egyptian, Phoenician/Punic, Assyrian, Canaanite (Semitic), Mycenaean, and Roman. However, these particular examples are of unique importance because they are unrelated to the Proto-Indo-European religion, as currently hypothesised.

Oddly enough, the only other descendants of the PIE religion known to have similar pillars/poles are both of Germanic origin, and the pillar/pole motifs are from the Middle Ages (441 CE onwards).

Saxon religion was extant primarily in the regions currently governed by Germany, France, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark and Britain. Although related to the religion of their northern cousins, the Scandinavians, they had some distinct practices and motifs, which include the one known as Irminsul.

The name Irminsul means "great/mighty/rising pillar" in the Old Saxon language, and its oldest extant description calls it a defoliated tree trunk. It fits all the characteristics listed above, but the deity associated with it is not known. Unfortunately, all of the descriptions of this pillar/pole are second-hand, and written by people who destroyed or sought to destroy such pillars.

In fact, the only pictorial representation of the Irminsul comes from a Christian sculpture in Externsteine, Germany, in which the Irminsul is being bent/broken by the Christian Cross.
The bent/broken T-shaped structure on the right is alleged to be a representation of the Irminsul. The column above it is the foot of the Christian Cross. The relief was carved into the natural rock formations in Externsteine, Germany around the ninth-twelfth century CE.
The Viking religion equivalent was the practice of venerating both actual trees and wooden pillars.

Different deities had different trees dedicated to them, and typically all prayers, sacrifices and important social ceremonies would be undertaken under these trees. Of particular note is the oak tree, dedicated to Thor.

Trees dedicated to Thor were to be found all over the Germanic territory, from Iceland in the north to continental Germany itself. Two such trees were made famous in literature:
  1. In the Völsunga saga, an oak tree called Barnstokkr grows inside King Völsung's hall, into which Odin thrusts a sword, thereby kicking off the plot of the saga.
  2. Life of Saint Boniface, a biography written in 8th century CE speaks of a tree known simply as Donar's Oak (Donar is German for Thor), which was dramatically cut down by the eponymous Saint, in order to convert all the locals to Christianity.
Further, in Iceland, a pair of wooden pillars known as Öndvegissúlur were to be found, which were dedicated to some deity and were used as symbols of royal authority. These were also immortalised in saga literature.

Some tenuous connection may also be made to an artefact called Sampo from Finnish Mythology (which is a non-Germanic descendant of PIE religion). Sampo has been identified by some scholars as a representation of the pillar/world tree which holds up the sky-dome (a similar pillar is spoken of in the Rig Veda).
Three things are immediately noticeable about this ancient trend of worshipping royal wooden poles/pillars.

First, the timeline. The non-PIE poles/pillars are more or less contemporaneous with the accounts of Mahendradhwaja and chaityas in the Indic epics. Saxon religion may have existed as far back as 2nd century BCE, and Norse religion may also have been Pre-Roman in origin. Finnish religion, insomuch as it is relevant, may also have been Pre-Roman.

Second, the obvious connections of these pillars/poles with both lightning and royal authority. It is common knowledge that tall trees/poles attract lightning. Therefore it would have been obvious for ancient people to imagine that the denizens of heaven would send lightning down to the poles and thereby exercise their authority on the mortal world. Thus, the most powerful deity(ies) of each of these cultures was associated with a pillar/pole.

Because the concept of royal authority was closely related to divine authority in all of these cultures, it is not surprising that these pillars also became symbols of royal authority.

Third, the unique case of the pillar in the temple of Aphrodite/Adonis in Byblos. 
Byblos is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and it was founded by the Phoenicians. The temple was also of Phoenician origin, and originally dedicated to the Goddess Astarte. By the time the city came under Roman control, it became associated with Aphrodite, who was of mixed ancestry - i.e. with Phoenician, Semitic and Indo-European attributes.

Consequently, this pillar had more in common with the Mahendradhwaja than the others, viz. it was
  1. associated with fertility
  2. placed in a temple courtyard
  3. part of an annual festival
Not only that, but this pillar was still being worshipped when the Mahendradhwaja and others had declined, and the northern counterparts were just being established. i.e. pillars such as the one in Byblos may represent the turning point in the migration of the concept towards northern Europe.
Thus ends the chapter describing the origin and instances of the pillars of the Western counterparts of Shatakrata Aditya, aka Indra, using pillars, poles and posts as a device.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Gajānana's Ānana

So, I was recently asked about the ethics behind murdering an elephant in order to resurrect Ganeśa. During my research, this is what I found out about the true source of Gajānana's Ānana.

At the outset, I would like to like to clarify some things:  
  • Yes,  Ganeśa is not a Vedic deity. He is however very much an integral part  of the Indic pantheon, and his cosmogony an integral part of Indic mythology.   
  • Yes,  there are varying accounts of Ganeśa's origins even within the 18  Mahapuranas, some of which may be mutually exclusive. This only serves  to prove that Ganeśa was of sufficient importance that multiple  attempts were made to integrate his story into the greater continuity of  Indic tradition.   
  • It  is vital to remember that all these multiple stories had to adhere to  the basic worldview of the Vedas in order to gain any traction among the scholars and the laity. Therefore it makes sense for us to analyze this  particular account within the larger Indic tradition.  
Now most stories that involve the alleged elephant murder tend to follow this generic pattern:
Gauri created an image and gave it life. She called him सूनु (sūnu, son), and gave him a mission. In the fulfilment of that mission, the child obstructed the path of Shiva. Shiva took exception to such obstruction, and beheaded him. His death caused untold grief to Gauri. Moved by mercy, his own grief and that of his wife, Shiva brought the child back to life by giving him the head of an elephant. 
I propose that the source of that elephant head was a sacrificial animal. The following sources strengthen this claim:

The act of beheading people and then restoring their lives by replacing their heads is a recurring theme attached to Shiva by various sources. Here are some key examples: 
Heads are not the only body parts of deities to be separated and replaced. Similar instances of "transplants" and are actually quite common:
  • In Valmiki Ramayana - Baala Kanda - Sarga 49, Indra receives a testicular implant from a sacrificial ram.  
  • In Sarga 10 of the Uttarakanda, we learn that Ravana sacrificed 9 of his ten heads to Brahma and was about to sacrifice the 10th when Brahma granted him an audience, and restored all the heads. 
  • In Chapter ३२९ of Shantiparva, Krishna Vasudeva refers to Indra's implant again, and also describes the story of Dadhichi's sacrifice, in which the Devatas ask Dadhichi to die and they construct the superweapon Vajra (Thunderbolt) from his bones.  
  • In the chapter of the Bhagavatam quoted above, various other deities and sages receive similar implants in place of body parts destroyed by Shiva, including a beard implant received by Sage Bhrigu, from the same goat that gave its head to Daksha (Verse 5) 
 Clearly, Ganeśa's "head transplant" is not an isolated case, and as such, must be seen in conjunction with all these other cases. And the one common theme here is animal sacrifice.  Observe that the Devatas have been uniformly portrayed in the Vedas and later literature as being nourished by sacrifices of both herbs and animals, as well as offerings of various body parts thereof.   Given this history, it is not a stretch to assume that the deity who is meant to be the foremost of all beings (literal meaning of Ganeśa) would also be similarly nourished and strengthened by a sacrifice. In fact, any scholar who would pitch for Ganesha's inclusion into the Pantheon would use this trope as proof of Ganeśa's divinity.  This theory further gains credence when we realize that elephants are indeed counted among animals fit for sacrifice. The primary sources which legitimize the sacrifice of elephants are the Kalika Purana (Sanskrit original in DLI archives) and Ishana Shiva Guru Deva's Tantra Paddhati. These texts date to the 10th and 12th century respectively, have important linkages to Ganeśa worship, and predate the Ganeśa and Mudgala Puranas which are the key texts related to the deity.   The Kalika Purana is related to the legends in which Gauri takes the form of Kali when Ganeśa is slain. In the Tantra Paddhati, we learn of bothe lephant sacrifice and Ganeśa worship. (See also the essay by A. Parpola in Ritual, State, and History in South Asia)   In contrast we have other sources in the Kurma and Varaha Puranas, both of which mention a demon-elephant slain/liberated by Shiva, who thereafter wears this elephant's skin. However, the iconography depicting this story unequivocally shows Shiva standing on top of this elephant's head. Therefore this elephant-demon cannot possibly be the source of Ganeśa's head.