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, October 20, 2009


Many scriptures and other profound writings in the past have been presented in a Dialogue format - most notably the Bhagavat Gita. I too propose to adopt something similar here. Here's an excerpt of a chat between my sister and me. (I think the world of my sister, and I may be excused for it)

21:00 Aritri: love s nt done lik buisness
  neway kp it ur way
21:01 me: i agree
  but love is something that should make u rise
  not fall
  true love increases one's powers
  remember kikio
 Aritri: i noe
  nice :)
21:02 me: she was lost in inu yasha's thoughts
  her rival priestess thought that falling in love made her spiritualy weak
  and attacked her
21:03 but in spite of being lost in thought
  she not only repelled the attack nonchalantly
  but also practically destroyed the enemy priestess
  this example is etched into my mind
21:04 and u must remember it too
  i don't know if m in love
  in fact m trying to find out if m capable of such a thing
  but i care for these ppl
21:05 i think so atleast
  and probably that's something like loove too
  coz it inspired me to apply those fundas
  which i didn't even know properly abt
21:06 that's all
  temme what u think
21:08 Aritri: bravo
  m amazed
  u inspire me
  pls blog this thingy up
 me: no way
21:09 will be teased to no end
 Aritri: arey
  pls blog it up
  man dis s wat ppl
  die 2 hear read
  dey need dis clearance didi
  do sum social service

So, upon her request, I narrate this excerpt from a famous Japanese Manga storyline.

"Once upon a time, the world was inhabited by humans and demons. The latter came in all shapes and sizes, and like humans, in all personality types. Those who were kind and good sometimes fell in love with humans, and raised mixed families. Those who meant no good to any creature were slain by monks/nuns and priest(esse)s.

We talk of a time when there existed a Sacred Jewel (history and name irrelevant to us now), guarded fiercely by our heroine, a priestess named Kikio. Evil demons and humans sought this artefact with equal enthusiasm, for all the reasons typical to such fairy tales.

But one fine day, an exceptional individual came to seek the stone. Born of a human mother and a demon father, he had had a tough time growing up. Neither the humans nor the demons would accept him, and his mixed blood had unusual properties (not of interest here). Sick of being in no-man's land (no-demon's land, actually), he sought the powers of the Jewel to turn into a fully fledged demon. Meet the hero, Inu Yasha.
Well, needless to say, they met. Also needless to say, it was love at first sight.

Strictly speaking, priestesses differ from nuns (in the Japanese form of Buddhism) in that they are ascetics - they can't get married. So this was, sort of, bad news in a lot of respects.

So, word got out. A rival priestess (name both irrelevant and difficult), who was evil, btw, decided that the time was ripe to wipe Kikio out. Assumption was, since the priestess has fallen in love, her spiritual powers have weakened.

So one evening, when Lady Kikio sat on the riverbank, contemplating her beloved, our villainess struck. Too bad for her though. For the thing is, losing herself in his thought had made Kikio 4 times more alert, and 10 times more powerful, and with a casual flick of her bow (she was always armed), she not only deflected the aforementioned attack, but wiped the villainess out.


Ignorant as I may be of many things, I do believe that being in love magnifies one's powers, and this tale is one of my favourite examples.

Friday, October 16, 2009

It's only words... Part II - वान्ग्मयम तपः

Words are constituted of two parts - the phonetic, or sound, and the intrinsic meaning. The phonetic part is manifest- it can be heard, recorded in writing/audio, and reproduced. The meaning is unmanifest- it can only be perceived or understood.

One ancient school of thought described God the same way. Divinity was expressed in the manifest form as Creation, and as the Unmanifest form that was the Spirit or Paramatma or whatever one might call it. In fact, so strong was their concept of duality, that their official language had a singular, plural and dual form.

Seeing this similarity in between the nature of God and words, they held words sacred, and professed that  the art of good speech was tantamount to penance - वान्ग्मयम तपः

The school of thought is of course the Shaktha/Shaiva school, whose credo is:
वागर्थविद सम्वृत्तौ, वागर्थः प्रतिपत्तये |
जगतः पितरौ वन्दे, पार्वती परमेश्वरौ ||

Salutations to the parents of all Creation, Parvati and Parameshvara, who are inseparable, just like the sound and the meaning (of a word) are inseparable.

Divinity theories aside, there's no denying that words are powerful tools in the aid of mankind. Wielding them skilfully requires true penance. But using them well is penance too.

Long before Socrates' triple test, our scriptures defined that anything to be said must satisfy three criteria: सत्यम्, प्रियम्, हितम् - It should be true, it should sound good and it should be well intended. Such speech is truly an offering to God, and pleases all who hear it, and never fails to fulfil it's intentions.

So with the best of intents, I pray that this Deepavali, Ganesh, Lakshmi and Sarasvati, bless us with the power to win over the recruiters with our words (and deeds, but mostly words).

It's only words... Part I - Etymology

E PLVRIBVS VNNVM - one, among many. This is one of the two inscriptions on the Great Seal of The United States of America. বিবিধের মাঝে আছে মিলন মহান - among the various, exists this great union. This is a lyric from a Bengali patriotic song, referring to what is technically known as The Union of India or The Indian Union.

There cannot be union without communication. But what happens when the means to communicate becomes the instrument of diversification?

The parable of the tower of Babel tells us of such consequences. In a nutshell, the story goes like this:
Ages and ages ago, the twelve tribes of Israel decided to pool in their technological expertise and build a tower that would take them straight to heaven. Infuriated by this arrogant intent, God created a multitude of languages, making communication between the tribes effectively impossible. Since the tribes couldn't understand each other, they couldn't coordinate and build the tower, and their ambitious plans were laid to waste.

Biblical parables aside, the languages of the world, while being distinct, are definitely not distant. Shown below is a graphic taken from my sister's project

Copyright Aritri Roy

This brings us to another branch of knowledge that is closely related to mythology - we call it etymology - the study of words and their origins.

I'm inclined to quote Prof. Srinivasan, our OB-II prof here - that a language is more than a sum of its grammatical syntax and vocabulary. A foreign speaker, who's an expert on a language can be easily differentiated from a native speaker, because the former would not have the body language, the slang or the attitude of the latter. All this simply because he wasn't brought up in that culture.

Etymology however focuses only on the vocabulary of languages, and can give valuable insights into the history and the mindsets of the speakers of the languages. But again, there is also a matter of perception.

Take for example the words for left - sinistra in Latin and gauche in French. It is clear that they're the origins of the English words sinister and gauche, both with very negative meanings. Dan Brown related the fact that the left side has traditionally been associated with the 'Feminine Principle', to the prevalent male chauvinism of the Dark Ages and thus explained the etymology of these words.

While this theory is plausible, I draw your attention to another very gender-neutral explanation to the same phenomenon. Do you think it is a coincidence that left handed people make only 25% of the human population? Before you point out that left-handedness is a recessive trait, let me assure you that it's not the cause for the actual demographics.

Maybe, just maybe the low survival rates of left-handed people caused a stigma to be attached to the phenomenon of left-handedness, and anything related to the left side. Hence the origins.

The point in mind was that etymology, like mythology, has tremendous powers of revelation, if used carefully. With this short piece, I leave you to ponder on the true meaning of 'It's only words...'

... to be continued