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.

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 They are originally made of wood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. 

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Divine Paradox - Part II - The Treachery of Images

A Deity is more than a character in a mythological story. However, we cannot know the nature of Deity without portraying the same as a character and weaving a story around him/her/it. This is the Divine Paradox.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

For the love of Krishna! The Avengers aren't the Pandavas

This is a detailed response to the Quora question: Would you agree if I say The Avengers has been developed on the lines of The Mahabharata?

So recently I've come across a lot of people who feel that the Avengers are comparable to the Pandavas, such as this Gujarati parody video:

All seemed well, until I encountered the above-mentioned question on Quora. I wrote an answer and went on my way. Then I got a comment on the answer, and saw the other answers on the thread.

Suffice it to say, I felt that the time was ripe for an intervention.

Character Archetypes and Original sources

Ancient Greek historian Dio Chrysostom (c. 40 - c. 120 CE) in his Fifty-third Discourse claimed that Homer's Illiad was being sung in India. Scholars are of the opinion that he was probably referring to the Mahabharata. Here's the exact quote:
For example, it is said that Homer's poetry is sung even in India, where they have translated it into their own speech and tongue. 7 The result is that, while the people of India have no chance to behold many of the stars in our part of the world — for example, it is said that the Bears are not visible in their country — still they are not unacquainted with the sufferings of Priam, the laments and wailings of Andromachê and Hecuba, and the valour of both Achilles and Hector: so remarkable has been the spell of one man's poetry! It even seems to me that by this power of his he has surpassed both the Sirens and Orpheus. 8 For in what respect is it a greater feat to cast a spell upon stones and trees and wild beasts and to make them follow than to have mastered so completely men of alien race who do not understand the Hellenic speech, men who have acquaintance with neither the poet's tongue nor the deeds of which his poem tells, but are, as I believe, simply enchanted by a lyre? Moreover, I believe that many barbarians who are still more ignorant than those men of India have heard of the name of Homer, if nothing more, though they have no clear notion what it signifies, whether animal or vegetable or something else still.
Compare this with:
most Avenger characters are too similar to the Pandavas to negate the possibility that they have inspired the personalities of the characters. But its not too bad if someone has created a parallel mythological people based on ours isn't it? After all its all about stories and storytelling. Indian heritage rehashed in a new avatar - not so bad at all!
Legendary jingoism aside, what both these people have essentially observed is that epics of Homer and the Indic Mahakavyas and The Avengers used the same Archetypal Characters.

An archetypal character is a type of character that occurs independently in many mythologies and stories. For example, a Sun God, a Sky-Father God and a Thunder God are all archetypal deities that occur even in unrelated ancient religions.

The notion of the archetypal character was made famous by Carl Jung, who posited that these universal, mythic characters—archetypes—reside within the collective unconscious of people the world over. See The 12 Common Archetypes for more info.

However the idea is older than Jung, and is seen both in Hellenic, Indic and Chinese philosophy as the Four temperaments and its counterparts, Guṇa and School of Naturalists. Extrapolating from these basic principles, it is easy to see that the sum total of human experience will produce a finite number of archetypal characters.

In Dio Chrysostom's time, Homer's epics were atleast 800 years old, and the Mahabharata was also around for an equally long time, if not older. Dio lived after the decline of the Indo-Greek Kingdom, and knew them and their Indian subjects only by their unflattering reputation. Even then he could correctly identify that the epics of India used archetypes similar to the Homeric epics - the noble hero with a tragic end (Achilles, Karna), the King and Queen who live to see their children destroying their race (Priam and Hecuba, Dhritarashtra and Gandhari), a great civil war triggered by the abduction/elopement of a Queen (Trojan War, Jayadratha's kidnapping of Draupadi and the Kurukshetra war), etc.

And yet the existence and use of common archetypes do not necessarily prove the connections between the stories. In fact, the continued occurrence of an archetype only proves that people everywhere have a fundamental unity of thought, which may or may not be as extreme as Jung's collective unconscious.

The Five-Man Band, and its alleged use in Mahabharata and Avengers

So what happens when you take multiple character archetypes and put them in a team? You get something called an ensemble, in which the group dynamics are decided by;Cast Calculus. And we are particularty interested in an ensemble called The Five-Man Band. This trope is incredibly old and popular.

Unlike the name, the characters usually consist of 4 men and 1 woman.  The dynamics are described thusly:
  1. The Leader - Usually the The Hero. Can be a mastermind, charismatic, levelheaded, headstrong, or some combination of the four. Leads the group. 
  2. The Lancer - A contrast to the the Leader, who nevertheless is a part of the team. He serves to balance the Leader's strengths and weaknesses, and is the most likely to branch out on his own. Tends to be the Number Two of the team. 
  3. The Smart Guy - Usually youngest of the team, possibly also the physically weakest. As the name suggests, he is the brains of the outfit. 
  4. The Big Guy - May not necessarily be the physically strongest in the team (but usually are). He just has to be the one who, out of most duties, specializes in physical fighting. 
  5. The Chick - She keeps the team together and balances everyone's aggression. If not explicitly female, this character will be the most in touch with their "inner woman". 
Occasionally the ensemble will have extra characters associated, most notably:
  • The Sixth Ranger – A later addition to the main team who may or may not fit in. Likely to betray the team, or to be an antagonist. 
  • The Mentor - The advisor and/or confidante to the team. 

Alleged use in the Mahabharata

Popular opinion would classify the Pandavas thusly:
  1. Leader: Yuddhisthira
  2. Lancer: Arjuna (also the only brother who wanders off the most)
  3. Smart Guy: Designation shared by Nakula and Sahadeva
  4. Big Guy: Bhimasena (duh!)
  5. Chick: Draupadi (seriously, check out the trope page and tell me that doesn't describe her)
  6. Sixth Ranger: Karna, literally.
  7. Mentor: Krishna Vasudeva
However, a close reading will reveal that these are not the original group dynamics of the Mahabharata.

The Pandavas as a group follow the Three Plus Two dynamic, which is a subtype and precursor of the Five-Man Band. In this dynamic, the sons of Kunti form a Power Trio with the twins as the Plus Two, and Karna as The Sixth Ranger. Draupadi is not a part of their dynamic because she doesn't actually participate in combat, which is an essential feature of the Chick archetype.

It is to be noted that the original Rig Vedic pantheon is also a Three Plus Two structure, with Indra, Mitra and Varuna as the Power Trio, with Vayu and Agni being the very heavyweight Plus Two, and Pushan (Rigvedic Surya) as the Sixth Ranger. The Mahabharata explicitly refers to this arrangement, when it refers to the Pandavas' biological fathers - Dharma(Yama), Indra and Vayu as Power Trio, the Asvin twns Nasatya and Dasra as the Plus Two and Surya as the Sixth Ranger.

Thus the Pandavas are not actually an example of the Five-Man Band.

Alleged use in the Avengers

Now before we speak of the Avengers, it is important to note that there are two major versions of the team - namely the Comic Book and Cinematic Universe versions.

In the comic books, the original Avengers line-up was explicitly a Five-Man Band. Nick Fury wasn't a part of this.
  1. The Leader: Thor (some folks think it's Iron Man)
  2. The Lancer: Iron Man (the folks mentioned above put Thor in this position)
  3. The Smart Guy: Ant-Man
  4. The Big Guy: Hulk
  5. The Chick: Wasp
  6. Sixth Ranger: Captain America
While the line-up was constantly changing, with the Hulk dropping out after two issues, the Avengers comics use the trope repeatedly.

In the Cinematic Universe, however, things change quite a bit.

In The Avengers, the team is essentially marketed as a Four-Temperament Ensemble of Iron Man, Bruce Banner, Captain America and Thor, with the S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Romanoff and Barton as supporting characters. Don't believe me? Here's the evidence.
Promotional tableaux of The Avengers in Comic Con Mumbai, 2014
Even if we try to force-fit the team into the Five-Man dynamic, we get this:
  1. Leader: Captain America
  2. Lancer: Iron Man
  3. Smart Guy: Bruce Banner (to a lesser degree, Tony Stark)
  4. Big Guy: Thor, then Hulk
  5. Chick: Black Widow but only because she's female. Phil Coulson performs the actual function of the Chick
  6. Sixth Ranger: Hawkeye (complete with temporary traitor status) and Black Widow
  7. Mentor: Nick Fury
By the time Avengers: Age of Ultron turns up, we see this status quo heavily changing.

Right in the beginning, we find that Hawkeye has become the Chick, complete with white picket fence. Meanwhile Black Widow has become the Mentor/Sixth Ranger, displacing Fury, who only turns up in cameos. Stark remains the Lancer, but his Smart Guy role is a lot bigger. Thor challenges his Big Guy status, by actually turning out to be surprisingly sagacious, and arguably smarter than the designated smart guys. The only constant is Cap. Rogers.

By Act III, any remaining semblance of a Five-Man dynamic is thrown out of the window.

In the end, we have a completely different dynamic, with Cap. Rogers and Agt. Romanoff as the Action Duo who are jointly leading and mentoring the next line-up.


In case it wasn't clear enough, the Marvel people know zilch about India and Indic mythology.
"Calcutta" in the Avengers. They also spelled দোকান as দ ো কান.
Conflating Shiva with Indra since 1982. Thor Annual #10.
The Avengers team dynamic is only superficially similar to that of the Pandavas, and this resemblance is purely because they use the same archetypes. This does not make the Pandavas the original inspiration for the Avengers in any way.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

What's in a flag? - Part II: International Attitudes

Since the data used in my poll or in Quora did not account for international opinion, I ventured to make my own inquiry about the attitudes towards flags and national symbols worldwide.

Among other things that I found there was this survey by the Reputation Institute. Funnily enough, India outranks both China and the USA in terms of national self-image, and the list itself is topped by Australia. Most importantly,  note that none of the counties in that study put themselves below 50, suggesting that even with a perceived negative self-image, on average most people everywhere have a respect for their country.

I further analysed flag culture in two particular countries - the USA and Germany.


The USA is probably the only place in the world where you can find this:
Astounding, isn't it? So I looked in their official flag code, and here are some major differences I found vs. India

  1. Their brand of patriotism is a mixture of fanatic yet extremely informal affection
    The kind of devotion shown to the US flag rivals the respect shown to many religious symbols worldwide. Yet the depiction of the flag is not exactly reverent - you can easily find the flag on a bikini  as over a formal establishment.
    By contrast, Indians treat the Tricolour with far more formality.
  2. The US Flag code does not contain any penalties or enforcement provisions for noncompliance
    You can actually use flags as doormats or even burn them in protests without legal consequence. The concept of social conditioning or legal force does not seem to arise here.


In Germany, we see a different picture. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the present flag was adopted on 3rd October 1990. The colours and associated symbolism however, go back to the Frankfurt Revolution of 1848,  technically making it older than our Tricolour.

And yet, as Wikipedia says, 
In Germany the use of the flag and other national symbols has been relatively low for most of the time since the Second World War—a reaction against the widespread use of flags by the Nazi Party and against the nationalistic furore of the Nazis in general. The flag is used primarily by official authorities on special occasions or by citizens during international sporting events.
Indeed, Germans make a clear distinction between being "happy to be German" and being "proud to be German. As this video (start at 3:52) shows, most Germans take the former stance.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

What's in a Flag? - Part I: India

In my continuous bid to understand the world through the study of stories and storytelling, I happened to hit a particular roadblock. Said roadblock was a concept that I found seriously difficult to understand, but without which I could not proceed in my studies.

Therefore, taking a cue from MCU villain catchphrase "Discovery requires experimentation" I decided to perform a social experiment… more like an opinion poll. The objective of the poll was to understand if public opinion associated a national symbol with the particular concept that I'm interested in. For my poll I chose the national flag.

Flags and banners have a primarily military origin, serving to distinguish between sides in a battle and various other military purposes. Nevertheless, national flags are the most conspicuous national symbols used worldwide. National anthems stand at second place and national emblems are used far more sparingly, especially in public.


I also included the answers (and comments) from this question posed on the forum called Quora, included some downvoted comments which I nevertheless felt were relevant to my question. This brought up my total no. of data points to about 50.


Here's a word cloud of the Facebook poll.

Here's the word cloud when I add the Quora data points

Now the above graphics are made out of raw word-count. Upon more detailed analysis, all the opinions/reasons could be reduced to 9 categories ranked in order of mentions, viz

  1. Collective identity (25%)
    National symbols are useful in transcending and redefining individual identity, by giving people a sense of higher purpose. This is not about the government or its machinery, but the social cohesion of the people.
  2. Intrinsic emotion (18%)
    People are moved by genuine filial/fraternal affection for the country and its citizens and therefore respect the national symbols spontaneously. This is best demonstrated during sporting events.
  3. Representation of cherished values/ideals (13%)
    National symbols are designed carefully to depict the core values and heritage of the nation, and respect for the symbols is a form of understanding and internalizing those values.
  4. Irrational (12%)
    Respecting national symbols due to any reason, especially emotional ones, is ultimately irrational. Nationalism is divisive and counterproductive, and ultimately causes more harm than good.
  5. Obligation to the state and its machinery (10%)
    The state and its machinery deliver important services to the people in the state, including fundamental rights and security. Therefore respecting the symbols of the state is part of the social contract between the state and its people, whereby the people recognize and thank the state.
  6. Result of Conditioning/Social Engineering (9%)
    Respect for national symbols is a learned behaviour, promoted by the state/politicians, often due to their own agenda.
  7. Neither Respect nor Disrespect (5%)
    National symbols are to be merely acknowledged, and are not worthy of either respect or disrespect.
  8. Enforced by Law (4%)
    In India, the
    Prevention of Insults to National Honour Act,1971 makes it a crime to disrespect the national flag and anthem. Hence the show of respect.
  9. Object of (religious) devotion (4%)
    Nationalism as a type of religion, and consequently National symbols are compared to sacred objects. Sacred objects should be respected irrespective of adherence to religion. 

Interested? Read more about international attitudes in the next post.