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What They Don’t Tell You About Women in Mythology!

Step into the captivating world of Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain lore with Sati Savitri by Devdutt Pattanaik where women rewrite the rules and redefine their destinies beyond patriarchal norms. From ancient scriptures to modern-day interpretations, Pattanaik offers a fresh perspective on liberation, revealing how patriarchy and feminism have coexisted throughout history.​

 

Read this exclusive excerpt to dive into the feminist side of mythology like never before!

Sati Savitri
Sati Savitri || Devdutt Pattanaik

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Images of Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge, are often placed in libraries, right next to the board that says, ‘silence please’. No one notices that the goddess always holds a musical instrument called veena (lute) in her hand. The irony is lost on many who look at sacred images without actually doing darshan.

 

Darshan is the act of seeing that generates insight and results in reflection. For example, the sight of the veena grants us some insight into the human ability to make music and musical instruments, and this makes us reflect on how music made by humans is different form the music made by birds. The music of birds is specific, to enable survival. It is designed to attract mates and draw attention of fellow birds to food or predators. Human music, on the other hand, is not necessary for survival. But it adds beauty to life and makes us wonder on the meaning of existence, by making us aware of various rhythms and emotions.

 

Unlike other goddesses, there are not many stories about Saraswati. She is more the embodiment of a concept.

 

Saraswati is draped in a white sari indicating she has distanced herself from the materialistic world, represented by colourful fabrics. While Lakshmi nourishes the body with food, Saraswati nourishes the mind with knowledge and the arts. Lakshmi’s wealth is contained in a pot; Saraswati’s knowledge is expressed through words, through songs, stories and music, dance and arts. In Jain art, the more austere Digambar monks compared Saraswati to a peacock while the white-clad Shwetambar monks compared her to a goose (hamsa). In Indian folklore, dancing peacocks attract rain clouds, while hamsas are able to separate milk from water, like fact from fiction.

 

▪️ The peacock links Saraswati to art, dance, music, theatre and entertainment.

 

▪️ The hamsa links Saraswati to ideas embodied within, and communicated through, sounds, songs, stories, songs, symbols and gestures: the knowledge of maths, science, literature and philosophy.

 

Saraswati is therefore linked to both, the peacock like courtesans as well as the swan-like philosophers. In modern society, the courtesan has been erased from history; her contributions to the world of art appropriated by men.

 

In popular Hindu mythology, Saraswati is called the wife of Brahma. But she is also called the daughter of Brahma. This can be confusing. The confusion comes from our failure to appreciate that mythology is metaphorical. Gods and goddesses are given supernatural forms so that we appreciate the idea, the symbol and do not take things literally. That Saraswati is shown with four hands, and Brahma with four heads, is the clue provided by the artist that these figures embody ideas, not entities.

 

Human ideas are complex. Words are often not enough to communicate an idea. We need grammar. We need sentences. We need punctuations. We shift from prose to poetry, we use music and melody, even gestures and symbols, to communicate subtle refined ideas. Language has metaphors where known words are used to explain and elaborate unknown ideas and inexpressible emotions. Still ideas resist transmission. What is conveyed by the source is not received by the destination.

 

To communicate Vedic ideas to people, the sages decided to compose stories. Ideas then become characters. The relationship between ideas is communicated through relationships among characters. Characters have gender, and so the relationship between ideas ends up being expressed in sexual terms. When the characters are gods, indicated by their supernatural form, they serve as metaphors. They are vehicles for ideas that resist simple communication.Veda, which means knowledge, pays a lot of attention to reality that is visible and reality that is not visible.

 

▪️ Food is a reality that is visible. It is visualized in female form as Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune. The name Lakshmi is derived from ‘laksha’ which means target.

 

▪️ Hunger is a reality that is invisible. It is visualized in male form as Indra, the master of paradise, where all fortune is cornered.

 

▪️ The name Indra is derived from ‘indriya’ which means sense.

 

▪️ Indra chasing Lakshmi is then a metaphor for hunger chasing food. Indra rides elephants. The aroused, excited, uncontrollable elephant in the state of masht is how the poets describe Madan, or Kama, the god of uncontrollable craving.

 

▪️ Shiva who burns Madan then embodies the mind who controls craving. Shiva also beheads Brahma’s fifth head that sprouts as he chases Saraswati. Here, Brahma views Saraswati as entertainment to be consumed, rather than knowledge that will help him evolve.

 

▪️ In wisdom, Brahma realises that the point of creation is to feed the other. Animals eat and are eaten, but humans need to feed and be fed. This applies to food, as well as power, as well as knowledge. Saraswati created must be given away. In the process we gain insight and reflection.

 

Male forms are consistently used to depict mental states:
1. Brahma for craving
2. Indra for insecurity
3. Vishnu for empathy
4.Shiva for indifference
5. Kartikeya for restraint
6. Ganesha for contentment

 

Female forms are consistently used to depict material states.
1. Kali for the wild
2. Gauri for the cultivated
3. Lakshmi for resources
4. Saraswati for communication
5. Durga for battle
6. Uma for household
7. Annapurna for kitchen
8. Chamundi for crematorium

 

Why are male forms used to depict the invisible reality of the mind and female forms for the visible reality of matter? The reason is relatively simple if one appreciates the male and female anatomy from the point of view of the artist and the storyteller, who carry the burden of communicating Vedic ideas.

 

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Get your copy of Sati Savitri by Devdutt Pattanaik wherever books are sold.

Why Lakshmi is More Than Just the Goddess of Prosperity

Explore Hindu mythology like never before with Namita Gokhale’s Treasures of Lakshmi. In this book, Gokhale unfolds the stories of ancient deities, exploring their evolution from the Rig Vedic era to the post-Buddha period. Against the historical backdrop of events like Alexander’s arrival in India, the book delves into the tales of gods and goddesses, with a special focus on Lakshmi’s story of prosperity from the Vishnu Purana.

 

The Treasures of Lakshmi
The Treasures of Lakshmi || Namita Gokhale

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THERE ARE MANY gods and goddesses in the Sanatan Dharma (Hinduism is a newer word, proposed as recently as the nineteenth century). Aldous Huxley translated it as ‘the perennial philosophy’. In the Rig Veda, the gods which feature in the hymns are Indra, Agni, Varuna and Surya, who become minor gods by the time of post-Buddha India. It is said that when Alexander arrived in the Indian subcontinent in the fourth century bce, there was worship of a god similar to Heracles, who has been later identified as Krishna.

 

The Vishnu Purana is dated by its most recent translator, Professor Bibek Debroy, as being from the period 450 bce to 300 bce, definitely a post-Buddha document. You see immediately that the Vishnu Purana is post-Vedic and even post-Vedantic. Vishnu replaces the abstract universal principle of Brahman: ‘He is the supreme Brahman.’ The irresistible conjecture is that faced with the concrete persona of Buddha and the rapid spread of Buddhism, the Sanatan Dharmists retaliated with a personal but immensely powerful god: Vishnu.

 

So, sometime in the second half of the last millennium bce, there is a shift to the modern Trimurti structure with Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. The old Rig Vedic gods are demoted and a new set emerges which takes over. The Vishnu Purana has stories about all three deities but constantly reiterates the supreme position of Vishnu.

 

Then, Brahma somehow gets displaced. (We need not go into this episode.) There are few, if any, temples dedicated to him, relative to the other two male gods. Somewhere, then, the mother goddess, Durga/Kali/Amba, becomes as important in the Trinity as Vishnu and Shiva. There is some discussion of Durga being a pre-Aryan goddess, but this may be controverted. Saraswati is the only other goddess worshipped in her own right and not as the consort of a male god.

 

The point is that while the pantheon of deities is crowded, there are only three at the top—two male gods and one female goddess. (Of course, attributing gender to gods and goddesses is tricky. Shiva doubles up as Ardhanareeshwar.) Lakshmi, the subject of this essay, is not in the top Trinity. She appears as the consort of Vishnu and is worshipped especially on the thirteenth night of the waning moon cycle, two nights before Diwali. The occasion is called Dhanteras in Gujarati, being the one night dedicated to the goddess of prosperity. No other goddess has a Diwali slot.

 

But as Shri, Lakshmi is ubiquitous. We append the labels ‘Shri’, ‘Shriman’, ‘Shrimati’, indicating someone favoured or due to be favoured by the goddess Lakshmi. Widows (in Gujarati at least) are addressed as ‘Gangaswaroop’, definitely not Shrimati. Fortune for a woman resides in having a husband around.

 

It is in the Vishnu Purana—a massive document running to almost 600 pages in Bibek Debroy’s book—that we encounter Lakshmi’s story. Purana storytelling is, of course, not straightforward or linear. It wanders, often telling the same story more than once with different nuances. You are supposed to listen and retain the details.

 

Lakshmi is first mentioned along with the story of Sati (Parvati) in Chapter 1 (8) titled ‘Rudra’s Account’. In the Vishnu Purana, Parashara is talking to Maitreya and telling him the long story of Vishnu. Rudra occurs in the Rig Veda and is called Shiva later on. Rudra marries Sati. But then Daksha’s anger comes in the way and Sati gives up her body. However, she is born again as the daughter of Himavat and Mena as Uma. ‘In this form, the illustrious Hara married her again.’

 

The first casual mention of Lakshmi follows. ‘Bhrigu’s wife Khyati gave birth to the divinities, Dhatri and Vidhatri, and to Shri, the wife of Narayana, the god of the gods.’ Maitreya asks how that can be, since Lakshmi emerged from the churning of the ocean. So, in a way, Lakshmi’s story is presumed to be known, but of course given the style of a Purana it has to be told again. Parashara launches into a laudatory description of Shri, but more so of Vishnu, whose female companion Shri is. Vishnu is praised to the utmost, while Lakshmi has glory as Vishnu’s other.

 

Chapter 1 (9) is devoted to the story of the emergence of Lakshmi from the churning of the ocean, Samudramanthan.It is a fascinating account as to how Shri emerges from the ocean churning process. The story starts in somewhat dramatic fashion with the sage Durvasa ‘observing the vow of acting like a lunatic’. He has a divine garland made of santanaka flowers, which grow in Indra’s gardens. The sage throws the garland at Indra, who is riding the Airavata. Indra puts it on the Airavata, who throws it off. Durvasa is enraged by this disrespect and curses Indra and the gods that they will lose their prosperity. He says, ‘All mobile and immobile entities dread the arousal of Lakshmi’s wrath. But because you take yourself to be the king of the gods, in your pride, you have slighted her and me.’ In this way, the story of Lakshmi is laid out. (Though she is first mentioned in ‘Rudra’s Account’, that is a passing reference in which Lakshmi is included along with other characters.)

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Get your copy of Treasures of Lakshmi by Namita Gokhale wherever books are sold.

The Bengal Connection in Hindol Sengupta’s ‘Soul And Sword’

Discover the fascinating journey of modern Bengali literature in this exclusive excerpt from Soul and Sword by Hindol Sengupta. Explore the profound influence of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s renowned work, ‘Ananda Math,’ on the socio-political landscape and its role in shaping the term ‘Hindutva,’ marking a pivotal moment in India’s cultural and political evolution.

Soul And Sword
Soul And Sword || Hindol Sengupta

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The arrival of the printing press in Bengal in 1777 created a new genre of popular literature in the Bengali language by men who had been educated in British-founded institutions and trained to embrace ideas in English. The classic example was Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, now considered the father of modern Bengali literature. Chattopadhyay was among the earliest students at Presidency College and the University of Calcutta, both explicitly set up to impart English language education among the locals by the British.

Chattopadhyay went on to become a civil servant in the British administration, rising not only to the high rank of deputy magistrate but also receiving major honours such as the Companion of the Most Eminent Order of the Indian Empire (CMEOIE) in 1894 and the ultimate social prize of that time, the title of Rai Bahadur in 1891.

 

But it was Chattopadhyay who wrote the book that in a sense started what is now known as agni yug or the age of fire where the British consistently faced armed revolt and rebellion led usually by young men and women who had been trained in the best British institutions, many of them even in higher education in England. Ananda Math, which can be loosely translated as the ‘shrine of happiness’, was set against a real-life famine in Bengal caused by administrative malpractice and corruption under Company rule.

 

It told the story of a band of warrior monks fighting a guerrilla warfare from the forests of Bengal against the East India Company (and their puppet, the Muslim nawab) and its usurious taxes, and robbing the Company and the Nawab to feed the desperately hungry. Ananda Math had an anthem sung by the ascetics in praise of their motherland called ‘Vande Mataram’ (All Hail the Mother). It quickly became the war cry for the nationalistic stirrings that were emerging as the age of fire dawned. Revolutionaries cried ‘Vande Mataram’ as they bombed British vehicles and buildings while fighting pitched gun battles with the colonial police, and sang it loudly while marching up the gallows. It was a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi and was adopted as the national song of independent India.

 

Little commented upon or studied, though, is one major fact about Ananda Math. It is the earliest text to mention the word ‘Hindutva’.5 Tucked away somewhere in the middle of the story, there is a sentence in the third part of the book that, translated, reads, ‘Because Hindu dharma was disappearing, many Hindus were eager to reestablish Hindutva.’ There could be many reasons why this has not been commented upon earlier. First, even though Bankim is known to have increasingly worked on Hindu identity in his writing in this period, he never really returned to explore this word in detail, preferring instead to talk in terms of dharma, or the Hindu term for the moral law of the universe. His treatise on the subject published in 1888 is called Dharmatattva, which seeks to answer questions on the fundamentals of Hindu ethics. Second, one of the best-known translations of Ananda Math, by the Cambridge professor of Hinduism Julius Lipner, translates this sentence without using the word ‘Hindutva’, or for that matter ‘Hindu dharma’. In Lipner’s translation, it reads, ‘Because the Hindu rule of life had disappeared, many Hindus were keen to establish a sense of Hindu identity.’ Lipner prefers to give a rough translation of the phrase ‘Hindu dharma’, which is used by Chattopadhyay and translates Hindutva as ‘Hindu identity’, possibly to explain these terms lucidly to non-Indian audiences. Since the word ‘Hindutva’ is politically loaded, Lipner may have avoided its use too, preferring to offer an expanded translation.

Lipner, though, has written about the kind of vision Chattopadhyay offered in Ananda Math, and otherwise, about the Hindu world view and politics.

 

‘This was not the traditional Hinduism that tends to be studied in scholarly introductions to Hinduism, nor indeed the kind of popular Hinduism practised by ordinary people in the towns and villages. It was rather a reinvented model, taking its cue from the thinking of the Hindu elite of the time who had been involved for a considerable period— outstandingly from the time of Rammohan Roy in the first decades of the 19th century—in a kind of ideological dialectic with tendentious British reconstructions of Hindu religious culture. As Bankim formulated his model, he played an important role in imparting new dimensions and facets to the neo-Hinduism of the age. At the core of Bankim’s thinking in this regard was the concept of the Eternal Code, or sanatana dharma. The idea was that there is an eternal Hindu dharma or way of righteous living which governs all aspects of existence—cultural, social, political, religious—in terms of which the Hindus would flourish in the modern age. This dharma is the fruit of the discipline of what he calls the inward knowledge: an introspective mode of awareness Hindu philosophers and savants, especially Vedantins, have distinctively and expertly developed from time immemorial. But this inward knowledge had been lost through neglect and the vagaries of time. As a result, Hindu civilization has suffered decline, and Hindus have been subjugated by outsiders for a long period. The advent of the British—their mastery of the world of sense experience, which for Bankim was the fruit of the outward knowledge—provided Hindus with the opportunity to access anew the inward knowledge. For a judicious grasp of the former led to an understanding of the latter. After all, the inward knowledge was to establish the conditions externally on which a new Hindu civilization, adapted to modern times, was
to be constructed.’

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Get a copy of Soul and Sword by Hindol Sengupta wherever books are sold.

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