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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


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.



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


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.)


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


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.’


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

6 Quotes You Must Read on Gender and Sexuality

While many use religion to justify why they are being unfair to a person’s gender and sexuality, Devdutt Pattanaik in his books The Pregnant King and Shikhandi And Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You shows how mythologies across the world appreciate what we deem as queer.
Here are 6 quotes on what it means to be a man, a woman, or a queer.
What it feels to be a woman
Repercussion of Patriarchy
The meaning of queer in different mythologies
Should the queer hide or be heard like the thunderous clap of the hijra?
The functions of the forms
Traces of feminism in Hindu mythology
Read Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Pregnant King and Shikhandi And Other Queer Tales They Don’t Tell You and make sense of queerness and the diversity in society.

What attracted Usha Narayanan to Mythological Stories?

Usha Narayanan, author of Prem Purana, has donned many hats, before becoming a successful full-time author. In her glorious career, she has dabbled with genres like thriller and romance, before turning to mythology. Her works Pradyumna: Son of Krishna and The Secret of God’s Son have been praised as ‘Indian mythology at its fiercest and finest’. 
Her latest book, Prem Purana is about stories of love and extraordinary devotion found in Hindu mythology. On the launch of the book we asked her what about the mythological stories attracted her to write about them.
Here’s what she had to say.
The idea of writing mythological love stories was born during a conversation with my editor Vaishali Mathur at the Jaipur Literature Festival when she suggested that I should combine my strengths in writing mythology and romance. At that point, I was busy with The Secret of God’s Son and it was only after it was completed that I could think seriously think about this. I knew that our epics and Puranas focused more on the battle between good and evil, with heroic gods and fearsome demons confronting one another. Only a few love stories were widely known, such as the one of Kama shooting his arrow of love at ascetic Shiva, or of Arjuna winning Draupadi’s hand at her swayamvara.
I began my quest by re-reading all the ancient lore with an eye to discovering tales of the heart. As always, when writing mythological fiction, I wished to focus on untold stories, using my imagination to bring alive minor characters or lesser-known aspects of major ones. The first character who caught my eye was Ganesha. We think of him as the lovable elephant-headed god with a fondness for modakas. But who did he marry? People in the south of India swear that he is single, but others state vociferously that he is married. The images in temples show him either alone or with a wife or two. What are their names? Some say Siddhi and Riddhi, while others think their names are Siddhi and Buddhi. That was enough intrigue to stimulate my mind!
Another interesting layer to the story is the idea that Buddhi, Siddhi and Riddhi represent intellect, spiritual power and prosperity. As their names are merely mentioned in passing in most Puranas, I could give full rein to my imagination in portraying them. I endowed the three with distinct characteristics and showed Ganesha wooing them in different ways, according to their particular likes and dislikes. My Riddhi is sprightly, Buddhi is silent and deep, and Siddhi is fierce and opposed to the very idea of marriage! Their stories span three realms and four yugas, shedding light on many engaging aspects of Ganesha, the first among the gods. To add to the appeal, I discovered that in Bengal, during Durga Puja, Ganesha even has a banana bride!
I think readers will enjoy seeing Gajamukha in a refreshing new light in Ganesha’s Brides, the first of the three stories in Prem Purana.  
“Siddhi watched as more and more arrows struck Ganesha, causing blood to flow like a flood. Was he ready to meet death rather than forsake his promise to her? Would he sacrifice everything for the sake of his love?”
For the second story, Mandodari, my inspiration came from the Ramayana. Ravana was Brahma’s great grandson on his father’s side and an asura prince on his mother’s. Choosing to follow the asura path, he pillaged heaven and earth, ravished women and abducted Rama’s wife Sita. What I found of interest was not his war with Rama, but his relationship with his wife Mandodari. How did she react to all this? Did she protest or did she submit silently to his actions? What was her background? Did the rakshasa love her? And the most exciting question of all―did Mandodari come face to face with Sita, the woman she regarded as the instrument of doom that would bring down Lanka?
I found no answers in the commonly available texts where Mandodari features in a mere two or three scenes. Fortunately, however, there are many Ramayana versions available. I followed the uncommon trails, used my imagination and fleshed out the queen’s character, placing her emotions at the centre of the narrative. The story also reveals startling new facets of Ravana’s character and motivations. I think Mandodari, with all its twists and turns, will be riveting and revelatory to readers.
“‘Snatching a woman by force or stealth is not an act of valour, Ravana. She is not an object of lust or a means to settle scores with your enemy,’ said Mandodari, her voice loud and clear. She would speak the truth regardless of consequences. It was a risk she had to take for Ravana and her people.”
After delving into the lives of a merry god and a dire rakshasa, it was time to move to the human plane, with the story of King Nala and Princess Damayanti. She turned down the gods who courted her at her swayamvara and chose Nala as her husband. Though she chose love over immortality, Nala was driven by his own demons and abandoned her in a dangerous forest. Damayanti struggled to survive the perils that confronted her at every turn, but forged forward regardless. She did not give up hope and devised various stratagems to reclaim her happiness.
I was fascinated by her strength and also by the magical swan that plays a key role as the messenger of love. I named the swan Gagana, meaning sky or heaven, and created a charming and audacious companion to Damayanti. The Kali demon, who plays a major role in my previous books, Pradyumna: Son of Krishna and The Secret of God’s Son, is the enemy that Nala and his queen must confront. How can a mortal pair combat the power of the demon who reigns over a dark yuga that signals the end of the world? Love, loss, hope and despair form the chequered background of this poetic tale.
“‘Majestic Ashoka, whose name signifies one who destroys grief . . . Free me from pain and unite me once more with my Nala!’ cried Damayanti, sinking to her knees under a soaring Ashoka tree. Alas, the tree made no answer and all she could hear was the wind rustling among the leaves.”
A major part of my excitement in writing these stories came from the opportunity to focus attention on the women in our epics who are often sidelined. We often find that a woman is regarded as a prize to be won, someone who is forced to watch quietly while her husband makes disastrous decisions. However, the heroines in Prem Purana are central to the action. They are strong, independent thinkers who inspire the males in their lives―god, asura or king―to do the right thing and live up to their responsibilities.
I hope readers enjoy reading these tales which provide a good mix of fervour and fury, heroism and heartbreak, set against a spectacular backdrop spanning heaven and earth.
Prem Purana Footer (1)

Devdutt Pattanaik on Mothers

Mothers have been an important mainstay in epics, folk tales and mythologies for generations. Today, as we celebrate Mother’s Day, here is an exclusive excerpt on mothers from Devdutt’s Devlok 2.
A mother gives birth to a child. But did god give birth to the mother or did a mother give birth to god?
As interesting as the question is, the answer too is not simple. In a temple, the space where a god’s image is kept is known as garbha griha; that is, god is residing inside the garbha. Garbha means womb. Whose womb is this? A temple itself has been seen as a woman, a mother. Spiritually, Prakriti is everyone’s mother. Prakriti has given birth to sanskriti (culture). God’s mother is also Prakriti.
The Rigveda has this interesting sentence that Daksha gave birth to Aditi and Aditi gave birth to Daksha; that is, the father created the mother and the mother created the father. When you go way back in the past, the division between father and mother collapses. With god, this concept does not hold because god is swayambhu—he has given birth to himself; he is his own mother. Two words are used often in the Puranas – Yonija (born of the womb) and Swayambhu (who gives birth to self). God is always swayambhu, but his avatars are yonija; they experience birth and death. For instance, Ram is an avatar, so he is born and dies. He has a mother, Kaushalya. Krishna, likewise, has a mother, Devaki. Shiva is swayambhu.
In Tantra parampara, where goddesses are given a lot of importance, the stories and folk tales speak of how in the beginning of the world there was only a devi/Prakriti called Adi Maya Shakti. She gave birth to three eggs from which were born Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. She is therefore called Triamba (one who gave birth to three children). This does not happen in puranic stories. In Shakt parampara, god does have a mother. In Vaishnav parampara, god gives birth to himself; and he creates the world and its creatures from himself. In Shaiva parampara, Shiva gives birth to himself; he is swayambhu, doesn’t have a mother, but gives birth to all mothers.
Devi is sometimes called a kumari (virgin) and sometimes mata (mother). How is that?
Christianity has a concept of the virgin mother who is Jesus’s mother. The word kumari, in India and in the world, does no necessarily mean virgin. It means a woman who is independent, who has no husband, and no man has a right over her. She has no ties and is completely liberated. So she is both mata and kumari, that is, an independent mother. Her hair is always depicted untied, to symbolize her freedom. No one can have dominance over Prakriti.
In Vaishnodevi or Kal Bhairav temples, the story is that of Bhairav wanting to have a relationship with the goddess; the goddess refused and cut off his head. ‘You cannot control me.’ Kal Bhairav then becomes her guard. In another story, when Brahma’s fifth head wanted a right over her, Bhairav cut off his head. Such are the violent stories associated with kumari.
The symbolic meaning could be that man’s ego prevents a devi from becoming a kumari, which is why he gets cursed or gets his head cut off. These are spiritual, metaphysical topics.
Shiva was swayambhu, but who was his son Karitkeya’s mother—Parvati or Ganga?
In Shiv Puran, the story is that after their marriage, Shiva says he has no need for a child. He says, ‘I am swayambhu, anadi, anant, without beginning or end; I will never die. So why do I need children?’ Devi says, ‘But I want children; I want to be a mother.’ An interesting conflict arises here. When Shiva is about to offer his seed, all gods and goddesses say that Shiva’s seed cannot be accommodated in just one womb; it should be placed in many wombs. The story goes that his seed is so hot that no one can touch it. First is is given to Vayu, wind, in the beliefe that he’ll be able to cool it down, but he fails. Vayu gives the seed to Agni, fire, who too cannot hold it. He passes it on to Ganga and her waters starts boiling. The reed forests (Sara-vana) near the river start burning. From the ash of those reeds, a child emerges. In some stories, it is six children who emerge. As the infants start crying, Krittika nakshatra, constellation of six stars, descend from the sky as the childrens’ mothers and feed them milk. Finally, Gauri, Shiva’s wife, joins the six children together. That child is Kartikeya, also called Shanmukha, or one with six heads.
The question arises, the father of the child is Shiva, but who is the mother? Vayu, Agni, Ganga, Sharavan, Krittika, Parvati all stake a claim. So, he has many mothers. Shiva’s seed has thus gone to many yonis; it shows that the child is so powerful, he cannot be born of just one womb. Kartik means son of Krittika. In the south, he is called Sharavanan, son of Sharavan. In images, he is sometimes shown along with six or seven matrika, mothers.
What is Ganesh’s story? Who is his mother?
In stories, although Shakti wants to become a mother, the gods don’t want her to give birth in the normal way. If the child is born from her yoni, it’ll be so powerful that it will defeat Indra, the king of the gods. So, Shiv-Shakti’s children are not born from Parvati’s yoni. Kartikeya is born of Shiva’s seed, from many yonis. Ganesh is born from the scrapings of Parvati’s body. Again, he is ayonija.
The story is that Parvati goes to Shiva, asking him to give her a child. He says he is not interested as he’s immortal. She tells him she’ll make it herself; she’s the goddess, after all. She first collects the scrapings (mull) of her skin, mixed with the applied chandan and haldi. Then she makes a doll of it and gives it life. In Vamana Purana, it is said the child’s name ‘Vinayak’ comes from ‘bina nayak’ (without a man); there are other stories about the word’s origin too. Shiva does not like the way Parvati has birthed her child, as he cannot recognize her image in it, so he cuts off its head. Parvati starts weeping, and insists he bring back the child to life. So Shiva gives him an elephant head and that’s how Ganesh is born. Again, it is ayonija.
In the Mahabharat, we see many ambitious mothers who want their sons to be king.
In the Puranas, the stories have more of a spiritual, intellectual concern, while in the Ramyan and Mahabharat, the focus is on wealth and property. For this reason, the men go to war, and the women want their sons to grow up and be victorious. This is presented in a fascinating way in the Mahabharata. When Shantanu wants to marry Satyavati, she first attaches a condition that her son inherit Shantanu’s kingdom. She claims she is securing her child’s future. Is that the real reason or does she want the high position of a rajmata (queen mother)?
There is also a competition between Gandhari, Kunti and Madri. When Gandhari is pregnant, she hears that Kunti has given birth to a son. Although Gandhari was pregnant from before, Kunti used her mantra to have Yudhisthir without the nine-month period. Gandhari gets so upset, she beats her belly with a stick. The mass that emerges from her belly is cold as iron. When Vyas creates 100 children from this mass, Gandhari is happy, because now she has more children than Kunti. Kunti begets two more children and uses up the power of her mantra. She gives the mantra to Madri who uses it once and calls Ashvin Kumar and gets the twins, Nakul and Sahdev. Pandu asks Kunti to let Madri use the mantra once more as she herself had used it thrice, but Kunti refuses. She fears that if Madri were to produce twins again, she’d have more children, and therefore more importance, than her. In the Mahabharat, this rivalry has been subtly depicted.
What about the mothers in the Ramayana?
Kaikeyi’s story is the most well known. When she had saved Dashrath’s life during a dev-asura battle, he had promised her two boons. The day before his eldest son, Ram’s, coronation, she throws a tantrum and demands her boons. She asks that Bharat be made king instead of his first-born Ram, and that he send Ram into vanvas (life in the forest) for 14 years. Ram’s mother, Kaushalya, is pained and asks Kaikeyi why she had to be so cruel to a son who’d treated her like his own mother.
An interesting aspect of this story is that when Dashrath marries Kaikeyi, he does not have any children. The astrologer says that Kaikeyi will definitely have a son. At that time, Dashrath promises her that her son would become king. So, in a way, Kaikeyi is only asking for what is rightfully her due. It’s like a court case, a settling of an agreement, where the lines are not clear. Whether Kaikeyi is ambitious or merely asking for her right is hard to say.
Krishna is called Devakinandan and Yashodanandan. Who was his mother?
There are some who believe that Krishna is not an avatar (of Vishnu’s) but himself an avatari—from whom avatars emerge. Others see him as an avatar. But he is born from Devaki’s womb, so he is yonija and experiences death. Mausala Parva in Mahabharat describes Krishna’s death. He is born from Devaki’s womb in Mathura, but is raised by Yashoda in Gokul. So he has two mothers – birth/blood mother and milk mother.
In folk songs, Krishna is asked who his real mother is—Devaki who has birthed him or Yashoda who has raised him? Krishna replies, do you think my heart is so small that it cannot contain more than one mother? I can handle both. But the question is who has the maternal right over him? Who is to answer that—it’s a complex world. The story suggests that relationships are not built by blood alone. Another aspect is that Devaki is a princess, while Yashoda is a milkmaid. So Krishna’s claim that both are his mothers shows that he has a relationship with the palace dwellers as well as cowherds, with the city as well as the village. He is large-hearted and this is why Krishna is associated with love.
In Puranas, is there a story of single mothers?
Bhagwat Puran has a story of Devahuti whose husband is Kardam rishi who says he doesn’t really want to have children, but has been told by his ancestors that he won’t achieve moksha (liberation from life and death) until he has children. But he doesn’t want any part in raising that child. Devahuti agrees to raise the child alone, and the child grows up to be Kapil muni who develops the Sankhya philosophy. It is also well known that Sita raises Luv and Kush on her own. Shakuntala too raises her son Bharat by herself in the forest, without the support of her husband.
Is there a story in our Puranas where a father plays the role of a mother?
When apsaras have children, they abandon them. Shakuntala’s mother Menaka had abandoned her in the jungle, and Shakuntala was raised by Kanva rishi who is like a single father. When Sita goes back to her mother, and disappears inside earth, she leaves her children behind with Ram who becomes a single father.
This is an excerpt from Devdutt Patnaik’s Devlok 2.

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